ALTHEA MCNISH AND JOHN WEISS

John Weiss and Althea McNish. Photo by Arvin Isaac

I’ll be visiting the exhibition of Althea McNish’s textiles at the William Morris Gallery shortly, but I wanted to relate the remarkable story of the N15 Archive devoted to her and her husband, the jeweller John Weiss.

Althea died in 2020 aged 95. John had died shortly before. I knew John as a fellow trustee of the Society of Designer Craftsmen and met Althea a couple of times at SDC exhibitions. Althea’s achievements in textile design date from the early fifties in London and unfortunately it’s only since her death that her importance has been fully recognised.

Shortly after her death, someone walking past their house saw some interesting things in a skip. As part of the house clearance, much of their artwork had been thrown away. It was rescued and formed the basis of the N15 Archive. Most of John’s meticulous teaching notes, which he’d kept over many years, are, sadly, lost.

TOVE JOHANSEN

In the museum of ceramics in Valencia I saw a few works by Tove Johansen that I thought were striking and original, but apart from the note in the museum I’ve been unable to find out anything about her. The fact that she has the same name as the creator of the Moomin books doesn’t help, but here’s what the museum says about her and some poor photos taken through glass.

Ceramic works by Tove Johansen (Gentofte, Denmark 1932-2009)

Donation: Frida Johansen.

The artist Tove Brigitte Johansen was trained in Argentina at the “Escuela Nacional de Cerámica” in Buenos Aires, founded by the Spanish-born ceramist Fernando Arranz López (1897-1967), who had previously worked in Daniel Zuloaga’s workshop in Segovia. Tove was in charge of collecting numerous works by her teacher that she donated to the Museum of Segovia in 2008. For this reason, she is considered his most outstanding disciple and heir to the Segovian school.

She set up her first workshop in Buenos Aires in 1969 and from there she worked making murals for important firms, installations for public works and creative studio ceramics. Awarded a prize for the first time in 1956, she began an outstanding career as an art and design teacher and as a ceramic artist, being invited to numerous international events.

In 1980 she moved her residence to the United States of America. Her most outstanding public work can be seen in Buenos Aires at the San Patricio Sanatorium, BA (1969), at the General Bel Gran station (1972), at the Atucha Atomic Power Plant (1973), at the Campana Cathedral (1976). In the United States she worked making murals for education institutes in Maryland (1986-1991) Blair High School (Silver Spring, 1986), Gaithersburg Junior High School (1988), Quince Orchard High School (1989), Northwood High School (Kensington 1990 ).

SEVERINI’S STATIONS OF THE CROSS, CORTONA (2)

Gino Severini, Stations of the Cross, Station XIII (1944)

Several years ago when I was in Cortona, the birthplace of Gino Severini, who always retained a great affection for the beautiful little hill town, I was pleased to see his wonderful mosaics there – the large mosaic mural on the church of St Mark and the Stations of the Cross along the Via Crucis – but I was disappointed to find that there were no reproductions anywhere, not even in the Museo Diocesano, which has his cartoons for the latter.

Gino Severini, St Mark.

So I was delighted to discover on eBay a set of postcards of the cartoons, offered by a seller in Palermo but for some reason printed in Malta. Sadly, no-one has yet thought to make postcards of the mosaics themselves. They’re excellent and represent very well Severini’s interest in mosaic, which was probably more long-lived than his Futurist career.

But it’s a sad fact that they’re under-appreciated, as I found out when we saw them: Cortona was thronged with tourists that day, but apart from us, the Via Crucis was completely deserted and no-one seemed to be interested in them.

The deserted Via Crucis in Cortona when we went to see
The Stations of the Cross, visible in the little niches on the right.

Here are some of the postcards.

POST-WAR MODERN

The exhibition Post-War Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-65 at the Barbican highlights the diversity of the period, including Lucien Freud’s, John Bratby’s and Jean Cooke’s figurative paintings, Lynn Chadwick’s and Eduardo Paolozzi’ s angular bronzes (above), John Latham’s, Victor Pasmore’s and Gillian Ayres’ total abstraction and the beginnings of psychedelic art.

