Walter Sickert was a pioneer in terms of British art, bringing his version of Impressionism to London. At this time there was much resistance towards the new styles and subjects of painting emerging from Paris, with the exception of more open-minded artists and intellectuals, including a group of forward-thinking people who were embracing these new developments in art. When Walter Sickert was inspiring London artists and encouraging the Camden Town Group to paint real life in working-class London, the Bloomsbury Group who were pushing the envelope in terms of what was acceptable in British art. Among their number was Roger Fry, an artist and connoisseur who coined the term French Post-Impressionism when he organised two enormously influential exhibitions in London.
Roger Fry’s exhibitions included work by artists such as Manet, Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso. Vanessa Bell was inspired by these artists. She believed this new art came from ‘the self’ rather than being what people were told to paint.
The impact of Fry’s exhibitions can clearly be seen in Bell’s work which become less formal and more abstract. There’s less realism – these paintings are more about how they make you feel, rather than what they show you.
During the Second World War, some of the members of the Bloomsbury Group moved to the countryside near the coast in the south of England where they lived in an old farmhouse called Charleston. While they were there they were employed to paint murals on the interior walls of a local church.
This leads us to the next artist, Stanley Spencer. There’s a double connection here: Spencer’s work featured in Roger Fry’s Post Impressionist exhibitions and he is known for his church murals at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere.
On then to Walter Sickert, Whistler’s pupil and etching assistant. We need to keep in mind that late 19th-century Britain is characterised by the art of genteel retreat. It was French art that saw the densest flowering of artistic innovation in history – Monet, Degas, Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat, Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Bonnard, Vuillard and Matisse. These were the great visual philosophers – reflecting the new conditions of a new age and embracing the difficult, differing and perplexing life of the city, new technologies and potentialities of man. But these new styles were unwelcome in Britain because they went against moral principles and met with emotional disgust.
British art at this time was slick, emotionally and intellectually vacant. Even Whistler, an American in London, was producing aesthetically pleasing night time views of London and the Thames in the abstract style developed by Turner. Roger Fry’s pioneering London exhibitions of French Post-Impressionism in London in 1910 and 1912 were described by one reviewer as ‘part of a widespread plot to destroy the whole fabric of European painting’. So, into this arena enters Walter Sickert…
Sickert is one of the most imaginative British artists who captured a low-life, late Victorian world of music halls and shadowy interiors – one of the most compelling artists in the history of early modern British art. He wasn’t afraid to put sex and sleaze into his art when most British artist were timid and repressed in terms of their subjects. Sickert dared to depict the radical urban danger that artists in Paris were so alive to.
Sickert was born in Munich, Germany in 1860. In 1868 the family settled in Britain where the young Sickert first sought a career as an actor. He took up art in 1881 at Slade School – after a year he left to become a pupil and etching assistant to our friend, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In 1883 he travelled to Paris and met Edgar Degas – and he was especially impressed by the urban realism developed by Manet and Degas. He valued the haphazard and impure texture of modern city life. He cultivated a style of painting with that glancing, snapshot quality which produced the most extraordinary art of the early modern period in British art. Sickert frequented London’s music halls, especially The Standard where George Leybourne sang Champagne Charlie and his favourite – The Old Bedford and the regular performed Minnie Cunningham. He also painted the audiences which have a ghostly quality – rapt monkeys in the dark – a flickering, gaslit human zoo.
Sickert used the popular theatre as a metaphor for existenceHe said he wanted his pictures to be like ‘pages torn from the book of life’. There’s a melancholy combined with ragged vitality.
In 1905 Sickert settled in Camden, North London – and lived among the navvies, shift-workers and prostitutes who also became his subjects. His Camden Town Nude series depicts prostitutes, liverish green in colour and sprawling on unmade beds in dark, dingy rooms. It’s another side of Edwardian life to the society portraits being produced by successful portrait artists like Whistler and Sargent.
In late 1920s and 30s he pushed painting into places it hadn’t been before by using photography and other media anticipating the art of the 1970s. His chief legacy is his realism – he gave British art back its British temperament.
So, Sickert, influenced by Degas and Monet, introduced a sense of realism into British art. I mentioned Roger Fry’s exhibitions of French Post-Impressionism that were a desperate attempt to get London interested in the innovations going on in Paris – well somebody who was taking notice was another member of the Bloomsbury Group of which Fry was also part – Vanessa Bell.
