Wasteland

Over the Bank Holiday weekend, I visited Turner Contemporary’s current exhibition ‘Journeys with The Wasteland‘ – a community-curated exhibition that responds to T. S. Eliot’s poem, which was influenced by the poet’s time in Margate.

As our party included my toddler nephew, I didn’t spend as much time in the exhibition as I might otherwise have done, with Margate Sands beckoning for getting wet feet and broken fingernails. So I did not really take in the narrative of the exhibition, but I did enjoy looking at some works by some of my favourite artists (a list of artists included in the exhibition is at the bottom of the webpage linked above; Blake is, alas, not represented in original, but 1922 facsimiles of some of his Dante designs).

The visit also gave me occasion to remember another installation at Turner Contemporary that responded to The Wasteland, which I had previously written about on a page in a now redundant section of this site, so I am taking this opportunity to re-post it.

____________________________________________________________________

DSCF8368

On Margate Sands, I can connect nothing with nothing 

T. S. Eliot – The Wasteland

During my brief period outside the academy, one of the pieces of my patchwork of occupations was working as a Gallery Assistant at Turner Contemporary in Margate. Over the summer months of 2012, we had an installation on the promenade outside the gallery by Mark Wallinger — it was a ‘Sinema Amnesia’ (a concept Wallinger had previously used in Canakkale in Turkey) showing “Wasteland.” The film was a constantly changing picture of Margate Sands, showing the scene from the previous day – there was a camera inside the Sinema, filming the view outside, which replayed on a 24-hour time delay. Sometimes, to a casual observer who entered the Sinema, it would appear at first that it was simply showing the view outside, but there were always differences to notice in the clouds or current of the waves, and on other occasions, there would be dramatic differences in the weather or the activity taking place outside.

‘Wasteland’ of course, is after T. S. Eliot, who spent time convalescing in Margate whilst he was writing the poem — part of my spiel was pointing out to visitors the wind shelter where he sat writing, and the film played on the notion of disconnection in the poem. It also resonated with Turner’s interest in the changing sea and sky in Margate — the gallery is built on the site where Turner lived with his mistress, Mrs. Booth, and he is reported to have said that the skies in Margate were ‘the loveliest in Europe’ (its location at the tip of the Kent coast, straight onto the North Sea, makes for big skies and dramatic weather).

It was a treat to get out of the galleries — especially on sunny days — and it was generally better for talking to visitors (it’s no wonder many Gallery Assistants the world round look bored stiff — days go very slowly when visitors don’t want to ask questions): being in a small box meant they were a captive audience, and the work needed explaining unless people had read up on it in advance.

On the very last day of the installation, I was really given a run for my money, as not only were there more visitors in that day than there had normally been in a week, but Mark Wallinger himself along with various friends, was around, so I had to explain the work to visitors in front of him. There was also a very curious ‘visitor’ who kept asking me questions who turned out to be part of Wallinger’s entourage! I think I passed the test, but it was quite a surreal experience.

I saw some brilliant things on the film — people soon caught on that they could appear on the film when the tide was out, and there were some great (and mischievous) interventions; there were also some interesting wildlife moments — my favourite were the spiders dancing over the lens of the camera.

There were also times where little happened on the film and no visitors came. I used this time to get to know T. S. Eliot’s poem, and was struck by some remarkable resonances with other aspects of the work of and working at Turner Contemporary. I scribbled down my responses to various lines of Eliot’s poem; here they are, along with the lines that prompted them (Eliot’s lines are italicised).

Summer surprised us…with a shower of rain

We stopped in a promenade, finding a booth where we could stay

Fear death by water

Engulfed under its great weight, pushing down, pressing down;

A fragile figure beneath

I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring

Around a pool

What shall we do tomorrow?

Return and recall today

It rains

We stay, and watch the past unfold

Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest;

Knowing what had passed

I too awaited the expected guest

Who appeared, as clockwork, from a time past.

She is bored and tired

Standing sentinel

The broken fingernails of dirty hands

That wrote in the sand

My people humble people who expect nothing

Of art nowadays

But not all

The cry of gulls and the deep sea swell

Above and beneath this place

A current under sea

Sweeping away

Prison and place and reverberation of thunder

Resounds in here, and there

Here us no water but only rock

Rock and no water and the sandy road

Down there, up here, over there

The road winding above among the mountains

Sharp, grey mountains, rising above the sea

And the chalky cliffs beyond

In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust,

Bringing rain

Once more, outside, creeping in, cold

Memories draped by the beneficent spider

Who danced for us

The boat responded

Passing by

Fishing

Shrimping in the sands; seeking crabs among the rocks

This arid plain

This scene; this stage

Advertisements

Some Favourite London Paintings

This week I spotted Time Out’s ‘100 best paintings in London‘ doing the rounds on twitter.

