“[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]
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
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.”
The Mother of God of Vladimir [Constantinople; 12th century; Tretyakov Gallery]
The art of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) especially, to my mind, the paintings made from around 1910 to 1916 on the cusp of full abstraction, is among the most experimental, fascinating and exciting work of the 20th century. Before we get there, however, I’d like to explore Russian Icons a little – primarily because of their connections to Kandinsky’s art and thinking as we will see, but also because it was only in the late 19th century and early 20th century that Icons began to be viewed as works of art; much more than that, however, as a genre, they represent, symbolise, Russia’s understanding of itself.
The Mother of God of Vladimir, or the Theotokus of Vladimir (detail top of page) is one of the most beautiful and most revered icons in Russia:
The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God was painted by the Evangelist Luke on a board from the table at which the Saviour ate together with His All-Pure Mother and Righteous Joseph. The Mother of God, upon seeing this image, exclaimed, “Henceforth, all generations shall call Me blessed. The grace of both My Son and Me shall be with this icon.” In the year 1131, the icon was sent from Constantinople to Rus to holy Prince Mstislav (April 15th) and was installed in the Devichi monastery in Vyshgorod
Luke the Evangelist painting Vladimirskaya icon of Our Lady [16th century, Russian Museum]
With the attempted invasion of Kievan Russia by the Mongol Empire led by Tamerlaine (aka Timur), the icon was removed – translated – to Moscow:
Orthodox tradition states that later, in 1395 Timur, having reached the frontier of Principality of Ryazan, had taken Elets and started advancing towards Moscow. Great Prince Vasily I of Moscow went with an army to Kolomna and halted at the banks of the Oka River. The clergy brought the famed Theotokos of Vladimir icon from Vladimir to Moscow. Along the way people prayed kneeling: “O Mother of God, save the land of Russia!” Suddenly, Timur’s armies retreated.
The histories of Moscow and of the icon of Vladimir Mother of God are eternally inseparable. How many times did the Mother of God save the capital city from enemies through the grace of her holy icon? This icon has linked Apostolic times to Byzantium, Kievan Rus’ to Vladimir Rus’, and later to Muscovy, the Third Rome; as it is said, “there will be no Fourth.” The kingdom of Moscow was formed by divine providence and embraced the mystical ties of ancient empires, historical experience and traditions of other Orthodox peoples. The miracle working Vladimir icon became a symbol of unity and succession.
That the Icon is said to be painted by St Luke directly from the Virgin Mary, and to have passed from Byzantium to Moscow carrying all the symbolic weight of Orthodox belief, is the pivot of Russia’s sense of itself in the world.
A 15th-century depiction of Princess Olga being baptised in Constantinople
Princess Olga of Kiev was the first ruler of Kievan Rus’ who became a Christian. Her grandson, Vladimir of Kiev, made Rus’ officially a Christian state. The official Christianization of Kievan Rus’ is widely believed to have occurred in 988 AD, when Prince Vladimir was baptised himself and ordered his people to be baptised by the priests from the Eastern Roman Empire.
These were times often depicted by the Wanderers artists in the late 19th century as they revived the sense of Russian history and tradition. In 1880, Vassily Perov for example portrays early Christians praying in secret during pre-Christian pagan times, in 1892 Mikhail Nesterov recalled Princess Olga and in 1890, Viktor Vasnetsov depicted the baptism of Vladimir [all Kiev Museum of Russian Art].
When Vladimir accepted Orthodox Christinaity, artists from Byzantium came over to Kievan Rus to decorate the newly built churches and to teach local painters the skills of their work; and it was in Russia that icon painting really took hold, especially in the cities of Vladimir, Novgorod and Moscow. One especially important master of Moscow was Andrei Rublev (1360s-1420s):
Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity (c. 1410; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) [see Tretyakov Magazine and there’s Tarkovsky’s mesmerising loosely biographical film Andrei Rublev.]
The ‘School of Novgorod’ is also particularly fascinating as it was the only Russian city spared the Mongol invasion in the 13th century due to being surrounded by marshes making it inaccessible, and so although the painting of icons is a very strict, inherited, hardly-ever-changing tradition, there is a distinctly Novgorodian style.
The artistic culture of Novgorod reached its summit in the later half of the XIV century. The best icons of that period demonstrate the consummate skill of their creators. The exellence of style is manifested in profound and highly expressive images, in perfect composition and choice of colours. The pride of place among the late XIV century icons belongs to “Sts. Boris and Gleb” from the Church of same name in Plotniki – heroic in spirit and superb in its colour – scheme of flaming cinnabar, gold, emerald green, and olive and orange tones. The icon represents the first Russian saints, the sons of Grand Duke Vladimir. Killed in 1015 by their brother Svyatopolk who strove to take up his father’s throne, they were canonized in the XI century and were revered as the martyrs and warriors, the patrons of dukes and soldiers.
