Sargy Mann: Later Paintings
Royal Drawing School, London, February to March 2019
There's something pleasingly implausible about being taught how to see by a blind man, but that's precisely what Sargy Mann offers to do.
As with so much of my artistic education, it's my son Samuel who I've got to thank for knowledge of this extraordinary work and the man behind it. Samuel borrowed a copy, so gave me sight of, the self-deprecatingly named book 'Sargy Mann: Probably the Best Blind Painter in Peckham' and then took me to the Royal Drawing School show.
The Drawing School's paintings were almost all completed after Mann had become completely blind. How this is possible - and that they are as they are, so luminous and lucid - simply beggars belief. However, it's not a secret since the book is in large part an autobiography of the loss of Mann's sight over many years and his reaction to each change, and is brilliantly complemented by his son's film of the artist at work; measuring, re-measuring, drawing with Blu-tack blobs, explaining what he's up to and ultimately filling his large canvas with intense colour. I read the book and watched the film... and still I can't conceive how he did it, what was going on in his head to make it happen.
I'm interrupting my thread of posts about the possible analogy between paintings and music to record visits to a few recent shows.
George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field
The Holburne Museum, Bath, February to May 2019
I want to like George Shaw's work more than I do.
Given that I want to record places close to home - and that I want to do it in paint - makes me think that I ought to warm to his depictions of ordinary places. Given I'm of a similar age and background to Shaw, so instantly recognise the suburban Britain and 1970's imagery that he includes, makes me feel I should find him effortlessly accessible. Given that I too experienced a boyhood steeped in Christianity (low church protestant for me, Catholic for him) suggests I ought to intuitively appreciate the religious references in his paintings' titles. Even the fact that my teenage hobby of making plastic models meant I spent years enveloped in the smell of Humbrol paints (his chosen medium) suggests I might feel an affinity.
But in the flesh the works were less than the sum of all these parts. I was disappointed how photographic the paintings were, how smooth and glossy (for some reason I supposed he'd use matt Humbrol paints). The pencil images copied from films, television and porn looked like drawings torn from the sketchbook of an accomplished 'A'-level student, assembled for no good reason... perhaps to allude to a specific time, but to what end? I guess the religious links, specifically to the Passion, underline the misery, or at least mortality, contained in much that Shaw depicts, but I think they're in danger of being gratuitous.
Jonathan Jones in his five-star Guardian review of the show (07/02/19) suggests that there's 'hope in Shaw's vision,' that 'moments of redemptive promise' appear. He asks of a picture of a tree casting a shadow on a wall (above), 'Is that the shadow of Christ cast against a wall by a gnarled tree?' I'm tempted to say the answer is 'No. Why ever should I think it is?' But in this case I'm emphatically mistaken. A splendid little film ('George Shaw: An Introduction' by Jonathan Law, on YouTube) demonstrates a direct link between 'Ash Wednesday 8 a.m.' and William Holman Hunt's 'The Shadow of Death' (below). But (perhaps with a distinct lack of imagination on my part) I'm still left asking, 'So what?' In the film Shaw himself says the painting was 'a fairly literal translation of the (source) photograph in many ways,' before adding, 'I suppose I wanted it to move off from the Biblical narrative into a narrative which was much more general, not so much related to a kind of Christian thing but it was something to do with mortality and the trees though they look quite totemic and quite symbolic. I think they're quite apocalyptic in some senses.' 'He's utterly sincere,' says Jones, and this shines through in the unaffected delivery contained in Law's film . But I'm still left feeling mystified, and not in a good way.
I didn't buy the book of this show. Instead I got a catalogue from the National Gallery's earlier exhibition 'My Back to Nature'. This contains interesting essays about Shaw's past and about his techniques (I love the idea of him soaking everything up as a boy as he repeatedly visited the National Gallery sketchbook in hand, and envy him for it). The essays state, like Jonathan Jones, that the works are somehow freighted with great meaning: '(Shaw) does not make his landscapes on the spot... but prefers to select his subjects from photographs he takes, which he then copies in an apparently mechanical way. He never alters an image, keeping as close to the photograph as possible, but it is here that the transformation from fairly uninteresting and routine photographs to mysterious paintings loaded with unspoken symbolism happens' (p.11). I guess I just don't yet recognise the alchemy, the 'transformation', so the 'apparently mechanical' appears just 'mechanical'.
On the Holburne's website it says, 'Don't Miss - George Shaw in Conversation with Mark Hallett'. Having stumped up my £12.50 general admission (online, no concessions) that's exactly what I did do: miss it. In the business of a busy week I simply forgot to roll up. I meant to see if I could appreciate what's going on, but blew the chance. I regret it, especially now that I've seen the little film. Sorry George.
Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory
Tate Modern, London, January to May 2019
By all accounts I ought to like Bonnard's work less than I do.
This is an astonishing show. I'd always thought of Bonnard as a sort of also-ran twentieth century painter, but even if it's just because of its scale, this extraordinary exhibition seems to place him firmly up among the heavyweights.
Until viewing it I knew Bonnard's work almost exclusively in reproduction through Nicholas Watkins' 1994 monograph. Also a tiny number of displayed works (for example an impressively proportioned 'Summer in Normandy' included in the RA's 2016 'Painting the Modern Garden' show). In contrast, here, gallery after gallery displaying fully one hundred paintings.
