THE DE CHIRICO MOMENT

Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings captured the uneasy feeling of abandoned urban spaces that are uncannily full of absence.

There’s a similar feeling in the work of other artists: Eric Ravilious’s interiors and some of Munch’s and Carel Weight’s paintings. It’s also conveyed in Hitchcock’s scene in The Man Who Knew too Much where James Stewart, in search of Ambrose Chappell, walks down an empty London street with footsteps echoing behind him

Anyone who visits Italy will soon have a de Chirico moment in an empty square in strong afternoon sunlight between three and four in the afternoon, like this place (above) that I happened on in Verona.

ARMAZENS CUNHAS, PORTO


Next to the Carmo Church in Porto this fine Art Deco building dominates the Praça Gomes Teixeira. Armazens Cunhas (motto “We Sell Cheaper”) has been selling sheets, bedspreads, tablecloths, pyjamas and work wear in the same way and with the same internal layout for decades with few concessions to modern life and none to tourism.



José de Almeida Cunha founded the company in 1917 and it remains in the same family today. The facade was designed by Manuel Marques, Amoroso Lopes and Coelho Freitas, linking three earlier buildings. The same team of architects also designed the Farmácia Vitália in the Praça Liberdade.


Photo: Manuel V. Botelho (Wikipedia)

DULWICH POTTERY

This little figure was made by Jessamine Bray and Sybil Williams at the Dulwich Pottery in 1939. They were the last and Jessamine was the youngest of the Chelsea Potters, makers of the figurative ceramics that were so popular in the 1920s that they were the first things that came to mind when people talked about ‘studio pottery’.

Jessamine studied at Camberwell School of Art in the early 1920s, where she became interested in modelling, of which the school was the leading exponent. She worked for Charles Vyse and then became a teacher of ceramic sculpture at the art school. Sybil, who was older, also studied with Vyse and they probably met in his studio. The two women began their partnership in 1926.

This small model is typical of their work, with its mild Continental exoticism, its portrayal of a child with an animal and its meticulous underglaze painting.

Changing artistic fashion, changing family circumstances and the outbreak of war brought the Dulwich Pottery to an and, but Jessamine continued modelling at home at least until the late 1950s. This picture (below) was taken of her at the art school in the early 1920s.

SHAW’S CORNER


Bernard Shaw bequeathed his house at Ayot St Lawrence in Hertfordshire to the National Trust in 1950. He was fifty when he moved in in 1906 and already successful. He became rich but remained a socialist of a peculiar kind, at first wedded to Fabian gradualism but from the 1920s onwards preferring dictatorship and admiring Lenin, Stalin and Mussolini. We went on a tour the other day.

Shaw’s study with a portrait of William Morris above the desk and Morris & Co. curtains. The little monogrammed pot on the right of the typewiter was made by Louise Powell.


When I moved to Hertfordshire in the 1980s, old people remembered him driving through the lanes either in his Rolls Royce or on his tricycle. The tricycle bore witness to his passion for healthy living, including vegetarianism, wool next to the skin, sleeping with the windows open and opposition to vaccination, but it also bore witness to socialist principles.

Bare boards and an electric fire. On the mantleshelf, a Staffordshire figure of Shaw’s chosen rival, Shakespeare, and his 1938 Oscar for the screenplay of ‘Pygmalion’. The portrait is of his wife, Charlotte.


Shaw’s Corner is modestly furnished in the style of a clerk or a schoolteacher and doesn’t look like the house of a wealthy man. The house had servants’ bells but Shaw refused to use them, going down to the kitchen and knocking on the door if he wanted to talk to the cook. Shaw liked the quiet villlage without a train station or a bus service.

The sunny veranda, which Shaw called ‘The Riviera’. The house was built without running water or electricity but Shaw was quick to adopt technical innovations.


It has Arts and Crafts connections. Shaw was a follower of Ruskin and Morris, greater influences on progressive thinkers in England than Marx, and a portrait of Morris hangs above his desk. He was part of the Morris circle. He preached socialism in street-corner meetings with Morris. He flirted with May Morris, she fell in love with him and Morris might have liked him as a son-in-law.

May Morris, her fiancé Henry Halliday Sparling, Emery Walker and Bernard Shaw.


Like every advanced middle-class house of the period, Shaw’s Corner has Arts and Crafts touches throughout: Morris & Co. furniture and fabrics, a piano designed by Walter Cave, secretary of the Art Workers Guild, pottery by Alfred and Louise Powell and a sense of The Simple Life.

A patterned vessel by Alfred and Louise Powell, china and varied reading.


