Thursday, 31 July 2014

Never mind all tea in China – the art's not bad either

Andrew Graham-Dixon gets up close to terracotta warriors
The older I get, the more I find myself wondering at just how many evenings I spent, in my youth, waiting to be entertained by the television: or rather, how our family entertainment/relaxation was dependent on the box in the corner.

These days, I tend to watch far less TV – sport is a rare exception and even that’s hardly a daily occurrence.

The disadvantage of this is that I have a tendency to miss things that I would enjoy, so it was with some relief that I discovered, in good time, that a new, three-part series from Andrew Graham-Dixon, on The Art of China, was due to begin last night on BBC4.

Three hours is hardly long to explore an art history of such a vast nation – a history that dates back, uninterrupted, many thousands of years – so Graham-Dixon picks threads and plots themes that allow him to create a remarkably coherent picture of a culture that few of us are very familiar with.

We’ve seen this approach before, in his excellent series on The Art of Germany, for instance, where the first episode had, as an umbrella idea, the importance of the forest in the German psyche.

It’s a recurring analysis that much art is concerned with the afterlife: in the German series, this found realisation in the extraordinary works of religious art, carved from the trees of those same forests.

In China, Graham-Dixon began by introducing us to the extraordinary, freestanding bronze sculptures from the city of Sanxingdui, which is in the south west of the country, in what is now Sichuan.

These artifacts were only uncovered by archeologists in 1987 and radiocarbon dating places them as coming from the 12th-11th centuries BCE. Now that’s old.

Bronze head from Sanxingdui
Many of the sculptures are heads, with protruding eyes and, in some cases, gold masks. There is also an astonishingly intricate and delicate sculpture of a tree, complete with birds.

Various theories abound, but it seems possible that these were linked to some form of worship or ritual, possibly connected to ancestors.

The works had to be pieced, painstakingly back together, after being found, smashed, in two pits.

It all adds to the fascination: not only is this a question of why they were made, but also of why they were destroyed.

The theme continued with a visit to Mr Yang’s Emporium, where the eponymous Mr Yang creates card and paper models for people to burn as tributes to the dead.

However old such an idea might be, the subjects of the tributes were not, with Graham-Dixon showing us a computer on a desk and a Mercedes, although he found a cardboard cow, complete with udder, rather more amusing.

But while the programme branched off into looking at the written Chinese language – it’s the one remaining hieroglyphic language in the world – and explaining some of those hieroglyphs, it returned to the theme of people’s relationship with the afterlife when Graham-Dixon went to look at the Terracotta Army.

Bronze tree from Sanxingdui
It’s incredible to think that they were only legend until being first unearthed as recently as 1974, and that the 8,000 figures are only from a small part of a vast, 22-square-mile site, which could take as long as another century to be fully excavated.

Graham-Dixon was allowed to walk among the figures, which gave him the opportunity to show us how each one was an individual and how they also reflected the ethnic diversity of the realm of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang (260–210 BCE).

Looking inside the lower body of one, he was able to point out where the fingers of its maker had pulled up the clay. And on another, where the maker had first made his mark – and then the supervisor had stamped it.

And it was a wonderful description when, looking over the vast building that now houses them, he described it as being “like King’s Cross!” before adding: “Here they are. The imperial guard, the Terracotta Army lined up for all time like commuters waiting to travel into eternity.”

Less familiar, but even more extraordinary, he asserted, is the Qin bronze chariot, which was also found in the site and is formed of more than 3,000 bronze pieces.

But what is just as fascinating about the Terracotta Army as its scale and the skill involved in creating it, is the probable influence of art from further west – in particular, art that more realistically portrayed the human face.

How would that influence have found its way to China? That was where the Silk Road came into the picture.

This trading route – incredibly dangerous in places – provided a way both in and out of China.

Wu Zetian as a Buddha
And along part of it stands the labyrinthine Buddhist cave complex at Dunhuang.

Carved right into rocky cliffs, the individual chapels are decorated lavishly with Buddhist images, including a vast statue of a female Buddha, which is said to represent Wu Zetian (624-705 CE), China’s first female ruler.

