The Englishness of English Art
This Exhibition of 82 paintings mostly small is wide selection from the Camberwell School of Art London 1945 to 1985 originated by Belgrave Galley and shared with The St Society of artists. The exhibition is wide ranging, presenting the contribution of the school ,which became through teaching and influence the mainstream of English painting.
Art schools since the era of Impressionists have had a problem as they are expected to professionalize the contemporary artist. Professionalism is a troubled concept simply because the idea is confused with success. The artist founders of modern art, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin operated outside of the professional academy.
The Academy originally was the codification of the King’s Taste and the Visual Forum of the State. The 19th centenary, the height of Industrialism, in stages ushered in democracy, bringing forth a middle class into social and political prominence. Naturally The Bourgeoisie aspired to a new taste which previously was the activity of the leisured class, who were usually titled landowners. As the art market the binding requirements of the Academy, as the last word in professionalism faded. New criteria became established by the so called ‘independents’. In other words the outsiders took over art history.
Class warfare and revolution shaped Western political, social and art history, and still does today. The rhetoric of the art world is not so binary and explicit as it was yesterday but never the less is still operative but now coded. The potency of the attraction of art is there to see, arousing passions of enthusiasm or disgust depending on the aesthetics of the individual.
The shared symbolic order of the 18th and 19th centenaries was fundamentally terminated by the horror of the mass slaughter of World War 1 and chaos of the Russian Revolution. The post war recovery watched a new order emerging as technology embedded itself into modern western life. Visual art responded only to be subject again to a repeated version of WW1 this time in the extended theatre of operations of World War 2 and the Atom bomb. Modern Art produced a series of new movements reflecting the increased tempo of the times, and these technology developments.
Cubism before WW1, Dada, Anti-Aesthetic, Futurism, Surrealism, and Constructivism to name the main players. The artist as the poet, writer and musician struggles with the weight of history, the avant-garde was born out of revolutionary thinking glorifying the individual who was seen to be touch with the present.
Continental European painting from Moscow, Vienna, Geneva and Paris before World War1 and afterwards launched the new thinking. Paris produced Cubism. The bourgeoisie were flummoxed. Their confusion brought forth in a new found elitism, for the Outsiders. The tradition of the New settled in and captured Art History. It out paced and replaced the old tradition.
London as a visual art centre was on the sidelines. Though progressive artists keep an eye on artist colleagues in Paris, Vienna and other European cities. This exhibition ‘Camberwell Painting 1945 to 1985’, demonstrates how London responded to the innovation of French art approximately half a centenary later. After the war London, though badly damaged, was not completely flattened and strove to regain the former pre-war decorous stability.
Camberwell and the Slade School, in competition with the Royal Academy School and the Royal College of Art, sought artistic leadership and in so doing formulated and embedded a new painting tradition identified as ‘realism’, which socially encoded a mild socialism in spirit with the Post War Labour Government that engineered the post War recovery through the welfare state. English visual art culture was either mid wived or fathered with the brilliance of John Ruskin’s a genius of the 19th centenary who coalesced social mores, with other humanities.
He essentially regeared the course of art history and elevated William Turner to the status an old master and introduced the idea of Modern Painters.
Though the small private school of painting founded by Clive Bell, William Coldstream carried forward the concerns of a social consciousness as a required element in the new emerging visual art. With the new and vital difference that Abstract consideration is an essential element inherited from Cezanne. The obsessive exactitude of illusion and glossy stroked polished surfaces much loved by the Royal Academy was jettisoned along with he urge of decoration. A new form of basic pictorial engineering was introduced and painting acquired a new look.
Camberwell Art School was Incorporated into the University of the Arts in 1968. The politics education of education in particular art education, is a fertile field that cannot be ignored. Certainly a requirement for looking at this exhibition. All art emerges from a context and does not breath in a vacuum.
The founding of Euston Road School, a private initiative in 1939, was the root which became the mainstream of English art during and after the war.
The Bauhaus in Germany trail blazed art education by recognising that industry and architecture shaped and defined modern life. A new aesthetic was born which did not appeal to Hitlers retroactive taste. The Bauhaus, a world leader, was dismantled n 1937. However Bauhaus fundamentals of Art Education reached UK when Sir William Coldstream in 1960 , commissioned by the Government to reform and update Art education on the College or University Level Bauhaus methodology was imported which severed the Royal Academy as the authority to be followed.
The basic methodology embraced the idea of abstract in the sense that the underlining structure of the pictorial image needed a basic design. Impromptu innovation , and exuberance was avoided. Careful engineering was required which became the modern seal of approved professionalism.
Almost puritanical certainly refined and pedestrian, when compared with the Bohemian turbo charged art activity of Paris art that came from intellectuals that resided, and played in informal Cafe Society
Regional art schools now decided what curriculum to follow, and develop teaching practice to install the avant-garde and to professionalize avant-garde thinking. The Social Sciences replaced literature and history as the new references of choice.
