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.
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.
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 Serendipitous Compendium is back for a second season and I am delighted to be involved in a segment called The Doctor’s Dozen. Over forthcoming weeks, I’ll be introducing listeners to various artists – thirteen in all – and linking them together into an imaginary art historical circle. Inspired by the context in which the artworks were made, I’ll be discussing subjects as diverse as photomontage, German satire, Merz collage, Pop, Bloomsbury and Camden Town. Beginning with an artist who returned time and time again to the beautiful Maine coast, we’ll travel back and forwards in time and across continents in the pursuit of the stories behind extraordinary art and the people who produced it.
So where do we start?
When I last visited John, your host of the Serendipitous Compendium, we spent a happy day the Portland Museum of Art, and we both found ourselves drawn to one particular work. Here’s a photo I took of the painting at the time.
The title is Matinicus and it was painted by George Bellows (1882-1925) in 1916. I was surprised to see such a bright and joyful work by an artist I had long associated with gritty images of urban life in New York. As the museum label states, here Bellows captured a sense of the island’s bustling waterfront through the jumble of fishing shacks, lobstertraps and boats. The scene is animated through the artist’s thickly textured brushwork and lurid, non-naturalistic colours exemplified by the yellow cow on the left.
Bellows was a student of Robert Henri who was a leading figure in the Ashcan School of American Realism, and he came to notice in 1908 when he and other pupils organised an exhibition of urban studies.
His New York scenes depicted the crudity and chaos of working class people and neighbourhoods and sometimes satirised the upper classes.
Like Henri, Bellows started to summer in Maine, painting seascapes on Monhegan and Matincus islands.
But it was Bellows’ paintings portraying amateur boxing matches that were his signature pieces.
Bellows was politically active and associated with what was known as the Lyrical Left. He publicly supported US intervention in WWI and created a series of works graphically depicting the atrocities committed by Germany.
The idea of an American artist using his work to bring attention to the events of the war, made me think of a German artist whose art served a similar purpose. His name is George Grosz, and he’s the next artist I’ll be discussing next in the second part of the Doctor’s Dozen.