Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Sun and Salt, Figure and Ground: The Prints of Keith Vaughan

Keith Vaughan (1912-1977) belonged to a generation of serious painter-printmakers anxious to discover their identity in an artistic universe not only shattered by the events of the Second World War, but also one which had become largely dominated by European and American forms of abstraction, where the language of figurative painting was seen to possess little validation after the reality of recent global events. Chosen to undertake the vast mural for the Dome of Discovery at the 1951 Festival of Britain, he was also represented in the landmark exhibition ’60 paintings for ‘51’, Vaughan was regarded in high esteem by both contemporaries and discerning collectors at this early stage of his career, and possessed of an uncompromising sexual identity as a gay man (which he shared with Francis Bacon and John Minton), Vaughan’s figurative work is imbued with a potent male presence which remains as powerful and uncompromising to the contemporary onlooker as it did to the awakening audience of the forties and fifties. Reaching his professional peak with a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1962, Vaughan’s work mirrored the sudden shift of artistic emphasis that had been dominated by major European and American centres of art, and ushered in the Pop Art generation with which the art world of Britain in the sixties is most strongly associated. Despite a career eclipsed by contemporaries such as Bacon and Freud, Vaughan maintained a powerful creative output which was to last until his death in 1977.

A timely reassessment of Vaughan’s life and work has recently been published to accompany an exhibition based on major archive holdings of Vaughan's work at the Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum, and chiefly brings together his overriding preoccupations; the figure and the landscape. Three scholarly essays – on drawing and book illustration by Colin Cruise and on Vaughan’s photography by Simon Pierse, the text also includes a masterly and important re-appraisal of Vaughan as a printmaker by Robert Mayrick and Harry Hauser. Now much sought-after by collectors of the post-war artistic era, Vaughan as print-maker has perhaps failed to attract the scholarly attention this branch of his work justly deserves. Mayrick and Hauser examine Vaughan’s printed imagery of the 1950s, beginning with the iconic ‘Festival Dancers’ of 1951. They  discuss Vaughan’s iconic lithographic landscapes chiefly populated by lithe male figures in the act of labour and repose. Recalling in his journal of 1940 ‘naked bodies browning in the sun and salt’, his printed images of the period reflect a sensual world imbued not only with hard work but also with forbidden sensuality; Vaughan's private preoccupations made uncompromisingly public. The authors also touch upon Vaughan’s early linocuts, made during his public school days, which were, by his own insistence, of 'little artistic concern' to the artist himself. Indeed, it was only in 1963, when invited by the Refern Gallery to edition some prints that had lain undiscovered for over a decade that a re-interest in the print medium was awakened in him. Whilst these early linocuts would suggest the influence of Edward Gordon Craig, whose images distilled the human figure to its very essence, Vaughan’s exposure to developments in colour auto-lithography in the late 1930’s and throughout the forties, advocated by contemporaries such as John Piper (and by commissions from such as Frank Pick at London Transport and Jack Beddington at Shell-Mex, who actively commissioned artists of Vaughan’s generation to explore the print medium, commissioning unsigned, open-edition prints for distribution among public institutions) proved to be the creative fulcrum for what was to follow. 

Continuing to largely focus on male figures in landscapes, all of Vaughan’s extant lithographs were made over a relatively short period. The lithographic medium appealed greatly to a generation of British artists such as Vaughan and his contemporaries as the technique was relatively new and –most crucially- unburdened by the long tradition of other print disciplines such as the wood-block and the etching plate. Finely crafted etchings and woodcuts that had been so popular during the inter-war years now seemed staid and conventional by comparison to a generation in pursuit of the new. Lithography also possessed the appeal of immediacy, somehow in direct, gestural alliance to the very act of painting itself. Resolving to shake off his former Neo-Romantic associations, Vaughan now forged a new direction in both painting and printmaking, and the latter proved to be the most effective medium for him to make the transition from his drawings and previous works on paper, preparing him for a decade of ravishing lithographic imagery.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Everyday Illuminated: 'Black Eyes and Lemonade' revisited

