Triple juxtaposition in the courtyard of Burlington House, Piccadilly, London: American house (as observed in my last blog), Sir Joshua Reynolds in statuesque form, and the huge poster for ‘Oceania’, the Royal Academy’s blockbuster exhibition this winter. And, in my untutored opinion, blockbuster it truly is. You should see it.
It’s a tremendous exhibition in two major respects: the large amount of original material culled from the southern Pacific and various collections in other parts of the world; and the display of it. Although many of the individual objects were new to me, in general I was familiar with the sort of material on display, having travelled a bit in those parts and also having spent a day in the Branly Quay Museum in Paris soon after it opened. So I was ready to be impressed by the display itself, and that in no way disappointed.
The first main gallery illustrates the point:
Look at the canoes, fairly basic to life in Oceania, and note too the lighting – strong and blue. The row of turtles in the further canoe and the decoration both on it and the middle one anticipate delights – beliefs and intentional art and decoration – yet to comes in what is also a very large exhibition.
In fact it is far too large for me to do justice to so I have made a selection within a selection. I focus on human faces and bodies, and ignore practically everything else except for a few images at the end. The running order is that of the exhibition, linked in a series of themes such as communication, encounter and gift culture.
This sculpture in Ficus wood of two double figures and a quadruped, comes from Tahiti in the Society Islands. It is dated about 1700, and was collected by Captain Cook himself between April and July, 1769. This was at the beginning of the ‘Encounter’ between the many different indigenous peoples and the West, a controversial theme that runs through the exhibition.
Unfortunately I cannot identify this object from my notes but I am reluctant to discard it because it is so striking – and not a bad photograph either! I’ll find out what it is and add the details later.
Below is a life-sized ‘suit’ of armour (of coconut fibre and human hair) with helmet (fish skin) and trident (coconut palm wood, shark teeth, human hair, palm fibre and palm leaf). It is of late 19th century date:
I thought this one of the most striking ‘faces’ in the exhibition. It is a wooden facade sculpture representing Dilukai, a popular goddess with many mythical powers. It was collected from Palau in 1910-11.
The equally-stunning wooden face below is on a house-post from Doyo village on the north coast of West Papua. Again c 1900 in date, it was collected in 1952.
And this third striking face below, despite being at least 500 years older than the previous two images, is perhaps in more familiar style since it is indeed from Easter Island, Rapa Nui. Like the other moai there, it is carved from basalt, an ancestral figure which probably overlooked a sacred precinct and/or burial site. The accompanying caption in the exhibition is at pains to point out that ‘By the time this moai was collected, smallpox and slavers had decimated the island’s population and the indigenous religion was all but lost.’ Personally I found it a healthy strand throughout the exhibition that an emphasis was placed upon the impact of the West on ‘Oceania’ following it’s ‘discovery’. Basically it was a catastrophe.
I include this wooden female figure from Samoa, left. for its dramatic shell eyes. It is of the early 19th century, collected in 1839. The wonderful double-headed wooden god-image on the right is of similar date, collected in 1822 from Tahiti.
Akua hulu manu, a feathered god image, also consists of fibre, human hair, pearl shell and dog teeth: a fearsome combination of the late 18th century from the Hawaiian Islands.
Much less fearsome is this headcrest ornament from Papua New Guinea. It is made of wood and – to my eyes – a lovely selection of paints. Of the mid 20th century, it is nearly contemporary with an image coincidentally using a similar palette which I have recently illustrated (see my post of 26 November).
Towards the end of the exhibition is an astonishing coup d’oeuil: not another indigenous cultural object but a panoramic video installation in which a continuous procession of oceanic landscape moves slowly from right to left displaying a series of scenarios. These show people engaged in various activities, entirely indigenous, in various aspects of ‘the Encounter’ and, with a ship in the background and a bell-tent on land, white scientists going about their business of recording and surveying. Each scenario comes to life, as it were, as it approaches the centre of the display. Below are two of these scenarios, respectively of native and of incomer, though I stress that they are meant to be viewed as moving parts of a continuous visual narrative, not as static scenes:
Another and much older representation of island life is this drawing of a Tahitian scene in the Society Islands. It is in pencil and watercolour on paper. It was created between April and July 1769. Nothing very remarkable in all that, you may think. But its artist was Tupaia, a priest and navigator, who joined Cook’s first voyage in 1769. He became the first islander to draw on European paper and, significantly, in a Western naturalistic style which was fundamentally different from that of the region. He depicted key aspects of of Tahitian life including, as here, a large house, native plants and canoes bearing warriors. And of course his viewpoint was that of an islander, not that of Cook’s colleagues making the official record. Yet the irony is that Tupaia was himself diminished in the official record and has only been recognised for his artistic and navigational achievements by recent scholarship.
