Art Criticism

Living on the Margins – Joan Eardley at the Scottish Gallery

Published in The London Magazine

Joan Eardley Centenary, The Scottish Gallery
30 July – 28 August 2021

Lonely people are drawn to the sea. Not for this artist the surge and glitter of salons

‘Flood Tide’, Joan Eardley

She has often been described as a forgotten Scottish painter. Neither of those things are quite accurate. Joan Eardley, who died in 1963 at the age of forty-two, has always been admired by the cognoscenti for her soulful portraits of Glaswegian children and her fluid, expressionistic landscapes. She was not Scottish but English, only moving to Scotland by chance. But what is undoubtedly true is that for a socially awkward, young gay woman, the male-dominated 1950s artworld, and Glasgow in particular, was a difficult place in which to make a mark.

Born in 1921 in Sussex, on a diary farm run by her father, she was five when her mother took her and her sister to live with her grandmother and aunt in Blackheath. It’s not completely clear what happened but it seems the farm failed and was sold. Three years later in 1929, her father, who had been gassed in the Great War, committed suicide. War was, again, to colour her life when, in late 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War, she, her mother, grandmother and sister all relocated to Bearsden, a comfortable middle-class suburb just north-west of Glasgow.

In London, Eardley had briefly attended Goldsmiths College of Art and from Bearsden she, now, began to commute into the city to attend classes at the Glasgow School of Art. It was to became her creative hub for a decade, providing her with evening classes and, eventually, a travelling scholarship that enabled her, in 1949, to visit France and Italy to broaden her art historical knowledge. As an adult, she could have moved back south and become part of the Soho art scene – drunk with Francis Bacon and the two ubiquitous Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde – but Glasgow suited this cripplingly shy young woman who seemed to feel she didn’t quite belong anywhere. During her time at Glasgow Art School, she began to make frequent visits to the studio of the Polish artist Josef Herman, who happened to be living in the city. His political images of Welsh miners and loose brushwork were to become influential to her future work, perhaps giving her permission to broaden the scope of both her style and subject matter.

Girl with a Poke of Chips, Joan Eardley, oil on canvas with newspaper, 68 x 50 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
The Striped Cardigan, Joan Eardley, 1962, pastel on glass paper, 26 x 24 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
Grey Beach and Sky, Joan Eardley, 1962, oil on board, 56 x 107.5 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
Catterline Landscape, Joan Eardley, c.1962, oil on board, 94 x 104 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery

By temperament she was drawn to the marginal and the liminal and felt at home among the condemned tenements of the Gorbals. An outsider, she was attracted to those on the wrong side of the tracks, to a fast disappearing Glasgow, to the gypsy camp at Bearsden, the cranes and bomb damage of Clydebank, to the city’s tight family clans and street life, seeing the place as a rich, vibrant entity. Setting up her studio in Townhead – by any stretch of the imagination a soot-blasted slum – close to George Square and the City Chambers, she befriended the Samson children. With their raw cheeks and snot encrusted noses, they epitomised a warmth and authenticity she seemed to crave. She was, by all accounts, ‘a lovely, lovely person’, though quite ‘mannish looking’ who used to give the ‘wee sketches’ she tacked to her studio wall to the children who posed for her, often to be used by their mothers, later, as kindling.

Like that other perennial artist outsider, Van Gogh, Eardley had natural empathy for the dispossessed. She felt at home among those who were too busy surviving to make judgements about her, simply accepting her for who she was. She loved the vibrancy of the Samsons. ‘They are full of what’s gone on today,’ she said in a taped interview:

– who has broken into what shop and who has flung a pie in whose face – it goes on and on. They just let out their life and energy… I do try to think about them in painterly terms…all the bits of red and bits of colour and they wear each other’s clothes – never the same things twice running – they are Glasgow… as long as Glasgow has this I’ll always want to paint.

These relationships, without the need for social niceties, suited her down to the ground.

An aura of poverty clung to the children she painted, The Girl with a Poke of Chips (1960-63), with her dirty snagged hair and rosy cheeks, the eczema-raw lipped little girl with the pudding basin hair cut in The Stripped Cardigan (1962). Eardley made thousands of quick sketches of these rag-tag-and-bob-tail children who’d only oblige her by staying still for so long. Many of the drawings were made in pastel on sandpaper to catch as many pigments as possible. Her hasty dark drawings share something of the raw immediacy and compassion of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters that depicts the harsh life of those in the coal mining district of the Borinage, Belgium. Other paintings, such as the dominantly blue Girl and Chalked Wall, (c. 1959-62), where a small girl is subsumed into the pattern of graffiti on the wall behind her, elide a sense of place with the people of that poverty-hardened community, in much the same way as Paula Modersohn-Becker did with the peasant children she met in the village of Worpswede on the north German moors. At her best, these are moving, insightful portraits but, at times, perhaps due to the sheer number she did, they slip into a mawkish sentimentality that smacks of the Montmartre pavement artist’s wide-eyed urchins.

