Sunday, 6 December 2009


Owen is retiring as FPS secretary, this is his address to the FPS agm which took place on 30/11/2009.

“ I have been a member of FPS since 1968 and had my early exhibitions with them at the Loggia Gallery, Buckingham gate. I used to help with the annual open show Trends at the Mall Gallery.

But, going back to full time General Practice in 1979 there was much less time available for involvement with the group. Prior to retirement in 1998, I volunteered to go onto the committee and was given the job of Publicity Officer. To this I brought no aptitude and was transferred to the Secretaryship within a year. After a decade I feel that it is time for someone else to replace me.

We have had much heartache over these years. Dwindling and aging membership is the biggest problem. Then our host organisation SPANA needed to expand their premises. The only way for them was to move to John St. So we lost our gallery, but they kindly continued to provide a meeting room and storage facilities. We have the privilege of having John St as our business address.

Our latest problem has been the fall in value of our reserve funds. The accounts reveal this loss which has been common for many during this financial crisis. Nevertheless we have continued to exhibit. With a tiny committee we haven’t the impetus to mount large shows.

FPS has always supported the work of SGBI, but recently contributions have dwindled to nothing. So, over the past three years, I have done a sponsored walk and raised £1,200 in total. Raffles at Foyles have also raised some money. So I feel FPS is still useful.

I have enjoyed paying back to the group something of what I have received from it over the past forty years.”

Owen Legg Honorary Secretary FPS.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Pallent House Gallery, Chichester

Review by Phillip Worth

In the UK one tends to associate significant modern art collections with our major cities. Indeed an additional attraction of these centres is that, as well as their fine permanent collections, they all run periodic one person exhibitions of leading artists, both past and present, as well as other temporary shows. Examples abound: in London alone Tate Modern has featured Wassily Kandinsky, the Royal Academy The Scottish Colourists, the National Gallery Picasso (‘Challenging the Past’), to mention but a very few. These special exhibitions are hugely expensive to put on – way beyond, one imagines, the means even of substantial provincial galleries. How exciting, therefore, to come across an exception to that rule. The Pallent House Art Gallery in Chichester is home to one of the finest and most important collections of modern British art in the country. Housed in a listed Queen Anne building in the centre of this lovely cathedral city, the nucleus of its collection derived, in the first place, from donations by prosperous art loving local residents, such as Walter Hussey, a past Dean of Chichester, Charles Kearley, property developer, racehorse owner and hotelier, and a steady stream of gifts, bequests and loans from donors too numerous to mention.

From an early date, as the collection grew, the managers and curators detected a definite trend towards modern British art, and acknowledged that the main stimulus for this originated on the continent, especially France. Before the Great War of 1914-18 a powerful figure emerged in this country – Roger Fry, entrepreneur and himself an artist – who mounted an exhibition in London entitled “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” and featured works by Cezanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Derain, Matisse, Picasso, Rouault, Seurat, de Vlamink and other contemporary French artists.

The impact on British painters was huge, and is evident in the work of, for example, Roger Fry himself, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, David Bomberg, Mark Gertler, Matthew Smith, Ivon Hitchens and Wyndham Lewis, the latter giving things a vigorous forward drive with his founding of avant-garde Vorticism. Typical of the influence France had over the British painting manner is Ivon Hitchen’s /Pallent/“Curved Barn”. Britain has long had a fine tradition of landscape painting, but no-one during most of the nineteenth century would have dreamed of “bending” a scene as Hitchens does in this case. A quote of Clive Bell will give us a clue to Hitchen’s purpose: “who has not, at least once in his life, had a sudden vision of a landscape as pure form? For once, instead of seeing it as fields and cottages, he has felt it as lines and colours.”

