Archive for the ‘Picture of the Month’ Category
Exactly a week on from the Oscars triumph of the very English ‘A King’s Speech’, I’ve just been re-watching Colin Firth’s first on-screen stammering in Pat O’Connor’s ‘A Month in the Country‘ (1987) and reveling in the bucolic portrayal of deepest Yorkshire, also a reflection on the art and craft of painting, so my choice this time out is a painting by one of Yorkshire’s greatest sons, David Hockney, and the theme of Hollywood runs through this.
My first job out of college was for film production company Buzzy Enterprises. One of my bosses there was Roger Deakins, pipped to the post last week for the Best Cinematography Oscar by Wally Pfister (for ‘Inception’), Roger’s work on the Coen Bothers’ ‘True Grit’ recently earned him the BAFTA. One of Roger’s partners was Jack Hazan, director of the landmark British cinema verite film ‘A Bigger Splash‘ (1973) featuring Hockney and his circle, including fashion designer Ossie Clark; his wife, textile designer Celia Birtwell; Peter Schlesinger and Henry Geldzahler. The latest user-generated review of it on IMDB is none too flattering but brings me nicely to my picture, Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices (1965). This is what Jaroslaw99 of Michigan makes of the film: “Why was the naked swimmer pressed up to the “window” while two others ate dinner, obvlious? Sometimes I think just because the “critics” or “art aficionadoes” can’t understand art or film, they think it is “deep”. That is what I think of David Hockney (the art was mostly one dimensional like grade school children’s) and the same for this film.”
Portrait Surrounded is very much about dimensions (two and three), representation in art and the border between figurative and abstract painting.
The two things I always liked about Hockney is his profound respect for Picasso (in common with Birtwell whose prints were strongly influenced by Picasso and Matisse) and his cheeky sense of humour. I rank Picasso with Bacon as the two greatest artists of the last century. In this painting the use of the phrase “artistic devices” and their very literal depiction in the painting typify Hockney’s playfulness and deflation of the stuff of “critics or art aficionadoes”.
The person portrayed is partly obscured by a pile of (obviously painted) cylinders. Above his head is a shelf on which are a selection of large brushstrokes. The cylinders are crude 3D representations, obvious devices or techniques, which stand out as abstract in a still figurative world of suits and rugs and shelves. The shelf is just a 2D line. The strokes on the shelf are more flat, abstract components of painting, exposing the technique and undermining the illusion. The pile of cylinders is actually painted on a sheet of paper glued to the canvas to leave the viewer in no doubt as to the artifice, physical materiality and flatness of the endeavour.
Cezanne, one of the fathers of Modernist painting, was keen on the simplification of natural forms into their geometric basics – to “treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone” (letter to Emile Bernard 1904). Portrait Surrounded is part of Hockney’s on-going questioning of the received wisdom of Modernist painting in the wake of his spell at the Royal College of Art (with the likes of RB Kitaj) and his struggle to find the right balance between abstraction and figurative art.
The person portrayed in this picture is Hockney’s father and the artist is playing out a battle in it between the technical demands of representing the three dimensions of the physical world and the desire to capture the greater depths of emotion and sentiment, like the feelings one has for one’s parents. In his autobiography Hockney wrote: “the thing Cezanne says about the figure being just a cone, a cylinder and a sphere: well it isn’t. His remark meant something at the time, but we know a figure is really more than that, and more will be read into it… You cannot escape the sentimental – in the best sense of the term – feelings and associations from the figure, from the picture, it’s inescapable. Because Cezanne’s remark is famous – it was thought of as a key attitude in modern art – you’ve got to face it and answer it. My answer, of course, is the remark is not true.”
His observation is typical of the cycle of revolts and reactions of art (as well of teenagehood) – I believe Cezanne was actually referring to landscape not figures so Hockney is actually refuting something created through the Chinese whispers of art education. But that doesn’t really matter, it helps him ‘face and answer’ a key issue for his practice.
