Discovery Of The Week (8)

You never know what you might find when you go rooting around.

Tracy Wood and her father, Brian Russell, were digging out the rockery of their garden in Guernsey when they struck metal. After some further patient excavation work, they unearthed a chassis, engine block, front bumper, window frames and other automotive parts which have since been established as belonging to a Daimler dating from the 1940s or 1950s.

Quite how it got there is unclear but the most popular theory is that the previous owner of the house started to do the car up, got bored with it and put a rockery over it to hide it, as you do.

Brian is looking for someone to cart it all away.

Still, this find is not as valuable as that made by Robert Warren as he was rooting around a cupboard in the Hoyt Sherman Place art gallery in Des Moines, Iowa in 2016, on the search for a couple of Civil War flags, as you do.

Wedged between a table and a plaster wall he came across a wood panel painting, water stained and badly damaged. Now it has been cleaned up and restored – a job that took four months – it turns out to be Apollo and Venus by the Flemish painter, Otto van Veen, conservatively valued at $4 million.

It seems that the painting was donated to the Des Moines Women’s Club in 1923 but the subject matter, a naked cherub and Venus de Milo’s unclothed posterior, may have been too racy for the good folk of Des Moines and so it was hidden away.

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Performance Artist Of The Week

The courthouse of the Belgian coastal town of Ostend was the venue for an unusual piece of performance art, I read this week. The rules of what constitutes art are not set in stone but Mikes Poppe was, using a 10 foot long shackle to chain himself by the ankle to a four ton block of Carrara marble. |In the piece entitled De Profondis the stone represented the inescapable burden of history – of course it did, silly me – and the idea was that Poppe would chisel his way to freedom.

Unfortunately, 19 days after, despite constantly chipping away and eating and sleeping on the job, Poppe still hadn’t freed himself from the shackles of history and Joanna Davos, the curator of the courthouse, decided that enough was enough. In another piece of performance art a workman was sent for who, angle grinder in hand, cut the artist out.

Poppe claimed he had misjudged the strength of the marble – you don’t say? Still, undaunted, he claimed that his moment in the spotlight was a success. After all, you just can’t escape the burden of history. I could have told him that and saved him all the trouble. Artists, eh?

The Object Is An Actor

Matisse in the Studio – Royal Academy

Well, would you believe it? Henri Matisse owned a pewter jug, an Andalusian glass vase, a chocolate pot and a replica of a beautiful Venetian rococo chair – treasured possessions all. They made unusual and interesting shapes and, well, he included them in many of his still lives. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the point of a still life is to take some everyday objects and make an interesting composition out of them. Matisse was just following convention. Some of the objects were unusual – there were some interesting African masks, Chinese calligraphy and Islamic embroidery – but the premise of the Royal Academy exhibition in the Sackler Wing is that the 35 objects on display give us an insight into how they informed and influenced the 65 works on display.

The problem with this was that it turned the viewing experience into a bit of a game of I-Spy. I was more interested in spotting the various artefacts and shapes in the assembled collection that I almost forgot to appreciate the art as art.

Similarly, we are told that Matisse used to cut out his strange and colourful shapes and position them on the walls of his studio, moving them around until he found a pattern that met his approval. Interesting for sure but it poses the question as to whether knowing about the mechanics of how a piece of art was produced enhances our appreciation or whether it is unnecessary and distracting noise. Do we appreciate a book more because we know the author drank a bottle of whisky a day before putting pen to paper or used green ink on pastel blue notepaper? I think not.

 

Don’t get me wrong, there is some wonderful art on display and once I had got beyond the game of spotting the objects in the pictures, I began to get a better appreciation of an artist I had always previously thought of as a bit overrated. Rocaille Chair is a powerful minimalisation of the chair, down to its essence of shape and colour whilst Odalisque in a Turkish Chair seemed to set the convention of portraiture on its head, paying more attention to the objects around her than to the model herself. I wonder what she thought when she saw it?

I almost missed a small but lovely exhibition tucked away in the Tennant Gallery, featuring the works of Charles Tunnicliffe who through his etchings, wood engravings and watercolours captured the essence of British wildlife and the countryside in the first half of the 20th century. I was particularly struck by the Spotted Sow and the more restful and symmetrical Geese and Mallow. What I hadn’t appreciated is that Tunnicliffe illustrated a number of Ladybird books I adored as a child, including the wonderful What to Look At In Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, four books representing a time when we had four distinct seasons. Tunnicliffe also illustrated Henry Williamson’s Tarka The Otter, another childhood favourite, and a couple of series of cards that were contained in Brooke Bond tea packets and which I probably collected.

It must be an age thing but nostalgia gave me a spring in my step as I picked my way out of the RA which is beginning to resemble a building site as work continues on modifications to be completed in time to celebrate its 250th anniversary. The Tunnicliffe exhibition runs until 8th October and the Matisse until 12th November.

Hobby Of The Week

Every man should have a hobby but occasionally it can get out of hand as this story I stumbled across this week involving a now retired banker, Nick West, from Clevedon in North Somerset shows.