The pace of modernisation in the UK slowed up somewhat in the early WWI period partly, of course, due to the ravages of the conflict on our young (inc. creative) manhood, and partly as a reaction to the extreme stance of Vorticism and other modern movements, such as Cubism, Futurism, Fauvism, and Surrealism (and possibly to the whole concept of “-ism”!). The art establishment cast a somewhat nervous backward glance at what was feared to be the weakening grip of our own, more conservative tradition of painting and sculpture (the attitude of Alfred Munnings, a future President of the RA, and a hugely popular figurative painter in the post-war period, was typical). This diffidence was largely (but not wholly) ,dispelled in the ‘30s by artists such as Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and John Piper. Paul Nash impatiently wrote “we are invaded by very strong foreign influences. Once more we find ourselves conscious of a renaissance abroad and are curious and rather embarrassed by the event, at once anxious to participate and afraid to commit ourselves; wishing to be modern, but uncertain whether that can be consistent with being British.” As the decade wore on such reservations evaporated, and pure abstraction became firmly embedded in the artistic zeitgeist. Henry Moore’s sculpture became a dominant feature, but see also Ben Nicholson’s “Still Life –/Pallent 01/ Cerulean” and Barbara Hepworth’s/Pallent 02/ “Simple Form (Nocturne)”

In the post-WWII period the focus of ground-breaking activity in the visual arts had moved from Paris to New York. There, a whole new breed of artists became dominant, noted for their fearless and bold invention. American expansiveness, a restless urge to “reach for the stars” drove their work so that, on a purely practical level, they favoured large, even huge canvases and other picture grounds. In sculpture they were pioneers of the “installation”, often working with “found” materials and by no means locked into figuration. Exploration was their watchword, a determination to embrace new ideas, and an almost pathological dread of being bound by conventional rules which had for centuries dictated form in Europe. “Why be slaves to the brush and palette?” would be typical of their attitude; “if we can achieve the desired effect by dripping paint on to the surface through a hole in the bottom of a can, let’s go for it. Indeed it may be that the act of creating images is as important as the finished product, if not more so.” And the process of taking the abstraction of art further than ever before was a feature of the New York school. Abstract Expressionism had as total and permanent an impact on visual art world wide as jazz had on music. This modern American school is represented in the Pallent collection by Sam Francis and Norman Bluhm, and Alan Davies’ /Pallent 03/“OM no.10” is a work by a contemporary British artist which displays its direct influence.

The Pallent collection is by no means confined to modern art. Works from earlier periods are included, such as /Pallent 04/‘the Rawson Conversation Piece’ painted by Gawen Hamilton in about 1730. One might also mention /Pallent 05/the portrait bust of King Charles I made by Hubert le Sueur in about 1637 and attached to the Market Cross where it remained until recently when it was removed to the Pallent House Gallery to protect it from the elements (especially the gold crown and chain).

Pallent House Gallery is well worth a visit, as is the city itself with its fine cathedral and period architecture. As already mentioned the venue’s main feature is a Queen Anne building, but the extensions necessitated by the ever burgeoning collection have been imaginatively designed and constructed so as to be a congenial backdrop to the works on display.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Review of Boxfield Gallery exhibition ‘The Four Elements’and Big Draw workshop

By Penelope MacEwen
Boxfield gallery is situated quite near the train station in the Leisure Centre. A lovely red carpet makes it a welcoming place, contrasting with the colours of the work on the walls.

When walking in Andy Fullalove’s ‘Approaching the Future’ sang out immediately. The use of red in the picture seemed like a bird spreading its wings over an open landscape and with the contrast of red and orange over layers of green and blue, the texture of the palette and brush revealed the process of making. It made striking viewing and I felt uplifted, optimistic. The cleanness of the vermillion complimented with ochre and orange while flecks of cadmium yellow lead the eye upwards.

Another artist whose works really dominated was Philip Worth’s powerful series on the theme of Mussorgsky’s music: ‘Pictures in an exhibition’. Four of these works were included in the present show although seven exist in all. Worth’s ‘The Market Place at Limoges’ possessed an evident zest for life with the people milling about: playing; dancing; buying things. The Russian flavour was unmistakable while the colours gave the feeling of fire and air, as abstraction interacted with figurative elements. The sense of Russia rediscovering herself as a nation seemed to be particularly celebrated in ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ where decorative constructivist and pointillist elements contrasted with the oriental archway. You felt as if entering Boxfield Gallery you had somehow stumbled into a magical world, far removed from the grey walls outside.