ROTHENSTEIN AND LETHABY

William Rothenstein knew everyone in the art world of the early 20th century, so his memoirs – Men and Memories and After Fifty – are informative as well as entertaining. Since I’ve been writing about W. R. Lethaby, I thought I should go and see what Rothenstein had to say about him. Not surprisingly they knew one another well. They visited Paris and Chartres together. Rothenstein respected Lethaby’s scholarship, judgement and integrity and his contribution to the crafts. I’ve copied the relevant passage below.

Rothenstein became principal of the Royal College of Art shortly after Lethaby had retired as professor of design and while his infliuence was still strongly felt. In a confidential memorandum Rothenstein expressed reservations about the air of medievalism that he’d left behind him and the poor work being done in some of the subjects in the design school.

BERNARD LEACH: LIFE & WORK

Covid and Christmas gave me the chance to catch up on reading and after Fiona MacCarthy’s life of William Morris, I’ve finally got round to Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, Bernard Leach: Life and Work.

As a man with no doubts about his own importance, Leach (1887-1979) left a large archive, which makes the work of the biographer easy, though Cooper may have been blessed with too much material and remains too close to the sources. In contrast to Leach, Dora Billington, another major studio potter of the period, left nothing. As Leach dominated the pottery studio world, so she dominated pottery in the art schools. She was in a better position to leave an archive than he was. He was peripatetic, had an emotionally turbulent life and was always in search of funds; she remained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and lived in the same house with one companion for thirty years. The absence of a Billington archive suggests that her papers were destroyed, probably on her instructions.

Leach’s first wife, Muriel, said that no man was ever more in need of a religion than he was. Pottery was a religion for him. He thought that Beauty was to be found in the Absolute. Industry had no soul and bad pottery was “dead”. He could never accept that his work was simply a style that he preferred: he had to believe that it reflected a universal, unvariable and absolute standard that all pottery should measure up to, and damn it if it didn’t. He was brought up a Catholic and was educated by Jesuits. When doubts crept in, he became a follower of a charlatan called Alfred Westharp, who combined polygamy with the Montessori method of education. Westharp conveniently persuaded Leach that his discontent with monogamy was spiritually significant and that he would never develop as an artist if he didn’t follow his sexual urges.

Later, under the influence of Mark Tobey, Leach adopted the Baha’i faith. His employees at the pottery had to attend daily prayer meetings. He stood on a soap box in St Ives harbour to preach on the evils of modern life, which, by the 1950s, included not only industry but also cinema, chewing gum and Music While You Work.

Leach’s mission was to bring together East and West. In Japan he sold pottery based on the English vernacular tradition and he introduced Japanese potters to the clay handle instead of the traditional bamboo handle. He and his colleagues, Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada, encouraged a Japanese reading of Ruskin and Morris. But as he was so opposed to the values of the West it’s hard to see what he brought to the East – unlike, for example, Charlotte Perriand, whose design was inspired by Japan but who remained a significant Western designer.

Leach made successful tours of the United States, which challenged him because he couldn’t understand a country with diverse traditions and a love of innovation. Cooper is frank about his aloofness and dogmatism in America, but for all that he was often open to new experiences in the arts, society and nature. Most remarkable was his warm response to the designers Charles and Ray Eames, who, despite their collection of folk art, represented the antithesis of Leach’s values. He wanted to produce a small number of things for a discerning élite: their objective, in their memorable phrase, was getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.

There’s nothing surprising about a man developing odd ideas but it is suprising that Leach’s odd ideas gained so much traction. He and Hamada irrupted from Japan into England in 1920 and worked in disregard of other art potters. There were broadly speaking three groups: Leach and his small band; the late followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, like Alfred and Louise Powell; and the figurative potters like Charles Vyse and Gwendolen Parnell, who were untouched by Orientalism, had little interest in the vernacular and didn’t share Leach’s aesthetic of simplicity, modesty and utility.

Leach’s style was slow to catch on. Some, like the Marxist Henry Bergen and William Slater, the managing director of the Dartington Trust, were unafraid to interrogate his vague ideas, but after the war there was an avalanche of interest. That is partly explained by Leach’s unshakable self-confidence, his talent for publicity and A Potter’s Book, but there have been many confident self-publicists without a following. Murray Fieldhouse, an enthusiastic follower, I think explained it. He told me that after the war a lot of people were looking for a new way of life and that the crafts seemed to offer it. He and several others who went for this way of life were pacifists like Leach. The Leach idea of a small pottery in the country, in the shadow of the atom bomb, away from the rat race, seemed to fit the bill. If oriental religion could be added to the mix, so much the better.

