I don’t normally show my own work here, but, when I was thinking of ways I might draw on ceramics, I dug out these old posters. I did them when I was working in the PR department of North East London Polytechnic, the predecessor of the University of East London.

We had limited resources. Everything was printed in black on a little offset litho press, but I loved working there because I had freedom to do what I wanted and my boss was uninterested in what I did – as long as nothing went wrong.

When I did the poster for Eric Robinson‘s Talk on “Higher Education in the USSR” (below), which I thought was one of my best, the shit hit the fan. Eric was deputy director of North East London Polytechnic, and in fact the driving force behind the creation of the polytechnics. He didn’t like my poster. He though the drawing was facetious and the text illegible.

The morning after the posters went up, Eric stormed into my boss’s office, one of my posters crumpled in his hand. After he left I was called in for a dressing down and told to replace the poster by lunchtime. “But you know our procedure,” I said, “we must have a week’s notice.” My boss insisted. I went to the print room and told the printer that we had to run off a new poster by lunchtime. There was low intensity war between the designers and the printers, but my demand came with such high authority that he actually stopped the press and we had another, much worse, poster ready in three hours. In the afternoon, my beaming boss called me in again. “Eric likes it,” he said. “Well done!”

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These are some of the ceramics I am showing at ARTSPACE 21 at the Barn Galleries between the 12th and 27th May.

In these works, I continue to explore the relationship between form and decoration, the contrast of decorated and undecorated spaces and the variations I can make with few colours and limited means.

Large areas of the vessels remain white. My medium is tin-glazed earthenware, the traditional medium of maiolica. I have resisted the temptation of most maiolica painters to cover the entire surface. Porcelain is often appreciated for its white or off white glaze, but the workaday tin-glazed earthenware rarely is. Perhaps I can’t shake off my graphic design training, where I was taught that good design must have a lot of white space. These designs become muddled if there is too much in them.

My motifs have gradually developed from scribble into arabesque.  Although I don’t read Arabic, I am aware of the shapes of Arabic calligraphy, and once I saw the connection I began consciously to combine short hooks with long strokes, lines with dots and curves with loops like the motifs that make the rhythm of written Arabic. 

The way the brush behaves is crucial to this work. It must hold enough pigment for a long stroke and the blunt beginnings and pointed tails depend on the shape and elasticity of the brush.  Although the designs are spontaneous, the brush strokes are not done quickly, so the brush must be firm enough to glide smoothly over the unfired glaze without suggesting hesitation.

Chinese brushes of goat or wolf hair are easy to get in large sizes and are cheap. The treatises on Chinese calligraphy talk about precise movement, sometimes starting the brush in the direction opposite to the way you want it to go and of the need for long practice.  Perhaps I haven’t learned to use Chinese brushes properly, but for the arabesques I can use only sable brushes.  The broad washes of colour (blue and black on the pots illustrated) can be done with soft, wide brushes of goat or ox hair.  Brushes of artificial fibre are too stiff for my work.

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Gino Severini was one of the founders of Italian Futurism. Only because of his first-hand knowledge of the latest art in Paris did the Futurists develop anything like a coherent style. After the First World War, Severini was one of the first artists to abandon the aggressive modernism advocated by the Futurists.

From about 1930, he became interested in classical mosaics. He painted still lifes inspired by wall paintings excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum and undertook church commissions in mosaic.  Even his 1934 portrait of his daughter Gina (below) shows the influence of mosaics.

Gino Severini, Portrait of Gina Severini. (1934)
Turin, Civica galeria d’arte moderna

In 1944, while Italy was in war and chaos, Severini made a series of mosaics of the Stations of the Cross for his native Cortona, a beautiful little Tuscan hill town. The mosaics were put up along the Via Crucis leading out of the town and up to the church of Santa Margherita. They are a good example of his mature work, beautifully atmospheric, with bold figures of Christ in modern settings and with strong, emotional colouration.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to show them here. They are in the open air, under glass and reflect the sky, so it’s impossible to get a good photo of them. The detail at the head of this post is the best I could make.

Not only are the mosaics difficult to photograph, the reflections make it difficult to see them at all. Why are they covered up like this? There doesn’t seem to be any danger from tourists because the Via Crucis is off the beaten track and difficult to climb in the summer – hardly anyone visits it.

Holiday crowds along the Via Crucis, Cortona.
Severini’s mosaics are in the niches covered with pitched roofs

Severini’s cartoons for the mosaics are on show in the Museo Diocesano del Capitolo di Cortona.  You can get a better view of the cartoons than the mosaics, but even those are not very well displayed and the museum has no notes, no book and no postcard reproductions.

Gino Severini, The Deposition  (1944) Cartoon for the mosaic.
Museo Diocesano del Capitolo di Cortona.
The red sky is characteristic of the series.

I have been unable to find any good reproductions of the Stations of the Cross anywhere. Four were put on Maltese postage stamps, and there are six small images on the Cortona website.  

The neglect of these works is typical of the neglect of traditional twentieth century art. My introduction to modern art was Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting, written at the high tide of abstract expressionism in the late 1950s and giving the impression that the only important art was that which led to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.

