Paulo Nimer Pjota @ Maureen Paley, April 28 to May 29, 2016.

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Paulo Nimer Pjota, exhibition view, ground floor, Maureen Paley, London, 2016.

©Paulo Nimer Pjota, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

At certain times of the year in London, when the sun is shining at a certain angle, a brightly coloured wall might give off more reflected heat and light than is reasonable for this part of the world, or a taxi might surprise you with the warmth of its wake as it passes. At that moment you are transported by memory to cities where it is gloriously hot more often than not, if not always.

At Paulo Nimer Pjota’s show at Maureen Paley in London, I felt transported in just this way. If artworks often take on the aesthetic ingredients of their surroundings, whether intentionally or not, then it is hard to imagine these paintings having been done in anything but a hot climate. They breathe hot colour and swarm with casual, effortless marks. In some ways they are hardly straightforward paintings. Pjota himself admits that he is not really concerned with the idea of being labelled specifically a painter at all. And this refreshing nonchalance translates well into the finished artworks he creates.

The show, entitled Synthesis of Contradictory Ideas, and the Plurality of the Object as Image Part 2, consists of unstretched canvas and sheet metal pinned adjacent to each other like constructed paintings on the wall. Close by, on the floor beneath these paintings, are unglazed ceramic vessels and resin casts of bottles, a bust and some garlic. Some of the ceramic receptacles appear in more elaborate painted form, at roughly the same scale, in the paintings.

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South landscape with gold and my memory about Northeast

acrylic, spray paint, brick pigment, pencil and pen on canvas and iron plate, with ceramic objects from Portugal, Bahia and São Paulo, 218 x 288 cm – 85 7/8 x 113 3/8 in, 2016.                                                          

©Paulo Nimer Pjota, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

Pjota speaks of the legacies of colonialism and social and political issues in Brazil being key concerns for him when he approaches making his work. But the final effect is mercifully short on historical critique or explicit social commentary. These elements, in so far as they appear to any recognisable degree, take equal prominence amongst what initially appear to be incidental marks, scratches, doodles, text, fridge magnets and painted imagery. The juxtapositions; a smiley face next to a traditional hand-painted pot, or carved tribal statuary next to Darth Vader’s mask, might seem to suggest the emergence of a fully formed critique. The associations however, are left hovering in the abstracted space of the painted, or marked, surface. Continue reading “Paulo Nimer Pjota @ Maureen Paley, April 28 to May 29, 2016.”

Jules de Balincourt | Stumbling Pioneers @ Victoria Miro, 15 April – 14 May 2016.

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California Native, 2016 Oil and acrylic on panel 111.8 x 121.9 cm 44 x 48 in.

Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

© Jules de Balincourt

When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the musicians behind Steely Dan, moved out to LA from the east coast in 1971, they found the visual equivalent of their slick and expansive music in the heat haze and palm-lined avenues of the Pacific metropolis. Or is it more likely that their music started to open up in response to the grand, languid and unwalkable vistas of the west coast?  Landscapes can engender complex responses; mythologies, iconography and aesthetics which, more often than not, leave the real thing struggling to fulfil expectations. The various mythologies of the American West, being among the most ubiquitous in modern culture, also make it difficult to view almost any artwork which takes them as its subject with fresh eyes, such is the power of the iconography which has already accumulated around the subject.

In each of the paintings in Jules de Balincourt’s current show at Victoria Miro, ‘Stumbling Pioneers’, we encounter many of the visual triggers we might expect on the subject: empty swimming pools, a truck stop, a molten sunset, a freeway winding through the edgelands of the city. It is almost surprising to see each motif dealt with so concisely in individual panels. The initial impression is of an outsider’s perspective; an attempt to document the city and its surroundings in a series of illustrative vignettes, executed by someone who is seeing them for the first time perhaps. De Balincourt is in fact painting these works after a period of 20 years spent outside LA. So after such a long absence one could be forgiven for feeling, at least partly, like an outsider.

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Night Moves, 2016 Oil on panel 121.9 x 101.6 cm 48 x 40 in.

Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

© Jules de Balincourt

The works are of various dimensions, painted on wooden panels which float about an inch or so off the wall on recessed wooden supports. The hidden supports are each treated with the predominant colour of the image itself. Some of these colours are almost fluorescent, and the effect from a distance is of a subtle coloured backlight to each panel. Most of them are painted in oil, but some use both oil and acrylic. The application of these two very different types of paint on the same panel is executed so well as to make them almost indistinguishable. Continue reading “Jules de Balincourt | Stumbling Pioneers @ Victoria Miro, 15 April – 14 May 2016.”

Kurt Schwitters @ The Armitt.

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Untitled (Cal), Collage, paper, carton and wallpaper, 1947. ©Private collection (courtesy of the Armitt Trust).

Last week I returned to London after a two week residency at the Kurt Schwitters Merzbarn site in Elterwater, Cumbria. I say site because, in a number of ways it is more appropriate to think of it as the site of an event than as a place to visit and see an artist’s work in the flesh, or in stone and plaster as might be the case. The original wall on which Schwitters worked between March and July 1947 was removed and placed on permanent display in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle in 1965. All that physically remains of the construction, which the artist hoped would develop into a new and perhaps more significant Merzbau than his Hanover original, is a section of plasterwork resembling an arm reaching across the upper left hand corner of one of the remaining walls. Even this was in fact added to Schwitters’ original by Harry Pierce,  the owner of Cylinders estate, after the artist’s death. The original Merzbarn construction had not developed beyond the limits of the western wall of the building by the time Schwitters suffered a haemorrhage in July 1947. He died on the 10th of January, 1948.

Schwitters is not an easy artist to love. When I first became aware of his original Merzbau, which was destroyed in an allied bombing raid, I was more confused by my attraction to this obscure installation than I was definitively impressed by it. Long before I became aware of its influence on artists and architecture students and its implications for immersive installation art, I found myself wondering why I should be so engrossed in its seemingly measured randomness. The fact that only a few black and white photographs of the Merzbau were in circulation meant that I couldn’t even contrive a sense of having understood it through gazing at it; in the way a hermit might attempt to understand the wilderness through time spent getting lost in it. Now it only existed in the imagination.

As frustrating as it was as a teenager to find my access to the Hanover Merzbau blocked by the opacity of an old photograph, it strikes me as in keeping with the mythology of Kurt Schwitters to arrive at Cylinders Estate to find the Merzbarn wall long gone and stories and photographs in its place. In a further twist, the woods surrounding the Merzbarn itself, in which visitors’ children play hide and seek and in which adult visitors wish they could, were not there in 1948. Sitting outside the Merzbarn, Schwitters would have had a wider vista than is afforded to the visitor today. As a visiting artist trying to make sense of the site, I found myself disappearing into the woods around the Merzbarn, and further afield, with a sketchbook, easel and paints, much as Schwitters himself did in various locations around the Lake District. Perhaps, I thought, the most appropriate testament to a person for whom a particular place was important, was to try to see it as they did. The sense one gets at Cylinders estate is of the echo of events past and current, all of which become small against the backdrop of the unchanging and indifferent mountains.

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Smithy Brow, oil on wood, 1945/1947, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

Added to this sense of ephemerality, the difficulty implicit in forming an unmitigated appraisal of Schwitters’ trajectory as an artist, is exacerbated by the very real disruption to the artist’s life in the 1940s.  Elizabeth Burns Gamard, in her book about the Merzbau, reminds us that “…the war and subsequent exile from Germany left (Schwitters) destitute and disoriented in the most literal sense.” (1). Schwitters moved to London following a period of internment in detention camps around the north of England. After an unsuccessful period in the capital he subsequently found himself staying on in the Lake District as the result of an extended holiday. To sustain himself there he produced a large number of landscape paintings and drawings of local scenes, such as the Bridge House in Ambleside, and portraits of local personalities and acquaintances such as Charles Simpson, Dr. George Ainslie Johnston, and Harry and Ida Pierce. Harry Pierce, the owner of Cylinders Estate and the building which was to become the Merzbarn, was a retired landscape architect for whom Schwitters had great respect. “(Pierce is)…a genius…he lets the weeds grow, yet by means of slight touches he transforms them into a composition as I create art out of my rubbish.”  (2).