I have heard of tegestologists – collectors of beer mats – and labeorphilists – collectors of beer bottle labels – but West has gone one further – he has a collection of 9,000 beer cans. His interest was whetted in 1975 when his wife (stupidly) bought him a book on beer. Of course, collecting cans has its up-side as he had to consume the contents of each can before consigning them to the shelves.

So hooked did West become that he had to make several alterations to his house to accommodate his ever-growing collection. But following his and his wife’s retirement and a decision to downsize living accommodation, Nick has called time on his collection.

Shame really but I’m sure he will be open to offers!

If you are within striking distance of Shrewsbury, aged between 11 and 19 – oh, distant days – and want to get in touch with your artistic side, check out the Summer Artschool, run by that enterprising group, Participate Contemporary Artspace. It runs from July 31st until August 11th 2017 and successful participants will receive the Bronze Arts award which is recognised by colleges and universities. For more details http://mailchi.mp/291644f1df2d/participate-summer-artschool-creative-opportunity-for-11-19-year-olds

For the ardent horticulturalist, going away for a holiday during the peak growing season can create a bit of a dilemma. Fortunately, I had no such concerns and dunked my pumpkins in a shallow bowl of water whilst I enjoyed the sun in Costa Blanca. The plants survived their studied neglect and I have now been rewarded with a profusion of yellow flowers. All male at the moment but days of pumpkin sex won’t be too far away!

Visions Of Johanna

America after the Fall – Royal Academy

The other major exhibition at the Royal Academy in the first half of 2017 was, in many ways, a counterweight to the Russian Revolutionary art – Lenin makes an appearance in a painting by Louis Guglielmi – is an exploration of American art in the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression. A small exhibition, consisting of some forty-five paintings, it is comfortably housed in three rooms in the Sackler Wing. What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality.

I managed to catch the exhibition on a boiling hot day, in those slack times at the RA when its existing shows are winding down and all its energies are concentrated on preparing for the Summer Exhibition. Despite the rather strange atmosphere, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. After all, it’s my kind of art – representational art, colourful and telling a story.

When someone mentions Thirties America to me, I immediately think of the dust bowl and the devastation that injudicious agricultural methods combined with soil erosion and winds caused in the mid-West. I found Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion 2  – Mother Earth Laid Bare hugely evocative with the plough in the foreground and the farm in the distance and in the centre bare, devastated earth moulded into a supine woman. Grant Wood’s earlier and more famous American Gothic, painted in 1930, which has never left North America before, picks up on the theme. We have a couple of elderly farmers standing in front of a rural church, anxiously staring out at us. There isn’t an ounce of flesh on them and the pitchfork, held like a trident, is both menacing and a sign that this is their only hope of salvation.

Wood was a bit of a find for me. I liked his rather grim portrayal of three daughters of the Revolution – no oil paintings, they – primly sipping a cup of tea in front of a picture of the founding fathers. His aerial view of Paul Revere’s ride to tell the news that the Brits was on their way was full of stylised energy.

Edward Hopper’s Gas shows a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. It is both a forlorn symbol of despair but also one of hope. Someone at some time must come down the road wanting to fill up. The show’s opener by Charles Green Shaw is astonishing. It is a painting of a city skyline with skyscrapers reduced to basic geometric form but almost god-like in the sky is an enormous packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Is this the deus ex machina which will lead America to salvation?

Inevitably, race makes an appearance. R W Johnson’s Street Life, Harlem shows a youthful black, urban couple, dressed to the nines. The colours are vivid and the shapes bold. Benton’s Cotton Pickers is more disturbing under closer scrutiny. In the foreground is an emaciated child and a bony woman offers succour to a man working on his knees. The American Hanging is more disturbing too, showing a noose, a group of Ku Klux Klan and a naked African-American woman in the foreground.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Life went on and there are pictures of people having fun and attending picture shows. Paul Cadmus’ The Fleet’s In is a riot of colour and louche behaviour. It caused such a stir when it was first shown that the Navy ordered its withdrawal.

A wonderful show without any makeweights and one worth braving the heat for.

Two Revolutions

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Revolution; Russian Art 1917 – 1932 – Royal Academy

The centenary of the Russian Revolution this year has been marked by the Royal Academy with a retrospective of revolutionary Russian art. It is an enormous, at times bewildering exhibition but I found it rewarding, dashing some of my preconceptions of Russian art and demonstrating how vibrant the art scene was.

Of course, there are images that we associate with Soviet art – none more so than Kustodiev’s colossal Bolshevik of 1920, an enormous peasant waving a red flag striding onwards, trampling underfoot anything in his way. The certainty in the cause is all apparent. And we have the obligatory pictures of Lenin, the most moving being the leader in his coffin. Lenin couldn’t be portrayed dead and so Petrov-Vodkin’s painting has been condemned to a life in storage. It rarely makes a public appearance and, if for no other reason, this makes a trip to the exhibition worthwhile. The heavy hand of State censorship is wonderfully illustrated by Demkov’s kerchief where the portrait of Trotsky has been cut out from one of the corners.