She was a great patron of Buddhism – a religion that had been imported to the country from India.

The first programme was, all in all, a fascinating look at the art of China.

Graham-Dixon has the gift of being able to make things approachable and easy to grasp without ever dumbing down.

And the way in which he introduces themes is never forced, but leaves the viewer with more than enough to actually consider well after the closing titles have concluded.

There’s plenty of time to catch up with the first episode – it’s available now on iPlayer – but this bodes very well for two further weeks of seriously good, grown-up and intelligent telly.

You can find out more about the series at the programme’s dedicated website.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Swallowed by the black hole of Suprematism

Self Portrait (1908-10)
It’s difficult to remember, sometimes, both how long ago modern art became ‘modern’ and how much world events can shape what we see in galleries.

Somehow, for instance, it’s difficult to mentally locate Duchamp’s urinal in the years of WWI – perhaps because we look at pictures of that world and the way people were dressed, and find it hard to think of it alongside art works that, even today, are considered so radical that many would not accept that they are art.

But in the context of major political and social upheavals – and a world war – fits rather obviously into such a description – perhaps radical art may well be inevitable as artists search for a way to deal with what is going on.

And of course, in the case of revolution, then exactly the same would be true.

Bathers Seen from Behind (1910)
Now on at the Tate Modern until 26 October, an exhibition of works by Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is a perfect illustration of such things.

A room of early paintings shows a mixed approach, from conventional portraits to Self Portrait (1908-10), which is far more expressive.

Bathers Seen from Behind (1910) has a modernity in its abstraction of the subject, and Shroud of Christ from 1908 incorporates a background decoration that is reminiscent of Russian icon art.

Incidentally, on Bathers Seen from Behind, anyone else recognise a spot of cloisonnism?

Shroud of Christ (1908)
But this was already a period of huge upheaval in Russian life.

When Malevich had started painting, the country was still a Tsarist autocracy, with a vast percentage of the populace being peasants.

Growing demands for change saw many artists looking west for inspiration, but for others, they sought to create a specifically Russian type of art, focusing on very Russian subjects, which included the peasantry.

In terms of this exhibition, you see Malevich’s
Bather (1911)
style leap forward in 1911, with Bather, but it’s with The Scyther
(1911-12) that we first really see the desire to create a particularly Russian visual language appear.

It was a style that he extended with Morning in the Village After Snowstorm (1912) a work where it’s possible to see both the influences of Cubism and Futurism.

Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto had been published three years earlier, calling on artists to reject the traditional in art in favour the cults of speed, technology and the machine.

In Russia there was just as much enthusiasm as elsewhere, but in Malevich’s works from this period, we find a combination of Futurism with Cubism – Cubo-Futurism.

But hopping between styles, he also produced a number of avowedly Cubist works – In the Grand Hotel (1913) is a particularly fine one, with a rather haunting quality.

In the Grand Hotel (1913)
In early 1914, Malevich had declared that he renounced reason, and when war broke out that autumn, he switched from the absurdism of that year’s An Englishman in Moscow to total abstraction.

Originally painted in 1915 – further versions were painted in 1923 and 1929, and these two are featured at the Tate as the original is too fragile to be moved – Black Square has been an icon of modern art ever since.

This was the birth of Suprematism.

In an ingenious bit of arrangement, the latest of these is hung high in a corner of one of the exhibition rooms, as the first painting was displayed originally, in a deliberate echo of how icons were often hung in homes.

In the previous room, the 1923 version is hung at a more traditional height and you can sit – back to film footage of a US revival of a Suprematist theatre production, Victory Over the Sun – and take it in.

The Scyther (1911-12)
I’m not going to pretend that it’s a work that I particularly ‘like’, but it has something very powerful about it.

It screams out an eradication of everything that had gone before; wipes the slate clean. Or perhaps it’s a suggestion of a black hole that will swallow everything.

There’s something threatening about it.

