Jeffrey Smart (1921 – 2013)

Despite being one of Australia’s most acclaimed and accomplished painters, Jeffrey Smart’s recognition here in England is as enigmatic as his work. Which is a shame really as through their stark and striking portrayals of the everyday, his paintings intrigue in the way that they attain a certain absurd quality in spite of always showcasing familiar & believable realities. There are no half-fish women here then, rather the emphasis is on order and shape, with the painter once poignantly declaring that: “The subject matter is only the hinge that opens the door, the hook on which hangs a coat. My only concern is putting the right shapes in the right colours in the right places. It is always the geometry”

‘Reflected Arrows’ – 1974

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At the centre of this image a cluster of recognisable arrow symbols collect. Whilst normally alone on a roadside they hold little significance, now bundled together in a shape that seems itself an arrow of sorts pointed at the viewer, they obtain a strange coherence and power. The three on the left especially all seem to point up to a uniformed worker, one whose gaze follows the suggestion of the blue circles towards us in reserved disinterest. At the far right a more relaxed figure can be seen, his face barely visible against the fleshy pallor of the long back wall.

It is the way the signs behave with the water rather than before us however that is the most interesting part of the painting. In spite of nothing beyond the usual being displayed – just mere directional signs above puddles – the level of fragmentation and abstraction suggests a surrealist element to this anonymous building site corner. From the various waters come new angles and reflections that are jagged and cut in the shallow sections. Some arrows point down and meet themselves in infinite reflection, others suggest new directions and distance.

Just as the signifiers obtain symmetry or disjunction through the floor, Smart coyly suggests equanimity between the long orange slick of the worker’s reflection through the water and the single high-rise building cutting above the top right of the image. We are reminded then in both cases of a world tantalisingly outside all of this. These signs eventually after all, have to go somewhere, serving some direction beyond the canvas.

‘The Traveller’ – 1973

Jeffrey Smart (23)

I love the funnelling of our perspective in this piece, the way that Smart draws us squinting down between the two coaches to the eponymous ‘Traveller’ at their parked centre. The severity of color here is also wonderful, with the crisp yellows and reds of the left vehicle dragging our gaze further inward until the open door curves towards the mysterious passenger standing aloof.

Through the masterful reflection work between the left coach into the right, Smart evokes a wonderful netherworld of instability. With the aforementioned crisp reds becoming muttered & muted, the traveller’s face too is distorted by the holding bay clasps. It isn’t only the right vehicle that twists its surroundings however, in the high windows of the left coach too the seemingly cupcake background behind the man is echoed onward in the mirrored windows.

We can assume perhaps that the man is a rep of sorts, a mover that never stays still, which lends the deathly ambience of the scene an altogether more developed sense of quiet. He seems of another world really, and if it wasn’t for the subtle open window on the high edge of the left coach, it would seem that he was the only one there.

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Donna Norine Schuster (1883 – 1953)

Paintings are such fragile things in terms of composition. Their meaning predicated on the relation of the single to the whole and vice versa. Here, in two works by the somewhat obscure American Watercolourist, Donna Norine Schuster, the everyday is  drawn elsewhere through subtle twists and shifts.

‘Girl in a Pink Dress’

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If, before you ever set eyes on the painting above you, it was described purely in terms of its visual components, nothing would seem off within an imagination of the work. ‘There’s a well dressed woman at ease looking from the canvas’, a description may begin; ‘behind her a solid wall of wildflowers provides the background along with the wide spread of a parasol that she is holding, which shields much of the right hand floral spread from view’.

On first sight of ‘Girl in a Pink Dress’ however, any semblance to reality slips as a subtle sense of unease spreads across the work. The girl, for one, has a deathly pallor in the face. A tone no doubt from the arch of the shading parasol, but an aspect nonetheless that creates a certain disquiet within the experience. Unlike the earlier explored works of Rene Magritte, there is nothing, as the earlier description idea demonstrates, fundamentally untoward about the painting. It is but then a certain slanting of perspective, a particular angle of expression, that makes the painting worthwhile and more importantly, interesting.