Eardley’s first paintings of Catterline date from the 1950s. Catterline was a fishing village with a population of around eighty: ‘just vast waste, and vast seas, vast areas of cliff.’ Eardley visited the village for ten years, staying with her friend Annette Stephen (née Soper) who offered her the free use of her property, before renting a cottage and eventually buying her own in 1959. It was in Catterline that she found her real subject in the wide fields and shoreline, the panoramic views from the cliffs. Although mostly domestic in scale, these paintings have the immersive drama of larger works. The gnarled trees blasted by spray and wind, the land honed by centuries of agriculture and the pounding rhythms of the sea give the viewer the sense of being immersed in the landscape, as one might be in the rich language of a Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem. There’s a visceral immediacy here that verges on the spiritual, an attempt to represent what cannot be said in words. As René Girard wrote in Violence and the Sacred, (1984) ‘Violence is the heart and soul of the sacred’.

Like Turner, who allegedly lashed himself to the mast of steamship for four hours during a nocturnal storm in order to recall it with greater accuracy, Eardley strode out into snowstorms and gale force winds in her RAF flying suit and boots, her Sybil-Thorndike-Joan-of-Arc haircut soaked against her broad face, to paint in all weathers, her easel held in place with rocks and rope to stop it blowing away. The result was a set of extraordinary elemental paintings where the expressive handling of paint lead not only to an intense drama but animated the pent up maelstrom within her, the depression, the outsider status at her ‘inappropriate’ female loves.

Yet Eardley became a valued part of the village community, finding a place for herself on this edge of the land and sea. She worked tirelessly, walking around the untamed windblown countryside with a sketchbook. With its dirty light and dark cloud-laden sky that threaten the salt blown tree in the left of the canvas, Catterline Landscape (1962), is a work of great sensibility. While Grey Beach and Sky (1962) has all the painterly and emotional spectacle of Constable’s Rainstorm over the Sea (1824-28), with its thunderous black clouds and torrential downpour that captures, as does Eardley’s own painting, the atmosphere in a few hasty sweeps of the brush. The sea’s turbulent movement is achieved by the pulled white paint sweeping in a wave of spume up the dark beach to the small white cottage. It was, as she describes it: ‘A big sea – with lovely light – greyness and blowing swirling mists – and latterly a strong wind blowing from the south, blowing up great froths of whiteness of the sea, like soap suds into the field behind out wee house.’ Yet a male critic criticised her for not being able to free herself from representation and embrace pure abstraction, comparing her unfavourably to the Cornish Peter Lanyon. But this was to misunderstand her work and the equivalent of complaining that Emile Nolde wasn’t Picasso.

If Joan Eardley hadn’t been a shy gay woman, who hid herself away in the depths of Scotland, but had been part of the bohemian Soho set – and more conveniently for the times – a man, she would have, undoubtedly, been better known. But because she was a woman, her fate, like that of her contemporary, the artist Sheila Fell, who painted the Cumberland landscape, was not to be taken seriously. Despite her outsider status, she was a natural painter with the equivalent of perfect pitch. Paint was her language, one in which she could give voice to her quelled passions and love of nature for, as Van Gogh once wrote: ‘Art is to console those who are broken by life.’

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

Charlotte Salomon at Jewish Museum London

Published in The London Magazine

And Still the Flowers Grow
Life? Or Theatre?

Charlotte Salomon, Jewish Museum London
8 November 2019 – 1 March 2020

Although the scientific jury is still out on the matter, there is evidence that trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, and then be passed down through subsequent generations. There is no measurable mutation. Instead the mark appears to alter the mechanism by which the gene is converted into functioning proteins. The change is epigenetic rather than genetic. This might go some way to explain the life and work of the German artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-43). For she was, to use the art historian Griselda Pollock’s words, ‘a transgenerational carrier of encrypted trauma, of undisclosed secrets.’

So, who was Charlotte Salomon and why should we remember her work? Well, the first part of the question is easier to answer than the second. Born in Berlin, her family was Jewish, well-to-do and assimilated. Her father, Albert Salomon, fought for Germany in the First World War, later becoming a surgeon. The household was musical, cultured and enjoyed a comfortable life. They celebrated Christmas and went skating. But at the age of eight tragedy hit. Charlotte’s mother died, apparently from influenza, and her father re-married a well-known opera singer, Paula Lindberg. For a while Charlotte attended art school in Berlin, one of a tiny number of Jewish students admitted due to her father’s status as a war veteran. There she won a prestigious prize with her work Death and a Maiden. Though, as a Jew, she was unable to claim it and left soon after.