The pointillist element was a theme repeated in this exhibition by another artist familiar in FPS exhibitions: Andrew Insh. His splendid rendition called ‘Figures Looking at an Island’ gazed calmly back from the other side of the space and gave a distinctly solemn air to the show. The water of his still lake seemed even to glisten! Juxtaposed with his works were those of Gerry Brooks. Her multilayered ‘City on the Move’ and her impasto ‘Cross Currents’ elicited the most enthusiastic remarks from visitors who wrote their comments about how much they admired her work in the book at the entrance. Colour and movement seemed to literally evoke the presence of air and water in her unique textured style of painting.

Meanwhile Demeter Haralbaki’s mixed media ‘Meetings’ also seemed to continue the theme of water. With string emerging from the canvas, infused with brilliant pinks and gold thread, the sensitive under-layer of paint seemed reminiscent of an underwater coral reef. Bruni Schling’s watercolours worked well beside these works. Both versions of ‘The Church in Town’ had an airy, watery feel, thanks to use of blues and the aerial view used.

One particular large abstract piece by Pete Murry entitled ‘L.Sprague de Normal’ used arches like the calligraphy of an Arabian night with decorative yellow markings to give the sense of evening, suffused in a cerulean blue ground. Next to his works Owen Legg’s jocular transcriptions in lino print such as his: ‘Botticelli’s Venus before the Temple of Venus’ and ‘Stowe: Cranach’s Adam and Eve’ provided a heartening humorous contrast.

Of the much smaller pieces Pete Murry’s work entitled ‘AM’ lead the eye on an intricate journey where lines seemed to interfuse like basketry upon the surface. An interplay of reds and oranges and dark greens made this an intriguingly firey favourite of mine. A fascinating digital print by Vivien Lodge called ‘Dark Earth’ on the opposite side of the space also arrested the eye: the texture of the ink was reminiscent of a pebbly beach; an under-layer of colours...pale mauve, blue and ochre made this a sensitive contrast to the bolder works in the exhibition. Of note too were the minimalist works by Apu Samadder, whose vibrant sense of colour gave a sense of life existing within the emotions of music and pure elements beyond form.

During the show on the 3rd October a workshop was held at the gallery as part of the national initiative ‘The Big Draw’ given by artist and educator, Sally Ward. It centred upon taking inspiration from Max Ernst’s frottage and ideas on automatic drawing. Needless to say the artwork also provided an excellent stimulus for the workshop. I only hope that in future the workshop side of things within the society will thrive alongside the exhibitions.

A lot of work goes on behind the scenes to put up a show. In particular ‘Free Painters and Sculptors’ wishes to thank Lisa Hemmings and Ria Burgess, the gallery co-ordinators and George Spencer and Vivien Lodge who put up the show. All work is on sale at reasonable prices and the display is still up until mid October. It is well worth a visit....

Penelope MacEwen 4/10/09

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Monday, 21 September 2009

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Sculpture Exhibition St. Pancras Church Crypt Gallery 7-25 July 2009

A review by Phillip Worth with Carol Calver's own note on her work.

Life can be hard for sculptors. The materials they work with are challenging and often physically demanding, and much hard work and special skill are required before they can begin to realize their vision. And that is not the end of the story; once work is completed outlets for display have to be found, no easy matter considering the space required – and that’s not to mention difficulties of transportation. Together these are reasons enough why Owen Legg’s initiative in negotiating this particular venue is warmly welcome. It provides an opportunity for some of our most skilled artists to display their work in the mystical atmosphere of an ancient church crypt. And a splendid and imaginative show it is – all credit to our committee under the leadership of its dynamic young chairperson.

Now a brief word about each exhibiting artist:

CORAL BOWER: Passionate about the human form in all its miraculous beauty, whether still or in motion, Coral has produced seven vibrant figures, variously reclining, seated and moving. There is nothing ‘statuesque’ about these sculptures. The emphasis in all cases is on the human body as a living, functional organism inter-acting with its environment. Two heads, besides, show great individuality and sensitive handling.

OWEN LEGG: This versatile artist has his inexhaustible invention and gift for the unexpected well on show. Never taking himself too seriously Owen can turn his attention with ease from ‘Fishy Tables’ and ‘Fishy Chairs’ to ‘Sand Castles’, the latter constructed, one gathers, on the Britanny coast, preserved (somehow) and brought back to the UK – presumably in the back of his car (awkward hand luggage on a flight!). Children would love these things – and you can pay no greater compliment to any art work.