Interesting especially in considering the parasol less of an abstractive force and more as something that acts literally as it would in reality. The girl’s face is shaded by the cover then just as we are from portions of the floral background. Schuster plays excellently here with shade in her evocation of the subject, such as contrasting edges and tufts her hair for example, with the right a delicate bushel of darkened lines, and the left more vibrant in the sun.

This odd play with colour encourages us to look further, past the girl and into the recesses of the work. The wash of garden for example behind the sitter gathers as an interesting medley of tones, but lacks any sense of depth or truth, seemingly more in line wallpaper than the botanical. It is no surprise then that in such a slight confusing image, that the parasol handle is afforded more detail and depth than anything else in the work.

Regardless of the interesting paraphernalia surrounding, this is, after all, a portrait. One in which when scrutinised, the feminine stare appears to be in conflict. The left one of warmth, coupled to an inviting toothy smile, the right however all but dilapidated, staring out over our shoulder and elsewhere.

‘Miss Livingston at the Piano’

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Heavily recurrent within Schuster’s work is the figure of the woman alone, normally with some sort of instrument or activity, lost in thought. The idea is indeed nothing new or transformative, see Alex Colville’s ‘Chanteuse’ here for an interesting modern adaptation, but the connotations it brings: of privacy, introspection and personal rapture, are always worth investigating.

At the window a heavy light is kept out by thick yellowed curtains. Indeed yellow dominates the entire proceedings, from the foreign font above the ivory keys, to the plant pot and even the finish on the open piano lid. As a result of this consistency there is a meditative unity about the whole, a sense that in catching the player with her eyes closed, we too can play rapt to the image. Everything is bathed in some sort of reflection of the other, giving a near holiness to what is a fairly common stock image for painters and everyone alike.

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Konrad Krzyzanowski (1872 – 1922)

I’ve no clue of Konrad Kryzanowski’s life beyond the artist’s scant Wikipedia entry. Having discovered him through seeing ‘Girl at Piano’ as a small side image within a book of European Modernism, I set off intrigued to find more. But aside from learning Polish, it seems I’ve reached a biographical dead-end. Which I don’t mind really. Sometimes it’s oddly fulfilling to find an artist, painter or otherwise, that has little to nothing written about them. Kryzanowski then, an obscure expressionist rediscovered by a blogger too obscure to even be called obscure.

‘Chmury’ – 1906

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Epic yet homely, comforting yet confrontational, Chmury overwhelms and resonates through its sheer expressionist force. The clouds here aren’t mere white dappling on a skyline, rather Kryzanowski imbues them with a sovereignty and energy all of their own. At the far right the smeared brushstroke cumulus appears not only to leap higher, but also to have taken some of the sky with it, ripping the canvas edge to reveal a foundation brown underneath.Whilst down on the left, a cloud seems to have collided with the ground, trapping itself against the foundation and intermingling with dirt.

The use of colour is tremendous, with the blue sky tide-like in its subtle depth and change. The horizon too is executed masterfully, as pink sunset drifts hover and mingle against the more assured tones of the floor. Through the near mythic shapes above, Kryzyanowski captures that staggering feeling of reverence felt when staring skyward at moving kingdoms of cloud. Indeed, looking at them quickly becomes a reflective experience, one which like in real life, becomes suggestive in of itself of shapes and patterns.

Perhaps in the hollow pocket of the towering left vapour a bird can be seen shilouetted and perched?  Maybe the right clump evokes an eagle of sorts, soaring upward on its wide opened wingspan? Who knows? This is, after all, part of the beauty and enjoyment of painting. The sense that our own interpretation is as individual and cultivated as the faces that we often see high up in the clouds, but that others refuse and contradict.

‘Girl at Piano’ – 1907

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Evoked through a subtle stuttering brush, ‘Girl at Piano’, presents a scene as simple as its title. The child herself seems relaxed in repose rather than a player, both her folded hands and absent face realised in the most minute of movements. Similarly to the aforementioned Chmury, a sense of size is conveyed expertly.  A piano is of course a huge instrument, but one that to a child especially conveys a gigantic almost monstrous nature. There is a feeling of abstraction here then, that these two things belong to the same world but exist entirely apart from one another. Both the girl and the piano are ignored, resigned to merely waiting for something to happen.

