The sadness that is stalking the land crashed into my cloistered world this morning when I read that the pestilence had now carried away John Prine. Anger is what I really felt, he had already survived so much, battled through and continued to share with us all his very special brand of humanity. His music is sublime and deceptively simple, pictures endlessly painted and emotions laid bare. Lauded by his peers, Dylan, Cash and Kristofferson heading the list, his five decades of music contributed to changing the nature of American roots music. I feel truly fortunate, for I had an unforgettable concert night in Paris recently, the last concert of Prine's European tour. Today, a great sadness but what a genius legacy to be remembered by.
I drove out this morning, hood down, glorious sun drenched countryside, milkers grazing under pear trees whitening with blossom, a rural idyll but Samuel Palmer it was not. My radio decided it was an appropriate moment to inform me that the French death toll had topped 4500, so more bubonic than buccolic then. Empty roads and an empty village, you could have been motoring into a fine Sickert townscape until the police road block hove into view and then the picturesque is tainted with the pestilence. Window down, I produce my permission to travel to the masked gendarme and get waved on, the baguette is in the bag so to speak. With my toes on the red tape, I stretch for the cluster of pain traditionnel and my charming boulanger gingerly accepts payment in her gloved hand and delicately rinses my change in fluid charged saucer on the counter, what times are these! Driving back, it's hard to relinquish Palmer, uplifting as he may be, but he is being elbowed over by the likes of Kiefer, not at all what is required!
Put it aside and get back to ploughing your own furrow, and then on your return and resumption you realise the virus has been 'plagueing' your doodles for months!
The virus has brought us isolation, for me, living as I do and where I do it's a fairly natural state of being. I do have family in England, France and the Netherlands with young children and all are coping well with being cooped but I am aware for many families four, five weeks of being cooped is hard work. Small spaces and small children is a big ask. One of the painters who summons up the hardship of small spaces and families is Jack Smith. His concerns were wider, and the work reflects a miriad of social issues, but the images seem so apt particularly if the predicted great recession follows on the heels of this pestilence.
Four artists, Smith, Greaves, Bratby and Middleditch made up a group known as the Beaux Arts Quartet and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1954. They were sourly labelled ' The Kitchen Sink ' painters by David Sylvester but were championed and lauded by the writer and critic John Berger. British social realism passed me by, but given the way the world is turning I think we should get it all out, dust it off and hang it around the walls of Westminster. Smith's painting of the mid sixties however did leave a lasting impression on me, I felt that he was attempting to get a whole new conversation going.
At low moments when inspiration or resolve is called for, we all have people or places we go to for a boost to our flagging spirits. I have several sources to which I connect my jump leads, one of them is the glorious 'Centaure Mourant', the Dying Centaur, Bourdelle's great masterpiece. Bourdelle's work is now thoroughly unfashionable, but beyond fashion he holds an important position in the great story. Bourdelle held the most difficult and precarious position for an artist, he was an artist of transition, formed in the old school but driven to create a new discipline, not by noisy declamation but but by a subtle, intellectual slight of hand. Centaurs get a very mixed press but in Greek mythology they lived wild, unpredictable and unruly lives and Bourdelle has taken the Greek path. In this hugely spiritual work he conjures the end of a Centaur, the end of brutality in the face of civilisation, the triumph of reason over bestiality. This work of optimism was created one hundred years ago and here we are betrayed once more in a world that seems to have the Centaurs in the ascendancy, This picture was taken a few years back when I took my grandson to meet the Centaur, I saw wonderment and innocence but more, I trust I saw hope.
I have been off the hooks lately, absent without leave but am anxious to make muster. Sitting a few days ago in a spartan but bright hospital room I felt in need of distraction. I had been extensively punctured with large needles and passed through the big doughnut and sat dishevelled and bruised awaiting a consultation. The uninviting tired magazines were well past their sale by date but the artwork on the walls was something else. Whoever had chosen the artwork had never sat where I was sitting. The facing wall was hung with a set of Edward Hopper prints. Great images that speak brilliantly about American city life and the urban landscape. They can also exude a sense of world weariness and speak volumes about isolation and loneliness. So, there one sat, mimicking the hunched shoulders of the customer in the late night coffee shop, sitting alone with his thoughts, disengaged from the other customers. Obviously for him too, the end of a long day. I admire Hopper's work, love the drawings but this just didn't seem the time or place, I would have settled for some of Hirst's bland and uninspired spots or butterflies, heaven help me.
So in need of uplift where else to go but the cemetry. I know, but this is rural Catholic France and it's the celebration of All Souls. The villagers turn out, the escaped return briefly to their roots and the flowers are laid, families are remembered, memories stirred, it's heart warming, even uplifting.
This post is a shout out for a new piece of work, a new departure for an old friend Zed Nelson. An internationally acclaimed photographer this is his first motion picture and it opens in London cinemas on the 29th of November. It is a sensitive and sharply focused documentary reflecting the changing world of the inhabitants of Hoxton Street in Hackney. Filmed over several years it reveals the growing divide and culture clash between the capitals working and middle classes, an apposite work for these Brexit days.
Out to supper last week I overheard a fellow English guest, call him Michael, mention the Pangolin foundry, bit of a red rag. My immediate neighbour told me that Michael is a popular sculptor back in Angleterre, I immediately tried to shrink behind my asparagus knowing in my bones this was no longer a good place for me to be. Well I'd got the name and knew some of the work. The inevitable happened and a good way down the claret and approaching the cheese I heard a voice announcing that Michael and I should have a lot in common, I winced but I had been skewered and there was no wriggle room. I replied that there was little point in Michael visiting my work, as I knew his work and there was no chance of any worthwhile dialogue passing between us. Gunfight at the O.K. corral, but a bright young thing stepped in, a fire fight was avoided and the assault on the cheese continued. I have waxed about the Pangolin before and see no point in going down that path again, but they have facilitated the proliferation of a particular type of public sculpture that is entirely vacuous and devoid of any artistic merit whatsoever. I have no problem with figurative sculpture, Rodin's 'Balthus' fills my eye and soul, when Ralph Brown created the 'Meat Porters' for Harlow it was a revelation and when public sculptures were condemned by worthy councillors we always knew we were on the right path. But the way has been lost, the plethora of public sculpture sweeping the land begins no conversations, sets forth no arguments, asks no questions and makes no comment on our humanity. The lifelike, lifeless figurines littering our public places offer a saccharine sweet and sentimental celebration of worthy celebrities who in the main deserve more challenging memorials. Most of these contemporary commissions are barely fit to grace the foyers of Las Vegas casinos. The artisans who create them would better spend their time working for the waxworks.
'As a scrawny youth with a burgeoning interest in art I would make my way to the Municipal Art Gallery in my local town, Walsall. With a passing wink to the town's war hero, Carless VC, I would climb the stairs to the galleries and wander and wonder how this tiny place could be home to the work of so many emminent artists. Modigliani, Van Gogh, Monet, Turner, Degas, Delacroix and many others. The answer to that question was Epstein. The collection was put together by Kathleen Garman and Sally Ryan, 365 works were presented to the good folks of Walsall in 1973. Kathleen Garman was Epstein's widow. Kathleen had been born into a middle class family living in Wednesbury, a few miles from Walsall. She was the third of seven sisters, all renowned for their beauty, intellect, connections and wilful ways. Well Kathleen's collection might have contributed and I subsequently set off on my wayward artistic journey. A decade later I had returned from Gloucester Foundry with a van full of castings to Ralph Brown's studio and during the morning the conversation turned to casting editions. Ralph had known Epstein in his later years and it was intriguing to hear that after Epstein's death Lady Epstein seemed a little vague about the precise edition number of some sculptures that had been produced.The Churchill bust, for example, was cast in an edition of ten but perhaps up to sixteen are thought to exist. Kathleen popping up again.
A short time after this conversation work was slow in the studio and I was 'loaned' out to Laurie Lee for several weeks. Laurie lived in Slad, a valley or two away from Oakridge, and was an intrinsic member of the creative and artistic world focused around Stroud. A little up the road from his delightful Rose Cottage Laurie had bought another property, a very unprepossessing thirties build, devoid of any character. I was drafted in to add character, principally building faux stone alcove shelving. There were some fine evenings in Rose Cottage and entertaining lunches in the pub. Laurie was just about to set out for Spain on a memory refreshing trip for his book about his Spanish adventures in the thirties, 'When I Walked Out Midsummer Morning'. It was during a pub lunch that the name Garman popped up again, he was to visit Toledo where he had once stayed with the poet Roy Cambell and dallied with his wife Mary. Mary Cambell nee Mary Garman. This dalliance was followed two years later, by a more serious affair with Mary's sister Lorna Garman.
This wonderful painting by Lucien Freud is a portrait of 'Kitty Epstein', Freud's wife and the daughter of Kathleen Garman. Freud had previously had an affair with her aunt Lorna Gorman. Mary Garman, not letting the family side down, famously had an affair with Vita Sackville West, what tangled webs. I did not set out to troll the Garman's glamorous and complicated lives, but I would urge you to do it, it's glorious stuff. It was Kathleen Garman that had drifted into my mind and I really just wanted to mention her collection at Walsall, which had been important to me, if only for bringing Gaudier Brzeska into my field of vision.
AGED AND AWKWARD