Sunday, June 15, 2014

For Art's Sake 1: "A Line Is A Dot That Went For A Walk"

Well, Constant Reader, here we are, halfway through the year so a good time to look back on exhibitions that I have held off blogging about.  Let's see how many of these I remember...

The first was the National Gallery show FACING THE MODERN: THE PORTRAIT IN VIENNA 1900 which set out to tell "the story of Vienna's middle classes - their rise and fall in political power, their hopes for the future and their claims to the past".  If that was the intention it was unsuccessful.

My memory of it is of the woeful lay-out: three large rooms led into a thin room made worse for being divided in two making it feel like a rat's maze - it was impossible to get a good look at any of the pictures on either side of the space due to the cramped corridors.

After a room full of dreary portraits of the monied classes in various poses of wealth or family groupings, the more interesting expressionistic paintings of Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl appeared.  What was interesting was the way these avante-garde painters were still courted by the middle/upper-classes to paint their portraits and the way the artists responded.

Saying that, one of the portraits I liked best was Klimt's uncharacteristically naturalistic Portrait of a Lady In Black (1884) along with Schiele's fascinating Self Portrait With Raised Shoulder (1912), Kokoscka's fevered Portrait of Hans and Erica Tielze-Conrat (1909), Gerstl's (in all senses) revelatory Nude Self Portrait With Palette (1908) - unhappy after a failed love affair, he stabbed and hung himself shortly after painting it - and Schiele's vibrant Portrait of Albert Paris von G├╝tersloh (1918).

1918 sounded the death-knell not only for the Austro-Hungarian Empire but also for two of it's artists.  In February Klimt died from a stroke while suffering from the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic which swept Europe at the close of the War and which, in October, also claimed Schiele's wife Edith and, three days later, Schiele too.  His last sketch, finished a few hours before Edith's death shows her staring resigned at the viewer as she almost swirls away in a charcoal scrawl.  Looking at these joyless and tortured works one can fully appreciate they were created in the same era as Sigmund Freud's explorations of the psyche.
The exhibition ended memorably with Klimt's Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, unfinished in 1918 due to his death.  Amalia stares out of her status portrait at the viewer, secure in her wealth and successful marriage, facing the modern world and her future with an enigmatic smile. 

She died in a Nazi death camp.

On the same day as all that miserabilism we also saw the life-affirming HEAVEN IN A HELL OF WAR at Somerset House, an exhibition of Stanley Spencer's large canvas paintings which usually hang in the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire.

In a well-designed space echoing the chapel's shape, the 16 canvases reflect Spencer's memories of being an orderly in a military hospital near Bristol then a soldier in Salonika.  Spencer painted them all from memory as he started work on the canvasses in 1926 and completed in 1932 and I wonder if that time between experience and representation gave him a chance to reflect more benignly on what he went though than if he had started them directly after 1918.

The works become almost a wartime stations of the cross which start with Convoy Arriving With The Wounded then Scrubbing The Floor, Ablutions, Sorting and Moving Kit Bags, Kit Inspection, Sorting The Laundry, Dug-Out or Stand-To, Filling Tea Urns, Reveille, Frostbite, Filling Water-Bottles, Tea In The Hospital Ward, Map-Reading, Bedmaking, Firebelt and Washing Lockers.

Apart from the sheer pleasure of seeing the works in a bright well-lit room, what made it such a pleasurable experience was to see everyone there - including Alan Bennett - looking about themselves with big smiles on their face, revelling in Spencer's humorous and humane art.

The canvases are filled with large figures that Spencer stretches and bends into each corner, filling them with life and a host of small details which made them fascinating to look at and return to such as in Washing Lockers where the orderly squeezed between the vibrant red tubs is Stanley himself, Tea In The Hospital Ward where a patient painstakingly combs his hair looking in a small mirror at his feet and in Bedmaking a patient lies swaddled in his blanket with his feet on a water-bottle while an orderly makes up his bed. 

In Map-Reading Spencer shows the only officer in the cycle, sitting on a large chestnut horse studying an unfolded map of SalonikaAgain it's full of clever detailing: the soldiers enjoying a moment's peace while laying on the grass or picking bilberries in billowing bushes as well as the doleful horse staring out under the edge of the map while enjoying a chomp on some oats.  He almost seems to be saying "So now I'm a table as well am I?"

The exhibition culminated in a small room with a 21 foot-sized projection of his altarpiece painting The Resurrection of The Soldiers which is painted onto the wall of the chapel.  In an explosion of movement, soldiers appear out of a cemetry, shaking hands with their collegues, looking about themselves bewildered while horses also rear up into life again, a young soldier gazes in sad contemplation at the figure of Christ on his memorial cross as behind him the real Christ collects crosses from the resurrected men like a teacher collecting sports equipment at the end of a game.

It was an exhibition that by turns moved, enlightened and made one happy.

Soon after this we went to the Ben Uri Gallery off Abbey Road - so tiny we walked past it once trying to find it! - to see UPROAR!, a celebration of the first 50 years of The London Group.

The London Group was formed in 1913 in opposition to the Royal Academy because the participating artists felt that the RA had become too conservative and sterile.  They were an uneasy alliance of painters - the Camden Town Group were an all-male collective joining forces with the Fitzroy Street Group which included female artists while, in another corner, the Vorticists continually bitched about the Bloomsbury contingency.

