In my choice of work to represent the colour blue, I’m for the first time selecting a piece by an artist who is still very actively working and whom I very much admire; indeed, I’ve followed his blog for some time and his recent myths work blows me away. He began his career as an actor, choreographer and theatre director, and that sense of ordered scenography, versatility of expression and considered movement still lies at the seam of every art work.
The piece I’ve selected is, ‘Christ writes in the dust - the woman taken in adultery’, an acrylic on panel by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, painted in 2011. The artist has made the conscious decision that the woman should be older, her body not the stick thin image of a young flirt, but heavier, more worldly-wise and defiantly aware that she was flaunting her sexuality; the head of Christ bent down to her level, His stance echoing her own in almost balletic precision, identifying totally with her and slightly in front, so that He would bear the brunt of any stones aimed at her. The setting is based on sketches the artist had made of Montclar in Catalonia - a picturesque village with a brooding darkness of bitterness and unforgiveness relating to events that happened in the Spanish Civil War of 70 years ago.
Blue is apparently the most calming of colours. For a subject that is horribly cruel, the hues of this beautiful piece imbue it with a disarming gentleness. The viewer sees the stones drop from the hands as we gaze.
Whenever this piece is shown, you will see visitors contorting themselves to try and see the expression on Jesus’ face; they seem not to be able to resist it. And perhaps there is something metaphorical in that for those who bend any which way to discover the face of Jesus.
I love this quote from Hicks-Jekins’ blog –
‘In dance terms we talk about ‘muscle memory’. This is the process by which a gruelling schedule of training and rehearsal become so much a part of the dancer’s body that the technique and the steps barely require conscious thought, freeing the mind to fully give itself up to the performance. Painting, I’ve found, is exactly like that. At this distance from my first career I can see now that I gave up one form of rehearsal only to adopt another. I simply relinquished the performance as the mode of expression to replace it with the exhibition. Some things in life really don’t change. I even have ‘Opening Nights’!’
Sheffield based John Brokenshire’s painting is my choice for the colour ‘indigo’. Although it breaks my own brief in that it is widely used, it is an incredibly powerful image and every viewing of it brings out more.
Brokenshire left the work untitled. I’ve seen it given the titles of both ‘Pentecost’ and ‘Dove’ by others, but neither seem to me to convey the full expanse of the piece - although I can fully understand why they are there. Brokenshire said that he ‘“was keen to get a very loosely represented image of a bird in space into my painting. But I wanted a sense of a bird hovering, not on a trajectory. At the same time, I hoped to refer in some way to angels: even if very obliquely by colour alone or by suggestion. Darkness had to be the counterpoint to this.…’
I, personally, see the outline of what appears to be a cross beam and a head bowed directly underneath and the shadowy, lost figures in the top right hand corner, and it speaks to me very powerfully and poignantly of that point where darkness came and the spirit of Jesus left this earthly body, finding it beautifully reminiscent of those times when I have sat with the dying.
But each viewer will bring their own gaze… it is enough to say that it increases in beauty with each look, and ‘Untitled’ is the most perfect of titles in my opinion; to try to give it one is to clip the bird’s wings and limit its flight.
I struggled to find a ‘violet’ selection. There are two in the collection that have strong purplish ranges, both by the same artist, but neither resonate with me and I would feel inadequate to comment upon them, so, as this is my personal curation and I can be as controversial with it as I wish, I’ve opted instead to draw attention to something that I find very delicately done and that has hints of violet blue that on the surface brings a delightful texture to the piece, but that I cannot look at now without feeling revulsion and that I feel strongly should no longer be a part of the collection.
Eric Gill’s ‘The Annunciation’ shows a colourful angel Gabriel (whilst angels are generally believed to be non gender specific, the three named in Scripture are referred to and named in the masculine) appearing in the bedroom of the young girl Mary to announce that she is going to have a child, the ‘Ave Maria’ (‘Hail Mary’) and ‘Fiat mihi’ (‘Let it be unto to me’) written in reversed text on the wall behind – the picture was originally done to be viewed through a mirrorscope – and the placement of a lily in a vase to indicate her purity. The girl is obviously in adoration of the figure in front of her.
Yet, we have known for over three decades now that Eric Gill, a very famous, prolific and renowned artist, repeatedly raped and sexually abused his two daughters from their pre-teenage years onwards and even kept notes of the measurements of their maturing body parts alongside measurements of his penis size, both flaccid and erect.
In 2017, Ditchling Art Gallery, where connections to Gill’s family still run deep, addressed the problem of Eric Gill honestly and openly and after huge deliberation, Nathaniel Hepburn drew the conclusion,
“At one end, there are those who believe biography to be irrelevant; and at the other, there are those who believe he was a disgusting man, and wonder why he should be shown at all. Most are in the middle. Even within the team at Ditchling, different people feel different things. But in the end, the only reason for doing the show is because he is an extraordinary artist.”
