Dulwich Printmaking Show Impresses

 

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Dorrit Black, Music, 1927-28EZ2l3yZg

I had never heard of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art until I set foot in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Founded  by wood engraver, Iain Macnab in 1925, the Grosvenor School was different from other London-based art schools of the time. There were no exams, students enrolled on courses when they could, and once they learned the rudiments of linocutting (the course most associated with the school), they were encouraged to develop their own style. 

The emphasis on printmaking, and more specifically linocutting fell in with the ethos of key members of staff. Claude Flight, art department head, wanted cheap, easy to use materials, firm in his belief that art should be accessible to all. Not only should one produce art, irrespective of one’s standing in life, but it should be affordable, selling for no more than a few guineas.

In this forward-thinking environment the linocut, once a sombre monochrome affair, underwent a make-over and became a new, democratic art form. Colours were introduced into the printmaking process and both teachers and students, inspired by the ever-changing scenery of London, set to work recreating the energy of the capital in their compositions.

The exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is a fascinating and rare opportunity to see the work of this generation of print artists, who in the 20s and 30s captured the mood and preoccupations of the inter-war years. 

I dived into the ‘Urban Living’ section and was struck by the proliferation of styles.

Ethel Spowers’s compositions stood out for me, particularly Special Edition 1938. A crowd forms in the street, each member of the public avidly reading the newspaper. Have Hitler’s troops just marched into Czechslovakia? White sheets, like billowing sails, fill the frame. Interestingly, they are principally women readers, judging by the cloche hats on show. Spowers’s repetition of plum, russet and green hues and her flattened perspective remind me of a beautiful Japanese woodcut. The traffic lights emerge from a sea of newspaper.

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Equally appealing but perhaps less elegant, was another of Powers’s prints, A Gust of Wind 1930-31. A figure clutches at a newspaper being swept away in all directions. A little scene captured to perfection.

In the ‘At Work At Play’, ‘Pastoral Life’ sections, one was reminded of how, despite the reduction of working hours for many, how hard manual labour could be for those straining to produce food for the expanding cities. I was particularly struck by Sybil Andrews’s rather unnerving Fall of the Leaf 1934.

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Three horses tug an obsolete, hand-held plough up a remarkably steep terrain. The fields surrounding, curve off at odd angles and the trees resemble half-opened fans. It is an extraordinary work of warped reality which makes one feel quite queasy!

On the ‘Play’ front, Dorrit Black’s Music 1927-8 (see Title Image) was a more vibrant version of Matisse’s The Dance,1909. Black’s print encapsulates the ecstasy of dance during the jazz age. Meanwhile Cyril Power’s The Concerto, 1935, is a study of an orchestra in full flow. Here it is interesting to see the old woodcut style appear in the cellos and piano strings.

Cyril Power also impresses in the room entitled, ‘On the Move’, where, in The Tube Train 1930, the printmaker captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of the commuter train, referred to as ‘The Tank’ at the time. The discomfort of its red-faced occupants is palpable, sweltering no doubt in  their suits, top hats and Trilbies! 

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Power also sought to capture the speed and movement of the new spectator sports such as tennis, sports car and horse events. The Sport section was interesting in that it was the first time sport was captured in this way. The elongated arms of the tennis player at the net and the racing car distorted by the speed it is travelling at, are all exaggerated images and perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but they are an early record of the excitement caused by these spectator sports which were in their infancy.

This was a very satisfying show on many fronts. The art-deco age will always attract the crowds of course but what was of particular interest for me, was to see an equal input of both female and male artists. There is so much talk these days of women been underrepresented in art and this show certainly redresses the balance. It gives it a satisfying wholeness.

So what happened to the humble print priced at a couple of guineas? Well now an original Cyril Power print  may go for as much as £100,000!

Highly recommended.

KH

 Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking runs until 8th September 2019

 

Parr Displaying His Humanity at National Portrait Gallery

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Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Martin Parr/Magnum Photos/Rocket Gallery

In the same week I watched Don McCullin, photographer extraordinaire, take pictures of fox hunts and Eastbourne in the rain, in the BBC’s Looking for Britain, I find myself at Martin Parr’s Only Human show at the National Portrait Gallery.

In it, Parr also explores identity and what it is to be British.

