Watts the Name of the Gallery

The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd (Watts Gallery, 16 June-1 November 2015)

I wonder when we first associated art with madness? Perhaps the cave painters were seen as magical because of perceived links between bison and lunch. Certainly by the time of the Greeks we get all the stuff about muses and possession. We are fascinated by Blake and his angels and Syd Barrett and his madcap laughs and Spike Milligan and his depressions.

In the early to mid-nineteenth century we have mad poet John Clare and mad painter Richard Dadd.

Dadd was born 1817 in Chatham to a father who was clearly an intellectual mover and shaker, involved with the local philosophical and literary society. But they moved to London, specifically to Sussex Street, just around the corner from the Royal Academy of Arts (pre Somerset House days and pre-Burlington House presumably), and little Richard began to train as an artist. His reputation seems to have been made by a painting of Puck, a large child-like figure sat in the centre of a round picture in front of a crescent moon, with smaller fairies dancing around him.

He was commissioned in 1842 to travel with former Newport mayor and barrister Sir Thomas Phillips (1801–1867) on a grand tour, painting his way in Greece and Egypt and the Holy Land. There is a stunning picture of a campfire in the desert, a stripy blue sky, and, most curiously, the moon pierced on the top of a lance, although this is thought to have painting after his return. The painting, The Artist’s Halt in the Desert (c. 1846), disappeared into private hands, only to be rediscovered on The Antiques Road Show in the 1980s.

By then, Dadd’s mental health was already deteriorating — perhaps due to the heat, perhaps due to the exoticism, perhaps due to an existing condition. He was sent home. Back in England, whilst on a walk, he murdered his father and escaped to the continent. He might have escaped, but on the train he tried to kill two of his fellow passengers. He was overpowered and arrested and sent to prison in France for a year. In time he was deported to England, where he was put on trial but was declared criminally insane. For two decades he was incarcerated in Bethlem, then on the site of what was to become the Imperial War Museum, before being moved to the newly built Broadmoor where he died and was buried in 1886. As Nicholas Tromans points out, his period in the asylum coincides with the Foucauldian epistemological break of the regulation of mental health by doctors, and the growth of case records.

Whilst in the asylum, he was allowed to paint with greater or lesser freedom and resources, with one of his physicians, Charles Hood, becoming a collector of his work. This was partly therapy, partly because Hood was a connoisseur. There is a picture, Portrait of a Young Man, which is thought to be a portrait of Hood in an imagined leisure garden at the asylum; on the other hand there is a satiric piece The Curiosity Shop, which features a “connoisseur” looking at a picture through binoculars. Was Dadd playing games with Hood? Meanwhile he produced a series, Sketches to Illustrate the Passions — hatred, agony/raving madness, Ingratiation or self-contempt, deceit or duplicity, anger, grief or sorrow and patriotism — that seem to be a diagnostic set of mental conditions. The latter features two elderly military types, smoking pipes, in front of a map “A General Plan of the City of Olabolika” and a plan in incredibly tiny print.

All of these pictures are on display in this Watts Gallery exhibition, but that is to get ahead of ourselves.
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Pot Look

Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk (Turner Contemporary, 23 May 2015-13 September 2015)

Grayson Perry has his USP: the crossdressing, his alterego of Claire. This has speeded him on to National Treasure status, alongside his Turner Prize, Channel 4 documentaries and Reith Lectures. As always the avant garde and the rebellious is absorbed into the mainstream.

The Anthea Turner show acts as a retrospective and was heaving both times I went. I hope this is an appreciation of his work rather than a Dreamland ride of aghastness. You are repeatedly warned that some items on display are not suitable for children. They’re certain not suitable if you aren’t open to irony.

Because irony was the mode I was operating in. In a vitrined at the halfway point of the exhibition is a leather one piece motorcycle suit, with customised wording. It’s Thom Gunn drag, the hypermasculine, but from Essex rather than Kent. Does he love or hate Essex? Mockney Essex Boy Jamie Oliver is invoked at at later point. Pukka. Does he love or hate working class culture? Does he love or hate middle class culture? Does he love or hate arts and crafts? Does he love or hate the art world?

