24 April 2015

Ravilious at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Possibly like others, I’m not sure when I first became aware of the work of Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). As late as 1982, Freda Constable commented in The England of Eric Ravilious that:
Despite three retrospective exhibitions [in1948, 1958 and 1972], Ravilious has been relatively neglected since the war. (page 35)
And again, perhaps like others, when I have seen his work it has been more by way of reproduction than on show. I missed the centenary exhibition, Imagined Realities, which was held at the Imperial War Museum in 2003 and is considered to have revived interest in his work, so I was keen to visit Ravilious, a major survey of his painting, mostly watercolours, currently at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Ravilious graduated from the Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1925 and died in 1942 in action as a war artist. A chronological survey spanning less than two decades would have been problematic in any circumstances and at Dulwich more than half of the works are 1938 or later, more than a quarter 1940 to 1942 (see Notes below). As an alternative the Curator has chosen six successive themes (matching the Gallery’s layout) for the artist’s work: Relics and Curiosities, Figures and Forms, Interiors, Place and Season, Changing Perspectives and Darkness and Light. Here are some of the items which I found particularly interesting within this sequence, but I could easily add more.

Relics and Curiosities

The Waterwheel (1938, below top) and Ship’s Screw on a Railway Truck (1940, below middle) are both juxtapositions of man-made objects seemingly out of place in the landscape. Submarines in Dry Dock (1940, below lower) are even more like fish out of water. On Bomb Defusing Equipment (c1940), see below.

Figures and Forms

Figures are distinctive in Ravilious’s work if only by being absent when they might be expected. His portrait of his close friend Edward Bawden Working in his Studio (1930, below top) is in tempera so doubly exceptional, as were the lithograph studies of submariners like Commander of a Submarine Looking Through a Periscope (1941, below lower).


At the RCA Ravilious trained as a designer and few details seem to escape him, as, for example, in RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee (1941, below top) with its crested counterpain and Walrus aircraft, and in Train Landscape (1940, below middle), one of his most popular images and in marked contrast to the grim underground atmosphere of No 1 Map Corridor (1940, below lower).

Place and Season

There is a sense of loneliness conveyed in many of Ravilious’s works. The landscape of southern England, although shown as shaped by agriculture, is often unpeopled, as in Downs in Winter (1934, below top). There is only one sailor on deck on the Ship Leaving Scapa Flow (c1940, below lower).

Changing Perspectives

In 1939, Ravilious painted some of the chalk figures to be found on southern English hillsides, for example The Westbury Horse (in the poster and in Train Landscape above), which is in Wiltshire, South West England and the Wilmington Giant and The Cerne Abbas Giant (below), the latter in Dorset, South West England. 

Darkness and Light 

The fact that the majority of the pictures in this section, some of them particularly striking, are war art, adds to the appeal of the peacetime works, for example Bathing Machines, Aldeburgh (1938, below top). Ravilious witnessed the disastrous (for the British) Norwegian Campaign of 1940 and produced some remarkable images like Norway (below middle) and HMS Glorious in the Arctic (below lower). On this occasion his depiction of the monoplane aircraft (RAF Hurricanes) seems imprecise. The ship was lost with considerable loss of life the following day*.

A personal favourite of mine is Dangerous Work at Low Tide (1940, below top) portraying the disposal of a magnetic sea mine – note the non-magnetic wooden oars and barrels. Almost certainly Bomb Defusing Equipment (c1940, below lower) is a companion piece to this work. Sadly, if only from a technical rather than artistic point of view, this is not only hung back at the start of the show among the Relics and Curiosities but has been mis-titled at some stage in its life - it should be Mine Defusing Equipment. (One blogger recently called it Bomb Diffusing Equipment, even worse!).

Ravilious has shown a German magnetic mine in the background as in this contemporary (or more likely post-War) magazine illustration (below, from, but unattributed by, the World of Warships website).

Studying the list of items Ravilious included in his picture (below) makes it clear that the hoops on the barrels in both pictures are brass (11. Brassringed tub), another non-magnetic material, similarly some of the specialised tools (1. Copper Hammer”).  It looks as though the dangerous work started with the parachute case.

