Ravilious (Review of the Exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery)
Catalogue by James Russell, published by Philip Wilson Publishers, 2015
It’s time to admit it --Albion appears to have something of a Ravilious problem.This is the third article that we have run on the enigmatic artist who died in 1942, and indeed the last one, by Mark Jones, featured only last year. However, the blockbuster exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery was too important to pass up.Attending it was something of a bun-fight, given the huge crowds (according the Gallery’s website, this is apparently still the case, a remarkable development which some, the Guardian included, have taken as evidence of a cultural sea-change). The press found themselves corralled into a forty-minute queue and then, once in the exhibition, gingerly negotiating one another with numerous muttered apologies. Nevertheless, despite the occasional difficulty in getting to the paintings, the exhibition made one thing clear: reproductions, however technologically advanced, will never adequately capture the true nature of the colours in the originals. Once you have seen them, you will find yourself looking at prints with a peevish mien, trying and failing to summon up the original tints from memory.You will search in vain, for example, for an accurate rendering of the brilliant painting from 1938, Lifeboat.In other words, the exhibition is simply unmissable.
Critical perceptions of Ravilious’s work sometimes situate him perilously close to kitsch, given that he is well known for representations of iconic English landmarks such as the Westbury House or the Wilmington Giant.It is true that his commercial output in particular, although brilliant (his Design for Handkerchief, for example, depicts a cat through a minimalist arrangement of curves and stripes), is sometimes excessively charming, and a handful of his paintings are no more than mildly pleasant, though his more optimistic works are often raised to the level of great art by expansive joy and humour --see 1937’s Greenwich Observatory, for example.However, any attempt to portray his work as cosy and culturally conservative would overlook his greatest period, from 1939 to 1942, here thrown into surprisingly sharp relief by the thematic and non-chronological nature of the exhibition.The most thought-provoking paintings in each section are usually those from the war period, and here the challenging, sinister undertow typical of Ravilious becomes most obvious.
Ravilious famously painted boats in a way that captured a certain innate solidity and decency, usually in three-quarter profile (as in 1938’s Anchor and Boats, and the same year’s Yellow Funnel).A Warship in Dock, 1940, is something else entirely. The massive hull soars towards the viewer, while the men on board and on the gangplank appear insubstantial, dwarfed by the technology of war. This particular naming of parts detects an unnerving aesthetic appeal in the trappings of war, and there is something about the brutal nobility of Ravilious’s warships in general (such as the destroyer in Leaving Scapa Flow, 1940), that calls to mind the Vorticists. He also glimpses a modernist sculptural beauty in a ship’s screw and submarine propellers, forcing the viewer to re-evaluate these objects as something more than purely functional.Similarly, the justly famous lithographs of the Submarine Series belie their subject matter with their extraordinarily bright and jewel-like colours, while the phenomenal Ark Royal in Action, 1940, visually compares firing a broadside during the retreat from Narvik to a firework display or perhaps the Northern Lights.Not all the war paintings glorify potentially lethal force, however. Barrage Balloons Outside A British Port, 1940, is full of buoyancy.Ravilious captures the slightly ridiculous aspect of the painting’s subjects, tugging at their lines like aerial fish,and the whole painting, both in its textures and its joyful mood, captures something that is extremely difficult to portray, a boisterous English seaside wind, weather poised between sun and rain.
Most of the wartime paintings are troubling for more straightforward reasons, however.Dangerous Work at Low Tide (1940) contrasts a bright early morning with the threat to the tiny bomb disposal experts in the background, anxiously watched by another group of men in the foreground. In Room 29, Home Security Control Room, 1941, the female figure is markedly transparent, which leads one to wonder whether this hints at a tragic transience, or whether, as the excellent catalogue suggests, the painting has simply faded over time.Transparency was, however, a motif in Ravilious’ pictures before the outbreak of war: in 1938’s Wet Afternoon, a ghost-like walker recedes into the distance.
