Tuesday 19 December 2023

Twentieth century British art

Twentieth-Century British Art at the Courtauld, London.

We went to the Courtauld to see the Claudette Johnson exhibition and since we were there we had a look at some of the other galleries, some that we had visited before, and some for the first time.

In this display the works range from the early years of the century, through two world wars, and into the 1960s and 1970s. The diversity of styles and approaches reflects the great changes and upheavals that characterise 20th century culture in Britain and this period of modern history more broadly. Several of the artists shown here were concerned with finding new ways of expressing the experience of particular places that resonated strongly with them. 

The paintings of London building sites by Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach are powerful testaments to the devastation and reconstruction of life and art in the city after WWII. Whereas they were drawn to the elemental forces at work as London was excavated and rebuilt, Peter Lanyon immersed himself in the primal drama of the wild landscape of his native Cornwall. He developed a new type of landscape painting that pushed the limits of representation to an extreme in order to express the intensity of his experience. 

Still life is the other theme that features strongly in this display. Although painting objects arranged on a table might seem limited in scope, still life has turned into a radical subject matter in the modern period. Matthew Smith's painting of flowers from the beginning of the century challenged conventional rules of representational art by presenting a scene bursting with colour and energy. With his large still life from the 1970s, William Scott moves the genre towards the realm of abstraction, distilling only the essential elements of his composition.

Patrick Heron, Still Life, 1948-49, (oil on canvas)

In this early still life, Heron explores the boundaries between abstraction and representation. He depicts objects, including an oil lamp and mirror, as simplified outlines against the bold hues of the wall ad window. Lines and colours appear to have a life of their own, beyond their purely representational function. Heron's approach at this time alligned him with major modern painters such as Matisse and Braque.

Patrick Heron, Red and Grey Still life with Balcony Window, 1950, (oil on canvas)

This ambitious still life is inspired by Cezanne and Braque but achieves a pitch of vibrant colour and flowing movement that is distinctively Heron's own.

David Bomberg, Zahara, 1954, (oil on board)

A dramatic view of the mountain town of Zahara in southern Spain. Bomberg renders the sun's searing heat in fiery reds and yellow. The forms of the buildings only just maintain definition amids the fierce energy of his brushwork. 

Frank Auerbach, Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, 1962, (oil on board)

Auerbach made a group of paintings of building sites across London as the city was being rebuilt following the devastation of WWII. He reworked this painting over many months, the paint accruing to an extraordinary thickness in places. Beams span the plunging depths revealed by the broken floor levels, and forms emerge within the encrusted paint. Auerback used the red lines of the beams to structure the frenetic scene of demoliton and construction he observed as the Empire Cinema was gutted and rebuilt.

looking closer

Leon Kossoff, Shell Building Site, 1962, (oil on board)

Kossoff drew and painted the bomb sites and building sites of London extensively after WWII.  This remarkable painting depicts the massive construction works undertaken on London's South Bank to replace the pavilions of the 1951 Festival of Britain with one of the city's first skyscrapers, built for the Shell oil company. Kossoff's painting is a vision of volcanic eruption as the new structures wrestle their way out of the deeply excavated earth. His vigorous working of the thick paint gives a palpable sense of creative energy.

Graham Sutherland, Study for the Origins of the Land, 1950, (gouache, pencil and crayon on paper).

This is a study for a large painting commissioned for the Festival of Britain, which was staged on London's South Bank in 1951. The work formed part of a pavilion telling the story of Britain's land, past and present. The study shows Sutherland creating a cross section of the earth's crust, like an exposed cliff face layered with accumulated earth, rock and fossils, vibrantly coloured and full of energy. The very narrow strip at the top is the earth's surface with the sun a swirl in the sky.

Peter Lanyon, Halsetown, 1961, (oil on canvas)

Far from depicting a conventional view of the village of Halsetown in Cornwall, Lanyon conveys the rush of sensations of moving through the landscape, with the colours of land, sea and sky animated by his lively brushwork. Lanyon learned to fly gliders so that he could experience the landscape from air.

Peter Lanyon, Eagle Pass, 1963, (oil on canvas)

A painting he made a few months after visiting Eable Pass, Maverick County in the US. The dominant red and yellow forms were likely based on his memories of the buildings and structures he saw visiting Eagle Pass. The greens and blues are an evocation of the sky and surrounding landscape of the banks of the Rio Grande river.

William Scott, Recent Orange Note, 1973, (oil on canvas)

The genre of still life was central to William Scott's art throughout his career. At first glance, this work appears to be an abstract composition, but it is rooted in real objcts that Scott painted often, arranged on a table top. The form on the left is based on a pan with a long handle while those on the right evoke plates, bowls and cups. This painting marks a new direction in Scott's work when, in the early 1970s, he began distilling the forms of his objects to create harmonies of shape and colour that invite contemplation.

Ivon Hitchens, Balcony View, Iping Church, 1943, (oil on canvas)

After his London home was bombed during the Blitz in 1940, Hitchens moved to West Sussex where he painted this view looking towards Iping Church from the balcony of a house. The open door divides the picture vertically; on one side, the sky is dark and threatening whereas the brightly coloured scene behind the glass door offers a contrasting mood. The vase of poppies - a poignant symbol of remembrance from WWI - strikes a mournful note, reminding us that the picture was painted at the height of WWII.

Barbara Hepworth, Sleeping Form, 1971, (white marble)

By the time Hepworth carved this work she had achieved a reputation as one of the most important and innovative sculptors of her generation. Sleeping Form is partly an homage to one of her formative influences, the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The work recalls his series of reclining heads and ovoid forms. However, the sculpture is distinctively Hepworth's own: the crescent-shaped cut is typical of her ability to reveal beauty and complexity in her chosen sculptural material.

Cecily Brown, Unmoored From Her Reflection, 2021, (oil on canvas)

Brown made this work for the curved panel at the top of the historical staircase in The Courtauld. When the building opened to the public in 1780, the panel contained a painting of the goddess Minerva and the Muses of Art and Learning by the Royal Academician Giovanni Battista Cipriani - long since lost. Brown's painting is the first to be displayed here in two centuries.

This backdrop, as well as The Courtauld's collection, sets the perfect stage for Brown, an artist who enjoys twisting the codes and canons of the past. In a realm of predominantly male artists gazing at the female nude, she decided to make the male body her central theme.

Brown's work envelopes the viewer in a dreamscape of painting, pushing back and forth between abstraction and figuration. Allusions to artworks she particularly admires float to the surface. For example, the figure of a bather to the right of the central figure group, which relates to Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe. Brown's work invites us to reimagine paintings from earlier times. The past and present flow into one another and onto the broad sweep of her curved canvas.


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