The first room is a series of pots — for the exegesis you have to consult pink handouts with the titles and descriptors of each pot, although the numbering is at random. I Love Beauty is one of the simpler ones — muted palette, a St Eustache-style deer vision, a Union Falg in monochrome, a woman (Claire?) holding sceptre and bird. Football Stands for Everything I Hate echoes the Eurocup, but with a list of pet hates: shouting; special brew; chewing gum; duvet covers and so on.

The second room was the hest to my taste — although here is where we get the most exegesis as to his background. More pots, tiles for a house, archive matials and a series of engravings: A Map of Days; Map of an Englishman and Print for a Politician. The latter is an imaginary landscape of a battleground, labelled with special interest grouos such as atheists, broadsheets, teenagers, gifted, fitness fanatics, Modernists, republicans, countryfolks, non-smokers. Which side are you on? It is encyclopedic without being completist, whimsical in its arbitrariness. Which side is Perry on? A similar aesthetic is at work in the other two etchings — qualities, moods and so on.

The third space, with the motorcycle suit, has two films, the less said about the better (there is also one in the second room), but then I’ve a low tolerance for filmed art. I’m sure he and his friends had fun, but we’re at a disadvantage in coming in oartway into 47 minutes and note really being able to hear the sound. My loss, perhaps.

The final room has three of his tapestries, handdrawn onto PhotoShop and then made on a computer controlled loom. Whilst in Tracey Emin’s tapestries shown here a few years ago, the labour of socres of women in producing them was silenced, here the labour is erased in favour of mechanisation. Again the mood is encyclopedic collage — the first piece is Comfort Blanket, A British Citizen at its heart, a stylised queen to the right, a monotone union flag to the left and a list of people and things that offer comfort. Margot Fonteyn, Beatrix Potter, Francis Bacon, David Bowie, Agatha Christie, Jamie Oliver… Is confort good or bad? The Walthamstow Tapestry, from where London bleeds into Essex or vice versa (and wasn’t William Morris from around those parts?), is a tapestry of the seven ages of man, not so much a rake’s progress as a trademark’s progress. Finally there is a work on heaven and pilgrimage, whose name I failed to note, made for his British Museum Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman exhibition: a series of names for heaven surrounded by places of pilgrimage and stylised drawings that need not match the placename.

It is problematic to gender art modes, but there is a tradition of tapestry and embroidery being the work of women. Is the same true of pottery? As crafts they might get conceived of as lesser than the other arts — and then we bounce off that Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and Virginia Woolf’s assertion that “Anon[…] was often a woman.” Does “Claire” give Grayson access to such folk arts (although let’s note the various sailors’ embroiderings shown at the Tate’s Folk Art exhibition)? On the other hand, just as sf is not a male genre, so pottery should not be a female one. But something makes me twitchy.

I came away feeling a little underwhelmed; it reminds me of some versions of the dérive, where people walk according to some algorithm except when they’re not. There’s clearly a sexualised unconscious being revealed/concealed among the bricolage, and that’s a fair enough schtick. A thing of beauty is a joy til morning, as someone once said and beauty is in the eye of the potmaker. Beauty is a measure of capital and class, among other things.

Meanwhile, it needs to be noted (and applauded) that the Anthea Turner will always display contemporary art alongside JMS Turner. Sometimes an artist will curate alingside her retrospective, sometimes paintings on the theme of the main exhibition will be shown. Here it is noted that Perry uses technology in the making of his work — and Turner was also an explorer of the latest technique. I see straws being clutched at…

Sickert to ’em (Down, Down, Diepper and Down)

Sickert in Dieppe (Pallant House, Chichester, 4 July—4 October 2015)

So, in my head, I get him mixed up with James Whistler. Or possibly John Singer Sargent. He’s the one that Stephen Knight and Patricia Cornwell reckon to be Jack the Ripper. Whatever. So, he’s born in Munich in 1860, son and grandson of an artist, who initially wanted to be an actor in London, but became a pupil of Whistler (ha!). In 1883 he went to Paris and met Edgar Degas – whose paintings and sculptures include dancers – and learned from him about impressionism. Oddly, he seems to have learned to avoid all the en pleine air nonsense and was advised to make drawings and work in a studio. Splendid. Back in London, he started making pictures of music halls. Splendid. Later he was to become part of the Camden Town group.