Those pictures from 1939-1942 which do not explicitly take the war as their subject are, in a sense, even more eloquent. In some of the prewar, apparently simple pastoral scenes, there is already a sense of threat.Caravans, 1936, has an eerie, existentialist edge, while in 1935’s Furlongs, the female figure has her back to the viewer and is staring at something outside the canvas--but what? Downs in Winter (1934) displays a similar ambiguity, with its almost-human, melancholy roller in the foreground. This, the catalogue notes, might be an example of the anthropomorphic objects that Paul Nash called ‘personages.’The sense of anxiety becomes significantly more powerful in the prosaic scenes that Ravilious painted during the war, however.It does not do to stand too long in front of 1939’s The Bedstead (a reprise of the earlier, nightmarish Farmhouse Bedroom): its partially opened door into another, darkened room quickly suggests sinister allegorical meanings. These are Van Gogh-like lonely interiors, domesticities devoid of psychological comfort. In RNAS Sick Bay, Dundee (1941), two of Ravilious’s favourite themes combine.An empty bed stands in a room with a window through which warships are visible, a study which, due to the view outside, is less claustrophobic than the earlier paintings of bedrooms. There is something ineffably tense about Tea at Furlongs, 1939, which the catalogue suggests is “not any old tea at Furlongs but the last, the one that must be preserved against all eventualities.”The absence of human beings at the tea table strikes the viewer as portentous. Where have they gone?
Turning to the technical aspects of the paintings on display, two areas in which Ravilious was a master become particularly evident.The first is his unparalleled command of light and its reflections in water, which points towards his Eastbourne upbringing.The excellent recorded commentary notes that he gained this expertise by painting directly into the sun, and many of the works capture bright environments beautifully, notably the sunbeam haze of South Coast Beach, 1939-42. Sometimes this is done in a particularly innovative way, such as in Newhaven Harbour, 1937, where the light dun-coloured paper chosen as the base projects a sunlit warmth through the watercolours. Three paintings from 1940 are particularly breath-taking for their treatment of light: Midnight Sun, HMS Glorious in the Arctic, and Norway.Ravilious had an eye for artificial light too, however. First, there is the brilliant evocation of outdoor night-time electric light in 1938’s Paddle Steamers at Night.The chiaroscuro of The Teleprinter Room, 1941, is stunningly beautiful, creating a dramatic setting that contrasts with the painting’s atmosphere of quiet watchfulness (despite, again, the absence of human beings). Ravilious's other major advance was his adaptation of the engraving technique of cross-hatching for watercolour, whichenabled him to capture a remarkable solidity that defies the apparent limitations of the medium.This is not to say that he did not also make the most of its delicacy:the well-known Tiger Moth, 1942, has a fine wash which leaves the pencil marksof the drafting still visible in the background.
One field in which Ravilious was not so technically advanced, however, is highlighted by the section Figures & Form, which demonstrates that his strength lay in studies of objects and landscapes rather than people.At best, his human figures have a slightly cartoonish aspect reminiscent of contemporary commercial art, and at worst they are lumpen and wooden --see, for example, the 1930 Drawing of Edward Burra Working in His Studio, with its subject’s improbably stiff posture.This may have simply been due to a lack of practice.Ravilious was known for leaving people out of his paintings, preferring to relegate human expression to objects, most entertainingly in Bathing Machines, 1938, which features an automated dispenser of egg-shaped chocolate in the shape of a glowering hen. His technical brilliance in other fields suggests that, had he applied himself to depicting human figures in a more naturalistic way, he would have achieved equal success.