McCullin has been lugging his old cameras for far longer than Parr. Nearly two decades separate the two men in age. When Parr was about to leave Manchester Polytechnic in 1973, where he studied photography, McCullin (best known for his war photography) had already documented homelessness and gangland London, as well as life in the failing northern mining towns. The images were lovingly hand-produced by McCullin in monochrome in his studio.

To this day McCullin chooses to print in black and white, which give his images a timeless quality. His retrospective at Tate Britain at the moment is a joy to behold.

By contrast, Parr, arguably Britain’s most famous documentary photographer of the British (certainly he seems the most prolific having produced many books over the years on the subject), has fully embraced colour. Think of Polaroid colours, and then a hundred times more vivid!

The central theme of Parr’s show is Brexit Britain in all its garishness.  Colour works especially well in this context, setting each image in a particular time and place.

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Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country. 2017. Martin Parr

Nationalistic images such as Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich pack a punch. A man and a woman, draped in the St George flag, lean against a low, turreted wall. In the foreground, a benign-looking white dog stares at the camera. He has been dressed up in a red jacket emblazoned with a small shield. On a lead, which resembles a chain, he looks vulnerable. The more you focus on the dog, the more you feel sorry for the innocent animal and understand Parr’s intentions.

Even more telling of Parr’s uneasiness regarding Brexit is Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017 (see Title photograph)  On a sunny day, people gather on the shoreline of a beach. They have their backs to us and stare out to sea.  Just one little boy has turned back to the camera. He is minuscule next to a red flag flying at full mast over his head. The strange thing in this image is that the sea doesn’t look rough. Have the holidaymakers been hoodwinked into believing in the dangers of the unknown? (ie foreignness across the seas)

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Another photograph captured my attention. Not really to do with Brexit but with  Parr’s on-going exploration of identity and class. We are presented with two images of a  Harrow school boy, one in uniform and top hat, the other, he is covered head to toe in mud after a football match which he has won. I thought he was in fact a statue at first!

An image of a school youth of a different order draws my attention. A peroxide-headed young man with a Goth or New Romantic haircut leans over his work at the renowned Christ Hospital School, known for its outstanding music programme.  He could be a scholarship youth – we don’t know. All we can see is the hair, which hangs down like a straggly curtain. Here we get the sense of a world-class school opening its doors to creativity and diversity.

 

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The show spreads out into other rooms: celebrity portraits which if you go to the National Portrait Gallery, you have all seen before. Vivienne Westwood stands out and Gordon Banks sitting down in his chintz sitting room.

In another room Parr shows the British, drinking or at play. It is a little predicable, except for the woman at the Aintree races, dressed entirely in shocking pink. She’s carrying her own supply of champagne in a plastic cool bag. Glasses, programme, bumble gum pink pompom scarf, and clashing red handbag. The cropping (we only see her from the neck down) gives this picture several interpretations. Either the headless woman is to be lauded for having her own idiosyncratic style or she is being exposed as having no taste. She has come to the races to get plastered and intends to completely ignore the race. Who knows?

 

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There was an extraordinary room dedicated to Martin Parr’s self-portraits that he has made throughout his career. For 30 years he has visited studio photographers, street photographers and photo booth across the globe. I find his obsession with his own image both curious but understandable. Like so many photographers who have spent so much of their lives hidden behind the camera, Parr has wanted to keep a personal record .

Particularly bizarre were the Photo Escultura– shrine-like carved photo-sculptures based on Parr. These were quite amusing and were commissioned by the last traditional craftsman specialised in them, in Mexico City.

 

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It was an odd finale to an exhibition on Britishness, as was the pop up seaside café complete with Battenburg cake and the National portrait shop full of Parr pseudo retro memorabilia. Would you buy flip-flops superimposed with Parr’s feet?

 

Most strange. But we have to allow for his eccentricities. It is exactly these peculiarities, which make Martin Parr human!

 

 

 

KH

 

 

Martin Parr: Being Human is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May 2019

 

 

LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE

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Artistic duos tend not to receive the attention they deserve in art history. We often read about the art movements and the artists who create them. The artist’s partner or lover meanwhile is often overlooked, or simply seen in terms of a muse.

