Review of Mary Rose Beaumont, Jane England, and John Mack's 'From There to Here' --The Art of Michael Buhler
'From There to Here': The Art of Michael Buhler Mary Rose Beaumont, Jane England, and John Mack (Agra Publications/Lund Humphries, 2013)
Many are familiar with Michael Buhler's name, but not with his actual work. This book seeks to redress that imbalance and is well illustrated, presenting a comprehensive collection of his finest pieces, the whole clearly demonstrating the sheer range and quality of his work. Buhler is a difficult artist to categorise, as he continually experimented, moving his art in different directions. The compilers of this book acknowledge that his output could be variable, but this is an interesting and competently put together collection of essays and illustrations which together present as complete a study of this important English artist as would seem possible.
Buhler was born in 1940 in London. His father, Robert Buhler, was a Royal Academician who taught at the Royal College of Art, and Michael was taught there by his father and others from 1960-63. After he left he struck out as a full-time artist while also working as a part-time teacher, and he combined these two roles for most of his life. He exhibited regularly, often in group exhibitions, and was a particularly keen member of the Chelsea Arts Club. He was very interested in UFOs and the paranormal, and he acquired a large collection of material on the subject, which is now held in the Archive for UFO Research in Sweden. In 2006 he was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, and he died in 2009.
After he left the Royal College in 1963, his paintings showed clear influences of Pop Art. In Campers by the Sea (1965), for example, figures are reduced to single lines while the inanimate objects, a car and a tent, are delineated in the same way. The landscape is a uniform brown, sky and water a similar blue. The whole picture is a stylised study in which the relationship between the human being and the landscape that he or she inhabits is ignored. It is an investigation into the dynamics of design: colour, as in the later works of Mondrian, is not nuanced, there is no lightness of touch or shading, and the eye is continually drawn back to the lines which mark the territory of the figure and the objects. It is not a great work, but it is an interesting one which clearly shows that Buhler was keen to experiment with current ideas. For the next ten years or so he continued to develop this theme of single lines enclosing coloured spaces or representing boundaries, often leaving the works untitled, although many of the shapes clearly hint at representation. Ultimately, I think, he came to realise that such a formal style was limiting, and this, combined with his burgeoning interest in UFOs, led him to change direction and begin working in a completely different style, within a new subject framework.
From 1980 onwards Buhler produced works which, although still mostly untitled, clearly reference alien life forms and their possible interaction with us. One untitled work from 1988 shows three alien forms confronting an expressionless man. The figures are situated within a box-like shape, with five glowing bright lights fixed on the curved edge of the box. Is this a representation of not only an encounter between alien forms and a human being, but an abduction? In narrative terms it is very much of its time. The 1980s were most certainly a period when interest in UFOs and possible alien visitations was at its height. Films like Alien and E.T. were hugely successful and fired the imaginations of many. Sadly, looking at these works now, they seem locked in the times in which they were produced. It seems as if the subject matter has overtaken Buhler, and he has become an enthusiast who wishes to convince us that such lifeforms really exist. There is nothing wrong with this, obviously, but artistically it creates problems. A closer look at another work, Untitled, from 1984, will make this point more clearly.
An oval-shaped disc with blazing yellow lights in its centre seems to be hovering over an urban landscape. The curved lines of light around this object suggest that it is spinning, while stationary in its own space. Beneath the shape is a beam of light which also seems to be pulling a car towards it. It is a classic scene which could come from any 1950s or 60s sci-fi B-film, and here is the problem. By using fairly standard images from the UFO spotters' world of the second half of the twentieth century, Buhler has watered down his art so that it has become a servant to the message that he wants to convey. This has a detrimental effect on his art. Indeed, on close examination of these works it becomes harder and harder to take them seriously. It is a challenge not to smile at spinning space saucers sucking up human beings for closer study, when they are painted in luminous colours against a black background. Thankfully this period of his painting life only lasted a few years before he returned to more fruitful subjects and forms.
Perhaps his most successful period was in the 1990s, when he produced a number of works which were based on his observations of the city at night, broken up with garish neon lights. Unlike his UFO paintings, these are real-life images which are enhanced through the use of bright coloured lights. Again, mostly untitled, they form a body of work which can stand alongside many other series in which artists have explored the same themes over and over again. The firmness of line that was present in his very early work is still visible, and the control of the bright colours is clearly evident. These skills are combined with a suitable subject matter to make a group of works which engage and fascinate. Together they show that despite the early limitations Buhler developed into a serious artist of considerable talent.