He was described as flamboyant and bohemian — and the portraits and photos endorse this. He’d later hang out with Audrey Beardsley and give him a painting lesson. And so it is somewhat of a surprise to me that he first came to Dieppe on his honeymoon with Ellen Cobden (daughter of the anti-Corn Law guy) in 1885. Dieppe was a fashionable seaside resort, increasingly popular with the Bohemian fraternity, and initially Sickert produced seascapes, on small oak panels, before focusing more on architecture. Whilst apparently he had been more interested in portraiture in Britain, now he moved to landscapes. Having spent a number of “seasons” in Dieppe (alongside a trip to Venice), he settled there as his marriage disintegrated and before his divorce was finalised. He found a mistress, Augustine Villain, and lived in the harbour area for a period. In 1912 he bought a house in the Dieppe countryside, with his second wife Christine Angus, but was forced back into town by the outbreak of war. Having returned to England, it was not until 1919 that he got back to Dieppe, but within a couple of years Christine died of tuberculosis. Degas worked once more on the seafront also sketched then painted people at the casino. There were also a series of dark pictures of figures in bedrooms – probably alluding to the Camden Town murder.

The paintings are mostly street scenes – the Hôtel Royal, the Rue Notre Dame, the church of St. Jacques and the statue of Admiral Duquesne – and the tone is overall rather brown and muddy. Wendy Baron writes: “His main harmony was generally based on hardly more than two colours corresponding to the dark and midtones, with the addition of creamy buff for the lights [… h]e often used blue-black with brown or mauve.” (69). Four commissioned landscapes intended for a restaurant – but rejected by the owner – seem to distill this and you face one of these as you enter the exhibition. There is clearly the essence of Impressionism here, with wet paint applied on wet paint in layers, but you get the sense that it is planned to appear improvised. There are various squared drawings and canvases that show the careful recording of buildings, which then can be painted back in any of his several studios.

I’m pleased I saw this exhibition – on a day I’d anticipated that I’d actually be in Brighton and after a journey from hell – but I can’t say I warmed to him. He was described as “the Canaletto of Dieppe” – and of course his time there included him working on canvases imagined in Venice. There is a sense of the mysterious to some of the pictures, and the moral commentary that may be in the late casino paintings. There’s a room of painters influenced by Sickert that’s also worth a look – and elsewhere a fascinating if largely black and white collection “St. Ives and British Modernism”, the George and Ann Dannatt Collection.

I can’t help but share a (paraphrased) comment from George Dannatt: “The objection to this art is often that ‘My child can do it’. So give it to a child. The answer is often silence.”

Bibliography

  • Wendy Baron, Sickert (London: Phaidon Press, 1973).

My Darling Caro

Caro in Yorkshire (Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 18 July-1 November 2015)
Caro in Yorkshire (The Hepworth Wakefield, 18 July-1 November 2015)


As far as I can see, twentieth-century British sculpture was dominated by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore and, whilst you would be unlikely to mistake the two, there is a sense of continuity. Both are very organic in form and were committed to sculpture in public spaces. Whilst both did work in bronze and other metals, there is a background in manual carving in wood, marble and so on. The aura of the handcrafted. Bronze, on the other hand, usually requires a foundry and experts in metal.

Since the late 1960s there has been the more conceptual — walk as sculpture, glass of water on shelf as sculpture (of a tree).

Before this, however, there was Anthony Caro (1924-2013), a generation younger than Moore — and one of his studio assistants. Caro’s early works would involve a hands on roach — lumpy bronzes, a twisted human form and drawings or painting that seem to me reminiscent of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. But a trip to the USA in 1959 sent him down a more industrial route — large pieces of metal welded together. Whilst he was to play with bronzed surfaces — rusted, waxed and so forth — the break through works were painted in a limited range of colours.

Caro’s work in sculpture brings together painting and architecture, pushing the boundaries. Being metal, being forged, they are clearly solid and heavy, but at the same time they are often suspended or balanced, seemingly lightweight. “They’ve got an inside but they’ve got no centre,” he said of them. His Table Pieces are often suspended on the edge of tables or shelves, and presumably have a very carefully placed centre of gravity.