Organised for the 1951 Festival of Britain, 'Black Eyes and Lemonade' was staged at London's Whitechapel Gallery by artist, designer and writer Barbara Jones in collaboration with Tom Ingram. This ground-breaking exhibition challenged established notions concerning the cultural value attached to so-called 'everyday' or vernacular objects. The show, divided by the curators into specific categories such as Home, Birth-Marriage and Death, Commerce and Industry, was a celebration of the Everyday, mirroring Jones' fascination for the commonplace, possibly otherwise-overlooked elements of British popular culture and of the values associated with objects both machine-manufactured and handmade when placed within an exhibition construct. Stressing in her exhibition manifesto that 'the museum eye must be abandoned', Jones curated a provocative spectacle that posed challenging questions about hierarchies of value, creation and consumption. It was an exhibition that also championed judgements associated with object-making, creators and collectors, whist also challenging established notions of consumerism and mass-market appeal of the period. Many of the objects on display at the 1951 exhibition had come from Jones' own collection. A lifelong avid gatherer of the unorthodox and unusual. they were sourced from markets. secondhand dealers and often, directly from the makers themselves. Additional items were sourced during a trip at the beginning of the Festival year that Jones made in a converted London taxi with Ingram, which they purchased for £30.00. A passenger seat and a near-side door was installed, but the rest of the car's interior was left clear for transporting the spoils that were discovered during the course of the trip. Jones was to opine that once outside London, the iconic black cab was a rarity, and it proved a major factor in the success of the venture. 'We bought the whole popular art scene right up to date', she stated in her catalogue contribution for 'A Tonic to the Nation' that accompanied the 1976 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and which marked the 25th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. She went on to say that 'as far as I know, this was the first time it has ever been done: things currently on sale in the shops and posters on the hoardings, plaster and plastic ornaments...were all displayed as works of art'.

The title of the 1951 exhibition derives from the Thomas Moore poem Intercepted Letters or the Two-Penny Postbag of 1813: 'A Persian's heaven is easily made: 'Tis but Black Eyes and Lemonade'. The exhibition featured exhibits such as ship's figureheads, waxworks from Tussauds, fireworks, Victorian Valentines, quilts. engraved pub mirrors, narrow-boat painting, carnival masks, Salvation army uniforms and children's toys. The selection also embraced the seasons and traditional festivities specific to towns and communities throughout the British Isles. All the exhibited objects were made and sourced in the United Kingdom. The Whitechapel exhibition was hugely popular with visitors throughout the months of the Festival, and their visit made them appreciate more fully, the rich variety of vernacular art that surrounded and informed their daily lives in a way hitherto unimagined.  The new and the commonplace were displayed intentially side by side and, as Jones' goes went on to say; '...by the end most people felt able to accept a talking lemon extolling Idris Lemon squash and Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts isolated under a spotlight'. By extension, she recalled a borrowed waxwork of the late-lamented Chief Rabbi of Whitechapel having to be relocated as the local Synagogue felt that the effigy was placed too near to the talking lemon for dignity to be duly observed. 

Simon Costin, director of the Museum of British Folklore, in partnership with Dr. Catherine Moriarty, design historian and curator of the Design Archives at Brighton University, have collaborated with the Whitechapel Gallery Archives to re-examine and re-evaluate the importance and cultural significance of Jones' contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain half a century on and in the light of contemporary views of art, design and culture. Original installation photographs from the 1951 exhibition are included, alongside items once belonging to Barbara Jones from the Tony Raymond collection, now in the holdings of Brighton Design archives. There are fireworks from the collections of the Museum of British Folklore, original correspondence between Jones and the Whitechapel Art Gallery, as well as that which was sent to manufacturers and makers of objects for the original exhibition. Central to the current exhibition is the famous Airedale Terrier fire-surround that featured in the original show and which was discovered in the vaults of the Design Museum. 'Black Eyes and Lemonade: Curating Popular Art' runs until September 1st in the Pat Matthews Gallery, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 77-78 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Dark Matter: Pavel Tchelitchew's 'Tattooed Man'

Variously referred to as 'Man with Tattoos' or 'Portrait of a Tattooed Man', Pavel Tchelitchew's iconic portrait was painted in Paris in 1934, and was, up until the time it was sold at Sotheby's, New York in 2010, in the collection of the actress Ruth Ford. Her brother, the writer and publisher Charles Henri Ford was Tchelitchew's life-long partner, who died in 2002, Ford herself dying in 2009 at the age of 98. Her apartment in New York's Dakota building was crammed with masterworks by Tchelitchew, amongst other 20th-century masters, and this astonishingly powerful portrait of a man, darkly-attired in an acrobat's leotard, was estimated to sell at auction for between $250,000.00 and $350, 000.00.