In terms of the painting:
Softness is the distinctive feature of the Russian Orthodox icons of Boris and Gleb. Usually, they represent frontal, full-length images of the princes, which seem to float in the air. The faces of the saints are somewhat sad but display concentration and kindness. In their hands, they hold the attributes of martyrdom and princely authority: crosses and swords. Boris and Gleb are dressed as princes with fur hats on their heads. The colour palette… is distinguished by richness and consistency. [Russian Icon Collection]
Add to that, ochre, green and red are dominant colours in Novgorod icons.
Another very famous icon image is that of St George (Patron Saint of Novgorod/ Moscow):
St George and the Dragon (Novgorod School; early 16th Century; c/o Ruzhnikov Gallery, London):
The icon is painted in rich colour typical for the Novgorod school. St.George on a rearing white charger, shown against a rocky landscape, slays the winged monster as it appears from the lake; the hand of God emerges from a segment of heaven on the top right of the composition and blesses the saint. An angel crowns St.George with a martyr’s crown, symbolising the victory of good over evil. The tower on the right represents the city, the king and inhabitants witness the battle.
Icons such as these – singular paintings, as it were – would be in churches and also people’s homes where they would reside in the Icon or Red Corner; small versions could be carried around and, in large churches and cathedrals the images would be built up such as on the iconostases which separate the sanctuary from the nave: here, for example, is the glorious interior of the Dormition Cathedral, Moscow [see Russian Art & Culture for full article].
One of the strangest, perhaps, icon images – especially for west European viewers – is that of Saints Stephen and in particular Christopher:
Saints Stephen and Christopher
That Christopher is represented with a dog’s head may stem from his being an outsider from an Eastern tribe. His faith in God conquered temptation, only to lead to his beheading. Rarely portrayed, even in Russian Orthodoxy, he is nevertheless the renowned patron saint of travellers Understanding The Dog-Headed Icon of St-Christopher – Orthodox Arts Journal. And one more extraordinary icon:
Elijah ascending to Heaven [Novgorod]
Here the prophet and miracle worker Elijah ascends alive to Heaven on his chariot in a ball of fire; and it is believed, echoing Christ’s Resurrection, that Elijah will return to earth “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD” (The Book of Malachi), ie. at the end of the world, the end of history, when St Michael sounds the trumpet to awaken the dead and signal all souls to the weighing scales for the Day of Judgement.
Looking at all of these, what is so important to remember is that:
a religious icon in Russian Orthodoxy is considered a window to the Heavenly World. One should not look at an icon as a work of art bearing certain aesthetic features and merits but as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It is a special devout attitude to the icon, which sets Orthodox traditions apart from others.
It is in light of this Orthodox way of seeing icons that we might understand Kandinsky’s thesis for paintings that bypasses naturalistic representation and turns instead to an orchestration of lines, a chorus of colours and juxtaposition of forms that reach straight into the viewer’s soul. This would lead him, ultimately, to pure abstraction. My interest here, though, is in the pathway towards that abstraction and particularly Kandinsky’s ongoing references – even whilst he was painting in France, then Munich – to Russian history, folktale and Orthodox icons.
A ‘gallery’ of early paintings is one of medieval Moscow and fairy-tale romance:
The “Riding Couple” belongs to the large group of Wassily Kandinsky’s early works, in which he conjures up a poetic world of images full of enigmatic diversity with fairy-tale- like, freely conceived sceneries. The magic of distant, long-gone times, into which such scenes are always transported, increases the impression of mysterious unreality. From jewel bright particles of colour, the image of a young, tightly entwined couple in Russian costume is created, riding along between stylized birch trunks and under the golden net of their leaves in the dark foreground. Behind them, the arch of a silent, sparkling river is visible, on which the white sails of two Viking ships, messengers of an indeterminably prehistoric time, appear in the mosaic of colour spots. Across the river, the silhouette of an old Russian Kremlin city with colourful domes and towers appears like an apparition over the water.