Last week on the Serendipitous Compendium we talked about Pierre Bonnard, painter and lithographer. Bonnard is likely to have been acquainted with Whistler around 1898. His painting has been compared to Whistler’s, in its suggestion of uncertainty. Ideas on the vagueness and incompleteness of consciousness were popular at the time in the literature of Proust and the major French symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé.
James Abbott McNeil Whistler was an American born in Lowell, Massachusetts – about 100 miles from Portland, Maine. He lived in Paris in the second half of the 1850s and London in 1860.
In the 1870s he painted a sequence of evening views, mostly along the Thames in London at Battersea and Chelsea, which he called ‘Nocturnes’. They are still, minimal evocations of twilight, the broad sweeps of the brush interrupted only by spots and sparkles of yellow light, or the silhouette of a distant building
But he was interested in subject matter – his early pictures of the Thames waterfront at Wapping are full of local incident, and he was a prolific etcher, making prints that record the life of the riverside.
Some are in the collection of the Portland Museum of Art, and his portrait Miss Florence Leyland (c.1873) is currently on display.
One of his most famous portraits: Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871) is in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Whistler made a point of acting out his opposition to the establishment, he dressed as a dandy and wrote and spoke provocatively on art. When Ruskin accused him of being a ‘coxcomb’ who had asked ‘two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ when he exhibited his Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket (1875), [Detroit Institute of Arts]. Whistler took offence and sued. He was famously awarded a farthing (one quarter of an old penny) damages, but he was financially ruined by the costs.
In the 1880s, Whistler’s pupil and etching assistant was Walter Richard Sickert, an artist whose later association with Degas brought to the London art world his own form of Impressionism and equally importantly, the introduction of ordinary people and urban scenes as subjects, and so it is to Sickert that we will turn next time for Part 10 of the Doctor’s Dozen.
As we continue to roll around the clock face that constitutes the Doctor’s Dozen series on the Serendipitous Compendium we find ourselves moving back across the Atlantic to mainland Europe, and an astonishing artist named Pierre Bonnard. Last time we considered the talents of Larry Rivers, who many consider as the first true American Pop artist. But his work owed a debt to Bonnard whose compositions he studied and whose style he very much admired.
Pierre Bonnard was a French painter and printmaker, as well as a founding member of the Post-Impressionist group of avant-garde painters Les Nabis.
Bonnard preferred to work from memory, using drawings as a reference, and his paintings are often characterized by a dreamlike quality.
The intimate domestic scenes, for which he is perhaps best known, often include his wife, Marthe de Meligny.
Described as “the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great twentieth-century painters”, what characterises his work are the unusual vantage points of his compositions. These paintings rely less on traditional modes of pictorial structure than voluptuous colour, poetic allusions and visual wit.
His often complex compositions—typically of sunlit interiors and gardens populated with friends and family members—are both narrative and autobiographical.
There’s an interesting link to another artist which will lead us to our next chapter. Pierre Bonnard, as well as being a painter was also a lithographer, and records suggest he is likely to have been acquainted with the American James Abbott McNeill Whistler around 1898. A number of lithographs from this period are in the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.
Bonnard’s painting has been compared to Whistler’s, in its suggestion of uncertainty. In fact ideas on the vagueness and incompleteness of consciousness were popular at the time as espoused by the contemporary literature of Proust and Mallarmé. So we will follow this thread and see where it takes us!
When we were discussing Pauline Boty in Part 6 of the Doctor’s Dozen on the Serendipitous Compendium, I suggested that it was high time we travelled from London back across the Atlantic to the US to find out about another artist who is considered by many scholars to be the “Godfather” and “Grandfather” of Pop art: Larry Rivers.
Rivers was one of the first artists to really merge non-objective, non-narrative art with narrative and objective abstraction.
Born in the Bronx, Larry Rivers initiated his artistic career as a jazz saxophonist in 1940 and began painting in 1945, holding his first solo exhibition in New York in 1949. To fully understand where Rivers was coming from with his art, we need to consider a precursor of the Pop Art movement and one of the leading Abstract Expressionists: Willem de Kooning.
In contrast to other Abstract Expressionists, De Kooning stayed committed to a form of figuration but also absorbed in the specifics of the urban environment and the mass media and incorporated things like newsprint into his paint surfaces, or collage from magazine images. The hard-core American Pop artists were united in their admiration for De Kooning, and he was more or less alone of his generation in having any sympathy for the younger artists. Larry Rivers met De Kooning in 1948. Mixed in with this, for Rivers, was his interest in the work of French figurative artists such as Courbet, Matisse and Bonnard.