Schwitters continued to produce collages in England right up to the end of his life. Some of these are amongst the best he ever produced, and formed a major part of a large survey exhibition at Tate Britain in 2013. And it is true to say that, in part due to the difficult circumstances of the artist’s arrival and subsequent life in the UK, the landscapes and portraits Schwitters produced in Cumbria are commonly seen as a negligible aspect of his oeuvre. It is difficult to evaluate the impact his change in circumstances had on Schwitters’ confidence as an artist. The mythology, as it is taken up with his departure from Germany, reads variously as the story of an artist whose unshakeable vision led him to abandon a country which had abandoned sanity, or of a once important, cosmopolitan, European artist who had been left with no choice but to run to wherever he would be accepted.

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View from Blue Hill, Ambleside towards High Pike, oil on board, 1945/1947, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

It hardly seems important now, to pick through the minutiae of Schwitters’ career path from Germany to Norway, and finally to England. By trying to build a picture of the artist’s life in two sections; pre-displacement by war and post-displacement, we risk forfeiting the appreciable continuity in Schwitters’ work and in his thinking. Between 1909 and 1914, Schwitters received an academic training in art at the Dresden Kunstakademie. He continued to draw and paint throughout his life, not just in the Lake District, but also in Norway, and not just to earn a living, but also in response to the considerable effect the landscape had on him. He also paid close attention to what was happening in painting in particular, “(working) through the development of modern painting on his own…(and) these self-described phases of development were not successive, one replacing the other, but rather incorporative.” (3).

It is this ‘incorporative’ strategy which forms perhaps the most defining characteristic of his life’s work. I refer to it as a strategy because Schwitters was, in all likelihood, fully aware of what he was doing as he jumped from genre to genre. In this way, Schwitters could be seen as the archetype of what we now see as a common model of a contemporary artist; one who, at best, moves between media and genres in a sophisticated yet apparently effortless way. Through his experiments in different genres, Schwitters also settled on what Burns-Gamard calls a ‘grandiosity of…vision’ (4). Throughout her book on the Merzbau, she puts considerable emphasis on Schwitters ‘transhistorical’ vision. Contrary to popular perception, the artist emerges as more indebted to German Romanticism than political or social revolution. Doubtless the reality of Schwitters’ life and work in Germany is far more complex than any reductive designation that can be applied to him retrospectively. And this is also true of the artist’s life in England.

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Untitled (Wood on Wood), Relief, oil and wood on wood, nailed, 1946, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.

What we can say about his work in the Lake District is that he was in every way continuing along the path which he had established before he was displaced. The landscapes and portraits Schwitters produced in Cumbria can seem troubled and hard-won when we gaze into their brushwork, but his lines in these landscapes are equal to those he produced in Norway. And given Schwitters’ close reading of painting’s history and forms, combined with his heavy involvement with modern art movements in Europe, it should come as no surprise that he could switch so easily from genre to genre. The fact that Schwitters used found material from wherever he happened to be living, whether it be Hanover, London or the Fells around Ambleside, demonstrates that his eyes were wide open to those locations as potential artistic source material. For anyone interested in Schwitters, Cumbria is a particularly rewarding location in which to reflect on the artist’s life and work. Unlike in London, both the living and the dead have room to exist and tell their stories.

Whilst I am averse to pilgrimages of all sorts, in the Lake District I did find myself continuously returning to comparisons of Schwitters’ life there in the 40s and my passing through there now. This was the effect of place over preconception. Having had a long-standing interest in Kurt Schwitters, I had had plenty of time to imagine the urban artist’s rural life in England. The longer I spent there however, the more the locations themselves took over. Of all the wonderful encounters I managed to squeeze into two weeks, two things served to give form to a life I had only imagined from looking at reproductions. The Ambleside Flower Show, in which Schwitters won 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes in 1946 was being advertised on banners in the street while I was there, and The Armitt Gallery unveiled their newly enlarged collection of Kurt Schwitters works, making it the largest permanent collection of the artist’s work on display in the UK.