Looking at the period from a distance the curators are bound to evaluate it differently from the way it was evaluated at the time. The art world always knew that John Bratby, despite his huge commercial success, was a pretty obnoxious character and controlled his wife, Jean Cooke, who was already suspected of being a better artist than he was. Post-War Modern thrusts their domestic relationship to the fore and Cooke’s 1966 self-portrait, Blast Boadicea, removes any doubts about her excellence. Abstraction reached its high-water mark in 1960. Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting (1959) narrated the progress of art from Impressionist beginnings to supposedly inevitable resolution in Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning. Now we see that art was always more diverse. In relation to the representational works on show, the notes are bound to discuss content and meaning but, following the decline of interest in the formal properties of art, they say surprisingly little about the appearance of non-representational paintings by Victor Pasmore, Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill and Robert Adams.

The photos of Bert Hardy, Nigel Henderson and Roger Mayne show a ravaged urban environment with children playing in bombsites and rotting Victorian streets. We’re presented with artists dizzied by war and engaged in a search for meaning in a world without secure values. That was all true. But the post-war decades were also years of optimism and reconstruction. Hardy was good at showing people enjoying life at fairgrounds, dance-halls and the seaside. And against the photos of crumbling cities might be also be placed the Festival of Britain, the New Towns and the schools of the 1944 Education Act. There was full employment and wages were rising. People believed in Science. The best food, they thought, was made in factories and didn’t go stale. Britons were excited by the Space Age, Sputnik and planes like the Avro Vulcan. Those on the Left thought the Soviet Union was harnessing Science for Mankind and promised a prosperous and peaceful future – at least until 1956 when it invaded Hungary.

Today, however, we are pessimists. Science represents danger. The environment is going to kill us. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left envisages not Utopia but only endless struggle. So we see in post-war art (and probably in all art) anxiety and anomie rather than celebration and hope.

What did create anxiety, of course, was the H-Bomb, which Britain adopted in 1957. Post-War Modern mentions Gustav Metzger, the inventor of auto-destructive art, who was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but the way the Bomb overshadowed the Sixties wasn’t fully brought out. Jeff Nuttall called the art of the decade Bomb Culture.

A case of pottery by Hans Coper and Lucie Rie formed an interesting pendant to the exhibition. They weren’t included in earlier reviews of the period – not, for example, in the Barbican’s Transition: The London Arts Scene in the Fifties (2002) or the Tate’s Art & The Sixties: This Was Tomorrow (2004) These refined ceramics were part of the same movement as Victor Pasmore’s abstract paintings. Rie, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, was of an earlier generation of artists associated with the Weiner Werkstätte. In England she became an inspiring but very demanding teacher at Camberwell School of Art. It’s difficult to say much about her pottery because, in contrast with the other leading potter of the period, Bernard Leach, she not only made pots absolutely of her time but also refused to say anything about them.

WOMEN ARTISTS OF BOLOGNA

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman, c. 1580.

Yesterday I happened to be looking at Maxwell Armfield’s An Artist in Italy, his series of travel articles from the 1920s in which he views the landscapes and buidings with a colourist’s eye and describes the paintings he’s seen. It happened to be appropriate reading for International Women’s Day because his section on Bologna featured the leading role played by women artists and intellectuals in that city – Novella Andrea, Caterina dei Vigi, Prosperzia de’ Rossi, Lavinia Fontana and Elizabeth Sironi.

Armfield’s interest in women artists wasn’t accidental: he was married to the feminist writer Constance Smedley, whom he’d met at Birmingham Art School in the 1890’s. Her writing is almost forgotten now but she’s remembered as the founder of the International Lyceum Clubs for Women Artists and Writers, which she set up to provide support for professional women. As the Dictionary of National Biography says, “She aspired, not only to enable women to compete equally with men, but to create a democratic, non-hierarchical, centre for worldwide cultural exchange, and travelled across Europe, helping women in Amsterdam (1904), Berlin (1905), Paris (1906), and Florence (1908) to open clubhouses.” Their marriage was unconventional: Armfield was gay and Smedley’s disabilities precluded normal marital relations, but they had a productive artistic partnership in England and the USA and they probably travelled to Bologna together.