SCHOOL OF CHARLES VYSE (2)

I posted earlier about this little ceramic sculpture I picked up in an auction, speculating that it was made by a follower of Charles Vyse. After a couple of days looking in the archives of Camberwell School of Art I was pleased to find that I was right. Vyse taught modelling at Camberwell in the 1920s and in The Cambian, the college magazine, I saw a similar piece by J.West, a student. West never seems to have practiced professionally, like a lot of art students, and I’ve found no other pieces by him. Him or her? My first thought was that a tender piece depicting a girl with a baby must have been made by a woman, but the convention of the time would have been to describe a woman student as “Miss J. West,” so J.West was probably a man.

SOPHIE TAEUBER-ARP

In 1964 The Tate Gallery had an exhibition devoted to Hans Arp. It’s taken them almost sixty years to catch up with his more interesting wife Sophie Taeuber-Arp in the latest exhibition recovering the reputations of neglected women artists. (I wrote earlier about the recent MAK exhibition Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte.)

Sophie Taeuber-Arp is revealed here as embodying perhaps more than anyone else the idea of the Unity of the Arts, moving easily between painting, architecture, interior design, sculpture, tapestry, rug-making, jewellery, costume and puppetry. She also trained as a dancer with Laban and there is a dancer’s sense of movement and fun in her abstract compositions. She was never a painter descending to decoration or a craft worker trying to elevate her status – she believed absolutely that all art was of significance.

https://fb.watch/8vIweK8LsB/

WOMEN OF THE WIENER WERKSTÄTTE

Charlotte Billwiller, Mathilde Flögl, Susi Singer, Marianne Leisching
and Maria Likarz, artists of the Weiner Werkstätte.

The Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna (MAK) has a large exhibition devoted to the women artists of the Wiener Werkstätte (WW), the company of artists, designers and craft workers who defined Viennese modernism in the first decades of the 20th century. Women played a prominent role, increasingly after the First World War. The work shown is varied, innovative, clever and faultlessly executed.

Mathilde Flögl, Invitation to the artists’ costume party, 1924.

The Wiener Werkstätte started as a metal workshop founded by Joseph Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, professors at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, and Fritz Waerndorfer, their business manager. It expanded to include textiles, fashion, pottery, graphics, architecture, furniture and toys, selling to the Viennese bourgeoisie though their upmarket stores in the Neustiftgasse and Kärntner Strasse, particularly to the cultured and assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of the kind recently depicted in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. (I wrote about their New York store here.)

Dress made from WW fabric designed by Hilda Jesser, 1921/2.
Hilda Jesser, Poster for the WW, 1919.
The WW store in Kärntner Strasse.

The artists of the Werkstätte were influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement but rapidly went beyond it and were less doctrinaire than Morris & Co. They valued art but they were unfazed by machinery. They esteemed handwork but they didn’t think it was essential for designers to make everything themselves. And they didn’t share the social concerns of the Arts and Crafts movement. Unlike Morris, who wanted to create a democratic art and hated pandering to what he called “the swinish luxury of the rich,” the Gesamptkunstwerk to which the WW aspired – designing a project from house to teaspoons to the highest specification – presupposed a wealthy clientele.

The Austrian pavilion at the 1925 Paris Expo, designed by Josef Hoffmann.
Women of the Wiener Werkstätte setting up the Austrian Pavilion in Paris, 1925.

The curators have found 178 women who designed for the WW. They made a major contribution to exhibits in the Austrian pavilion in the 1925 Paris Expo and are pictured above setting it up. Hoffmann’s design is well-known but most of the women have been overlooked. In their day the Werkstätte was mocked because it employed so many of them and dismissed as “Weiner Wieberkunstgewerbe“, Viennese Feminine Crafts.

Vally Wieselthier, ‘Flora’, 1928, glazed ceramic.

Their diverse talents are illustrated by the graphics, textiles and ceramics designed by Hilda Jesser that I’ve shown. She also designed lace, embroidery, wallpaper, jewellery and leather goods.

Vally Wieselthier, Fireplace, c.1925, glazed ceramic.

This is a just small selection from this superb exhibition. There is a publication with illustrations and biographies of the artists.

Maria Likarz, Postcards of fashionable hats, 1912.
Hilda Jesser, Jardiniere, 1921, glazed ceramic.

LUCIE RIE IN VIENNA

Turning to Tony Birks’s life of Lucie Rie, I saw that the model she made with Grete Salzer, exhibited at the 1925 Paris Expo, about which I wrote earlier with a fuzzy image from L’Autriche à Paris 1925, is better illustrated in his book (above), which is based on conversations with Rie and makes use of photos from her archive.

I’ll be writing soon about the exhibition Women Artists of the Weiner Werkstätte at MAK (the Vienna Museum of Applied Art) which I saw a couple of days ago. In the meantime there’s a beautiful photo of Lucie in Vienna taken by Lotte Meiner-Graf.