In the most successful recent publication about Banksy's art, the artist (possibly) born as Robin Banks explains why he switched his graffiti from freestyle lettering to the use of increasingly complicated stencils. Wall and Piece (Century, 2005) describes how, as an eighteen-year-old, he was nearly caught by British transport police one night painting 'LATE AGAIN' on a train. He had to hide beneath a dumper truck that was leaking engine oil, after being "ripped to shreds" escaping through thorns. As he lay there covered with oil and waiting for the police to go away, he realised that unless he could find some way to reduce his painting time, he would have to abandon this kind of art completely. Then he had a eureka experience: "I was staring straight up at the stencilled plate on the bottom of a fuel tank when I realized I could just copy that style and make each letter three feet high."
That realisation was a turning-point for the young Banksy, and spelled much trouble and expense for countless local councils and government officials, around the country and abroad, who have since had to cope with a Banksy visit. He is now both a celebrated visual revolutionary averse to corporate branding and encroachment on public spaces, and a hated target for those who dislike his politics and sense of humour, and see him as nothing more than a criminal. Recently, his fame and notoriety have grown to such an extent that celebrities are queuing up to acquire one of his 'pieces.'
An important element in the Banksy mythology is that he is a sort of urban guerrilla who ventures out at night to reclaim public spaces from advertisers and marketing executives in the name of true art, all in strict anonymity. He is above corporate sponsorship (famously turning down numerous deals offered by Nike), and refuses to become another celebrity face on the cover of magazines or in reality TV programmes. As a result, his fame is now intertwined with his guerrilla image as he opposes mainstream culture with his politicised signs and stencils.
All graffiti and stencil art sprayed illegally on private property seems to provoke one of three reactions in most people: either that it is vandalism with no artistic merit, or that it is pure artistic expression, or an ambivalent response torn between both attitudes. Much graffiti can definitely be said to have very little artistic value, most obviously the thousands of name 'tags' that only serve to mark public spaces as territory. Far less common is the kind of graffiti that really does enliven and enhance the space it occupies. Banksy's works come under this latter category. By using graffiti as his medium, he takes the role of the driven rogue artist to its extreme.
Banksy is clearly one of the most original stencil artists in the world. He has caused shock and delight throughout Europe and America with his witty defacements, but he created his most controversial works on the barrier that the Israeli government is building between Israel and Palestine. These paintings seemed to upset the builders more than the Western media's critical reaction to the wall. His works, though simple, are obviously extremely powerful.
In 2003, Banksy hosted his first one-man exhibition, called 'Turf War.' This was about as close as he has ever come to the art mainstream. For the show he painted a number of farmyard animals, which he then exhibited in a warehouse in London. Taken as a one-off, it is remarkably similar to something that a Young British Artist (YBA) would do. The artistic motives behind the exhibition remain unclear, since comments from Banksy are rare. However, considering his attitude towards both the art market and the abundance of corporate branding and advertising in England, the use of farmyard animals as a sort of canvas might be a critique of the way in which consumers mindlessly buy into a system that is designed to enslave them. The patterns on the animals, derived from police colours and Andy Warhol, also suggest that he was making a political statement about what art is, and what it should do.
One of Banksy's favourite images, recurring very frequently in his work, is the rat. With characteristic briefness, he has explained that this is because rats are lowly and despised; they are pests living in dingy holes and shadows, stealing food to survive. Thus, for Banksy, the rat represents the ultimate anti-hero, and his images of rats in public spaces are invasions intended to threaten, for a moment, the everyday order of things.
Although Banksy, like the rat, has often been reviled, and some of his works have been covered over and pronounced worthless, over time his struggle to reclaim public art in defiance of corporate and governmental agendas has seen him inch closer and closer to the mainstream. Perhaps he enjoys such popularity within the English art scene because he really means what he says: he has invested part of himself in his works, in contrast to many contemporary artists whose integrity sometimes seems doubtful.