LORETTA WINDSOR: I’m sure that Loretta must be a fan of Andy Goldsworthy in that, like him, she works in partnership with Nature’s own products and does not simply copy them. Her botanical studies have an artless charm, and she crowns her display with a boldly patterned landscape which seems to preside over and symbolize everything else. Her attention-grabbing poster to the East of the church indicates another direction in which her skills may be developed.

HEATHER BURNLEY: Heather has contributed much to the active life of FPS over the years, enriching our shows with her sensitive portrait studies. Apart from her matured craftsmanship she has the vision to empathize with her sitters so that there emerge living personalities. The studies of a distinguished academic and a fresh-faced, tousle-headed boy are in delightful contrast.

KATIE MORITZ: Katie presents the fascinating spectacle of a gifted young artist at an early stage of her development, attempting all kinds of themes and media of expression. The feeling that one gets with her work, varied as it is, is the sheer enjoyment she derives from the act of creation. And this enthusiasm is apparent when she readily talks you through the pieces she has on display. I was particularly impressed by ‘Aslan’, the all-powerful lion which dominates C. S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ series for children (and grown-ups!) Most artfully contrived in different materials it gazes magisterially at you from the wall of the crypt, back-lit by myriad light bulbs.

GRACE KIMBLE: It is characteristic of the ebullient energy of our new chairman that not only can she combine an important job at the Natural History Museum with the demands of her leadership of FPS but also manages to sustain a regular flow of art and craft work for our exhibitions. Her series of figures in clay are intriguing, while her study in acrylic of the owl is, simply, beautiful. Rendered in subdued colours against a dark background this bird is truly a denizen of the night - one can hear it as well as see it!

JOHN MCKENZIE: John is one of those who would not label himself ‘painter’ or ‘sculptor’; if a descriptive were needed ‘artist’, only, would be appropriate. This would cover the many exciting modes of expression which he has explored, whether in oil, clay, alabaster, or bronze, examples of which are on rich display here. Having acquired the fine skills you would expect anyone to collect from the Edinburgh College of Art, his artistic spirit is free to roam far and wide – a man for all seasons! It would be difficult to select for comment one piece from his impressive display, but the study ‘Loretta’ in alabaster has, for me, an unusual quality of serene, feminine beauty. As a Festival wonk I shall certainly be searching out John’s work in Edinburgh in August.

ROY RASMUSSEN: Considering the fecundity and brilliance of his output there can have been few more self effacing people in the history of art than Roy Rasmussen. The truth is that, throughout his long association with FPS as its director, Roy laboured tirelessly and selflessly to support other artists and promote their work – I for one was a beneficiary of that. What is, perhaps, not well known is that he spent most of his life as an employee working on hand-crafted car bodies, panel beating them into shapes guaranteed to satisfy the exacting demands of wealthy purchasers. And what a lucky day for us that he carried his rare skills over into metal sculpture of unusual and distinctive beauty. ‘Technocrat’ in this show is an example, but his London home and studio are full of a lifetime’s production. A one-man retrospective overdue?

KAORU BLACKSTONE: The Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti once remarked that, during a period in his career when he was producing only small scale works, he could accommodate the entire output of three years in his trouser pockets! Be that as it may, posterity has established that output as being among his finest productions. Moral – small is as beautiful as any other size. Kaoru’s tiny sculptures have an appeal which might have been lost had they been wrought on a much larger scale. This appeal can be attributed as much to their delicacy of craftsmanship as to their conception.

DON WELLS: A regular contributor to FPS shows for many years Don has always maintained the highest standards of workmanship in his beautifully executed sculptures. Using wood shaped and honed to the finest of finishes he produces magical figures of arresting simplicity and design in the tradition, one suggests, of Brancusi, Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth. This is the kind of art one turns to to rest the soul, dazzled and often troubled by the restless kaleidoscope of human life.

PETE MURRY: As a link with Don Wells’ work, Pete Murray is also an artist who favours abstraction to express his inner life forces. Although his titles imply figuration one suggests that this is secondary to the initial creative drive. The impression conveyed is that of restless energy born of twisting, interlocking shapes and vibrant, juxtaposed colours that more than meet the viewer half way. But don’t be nervous, subscribers to the blog – Pete will handle your submissions with expertise and care!

