I came across Frank Brangwyn through my interest in William Morris and Brangwyn’s interest in Japanese art. Largely self-taught (though he was an apprentice to William Morris), he seemed to be able to turn his hand to anything, including design, printing, painting and drawing. I was particularly delighted to find a book of his drawings: Llewellyn, S and Liss, P (2015) Frank Brangwyn. Drawings from the Collection of Father Jerome Esser. Liss Fine Art, which contains a number of his drawings which he intended to be destroyed. Thankfully they were found and preserved.
His style is deceptively simple, yet sensitive, and effective in portraying the human figure. He drew constantly, even compulsively (ibid. 3). I have noted the range of drawing materials and surfaces he used: black and white chalk; pencil; black chalk and wash with red chalk highlights; charcoal and coloured chalks; red chalk only; pencil, black and beige chalk over lithograph; pencil on buff coloured tracing paper; black chalk on buff paper; The “red chalk” (and perhaps all the “chalk”) looks to be some sort of conte – red probably sanguine? I was particularly intrigued by his use of pen and ink with scratching out on card primed with gesso, and have been trying this out in my sketchbook. Also, some of his studies on draped clothing will be worth referring back to when I move on to Part Four of this course.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays you can join a Tate Britain guide for a 15-minute talk on an artwork from the Tate collection. April’s subject was Jacob and the Angel a sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein. I had walked past this sculpture many times but had only given it a passing glance. As the talk was due soon I decided to wait and hear more about it.
Before the guide arrived I had a closer look at it in more detail so see what my initial thoughts were. It is a large sturdy piece of sculpture of what must be two men (I know that angels are men) in what looked to me a rather amorous embrace. Indeed, on closer inspection there were what looked like genitalia finely chiselled from one angle of the stone. I was a little puzzled by my interpretation of what appeared to be a biblical scene, and thought that perhaps my imagination was taking me in a direction that wasn’t warranted.
The stone was beautifully marked with streaks (not sure if it is marble) that added to the flowing, sensual nature of the carving. Dynamism was added to the piece by the bent legs of the angel supporting the exhausted (or relaxed?) Jacob. Jacob’s over-sized hands adding to the heavy/ languorous feeling. I was intrigued to learn more. I then listened to the guide’s talk and made some notes.
Epstein carved from one piece of English Alabaster (gypsum) with hand tools. An influence on Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, Epstein wanted to work mainly in stone or wood (Moore moved on to Bronze) and was influenced by primitive art rather than classical (Roman/Greek). (My note: The sturdiness of this piece attests to this – no finely sculpted Greek Adonis or David here)
Sir Jacob Epstein (1880 – 1959) led a bohemian lifestyle and overt male sexuality was a feature of his works – which caused much controversy in his time (so not my dirty mind then!). Other works of his include Oscar Wilde’s tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris (at one time covered up because it was considered obscene) and carvings at Zimbabwe House, London (also controversial because the figures appeared Indian/Asian).
Reflection: I was ready to push aside my initial reaction that the piece was sexual because I thought that it was at odds with the era and the subject matter. I should be ready to record any gut feelings about artworks and not be so ready to dismiss them. Epstein was willing to push boundaries on what was considered acceptable, perhaps at a cost to him. He stuck to what he believed in, which is to be admired. Born around the same time as Picasso, who was also influenced by African art.
I was looking forward to an afternoon wallowing in the gorgeous colour and scale of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy.I had become a fan of Mark Rothko’s work in particular after seeing it in the flesh a few years ago at an exhibition at Tate Modern.His vibrant (they look as if they are vibrating too) works left me emotional.Such depth of colour!
But in the spirit of learning I decided to focus on an artist I didn’t know.I settled on Clyfford Still as I had done a jokey quiz on the RA website before I visited and in their view I am most like him.I had not heard of him.I also set myself the test of picking a work I didn’t particularly like to test my analytical skills.
Luckily early on (the earlier works) I came across a work by Still which fitted the bill nicely.
I didn’t find the picture immediately attractive at all.The soft, muted tones, abstracted but not quite abstract, a man and a woman in some sort of hold/embrace.Is there a child in the picture too?Difficult to judge the mood exactly, but definitely not cheerful.And I didn’t know anything about Still to put this in context.It was painted just pre-WWII but other than that I had nothing to go on.It seemed out of place amongst the large expressionistic paintings, including Still’s own later works in the rooms further along.
Still (pun intended) I stuck with it.Initially I had failed to note the yellow and red colours used within the overall putty-coloured painting.The yellow in the woman’s flowing hair hanging down at the right was expressive, tinges of red in her nipples. The brush strokes (oil) were restrained, yet flowed around the work giving it a coherence, as did the composition – drawing you in to the scene.
Then I tried to fathom what the portrait was about.Were the couple in a loving embrace, the man protecting the woman (and the child?)?Or was he dominating and restricting her? Her face is hidden – in sadness, or grief, or shame or fear?And what does the man’s overly-large open hand signify?His face appears expressionless – arrogant or resigned?Is he protecting his family and asking our help, perhaps inviting us to look at the tableau and pity them?
I think I can safely say that this was probably the longest I have ever looked at a painting I was not immediately drawn to.I can’t say that I like it any better, but I am intrigued to find out more about it and about Still.There were no clues other than the title (and that gave no hint), the year and medium used.