Ravilious, as the catalogue notes, was notoriously mysterious, so that studying his paintings for meaning is sometimes akin to a Rorschach test, and almost as subjective. Nevertheless, considering these pictures --especially those from the war period-- leads this reviewer to the conviction that the most sinister are full of psychological danger, while the more cheerful always seem to be looking, with strained expectation, for something just out of sight.In the more inscrutable works, it is hard to decipher whether the all-pervasive sense of waiting is coupled with fear or hope: is this pre-apocalyptic tension, or weary endurance saved from disintegration only by the anticipation of relief? Overall, the wartime paintings and their unique, ambiguous vigilance are intensely reminiscent of a nineteenth-century hymn, Christian, Seek Not Yet Repose, often quoted during the war: “Principalities and powers,/Mustering their unseen array,/Wait for they unguarded hours:/ Watch and pray./... Watch, as if on that alone/Hung the issue of the day;/Pray that help may be sent down:/Watch and pray.”Attending the exhibition is important, not only to remember an immensely gifted young artist who was lost on patrol off Iceland in 1942, but also as a useful corrective to our age’s romanticising of the Home Front atmosphere. --Isabel Taylor
Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London, by Andrea Korda
The artistic genre known as Social Realism occupies something of an anomalous, even liminal, place in English art. Considered from an approximately chronological perspective, it bids farewell to the graceful histrionics of Pre-Raphaelitism without ever quite making it to the shores of modern art. As such, Social Realism as a circumscribed, somewhat troublesome genre, has never offered the delights of escapist reverie or been able to brandish its avant-garde credentials. However, for all its equivocal status, what Social Realism does provide, according to Andrea Korda in the book under review, is a telling insight into nineteenth century popular media and its uneasy relationship with more elevated forms of contemporary visual culture.
The term Social Realism is a retrospective one predominantly applied to the work of three artists: Luke Fildes, Frank Holl and Hubert Herkommer. The closest Korda comes to tracing its approximate usage in the Victorian era is in an 1878 review of Holl's painting Newgate: Committed for Trial wherein the work is denounced as one of those “strong realist pictures” which had regrettably strayed from the ranks of the more virtuously anodyne paintings with which the public were familiar. In Holl's picture, two groups of women and children are shown visiting their respective male breadwinners, both of whom are behind prison bars. The whole scene is presented with noticeably fewer touches of anecdotal sentiment than were usually found in the average genre picture of the time. Indeed, rather than drawing a moral lesson about the inevitable outcome of wrongdoing, the predominant theme is one of pity for the prisoners and their dependants. That this picture didn't go down well with Royal Academicians and critics, who found it altogether too sensitive to its unfortunate subjects, is indicative of the unsettling effect that the paintings of Fildes, Holl and Herkommer could have; at best, they were praised for their powerful immediacy, and at worst branded unnecessarily (and misguidedly) empathetic.
Such lucid renderings of the everyday world that lurked beyond the noble porticoes of the artistic establishment had their origins in the illustrations produced by all three artists for The Graphic, a popular weekly newspaper founded by William Luson Thomas in 1869. Indeed, not only had these artists contributed their work to The Graphic, but they had also gone on to revisit several of their more notable illustrations and use them as the basis for some of their later full-scale oil paintings which are now recognised as prime examples of the Social Realist genre. By carrying out this process of adaptation, Fildes, Holl and Herkommer were, Korda claims, adopting “the strategies of a commercial and mechanical mass culture as a means of revitalising high art.” Korda sees what she identifies as the objectification of vision which came with nineteenth-century technological advances in the reproduction of images, photographic or otherwise, as a key factor in the way newspapers began to populate their pages with illustrations. This objectification of vision promoted a certain detached, standardised evaluation of the reliability and utility of stock images. Hence the Illustrated London News sought to present its readership with scenes ostensibly devoid of mediation as impartial renderings of the world around them, in the hope of establishing a universal visual language which offered instant legibility for all. In contrast to such Utopian aspirations, Thomas's policy in The Graphicwas to encourage an artistically subjective approach amongst his illustrators. It was this kind of unconstrained remit which resulted in such pictures as Fildes' unremittingly mournful Houseless and Hungary in which a bedraggled line of individuals await admission to the workhouse. In a note appended to this picture when it appeared in the first issue of The Graphic, the artist states that it was sketched from life just a few minutes before the doors opened and these forlorn figures were received into the casual ward. When Fildes later reworked his subject matter in oils as Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward and exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1874, such was the painting's popularity that it had to have a barrier placed around it. Not that such popularity made any difference to the critics, one of whom described the work as depicting nothing more than “the squalor, the dirt and the rags of the herd” whilst another damned the artist with faint praise by conceding that he had “produced the startling impression of all wayward and unlovely reality.”As well as falling afoul of the critics for the way he emphasised an oppressive atmosphere of hopeless destitution in the picture, Fildes was also found at fault for depicting the lower orders as brutally crushed husks rather than poor but resilient plebeians ready to leap to the defence of Old England at a signal from their betters.