CATHY PREST: Like Coral Bower, this artist responds to the human body as a living, moving organism but more, as a miracle of nature, its myriad parts in perfect balance. Two of her pieces on display, ‘Curve of Inspiration’ and ‘Touched’ are in real life proportion while two – ‘Liberty’ and ‘Reaching Out’ are stylised, their lines simplified and exaggerated to suggest physique and motion. But all have a sensuous, even erotic quality. And the main attribute of these pieces and of the best sculpture generally is that, although static and timeless, they are in perpetual motion. Life enhancing for their owners!

MALCOLM FRANKLIN: Like Don Wells and (to an extent) Owen Legg this sculptor favours abstraction, that is, he does not rely on representation of things in the perceived world to give his work impact. Lines and masses in their infinite variety justify themselves to the world. Yet this is but a first impression. Malcolm delivers a much more subtle message than this because, on further study of his images, a strongly organic feel is manifest, rendered in decidedly mechanistic forms. This is an artist whose work needs much more than a passing glance. As you study it the line between man made and organic structures seems to fade – both have a common origin in the scheme of things.

CAROL CALVER: Carol has five works on show – a pity, because they are striking pieces well up to the standard of the rest of the exhibition. Nude studies, partly painted, they have a quirky, provocative quality which is all their own.

"My passion is sculpture, using my main source of raw material, grogged stoneware, sometimes using glazes and stains.

My work is mainly figurative, some with a hint of of humour. my ideas are from everyday thoughts and staements, sometimes overgeard, so the title often comes first and the work begins from there."

And this will be an appropriate note on which to end this review. We have here a show notable for the individuality of its exhibitors. All artists of impeccable technical skill, they each have a distinctive language so that collectively they give visitors a rich visual and intellectual experience. This exhibition has been an excellent initiative by FPS, set up with imagination and vigour. May it become a regular feature of our future programmes.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Can anyone contact Nenne van Dijk?

From: Ann Carton
------------- Message ------------
I have two bronze statues by Nenne van Dijk in my garden in Lake Forest, IL USA purchased in 1991. My garden is being included in the Smithsonian Museum ( Washington DC National museum of AmercanHistory and sciences and the arts) as a great garden of America. . I need permission from the living artist to submit photographs of her sculptures in my garden--please help me contact her. Thank you Ann S. Carton

Monday, 18 May 2009

Review of “Picasso Challenging The Past” at the National Gallery till 7th June by Phillip Worth

What more can be said or written about Pablo Picasso, easily the dominant figure of 20th century art? Apart from specialist galleries devoted to his art in, for example, Paris and Barcelona, a comprehensive retrospective of his huge output would be unthinkable unless, as a phantasy, you contemplated using all the space of the main London Galleries at the same time – and probably the Parisian as well. And so, historically, Picasso exhibitions have tended to focus on particular aspects of his work, e.g. the nude, Cubism, Sur-realism, figuration, ceramics, still life, or phases of his artistic development, such as the “Blue” or “Rose” periods, war-time, post-war and so on. Thus the exhibition currently showing at the National Gallery until June 7th this year turns the spotlight on the artist’s debt to the great masters of the past, especially in the European tradition. In this context it would be doing him a grave injustice to suggest that Picasso was a mere copyist (although he assiduously worked along these lines when, as a young man, he studied the techniques of those masters at the Prado in Madrid, at his adopted home town of Barcelona, and at the Louvre in Paris. What he was attempting to do was to tease out of past masterpieces their essential meaning, their eternal verities, and to express these in the different manners he developed from time to time. The “challenge” was not confrontational, rather it was an invitation to his subjects to prove themselves by, e.g., representation in the Cubist manner. In fact his choice of themes remained very much in the classical European tradition and included self portraits, figures – especially the female nude, portraits, still lifes, historical events etc. It used to be commonly suggested that Picasso was one of the earliest painters of pure abstracts. Nothing could be further from the truth and he himself was always at pains to refute the idea. His world was the perceived, the familiar; his purpose was to reveal the inner meaning, the essence of the familiar, as though objects and figures had a reality in some parallel universe. It also meant that, apart from his own highly idiosyncratic style, he could and frequently did, part from any exact configuration of whatever subject had inspired him. His “variations” reflected his purpose which was to make the original – his starting point – relevant to the present day and its social climate. Frequently, indeed, his configuration would be materially different from the original so that, e.g., a seated pose might transmute into a standing pose.

