Dora Carrington (1893 – 1932)

As one of the more obscure affiliates of the Bloomsbury Group (see here for a recent post on fellow Bloomsbury artist/Virginia Woolf sibling, Vanessa Bell), Dora Carrington’s relaxed, expansive paintings have mostly eluded the critical gaze so fixed on other members of the collective. Perhaps, in part, this is due to her untimely death at the age of 38 – a result of a self-inflicted gunshot soon after the death of Carrington’s close friend Lytton Strachey, with whom she shared an intense, complex companionship. Regardless of the size of the artist’s output however, an idyllic sense of beauty remains. One skilfully attuned to notions of perspective and proportion.

‘Farm at Watendlath’ – 1921art-everywhere-top-ten-2

Throughout this momentous scene we are continually reminded of our own size in relation to everything else within the picture. So in contrast to the mother & daughter at the centre, we have the gigantic trees towering above them. Yet above the trees too, enormous rolling hills collect. Hills which themselves have a duo of tiny trees nestled in their folds, almost suggesting an equanimity and relative distance between the two couples.

Carrington employs curves here especially well, utilising them regularly to create a continual sense of building from smaller to larger: from the fork in the road at the bottom, to the twisted washing lines behind the farmhouse, to the brick walls gathering up the smaller ford, all the way to stooping drops of the bluffs so prominent at the back.

Regardless of this subtle patterning however, the detail in the painting technique in of itself is something to get lost in. The trees for example are tremendously well realised, with the branches on the left a delicate believable weave, whilst the pitch mass at the right is a revelation,  its small pockets of light dappling and breaking through the threshing blackness. The grass too is equally impressive, with Carrington using adroit washes to evoke grass both lush and waning.

With its heightened perspective looking both down on the viewers and up at the landscape, ‘Farm at Watendlath’ allows oddly, at least for me, an opportunity to imagine what it would be like at the top of the hill staring down at the gazers. The people at the bottom in a sense becoming just like us, staring at something quite unbelievable, yet so familiar and normal from afar.

‘Fairground at Henley Regatta’ – 1921fairground at henley regatta 1921oct13

A slightly askew work that holds value to me more for its skill than its spirit, ‘Fairground at Henley Regatta’ works because of its juxtaposition. With its stately sense of play enshrined within a slight wilderness which seems to encroach on the occasion from all angles.

The side growth for example, with its limbed exotic branches, delicately connects with the faux painted top of the carousel. I love the way in which the fiction of the ride blends with the facts of its environment. As the closer the top leaves of the ride get to the edge of the canvas, the more real they become. Though never pertaining to any reality, the slightly faded way throughout that Carrington suggests detail is to be lauded.

At times it almost feels like a Lowry painting, with the various busied figures all detailed in and amongst themselves.  A crowd gathers for example between two high sheets just before the swings, as to what or why, we’ll never know, but through their subtle placement and inward lean, we believe it. And behind all the commotion is arguably the most beautiful aspect of the painting, with the whispered brushwork of the back hedges executed marvellously. The small hints of a low wintry sun speckling the gaps.

 

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Kuroda Seiki (1866 – 1924)

Noted for bringing theories of Western art to a wider Japanese audience, Kuroda Seiki’s ‘Yoga’ (literally meaning ‘Western-style painting’) approach is one of hushed Impressionism. There is much Manet in his work. Much, of course, of his homeland too. Seiki a painter of life’s hushed moments, capturing a unique held-breath serenity through his busied style.

‘Plum Trees’ – 1924

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In this skewered and freckled work, the trees, bare but for their scrub on top, craft a visual density through their spread amidst the empty grove. Their depiction as one of stick-like brings that urge up and out of the scrubland, with the right of the white tree at the centre seeming almost as a lissom dancer, its right leg far out to meet a stretched hand.

Throughout this work there is a sense of rippling at the surface, with the layered and frantic brushwork, especially in the interesting blends of orange and black in the upper left section, creating a distinct chilliness to the work. Almost as if a wind is rushing from behind the viewer and into the piece itself, pulling back the branches.

Branches which despite being in a work called, ‘Plum Trees’, hold no fruit.  Seiki perhaps then pointing more towards the power of renewal and potential within all things, the sense that soon a blossom will arrive on the bough, and soon after that they will be barren once more and so on. A theme indicative of the majority of Seiki’s later work, with its focus on the temporality of our own existence in the face of nature, or, in a sense, art.

‘Afternoon Nap’ – 1894

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We catch the sleeper in a very intimate, almost elegiac pose. His lips pursed as if amid a light dream, his head resting on one arm with the other gently lying in a slightly awkward position indicative of the temporary occasion.