A shy, introverted girl she was sent, after Kristallnacht, to stay with her grandparents in Villefanche, in Pétain’s France, not yet annexed by the Nazis. In 1940 she and her grandfather were interned in a concentration camp. On their release they went into hiding, helped by a generous American, Ottilie Moore. It was during this period that Charlotte produced her huge, enigmatic and multi-layered artwork Life? or Theatre? She also married the Romanian Jew, Alexander Nagler, before being re-arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Such are the bare bones of her biography. But what is Life? or Theatre?

Put simply it is one of the most original art works of the mid-twentieth century (though it only came to light in the 1970s) and one of the hardest to classify. A visual autobiography where the authorial voice functions like a Greek chorus, the work was created from hundreds of numbered gouache paintings with textual overlays, conceived to be accompanied by musical interludes. A memoir of becoming akin to a self-conducted Freudian analysis, it is an Orphic journey into an underworld of trauma and a fight for psychic survival against the dark forces of a family’s history.

But Life? or Theatre? is no naïve outsider artwork. Rather it is a project of extraordinary ambition and complexity. For all its idiosyncrasy and refusal to be pinned down by fixed meanings, it is firmly rooted in the work of Modernist painters such as Kirchner, Nolde, Käthe Kollwitz, Munch and Van Gogh, as well as the silent Expressionist cinema of German filmmakers such as Fritz Lang. Filmic in its unfolding, it employs the narrative tension of a Greek drama or Bildungsroman. Yet, it is steeped in the tradition of German satirical musical theatre – Singspiele – such as Brecht and Kurt Weill, it can be read as a theatrical ‘happening’, a visual anthem to memory and a mission to find meaning in life through the making of art; all created under the shadow of the Holocaust.

Charlotte Salomon’s family carried many secrets. Her mother, Franziska Grünwald, did not in fact die of influenza, as her eight-year old daughter was led to believe, but by suicide. One of eight female and two male relatives to die by their own hand at a time when suicide was regarded as a sign of degeneration that could infect whole families. Other relatives included Charlotte’s aunt and grandmother (who, like her mother, threw herself out of a window, in an event witnessed by Charlotte). Remembered by those who knew her as a shy, taciturn girl, it was her friendship with the penniless singing teacher, Alfred Wolfsohn, who gave singing lessons to her stepmother, that provided her with a philosophical and artistic road-map out of the slough of despond that she inhabited, of which she wrote: ‘If I can’t enjoy life and work, I will kill myself….’

Wolfsohn had served at the front during the First World War and had been traumatised with shell-shock. To cure himself he developed a mechanism that utilised the voice as a restorative vehicle, suggesting that there was a connection between death, the human soul and artistic expression. It was he who taught Charlotte to look death and trauma in the eye, in order to become free of fear. As a result, she fell deeply in love with him. A love which, despite some evidence of a physical relationship between them, was largely unrequited. Although Wolfsohn played stepmother and stepdaughter against each other, he believed in Charlotte’s artistic ability and gave her the emotional courage to embark on a cathartic journey that led to her death-denying, life-affirming creation Life? or Theatre?

It was in the South of France during the summer of 1940, that she found, with the support of Ottilie Moore, the space to delve deep into her psyche to produce over a thousand images. Divided into three parts: ‘Prelude’, ‘Main Section’ and ‘Epilogue’, not unlike the acts of a play, the ‘actors’ in Life? or Theatre? are types whose naming serves an ironic purpose. They list her dramatis personae, painted in capital letters of red, blue and yellow gouache, approximate to those who peopled her life. In the transparent overlay for The Monster, a blue and red skeleton with huge hands fills the sheet of paper, looming above a row of Lilliputian figures drawn in red. The accompanying text reads in the third person: ‘And whenever she has to walk along the endless wide high dark passage in her grandparents’ home, she imagines something terrible, with skeleton’s limbs that have something to do with her mother. Then she is filled with panic and begins to run- run-run….’ This skeleton is the quintessence of a child’s night terrors. It is Nosferatu, or the German bone man, Knochenmann, a bogeyman that stands in contrast to the daytime images of children playing with hoops in the park or building snow men.

It is only when we are drawn further into the drama, into the image of a copulating couple in The Night Struggle, or the anxious Munchian painting of Charlotte Kann in the bathroom, or the red painting where her alter ego the artist Charlotte Salomon (who signs herself CS) has written, in urgent capital letters, ‘Dear God please let me not go mad’ that we begin to suspect that death, desire and lust are closely interlinked in the destabilisation of this family. Though mythic and elusive, we start to see a history of dysfunction in these texts and images that runs through the generations centred, for Charlotte, on her grandfather.