 

Ask my brother what response you’ll get if you ask me what ‘the best’ or ‘my favourite’ is, and he’ll tell you (because he’s seen it frequently) that I’ll roll my eyes and give an equivocal response along the lines of “Well I like this about X and that about Y.”

 

So I couldn’t expect to agree with Time Out’s pick because I don’t really see how you can rank Piero della Francesca’s 1450 Baptism of Christ (which clocks in at #5, National Gallery) against Richard Dadd’s 1855 The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke (at #21, Tate). I was also, of course, interested to see where, if at all, any of Blake’s works were placed – in case you’re interested, Tate’s Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-20) clock in at #42, just above JMW Turner’s 1839 The Fighting Temeraire (National Gallery), which was once voted the Nation’s favourite painting and seemed to be the only Turner work many visitors to Turner Contemporary wanted to see when I worked there (but had failed to check whether it was actually on loan there, which it wasn’t; cue lots of of disappointed/angry visitors).

 

Nevertheless, this did get me thinking about my favourite London paintings, so here it goes. First, a few disclaimers. As a resident of the North, I should add that London doesn’t have a monopoly on great paintings, and perhaps I’ll get round to writing about a few of my Manchester favourites at some point, but as a sometime Londoner, this is my take on Time Out’s survey. These are in no particular order – just numbered for sake of knowing how many I’ve got up to. It’s a highly personal selection – these are all paintings that have stayed with me in some way. I’ve also limited myself to one work per artist per collection, and I haven’t included any works on paper. Apologies for hyperlinks rather than illustrations; chasing permissions for reproductions is rather involved!

 

1. Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27, Tate). Oddly enough, it was this rather than a Blake work that first popped into my head as missing from Time Out’s list. This is a monumental painting, which always stops me in my tracks when I see it.

 

2. William Blake’s The Agony in the Garden (c.1799-1800, Tate). This is Blake at his most innovative – handling a popular subject in Christian art in an idiosyncratic way.

 

3. Blake’s The Christ Child Asleep on a Wooden Cross (c.1799-1800, V&A). Like The Agony in the Garden, this is one of about fifty tempera paintings illustrating the Bible which Blake produced for the Civil Servant Thomas Butts, one of Blake’s most important patrons. I wrote about this work in a piece of coursework when I was an undergraduate, which was the starting point of my fascination with Blake’s pictorial works. I also used to include it in tours when I was a volunteer guide at the V&A.

 

4. Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (1450, National Gallery; see above). I have to agree with Time Out putting this among the top picks. A masterpiece in composition and symbolism. Although there’s no way Blake could have known this work, I find it a helpful pendant for reading his version of this subject in his watercolour illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Regained (c.1816-20, Fitzwilliam Museum).

 

5. I also agree that Dadd’s The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke (1855, Tate; see above) is a top pick. I’d like to learn more about Dadd, but this is another work that I always stop at when I’m wandering around the Tate (though in contrast to Spencer’s Resurrection, this is a work to be viewed at close-quarters).

 

6. The Wilton Diptych (c.1395-99, National Gallery) came somewhere near the bottom of  Time Out’s 100. This is an English masterpiece, whose importance is enormous, in spite of its small size. I remember an engaging lecture about this work when I was an undergraduate, as well as looking at it during my MA.

 

7. Henri Rousseau’s Surprised! (1891, National Gallery). One of the first paintings I can remember learning about – aged about eight, when our teacher gave us a potted history of art, got us to create our own versions of masterpieces (including this one, which might still be somewhere are my parents’ house), and took us on a trip to the National Gallery to see some of them. I wonder if he knew Blake’s Tyger.

 

8. Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome (c.1496, National Gallery). This is a work I wrote an essay on for my Master’s at King’s College London, which was taught in collaboration with the National Gallery. It’s a little devotional panel which depicts St. Jerome in the wilderness on one side and a fiery vision on the other. There’s a great article on this painting by Andrew Graham Dixon for the Independent, available here.

 

9. JMW Turner, The New Moon; or, ‘I’ve lost My Boat, You shan’t have Your Hoop’ (exhibited 1840, Tate). There had to be a Turner picture given the many hours I spent with Turner pictures during my stint as a Gallery Assistant at Turner Contemporary. This one was the headline image for the big Turner show that was on whilst I was there, ‘Turner and the Elements‘ so in a way it stands for the exhibition as a whole. This image was a favourite among visitors and staff alike, with its charming subject and its location near to the site of the gallery in Margate. I don’t know if it was cleaned at some point in recent years, but the image on the exhibition website is closer to my memory of the colours than that on the Tate’s website.

