I have to admit I’d walked over Boris Anrep’s witty mosaics in the entrance of the National Gallery (below) for years without knowing who made them, even though the gallery has a good book about them. Then yesterday I saw Anrep’s mosaic work in Westminster Cathedral in a tour with the Decorative Arts Society led by Rory O’Donnell.
Anrep worked intermittently at Westminster over a long period from 1914 to 1963, his last work there being completed when he was 79. Everything he did is notable for its clear outlines and simplification appropriate to the medium. Naturally, he was influenced by the mosaics at Revenna, which this Westminster peacock recalls.
At the Queen’s Gallery, Style and Society: Dressing the Georgians, drawn mainly from the Royal Collection, has intriguing observations about Van Dyck style, masquerade, dressing children, wigs and uniform. Although the focus was inevitably on upper-class portraits, there were some interesting counter-currents.
This cartoon by Rowlandson, Three Principal Requisites to Form a Modern Man of Fashion (1814), shows clothes that were becoming fashionable at the time, including jockey boots, trousers and frock coats, which had their origins in working-class dress. The frock coat was looser cut and more comfortable than the coat previously in fashion. Young men adopted the mannerisms of the lower classes, to the dismay of their elders and the ridicule of Rowlandson, who observes that the man of fashion is now required to dress like a coachman, to study boxing and bull-baiting and speak fluent slang. In a few decades, trousers and frock coats had become the norm.
The exhibition of Simon Pettet’s ceramics at 18 Folgate Street made me visit Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields, which I’d meant to do for a long time, with the added incentive of being permitted to take photos, which isn’t normally allowed.
Pettett graduated with a first-class degree in ceramics from Camberwell School of Art in 1983 and met Severs shortly after, moving in to the house that Severs was turning into a replica of what it might have been in the 18th and 19th centuries, telling the story of a family of silk weavers over a period of decline from prosperity to penury.
Pettet’s clever pastiche of Delftware, with current references, like the images of Spitalfields residents Gilbert and George, fit well into this theatrical environment, with its wood fires, half-drawn curtains and unmade beds.
PRPS ‘Le Sabre – Selvedge Kasuga Jeans’. Premium clothing made in the USA using Japanese denim. “Destruction on the thigh, back cuffs and back pocket have been designed to emulate a natural worn out look and an aggressive wash with rust stains and light paint splatter further define these jeans.”
W. David Marx’s survey of post-war Japanese fashion, Ametora, tells a detailed story of how it evolved from street youths copying the clothes of American GIs to Japan’s setting the pace for US clothing giants. The thread running through Ametora is the Ivy cult – the adoption of the dress style of American students by Japanese who knew nothing about them. To a large extent the Ivy cult was the result of relentless promotion by Kensuke Ishizu, who ran the successful VAN company for many years. Ishizu regarded clothing as a form of art and wasn’t interested in return on capital.
Kensuke Ishizu in about 1960.
Jeans weren’t Ivy style but other style tribes became obsessed with them. Early Japanese attempts to manufacture jeans weren’t very successful because in the Japanese tradition of indigo dyeing, the blue dye thoroughly permeates the thread, but the essence of denim is that the core of the thread remains white, which determines the way the jeans wear with age. The Japanese didn’t know how to do that. The strong denim fabric was also alien to their tradition. Japanese sewing machines couldn’t cope with it and machines had to be imported from the USA. Eventually Japan perfected the manufacture of jeans and improved the weaving of denim to the extent that premium US brands like PRPS now promote their garments as quasi-Japanese.
Ivy style was followed in typically Japanese manner, with rules being drawn up about how the clothes had to be made and worn. W. David Marx says that these rules were like the kata of Japanese arts, a precise ritual that had to be repeated without variation and in which the example of a master had to be followed without change. Ishizu had such authority in the field that he was addressed as sensei.
A 1963 VAN poster with Kazuo Hozumi’s famous ‘Ivy Boy’ drawing.