Buhler's drawings, collages and, finally, the black-and-white card constructions conclude the book. The drawings are highly skilled and well worth looking at. The collages and constructions are less interesting but do demonstrate, if this were needed, that Buhler was a considerable artist, no matter which medium he was using. The essays in the book are illuminating, as are the artist's own words. In 1960, as a young man of twenty and about to begin to study at the Royal College, he wrote: "in representation the problems are staring at one and it is largely a question of translating and expressing one's view of reality into paint. This is said in one line but thousands fail to translate and save the spirit of reality which is their subject..."As a statement on the true nature of representational painting as Buhler saw it, this is exemplary, and through study of the works in this book you can see how important that single line became. Buhler was a fine artist, and it is fitting that at last there is a volume of his work which demonstrates this fact.--Paul Flux
Review of Andrew Causey's Stanley Spencer: Art as a Mirror of Himself
Stanley Spencer: Art as a Mirror of Himself Andrew Causey (Lund Humphries, 2014)
Pre-First World War Cookham must have been a fascinating place. As Gilbert Spencer remembered it, there were "many strange characters in Cookham in our younger days...Stan almost unconsciously used them as figures in his pictures...I recognise so many of [them]." The 'Stan' he referred to was, of course, his brother, the celebrated artist Stanley Spencer, whose use of this Berkshire village as the setting for so many of his works has given the place a sort of dual identity as picturesque Thames Valley tourist attraction and numinous suburb of heaven.
A typical walk through Spencer's conception of Cookham in the early years of the twentieth century would have involved witnessing a series of biblical scenarios. You might, perhaps, have started out by pausing to contemplate The Nativity taking place by a wicket fence before moving on to observe heavenly visitors advancing through the fields, then, as you got near the centre of the village, you might have had to dodge local residents in the street as they hurled themselves out of overgrown front gardens towards Christ, passing by astride a donkey. Undaunted, and having looked in on the Last Supper (held upstairs at the local brewery), you might finally have found yourself taking a breather by the local churchyard just as the Resurrection was getting underway. Such was the thinness of the veil between divine and daily existence in this artist's version of his beloved community, and yet, as Andrew Causey's book Stanley Spencer: Art as a Mirror of Himself points out, that should not imply that what we are dealing with is merely some whimsical ascetic projecting a childlike religious sensibility onto everything he saw. If that were the case, Spencer's body of work would long since have been assigned the status of an entertaining but ultimately obscure curio. Instead, for my money, Spencer's best pictures are amongst the most entrancing and important ever produced by an English artist.
Although the title of Causey's book might seem a little overblown or even clunky, there is ample evidence in the text to demonstrate what is meant by Spencer's art being his own 'mirror.' Certainly it could be said that, in the act of creating a visual articulation of some mental image or concept, all artists are hypostatising a reflection, or mirror, of their own impulses and motives. In that sense, Spencer is no exception. However, it is the degree to which Spencer himself recognised and relied upon an awareness of this 'mirroring' approach in his work which is of particular interest. This is notably the case in terms of his sense of a subjective identity: he claimed that "there are two parts to myself, one is me, and the other is the life around me, which is me also...I am aware that all sorts of parts of me are lying about waiting to join me." As esoteric as this statement might first appear, the more one looks into Spencer's work the more it substantiates the artist's claim to be accruing a subjective whole by reciprocally merging with key elements of his lived experience so that, ultimately, as Causey puts it, "the totality of his art was the mirror of himself."
Should such theorising suggest that Spencer's art is a humourlessly skewed exercise in narcissism, the advice is - go to the work. In example after example, there is a wonderfully energetic sincerity which never seems affected or mired in self-indulgence. Equally, Spencer is never dour or precious. He can sometimes be cryptic or unsettling but not, unlike some of his peers and imitators, gratuitously so. Almost inevitably, given the supernal themes which seem to lurk beneath the surface of much of his work, Spencer has occasionally been described as a 'visionary.' This is a term which has long been blunted in artistic circles through over-use and is best avoided until it has regained some measure of descriptive value. Better, as Causey does, to talk of Spencer's singular 'vision' as a defining realisation which shaped his future endeavours in terms of his awareness that "everything was full of special meaning and this made everything holy." This spiritual awareness is at its most undiluted in the paintings which Spencer produced prior to his call-up in 1915, with what came after bearing the scars of war and sexual maturity. A key example of this pre-enlistment work is John Donne Arriving in Heaven from 1911. In this painting we have an early, and uncharacteristically grainy, example of figures moving across the Cookham landscape, each displaying that curiously meditative introversion which is shared by so many members of the crowd in Spencer's pictures. Causey provides a fascinating commentary on this painting.It was inspired by one of Donne's sermons in which he argued for contiguous concepts of heaven: the "heaven of glory" or eternal realm to which the unfettered soul rises after death, and the "heaven of joy" which is available to all in the here and now. If the soul has already recognised and partaken of the "heaven of joy" here on earth, at the point when it departs the body its transition to the "heaven of glory" is immediate inasmuch as it is, in Donne's words, "heaven all the way." As Causey explains it, the figures situated in this field in various states of prayer represent Donne himself experiencing heaven in its dual manifestations. By extension, this is also reminiscent of Spencer's own inclination to superimpose the sacred onto his everyday surroundings as a form of worship. Similar pictures from this early period, such as Joachim Amongst the Shepherds (1913) and Zacharias and Elizabeth (1913-14) continue this mood of spiritual tranquillity at the intersection between the heavenly and material spheres. Two paintings from this stage of Spencer's career which were not concerned with biblical scenarios, Mending Cowls, Cookham (1915) and Swan Upping at Cookham (1915-1919) with their wonderfully bustling detail, distorted perspective and oddly dreamlike figure studies, presage much of his best work from after the First World War.