In the summer of 1960 the Tate held a large exhibition of Picasso’s work which Hockney visited over half a dozen times and recalls as “a very liberating influence”. He found in it permission for the painter to experiment and move through styles in his artistic journey. Earlier that spring he had visited a one-man Bacon show at London’s Marlborough Gallery. In that he saw a strong stand against pure abstraction whilst retaining an emphasis on directly affecting the guts and nervous system through paint. Bacon’s devices like leaving bare large expanses of canvas to literally expose the workings of painting soon became incorporated in Hockney’s work. His pure abstracts of 1959 (the year he entered the RCA as a post-grad) gave way to the combination of abstract and figurative, and the revealing of the techniques and devices of painting to make clear that painting is not a description of the world perceived through the senses but an interpretation and expression of it in all its complexity, not least of the messiness of emotion. Partly obscured behind the pile of cylinders and partly flattened by his collagey suit, the point of depth of this picture is in the father’s flesh, his Baconesque hands and more still his face and eyes – in fact the two dark points of his eyes, the two one dimensional parts of the painting are the deepest (so Jaroslaw99 of Michigan and I can agree for a moment on the single point of one dimensionality).
In the 3D world I’ve only crossed paths with Hockney fleetingly – both times when reviewing exhibitions in the early 90s, once at the site of that influential Picasso show and the other time round the corner from the Marlborough at the Royal Academy (1995). He projected an attractive combination of Yorkshire homeliness and Californian glamour.
He moved to California the year I was born and in 1965, just after Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices, he made a set of lithographs entitled ‘A Hollywood Collection’. Conceived of as ‘an instant art collection’ for a Hollywood starlet, it includes prints like ‘Picture of a Pointless Abstraction Framed Under Glass’ for which he draws not only the pointless abstraction but the frame and even the reflections on the glass, more playing around with artistic devices in the quest for that sweet spot between the abstract and the figurative where deep feeling and insight reside.
The most striking thing for me about Un bar aux Folies-Bergère, the last masterpiece by Édouard Manet, painted in 1882 for exhibition at that year’s Paris Salon, are the green booties. What on earth are they doing up there? What kind of night club were they running? Some wild place that they’ve got trapeze artists flying about overhead and no-one gives a monkey’s – no-one is even bothering to look up at them. Circus Circus 90 years ahead of its time. That pair of bright green booties top left and the pink leggings – some kind of surreal joke on the part of M. Manet? Always gets a wry smile out of me. You can see this painting in the Courtauld Collection in London’s Somerset House, London.
I’m currently reading Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (appears on a lot of people’s Books That Changed My Life list so thought I’d give it a bash) which includes a scene of a visit to the Folies in post-Global Economic Meltdown Europe i.e. the early 30s . It’s in the context of a bit of a night crawl where a bunch of posh folk trawl the nighttown for thrills from the rough. The sense of classes colliding is strong in this picture, questions of power balance looming large.
Looking and not looking seems to be a preoccupation of Manet. The barmaid stares straight out at you the viewer – the last of a long line of such enigmatic stares. Olympia gives a challenging enigmatic stare in the eponymous painting [below]. As does that cheeky naked picnicker in Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe [below] (a quick tribute here to recently, dearly departed Malcolm [McLaren] who had fun with Manet’s woman in his Bow Wow Wow period). Manet gets his female protagonists to give as good as they get from staring males, no matter how much at a disadvantage they are (e.g. a bit light on the clothes front).
Now in this picture, Manet puts us, by a bit of mirror jiggery-pokery, in the position of said staring male. You, evidently, are that moustachioed, top-hatted, red-nosed chap reflected in the right-hand corner. Whether you’re more interested in the young barmaid or a bottle of Bass Pale Ale (spot that familiar logo, Britain’s first trademark) is debatable. But she is evidently giving him a run for his money on the gazing front, much like naughty, bold Olympia and the naked picnicker (though interestingly not the woman on The Balcony [below] who is altogether elsewhere – this barmaid’s stare is not quite as bold as picnic woman, not as insouciant as the odalisque, a tad more vulnerable and a little bit less there. That is where my fascination for Manet resides – it’s all in the eyes, eye and eye, and I and aye, what a rich mix of stories contained in the women’s eyes, looks and stares.)
Also in common (and common is the operative word – to reiterate, there’s a lot of class stuff going on around here) in common with Olympia is the fact that the barmaid is wearing a black ribbon. Why is Olympia wearing just the ribbon and the odd adornment – a bracelet, a hair ribbon, slippers? The answer can be found in the writing of poet Charles Baudelaire, a contemporary of Manet, just some ten years older – he had a conviction that Nature is much enhanced by Artifice – whether that artifice (Paradis Artificiels) is a ribbon or a reefer doesn’t much matter, it is the contrast which enlivens.