Kandinsky combines the romantic nostalgia of Symbolism with Post-Impressionist colour; the mosaic, or stained-glass window effect liberates the colours from ‘realistic’ representation, allowing them to shine in their own right. In “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, he would write:
“Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, they eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with the strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
That liberation of colours is further enabled by ‘reaching back’ into an imaginary Russia; and perhaps one of his most extraordinary early pictures is:
We see a variety of characters from Old Russia, some of whom we’ve met before; in the foreground, just to the left, is the Madonna and Child, just behind them stand Boris and Gleb; to the right of the tree we see St George on horseback and, far right, our romantic couple are about to kiss. In the background there are sword fights and children’s games, a boat is rowed along the river (Volga) and we see a church and cemetery: stories, imagination and death being all part of this colourful life. Just up, to the left of the church steeple/cupola is fairy-tale witch Baba Yaga’s house and, looking up further, at the top of the hill, is Moscow.
It’s an extraordinary accumulation of Kandinsky’s ideas, heritage and inspiration. Art historian Hajo Duchting writes:
The painting is meant to depict all the worldly and spiritual aspects of Russian life past and present, aspects that touch upon death and the belief in resurrection, as well as strife and the small joys in life.
Whilst ‘Colourful Life’ is understood as a turning point, these Russian aspects will continue to influence the development of Kandinsky’s paintings over the next few years as explores colour even further in his painting and we the colour saturation intensifies in, for example “Picture with Archer” [1909; MoMA] in which we see the figure on the horse at the forefront to the right, some men in medieval costume to the left and, in the middle of sky and landscape a city with cupolas that could, again, by Moscow:
Vasily Kandinsky’s use of the horse-and-rider motif symbolized his crusade against conventional aesthetic values and his dream of a better, more spiritual future through the transformative powers of art.
That colour saturation now begins to change and the forms become less substantial; there’s increasing light, movement and fluidity to the picture:
Composition IV [1911; Lenbachhaus, Munich]
can you see Boris and Gleb, the two figures on the lower right?
the three central figures holding sabres (?) who seem to be guarding the blue mountain (blue, the colour of Heaven), well these are members of the celestial army which, according to legend, resides in the mountain and will emerge ready to save Russia and the Sainsts in time of need.?
and to the left in the foreground, under the rainbow, is the River Volga, with the oars of the rowing boat.
Above the rainbow, you might even see a calligraphic line suggesting a horse (the horse of St George), and in the top left? Those two ‘figures’? Well, look at the sky just above them – the red and orange seem to be the shape of a dog’s head. Those two figures are Saints Stephen and Christopher.
For Kandinsky, all this symbolism and this new art implies a turning point, a new dawn: spiritual and social renewal; apocalypse and resurrection.
Kandinsky sought to develop an abstract style by increasingly veiling and stripping his imagery, which he retained to provide the spectator with a key to his apocalyptic visions of a coming utopia. In essays written in 1911, 1912, and 1913, he stressed the importance of this “hidden” imagery, stating that it gave expressive power to a painting and that it would be the first step toward the development of a “pure art.”
In simple outlines and bright colors, regardless of proportions and spatial logic, the artist assembles the figures of All Saints’ Day under the yellow trumpet of a monumental angel. Among them are St. George with shield and lance, a female saint with a burning candle and the large couple holding each other wrapped around each other, perhaps the two princely martyrs of the Russian Church, Boris and Gleb… The holy society stands under the clear antagonism of brightness and darkness, salvation and destruction… [and] on the left above the trumpet of the angel [St Michael, from the Book of Revelation, sounding the last trump], the Kremlin city on the hill shines…
Moscow being, of course, the Third – and final – Rome.
And when, due to World War I, Kandinsky returned to Moscow in 1914, he began working towards this extraordinary vision of the city:
Kandinsky: Moscow I [1916; Tretyakov Gallery]
We seem to be standing in Red Square, whirling around looking at everything at once, cupolas and factory chimneys; there is a joy of life in the city under the rainbow; and, very probably, that is Boris and Gleb standing at the centre of it all: a triumphant vision.
And if, as Kandinsky believed, spiritual renewal would come with artistic renewal, then Moscow was the place to be, for the avant-garde artists were continuing to experiment fervently…
Russian Art & Artists (13) – Russian Icons and Kandinsky
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Next time (Saturday 26th June) we’ll catch up with Natalia Goncharova and the Russian Futurists!
It’s that time of the summer when the auction houses of London focus the Art of Russia (see Russian Art Week Summer 2021 | Russian Art + Culture (russianartandculture.com)) which is always a delicious nosegay of paintings from across Russia and Russian history. Anyone following my little Russian Art & Artists research course will, hopefully, enjoy browsing the online galleries, especially as there are pictures, even by the most celebrated artists, that are rarely seen in public (especially in Britain) because they’re in private collections.