 

10. Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery). Another well-known favourite which came somewhere fairly high in Time Out’s list. It’s another of those pictures that grabs you as soon as you enter the gallery it’s in (fortunately it’s hung high enough that it can easily be seen over the inevitable crowd hovering around it) with its extraordinary vividness and drama. It’s also here because mention of Caravaggio always brings to mind my brother doing an impression of one of our school teacher who was a particular fan of the artist.

 

11. Pietro Gerini, The Baptism of Christ (1387, National Gallery). This is another work which brings back memories of my MA. This work was included in the exhibitonDevotion by Design’ which ran the summer at the end of my MA, prior to which it underwent a year and a half’s conservation (you can hear/read about the conservation here). One of the courses on the MA taught at the National Gallery focused on altarpieces and the other on John the Baptist and this work encompasses both themes. Why it really sticks in the memory is that we got to visit the conservation studio during the cleaning process and got to see some bonus fish in the river which had been added by a later hand and were subsequently removed to restore the work closer to its original state.

 

12. John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1919, Imperial War Museum). This iconic image from the First World War reminds me of taking A-Level English Literature for which our synoptic unit was literature from and about the First World War, so we were encouraged to read and see as much material as possible on that theme. I took myself off to the Imperial War Museum, where this painting hangs, on the way to a university open day (which is actually the first time I can remember making a solo excursion to a museum or gallery). Like Spencer’s Resurrection, this work has special resonance in this anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War and it’s re-entered my consciousness via John Keane’s 1991 Ecstasy of Fumbling which is currently in the exhibition ‘Sensory War’ at Manchester Art Gallery. Keane was an official war artist in the Gulf War; this is a self-portrait of the artist during a gas alert taking its title from a line in Wilfred Owen’s First World War Poem Dulce et Decorum est which describes a gas attack. A postcard of Sargent’s painting is among the collage elements of Keane’s work.

 

13. William Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress (1733, Sir John Soane’s Museum). This is actually a set of eight paintings which were the basis for a set of prints which tell the rise and fall of the fictional character Tom Rakewell (you can read about the narrative by following the link). They’re in here largely because of the experience of visiting them at the Soane’s Museum (which I only got around to doing this summer), where they’re hung in a room eccentrically, but ingeniously, containing a series of panels hidden behind the wall panels – a design which both increases hanging space and protects works on the inner layers from the light. A Rake’s Progress has inspired some brilliant re-workings of Hogarth’s moral tale, including Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences tapestries, which we had at Manchester Art Gallery earlier this year and were fun to discuss with visitors. I also ended up seeing them again at the Foundling Museum in the summer, where I ended up getting into conversation with some other visitors to impart my MAG guide knowledge.

 

14. John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3, Tate). John Martin’s paintings are awesome in the true sense of the word. Some years younger than Blake, they’re sometimes compared as religious eccentrics, although their careers took rather different paths – John Martin was far more (commercially) successful in his lifetime (although he is less well-known now). They also handled their subjects in very different ways; to make a gross generalisation, their modes of composition were: Blake = dominate a small canvas/piece of paper with figures and go easy on the scenery; Martin = dwarf a few tiny figures in a vast, dramatic landscape with brooding sky on a large canvas.

 

15. Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond (1899), or ‘The Bridge’, as I think of it. Another seemingly unimaginative choice, perhaps, but this is another work that takes me back to primary school, when another teacher got us to create out own version of the painting, no doubt destroying numerous paintings making all the ‘dots’. Mine still hangs over the fireplace in my parents’ living room.

 

16. The Triumph of Orthodoxy Icon (c.1400, British Museum). This icon celebrates the end of the Iconoclast Controversy in Byzantium in 843 – a subject I wrote essays on during both my undergraduate and Masters’ degrees. This work sort of stands for Byzantine icons in general, which I find interesting for the rich theology behind them and the sheer ancientness of some extant examples (although this icon is from several centuries after the end of the iconoclast controversy).

 

So there’s sixteen works off the top of my head; I’ll probably realise I’ve forgotten some others I love before to long, but if nothing else, I’m glad this has set me thinking about pictures other than Blake’s!

(Romantic) Landscapes at Turner Contemporary

After a festive period dominated by deluge, on Thursday we finally had a bright, clear day, so I took a trip down to the sea in Margate, which is home to what JMW Turner called the loveliest skies in Europe and the gallery in the name of the same, Turner Contemporary.

The current exhibitions (just – finishing today) are “Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature” and “Dorothy Cross: Connemara.” I obliquely promised a post on this exhibition when I last visited, but didn’t quite get around to writing it, partly because I realised I hadn’t taken in that much of the display owing to spending most of my time catching up with former colleagues (before my PhD I worked as a Gallery Assistant at TC).