Visit the Armitt Museum website for more on Kurt Schwitters: Armitt Museum

Visit the Cylinders Estate Merzbarn website: Merzbarn in Cylinders Estate, Langdale

Visit the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle: Hatton Gallery, Newcastle

Visit the Merzbarn Residency blog of artists Robbie O’Halloran and Hamish McLain: merzbarn16

 

References:

  1. Elizabeth Burns Gamard. (2000). Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. New York; Princeton Architectural Press.
  2. Kurt Schwitters quoted in: Barbara Crossley. (2005). The Triumph of Kurt Schwitters. Armitt Trust.
  3. Elizabeth Burns Gamard. (2000). Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. New York; Princeton Architectural Press.
  4. Ibid.

Jost Münster / New Neighbours @ TINTYPE, February 25- March 26, 2016 & Djordje Ozbolt / Mars in Capricorn @ HERALD ST, February 25 – March 26, 2016.

 

 

Left: Djordje Ozbolt installation shot, Photo by Andy Keate, courtesy Herald St, London. Right: Jost Münster installation shot, Photo by Cameron Leadbetter, courtesy TINTYPE, London.

 

Of all the paths a painter might decide to follow from a relatively early stage, there are two that could be seen as equally limiting or full of potential, depending on your point of view. The first is a committed career working within the tiniest patch of artistic territory; say Geometric Abstraction for example. The second is a broader approach, wherein the artist acts as a kind of commentator on vast areas of visual culture, cherry-picking from all available forms and styles. The former approach suggests the role of field-worker, with the artist constantly getting their hands dirty through experimentation. The latter suggests a perhaps liberating detachment from the agonizing process of trialing new forms and combinations. Two concurrent shows in London, Jost Münster at TINTYPE and Djordje Ozbolt at HERALD ST would seem to represent, at least superficially, these two trajectories.

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Jost Münster, New Neighbour 7, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 152 cm x 117 cm, Photo by Cameron Leadbetter, courtesy TINTYPE, London.

Jost Münster produces canvases which are spare in incident but not minimal. They are slow to reveal their complexity, yet at the same time immediate in visual impact. They are also intentionally limited in graphic vocabulary but not limiting in interpretive potential. In the main gallery space at TINTYPE, the canvases have been hung at comfortable intervals. The sense of dialogue between the paintings is emphasized by a temporary partition, which blocks off the potentially distracting view of the gallery office, and creates a third wall in the space. The visitor walks into a multi-directional conversation between equal parties. The canvases, being equal in dimensions (152 x 117 cm), encourage us to register their differences in other ways. Münster’s refined and consistent treatment; chalky yet translucent washes of acrylic on unprimed canvas, allows him to use a selection of geometric devices whilst retaining an overall coherence across the series.

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Jost Münster, Installation shot, Photo by Cameron Leadbetter, courtesy TINTYPE, London.

There might be the temptation to run with the same motif in various iterations across a series like this, but the artist has instead allowed subtle echoes into these paintings of many different lessons learned. The gestures themselves retain a rewarding amount of evidence of their imperfect manual production; an effect which is difficult to intentionally manufacture yet easy to lose through negligence. There is no sign of equivocation in these paintings, which appear to have been thought about intently over a long period but executed relatively quickly. The concept behind the installation, New Neighbours, reinforces the idea of a democratic dialogue between equal agents. Whilst sharing common qualities of scale and surface, the paintings are each highly idiosyncratic. Münster is evidently committed to exploring the capacity for paint to say a lot through limited means.

Djordje Ozbolt’s current show at HERALD ST’s Golden Square space is impressively well resolved as an understated installation of painting and sculpture. There are four paintings in total and one sculptural installation, ‘Let the sunshine in’, a series of African totems cast in resin in an assortment of loud colours. The paintings seem to depict similarly coloured sculptural objects presented against neutral grey backgrounds. It is tempting to imagine that they were painted from real-life mock-ups, and if this was the case, I would love to see them.

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Djordje Ozbolt, Deflection, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 152.4 cm x 121.9 cm / 60 x 48 in, Photo by Andy Keate, courtesy Herald St, London.