Tchelitchew was born in Russia in 1898, and fled after the 1918 Revolution, eventually to Paris, where he settled in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse and was soon feted by the artistic and literary haute-monde of the day, notably by Gertrude Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas and later by Edith Sitwell (who was largely responsible for introducing the painter and his work to British collectors).  His work would later evolve into a Neo-Romantic style, with an overwhelming sense of the metamorphic, where stellar and planetary aspects became an essential component to portraits already imbued with mystical and dream-like cadence. It is the economy, however, of Tchelitchew's portrait of the unknown sitter that attests to his skill as an interpreter of the male form in both power and stillness. Hewn from the dark background, the subject is clothed in the one-piece costume rendered by the painter even darker than the surroundings that he emerges from; an Ariel-like figure anchored to the earth by the encroaching blackness that engulfs him. In repose, the face is passive; the averted gaze belies little emotion yet, framed by his raven-black forelock, he is rendered equally as a figure or vulnerability and as an object of the sitter's- and, by extension - our desire. In starkest counterpoint to the darkness around him is the blueness of his tattoos against the warmth of golden skin that truly make this perhaps his finest work of the period. There is a subcutaneous glow to the flesh, a blurring to the edges of the ink beneath the epidermis that single out this astonishing painting as one of his greatest. The gesture of strong arms crossing to shield a stronger yet somehow vunerable body serves to better define the dense tracery of the designs that decorate him, truly fixing our gaze, and rendering him an illuminated angel against the impenetrable darkness at his back. 

Ruth and Charles Henri Ford were devoted siblings who, by virtue of their family wealth, were able to indulge their joint passions for the arts and patronage to an unpresidented  degree. Their separate apartments in the iconic Upper West Side Dakota building were the settings for some of the most famous literary and artistic gatherings of the era. Charles was the author of The Young and Evil, written in 1933 and regarded as the first novel in the U.S. to explore themes of homosexuality and 'genderqueerness'- a term coined much later in the century to describe a group or an individual who exists outside of 'normal' modes of sexual and social mores. Gertrude Stein opined that Ford's novel 'beat the Beat Generation by a generation' and focuses on the lives of a group of artists as they write poetry, have sex and generally lead the lives of artistic outsider-itinerants, moving in and out of New York's cheap apartments and rented rooms. It's candor was astonishing for the period, and rocked the established literary world to the core. Rejected by almost every major American and British  publisher, it was picked up by Obelisk Press in Paris and became an early counter-cultural phenomenon which anticipated and pre-figured the novels of William Burroughs and Hubert Selby by two decades. Ford's circle inevitably included the leading gay lights of his generation: photographers Hoyningen-Huene and George Platt-Lynes most notably, as well as luminaries such as Cecil Beaton, Leonor Fini, Carl Van Vechten, Orson Welles and George Balanchine. Ford was photographed by Beaton for Vogue in 1937, wearing a costume designed by Salvador Dali. Ford bought Tchelitchew to New York in 1934, having begun a relationship that lasted their lifetimes. Ford was also the instigator and publisher of View, a magazine that was seen as the pivotal Surrealist publication of the pre-and post-war period in Europe and the U.S.

