“[Edward Burra] satirizes the present with an alarming gentleness, sympathy and an abandoned feeling of nonsense. His world is not pestered by vain attempts to rationalize. It is the topsy-turvy world we somehow live in…”
John Banting (from Edward Burra: A Painter Remembered; Andre Deutsch, 1982).
Greetings! What a glorious meeting we had on Saturday exploring the early paintings of Edward Burra – and indeed his world. Whether London, Paris, Marseille or Harlem, the theatre and ballet, films or illustrated magazines and paperback-thrillers, all inspired his imagination and the pictures are packed with people going about their business; with drama and humour they offer quite a perspective on the 1920s Jazz Age. The early works, certainly, deliver a fairly benign vision of the ‘underworld’ – the sex workers, sailors and dubious-looking characters – that must have represented such excitement and freedom so far were they from the respectability of Rye and, indeed, the exhaustion of illness, not to mention the cultural shadow of World War I.
The best books – and there are very few – on Edward Burra, are:
Jane Stevenson’s biography “Edward Burra: Twentieth-Century Eye” (Jonathan Cape, 2007)
Simon Martin’s Pallant House Gallery exhibition catalogue “Edward Burra” (Lund Humphries, 2011)
For Burra’s art works, the best places are Christies and Sothebys – click on the picture and sometimes there’s a “Lot Essay” further down the individual pages.
Other interesting websites for the 1930s more generally are: Cocktails with Elvira – all about Elvira Barney and her circle of friends, and for some great photographs and a brief history of the Harlem Renaissance period: allthatsinteresting.com
For an overview of the Bright Young People scene in 1920s & 30s London:
D.J. Taylor’s “Bright Young People” [Vintage, 2008] is an excellent and highly recommended read.
Drawing on the writings and reminiscences of the Bright Young People themselves, D.J. Taylor has produced an enthralling social and cultural history, a definitive portrait of a vanished age.
And for a broader social/ political history of the 1930s, Juliet Gardiner’s book “The Thirties” (2011, HarperCollins) is, to my mind, the very best.
One aspect we discussed was Burra’s admiration for Josephine Baker:
Went to the Casino de P[aris] revue, glorious my dear. Ive never enjoyed so much for years. J[osephine] Baker rose out of a gilded casket in a green evening dress to the floor trimmed with diamonte & sang ‘King for a day’ in English. Never have I heard anything so lovely.
– Letter from Edward Burra to Barbara Ker-Seymer [Tate]
And Baker is still, of course, renowned as a performer, a pioneering artist on stage and screen. She was also, through World War II, a highly skilful and successful spy. And she is about to be honoured in Paris.
In The Times (4th Sept. 2021), Ben Macintyre writes:
“It is primarily in appreciation of her work as an agent of the French Resistance… that Baker’s remains will be interred at the Pantheon in November. She will be only the sixth woman to received France’s highest honour, the first entertainer and the first black woman to be laid to rest in a national mausoleum… alongside Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Voltaire.”
I believe this will be happening on 30th November, and they’re bound to broadcast it on the France 24 channel (streamed on the internet, in English).
It was through reading and discussing “Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania” (published this year by Head of Zeus) with author Paul Kenyon recently that I’ve learnt a little about Romania’s contemporary art scene.
It’s towards the end of the book – a history of catastrophic leadership in Romania throughout the 20th century – that Paul writes of the present day:
“The collective trauma of communism, followed by revolution and then a decade of near darkness, has ignited in some a rare level of drive and inspiration. Up in the Transylvanian city of Cluj, a group of pioneering painters have caught the imagination of the art world with their wild and experimental styles, their loose application of paint, and their creation of haunting, sometimes brutal images of post-communist Romania. Members of the Cluj School are in their thirties and forties, working out of an abandoned communist brush factory in the city, while their canvases are exhibited in top galleries around the world… “
There is a fascinating essay in Contemporary Art Issues that gives the broad context and highlights the key artists of the Cluj School and another overview via Christies.
So many of the paintings are immediately fascinating, but it’s “The Sunflowers in 1937”  by Adrian Ghenie that really caught my attention. The photograph at the top of the page here is from Romania Insider magazine, the headline that Ghenie’s painting sold for over £3million at Sothebys in 2016.
We all know Vincent Van Gogh’s glorious series of Sunflowers paintings, such as the one at the National Gallery in London, and that familiarity is, perhaps, what makes Ghenie’s painting so shocking and, indeed, so powerful.
The Sotheby’s essay (in full here) notes: “Adrian Ghenie’s The Sunflowers in 1937 is an extraordinary and monumental reimagining of van Gogh’s masterpiece as subject to the events of twentieth-century history”. For, along with the familiarity of the image, is the shocking recognition of the date in the painting’s title: “1937 was the year in which the Nazi regime held the infamous exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ at the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten in Munich” and it is this history that haunts Ghenie’s picture. The Sotheby’s essay describes:
As though witnessing van Gogh’s Sunflowers in a state of near inferno, we imagine molten passages of oil paint shrinking to blackened welts as the canvas itself begins to disintegrate and disappear into thin air.
Adrian Ghenie, along with the other Cluj School artists, is only too aware of what fascism, totalitarianism and ‘cultural cleansing’ can do to a society and its people.
Horrendously, such cultural violence is currently being unleashed in Afghanistan where the visual art scene had been flourishing in recent years. Now:
Recent researches into the art and life of Gwen John for our Art, Books & Culture discussion group have led me to begin investigating a close friend of John’s, the artist Ursula Tyrwhitt (1872-1966) – although there is at first appearance very little to go on, despite her having a number of exhibitions.
