Friday, 28 October 2011

The Poster King - Edward McKnight Kauffer

In the summer I joined the Islington Arts Society. This was partly to expand my circle of artistic acquaintances and partly to get the opportunity to exhibit my art.

One of the benefits of membership was an invitation on Wednesday evening to visit the Estorick Collection to see the exhibition The Poster King - Edward McKnight Kauffer and listen to a talk by the curator.

The core of the Estorick Collection is work from the Futurist movement and also includes modern Italian art dating from 1895 to the 1950s. Almost the first thing the curator did was to ask a question of himself: What is an artist born in Montana in the United States and settled in England doing on show in a gallery designed to promote Italian art? The answer, which is a bit tenuous, was that Edward McNight Kauffer drew a lot of his inspiration from Fauvism, Vorticism and Constructivism and this includes the work of Italian artists.

I'm familiar with Kauffer's poster designs for the London Underground encouraging passengers to explore the Surrey Hills in their spare time or rush to the Winter Sales or visit the Natural History Museum. I had no idea though that he had been at the forefront of commercial art when it was in its infancy in the early years of the 20th century.

His talent was spotted when a very young man by Joseph E McKnight, a professor at the University of Utah. This man became a benefactor and paid for Kauffer to continue his education in Paris in 1912. As a mark of gratitude Kauffer eventually incorporated his benefactor's surname into his own. At the outbreak of WWI Kauffer had to leave France and made for England and in 1915 received a commission to design posters for London Underground.

There were examples on display of finished artwork for some of the posters which I found fascinating. Having been a graphic design student in the 1970s I could appreciate the labour involved in creating these works. Whereas I recall struggling and failing to create anything worthwhile Kauffer had set the standards for commercial art for the rest of us to follow 60 years before.

Kauffer's heart appeared to lie in the pictorial side of posters rather than the typography. I know to my cost that doing typography well is very difficult to achieve and there are two examples on display where he had to patch over mistakes (I would love to have seen what was underneath).

The work Kauffer did for London Underground led him to receive commissions from various companies and publishing houses. this included work for Shell and BP - by this time the typography was being done by someone else - so Kauffer could concentrate on developing ways of incorporating new technology like photo-montage into his images. By 1925 Kauffer was so famous there was a retrospective exhibition of his work, and he was only 35. He continued being very productive until the outbreak of WWII when, as a US citizen and with commissions becoming scarce, he and his wife returned to live in the US.

It appears he did this with much regret and, although he continued to work, the last decade of his life didn't live up to the success he had enjoyed while settled in England.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Well rounded cabbages

Saturday saw us at the Tower of London and on Sunday we were swanning around Chichester in West Sussex. What a contrast that was. On Saturday evening my sister-in-law spotted a review in the paper of an exhibition of Edward Burra's paintings at Pallant House and on Sunday morning that is where we headed.

To my shame here is another artist I had never heard of but apparently Edward Burra (1905-1976) was one of the most individual and celebrated artists of the 20th century. Like Tracey Emin's work you find yourself drawn into his paintings even if you find them repellent or menacing.

A lot of his works are very large watercolours using several sheets of paper joined together. I don't think I've seen watercolour paintings this big before with such intensity and depth of colour. According to one of the printed notices on the wall his friends said he would begin painting at the bottom right hand corner and work his way up to the top left hand corner. He had such a fantastic sense of composition and storytelling that you find your eyes going round and round a painting while you explore it to the point of feeling travel sick.

Because of the size of these works I assumed he must have used large brushes. This assumption was crushed when we got a chance to look at some of his brushes and palettes on display in a cabinet. They were tiny! So that made me wonder just how long it took him to complete one piece of work and there was a lot of work on display.

In his youth he was fascinated with the dark side of humanity and it is present in very ordinary looking scenes, for example sailors buying coffee in a café. He uses perspective in an odd way which is disturbing. A lot of the work is sexually ambiguous and he was fascinated with soldiers, sailors and prostitutes and particularly their well rounded behinds. As I moved from one painting to another I got the feeling that these characters were following my every move.

