Friday, May 18, 2018

Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting

Paul Nash, Event on the Downs, 1934

The Tacita Dean exhibition Landscape starts today, but before I get to that, I wanted to mention here the Still Life exhibition which is still on for a few more days at the National Gallery.  It is free, unlike Landscape and Portrait, and it also incorporates other artists' work (and so reminded me of An Aside, the excellent exhibition she curated back in 2005 at Camden Arts Centre).  It includes examples of an overlapping genre, 'still life in a landscape', of which Event on the Downs is a famous example.  Long before Surrealism though, Thomas Robert Guest was recording archaeological finds by painting them close to, towering over the places in which they were found.  There is a Tate Paper ('Thomas Guest and Paul Nash in Wiltshire') with more information on the rediscovery of Guest's paintings in the late 1930s.  Such hybrid works, situating the still life in a landscape, differ from the kind of painting I featured here last year, where the two form separate worlds within the same artwork.  John Crome's Study of Flints is another example, similar in composition to Guest's paintings.  In the exhibition it is represented not by the original but by a postcard (Tacita Dean is known for collecting and using postcards in her art).  Crome's painting relates closely to two of Dean's own works, films of flints owned by in Henry Moore, called Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting (Diptych) (2017).

Thomas Robert Guest, Bronze Age Grave Goods from a Bell Barrow
Excavated at Winterslow, Wiltshire, 1814

John Crome, Study of Flints, c. 1811

In her introduction to the catalogue, Tacita Dean writes about a Paul Nash painting that manages to combine all three genres: landscape, portraiture and still life.  Cumulus Head is 'said to be a portrait of his wife, Margaret.  She appears in a cumulus cloud landscape with a green, possibly grass, middle ground.'  Furthermore, this portrait 'is painted as a statue head carved in stone and mounted on what appears to be a stepped pedestal.'  There is nothing quite like this in the exhibition*, although the human form is evoked in Two White Manikins by Albert Reuss (the manikins are propped up among rocks in what looks like a desert).  There is though one small, strange work from the National Gallery's own collection, which from a distance appears to be another close-up view of a flint-like rock.  It includes two figures, plus an angel who is probably part of a scene that was cut from the panel.  St Benedict is in a cave, receiving food lowered down to him by St. Romanus.  But, as Marjorie E. Wieseman writes in the catalogue, 'whether by accident or design, Romanus' grey robed figure seems to rise out of / melt into the rocky forms encroaching Benedict's hermitage, inviting fantasies of a landscape come alive or, alternatively, of a figure turned to stone and subsumed into the land itself.  The stillness come awake; or life, become still.'

Paul Nash, Cumulus Head, c. 1944

Workshop of Lorenzo Monaco, Saint Benedict 
in the Sacro Speco at Subiaco, c. 1415-20
* the Paul Nash painting Cumulus Head is actually included at the RA in the third part of the Tacita Dean exhibition, 'Landscape'. 

1 comment:

Plinius said...

Tom Sutcliffe has written a piece called 'Thomas Robert Guest: from obscurity to The National Gallery'. In it he says of the painting, 'We look at it and we think 'How modern it seems, in its bold oddity'. But to think that we have to effectively repaint it with fresh intentions. In 1807 Guest published a little handbook for amateur painters called A New Pocket Sketch Book, a compilation of technical tips and compositional precepts; to read it is to encounter a work absolutely unblemished by aesthetic daring or innovation. 'The highest perfection of art', Guest wrote, 'is to hide its appearance'. Indeed the successful picture, he suggested, should be indistinguishable from the objects it depicted.'