Walter Crane and the Arts and Crafts Watercolour (Richard McDougall Lecture, 10th December 2013)

I had been rather looking forward to the annual Richard McDougall lecture on British watercolours, as during my time at studying for a BA at Manchester in 2008, there was a particularly rewarding exhibition running at the Whitworth Art Gallery on Walter Crane and Socialism. It introduced to me the extraordinary breadth and beauty of Crane’s output, a truly thoughtful and polemical High Victorian. Meaning is woven throughout his works, ranging from Socialist banners to children’s books, forging a broad, personal visual language not dissimilar to William Blake. Little did I realise the curator of this exhibition was tonight’s speaker, Morna O’Neill, the top authority on this otherwise rather neglected figure.

Walter Crane's studio

Walter Crane’s studio

In a photograph of Crane’s studio in 1885, the oil Freedom sits opposite his watercolour Pandora, the latter not distinguished by embodying the Aesthetic dictum “art for art’s sake”, but instead just as didactic as the oil. Crane encouraged the act of connoisseurship as a way to knowledge, and many details in Pandora act as emblems towards a theme of universal Hope. Particularly resonant for Crane are the sphinxes which hold up the eponymous box: ciphers for individualism against the Orpheic artist’s dream of Socialism. But all this begs the question: why choose watercolour at all? The nineteenth-century British watercolour is a strange thing, as was explored by Colin Cruise at last year’s lecture. Burne-Jones’ The Merciful Knightbravely exhibited at the Old Water Colour Society in 1864, was one of the first works to challenge what watercolour could be. It was in this context that Crane would develop his own concept of an Arts and Crafts watercolour.

Pandora, 1884, watercolour (Private collection)

Pandora, 1884, watercolour (Private collection)

It is rather a paradox to suggest that watercolour’s medium specificity is fluidity and ambiguity, but its role for Crane was a site of experimentation and self-referentiality. This reminded me again of Cruise’s lecture, where in Rossetti’s early watercolour, The First Anniversary of the Death of BeatriceDante is shown working in the medium in which he is painted. Crane was less direct in his reflexivity. In Pandora the mosaics of the floor and the curtain were based on Crane’s own objects that were originally designed in watercolour. Crane used watercolour extensively to provide designs for the production of Decorative arts, and also of his tremendously beautiful children’s books. Crane’s Art’s and Crafts watercolour then works as bridging the gap between designer and maker, not an end in itself, but a means to an ideal as yet unrealised.

Such Sights as Youthful Poets Dream, 1869, watercolour, exhibited (private collection)

Such Sights as Youthful Poets Dream, 1869, watercolour (private collection)

Surprisingly, Morna spent much time on the iconography of Crane’s works, and less on the specific painterly potentiality of watercolour, although this was explored in the evanescent visionary reverie in the Youthful Poet’s Dream (1869). Yet the central issue of Crane’s exploration of the dynamic between illustration and narrative: the act of looking as a way to knowledge, is very reassuring to any art historian who still likes looking at paintings. And one hopes Morna can see the Pandora itself soon as a way to knowledge, as currently it sits in a very private collection…

How to draw the wind …

Frank Davies Memorial Lecture Series, Art and Vision Science

Double Echo: Exploring the Resonance Between Art and Science, Chris Drury, Tuesday 3 December 2013

Trace the flight of an Albatross circling the Antarctic over a period of eighteen months and use this to frame an ice-blue knot of continental wind patterns registered on one day;  rake a spiralling trail based on Native American weave patterns in the Nevada desert only to see it blown away again overnight. These are some of the ways in which artist Chris Drury maps the complex patterns that govern landscapes and climate, and repeat in the rhythms of the human organism. ‘Double Echo’ was the title for a discussion of drawings and sculptural works which respond to scientific studies with an embodied experience of place as well as a conceptual concern with the language applied to the conjunction of imagination and understanding: the repeated phrase ‘everything and nothing’ captures an overwhelming encounter with the vastness of the Antarctic; and perhaps the difficulty we all have in connecting our own lives to the big picture.

Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa - Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury

Chris Drury, Mushroom Cloud, 2010. Installation at Malga Costa – Arte Sella Italy – of over 3000 suspended dried mushroom pieces. © Chris Drury

Introducing his talk with a suitably big event, Drury described how the landscape formed by a meteorite landing billions of years ago triggered a fascination with life’s patterns of destruction and regeneration that has inspired work on all scales from the geophysical to the thumb-sized. In this context, a study of the tenacious processes of bacterial and fungal growth that can both spell death and survive a nuclear wipe-out have resulted in fragile mushroom clouds that hang in an interior space, and glass etchings that trace patterns left by a drop of deadly spores. A related video work reflects on the shattering effect of the explosions at Nevada’s nuclear test site. Registering the vibrations of a column of smoke when hit by force of sound, the silent film also memorialises the spiritual-cleansing rituals of Indigenous practice based on the burning of desert sage brush. And a technological encounter with climate-change monitoring resulted in a series of layered drawings which combine physics with an individual’s physiology. Hearing the pilot of the survey plane describing the wave-like echogram of a cross-section of Antarctic ice-sheet as being like ‘taking the heart-beat of the earth’, Drury introduced him to cardiographers working at a London hospital, in order then to combine images of the blood flow in this man’s own heart with those pulses registered in the iced-over mountain range.

Drury’s works demonstrate a political engagement with climate change grounded in scientific research that already challenges comprehension when it extends into limits of particle physics and chaos theory. Exploring the aesthetics of such complexity, the art responds imaginatively to fragile habitats while also playing with contrasts of scale which -as pointed out during the question session – evoke a metaphysical fascination with the microcosm and the macrocosm. The key to this appeal lies in a delicate balance between immersion in an environment and the objective study of universal patterns. The result is an image of a whole which complements the research scientists’ atomized view of detail. And this rounds up the series rather neatly by bringing us back to the first Frank Davis lecture on perception and visual wholes, and yet also leaves plenty of complex paths still untrod.


Re-interpreting Aby Warburg: a 2013 conference in London on a 1905 lecture in Hamburg

Dürer and Warburg: Interpreting Antiquity took place on 22 and 23 November 2013 at the Courtauld and the Warburg Institutes

Christopher Wood and Peter Mack at the Warburg Institute

Christopher Wood and Peter Mack at the Warburg Institute

If Aby Warburg was obsessed with the unexpected eruption of ancient forms of extreme expression in Renaissance art and beyond, Christopher Wood is obsessed with the way in which such methodological innovations could prompt the recognition of the complex temporality of the work of art (see Anachronic Renaissance, 2010, co-authored with Alexander Nagel). In the keynote lecture delivered last Friday at the Warburg Institute, Wood paid his homage to Warburg in focusing on Dürer’s drawing The Death of Orpheus (1494).

Wood developed his argument around the concept of PATHOS and how in some cases, like sodomy,  “passions” can be crimes, or for renaissance humanists, educational practices. He proposed the term “wobble” to refer to the horizontal recombination, or to the continuous mythic substitutions happening within certain formulas, in order to overcome the polarities of artistic analysis – for instance, Apollonian and Dionysian. Instability in formulas of passions proves more productive than fixed meaning.

Albrecht Dürer, The Death of Orpheus, 1494

Albrecht Dürer, The Death of Orpheus, 1494

On Saturday, Marcus Hurttig reconstructed the history of that lecture and its parallel display, highlighting the difficult relationship between Warburg and Alfred Lichtwark, the first director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Most importantly, Hurttig’s paper compared the small display of originals organised for the conference to the bigger exhibition of about one hundred fac-similes plates that Warburg had assembled that same year at the Volksheim in Hamburg (this story was reconstructed in 2011 by Hurttig in an exhibition at the Hamburger Kunsthalle about Warburg’s previously unknown activity as a curator).

Thomas Schauerte’s close reading of two woodcuts from around 1494 (Ercules and The knight and the Lansquenet) was very traditional in its method, but it successfully posed the question of the use of contemporary sources in Dürer’s early years; Porras’ paper on The Death of Orpheus focused on the inscriptions and on technique, providing a reading of the social context of production of , and on the artist’s ambitions.

The biological and neurological foundations of Warburg’s pathosformel were the basis of David Freedberg’s lecture. Experiments on the mirror system, whose function in aiding perception is subject to speculation, shows for Freedberg the empirical and scientific basis of Warburg’s Pathosformel. When the viewer lays his eyes upon the depiction of an upraised arm, a bended knee or an open palm, his brain begins the process of enacting these gestures.  Once self-awareness intrudes and the viewer realizes that they do not need to make these gestures themselves, then we are opened up to the opportunity for self-reflection and aesthetic judgment.  By extension, Dr. Freeberg’s research helps us to appreciate the timeless and universal claims of Warburg’s analysis of the function of gestures for, by virtue of scientific evidence, such empathetical and neurological reactions to art are a part of our intrinsic, internal wiring.