Hepburn did it responsibly, taking advice from those trained in dealing with abuse, and whether or not we individually agree with that decision, especially in the light of high profile sex abuse cases in recent years, Ditchling is, at the end of the day, a commercial gallery operating as a business for whom local man Gill’s work provides a good stream of income. In such context, the very real argument of separating the art from the artist has a place for some.
However, I would contest that touring Gill’s work in times when the appalling revelations of abuse by Ministers and Clergy in religious organisations, including the Methodist Church, are being continually investigated, is neither wise nor appropriate, and is deeply insensitive. There are so many other worthwhile artists doing incredible work on spiritual themes that to quietly retire the work of an artist who does nothing to enhance the church’s desire to honestly confront its past and move on with integrity and grace, would be no loss whatsoever and would be deemed a responsible act.
The Methodist Modern Art Collection can be viewed online here.
This week is Museums Week, an annual awareness event when museums and art galleries highlight the treasures in their collections by focusing on a specific theme. The theme for 2019 is 'The Colours Of The Rainbow'.
I have no official authority to do this, but purely as a personal exercise, I thought it would be interesting to look at the Methodist Modern Art Collection and to curate it using these same values that galleries across the country are using, in order to highlight some of the pieces that perhaps don't get as much of an airing as others do (and to contemplate a couple of my favourites) .
I'm guessing that it's no surprise that I chose one of Sadao Watanabe's two prints contained in the collection to represent the colour red. Either one would have fitted the brief, but I love the gentle humour of 'People Visit The Stable'; the way Joseph holds his finger to his mouth to hush the folks arriving, the way they stoop to enter the cave, and that disgruntled look on the horse's face cracks me up every time I see it.
Watanabe began his career as a textile dye artist, and although this is a paper print it still retains that sense of mingei folk art and a fabric quality; the lines of the Japanese clothed figures gently softened by his use of distressed kozo paper and the application of natural pigments that have been prepared in a medium of soybean milk, allowing the protein in the milk to bind the colours to the surface of the paper.
Incredibly private and reserved, Jacques Islin, who died in 2003, has been described by his friend and theatre collaborator, musician Jean-Luc Muller as '...a bright palette just like his paintings, a creator, a designer of ideas, an authentic artist...alternately storyteller, historian or man on the ground and of course, outstanding art teacher.' His gifts made sense to him only when they could be used by others, turning down educational accolades that would have taken him away from his students, saying, "Teaching is not filling vases, but lighting fires".
Giving his paintings a title was a detail he rarely bothered with, so his wife, Helene, and Jean-Luc Muller did it for him, and it was they who named this piece that glows with rich, vibrant tones. Helene explained, "Together, we tried not to betray the message that Jacques wanted to convey when we had to translate the images, the feelings and the spirit of his works into words. Have we arrived? ... Have we succeeded? ... Only Jacques could affirm or deny it."
(*NB; Caption on above image should read '1933 -2003'.)
It would be all too easy for my choice to represent Yellow to be Dr Jyoti Sahi's 'Dalit Madonna'. A print of the piece hung in the dining room of Barefoot College, I knew and loved it long before I realised it was part of the Methodist Collection, but now it has become worn to me through over familiarity, used widely on publicity and magazine covers, and I want this curation to draw out the less well known.
The story behind Ceri Richards' 'The Supper At Emmaus' is a wonderful one and those who see the guache sketch as part of the collection often miss its significance.
Richards wasn’t known as a painter who chose religious subjects at this point in his career. The Welsh landscape and its industries were his main influence at that time, perhaps best known for his paintings based on the poetry of Dylan Thomas and those that reflected his own musical interests.
However, when St Edmunds College became a full college of Oxford University in 1967, the student-run Picture Committee decided that a new chapel altarpiece should be commissioned to mark the event, and after discussion with the then College Chaplain, it was decided that the event in Luke’s Gospel in which, after the Crucifixion, Christ appears to two of the disciples in the village of Emmaus, should be the subject, the title being, ‘The Supper At Emmaus’. A list of possible artists was drawn up and letters were sent inviting them to submit sketches for an altarpiece design, with the terms being that all submitted sketches would be bought and retained by the Hall for £15 each, and that the chosen artist would be paid £300 for the finished altarpiece.