The majority of the works in Ruth Ford's collection were gifted to the actress during the painter's lifetime, with many more bequeathed to her on her brother's death. It is highly likely that Tchelitchew's masterly portrait of the Tattooed Man came to her latterly, and was thought to be amongst the most significant of his works in her possession. It epitomizes the painter's work of the period, made all the more fantastical by the enigmatic nature of the subject whose decorated forearms hint at some sort of inner psyche which we, the onlooker can only attempt to guess. Lincoln Kirstein, the painter's biographer and contemporary stated that 'Tchelitchew became absorbed with the idea of metamorphosis, a collective object or image composed of other complete images- and their interplay, balance, contrast and opposition in which there was a ceaseless dialogue of the whole with its parts'.

The Bicycle Thieves

Universally hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, Vittorio De Sica's 1948 Academy award-winning masterpiece, 'The Bicycle Thieves' ('Ladri di biciclette') defined an era in cinema. In postwar, poverty-stricken Rome, a man, hoping to support his desperate family with a new job, loses his bicycle, his main means of transportation for work. With his wide-eyed young son in tow, he sets off to track down the thief. Simple in construction and dazzlingly rich in human insight, 'Bicycle Thieves' embodied all the greatest strengths of the neo-realist film movement in Italy: emotional clarity, social righteousness, and brutal honesty.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Claire de Rouen

Claire de Rouen, the doyenne of fashion and photography books, has died after a long illness. I first met Claire in the late seventies at the Photographer's Gallery, where she was an eternal presence behind the counter that served as the diminutive bookshop in their Newport Street premises. To this day, I regret the non-purchase of a Minor White monograph which Claire predicted 'would become extremely sought after in years to come, darling'.

During the eighties and for most of the nineties, she was the force behind the photography and fashion department at the original Zwemmer bookshop in Charing Cross Road. Her breathtaking knowledge of the subjects made her the icon of fashion students and famous photographers alike. I had the pleasure of working with her during her short-lived tenure with Shipley Art Booksellers. It is however, for the shop that proceeded this period that she will best be remembered. She was afforded the governance of a small premises on the first floor of a sex shop at the Tottenham Court Road end of Charing Cross Road, and it soon became a mecca for the faithful as well as the neophite to the world of photography and fashion. The shop was easy to miss, but a discreet neon sign in the window directed the determined to their destination like a beacon. It flourished as much by word of mouth as any website, and garnered a reputation among a dedicated cognoscenti for whom Claire's advice was paramount. With her trademark bob and a fringe that skimmed those smokey, intriguing eyes, Claire's dress-sense was immaculate; her look was timeless and never disappointed. Usually sat by the till, her faithful pug Otis curled beneath the desk, she would direct customers to whatever newly-published book she thought might suit their needs and tastes, but often, she simply delighted at your own discoveries amidst the stock. Seldom resorting to the shop's database, she knew her books by heart, with rarities temptingly encased in a vitrine which were never priced but which she would be more than happy to let you examine. Collectors were legion, and giants of the photography world sought her out when they were in town. Bruce Weber was a regular visitor, and Claire was an early advocate and seller of his monographs. David Bailey was a huge fan, stating that Claire's was 'probably the best photography bookshop in the world' and it was Bob Carlos Clark who persuaded her to open premises under her own name.

Born Claire Alphandri in Alexandria in the early thirties, her age was always a notoriously-guarded secret. She attended art school in London and married Reid de Rouen in the 1950s. She met John Nichol in the mid 1980's, and they lived and worked together until her death this week. Claire was passionate about the things she loved, and kept her manicured finger firmly on the fashion pulse of her time. Her mystery and allure added greatly to the shop's atmosphere. She was a tireless champion of young photographers and fashion students (the newly-graduated Alexander McQueen adored her) and she often displayed their work in the stairwell gallery adjacent to the shop. Her stock of fashion and photography magazines from around the world was unrivalled.