An ambitious exhibition at the Barbican, entitled Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde seeks to explore the subject of couples and to show how spouses and lovers have had a lot more to bring to the creative pot.

I stepped in room 1 of the show where the pairings of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel and Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp were considered. Both couples had passionate affairs – it seemed a good place to start.

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I was called upon to contemplate Auguste Rodin’s exuberant sculpture, Je Suis Belle. A beautiful naked young woman, bunched up into a ball, is held aloft by a tall, muscle-bound Adonis (In reality Auguste Rodin was small and lame!) The energy of the piece perfectly encapsulates love’s rapture and exemplifies Rodin’s superhuman passion for his eighteen-year old assistant.

Camille Claudel’s letters on display reveal her minx-like hold over him in the early years of their affair. In one she asks Rodin to buy her a two-piece bathing suit in serge from Bon Marché so that she can swim in the lake and avoid the public baths! And to excite him further she states: ‘I go to bed naked every night to make me think you’re here’.

The correspondence in this show is riveting  and should not be overlooked even though it may slow your progress through the rooms!

Though the odds were stacked against Claudel, she was a mere woman after all, Claudel’s talent was recognised by her mature lover. He allowed her to fashion the hands and feet of his statues. In the show we see the clay head Claudel produced of him. I found it disappointing and decided to go to the Rodin museum next time I was in Paris to investigate further.

I turned to another female artist, Maria Martins, occupying the same room. Before meeting Marcel Duchamp in New York in March 1943, she was already a sculptor in her own right. Her bronze cast entitled  Le Couple , produced in the same year, is impressive. Two animalistic male-female forms rear up and spew tendrils. Their bodies arch away from each other (Martins as a married woman clearly had some reservations about the affair!) In contrast, Marcel Duchamp’s artistic offering is less showy. Five mysterious artefacts are displayed in a glass case. One resembles part of a bronze shoe, Feuille de Vigne, 1950. I read the explanation and find that it is in fact an imprint of Martins’s female genitalia! The five pieces together are all imprints of Martins intimate parts. They are strangely elegant, oddly moving.

 

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Sexual desire and the artistic impulse are of course closely linked. I am drawn to the Surrealist section entitled Mad Love where André Breton, founder of the movement, encourages his male followers to go out into the street in search of love. Breton saw women as innately ‘surrealist’. The theme of the female muse resurges. The women associated with Surrealist artists were no shrinking violets however. In the photographs they come across as wild and free. In one they are relaxing at a picnic, sheets draped over their  intimate parts. Their male friends meanwhile are fully clothed! The photograph is no doubt the surrealist take on Manet’s painting,  Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.

One of these women is the American photographer Lee Miller. Early on in her career she teamed up with avant-garde artist Man Ray. In the show they occupy a room of their own. Their homage to the Marquis de Sade seems tongue in cheek. A very young Miller wears a thick iron collar around her neck. In another very strange image Lee Miller and Man Ray have placed a glass dome over their heads! I can’t help but laugh!

Lee Miller’s photographs could also be moving and poignant. In the Dora Maar-Picasso section, we see an older Dora Maar sitting alone in her apartment looking into space. In the centre of the picture hangs a painting Picasso made of her. It is a rare portrait of her facing out at the viewer (rather than in profile), and it is the only portrait she liked of herself. She dismissed the others as ‘lies’. They may be ‘lies’ but Picasso’s Portrait de Femme 1938, of Maar, is still a wonder to behold on an adjacent wall, as is Frida Kahlo’s oil painting entitled The Wounded Deer 1946 located in the same room

 

 

To counterbalance the theme of suffering female artists, Maar’s own photo images of Picasso have been included in the show. A glass plate negative of Picasso caught my eye. Around his face Maar has scratched a halo or crown of thorns of black ink. It gives the painter the air of a saint or more worryingly, the appearance of Jesus Christ bound for crucifixion. It is unusual to see Picasso objectified in this way. So much with Picasso was on his terms.

Alma Mahler in another room seems to be made of sterner stuff. The exhibition focuses on her relationship with husband Gustav Mahler and lover Oskar Kokoschka. Long suffering muse, she was not! A photograph of her shows a Valkyrien woman in a corseted dress and dark, expressive eyes.  She was a talented pianist and composer when she met Mahler. It is surprising to read therefore that at the beginning of her marriage to Mahler she gave up her musical career at his request. It was a big mistake of course; outwardly acquiescing, Alma soon grew bitter. When she was on the point of running off with Bauhaus architect Gropius, Mahler agreed to play and help publish his wife’s lieder which are on show.

