Archive for June, 2022

Blackpaint 705 – More Sickert, Surrealism at TM and Heroes of Democracy

June 23, 2022

More Sickert

Two things to add to last blog on Sickert: first, his great “end of the pier” painting of 1915 (below). For my money, the best in show, even if familiar from Tate walls already, Surely, the makers of “Oh What a Lovely War” must have been familiar with it. Melancholy, bitter sweet, elegiac – add your own cliches.

The second painting I want to draw attention to is this one of the conductor Goossens in action. It’s from the last section – last wall, I think – where the paintings are based on press photographs of celebrities. Despite the muted colours, I find it very striking for reasons that I can’t fully explain. Which of course it always should be with art.

Surrealism Beyond Borders, Tate Modern until 29th August

Good exhibition, some of it – well, a lot of it – familiar stuff; lobster telephone, Magritte train emerging from fireplace, Roland Penrose’s torso in a hoop. There are a number of pictures from South America, Mexico and Cuba which are less familiar, however, and which do nothing to elucidate the term itself.

What are the strands of “surrealism”? Well, there are the incongruities, visual jokes often, of Magritte and Dali and Delvaux and others, the biomorphism of Tanguy, Lam, Brauner, Andre Masson’s automatic drawings, the monstrous dreamscapes of Tanning, Ernst – and others (giant insects, bird’s heads, old mansions, huge flowers)…. and much else that I can’t think of now, but which require a thorough analysis to make sense of. So let’s not bother with that because, once again, analysis never gets the essence and often undermines the impact of the image.

Miro, of course – great painting, but is it surrealism?

Max Ernst, Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale – classic surrealism, dream situation, incongruous – and beautiful, haunting image.

Leonora Carrington – Self Portrait. All the epithets I used for Ernst, except beautiful and haunting. I still find it very hard to distinguish her work from much of that by Dorothea Tanning. Is it the similar names. the shared connection with Ernst or sexism on my part?

Pierre Alechinsky

I like this painting, but fail to see why it is deemed to be surrealist.

Arshile Gorky, Waterfall

Similarly, with Gorky’s great image. Why is it surrealism? Much closer to Abstract Expressionism, I would have thought – although I can see why some other Gorky pictures, with their biomorphic shapes and fantastic titles, might suggest surrealism: “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb”, for example.

Navalny (Sky Documentary)

Amazing. What makes someone put themselves in the lion’s den with pretty much no hope of success, more, the certainty of long and brutal incarceration and a good chance of being murdered? Alexei Navalny, the Russian oppositionist, has already survived one poisoning attempt, goodness knows how; he went back (!) to Russia and of course, landed immediately in prison, serving an ever-expanding sentence – fifteen years, was it, at the last count?

He at least knows that his ordeal is being followed in the free world; no such comfort for his incredibly courageous supporters (many of them appear to be “respectable” middle-age, middle-class women) attacked, beaten, dragged away to jail by thugs in police uniforms. What happens to them? Astonishing that there IS an opposition in Putin’s proto-fascist state.

And yet, Navalny appears so – relaxed throughout. Tall, good looking, athletic, casual and friendly and good-humoured in his manner, it’s hard to imagine anyone more the opposite of Tsar Vladimir. the documentary revolves around a “sting” carried out by Navalny and his supporters, which turns up the story of the attempted murder from one of the conspirators. It’s pretty light on N’s politics, beyond democracy, human rights and an end to corruption – but that’s enough to be going on with, surely.

Z (1970, dir. Costa – Gavras)

I followed Navalny with the DVD of Z, which seemed appropriate; the hero – tall, good looking, athletic, friendly and good humoured, not quite as casual as Navalny – comes to Athens to address a left-wing, anti-nuclear rally, in a city seething with right-wing thugs, mostly employed by the security services to break up rallies and beat students with clubs. It’s based on the murder of Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. The protagonist is played by Yves Montand, who is not as “lucky” as Navalny.

It also stars one of my favourite assassins, Marcel Bozzuffi – you’ll recognise him from the French Connection – and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the incorruptible magistrate.

One or two of my old ones to end with as usual:

Bad Old Science

Burning in the Green

Both sold back in the good old days…

Blackpaint June 23rd 2022

Blackpaint 704 – Sickert and Singer Sargent

June 5, 2022

Alliterative exhibitions currently on at Tate Britain, not to be missed. I’ve got more to say on Sickert than can be confined to one blog, so I’ll be revisiting him in future blogs. Sickert is on until 18th September.

Walter Sickert

The earliest ones were done whilst he was working as an assistant (etching) to Whistler, on whose RA exhibition I posted recently. They seem intent in pursuing each other further and further into the gloom. I took few photos of this period: they’re too dark (literally – I’m not referring to Sickert’s later career as a Jack the Ripper suspect).

This is the sort of thing I mean, but much darker, without the figures in white or the red splash. Usually in mean streets too, rather than beach scenes. Sickert seems to have anticipated Auerbach somewhat here – starting dark and almost impenetrable, then adding blobs and patches of brilliant colour here and there. Sickert’s were usually shop or station signs, doors or window blinds. You’ll see them as you go round.

Sickert likes this sort of angle for seaside pictures; very high, or even no horizon, looking down as if from a promenade above the beach.

These early pictures are so similar to Whistler’s own that it is hard to separate them from those of his boss – hope I’ve got it right here and this IS Sickert, not Whistler….