Panel discussion at the Courtauld Institute

Panel discussion at the Courtauld Institute

Philipp Ekardt provided a survey of art historical reactions to the story of the discovery of the Laocoon statue in 1506, and then offered a succinct introduction to the methodological subtleties that distinguish Warburg’s analysis of this famous statuary masterpiece.  In particular, he highlighted pathosformel‘s methdological capacity to focus on individual passages within the work of art, free from the context of the work overall.

As the first scholar to catalogue Panofsky’s personal correspondence, Dieter Wuttke has had unique access to his thoughts and hopes; he provided an intimate and sentimental portrait of the relationship between Panofsky and Warburg.  It was thus a remarkable opportunity to hear his retelling of the collegiality, if not friendship, between Panofsky and Warburg.  As the speaker pointed out, this relationship may come to us as a surprise given the fundamental differences between the corresponding methodologies and bodies of work of these two giants.  Nevertheless, the first-hand accounts that Wuttke cited cannot deny the degree of interaction between them, ranging from their first visit in 1915 when Panofsky and a group of students went to on a field-trip to visit Warburg, to their life-long correspondence and many evenings spent in discussion, to Panofsky’s election as director of the Warburg Institute.

Conceived by Courtauld curator Stephanie Buck and Warburg’s archivist Claudia Wedepohl as a contemporary parallel to the lecture delivered by Aby Warburg in Hamburg on 5 October 1905 and titled ‘Dürer and Italian Antiquity’ (Dürer und die italienische Antike), this conference was also a complement to the Courtauld’s current exhibition The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure and especially to its smaller sister-display Antiquity Unleashed: Aby Warburg, Dürer and Mantegna. In the latter, visitors can see the same original works Aby Warburg had borrowed from the Hamburger Kunsthalle to illustrate the argument of his lecture more than one hundred years ago.

Turner and the Sea (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

View into the exhibition

View into the exhibition

An exhibition of nineteenth-century marine paintings would not normally be the first port of call for my eye, one more accustomed to the sophistication of modernist primitivism and roughness. Canvases of yellow, varnished vessels on glass-blue seas – passing ships in the day – can blend into their own sea of anonymous repetition. By the time one reaches the second section of this remarkable exhibition, though, such a lazily prejudiced approach is forcibly ejected from one’s mind.

In the large and high exhibition hall at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), the curators have created a transparent maze of rooms which directs the viewer chronologically through J.M.W. Turner’s (1775-1851) career. While it is remarkable enough that this is the first ever full-scale examination of Turner’s creative engagement with the sea, an opportunity to witness briskly his development of painting style is a latent but signal bonus.

From the early rooms – where the master is finding his own voice and language while giving a (provisional) nod to the tradition of the genre, to the last rooms where some of the works (unfinished or not) could almost slot effortlessly into an exhibition of abstract work – texture, composition, scale and atmosphere bombard the sensitive viewer. I was lucky enough to be let in before the public and, at times, it was as if I was stranded in a vortex of temperamental breakers, proud vessels and daunting skies threatening to overcome me from all sides.


Off the Nore Wind and Water (c. 1840-45)
© Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The highlights in this exhibition can hardly be accidentally overlooked: the (second version of the royally commissioned) Battle of Trafalgar (1823-24) dominates an entire wall, and a mournful, ghostly The Fighting Temeraire (1839) needs no introduction. The hang at the NMM allows close contact, often at eye level, with these grand but oddly informal paintings. Examining Turner’s unpredictable impasto and moody brush-strokes and comparing them to van de Velde, Gainsborough and Constable (all on show) provides a helpful contextualizing benchmark. The collection of prints and watercolours, in their own separate section, makes visible the process of Turner’s draughtsmanship without the noise of oil. Frighteningly delicate mezzotints almost defy the genre and give further (unneeded but welcome) testament to Turner’s confidence and versatility.

The final two rooms uncover a man who, even in his sixties and seventies, almost quite literally did not stop drawing, painting, innovating and, above all, looking. The enthusiasm to develop his vision is exemplified by Off the Nore Wind and Water (c. 1840-45). In a circumvention characteristic of fragmented modernity, Turner disposes of the need to distinguish between finished and unfinished work.

Turner, Study of Sea (c. 1820-30) © Tate

Turner, Study of Sea (c. 1820-30) © Tate

The most natural instinct at the end of this exhibition is to start again and re-examine the early output in light of the journey one has undertaken through the labyrinthine layout. I left the exhibition wondering how these amazing and varied works would look alongside some of the later British masters of the sea: inter alia Alfred Wallis, Joan Eardley, and Maggi Hambling…

Percy Darukhanawala is an MA student at the Courtauld

Turner and the Sea is at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich until the 21st April 2014.