Hopefully, then, he will go on poking fun at the establishment with his subversive and sneaky wit, and, above all, continue to cover over the ugly public spaces that were never really public to begin with. Whatever his politics, that's revolutionary enough.--Alexander Flux
Review Freda Constable's The England of Eric Ravilious The England of Eric Ravilious Freda Constable with Sue Simon Lund Humphries 2003 (original hardback edition 1982)
This beautiful book captures the legacy of Eric Ravilious, one of the twentieth century's great practitioners of the English watercolour. Taught at the Royal College of Art and Design by Paul Nash, his work occasionally has a surrealistic edge that recalls his mentor, but the bleakness of much of Nash's work is generally absent from most of Ravilious' paintings.
Brought up in Edwardian Eastbourne, Ravilious was very much a coastal artist. He had a keen eye for the changing moods of sky and cloud and the strange, sometimes otherworldly light of the Sussex coast -in one picture the sun's almost apocalyptic glow throws the rise of land before the Dungeness lighthouse into sharp relief. He is a master at capturing the etherealising air that makes human figures and boats appear semi-transparent (Newhaven Harbour, 1936).
This marine sensibility is also clearly in evidence in his pictures of the countryside, particularly of the Downs, in which he captures their ocean-like roll, like the curves of leviathans, and their varying shades of greys, greens, and browns -a landscape at once primeval and domesticated, as Freda Constable remarks in her superb introduction. In almost all his landscapes, there are technological reminders (a train, a track, a fence) of humanity's presence, but these are not intended to warn us about our ecological footprint: at this point, nature still seemed big enough to survive unspoiled alongside human inventions, and the overall impression is one of ancient landscapes in harmony with the modern mechanised world. His masterpieces in this field are Chalk Paths (1935), The Westbury Horse (1939), Wiltshire Landscape (1937), and The Wilmington Giant (1939) (a notable exception to the harmony rule: the darkling hill that forms the background for the giant, the grey banks of cumulus above it, and the barbed wire fence in the foreground all seem to warn of the oncoming war).
Constable emphasises in her introduction the extent to which Ravilious used his expertise in design to produce his detailed and brilliantly-proportioned pictures, dominated by an extremely sophisticated use of line. This background in design is evident in Castle Hedingham (1936), a scene that has a timeless, almost mediaeval feeling about it: a haze obscures the castle in the distance while, in the foreground, a man with a sack, like a figure out of Brueghel, is entering a courtyard. The deliberate use of crooked angles and the viewer's uneasy feeling that perspective is somehow being flouted, however, tells us that this is a modern picture.
There is never anything overblown or extreme about Ravilious' work, which is entirely consistent with Constable's description of English watercolours as "essentially an expression of English moderation." His charming engravings, inspired by German and French models as well as by Thomas Bewick's work, show the same felicity and balance; his cover for the Cornhill Magazine is particularly beautiful, as are his decorations for an edition of Gilbert White's Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. These engravings are the best-known part of his work. However, Ravilious saw himself as primarily a watercolorist (he rejected oil painting with the memorable excuse that it was too much like having to paint with toothpaste).
Some of Ravilious' pictures exhibit a whimsical sense of humour. In Bathing Machines, a hen sits with her back turned to a row of bathing machines, her eye registering deep suspicion. As Freda Constable notes, birds again have the last word in Corporal Steddiford's Mobile Pigeon Loft (1942), in which the pigeons appear to look down their beaks at the humans who make up the air crew.