The artuk.org website does have sixteen of her paintings – mostly from the National Library of Wales, so I guess one of my next steps is to visit their archives. The painting that really stands out from this selection for me – besotted by colour and flowers as I am!) is
“Still Life with Primroses”
That gorgeous blaze of oranges and yellows seems to vibrate, even fizz, deliciously.
That they are primroses links to Margaret Forster’s novel “Keeping the World Away” in which Ursula visits Gwen’s apartment in Paris. She had brought with her “some primroses, bought that morning from a woman selling them in the street. They were fresh, newly picked…”. She reaches the door to see that Gwen is painting, fears disturbing the concentration, whispers her name and holds out the flowers. Her friend turns, takes the flowers and puts them in water. replacing the book that is on the table and part of her still life painting.
“‘Good’, she said, ‘the flowers are just right. They say the right things’. Ursula wondered what these right things were, but Gwen was asking her if she would like tea…”
detail from Gwen John’s “A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris” [1907-9; Sheffield Museums; artuk.org]
In “Portraits of Women: Gwen John and Her Forgotten Contemporaries”, Alison Thomas notes:
“Ursula possessed a great gift for painting flowers. The shapes, forms and colours of a vase of flowers on a table, perhaps in front of a window, would inspire her to paint a bold composition. Ursula favoured the larger, more brightly coloured summer flowers: it is their size and varied shapes that give structure and form to her compositions, yet despite their outward boldness there is much delicacy and subtlety, particularly in her handling of the paint.”
By her use of thin, transparent and fluid washes, Ursula allows the essential structure of the flowers to act as a framework for the brilliant hues. She hints at literal appearance, but does not overstate. [In her paintings of flowers by windows] …the flowers themselves remain central in the composition, reinforcing their presence by glowing colour which captures our attention and incites our admiration.”
Only the very beginning, then, but a research project has been announced: archives, here we come!
There is a gorgeous painting by Ursula Tyrwhitt on the internet called “Nosegay”  but sadly no gallery link or further information; what an inspiration to find out more though:
For me, the best book on Gwen John’s art is by Cecily Langdale:
which is sadly out of print, but available at the library and there is a short article, c/o the publishers here.
My ‘highly recommended’ also goes to Alison Thomas’s “Portraits of Women: Gwen John and her forgotten contemporaries” from Polity Press, a group biography of Edna Clarke Hall, Gwen John, Ida Nettleship and Gwen Smith. Sadly again it seems to be out of print, but certainly worth tracking down.
Other books we mentioned include, Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson which is a wonderful read; Rebecca Birrell’s brand new book This Dark Country which looks at a number of artists from intriguing perspectives and has an essay on Gwen John and you just can’t get better in terms of a fictional portrait than in Margaret Forster’s Keeping the World Away!
There is also an archived documentary programme (BBC, 1975) on both Gwen and Augustus John available on i-player: The Fire and the Fountain.
As always: Happy Researching! and do let me know what else you come across, and I’ll add it in!
In the meantime: one of Gwen John’s beautiful flower paintings,
“Vase of Flowers” [1910s; National Library of Wales; artuk.org]
I’ve been meaning to write a short post about the artist Brett since reading Frances Wilson’s brilliant new biography
Wilson’s discussion of Lawrence’s life is extraordinary in that she weaves in all of his writing (not just the obvious novels) along with his friendships, travels and, let’s face it, his contradictions and eccentricities. Even aside from her subject, however, this is a biography like no other and Wilson’s determinedly creates a narrative – following Dante’s ascent through the circles of Hell – that unfolds in such a way as to portray Lawrence more in his own unique terms, his particular vision and understanding of life, than any straightforward this-happened-then-this-and-then-that. As such it is worth reading as much for an appreciation of the art of biography as for Lawrence’s life story.
Be that as it may, one of the most interesting aspects of Lawrence’s life for me – from the perspective of visual art – is his time in New Mexico. Lawrence had always wanted to set up a community of like-minded souls and when the American socialite and patron of the Taos Art Colony, Mabel Dodge Luhan, invited him, he went, along with his wife Frieda and the artist Brett (he had asked all his other friends to join him, they all said no!).
Brett is hardly known here now, except perhaps among the devotees of all things Bloomsbury. Her ‘full name’ was The Right Honourable Dorothy Eugenie Brett; her dates 1883-1977.
Born into a very well-to-do and actually quite eccentric family, Brett was seen as the most eccentric of them all when she began studying to be an artist at the Slade. It was there – alongside Carrington – that she not only cut off her hair (becoming what Virginia Woolf called “one of the cropheads”) but also cut off most of her names to become, simply, Brett. Despite suffering hearing problems – she used a trumpet she called Toby – she flourished, associating with Augustus John, Katherine Mansfield, the Lawrences, Mark Gertler and, especially during the years of the First World War, Ottoline Morrell at her house in Garsington which became a sanctuary for pacifists and conscientious objectors.
I have to copy & paste Manchester Art Gallery’s description of Brett’s painting “Umbrellas” which goes as follows:
Stylised figure composition in an outdoor park setting. Group of figures in the foreground, comprising bearded man to the right beneath an ivory coloured umbrella, limply holding a book in his right hand. There is a woman in a pale pink dress and yellow hat in the centre beneath a green umbrella, seated in deckchair facing a young man in a grey suit crouching to the left. There are more figures in the background beneath coloured umbrellas to the left and right.
