Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Eric Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery

It’s very interesting to observe just how popular Eric Ravilious has become in recent years after decades of polite neglect. The woodcuts, the illustrated books and the Wedgwood ceramics have all commanded high prices since the 1970s but art world opinion formers held a view that Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon are serious, heavyweight artists while Ravilious, along with Burra, Wadsworth, William Roberts and Tristram Hillier, belongs firmly in the lightweight category. Unlike Paul Nash, the work of Ravilious showed little or no Modernist influence – no Cubism and no more than a trace of Surrealism – thus it could be excluded from the conventional timeline organised around the absorption of Modernism into British art practice. The quality of dispassionate observation in the work and the lack of any apparent inner turmoil further disqualified Ravilious from serious consideration. Perhaps the time is now right for appreciation of Ravilious’s crisp formal compositional elegance and inventive and precise mark-making. Perhaps the sense of distance that Ravilious instinctively maintained with his subject matter strikes a chord with contemporary taste. Perhaps his understanding of the interaction of geology, climate and land use on the formation of our landscape is in tune with contemporary experience-based approaches to writing on natural history (Roger Deakin, Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane). The question is addressed by the exhibition curator, James Russell in a blogpost here

There’s another art world audience where the highest value is placed on a sense of British (or English) pastoral values celebrating artists who recreate or represent the rural scene in all its picturesque glory – a world that is permanently under threat from insensitive development, factory farming and political interference on the part of a metropolitan elite hostile to the countryside and its long-suffering inhabitants. For this audience gestural paint handling commands a premium and there’s no appetite for confronting the awkward realities of country life. Ravilious cannot be fitted into this model – there is no sentiment in his paintings, no nostalgia for a lost Golden Age and no anecdotal ingratiation. The landscapes are largely devoid of human presence, there are no gestures to the twin gods of Huntin’ and Fishin’, no faithful hounds, no yeoman farmers, no furtive poachers, no cider-swilling hay-makers or toiling hedge-layers and no radiant sunsets to bathe the scene in celestial golden light. More often than not the rain slants down out of slate grey skies. 

The Dulwich exhibition is organised into a series of themed rooms – an arrangement that makes it easy to compare different approaches to similar subjects. It quickly becomes apparent that Ravilious is a great painter of barbed wire – he sees it everywhere, not just in coastal defences but in the heart of the countryside where it stands as a reminder of the primacy of land tenure and property rights, uncomfortable facts that are usually omitted from our collective vision of rural bliss based as it is on the fallacy that we all share ownership of the country landscape. It also serves as a compositional device, adding formal interest in the foreground and framing or sub-dividing the distant view. In the manner of Japanese print-makers Ravilious takes pleasure in placing significant objects in front of the view as spatial reference points to pull the eye back and forth. The objects he chooses are deliberately commonplace and often industrially manufactured, having the effect of denying the viewer a purely pastoral reading. On other occasions another device popular with Japanese artists is deployed when what would normally be a major point of interest (a chalk figure, a lighthouse or a convoy of warships) is marginalised or diminished and must fight for attention with a much more humble object (some ragged livestock fencing, a rusting agricultural machine or a group of empty barrels) enjoying pride of place. Ravilious is much more than an uncritical lover of the English landscape - he understands, and shares the elemental response that landscape evokes but declines to ignore the human traces that form and sometimes degrade it. His intelligence looks beneath the surface appearance for explanations and a deeper understanding of the forces that shape our landscape. 

Something I hadn’t noticed before was the way that some of the paintings worked in tandem – the best example being the image of the Westbury White Horse glimpsed through the window of a train paired with the oblique view of the same White Horse observed from the crown of the ridge, looking down toward the train crossing the distant plain below. Viewed together they seem to take possession of the entire landscape that lies between the two vantage points. Another pair of paintings comprises the expansive disruptive coastal scene with Beachy Head lighthouse at the focal point together with the gridiron coastal view through the window of the Belle Tout lighthouse. (OK – not a perfect comparison, the Belle Tout being the lighthouse that Beachy Head replaced.) 

Only the aviation subjects expose Ravilious’s limitations. Elegant, sensitive and atmospheric as they are the aircraft paintings simply don’t bear comparison with those of Paul Nash. Nash captured the sense of impending tragedy in the mind of the onlooker – we can imagine standing on the chalk downland in the full heat of the summer sun, the hum of insects and the call of the skylark combining with the distant drone of aero-engines. Somewhere, on the periphery of our vision, terrible events are evolving – shells and bullets are tearing into metal, burning fuel is transforming aircraft into aerial crematoria that spiral out of the sky in uncontrolled dives. This is somehow conveyed without any direct descriptive imagery and takes Nash’s work to a level that Ravilious never really attempted. While Ravilious seemed to paint with perfect composure and confidence, with Nash painting was more problematic, more of a struggle with intractable materials. As a result the pleasures of Ravilious are available to all while Nash implies deeper human truths in less comforting forms. 

The visual wit and the eye for the absurd or unsettling feature brings added interest to many paintings where vending machines, diving suits, beach huts and boat winches seem to acquire human characteristics. By contrast, in the wartime Command Centre studies the figures of servicemen and women are poised on the point of dissolving into the atmosphere, completely overshadowed by wall charts and step ladders that insistently proclaim their material substance. In one painting a monumental teleprinter projects a glowering presence that far exceeds any human figure on view elsewhere. 