The Ravilious Catalogue by the Curator, James Russell, is well worth having and available on Amazon for those who can’t get to Dulwich. Ravilious continues until 31 August and is a must for anyone who likes his work, Bawden’s, the Nashs’, Rex Whistler’s … and the Romantic Moderns in general.

* See James Russell’s Ravilious in Pictures The War Paintings, page 20. His Ravilious Submarine is more wide-ranging than its title suggests but expensive.


While statistics and charts feature sometimes in posts on this blog, this is the first (and possibly the last) on an art exhibition to include histograms. The first supports the point that a chronological show would have been dominated by Ravilious’s final work particularly that after 1939**:

The Catalogue (pages 156-157) also lists three pre-War exhibitions and identifies those works which are at Dulwich in 2015:

** Data from the Catalogue pages 22-154. Works dated circa a particular year (7 in all) eg c. 1937 are included in that year; works with date ranges (5) eg 1939-1942, are included in the later year. Lithographs - 1937 (1) and 1941 (7) – are excluded as was c. 1930s (1).

20 April 2015

NT Live: The Hard Problem

Even in a career as distinguished as Sir Tom Stoppard’s, 16 April 2015 must have been noteworthy. The London newspapers carried a photograph of 19 of the 22 men and the one woman who constitute the Order of Merit and who had lunched at Windsor with the Queen the previous day. Admission to the Order recognises distinguished service in the armed forces, science, art, literature, or for the promotion of culture and is the personal gift of the Sovereign. There is at present one vacancy; David Hockney was among the absentees on this occasion. Stoppard is on the Queen’s left but one in the photograph below. On the evening of 16 April NT Live broadcast a performance of his most recent play, The Hard Problem, from the National Theatre in London. This would have increased its audience immediately by several Orders of magnitude more than the all the seats which could be sold at the NT in a run from January to May.

The critics didn’t warm to the play when it opened – see, for example, Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph. I’m not surprised, there was too much science in it for the arts-educated opinion formers predominant in the UK media (though I would have expected the Spectator’s reviewer to appreciate that the main character was at the outset a student of psychology, not philosophy). Very unusually, out of the ten characters in The Hard Problem, only two, a schoolgirl and a Pilates teacher, are clearly not qualified at a high level in science or maths.

The Hard Problem appears to be set in the recent past, probably the early and late years of the last decade (Note 1). At the opening a psychology student, Hilary (2), slightly older than her contemporaries for reasons which become apparent, is about to graduate from Loughborough University. She has set her sights on a job in the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science set up by a successful hedge fund manager, Jerry Krohl. Her tutor and lover, Spike, helps her with her application although they are at odds over her religious inclinations and her belief in the power of prayer and, for example, as to whether altruism or “goodness” in any form is anything other than a product of evolutionary biology, “evo bio”, and best understood by game theory (3).

She obtains the post she wants at the Krohl after impressing Leo, head of the Institute’s psychology department, who sees her as an ally in an internal scientific turf war. Other scientists in the Institute with a mechanistic view of the human brain believe that sufficient computing power is all they need to model human behaviour. The “hard problem” is at the centre of these different approaches to identifying the nature of human consciousness. At the interview Hilary encounters Amal, a clever mathematician who, although not wanted by Leo, is immediately recruited by Jerry as a “quant” to work at his hedge fund (4). She meets an old school friend who teaches Pilates, a Googleplex-style perk the Institute provides to its employees. This coincidental encounter leads to a revelation about Hilary’s past.

A few years later Hilary has become well-established at the Institute but the hard problem remains unresolved and her views remain at odds with other scientific opinions including Spike’s. She gives a controversial paper at a conference in Venice and on return discovers that a basic error has been uncovered in some research for which she was responsible. She resigns from the Institute to become a philosophy student at New York University. But something she has prayed for has happened as a result of a remarkable coincidence - or not.