It’s a solemn, oddly reverential moment when you first see ‘Afternoon Nap’. With such detail on offer we feel as if we really have stumbled upon someone snoozing, taking care to pick apart the details carefully as if not to wake him.

From the bracken he lies on, to the rub of fabric he sleeps within, everything is brilliantly realised by Seiki. The sun especially, which encroaches on the slumberer as the afternoon wanes, interacts magically against the ground. Dappling the subject with pockets of light against his face and the woodland around.

 

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The West Midlands Open 2014

Housed within the Birmingham Art Gallery, The West Midlands Open 2014 (running till 15 Feb) is an exhibition of artworks by practising and emerging artists from across the region. anisplaying an impressive array of pieces, including painting, sculpture and photography.

Seeking refuge from the insane German Market crowds that currently plague Birmingham, myself and my girlfriend visited the exhibition last weekend, finding some really interesting stuff amidst the quiet. More information on the show itself can be found here.

‘Zero Zero’ – Anthony Butterfield (2013) 

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From across the wide spaces of the hall, this caustic, near hallucinatory photonegative-esque image really stands out. Through its alien landscape and simple conceit, the painting is one that invites the viewer to come nearer to engage and stare, its bold tones revealing new layers of complexity the closer you do.

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The grass for example (see above), seems to sprout under scrutiny. What at first appears a neon wash reveals to a dense convincing weave of roots evoked through light yet vivid scrapes. The lawn seems to hum with production, with all the small stems subtly suggests a new direction. By having so much hidden detail throughout, it is easy to become entranced in one section and forget the rest. Such as the smouldering trees:

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Their trunks ablaze with a menacing hellish colour. Their own dense red playing melding against the bubbling lava of the orange ground around them. Disregarding any true accurate portrayal, the trees become compelling rushes upward with their brushstrokes aggressively visible. Though, as if to belie the latent energy deep within this painting, between the wild oaks we see a calm, incorrigible sky. Its blue nothingness a smart antithesis to the manic energy elsewhere.

 Castle Drongo – Ian Gibson (2014)

In this wonderfully contorted piece, Gibson calls upon a style slightly comicbook to display the archaic nature of old institutions.

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Or maybe it’s just more of a rumination on the limits of shape. Regardless, I love the fact that this dramatic reimagining seems to not only defy logic through the malleable nature of its pattern, but the fact the various turrets pass through the other as if nothing were there. Everything else in the painting seems normal, and is displayed in an interesting technique of great delicacy. Indeed the forest from above feels more of a seascape, with the mountains at the back ushered through in delicate ghostly blues. The contradictory shape though still remains, and for as long as I stared at ‘Castle Drango’, I felt some definite familiarity but couldn’t place it.

Then it clicked, as, to me, it looks like a heart. The various ventricles and fist-like shape reminiscent of the organ. As to why, I couldn’t really say, perhaps it’s a metaphor? Institutions are nothing without their people? That feels right, but isn’t exactly fun. I much prefer just dwelling on the goofy yet entrancing confluence of its shape.

‘The Love Of Three Oranges’ – David Paul Gleeson (2014)IMG_2722

A work of mind bending detail. This solemn portrait of great precision is quite a sight to behold.  Three oranges rest upon two stacked crates below a single light, with all the permutations of shade delivered in incredible skill.

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From the skin on the fruit themselves, to the light that filters through the first box and down onto the second, the effect is one of peace and calm. With everything from the upside down writing on the top box, to the staples that keep it together realised with a wonderful eye. In its adorning caption, Gleeson states that he wishes to create still life work that obtains a certain portraiture in nature. With its consummate skill and high tangible intensity for such an everyday sight, ‘The Love of Three Oranges’ succeeds.

‘I am sorry to inform you…’ – Dan Auluk 2014

The final piece I’ve chosen is difficult to really analyse without sounding (even more) pretentious. So here’s what the Birmingham Art Gallery have to say:

This piece is a framed rejection letter from the 2010 West Midlands Open. The screwed up letter is the remainder of a brief and deliberate performance in response to the rejection. Through the rejection letter’s submission and acceptance into West Midlands Open 2014 it has been transformed into an artwork.

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I love this idea. As to the actual acceptance subsequently into the competition through it, that doesn’t really matter to me personally. It’s more the statement of that impulse awakened during rejection.

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Vanessa Bell (1879 – 1961)

A lesser known member of the influential Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell’s paintings are subtle wonders rather than bombastic projections. Airy medleys of the passing world around, which, through their suggestions of the multiplicity of perspectives possible within a single view, signal a kinship to the work of her sister, Virginia Woolf.

