Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (1871-1945)

The best surprises come at book sales. Recently trawling through an open top market in Manchester I discovered a copy of Jan Marsh & Pamela Gerrish Nunn’s, Women Artists and the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, finding countless intriguing countesses and painters within its wide crinkled pages. Though the Pre-Raphaelite Movement is far too vast and complex for me to ever do justice in several posts, let alone one, here’s what John Ruskin helpfully had to say in his work, Modern Painters (1848): 

‘The Pre-Raphaelites have one principle, that of absolute uncompromising truth in all it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature and from nature only’

Working some 40 years after Ruskin’s statement, in what is known as the third & final generation of the movement, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale’s ‘The Guardian Angel’ both seems to embody and contradict the critic’s edict.

 ‘The Guardian Angel’ – Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (1910) 

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The paintings contradiction however, both through its ideological disobediences and contrasting styles within the same image, really unify the piece for me. This after all was one of the first works within the genre to bring together the raw imaginative force of the Pre-Raphaelites with the modern technology of the time – the majority of PR paintings to me seem to be more portrait orientated. Brickdale was supposedly inspired by the death of the Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls (half of the Rolls-Royce Partnership) in a flying accident near Bournemouth in July 1910, the piece then is an inverted triptych of sorts, detailing both a progression and inherent order within the pursuit of higher realms.

Across the angel’s legs we can see a deft mass of birds collecting, all of them yearning further upward but none seemingly able to escape the pull of their own nature. It’s the mass of energy here that really drives it forward – some large birds yearn and seek higher skies, others cast their bodies flat and seem to drive further into the storm.

Above the reach of instinct, a far more technical mechanical style of painting emerges, with the plane in all its glory and detail seeming to penetrate through both frame and angel. Perhaps as a comment on the crash itself, the plane too it seems, just like the birds, has its limit, the both of them nestled below a dominant angelic force.

Indeed the guardian dominates the picture, clearly controlling man’s own will within its hands, as well as mocking the birds below with its own dominating wingspan, one that Brickdale cleverly abridges at the corners to increase the epic spread of feathers a real power and relevance. It’s the face of the angel though that I keep coming back to, a malignant yet benevolent watcher, a seer that looks on to both man and no nature.

 

‘Knight Carrying Child’ – Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

A Sweet Lullaby, illustration from 'The Book of Old English Songs and Ballads', published by Hodder and Stoughton, c.1910 (colour litho)

Carried away by his father to someplace up the hill, a child stares out vacantly. Its own tiny body against the adult armor brings us back to our own recollections of being young, when a parent really was a knight, something incalculable in power, authority and respect.

Though the winding & somewhat haphazard path behind the action is interesting, it is this dialectic pull between parent and child that really makes the picture worth pondering. Similar to how she clipped the wings of her angel in the aforementioned picture, here the armour dominates the frame, complex not only in rich design but also the play of light against the polished steel.

The father’s head too, leant and nestled against his pondering son creates a warm intimacy as they continue on their journey, The intricate weave of the designs give weight and wonder to the front ended image, with the fantastical nature of the protection subtly balanced against the piercing eyes of the boy.

 

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The John Moores Painting Prize (2014)

First held in 1957, the John Moores Painting Prize is the UK’s best-known painting competition and is held in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery almost every two years. During a recent trip to the city for its Biennial festival I visited this year’s showcase and was really taken aback by the invention and diversity on show. So, to ignore the past for a brief moment, here are 3 of this year’s entries that really got me staring and nodding – oft at the same time!

‘People 61094′ – Frank Pudney (2013)

photo1 (1)After spotting it from far across the gallery, Pudney’s amorphous enormity altered before my eyes with every step I took. At first within squinting distance it seemed but a mass of long dappled strokes merging elegantly against rising steam. Closer still it became to me a snowy mountain landscape as if seen from far above, the dense mottled brushwork now looking more like trees beneath gasps of cloud. With my feet firmly in front of the frame however, my view changed once more as I noticed that every paint flicker was actually a person silhouetted against the wide canvas expanse. The majority of these people huddled close but never touching in thick bundles, with a few escaping to the blankness inbetween.

This impeccably crafted visual instability plays well into the emotions evoked by the piece. Face to face with the image, individuality soon becomes a thing of insignificance. Feelings of sonder (the realization that everyone you’ve ever glimpsed experiences a life just as complex as yours) overwhelm as the eye traces over the thousands upon thousands of people painted onto the board.

