Art and Music. York Art Gallery. 22-06-12

Henry Scott Tuke, The Misses Santley, 1880 (YORAG 268)

The new exhibition at York Art Gallery, Art and Music, explores the way that artists have responded to music and attempts to find links, sometimes clear and sometimes tenuous, between the two art forms. It is interesting to see such a wide range of work in a single room, from very different artists and eras, works which have very little in common with each other but all still share that common link. It gives the exhibition a fresh quality and makes you look at them from a new viewpoint. Sometimes the link with music is a narrative one, and sometimes more abstract but the variety of work makes for an interesting and thought provoking exhibition.

YORAG 8 Walter Sickert, Old Heffel of Rowton House, 1915-17

There is a lovely unfinished work by Walter Sickert from 1915-1917, Old Heffert of Rowton House, which is a study in concentration and absorption in a musical world, and Henry Scott Tukes’ beautiful painting from 1880 The Misses Santley does the same, showing both the singer and her sisters all transported by music into a new world. The silence of the painting allows us to concentrate on the musicians themselves. Watching the interplay and character of the musicians is always a particular pleasure at any chamber music concert and this extra dimension of a musical experience was brought out perfectly by these two images. There are a selection of other portrait images of musicians from a calm dignified portrait of a man with a missal painted in 1524 to a cubist group painted in 1939, but those two were the ones which appealed to me most.

YORAG 1028 Walter Greaves, Nocturne in Blue and Gold, 1870s

YORAG 1495 Elizabeth Fritsch, Tall Vessel, 1974 (c) Elizabeth Fritsch York Museums Trust

There are ceramics in the exhibition too, including a lovely 1974 piece, Tall Vessel, by Elizabeth Fritsch which is elegant and full of movement. I’m not sure what it has to do with music but I didn’t mind. The fine portrait bust of Paul Robeson by Jacob Epstein which you can view accompanied by a recording of the man himself singing is a powerful piece, dignified and strong.

The Bandstand by L S Lowry celebrates the communal power of music, where hundreds of people are drawn towards a bandstand in Salford to share the experience of listening together.

I think the exhibition is at its most interesting when an artist is attempting to represent music itself. There is certainly something musical about Whistler’s nocturnes, an abstract dreamy quality which is hard to describe, and the beautiful Nocturne in Blue and Gold by Walter Greaves deserves a soundtrack by Ravel or Debussy. There is a wonderful large abstract work by John Golding, Canticle, which shows light flowing and reverberating through the empty space of a cathedral, in a way which really does make you think of a great organ playing in an empty space full of light,and two works by Brigit Riley from the 1980’s in which the colours and stripes oscillate, receding back or leaping forward, in just the same way that notes following each other or resonating with each other in a chord do. It’s a hard thing to describe but you know it when you see it.

An interesting small show which was well worth a visit.