It is, I think, the use of the black that makes it so powerful: neither the later Red Square (which gave Martin Cruz Smith the idea for a novel of the same name) nor White on White have anything like the same power.

Malevich declared that the painters of the past were “counterfeiters” of nature, and announced that “the artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature”.

It was a revolutionary approach.

Morning in the Village After Snowstorm (1912)
At this stage, the exhibition moves into rooms of canvases made up of geometric shapes in various colours.

Frankly, there’s only so much of these sort of works that I can take. They work best when they’re used in the few cups and saucers that are on display.

After the October Revolution, Malevich gradually moved away from these compositions into increasing simplification, with white forms on white backgrounds.

In 1919, he wrote that: “Painting died like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”.

But as an artist, where do you go after that?

By the late 1920s, the first Five Year Plan was in place to drive industrialisation.

Black Square (1915)
Malevich returned to painting – mainly strange, rural scenes that are reminiscent in some ways of the earlier Cubo-Futurist ones, but with often blank-faced peasant figures.

I did, however, like Landscape With Five Houses (1932) from this period.

The final room gives us some of the final paintings.

The rural scenes continued, but there was also a return to much more conventional painting. Well, sort of.

There are a number of portraits here with strange hand gestures and even costumes that seem straight out of a Renaissance painting.

That he took to signings his works with a black square suggests that he still believed in his own ideas – but that in turn leads to the conclusion that what he later produced was not  genuine.

Landscape With Five Houses (1932)
Malevich died of cancer in 1935 and, with that, his works disappeared from view in the Soviet Union, failing to meet Stalin’s criteria for art.

The cultural avant garde had long since been viewed as elitist.

Some works re-appeared in Krushchev’s time, but Black Square was not reshown until the 1980s.

This is an interesting exhibition in many ways.

The early works – and the attempt to fashion a particularly Russian form of art – are fascinating.

It’s worth seeing Black Square, not simply because of its iconic value, but also to realise that it is genuinely powerful, whatever your personal response to it is

But after that, the exhibition really all rather peters out.

And after all, once you’ve announced the death of something, how can you really breathe new life into exactly what you claim to have ended?

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The potager's back in business

Not really like coffins at all
It’s just possible that some visitors to this corner of cyberspace may wonder what has happened to the potager – the unkempt wedge of a carpark flower bed that gave me my Schleswig-Holstein moment a couple of years ago.

Well, there were plans, but last autumn, with its soul-destroying grey dampness, rather put paid to them.

But although it was two seasons later than intended, the central scheme has now been realised.
The potager as it existed had a number of problems.

After the housing association had accepted a tender for gardening services from a different company, the flowerbed areas at the back of our small block of flats had been allowed to get into a mess.

In one, weeds had run riot, while a bush that had been growing around a small tree was dying, and rusting bikes, left by long-gone residents, had been left chained to the trellis that formed one border of the patch.

Initially, mine had been a small land grab – enough to put some beans in.

But these things are addictive and, the following year, I increased the size and even managed to produce some very small carrots.

As it was at the start, in 2012
Neighbours then took up the cause and helped clear the entire patch, apart from the tree and one deep, old root from the bush.

And last year, there were a few more very small carrots, one or two miniature turnips, a couple of gigantic courgettes, a few salad leaves and chard that eventually threatened to reach record heights.

But the ground was uneven because of that tree, with roots breaking the surface in a number of places.

The soil is fairly shallow soil, with sand beneath, and that soil is, typically for cities apparently, also very, very clayey – that means it’s very rich, but also very difficult to work and not much cop on the drainage front.

There are now, though, three large raised beds in place, built to fit the space perfectly.

Ian, a local craftsman who has done a number of jobs for us, built them just as I wanted – and then went down to nearby Hackney City Farm and returned with enough well-matured manure to provide a substantial layer at the bottom of each new bed, which was then topped up with soil.

There is, apparently, a whopping two tons of the latter there now – a frankly amazing figure that would never have entered my head when I was planning the little development.

In effect, though, while the area is technically the same, the actual planting space is greater – simply because he has built around and then over roots and unevenness, to create evenness above.