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By crafting every single person (though perhaps it’s difficult to ascertain from the above image) with great care and effort, Pudney spins what could be a dwarfing sense of triviality into something uplifting. Yes, the world is one in which our own experiences form a single heart beat in this world’s life cycle, but that is the same for everyone, we are all unfathomably small and ultimately inherently colossal.

Some of the figures lean in inquisitive to their fellow; others gaze and wander out above and beyond. They all however stick to their space and existence, whilst in the top left corner a searing emptiness waits for us all.

 

‘Freezer’ – Susan Hamilton (2012)

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Regardless of the flattened patterns of abstraction that bleed all across this piece, the motifs of supermarket shopping and frozen food aisles are all too familiar. What I really loved at this painting was this sense of place in spite of the abridged grotesqueness exhibited onto the acrylic. Faintly beneath the false white light for example are absent strokes to designate shelves amid the portal like entrance of the open fridge. The figure too is drawn in an uneasy equanimity with the food taken, both in color as well as their hands being  animalistic, like raw lobster claws in their execution

The blemishes on the back of the coat became a real focal point for me on my first viewing, their pulsing rings being the only real circular calm within a jagged canvas of transmutation and disarray. Indeed the surroundings of the image seem to be collapsing and engulfing upon the whole itself, with the true menacing black slowly seeming to crush both shopper and shop.

‘Sometimes I Forgot That You’re Gone’ – Rae Hicks (2013) 

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Tall natural pines lie up against a wall by a roadside, beside them Christmas trees have been painted onto imitation green board. Though the picture lacks the energy of my aforementioned choices, there is a moving quietness to the piece. The fake lies in the company of the real, all ignored against a setting sun and a road that seemingly goes on forever out of the edge of the frame.

The heavy use of triangles throughout is subtle but well placed, not only through the smaller shadow cast by the cut out, but also the wide triangle constructed by the leaning tree on the right. Hicks presents a piece of insensible assembly, laying before us dormant parts and asking us to construct and imagine.

 

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Jan Steen (1626-1679)

My favorite works of Art are those nestled in that sweet middle between contemplation and investigation. Whilst the aforementioned Alfred Sisley is undoubtedly of the former, today’s artist, the Dutch Jan Steen, seems to stray between both of these parameters. His bustling scenes of the everyday always aglow with the subtle life inside them.

‘Rhetoricians at a Window’ – 1662

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Straight out of the canvas we perceive four distinct figures (though more lurk in the viscera), whose clarity of humanity is quite astounding. On the bottom left is the reader of a poem, his face so jovial and clearly thrilled with the piece. Across from him, a critic listens and stares with great intent. By positioning both of the men slightly out of the window frame, Steen plays expertly with the contrast of light on their clothes and bodies, there is great skill in-particular in the fold of the reader’s elbow as well as the recess of the critic’s hat. The men just feel as if they are actually together, not figures painted in abstraction on a solid plane, but really together, all in someway responding to the presence of their companions.

After taking in these  figures however, more pragmatic thoughts took me over. How high up are we? The climbing vines and insignia hanging from the frame suggest a certain tallness, so why then are the men performing and to whom?

The jester seems to know in some regard, his farcical expression in contrast to his more humane companions marking him out as the piece’s centre. With his piercing looks he stares straight out into the viewer with his little finger focusing you back into his gaze just to make sure you’re paying attention. Indeed, the rhetoric that the men seem to be practicing has much in common with painting as a whole – both only truly acknowledged if given an audience, both in need of response. Whilst we can’t hear what the men are saying then, the Jester, just like Steen himself, encourages us to listen.

 

‘The Christening Feast’ – 1664

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As with all pictures of this clustered sort, it’s always worth scouring every inch of the piece to get a genuine scope of the image’s intent. The picture is so crammed of activity for example that I all but ignored the busy floor on my first viewing.

It is not only the subtle splashes of egg yolk on the tiles are are wonderful, but also the rigour of the ground’s checkerboard design . The way the relief retreats into the background helps to give surface and depth to the busy christening, drawing our eyes towards the back of the painting eventually up to the scribble of skin that is the baby.

I find however the woman with her back turned to us as a far more captivating figure, her melodious colors strike out perfectly across the wash of beige that covers the contemporary image. Her apron, which apes the shawl of the baby in its peachy blossom, helps to cut a nice slice of flair across the setting.

Supposedly though this painting is more intended to be subversive rather than triumphant. Steen is actually the figure in the background just entering, the one holding his hand above the child’s head – a supposed sign of cuckoldry at the time. The broken eggs scattered amongst the floor too seem to solidify this intent.