Not that the three artists in question intended to launch a concerted attack on the complaisant fables about working class and indigent experience which a good many of their contemporaries propagated. Taking the work of Herkommer as an example, his The Last Muster of 1875 (worked up from an illustration titled Sunday at Chelsea Hospital which originally appeared in The Graphic in 1871), features a group of ageing veterans attending a service in the chapel. One of their number has just passed away in one of the pews, and a concerned comrade reaches out to tug at his sleeve. As with Fildes' Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, Herkommer's painting had to be protected from the admiring crowds who came to view it, with critics again emphasising the work's “resolute unswerving realism.” However, in contrast to those pictures by Holls and Fildes already discussed, The Last Muster was also praised in print for its noble and touching elements, as well as for how it showed “the pathos of the deep marks of time and service and hardship in the rows of aged heads.’' In effect, as Korda remarks, by focusing on “universal themes of old age, death and grief,” the artist drew attention away from the old men's poverty and reliance on institutional support. In effect, this was Social Realism veneered with misty-eyed patriotism and deference for aged heroes. Turning to Fildes' The Doctor of 1891, a different kind of heroism is played out, with an eminently middle class physician taking centre stage as he sits in a labourer's cottage watching intently over a sickly child. In positioning the child's family in the shadows, Fildes readily admitted to making the radiantly illuminated doctor “the actor in the little drama I had conceived – father, mother child should only help to show him to better advantage.” What such examples indicate is that although Social Realism may have arisen out of “efforts to refashion the newspaper's strategies for the purposes of art” by drawing on the kind of prosaic imagery which some critics thought had no place in an art gallery, that isn't to say that the underlying structures of social hierarchy were systematically challenged by any of these artists in their efforts to draw attention to the plight of the old, the poor and the sick.
The question of who bought Social Realists’ work --and, indeed, why given their mixed critical reception-- is an interesting one. Korda cites three wealthy entrepreneurs, Thomas Taylor, Edward Hermon and Thomas Holloway, as the type of customer they attracted. All had lavish country retreats decorated with Old Masters and no readily apparent need to adulterate their collections with scenes of deprivation and disease in contemporary settings. However, Korda asserts, it was the anti-aesthetic, didactic qualities of these pictures which were so attractive to buyers who had often risen from humble beginnings.The popular newspaper culture which they had encountered on the way up had given them a taste for whatever was unostentatious and morally candid in art, particularly if it chimed with their interest in philanthropy and progressive social ethics. Mention of the newspapers that had so shaped the visual consciences of these ordinary-blokes-made-good leads us back again to Korda's main thesis, that illustrations which appeared in publications like The Graphic 'remediated' (as she has it) the pictorial media --e.g., history paintings and such like-- which came before it. In other words, in remediation “the new medium borrows the content or characteristic of an older medium with the purpose of calling attention to the way it is new and improved.” In the case of newspaper illustrations, they gave a new vitality and immediacy to the kind of subject matter that had previously been found in history and genre paintings. However, the process also worked the other way: by basing their full-scale exhibition paintings on newspaper illustrations, the Social Realist also demonstrated how the older media could sometimes remediate the newer.
All in all, it's an interesting argument, if a little relentless and somewhat at the expense of opening out the discussion to consider Social Realism from alternative angles. In fairness, however, the author never claims to be presenting a multifaceted history of the subject, and this is indicated by the specificity of the book's title. What remains is the distinct impression that the paintings produced by Fildes, Holl and Herkommer played a critical if mostly unsung part in nudging Victorian art out of its beauty sleep just before the alarm clock of modernism started to ring.--Mark Jones