The Coldstream report was the watershed that signified the end of suburban cultural aspiration Encased in the Illusion that Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ was in advance of trendy taste. The sunflowers became a faded trope.
This exhibition raises a pertinent question of English taste both traditional and modern. It is broad smörgåsbord of possibilities so broad that much can be discounted as over cooked or pedestrian. The majority of the work , excepting landscape and a few abstract paintings are cosy, interiors, studies of still life (nature mort’ as the French would say) apples, oranges, flowers, vases , and other artifacts including female nudes lounging in chairs, all exist within a closed space. Homage to Cezanne is a background consideration and never more so explicit in the portrait of Howard Griffin 1968 by Sir William Coldstream whose presence hangs over this exhibition. Most if not all of the landscapes do not achieve delicacy of paint to function air laded or light filled space.
The other significant work is a lovely drawing by Eugan Uglow. This drawing is the sole display featured in Belgrave Gallery window in Fore Street, St.Ives, passed by the legions of tourists with hardly a glance allured from the throng, giving evidence of the plight of art education. Eugan Uglow with a full working day 6 or 7 days a week in the studio, produces two or three paintings a year. He is the acknowledged very significant survivor and probably the final Master of this form of English painting. Post Modernist critical thinking and theory linked to the Turner Prize has taken over current art school education, proliferating other forms of art performance. Installation art, photography video suggest to the present generation of students that painting is near obsolete and has little or no relevance or place to current life.
The other great Luminary of the Euston Road School, and later Camberwell, Professor Victor Passmore CBE broke away from Camberwell realism in 1947 moving through lyrical stages of departure and pioneering English abstraction. One of the largest Paintings in the show Earth and Sky is an excellent example of his later Abstract work. A number of dark organic shapes clustering to occupy the upper centre of the picture, overlapping two vertical panels adjacent to the sides of the picture plane. Unfortunately the work is cramped by bad hanging to near to neighbouring fussy work ,and not enough space to step back. Victor Passmore developed his abstract aesthetic in part by following his mentor Ben Nicholson attraction to the minimal line of geometry and acetonic possibilities of structure. He opened up significant expression of modernism, the beauty of deductive geometry promised a new Jerusalem after the War. Victor Passmore collaborated with the designers planners of the new town Peterlee, the Utopian desire of that progressive era A central monument, The Apollo Pavilion, designed by Passmore became vandalized expressing the citizens’ rejection of a perceived brutal and sanitized town centre. Victor Passmore a strong stalwart individual who had served time as a conscientious objector in 1942, stood his ground once more and faced his accusers.
Near by a small painting of a figure entitled ‘Footballer’ by Robert Medley an echo of Keith Vaughan and even Francis Bacon catches the eye with a simple underscored rendering of a man either jumping, running or falling certainly moving against a delicious green field of negative space.
For this writer the discovery of David Helper was a treat This small painting 37 X 45 cm titled Angie 11 Depicts a concrete motorway ramp diagonally cutting across the picture leaving a back ground view of Post War Block of flats. Graffiti adorns the ramp, green linear triangles with the word Angie written in red graffiti on one side. The claustrophobia of modern Urban living is here, or better still the underbelly of town planning. The graffiti of the self made vox populi of the people drives home a poignant visual essay. David Helper captures or hints at a narrative outside the moment of the picture.
Another gem of choice was the a sparse well considered rendering, careful observed work of leaf clusters situated on a solidarity branch with plain non painted natural white background, Branch by Patrick George. A minimal and very restrained beauty not unlike oriental expression gives a stature to this work.
The cover of this well presented catalogue features a nude lounging on upholstery. This is a prime example of Camberwell Painting. At first glance it gives the impression of the mundane without sparkle or exuberance closer examination will see it is a quiet tour de force in that the painting holds an exquisite hidden tension in which only three colours are stretched to the limits to provide a painterly authority without emotive seduction to attract the casual eye. A mature and well tuned connoisseurship is required to find this well disciplined and introspect artist. Who shuns the normal window dressing of visual seduction.
This Exhibition of 40 years of Painting Camberwell Students and Teachers is trip to the attic, discovering revisiting artifacts of yesterday , and rediscovering old treasures that still shine today. An insight into English painting in some cases at its best and in many occasions at it is in mannered decline. The issue of painting can be pirated in that Artists no matter their context not only to create but look for authenticating seeking to find inheritance to be gleaned from art history. London had a delayed response to response to Continental 20th century painting. The late delayed response through art education was tempered by English parochial and empirical thinking. The testing of an idea may produce a new idea, or simply cloak and muffle the dynamic.
For this writer the lesson of so called professionalism in Art is revisited. Craft is in simple terms is “how to” technique does not guarantee quality of temperament and original sensibility.”Why do” is the more interesting question.
This exhibition is a lesson about the attempt of yesterday to answer this question. The question though, still haunts us today.
Derek Guthrie, Publisher
40 Years of Painting Camberwell Students and Teachers 1945 -1985, 7-30th November 2015 Belgrave Gallery, St Ives.
Volume 30 number 3 January / February 2016 p 27-31