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Christopher R.W Nevinson (1889 – 1946)

Whilst older films or pieces of music generally feel their age on account of their then nascent methods of capture, paintings can often come across as strikingly modern inspite of the century or more that separates the image from the viewing present. Art, it seems, tends to transcend and connect through its unfiltered access to expression. Today’s artist Christopher R.W Nevinson struck me precisely because of his urgency and evident endurance, his work forceful and delicate in its depiction of horrors both real & imagined.

‘Column on the March’ – 1917

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What first hits here is the immense sense of monotony, everything is patterned up and divided like a map as territory. From the uniform sky streaked across in various gasps of light, to the floor which is separated to uncertain gravel patterns, along with the aggressive clanking column of the soldiers themselves.

Occasionally a private’s gun will break off from the perpendicular of the pattern, but mostly it’s the clever use of the horses that allows the column to achieve a sense of depth and motion. The animals, with one noticeable towards the far left of the canvas and another squintable just at its close, act as markers that suggest distance, with the space between the riders growing shorter as the perspective drains out into the further side . Through doing this, Nevinson implies more horses on the line, indeed logically there would be one just off the right side of the painting as it cuts, a feeling that furthers the horror of the image as we are caught between a mere slice of this dominant irresistible march, rather than its end.

Though the image seems to suggest against it, it’s interesting to take the actual fighters as individuals. Under examination they break into basic shapes of confusing yet recognisable contortions. Cartoonish but nevertheless real, their odd futurist depiction ensures our eyes are stapled to their path just as they are.

Nevinson of course though is drawing our thoughts towards the monomaniacal nature of war, something that churns the individual to patriotic paste. A thought suggested by the breakdown of detail as the painting drives further towards its endless conclusion. Near our right hand side then is an interesting display of cobblestone design, with even the occasional face able to be discerned. Towards the end however, there’s nothing more than few brushstrokes posing as road as the men peel out into statistics.

 

‘Dance Hall Scene’ – 1913

Dance Hall Scene c.1913-14 by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson 1889-1946

An odd perplexing marvel of a painting that fuses elements of Fauvism with Cubism, ‘Dance Hall Scene’ finds a wide range of humanity mingling as freely as Nevinson’s palette. From the familiar dancing partners at its middle, to the odd lion and menacing jester at its corner, instability reigns here as the party fragments and jitters. There’s a dance floor visible, as well as flowers too, but Nevinson does away easily with perspective and manner, pushing for a more accurate realisation of the blur these scenes do often become.

Soft edges of faces continually push out of the canvas against the scene. Some hang unfinished and incomplete, staring out isolated from within, others gaze on in bemusement. I especially love the visage just above the heavy browed figure of the corner, one in which the mouth comes where the nose should be, as well as a cocked leg able if effectively forming a brow. Whereas pure Cubism strives to present a circular whole of an image, as if it were traversed and appreciated throughout, here there seems to be have been more of an explosion than an exposition, as limbs and faces codify to a uproarious mania.

The carnival tones are expertly presented, with an almost hallucinatory imaging on the bottom figures as their faces and lapels become blending to intriguing combinations. Some are fully formed beings here, their entire shape on display to scrutinise, others such as the crowd at the top are shown only as faces akin to a flickering candle flame.

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Anna Lea Merritt (1844 – 1930)

‘War’ – 1883

As to what conflict, or indeed what date said battle would be taking place, Merritt leaves us ignorant. ‘War’ rather focuses on the two eternal participants of combat: those who become directly involved, and those watching that they leave behind.

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All the women here are exquisitely imagined with terrific detail to their clothing and manner. An anonymous duo on the right corner perch in from the edge of the frame, one curious for further information, the other tight lipped with eyes glazed over, presumably watching the signalled march trounce further off into the horizon. The woman they stand behind is particularly well realised, her face a visage of trouble and tense worry. Perhaps she herself has some implications in allowing the men to leave, her fingers clasped tight around an ornate mysterious key.