They seem not to be fans of Bloomsbury! The “woman in a pale pink dress” is in fact the great Ottoline Morrell herself, the limp-handed bearded man is Lytton Strachey and the “crouching” young man is Aldous Huxley. The woman leaning on his shoulders is Ottoline’s daughter Julian. Of the “background” figures, the two to the right are Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray, the single figure under the yellow umbrella to the left is Mark Gertler and the person under the blue umbrella is the artist, Brett, herself. The “outdoor setting” is, of course, Garsington Manor.
Painted through the summer of 1917, Brett took Virginia Woolf to see it. Woolf notes in her diary: Brett is a queer imp. She took me to her studio and is evidently very proud of a great picture full of blue umbrellas.
Brett painted Lawrence’s portrait in New Mexico in 1925. The ‘colony’ was an endless drama of comings and goings, but Brett would stay in Taos for the rest of her days. The Sotheby’s website records: [Brett] was immediately enamoured by the new environment, remarking, “I like it better than England. O, for the bigness of it! …Here I’m free from the old conventions …Here I’m truly free” (as quoted in Cassidy, New Mexico Highway Journal, March 1933).
There’s an intriguing Self-Portrait (c/o Addison Rowe Gallery) from this time, 1925, and it looks as if Brett is holding “Toby”, her hearing trumpet:
Many of her paintings took their subjects from the Pueblo Indians’ lives. In Sean Hignett’s biography “Brett – from Bloomsbury to New Mexico” (1984), he recognises how difficult this was, especially for an outsider, alien to the community’s beliefs. However, making friends, Brett soon found a guide to the local religious ceremonies, Trinidad, who was “a discreet mediator and protector in [Brett’s] dealings with the Pueblo”.
It meant that she could attend – though not directly paint, sketch or photograph – the calendar of dances and ceremonies tied to the agricultural seasons and religious feast-days. The only ceremonial painting by Brett in a UK collection is at the Tate, and painted later in 1948:
Tate Catalogue notes:
The artist wrote (17 September 1959) that the dance is almost entirely Spanish in costume, music, etc.: ‘A variation of the old Spanish Folk Dance “Los Christianos y Tor Moros” celebrating the battle which recovered Spain from the Moors in the 15th Century. Brought to Mexico soon after the Conquest, it added “Matinche” (Cortez’ Mistress and Interpreter) as a character, but retained the Spanish El Toro (the bull). It was then brought up into New Mexico where it took on Indian characteristics. [see more on Tate website]
The costumes and masks are fascinating in their detail, the dancers and the two musicians with people looking on from all around; the symmetry and the colours reflect the ritual importance of the dance. It’s quite breath-takingly beautiful.
Hignett writes that the dance often developed “a deep psychic intensity, building up through the long sun-baked day, through hours of non-stop rhythmic shuffling and swaying, low throat-throbbing chanting and the continual rapid pound of drums. The dance grows until quite suddenly it stops and one feels the silence…”
The other extraordinary painting by Brett on the artuk.org website (again at the Tate) is terrifyingly tragic:
Massacre in the Canyon of Death: Vision of the Sun God
The artist wrote (17 September 1959):
‘The Navajo men before leaving for a hunting expedition placed their women and children in a high cave on the side of the towering cliff…. Soon after they left the Spanish soldiers rode through the Canyon. An old woman … jeered and spat, thus giving away their hiding place. The soldiers then climbed up the opposite side of the Canyon and fired into the cave until all the women and children were killed. My painting shows the dying women seeing a vision of the Sun God as they die.’ [Tate website]
The tragedy is there in the red walls of the canyon, the smallness of the figures – but that vision of the Sun God seems to have such strength: at the moment of death the women and children pass beyond earthly life under the Sun God’s gaze. To me, at least, as a cultural outsider, it would seem Brett had a remarkable understanding of local beliefs and was able to convey/translate the meaning and power of them in paint. I wonder about the balance between the documentary aspect, the story-telling and the artistic vision of the paintings. Brett certainly did not paint for foreign/western eyes, indeed it seems many of her paintings were bought by the local community, but one does wonder about their reception and whether the Pueblo Indians recognised themselves, their lives, legends and beliefs in Brett’s imagery.
Of course, through the magic of the digital age, we are also able to “visit” some of the Taos galleries and auction houses to see more of Brett’s art:
This is “Women’s Dance” (1932), one of a number at parsonart.com showing again Brett’s glorious use of colour.
That DH Lawrence, who died in 1930, was such an influence on her life – the invitation to New Mexico was a complete liberation – is recalled in a 1958 painting:
called “My Three Fates” [Albuquerque Museum], it shows Mabel (left), Frieda (centre) and Brett (right) apparently remembering Lawrence who we see through the doorway sitting writing under a tree, as was his habit.
How very fabulous it was to start up our Art Discussion meetings again, hurrah! So wonderful to see everyone.
As promised, I’ve put together some resources for our three brilliant artists (just click on the links underlined in blue):
Sylvia Gosse (1881-1968)
Sylvia Gosse: The Printer [1914; Swindon Art Gallery]
There are 55 paintings by Sylvia Gosse on artuk.org,
Alicia Foster’s article “Sylvia Gosse: being modern” is here
and a short essay about her in connection with Walter Sickert & the Camden Town Group on Tate Inc.