Research: Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)
Born in North Dakota, and brought up in the Far West and Canada. Best known for his later ‘color field’ artworks, Still’s work shifted from representational to abstract in the 1940s. He was an early pioneer of a move away from a European tradition of art towards what was dubbed Abstract Expressionism (though he wouldn’t have identified himself with such an epithet). Sparing with the titles of his work he is described by Christopher Le Brun (Royal Academy of Arts Magazine/No132/Autumn 2016) as being ‘aware of the false light that words can cast and the responsibility of the artist not to undermine art’s natural subjectivity with the assimilation society seeks.’
This echoes the sentiments of an artist of a much earlier generation Odilon Redon – “My drawings are not self-defining; they inspire. They determine nothing. Like music, they place us in the ambiguous world of the indeterminate.” “The title is justified only when it is vague, indeterminate …” (Gibson, 1996: 22)
Research on PH – 726
On the Clyfford Still Museum website, Denver artist Adam Milner writes that the painting: ‘portrays a nude, Depression-era couple in a sort of embrace. Their bodies, made up of cold grey lines and soft beige forms, undulate and almost even quiver before my eyes. If a vibrant life force can be found within Still’s compositions, then this work is more like a weak, flickering flame of a candle than the roaring fires we see in his later works. It’s quiet, but the despair is blatant: the man’s heavy hand falls toward the bottom of the frame like an anchor, the figures’ facial features disappear beneath their anguished bodies, and the muted color palette evokes not vitality, but weakness. And still, it is not hopeless: the bodies are punctuated with lively alizarin nipples and bold yellow hair, and the support between the figures is poignant as they become one body instead of two. The work reveals an extreme intimacy that perhaps can only be found in desperate circumstances.’
Richard Dorment in his New York Review of Books article on the London exhibition refers to PH- 726 as an ‘enigmatic study of the entangled bodies of a nude man and woman, the rough outlines of their blank faces and elongated limbs ragged at the edges, like pieces of torn paper.’ He also feels that Still and his contemporaries’ work ‘must be understood within its historical setting. The majority grew up poor, lived through the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the concentration camps, the Atomic Bomb, and the start of the cold war.’
So the work is from an earlier period of Still’s, where representation and symbolism were more apparent than in his later works, but they were still enigmatic. We can only guess at the meaning – and in the end interpret it for ourselves.
Julie Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1970 but was brought up from the age of 7 in the USA. She lives and works in New York.
Her work is mainly drawing, and on a very large scale, but also in smaller prints (of which the above is an example).
Her works are densely layered, most often representing urban landscapes and maps. Her approach is conceptual, geographical, historical, and personal. She talks about this in the New York Times on-line article Industrial Strength in the Motor City.
What excites me most about her work is her mark-making which is free and lyrical, yet tells a story – so not entirely abstract. I love the deliberate, yet restrained, use of colour which does not detract from the beautiful drawings but adds anchorage and depth. Adriano Pedrosa (Dexter, 2006: 196) more eloquently (if rather hyperbolically) describes the results of her work as ‘chaotic and intoxicating, labyrinthine and carnivalesque, glorious and furious, frenetic and seductive, engulfing and vertiginous, but also anthropophagic.’
Her use of layers and rubbing out and re-drawing techniques are also interesting and I will reflect on further for my art practice. (Layering was an aspect of John Piper’s work that inspired me too). I am also intrigued by her use of transparency using Mylar (which I hadn’t heard of before). It is a plastic polymer which can be drawn on. Might get some! This has already given me some ideas about drawing on tracing paper (the poor person’s Mylar?).
Anthropophagic. I had to look this up. It means a person who eats human flesh; a cannibal. Not really sure what he means by this in respect of Mehretu’s drawings though. Any ideas, dear readers?
This week at Morley drawing class we looked at the work of John Piper (1903 – 1992).
Piper was a painter, print-maker and designer of stained-glass windows. We particularly looked at his work as a war artist in WWII, and his paintings of bombed churches. In his time his paintings were considered as abstracted, and he was part of the abstract movement in Britain (Jenkins, John Piper The Forties P. 11.).
We were encouraged to look at his layering and mark-making in particular – both the broad brush strokes and tonal contrasts and the selective finer detail, and to note the atmosphere engendered: sombre and dramatic – but not melodramatic.
This (Fig. 1.) is my (unfinished) attempt to emulate his style. I used brush and black ink and oil pastel on A3 cartridge paper. I really enjoyed this exercise, particularly as we were told not to worry too much about perspective and composition but to concentrate on the variety of mark-making. Some of the mark were made by rubbing, dry brush, ink on string and corrugated card printing. Overall I am pleased with the results, but I will re-work this to add more layers and may even crop the paper to improve the composition.
I have played around with the image digitally to crop it and add a colour wash to show my intentions (Fig. 2.). But I also will physically crop and add washes and detail when I have time.
I am so inspired by John Piper that I have added a book about him to my Bibliography: Jenkins, D, F. (2000) John Piper The Forties. Philip Wilson Publishers. Imperial War Museums. I particularly like the combination of free marks combined with precision, and his use of tone contrasted with bright colour. I look forward to reading more about him and will seek out his works. There are a few at the Imperial War Museum in London (right next to where I play tennis – so perfect!)