 The painter Kokoschka, seven years her junior, filled the void after Mahler’s death. ‘He painted me, me, me!’ Alma Mahler exclaims in a quote on the wall. Kokoschka joined up as a soldier in WW1, perhaps to escape her intensity and jealous nature. On his return however he underwent a change of heart. By then Alma had gravitated towards Gropius again. Kokoschka spent the next few years trying to win her back. The painted fans he produced, depicting their life together, are on display on one wall. We read about a doll he had made in her image. ‘I must have you for my wife or my genius will self-destruct’, he says in a letter. Alma’s power over men was astounding!

The Sapphic section entitled Chloe liked Olivia, was not only illuminating but revealed a whole host of new writers for me such as Natalie-Clifford Barney and painter Romaine Brooks. I was already aware of the love affair between blue stocking Virginia Woolf and aristocrat Vita-Sackville West, but it was interesting to learn of the influence each woman had on the other’s work. The desire Sackville-West ignited in Woolf powered Woolf’s Orlando. In this tale a young man transforms into a woman and retains his love for women. Sackville-West’s writing meanwhile became more experimental. Her book Seducers in Ecuador is on display together with Orlando and Woolf’s wonderful extended essay, A Room of One’s Own.

By the time I reached the painter Klimt and designer and fashion muse Emily Flöge (also fascinating if I had had more time) I was replete with information. I had only covered the first floor of the exhibition! (There are two!)

The show warrants a whole afternoon with two tea breaks!

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Modern Couples is an exhilarating show. A real curatorial tour de force. I am now keen to read up about L’Académie des Femmes (the feminine equivalent of the all-male literary Académie Française), and to explore the art of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks whose self-portraits reveal a growing confidence in her new sexuality. From a timid, thin-faced girl in a graceless hat she evolves into a beautiful, bright-eyed woman with wind-swept hair. I felt happy for her.

Hats off to the Barbican for a thought-provoking and rich experience! Worth joining the Barbican Centre membership scheme methinks!

 

KH

 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on at the Barbican (Floor 3) until 27 Jan.

 

 

 

 

 

Sax and Jazz. Jean Toussaint Still Has Youth Appeal

 

Sunday night in Camden. The temperature has plummeted and there are few people about on the high street.

Outside the Jazz Cafe however there is a queue forming. I rush to join it and edge my way forwards between the metal barriers to get my wrist stamped. A young man runs alongside us peddling his own CDs; £3 for an EP, £10 for the album. ‘I’ll have the EP,’ says the man in front of me, visibly sorry for the musician pounding the pavement on such a night.

We enter the venue and step out into a spacious bar area. Up ahead, the dimly lit dance floor, stage filled with instruments and leads, and running around them above, a buzzing mezzanine restaurant. The Jazz Cafe is a slick operation. Professional with friendly staff. It is the perfect venue for Jean Toussaint’s Allstar 6tet tonight.

I spy front man, Jean Toussaint, chatting with someone in the audience off stage and walk over and shake his hand. He hasn’t changed a bit since I last saw him play in the Bass Clef (sadly closed) almost three decades ago. He is tall, dressed in a suit, polite and still possesses that old-world charm. For someone who has spent most of his life playing in smoke-filled jazz clubs (no longer thankfully), his face is remarkably smooth and unlined.

He beams at the floor now filling with young people in their twenties. Women with afro hair dos and batik hairbands, young men dressed in dark jeans, clutching pints of lager. By their age, Toussaint was already touring the world with the famous drummer, Art Blakey, who had played with everyone, from Charlie Parker all the way through to Thelonious Monk. Toussaint was one of the ‘Messengers’.  In the late eighties he alighted in London, drawn by its effervescent jazz scene and settled here. With his own line up, Toussaint spent the next decade performing in London’s top music venues, Ronnie Scotts, Jazz Cafe, Pizza on the Park, Dingwalls and the 606 club.

