The next Words and Pictures Book Club will meet on 19th August, 2pm at the Pebbles cafe [Havens community hub, Hamlet Court Road] to discuss:
“The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the transformation of Russia” by Susan Jaques.
An art-oriented biography of the mighty Catherine the Great, who rose from seemingly innocuous beginnings to become one of the most powerful people in the world. A German princess who married a decadent and lazy Russian prince, Catherine mobilized support amongst the Russian nobles, playing off of her husband’s increasing corruption and abuse of power. She then staged a coup that ended with him being strangled with his own scarf in the halls of the palace, and she being crowned the Empress of Russia. Intelligent and determined, Catherine modelled herself off of her grandfather in-law, Peter the Great, and sought to further modernize and westernize Russia. She believed that the best way to do this was through a ravenous acquisition of art, which Catherine often used as a form of diplomacy with other powers throughout Europe. She was a self-proclaimed “glutton for art” and she would be responsible for the creation of the Hermitage, one of the largest museums in the world, second only to the Louvre. Catherine also spearheaded the further expansion of St. Petersburg, and the magnificent architectural wonder the city became is largely her doing. There are few women in history more fascinating than Catherine the Great, and for the first time, Susan Jaques brings her to life through the prism of art.
The Words & Pictures Book Group meets monthly over coffee and cake to discuss books – either fiction or non-fiction – that draw on art, painting and the lives of artists. It is free, relaxed and all are welcome!
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Eileen Agar (1889-1991) was, to my mind, one of the most exceptional artists of the 20th century, especially during the 1930s when her paintings presented the generative power of life and imagination against Europe’s descent into horror, cruelty and war:
“Apart from rampant and hysterical militarism, there is no male element left in Europe, for the intellectual and rational conception of life has given way to a more miraculous creative interpretation, and artistic and imaginative life is under the sway of womb-magic.”
Today we shall explore Eileen Agar’s womb-magic with particular reference to her extraordinary painting:
The Autobiography of an Embryo [1934; Tate] which offers a wholly new philosophical way of seeing and understanding the world around us – and might indeed serve as the artist’s manifesto.
As ever, all are welcome to join the discussion – an open forum for ideas.
Tickets cost £10 on the door. We will start at 11.15am and finish around 12.30pm with coffee & biscuits. The meeting will be held on Saturday 30th July in the Lecture Theatre at The Beecroft Art Gallery.
Note 2: In August we continue the Summer of Surrealism with an overview of British Surrealism, then in September our focus is on the art of Leonora Carrington who, in 1936, wrote: “When one is overcome by demoralization and defeat, depressed or on the verge of suicide, that is the time to open one’s Surrealist Survival Kit and enjoy a breath of magical fresh air. To lay out its marvellous contents carefully before you and let them play …”
Well, should Sarah Winman ever read this, then our Words & Pictures book club meeting today gloried in the brilliance of “Still Life” from the characters to the story-telling, the history of Florence to the interweaving of art and art’s histories.
1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening. Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view. Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades. Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.
For anyone who hasn’t yet read it, “Still Life” is full of humanity: real, tangible, positive, hope-giving humanity. It’s a novel that, personally, I have promised myself I shall never be without: a touchstone as it were for when the world seems to be on fire and there is nothing one can do about it.
It is also jam-packed with ideas and, I do recommend the article for Vanity Fair [click here] in which the author reviews the influences & inspirations behind the writing of the novel and there is also a lovely interview piece in The Florentine [here].
One fabulous ‘introduction’ offered by the novel to the reader is to the still relatively unknown nun-artist Sister Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588) about whom Caroline Moorhead wrote in The Guardian [article] with regard to the restoration of Nelli’s extraordinary painting of The Last Supper; including an image:
The colours are enough to take one’s breath away, let alone anything else and, c/o the Museum of Santa Maria Novella magazine, there is a video revealing Nelli’s painting in all its glory [here].