Here’s another beach scene; photographic feel, despite the ridiculously ornate frame, no horizon, looking down from the prom, Lots of his pictures have that snapshot feel (the later ones were copied from photographs), but as the exhibition shows there are affinities to Degas and Bonnard, both of whom used angles and cropping that sometimes resemble photographs.

Having mentioned Degas, there is a parallel to his obsession with ballerinas in Sickert’s repeated depictions of music hall scenes. The poster for the show is of Dot Hetherington performing “The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery” and pointing to same. I’ve no images to hand of the music hall ones – I’ll add some next blog. Similarly with the nudes.

There is , of course, one group of nudes which are famous, those which are named after the Camden Town Murder. In 1907, a young artist, Robert Wood, was tried for the murder of a sex worker, Phyllis Dimmock, in her Camden Town flat. He was defended by the famous Marshall Hall, and was acquitted, to great excitement. The killer was never found. Sickert did several pictures referring to this crime.

In this picture, a fully dressed man – the killer? – stands looking down at the naked woman on the bed. She could be the dead Phyllis Dimmock, which the title “The Camden Town Murder” suggests – well, asserts – but Sickert apparenly gave it an alternative title; “What Shall We Do for the Rent?”, which more than hints at sex work as we call it now and shows Sickert’s opportunism; violent death and sex, never fails to sell. There is no blood in this or the other “murder” pictures, so maybe Sickert wanted to keep his options open.

So they are distasteful and exploitative maybe, but not as horrific to my mind as the drawings and paintings done much later by the Australian artist Brett Whiteley, of the murders at 10 Rillington Place, These were “abstractified” to an extent, but I think that increases their impact, strangely.

I was impressed by all of his portraits but one (I’ll discuss that next blog). Maybe the best is Aubrey Beardsley, who must have been a dream to draw or paint, with his tall, ungainly frame and long limbs.

Economical, apparently simple mark making, the hunch of the shoulders, the way his feet disappear into raw canvas – or maybe wood? – and the way the narrow format enhances the cadaverous body. I can see both Whistler and Degas in this, or at least, I think I can.

This is Harold Gilman, another excellent Camden Town Group painter; he did a great interior of a pie and mash shop and a famous one of his cleaning woman – can’t remember her name – Tilly or Dolly? Anyway, this sort of stippled or broken, dabbing brushwork is something Sickert used several times to interesting effect, Sometimes, it looks as if the picture is breaking down, pixillating, like a TV when the satellite dish is affected (like mine, at the moment. The Sky man is coming on Wednesday). there is one portrait of a fat bearded man, whose trouser leg appears to be on fire, Or consider the leg of the lady in the next picture:

I don’t really know what to make of her left leg, which appears to be swathed in a narrow bandage – has she still got a stocking on, which is reflecting the light? Again, there’s that effect of a picture dissolving or disintegrating, where the top of her thigh reaches the sofa. This sounds sniffy, but I like it…

This is getting too long, so I’m going to finish with Sickert for now, with a great little portrait, but which also tells a story, like “Ennui” and “Off to the Pub”, which I’ll look at next time:

This is titled “In Her New Home”, or something similar. There she sits, with her flat hat crammed down on her head, looking totally lost and dejected against the wallpaper, under the mantelpiece. Strange wallpaper, strange mantelpiece. Reminds me of one of those Victorian tear jerker paintings, you know, partings forever, arrivals too late at the deathbed. Sickert’s is different; she’s not glamourised or , exaggerated, displaying woe – just ordinary, and rather pissed off, in a way that gets your sympathy.

End of Sickert Part One, to be continued.

Singer Sargent, the Wertheimer paintings

These beautiful paintings, nine or ten of them, were done over the years by Singer Sargent at the behest of Asher Wertheimer, a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur.

Here is the patriarch of the family, cigar in hand as befits a tycoon, with his dog at his side. And here –

-are his daughters, Ena and Betty, resplendent in their silk and velvet, beaming at us as if caught by a photographer’s call – “Ladies, over here! Look! That’s it, thanks. Got that great jar in, too…”

Once you have taken in the sumptious fabrics, the bounding presence of these beautiful and beautifully painted people, the character Sargent reveals here (which one of the women is the dominant personality?), additional interestis provided by the commentary, which reveals the way the pictures were reviewed at the time, notably by the Spectator magazine. The reviews don’t criticise Sargent, but rather the subject matter. In doing so, they unfairly implicate him in their sneering take. The worst is of a painting of children of the family: the reviewer is affected by the overpowering smell of scent (read artificiality, heady stuffiness, foreigness). There is the odour of “burnt pastilles” about the picture, by which he (?) means incense. You can imagine – “ugh! Open a window, for God’s sake, and let some fresh English air in! That’s better! Manliness, rugger, rowing, cricket, boxing – that’s what’s needed here!”

It’s anti-semitism. Hannah Arendt. in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1950) touches on similar attitudes to Jewish members of salons in the Faubourg St. Germain in Paris some decades earlier – although there, the “odour” was attractive, exotic, exciting – until the Dreyfus case came along.

Enough for now. I’ll finish with some life drawing efforts of mine – still no proper painting done; I’ve been concentrating on getting an exhibition of Marion’s paintings on at Brixton Tate Library, starting Tuesday. Actually, it’s being curated by my niece, Katherine Jones RA and my friend Charlotte Wyn Parry, who are doing all the real work.

So please come and see, if you can.

Now mine:

Omar’s Back

Omar’s side

Sonia’s Back, on flattened cardboard Wotsits box

That’s it, goodbye for now

Blackpaint, 5th June 2022