In the World's Art Centres: London
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One of the most curious points in the history of French art is the disappearance for fifty years after the death of Mathieu Le Nain in 1677 of common life as the artist's theme — the theme, one might call it, of Adam delving and Eve spinning, which had been the background if not the essential basis of all the best French art for five hundred years previously. The disappearance coincided with the centralisation of all power in the hands of Louis XIV. As in Renaissance Italy, the rise of political despotism meant the decline in popular art — indeed one might say of all art, for the Baroque art that arose after Charles V suppressed Italian liberty in 1530 was rather artifice than art. Its quality is mechanical ingenuity rather than human expressiveness.
Legend has it that though Louis XIV disliked the extremes of Italian Baroque, he disliked popular art just as much, and he is reputed to have said, "Take the beastly things away," when his attention was drawn to some scenes of popular life in Flanders by the younger Teniers. But legend tends to over-simplification and there would seem to be some reason for thinking that however much the roi soleil might dislike Teniers' boors he nevertheless was worried by the fact that the concentration of artistic effort on the apotheosis of himself had led to the decline of popular art in France. At a recent exhibition of paintings by Old Masters at the Leger Gallery I was struck by the resemblance a picture of a group of country children engaged in some innocent, and to judge by their attire and demeanour, rather courtly, game, bore to the work of the Le Nains. But it was signed M. V. Hellemont. And on following the matter up, I found that Van Hellemont (or Helmont as his name was often spelt), who was born in Belgium in 1653 — when Mathieu, the last of the Le Nains, was already a middle-aged man — did in fact go to Paris and lived and worked there under the patronage of Louis XIV. The Le Nain influence in the picture at the Leger Gallery would therefore suggest that Louis was not, after all, devoid of feeling for popular art, as distinct from the rather grandiose type of art that we tend to associate with his reign, but that on the contrary, he made some effort to encourage it. His affection for Molière and his enjoyment of Molière's homeliest characters and comedies would, of course, confirm the suggestion.
Nevertheless, the question remains, why, between the death of Mathieu Le Nain and the rise of Chardin fifty years later, French artists deserted the French tradition and seldom or never painted scenes of everyday life? However it be, gratitude is due to the directors of the Leger Gallery for putting us on the track of the fact that, even if it had to be produced by foreigners, there was popular art in France during a period which, except for the phase of exquisite melancholy that is represented by Watteau alone, was pretty well completely given over to the cult of stateliness.
Vigour is the last quality that normally one would associate with the name of Romney. Yet a series of pen and ink figure sketches by him included in a recent exhibition of Early English Water-colours and Drawings at the Palser Gallery had decided vigour of form and movement. One notices such things in the relative scarcity of works by the older masters visible in wartime. Another point one had forgotten and that transpired here was that Cotman, like Bonington, perhaps indeed under the influence of the younger master, indulged in the romantic treatment of historical subjects. His Christopher Columbus might, at first sight, be taken for a Bonington. But Cotman was at his best in landscape and there were some noble specimens of his landscape work at this exhibition, particularly perhaps Snowdon with the Lake of Llanberris. Even that, however, was outmatched by David Cox's Mountainous Landscape, S. Wales which had beautiful atmosphere and powerful design. And these were only a few of the hundred-odd exhibits, practically every one of which was delightful and worthy of study.
Mr. Oliver Hall is such a fine artist that one is lazy to admit that there is an element of monotony in his work. One Oliver Hall picture is a very satisfying thing, but the effect of a score of them seen together is, somehow, a little dull. I think the reason is that the distinguished artist does not lend himself sufficiently to changed appearances. For instance, at his exhibition at Barbizon House there was no difference in the scale of the colours he used to depict The Mill House, Avila and scenes in Gloucestershire or even Scotland. Yet one's own memory of the Castilian scene suggests that even in similar weather the visual effect is utterly different from that of any part of Great Britain, and that to represent it truly, a British landscape artist would have to change a very great deal from his usual palette. Nevertheless, it remains to be said that there were admirable and impressive pictures in Mr. Hall's exhibition, most notably perhaps the splendid Road to Loch Laggan.
