Art and Life (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, c. 1923

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula

‘Art and life’ is currently in its third incarnation after stops in Leeds and Kettle’s Yard. When it closes after the Dulwich offering in late September it will have been on the road for nearly a year, an impressive feat for an exhibition that covers only eleven, albeit prolific, years of British art.

Ben Nicholson is the headline act. But this exhibition investigates the period before he became arguably British modernism’s MVP. Before Barbara Hepworth Nicholson’s first wife was Winifred Roberts. As husband and wife Winifred and Ben travelled to Lugano in Switzerland – via Paris and exposure to European modernist developments – where they spent three consecutive winters in the early 1920s. Here they produced works of vitality and atmospheric gravity. The tissue paper wrapped around Winifred’s flowers in Cyclamen and Primula becomes another mountain to match with their dramatic backdrop. The austere use of muted colour by Ben in 1921-c.25 (Cortivallo, Lugano) expertly displays a glimpse of a Swiss winter. They developed as artists together, their relationship reciprocal. Winifred’s colour comes out in Ben’s First abstract painting, Chelsea, and Ben’s quasi-cubist tonal blocks are referenced by Winifred in Castagnola (Red Earth) and King’s Road, Chelsea. The relationship clearly of equal importance to each.

Ben Nicholson - First Abstract Painting

Ben Nicholson, First Abstract Painting

In 1926 Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood became the third member of this cast of British post-war painters. Wood was a colourful figure who came to the Nicholson’s home in Cumberland ‘like a meteor’. He was the freest of the three, lacking the shackles of an artistic heritage such as Ben Nicholson’s, whose father had been highly respected painter, as well as being exposed to European modernist movements early in his practice, before adopting the sometimes staid English traditionalism present in Winifred’s work. All three were different, but happily worked alongside one another, each learning new ways of painting. This is beautifully shown in the exhibition by the handing of three views of Northrigg Hill, one by each: Winifred’s traditional, Wood’s gestural, Ben’s austere.

Ben Nicholson - Porthmeor Beach

Ben Nicholson, Porthmeor Beach

The fourth member of the group came in 1928 when Wood and Ben discovered the work of Alfred Wallis. Wallis became Wood and the Nicholson’s Douanier Rousseau. An untrained individual who as a result made paintings as real as real life. Wallis was championed, especially, by Ben in London, where he exhibited him in a 7 and 5 show, and it gave both Ben and Wood encouragement in their pursuit of imbuing their work with life. Examples of this abound in the exhibition, but highlights are Le phare, Porthmeor Beach and Boat on a Stormy Sea.

But nearly as soon as the quartet was formed was it finished. In 1930 Wood died in mysterious circumstances, the Nicholson’s marriage was dissolving and Wallis was becoming more and more paranoid as the success earned for him by his London friends began to affect how he was treated in St. Ives. Overall, Art and Life succeeds in showing the development and complementary relationships of this group of British painters that were sadly all too fleeting.

Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Art and Life is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 21st September 2014

Irene Noy, ‘Why Only Look? Aural and Visual Representation of Female Identity in West Germany’

Mary Bauermeister, In Memory Of Your Feelings, or Homage à Jasper Johns, 1964-65, mixed media, 24 x 30 x 7 in.

Of the many Research Forum talks I attended Spring semester, I found Irene Noy’s ‘Why Only Look? Aural and Visual Representation of Female Identity in West Germany’ to be one of the most engaging and eye opening. As the title suggests, Noy encouraged those of us in the audience to not only look but also listen—that is, to audio work that seamlessly accompanied her visual presentation, as well as to the words of her talk.

I came to Noy’s talk with a fairly thorough knowledge of the geographical region and time period, as well as an interest in gender studies, yet Noy’s topic was still completely unfamiliar to me. It was a welcome reminder of just how vast and complex the discipline of art history is. While I found her talk compelling on an intellectual level, it also made me realize, on a more personal level, where I had become complacent with my own knowledge, and reminded me that there are further artists, perspectives, and even media to discover.