The young Charlotte Kann kneeling on her bed, dreaming of love. Charlotte Salomon, gouache on paper
The young Charlotte Kann is shown waiting for the angel of her mother to arrive. Charlotte Salomon, 1941–42, gouache on paper
Nazis in the street, Hitler is named chancel- lor of Germany, 30 Jan 1933. Charlotte Salomon, 1941– 42, gouache on paper
‘And from that came: Life or theatre?’ Charlotte Salomon, 1941–42, gouache on paper

At the start of the ‘Prologue’ the paintings are whimsical and full of period detail – a cross between Chagall and the illustrator Edward Ardizzone. But as the work progresses, they become looser, more immediate, more frantic and expressionistic, as if the artist knows that she is running out of time. In several images from the ‘Main Section’, rows of bodies lie inert or half-sleeping, unconsciously prophesying the piles of dead later to be discovered in Auschwitz.

The manuscript of Life? or Theatre? was found safely in the hands of Ottlie Moore. She presented it to Charlotte Salomon’s father and stepmother who had managed to survive the Holocaust in Amsterdam. Not knowing what to do with it, they took advice from Anne Frank’s father, and presented it to the city’s Jewish Museum. It was not, though, until 2012, when Franz Weisz made his film Charlotte, that the ‘Postscript’ pages, written in energetic painted block capitals, which had not formed part of the original donation, were brought to light. In them was the, apparent, shocking confession that Charlotte Salomon had poisoned her grandfather with an omelette laced with the barbiturate Veronal. The case, made by Griselda Pollock, in her enormous Yale Study on the artist, is that we cannot be certain whether this was true or if Charlotte was acting out of a repressed psychic desire. What, perhaps, we can be more sure of in this complex palimpsest, a monumental Modernist artwork that witnessed the rise of fascism, is the familial sexual abuse and domestic incest, which contributed to the many suicides within this family.

The great irony is that the final painting of Life? Or Theatre? shows a young female sitting in a bathing costume painting and looking out towards the blue Mediterranean (a hopeful future?). Inked directly on her back, like a tattoo, are the words Leben oder Theater – minus the question marks. The poignancy of the image is that it suggests, against the odds, that Charlotte Salomon had found a way to confront her traumatic memories through her body of work. That she chose life – only to be sent to Drancy internment camp and then, on the 7 October 1943, to Auschwitz, where on the 10 October, at around four months pregnant at the age of 26, she was gassed – is all the more tragic. Its complex richness Life? or Theatre? remains open to multiple readings. At one and the same time it is a theatre of memory, a confession, a study of gender roles and Jewish subjectivity. A fantasia. But most of all, it is the history of the struggle of one young woman to find, through the practice of painting, a continued reason to live.

Charlotte Salomon painting in the garden of L’Hermitage, c.1939
Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, © Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Charlotte Sa- lomon®.

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

Christian Marclay
The Clock at Tate Modern

Published in The London Magazine

“Time present and time past”, as T.S. Eliot famously claimed in Burnt Norton, are “both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.” So, “If all time is eternally present”, he suggests “All time is irredeemable.” These celebrated lines from The Four Quartets might well describe The Clock by the American Swiss artist, Christian Marclay, a work that is both a cinematic feat and a philosophical conundrum. A 24 hour montage, The Clock is made up of thousands of carefully researched moments of cinematic and television history spliced together to depict the passage of time. Functioning as a real timepiece, it marks the actual flow of time over a 24 hour period and is synchronised to function in whatever time-zone it’s shown.

Marclay, originally, developed the idea whilst working on his 2005 piece Screen Play. With the support of the London-based White Cub gallery he assembled a team to engage in the herculean task of finding relevant footage, which he edited over the course of three years. Six people watched DVDs and searched for scenes that contained clocks or watches. Marclay, himself, was often unfamiliar with the source works so Google spreadsheets were used to record the copious clips. Originally, he wanted to include more outlandish episodes but began to worry that it would be too exhausting to watch over a long period. Instead he chose to focus on incidental moments. His head assistant, Paul Anton Smith, has said that Marclay wanted scenes that were “banal and plain but visually interesting.” One assistant who focused too much on violent scenes was fired, while those remaining began to specialise in particular film genres. The final version contains around 12,000 films clips.