Six illustrated examples, based on the National Gallery Exhibition, follow – space does not allow for more. They follow, approximately, the chronology of three different phases of the artist’s career:

Pierre Auguste Renoir "Seated Bather in a landscape, Called Euridice"

An early member of the Impressionist Fraternity, like them Renoir was pre-occupied with the play of light on perceived objects. He took part in many Impressionist exhibitions, but his focus shifted from landscape to the human figure. A many-sided artist, he became a fashionable portraitist, but his real love was to portray the nude female figure, where he displayed an incomparable ability to achieve the glowing and delicate flesh tones of young womanhood. However, his graphic gifts also served him well in his vital portrayal of female anatomy, this in turn being a powerful influence on Picasso, his ardent admirer.

Picasso:"Seated Nude"

Although not immediately influenced by the Renoir painting the subject matter is sufficiently alike to make Picasso’s work a fascinating matter for comparison. A product of the phase of “Analytical Cubism” the figure is a mass of interconnecting planes, their solidity expressed by the way they interlock not only within the subject but with the space it occupies. The temptation for the first-time viewer of this kind of painting may be to turn away in confusion – a mistake, as this and other examples of the genre repay extended scrutiny. In this case the figure of a seated woman clearly emerges and she is not merely recognizable as such, but the demure turn of her head and the graceful positioning of her arms and hands also emerge. This, and other works of his earlier Cubist period (e.g. portraits) show Picasso’s extraordinary ability to capture and express the essence of his subject matter. In this phase the influence of Cezanne should be noted – a main concern with solidity and mass rather than with light and colour.

Paul Cezanne:"Still Life With Apples And Oranges"

Picking up on the last point we see here the master of still life at the peak of his powers. Without going in for the conventional Trompe L’Oeil effects of perspective Cezanne’s painterly brush gives inanimate objects a kind of living vitality. This is not merely the accuracy we expect from photography; it is a kind of pantheism, in which apples, oranges, jugs and fabric seem truly alive, possessed of a spirit of their own.

Picasso:"Fruit, Dish, Bottle and Violin"

Here one could say that Picasso was challenging Cezanne, not in a critical or hostile sense, but more by way of an assertion that, great as was the work of the French master, his was not the only way in which still life could be presented. By the time he produced this work Picasso was entering on his second Cubist phase – that of “Synthetic Cubism” – in which the flat picture plane was no longer regarded as something to be avoided, but rather as an asset. This meant a much greater focus on composition and, incidentally, on colour. At this stage, also, Picasso was making use of collage, i.e. using cut-out pieces of fabric and newspaper as part of his image.

Diego Velasquez;"Las Meninas"

This large canvas, painted towards the end of he artist’s life, and when he had spent most of his career as a respected member of the court of King Philip IV of Spain, shows the Infanta surrounded by her maids of honour and a few other peripheral members of the royal household. The King and Queen can be glimpsed reflected in a mirror at the back of the room, while through an open door the receding figure of a court official can be observed, looking back rather nervously, perhaps to make sure that everything is in order. The commanding figure of Velasquez himself stands before his enormous canvas, brush and palette in hand. The room is unlit, although the figures are bathed in what is presumably daylight streaming in from the right.
This great work can be admired on many levels: as a composition, busy but with complete artistic integrity; as an example of Velasquez’ superb draftsmanship; as an intriguing historical document; and (the trappings of royal splendour apart) as a rather appealing domestic scene.

Picasso:"‘Las Meninas’(after Velasquez)"

This work by Picasso many would find puzzling, in that it is a bizarre representation, perhaps even a skit, on a celebrated old master. The Velasquez is an extraordinary work, in that it achieves perfect compositional balance of a number of elements which both singly and as a group are really rather mundane. Undoubtedly the figure which dominates and exudes confidence is that of the artist himself. About the rest of the group there is a curiously vulnerable air, almost as they had been caught unawares by a camera. This would be compounded by their awareness that the artist was not in the habit of “gilding lilies”! So what is Picasso trying to achieve? It should be pointed out that at the time this was painted he was well into (perhaps coming out of?) his “sur-real” phase, when his configuration was becoming increasingly eccentric, verging on the cartoon and caricature in manner, and yet uncannily expressive of his subjects. Here we see the figure of Velasquez as even more dominant, towering above everybody and everything, leaving them very sketchily rendered, in the case of the dog and one of the maids-in-waiting, merely blank within rough outlines. Enough said: however one reacts to Picasso’s work, particularly in its later phase, its capacity to command attention, to fascinate, and to stimulate emulation (and also controversy) cannot be denied.

