Thursday, 17 November 2011

Three artists who go together

Richter postcards
A few days ago I went down to London for one of those gallery-visit days when you try to fit in as much as you can and end up barely able to walk. I have done this so many times now, and suffered so much (I have particularly bad memories of hobbling across the river from the South Bank towards the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago) but, instead of just limiting myself to one or possibly two shows at the most, I now plan my mad days out with obsessive precision. That means an itinerary worked out on Google Maps, a printed-out sheet with the opening and closing times of the galleries, and details of the buses between them (if a better bet than the Tube -- I like a nice London bus ride). This time I planned to see the new shows by Gerhard Richter (at Tate Modern), Wilhelm Sasnal (at the Whitechapel) and Marlene Dumas (at Frith Street Gallery). All three of these are artists I strongly admire. Richter is probably my favourite artist, if there is any point in specifying such a thing.
Marlene Dumas' brilliant portraits of Phil Spector at the Frith Street Gallery
This time I had my son with me and as a result of my over-zealous planning we found ourselves outside the Frith Street Gallery (amusingly not in Frith Street) before it actually opened. I found this quite interesting in itself as we got to see the first employees arriving, the unlocking of the doors, the raising of the security shutters, the arrival of several more employees (how on earth do they pay all their salaries?) -- all of this feeding my fantasy of working in an art gallery.
     Actually I was once offered a job in an art gallery out of the blue, by an author when I worked in London publishing. It came as a complete surprise and I just didn't have the nerve to make such a big change in my career at that point -- if I'd taken it I wonder what I'd be doing now? Probably not running a very small university press. I also once turned down a job 'running' the bit of Warner Bros record label that takes the UK acts round to all the overseas labels and tries to get them to promote the acts. This was just such a radically unbelievable offer (ooh, those were the days -- it was the Eighties and I was working for Virgin Books at the time) that I could hardly take it seriously. I imagined myself going in on the first day and all the proper music-business professionals taking one look at me and refusing to have anything to do with me. It was when the person offering me the job told me that another big part of it was accompanying the acts and getting them through airports on their way to promotional appearances that I said 'no thanks'. I've read enough rock-group biogs to know exactly how stressful that would have been. Unfortunately the job-offerer took offence at my saying no and that was the end of a beautiful Eighties friendship... I remember he had a little trampoline in his office.)
Google search for Marlene Dumas
     Anyway, back to the Frith Street Gallery. No one going in took a blind bit of notice of the two of us standing politely outside. It was past opening time, so I got up my nerve and rang the doorbell. The gallery is a private commercial gallery so a big shop, really. You have to be brave if you just want to go in and take a look around -- that's how it feels, anyway. We were buzzed in and entered the gallery. There was a large space on the ground floor and a large space in the basement. The paintings were rather spartanly arrayed on the walls and I'm afraid the crucifixions which made up most of the ground-floor room weren't really my thing -- nor, I might have thought, Marlene's, given what I know of her previous work (I daren't use too many copyright images -- shouldn't really use any -- but I have included tiny reproductions as part of a screen grab from Google, above, to give a flavour). Downstairs was more in my comfort zone with some new and marvellous portraits, in pairs, of Phil Spector (see above), Amy Winehouse, Lawrence of Arabia and Osama bin Laden and his son. Imagine if they were all guests at your dinner party!
     I particularly like Dumas' work because she uses photographs and other images as sources for her own images and that's something I'm interested in exploring myself. Making an explicit link to Richter (who of course famously uses photographs as the basis for much of his work), she has done some paintings based on Richter's paintings of Gudrun Ennslin, of the Baader-Meinhof Gang -- Richter's paintings, in turn, were based on photos in newspapers.You can just see one of Dumas' paintings of Ennslin bottom-right in the screen grab above.
     (As we left I saw all the galleristas sitting at banks of computers in the back room where I wonder if they have to do the posh equivalent of phone selling to try to shift the paintings?)
Richter Google search
      Then we went over to Tate Modern for the Richter. As will be seen from my extensive collection of Richter postcards at the top of this post, I've managed to get to quite a few Richter exhibitions in my time, but this was a biggie. There were lots of images I was already familiar with and some that were fresh to me. I had never seen the one of the man being eaten by a lion 'in the flesh' before and it was very worth seeing this for real, because at full-size the photo-based painting broke up almost completely (when it's reduced down in a reproduction, the picture re-coalesces and becomes more readily 'readable', which perhaps isn't the effect Richter was going for).
     There was a whole room devoted to the Baader-Meinhof paintings, which I thought was relatively brave of the gallery as these pictures have caused a lot of discomfort in the past, particularly in Germany. Personally I find them very moving and not at all political in a crude 'left/right' way.
Roy Orbison by Wilhelm Sasnal
Finally we went back over the river to the Whitechapel to see a retrospective of work by Wilhelm Sasnal the Polish artist. You can definitely see the relation between his paintings and those of Dumas and Richter. Like them, he works from pre-existing images and makes this explicit in the work itself. I went to see a show at the Hayward a few years ago called The Painting of Modern Life which was a brilliant survey of artists who use photography as their starting point and ever since then I've felt much more confident in my liking for artists who do this. I have got over what my Dad said when I told him how my four large paintings in the final show for the Foundation course I did a couple of years ago were based on digital prints of old postcards worked over with pigment: 'You mean, like, colourin' in?' Pah.
St Brelade's Bay