Constance Smedley and Maxwell Armfield.

VESSELS WITH WINGED HANDLES

‘Gale Force‘, Marshall Colman

Someone compared my vessels with winged handles to Colin Pearson’s ceramics. Colin made wonderful explorations of vessels with wings. Some are in the V&A and he won the Faenza Prize with others.  But this motif was around long before him and it’s not hundreds but thousands of years old.

Colin Pearson, 1994.

The Wallace Collection has some 16th-century drug jars from Deruta. They were functional vessels for apothecaries but they gave potters freedom to decorate and permitted flights of fancy like winged handles. The handles aren’t functional of course but they offer a surface for painting and sgrafitto.

Deruta, c.1500

The most impressive example is The Gazelle Vase in the Alhambra. It was made with two handles but it’s now defined by being broken. We wouldn’t want the handle to be repaired. The 19th-century reconstructions look too neat. They lack its ruined grandeur. Sometimes we prefer assymetry and we like faces that aren’t too regular: perfectly symmetrical faces are uncanny.

The Gazelle Vase, c.1375.

When I make pots with winged handles I make sure the handles don’t match, in a nod to The Gazelle Vase.

There’s a pot from Erimi in Cyprus with flattened handles in the Museum in Nicosia, the oldest example I’ve seen, from between 3500 and 2800 BCE. Somewhat older than Colin Pearson and me.

Vessel from Erimi, Cyprus, 3500 – 2800 BCE.

CLAUDIA CLARE (4)

It’s hard to find out what’s going on in the case of Claudia Claire, whose invitation to talk at Ceramic Art London has been withdrawn, apparently because of her views.

The event is organised by the Craft Potters Association at Central Saint Martins School of Art, but it appears that neither organisation has taken responsibility for the ban. Where did it come from? The Daily Telegraph has investigated and a report is expected tomorrow.

At Home with the Gaskins

Re-blog from Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

This week art curator Victoria Osborne has been cataloguing Gaskin family photographsready for our next Gas Hall exhibition,Children’s Lives.Here’s a sneak preview!

Designers Arthur and Georgie Gaskin were leading figures in the BirminghamArts & Crafts movement at the turn of the last century. Their elderdaughter Joscelyne, born in 1903, followed in their footsteps: critic RogerFry called the drawings she made aged 7 ‘altogether marvellous’. Therewill be a rare chance to see some of them in next year’s exhibition.

2011

Arthur__joscelyne
2011
Georgiejoscelyne
Joscelyne


Children’s Lives opens on 17 March 2012. Read about the project at theChildren’s Lives blog, or find out more about Arthur, Georgie and Joscelynein the current display in Gallery 19, The Gaskins and their Circle.

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ALBRECHT DÜRER (2)

Albrecht Dürer, The Imperial Captain Felix Hungersperg, 1520

Some of Dürer’s drawings and paintings reminded me of Maxwell Armfield (1881 – 1972), who was the first artist I ever noticed because, as a child, I had his illustrations to Andersen’s Fairy Tales, drawn for J. M. Dent in 1910.

Maxwell Armfield, illustration to Andersen’s Fairy Tales, 1910

Armfield trained at Birmingham Art School, the first to come under the infuence of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and painted in a late Pre-Raphaelite style – linear with a highly-worked surface, usually in bright colours and with a shallow picture space – which he kept up long after it had become unfashionable, even in the years after the Second World War.

Maxwell Armfield, Miss Chaseley on the Undercliff, 1927. (Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum)

His landscapes are flat and he’s interested in the patterns they make, which makes them artificial and imaginary, suiting fairytales, especially when they feature castles on distant mountains.

Maxwell Armfield, San Gimignano, Italy (Victoria Art Gallery)

Dürer’s landscapes, many of which also have castles on mountains, have the same fantastic effect. There were other influences on Armfield, notably Japanese woodcuts, and his drawings are very much simpler than Dürer’s, but both have the same hard line and absence of extreme tonal contrast.

Albrecht Dürer, View of the Arco Valley in the Tyrol, 1495

Albrecht Dürer, Christ Carrying the Cross

Maxwell Armfield, illustration to Andersen’s Fairy Tales, 1910