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.
Life at the end of my lane, my pastoral patch with it's meadow grazing milkers grows less tranquil by the day. The growing clamour beyond the orchards and pastures is now difficult to ignore. The boil that is Brexit is reaching it's lancing head. " How can a poor man stand such times and live". They are gathered on the distant horizon, Farage and his Falangists, Johnson's Jingoists and Rees Mogg and his Mosleyites, all intent on creating a freebooting, carpetbagging Brexit, poor Britain, desperate and sinking and where to look for an image to conjure the moment. It takes an overwrought johnny foreigner to provide that perfect, all encapsulating vision.
'The Raft of the Medusa', the young Gericault's masterpiece, painted in 1818 a hundred years before the present calamity it so perfectly mirrors. It depicts an historic disaster, 147 survivors of a terrible sinking, adrift and clinging to a hurriedly constructed raft. Fifteen were rescued, the remainder perished. A great disaster and a national scandal ensued when the blame was attributed to the poor captaincy of the sunk vessel. Ring any bells! This French masterpiece won't cause the Brexiteers to blink, you won't find a print of this hanging on the walls of Johnson Villas. Closer to home of course you could reference the work of a truly British genius, Turner. His greatest work 'The Fighting Temeraire', a celebrated gunship that had fought at Trafalgar is being towed away to the breakers by an ugly little tug boat. One suspects that the consuming poignancy of this great image would not penetrate the rhino hide of the bigoted right.
I would go to an old friend for my prophetic viewing, James Pryde. The Scottish artist conjures perfectly for me the depressed, troubled and gloomy Brexit Britain steeped in it's dilemma's and moral decay. Pryde is often dismissed as a 'one trick painter' but it's a classy trick. His fantastic interiors and cityscapes are filled with uncertainty, tiny figures dwarfed in ominous murky interiors or diminished by towering buildings in varying states of disrepair and collapse. The conjured landscapes are not ones where optimism thrives, paintings for our times I would suggest.
I find myself so often disappointed when coming across a new artist and their work when a little research quickly reveals them to be what is best described as a 'one trick pony'. The work of committed and talented artists reaches a maturity, a level of intellectual insight and profundity that stirs, challenges and inspires, and it rewards more with each visit. This has always been my belief, but I find myself of late challenging the rigorous personal standards I have always adhered to. I have begun to suspect that much can be forgiven if the trick is a really good one. So, abandoning decades of dogged adherence in the winter years, hopefully not, I tell myself it's merely re-calibration. If a trick is truly a good one then there is a desire to see it again and it should sustain all the magic of it's first outing.
I remember when this went up and how I was affected by it, brilliant work, Rachel Whiteread. It was always destined to be a temporary work and was demolished a few months after it's completion. You really would have thought someone would have had the sense to recognise this was a work of international importance, but perhaps it's disappearance has enhanced it's iconic status, it did however launch Rachel Whiteread's career and deservedly won her a Turner prize. When you consider how the slick infantile work of Banksy is scraped off walls to be treasured and lauded well it beggars belief that the House was lost. But then your bubble could be burst, because just when you think you missed the bus along come a dozen more, and you do wonder, is this one of those tricks that is diminished by repetition, I suppose we could pose that question to many, Mr Gormley for one, but I'm not going there.
I suppose if you only want to see a trick once, you shouldn't hang around magicians.
I made several mistakes on the Haarlem trip but the decision to visit theTeylers Museum was not one of them. The Teylers is running through the winter an exhibition of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. It's a fascinating and informative show, it has to be said that it looks like the English royal family might have scooped up the best of the drawings over the ages, you could certainly drop a couple of these and keep Meghan in frocks for at least one season. The chalk drawings from Windsor are incredible, technically superb and the scale of many of the works comes as real surprise, hatching with a microscope. One of the highspots for me is the inclusion of two drawings by Michaelangelo, they are the first 'live' drawings of his that I have ever seen and the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention, so exciting, beyond brilliant.
As good as the show was, the real joy was the museum, it is everything an old curmudgeon would wish a museum to be. There are acres of cabinets and endless vitrines stuffed with wonder, mammoth skulls, fossils galore, coins and medals, fine paintings and scientific stuff to make your head spin, it's brilliant. Press your nose to the glass and wonder.
'An hours run from Haarlem to the Fundatie Collection in Zwolle. An old attractive and unspoilt town and it's museum has been transformed with an ingenious and intriguing architectural intervention and the current exhibition sounded intriguing and ingenious,
"Giacometti- Chadwick, Facing Fear". Chadwick and Giacometti crossed paths in 1956 when Chadwick won the 'Grand Prix for Sculpture' at the Venice Biennale. Giacometti much the senior of the two and with a considerable reputation in Europe had been considered the favourite for the prize.
At the 1952 Biennale, along with Moore, a clutch of young British sculptors, Armitage, Chadwick, Clarke, Turnbull, Meadows, Butler and Paolozzi also exhibited, they were all rceived with critical acclaim with Chadwick drawing most of the plaudits. Reg Butler's piece however, a maquette for the Unknown Political Prisoner Monument, created controversy and was vandalised by an Hungarian artist who had been a prisoner of war. Chadwick's subsequent return to the Biennale in 1956 was a triumph and made his reputation, he became Britain's pre-eminent sculptor.
And so to the intriguing and ingenious exhibition which I'm afraid was neither. The gallery is large, on several floors, and the large and spacious top gallery with it's scattering of sculpture had the feeling of a clearance sale. The more intimate galleries were a greater success, this in part to the fact that they held the more interesting and fascinating work. A wonderful Giacometti from 1926, Man and woman, and the best of Chadwick's bronzes from the late fifties. The Giacometti Woman of Venice still radiates her charm but the row of standing figures brought to mind a sale of Cotswold boot scrapers. The later stainless steel Chadwick's are truly disappointing, parodies of the work that brought him to eminence and do little for his legacy but would grace the forecourt of any Japanese car plant. So turn your back and concentrate on the brilliant work of the fifties and early sixties, work of great originality that deserves a place in the pantheon, work that stirred the pot of European art.
Sunday to Paris, the evening at the Olympia for Ry Cooder. Monday morning the Thalys for Schiphol and then a hop and jump to Haarlem. Ry Cooder cannot disappoint, he has nothing to prove having reached legend status. The rarity of his appearances brings out the devoted and packs the house, the musicians in the crowd all giving it large. Cooder belongs to the golden age when the guitar was king and great music relied on great instrumentalists. Cooder's playing is peerless and his signature bottleneck brings whoops from the crowd. This concert showcases Cooder's first album release for six years,'The Prodigal Son', it's a mix of standards, spiritual and roots blues. He takes centre stage, circled by his many, some legendary, instruments all of which get played. His voice, live, is impressive and there are several stomping showstoppers that Cooder drives along,'Jesus is on the main line' and 'Everybody ought to treat a stranger right' are stand out numbers. The Cooder crankiness comes through and standards such as 'How can a poor man stand such times and live', highlight the humanity and political anger for which he is renowned. It's a great show, a legendary and very relevant musician meditating on mortality and spirituality in a changing landscape.
AGED AND AWKWARD