Posts Tagged ‘Brian Sewell’

Blackpaint 80

March 2, 2010

Henry Moore – A Tale of Two Reviews

I can’t let this show go without commenting on Hilary Spurling’s excellent review in Saturday’s Guardian and Laura Cumming’s very hostile and dismissive review in the “new” Observer. 

Reflecting on the show, I have to say that it’s one failing for me was that it lacked humour.  Some of the pieces were funny for sure, but I don’t think that was Moore’s intention.  And on that mother thing, strangling the angry bird-child – I realise that it reminded me of herring gulls with the red spot on the beak, that the chick has to peck at before the mother will disgorge the fish stew.  True, gulls don’t have hands to strangle with, but you can push an analogy too far.. Nice change from caring, nurturing mummies and babies, anyway.

Back to the reviews.  Spurling’s was full of interesting info and insights.  She pointed out that for Moore, “timelessness, monumentality and permanence were essential qualities… He must have been the last major artist to see sculpture in these terms”.  However, she also remarked on the exhibition stopping in the late 50s – after that, apparently, he produced work made out  of “cheap, flimsy materials”, as well as the production line of civic bronzes.  

She referred to Moore’s confinement to a tiny British avant garde until he was in his 40s, and the opposition and hostility he met from parts of the British art Establishment well into the 60s.  None of this was covered in Laura Cumming’s piece, although she had clearly read up on Moore in Wikipedia first.

Cumming’s Observer review was strangely reminiscent of that by Brian Sewell, of the current Arshile Gorky show in the Evening Standard.  In both cases, the reviewers chose to praise the drawings, rather than the main focus of the exhibition (Gorky’s paintings, Moore’s sculpture) offsetting hostile assertions with a bit of “balance”; in both cases, the reviewers damned the subject as a copyist, with no original “content” of their own on offer.

Cumming says “I freely admit to almost total aversion” ( again, this sounds to me just like Sewell) and goes on to assert that Moore’s work is assembled from ideas stolen from Picasso, Arp, Dali and Giacometti “with no feeling for affinities, still less significance”.  This is surely an incredible assertion – one only has to see the work on view to explode the notion that Moore just copied proper, Continental artists.  Influences, yes, maybe one or two pretty close to Picasso’s “bones on the beach” in the 30s; but the drawings alone surely demonstrate an original artistic vision and the elms,  if nothing else, prove it.

Just think; we are being asked to swallow the idea that Moore hoodwinked a generation of art commentators into worshipping him, while all along, he was just nicking stuff from Picasso et al.  Odd that nobody noticed.

Cumming asserts that “these are “multiple versions – as opposed to variations” of the same thing.  Variation in expression there most certainly is, as well as materials, dimension and so on.  Besides, plenty of artists spend their artistic lives working a couple of ideas over and again, far less successfully than Moore.

She asserts that her aversion is not because “his sculpture is so lacking in beauty or grace” (a neat way of saying it is, whilst not sounding too conservative) but because of the “homogeneity” – it’s all the same. 

The first thing you notice, I agree, is that there is a lot of Reclining Figures and “Mothers with Child”s – but the second is the surprising range of styles, moods, dimensions and materials. 

The review derides the grand claims made for the work by the curators and asserts that the work is all form, no content.  I don’t know what claims Moore himself made for the work, but artists themselves are often the worst commentators – that’s why they paint and sculpt and others critique.  And isn’t the distinction between form and content redundant in a lot of cases with art that tends towards the abstract? 

Finally, there is the knitted tie.  “It is certainly true that Moore was there, in his knitted tie, among the French surrealists”, Cumming remarks.  What does this mean?  British middle class buffer, mixing with the cool Continentals, breathing in the Gaulois, pretending to be a proper artist?  Desperately trying to be friends, looking for ideas to steal – a sort of Tony Hancock, looking for inspiration for his Aphrodite at the Water Hole.

I think the knitted tie gives the game away.  Moore is British – by definition, marginal, insular, second-rate, a bit embarrassing, – he’s middle class and he was hugely successful.

I also think this review has to be seen in the context of the Observer’s desperate relaunch.  Controversy is everything now; the reviews will have to toughen up to match the Rawnsley “revelations”.  The logic is , of course, that you might as well get Brian Sewell himself to do the job properly; no doubt they can’t afford him.

Listening to Johnny Cash, “Highway Patrolman”:

“Yeah, me and Frankie laughing and drinkin’,

Nothing feels better than blood on blood,

Taking turns dancin’ with Maria,

While the band played “The Night of the Johnstown Flood”; 

I catch him when he’s swaying, like any brother should;

Man turns his back on his family – he ain’t no good”.



Blackpaint 67

February 13, 2010

Sewell on Gorky

As promised,  Brian Sewell’s review of Tate Modern show, in Thursday’s Evening Standard: writing of de Kooning and Pollock, he says they “served to bolster Gorky’s reputation as the stud who sired their rough and ready kind of gestural Abstract Expressionism.  We should blame him for the scribbles of Cy Twombly too”.  De Kooning and Pollock acknowledged Gorky as a prime influence or inspiration – why Twombly, though? 

“Rough and ready” as a description of Pollock is only partly fair – “Full fathom five” incorporated fag ends and keys, which I suppose is pretty rough and ready; but “Cathedral” and “Lavender Mist” are delicate, intricate, many-layered… As for de Kooning – well, the surfaces are often rough, paint runs down, it’s scored and scratched, the paint blears from one colour into another, the brush dries in mid-streak, so yes, rough and ready.  But the effect of this is a matter of taste; I find his surfaces a source of immediate pleasure; deep, rich colours, movement, texture – how do you explain why you think they are good to someone with different eyes?  

It strikes me that Sewell despises the whole “project” of Abstract Expressionism and is suspicious of spontaneity in the creative process altogether.  he describes how Gorky, in his later works, “the images scribbled, doodled, smudged and the colour scrubbed onto the canvas….was released from all formal responsibilities.”  Looking approvingly at Gorky’s drawings, he describes how Gorky’s “drawn line…lends order to the chaos of surreal forms, often Dali-like, in a fantasy of hubbub and disorder.” 

From these observations, one can see that Sewell’s aversion is to “hubbub and disorder”, and to release from “formal responsibility”.  He approves of Gorky to the extent that he shows technical skill at drawing.  All the other stuff is pretty much rubbish.  Clement Greenberg, who promoted him, was “jabberwocky-driven” (presumably harried by a phantom of his own mind) in describing him as “a painter of more than national importance”; this, Sewell says, “is to assume that he knew what he was doing.  He did not.”

Given Sewell’s stance, it is difficult to see how he would approve of, or derive pleasure from any Abstract Expressionist “works” or those works associated with the movement.  That’s fair enough as a position, of course; but it’s not a useful review if you like this sort of stuff.

By way of contrast, Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph says the later paintings summon “a sense of spontaneity and freedom that is nothing short of ravishing.”  There’s nothing for it – I’ll have to go myself. 


In Sewell’s review the adjective “desuetudinous” appeared – not a commonly employed word.  Then it popped up again, this time used by Pat Kane on BBC2’s Review Show.  I’m glad I know what it means.

Regarding Blackpaint 64 and 65, should have mentioned that there is a film of “the Horse’s Mouth”, with Alec Guinness as Gulley Jimson.

Listening to “I ain’t superstitious” by Howling Wolf;

“You know I ain’t superstitious, but a black cat just crossed my trail (*2)

Don’t sweep me with no broom; I just might get put in jail.”