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Exhibitions

East Anglian friends

Three exhibitions in East Anglia serve to remind us that museums and galleries outside London continue to programme stimulating events. At Norwich Castle is an excellent survey of British art from the beginning of the first world war to the end of the second — a time of great richness and considerable innovation. There’s so much of interest and value here that it’s difficult to decide what to mention and what to leave out.

26 March 2011

12:00 AM

26 March 2011

12:00 AM

Three exhibitions in East Anglia serve to remind us that museums and galleries outside London continue to programme stimulating events. At Norwich Castle is an excellent survey of British art from the beginning of the first world war to the end of the second — a time of great richness and considerable innovation. There’s so much of interest and value here that it’s difficult to decide what to mention and what to leave out.

Three exhibitions in East Anglia serve to remind us that museums and galleries outside London continue to programme stimulating events. At Norwich Castle is an excellent survey of British art from the beginning of the first world war to the end of the second — a time of great richness and considerable innovation. There’s so much of interest and value here that it’s difficult to decide what to mention and what to leave out.

The display begins with C.R.W. Nevinson’s ‘Twentieth Century’, depicting a brooding giant — the Moloch of War — surrounded by bold poster designs by McKnight Kauffer and William Roberts’s Vorticist masterpiece ‘The Cinema’. There are even some passable things by Roger Fry, usually not as effective a painter as a writer, and then a couple of marvellous pictures by his arch-enemy, Wyndham Lewis. One is his oil portrait of Edith Sitwell, the other a striking drawing entitled ‘The Rum Ration’. Here, too, is David Bomberg’s Vorticist ‘In the Hold’.

Frank Dobson is best known as a sculptor but he was also an accomplished painter as can be seen in his large oil called ‘The Balloon Apron’ (1918), featuring a colourful sunset over a ploughed field. Then there are lesser names such as Louis Duffy, Leslie Cole and Evelyn Dunbar, all worth looking at, together with the more expected figures of Moore, Piper, Spencer and Sutherland. Charles Sergeant Jagger’s bronze maquette for ‘The Sentry’ raises the tone even higher.


In the second room another Dobson, this time a gouache of the Cerne Abbas Giant done for a Shell poster, is followed by an inspired piece of hanging which juxtaposes Keith Vaughan’s ‘Talking Stones’ with Ben Nicholson’s ‘1933 (Design)’, a distinguished dialogue of profiles. Here, too, is a very beautiful John Armstrong tempera, ‘Dreaming Head’ (1938). The atmosphere of symbol continues with Leon Underwood’s ‘Casement to Infinity’ (1930), a very strange landscape with foreground emblems — skull, egg, pipe, butterfly, spider.

One of the gorgeous late landscapes of Paul Nash, a meditation on the eternal verities of nature, is hung with an abstracted nocturnal fantasy by Merlyn Evans and a Ceri Richards in which the blossoms are all explosions. Good to see one of Eileen Agar’s Brittany photographs hanging with photos by her great friend Nash, and sculptures by Moore and Hepworth nearby. Paul Nash’s underrated brother John is represented by ‘The Cornfield’ (1918), his best-known painting, hung near Eric Ravilious and Cedric Morris, all East Anglian friends and neighbours. Another brilliant piece of hanging brings Michael Rothenstein together with David Jones and Mildred Eldridge, in a shared mood of beguiling openness. Charles Ginner, James Fitton, Julian Trevelyan, Percy Horton — the fine things keep coming. This is an excellent exhibition and thoroughly enjoyable despite the underlying drumbeat of war.

In Ipswich, the Museum is mounting its second exhibition in the former Art School, this time of artists connected with the School, either as pupils or teachers. Maggi Hambling was a student there (1962–4) and as she is the best known alumnus the exhibition revolves around her. What almost amounts to a mini Hambling retrospective is hung in the central hall: three sculptures (a very early head of her tutor Bernard Reynolds; the maquette for her Brixton public sculpture of a heron; and a new golden bronze of a wave), a group of student works, a couple of large wave paintings that pick up the movement and colour of the bronze, and some recent prints. In the other rooms radiating off this central hub is an array of diverse talents, from Bernard Reynolds himself to Tom Phillips, Leonard Squirrell, Geoffrey Clarke, Andrew Vass, Eduardo Paolozzi, Colin Moss and Lawrence Self.

The magnificent 1930s Art School building is currently being leased. The grand strategy is to buy it and to incorporate it into the footprint of the Museum to create a greatly enhanced exhibition complex. This will, of course, cost money but the fundraising target is a surprisingly modest £600,000 by March 2012. There will be an auction in aid of the cause on Friday, 15 April at 6.30 p.m. (if you want to bid it is essential to register first with Emma.roodhouse@colchester.gov.uk), featuring work by Brian Eno (another famous student), Maggi Hambling, Colin Moss, Bernard Reynolds, Peggy Somerville and Leonard Squirrell. A great chance to support the project and acquire a piece of art at the same time.

Last chance to see an intriguing exhibition of paintings by Denis Wirth-Miller (1915–2010) at the spacious Minories Gallery in Colchester. Wirth-Miller lived at nearby Wivenhoe from 1944 until his death last year, and took as his principal subject the bleak mudflats of the Essex marshes. His place in history is assured through his lifelong friendship with Francis Bacon, whom he claimed as his muse. He is credited with introducing him to the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, which were to be such a fruitful and enduring inspiration for Bacon, and even helped with the occasional painting. In the 1970s, Bacon maintained a studio in Wivenhoe and the spiky reds and marsh grass that occasionally feature in his imagery would seem to have an Essex provenance — more specifically deriving from the paintings of his friend Wirth-Miller. Now we are given the chance to assess the lesser-known pictures on their own merits.

For a time, Wirth-Miller’s strikingly coloured and textured paintings were very fashionable, being a favourite of the interior designer David Hicks, who recommended their purchase to his clients. Wirth-Miller was self-taught and his paintings don’t look composed in the way that an academically trained artist would work, more as if they were sections of a larger image, or a length of fabric cut from a bolt. The textile analogy is apt — not only do his swirling linear patterns resemble fabric designs but his surfaces became increasingly knotted and ribbed and combed, almost like string stuck to the canvas. Texture is so important that glazing these pictures is a mistake; the big gold frames are like those Bacon favoured and look out of place on this work.

Wirth-Miller stopped painting at the end of the 1970s, probably due to failing eyesight and the discouraging comments of friend Bacon. In fact, the last works are his best: vivid evocations of landscape (Dartmoor alternating with Essex), swirling force-fields of raised, almost woven paint. ‘Estuary Landscape’ (1976) is a fine example, crusted dabs of yellow and lilac working with curling linear trails in this predominantly green and blue picture. Slashing diagonals of rain were a speciality, as was foliage stirred by gusts of wind. Trees tend to look like spinning tops, almost Futurist in their suggested motion. The hooped and curved cables of pigment which sway out of the vertical are occasionally crossed with horizontal accents in a loose grid design.

The first room of the exhibition shows a scraped and scratched stucco painting from 1941 in which texture was already a central preoccupation. The 1950s work is more vibrant in colour (reds and greens) or all dun and burnt matches. A catalogue (price £10) helps to put this interesting artist in context. Recommended.


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