Revealing the soul. Alice Neel.

DESCRIBED AS THE FIRST living artist to have had a retrospective exhibition in the Soviet Union, the American painter Alice Neel (1900-1984), there is a superb exhibition of her art at the Barbican Centre in the City of London until the 21st of May 2023. Alice, who was born in a small town in Pennsylvania, led a colourful life – and by this, I am not referring only to her paintings. Politically, she was leftward leaning. In 1935, she joined the US Communist Party and remained a member throughout the McCarthy era and after it. She participated actively in anti-fascist activity before WW2. Some of the portraits she painted were of Marxists and members of the US Communist Party. Maybe, it was this political activity that got her, her family, and her paintings invited to Moscow in 1981. She was a Communist but objected to the bureaucracy associated with the Party. In late life, when she was asked about her political views, she replied that she was “an anarchic humanist.”

During the Great Depression that hit the USA in 1929, President Franklin Delaney Roosevelt initiated the New Deal programme to deal with the unemployment crisis. In 1933, as part of this the Public Works Art Project was set up, and Alice joined it immediately. She was paid US $26.88 per week to produce a painting every six weeks. Her works done for this organisation and its successor, the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Association, depicted urban scenes of adversity and social injustices. These paintings were her own brand of Socialist realism. I liked what was on display.

Alice remained a figurative artist throughout her life and throughout the period when most of her fellow American artists were moving away from the figurative and increasingly towards the abstract. The highlights of the exhibition are her portraits, some of them of subjects who have removed their clothing. In all of her portraits, she gets beneath her subjects’ clothing or external appearance and portrays not what a conventional portraitist depicts, but the personalities of her subjects as she understood them. The results were not always liked by her subjects, but the viewer can get much more of an idea of what the people would have been like had we been lucky enough to meet them. Like the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), Alice’s portraits are not a slavish reproductions of nature but a wonderful attempt to portray what lies beneath the surface – the subject’s soul and character. She once said:


“As for people who want flattering pictures of themselves, even if I wanted to do them, I wouldn’t know what flattery is. To me, as Keats said, beauty is truth, truth beauty … I paint to reveal the struggle, tragedy, and joy of life.”

Included at the Barbican’s exhibition, there is a documentary film about Alice made by Nancy Baer. Alice was filmed in various situations, and comes across as a delightful person. Some of the scenes in the documentary show her at work on a portrait. What impressed me when watching these scenes in her studio was her ability to create straight from life unwaveringly. She looked at her subject and without faltering painted elements of the portrait that did not need adjusting. Her eye-brain-hand coordination looked to be superb.

Returning to the Moscow exhibition, the “Morning Star” newspaper (https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/c/rebel-cause), which praised the exhibition, pointed out:


“…a wall text incorrectly refers to Neel’s 1981 Moscow exhibition as being by the “first living artist to have a retrospective in the Soviet Union,” whereas many artists including Yuri Petrov-Vodkin, Alexander Deyneka, Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger had exhibited there from the 1930s onwards.”


They may well be right, but whether the artists mentioned were showing a few of their works rather than a retrospective covering their whole output until the date of the exhibition, is a question I cannot answer. In any case, it was no mean achievement to have been both invited to exhibit in Moscow during the Cold War and to have been elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (in 1976).

Once again, I must admit my ignorance: Alice Neel was an artist who was new to me. However, I am pleased that she is now on my radar. I can strongly recommend visiting the exhibition at the Barbican for an exciting visual feast.

Faces of India for Queen Victoria

THE CORRIDORS LEADING to the spectacular Durbar Room in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight are lined with portraits of people born in pre-independence India, either painted or photographed during the 19th century. Most of these images depict members of the Indian aristocracy (e.g., rulers of Princely States). A few depict less exalted persons, such as craftsmen and the designer of the Durbar Room.

Maharajah Duleep Singh (1838-1893), who surrendered the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria, is portrayed in a few pictures, notably one by the famous German artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873). Many other paintings were created by the Austrian painter Rudolf Swoboda (1859-1914). Queen Victoria liked his painting style and commissioned him to create more than 40 portraits of Indian people. In 1886, the queen paid for him to travel to India, and gave him £300 in travelling expenses. Her instructions to the young artist were:

“The Sketches Her Majesty wishes to have – are of the various types of the different nationalities. They should consist of heads of the same size as those already done for The Queen, and also small full lengths, as well as sketches of landscapes, buildings, and other scenes. Her Majesty does not want any large pictures done at first, but thinks that perhaps you could bring away material for making them should they eventually be wished for.” (www.rct.uk/collection/403755/gulzar).

