Tuesday, 25 November 2014


 I imagine most art historians will enjoy Mike Leigh’s film for its glowing cinematographic re-creation of Turner’s world in the 1830s and 40s – albeit somewhat sanitised by the warm light of early nineteenth century watercolour land- and town-scapes, but visually familiar and beguiling.  As far as one can judge, it’s also a fair portrayal of JMWT in all his uncouth glory, mixed with high-falutin turns of phrase, cultural tastes and obsessional sketching.  

Much of the movie-going pleasure is in the meticulous detail, anachronisms of dress, conduct, language so often ruining historical dramas in the eyes of historians.   A small lost opportunity, given the incidental but highly relevant references to the slave trade, is the absence of any Black  citizens in the streets and maritime locations, at a time when many were working as sailors and servants.  7There will doubtless be other nit-picking corrections and complaints, but they are rather irrelevant given the high quality of the movie and its many delights – most especially the assembled RAs on Varnishing Day.  Who ever expected to see Shee, Stanfield, Prout etc portrayed on film? And the depiction of Haydon as neurotic cousin to Leigh Hunt is superb - I hope that actor gets an award.  I was surprised there was no mention of Haydon’s unhappy end, though, as surely that must have occasioned some expressive grunts from Turner.

However, pedantry compels one correction, lest the error embed in future accounts.  Ruskin wrote eloquently in praise of the sky and sea in Turner’s Slave Ship when it was shown in 1840 as Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon coming on.  But he did not ask his father to buy it  - the subject was too ‘painful’.  John James misunderstood, misinterpreted the praise and purchased the painting as a surprise present, which was hung in John’s bedroom, not in the entrance hall.  Ruskin hated waking to the horrible scene but could not say so; instead, he sold it almost immediately his father died.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Silent Partners

A fascinating and informative exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum on artists’ use of mannequins or lay figures, an essential piece of studio equipment for centuries.  Chiefly used for maintaining the shape and fall of garments when the sitter or model had finished their sessions, these articulated, life-size dolls have their own uncanny presence, like puppets, life-like but lifeless, in relaxed or alert poses, seen but unseeing.  They are technical, practical objects like easels, mirrors, plinths, yet masquerade as humans, with plump or muscular limbs, which can stand, sit, recline, or simulate the flight of angels.

The exhibition, curated by Jane Munro, explores the practical, the jokey, the surreal and the uncanny aspects of the studio mannequins from the 18th to 21st centuries.  One serious aspect is the length to which artists used to go to conceal their use of stuffed or jointed figures, and how nonetheless glimpses are visible on the resulting canvases. Indeed, one effect of the exhibition is to see lay-figures behind or within the figures in every and any dramatic or convivial subject.  
In the 19th century artists and critics mocked pictures with stiff or elaborately posed figures as ‘mannequinised’, with the apparatus showing through in scenes that claimed to depict total naturalism.   Felix Nadar drew a satire on Corbet’s Demoiselles au bord de la Seine as recumbent dummies,  which still makes one laugh.  And though it does not make the connection, the exhibition also prompted me to wonder about the relation between Manet’s nude Olympia and her near-contemporary mechanical namesake in the Tales of Hoffman.

Even if they like to imagine it, few viewers now think that Millais’s models for the couple in The Black Brunswicker actually embraced in the studio – especially as Kate Dickens posed for the woman – but the stagey nature of their clinch betrays the mannequin’s presence.  Though I’d guess this was more essential for the sake of the shimmering satin skirt than to avoid any impropriety.   The Pre-Raphaelite claim of painting directly ‘from nature’ – a claim magnified by their fans – is in my view not really undermined by the technical use of lay figures, especially where careful figure studies preceded painting.  But it suggests an interesting reason why poor Lizzie Siddal should have lain in Ophelia's bath-tub for so long – this was one pose where a wooden or fabric mannequin would not substitute for the live model. 

The exhibition contains some original mannequins, one supplied by the Roberson firm from which many of the PRB circle obtained their materials, with one of the enormous volumes detailing Millais’s account.  The ledger for Marie Spartali shows that typically hire of a female lay figure cost one pound a month, and a child’s figure 15 shillings.  Plus, in Spartali’s case, Robersons’ charge for delivery and collection; one envisages a shopman in his brown overalls carrying the effigy through the streets.

From such functional matters Silent Partners progresses to explore artists’ playful and performative relations with mannequins, which shade into Surrealists’ use and abuse of stuffed and live women and the Chapman Brothers’ grotesque and obscene figure installations.  One
unsettling example is Oscar Kokoschka's creation of a life-size soft-fur fetish of his adored but lost Alma Mahler, carried around and finally beheaded in rage.  Other fringe manifestations like talking dolls, tailors’ dummies and fashion mannequins are included, but surprisingly no link is made with waxworks, whose lifelikeness is their claim to fame.  But in fact the purpose of lay figures is to assist the illusion of reality, not enact it.   