My last two images are also ‘conscious art’. The first is Hiapo, painted barkcloth from Niue (New Zealand) of c 1890. From geometric patterns to the female figure naturalistically depicted in the lower centre the cloth displays a wide range of illustrations, some of which look distinctly archaeological – though that must be in the eye of this viewer, not intentional:
My last image is of one panel among five making up a large hanging in an artwork this time by a named artist, John Pule. He completed the work in 2007 in New Zealand. It is of enamel, oil, pencil, oil stick and ink on canvas. Its purpose is to welcome all new arrivals:
Apologies for only one post in November – and that was about October! – so here’s the first of what we hope will be several from December.
This one is because, like this time last year, I put three paintings into the open exhibition at The Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth, despite my not wishing to exhibit as a general principle. Preparing just three works has been quite a hassle, even though one of them was inserted only at the last moment ‘from stock’, as it were, when I discovered three, not two, were allowed to be submitted. The first two were beautifully framed by Linda Thomas. I illustrate them here, first as an artwork and then as exhibited.
‘The Green Barn, Suffolk’ Ochres, oil and spray paint on cardboard
This painting is excellently hung in a prominent position in the main gallery above a low window, the light from which brings out the intended contrast between the bright yellow and the black background in the frame.
’14/18 Battle lines’ Acrylic and ochre on cardboard
Not a good photograph but the painting, from my point of view, is poorly hung in a relatively dark corner of the gallery with no direct light.
‘Lindisfarne Castle, Northumberland’ Acrylic on textured paper
Both these photographs are unsatisfactory but I do not seem to have a good digital image of a painting originating in 2003 – one of my earliest; though doubtless there’s a good old real photograph of it deep in the archive somewhere. The painting is glazed so it is going to be difficult to take a better photograph, without light reflection from the camera, of its position with friends in the exhibition.
Never mind what happened to November – it is nearly a month since my last post in October and there are still remnants from then. Being busy at half the pace of days of yore is much of the explanation for the gap, with exhibitions to the fore.
First, two oddballs: ‘Shaman at the burial mounds’ is one of my recent paintings which I have already illustrated (post of 26 September, 2018). Crude and visually dramatic, it affords viewers the chance to react to it strongly, ‘yuk’ or ‘wow’. I was myself puzzled as to where it had come from – and suddenly there was part of the answer, hiding in plain view. One of the books lying around the house is a book called ‘A Musical Eye. The visual world of Britten and Pears’ (ed. J. Legrove, Boydell, 2013). Its outside front cover, with its brightly-coloured arches, would appear to be a sub-conscious model for my garish barrows.
The illustration is of University of South Carolina Cloister 1919 by Joself Scharl.
And now for something completely different: here is the view west along Piccadilly, Green Park on the left, at 12.46 pm on October 20 when there was a huge ‘march’ (even the police agreed c 700,000) in favour of a ‘people’s vote’ on the terms of the UK’s leaving the EU.
Soon after this, the ‘march’ became stationary because people were packed so closely nobody could move. Personally, I did not get past the Ritz so I patiently extracted myself from the press and seized the opportunity to look inside the Annenberg Courtyard at Burlington House. There was a large art structure, indeed what appeared to be a complete house:
It is not a complete house but it is indeed an artwork called ‘Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)’ by Cornelia Parker. The information board alongside it tells you all you need to know – and, rather unnecessarily I thought, how to feel about it:
Personally, I did not find it at all ‘unsettling’ and thought the scaffolding behind and holding up the facade was if anything more ‘artistic’ and enigmatic:
I’ve got something on a barn in my next blog.
My annual ‘pilgrimage’ to this ‘Holy Island’ was enjoyable as ever, but artistically unremarkable except that we were extremely lucky with both weather and light and captured some good photographs.
