India to St Ives

ST IVES IN CORNWALL is chock full of art galleries apart from the better-known Tate St Ives (highly overrated), the Penwith, and the splendid Barbara Hepworth house. Many of these galleries are best bypassed because they contain artworks of pedestrian workmanship and often poor aesthetic qualities. Last year, we visited a mediocre exhibition in the Crypt Gallery below the St Ives Society of Artists, which is housed in a deconsecrated church. So, when we passed the gallery today, I was reluctant to enter until I spotted that the exhibition was entitled ‘Cornwall and India’. The artist whose works were on display is called Paul Wadsworth.

Born in East Anglia in 1964, Paul studied at the art school in Falmouth (Cornwall). He told us that he has made three lengthy visits to India. One trip was to Rajasthan, another to Goa, and a third to Kerala. While in India, he commissions lovely leather-bound books to be made in Pushkar (Rajasthan). He fills these with line drawings and painted sketches. These visual records become the basis for his paintings inspired by his observations of India. Some of his Indian paintings are completed in India and others in his studios in Cornwall. To my eye, Paul captures the essence of India well: its colours and vibrancy.

Some of the paintings on display were those inspired by India. Others that involve skilful application of paints with a palate knife depict the spirit of the landscape of Cornwall. These paintings, Paul explained, are not done from photographs or preliminary sketches, but straight from true life. Given how the sky often changes so quickly in Cornwall, the artist has done a great job of seizing the moment and recording it on canvas.

Circus is another subject that attracts Paul. Some of his vivid depictions of life in the circus arena were on display. Complementing these, his sketch books have many lovely images created whilst he spent time with Kathakali dancers in India. Some of these sketches have been translated into paintings.

Paul spent time with us, patiently answering our numerous questions as well as showing us his works. He has the gallery for three weeks, starting 20th September 2020 and has filled it not only with his artworks but also the materials that he uses to create his works of art. He has created an exhibition within what he will use as his temporary studio.

I am truly glad that I entered the Crypt Gallery despite initial misgivings. If I had not, I would have missed out a highly enjoyable collection of good quality, well-executed art and meeting Paul, its affable creator.

My artistic mother

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My late mother died at the age of 60 in 1980. Her mother, who was born late in the 19th century in South Africa, held an old-fashioned opinion that girls should not attend university however bright they were. My mother would certainly have been able to cope with a university course of study, but, instead, she enrolled in the prestigious Michaelis  School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Founded in 1925, it is now ironically a department of the University of Cape Town.

Mom studied commercial art. Her first employment was hand painting posters, advertising cinema films. When I began visiting India in the 1990s, many film posters were still being painted by hand. Often, we saw workers perched on rickety bamboo scaffolding, painting the details of huge posters. Two years ago while visiting Bhuj in Kutch (part of Gujarat), we found a workshop where two men produced hand painted posters. They told us that the demand for these was dying out rapidly. It is interesting to note that, like my mother, the great Indian artist MF Hussain began his creative life as a painter of cinema posters.

Returning to my mother, she designed and painted advertising material for the Red Cross in Cape Town during WW2. In 1947, she followed her fiancé, my father, to the UK. She married in 1948, and I arrived a few years later. According to my father, Mom took painting classes with the the famous Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).  Sometime after that, she began creating sculptures.

When I was born, I had a torticollis (twisting of muscles of the neck beyond their normal position) that caused my head to be bent to one side. At that time in the early 1950s, the doctors told my mother that there was nothing to be done about this, and we would just have to live with it. My feisty mother refused to believe this. Every day, she manipulated my head and neck and gradually corrected the situation. Whether it was this manipulation that caused my mother to become a sculptor, I cannot say. However, one of her first sculpures was a terracotta mother and child, which she reproduced much later as an alabaster carving (see photo above).

When I was a young child, my mother used to attend the sculture studios at the St Martin School of Art in London’s Tottenham Court Road. She was not a student; she used the facilities and received advice from other sculptors including Philip King and Antony Caro. At that time, she became a close friend of the sculptor Dame Elizabeth Frink, who visited our home regularly. At St Martins, Mom learnt how to weld and work with metal. She created several quite attractive abstract metal artworks. Being a perfectionist, she destroyed much of what she made, but not before having it photographed by a competent photographer. Sadly, these photos have gone missing.