We mentioned the paintings of Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960): there’s a Tate essay here and I suspect a very good article in Apollo (but I’m just waiting for a password reset! Very worth signing up to their 4 free articles a month – but don’t forget your password!)
Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979)
Edna Clarke Hall: Poem Picture
So very difficult to find out much about Lady Edna Clarke Hall, other than a short biography on Tate/Wikipedia and an interesting Old Upminster history article.
We do learn quite a lot about her earlier life and marriage via Ida Nettleship’s letters:
which include the immortal line: “Stir up, and look the thing in the face and be a man for a time”.
There are only a few images on artuk.org, more at Abbott and Holder and some on a blogspot called “the sight of morning“, it seems a V&A archive and the National Gallery of Wales archive also hold some of her work, including the Poem Pictures, unfortunately not digitalised – and I’m not sure if the Archives are open to the public yet – I’ll find out!
Edna Clarke Hall is also mentioned in Carolyn Trant’s brilliant “Voyaging Out”
in which Trant writes: “[ECH’s] work was out of kilter with the times…. All her work sprang from emotional compulsion rather than aesthetic consideration, and these merged when, inspired by Blake, she went on to make the Poem Pictures, her own handwritten verses with images, creating a more metaphysical representation of a ‘soul in chains’. The words are frank, sensually erotic and integral to the images… With so much of her work missing and the remainder now rarely exhibited it is hard to arrive at a considered judgement of her achievement.”
Ethel Walker (1861-1951)
Ethel Walker: The Young Sculptress [no date; Potteries Gallery & Museum]
There are a number of paintings on the Christie’s website (scroll down to their Essays)
as well as interesting information on those paintings held by the Tate – where Walker’s archive and unpublished biography by Grace English is held – click on the “Catalogue Entry”, especially for example on The Zone of Love: Decoration where Mary Chamot writes: “[The Decorations] are translations of a state of mind in terms of design, they are musical in their abstraction… no jarring note of excessive realisation is allowed to destroy the imaginative completeness of the whole.”
I’ll add to these resources as I can
– and please let me know if you discover anything and what you think of the artists’ work.
The other book we mentioned for general information on artists’ lifestyles in this period is:
and, next month (hopefully Saturday 28th August, but I’ll confirm by email) we’ll discuss the
“The City Square” – Natalya Goncharova’s 1914 set design for Le Coq D’Or, the Ballets Russes, Paris [MoMA, New York]
Through the first half of 1914, Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were in Paris working with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company and holding an exhibition of Goncharova’s paintings. The declaration of war, however, sent them back to Moscow. Larionov was called up. Goncharova portrayed the war as a mythic encounter, Russian soldiers accompanied by hosts of angels.
Goncharova: Mythical Images of War from a series of lithographs published late 1914
These are, remarkably, patriotic, notes Anthony Parton: “an apocalyptic view of the war in which Russia and its allies were supported by an angelic host in their battle against dark material and spiritual forces.” Other images include St George, St Michael and angels fighting with aeroplanes: see University of Notre Dame for full series). There is a sense in this apocalyptic vision of spiritual battle that Goncharova is invoking the ‘Destiny of Russia’ concept: that Russia is “divinely ordained to play a key role in shaping world events”.
Other artists were also forced to return home. Chagall returned from Paris to marry his beloved Bella:
The sole word visible in the newspaper is “war”. Walther and Metzger, write in the Taschen monograph of Chagall: “The ‘paper is on the table between the two men, whose conversation appears to deal exclusively with the carbage ahead in Europe. The olf Jew, resting his chin thoughtfully in his cupped hands, is thinking of the compulsory conscription Tsarist regimes have been imposing on his people from time immemorial. [His opposite number] whose suit and hat pronounce him to be a bourgeois, [is not] at all enthusiastic either; he is seen mopping his brow in distraction.”
Chagall wasn’t called up, indeed he remained in Russia through until the early 1920s, as did Wassily Kandinsky who, like Goncharova, saw Russia in a grand, epic and spiritual light:
Kandinsky: Moscow – Red Square [1916; Tretyakov Gallery]
Amidst the richly vibrant colours and textures, lines and patterns, we see Moscow, with all its churches and cupolas; Red Square has been painted frontally, raised on the heavenly hill. Right at the centre, Boris and Gleb, the two founding Saints of Russia gaze upwards. Above, we see the rainbow, symbol of the Archangel Michael:
the chief archangel, the Archistratig, the head of the Lord’s heavenly warriors, the guard and protector of God’s honour. Under his leadership the heavenly forces defeated the devil in battle. He is therefore the patron saint of chivalry and warriors… [Museum of Russian Icons]
The artist wrote that he particularly loved the time, when the sun goes down and “melts all of Moscow down to a single spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart and all of the soul vibrating.” This hour of sunset is “the final chord of a symphony that takes every colour to the zenith of life that, like the fortissimo of a great orchestra, is both compelled and allowed by Moscow to ring out.”
Much had changed since Kandinsky had last been in Moscow, and whilst his ‘ways of seeing’ – that colour vibrates with emotion like music – were radical, others had even more far-reaching visions that would lead to Liubov Popova’s 1921 vision of the city which, with its light and air, steel and glass, stands in extraordinary contrast to Kandinsky’s Moscow:
. Popova: maquette for the City of the Future [1921, photographer unknown]
So how did we get there? Well there’s a photograph of Popova’s studio (taken by Alexander Rodchenko in 1924) that suggests the course that Russian avant garde art took in the wake of Malevich’s Suprematism.