Dawn over Lindisfarne castle, 5 a.m. , 2 October:
On the 7-mile walk around the island on the same day, we happened to reach the navigation marker at the north-east corner at a propitious moment in terms of light and shadow:
The castle was at last free of its scaffolding after a major renovation, so its idiosyncratic profile was once more restored to the landscape:
The clear light enables the much lower profiles of the top of the limekilns to its east and the Gertrude Jekyll walled garden to its north to be visible. And an hour later, the now low sun’s rays picked out the architectural details of the Romanesque west front of the Priory church:
We had begun the walk with curlews standing with dignified posture around the edges of the mud-flats crossed by the causeway to the mainland; we ended it with elegant seals, looking down on them from the watch-tower on the Heugh as they slid through the seas on a falling tide near St. Cuthbert’s island.
From Arctic climes to the place where I lived through my ‘teens: Morpeth in Northumberland. It is a modest market town, almost on the edge of provincial English civilization since only Alnwick and Berwick-on-Tweed lie north of it on the A1 before you cross the border into the Great Beyond. Morpeth boasts a well-preserved medieval town plan, a free-standing bell-tower (the only other secular one in England is in St. Albans), a bagpipe museum (sensu Northumbrian pipes which don’t have a ‘bag’) in the medieval chantry close by the end of what was the medieval bridge, and a former grammar school founded (1552) by that well-known educational promoter, King Edward VI.
Such a modest place can also justifiably be quietly proud of some distinguished sons and daughters. William Turner, pioneering botanist, lived here, as did the real victor of Trafalgar, Admiral Collingwood. Downing Street is so called because it was built by an eponymous Morpeth lad. And then came Emily Davison:
The ‘she’ of the caption above was of course Emily Wilding Davison who left Morpeth station and returned in a coffin after fatally throwing herself in front of the King George V’s horse Anmer in the Derby; and ‘Votes for Women’ was her cause. My attention was drawn to her by a newspaper report (Guardian 12 Sept., from which this blog’s title comes) that a steel statue of her had been unveiled on 11 September in Carlisle Park, Morpeth, a place well-known to me during my above-mentioned ‘teens. So on my pilgrimage to Lindisfarne this year I diverted on to the old A1 through Morpeth to have a look at it.
But first I stopped to look for her grave in St. Mary’s churchyard. I had walked past that churchyard hundreds of times but, shamefully, had not once walked through it to see the grave. It lies about a mile outside the present town centre because the present St Mary’s church perpetuates the site of the medieval church that served the early Morpeth when, before the new planned town was laid out down in the valley, it straggled along a ridge of high ground culminating above Carlisle Park in the presumably Norman motte.
The Davison grave was not difficult to spot for, like other places which have become for whatever reason minor cult centres in the present day, it was marked by a doubtless sincere but now slightly untidy array of bedraggled ribbons, flowers and messages:
Clearly, the site is the family burial place, undoubtedly seeking to make a statement but not aggrandising Emily at the expense of her relatives. Her elevation to the ranks of near-saintliness in the present is more appropriately marked now by the slightly larger than life-size steel statue of her created by Ray Lonsdale. It is strictly, almost rigidly, figurative, sitting on a bench among the municipal flower beds of Carlisle Park next to a more practical memorialisation of William Turner:
Emily has had to wait for over a century for such recognition. How right that it has now come.
I’ve written before about Sajos, the Saami cultural centre and Parliament at Inari. Here is its outside now, facade and symbolic herding fence weathering nicely into attractive greys.
In my post of 2016/12/22, I illustrated and briefly discussed the art in the interior of Sajos, especially in the cafe. Now the latter has almost all been disposed of, so that blog nearly 2 years ago has quickly acquired extra and unexpected value as a record of what once was:
One of the art motifs on a table top in 2016. Remnants of motifs on the windows above bare table tops in 2018.
The second arty incident – not to be taken too seriously – on this Lapland trip was during a short trek across bog and through forest in an enjoyable but ultimately vain attempt to reach the top of Otsamo, a low local eminence. The top may have been only 3k from the carpark but the last 500m up a steepening rocky incline – note how the contour lines get close together on the map below – defeated me.
Anyway, on the way back we tried to adopt the ‘animalistic’ approach to our surroundings, as learnt from the exhibition in Rovaniemi (see previous blog). It was not difficult: once you started looking for animals and even human faces in the pools and rocks around us, it quickly became apparent that we were surrounded by spirits and shades of Other Worlds, watching our every step perhaps to guard us but more probably awaiting us make a slip.