Noy’s talk concerned female artists creating artwork at the crossroads of aural and visual art in West Germany, working at the time of the rise of second wave feminism. Particularly intriguing to me was Noy’s presentation of sound art in relation to visual art: the possibility of shared compositional processes, as well as their differently gendered aspects—for example, the electronic implements used in recording and playing sound as being aggressively masculine. I had never before considered the possible dichotomy between aural and visual art (with one occupying space and one occupying time), though Noy presents this dichotomy as false.

I am grateful to Noy for introducing me to the work of Mary Bauermeister, which I found incredibly compelling and promptly investigated further after the talk. Bauermeister, an artist connected with Fluxus, is best known for her ‘lens boxes’ of layered glass that magnify and distort the textured surface below. They simultaneously seem delicate and dangerous, and draw the viewer’s attention to the optical devices improving and modifying our perception of the visual, perhaps parallel to the electrical devices used to create and record sound. Noy emphasized the connection between Bauermeister’s visual compositions and her understanding of musical composition; an important example being her joint show with Karlheinz Stockhausen, in which her visual works were paired with his sound compositions, allowing for a dialogue between the two.

Derek Boshier: From Doris to Chemical Coyboys

A Response

The reason for the sheer enjoyment I find in artists’ talks is that they take you away from your books and remind you about the reality of artwork in the context of the person who made it. Derek Boshier has delved into a huge variety of both ideas and working practises during his career and the presentation he gave to the Research Forum was a whirlwind whistle-stop tour of his life and work. He unfortunately had to begin by apologising for having to squeeze what was usually an hour and a half talk into a mere 45 minutes, certainly not long enough for me who thoroughly enjoyed all of his stories ‘From Doris to Chemical Cowboys’.

Speaking to the audience mainly using anecdotes, he highlighted some of the key themes of a career begun at a crucial point of transition for British art. Coming out of the Royal College in the 1960s (alongside Peter Blake and David Hockney), he insisted that impetus for their Pop Art was that they just wanted to paint the things they knew around them, the things that interested them. As he put it, not wine bottles and fruit, but films, music and sex. This freedom expanded into his subsequent multidisciplinary practise, which took as many forms imaginable, each with a very unique style.

It was his more atypical work that interested me the most. Of his image-based work, one of the projects Boshier discussed that particularly appealed to me is his 16 Situations (1971). This was an intervention into a series of photographs with a pair of repeated sculptural forms, playing with locations and scales from the micro to the macro (figs. 1 & 2).[1] They appear as a departure from the immediacy of his brightly coloured Pop painting style, yet I think they still communicate the continually present playfulness of his work. This was reinforced for me by his lively delivery style, which excited a sense of immediacy on each topic, regardless of which era he was discussing.

His description of a 1968 collaborative happening with Joe Tilson The Smith/Novak Event (fig. 3) had a sort of timelessness, and certainly would not seem out of place if enacted again today.[2] This took the form of a gesture of friendship between the two most common names in the London and Prague phonebooks, put into place through a workshop involving as many members of the public with those names who would take part. His comment on this work being that in the autumn of that year Soviets moved into Prague and as far as he knows most correspondence was halted.

Each slide is an artwork with a strong personal memory attached, meaning that each projected a strong personal perspective on social and cultural conditions, from what was showing at the cinema, to the state of feminism at the time. I would argue this was one of the most compelling artists’ talks I have attended and urge anyone to see him speak if you find an opportunity.

I would also like to encourage you to attend the series of artists’ talks and workshops organised by the East Wing X committee to compliment the Material Mattersexhibition, ‘Material Insights’. We are inviting artists to engage and discuss with us the materials in which they work. The first event is a talk delivered by Tom Hunter, whose Anchor and Hope is on display in Seminar Room 3. This will take place in SR3 on Monday 6th February at 6pm.

Fig 1: Derek Boshier, Situation 1 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 1: Derek Boshier, Situation 1 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 2: Derek Boshier, Situation 15 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 2: Derek Boshier, Situation 15 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig. 3: Derek Boshier and Joe Tilson, Postcards from The Smith/Novak Event, photograph, 1968

Fig. 3: Derek Boshier and Joe Tilson, Postcards from The Smith/Novak Event, photograph, 1968