Gordon Baldwin. Objects For a Landscape. York Art Gallery. 24-02-12

The exhibition Objects For a Landscape at York Art Gallery, a room filled with a careful selection of the work of the ceramicist Gordon Baldwin, is a fine sight and a tribute to a long and dedicated career. When you first walk in and see them as a group, in a single space, they seem to form a single vision, a sombre almost monochrome mostly matt glazed collection with touches of browns and blues. They have real presence and gravity. Bulbous, yearning vessels with dark internal spaces and openings that you can peer into, their surfaces striated and meticulously drawn on. I was not surprised to hear him say in the accompanying video that they are serious works with darkness in them, and for someone who spends eight hours a week with a camera on a large and very beautiful beach the association with the kind of rich bulbous stones I see each day was immediately obvious. Gordon Baldwin’s beach is in North Wales, at Porth Neigwl, but when I read his statement about it in the exhibition verbiage I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“There is a beach in Wales I call “the place of stones”. It was found decades ago by a pin on a map. This chance event discovered me and chance has directed my projects and widened my horizons. In this place I looked for emotional correspondences. I listened to the sea alone and I stared at the landscape almost empty of people. I celebrated it with my camera. Such places are best faced alone and now they are in my studio with me.”
His work is restrained and deeply contemplative. Sometimes a pot will remain in his studio for a long time before being finished while he “does a lot of staring” at them and this shows. These are not works which have been produced in a rush of bravado and creativity. They have been nurtured and coaxed into life with great care. He talks about the surfaces being the most difficult aspect of his work, and sometimes thinks of the surface of a pot as a canvas. “You can’t just stare at a canvas. You have to do something with it.” Drawing “activates” the vessel. Almost no high gloss glazes or bright colours are used and when they are, as in a swathe of shining back or a small rainbow of colour across the corner of a piece they seem to shout. They are gentle, delicate pieces which seem to hold their strength in check with great dignity. I found it particularly satisfying to look at them when two pieces were paired together, their echoing forms seeming to comfort and reflect each other. I also enjoyed looking down through openings into the darkness inside, rather as you can in some of Anish Kapoor’s work. I was also reminded of the work of Barbara Hepworth but these works are not so serene as Hepworth’s sculpture. They have reached a point of harmony by hard graft. The delicate slightly torn edges on some of them reminded me of Japanese pottery. They hold memories and seem to have a past. Had I read the following quote before seeing the pieces I might well have thought it fanciful, but the pots had already shown me the truth of it.
“I find myself making vessels that punctuate oceans, in the same way as a bird’s call will mark an internal landscape forever. The sound of a wind will describe a landscape and a vessel remembers it for me.”
As well as making his work in the studio and teaching at the Central School of Art and Design and Goldsmiths Gordon Baldwin spent almost forty years teaching sculpture and pottery at Eton College. We hear a lot about old Etonians going on to work in the financial sector or politics. I hope that some of them during those years were also inspired to design and create by having the privilege of contact with a gifted artist who also clearly loved to teach.
This is a beautiful little exhibition. A little crowded and plainly lit perhaps, but the pots make their presence felt in a very real and striking way in spite of that.

In one of the upstairs gallery rooms there is a gallery of pots which have been selected by Gordon Baldwin from York Museums Trust’s ceramics collection which forms an interesting complement to the exhibition. He has called the selection Excitations and it describes some of his artistic loves and influences. The great names are there, Thomas Toft, Lucie Rie, Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, and some lovely early medieval jugs. I particularly liked a tall thin bottle shaped pot, striped in brown and cream, by William Staite Murray. It made me smile to myself, having found out a little about Gordon Baldwin’s character through his work and through hearing him speak, when I read a note next to it explaining that the two men “didn’t get on” when they met. It didn’t surprise me. A man who could say boldly, as Murray did, “My pots are ART, I shall charge ART prices”, was certainly of a very different mindset to the artist that I had been finding out about. I also liked a lovely restrained blue and white dish with four simple orchids on it made in 1930 by Tomimoto Kenkichi and six dear little brown egg cups by Harry Davis made in 1969.

William Etty: Art and Controversy. York Art Gallery. 16-07-11

William Etty: Art and Controversy at York Art Gallery is the first major reassessment of the artist’s work for fifty years. He was very controversial in his day (1787-1849) thanks to his obsession with painting the female nude. Some thought his work wicked, while others saw him as the heir to the history painters of the past. I am glad that his home city is giving us the chance to judge for ourselves. He was dedicated, well trained and talented and he is to be admired for sticking to his vision in the face of repeated criticism.  It has to be said that his work is rather uneven in quality and can lack immediacy and life, one naked female nude in brown tones does begin to look very like another when you see them in quick succession and the shock value is no longer so apparent in today’s world, but his best is very good indeed.

I was particularly struck by his life studies of male nudes which are still challenging and immediate. They put you face to face with a real living human being and his flesh in the same way that Lucien Freud does. The life sketch of a male model which I have chosen is a good example of what he could do. You are absolutely standing right next to Etty looking at the model and the extreme pose and beautifully realised lighting makes a dramatic and uncompromising image of a real man. There is a kind of chaste distance in the portrayal of the female nudes which makes it difficult now to see why they were found so shocking at the time. After all classical subjects chock full of nudes were deemed acceptable and these have very much the same feel.  They seem to me to be  idealised portrayals of female beauty rather than real living naked females.

There are a few female portraits in the exhibition which I liked very much and this one of Mdelle Millie is one of them.  Once again it is rather an idealised image of doe eyed female beauty but the anxious sideways glance and the relaxed easy brushwork give it real presence and the light is beautifully captured.

I am glad that this exhibition is allowing a fresh look at a rather underrated artist. Nobody else was doing what he did at the time and it is a body of work well worth looking at. I am also glad that it is in his home city. He deserves no less 162 years after his death.