28 July 2014

'Art and Life' at Dulwich

Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 – 1931 is now at Dulwich Picture Gallery after spells at Leeds Museums and Galleries and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Earlier posts here have covered shows at Compton Verney in 2011 which examined the impact on Ben Nicholson of encountering Alfred Wallis in 1928, and at the Courtauld in 2012 which examined Nicholson’s work in the 1930s after his encounter with Mondrian. The Dulwich show (Art and Life from now on) looks at an earlier period starting with Ben Nicholson’s marriage to Winifred in 1920, then the couple’s meeting Kit Wood in 1926, the three artists’ responses to Alfred Wallis in 1928 and ends with the Nicholson’s separation, de facto after 1931. Art and Life features more than 80 works, some 15 of which have been exhibited publicly for the first time and many are on loan from “Private Collection”. It includes items by the potter William Staite Murray who often exhibited with the Nicholsons. The show has been curated by the art historian Jovan Nicholson, Ben and Winifred’s grandson, who gave a very informative lecture, Art and Life: Ben and Winifred Nicholson, at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival.

Art and Life can be regarded primarily as a portrait of an artists’ marriage – for the years it lasted. Ben and Winifred both came from upper class backgrounds, his father being the painter Sir William Nicholson and her family being north of England aristocrats with unusually artistic inclinations. The exhibition starts early in their married life when they were painting together at Lugano, producing work like his Cortivallo Lugano 1921 (below, top) and her Window Sill Lugano (below, lower) and Cyclamen and Primula (poster above), both 1923, the year of their first joint exhibition:

They would often produce works on the same theme, thoughtfully juxtaposed like many of the exhibits, for example the moorland scenery in 1920 at Tippacott (Devon, SW England), her Watercolour below top, his Pencil Drawing below, lower:

The consensus seems to be that at this stage of their artistic lives, his work is more concerned with form, hers with colour. This is, of course, with the benefit of retrospect from the 1930s when he is clearly far more interested in form than colour. In 1923 the Nicholsons began to spend time at Bankshead in Cumbria near Hadrian’s Wall and the exhibition includes further examples of the same landscape being pictured by both. What is apparent is how anodyne their work seems in comparison with that of avant garde artists like Malevich a decade earlier. Soon three works by Ben Nicholson indicate an interest in something more unconventional: 1924 (First Abstract Painting, Chelsea) (below, top left), Jamaique, circa 1925 (below, top right) and Still Life with Jug Mugs Cup and Goblet, 1925 (below, lower):

In 1926 Ben met Christopher Wood who later took a painter’s holiday with the Nicholsons in Cornwall (SW England), before the area’s revival of interest to artists. Wood’s Pill Creek Eock Cornwall, 1928 (below top) and Winifred Nicholson’s Summer, 1928 (below, lower) are among the three’s responses:

Soon they met Alfred Wallis in St Ives. Wallis was a retired mariner and prolific painter of self-taught sea studies like The Schooner the Beata, Penzance, Mount’s Bay, and Newlyn Harbour, undated (below, left) and St Ives Harbour, circa 1932-34 (below, right):

which made a lasting impression on all three artists, particularly Ben, Cornish Port, circa 1930, (below, top) and Wood, Le Phare, 1929 (below middle), perhaps less so Winifred, Seascape with Two Boats, circa 1932 (below, lowest):

although her Autumn Flowers on a Mantelpiece shows a small Wallis. Then came the climactic events of 1930: Ben Nicholson’s meeting Barbara Hepworth and Christopher Wood’s suicide at Salisbury station. Wood’s influence on Ben is apparent later that year in 1930 (Christmas night):

By the end of 1931, the year Winifred gave birth to their third child, Andrew, the Nicholson’s relationship had sundered. The saddest pictures in the exhibition are Wood’s The Fisherman’s Farewell, 1928 (below, top) and her Jake and Kate on the Isle of Wight, 1931 (below, lower):

Art and Life provides a welcome opportunity to see several works by Wood, for example Blue Necklace, 1928 (his mistress, Frosca Munswer) and Zebra and Parachute, 1930. The final exhibits in the show go beyond its nominal dates, but are of considerable interest including Ben’s 1935 (White Relief) and an abstract by Winifred, White and Black Ellipse, Outwards, 1936. The Nicholsons did not divorce until 1938 when Ben married Barbara. The famous Hepworth triplets had been born in 1934.

Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray*, 1920 – 1931 ends at Dulwich on 21 September 2014, nearly a year after it began at Leeds.

*Ben Nicholson 1894 - 1982
Winifred Nicholson 1893 - 1981
Christopher Wood 1901 - 1930
Alfred Wallis 1855 - 1942
William Staite Murray 1881 - 1962

21 July 2014

Virginia Woolf at the NPG

Novelist, essayist, biographer and critic, Virginia Woolf is the most famous and influential modernist prose writer of the 20th century. She occupied a central position within the Bloomsbury Group: that union of friends who helped rid art, design and society of the constrictions and conventions left over from the Victorian period. 
Frances Spalding 

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery in London has been curated by Frances Spalding, an eminent art historian, author of several books relating to Bloomsbury and now of the NPG exhibition’s catalogue. She has selected more than 100 objects relevant to Woolf’s life including paintings, photographs, first editions of her novels and archival material such as correspondence and diaries. This material is mostly arranged chronologically but, unusually for a modern exhibition, there is no timeline presented at entry, although one taken from the catalogue is available on the NPG's website. Consequently, there is no context for the first images the visitor encounters: photographs of the devastating effect of the London blitz in 1940 on the Woolfs’ former Bloomsbury home, 52 Tavistock Square and on 37 Mecklenburgh Square where they were living at the time (when not at Monk’s House at Rodmell in Sussex). This was a year before Virginia’s death in 1941, the point at which the exhibition eventually ends.

Although their work is not universally admired for its quality, it cannot be denied that the painter members of the Bloomsbury Group, whether at Charleston Farmhouse or elsewhere, had no shortage of noteworthy subjects close at hand. Obviously this show concentrates on images of Virginia – I liked in particular Duncan Grant’s 1911 portrait and Vanessa Bell’s of 1912:

but Lytton Strachey,1904 by Simon Bussy, Mark Gertler’s Samuel Koteliansky, 1930 (below, left and right) and Vannessa Bell’s The Memoir Club c 1943 (below, lower) were all memorable (the Bloomsberries in this picture include both Bells and their son, Quentin, Leonard Woolf, the Keynes’s, EM Forster and Duncan Grant):

Among the many photographs of Virginia in the exhibition are the familiar 1902 society studies by GC Beresford, but more interesting to me were the Man Ray portrait (one of several, I believe, for a Time Magazine cover feature in April 1937), (below top, left and right) and some of the last to be taken of her, by Gisèle Freund in 1939, including one of Leonard and Virginia at 52 Tavistock Square (below, lower, left and right):

 It would be difficult to come away from this exhibition without seeing and learning something new. For example:

Virginia typeset TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (a copy is on display) during the period she and Leonard were living in Richmond-upon-Thames and had set up the Hogarth Press and Virginia was writing Mrs Dalloway. Lady Ottoline Morrell took a photograph of Eliot and Woolf (right) in 1924, the year the Woolfs returned to Bloomsbury.

Leonard and Virginia visited Sigmund Freud in Hampstead soon after his arrival from Vienna in June 1938.

Virginia was a Sponsor and Patron of the campaign led by Roland Penrose to exhibit Picasso’s Guernica and the studies for it, in London and elsewhere in late 1938/1939.

This exhibition should have a wide appeal: to admirers of Woolf’s writing, to those fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group – Dorothy Parker is said to have observed that 'Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles' - and to anyone with an interest in 20th century British art. Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision continues at the NPG until 26 October.