 

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Alfred Sisley (1839-1899)

Painting in a style far subtler than other artists explored so far on this blog, Sisley’s whispering brushwork always seems to me to revel more in the techniques of Impressionism, rather than the movement’s core strides towards realism.

‘The Seine at Daybreak’ – 1877

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Faced from afar with a small riverside settlement, Sisley divides the image into three unified wholes: the town with its people, the river and the sky. Whilst the settlement is painted in an endearing quaintness, with a chimney elegantly pluming above with its soot black top, it is the infinities the town is sandwiched between that seem more of interest to the artist. Indeed, the very that it is daybreak, with the town presumably hollowed of activity, allows these elements to come further into play.

Whilst the water elbows its way out of the picture, budding subtly more rich in color as it grows in depth, it’s the sky that really made me fall for the image. A vista that hands far more complicated than the world beneath it. The skill Sisley possesses here in his treatment of the cloud’s fold and crevasses is quite incredible, even the true blue of the sky breaking through is still dappled lightly with heavenly remnants.

 

‘Fog’ 1874

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A woman stoops on her knees working within a garden, she and it seem one and together. A union suggested not only by the muted color scheme, but also the roots that seem to run up her clothing, as well as the tree behind her aching forward in much the same manner. The pallid grey that washes over the image furthers this idea, with the ‘barrier’ of the fence separating portions of nature, becoming itself obscured through the haze.

The wispy undetermined fog lends an abstract quality to the present forms, trees and hedges become spindly nothings that surround the gardener unaware. Amid the entirety of the ghostly grove however, a rogue rose, a daring dot of pink cover that grins out from the closed mouth hues.

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Alex Colville (1920-2013)

-  I suppose I approach this primitive form of art criticism through a poetic view. I enjoy symbols and getting grubby hands as I attempt to unearth meaning. And whilst there isn’t any rhyme scheme here to laboriously unpack, this painting does contain an irresistible sense of rhythm.

‘Horse and Train’ – 1954

 

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The galloping train curves like a backwards smile into the distance. Its crushing speed made fantastically apparent by the subtle division on the horizon; a small bump between the pulled carriages and the lower grasslands. What once was a simple line it seems, can evolve painfully quick to the onrush and light of a hurtling machine.

To some extent when I look at this piece, I feel ensnared like the horse. The steel of the tracks, brighter than any of the world around them, pull out of the canvas, both backwards to another world, and forwards into ours. Through the charging animal however, Colville draws our eyes downward to its fractious mid hurtle position. Beneath the horse, there is an uneasy quietness before the potential collision. The gravel is painted delicately to the pebble, with the thick pregnant marshland belied by delicate brushstrokes beside the tracks.

Yet amid his subdued palate, Colville draws the two majestic roamers of the landscape in equivocation rather than opposition. The smoke of the train itself too blends into the clouds above, with the horse’s hoof merging to the dark churn of the tracks below.

Rather than the obvious symbolic implication of the painting then, Colville offers a more interesting interpretation upon the idea of choice. Both the train driver and the horse have the ability it seems to get out of the way in some form, but both, for this snapshot moment at least, seem unwilling.

‘Chanteuse’ 

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The lid of the piano scores across the female ‘Chanteuse’ singer as an eye patch. Yet viewed more objectively in the disembodied mirror that floats behind the female’s head, we see that all is normal. The instrument splays  wide across the three windows, with the keys eerily fragmented between frame and elbow.

At first I had crudely assumed, both due to the prevalence of skin and the moan, that this was a primarily sexual image. Whilst undoubtedly the connotations are there, I feel Colville presents an even higher, more interesting, level of seclusion – an engagement with art.

Granted, such exultations are displayed are often part and parcel of public artistic exhibitions, but the slightly abstract way in which the singer is shown, suggests an unrehearsed, honest response to the music in front of her. Crucially too, there is no sheet music, she is merely playing, singing. Everything else around is drawn in unwavering precision, whilst amid it all her mouth gapes slightly, open to music we can only imagine.

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Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873)

- I discovered this most esteemed of Victorian Animalier paintings adorning an enormous wall within Manchester’s Art Gallery. Before the vast canvas there’s a small contemplative wooden bench and sitting down to stare into this Landseer can be quietly overwhelming due to the amount of darkness carved into the piece.

‘The Desert’ – 1849

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^ This doesn’t really do justice to the majesty of the thing, here’s a better idea:

 

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It’s the use of light however that really gets me. The paint is just so intangibly subtle in its touches. An authentic shimmer on the whiskers draws us throughout the humanity of the face, curving to a full stop at the Lion’s embittered snarl. There is indeed a ‘Desert’, but one that like the animal has curled away from everything else; the sands wait at the edge of the image in a closed mouth gloom.

