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.
A little like picking an irritating and ever present scab I decided to remind myself of how bad it can all be by looking again at a selection of late paintings by Howard Hodgin.
Works like these, which do nothing to enhance a painter's reputation always put me in mind of Salvador Dali putting his signature to blank pieces of paper at his dealers behest. However incautious clicking took me to a more rewarding place, instead of finding Howard I discovered his cousin Eliot.
Eliot's immaculate paintings have lost much of their impact for us, images such as these have proliferated on greeting cards, packaging and hundreds of other consumables, what self respecting book shop doesn't have racks of these tasteful and twee cards for the discerning shopper. In the 1930's Eliot was a successful established artist, known for still lives, portraits and landscapes. His immaculate, wonderfully observed and technically superb tempera paintings were essential decor for smart, fashionable middle class homes. One suspects that the cool, handsome and suave artist was also de rigueur in their drawing rooms.
During his successful career he turned down the invitation to become an Academician but exhibited around 113 paintings at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. During World War II he worked for the Ministry of Information producing wonderful paintings of London bomb sites, with particular emphasis on the plants growing through the devastation. They call to mind with their detailed observation some of Freud's early work. The paintings resonate with Noel Cowards famous war time song 'London Pride'.
I find the still lives amazing but ultimately sterile but one is reminded of the subtle placements and arrangements of Morandi and they bring to mind some of the groupings in the small works of Nicholson. The cityscapes I love, hope within the devastation, but then I'm also a sucker for a smart trilby.
I was asked recently by someone who knows my roots if I had any knowledge of the Birmingham Surrealist group. I don't, well I didn't, probably because Surrealist art has consistently left me unmoved, particularly the Belgian variety. I was intrigued however and a little research titillated and also brought forth a gem. As is often the case with me it was the trivial that drew me in. Groups of artists, their circles, wherever they are, have their own special watering holes, places to congregate and chew the fat, the Birmingham Surrealists gathered at the Kardomah Cafe in New Street and the Trocadero pub in Temple Street, and in the sixties Birmingham's artists and art students still thronged to these venues. My groaning and reeling recollections of the decorative tiling of the facilities at the Trocadero do not bear recall.
The Birmingham surrealist painters saw themselves as a group quite distinct from their London counterparts indeed there was some acrimony between them, the Birmingham painters forged their own links to like minded artists in Paris rather than London. I would have to say that looking at their work did little to dispel my indifference, I found it dull, derivative even pastiche. But then I found the gem, Emmy Bridgewater. She was Birmingham born and attended the Birmingham Art College. She was drawn into the Birmingham group but was less confined than her contempories and forged her own links with the London group, she made a great friend of the artist Edith Rimmington and many personal contacts in Paris. She exhibited widely and had her first one man show in 1942. In 1947 she was invited by Andre Breton to exhibit at the Galerie Maeght in Paris, the last major international Surrealist exhition.
She explored 'automatist' techniques, almost blind drawing, the theory being that the subconscious would control the drawing hand, a drawing would emerge to be elaborated upon and 'pulled together' at a later stage. The thrilling drawing above, held at the Birmingham Museum, is one such drawing, tortured and sensuous, similar in many ways to the work of the French Surrealist Andre Masson.
Many were the student nights I would fall through the doors of the Trocadero onto the Birmingham cobbles leaving my compatriots to get on with the serious drinking and debating. One of this group was Kerry Trengrove. He had joined the sculpture department from Falmouth Art School and seemed crafted by his Cornishness. He was charismatic, gregarious, ebullient and a serious quaffer, and I must admit to finding him quite intimidating.
Kerry's high spot came in 1977 when he created the work, 'Passage'. He was imprisoned in a concrete cell under the Acme Gallery and over 10 days with a jackhammer and hand tools he tunnelled his way to freedom under the galleries foundations. His progress and well being were monitored on camera, the event attracted a lot of coverage and was in more ways than one a ground breaking event. There are many 'time based' works but I know of no other 'escape' piece, it was bold and outrageous, a work that defined a man.