Right: Space-Force-Construction [1921; Tretyakov]
The paintings on the wall above the City of the Future model are from Popova’s Space-Force-Construction series, which had evolved from the colour architectonic paintings we saw in our last episode. Malevich had created, in Suprematism, an entirely new artistic language that dispensed with representation and perspective, emphasising instead geometric shapes and dynamic movement. That breakdown of traditional painting – the Black Square and White on White being the most radical examples – and ways of seeing visual art, led to a period of deep, analytical experimentation of line, colour, shape, movement and recession. Olga Rozanova was painting ‘non-objective compositions’ that, by 1917, were truly brilliant examples of such experimentation:
Non-Objective Composition [1917, Ulyanovsk]; Green Stripe [1917, Rostov]; Colour Painting [1917, St Petersburg]
For Rozanova, colours and colour combinations were the primary building blocks of creative art. For other artists, other aspects came to prominence. In the photograph of Popova’s studio, for example, we see her space-force-construction paintings emphasise line as the dynamic force and – essentially – she brings material texture (faktura) to the fore: notice the paint veers from smooth to rough, and notice especially that this is not painted on traditional canvas, but unprimed plywood, large areas of which are left bare.
This recognition of the very materials used in art-making and the materiality of the art-work itself was central to the ideas of Vladimir Tatlin.
Valdimir Tatlin: The Sailor (probably a self-portrait) [1912; State Russian Museum]
Tatlin, having run away from home as an eighteen year old, became a sailor, travelling the world. Even so he kept up with the avant-garde artists, friends with both Larionov and Goncharova, and painted in the ‘primitivist’ style as we see in The Sailor. Living in great poverty, Tatlin managed to visit Paris and his hero Picasso in 1913 – returning to Russia filled with radical Cubist ideas. As Camilla Gray notes, it was in the winter of 1913-14 that Tatlin took the first step towards what would become Constructivism. Now the difficulty is that many of the early works were lost or destroyed, so there is a reliance on black & white photographs. Here, however, is that first step:
Tatlin: The Bottle [1913; location unknown, photograph from Camilla Gray’s “The Russian Experiment in Art”]
With wallpaper, wood, metal and glass, The Bottle is an exploration of different materials and their properties – the “culture of materials”; Camilla Gray explains: the object, the bottle, is still recognisable as the shape that has been incised onto a strip of metal. But it is not the individual object that is Tatlin’s subject matter, rather its ‘bottleness’ is being analysed. We see the shape silhouetted against a metal strip. But of course one can see through glass, so Tatlin recognises that idea of ‘seeing through’ by using a wire mesh. Moreover, glass is shiny, so the metal behind the mesh has been polished. Each element of a glass bottle has been isolated, taken separately and re-considered. The curve of the bottle, for example, has been taken away from the bottle and transferred to the near-cylinder of metal right at the centre – the reflection of light on the metal paralleling the reflection of light on the bottle. As this metal cylinder arcs out into real space, it contrasts with the flat silhouette of the bottle and the flatness, to the left, of a square of wallpaper. However, even the wallpaper’s flatness is usurped by its trompe l’oeil decorative patterning. Gray summaries: “Thus, a typical ‘enclosed’ space [the bottle] is dissected part by part, attribute by attribute, the analysis being conducted in a series of planes which contrast the idea of ‘real’ and ‘illusory’ space.”
Using a variety of raw materials – wood, tin, plaster, glass, steel and more – Tatlin explores and combines them to create contrasting textures that illuminate the material properties of each element, extending the ‘picture’ out into real space. This extension he then takes further, removing any reference to the flatness of the framed picture, by creating corner-reliefs:
Corner Relief [1915; destroyed]
Corner Relief [1916; State Russian Museum]
“These corner constructions were Tatlin’s most radical works. In them he has created a new spatial form: a continually intersecting rhythm of planes whose movements jut into, cleave, embrace, block and skewer space” – Camilla Gray.
Alongside Tatlin was fellow-constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, whose initial works on paper and canvas explored lines, which Brandon Taylor in Tate Papers perfectly emphasises are ‘non-descriptive lines’, and would lead, like Tatlin’s work, into three-dimensional ‘real’ space:
Rodchenko: Line Construction [1920; MoMA]; Spatial Construction: Circles within Circles [1921; whereabouts unknown]
You’ll have noticed that we have slipped into post-Revolutionary time, and the Constructivists were very much part of the revolutionary aesthetic those first few utopian years, their artworks tending towards the scientific and the architectural. Notice, for example, the parallel here:
On the left we have Rodchenko’s “Composition No.47” [1917; oil on wood, State Russian Museum], the principles of which the artist re-directs two years later into, on the right, a Design for a Kiosk [1919; private collection]. The avant-garde’s radically new ways of seeing and creating were – at least to them – allied with the radical transformation of society. Even Malevich’s Suprematism was deployed in the decoration of post-Revolutionary Petrograd/Leningrad:
This is Natan Altman’s design for Uritsky Square (Palace Square) in Petrograd in celebration of the first anniversary of the Revolution. An unknown photographer captured the scene: a cheering crowd behind whom large ‘Suprematist’ panels (of colour) had been constructed:
This, however, is another story for another Research Series.
Russian Art & Artists – Towards Constructivism
Thank you so much for following this series, i hope you have enjoyed and, as ever, if you are able to donate it is hugely appreciated. All best wishes for now.