Looking back at Ozbolt’s project over a number of years, we see the artist navigating through a large stock of iconic imagery in a series of carefully staged presentations. In many paintings the traditional vernacular of what might be High Renaissance landscape painting is blown apart by choreographed interventions from the future: Picasso heads, Henry Moore’s reclining figures or Mickey Mouse’s silhouette. This is iconography which to us is just as much in the past as the landscape into which it appears to have been beamed. When elements are alien to each other but presented as equal, it is hard to refer to any one as an anachronism. This is witty play on the notion of a linear narrative within art history. Indeed there are cohabitants in Ozbolt’s paintings which come from cultures that were never part of that assumed narrative to begin with. The recurring motif of the African totem in some paintings is presented as a form in its own right, in addition to appearing in others in the form of its post Cubist assimilation.

Ozbolt tracks a convincing path through the territory between painting, sculpture and installation. But the overwhelming sense is that the artist has an uncorrupted love of painting and a genuine attachment to the vocabulary from which he cherry-picks his imagery. In previous work Ozbolt presented us with a range of disparate motifs grafted onto the same surface with a light painterly touch. In his current show the artist’s visual play has been refined further from this intentional sparring between unexpected elements to a kind of visual double-play within the same vernacular. Geometric constructions perform double functions. A precarious tower of simplified geometric shapes casts an anthropomorphic shadow in the piece entitled ‘Deflection’. Similar geometric assemblages stand obediently for a family snapshot in ‘La famiglia’. And the eponymous ‘Bulgarian weight lifter’ appears to us alternately as a face with eight ball eyes or a full dumbbell-carrying figure. The humour in Ozbolt’s painting is catchy. And unlike a host of artists whose apparent irreverence can often amount to little more than a cool play on visual culture, Ozbolt manages to invest his work with a more profound understanding of the forms he is using.

Albert Oehlen @ Gagosian, London / February 5 – March 24, 2016

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ALBERT OEHLEN Untitled (Baum 30), 2015, Oil on Dibond, 118 1/8 x 78 3/4 inches, 300 x 200 cm. © Albert Oehlen. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Stuart Burford.

London looks better in winter. The trees are stripped back to their trunks and slender branches. There is not so much elegance to a London Plane tree in winter, but without its leaves it affords more visibility to one of the city’s greatest statements about its past; its architecture. Without leaves, the trees, with their tangled, spindly branches sprouting from battered trunks, appear less organic and more like rudimentary diagrams of trees, rendered by someone who has never actually seen one.

Albert Oehlen’s current works at Gagosian are ostensibly renderings of trees. Are they depictions however, or are they impressions, stylisations or abstractions of trees, and if so to what extent is the tree the subject? Before approaching the work in this show in isolation, it may be useful to consider the artist’s earlier career. Viewed out of the context of Oehlen’s previous work, this show can give the impression of being a snapshot of work representative of an ongoing series; such is the consistency of approach to each panel. However, Oehlen’s relationship with the medium of paint has long been one of planned experimentation and deliberate digression. Before starting a series of work his strategy has often involved laying down a set of self-imposed rules. These ‘limiting’ devices, such as using a computer to ‘design’ paintings or setting out with the intention of making a ‘bad’ painting, might seem coldly intellectual, but they have yielded some interesting results, not all of them easy to look at. With the current series of paintings it is hard to be sure how involved the artist is with his subject beyond it being just one of several limiting devices put in place in order to allow the work to take shape. Amongst Oehlen’s previous limiting strategies, perhaps the most telling has been the self-imposed edict to ‘work slow’. This may be an inevitable result of years of aesthetic excess. Oehlen worked closely with Martin Kippenberger during the 1980s and 90s; a period of large, witty statements in paint. After the fin-de-siècle party of course, painting, along with everything else, still had to account for itself.  

Almost ten years ago, looking at Oehlen’s paintings in the Whitechapel Gallery’s survey of the artist’s work, I Will Always Champion Good Painting, it was hard to see beyond the bombastic scale and wilful gaudiness of the large canvasses on display. Perhaps it is due to the diminishing relevance of the debate about the future of painting, and the merciful distance we have now achieved from those endless art school debates, that makes it easier to look at Oehlen’s new work on its own terms, in a clearer, less cluttered light. The scale of the work is still considerable; a factor which adds an extra level of consistency to the artist’s project overall. If the 80s and 90s were about big canvasses, then by not suddenly abandoning this large scale, Oehlen’s choice can safely be said to be one of genuine preference. In an over-intellectualising climate it can be easy to forget that painters still make gut decisions about things such as scale and colour. 