The Fellows favoured Stanley Spencer who was, of course, well used to doing contemporary gospel based work, but he wasn’t prepared to do it for the fee being allocated to the project. Both John Craxton and John Piper, two other very obvious choices, turned down the invitation to submit - Craxton ventured that it was not possible to paint a true religious painting in the modern era, but he offered instead to paint a large painting covering the whole east wall with “a rather abstract landscape with the symbols of Christianity in it”, and Piper did not like the terms of the commission, stating that “to complete a sketch it is necessary to complete the whole work in one’s mind”. The Australian Artists, Roy de Maistre (his ‘Stations Of The Cross’ hangs in Westminster Cathedral) and Louis James (primarily a landscape artist), Theyre Lee Elliot ( famed in the first instance for his commercial art designs such as the Speedbird logo for Imperial Airways and the Post Office symbols for air-mail and the telephone, but after a serious illness in 1950 he turned to religious art, including the ‘The Agony’ which is also now part of the Methodist collection) and Welsh artist Ceri Richards, all submitted sketches. Lee Elliot’s foray into spiritual subjects was very new and only Maistre had an established reputation as a religious painter. Although he wasn’t chosen for the commission, Maistre worked up a painting from his sketch, retained the title, ‘The Supper At Emmaus’, and, surprise, surprise, that oil painting is now part of the Methodist Modern Art Collection too!
After much deliberation, Richards’ was invited to take the commission but, whilst the sketch submitted had all the compositional elements, something was missing. The Bursar, Reggie Alton, felt that the colours weren’t bold enough to be seen throughout the chapel, so the artist was asked to do another sketch, re-thinking his colours; the white table cloth and that radiant stream of light behind Jesus, which together echo the cross, were transformed to the glorious yellow we see today, and the other tones were made much richer and bolder.
When the altarpiece was finished, Richards’ designed a gold gilded frame for it, which was made up by Alfred Hecht, the well known framer responsible for most of the frames in the National Portrait Gallery from about 1947 – 1974, framer to Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland, and who famously said, ‘When I die, let my epitaph be “Alfred Hecht, the man who invented the coloured mount.”
And so it is that now we have this wonderful piece of art in the Methodist Art Collection and there is so much about this story that makes it special. The commissioning of the altarpiece didn’t come from the high officials of the college, but from the student body; a group of young people who were trusted with every part of it, and whose legacy lives on long after they have gone from the place. They took a gamble on an artist who hadn’t built his reputation on religious art and they saw a sketch that wasn’t quite what they wanted, but trusted its potential and pursued it. They had the confidence to say, “No” to a very well known artist who sniffed at their budget and was greedy for more, and then there was Maistre who recognised that nothing is wasted unless we allow it to be and continued to work on his rejected sketch.
There’s more. We now know that Richards’ did an earlier sketch before he submitted for the commission. It's quite different from the other, showing Jesus standing, one stranger appearing visibly taken aback by the signs of the nails on His hands, the other with what appear to be female facial features remains seated, perhaps not having realised the import of what her companion is trying to point out yet. The three sketches together all give a fascinating insight into the creative process of the artist as he progressed developmentally from first receiving the invitation to submission, through to the finished piece.
For my choice for 'green', I have opted for Eularia Clarke's 'Storm Over The Lake'.
Most of Clarke's works are colourful and threaded through with a wit that has seen her compared to Stanley Spencer. For example, I particularly like her portrayal of Zaccheus as a podgy middle-aged man who has long lost the skill of climbing trees, but who is determined to pull his creaky body slowly up, whilst the children who have effortlessly scrambled up to watch the spectacle laugh at his awkwardness, and her portrayal of a child Jesus helping his dad by carrying timber over His shoulder in a way that reverberates in His later years is both endearingly beautiful and choking.
'Storm Over The Lake' appears far more troubled, BUT the fact that the collection does have two of Eularia Clarke's works is extraordinary in itself and her story is one of true conversion to religion.
Eularia Clarke was born in 1914, to agnostic parents, but into a creative family. Her brothers, Anthony and Francis Baines became well known musicians, and Eularia was encouraged in her art skills.
At the age of seventeen, she visited Florence, was captivated by the frescoes of Fra Angelico and Giotto and began to paint gospel scenes for herself. Seeking to discover more of God, she won a scholarship to St Anne's College Oxford to study Theology, but said that the course put her off religion for the next twenty years and used her time there to attend the Ruskin School of Art, where she was taught life drawing by Gilbert Spencer, Barnett Freedman and Albert Rutherstone.
In common with most women of that era, when she married in 1937 her time was occupied with housework, raising children and the world around her, and, apart from occasional sketches of her children, she put her art aside. By the time the war was over so was her marriage and, left without any financial support, she gave recorder and guitar lessons to provide an income for her family.
In 1956, she met a young musician who happened to be a Catholic, her interest in matters of faith was re-awakened and in 1959, suffering from breast cancer, she converted to Catholicism. In 1960, having had a mastectomy, she went on pilgrimage to Lourdes in search of healing. Whilst watching the other visitors worshipping, she was inspired to begin sketching them and felt a 'call' to illustrate the gospels. She went home and turned the sketches into oils - the first she had done in over twenty years. But there was a condition to the call. She felt that none of the work she did was to be sold, but was to be kept gathered in one collection as a ministry to the world.