Among our slightly sinister companions were fierce-looking birds, strange water-creatures, and
anthropomorphic faces with staring eyes and narrow, slit mouths. We even noted a broken tree-trunk with a possible face, perhaps a seida (see previous blog) – but this way surely madness lies, though perhaps not more so than in the mad world outside this forest fantasy.
Had time between flights at Helsinki to nip into the city from the airport using the new electric train link. The impressive airport station, deep underground, has this fairly large artwork along one wall – where London would have adverts.
Rovaniemi lies near the centre of northern Finland, a city which was basically razed by the Germans during the Lapland War 1944-45. It was reconstructed by the architect Alvar Aalto using a ground plan based on the shape of a reindeer antler. It is fractionally below the Arctic Circle; though it pretends to be inside because nowadays its claim to fame, and economic basis, is as the capital of the highly commercial, year-round ‘Santa Claus land’. Should you so wish you can ‘do’ Father Christmas on a day trip from the UK. It’s probably elitist to say so but we managed to avoid all that. We walked through the visually disappointing town centre:
Rovaniemi town centre
and crossed some parkland, passing this impressive war memorial (1915-1918):
To my archaeologist’s eye it inevitably looks rather as if a large standing stone is exploding out of a megalithic tomb, rather like a chicken out of an egg – and why not that as the idea behind the image? Or is it a space rocket at the moment of lift-off? Or perhaps it is the Future triumphing over the Past? It is visually a most striking monument whatever its symbolism. It is dated 1981; the sculptor is Ensio Seppanen.
It was partly Artikum which had brought us to Rovaniemi. Designed by Birch-Bonderup and Thorup-Waade, it was opened in 1992. It is built longways into the river bank, essentially as a corridor 172 m long. An impressive edifice externally and internally, from inside the view to the River Ounasjoki is stunning:
while looking in the opposite direction from the same spot the geometrical symmetry is in the same spirit as Helsinki airport station (above):
The point of such money-apparently-no-object institutional expenditure is presumably image and reputation but the actual exhibitions do not disappoint either. ‘Artikum is a science centre and museum that lets you experience northern nature, culture, and history up close … we stimulate thought, encourage debate, and provide a deeper understanding of the Arctic’ claims its information leaflet. It also houses the Regional Museum of Lapland, in which I was particularly interested. It was good and, though its content inevitably overlaps with SIIDA, the Saami museum at Inari, it is well worth the visit. I thought its extensive treatment of contemporary life and environment in the Arctic particularly helpful, but here I select just one element from the cultural display:
This is (a copy of) a Mesolithic (c.6400 BC) wooden elk’s head, probably part of a boat’s prow-head; below is a wooden human figure
The one represents an animalistic view of the world in which people at the time had to live by hunting and fishing; the other represents the practice of recognising or creating a sacred something, a seida, for example by carving human faces and sometimes animals on to the stumps of pine trees at propitious places for fishing and hunting. The wooden pillars often had sacred objects placed upon them as offerings (see following post for more on this). The illustration below shows the practice in recent times:
On the long drive north through Lapland to Inari, we pulled in for a coffee at one of the few roadside caffs. No ordinary caff this, as its facade hinted:
The ‘patron’ was Asian and an artist, and the interior was full of Oriental touches, including his own paintings:
Not quite what one expects to come across in the Arctic Circle!
My most anticipated of all the summer’s exhibitions was ‘Elusive Space, a ‘A Centenary Retrospective’ of the work of Paul Feiler at the Redfern Gallery in Cork St., London. Though not a particularly large exhibition, it lived up to that anticipation.
I first became aware of Feiler’s work a decade or so ago and he has silently been a strong influence since then. We were working within a couple of hundred yards of each other at Bristol in the 1960s and ’70s but of course at the time I was unaware of him and had no idea that I was going to be interested in painting. A bit galling all the same, for I never met him. The current exhibition introduced me to his fastidiously neat geometric works and showed me just enough of his Italian and Cornish paintings to enthuse without spoiling their impact.
Peter Fowler View of a north Italian city 2015 Oil on canvas
Above is one of my paintings that I started several years ago and finished off this summer. It apparently came from nowhere and is an entirely imaginary version of a vaguely generic north Italian walled city. I suppose I was recalling a half-memory of Sienna and similar cities but what was very much in my mind was a painting I had seen of such a subject by Feiler. His painting below is not that painting but it is similar. I was delighted to see it in the Redfern and to know that my early memory of a Feiler had not been all that far out. I am of course only writing of style and influence, not quality!