“Picasso Challenging The Past” runs at the National Gallery till 7th June, with opening up to 9 p.m. on Thursdays. It’s a must.

Monday, 30 March 2009


Tatlin - Monument to the Third International Constructivism

We can derive stimulus and pleasure from visual art in a multitude of forms and styles, although personal subjective taste will of course determine what is the strongest “turn on” for any individual. Landscape, still life, city scenes, portraiture, life studies, to mention but a very few approaches, all have their addicts, but I would, for the purpose of this review, like to make a special plea for hard edged, geometric abstraction. There is something profoundly satisfying about the purity of geometric forms – straight lines, curves, circles, ovals, squares, triangles and whatnot strike a chord in many, if not all of us, and this satisfaction is intensified if the forms are the context for vibrant, dynamically juxtaposed pure colour. Many movements in modern art have sought expression in this way, e.g. de Stijl, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism – one could multiply the “-isms”. But not least among these schools of expression were the Russian “Constructivists” who flourished in the early twenties of last century, although their influence continued far beyond that time and, indeed, has made an ongoing impact on modern art right up to the present day.

The exhibition “Defining Constructivism” showing at Tate Modern until 17th May focuses on the output of two artists – Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov Popova. Their work displayed is dazzling and exciting in its own right, but the social and political context within which they were active is worth comment. As is well known the October Revolution of 1917 heralded a seismic change in Russian society, a change which had a global effect still apparent at the present day. From 1917 till the middle twenties, and before the oppressive rule of the Stalinist regime and after became dominant, it was felt that a “Bright New Dawn” had broken, that the ordinary people – workers and land labourers – having thrown off the shackles of Tsarist rule were at last free, free above all to build a new society in which all men and women were equal, where the wealth of the nation was equally shared, and where opportunities for self improvement were open to all. This created an atmosphere in which the arts flourished. Visual artists were encouraged in their work – no attempt was made to force it into a propagandist mould, but painters, sculptors and craftspersons of all kinds were encouraged to slant their work towards the physical and social environment in order to enrich the lives of the mass of the people. This triggered two main trends in Russian art: towards new approaches to architecture and urban planning; and likewise to industrial design.

The seeds of these developments were sown before 1917, particularly by Vladimir Tatlin. His visits to Berlin and Paris, and especially his contact with Picasso, inspired him to produce “constructed” sculptures, using a variety of functional materials, including wire, sheet metal, wood, string, and other stuff. Here, Tatlin’s emphasis was as much on “sculpting” the space his artefacts occupied as the materials he used. After 1917 it was natural for him to embrace the Constructivist approach, and Rodchenko quickly followed in his footsteps, producing constructs with materials used in manufacturing processes, thus strengthening the link between art and industry. His painting, and Popova’s “architectonic” images also reflected the growing obsession with urban and industrial design. Psychologically their hard edged geometric abstracts could also be seen as an expression of this preoccupation. Subsequently Rodchenko abandoned easel painting, concentrating on 3-D constructs and photo montage. Popova, meanwhile, varied her prolific output, moving into textile design, costumes, theatre and film sets,and allied art forms. She died prematurely at the age of thirty-five when at the height of her powers.

So much for the socio-political background which may, or may not, be of concern to us as artists. But this much can be said, that the Constructivist movement has bequeathed a body of abstract artwork which is unsurpassed in the boldness of its graphic design and its thrilling and dramatic use of colour.

“Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism” is an exhibition not to be missed – Tate Modern till 17th May 2009.

Rodchenko - Non-Objective Painting

Popova - Space Force Construction

Rodchenko - Linear Construction

Popova - Painterly Architectonic /p>

Rodchenko - Spacial Construction No.15

Popova - Fabric Designs