And of course, drainage will be considerably improved.

So we’re back in business.

The first weekend back, I started off by making two trips to Colombia Road flower market – the first with The Other Half to provide extra carrying capacity – coming home with vast amounts of herbs, plus flowers.

Otto exploring slightly later developments
One planter now has those herbs arranged around the outside, with a splash of summer colour in the middle.

Our neighbours seem particularly impressed – even though one of them did apparently suggest to Ian that he could start a new career as a coffin maker.

There’s common thyme and lemon thyme, rosemary, flat leaf parsley, chives, French tarragon, chervil, lovage, common sage and bloody dock sorrel.

We still have oregano on the patio, plus the bay tree, and I’m going to get a really large pot to go there for mint.

But that seems to me like a great herb collection, and the sorrel and sage are already growing at an incredible rate.

And the inclusion of the likes of lovage and chervil are exactly the sort of thing that inspires me to continue this adventure – there is no shop that I know that ever sells such things.

One of the tarragon plants has some leaves that are not happy, but by and large it’s doing okay – and tarragon is notoriously delicate – while the chervil looks to be thriving.

On the herb front, everything else seems to be fine too, although, in spite of regular watering, some of the flowers didn’t take too kindly to the sunshine in the days that followed their being planted out.

This last weekend, I took enjoyed my first harvesting – just a few chives, snipped for a garnish, but bang full of flavour.

And of course, it won’t take long before such things have more than paid for themselves.

If I have to buy chives, for instance, then I have to pay for a bag of (less tasteful) ones at 80p or more, with the chances being that most won’t get used.

This way, I get to just harvest my half dozen chives when I need them, and waste nothing.
And for the winter, I may explore freezing some winter.

The flowers include French marigolds, which apparently help to keep pests away: I’m still trying for the most natural way of gardening possible.

I timed it well – which was a fortunate accident, really – because July seems to be the final month for sowing seeds outside for autumn and winter food crops.

So in the coming days, leeks, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and fennel will all be sown in the next planter.

Now, this isn’t guaranteed to be a rip-roaring success, but there’s really only one way to find out.

And there’s a great deal of pleasure in doing just that.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Paris to Bow: an encounter with the East London Group

Bow Bridge, Walter Steggles
Paris might now be consigned to the past, but the return to England’s own bustling metropolis didn’t mean an end to viewing art.

With only a few days left before it closed, I finally made it down to the East End for an exhibition of work by the East London Group.

The Nunnery is so much in the East End that, never mind being within the sound of Bow bells, it’s almost directly opposite Bow Church itself.

This is, indeed, the very heart of Cockneydom.

Bryant & Mays, Oscroft
It’s odd how different it feels to Hackney – given that it’s not really very far away, but the same is true of many parts of London: it’s far from being a single, homogenised entity.

The Nunnery Gallery itself is situation in a former Carmelite nunnery that dates from 1850 and is now part of the Bow Arts Trust.

There’s an element of stepping back in time about the area – and this was an exhibition that emphasised that.

The East London Group was the brainchild of Yorkshire artist John Cooper, who taught at the Bow and Bromley Evening Institute from the mid-1920s.

Hackney Empire, Turpin
It was made up of two core groups – aspiring East Enders, plus some who, like Cooper himself, had trained at the Slade.

According to art historian David Buckman, Albert Turpin, for instance, was a “professional window cleaner, Anti-Fascist protestor and Labour mayor of Bethnal Green”.

Walter Sickert was involved, addressing classes and even showing with the group for a while.

There was a great deal of acclaim for the artists at the time, with a final group exhibition taking place in West End gallery the Lefevre in 1936, although works were also displayed collectively and individually elsewhere, including at the National Gallery and at Tate Britain.

Old Ford Road, Harold Steggles
But all this has been forgotten in the decades since WWII, although the work of dedicated people, including family members and Buckman, has been starting to turn that around.

One of the particular pleasures to be gained from exploring the work of the East London Group is the chance to look back in time to a very different London – although, as touched on above, they painted pictures of buildings and places that are still recognisable today.