It means too that, for the common viewer, one begins imagining which paintings to buy in the creation of a personal collection (imaginary cheque books at the ready!) – I have chosen three:
I would have to start with this glorious painting by Ivan Shishkin: “Forest Road” (1896) at MacDougall‘s. I love the way (as with many artists of the 19th century Wanderers movement) the path comes right up to the lower frame, as a viewer one feels invited in, as if already walking along, enjoying the light, the air and the colours of the forest.
Here, as in many of Shishkin’s best works, there is no pursuit of a beautiful motif or exalted tone yet, for all its apparent simplicity, Forest Road enchantingly evokes the mysterious depths of the Central Russian forest landscape so familiar to everyone, as well as the natural progression of the muted light, and the emotional and expressive quality of the artistic language.
That suggestion of ‘mysterious depths’ calls to the ancient history of Russia, the wildness of its interior lands, even evoking the traditions of story-telling, the grand legends and folk-tales.
My second ‘imaginary acquisition’ is – and this will surprise no-one! – a painting by Natalia Goncharova: The Life of the Holy Martyrs Florus and Laurus from 1913 and on sale at Sotheby‘s. For all the radical difference of Goncharova’s art from that of Shishkin, they share the same catalyst for their work: the traditions of Russia. Here, Goncharova explores the story of two Orthodox saints from the Russian Icon tradition.
Florus and Laurus are known as protectors of horses and have been important for the Russian peasantry. In both its form and subject matter, the work therefore continues Goncharova’s exploration of peasant traditions
say Sotheby‘s in their Catalogue Note. With its simplified forms, bright colours and decorative elements (the flowers top right) Goncharova connects folk art and visual culture with avant-garde modernism.
Now this might come as a surprise! Ivan Andreev’s “Pig Farm” is undated and, on sale at Sotheby‘s, sadly there are no additional notes. But surely it is from the ‘heroic’ / ‘working class impressionism’ period of 1950s Socialist Realism? Everyday life is recognised as worthy of monumental representation, the lives of the happy, healthy worker-citizens gloried in sunlight and even pig farming is an honoured part of Soviet collective productivity. Of course we can see it is ‘propaganda’: Socialist Realist artists were closely circumscribed in their art even after the demise of Stalin, both in the subject matter and style; and yet, I find there is something immensely satisfying in Andreev’s painting.
Theodora Krarup was born in Scheelborg in 1862 and studied in Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris and Helsinki, before fulfilling a lifelong ambition to visit Russia, at the age of 34, where she remained for forty two years. Krarup lived in St. Petersburg, where she was asked by the, dowager Maria Feodorovna to paint the late Alexander III from pictures. She was then commissioned to paint further Imperial portraits from life.
Krarup became a friend of Rasputin and painted a total of twelve portraits of him, the last of which was completed five days before his death. According to her memoires, Rasputin entrusted his own memoires, photograph album and letters to her, but these along with her own remaining works, she had to destroy the day before her deportation in 1938. However, she attempted to refute the scandalous reputation of Rasputin in her own memoires, dictated to and published by : Henning Kehler and William Haste.
What a fascinating story this must be – living in St Petersburg through the Revolution and deep into Stalinist times – but apparently it’s only published in Danish.
She had a studio on Nevsky Prospekt and painted portraits of not only Russian royalty, but also other prominent cultural and scientific figures. She was acquainted with Grigory Rasputin and strongly refuted the depiction of him as a womanizer and fraud. She wrote that he was a kind person without ambition.
Concidentally, I’ve just been reading Teffi’s short story/memoirs Rasputin and Other Ironies [Pushkin Press] in which she describes meeting Rasputin:
Lean and wiry and rather tall, he had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to be gathered up into a long fleshy nose. His close-set, prickly, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes.
It’s a description that approximates Krarup’s portrait so closely it’s astonishing.
Teffi meets Rasputin a couple of times, he’s clearly a very peculiar man sometimes posturing and high-handed, sometimes dancing madly, sometimes a womaniser; but then Teffi also sees the security around him, the journalists exploiting his story, and the powerful interest all sorts of people had in him, and for all sorts of motives. Teffi, however, doesn’t fall for his magic act:
Here he was, Rasputin in his element. The mysterious voice, the intense expression, the commanding words – all this was a tried and tested method. But if so, then it was all rather naive and straightforward. Or, perhaps, his fame as a sorcerer, soothsayer and favourite of the Tsar really did kindle within people a particular blend of curiosity and fear, a keen desire to participate in this weird mystery.
I think I’m with Teffi here; it would be much more interesting to find out about Anna Krarup’s time in Russia/USSR!