‘On the Seine’ – 1921 

(c) Henrietta Garnett; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In tones of deep sepia that never threaten to get above a mild brightness; this meditative, progressively hypnotic as you look at it painting, finds Bell playing expertly with reflection and depth. ‘On the Seine’ is a Matryoshka doll of a thing, a picture that peels deeply off into compelling inner segments through its weaving of bridges. The first of which giving way beneath its simple eaves to a second with an intriguing set of hollowed circles supporting the curve.

This insular, kaleidoscope effect, in which one bridge loops over another (and presumably another further on), evokes a real sense of levity. The water, imagined wonderfully through stammered brushwork, holds still, with the bridges seemingly floating weightless atop their own reflections rather than being cemented through the Seine. Even the leaves appear disembodied, hovering branchless above the crossing.

By reflecting the bridges against themselves this way, the delineation between what is surface and what is mere reflection becomes difficult at the forefront of the work and near impossible at its rear. The effect is one of second-guessing, a peaceful scene that is still abstracted slightly through an interesting visual twist.

Regardless of this however, there’s a real serenity to behold here. I especially love the fact that Bell posits the Seine not as the iconic Parisian river meandering past monuments, but a simple flow, one passing beneath bridges of nowhere in particular.

‘Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting’ – 1912

Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting 1912 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961

From an earlier period of Bell’s career when she was attempting to expunge as much detail as possible in favour of color and design, there is restrained Fauvist element to this painting. Whilst nowhere near as wild as that group, (Click HERE for an earlier article about a forgotten Fauvist, Raoul Dufy), the exaggerated palette succeeds in drawing our attention to the fact that is very clearly a painting, one of which is of people who are very clearly painting.

Frederick in an eased pose as he jots, his suit and beard more standout than his non-existent eyes. Jessie far more stooped, her canvas leant up against the bag for support. Though their own images are away from view, a picture behind Jessie suggests a previous work, one of either a man beneath a streetlamp or an ostrich.

It is the body language though that I love most about this work, the fact that without any facial expressions at all Bell still manages to imbue the two busy artists with so much character. Perhaps this was possible as Vanessa Bell knew the two personally. Whilst living in Asheham House, near Lewes in Sussex, in the summer of 1912, artists came to stay including, briefly, Frederick Etchells and his sister Jessie. Bell supposedly thought Jessie ‘a nice character…and very silent’ but found Frederick difficult, and their visit was a strain. Something unintelligible in this soothing image of inward contemplation.

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Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944)

As a Naturalist, a Symbolist and often an Impressionist in-between, Edvard Munch’s back catalogue is a fascinatingly disparate patchwork, one united for the most part through its delicate interrogation of mental trauma. Predominantly noted for these evocative images of existential anguish, such as the oft parodied ‘The Scream, Munch’s skill also shone within his more mannered depictions. And whilst the first piece here is indicative of such restraint, the latter stands as testament to the Norwegian who once claimed, ‘Without anxiety and sickness I would have been a rudderless ship’.

‘Rue Lafayette’ – 1891 

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Within this bustling depiction of a French boulevard, Munch plays well with contrasting techniques to convey a sense both of motion and immediacy. Whilst the man and his balcony up top could hardly be said to be of extreme artistic precision, their individualised detail juxtaposes well against the abstract run of life that unfolds below the admirer. Crafting both a sense of height and wonder.

Through the sheer flooding of light within the image, an effect created by a rain of colour consisting of dabs or loosely applied parallel gasps of paint, there is something celebratory and joyous about Munch’s vision of ‘Rue Lafayette’. A feeling that invites the viewer, almost like the watcher himself, to just pause for a minute and take it all in.

Upon closer inspection however, the romanticised clamour below proves to be little more than streaks, with the bottom left section in particular being realised in the briefest of brushes. Everything is perched on just enough detail for it work and evoke a certain passing beauty, from the horses stooped with their carriages to the rooftops that amass further down the diagonal balcony line. The divide of which casts off from the base of the canvas, past a scribbled bouquet and towards the further horizon.

‘The Murderer in the Lane’ – 1919

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Disregarding his earlier Impressionist preoccupations, Munch evokes a subtly disturbing vision here through a distinct frostiness in his bold brushstrokes. The sky is especially evocative, with its crisp icy blues juttering around the lifeless upturned branches. Indeed, with such detail throughout the work, you could be forgiven for missing the two figures that in of themselves blend into the landscape. The eponymous murderer sketchily rendered and synonymous in skin with the lane, whilst in the background lays his victim, who passing more perhaps for a fallen tree trunk than a body, is slumped unnervingly behind.

With the killer’s frame heavily cropped as if he was fleeing the scene, the entire painting is given an uneasy menace suggesting the act was one committed recently. No light is shed as to why or how the victim was murdered,  we are rather presented with the simple hollow dots of a guilty man facing us slightly askew. Or, perhaps this person has nothing to do with the image, but it is merely the title that becomes suggestive of so.