The focus here is entirely on the animal, an uncomfortably intimate glimpse at that. Almost too natural in its pose. More portrait than demonstrative of anything beyond heavily freighted symbolic intent, it is the mediations on death rather than the obvious patriot metonymy that I find so engaging everytime I pass it

With the animal clearly dead, thoughts draw to its passing. Seeing the Lion as mere body but still beautiful, still majestic with its mane and paws became for me oddly inspiring. This Lion hasn’t been shot, he hasn’t been eaten, he isn’t caged, merely, he’s gone.

‘Man proposes, God deposes’ – 1864

There’s nastiness to this piece, an aggressive spite that really challenges the viewer to tug at the bones with it.

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The fallen mast for one is an expert move, both reflecting the (somewhat Rick Ross lyric) title through its division, as well as suggesting size. The doomed vessel at the center then is a large one, no doubt more Bears feast in the margins.

Despite these horrors, Landseer delights one again in hairs and furs, with the Bears exuding a positive radiance amidst the mostly muted backdrop. Much like the Lion, their story has as much thought as they do – both beasts clearly unaware of any consequence of the shipwreck beyond satiation. The tipped back head of the right Polar however is oddly comic amidst the water.

Drawn as a response to a failed Arctic mission, the picture’s intent is fairly clear – even at the ends of the Earth there is still failure, misadventure. It is of man to imagine but nature to decide. This duality becomes embedded within the piece’s symbols. At the bottom left beside the Bear there’s humanity in a fallen gun. A weapon that points pathetically in defiance, half submerged itself in its conquerer hunting ground. At the top right there’s a suspiciously familiar shape in a looming iceberg.

 

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Jack Butler Yeats (1871-1957)

* Just as a brief precursor to this first post; I intend to write briefly on 2/3 painters per artist I enjoy or react to. Will also be looking at artists I’ve never seen until the second I begin typing the post. All feeling is instinctually indulgent.

- For no other reason besides being as a picture on my phone, I’ve chosen Jack Butler Yeats, the Irish oil painter, as my first sprawl. Famous not only for winning the Silver Medal at the 1924 Paris Olympics (for the first piece set to be reviewed), but also having a high achieving ‘Apprentice Mage’ brother.

‘The Liffey Swim’  – 1923. 

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The sense of sedately waiting energy is irresistible in this painting. From the off there is exertion everywhere, but also wonderment, with the crowd angling our eye in with their own leering contortions –  all of us aching to spy the wave like swimmers. Yeats sets the baby grey of the men’s caps at a similar hue to the rushing earl led of the water; everything is moving, yet still there is real dignity.

What’s fantastic is the fact that the race is clearly towards the end, but not at the final hurdle. Victory feels close by. I often feel this when I watch certain sports, such as Golf or Formula 1, those sports so big they demand hundreds of separate crowds, all of them capturing their own special moment, which to the actual participant, is a blur.

So here we are, nearing the last stretch. The crowd layering off into the squinting distance, toppling endlessly over each other. The beautiful pressed window like smudging, casting them forever into a massed distance. Almost as if the crowd themsleves are the real spectacle before the busy Liffey.

In the distance over, bridges can be seen with a bus slowly crossing the front. The water for the swimmers is thick, murky and unforgiving; before them a sky chaste awaits.

Grief’ – 1951. 

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This remind me a lot of this by Bruce Nauman – ‘No’ 

I had a real guttural response to this thing, elicited not only by the sentiment, but also the mix of colors. Whilst the monotonous palate of Nauman helps to echo his intended desolation sense, here the insipied encroach of the almost sunbeam yellow really confused me at first. With so much discordance, the major key brushstrokes felt cowing.

Within the sketching shapes however, I found stability though simplicity. Looking closer to the skeletal outlines I saw hints of fingers and held weapons, following them round to the beautifully splurged horse in the middle of it all.

War is an easy thing to sense with no context, I see a really well defined armament of sorts for example on the left ridge of the far right building, a precise weather vane, a real detail amid the chaos that may be a product of the mere disorientation the picture brings the viewer. What is undeniable is the soldiers, an endless burst of blue permeated occasionally by red, the only real rupture of monotony being blood itself, a further shedding of color.

But not all color prevails here, with the black splatt coming face to flare nostrils with the horse. This yawning chasm of darkness with its own shades of further opaque within its opening.

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