At 9.20pm, a little early, Toussaint walks on stage with Andrew McCormack, a talented British pianist and composer. In interviews, McCormack is quick to mention Toussaint as having taking him under his wing. Toussaint takes his mentoring role seriously. He remembers what Art Blakey did for him. But having a band is not a charitable project, Toussaint only picks the best: Byron Wallen on trumpet, complete with studded cap, Dennis Rollins, trombonist. Double bass player Daniel Casimir slips in behind, together with Shane Forbes on drums.

During an interview Toussaint accords me the following day, he tells me a Miles Davies story. ‘Miles Davies’s approach to his band members was always the better you play, the better I gotta play. It’s not always like that in jazz. I allow my players space for their music.’

The gig at the Jazz Cafe is the occasion to perform pieces from his eleventh album, ‘Brother Raymond’  – and to combine it with new material: Gatekeeper, Missing of Sleep and Mandingo Brass.

thumbnail-300x269Toussaint nods to his own engineer brought in especially to do the live recording. In a beautiful baritone, Toussaint announces their first piece: Amabo, Obama spelt backwards. ‘I shall love in Latin he explains.’ It’s a musical fingers up to Trump. Refusing to give in to doom and gloom, Toussaint enters upon a joyous, irreverent piece. African rhythms abound (in honour of the first African, American President) and the 3 horn frontline beeps out the New York car horns. Two young men in front of me, bob up and down with their iPhones aimed at the stage. The rest of the floor is engaged in frenetic dancing.

Gatekeeper which follows, composed by trumpeter, Wallen, is a darker, introspective work, reminding us of effort and struggle in an unpredictable world.

In marked contrast, Doc is a tender, mellow composition by Toussaint. A gentle melody of three rising notes, smooth piano exploration, muted trumpet, played exquisitely by Wallen. The melody crescendos, becomes more urgent. Two thirds of the way through, Toussaint breaks in on tenor sax with a rollercoaster of notes suggesting pain, excitement, impatience and finally gratitude. His sax solo spills into the two other horns – a gorgeous musical moment!

Annoyingly I have to leave just as the sextet are about to embark on Mandingo Brass.

In our interview I ask Toussaint about ‘Mandingo Brass’.

‘It was the name of my first band in the US Virgin Isles where I was brought up.’ Calypso underpins the piece. Aged fourteen I started playing saxophone. I took to it immediately.’

Music was in the genes. Toussaint’s father had his own group and played trumpet but was forced to give it all up. ‘A sad time for him,’ says Toussaint in a reflective tone. Toussaint eventually left the island to follow his own musical path. He attended the very prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and from there New York and fame beckoned.

I ask Toussaint about his work ethic. ‘I am pretty disciplined these days. I practice three to four hours a day and sit down to some daily composition.’ Musical influences? So many. Jazz greats like Davies and Ellington. He listens to a lot of classical music: Messiaen, Chopin, Prokofiev, Stravinsky – an interesting mix! ‘Good music is good music,’ he insists.

And the future of jazz? Toussaint is optimistic. The students he has mentored at the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity Laban are starting to come through and make a name for themselves he tells me proudly. He mentions Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia but there are many more. ‘The more bands you have out there, the better it is for jazz.’

And judging by Jean Toussaint’s enthusiastic fans at the Jazz Cafe, it is clear that his young audience will grow.

 

KH

 

Brother Raymond album can be found in the ITunes store. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One at Tate Britain

 

Tate Britain’s survey of the impact of the First World War on art in Britain, France and Germany opens with a series of iconic images. There is Jacob Epstein’s Terminator-like torso in bronze from his ‘The Rock Drill’ of 1913-14, as unnerving as ever. There are photographs of shattered cathedrals, helmets dented by shrapnel and post-war Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battlefields of France. There are Henry Tonks’s unforgettable pastel drawings showing facial injury cases before treatment. Less familiar will be German works such as Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s sculpture ‘Fallen Man’, made for the cemetery of his hometown of Duisburg – humanity crawling away on all fours to die.

These first two or three rooms of ‘Aftermath’ admirably convey art’s role in official memorialization of the conflict, although in truth there’s not much here that you won’t see on a visit to the permanent collections of the Imperial War Museum. What I didn’t come away with (the Lehmbruck apart) was much sense of the personal response of artists to the war.