To be deliberately provocative, he decided in 1953 to produce a painting of monumental proportions as an essay in the genre most despised at the time, the historic set-piece. He flew in the face of the whole modernist tradition and chose the most ridiculous and clichéd subject he could imagine – Washington Crossing the Delaware, something familiar to every American from the grandiose and much reproduced painting by Emanuel Leutze in the Met, NYC.
He stripped the subject of its pomp and heroism and imagined it on a more persuasively human level, concentrating on the frailty and hesitation of the figures making their way through a cold, inhospitable landscape, thus draining the loose and gestural brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists of its customary exaggerated masculine heroism.
River’s reimagining of Leutze’s painting was met with derision, but its audacity in introducing a banal subject with explicitly American connotations, encouraged many other painters by the beginning of 1960.
Europe I (1956) was based on old snapshots and the stars-and-stripes were introduced in fragmented form in Berdie with the American Flag (1955),
His treatment of a prototypical Pop subject in The Accident (1957) was conditioned by his taste for episodic fragments scattered across the surface like materialised memories,
In 1959 Rivers began to paint pictures explicitly based on existing material.
Cedar Bar Menu I is a loose improvisation on the bill of fare at the Cedar Bar Tavern, then the prime meeting-place of the New York art world and particularly the Abstract Expressionist circle.
So where does all this lead us? Well, I’m going to throw a bit of a curveball now by going back to an artist I mentioned in connection with Rivers: Pierre Bonnard.
Bonnard’s work was an enormous influence on Rivers – look at this for example and compare it with ‘The Bathroom’ by Bonnard [above].
Last time, in the Doctor’s Dozen segment of the Serendipitous Compendium radio show, John and I discussed the life and work of Eduardo Paolozzi, one of the founders of the British Pop art movement. In this week’s interview, I connected Paolozzi with Pauline Boty, who was also a founding member of the movement.
Boty was a key player in the frenetic Swinging London social scene that drew together painters, writers, artists, film-makers, musicians, leftwing political activists and poets.
Boty’s paintings and collages often demonstrated a joy in self-assured femininity and female sexuality, and expressed overt or implicit criticism of the “man’s world” in which she lived.
During the late 1950s, Boty became friends with other emerging Pop artists, such as David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips and Peter Blake. As well as studying art, she sang, danced, and acted. Her paintings demonstrate her interest in drawing from both high and low popular culture sources.
Boty, Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips were featured in Ken Russell’s documentary film Pop Goes the Easel broadcast in 1962. Her appearance marked the beginning of her brief acting career.
The popular press picked up on her glamorous actress persona, often undermining her legitimacy as an artist by referring to her physical charms. Scene ran a front-page article in November 1962 that included the following remarks: “Actresses often have tiny brains. Painters often have large beards. Imagine a brainy actress who is also a painter and also a blonde, and you have PAULINE BOTY.”
Next time, we’re crossing over the Atlantic taking us from 1960s London to the beginnings of American Pop art and the multi-talented artist, Larry Rivers.
In Part 3 of the Doctor’s Dozen, John and I discussed the artist Raoul Hausmann, a founding member and leading proponent of the Berlin Dada movement and one of the originator’s of the photomontage technique. This led to the subject of Part 4, Kurt Schwitters who also used photomontage, but developed this to create his famous Merz pictures. He also incorporated American comics into his collages, and as such is often considered to have been the forerunner of British Pop Art. Any consideration of this subject would be incomplete without attention being given to Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, a leading member of Britain’s post-war avant-garde and arguably the father of British Pop Art. So, Paolozzi is the subject of Part 5 of the Doctor’s Dozen.
Pop Art took its name, subject matter and inspiration from popular culture and the artists who developed it were interested in the commercial imagery of advertising and the media, which fuelled the post-war consumer boom. They drew not only their subject matter, but also their materials and techniques from the world of mass production.
Later in America, artists such as Roy Lichtenstein painted huge canvases whose imagery and painting technique imitated cheap comics. Andy Warhol famously chose objects such as Campbell’s soup cans and magazine images of Marilyn Monroe for his subjects, in order to show how the endless replication of images will turn soup cans and superstars into icons, but also into objects of disposable consumption.