First shown at White Cube’s London gallery in 2010, The Clock won the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice biennale. In his acceptance speech Marclay ironically invoked Andy Warhol, thanking the judges for “giving The Clock its 15 minutes”. It’s six editions have been purchased by major museums and attracted a widespread following. It’s now being shown at Tate Modern, in the Blavatnick Building extension. Marclay declined to show it in the Turbine Hall because of poor acoustics. This space is equipped with comfortable soft sofas so that viewers are able come and go. Marclay didn’t want conventional cinema seating where those getting up and leaving would disturb other members of the audience. An inherent element of the work is the decision made by individual viewers as to how long he or she will stay. Once there, it’s certainly addictive. Though made of fragments that have no apparent narrative relationship, there’s a sense of tension and an irrational desire to find out what ‘happens next’.
Christian Ernest Maracly, to give him his full name, was born in San Rafael in California in 1955 but grew up in Switzerland where he attend the École Supérieure d’Art Visuel in Geneva. (It’s perhaps not fanciful to suggest a youth spent in the country that Orson Wells famously proclaimed had produced nothing but the cuckoo clock during five hundred years of democracy, might have had some influence on his subject matter). After Geneva, Marcaly continued his education at the Massachusetts College of Art and Cooper Union in New York, where he spent his student years exploring noise music, influenced by the neo-Dadaist movement and artists such as Joseph Beuys and Yoko Ono. He also listened – if that’s the right word – to John Cage, borrowing his philosophy “that if you listen, and keep listening, eventually you find something interesting.” A pioneer of the use of turntables and gramophone records – often found in junk and thrift shops –  as musical instruments to create sound collages, Marclay was described by the critic Thom Jurek as the “unwitting inventor of turntabalism.”

These anarchic works allowed Marclay to explore human perception and what it means to experience sensory data. Starting out, as so many artists have done, as a musician, in the band Mon Ton Son, he would often play records starting from the middle, breaking them and gluing them back together to disrupt harmonies and create a stream of noise that dissolved into disorder. Melding different technical media – sound, photography, film and video – as well as a range of artistic references, he created rich fusions that synthesised into more than the sum of their separate parts.  In the spirit of those more utopian times, Marcaly’s interest was in ‘pure art’ that had no obvious commercial value. In The Clock he explores – just as Eliot did in the Four Quartets (in a different medium and a different century) –  how time is experienced by the human mind. What it feels like to be caught in its relentless, irredeemable stream. Time is shown to be both an abstract construct, yet also integral to our diurnal and nocturnal rhythms, to our biology and sense of what means to grow older.

The research is brilliant and one wonders how his team managed to find so many clips that show exactly the right time. Though drawn mostly from mainstream cinema, there’s an obvious influence of experimental filmmakers of the 60s and 70s who played around with structure and found footage. A great deal of the pleasure to be had in watching The Clock is to be found in ticking off a list of familiar films. Great for cinema buffs. There’s also the enjoyment of recognising actors, especially in their youthful incarnations. The young Robert Redford, Tom Courtney, Jack Nicholson and Sidney Poitier, for instance. And it was particularly poignant to see the late Robin Williams but impossible not to see Bill Crosby through the lens of recent sexual allegations. There are also some really funny moments. Peter Sellers waking in a hotel room in a bright red eye mask and hair net, is a gem. As is what, I assume, to be a Buster Keaton clip of some slapstick goings on on a vertiginous clock tower.

There are iconic clocks everywhere. Big Ben and the Waterloo station clock, as well as an array of period wristwatches, early digital models, grandfather clocks and pocket watches. The passing of time is also experienced though forgotten period details. Things seen through a glass darkly: a 50s watchstrap or a Blackberry. Who uses those short-lived status symbols now? And throughout there’s the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, along with ashtrays full of stubs. Another aspect of time and memory is that we forget old habits.

I went to see The Clock at 2.pm and was surprised at how many people were in bed. Between 4.pm and 5.pm characters appear to be travelling on planes, trains and in cars. Then, as the evening sets in, they eat dinner, become involved in shootouts and attend parties. Mid-evening they go to the theatre and shows. Although I wasn’t watching at midnight, I gather Orson Welles is impaled on a clock tower in The Stranger, and Big Ben explodes in V for Vendetta.  After that people begin to drift into bars to drink and search for intimacy. Others are annoyed at being woken up by the phone. In the small hours, unsurprisingly, many are sleeping. While between 3 am. and 5 am there are a number of dream sequences. Then around 7 am. people begin to wake up and from 9 am. to midday eat breakfast and have morning sex. As noon approaches, the bells ring out in High Noon.

As I sat in the dark I found myself constantly checking my watch to see if it was in sync with what was happening on the screen. I was also aware that it’s only been in the last 100 years – since the beginning of cinema – that we are able to look back and see life as it actually was; taking place in real time. Before the invention of film people had to rely on memories and stories. Now we can experience the past in all its incidental details, just as it was before we existed.

The Clock is an epic feat that both reveals and hides the mysteries of time. Watching it felt like being on a train and staring out of the window as the world flashes by and you catch segments and incidents of unknown lives, fleeting glimpses of small mini-dramas without ever knowing how they end. It is a masterful work that reminds us that life is not a linear narrative but a series of broken fragments. Not everything has a beginning, a middle and a clear end.