This is the last regular ‘episode’ in this ongoing series as ‘live’ events return, but there will be further articles in the future – simply “follow” The Common Viewer and a notice will appear in your email inbox.
To send us on our merry way then, with all best wishes, here is Varvara Stepanova’s 1920 painting “Musicians” [Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow]:
Since my post about Medieval church wall-paintings in the “Rambling with Rothenstein” series last year, I have had half an eye on all things that touch on the visual culture of life in the Middle Ages.
For anyone who shares this curiosity, you may be interested in J.L.Carr’s short novel “A Month in the Country”.
Written in the late 1970s, it looks back to the summer of 1920. A young man, Tom Birkin, returned from the horrors of the Great War to train as a specialist in the restoration of wall-paintings. His first job takes him to the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby, deep in the English countryside, to an ancient church. “It was tremendously exciting”, he says, “to begin with I didn’t know what I was uncovering.” By the end of the second day he has uncovered a head and face of Christ, delighted by the colours that suggested the medieval artist was one of high calibre: “And, as the first tinges of garment appeared, that prince of blues, ultramarine ground from lapis lazuli, began to show – that really confirmed his class – he must have fiddled it from a monastic job – no village church could have run to such expense.”
The novel is extraordinarily subtle as his memories of the war gentle mingle with his meetings with villagers, a brush of romance and a broad contemplation of English life; it’s a subtlety that belies some deep themes if one were to seek them out. For me, though, it is this day-by-day revelation of the wall-painting that is so fascinating, and Birkin’s contemplation of the artist and his world:
“it’s not at all easy to find your way back to the Middle Ages. They weren’t us in fancy dress…”.
Yet, gradually, he does get to ‘know’ the artist, through the details of the image (a large Doom painting) and the touch of the paintbrush, as far as it might be possible across five centuries. By the end of the tale, he stands before “the great spread of colour” recognising that, for those past few weeks, he “had lived with a very great artist”.
I was delighted to see fragments of a medieval wall-painting myself last week, at St James the Less Church, in Hadleigh, Essex.
My guide, local historian Sandra Harvey, told me that the Norman church had been built probably in the 1140s during the reign of King Stephen. But it wasn’t until the 1850s, during restoration work, that the whitewash was removed from the walls to reveal painted texts, border decorations and some extraordinary images.
Those that survive today include an angel and a painting of St Thomas of Canterbury inscribed “Blessed Thomas” and dated to the early 1170s. This is of course intriguing, as Thomas Becket had been assassinated in 1170, perhaps on the orders of King Henry II, and was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1173. Only months later, the King “humbled himself in public penance at Becket’s tomb” which became a site for pilgrimage as Becket became something of a medieval cult figure. That the Hadleigh painting is so early suggests the church’s proximity to Canterbury and the King, perhaps via the Priory at Prittlewell.
Other paintings at St James the Less could not be preserved, however Mr H.W.King (who oversaw the work) made some drawings, the most wonderful of which shows there had been a large depiction of St George and the Dragon from the 15th century.
The Knight, on horseback, impales the dragon, thus securing Christian good over evil, whilst the Princess watches on along with, in the background, the King and Queen who appear to be applauding from Hadleigh Castle (which had been re/built in the 14th century).
My other ‘medieval moment’ has been via Charles Spencer’s book “The White Ship” which tells the history of a medieval disaster when Henry I’s only legitimate son, William Aetheling, was one of the many to die when the White Ship – the Titanic of its day – was shipwrecked off the coast of Normandy.
The book is split into three sections. The first, Triumph, tells the story of Henry – the third son of the Conqueror – as he makes his way towards ruling both England and Normandy. It’s a complicated story, with inter-familial and strategic marriages, births both in and out of wedlock, bitter sibling rivalries, bloody battles, awful punishments and the complex relationship of kingship and papal authority. Eventually Henry secures both lands and brings a certain peace and order. His triumph, then, is to marry Matilda of Scotland, with whom he has a legitimate male heir, William Aetheling and a daughter Matilda.
I love Spencer’s imagined description of the charming and handsome seventeen-year-old William:
“Drawing on the aristocratic fashions of the time, we can guess how William Aetheling was turned out when he waited in Barfleur to make his sea passage home. If we picture him swathed in the finest sil shirt and tunic, with a fur-trimmed brocaded cloak thrown over his shoulders – to combine magnificence with warmth – we are probably not too far from the truth. If, in addition, he was following the fashion that had taken root during his grandfather’s rule of England and was still in vogue, his shoes would have been long with pointed toes.”
Part Two is titled Disaster: the White Ship, on which William was travelling from Normandy to England, met with a mighty collision against a rock. As water rushed in, William’s bodyguards got him onto a rowing boat. However, hearing his half-sister’s screams as the ship splintered further and both crew and passengers were hurled into the freezing sea, William made them turn the little boat back to try and rescue her. Those flailing in the water grabbed on to the returning boat, seeking safety, yet ultimately pulling everyone down into the water. Henry I’s dream of securing long-lasting peace, so that England and Normandy might be passed down to his legitimate son, had been shattered.
The third part of the book, Chaos, tells of the anarchy as lands on both sides of the Channel return once again to on-going rivalry, battles and bloodshed. The shipwreck had a huge impact on the course of history leading, on Henry I’s death, to the unsettled reign of King Stephen.
There is an extremely poignant manuscript image of Henry mourning the death of his son:
You may have seen or read that Charles Spencer has been taking scientific diving teams out to the site of the shipwreck to learn if anything of the ship might remain, which really would be extraordinary, and rather exciting.