A short while ago one of my grandsons had to undergo major surgery and being on the other side of the English channel it was difficult to know how I could be really supportive. Well the young chap is fond of his history, especially military history and as a consequence he is a keen fan of the historian and broadcaster Dan Snow, I decided what was needed was a little Dan Snow to bolster his spirits. On the second disturbed and sleepless night I devoted some time to trying to contact Dan Snow. Three o'clock in the morning and several glasses of claret does not make for clear headed thinking. The following day I received a polite and thoughtful email from Dan Snow, wishing my grandson all success with his operation and a speedy recovery. The email came from Vermont where the American sculptor Dan Snow lives and works. An interesting but in the circumstance a disappointing result, I did however spend an enjoyable hour exploring Dan Snow's catalogue of work. A little lateral thinking took me to a fellow sculpture student of mine at Birmingham Art College who has spent his most of his creative career in America.
Billy Lee has had a hugely successful international career and at Birmingham I recall he was an outstanding student. What left an abiding impression on me was his immaculacy. In a capacious sculpture studio with half a dozen students working in a variety of media, some trailing fibre glass in their wake, others splattered and dripping plaster of paris, Billy would shine out, untouched by the detritus, unsplattered and unruffled. His work, highly innovative, stood apart for exactly the same reason, it has remained so, cool, sharp and refined, the trails are there, Chillida, Hepworth, Lipchitz, Brancusi but it's good company to be in.
Dan Snow the historian was eventually found and came up trumps, a moral boosting phone message and goodies to follow, a compassionate cool dude, brilliant stuff.
April 15, what an horrific heart stopping night. In 1996 Paris was a delicious wonderment to me, my daughter was living on the Quai des Grands Augustins, Notre Dame was the view from the apartment windows, a stones throw. Solitary early morning walks around the Ile de la Cite, before the bustle, were a joy. Pleasure made treasure when I discovered that tucked away amongst the grand bourgeois town houses was the studio of Camille Claudel. She had lived at 19 Quai de Bourbon. If you had been fortunate enough to be tutored by marble chipping, bronze casting wax fiddlers then Rodin would have been part of your staple diet, and in the great shadow cast by the master you might have caught sight of the precocious and precious talent of Camille Claudel.
Camille was Rodin's pupil, assistant, lover and ultimately artistic rival. Rodin loved her then scorned and abandoned her. She was also abandoned by her family after her father's death and committed to an asylum by her brother, where she spent the last thirty years of her life, despite efforts by many to get her released. Her life reads like a beach holiday novel but her work was sublime, it offers a tenderness and insight that Rodin's work seldom exhibited. She is now considered France's foremost female sculptor
So watching the tragedy of the great Cathedral burning on France 24 took me back to those few days, two decades ago, when I daily stalked the ghost of Camille on the Quai de Bourbon, happier Paris times.
I recently caught a programme on the painter Sean Scully. I was greatly taken with his work back in the eighties but had lost sight of him, not difficult as he has been cruising the stratosphere. The paintings were vibrant and exciting and above all painterly when paint was losing it's flavour. Spectacular to watch him paint, aggression and intellect in harmony, and wonderful to see an artist of his stature working without an army of assistants to prop him up. What drove the programme, you couldn't afford to blink, was witnessing the enormity of Scully's ego. He has stormed through the art world, Europe and America like an unstoppable cyclops, bursting with vigour, energy, anger and the unblinking rightness of his mission to conquer the world with his brand of abstract painting. Also fascinating was the frank insight into the wheeler dealer head an artist needs to become a superstar. Bald statements like " I want to be as famous as Matisse" set the entire tone, not you will note " I want to paint as well as Matisse". Great stuff, catch it if you can, absolutely nauseating but utterly splendid.
AGED AND AWKWARD