At the left a redhead whose dress is of a fantastic depth, draws attention to the soldiers trudging off down below, the key holder in the centre however clearly already too aware of this. When these passing men become noticed by the viewer, it creates an interesting dissonance within the image, with our eyes being pulled between the forceful progress at ground level, and the emotional distress it causes up above, unseen to the men. Unbeknownst to both, a child looks away between the upset women, hers perhaps the greatest tragedy as this world of war is one she must grow up within.

The lack of concrete information within ‘War’ signals a universal nature to the occasion, with other bystanders such as those featured  being visible outside the left-hand window. More than 130 years after the image has been painted, the same conclusions can be ruefully drawn. We, like the centrepiece onlookers here, can but helplessly watch on from the sidelines of history as war continues to move through and march over.

‘Love Locked Out’ – 1890

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Made in memory of a husband who died but three months into their marriage, Merritt here contemplates the insurmountable nature of death, painting herself as Cupid pushing up in vain against the door of a mausoleum.  Delicate evocation of the child aside, there is much to admire in the composition of the painting, with the roses arching up above the would be entrant, their vines mimicking in their eternal ache, the same yearnings of the boy.

There is a naturalness to the entirety of the proceedings, from the gently toppled pot at the foot of the stare, to the nude figure standing atop it. Everything comes in grinned golden hues, with the striking nature of the image allowing it to be both memorable and entrancing.

Writing just after the painting was made, Merritt reflected on her percieved importance of companionship to the act of creation:

“The chief obstacle to a woman’s success is that she can never have a wife. Just reflect what a wife does for an artist: Darns the stockings; keeps his house; writes his letters; visits for his benefit; wards off intruders; is personally suggestive of beautiful pictures; always an encouraging and partial critic. It is exceedingly difficult to be an artist without this time-saving help. A husband would be quite useless.”

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Peter Doig (1959 –

I’ve spent the last few days listening to some new music, thinking whilst Kate Tempest & Akira Kosemura knock it out of their respective parks, about variances between painting & music. How music feels personally much more about the excitement of the unseen whole and the potential for its completion. A new song is one heard new in so many ways, each return finding new ideas creeping out from the woodwork & its fretboard.

Painting is more immediate, there’s less to catch in a sense. Songs are chases, lyrics and choruses hanging ephemera that soon becomes something else entirely. Yet there is an odd paradox within painting, that whatever is portrayed on the canvas, from the minimal stillness of today’s artist, Peter Doig, to the bombastic war zones of Eugène Delacroix, everything contained within is in status and up for scrutiny. Ironically meaning that the greatest literal action possible on a canvas is paint drying.

Picking the two paintings today for Peter Doig was tough as the incredibly accomplished artist (His 2007 work White Canoe selling at Sothebys for a then European living record of $11.3 million) has a style so wild and varied. I begin with a piece I saw at this year’s excellent John Moores Painting Prize, which showcased ‘Blotter’ as a past 1993 winner in its archives, following on from its sombre affections to a later piece of Doig’s, ‘White Canoe’.

‘Blotter’ – 1993

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The bottom half of this work is so intensely captivating that at first we fail to see that the trees and bracken landscape high above the slope, are about as lifelike as the reflected life the boy ponders beneath him. An easy mistake to make however considering the entrancing perplexity of the narrative on display. Doig’s far off capture of contemplation showing both the boy reflective of his own image and thoughts, but also reflective of ourselves as we too scour the meditative image before us.

We’re watching him watch himself, which gifts an odd intimacy. ‘Blotter’ seems aware of this, referring within its title both to, as Doig put it, ‘the notion of being absorbed into a place, but also to the process through which the painting developed: soaking paint into the canvas’.

There is exquisite skill throughout; the water forming a delicate swirl of distortions, masterfully mixing both the reflections themselves from elsewhere in the image, as well as the moments in which these echoes intersperse and spill. The very weather of the scene is dealt with equally well, small nicks and white thumbing against the frame suggesting old reel footage, evoking a place out of time.