   I have been rambling on for far too long. Just to say that all three shows are still on, and they did make a good day out because of the resonances between all three.
   Perhaps the best outcome of the day was that my son decided to use Richter as one of the artists whose style he will look at closely for his GCSE Art and he's going to try out Richter's 'squeegee' technique for one of his modules.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Resting place

All the photos in this post were taken by my Mum. Above is a view of Richmond (Yorkshire) from the field just along from our house which she knew as 'Clinky Field', a very old name, I think.
     The field meant a great deal to her. It was where she played as a child as she lived in a house opposite the one I grew up in.
Clinky Field was just a bit of rough land, really.
The best thing about the field was that it led into the woods.
This is one of my Mum's paintings of the stile into the woods.
The field also had a lovely view over the whole of the valley:
This is another of her paintings of the field
The view of the town from the field is famous:
You can see the castle keep, on the left. Just below that, and slightly to the right, is the old grammar school, now part of the comprehensive school where Mum taught for over 25 years and where I went too. In the centre of the picture is St Mary's Church.
My mum died on October 15th and is now buried in St Mary's Churchyard. This is where she said she wanted to rest and she will be for ever overlooked by Clinky Field. She had been very unwell for several years and when she died it was genuinely a merciful release. I'm glad she is now in such a beautiful place that she loved so much.

Here are two short pieces written by my mum which I read out at her funeral. The first is something she scribbled in her ever-present notebook, in the late Eighties, about her memories of catching the train home from her London college to Richmond in the Fifties:

“Going home to the best place in the world, Richmond.
 First Darlington – the sense of belonging begins. Running to the far end of Platform One where the Richmond train is already waiting and obviously longing to be off. Not many passengers for Richmond, one or two men in khaki en route for Catterick, perhaps.
A bit scared at first since someone told me that, for a short distance, the line is the one on which the London trains come in to Darlington. Always afraid of being in a crash.
The danger, if it ever existed, is soon over, and we are clickety-clacking along the single track to Richmond. We pass through Eryholme – was that a place or just a station? – Through Catterick – Bridge, not Camp, flattened now after the explosion of an ammunition train in 1944. Here’s the level crossing at Broken Brea – I’ve never known how to pronounce ‘Brea’.
Then the music of the train changes. We are trundling through Abbey Wood, an ancient wood near the banks of the Swale, and the rhythm of the wheels becomes loud and resonant as we cross the iron bridge on which as a kid I used to place pennies to be pancaked.
The brakes squealing as we slow down for Richmond Station. Joyfully dismounting and dragging out my big battered suitcase, inhaling the smell of soot, stone, trees, river, tarmac.
I haul the case up through the churchyard, gasping in alarm when the white owl swoops down on me – I had forgotten it lived there. Up to our house in Frenchgate. No matter what time of night or morning I arrive, the front door is always unlocked. Into the warmth and light, the smell of apples, Erinmore Flake tobacco, freshly baked pastry.
My heart swells with happiness. I am home.”

The second piece is simply a page from Mum’s commonplace book, written in 1979.

“This is going to be a page of things I like, just to remind myself. When I try to think of what I specially enjoy, I can never remember. I will be able to now that I have written this. Here goes:

Dolls Houses; Children’s books; Robert Redford; Tin toys; Auction sales; Old houses; Books; Tiny things; Laura Ashley; Expensive new magazines; Old Christmas cards; Paper toys; Extravagant musicals; London; Paperchase; The Victoria and Albert Museum; The Tate Gallery; Secondhand bookshops; Antique markets; Miniature books; Milk; Disaster movies; The Sunday Times; The Yorkshire Dales, especially Wensleydale; Trent Park; Mother’s cat; Celandines; Hogweed; Novels by John Fowles; Books about the Bloomsbury Group; Clothes; Winchester; Honeysuckle-lined hedgerows; Country walks; Trees; George Gershwin; Cole Porter; The Modern Jazz Quartet;  Porgy and Bess; Katchachurian’s Second Piano Concerto; Rex Whistler; John Piper; English gardens; Soaking in hot baths; the colour Green; Collage; Cambridge; Sussex; Silence.”