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

Chantal Joffe

Published in The London Magazine

I have long been interested in the work of Chantal Joffe and have written about her on several occasions. Her figurative paintings of family and friends are routed in a gritty, observed reality which makes her unusual in an art world full of insouciant irony. She’s interested in people, their inner landscapes and what makes them tick. She’s also interested in the materiality and language of paint which she uses with verve and vitality. She’s obsessed with what paint can be made to do and what it can tell us.

There are many influences to her work. The American artist Alice Neel. Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and child. But there’s one influence that connects us directly, as writer and artist – the little-known German painter, Paula Modershon-Becker (1876-1907). There is a self-portrait of Paula in the Courtauld but you’d be hard pressed to see any more of her work in this country. Most of it is in Germany. Joffe’s new exhibition at The Lowry, which uses a quote from Modersohn-Becker as its title is, in many ways, a homage.

“Paula is a bubble between two centuries”, Joffe tells me.

In 2012, I wrote Girl in White, a novel based on Modersohn-Becker’s relationships with those she met when she settled in Worspwede, a remote artists’ colony on the North German moors. There, she mixed with others who wanted to live a life dedicated to art outside the strictures of 19th century German bourgeois society. These people included the older painter Otto Modersohn, who was to become her husband, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a passionate friendship, and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who, disastrously, became Rilke’s wife.

The Worpswede colony was very much part of the mood-music among late 19th century European artists who wanted to ‘return’ to nature. Essentially a Romantic movement, this nostalgia for a prelapsarian existence was precipitated by the growth of industrialisation and the effects of urban modernisation. Many believed these were destroying their relationship with the landscape and their folk traditions. When Paula arrived in Worpswede she too initially painted landscape but, as she grew intellectually, emotionally and artistically, she developed a different agenda. Her subject became people. She painted the old in the local poorhouse, breast-feeding women and the children of peasants with an empathy close to that of Van Gogh’s. It’s hard for us to realise just how radical such a decision was, especially by a young middle-class girl. Paula sought out the raw, the authentic and the marginalised in a way that was completely modern. There wasn’t a smack of the drawing-room sentiment anywhere to be seen.

Talking to Chantal in her studio, on the battered sofa among postcards of Paula’s work and her own half-finished paintings, it becomes more and more evident that our interests overlap. We’re both mothers and creative women who, like many others including Paula, have struggled to find a balance between home, art, motherhood and career and, for whom, the intimacy of everyday life is central to our work. Though separated by more than 100 years, Paula’s intensity of vision and her commitment to the fullness of life, as an artist and a woman, reverberates throughout Joffe’s work. Like Freud, Joffe paints those from within a tight circle of family and friends. She not so much produces portraits, in the sense of a photographic likeness, but investigations – a sense of what it is like to inhabit the subject’s skin.

“I was”,  she says, “hesitant, mindful of the danger of placing myself alongside such a strong painter. I was worried it’d be seen as a form of self-aggrandisement, but I’m interested in the intimacy Paula creates. Personal feeling is always the main thing. That’s why I love her. There’s never anything unnecessary, nothing extra or extraneous. Only what is needed. The work’s so strong, so modern, so ahead of its time. My decision to go ahead was helped by the fact that she’s poorly known here and that maybe, through this exhibition, her work will become more celebrated. She’s just so good.”

I ask why she chose Paula and she says that she was attracted to a painter she’ d never seen before – a woman who was both tough and romantic, vulnerable yet determined. She loves the works of Picasso and Bonnard but here was a painter she could relate to directly and in a very personal way. She wanted to explore what they shared. Her paintings, like Paula’s, are intimate and domestic. She’s painted fellow artists, such as Ishbel Myerscough, and charted the passage of her daughter Esme from new-born infant to adolescent, with many of the blips along the way. These works map the passing of time, the minute changes that occur day to day within emotional connections and bonds.

As we sit talking, with our tea and biscuits, about our mutual concerns – just as Paula did with her friend Clara in her Worpswede studio – it strikes me how similar Joffe looks like Modersohn-Becker. She has the same broad intelligent face, pulled-back hair and snub nose. I tell her my thoughts and she blushes. Of course, she has seen this herself, though she does not admit it. It’s there in her Self-Portrait as Paula II where she looks inscrutably over her shoulder with her back naked to the viewer. Self-Portrait at 21, with its Matisse-style patterned robe, echoes something of the background of Paula’s Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Day.