By the time I was a teenager, my mother had ceased working at St Martins, possibly not of her own volition. She rented a large garage in Golders Green and used it as a studio, where she created huge abstract sculptures in timber. She found working on her own to be lonely. However, without the benefit of proper lifting equipment, she produced quite a few sculptures.

Around about 1970, Mom began complaining of back pains, which she thought were the result of the heavy work she was doing in her garage. She abandoned the garage and more or less stopped creating any artworks except for a very few abstract pen and ink drawings, which she considered good enough to be framed.

The back pains continued. My mother became disillusioned with the contemporary art scene. She was familiar with the great renaissance  works of art which she visited every year in Florence (Italy), and comparing these with what she and her contemporaries were producing added to her disinclination to produce any more art of her own. For the last ten years of her life, Mom continued to search (unsuccessfully) for an interest to replace the creation of art. Tragically, she died young because of a cancer, which might well have been contributing to her long-lasting back pain.

Whatever the reason, if an artist loses the urge to create, it must produce a huge hole in his or her life, something like losing a loved one.

Venice observed

 

Venice is a special place in many ways. This meeting place of oriental and occidental art is bathed in light of a special quality. Maybe this is due to the fact that there is so much water reflecting the daylight and thereby increasing its intensity. Maybe, it is something else, but whatever it is, part of the beauty of Venice is its lovely light.

Artists have long been attracted to portraying Venice. Canaletto portrayed the city almost photographically in his paintings.  Guardi captures the city brilliantly by using an almost impressionistic technique. Ruskin captured the beauty of the Venetian architecture scholarly yet attractively. Other artists such as Manet, Monet, Moran, and Turner have also portrayed some of the ‘essence’ of Venice’s attractiveness.

Yesterday, I visited an exhibition of new paintings inspired by Venice by the British contemporary artist Joe Tilson (born 1928). Each of his deceptively simple canvases capture several aspects of what makes Venice attractive for me. Architectural details, coloured patterning like tiles or brickwork, and moonlit skies  conspire to evoke the special light an appearance of Venice. His painting is both simple and subtle, and above all visually satisfying.

 

The exhibition is at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albermarle Street, London W1S 4BY until 18th May 2019

Tanning at the Tate Modern

 

One of the great features of possessing a Tate Card (an annual season ticket) is that one can enter (with or without a companion) the regular special exhibitions without paying extra for tickets, which tend to be quite costly. What I particularly like is that if an exhibition does not meet one’s expectations, one can spend a short time viewing without worrying about having wasted, maybe, as much as £18 per person.

Recently, I visited the much-hyped special exhibition of works by the French painter Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) at the Tate Modern in London. Without the Tate Card, the two of us would have had to shell out £36 (about 30% of the cost of a Tate Card) to see what I thought was a tedious exhibition. 

I like Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in general, but the Bonnard works left me cold (or at least lukewarm!). I cannot comment on the competence of their execution, but I found them short of visual excitement, almost boring compared with works of other artists painting during Bonnard’s lifetime. Consequently, we did not linger long in the exhibition. I may sound like a Philistine with my comments about the famous Bonnard, but it is only fair to write honestly about how the exhibition affected me. Incidentally, I noticed that many of the visitors at this show were more interested in chatting to each other than looking at Bonnard’s works. I saw one man sitting on a bench reading his newspaper rather than trying to enjoy Bonnard.

As we were still in the mood for looking at art, we decided to enter another special exhibition in the Tate Modern. Using our Tate Card, we saved up to £26 when we entered the exhibition of artworks by the American-born Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012). However, this is an exhibition that is well worth its entrance fee. Bonnard and Tanning’s working lives overlapped for a few years, but the American’s output made a far greater impression on me than the Frenchman’s. 