When the the clean-cut, upper-class style of Yale and Harvard was first adopted by Japanese youth in the early 1960s it was seen as a dangerous act of rebellion. Office workers wore navy blue suits, white shirts and plain black shoes. A salaryman who came to the office wearing a pale blue shirt might be sent home to change. In the weeks leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, there was a police crackdown on the youths who congregated in the Ginza neighbourhood wearing Ivy League suits, striped ties and penny loafers. They were thought to be dangerous and to bring disgrace to Japan.
The way that Ivy style was adopted and adapted in post-war Japan thows an interesting light on the idea that fashion is the descent of dress from the upper classes to the lower classes. Japanese youth adopted a style of clothing from the country’s occupiers but it set them at odds with the Japanese upper class. Within a few decades, Japan had gone from a kata of Ivy style to the trumping of American brands. American jeans adopted Japanese improvements to the denim and the cut of the jeans. Jeans came from the street but premium US brands like PRPS charge high prices – the ripped pair at the top of this post retail for $575.
A picture of the little figure (above) that I described in an earlier post is going to illustrate my forthcoming article on the figurative pottery of the 1920s and 1930s in West 86th. Since writing it, I’ve found out more about the elusive artist who signed it JMW. The subject matter led me to think she was a woman. A picture of a similar piece by “J. West” in the Camberwell Art School’s archive (below) made me think he might be a man. In fact she was Joan Mary West (1883-1974), an artist with a varied practice, who came to ceramics comparatively late in life.
There’s a solitary painting by her in Manchester City Art Gallery, Ennui (below), undated, but judging from its style, painted at roughly the same time as her little figures, though it’s free of their sentimentality.
I’d assumed she was a young student at Camberwell, but she was in her forties when she studied there. On Ancestry.com I even found a picture of her, no doubt taken at about that time, and showing her interest in pottery.
The Casa de Serralves, built on the outskirts of Porto between 1925 and 1944, is a spectacular Art Deco house with significant interior details. It was designed by José Marques da Silva to the commission of Carlos Alberto Cabral, who had been inspired by the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts.
The unusual pink exterior was proposed by Alfred Porteneuve. The interior details, which are well-preserved, were relatively late. Émile-Jacques Ruhlman designed the dining room, hall, salon, cloakroom and billiard room. René Lalique designed the large skylight in the main hall’s ceiling. Edgar Brandt designed the wrought iron gate in the hall. Jean Perzel designed the lamps. The building is now owned by the Serralves Foundation. Restoration was overseen by Álvaro Siza.
We left it too late for the Vermeer exhibition, and the Rijksmuseum was sold out, but as a consolation we saw Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition yesterday, in which the curators took us on a two-hour tour, and we learned more than we would have done just by standing in front of the paintings.
From my last visit I remember that no reproduction can do justice to the brilliance and depth of colour of The Milkmaid. X-rays showed that she was first painted with things behind her but Vermeer decided to simplify and placed her against a bare wall instead. I’d never noticed – because Vermeer didn’t want you to consciously notice things like that – that her side in shadow is placed against a light wall and her side in sunlight against a dark wall, to make sharper contrasts. The red shutter in The Little Street was added later to stand out and balance the composition.
With some boldness, Vermeer made the biggest feature in The View of Delft a dark cloud, puts the foreground in shadow and creates perspective by showing sunlight only on the distant buildings.
He was the painter of light – the painter of light more than the painter of colour, because colour is the manifestation of light. Seeing his pictures in sequence in this film makes you realise that his faces are often unsaturated and out of focus so that they recede behind brighter, more sharply painted fabrics.