Take the case of Paul Nash, typical of the many artists who were psychologically scarred by their experiences during 1914-18. Nash spent the early 1920s recovering from ‘war strain’ at Dymchurch on the edge of Romney Marsh, where he painted a series of bleak, despairing landscapes; there are stories of him staring fixedly out to sea for hours on end, often at night, before trudging home to his tiny cottage on the seafront. On the whole, I’d rather have seen one of those Dymchurch seascapes than another vitrine filled with trench paraphernalia.

 

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Otto Dix (1891-1969), War: Skull 1924, etching on paper 257 x 195 mm The George Economou Collection. © Estate of Otto Dix 2018

 

And how about taking the opportunity to remember the artists who lost their lives in the conflict? The best-known cases are the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the German painters Franz Marc and August Macke, and the British painter-poet Isaac Rosenberg. Marc in particular, like Macke a co-founder of Der Blaue Reiter and only 36 when he died at Verdun in 1916, was a huge loss to art. Yet none of these names are even mentioned in the Tate show.

In Room 4 (of eight) there’s an abrupt change of gears and the rest of the show is a whistle-stop tour of the main movements in post-war art, from the angry counterblasts of Dada & Surrealism to the considerably more lyrical mood of the so-called ‘Return to Order’. In the last two rooms there’s a breathless attempt to chronicle the war’s impact on society by looking at Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’), Bauhaus and life in ‘the New City’.

 

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Christian Schad 1894 – 1982, Self-Portrait 1927 Oil on wood 760 x 620 mm, lent from a private collection 1994 © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

 

‘Aftermath’ feels like two exhibitions sandwiched together, one that can’t make up its mind if it’s trying to show us that ‘war is hell’ or simply attempting to unravel the complexities of post-war art. Worse, all the blood and gore in the early rooms makes the classicizing trend of the 1920s seem shallow and trite, which it most certainly was not.

It’s the Germans who stand out in this show, whether it’s the existential Angst of Beckmann and Kollwitz, the mordant satire of Grosz and Dix, the sinister decadence of Christian Schad’s portraits or the weird geometric automata of Oskar Schlemmer. Perhaps post-war upheavals in German society, far more thoroughgoing than in either Britain or France, provided better take-off points for art. Or maybe they were simply better artists. Germany may have been defeated on the battlefields but culturally it was the undoubted victor. Until the Nazis showed up, of course.

NM

 

‘Aftermath’ at Tate Britain (to 23 September 2018)

 

Header image: Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill” 1913-14 bronze 705 x 584 x 445 mm, Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein

 

My Favourite Things: A Word in Your Shell-like

Aporrhais Pespelecani is a marine snail, the thing that lives inside a seashell, a little mollusk that can be found from the Norwegian coast to the shores of the Mediterranean. It has a very pleasing shape, which seems designed to fit into the human hand – a deep bowl, and 3 or 4 spiny ‘fingers’, radiating out like the struts in the webbed foot of – well, a pelican, which is how the snail gained its name.

 

It can also be found in Gallery 156 of the Metropolitan Museum.

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About 500 years BCE, a workshop somewhere in Greece or in its islands began sculpting these shells in marble. We have no idea how many were made, but only a very few have survived (the British Museum has one; so has the Getty), and given how complex and delicate the shape would have been to sculpt, maybe all of them were the work of one single workshop, maybe of one single mind that saw the natural original, washed up on a beach somewhere, and was inspired, and worked at the design, and then worked at it some more, until they had perfected it. They made it bigger than the shell is in life, so this one, if you were to hold it, would project either end of your palm, with the tips of your fingers fitting between the spines.

 

This is far and away the finest of the survivors. The marble it is carved from is snow-white, and has tiny sparkles of quartz in it, like snow again. As you crane your head to see all the way around it, held upright in its  display case, you begin to realize how magically put-together is the shape – the soft round of the bowl, the delicate spines, the tiny whorl at one end (a separate piece, like the stopper to a bottle), the flat lip at the other. The way all these shapes fit together is half the enchantment of the piece. The other half is what it tells us of us, that human impulse to take something from nature, and recreate it, give it new form, give it rebirth as art, and how that defines us and has propelled us forward from all those centuries ago to what we are today.