As a postscript, there’s a great article by Simon Heffer:
in which he concludes: “With luck, as churches continue to be repaired, more such ancient masterpieces will be found, their glaze protecting them from centuries of whitewash; and once more our ancestors will speak directly to us.”
We’ve seen over the last few episodes that, since Diaghilev’s comment in 1905 that “we are witnessing the greatest historic hour of reckoning, of things coming to an end in the name of a new unknown culture”, the Russian art world became a site of rapid, experimental change through the work of artists such as Goncharova, Chagall, Kandinsky and many others. This explosion of painting was linked to the work of modernists right across Europe – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso – adopted into and transformed by the Russian context of ideas, culture, philosophy and indeed the increasingly unstable political situation.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, links with European artists were cut but, within Russia, the avant-garde continue their radical experimentation.
Out on the streets there were strikes and demonstrations. The news from the war is that tens of thousands of men – barely trained, barely armed – are dying en masse at the front. It becomes clear that Tsar Nicholas is clueless at military strategy and that the Tsarina is influencing social policy by way of the disreputable figure of Rasputin. The strikes and demonstrations grow louder, increasingly political as left-wing activists, especially the Bolsheviks, rally citizens towards revolution.
Meanwhile, artist Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) has been quietly cooking up a revolution of his own…
Malevich: Peasant Women in Church [1911; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]
As with the other Russian avant-garde artists, Malevich had explored Symbolism, Impressionism and by 1911 a Post-Impressionist “Primitivism” akin to that of Natalya Goncharova. These brusque paintings were very much part of a radical art movement that intended to shock the viewer with their non-naturalist depictions and roughly-textured painting. With its roots in Paul Gauguin’s pictures of Brittany and the villagers of Pont-Aven from the 1880s, Malevich’s “Peasant Women in Church” also reflects – especially by way of the mask-like faces – the more recent work of Picasso, in particular perhaps Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
What is fascinating about Malevich’s “Peasant Women in Church” canvas is what is on the other side of it. Note how the peasant women are painted really quite sculpturally, they are rotund, their arms and bodies look solid… well on the ‘verso’ of this painting, we find Malevich, just one year later, moving away from that brusque, textured primitivism to take on, via a version of Cubism, a much cleaner sculptural, and uniquely cylindrical style:
The human form has been radically simplified, yet one feels the woodcutter’s strength; he is a monumental figure reflecting his importance in village life. All around him are cylindrical logs – neither background nor foreground – integrating the figure into his work, this very moment of concentration. It’s a delicious patterning of distinct, clearly formed shapes, and they have a sense of movement and dynamism.
The paintings strike one as extraordinarily modern – that tubularity, the almost metallic sheen – and yet fascinatingly they depict the changing of the seasons and the traditional rural work that has been done since time immemorial. If there is a sense of ‘futurism’ here, it is far from the machinery, urbanisation, transport and war of the Italian Futurists. Closer to that sense of speed and dynamism of the city, and the fragmentation of modern life is:
Malevich: The Knifegrinder [[1913; Yale University]
“The workman sharpens his knives at the foot of a flight of steps, visible upper and lower right… The arc of the steps curves around the knifegrinder, whose rhythmic movements Malevich has indicated by the repetition of the foot upon the pedal, the repetition of fingers and hands and the duplication of the nose and other facial features. The grinding machine provides the pivot of the composition [as] the rhythm of rotation appears to spread out like ripples from the centre of the machine animating the flight of steps…” [John Milner: Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry, 1996].
Through all this Cubo-Futurist experimentation, Malevich is searching for something: he wants to release art from matters of representation, from the depiction of nature and so-called reality. And, in 1913, he staged an opera at the Futurists Theatre called “Victory Over the Sun”.
Left: Poster advertising “The World’s First Four Productions of Futurist Theatre” at Luna Park Theatre, St Petersburg, 2nd-5th December 1913, including “Victory Over the Sun”.
Right: “The Aviator” painted by Malevich in 1914 [Russian Museum]
The main thrust of Victory Over the Sun, is that the sun represents nature, logic and rationality (the Enlightenment) and therefore the past and present. Victory will represent the future, and its hero is the Aviator or the New Man, of the future, a Traveller in time and space who was later painted by Malevich full of symbolic references. He wears a top hat with a ‘0’ on it from which come beams of light; the Zero might represent a starting point. The playing card in his hand might represent chance and the Tarot (which fascinated Malevich).
Understanding the painting can get rather complicated, for example the ray of light illuminates and splits some lettering which, together, in Russian spell “apteka” meaning “chemist” – the KA might refer to the character of a traveller in a poem, and/or to the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. Certainly there are layers of meaning, the images relating to language and words as well as possibly fellow Futurist poets involved in Victory Over the Sun.
The costumes for the Opera were designed by Malevich: they are quite bizarre visually with patches of bright colour, and also bizarre in effect: some of the colours would be illuminated by the stage-lighting, and so fragmenting the image on stage, moreover the costumes were made of soft fabric, undermining their solidity.
Malevich’s costume designs: State Museum of Theatre and Music, Saint Petersburg.
The Opera itself was bombastic and absurd. Unsurprisingly it had a mixed reception, some criticised its lunacy, others delighted in its eccentricity. Malevich himself was thrilled with it all, see: Victory Over the Sun for more detail.