Severini’s Futurist career covered seven years.  His post-Futurist career covered fifty years and was extremely productive.  His entire career was covered in the exhibition at MART in Trento last year, curated by Daniela Fonti (below).  It should receive better coverage outside Italy.

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I met John Pollex at the opening of his exhibition of slipware at the Contemporary Ceramics Centre a couple of weeks ago. There is till time to see his show before it closes on 21 April. Contemporary Ceramics opened its airy exhibition space opposite the British Museum last year and Pollex’s brightly coloured pots have been displayed there to good effect.

Pollex began making slipware thirty years ago, starting with traditional work in white, brown and black. At the pre-exhibition talk he showed slides of jugs he did in the style of the old Devon harvest jugs. On one he had written “Pollex me fecit”, “Pollex made me” in Latin, which is a nice joke because “pollex” is Latin for thumb.

After working in this way for a few years, he saw an exhibition of work by Howard Hodgkin and had a sort of Damascene conversion. He is one of the few slipware potters to use brilliant colour. Mary Wandrausch, the doyenne of slipware potters, who is familiar with the entire European tradition, has added blues and yellows. But Pollex makes brilliant and dazzling works without any reference to tradition. The only other slipware potter I know who works like this is Barry Stedman, some of whose work is also on display at Contemporary Ceramics.

John Pollex – New Ceramics
Contemporary Ceramics Centre
63 Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3BF
Until 21 April 2012

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British curators want to say something new new about Picasso, about whom so much has been said already,  so they  don’t put on general exhibitions of his work any more, only shows with an angle. Tate Liverpool put on Picasso: Peace and Freedom in 2010; Tate Modern put on Matisse/Picasso in 2002; the Royal Academy put on Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay in 1998; and the Tate put on On Classic Ground: Picasso, Leger, De Chirico and the New Classicism in 1990. This exhibition at Tate Britain covers Picasso’s reception in Britain and his influence on British art. To some extent, it is an art historian’s exhibition, detailing past Picasso exhibitions, his dealers and journal articles about him. A similar exhibition, Picasso and American Art, was put by the Whitney Museum, New York, in 2006.  A general exhibition of works from the Picasso Museum in Paris is currently touring the USA, Australia and Canada, but otherwise you will have to visit the permanent exhibitions of his work at the Musée National Picasso (Paris), the Museu Picasso (Barcelona) or the Museo Picasso (Malaga).

Picasso’s reputation in Britain is so big now that it is surprising to discover that it was uncertain here until he was almost eighty. It was not established until 1960, when the Arts Council put on a retrospective of 270 works at the Tate Gallery, including his series Las Meninas, based on Velasquez. It attracted 500,000 visitors. It was the first significant art exhibition I ever went to.

This exhibition concentrates on Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. Moore did not draw attention to Picasso’s influence until his own work was recognized; David Hockney is more open about it. The exhibition is noteworthy for Francis Bacon’s Picassoesque paintings from the 1930s. Bacon destroyed most of his early work and these are not often shown. Of course, many lesser artists were influenced by him as well. (I have talked about William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette here.)

This is not a review of the exhibition and I just want to talk about three pictures that fired me up.

Picasso’s use of colour in Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1923) (top) is arresting. Most of the painting is monochrome, but parts are brilliant red, dark green and pastel shades of green, blue and yellow, some with black outlines. The combination of monochrome, strong colour, pastel shades with sparing use of line is bold and novel. One cannot say that anything Picasso did was arbitrary, but the colour combinations in this work will never be found in any designer’s scheme. Despite making a formal analysis of this work, I have to say that Picasso was not a formalist. There is always something humane, erotic, historicist, mythic or autobiographical in his work – sometimes all five in one. The gallery note says of Nude Woman in a Red Armchair that it depicts his lover Marie-Therèse Walter. “She is presented as a sequence of sensuous curves and her face is made up of two profiles, the sitter’s own and that of her secret lover whose lips kiss hers.”

I was attracted to the work by Ben Nicholson. Ben Nicholson’s work in the early 1930s owes a debt to Picasso, but it was original. You can be influenced by other artists and be original at the same time. In fact, if you are not influenced by others, you are not original, you are illiterate.

The exhibition has three paintings from this period: 1933 (Coin and musical instrument) (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) (left), 1933 (Musical Instruments) (from Kettle’s Yard) and 1933 (St Remy, Provence) (from a private collection). As an artist, I am interested in the way these paintings were made. In 1933 (Coin and Musical instruments) a dark ground of browns and blacks has outlines scratched through to the white canvas and there are textures made by the use of a dry brush of one colour over another, none of this visible in the reproduction. Nicholson’s adaptations of Picasso’s style and methods were formal and his formalist trajectory took him to the white-on-white constructions of his later period, a long way from Picasso.

Finally, Picasso’s Portrait of Emilie Marguerite Walter (1939) (left).  This is a deconstructed Picasso portrait of the type that generated so much mockery. Two things are now clear about such portraits. The first is that they are not arbitrary, as you will discover if you try to make such a portrait and arrange the features in an arbitrary way. David Hockney did some in homage, and there is a similar portrait of Christopher Isherwood, a good one, in this exhibition.  The second is that, although Picasso could make aggressive pictures like his weeping woman series, this picture of his lover’s mother is affectionate.

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