The Hard Problem was sold out in advance at the National Theatre and I would never have seen it but for NT Live. Like other Stoppard plays it needs to be read to fully appreciate all the ideas and wit he deploys. Unlike the critics I thought it was as good as Arcadia, but I’m just a techie with an evo bio world view. Whereas Arcadia was firmly set in England, I suspect Stoppard had an international audience in mind at the outset for The Hard Problem – one of the quants is Indian, another Chinese while Jerry is an American with a Japanese wife. I wonder whether the play’s approach to religion might have been shaped with consideration to US susceptibilities. The acting was all of a high standard, and, although personally I found Hilary difficult to understand, Olivia Vinall was totally convincing, an actress who will no doubt go far. Anthony Calf conveyed all the complexities, good and bad, of Jerry’s character, to me the most interesting in the play.

Whether it was the play, the nature of the Dorfman Theatre or an evolution in NT Live’s approach I don’t know, but by comparison with David Hare’s Skylight (posted about here last year) much of the sense of being in a theatre was lost in this showing. There were too many close-ups (below top) and camera angles which would not be available to a theatre audience and little sense of viewing a stage (below lower). Nonetheless the acting style in terms of gesture and voice projection remained theatrical rather than cinematic or televisual. Just because something can be done doesn’t make it desirable and not just in neuroscience. Too much elaboration by NT Live just because it is technically feasible may prove self-defeating if their intention remains that of offering an in-theatre experience.


(1) “… the early … years of the last decade” - the prop in this Tweet from NT Live supports 2000ish; sadly Hilary’s name is misspelled:

(2) Fashions in names change like much else - were there any Hilarys, male or female, under 30 in 2000?

(3) Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Imperial College London, talks about some of these themes in the play on SoundCloud.

(4) Amal’s pessimism about the hedge fund’s trading prospects, after he discovers a weakness in its computerised risk assessment system, enrages Jerry. A very similar problem in a bank is identified by a young quant like Amal in JC Chandor’s 2011 film, Margin Call.


The Guardian on 23 May 2015 reported a debate it had arranged "between a sceptical Tom Stoppard and the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson", the latter believing that there is an evolutionary justification for altruism.  Anyone interested in the issues raised by Stoppard's play should read it.

19 April 2015

Ruben Östlund’s ‘Force Majeure’

Force Majeure, according to Wikipedia, is “… a common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties … prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations …”, the contract in this case being that of marriage. 

An apparently model Swedish family are at the beginning of their skiing holiday in an upmarket resort in the Savoie. In a sudden Alpine crisis the father lets his family down badly. Over the next few days we see the reactions of his children, easy to understand, and his wife, not surprisingly disturbed and questioning of their relationship -. While he moves from denial to self-abnegation, she has to decide what to do with their marriage. 

This film is well-made and well-acted and the conclusion makes it symmetrical – solid Swedish design. If you like skiing, it won’t put you off, but otherwise – well, if you thought the First Prize in a competition was a week in a French ski resort, the Second would be two weeks.

Force Majeure (Turist in the original) is described by its UK distributors as a black comedy, but if so Östlund is well apart from Almadovar. In 2014 at the Cannes Film Festival it took the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard category which encourages the discovery of new talent.

16 April 2015

Noah Baumbach’s ‘While We’re Young’

I came away from this film with mixed feelings about it. So you may prefer reviewers who are both more knowledgeable and more encouraging, like Mark Kermode in the Observer or Richard Brody in the New Yorker. For a start, both these critics are familiar with all of Baumbach’s films, while I’ve only seen Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale. And by the way, Richard Brody hints that, as in the latter, there is an autobiographical element to this film as well.

While We’re Young is a comedy about two married couples in New York, the Srebnicks, Josh and Cornelia, and the Massies, Jamie and Darby. Josh and Cornelia are childless forty-somethings who are starting to find themselves isolated from their baby-producing contemporaries. The Massies are twenty years younger, hipsterish and at first sight unlikely friends for the Srebnicks. However Josh is a documentary film-maker, a field in which Jamie has considerable ambitions lurking under his disarmingly laid-back manner. Josh has been stuck on a project for years and part of the younger couple’s attraction for him is the possibility of rejuvenation. The film is a chronicle of the Srebnicks’ becoming enchanted with a more youthful scene and tastes than their own, and their inevitable disenchantment and return to familiar territory, no older but possibly wiser. Naomi Watts’ Cornelia is just as convincing a half of the troubled couple as Ben Stiller’s Josh; her appearance seems to change quite subtly between scenes, sometimes looking her age and then not. Adam Driver’s Jamie skilfully conveys an ‘almost too good to be true’ quality from the start.