In time Edward Burra turned to still lifes and landscapes. Apparently he had a photographic memory so could recall a view when he was back in his studio. I wish I could do that. One still life depicted well rounded cabbages that recalled the well rounded bottoms of soldiers climbing into a truck in an earlier gallery. He managed to instill menace into these cabbages and I felt they were following me around too! A still life of flowers in a vase appeared to have eyes that followed us around as well.

His depiction of the English landscape was not in the least sentimental and in one showed the pollution being belched out by lorries and motorcycles. Of all his work these were the works I most liked. There was one charming painting he probably made towards the end of his life. It is a collection of portraits of local characters including a self-portrait of him standing away from everyone else eating a Cornish pasty.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Trip to the Tower

Yesterday we had a trip to the Tower of London. This visit had been in the diary for weeks and yesterday finally arrived complete with glorious autumn weather.

In the bad old days prisoners used to arrive at Traitor's Gate by boat so we opted to do the same. We travelled on a Thames Clipper which I always enjoy. This is a fleet of catamarans that plough their way up and down the Thames at regular intervals, usually used by commuters, and they are free of irritating commentary. You simply look out of the window which is what our two young companions were happy to do.

The last time I visited the Tower I was eight years old so really don't remember anything about it. This time I was only too happy to try and take in as much as possible. The Tower is part of the Historic Royal Palaces. These are palaces that the Royal Family don't actually live in any longer.

The Tower is over 1,000 years old. When you enter the site it is like arriving in a small self-contained town. Outside the site modern day London exists with traffic streaming past. Inside the site people clearly live there in apartments with their cars parked outside their front doors. Since it was a nice day someone had their washing out on a washing line. There were signs of pot plants and garden chairs. However on the other side of these apartments is a moat. A moat for heavens sake! (It is drained and grassed over these days.) I found these signs of normal suburban life quite disconcerting.

My limited knowledge of the Tower was all about high status prisoners being tortured before being executed. This did happen but what I didn't know was that the Tower was an important administrative centre where records were kept. It was where coins were minted and weapons were stored. The course of the old Roman wall runs through it.

I could wax lyrical about the crown jewels, the architecture and the grounds. I could laugh about the numbers of historical re-enacters who were milling or marching around wearing authentic costumes but I will desist from all this.

Instead I'll stick to two aspects that I found fascinating. One was the armour that was made to measure for various kings, most notably Henry VIII. By looking at his suits of armour you could get a sense of the man that wore them. You could see just how much weight he put on over the years as his waistline ballooned. There was also a sculpture of his face and he really was an ugly old brute but he was a big and immensely powerful, ugly old brute.

The other thing that surprised me was how many exotic animals used to live in the Tower. They were part of the Royal Menagerie.The only wildlife living there now are ravens. Apparently it was common, centuries ago, for monarchs to compete with each other in the giving of exotic and extravagant gifts. I was astonished that one of our kings had a pet polar bear that was allowed to fish in the Thames. There are beautiful metal statues around the grounds representing the different types of monkeys that were allowed to roam freely. There were lions and a grissly bear called Martin. To my modern-day mind this is quite ridiculous but was quite normal then.

This continued for over 600 years. Eventually the animals were rehoused in the 1820s in the new London Zoo because too many visitors were either being attacked or left for dead by some of these animals. I am very glad on this visit we only gazed at life-size sculptures of exotic animals that included an elephant and maybe a panther or two and not the real thing.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Richard of York gave battle in vain

The title of this post is a mnemonic for the continuous spectrum of colours of red, orange, yellow, green, blue indigo and violet and it is also the title of an exhibition curated by Cornelia Parker which is currently showing at the Whitechapel (I think this becoming my favourite art gallery).

I paid my second visit to this show today and before my first visit I must admit that I had never heard of Richard of York gave battle in vain. I would have expected to have run across it at art school but then again I don't recall lectures on colour so maybe that's why I'm learning about it now.