Interest in Manet should be livelying up in certain quarters with the announcement this week that one of the only two self-portraits of Manet (Self-Portrait With A Palette) was put up for sale this coming June, also staring in the mirror but without quite the enigma of E. Manet’s women…
Last Picture of the Month: Merry-Go-Round
With The Hurt Locker vying for the Oscars and a new offensive under way in the dragging out war in Afghanistan, Mark Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round seems an apt, timely starting point for this occasional series. I first came across Gertler at the Ben Uri Gallery in Dean Street, Soho in the mid-80s, such an old school collection that I was shown around the wooden racks in the backroom where Gertlers and valuable masterworks of other prominent Jewish artists lay idle, waiting for space in which to be brought to light. The collection, which I believe had origins in the East End – like Gertler himself – has since moved to St John’s Wood. This painting had only recently been acquired by the Tate when I first came across the collection – it was purchased for the nation in 1984. Back in 1916 D.H. Lawrence (with whom I share a birthday) had written to his friend Gertler: “Get somebody to suggest it be bought by the nation – it ought to be”. It took seven decades for Gertler to be recognised in this way, he is still not widely known and this, arguably his masterpiece, got little recognition at the time, other than from the likes of Lawrence.
Lawrence also wrote: “This is the first picture you have ever painted. …it is the best modern picture I have seen: I think it is great, and true. But it is horrible and terrifying.” Of course, it was not literally Gertler’s first painting, he had been painting since his teenage years and had trained at the Slade with a great generation, the one that crashed into the Great War, including Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash (currently being exhibited at the Dulwich Picture Gallery), Richard Nevinson, William Roberts, Dora Carrington and Edward Wadsworth – but it was his coming of age and his passage to modernity.
The scene is infused with the spirit of Futurism. It was Gertler’s friend and rival in love Nevinson who had most fully embraced the credo of Futurism preached by the Italian Marinetti. But the spirit of it is here in the grinding mechanisation of the fairground attraction, spinning, speeding up, going nowhere fast. Gertler lived in Hampstead and seemingly took inspiration from the annual funfair which still takes place there. (I too found it very striking as a child when my father, who grew up beside the Heath opposite where Ruth Ellis shot her lover and next to the pond with the V1 crater at its edge, drew back his arm to fire the wooden coconut shy ball and whacked me on the head. With funfairs as with art – always think about where you stand.)
Gertler stands at a disorienting Cubist angle, the top is front on but the circular base simultaneously from 45 degrees. The overwhelming sense is of circularity and uniformity – literally, red-blue-yellow in three of the four groups of servicemen. The faces look more like those fairground stalls where you have to fire something into the mouth than normal faces in all their variety – these uniform uniformed men screaming in excitement or terror, who knows which, not even they themselves.
I’ve always found it slightly disturbing that the soldier on the right, coming straight at us, looks like Corporal Hitler. Talking of whom, I don’t think the horse’s arse is an accident. This was a generation being lead by donkeys or horses’ arses into a manic mechanical war which in 1916 – the year of the Somme, 20,00 British lost on Day One, 400,000 British casualties by the time the offensive was abandoned five months later in November, no progress made, a circular campaign of winning and losing ground to no net effect beyond death and destruction of a generation of young men – was grinding. to a. halt.
Gertler had a similar fight on the home front – a can’t live with her, can’t live without her love affair with fellow Slade artist Dora Carrington aka Carrington, her preferred form of address indicative of such a striving to be treated on a par with men that her femininity became confused. She loved Gertler but somehow couldn’t give herself in love, frozen by a highly conservative bourgeois background and the donkey in a carrot field effect of having men falling for her left, right and centre – Nevinson, author Gilbert Cannan, Lytton Strachey et al. Canaan wrote a roman-a-clef (Mendel) depicting Gertler and Carrington’s crazy love before the war drove him into madness himself.
Gertler and Carrington were drawn into the vortex of Bloomsbury, boarding the merry-go-round of Garsington, Lady Ottoline Morrell’s country house salon satirised mercilessly by Aldous Huxley in Chrome Yellow (after having of course enjoyed her hospitality, such being satirists). The Bloomsbury circles were broadly pacifist in inclination so this painting by Gertler is very much in line with their thinking.
So as we watch the bodies cycling back through Wootton Bassett, as we hear the radio report we hear over and again that the family has been informed, as our children level up in Call of Duty and our politicians reiterate the party line that our security depends on some God-forsaken patch of foreign land that is forever being fought over – Britain/Soviet Union/USA Blue/Red/Yellow – Gertler’s picture can remind of where all this ultimately gets us…