Spencer's war years were spent initially as an orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps, first in England and then in Macedonia, before, in 1918, he saw action as a private soldier with the Berkshire Regiment. His experiences during this period of service combined with a predisposition to dwell on individual and collective rebirth as a means of solace and redemption culminated in probably his single best-known large project, which he carried out for the Oratory of All Souls at Burghclere in Hampshire, otherwise known as the Sandham Memorial Chapel. Here, from the mid- twenties until 1932, Spencer decorated the interior with a series of oil on canvas paintings which fill the walls in a similar way to Giotto's work for Padua's Arena Chapel in the fourteenth century. Indeed, as Causey points out on more than one occasion, in certain significant respects, such as figurative delineation and perspectival organisation, Spencer's style bears striking similarities to much early Renaissance art. As far as the Oratory's subject matter goes, this is mostly based on the artist's own experiences of the soldier's life, dealing with such mundane topics as kit inspection, ablutions, reveille and bed-making, as well as aspects of Spencer's time spent as an orderly tending the wounded. Nearly every scene is a hive of activity, and yet one never gets an impression of clamour or chaos, as each character dutifully goes about his business with an air of contented introspection. Unlike some of his artistic contemporaries, Spencer does not dwell on the savagery of the battlefield or the threat of impending violence. Instead, his is a world in which soldiers resemble reflective boy scouts, carrying out their duties after having been cleansed or beatified by their experience of front-line combat.
The centrepiece of Spencer's endeavours in the Oratory is his The Resurrection of Soldiers, which covers the entire east wall facing the entrance. In this work soldiers emerge from their graves in a war cemetery, the white crosses which marked their last earthly resting place pushed aside into scattered piles. On one level this could be taken as the artist's attempt at an emblematic Day of Judgement scene in which the honoured dead are reconciled with their maker. However, Spencer was also at pains to point out that this work is "not necessarily a resurrection from the dead." Causey takes this to mean that, in a sense, the artist wanted to depict a process of psychological regeneration for those who had survived the traumas of the war years, while also referencing the renewed interest in spiritualism, and its investigation of the threshold between life and death, that had developed in twenties popular culture as people made efforts to get in touch with their fallen loved ones. As the keynote work in the Oratory, The Resurrection of Soldiers is a truly striking image. It is also, in some respects, the culmination of Spencer's interest in the depiction of unalloyed Christian redemption, a theme which, away from this commission, he would start to explore in much more ambivalent ways.
At around the same time as his Oratory project, themes of rebirth and re-awakening would also feature heavily with reference to Spencer's beloved Cookham, in what is, in several respects, a paradigmatic painting in this artist's oeuvre. In The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-26), the local churchyard plays host to the dead rising again. To be more accurate, they are not so much rising again as having a good look round before languorously making their way out of their graves. From the evidence of the verdant scenery, it appears to be high summer and these reawakened figures seem perfectly comfortable in their surroundings, their presence and actions infused with all the internal logic of a pleasant dream. Spencer portrays himself lying on a tomb which resembles an open book, whilst Hilda Carline, who would soon become his first wife, is also depicted amongst the throng in several places. For Causey, this painting is "a celebration of a proud and contented Stanley" who had awakened to "the prospect of love and marriage and children." That being the case, it also indicates a subtle shift in emphasis from artfully contrived Biblical allegory to a more temporally grounded sense of spirituality. This transition had been previously heralded in Christ's Entry into Jerusalem (1921), in which the depiction of Jesus riding his donkey down a Cookham street seems to place greater emphasis on the local residents' strange reactions to the Saviour (some levitating, some skipping, and others reeling back from him) than it does on the faithful re-enactment of a scene from the Gospels in modern dress.