In spite of the death though, everything remains unerringly beautiful and moving, which in a way compounds the distracting effects of the lifeless corpse. In the background a small factory of sorts purrs along besides what I assume is an outcrop of water, one that flows and tangles in a soft ridged way. Life simply goes on in spite of this daytime murder.

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Andrew Wyeth (1917 – 2009)

As a Realist of Regionalism, whose scenes hold great nostalgic qualities in spite of their empirical display, Andrew Wyeth’s art is always beautiful and oft inquisitive, regularly prodding at ideas of perspective and space. Both these featured images show his hallmark attention to detail, with each holding a visual quirk that helps to centre and propel the image.

‘Soaring’ – 1950

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A sight as wonderful as it is rare within painting, Wyeth takes us upward with the birds as we pass over a small farm residence surrounded by a milky nothingness. In the classic Wyeth manner, the animals are evoked with an astonishing eye. The central bird in particular being given real grace in the detail, with its pitch strokes on the left wing resolving to a complex mess of feathers amid the right. A further vulture’s undertow blazes a stunning delicate silver against the unseen hanging sun.

The canted angle of the birds drifting inward from the left and the tiny house down below creates an interesting level of visual disorientation from the off. The height is felt immediately and impressively, with the dulled vista of the background keeping our attention fully with those that are soaring.

Whilst criticisms of lack of pictorial ambition are often volleyed at Wyeth, praising his technique but deriding his message, I think this piece in particular achieves a profound sense of serenity outside of a direct message. Through placing such rampantly connotative animals as vultures above such an innocuous setting, Wyeth robs them of their menace and invites us to share in the experience. There is a quietness here then to enjoy as the birds move on across the landscape, a solitude both inviting yet impossible to really imagine.

‘Brown Swiss’ – 1957

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Another rural scene of great reflection and abandon. I’ve always loved the way here in which Wyeth employs grand arching brushstrokes to suggest a sense of depth and darkness along with his surgical eye. The branches to the right of the house for example seem to be anchored within the paint itself, aching up out of the background. With the brown that dominates the righthand side of the image a great patchwork of wrinkles and darker tones, as pockmarked and scarred as the house itself whose fence ominously retreats to nothing.

The house comes to us as a viewer through ways of a glorified dirt puddle, with the majority of the canvas focused on the hazy marshland around the ‘Brown Swiss’ as opposed to the eponymous residence. Similar to the aforementioned ‘Soaring’, there is a distinct quietude here, with the stillness and purity of the reflection below suggesting a derelict scene. Indeed the way in which the water just decapitates the head in the sense allows us not only to appreciate this solidity, but also points our gaze directly at the wonderfully evoked building. A place that is oddly unusual on inspection; its four tiny windows all seeming broken in someway, with maybe a Christmas tree of sorts huddled before the cracking fresco and long stains of rust.

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Marguerite Thompson Zorach (1887 – 1968)

As one of America’s leading modernist painters of the early 21st century, Marguerite Thompson Zorach combined the wild colour play of the Fauvists with a propensity for the rural. Also responsible for helping to introduce Cubist ideas to the masses, her style later abandoned painting altogether in favour of creating embroider tapestries.

 ‘Signs of Autumn’ – 1930 

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This work of great delicacy often feels to me as two paintings put together. The top half being a wonderful form of mountains, with the settling sun emanating a rich warmth from between the valley. And the bottom acting as a far more traditional Fauvist image, with its bold tones and squiggled shores. Indeed the division in of itself seems to evoke its title, with the slumbered glow of Summer in the background giving way to the first inklings of Autumn in the fore.

But this is not a scene of reverent and calm beauty however. Our perspective on the painting is soon broken by the darting, near mechanical birds whose wingspan draws us to the odd boil at the middle of the lake. The motion of the birds though simple is effective, the three essentially acting as one in a showcase of spreading wings. As for the unusual spot in the centre,  it feels a sign of the unseen endless bustle of life especially dominant in the first signs of a season.

The abstraction doesn’t distract too much however, perhaps because like most Fauvist work, we appreciate the inherent medley of the style rather than its evocation of reality. Water is more deep fog here, something that purls across the bed rather than fill it.

‘Landscape with trucks and barn’

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Untroubled by people or animals, the recognisable elements of humanity here are de-emphasised in favour of the countryside scene. A landscape enlivened by emerald and peach hues that show dialogue with the celestial sky above. And one that acts as the antithesis of the buildings all dull and clumsy, with their cold presence as solid as the hunched mountains behind.

This is a place to be celebrated for its own beauty, rather than the reality we recognise it to hold. The tree outcrops that offer a midpoint between the houses and the mountains are especially well realised. Their minute strokes gathering weight from far away as forests do.

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