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ALBERT OEHLEN Untitled (Baum 44), 2015, Oil on Dibond, 98 7/16 x 98 7/16, 250 x 250 cm. © Albert Oehlen. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photo: Stefan Rohner.

When compared to the sinister woodland quiet of the Baum series at Gagosian, much of Oehlen’s previous work seems to clamour with the rowdy ghosts of the city. The trees in this present series, rendered in black oil and spray paint, seem demonic, as though they threaten to step off the painted Dibond surface. Are these trees simply vehicles for paint; their imagined branches turning into meandering paths of abstract paintwork? They have no centre, no perspective, no orientation. Again, we could be looking up through the bare black silhouette of a Plane tree at the white-grey London sky. Oehlen has primarily allowed himself two other colours in this series; Magenta and what appears to be Phthalo Blue. Across the series of thirteen panels these colours are further restricted to floating rectangles and squares, within which they are applied in gradations. What is perhaps a single application of paint gives up a diminishing amount of colour with each successive stroke. This nominal ‘shading’ threatens to trick us into imaging we are looking at a sky or a receding wall. These geometric features however are somewhere between Abstract Expressionism and Analytical Cubism; somewhere between Hans Hofmann’s floating ‘push / pull’ devices and Fernand Leger’s trompe l’oeil tubes. Used in this way, the vocabularies of AB EX and Cubism take on the look of having been rendered by someone who has never seen either one but only heard their identifying features described. It requires skill and self discipline to use such references in a way that doesn’t dominate the work, and Oehlen has been committed to the free use of such painterly references in his work for a long time. The skill lies in not allowing oneself to get too involved with these motifs; in maintaining a critical distance. AB EX, amongst other forms, is arguably a style of painting which will continue to be debated, examined and even re-presented, some might say rehashed, others, remixed. Oehlen’s intention is not to bring it back to life, but to use it casually as just one more visual device. After all, the point is to keep working. 

The existential crises in painting around the turn of the Twentieth Century exert a retroactive pull on those who remember them. Oehlen’s response has been to use a series of inventive personalised strategies, each of which demonstrate the impossibility of reaching an end point in painting. The cumulative result of these strategies of self-limitation is a body of work which has remained true to itself, created by an artist who has continued to paint through the debate.

 

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse @ Royal Academy, London, January 30 to April 20, 2016.

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Auguste Renoir, Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873
Oil on canvas, 46.7 x 59.7 cm
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell, 1957.614
Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

 

The opening pages of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James take place against the backdrop of a garden as neat as a Nineteenth Century drawing room. James could evoke the intimate and the domestic spaces of privileged life like few other writers. The action, which would normally take place inside, unfolds instead in the garden. In this instance the garden has become a continuation of the interior space. It is even described as such. “Privacy here reigned supreme, and the wide carpet of turf that covered the level hill-top seemed but an extension of a luxurious interior.” (1)

Against the backdrop of the industrialised Nineteenth Century, with the modern city growing in the background, the private garden was becoming not only a pastime, but an artistic subject in itself. Public parks and other communal garden spaces were also developing. But it is the intimate space of the private garden, glowing in the dense stillness of a summer’s day, that is the most common component of the current show at the Royal Academy. If the garden, by the end of the Nineteenth Century, had become a private space of leisure for a comfortable minority, it had also become one of the principal subjects, along with the domestic interior, for an artist to master. The garden space, as distinct from landscape, is a subject which arguably lends itself more to a discussion of medium than subject matter. The domestic garden, along with the domestic interior, relates to the artist and the viewer on a very human scale. Some of the most interesting works in the show, from a painter’s perspective, are those in which there is little or no reference to perspective, scale or depth of field. These are paintings which might comfortably be carried with outstretched arms, perhaps even from the garden to the studio and back again. They are paintings in which the subject so fully occupies the picture plane as to become flattened, thus leading us into a more intimate examination of the paintwork.