So, for the next ten years, in over 88 canvases, she brought the gospels alive through paint, the characters, clothing and settings of 1960's England.
In 1967, the cancer returned, this time in her lung, and she finally died in November 1970.
All of her 'ministry paintings' are held by the Eularia Clarke Trust, except for two. In 1965, she broke her rule and sold both 'Storm Over The Lake' and 'The Five Thousand' to the Methodist Modern Art Collection, making copies for her own collection. Nobody knows why she acquiesced just this once, but I'm so glad that she did.
The Methodist Modern Art Collection can be viewed online here.
When I was given the privilege of working with seven co-curators on an exhibition for Hull Ferens that would provoke and stimulate interest in the gallery’s oldest piece of artwork, Pietro Lorenzetti’s ‘Christ between St Peter and St Paul’, I knew that this was something special.
The Lorenzetti was acquired by the Ferens in 2013, for £1,612,940, with the help of an Art Fund Grant and the Heritage Lottery Fund, after the culture secretary had placed an export ban upon it to prevent it leaving the country. Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, said at the time, 'This is a very exciting moment not just for the Ferens and for Hull but for the wider British public too. As the only fully autographed work by Lorenzetti in the UK, it’s a hugely significant acquisition.’
After a year of conservation, restoration, stabilising the structure and cleaning, the work was put on permanent display in Gallery 1, where it looks magnificent. It dates from around 1320, constitutes one section of an altar piece, probably executed for a church in Lorenzetti’s home town of Siena and the multiple layers in its making show a great depth of training and skill. First any knots or holes in the wooden panel were filled, sealed with glue and smoothed. Linen was applied over the panel with glue and then multiple layers of gesso were put on to prepare the surface. Lorenzetti would then have done the basic under-drawing and inscribed the outline with a sharp tool, marking out the parts that were to be painted and those that were to be gilded. The gold leaf was applied first, burnished and details added with punching or inscribing techniques. The paint for the panel was egg tempura, mixed from naturally occurring minerals, insect dyes and spices. Lorenzetti has also employed mordant gilding for the gold lines on Christ’s robes, which involved boiling together oil and resin to make a sticky adhesive that could be finely painted to control the metal leaf.
The painter was working at a time of great transition in art, the gestures and facial expressions of his figures, the three dimensional awareness and depth of space around each one, a significant departure from all that had gone before. Saint Paul stands on the left with a sword in his hand wrapped around with a belt, the first a reminder of his beheading as a martyr, the second a symbol of his saintly status as only those of high rank were allowed to wear belts, and on the right is Saint Peter, considered the first Pope, and holding what is still the symbol of Popes, the keys to the kingdom of heaven. At the centre is Christ Pantocrator, one hand lifted in blessing, the golden lines on his robe symbolising his divinity. The inclinations of the heads, the eye glances and facial expressions all give the impression that we have stumbled upon them in a silent conversation.
It was from this thought that the concept for the 'Silent Conversation: Lorenzetti And The Ferens' Collection exhibition emerged, linking the Lorenzetti to other Ferens’ works – a number of them not seen in the public gallery for many years, and I was approached to be a part of the team that would co-curate.
Divided into three parts, the exhibition opened to the public on March 17th, 2018, in Gallery 11 at the Ferens. It traces ‘silent conversations’, where lips are firmly closed, but other aspects of gesture, location, colour or expression in the works conveys an unspoken interaction or internal conversation. ‘Solitude’ includes those works where sole figures are depicted. ‘Pairings’, as might be guessed, investigates exchanges between two figures, and ‘Company’ the untold conversations that may be taking place in works where a number of figures share the space. The use of film, audio-labelling for izi travel viewers and conventional labelling has further added other dimensions to the exhibition.
This exhibition has been an absolute joy to put together. The word ‘curate’ has its etymology in the Latin curare, meaning to take care. In Roman times it signified the person who took care of the bath houses, and in medieval times it had evolved to be the name of the priest who cared for souls - we still have our curates today. Only in the eighteenth century did the word assume a usage in caring for arts and artefacts. Today it means to safeguard the heritage of the works of art, to select new work, to connect it to art history and to display or arrange the work. But, of course, it is so much more. It is also about putting together a good exhibition that will provoke conversation and interest in those who come to view.
'Silent Conversation: Lorenzetti And The Ferens' Collection' can be seen in Gallery 11 of the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.
This part of my site isn't about me at all.
It is about watching, observing and reading the work of others. Those who know what they are about, who have honed their crafts over many years and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.
I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.