Paula Modersohn-Becker had an uncanny sense that she was going to die young. Her quest, at the century’s turn, was ‘to become something.’ Her whole life was a struggle between the binaries of domesticity and artistic fulfilment, duty and self-determination, the security of home and the stimulation of adventure and new experience. She longed for a child. She would paint herself holding her stomach as if she were in a phantom pregnancy. She would then claim that she was actually pregnant with art. Despite Modersohn-Becker’s bourgeois upbringing, she had a restless sensuality which is mirrored in Joffe’s work. You can see it in her unsparing nude self-portraits that show her, for example, sitting naked on a striped chaise lounge. There’s nothing romantic about the dark circles under her eyes, her sagging breasts and stomach and the unflattering long black socks – the only things she wears. And, there is nothing flattering about the ¾ Length Self-Portrait where she stands against a barren, leafless tree like some menopausal Eve. There are also a number of paintings of pregnant women and women with children, and there’s an especial poignancy to those of her daughter, Esme, when we know that Paula died tragically at the age of 32 from an embolism – only weeks after giving birth to her own daughter, Mathilde.

Paula Modersohn- Becker’s life was brilliant but sadly her career cut short. Her passionate female nudes and portraits of prepubescent girls, which sought for ever-more simplification, are extraordinary, considering that convention demanded she was a wife first and a painter second. Spirited, brave, tender and fierce, Paula understood that ‘personal feeling’ is always the main thing. Fashions in art come and go but there’ll always be a place for what is authentic, for what is true.

It’s as if Joffe, with her broad strokes of expressive and nervy paint, has picked up Paula’s baton and is running with it into the middle of the 21st century.

Chantal Joffe’s artwork exhibition ‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing’ is running at The Lowry Art Gallery until the 2nd September. You can find out more about the artist here.

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

On Pagham Beach
Photographs and Collages
from the 1930s

Published in The London Magazine

It is hard for those brought up in a world of gender fluidity, with debates about who has the right to use which bathroom, to imagine the veil of secrecy and repression that prevailed during the first half of the twentieth century around sexual encounters between men. The Sexual Offences Act that decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21 did not become law until 1967. A full 13 years after the Conservative government had asked a committee, chaired by John Wolfenden, to look at legislation that related to homosexuality and prostitution. It had taken more than 80 years for the notorious Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, introduced by Henry Labouchère, in response to largely beefed-up tabloid ‘scandals’, to be repealed. Section 11 had prescribed 2 years hard labour ‘for gross indecency between males in public or in private.’ Oscar Wilde and the brilliant Enigma code mathematician Alan Turing were both tragic victims.

For the artist Keith Vaughan, as for most ‘ordinary’ homosexuals during much of the twentieth century, life was lived between two worlds–the closet and that of fleeting, furtive, sexual encounters. Vaughan learnt early ‘the fear, tension and repression that surrounded everything to do with sex’. For a high-society set it was somewhat different. The ‘eccentric’ behaviour of those who were ‘artistic’–the photographer Cecil Beaton and his circle, which included the actor John Gielgud and the composer Lord Berners, and the left-leaning group of poets and musicians who gathered around Auden, Isherwood, Spender and Britten–was largely tolerated. A love of the ballet was shared by many homosexual men, allowing a safe milieu for the contemplation of beautiful male bodies. ‘Is he musical?’ became something of a code for assessing someone’s sexuality. Vaughan, an accomplished pianist, developed his love of ballet after seeing Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes production of Prokofiev’s Le Fils Prodigue at Covent Garden and becoming close friends with several prima ballerinas. Yet he never quite fitted into these homosexual elites, remaining something of a loner and an outsider.

Abandoned by his father at the age of eight and left with his convent educated mother and timid younger brother Dick, he was bullied and miserable during his time at Christ’s Hospital School. Later he would become openly attracted to younger working-class men with a rough edge (echoing Francis Bacon’s sexual preferences). Those such as Len and his brother Stan, the grocer’s boy Percy Farrant, and the small-time criminal and boxer Johnny Walsh, would become his photographic models.

After leaving school Vaughan joined Lintas (Lever International Advertising Services) the advertising department of Unilver which, during the depressed 1930s, attracted a number of talented artists, including Graham Sutherland, John Piper, and John Banting. Vaughan had already started to take photographs while at school with a medium-format reflex camera and by 1932 had set up his own dark room in the family home. As a trainee layout artist, he was persuaded by another member of the team, Reg Jenkins, to buy a Leica camera. It’s this he used over the years to shoot ‘hundreds of feet of camera roll’ of both the ballet and Pagham beach. It was his affair with Harold Colebrook, whose aunt had a converted railway carriage at Pagham, that led to this piece of West Sussex becoming his own prelapsarian playground.

Just before the outbreak of war, at the age of 27, Vaughan decided to keep a journal, which he did until his suicide some 40 years later. Edited by his close friend the painter Prunella Clough and the one-time editor of The London Magazine, Alan Ross, who published an edition of Vaughan’s Journals and Drawings in 1966, it gives insights into many of his concerns, though the diaries sadly postdate the period of the 1930s covered by this exhibition.



