Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Artists as tormented souls

Yesterday I went to both "The Crisis of Brilliance' at the Dulwich Art Gallery and 'A Revolution in Art Mexico 1910 -1940' at The Royal Academy (where the catalogue is on sale already, a bargain at £7.95).

This is Tata Jesuchristo painted on the Mexican Day of the Dead by Francisco Goitia (of whom I had not heard or knowingly seen). This painting was not on show but on the evidence of the two that were - a hanging man in a tree (painted during the Revolution) and an elderly man, serenely sitting on a pile of rubbish, oblivious to his apparent poverty, he was a remarkable painter and himself lived in voluntary poverty, seen as a 'mystic' and seen as tormented. I expect the last may have been projection on the part of the world faced by a recluse who is not abiding by their rules. Wild he does look in his photographs but tormented no, though alert to it, the pain in a broken world.

The artists that formed the Crisis of Brilliance too, I feel, were being frog marched into the category of 'torment', which was true for some but not for all of this exceptionally gifted, pre-First World War group of Slade trained artists, bound by over lapping friendships and shared artistic problems. Two, Carrington and Gertler, did commit suicide from complex patterns of personal tragedy and unfulfilled potentials as artists, one, Nevinson, lost his momentum, one, Blomberg, lost his nerve but became a gifted and influential teacher, and two, though they both looked back at moments made halcyon, sailed triumphantly on - Nash and Spenser. 

Of all of them, it was startling clear that Stanley Spencer was the greater painter, bold, imaginative, and remarkably diverse. We imagine him as bound to Cookham and translating Cookham into the place of spiritual drama and hoped for transfiguration but he was equally capable of those searching, yet compassionate nudes, of himself and his second wife and those hyper-realistic, beautiful landscapes that he threw off to make money!

The revelation of the show, for me, was Gertler, a gifted portrait artist, with an imaginative insight that wanted to step across the threshold of the 'realistic' and when it gives itself permission, creates wonderful paintings, as this one of God creating Eve.

The wonder on Eve's face, the anxiety on Adam's and the inquisitiveness of God and the animals as to what to make, will be made, of this new combining creation of things.

The tragedy of Gertler is that, unlike Spenser, he had no sure language in which and out of which to allow this imaginative vision to become a sustaining one; and, a language that a discerning few might have collected and cherished, enabling him to continue. He, unlike Spenser, neither had the innocence or the means or the abiding Christianity (or a Judaism in his case, a complex inheritance for a visual artist) to find his flow. It was a tantalising window into what might have been.

Equally running through the Crisis of Brilliance's commentary was how bad much criticism is, not only because in the fullness of time, its shallowness is exposed but because it is unkind. I was reminded of Edwin Muir's principle of never reviewing a book unless you could say something helpfully good about it. I wish many of the critics on display here had kept to this (though one suspects if they had done so, they would have found themselves unemployed)!

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