Whilst continuing to represent his surroundings as suffused with an intrinsically extramundane quality, so that virtually any group of people that Spencer depicted, whether car mechanics, house builders or dustmen, seem to have a beatific quality to their actions, one of the other areas of his life upon which his paintings would come to dwell was his relationship with both of his wives. His marriage to Hilda seems to have been difficult, to say the least. Spencer could, by his own admission, be resolutely self-absorbed whilst Hilda has been described as obstinate and irascible. Nevertheless, there appears to have been a strong bond between them which endured despite their divorce in 1937. In his own fashion, Spencer remained devoted to Hilda so that, according to her brother Richard, "in a curious way Stanley did not accept they were separated, even when she died." His paintings of her are sensitively accomplished studies of a woman who looks permanently spellbound by her own dissatisfactions, to the point that, in several of them, she seems to have fallen into a kind of sullen catalepsy. In his depictions of Hilda and in his few self-portraits Spencer, whose figure studies can, at other times, seem almost cartoon-like in their antic energy, demonstrates what a skilled and nuanced recorder of human emotions he could be. This ability to cast an all-too-revealing light on those nearest to him takes a particularly intimate, even voyeuristic turn in his paintings of his second wife, Patricia Preece. In several books on Spencer's life, Preece has been portrayed as something of a glamorous gold-digger who sexually mesmerised the artist into lavishing her with financial favours, only, in turn, to keep him at arm's length for the duration of their short-lived marriage. As a result of this treatment, Spencer came to realise that Hilda remained the most important woman in his life, with Patricia as a sort of libidinous siren in the background who continued to excite him. All very prurient and cheerless as far as it goes, and yet, in his depictions of Preece, Spencer's ability to articulate his sense of sexual fascination with her produces some remarkable excursions into desire, objectification and, on Preece's part, icy disregard. In his nude portraits of Preece from 1935, her starkly rendered nakedness fills the canvas as if she were so much fleshy landscape to be journeyed over in search of carnal comfort, a prospect decidedly at odds with the subject's Medusa-like stare, which seems to pitilessly assess the viewer's scopophilic intentions. In his Self-Portrait with Patricia Preece of 1937, Spencer kneels in front of his wife who lies on a bed. They are both naked, the artist shown from the shoulders up gazing at his recumbent partner, who cups her head in one hand and stares past him in vacant ennui. In terms of what it suggests about the artist's unrequited ardour for this woman, along with undertones of subjugation and internalised inadequacy, this is surely one of the most poignant works that Spencer produced.
Not that Spencer always saw the human body as a subject of somewhat bitter fascination. Indeed, Causey suggests that from the mid-thirties on, roughly in parallel with related contemporary European artistic innovations, Spencer began to depict the body and bodily movement with a good deal more freedom and Rabelaisian zest than hitherto. Causey links this move with Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the body operating within the terms of what he called "grotesque realism." There is a carnivalesque, over-abundant quality to the body in grotesque realism which early Capitalism's requirement for modesty and discipline attempted to contain. Such repressive strictures were alien to the body (taken as a singular and collective concept) in the agricultural societies of the Middle Ages, and Causey marshals a number of sources to suggest that Spencer's art represents a form of continuity with that earlier mediaeval sensibility, not least because Spencer had been exposed to the remnants of a pre-industrial society whilst growing up in the Cookham community. Be that as it may --and there does seem to be a justifiable case for making these connections in Causey's fuller analysis-- in works such as The Village Lovers and Adoration of Old Men, both from 1937, and the Beatitudes of Love series from 1938, there is a rambunctious liveliness to the scenes depicted which, in some respects, evokes a Donald McGill-like sauciness that is belied by the paintings' aura of hypnagogic innocence.However, lest this suggest that Spencer was some sort of paintbrush-clutching Benny Hill figure, any viewing of these paintings will reveal that there is something far more mercurial and destabilising going on in them than mere passing ribaldry.
There is a fairly well-known photograph of Spencer taken in 1958, just a year before his death aged 68. It shows him pushing a pram which contains his artist's equipment as he wanders the streets of Cookham in search, perhaps, of another sanctified corner of the village to paint. By then Spencer was a Royal Academician with a CBE to his name and would, in 1959, go on to be knighted. In the later part of his career, he produced some notable works including one, The Resurrection, Port Glasgow (1947-50), which saw him return to a familiar leitmotif.However, whilst he was being feted by the cultural mandarins, Spencer was, by the end of his life, having a much rougher time of it with the art critics. Wyndham Lewis, for example, found him "endlessly repetitive," whilst David Sylvester stated that "with Spencer we are not convinced of the authenticity of his world, only that of his idea. The world he creates is not the incarnation of his idea, only the illustration of it." Spencer, the eccentric old man pushing a pram through his village paradise, had apparently turned out to be both a quaint doyen of British art and a rather unconvincing one-trick pony.Looking back on his art now, over half a century after his death, gives us a chance to assess his work without the contemporary baggage which always accrues around renowned artists towards the end of their careers, usually in terms of either celebrating a lifetime's achievements or taking iconoclastic pot-shots at someone seen as a representative of the old guard. Thankfully, Spencer's art has survived such localised tussles. His pictures remain as vital and arresting as ever. As Causey's book shows, a stroll through Cookham with Stanley Spencer is still a journey worth making.--Mark Jones