Early accounts of studio pottery, notably those by Muriel Rose (1955) and Paul Rice and Christopher Gowing, (1989) were selective and very partisan, basically, just showing the pottery they liked. Oliver Watson’s 1993 survey of studio ceramics in the V&A was the first to cover the subject in an objective and dispassionate way and after Watson there were numerous scholarly studies. The revision of Watson’s volume by the V&A’s senior ceramics curator, Alun Graves (above) has been a long time in preparation and it’s now out. Watson acknowledged the significance of figurative studio pottery in the 1920s and 1930s (ignored by Rose, Rice and Gowing) but he had to exclude it for reasons of space. Graves’s book covers the modellers, in which there’s a growing interest, and it’s a welcome addition to the literature.
Alun Graves, StudioCeramics (London: Thames and Hudson/V&A, 2023)
Picasso’s art is under review because of his bad character. The Brooklyn Museum is mounting an exhibition, It’s Pablomatic, from June 2 – September 24, 2023, which spotlights his attitude to women and his use of ideas and artifacts from African art. It may be iconoclastic but it proceeds from an acknowledgement of his greatness.
The great step forward in art history in the late 19th century was the move away from biography and judgement to formal analysis. Formalism was a strand of 20th-century modernism and Mondrian’s and Rothko’s Olympian abstractions seem to preclude biographical inquiry.
Picasso never followed the route to pure abstraction yet remained respected even at its high tide, but his reputation is so high now that it’s hard to grasp how late fame came to him in Britain. To be sure, in France his precocious talent, ferocious energy and self-promotion earned him recognition very early, but at the time of his big London retrospective in 1960, when he was 79, he was still regarded as a charlatan in some artistic circles.
Post-modernist, Marxist, feminist and post-colonialist narratives have displaced formal analysis and have replaced aesthetics with the sociology of art. Even when abstract art is displayed, curators focus on social explanation, context, biography and stories. Narratives foreground the artist, conditions of artistic production and social meanings of display, and they attach little importance to the object itself, and since concept became elevated over object and imagining was severed from making, little attention was paid to what art actually looked like. We have always been more or less interested in the lives of the artists, of course, but art and the artist have merged. It’s not surprising that now one of the most popular artists is Frida Kahlo.
Biography and sociology are valid endeavours but the conditions giving rise to art and the value of art occupy different universes of discourse. The art is not the artist. Put simply, bad people can produce good art – and it may even be the case, as Lord Acton said, that great men are almost always bad men.
The National Gallery offers an excellent review of the making of modernism between the last Impressionist exhibition and the First World War, focusing on developments in Paris and their spread through other important cities – Vienna, Berlin, Brussels and Barcelona – but there was nothing from Milan, unless one counts the single exhibit by Medardo Rosso, who was included because he moved to Paris.
Many important works were included and artists like Cezanne, Gaugin and Van Gogh were well represented and I was interested to see the ceramic made by Gaugin with Ernest Chaplet, an aspect of his work I was unaware of, and early representational paintings by Mondrian, which never fail to please.
And there were arresting exhibits by lesser-known artists, like Seated Girl with a White shirt and Standing Nude Girl (1906) (above) by Paula Modersohn-Becker, who developed her artistic language in Paris from influences including Puvis de Chavannes, the Nabis, Henri Rousseau and Picasso and used it to depict a world of private, predominantly female experience when she returned to Bremen.
Space is always limited but it could be said that Milan was no less important than Bremen. Cities defined as peripheral are rarely shown in London, despite their wealth of wonderful art. My first visit to the National Gallery of Budapest was a revelation of a rich artistic tradition closed off by forty years of Communism and well worth exploring.
The scant regard paid to Italian modernism, which centred on Futurism in Milan, was unfortunately part of a pattern. Tate Modern marked the centenary of the Futurist Manifesto with an exhibition in 2009 and the Estorick Gallery gallantly promotes 20th century Italian art and design but the Severini exhibition never came to Britain. It could of course be said that Futurism before 1914 was in thrall to Paris and had no style of its own, borrowing from Pointillism and Cubism, but that misses the point that in its embrace of the machine and urbanism it was the most modernist of modern art. One can’t avoid the suspicion that it is ignored not for artistic reasons but because of its later association with Fascism.