Thursday, August 14, 2008


(continued from BTDNSTN, #1)
[RUSKIN SPEAR, Mervyn Levy; Academy Chicago Publishers, 1986]

The pictures are a right & proper distraction from the text... Hard to resist the temptations of the drawing of his old man; the oil of Muriel Belcher (--I assume is the subject of A Night Out for Muriel, tho maybe not at all); the somehow obscene & fantastic Strawberry Mousse; the Barnett Newman satire ("Vermillion is a very expensive colour --the painting is seven feet high and four feet wide --and if it had not been for a friend who provided me with some large cans of Painters & Decorators red, the picture would have cost me a fortune! Curiously, poor old Newman died soon after I completed the painting, and I was warmly complimented by one or two protagonists of the great man [whose work Spear considered ludicrous] for my alacrity in producing such a speedy tribute!"); the curiously two-dimensioned & imposing Carel Weight (classically precise head & shoulders against the cartoony fluidity of a peopled park, which may of course be one of his sitter's own paintings); and so many more.
Levy's opening remark that "English painters have a distinct flair for descriptive art (...) ranging from the satire and humour of Hogarth and Gillray to the frankly eccentric vision of LS Lowry", situates Spear appropriately. The Seventeenth-Century Dutch as well as Sickert & the Camden Town Group, expands the reference.
Levy/Spear resumes a discussion which has always interested me, about the verity of a work whether realism or satire, portrait or cartoon. One's talking about a represented object, that is an object vis a vis both subject & manner of representation. Mulling this over here, images of Anthony Green's family chronicle occur to me. My main reference, in the absence of having seen much of his work in galleries, is (good & obvious pun) a green part of the world (Thames & Hudson, 1984), an illustrated memoir by this, supposedly, very private person. In my mind is not one of the mister & missus cameos, in flagrante, love-making around their well appointed house, with supporting cast of family members occasionally in the wings, but Pictures of Our Garden (1979), Lucy's Artichoke Patch (1978), & The Enchanted Garden : Twentieth Wedding Anniversary (1981)... In my mind, over the years, they've collapsed into a kaleidoscope, and so prosperous is it that I think it supports every aspect of the nostalgia securing for me an English village- or suburban-childhood, all of it devolved upon the bonfire & its plume & drift of smoke, the borders of lavender, rows of lettuces, cabbages, small sheds, beens on their poles, the swing, the lawn, paving, shrubs, flowers.. It is literally! symbolically! the truth! It's a quality of truth I invest in the painting(s), and correspondence with the painting dynamises that truth!
To return to Ruskin Spear, for example his picture of Betjeman. If it's satire then it's of an entirely different order to his Barnett Newman where that painting is nothing more than cheeky conjunction of artist & signature style. The Betjeman, though, tells a story which may or may not have occurred (the poet rowing a boat on the river) but casts a cultural clothing about the historical person that's composed of the very Englishness the man would have identified & celebrated, that has become synonymous over the decades with his name. It's also a pun : Betjeman, as ever, rowing his own boat...
Levy describes Ruskin Spear as "one of England's most influential teachers. At the RCA, between 1947 & '75, his colleagues included Carel Weight, Rodrigo Moynihan, Robert Buhler, Johnny Minton, Leonard Rosoman. regarding his association there with Weight, Levy writes, "These two remarkable men --both highly distinctive artists -- fostered the generation of Peter Blake, Frank Auerbach, David Hockney, Ron Kitaj and Allen Jones (...) It is unlikely that the system of art teaching which operated in Britain before the 1960s could have actively participated in the fostering of such rare talents." And regarding the freeing up of the system, under the RCA's principal, Robert Darwin, Levy notes, "Ruskin Spear was perfectly in accord with the mood of the early Sixties : partly iconoclastic, partly seeking the security of new directions." Of course, the emancipating tutors had come up through the old school now criticised as mechanistic, and perhaps that's the paradoxical lesson; no liberation without tradition. Except that Spear appears dramatically arse-about as quoted by Levy (p106), "Since [the students] usually arrived at the College well satisfied with their ability to produce proficient drawings of the figure,I argued that painting should come first and that one should learn to draw by exploring and resolving some of the problems of painting. After all, painting is drawing, if not in the linear sense..."
To me, Ruskin Spear's strength & charm lies in his adoption of the local, whether following Sickert's Camden with his own Hammersmith or making art of the nominally accessible &/or popular subject. Mervyn Levy could have sub-titled his monograph, From Sickert to Pop-Art. The Sixties' egalitarianism didnt cancel the erstwhile elite patronage (Sutherland's upper-crust commissions for example) but the celebrities of several social domains were now simultaneously acceptable. Almost beside the point from the Australian viewpoint but significant in Britain still. Spear's portraits --for example, Harold Wilson the pipe-smoking PM, George Brown & Barbara Castle from his cabinet, Sid James on the telly (on top of everyone's cabinet), Fred Trueman, sartorially challenged, on the cricket field --and his r&r snaps make him the perfect generational bridge & chronicler of the time.
Needless to say, a valuable addition to this sentimental reader's modern British art shelf.

--July/August, 14,'08

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