The exhibits included a work by Harold Steggles, for instance, showing Grove Hall Park, which is still there – right behind the Nunnery.

Farringdon Road, Osbourne
There’s the instantly-recognisable Hackney Empire by Turpin, and his Salmon and Ball, which is an equally-recognisable corner of Bethnal Green.

Indeed, these two stood out in the exhibition as being rare examples of heavily-peopled works.

In most other cases, the streets are devoid of either traffic or people, which lends a haunting quality to the paintings.

The Arches, Mare Street, Turpin
There are occasional figures – walking away from the artist, with their back to us, or simply too distant to tell us anything.

But that only seems to add to the feeling, whether intended at the time or not, of the isolating nature of the city.

Grace Oscroft’s Bryant & Mays is a case in point: the bright palette used – seen among many of the artists – seems only to emphasise the lack of people and suggest a philosophically mixed view of the world they lived in: on the one hand, with industry offering a bright future, but on the other, it replacing humanity.

It’s inevitable that seeing many of these works, set as they are in working-class areas, one is reminded of Lowry, but that absence of people and that brightness of colour are two of the most obvious differences.

The Great Ventriloquist, Cooper
Sickert in particular urged the group to realism, but Walter Steggles’s Bow Bridge uses blues that almost take it into the realms of Impressionism.

A note helpfully points out that this is where the Bow flyover now starts. Imagining Bow Road with no traffic today is not easy.

This shouldn’t be read as suggesting a uniformity of approach, though.

Cecil Osbourne’s Farringdon Road (1929) – or the rooftops above it – goes down a very different route, with muted, dark tones that give it a very broody atmosphere.

But Harold Steggles’s Old Ford Road (c1932) is another bright but almost deserted world.

Perhaps surprise at this is because we mentally tend to view their world as a smog-filled monochrome. ‘But’, they seem to be saying to us, ‘there was plenty of colour. It wasn’t just unrelentingly grim’.

Kitchen Bedroom, Turpin
Cooper’s own The Great Ventriloquist – like many of the works, undated, but we known it was shown at the Lefevre in 1930 – shows clearly enough that the group were neither averse to painting people nor incapable of it, with Turpin’s Kitchen Bedroom (c1930) is another example of this.

Indeed, it’s possible to see in these two a passing of the baton: the realism of Cooper’s painting is tempered by a certain sentimentality in the image.

With Turpin’s domestic, working-class interior, there is none.

Harry Tate: The Freeman of Bethnal Green, Turpin
The teacher was being surpassed.

But it’s those deserted yet colourful scenes, such as Water Steggles’s tiny – just 15x20cm – Canvey Island (c1933), that stick in the mind.

And The Arches, Mare Street is another Turpin piece that, while colourful, has a deserted, mysterious air.

More than one of the artists were commissioned to provide artwork for the sort of travel posters that are now iconic, and the presence of two of these in the adjoining cafĂ© was a reminder of how that lack of people was not limited to the group’s activity: you recognise it in those suggestions for motoring out to see some old church.

No people: just the bricks and mortar. 

Canvey Island, Walter Steggles
The group painted parts of London other than the East End, and they painted parts of England other than London and parts of the world other than England.

They didn’t limit themselves to the urban, while there are still lives, interiors and portraits too – Turpin’s Harry Tate: The Freeman of Bethnal Green is a fascinating example – but it’s those deserted landscapes that stay with you.

It was a case of better late than never getting to this exhibition, but it was not something that was held in isolation, but as part of an ongoing campaign to revive knowledge of an interest in these artists. 

Travel poster, Walter Steggles
In that, it has already had success, with good crowds and a decent level of media coverage.

And if you want to know more, search out Buckman’s excellent 2012 book, From Bow to Biennale: Artists of the East London Group.

Online, there’s much more about Walter Steggles at, and about the group as a whole at, while you can keep tabs with what’s going on – and see plenty of pictures – on Twitter @EastLondonGroup.