Various reviewers in the UK have compared Baumbach and Woody Allen, and certainly the New York settings and characters appear familiar, as is wondering just how either couple manages to stay solvent in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Stiller’s Josh certainly has something about him of the characters Allen has played in his own films over the years. But I was interested to read that Baumbach is an admirer of the late Eric Rohmer, to the extent that his son is called Rohmer. You could argue that While We’re Young is as much a Moral Tale as a comedy, although Rohmer never overloaded his plots like this one. Not only are there the inevitable complexities of two couples getting close – a Cornelia-Jamie thing almost develops - but Cornelia’s father, yet another documentary-maker, is a significant character and there are two films, documentaries inevitably, within the film. A familiarity with Nanook of the North, Direct Cinema (cinema vérité - I want to see Wiseman’s National Gallery), and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire can only be helpful.

The film starts, Rohmer-style, with a quotation, in this case from Ibsen’s The Master Builder when Solness expresses fear of the younger generation knocking at his door. In the play Solness's involvement with a much younger woman ends in tragedy. While We’re Young certainly has its serious moments, for example debating the responsibilities of a documentary-maker. But I was left thinking that the over cute ‘one-year-later’ ending let the film down. Nonetheless I will try to catch up with Baumbach’s Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding and look out for Mistress America – later this year?

7 April 2015

Durand-Ruel at the National Gallery

Anyone who picks over the art section of an Oxfam bookshop is quickly reminded of the popularity of the Impressionists. A comprehensive survey of Impressionism would be a massive undertaking, probably beyond the scope of even the Met in New York (their Centenary exhibition in 1975 had only 42 works) or the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. So the curator of a show with the word Impressionism in its title needs a focus to constrain the scope of their offering and in this case, the Impressionists whose works have been selected are those who were taken up by the Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922; below top right, Renoir’s portrait of 1910) in the 1870s and after, including Monet, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley*. The National Gallery (London) exhibition, Inventing Impressionism: The Man Who Sold a Thousand Monets, is certain to be very popular and I can't imagine many visitors will leave disappointed. There are 85 major works on display, all of the highest quality and a pleasure to see.

The show starts with some of the pictures from Durand-Ruel’s Paris apartment (above lower) like Renoir’s Dance in the City (1883, above top left). One of the doors from the grand salon is on display with six panels painted in 1883 by Monet: Japanese Lilies, Chrysanthemums, Pot of White Azaleas, Gladioli, Branches of White and Pink Azaleas and Basket of Apples (for an image, see here).  Renoir was a friend of Durand-Ruel’s for nearly 50 years and The Dancer (1874, below, left) and The Cup of Chocolate (c1877/78, below right) are among the others shown here. (Renoir’s Girl with a Cat (1880), one of Durand-Ruel’s favourites apparently, was at the Royal Academy’s From Paris:A Taste for Impressionism Paintings from the Clark in 2012 under the title, Sleeping Girl).

From then on the show follows the path of Durand-Ruel’s career and the next section introduces the painters whose art, not much favoured by the official Salon, was being sold by the family business at the time that Paul took over from his father: Corot, Courbet – Still Life with Apples (1872, below top), the Barbizon school – Millet’s The Sheepfold, Moonlight (1856-8, below lower):

Paul’s sponsorship of the Impressionists was a consequence of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. He moved his stock to London and opened a gallery in New Bond Street. Among the artists in exile were Monet – The Thames below Westminster (c1871, below top) and Pissarro – The Avenue, Sydenham (1871, below lower)  producing the sort of avant garde works which appealed to his taste.

But it was on his return to Paris in 1872 that Durand-Ruel acquired at considerable cost a large number of works by Manet, for example, The Salmon (1869,  below top) and The Battle of the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama (1864, below lower). The latter is an imaginative reconstruction by Manet who painted the Kearsarge at Boulogne after the incident.