Many of these can be seen hanging in Osborne House. Amongst his many Indian portraits, there is at least one painted not in India but in England. Queen Victoria had several servants, who were born in British India and the Princely States associated with it. The best known of these ‘imported’ servants was her favourite Mohammed Abdul Karim (1863-1909), her ‘munshi’ (teacher), who helped her study Hindustani, which she learned to write competently in the Urdu script. Amongst Swoboda’s paintings of Indians hanging in Osborne House, there is one of a non-Indian, a lady from Cyprus, and another, a Cape Malay woman from  Cape Town (South Africa). Why they are there, I have not yet found out, but maybe Swoboda spotted them at the Colonial Exhibition held in London in 1886.

Not all the portraits of Indians are painted. Some of them are hand-coloured photographs. A few of these photos are signed by their creators, one of which was the photographic studio of Gobind Ram and Oodey Ram in Jaipur. Along with a studio in Calcutta the Ram brothers were pioneers in photography in 19th century India. One source (www.indiatoday.in/lifestyle/whats-hot/story/tryst-with-colonial-india-205124-2014-08-22) stated:

“Apparently, studio photography was practised by many Maharajas as a means of leisure, mostly using their courtesans as subjects. The Ravi Varma Studios of Calcutta and Gobind Ram-Oodey Ram Studio in Jaipur are just two examples.”

As can be seen at Osborne, these photographers also made portraits of the maharajahs and their families.

Although Queen Victoria loved Osborne House, I cannot see its appeal apart from the wonderful Durbar Room. For me, seeing this lavishly decorated hall and the collection portraits of the Indian people are the main delights of this otherwise rather gloomy residence.

Throwing light into the darkness and shadows

FOR UNKNOWN REASONS, we were initially reluctant to bother with viewing the exhibition (at London’s Tate Britain until the 18th of September 2022) of paintings and drawings by Walter Sickert (1862-1942). However, I am glad that we did because we got to know and appreciate an artist, of whom I had heard but knew little about. That little which I did know was that for a brief while Sickert had one of the Mall Studios in Hampstead, where years later the sculptor Barbara Hepworth worked and resided with one husband, and then another. Later, Sickert moved from Hampstead to Camden Town.

Sickert was born in Munich (Germany). He and his family moved to Britain when he was 8 years old. His father, Oswald Sickert (1828-1885), an artist, introduced him to the works of important British and French artists, but Walter’s inclinations led him to study acting. However, in 1882 he entered London’s Slade School of Art (at UCL) and he became a student and assistant of the artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903). Soon, he began spending a lot of time in France, where he met Edgar Degas (1834-1917), whose work was to have a great influence on his style.

The exhibition at Tate Britain successfully demonstrates that Sickert was a highly competent artist. His topographical paintings (notably of Dieppe and Venice) are superb, as are the many of his portraits, some of which verge on being impressionistic, on display. His depictions of scenes within theatre show his great ability to portray light and shade. A series of paintings of nude women, some of whom are shown being in the company of often disinterested-looking men in far from elegant clothing, throw light on the shady world of the poor in places such as Camden Town and its environs.

Although some of Sickert’s paintings show features that later would become associated with artists such as the impressionists, Lucien Freud, and Francis Bacon, he is not one of the first artists that springs to mind when thinking about the great artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. Why is this the case? Despite hinting at what was to become common in the works of the Abstractionists, he never broke through the barrier into Modernism as did painters such as Braque, Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, Matisse, and Mondrian. In no way does this detract from the brilliance seen in Sickert’s work. In a way, he was born too late to be considered as distinguished as those I have mentioned. Considered alongside 19th century artists, he shines. But, although he received many commissions, he was painting during an era when the more adventurous and innovative artists were in their heyday. That said, I can strongly recommend the exhibition at the Tate, which demonstrated to me that Sickert, a master of light and shade, was an artist who deserves much more attention than he gets today.

An Australian artist in London

THE ARTIST DAMIEN Hirst has given London’s art lovers a great gift. In October 2015, he opened his Newport Street Gallery (near Lambeth Bridge) to the public. Housed in a former theatre scenery workshop, which has been beautifully modernised, the gallery puts on a series of exhibitions of artworks (mainly paintings) from Hirst’s enormous personal collection, which he has been creating since the late 1980s. The current exhibition, “Cloud of Witness”, which ends on the 10th of July 2022, is of works by an artist born in Australia, who created many of his paintings in London: Keith Cunningham (1929-2014). I had never heard of him before seeing the exhibition.

Cunningham arrived in London in 1949 and enrolled at the Central School of Art and Design, where he aimed to improve his skills as a graphic designer. In 1952, having developed an interest in painting, he joined the Royal College of Art (‘RCA’), where he worked alongside now famous artists including Leon Kossoff, Joe Tilson, and Frank Auerbach. He exhibited in the prestigious London Group in 1956 and the two years following. This group had been formed as an association of modernist artists, who wished to escape the restrictive criteria of the Royal Academy. In 1964, he was invited to become a full member of the Group, but for unknown reasons he declined. By 1967, he had ceased exhibiting his work and was making his living as a graphic designer and teaching at the London College of Printing. Despite this, he continued producing paintings until his death. He kept his paintings hidden from view in a spare room. So, it is fortunate for us that Damien Hirst acquired many of them and put them on public display this year.