British Pop Art had a different tone, reflecting the reality gap that existed between the glamour, affluence and optimism represented by the USA, and the rationing and social hardship experienced in post-war Britain. Paolozzi and his contemporaries parodied the aspirational consumer lifestyle served up in glossy magazines.
Paolozzi was a member of the Independent Group, a loose association of young artists who were interested in the impact of technology, mass production and popular culture on art. His seminal 1947 collage I was a Rich Man’s Plaything is considered the earliest standard bearer representing Pop Art.
In 1952 Paolozzi gave a hugely influential lecture entitled ‘Bunk’ where he demonstrated how people were daily bombarded by an unprecedented array of images. He showed a series of collages in rapid succession that he had created from advertisements, glossy magazines, science journals and comics. Much of material he used he had collected from American servicemen.
The collage ‘Real Gold’ [below] comes from the series shown in the ‘Bunk’ lecture. Paolozzi’s use of collage in the Bunk lecture reflected his interest in the photomontage techniques of Surrealist and Dada art. However, his lecture is often taken as the moment Pop Art in Britain was born.
Another British artist who is forever association with British Pop Art is Pauline Boty. For me, it is Boty’s paintings that came to epitomise the 1960s in ‘Swinging London’, so it is to this artist’s work we will turn for Part 6 of the Doctor’s Dozen.
From Raoul Hausmann, the Dada artist often credited as the founder of photomontage, we link to his friend and sometime colleague, Kurt Schwitters. According to the memoirs of Raoul Hausmann, Schwitters asked to join Berlin Dada either in late 1918 or early 1919.
Schwitters (1887-1948) was a German artist who worked in several genres and media, including Dadaism, Constructivism, Surrealism, poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design, typography, and what came to be known as installation art.
He is most famous for his collages, called Merz Pictures. Merz has been called ‘Psychological Collage’. Most of the works attempt to make coherent aesthetic sense of the world around Schwitters, using fragments of found objects. Whilst these works were usually collages incorporating found objects, such as bus tickets, old wire and fragments of newsprint, Merz also included artists’ periodicals, sculptures and sound poems. These fragments often make witty allusions to current events.
Alongside his collages, Schwitters also dramatically altered the interiors of a number of spaces throughout his life. The most famous was the Merzbau, the transformation of six (or possibly more) rooms of the family house in Hanover, Waldhausenstrasse 5. The artist fled Nazi Germany to Norway in early 1937.
Following the Nazi invasion of Norway, Schwitters was amongst a number of German citizens who were interned by the Norwegian authorities at Vågan Folk High School in Kabelvåg on the Lofoten Islands, Following his release, Schwitters fled to Leith, Scotland with his son and daughter-in-law. He was moved between various internment camps in Scotland and England before arriving on 17 July 1940 in the Isle of Man.
At least in the early days of the camp’s existence, there was a shortage of art supplies which meant that the internees had to be resourceful to obtain the materials they needed: they would mix brick dust with sardine oil for paint, dig up clay when out on walks for sculpture, and rip up the lino floors to make cuttings which they then pressed through the clothes mangle to make linocut prints. Schwitters’ Merz extension of this included making sculptures in porridge. Schwitters was finally released on 21 November 1941.
After obtaining his freedom Schwitters moved to London, hoping to make good on the contacts that he had built up over his period of internment.
Schwitters eventually moved to the Lake District permanently in June 1945. During his time in Ambleside, the artist created a sequence of proto-pop pictures, after the encouragement from a friend in America who sent him letters describing life in the emerging consumer society, wrapped in the pages of comics.
From these works, we can clearly see Schwitters as the pioneer of Pop Art, his work prefiguring the early work of many artists, including the prolific Eduardo Paolozzi, who will the subject of the next installment of the Doctor’s Dozen. Here’s a taster:
The third link in the Doctor’s Dozen is the Austrian artist and writer, Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971).
Hausmann’s main connection with the previous subject, George Grosz, is that he was also a leader of the Berlin Dada movement. Hausmann’s experimental photographic collages, sound poetry and institutional critiques would have a profound influence on the European Avant-Garde in the aftermath of the First World War.
As a young man, Hausmann was interested in the goals of the emerging Expressionist movement in Germany. In 1917 he was introduced to Dadaist thinking and ideas by contemporary literature such as the magazine ‘Cabaret Voltaire’. From 1918 the first Dadaist soirées, in which Hausmann and Grosz participated, took place and Hausmann went on to develop his characteristic photomontage process and printed his first ‘poster poems’ and phonetic poems.