Responding to the question: What do you hope readers will discover in Still Life? as part of an interview with Booktopia [here], Sarah Winman suggested:
“Laughter. Joy. A moment of lightness and belief in the world again after the ravages of the last year [the Covid pandemic] and the constant grip of right-wing politics. I like to think that my book is a re-charging of the batteries!”
and, wow, did she achieve that – and much more – for the Words & Pictures book club readers.
The Words & Pictures Book Group meets monthly over coffee and cake to discuss books – either fiction or non-fiction – that draw on art, painting and the lives of artists. Please follow thecommonviewer.com here on WordPress or @TheCommonViewer on Twitter for updates.
I am absolutely delighted to be in conversation with biographer extraordinaire Anne de Courcy as part of the Virginia Woolf Society’s Dalloway Day this year, the theme of which is Modern/ist Women – and who could be more modern & more modernist than Nancy Cunard, the subject of Anne’s latest book:
As we will discover, Nancy Cunard’s move to Paris in the early 1920s allowed her the freedom to be fully herself as a person, poet, publisher & increasingly political activist.
And we may even pop down to the Riviera and into the life of another fabulously modern woman, Coco Chanel, if there’s time!
Our next Art, Books & Culture meeting will be on Saturday 25thJune, (11.15am-12.45pm) – please note I’ve changed the time slightly to start 11.15am so that we don’t have to wait around outside! – at the Beecroft Gallery, Southend.
In our discussions on Surrealism last month, we noted recent reports from The Guardian and Hyperallergic telling how a painting by Yves Tanguy, thought lost, had been found and restored.
Yves Tanguy: Fraud in the Garden [1930; private]
The painting’s disappearance was due to being attacked when on exhibition in 1930. The Hyperallergic article says:
On the night of December 30, 1930, members of the far-right groups the League of Patriots and the Anti-Semitic League of France raided Studio 28, an arthouse [theatre] in Paris’s artists’ district of Montmartre. They savagely attacked Tanguy’s 1930 masterpiece “Fraud in the Garden” in the cinema’s lobby, along with other works by Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, and Joan Miró.
The extremist groups were outraged at the screening of Luis Buñuel’s L’Age D’Or(1930), an avant-garde comedy satirizing the hypocrisy of the sexual mores of the bourgeois society and the Catholic Church. Co-written with Dalí, Buñuel’s surrealist film was rife with blasphemous and erotic imagery, including a sequence based on the Marquis de Sade’s novel 120 Days of Sodom featuring Jesus as a bloodthirsty sadist.
The assailants shouted “We’ll show you that there are still Christians in France!” and “Death to Jews!”
And there is a photograph of the attacked paintings:
That was in 1930 and, as we know, the right wing in Europe increased its power and domain throughout the decade particularly with Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany. Quite by chance, I discovered in the Archive at Tate Britain, the leaflet on the left here:
The “Exhibition of German 20th-century Art” was in London, 1938; a direct artistic riposte to Hitler’s staging of an exhibition of German modern art in Munich the year under the title “Degenerate Art” (the poster on the right). Our discussion this month, then, will focus both London and Munich exhibitions to explore the art of inter-war Germany and the fate of some of those artists deemed ‘degenerate’.
Our discussions cost £10 to attend (please pay on the door) and include coffee & biscuits – all welcome!
over at Pebbles cafe (in the Havens building on Hamlet Court Road)
to discuss Jerry Brotton’s book on the art collection of Charles I
Set against the backdrop of war, revolution, and regicide, and moving from London to Venice, Mantua, Madrid, Paris and the Low Countries, Jerry Brotton’s colourful and critically acclaimed book, The Sale of the Late King’s Goods, explores the formation and dispersal of King Charles I’s art collection. Following a remarkable and unprecedented Parliamentary Act for ‘The sale of the late king’s goods’, Cromwell’s republican regime sold off nearly 2,000 paintings, tapestries, statues and drawings in an attempt to settle the dead king’s enormous debts and raise money for the Commonwealth’s military forces. Brotton recreates the extraordinary circumstances of this sale, in which for the first time ordinary working people were able to handle and own works by the great masters. He also examines the abiding relationship between art and power, revealing how the current Royal Collection emerged from this turbulent period, and paints its own vivid and dramatic picture of one of the greatest lost collections in English history.