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Artists were dragooned to help the cause and so we have paintings extolling the virtues of labour, Stakhanovite men and women glorying in their liberty, freed from selling their lives and labour for profit. Women workers heave bales around and shock workers perform skyline gymnastics erecting buildings. There is a wonderful and rather unsettling picture of a tram conductor – scary, certainly, and one certain to collect her fares! Artists were deployed to design workers’ uniforms, even dainty porcelain and El Lissitzsky’s plans for a worker’s living capsule is utilitarian to the extreme.

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Russian artists were quick to embrace the avant-garde movement that was springing up elsewhere in Europe. The revolution offered a new beginning and why not a new beginning for art? The highlight of the show is the room devoted to Malevich – I came across him a couple of years ago at the Tate Modern. The Black Square, the antidote to art, seems rather lost in the exhibition, being hung a little too high for my taste. Malevich’s abstract paintings are one thing but Popova and Rodchenko eschew any form of symbolism, their works full of geometric shapes and concentric circles.

1932 was the watershed for Russian art. An exhibition entitled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic was held – as here Malevich and Petrov-Vodkin had their own rooms – which was intended to be a proud proclamation of the radicalism and progressiveness of artists operating in the liberty that a communist state provided. Rather, though, it was the beginning of the end. Stalin tightened his grip on the state and abstract art was suppressed. What he wanted was more heroic idealism not nonsensical doodlings.

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A revolution of sorts was happening at the same time in the rural county of Sussex, at least if you buy in to the thesis of the curator of Two Temple Place’s latest exhibition, Sussex Modernism – Retreat and Rebellion. Artists fled to the rural idyll to get on with their art and their lives, away from the pressures and prying eyes of London. Drawn from nine museums in the county – I was surprised there were so many – we see examples of the Bloomsbury set’s work, more male nudes than you could shake a stick at, wonderfully decorated boxes and furniture – the show stealer was Duncan Grant’s Leda and the Duck Chest (1917) – beautiful lithographs and the wonderful Edward james and Salvador Dali Mae West Lips sofa. The objets d’art have to fight hard to stand out against the exquisite opulence of the venue but in this instance they just about manage it.

Never Mind The Pollocks, Here’s James Ensor

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Abstract Expressionism – Royal Academy

A rare trip to the smoke saw me divert to the Royal Academy to catch the Abstract Expressionism (or AbEx as we hipsters call it) exhibition which is on until 2nd January. I have had a difficult relationship with modern abstract art. I often come away thinking of the Emperor’s new clothes. Is there really something in it or is the artist just taking the piss? Wandering around the galleries, crammed with the monumental works of the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still in what is the largest exhibition of their works for over half a century, the old nagging doubts hit me again.

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Many of the works are monumental, vast acres of canvas daubed with colour, geometric design and dripping paint. Impressive or provocative as any one of the works on display may be, to see so many at one time dulls the senses. Too much of a good thing, perhaps. For me, the Jackson Pollock gallery was the highlight of the show, a heady mix of manic design and frenetic brush work. I may not rush out and buy one but there was a kind of hypnotic quality about them that drew me in.

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Rothko has the Central Hall to himself and this is where I really struggled, great canvasses with blocks of colour in geometric design. The first was mildly interesting but after a while the repetition of a theme started to grate. You could see why Rothko is one of the most defaced artists. The find for me was Still who at least presented you with a riot of colour, reds and oranges clashing in a painting that rises majestically to the ceiling and another which features white and pink with bright red, blood like splashes – a really unsettling iage.

I began to feel I was being suborned by what is a wonderfully curated exhibition of some 150 paintings – the room featuring drawings and photographs is a tad unnecessary and seems a bit of an afterthought – until I came across Ad Reinhardt’s enormous canvas filled with black paint. Normality restored, I thought.

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More to my taste was the exhibition in the Sackler Wing of the Belgian born artist, James Ensor (1860 – 1949), entitled Intrigue, on until 29th January. He was an artist with a keen sense of humour, his paintings full of caricatures, skeletons and the macabre. The painting that really took my fancy was The Skate, a wonderful image of the fish with a tragi-comic expression, lounging languidly on a table as if it had just had a satisfying meal, rather than about to become a meal itself. I also enjoyed the portraits of Ensor a century on, a lounging skeleton (natch).

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His art is wide ranging, from caricature to landscape – the picture Afternoon in Ostend, is dark and brooding with an eerie green glow above the roof tops – and his Seven Deadly Sins reveal an artist with a mordant, satirical eye. His most famous work, The Intrigue, has a crowd of masked figures surrounding a mother whose baby is a doll, an amusing but slightly disturbing image.

Unsettling for sure but wonderfully evocative with images full of small details that unless you really look you might miss. His caricature of Sloth includes an image of snails crawling up on to the bedspread – a powerful image of how long the laggards have been asleep. I left the RA into the London drizzle with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, my faith in art to surprise and entertain restored. A marvellous exhibition.