The domestic interior as a subject in painting was a space within which all figurative elements: pieces of furniture, statuettes and plaster casts, bowls, rugs, windows and even people were often given the same importance. This democratisation of all pictorial elements was carried through with a lifelong consistency by Braque in his studio interiors, and, as can be seen in the present show as represented by two strikingly spare canvasses, by Matisse. The room itself becomes a kind of shallow display cabinet of forms of equal value. Figures are no longer shifting forward or receding in scale. Instead, they interact within a flattened plane.

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Henri Matisse, The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer 1917
Oil on canvas, 146 x 97 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956
Photo (c) 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

 

The private garden with its arrangements of domestic and exotic flower and plant species, ornamental garden features, and the lawn or the hedgerow acting as a sort of neutral ground, provided a painterly space of the same order as the domestic interior. There are plenty of choices in this show which could be seen as reinforcing the notion of Impressionism as pure visual pleasure. For the artists however, it wasn’t always a pleasurable process. Monet spoke of painting as ‘continual torture’. And it is hard to imagine a more difficult subject to paint than an undifferentiated field of plants in full bloom. In any case, not all the work on display is, strictly speaking, Impressionist. Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee are represented in the later rooms with canvases which are clearly looking at the subject of the garden with a new-found awareness of the developments underway in painting.

However, the most convincing argument for the power of paint beyond image-making is made by Monet through the famous Water Lily series.  The artist worked on the fringes of his water garden in Giverny between 1914 and his death in 1926. The panoramic canvases, which are his best known of the series, are dependent on their large scale to such an extent that it is difficult to know if they can really be spoken about as being from the same series as the much smaller canvases of the same subject. These larger canvases involve the viewer on such an experiential, physical scale that they no longer seem to be paintings alone. By virtue of our sheer smallness in front of them, we are once again within the image. In the inverse of the way we might imagine ourselves reclining in the dead heat of summer, on a cool flat lawn, when we look at some of the smaller more ‘pictorial’ works in the show, we feel as though one wrong step in front of Monet’s gigantic canvases and we risk tumbling into the lily pond.

Key 87

Claude Monet, Nympheas (Waterlilies), 1914-15
Oil on canvas, 160.7 x 180.3 cm
Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16
Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon.

 

Scale is critical in painting. The decision to blow up the dimensions to a cinematic level changes every aspect of the work. Monet, by expanding the field of his Water Lily canvases, could be seen as pre-empting the experiments of a later period in the history of modern painting. It would be quite a convoluted association to make however, to claim true similarity of intent in the practices of Monet and Rothko for example. I find it more comfortable to suggest that Monet’s larger Water Lily canvases create a more theatrical space; one in which the viewer can no longer hold the painting at a metaphorical arm’s length.

As with Monet’s super-sized canvases, large scale paintings of interiors also force the viewer into an appreciation of the depicted space which necessarily involves their own body. Could the viewer’s space for example be an extension of that of the painting and vice versa? The smaller Water Lily canvases address the subject on a scale which neither reduces its effect to that of illustration; true pictorial space, nor inflates it to a scale where the intellectual richness of the paintwork becomes swamped by visceral physicality involving our own bodies. When limited to the scale of a comfortable arm’s span, the Water Lily series invites many enticing speculations. For example, are these works in fact upside down?  The water occupies the majority of each canvas; but it is the inverted reflection on that water of sky and foliage which constitutes the image which we ultimately register. The lilies themselves are suspended somewhere between water and sky as there is no perspectival reference point except for the slight difference in size between the flowers at the top of the canvas and those at the bottom. The paint itself sometimes disappears near the edges of the canvas; whether or not this was intentional on the artist’s part, the effect is to add to the feeling of zero gravity. These are just some of the questions which these profound paintings raise. Staring into their depths, it is even more remarkable to think that the artist was painting them during a time of upheaval, with the sounds of war audible even in a clear blue sky.
(1) “…The great still oaks and beeches flung down a shade as dense as that of velvet curtains; and the place was furnished, like a room, with cushioned seats, with rich-coloured rugs, with the books and papers that lay upon the grass.” Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pp 60, 61.