These works are part of the Government Art Collection which totals, according to the booklet listing the pieces, more than 13,500 works of art.That's quite a collection and they are spread across the known world in government buildings and embassies and so on.

Cornelia Parker, whose own work is concerned with collecting and collections, chose to select around 70 works of art and arrange them by colour around the room and hang them in the style of the old Royal Academy exhibition. This means that some of them are hanging very high up indeed near the ceiling, and there is a general feeling of a lack of space. I quite liked this approach.

My favourite image, this time round, is the same as my favourite image from my last visit. Interestingly enough my companions were different on each occasion and we were all in agreement that Graham Crowley's Blue Lane (2003-4 oil on canvas) was a compelling piece of work and we'd have all like to take it home with us.

I enjoyed seeing some works that are hundreds of years old cheek by jowl with contemporary pieces. The drapery on Lady Anne Rich's portrait (1626) was mind boggling but so too was the complexity of Grayson Perry's enormous etching Print for a Politician (2005). I also enjoyed Darren Almond photograph of Flatford @ Fullmoon (2000) and Hamish Fulton's No talking for seven days (1993).

This exhibition is on until 4 December 2011 so I've got time to go and see it again. The following exhibition begins on 16 December 2011 and it's titled Travelling Light and the works, from the Government Art Collection, have been selected by Simon Schama.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Got my dates wrong

Yesterday I wrote about the first time I saw Pre-Raphaelite paintings in a real gallery. I remember being quite dazzled by them, seeing them in the flesh so-to-speak and it caused my little heart to flutter. This was because I'd been introduced to the movement having watched a tv drama about them on the BBC and wasn't prepared for a real life encounter with them.

I wasn't 17 as I wrote yesterday, I was in fact 18 years old. At this stage in my life I was old enough to get married without permission, vote in an election and serve in the armed forces for my country. Quite the adult you might say except I was so ignorant about art history it took the BBC to teach me about the Pre-Raphaelites. I have discovered on Wikipedia that the series was called The Love School if you want to go and check it out and it was broadcast in 1975.

Just a couple of weekends ago I had the chance to go to the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery for the first time. It was built in 1885 and it has a huge collection of paintings, silver work, cast iron work and it is also home to the world's largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art.

By the time I had navigated my way to the galleries where they were hung I had enjoyed watching some short films about how artists make their art, wandered around the building taking in the architecture and read any number of small notices naming and describing artworks. So I was feeling a bit wan by the time I had stumbled across Burne-Jones.

Now I am no longer 18 years old I can view these paintings a bit more dispassionately than I could more than 30 years ago. My heart doesn't go pitter patter and I find some of the subject matter a bit cloying but I continue to be impressed with the standard of draughtsmanship. It was like a master class in understanding perseverance given the scale and detail of some of the works. It's always tempting to imagine that famous artists had numerous apprentices to help them do the grunt work but that may not be the case at all.

When I left the museum I felt in need of a lie down. Now, with hindsight, it is the quality and quiet presence of the art that remains with me.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Did you go to art galleries when you were a child?

I began thinking about this question today when I was visiting the Whitechapel gallery in Aldgate, east London.

I was there with my husband and a friend and we were in the Rothko in Britain exhibition which is upstairs in the part of the gallery that used to be a public library. It is a small room and there is one of his paintings on display plus quite a lot of his personal correspondence laid out in two cabinets that you can spend time reading. There are also photographs of his exhibition at the Whitechapel from 1961.

These are grainy black and white photos of people looking at the work and it includes a small boy, maybe about five years old, having a good look at a painting from its right hand edge plus another one of a younger child in a pushchair.

I often see small children being taken around galleries now but I don't recall ever being taken to any as a child. I do recall in the mid 60's being taken to Stonehenge by my parents and later on historic houses and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

I did a very small straw poll of my companions and they only began visiting galleries when they were old enough to decide for themselves what they wanted to do. In my case I was about 17 and I believe I saw the Pre-Raphaelites for the first time.