Hausmann’s extramarital romance with the renowned Dada artist Hannah Höch resulted in an explosive artistic future. It was during their location to the Baltic Sea that the idea of photomontage inspired the artists which he used to vent out his Dadaist claims.
The most well known work by Hausmann, ‘Mechanical Head’ [above] is the only extant assemblage. The notion of head is driven by the fact that everything rests within the mind and every outcome is a result of what lies within. However, the artist discards this notion and tries to pull out the reverse aspect by simply pointing out that whatever sticks to the head defines the thought process and he explains this literally by sticking the materials onto the head. It is the materiality or objectivity of the world that defines the thoughts rather than the thoughts residing within the head.
The photomontage became the technique most associated with Berlin Dada, used extensively by Hausmann and Grosz and others, and would prove a crucial influence on the German artist Kurt Schwitters.
Schwitters became a close friend of Hausmann and so he is the next subject for the Doctor’s Dozen. Stay tuned!
In the second installment of the Doctor’s Dozen on the Serendipitous Compendium I discuss with John the work of the German Expressionist artist, George Grosz (1893-1959).
Apart from sharing the same Christian name with Bellows who featured in the previous broadcast, Grosz was also an artist who highlighted horrors of war in his art. For Grosz, the teeming city was an apocalyptic place where human problems were concentrated into a confined space governed by individual and collective lunacy.
George Grosz achieved early recognition for his biting portrayals of Weimar-era Berlin, satirising the culture’s hypocrisy, military platitudes and wealthy businessmen, as in ‘Berlin Street’ (1931) from the Metropolitan’s collection [see below]. As the Met’s caption states: ‘Grosz depicts several menacing denizens of Berlin against the backdrop of the modern metropolis, a hellish place animated by greed, cruelty, and ghoulish lust. A beggar, one of the two million crippled World War I veterans who roamed the streets of Berlin, sits on the lower left and holds up his hat to a woman, whose garish attire and crude make-up suggest that she is most likely a prostitute’.
As the artist stated, “The devil knows why it should be so, but once you look more closely, people and things begin to look threadbare, ugly and often pointlessly ambiguous”. Grosz loathed what he described as “the masses” – and trusted to his own “observation, which always confirmed that the human masses are a pitiful mob, an easily influenced herd of cattle that like nothing better than to choose their own butchers”. He targeted not only “the pillars of society” – politicians, lawyers, military and ecclesiastical leaders – but the bourgeoisie in general. He saw the entire class as a decadent mire which nurtured the power of the ambitious.
In 1917 Grosz founded the Berlin wing of the Dada movement. Dada was the artistic expression of the critique of the political and social state of affairs – the Dadaists instinctive mission was to smash the Germans’ cultural identity. Responses to the new art form, such as the Dada Show in 1920 in which Grosz participated, ranged from shock to ‘sheer nonsense’. From the ceiling of the gallery, a stuffed soldier dressed in field grey hung suspended, wearing officer’s epaulettes and with a pig mask under his cap.
Grosz’s drawings were tartly critical of society and in 1921 he was prosecuted for defamation of the army; in 1924 for offences against public morality; and in 1928 for blasphemy. Hated by the Nazis, 285 of Grosz’s works were removed from German collections – one place he was very well represented was in the 1937 show of Degenerative Art.
George Grosz left Berlin in 1932 to settle in New York, and in 1938 he was stripped of his German citizenship and became an American citizen. In the American years, the artist retreated somewhat from his former positions and his analyses took on a generalised apocalyptic tone. Becoming resigned to it, he eventually turned to landscape painting. He returned to the rubble of Berlin to live in 1959, but just 5 weeks later he was found dead after a night out drinking.
One of the best known styles associated with the Dada movement is the technique of collage or montage, which originated in Cubism and was used by a number of German artists, including the Austrian Raoul Hausmann. Connected to Grosz in this series by being, like Grosz, one of the key figures in Berlin Dada, Hausmann’s experimental photographic collages, sound poetry and institutional critiques would have a profound influence on the European Avant- Garde in the aftermath of the First World War.
His art remains fresh and astonishingly powerful today, and it is to the work of this extraordinary artist and writer that I will be discussing the third installment of the Doctor’s Dozen.