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Spaces of Black Modernism

Following Drawing over the Colour Line, Gemma Romain and Caroline Bressey have curated a room display at Tate Britain called Spaces of Black Modernism which extends Romain’s research into Black artists and models in London 1919-1939 and further augments knowledge of artists and artworks that have proved hard to find although hardly hidden.  

It’s exciting to see previously ‘unknown’ works that reveal social-artistic-musical spheres which included people of varied Black ancestries without being in any ghetto except that of the visual and performing arts, where the address is not inward-looking but to external audiences.  Which is Tate’s purpose too, so it’s good to see eclipsed artists featuring albeit on a modest scale compared to too-much Turner (given the several rooms already rightly occupied by his pictures) or the equally large latest spread by Turner prize nominees.

Spaces of Black Modernism raises further interesting questions about the role and experience of dark skin in Britain in the inter-war years; it also interrogates the patchy art history of that period, which may be coming back into fashion as it recedes further in time.  One sometimes feels that only art of the last five minutes or over a century ago attracts critical attention and, as Romain’s research shows, the less noisy and/or celebrity artists are not only forgotten but literally lost, until one-by-one paintings, sculptures, photographs are found again. 

It looks as if Black Modernism has further to go in recovering the past, and one looks forward to more manifestations, in different formats and venues, hopefully moving beyond London.  

Apologies for lack of captions here: I will aim to add these soon as both artists and sitters deserve to be named.

PS  Seek out the even smaller display of work by Marlow Moss, another casualty of history, in an adjacent Tate space.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Edward Carpenter

One of the many now-forgotten progressive figures who feature in Fiona MacCarthy's fascinating exploration of William Morris's legacy through politics and the creative professions from 1860-1960 now on at the National Portrait Gallery is Edward Carpenter, prophet of 'the simple life' lived on a comfortable if not lavish unearned income.  These are the Indian sandals he taught himself how to make, and wore in the belief that  human soles should be close to the earth.

More importantly, he lived in a same-sex relationship  decades before it was permissable, and solaced many young gay men whose lives were darkened by public and private homophobia.  
It's a shame Carpenter is not better known historically.  Even many contemporaries dismissed him as a crank.  Thus the artist Will Rothenstein:

'Carpenter had an affectionate nature and a real love for mankind, but his vision was too vague and he was over-attentive to faddists and theorists. He lacked the power of men like Ruskin and Morris; the most concrete thing he achieved was the sandal.' 

Roger Fry's early portrait in NPG is rather wonderful, presenting Carpenter as if he had just turned up at the studio and found it too chilly to take off his overcoat.  The half-glimpsed rear view in the mirror and the low pink buttoned chair seem to signal some kind of metaphors for Carpenter's personality - not altogether straight and narrow?   But he's wearing hard black city shoes: where were the sandals?

William Morris & Andy Warhol

I admit I was incredulous when first hearing of this forthcoming show.  Largely I suppose from Warhol’s reputation for celebrity solipsism, as if everything he touched was ipso facto worthy of attention, even adulation.  So unlike our dear WM, surely?
But at the WM Society last Saturday hearing Jeremy Deller preview his forthcoming show Love is Enough at Oxford MAO – see  here

persuaded me that the connections, parallels and comparisons between the two make for a thoughtful exploration of similarities and contrasts, in the same way as with English Magic Deller produced a creative-critical, if quirky, appraisal of WM’s life and works for today.  Flower-patterning in diverse colourways is just one of the unlikely meeting points; so are hand-crafted multiple reproductions,  and the promotion of collaborative enterprise over artistic individualism, within a contradictory context dominated by one figure.  Deller is moreover convinced that both WM and AW shared an anti-industrial, anti-capitalist political perspective, which is less persuasive but nonetheless provocative.   I am also intrigued by his choice of title, for as well as being well-nigh unreadable today, Love is Enough was one of WM’s failures in his repeated attempt to combine visual and verbal arts.  The words, decorations and typography just did not match up. and the endeavour was more or less abandoned. UPDATE BELOW  Moreover, the text dates from the years when for WM love was certainly not enough, indeed seriously lacking.  It may have been a substitute for the loss – temporary as it turned out – of Janey, but it was certainly extremely  melancholy.  So how will Jeremy present it?  i look forward to seeing. 

indeed, as  Januszczak said in STimes: 'after seeing the exhibition I made the huge mistake of actually reading Love is Enough the pseudo-medieval morality play.  The exhibition is provocative and fun. The morality play is twaddle'  [You dont say!, though Janusczek is one of few to offer a simple account of the text.] 'it's an escape into the world of Lancelots and Guineveres so complete that if I were deciding on the categories I would file under Love Unhinged... a mad flight from the realities of late Victorian England.'    And  even worse as a literary endeavour.