“Sketching from Nature” explores the phenomenon of landscape painting in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; as the title suggests,it pays particular attention to the practice of painting in the landscape and Turner and Constable feature prominently, although there are also works by many contemporaries.

This is of course Blake’s period, but not very Blakean subject matter. Indeed, Blake is often read as hostile to nature and as rejecting landscape painting as an empty, fashionable fad. This is an oversimplification (see, for instance, details of a display at Tate Britain last year) and in fact something I’m thinking about in one of the chapters I am currently working on in my thesis (more on that another time perhaps).

There were at least two people connected with Blake represented in the exhibition. There were several works by John Linnell, a friend and patron to Blake in the later years of his life, and others by Cornelius Varley, brother of John Varley with whom Blake created his ‘Visionary Heads.’

Linnell was particularly known for his landscape paintings which are quite conventional in style, and looking at them with his interest in Blake’s work in mind is quite startling (see this slideshow of Linnell’s works in the Tate collection). Among other important gestures, Linnell introduced Blake to Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert – the younger disciples of Blake known as ‘the Ancients’ who also had a particular interest in landscapes (especially Palmer and Calvert) but were not represented in the exhibition.

As for Cornelius, I hadn’t heard of him before visiting the exhibition, but the surname jumped out at me as a likely relation to John. A quick bit of internet research revealed that Cornelius’ main occupation was making scientific instruments (see an article from Cambridge’s Whipple Museum). Most significantly, he invented the graphic telescope, which projected a magnified image of a subject onto paper, allowing the production of an accurate drawing. Cornelius used the telescope to sketch portraits and landscapes, as well as scientific drawings; Blake would have abhorred this method, which diminishes the role of even sensory perception, and still more the visionary perception Blake thought artists should aspire to.

The works by Cornelius in the exhibition pre-dated the graphic telescope, but I don’t think Blake would have thought much of them anyway (see his Tate slideshow). They were not actually the precise style one might expect with Cornelius’ scientific interests in mind – indeed, the indistinctness of some of the forms is a reason Blake would probably not have liked them (see his comments on linearity in the Descriptive Catalogue – available in the Blake Archive).

Blakean objections aside, it’s a shame that Cornelius’ invention was not mentioned (unless I missed it) in any of the exhibition literature (although it may be mentioned in the catalogue). Something else I found odd was that the term “Romanticism” seemed to be obstinately avoided, even in the room which explored idealised and imaginary representations of landscapes (again, I can’t speak for the catalogue).

I left the gallery just before sunset, and was hoping I might get one of the spectacular sort for which Margate is famous, but it was rather grey (see photo below – in spite of the poor quality of the mobile phone shot, it actually manages to make the sky look more interesting than it was through my own eyes). Whether or not the paintings inside should be called Romantic, the scene outside wasn’t on Thursday evening.

DSC00424

The Rhino and the Flea – “Curiosity” at Turner Contemporary

The latest offering from Margate’s Turner Contemporary is “Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing” which is a contemporary curatorial take on the cabinet of curiosities, showcasing an eccentric array of things from historic prints and drawings to taxidermy, a variety of contemporary art, works by the gallery’s namesake, J M W Turner (in this case, studies of birds’ heads), and other things besides.

Two works in the first room caught my interest with my Blake hat on. The first is Dürer’s famous rhinoceros woodcut (1515; view via the British Museum’s website), which I suspect influenced Blake’s figure of Behemoth in his Illustrations to the Book of Job (view via the University of Manchester’s LUNA). As mentioned in a previous post, Blake admired Dürer’s work, and assuming he knew the print, I suspect the combination of text and image and way in which the rhinoceros is almost forcing its way out of the borders of the picture would have appealed to Blake. I’m fairly sure the link between the two images must have been suggested before, but since I’m currently taking a break from the books I can’t check up on this.

The second Blake radar was Robert Hooke’s engraving of a flea from his book Micrographia (1665; see the work and read the late Tom Lubbock’s article about it via The Independent’s website). Hooke’s flea is magnified on a huge scale, on a page that folds out of the book, so that it becomes a kind of monster. It’s another work Blake may well have known and could have influenced his painting The Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-20; view via the Tate’s website; again, this is something I’m sure has been suggested before).

I wonder if there will ever be a “Blake Contemporary”. With his cottage in Felpham up for sale (see estate agent Jackson-Stops’ website), perhaps the right pioneers could create “The Blake at Bognor” (Bognor Regis being the larger neighbour of Felpham) which could be the latest seaside regeneration gallery.