The ‘Words & Pictures’ book club is a safe and generous group of people fascinated and intrigued by art and artists to discuss books and pictures over coffee and a slice of cake – all welcome!
Join us on Saturday 28th May, 11am-1pm at The Beecroft Gallery, Southend
as we take a plunge into the early years of Surrealism in Paris and London.
La Galerie Surrealiste, rue Jacques Gallot, photographed by Man Ray 1927.
“one of the most genuinely subversive movement in the history of ideas” – Michel Remy
Leonora Carrington (1917-2011)
The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg) [1947; private collection]
“When one is overcome by demoralization and defeat, depressed or on the verge of suicide, that is the time to open one’s Surrealist Survival Kit and enjoy a breath of magical fresh air. To lay out its marvellous contents carefully before you and let them play …” wrote artist, novelist and poet, Leonora Carrington in 1936.
We’ll discuss Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifestos, the influential paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst and meet some of the first British artists inspired by Surrealism.
Attendance is £10 on the door and will include tea, coffee & biscuits – all welcome!
Julian Trevelyan (1910-1988): Standing Figure with Ace of Clubs [1933; c/o Pallant House Gallery]
“Let us gladly shout: to dream is to create” – Julian Trevelyan
Friday 27th May, 2pm at “Pebbles” café (the old Havens) on Hamlet Court Road.
This month’s book is:
The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein
by Franny Moyle
Hans Holbein the Younger is chiefly celebrated for his beautiful and precisely realised portraiture, which includes representations of Henry VIII, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Anne of Cleves, Jane Seymour and an array of the Tudor lords and ladies he encountered during the course of two sojourns in England. But beyond these familiar images, which have come to define our perception of the world of the Henrician court, Holbein was a protean and multi-faceted genius: a humanist, satirist, political propagandist, and contributor to the history of book design as well as a religious artist and court painter. The rich layers of symbolism and allusion that characterise his work have proved especially fascinating to scholars. Franny Moyle traces and analyses the life and work of an extraordinary artist against the backdrop of an era of political turbulence and cultural transformation, to which his art offers a subtle and endlessly refracting mirror.
Happy reading – I look forward to hearing what you think!
Join us for our monthly Book Club to discuss: “Circles & Squares”…
A spellbinding portrait of the Hampstead Modernists, threading together the lives, loves, rivalries and ambitions of a group of artists at the heart of an international avant-garde. Hampstead in the 1930s. In this peaceful, verdant London suburb, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson have embarked on a love affair – a passion that will launch an era-defining art movement. In her chronicle of the exhilarating rise and fall of British Modernism, Caroline Maclean captures the dazzling circle drawn into Hepworth and Nicholson’s wake: among them Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Herbert Read, and famed emigres Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, and Piet Mondrian, blown in on the winds of change sweeping across Europe. Living and working within a few streets of their Parkhill Road studios, the artists form Unit One, a cornerstone of the Modernist movement which would bring them international renown. Drawing on previously unpublished archive material, Caroline Maclean’s electrifying Circles and Squares brings the work, loves and rivalries of the Hampstead Modernists to life as never before, capturing a brief moment in time when a new way of living seemed possible. United in their belief in art’s power to change the world, her cast of trailblazers radiate hope and ambition during one of the darkest chapters of the twentieth century.
[published by Bloomsbury, 2020]
These discussion meeting are free of charge, relaxed & informal and take place at “Pebbles” cafe (in the old Havens building on Hamlet Court Road), starting 2pm – all welcome!