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Its surface tells of a final chapter in its history. The marble has been eroded by the action of water and sand. This shell that is not a shell was returned to the ocean at some point, which took the bright paint that would once have covered it (there’s a tiny trace left, on the whorl), and gave it its foamy whiteness, and wore at its spines, just as it would have done a real Aporrhais. In other words, it is so beautiful, it fooled even the sea.

Real Pelican’s Foot shells, with that suggestive, hand-friendly shape, were used as libation vessels, and then maybe cast back into the sea. Their carved marble cousins were probably made for the same purpose. Perfected, painted, used – and cast back into the element that inspired it. Everything about this is as perfect and organic a whole as it is possible for a work of art to be.

JCH

 

Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys at the Courtauld Gallery

Pastry Cook of Cagnes (Le pâtissier de Cagnes _ Der Konditor von Cagnes), 1922. Private Collection
Pastry Cook of Cagnes (Le pâtissier de Cagnes _ Der Konditor von Cagnes), 1922. Private Collection

Chaim Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani met in Paris in 1915. Both were immigrants and also Jewish but otherwise their backgrounds were very different: Modigliani came from a middle class, liberal family from Livorno in Italy, whereas Soutine was raised in a desperately poor, very Orthodox shtetl near Minsk (now Belarus). The two occupied the same lodgings for a while, taking turns, so the story goes, to sleep in the only bed. More importantly, Modigliani also introduced Soutine to his dealer Léopold Zborowski.

Coincidentally (or maybe not coincidentally – I don’t know), the two artists each have exhibitions devoted to them in London this autumn. You don’t need a Jonathan Jones or an Alexander Graham-Dixon to tell you that Modigliani at Tate Modern will be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. First off, though, is this show at the Courtauld Gallery, which concentrates on the curious series that Soutine painted of serving staff from the luxury hotels and restaurants of Paris during the 1920s. It’s a small show, just twenty-odd paintings in two rooms, but it packs quite a punch.

Chaim Soutine 1893-1943, Bellboy, around 1925, oil on canvas Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d_art moderne Centre de creation industrielle
Chaim Soutine 1893-1943, Bellboy, around 1925, oil on canvas Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne Centre de creation industrielle

What you get here is a remarkable gallery of types, all rendered in Soutine’s very idiosyncratic, rather melancholy, brand of Expressionism. The most endearing are the gawky teenaged pastry chefs with their outsized ears; Soutine must be the first artist to have used ears to anchor a composition. At the other end of the psychological spectrum is a marvellously sly valet de chambre, looking positively diabolical in his dark uniform. The rest tend to be cocky, hands-on-hips, defiant; clearly, there’s backstairs intrigue aplenty going on here. If Tim Burton (or, better still, Todd Browning of Freaks fame) had made ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’, it might have looked a bit like this.

Why were Soutine and other Jewish artists of the 20th Century – Bomberg, Kossoff, Auerbach – so attracted to Expressionism? Probably for the same reason that Soutine revered Rembrandt, famously recreating Rembrandt’s ‘Slaughtered Ox’ in his studio and driving the neighbours to distraction with the stench of rotting flesh. According to David Sylvester, Rembrandt appeals to Jewish sensibilities not just because of his Old Testament subjects but because he’s got soul.

La Soubrette (Waiting Maid), c.1933 (oil on canvas)
Waiting Maid (La soubrette), c.1933. Ben Uri Gallery & Museum

Soutine’s waiters and bellhops aren’t really portraits in the conventional sense, more like character studies, or ‘tronies’, to use the Dutch term. We know surprisingly little about his sitters, not even their names, apparently, in most cases. Presumably they agreed to pose for Soutine in order to augment their meagre wages; if so, they paid a heavy price in the marathon sessions that Soutine’s frenetic working methods demanded. Why, on the other hand, Soutine chose to make these paintings, which, on the face of it, had no obvious commercial appeal, is rather baffling and unfortunately the show isn’t very enlightening on this point.

No doubt when Modigliani opens on 23 November all roads will lead to Tate Modern. Yes, Modigliani is sexier but Soutine was also a great painter and this absorbing show should be seen as more than just a curtain-raiser for the Modigliani juggernaut.

NM

Courtauld Gallery, 19 October 2017 – 21 January 2018