THE DE CHIRICO MOMENT

Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings captured the uneasy feeling of abandoned urban spaces that are uncannily full of absence.

There’s a similar feeling in the work of other artists: Eric Ravilious’s interiors and some of Munch’s and Carel Weight’s paintings. It’s also conveyed in Hitchcock’s scene in The Man Who Knew too Much where James Stewart, in search of Ambrose Chappell, walks down an empty London street with footsteps echoing behind him

Anyone who visits Italy will soon have a de Chirico moment in an empty square in strong afternoon sunlight between three and four in the afternoon, like this place (above) that I happened on in Verona.

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.

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

ALBRECHT DÜRER (1)

I was surprised to find the Dürer exhibition at the National Gallery so crowded. His engravings have to be looked at closely and you have to queue at each one. Who would have thought that an Old Master of five hundred years ago would be so popular? But most of the visitors had grey hair. Will there be a public for this kind of art in thirty years time? Art that’s based on the highest standards of craft and draughtsmanship? Art that’s not radical, original or innovative? Art that’s not critical, challenging or addressing problematic themes? There may not be.

NATIONAL TRUST, KINGSTON LACY

The Kingston Lacy guidebook notes that Rubens’ Marchesa Maria Grimaldi (above) is one of the most important works of art in the house, but the painting is not labelled and few of the other many important paintings, which include some by Titian, Jan Breughel the Younger and Sir Peter Lely are labelled either, far less described. There is no description whatever of furniture, ceramics and other items. The volunteer guides are as helpful as they can be but they are not art historians and they are not provided with a catalogue of the works they are looking after and cannot answer every question. In fact, the volunteer I spoke to had ferreted out information for herself, for which I was grateful. Nor is there a  catalogue available to the public.

I was told today that information sheets were removed because the repeated handling was thought to be unhygienic. Museums and art galleries place labels on walls next to each object on display. I don’t understand why the National Trust don’t do it or won’t do it.

National Trust houses are museums with the care of important collections of art, but they are not presented properly. Kingston Lacy, one of the National Trust’s most visited properties, has been in its possession for almost forty years, during which time they’ve made extensive improvements, not least to Henrietta Bankes’s kitchen garden, which it was a pleasure to visit. That surely is enough time to attach descriptions to the works of art they hold.

The entrance fee is £18, roughly the entrance fee to a major temporary exhibition in a London museum, which is thoroughly curated and fully explained. Kingston Lacy only has to do that once, but they haven’t. The artworks are doubtless listed on the Art UK website, but, of course, you have to identify them first.

The Trust’s current strategy doesn’t encourage optimism. Its 10-Year Vision talks of the “loyal but dwindling audience” for their historic houses, and suggests that they distance themselves from major national cultural institutions such as the British Museum, the V&A and the Tate.

THE ADORATION OF THE LAMB

In my A-level art class I studied Netherlandish painting and was pleased to be able to visit and visit again The Arnolfini Portait in the National Gallery, and I hoped one day to go to Ghent to see the Van Eycks’ polyptych The Adoration of The Lamb. As luck had it, in my school holidays I was given a lift by someone who had a friend in Ghent, an Englishman married to a Belgian woman, and we stopped with them for lunch. I looked forward to seeing the Van Eyck altarpiece.

We were given a splendid meal and a lot to drink – an aperitif before and plenty of wine throughout the meal. Then I said I’d like to go to the cathedral to see the altarpiece. “Not before you have a brandy,” my host insisted, and I accepted out of politeness. I wasn’t used to drinking.

By the time he drove me to the cathedral I was drunk. After I’d spent ten minutes squinting at The Adoration and trying to focus on it he became impatient and said, “Let’s go for a drink.”

He drove to an anonymous grey building with closed doors. He rang the bell and someone let us in and led us up a dark staircase to a smart, brightly-lit bar on the first floor. Glamorous and expensively dressed women sat around on sofas. My host seemed to know them and kissed them all. He ordered a brandy and offered me one. This time I refused. He wasn’t in a hurry and he had another. Then another. I couldn’t follow the conversation. My head was spinning and I just wanted the jaunt to end. After about forty minutes he kissed all the women again, lurched down to the street and fumbled for his car keys.

At last I asserted myself.

“You’ve had too much, you’re in no condition to drive,” I said, and tried to take the keys away from him.

“Don’t be such a prissy little ass. Give me my fucking keys!”

A taxi came into view and I hailed it.

“We’re getting a taxi,” I said.

“Don’t be so fucking wet. I can drive perfectly well; I’ve done it a thousand times.”

The taxi pulled over.

“What’s your address?” I said.

“I don’t need a taxi.”

I turned to the taxi driver. “I’m trying to find out his address.”

“It’s OK,” he said quietly, “I know him, I know where he lives.”

So we fell in and went home by taxi.

This year the restored altarpiece was put on display and I thought I should see it sober. But then came COVID-19, so I guess I’ll have to wait a few more years.