Logic reigns in the ordering of the presentation here, with everything coming across horizontal in bands of colour. The boy skewered between two certainties amid his contemplation. The lower portion featuring the exuberance of another life, the higher middle a jagged depthless quality to a reality of ours.

‘White Canoe’ – 1997

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The suggestion of voyeurism is magnified by the inclusion of a fence looking out to the warm sticky water. Colours hang and languish lazy, a landscape uncomplicated by detail in which the hand of man passively glides through rather than engages and changes.  From our privy view behind the bank the real barrier of the wild stands staunch and celebratory.

There could potentially be a disturbing visage here, the passive passed out passenger keeled over and taken forward on the water’s momentum alone. But with its inverted colours and out of place photorealist canoe, it becomes more an opportunity to imagine places like this that are so free normally of human gaze. The symbolic pioneering canoe confidently exploring amid the barren landscape of nowhere in particular.

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Recent article on 2014 John Moores Painting Prize entries, a competition Doig won in 1993 with ‘Blotter’.

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René Magritte (1898 – 1967)

Whilst fellow Surrealists such as Ernst & Masson rely on the outlandish and insane to communicate their ideas, Magritte operates within a paradox, his paintings reaching abstraction through the presentation of a familiar reality. Amidst his skilful natural brushwork there comes a truthfulness to whatever his diverse mind imagines, experiences here then becoming surreal and uncomfortable precisely because of the intrusion of the commonplace.

 ‘Collective Invention’ – 1934

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We see this in the quietly disturbing, yet oddly logical, Collective Invention. With its anatomically reversed mermaid, featuring a fish top and eroticized female bottom half, lying stranded and helpless out on an anonymous shore.

From the back of the image Magritte has the waves curving forward, gently ushering our eye to the uncomfortably glassy gaze of the unseemly synthesis. This then is not pure fantasy; rather there is logic here that makes it all the more alarming and affecting as neither part of the creature is truly contradictive of the other; the skin tones of the feminine legs fade naturally upward to the steely flesh of the fish as if it was mere evolution. The alluring hips too ache temptingly up out of the skin before the wide dulled fins.

It does however seem to behave more like an animal, its helpless caught pose reminiscent more of a drying silent fish than a human. The potential though for it to stand and move is what disturbs me most, to see this creation upright would for me be that true lapsing into unreality. Classically indicative of the painter’s style & tone however, we as an audience aren’t pushed this far in terms of our perceptions. Rather Magritte hangs us on the edge of the incongruous but never fully releases to chaos such as the aforementioned Masson is so fond of doing.

There is of course wonderful technique here too; the delicate wet deposits of damp sand around the creature’s ankles, the slow crawl of the fog to the back of the canvas. Magritte really can paint and it’s quite incredible he could conjure such alarming ideas and still execute them in such an elegant and refined yet cowing manner.

Through such fragmented verisimilitude comes questions, most importantly of all perhaps, where did this come from? Well, the sea behind of course. So why then does it exist? Who caught it? The fish looking out to us seems as ignorant and perplexed as we will always be.

‘The Month of the Grape Harvest’ – 1959

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Similar to the feeling that the mutant of Collective Invention could rise up and gawp forward, Magritte within The Month of the Grape Harvest plays menacingly with potential.

Though only two clear rows of the anonymous bowler-hatted men can be seen sealing the window view, more can be discerned by looking deeper. Edges of further hats peek from behind the wall, with a single placid mouth seen also between the crossed shoulders of two men on the right of the pane. Through their synonymous height a clear division between themselves and the view above is defined, a barricade that adopts an odd aggression in spite of the monotone passivity held by all.

There’s a profound poetry here, one that dwells upon the impossibility of keeping out the outside world. Shutting windows or closing doors then is but an illusion that we are in effect stopping anything. Arguably a window that looks out to the world rather than this army of men is just as confrontational in its reminders of a time and existence that carries on without you.

The hollowness of the room suggests that the people themselves are starting out into nothing; Magritte then here showing us nothing confronting nothing, a commonplace occurrence within the world that continues when we shut the blinds or close our eyes.

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