Claire de Rouen books will continue without her, but her legacy will live on there for as long as it remains open, as I trust it will for many years to come. The world will be poorer without her, and her throne within the pantheon of fashion and photography will remain unoccupied. It was a privilege to have known her.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Lion Roars in Rye

William Morris's epithet of having nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful has never seemed more apposite than in the case of The Lion Street Store in Rye, East Sussex. Owned and operated by former milliner Sarah Benton, the shop has been open only a few short months, but it has clearly already attracted a huge following which spreads far beyond the ancient Cinque Port town. Situated just down from the historic St Mary's church which crowns the Rye skyline, Sarah has created a light and airy space and stocked it with objects of desire which are a feast for the eyes and the senses. The best in contemporary-designed items effortlessly blend with carefully-chosen vintage pieces, all of them bought together with an assured sensibility which makes the shop such a mecca for all who hanker for the unique and the unusual in their home. With all the panache of a Bawden vignette for Fortnum and Mason, Nicholas Frith's masterful logo of the sailors and the friendly lion perfectly captures the mood of the shop, as elsewhere, fabric dolls by Jane Foster and textiles by Lisa Stickley sit alongside one-off toy theatres by Emily Warren. Knitted creatures by Donna Wilson become the outriders in a vintage Triang truck, whilst distressed children's desks open to reveal their treasures. Sarah shares with her customers a passion for the miraculous images of the likes of Robert Taverner and Edwin La Dell, and the card racks overspill with the cream of British 20th-century printmakers. Wire baskets are packed with handwoven Irish blankets, fashioned from recycled wool, whilst elsewhere are screen-printed boy and girl-shaped cushions that somehow evoke the days of 'Look and Learn' and the Ladybird series of books so beloved of our childhoods. In the coming months, Sarah hopes that the store will become a regular venue for literary and musical events, and is keen to organise one-off specialist exhibitions of artists and craftspeople. With a contemporary eye fixed firmly on the sensibilities of similar institutions such as St Jude's Gallery, Loop in Islington and Old Town in Holt, Sarah's conviction that people deserve to have the very best in British art and craft is everywhere evinced at the Lion Street Store. The ancient town of Rye has never seemed so fortunate to have this newcomer in her midst; I urge you to beat a path to its' lovely painted portal.

The Lion Street Store. 6 Lion Street, Rye, East Sussex TN31 7LB

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Drella does Rainer: Warhol's poster for Fassbinder's 'Querelle'

Andy Warhol's poster for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1982 film adaptation of Genet's 'Querelle of Brest' uses an original photograph culled from a 1977 series of screenprints entitled Sex Parts, and remains one of his most potent and memorable images. Now highly desirable by collectors, the original poster was issued in a number of colours (pictured is the grey version), and despite Warhol's interpretation bearing no direct reference to the film itself, somehow retrospectively at least, succeeds in being thoroughly synonymous with Fassbinder's vision of Genet's 1946 novel. The film was Fassbinder's last, and European distributors in particular, released a plethora of promotional material, from giant 7-sheet billboard images to artfully-airbrushed portraits of Brad Davies, who played Genet's eponymous murdering sailor-hero. Warhol's photographic image of two boys is overdrawn in his customary style with off-register lines and blocks of colour, and possibly recalls the characters of Querelle's brother Robert, and Gil, his fellow matelot and murderer. Frank Episale, in his riveting review 'Genet meets Fassbinder' in Bright Lights Film Journal, states that 'Genet's Querelle bought Melville's Billy Budd out of the closet and exposed the coded homoeroticism of the all-male naval vessel inhabited by men and boys in tight white pants to a wider, largely heterosexual audience'. Fassbinder's film pays visual homage to James Bidgood's 1971 American underground arthouse classic Pink Narcissus, in which a handsome male hustler fantasizes about a kitsch universe where he is the central character in a number of set-piece encounters. By extension, the gay French photographic duo Pierre and Gilles owe a debt to Bidgood's fantasy-world by placing their protagonists in a number of highly-wrought and glitteringly-enchanted settings where there is more than a nod to Genet's muscular matelots in all their campy eroticism. Fassbinder's set for Querelle is highly stylized and uses overly-wrought lighting techniques reminiscent of those which he employed in Lola a year earlier. Frames are shot within frames, and the misty murk of Brest is re-imagined with phallic towers and dark culverts where lurk and lean the denizens of Genet's twilight world. Episale concludes his review by reminding us that by the time the film was released, 'Susan Sontag had already published Notes on Camp, Stonewall had come and gone', and that '[The Village People's] YMCA had been appropriated by wedding DJ's'.