One was reminded of Mr. Lennox Robinson's variation of Shakespeare's phrase at the Leicester Gallery where a small exhibition of recent works by Mr. Sickert was held at the same time as exhibitions of paintings by two younger painters, Graham Sutherland and Walter Goetz. For the pictures by the veteran artist were lighthearted where they were not frankly humorous — and needless to say beautifully executed — whereas Mr. Goetz's work is serious and Mr. Sutherland's positively disturbing. The latter's subject matter is made up of organic, often rather vegetable, shapes, large and loose and unstructural — having that is to say pattern rather than design. Mr. Sutherland's talent is lyrical rather than dramatic. He is subjective rather than objective. His colour is harmonious but it is lit with an inner light not the light of day. Perhaps he may be considered as a descendant of William Blake. Mr. Goetz owes something to Christopher Wood and something to Raoul Dufy. His tones are inclined to be heavy, however, and his seaside scenes are more prosaic than those of Wood or Dufy. But technically he has accomplishment. Granted his conceptions there is no question of his ability to achieve them.
Human beings seldom appear in the villages of France, Greece and Portugal as seen by Miss Sine Mackinnon (Tooth Gallery). Again one is reminded — as in Fishermen's Houses, Audiernes for instance — of the ghostly quality of [p.23] Christopher Wood's lonely seashores. But Miss Mackinnon's movement is more staccato than Wood's, and her scenes have some suggestion of being made out of boxes of bricks. Which does not prevent them from having a curious charm of their own. The pattern made by the causeway and the little group of houses in the water is the Audiernes picture referred to was delightful in its artificial, somewhat oriental, way. And there was charming pattern too, in the arrangement of Hill Village, Provence, with its broad flight of steps between the trees to the right of the houses. Nor was the charm spoiled by an occasional suggestion of John, as in Umbrella Pines, La Foux, or of Derwent Lees as in the treatment of the hills in The Old Port, Faro and Puy-de-Dome.
The nine painters in the exhibition at Reid & Lefevre's were Patricia Preece, Geoffrey Tibble, Duncan Grant, Derek Hill, Vanessa Bell, Anthony Devas, Colin MacInnes, Quentin Bell and Thérèse Lessore. In view of the very varied talents of these artists it was hardly to be expected that the exhibition would have any great unity. Nor could it be said that in the event the painters helped to set each other off. Miss Lessore's work in particular seemed to have nothing to do with the rest. Fortunately it included some of the best pictures she has exhibited for some time, notably St. James's Parade which took on genuine charm from the freshness of the atmosphere and vivacity of movement realised in depicting the scene. Mrs. Bell had an ambitious full-length female Portrait which, except that I think I have seen more "expressive" pictures by her, had all the artist's good qualities. The features here were a little dull and it seemed as though expression had escaped in the pursuit of effects of technique. It goes without saying that the picture had the rare quality of taste. Mr. Grant also [p.24] sent in an ambitious work, a Girl at Piano. Finely designed and full of colour it only needed unity of tone to be a major achievement. Through absence of this the figure and objects represented seemed insufficiently related to each other. Mr. Devas has a kind of light-hearted distinction and his golden-haired little girl recalled Greuze and Manet if not Velazquez. His big Conversation Piece was hardly closely enough knit in the matter of design, but the lazy arrogance of the youth lounging on a couch and the pensive turn of the girl's head were admirably suggested and caught. Miss Preece's work is still a little too much by grace of Vuillard and Mr. Hill's is hard in the late Florentine way. But Vuillard and the late Florentines are not bad influences for young painters to submit themselves to. Mr. MacInnes' work is pleasing, but sketchy almost to the point of weakness. Mr. Tibble is sketchy, too, but After the Bath was strong in the Degas manner — that is to say in, the matter of draughtsmanship. Of Quentin Bell's three exhibits the best was The Mountain which, I think, I have already praised in these columns.
One is almost inclined to regret that P. H. Padwick has mastered the landscape formula that arose in the late sixteenth century in Italy and flourished all over Europe for two hundred years. For he paints and repaints it, but always summarily and without lingering over detail, so that there seems to be only one effect achieved in each picture. The initiators of classical landscape realised a multiplicity of effects though they were, of course, all subdued to one major effect. In his exhibition at Walker's Galleries, however, Padwick had broken away from the classical formula and in Returning Home paid homage to the early Gainsborough and the Dutch landscape artists. The result was pleasing as the artist's work always is, but one was tempted to suggest that he might try blending the two conventions in one work and so achieve more variety of effect than he usually does. At the same gallery Rachel M. Perceval exhibited water-colour sketches of Kenya which, though the handling was not very expert, were yet bright and tasteful in colour. At Knoedler's Dame Laura Knight had an exhibition of characteristic portraits and landscapes, and at the Zwemmer Gallery Jack Bilbo showed a number of paintings which frankly avowed the artist's debt to Georges Rouault, an imaginary Pharaoh being in the nature of a restatement of the famous Frenchman's wonderful Vieux Roi.