In the end artists who keep their emotional distance never seem to achieve major status in art world league tables – examples include the painters Charles Sheeler and Patrick Caulfield. If there’s a spectrum ranging from souls in torment at one extreme to the cheerfully disengaged and analytical at the other, the art world finds the former infinitely more attractive than the latter. These distinctions have little to do with how people conduct their lives and much more to do with how much of themselves they decide to include in their art. It’s hardly a surprise in an age of narcissism that artists exhibiting this very quality attract the widest interest. This is what elevates Van Gogh over Seurat in popular esteem, or Claude over Poussin or Delacroix over Ingres. All are significant artists but some will always be more widely acceptable than others. Which makes it all the more curious that Ravilious should suddenly be more popular than ever – it would be welcome news if the public appetite for art that’s “all about me” is finally exhausted.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Charleville Circus – a South London Street

For the admirer of unusual street configurations, Charleville Circus in Sydenham with its twin concentric rings of substantial dwellings is a spatially intriguing prospect. Homes on the inner circle have pie-slice gardens that all meet at a single point. The developers who financed the Crystal Palace’s journey from Hyde Park to Sydenham purchased substantial parcels of land adjacent to what would become Crystal Palace Park for residential development designed to fund the project. Many of these 4 and 5 storey hyper-ornate Victorian villas survive to the present in Crystal Palace Park Road and on Sydenham Hill. As the project approached completion the last site to be built on was that of the former brick works that had supplied the entire development with building materials. The plot, wedged between Crystal Palace Park Road and Westwood Hill would become Charleville Circus when completed in the mid-1880s. The architecture doesn’t quite live up to the splendour of the layout, for the most part lacking the richness of detail that distinguished earlier phases of the development. The sense of circularity is undermined on the west side where the buildings followed a linear orientation. It’s hard to escape the feeling that there was an indecent haste to bring the development to a rapid conclusion and not squeeze profit margins by providing unnecessary architectural embellishments. 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Meet the Middletons

They came from Indiana to New York in 1939 to gaze in innocent wonder at the glorious future foreshadowed by the multiple attractions of the World’s Fair. Their ecstatic expressions in this image suggest they may be witnessing the Assumption of the Virgin – well worth the long journey from Indiana. Muncie, Indiana was well known as America’s social barometer and led by Robert and Helen Lynd, social scientists had recorded an immense amount of detail about family life and employment in a city that became known as Middletown America. By selecting Indiana as the Middleton’s home state Westinghouse Electric Corporation intended to underline the association of their project with the aims and aspirations of the statistically average American. Studies of Munsonians and Middletown continue to the present day

Westinghouse’s origins were in railroad brake and signal technology but the business expanded to include all manner of electrical engineering and in designing the Westinghouse Pavilion they planned to reveal the full extent to which their products were part of a new world of labour-saving devices and consumer goods. In addition to a dazzling display of gadgetry and electronic wizardry there was a robot (Elektro the Moto-Man) in attendance to impress the visitors, all in the shadow of the Singing Tower of Light. The budget was stretched to include a 55 minute feature film (The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair) shot in Technicolor with a cast of professional actors. Generating publicity came first but a major objective was to address popular misconceptions about capitalism and new technologies. Six years of FDR and federal intervention in the economy had put big business on the defensive, inspiring the screenwriters to prepare a scenario in which the un-American critics of capitalism were comprehensively squashed by good-old all-American common sense and optimism. It may not be the most subtle example of corporate film-making but no opportunity is wasted to communicate the ideological message. 

The Middleton family (Mother, Father and bumptious youngster, Bud) have arrived in New York for the World’s Fair. They are reunited with elder daughter Babs at the Grandmother’s home in suburban New York. Babs has been studying art in the city and come under the malign influence of her teacher (Nicholas Makaroff) who has turned her head with anti-materialist rhetoric and talk of Abstract Art. At the Westinghouse pavilion the Middletons meet up with Babs’s high school sweetheart Jim Treadway who works there as a guide. Jim is an articulate ambassador for Westinghouse and explains the wonders of Westinghouse to his captive audience and genially bats away any hints of scepticism. Battle is joined when Jim meets Nick, with Babs as the prize. Nick is a notably grumpy dissident, sneering at the “Temple of Capitalism” and complaining about the impact of automation on employment. With arms folded defensively, Jim drops the mask of affability and gives Nick a serious lesson in the facts, quoting well-rehearsed statistics to undermine his every argument.

Despite all this Nick continues to press his affections on the ever-loyal but increasingly conflicted, Babs. Later, as they relax together in contemplation of some of Nick’s abstract art, Babs is moved to request a definition of abstract form. Nick explains, “Abstract form is the essential substructure, in short the fundamental rhythm underlying our conceptions of spatial limitations. Do I make myself clear?” Nick is emboldened to offer Babs what he claims is a priceless ring that has been in his family for generations – when she hesitates he accuses her of being provincial. Under duress she accepts, but Nick’s clumsy amorous advance is firmly repelled – the writing’s on the wall. See it for yourself at the Prelinger Archive.

In a tortuous conclusion, Nick’s dishonesty is exposed when the ring is shown to be a $2 piece of costume jewellery purchased in a novelty emporium. The Middletons celebrate Nick’s humiliation and the triumph of capitalism by returning to the Westinghouse pavilion, where Jim and Babs embrace and collectively direct their gaze toward the Singing Tower of Light, overawed by the scale of transformation promised by Westinghouse technology. Aside from the ideological conflict the best entertainment is provided by the dishwashing contest between Mrs Modern (with her Westinghouse Dish Washer) and Mrs Drudge (chained to her sink, exhausted and vanquished) and the performance of Elektro the automatom who can count to five and smoke a cigarette. Babs is unimpressed, “All he lacks is a heart.” Jim glowers in the direction of Nick, “He’s not the only one.” Unsurprisingly it all takes place in a universally white world with African-American characters confined to positions of service.