What he is also credited with is the disappearance of the plinth. I have a few thoughts about this to follow up, but once a huge lump of metal is placed upon the ground, the frame between world and art is wafer thin. From this comes the possibility of the texture in the grass or a pile of aggregates. Some of the work looks like a climbing frame or an adventure playground — if the Hepworth and Moore sculptures demand to be felt, than these demand to be climbed. In some cases, the sculptures offer a kind of Wendy house, but mostly there are attendants to stop you.

Across one hillside at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park there are a range of different bronzes — curves and planes, verticals and horizontals, holes and towers. Across the other side of the site are the early works, preparatory drawings (and you can see he draws figures like Moore), as well as works from across nearly fifty years. Alongside steel and bronze there is also the use of Perspex — apparently glass turned out to be unwieldy. He also sculpted in paper and plaster imitations of paper. Meanwhile the works at the Hepworth cover the period from the 1960s to his death.


I didn’t take a note of the architect, but for a period he tried to codesign a tower; unable to find the funding or whatever, he appropriated the shape as sculpture but turned it upside down. At this point I was reminded of the work of Eduardo Paolozzi, and the mosaic of machinery he explored.

I liked these works more than I expected to — there is an aesthetic to them that is pleasing as they balance the solid and the ethereal. There is space and nonspace. And whilst this may end up disappearing the artist, there’s an infection of the real world as art — the scaffolding becomes installation (indeed, Cedric Christie and others have made sculpture from scaffold poles).

All photos here

Hep Hep Hooray (Part Two to Follow)

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World (Tate Britain 24 June-25 October 2015)

Hepworth plaqueI really like Barbara Hepworth’s work. It has a kind of tactility to it, a sensuousness — it cries out to be touched and caressed. I’ve been up to Wakefield and looked at the plasters and maquettes and the blue plaques, and down to St Ives to see the studio and at some point saw the hospital drawings.

So I was looking forward to this Tate overview, in the same space where they showed Henry Moore.

I’m going to do two write ups, because I want to do it justice. But this time round, I’m going to be critical whilst thinking you should really go.

Major galleries still rarely do one women shows (although note Tate Modern this spring and summer).

There’s always a danger when providing context that this takes away rather than enriches your appreciation of the materials. In the first room, there are lots of hand carved sculpture, not all by Hepworth. We’re told that one of her strengths was direct carving — inspired in this by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill, but also by the fact that the was apparently a whole lot more of this than we realised. Everyone was up to it. One missing name was Leon Underwood, whom I might well come back to, who was a tutor to Henry Moore. Was she that special?

Before she married Moore, she married Ben Nicholson and before that John Skeaping — another direct carver — and there is a room of works by Nicholson responding to hers and vice versa. I like Nicholson’s work, but, again, I’m a little worried it takes away from her. I suspect not, but.

Hepworth SculptureIn a later room there’s a documentary, Figures in a Landscape (Dudley Shaw Ashton, 1953), with Cecil Day-Lewis reading bad poetry over footage of the Cornish coast, telling us about how history and then Man has sculpted the landscape — you know that “invisible” sexism that defaults to and his? You want to scream, YOU KNOW HEPWORTH IS A WOMAN, YES? Eventually her sculptures start appearing in the landscape, and for a more you assume the apes will start worshiping them and a certain theme will appear on the soundtrack. Or you assume it’s the inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s Presence.

At the end of the show, there’s a recreation of the Rietveld Pavilion from a Dutch sculpture garden, with sculpture finally naked — up to then, more or less, everything is in vitrines. I know that hands can leave marks and grease and patina — but I don’t recall Moore’s being so glassed off. Were there ropes? It’s great to get a full 360 view of them, but it makes the exhibition a maze (where have they hidden the label this time?) and its frustration because you just wanna touch. And at the end it’s not clear if you can.

Hepworth died in 1975.

The pavilion was 1965.

Did she not sculpt for a decade? Was the later work earlier? Or was it all large scale stuff like the UN piece or the John Lewis’s one?

It just stops.

Did I miss a chronology of the artist? Okay, the exhibition guide tells you she died in a fire, but it still feel a little off-key.

The really sad thing is there is fantastic stuff here, but I’m not sure justice is done to it. I will go back, I suspect in late August now, having read the catalogue, and say more.