There is also poignancy in Ravilious' work, particularly his oddly-affecting interiors, with their drab browns and yellows; in these, Constable detects a note of menace produced by the use of blank spaces. The solitary furniture in these rooms creates, whether by accident or design, an atmosphere of loneliness and loss, somewhat reminiscent of the way in which Van Gogh used the chairs and beds in empty rooms to convey the emotional states of the rooms' inhabitants. Other ordinary objects take on personality and dignity in Ravilious' work: Farm Implements (1932) endows its two engines with extraordinary force of character. His work as an Official War Artist gave him a great enthusiasm for planes, which, in the words of Freda Constable, he depicts as "both heroic and amiable". By focussing on the beauty of machines -propellers, as Constable notes, become almost flower-like-- he was able to distract himself from the grimness of the war. Tragically, however, he died in 1942 while on active service, when his plane, from which he was trying to sketch a rescue mission, did not return to the base in Iceland.
This superbly-produced book, with its fine colour and black-and-white reproductions of Ravilious' work, is one of the few publications in print on an artist who did much to modernise the English watercolour. --Isabel Taylor
N.B. There is a marvellous retrospective of Eric Ravilious' work on the Imperial War Museum's website, and the Ravilious family website also contains many useful links.
Review The Geographies of Englishness: Landscape and the National Past, 1880-1940
The Geographies of Englishness: Landscape and the National Past, 1880-1940 Ed. David Peters Corbett, Ysanne Holt, Fiona Russell Yale University Press 2002
The development of English art between the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the Second World War has recently become of great interest to art historians, who now view English art as separate from the general trajectory of European art (based on art movements and trends), increasingly examining it in relation to ideas about landscape, cultural space, nationality, gender, and colonialism, all of which have to do with identity. This is a striking turnabout: the major fields of English artistic inquiry -sculpture, painting and architecture—have for many years only been analysed in relation to larger, Continental movements such as modernism, impressionism or cubism, but historians and critics are beginning to reject such strict categories, adopting instead more subjective and contextual methodologies.
This volume of essays sets out to examine certain aspects of English art from 1880-1940, in order to reassess its contribution to the contemporary debate surrounding English national character. English art began to change rapidly and significantly in the late nineteenth century, in response to changes in national art institutions, to England's international role, and to domestic social and political developments. The authors of these essays see Englishness as occupying a definite spatial and temporal context, but never present it as static or absolute, a point to which the editors of the book are careful to draw our attention: "The whole thrust of this book has been against any idea that Englishness is some ahistorical or absolute category. Our claim rather, is that at this particular historical juncture [1880- 1940], Englishness, ideas of nationhood and national identity are especially important and influential." National identity is therefore something that changes over time because of a range of external influences, and not a rigid set of characteristics defined as 'English.'
The geographical space that Englishness occupies is split diametrically between North and South, and also between rural and urban areas. The two idioms are similar, since, by the turn of the century, the North was largely viewed as an area spoiled by rampant industrialisation and urbanisation, whereas the South was often depicted as a rural preserve in which the English past was protected, and with it the traditional spaces of English identity. The first chapters discuss this South-centred view in detail, showing how in a number of cases English identity was constructed by idealising subject matter that invoked a pre-industrial past. This is shown to be anti-realist in some ways, since painters had to ignore certain aspects of the present in order to romanticise the past.
The second theme in the book is the tension between those artists and architects averse to industrialism and complete faith in scientific discovery, and those who did believe in modernism and contemporary production techniques. The clash of modernity and neo-classicism, as a fundamental concern of the art world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has been extensively discussed by historians. However, in this volume the writers argue that many English artists sought the reconciliation of traditional English values and modernity, and, in the case of the Vorticists, tried to create a new visual language based on modern English identity.
The essays in this collection provide a basis for re-evaluating certain long-held assumptions about the development of English art during the sixty years leading up to the Second World War. The relatively recent art-historical concept of national identity is used to show that the art created in this period is not simply neo-classicist or modern (or, in fact, easily categorised as either), but reflects anxiety about national identity and national purpose. Therefore this is an important contribution to art scholarship in England, particularly because it covers the very period in which the idea of 'nation' became so central. The book amply fulfils the editors' hope that it will "...recount the consequences for English art of the invention of nation in the midst of specific social and cultural contexts."--Alexander Flux