Acquisitions of works by Sisley – The Ferry of the Ile de la Loge: Flood (1872, below top left) and Degas – Horses before the Stands (c1866-8, below top right) and Monet - Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil (1873, below lower) were made in the same year, Durand-Ruel not only buying in quantity from his favoured artists but also paying for their work in advance.

At the time of the 1874 First Impressionist Exhibition, Durand-Ruel was in temporary financial difficulty but was able to lend it some of his pictures. By 1876 he was able to take an active part in the Second Impressionist Exhibition and the National Gallery has brought together eight of the 250 works shown then, including Monet’s Springtime (c187, below top) and Degas’ Peasant Girls bathing in the Sea at Dusk (c 1869-75, below lower), both causing controversy at the time.

By the 1880s Durand-Ruel was in a position to put on solo exhibitions for his artists, the case study for this show being Monet with six canvases from 1883, including The Train in the Snow (1875, below top) and The Galettes (1882, below lower).

In 1892 Durand-Ruel displayed in his gallery Monet’s Poplars series, five of the original 15 being brought together again at the National Gallery. By then he had established himself in the New York with the 1886 (Works in Oil and Pastel by the) Impressionists of Paris exhibition and was selling to wealthy American collectors works like Monet’s Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873, below top) and Degas’ The Ballet Class (c1880, below lower).

The exhibition ends with a selection of the works Durand-Ruel showed at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1905 – apparently the largest Impressionist exhibition ever held. These include one of the National’s own Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879, below left), Monet’s The Coal Carriers (c1875, below right top) and Morisot’s dazzling Woman at her Toilette (c1875-80, below right lower).

Wonderful though this show is, I do have a minor reservation about its title: “Inventing Impressionism” – if anyone invented Impressionism surely it was Monet in 1872 with Impression, soleil levant later shown at the 1874 exhibition? Although I can understand why “Marketing Impressionism” or, worse still, “Branding Impressionism” wouldn’t do. However, when it was at the Musée du Luxembourg earlier the show was called Paul Durand-Ruel Le pari de l’impressionnisme (poster below left**), literally ‘the bet on impressionism’ and, if that was acceptable in Paris, I can’t help wondering whether “PD-R the man who gambled on Impressionism” or even “Gambling on Impressionism” might have been both acceptable and more accurate here.

After David Hockney attended the Monet retrospective in Chicago in 1996 he commented:
A great artist, a very great artist. Very finely painted, superb condition now. What? A hundred years old? He knew exactly which paint to use and his work remains in marvellous condition. (Hockney on Art, page 204)
In contrast with the state of some of van Gogh’s works, as touched on in a recent post here. Van Gogh, of course, did not have the benefit of financial support from a Durand-Ruel to assist in the purchase of quality materials. Something which the exhibition hardly touches on is that Durand-Ruel was not exclusively focussed on the Impressionists. Although the term Post-Impressionism would not be invented until 1910, Cézanne featured in the Grafton Galleries exhibition and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, to be seen upstairs in the National Gallery, had appeared in the 1886 New York exhibition.

The last time I saw so many Impressionist works in one place was in London in 1973. Unbelievable as it may seem now, the UK was celebrating its entry to the European Economic Community (as the EU was called at the time). The Arts Council’s contribution to this jamboree (Fanfare for Europe) was The Impressionists in London at the Hayward Gallery, with 58 works (though including six by Derain). Looking at the catalogue I noticed the detailed Chronology by Anthea Callen and reproduce it below as it seems so helpful, particularly in the UK.

Inventing Impressionism: The Man Who Sold a Thousand Monets continues until 31 May.

*(Not so) Young French Artists
Monet 1840-1926, so 36 in 1876, the year of the Second Impressionist Exhibition
Degas1834-1917, 42
Manet 1832-1883, 44
Renoir 1841-1919, 35
Pissarro 1830-1903, 46
Sisley 1839-1899, 37

** with Renoir’s Dance at Bougival (centre) and Dance in the Country (right), both 1883. The latter also hang in Durand-Ruel’s grand salon.