I did my usual canter round it all before settling on a handful of paintings to have a better look at: a couple of landscapes, one big and one small, Marthe in her bath (of course) and a view out some French windows (of course). It got pretty busy, especially as the morning wore on, but I managed to make a few sketches to help me look.
Laura Cumming (Guardian, 26/01/19) gives the show four out of five stars. She recognised 'too many mediocrities... jumbled among the masterpieces' and thought at least some of the landscapes 'flaccid'. I didn't notice it much. I found it all very exciting. I started and abandoned three little sketches before completing my first one: it took me a while to simmer down.
Waldemar Januszczak doesn't like Bonnard much. His review (sub-titled 'brightness is not the same thing as brilliance') repeats Picasso's damning opinion ('a potpourri of indecision') which, half-remembered, is probably the source of my sense of Bonnard's supposed inadequacy. I understand the force of his criticisms ('Too many marks. Too many colours. Too little sense of direction.'). Bonnard's taken to task for not noticing historical events ('Two world wars come and go, but you’d never know it as he dabs away contentedly at his retirement art'), but is every artist required to pass political or social comment? (To be fair they're pretty big things to have overlooked.) But I can forgive much given the sense of excitement that this display engendered in me.
The fact that the paintings were created away from the motif, from sketchy little drawings, with such a range of colours, these are the things that strike me. I've no idea how I can use that insight in anything I ever make but it'll bear some thinking about.
I'll take my first example of an analogy between the formal elements of a painting and of music in Ivon Hitchens' work, already referred to in the last post ('Music', 26/02/19). The distinctive formal feature in question is Hitchens' commonly used wide horizontal format. The reason for its choosing is said to be two-fold, a consequence both of the subject being depicted and of 'the demand of the picture itself, in purely aesthetic terms' (p.67 of 'Ivon Hitchens', Khoroche, 1990, Lund Humphries).
Firstly, the motif's influence is felt because a landscape is typically viewed as a sequence of scenes taken in as the viewer's eyes 'range to left and to right'. A square canvas 'cannot be true to this visual experience' since this shape is seen all at once. That makes sense. By requiring the viewer's eyes to range over the wide-format picture Hitchens introduces 'progress', and a 'time element' (Hitchens' own words, ibid. p.67), both essential marks of a piece of music. (Presumably others who have painted narrower formats are capturing a different 'true' aspect of the visual experience with which they're presented.) So far so straightforward...
So, what demands does the picture make? This is where the nonsense might well begin...
Manifestly a picture makes no demands whatsoever; it has no agency.
I'm entering the realms of metaphor within metaphor so would do well to tread very carefully...
To ground the discussion I want to remind myself that I'm focusing on one key feature of Hitchens' paintings, i.e. their wide format. What does this specific feature offer the artist that might make its inclusion so compelling that it feels like a demand of the image itself (I presume that's what this talk amounts to...)? In essence the elongated format seems to require the placement of several scenes one beside the other, like a comic strip (though not necessarily read left to right). Because the viewer's eyes have to sweep across it, the painting is seen as a sequence that lasts some time which opens up other music-related possibilities. Khoroche again: 'A wider canvas allowed for several interrelated elements: space for forms to 'echo', for colour areas to react on each other; multiple perspective, and the division of the canvas into two, three or more sections setting up contrasts and counterpoint; control of the spectator's eye movement - the timing of the eye's progress over the canvas - what (Hitchens) called 'eye music'. (p.67)
Khoroche exemplifies what he means with reference to individual paintings. Of 'Holbrook Pools no.1' (above) he writes: 'there are three, if not four, vertical divisions of the canvas, giving as many different perspectives. The rhythm and direction of the brush strokes, the weight of the pigment and the deliberate placing of the different colour areas lead the eye in and out, across and back again, in excited exploration of all the harmonies and contrasts in the painting, while at the same time allowing it to absorb the atmosphere of a particular scene - boat, foliage and bridge' (p. 67).
In a slightly earlier and less typical painting ('Winter Stage, Moatlands Park', above) Khoroche identifies similar elements: 'the canvas (is) divided vertically into three compartments, each offering two different vistas of varying depth for the eye to explore as it turns radially to look into the dark forest beyond the verandah windows... Hitchens orchestrates shapes and colours and highlights, controlling the movement of the viewer's eye over the canvas in such a way as to give aesthetic pleasure' (p.68). Like beauty (if it's not the same thing) 'aesthetic pleasure' is presumably in the eye of the beholder, so whether Hitchens' orchestration is indeed pleasing depends on things beyond his control. I might, for example, be so distracted by the distortions of perspective created by three scenes in one as to be unwilling to carry on 'listening'. I'm not, as it happens, and on the contrary find the representation of what must be a sweep in excess of 120˚ exciting. I've only seen the image in reproduction so I can only guess how that sense would be amplified if stood not far distant from a painting spanning fully 156 cm. (It's in the Tate collection so I might get the chance one day.)
In conclusion, the wide format, it seems, opens up a space to push the viewer's eyes around which in turn offers echo, colour reactions, counterpoint, rhythm, harmonies and contrasts. More to think about there then...