The Newport Street Gallery website (www.newportstreetgallery.com) describes his work succinctly:

“Cunningham’s paintings were produced in London during the post-war period, an artistic environment dominated by the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. A student at the Royal College of Art in the mid-1950s, Cunningham worked alongside major artists such as Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Jo Tilson.

Cunningham’s sombre paintings, coated in layers of dense, sculptural brushstrokes, are populated by skulls, fighting dogs and darkly altered human figures. Like his schoolmates and teachers at the Royal College, Cunningham was interested in figurative painting, transforming the reality of everyday life into loose, slowly disintegrating forms.

His canvases, like those of Bacon, Kossoff and Auerbach, are covered in powerful strokes of dark pigments conveying strikingly expressive forms. The Cloud of Witness seeks to redefine Cunningham’s role in the London art scene of the 1950s, highlighting not only his ability but also the variety of his inspirations. To this effect, it coincides with the major show at the Royal Academy of Arts, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast, encouraging visitors to compare and contrast the works of these two artists.” Having already seen the Bacon exhibition at the Royal Academy and works by other artists mentioned in the quote, I feel that it is a good summary of what we saw at Newport Street. My favourite works in the exhibition were some of the portraits and some of the more abstract works. Undoubtedly, Cunningham was a competent artist, but having seen the exhibition, I can understand why he is not amongst the better-known artists of his generation

Guard dogs and Cruella de Vil

LARGE FIERCE LOOKING DOGS roam freely in the grounds of a huge mock Tudor house overlooking north London’s Hampstead Heath on the corner of West Heath Road and Platts Lane. Approach one of the metal gates designed to prevent an outsider from viewing the house properly and within seconds one of those dogs will meet you on the other side of the gates and bark menacingly. I did manage to peer through the railings and the shrubbery within them to catch a glimpse of a huge sculpture of a seated lion sitting close to the steps leading to the house’s front door. Several notices on the outer wall of the property read:
“DO NOT ENTER. LARGE DOGS MAY BE RUNNING FREE”.

I have often passed this house and wondered about it.

A plaque posted by the Hampstead Plaque Fund reads as follows:
“Francis Owen Salisbury (1874-1962) ‘Frank’. Artist. Mural and Portrait painter, recorder of scenes of magnificent pageantry and historic event. Stained glass artist. Lived here.”

Frank, born in Harpenden (Hertfordshire), was the son of a craftsman, who worked in plumbing, decorating, and was also an ironmonger. He was apprenticed to a stained-glass company when he was 15, and then entered Heatherley’s School of Art as a part-time student (www.19thcenturypaintings.com/artists/79-francis-%28%22frank%22%29-o.-salisbury/biography/). A skilled artist, Frank won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools, where he won two silver medals. Soon, he:

“…acquired a considerable reputation. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1899 to 1943 and his career as a portrait painter also flourished in the United States. His sitters include five presidents of the United States, five British prime ministers and many members of the British royal family, including the official coronation portraits of King George VI.” (https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp07514/francis-owen-frank-salisbury).

Frank painted more portraits of Winston Churchill than any other artist. His portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt is still the official portrait of this president hanging in the White House. He was the first person to paint a portrait of the young lady, who is now Queen Elizabeth II. He made portraits of many of the most famous and infamous personalities of the first half of the twentieth century. Frank’s skills were not confined to portraiture as the commemorative plaque reveals,

Frank was highly successful in the USA and by 1932, he was able to move into his impressive mock-Tudor mansion, Sarum Chase, overlooking Hampstead Heath. The house was designed by Frank’s nephew Vyvyan Salisbury (died c1982). Following Frank’s death, the property was bequeathed to the British Council of Churches, who soon sold the house and its contents. The house has since been used as a background for photo and film shoots. In Disney’s 1996 film of “The 101 Dalmations”, Sarum Chase was used as the exterior of Cruella de Vil’s home.

By 1974, the house was home to St Vedast’s School for Boys, part of the School of Economic Science, which has links with a branch of Hindu philosophy. In 2005, the building was sold and is now, or has been, the home of property developer and donor to Jewish charities.

So, there you have it. If I have aroused your curiosity, that is good but do not try to enter this heavily guarded premises as did a little dog called Chewy, who found its way through a hole in the fence and met his sudden end in the garden of Sarum Chase in September 2016 (https://www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/our-pomeranian-dog-died-after-being-bitten-by-wealthy-property-3531920).

Gandhi, Lenin, Stalin

gandhi

Non-violent Gandhi 

Beside three leading men

Who faced fate with force

 

This mantle-piece at Shaw Corner, the home of George Bernard Shaw at Ayot St Lawence in Hertfordshire, bears the portraits of (from left to right) Mahatma Gandhi, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Josef Stalin. Shaw met all of these men.