ART AND ILLUSION

My old friend Nick Rowling, who corrected the mistakes I’d made about the alleged iconoclasm of the English Commonwealth, suggest I read Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, which he thought was one of the best books on the history of art. I saw that his view was shared by Kenneth Clark, who described it as “One of the most brilliant books of art criticism I have ever read.”

It’s also one of the hardest. Gombrich studied at Vienna, where art historians were steeped in philosophy that they often took for granted, and without a knowledge of which it’s difficult to understand what they’re saying. Although Gombrich lived most of his life in England, and although he wrote Art and Illusion in English, he thought it in German. His idea of the way that mental structures or “schemata” shape perception comes from Kant, and the “mythological explanations” of history that he deprecates (explanation in terms of collectives like “mankind”, “races” and “ages”) come from Hegel. Most of his antecedents are German: Konrad Fiedler, Adolf von Hildebrand, Heinrich Wölfflin, Alois Riegl, Franz Wickhoff, Hans Sedlmayr, Emanuel Loewy, Julius von Schlosser, Aby Warburg, Rudolf Arnheim, Ernst Kris and Karl Popper.

I went online to look for cribs but found that some of them understood even less than me – saying, for example, that the idea of “schemata” was invented by Gombrich, or attributing to Gombrich an opinion of Herbert Read’s that Gombrich dismisses. But that’s how difficult the book is.

TULLIO CRALI, THE LAST FUTURIST

Self Portrait (1935)

We went to the Estorick Collection’s postponed exhibition of the art of Tullio Crali A Futurist Life, the first devoted to him in the UK. Crali was a key figure in the second wave of Futurism, to which he remained attached with idealistic devotion, and the major proponent of aeropittura, painting inspired by aerial flight.


The Force of the Bend (1930)

Crali was born in 1910 in Montenegro and spent much of his life in Gorizia, near Trieste. He developed an enthusiasm for Futurism as a schoolboy and taught himself to paint in a Futurist style. Marinetti wrote to him in 1929, “Dear Futurist, Delighted to have you with us in the Futurist struggle.” Meeting Marinetti, who favoured him with a smile, was the high point of his life.


Cosmic Maternity (1960)

This remarkable exhibition gathers works from the Crali family collection that span the artist’s long life (he died in 2000), many unseen for decades. His most famous painting Nose-Diving the City (which the Estorick included in its 2005 exhibition Painting the Skies) is not included, but his intoxication with flying is well-represented.


The Forces of the Infinite (1931)

After the war the position of Futurists became difficult in Italy. Crali never had much interest in politics and engaged as a naïve patriot – “acquiescence”, the word the curators choose to describe his relationship with the regime, is accurate. In 1942 Crali and Marinetti produced a manifesto (always a manifesto!) about the potential artistic contribution to the war effort, Plastic Illusionism of War and Perfecting the Earth, whose ideas about camouflage did not appeal much to the military mind:

“Spiritualise materiality and vulgarity by means of gigantic winged colourful transparent free-word compositions in such a way that a smoking factory might metamorphosise into an evanescent mystical chapel fringed with angels and bells.”


Vegetable Volumes (1948)

Unlike Depero, who had to emigrate to the USA to continue as an artist, Crali survived with a teaching job in Italy. His post-war still lifes (above) gained in depth and subtlety.

Futurism was a way of life to Crali, not to be abandoned when circumstances changed. At a meeting of Futurists in 1950 – and I was surprised to learn that there was still an organised Futurist movement after Marinetti’s death – Benedetta Marinetti dissolved the movement, a decision Crali refused to accept, and in his own mind he remained a Futurist.


Lights at Sunset in Ostia (1930)

Teaching posts in Paris and Cairo introduced Crali, ever curious about his world, to new scenes, new people, new shapes and new possibilities. His late embrace of found art from rocks, the Sassintesi (“Stonetheses”) was, in his mind, still a Futurist enterprise.


Crali with his wife Ada Savelli in Paris, 1950s

HEINRICH WÖLFFLIN

karlskirche
Photo: Johannes Rottmeyer

When we were in Puglia in September, I noticed that high baroque churches and palazzi were placed in narrow streets, making it impossible to get a proper view of them. The grand duomo in Gallipoli was a case in point, so were the houses in Martina Franca.

Now, reading Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History, I found that in his view this was not a mistake and was wholly characteristic of the baroque style. His concept of the “painterly style” in baroque denoted movement, indefiniteness and impermanence in the visual arts and applied to sculpture and buildings as well as painting.

The creation of views in architecture, in which buildings were designed to be seen in different ways and from different perspectives, was one aspect of the painterly style and explains why it was unimportant for a façade to be viewed square on or from the front:

Although the full front view will always claim for itself a certain exclusivity, we now find compositions which clearly set out to reduce the significance of this view. This is very clear, for instance, in the Carlo Borromeo church in Vienna [the Karlskirche, above], with its two columns placed in front of the façade, the true value of which is revealed in the non-frontal views, where the columns lose their equality  and the central dome is cut across.

For the same reason it was regarded as no misfortune if a baroque façade was so placed in a street that it was almost impossible to obtain a front view of it.