The exhibition at the Tate Modern commences with paintings from Tanning’s surrealist phase. Her execution and composition sets her amongst the best of the surrealist artists. Each painting has subtlety, excitement,  a sense of adventure, and creative freshness. As Tanning grew older, her works tended towards abstraction in an original way. In brief, Tanning was an artist whose visual language(s) really attract me. Her work has a freshness and impact that I found lacking in Bonnard.

In addition to paintings and designs for stage sets, the exhibition at the Tate includes some of rather weird soft fabric sculptures, which did not appeal to me quite as much as the framed works. However, they display another aspect of Tanning’s undoubted inventive talent.

I am glad we decided to visit the Bonnard, even though it disappointed me, because it got me to visit the Tate Modern after a long break (in India) and to discover the delights of Dorothea Tanning’s  artistic output.

 

The photo is a detail of a work, “Endgame” , painted by Dorothea Tanning in 1944

Art on the road

We have recently returned from Cochin (in Kerala, South India), where every two years there is a huge art exhibition, the Kochi Muziris Biennale, that is open for just over three months. The artworks on display are supposed to conform in a loose way to a theme chosen by the chief curator. The artworks are not for sale at the Biennale.

Once a year early in each January, a one day art festival called Chitra Santhe is help along Kumara Krupa Road in Bangalore. This tree lined thoroughfare runs past both the Bangalore Golf Club and also the Chitrakala Parishadh, a leading art school.

Many artists display their works along the street. Their aim is to sell to the thousands of passers by, who amble leisurely past them. The quality of the artworks varies from highly skilled to colourful kitsch. All tastes are catered for. Many visitors wander about with their wrapped purchases under their arms.

The atmosphere at Chitra Santhe is festive. The January temperatures make for pleasant outdoor art viewing. Unlike the Biennale in Cochin, there is no theme unifying the artworks on display apart from the artists’ desire to sell. The artists are happy to discuss their works and are not pushy salesmen. Prices range from very low to not unreasonably high.

If you happen to be in Bangalore on the first Sunday in January, then an hour or so at the Chitra Santhe should prove to be a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Burne-Jones in London

Until 24th February 2019, there is an excellent exhibition of the works of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) at London’s Tate Britain.

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For Victorian art  

looking back to the past

Burne-Jones does excel

 

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The lady in blue

What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.

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The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right.  Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.

The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.

When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.

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For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil  just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.

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A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]

I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.

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Sean Scully

For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.

The tests of time and taste

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Is it fair to juxtapose works of modern or contemporary art with great masterpieces, which have stood the test of time?

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We were fortunate to have been given (by our daughter) complimentary tickets to the 2018 Frieze Masters exhibition held in Regents Park. It is part of a larger art fair, Frieze, held in London annually.

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The Frieze Masters show contains stalls set up by art dealers, displaying only works made no later than the year 2000 AD. I must admit that I was expecting to see works of art only made during the 19th and 20th centuries. To my great delight, the artworks on display were made anytime between ancient times (several centuries BC) and 2000 AD.

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Although the more recently made (i.e. 20th century) artworks are of the highest quality, they are often on display close to artworks made many centuries earlier. Some of the gallery stalls contain a mix of modern art and much older works. Placing some 20th century works (e.g. Calder) near to older classical works (e.g. Brueghel and Cranach) is not fair to the newer works.

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The older artworks, which have stood the test of time and satisfied the tastes of many generations of viewers, make the nearby contemporary works seem weak in comparison. This is not always the case. Some small sculptures by Barbara Hepworth seemed very comfortable next to their far more venerable neighbours. Also, to my surprise some ancient classical carvings stood harmoniously close to some abstract art works made in the second half of the 20th century.

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The older works of art on display have been treasured for many centuries. Probably, what we see today is the best of what was produced long ago. Even at the time when they were made, their excellence must have been obvious when seen beside other works, now lost and long-forgotten, which were created at the same time.

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I question how many of the more recent (19th and, especially, 20th century) works of art, which I saw at Frieze Masters, will still attract both interest and high prices in, say, fifty or a hundred years’ time. And, I also ask myself how many of the newer works will be able to evoke the feelings of aesthetic wonder that, say, a Brueghel or a Cycladic sculpture have been able to do for so many centuries.  

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