As we can see from these newspaper images, Malevich’s backdrops were as peculiar as his costumes; and they include something very important. Joseph Kiblitsky of the State Russian Museum notes that the outline of a square appears in the first, second and third scenes, then, in the fifth, a pure black square on a white plane. It was the first time Malevich had depicted any type of black square. In the play, the image simply symbolises the victory over the sun, like an eclipse, the black covering the white. But for Malevich it seems there was more to it. Like a scientist in a laboratory, he had come about something by chance but that he knows is valuable. Throughout 1914 he experiments…
Malevich: Composition with ‘Mona Lisa’ [1914; State Russian Museum]
The words on the canvas: “chastichnoe” means partial; “zametnie” means eclipse; “peredatsa kvartina v moskva” means we have surpassed the picture in Moscow. Note how the image of the Mona Lisa has been crossed through and torn, it almost disappears in the cascade of Cubist squares – it is a partial eclipse of the old art. In solitude and secrecy, Malevich continues working in his studio and then, in 1915, there was an extraordinary exhibition:
0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition [December 1915; St Petersburg (renamed Petrograd)]
It must have been bewildering to any common viewer that happened to be passing by! And, displayed on the corner – just as a Russian would hang an icon – is Black Square.
Malevich: Black Square [1915; Tretyakov Gallery]
It’s an icon, the likes of which we had never seen before: the icon of a new world order, a new means of making art. Malevich has stripped away all representation and left us with nothing, a void, a blank, a black square. He called it the Zero of form (remember The Aviator’s top hat?).
Black Square seems to erase, end, annihilate all the paintings that went before. It is the end of art.
If the traditional Orthodox icon was our connection to the heavenly, then to what does Black Square connect us?
It is worth noting that Black Square has no horizon: hang the painting any way you want and it remains a black square floating on a field of white – Malevich has released the artist from gravity.
But above all it is just, simply, a black square – a geometric, mathematical form. Unsullied by nature or politics or human history and society. It is pure. “It is the face of new art. The Square is a living, royal infant” said Malevich:
“It is everything.”
The photograph of the exhibition shows there were other paintings too: the Black Square had given Malevich entry into the development of a new purely artistic alphabet: squares, crosses, circles and so on. Releasing us from the chains of Art History, this is Suprematism – painting founded on pure artistic forms.
Black Circle [1915; State Russian Museum]; White on White [1918; MoMA, New York]
So what does Malevich, and other artists inspired by his work, do with these new forms? The development is rapid. From the bold simple forms we soon move into formations of complex, dynamic planes, shapes and colours:
The painting at the Tate is a marvellous example: we can see a white on white triangular form around, over, under which other shapes are floating in various directions, some are coming forward, whilst others cross over (reminding us again of the impact of the costumes and backdrops in Victory Over the Sun).
Importantly too, colour is kept within the forms and very much part of the dynamic ‘non-gravity space’ within the picture frame.
We can turn to other artists who took up Malevich’s Suprematist ideas and created The Supremus Group, including Olga Rozanova (1886-1918) who I would call a Suprematist Colourist:
Non-Objective Composition (Suprematism) [1916; Fine Arts Museum, Yekaterinburg]
Rozanova uses both bold and more subtle colours, from stark red to gentle peach and lilac; and note how at the bottom left she has ‘quoted’ Black Square.
Rozanova: Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Aeroplane) [1916; Fine Arts Museum, Samara]
“Throughout Rozanova’s career, colour remained her chief concern. In sophisticated abstract paintings [those shown above], she reveals a ‘discordant concordance’ of interactive coloured planes to reveal her own variant of Suprematism based on the dominant role of colour.” [Nina Gurianova in “Amazons of the Avant-Garde”, Royal Academy, 1999].
For Rozanova, it is colour that has the dynamism Malevich attributes to shape; her work blazes with colour, contrasts that create movement and rhythm. Her aim was “to convey the immaterial essence of colour, its inner energy and luminosity…”
For Liubov Popova (1889-1924), shape and colour were certainly central, but it is perhaps a combination of texture and structure that stands out in many of her Suprematist paintings, which she called ‘architectonic’
This “Painterly Architectonic” at the National Gallery of Scotland is described as: “characterized by dynamic, overlapping planes which seem to float in space. The coloured diagonal shapes in this painting suggest movement but also a sense of balance. The modelling of the shapes suggests a light source from outside the frame.”
That latter statement suggest something quite different to anything found in Malevich’s Suprematism; the Gallery seems to be suggesting that Popova imaging her abstractions as physical architecture out in the ‘real world’. And that, perhaps, is why she is so interested in texture – faktura – the actual material of the painting, which would lead her towards Constructivism, yet another aspect of the radical avant-garde in Russia, as we will see next time.
Describing the art of Liubov Popova in “The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922”, Camilla Gray notes how difficult it is to categorise the works such as the Architectonic Paintings from 1918 below, yet how exciting they are:
“They are often executed on a rough board, and the angular forms in strong blues, green and reds are brushed in on this crude, raw surface, leaving the impression of a lightning-swift movement, a darting, breathless meeting of forces…”
Russian Art & Artists 15 – Suprematism
Thank you for reading this episode of our ‘gentle’ research into Russian Art & Artists! If you are able to ‘donate’ that would be marvellous – many thanks and all best wishes.
Our next episode:
Russian Art & Artists (16): Constructivism and Tatlin’s Tower
will be published by Sunday 25th July 2021
Let’s finish, though, with two gorgeous colour sketches by Olga Rozanova [1917; private c/o Wikimedia]: