The Maggi Hambling sculpture celebrating the life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft is truly problematic. I celebrate the decision to go with a challenging, thought provoking piece of work, the alternative it appears would have been another bland, safe wax work from the likes of Martin Jennings. So in theory, the choice of an artist capable of producing a meaningful contemporary monument was a brave one. So it's a plus, well no, unfortunately this is simply a really bad piece of sculpture, truly a third rate effort. I fear the response to this work will feed into the mannequin minded and challenging works are going to find it harder to get a place on the plaza! There you go, I have just had a notification that a crowd fund raiser is being organised to raise 150.00 pounds for a Jennings jobbie to be erected on another site, well begger the bourgeois, this is another bad week for public art.
Grayson Perry made the news last week, well intentioned thoughts that produced instant uproar in some quarters of the art world. If you are a national treasure your perusals will always attract attention, and frankly Grayson has a glorious reputation for courting controversy. In an interview Grayson stated " I think every part of life has probably got a bit of fat that needs trimming, a bit of dead wood.......It's awful that the cultural sector has been decimated but I think some things needed to go....... Too often, the audience for culture is just the people making it.......exhibitions put on to impress other curators..." Well I certainly know where Grayson is coming from, and some sympathy with the views expressed, it just seems a little crass to hitch your views about the contemporary artworld to the coronavirus wagon. The pandemic mainly wipes out the poor, those at the bottom the ladder, the well heeled are holed up safely in their country retreats or ivory towers. The dead wood that needs a prune isn't on the shady lower branches of the tree but on the well established growth at the top, basking, bankrolled, in the sunshine. Grayson has since attempted to clarify his thoughts but they're out there now, it's not easy being a treasure.
I have been unmoved by the alter ego, the punditry, the television shows, the panel game appearances but I am going to be ever thankful for the pottery. After fifty years of ash glazes, raku firings, beards and denim clad hand throwers, Grayson grabbed the world of pottery by the throat and took it to new place. Pots could be beautiful again, glazes vibrant, decoration intricate and detailed, and even more it could transmit ideas, make social comment and still get gilded, fantastic. Grayson took pottery from a sad, gloopy boring place and has produced art of great relevance, that's the real treasure.
William Orpen found his way into conversation this week, I am not in the business of sketching out biographies but I would suggest you look at the work of this wonderful painter. I first became aware of him through the portrait he produced of Augustus John, a compositional tour de force, brilliant in every regard. Orpen and John were fellow students at the Slade and became constant companions, the painting hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Orpen excelled at the Slade, Steer, Tonks and Brown acclaimed him as a prodigy. He produced drawings of extraordinary brilliance, his observation and mastery with paint were second to none. At the end of his time at the Slade he was considered 'the only show in town'. In his lifetime he became incredibly wealthy, materially one of the most successful painters to have ever worked in England. Much of his career was devoted to portraiture, he painted Princes, politicians, the great, the beautiful and the wealthy. At the height of his success Rolls Royces' queued outside his grand studio in South Bolton Gardens, sitters awaiting their appointments.
,Rothenstein however maintained that John was a more considerable artist than Orpen who now sits somewhat neglected on the periphery of artistic achievement. Rothenstein felt that despite all his gifts Orpen lacked the all important intellectual rigour and curiousity essential for greatness. Rothenstein's comments, which have marred Orpen's legacy, are in the context of the times, quite understandable. In an art world full of new ideas and experimentation Orpen failed to take on the new questions being posed by his contempories. Nevinson, the great exponent of Vorticism, called him 'the last great Victorian painter'. But Orpen knew where his strengths lay and within his personal parameters he created an unrivalled body of art.
Orpen made many self portraits, and I think they are amongst his most fascinating work. Dressed in a variety of guises, often painting the same profile, he never flatters and gives us an insightful glimpse into his character. In the story of English portraiture he is a master class. Knighted and feted in his time he is now sadly neglected, but remains an artist worthy of scrutiny and admiration, check him out.
The decision to postpone the Guston exhibitions is scandalous, this is the moment when the work of Philippe Guston is more relevant than ever. Robert Storr writes, " It's cowardice, it's saying that art cannot speak for itself, that the audience cannot engage with art on complex levels. It is a profoundly patronising move by the cultural establishment to protect itself from criticism " If any art can tell us that Black Lives Matter then it's the art of Phillipe Guston. Shame on the Tate!
Stephen Gilbert is one of the few British artists who can be truly described as a Continental artist, hugely talented, and for me there is something quite heroic about his lifetime dedication to his art. Born in Scotland, the grandson of the Edwardian sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert he studied painting at the Slade from 1929 to 1932 and then to Paris. In Paris he was reunited with the sculptor Jocelyn Chewett who he had met at the Slade School, they married in 1935. At the outbreak of war Stephen was declared unfit for military service and the couple spent the war years in Ireland. Painting in Ireland he worked and exhibited in Dublin in 1944 with the White Stag Group.
In 1946 Stehen and Jocelyn returned to a very frugal life in post war Paris. They set up studios together in Montparnasse, studios Stephen would work in for the rest of his life. Showing at the Salon des Surindependants in 1948 his work came to the attention of the Danish painter Asger Jorn who invited him to join the newly formed radical art group Cobra. He was a central figure in the group, working in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Paris. The English painter Willam Gear was also associated with Cobra in Paris.
Through Cobra he formed a friendship with the Dutch artist Constant and they worked together on architectural projects, Stephen's interest in working in three dimensions became manifest and his attentions turned to sculpture. Working mainly with sheets of aluminium he created spatial sculptures with gleaming and reflective surfaces. He became associated and exhibited with the British Constructivist Group. In 1954 he won the First Prize for sculpture at the Tokyo Biennale
In the 1970's Stephen began working on welded sculpture and after the death of Jocelyn in 1979 he produced what was to be his last series of sculptures, groups of tall sombre copper pillars. In the 1980's he returned to painting, loose and bold abstract work that was perhaps redolent of his Irish painting.
This picture is of Stephen, taking a glass in the sunshine with two of my daughters at his atelier in Monparnasse. A modest and self effacing man he had been involved in major art movements in the Netherlands, France, Ireland and England, never seeking the limelight just dedicated to his art. His work is held in many of the worlds leading museums and collections, but despite the acclaim of fellow critics and fellow artists he never sought the spotlight. Early days in Paris for Jocelyn and Stephen had been frugal and his life continued to be lived in a simple fashion, a small rent controlled apartment and modest studios and workshop. It was a life lived for art, Stephen died in 2007.
I had intended to do a small piece about Stephen Gilbert but I have put that on hold to share my enthusiasm and admiration for his wife, Jocelyn Chewett. Born in Canada but moved to England in 1913, she entered the Slade in 1924 where she studied sculpture. To Paris in 1931 where she worked for two years in Zadkine's atelier. With Zadkine she developed her carving skills, 'taille directe', the chisels she bought with Zadkine she used all her life. In 1933 she married Stephen Gilbert, a painter she had met at the Slade. To Ireland during the war where they were associated with The White Stag Group and returning to Paris in 1946 where they established and shared studios in Montparnasse. remaining for the rest of their lives.
Jocelyn had walked away from the opportunity to work in Brancusi's atelier in preference for Zadkine's but her work was always infused with Brancusi's sculptural propositions. Her contemplative work deals with the subtle displacement of form and volume often combined with a clever juxtaposition of materials. It is an unfortunate fact that many talented female artists in creative partnerships become adjuncts to their partners, their talents shaded, to an extent this happened to Jocelyn but she continued with her lifelong practice and exhibited her work, building a modest reputation amongst the cognoscenti, the Sainsbury Centre have an impressive collection of her work.
This is shout out for an old friend Lachlan Goudie. A much admired painter and broadcaster Lachlan's book on Scottish Art is to be published this month, great reviews from Simon Scharma, Andrew Marr and Bendor Grosvenor thinks it will become the definitive guide to Scottish art. There is an on line interview with Kirsty Walk to kickstart the launch, catch it if you can, Wednesday 9th September at 6.30. No end to this man's talent.
This brilliant piece of painting is by a long time friend, Paul Hempton, 'Across a Ravine' was painted in the early 80's and resides in the Wolverhampton Art Gallery.
I have known Paul for fifty years, since his Royal College days. Distant memory of him disappearing through London traffic with his guitar on the way to a band practice. Then a good night in a Yates Wine Lodge in Nottingham, where he had a Fellowship, a string quartet playing on the mezzanine. Later it was the Cotswolds, they had moved to Minchinhampton, I was still working for Ralph Brown and living in Hoskin's studio in Siddington. Then Porlock, Paul had bought a camper van to enable painting expeditions, children had arrived for both of us and life moved on. Paul took a lecturing post in Painting at Wolverhampton Art College.
Paul's painting attracted attention, works travelling to shows at home and abroad, and his prints received acclaim, the British Council acquired works, the Victoria and Albert assisted museums with purchases, a trajectory was developing . I have a great watercolour from a show in Nottingham and a later, larger etching, 'Stone, Staff and Ellipse' from 1986. These works give great pleasure but I also have a great collection of Paul's woodcuts, every year for as long as I can remember we have received as a Christmas greeting a fine small woodcut, whose arrival is always much anticipated and appreciated. I have lost sight of Paul's painting and I have a suspicion he has laid down his brushes.
We had a pre covid catch up day in Gloucestershire last summer and I entirely lacked the bottle to inquire about the painting, however we had a conversation that perhaps cast, with hindsight, a little insight. Paul has enjoyed, enjoys, fiddling with and fixing their motor vehicles. I failed to comprehend the pleasure that was derived and Paul explained that with mechanical problems there was usually a right way to proceed, a logical solution to be found and an odds on successful outcome, with painting there was always compromise and rarely an absolute, he could be right but I never perceived his work to be unresolved, I felt he always hit the mark, producing some remarkable work.
This is a postscript to the above piece, for I have posed the question and my assumptions were entirely wrong, the paint brushes have not been laid down, life continues thank goodness. I would love to publish Paul's response but it would be a be a step too far, however I am truly happy to say that the acerbic wit and withering observations unleashed are an absolute joy.
AGED AND AWKWARD