They had no collective style, they were only an exhibiting group staging their own shows but they also allowed open submissions from any struggling artists to be displayed alongside the Group member's paintings.  The first Ben Uri Gallery opened two years after the Group was formed and had a close association with it due to the large number of Jewish artists associated with the Group.

Coming so soon after Dulwich Picture Gallery's excellent CRISIS OF BRILLIANCE exhibition it was good to see some of the artists who had featured there - Gertler's The Creation of Eve (1914) made a reappearance while David Bomberg's oppressive Ghetto Theatre (1920), CRW Nevinson's modernist Returning To The Trenches (1915) and Paul Nash's spare, deconstructed King's Cross Station Northern Adventure (1929) were good to see.

Although the Ben Uri has the cramped feeling of a converted newsagents, they certainly filled it well with 50 works of art and although the quality was varied, on the whole it was an enjoyable experience - Hell, I even bought the catalogue as there were enough works that I wanted to know more about.

If I could do a "Supermarket Sweep" of the exhibition - a game Owen and I always play after an exhibition - as well as the four already mentioned, I would nab Gertrude Hermes' flowing walnut sculpture Butterfly (1937), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's disturbing bronze Bird Swallowing Fish (1914) - he was killed the following year on the Western Front - Edward Wadsworth's evocative Rue Fontaine de Caylus, Marseilles, France (1924), William Roberts' claustrophobic At The Hippodrome (1920), Roger Fry's portrait of Nina Hamnett (1917) - Owen exclaimed "Suzanne Vega!" when he saw it - and, my favourite of all, Duncan Grant's wonderful Window, South of France (1928) where the cool interior of his room, with it's flowered wallpaper and cut flowers in their vase, are seen against the sunlit landscape of Provence.  Gorgeous.

I will end this blog with the truly wonderful PAUL KLEE - MAKING VISIBLE which was at Tate Modern.

What made it so special was that walking through the 17 rooms containing nearly 200 of his works, my eyes were opened to Klee's wonderous world of colour, light and the possibilities of the line - this is the man who wrote that "a line is a dot that went for a walk".

Born into a musical family in Switzerland, Klee switched between music and art as he grew up.  Playing violin brought in money but artistically he struggled to find his own language.  In 1911, he met the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky who was in the process of setting up Der Blaue Reiter, a group devoted to finding new ways to connect modern art to a freer use of colour.  Klee was in good company with fellow-German artists Franz Marc and August Macke.

A trip to France opened his eyes to the new Cubist painters and holidaying in Tunisia made him see colour and light in a new way: "Colour has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me forever."  The First World War brought the deaths in combat of his friends Macke in 1914 and Marc in 1916 and, a week after the latter, he too was drafted into the infantry.  But this coincided with an edict being passing whereby artists were given preferential postings so Klee never saw active service.  Oddly enough, the chaos of the War freed him and his work in abstract painting finally found him finding his own artistic voice.  The work poured forth: abstract paintings of small rectangles which create a harmony of colour, abstract landscapes and cityscapes, strangely drawn figures lost in an expanse of canvas, kinetic shapes suggesting fish or flowers circle each other - all the time making him an artist difficult to categorize.

In the early 1920s he was invited to teach at the Bauhaus where he was joined two years later by his old friend Kandinsky and by the mid 1920s his work was being praised by the Surrealists, Louis Aragon pointing out "the lightness, grace, spirit, charm and finesse that are his essential qualities".


But in 1930 Germany became a changed place. He resigned from the Bauhaus - the increased workload was stopping him painting - as well as because of the external political pressures on the school and he started to teach in Dusseldorf but two years later he was dismissed due to his being included in the Nazi's list of 'degenerate artists'.  He emigrated to Switzerland but by now had started to show symptoms of the degenerative illness that would eventually kill him.  

He continued to work on through failing health and his paintings during this decade are remarkably varied including experimenting with abstract pointilism.  I wonder how influenced he was by Seurat - I would like to think he was as Klee's musical sense would chime with Seurat's idea of colours side by side having there own harmony.  Inevitably his debilitating illness led to his art becoming more stark, his colour palatte becoming drained as his lines became heavier.  

The last room were sad to experience, the pure joy of 1938's Park Near Lu (with it's happy tree in the centre) and his largest canvas Rich Port giving way to the coiled, angst-ridden images of 1939 but these too give way to the last painting in the exhibition Twilight Flowers which was also Klee's last ever painting completed a few months before his death in 1940.  A row of flowers, different shapes and colours, stand defiant and in complete harmony.

I left the exhibition exhilarated to have seen Klee's genius at first hand - the colours, the simplicity, his tangible joy of life and the sheer breadth of his talent made it an incredibly moving experience.

Redgreen and Violet - Yellow Rhythms (1920), Static-Dynamic Graduation (1923), Fire In The Evening (1929), The Gaze of Silence (1932), Fire at Full Moon (1933)

Needless to say, I bought the catalogue!


Corrie B said...

Hi Chris

I have already sent you a Facebook message, but I suspect it has gone to your 'other' folder! I wonder whether you would allow me to use your photo of "Twilight Flowers" in a blog post I am writing for a knitting collection based on the piece? My blog is at, and I would of course link back to your blog and give you credit.

Best wishes


chrisv said...

Hi Corrie

Yes use the photo and all good luck with it


Corrie B said...

Thank you Chris, it is now live at the following address.

Best wishes