Audrey Carr
3 March 1932 -- 15 October 2011

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Mystery heads

This macabre head is sitting on my desk here, in the nest of tissue paper it's been wrapped in ever since I brought it down from my Mum's house, after the house had to be sold. I thought I was going to be able to tell quite an interesting story about it, but, as it turns out, the story doesn't tie up as neatly as I'd hoped.
The head used to hang on the wall in Mum's back garden. Above is a photo of it in amongst the ivy. Below is a shot of the garden,  which was long and narrow and very overgrown.

One day, years ago, the head disappeared from the garden and was presumed stolen. Mum was upset because she'd had the head for a very long time and it had been weathering and eroding over the years and had reached the stage of looking like ancient stone (in fact it's just made of plaster). But she had no idea who could have taken it, until a few months later, when she looked up at the front of next door's house and saw the head, hanging on a bedroom wall, with an eerie glow coming from its eyes and mouth! Stunned to have discovered the missing treasure, she got up her nerve and finally asked for it back. It was somehow returned -- no sanctions were taken -- and the head returned to its place in the garden. Unfortunately, in order to turn it into a spooky lamp, the miscreants had drilled the mouth out and this altered the appearance of the head considerably. But Mum filled it in with some sort of cement and hung it in the garden again.
     The next part of the story was going to be the best bit... I thought I had remembered Mum saying that the head was the likeness of one of her lecturers at art college, John Green, and that it had once been considerably larger than it is now, but had become eroded down to just the face. I had a vague memory of a photo of myself as a small child, standing next to what I thought must be the original head.
     First of all I thought I'd track down John Green, but I haven't been able to identify him at all, unfortunately. Then I hunted through all the piles of photos in my drawer to find the remembered snap:

Here I am, aged about three, standing next to the head. But it's NOT the head, I now see immediately. This is some other head, standing in our old garden. Whose head is this? Is this one John Green, or the other one? And what happened to the giant head? Who made the heads? I guess I'll never know. I wish I could make this tale more satisfying but some things are just not known.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Treasure hunt

The cover of Matrix journal -- issue containing Olive Cook's biographical essay on Tirzah Garwood
 Lesley's wonderful post, Pattern and Design, from earlier this week, has got me blogging again after a bit of a fallow period. "Don't worry too much about what you blog about," I told myself (since my head was full of starting places but not much idea about where to go), "just do it."
     First of all, I needed a link to Lesley's post, so the easiest thing was just to Google her blog. I never even made it there! Googling 'Printed Material', I saw 'How to print on fabric with an inkjet printer'. I had to have a quick look at this -- once again it goes back to Lesley, because a while back she very kindly made me up a 'starter kit' for doing just this and told me how to do it. Have I had a go? No, I have not, much to my chagrin.
     However, as I was reading this post, I was reminded of one of the reasons why I haven't yet had a go -- the risk of terminally messing up your printer. I've just got a new printer so am even more nervous about sticking fabric into its temperamental maw.
screen grab from
     It was then that I spotted, in the comments underneath the post, references to Wow, they will print your own fabric design for you! No ruined printer and you're not limited to A4-sized sheets. This is something I'll have to bookmark and come back to.
Saturday Book emblem from the endpapers of SB no. 7
     All this was already 'off piste' as I had initially intended to go down quite a different route. The initial trail from Lesley's post had led me to the St Jude's blog, All Things Considered, and, from there to writer Olive Cook and her husband, photographer Edwin Smith, who were regular contributors to the Saturday Book, precursor of miscellanies such as Granta and which ran from 1941 to 1975. It happens that I have just brought a carrier bag full of Saturday Books back from my dad's where I'm keeping (and intermittently forgetting all about) a mountain of old books which are currently 'hidden' behind his spare-room sofa. I thought I'd have a look through this bag of books for some delectable things to blog about.
 Actually, the Saturday Books I've got are not as delectable as I imagined, being rather inky and serious miscellanies of poems and essays which haven't stood the test of time too well. But in my random selection I did find a madly eclectic selection of Christmas-related objects collected together by Cook and Smith (SB no. 13), which included these rather tenuously Christmas orange wrappers (to be enjoyed on Boxing Day):
and these very desirable cracker toys:
In Saturday Book no. 16, Cook and Smith -- weirdly -- tell the story of Bluebeard through 'bits and pieces'. This was in 1956, and the exercise, which is really quite off-kilter, seems to straddle the Victorian and modern sensibilities and, in this respect, to stand for a lot of cultural activity in that era. Here are a few snippets from Bluebeard in Bits and Pieces:
Finally, my Olive Cook meanderings took me to her biographical essay on the artist Tirzah Garwood, wife of Eric Ravilious and whose talent was possibly eclipsed by her husband's, and who also found it difficult to juggle being an artist with the roles of mother and wife (sigh). You can read it here, on the excellent Weeping Ash website.
The Train Journey, c. 1939 by Tirzah Garwood
And there my web treasure hunt stopped, for now, as it had taken up the best part of a day!