Boy in Fishing Net,
1939. Printed on postcard paper, 8.7 x 13.8cm

A Male Figure in Silhouette Holding Wet Cloth, 1939.
Printed on postcard paper, with pencil marking, 8.7 x 13.8cm.

Two Male Figures on a Beach, c. 1938-9.
Gouache and photography on card, 30 x 25.5cm

Dick (Solarised), 1930s. Photographic print on Agfa Brovira paper, 30.2 x 25cm

But what we do have in the Austin/Desmond exhibition is the photographs. Full of silver grey tonalities they exude a utopian sense of optimism and freedom. Often only of postcard size, they tap into a nostalgic sensibility that has all but been lost in our modern world; a mixture of childlike innocence and homo-eroticism. The boy standing on a rock with his back to the camera holding a shrimping net might, almost, be Christopher Robin. Reminding us of the complexity of J.M Barrie’s own relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys and the idealised, often repressed relationships between many other men of that era for whom the most ‘real’ relationships – in a world of public schools and the armed forces – were those with their own sex.

Of course, these photographs of boys wrapped in fishing nets, sprawling naked, except for ‘posing pouches’, on the shingle, doing acrobatics on folding deckchairs or standing godlike beneath the rusting hulks of ships were not taken in naïve isolation. Vaughan displays an obvious awareness of current contemporary social and artistic movements. During the 1930s nude photographs were often published in ‘respectable’ body building or naturist magazines such as Health and Strength and Health and Fitness. This interest in nakedness–as an expression and symbol of freedom from bourgeois social constraints–was not simply a homosexual obsession. It was just as much a cult among Rupert Brooke’s mostly heterosexual Neo- Pagan’s who saw nude swimming and sunbathing as a way of asserting their bohemian credentials. While in Germany naked gymnastics held in the open air was considered to be beneficial in alleviating the effects of urban poverty on children and young people. In1929 Adolf Koch organised the Congress of Nudity and Education. Though his work would soon be banned by Hitler, the cult of the body beautiful still infiltrated Third Reich ideology through the lens of Leni Riefenstahl and an obsession with the perfect Aryan Olympic athlete. Naturism had long been valued during the nineteenth century as part of traditional male bonding, a philosophy that was revisited by the Wandervogel–a back to nature movement–which exalted in the cult of body-building and mass displays of gymnastics. Without any sense of irony, the approval of these ‘homoerotic’ events, in which the male body was on public display, sat alongside more punitive views about degeneracy and sexual ‘inversion’ to create a complex binary tension.

It’s not possible to be sure whether Vaughan took these photographs simply for his own enjoyment or as part of his studio practice, as aides-memoire for future paintings. A standing nude posed as Michelangelo’s David, and the shot of a bather throwing a ball in which the angle creates a dynamic heroic image, suggest that Vaughan must have been aware of the photographic propaganda from the new USSR and the work of photographers such as El Lissitzky and Rodchenko. His use of collage, as well as his tendency to draw directly onto his photographs to create surreal spatial and perspectival contradictions, indicates an interest in the possibilities of the medium in its own right. What is clear is that his artist’s eye led him to experiment with different photographic genres: the close-up, the body in movement (which surely must have been influenced by looking at Eadweard Muybridge), the action shot, along with the occasional still life. But, above all, what the camera seems to have given Vaughan, the young man who found ‘fear’ ‘tension’ and ‘repression’ in ‘everything to do with sex’, was the chance to look, to be a voyeur. As a natural outsider the camera gave him protection, gave him permission to be an observer. As Prunella Clough commented: ‘when Keith had a camera fixed to his eye, it legitimized his gazing at another unclothed human being’.

What Vaughan presents in these photos is a kind of nostalgia. One that records the ‘pagan’ pleasures of sun-worship and nudity, the hedonistic delights of young men at play. They are extremely British. Nothing is really outrageous. Nothing is there to shock. Of Len, Vaughan would later reminisce:

I could only touch his body through the lens of my camera…he liked to know the importance of his body and sunbathed for this reason…Len stripped and moved about with his copper-varnished limbs. I followed with my camera obsessed with the colour and the intangible beauty of the scene.

In these interwar years photographic portraiture was still largely portrayed in terms of class and status. The subjects of Cecil Beaton stood in obvious contrast to the working-class subjects of Brandt or Bert Hardy. But Vaughan’s youthful subjects, near naked and stripped of any identifying social accoutrements, offer something more classless and democratic. What they encapsulate is youth, desire and the freedom to be oneself; qualities that as the twentieth century progressed would become the hallmarks of a more liberally permissive society.

Published in The London Magazine