Paul Feiler ‘View of Florence’ 1954 Oil on board
Feiler made the first of many visits to Venice in 1947 and to Cornwall in 1949. Both Italy and Cornwall played important roles in his painterly career. Over the following decades much of his work came from his studio at Kerris in West Penwith, Cornwall, first in a disused chapel and then, nearby at Paul, in a converted barn. His earlier work was characterised by being in a recognisably mid-20th century ‘St. Ives style’:
New to me were his geometric compositions, of which this is a good example:
‘Revolving Circular’ 1968-69 Oil and cut plasterboard on board
Feiler was of course interested primarily in the geometry in this image, and you can readily see his earlier attempts ‘beneath’ the finished image to get this exactly right. But to my eyes this could easily be a plan or vertical air photographic view of a Bronze Age cemetery of round burial mounds. I painted several small works as such 10 and more years ago but I did not know that Feiler had arrived there unknowingly two decades earlier. Colt Hoare was publishing archaeological plans like this two centuries ago in his Ancient Wiltshire.
This general view of part of the exhibition includes in the centre one of Feiler’s Zenicon series, created in 2007 in oil and gold leaf on gessoed board on canvas laid on wood. The view overall gives a sample of Feiler’s styles and perhaps bears out my contention that, in my eyes, it was a very encouraging exhibition. It ends on 27 October.
Today – a lovely autumnal day with unbroken sunshine – is my first day back at the desk and the laptop for some time and, while I have plans for writing and painting over the autumn, I am conscious that several ‘arty’ things from the summer have not been posted.
So, briefly, notes on some art exhibitions I visited:
Houghton Hall: Damian Hirst (2): Part 1 is above (20 July), when I dealt with the exhibition inside the Hall. A few Hirst sculptures were in the grounds. Very striking was a pair of animals, a unicorn and Pegasus, facing away from each other across the centre of the west facade of the Hall:
Well away from the Hall was a large human male figure, entrails exposed,
but perhaps the most striking figure outside was the well-known little girl sculpture, several times life-size, greeting visitors as they came into the courtyard of the grandiose stables for a cosy cup of tea:
I did not realise what this work is really about until I looked closely at its base and round the back: far from being a rather sick joke about collecting money for children with polio, it is actually a vicious comment on the society which made such collecting necessary, for the collecting box has been forced open by the crow-bar at the back and coins are scattered on the base:
Something completely different which also intrigued me was not strictly-speaking art yet in a way it was natural art. This visit to Houghton was on 11 July after weeks without rain and at the height of the heat-wave, so parch-marks, as over much of the UK, were showing in the dry grounds. In the lawn close to the south end of the west wing of the Hall, for example, was the outline of an earlier garden-bed arrangement (on left below) while south of the stables a broad parch-mark indicated an earlier road or track outside the walled garden (on right):
Halesworth: the annual Open Exhibition in the Art Gallery during September was, I thought, of a relatively high standard, with very few not-very-good paintings. This is worth remarking, given the ‘open’ nature of the intake. And it is a lovely space in which to exhibit – though not a good space to get in to, with steep, narrow and bendy stairs. I invigilated one day for a couple of hours and was glad to welcome, despite the difficulties, a goodly number of visitors. I failed to sell any art, however, except to myself. Both my two exhibits were unsold at the time, and indeed remained so at the end.
Birkin Haward exhibited dozens of his mainly recent works at the Beardsmore Gallery exhibition at the Eagle Gallery in \clerkenwell in September. As I own four of his works, I was particularly interested to see his current output, and indeed meet the artist. I pressed him on the whereabouts, which I could not personally identify, of his viewpoint of ex-military buildings on Orford Ness for one of his/my paintings, and he conceded that perhaps some artistic licence had come into play. I didn’t buy another painting this time, mainly because I could not see among the many any one particular work which my eye found outstanding. Of course, most of the paintings were excellent and interesting but my impression was that the artist’s distinctiveness was diluted by so many works together in a not particularly large room. Anyway, his prices have gone up. Good news for those who already own four! – not. of course, that I had such an unworthy thought.
That’s enough for one post, so more exhibition notes will follow in another.
I didn’t manage to get to the RA Summer Exhibition