Bland Brick Fetishism

Get the tube to Victoria and then catch a mainline train down to Brighton.  There’s a delay due to signal failure or engineering maintenance overruns or some such problem so I arrive about ten minutes late although, if the ongoing commuter horror stories that have been on television and in all the papers recently are correct, I’ve been pretty lucky to escape with such a comparatively minor disruption.  Nevertheless, it’s still a bit irritating and it’s easy to get riled and grumped up when the weather is so darned sunny and hot.  I’m tempted to forget about art for the day and just run straight down to the shingle beach, kick off my shoes and socks, roll up my trousers and then douse my feet, stretch my toes and kick up some waves in the salty, Sussex seas.  But I suppose I can get my feet wet any day of the week by just staying a bit longer in the shower so I stick with the original plan and get on another sweaty train and head out west for half an hour to get to Chichester.  While the city is still quite far south of the capital’s latitude, I can’t hear any sea gulls, smell any fish and chips nor see any stalls selling sticks of rock so I guess I’m still a few miles inland.  The place seems to have a sensible, slightly sedate, rather comfortable atmosphere in total contrast to the frantic, scruffy, fun-loving hedonism that I associate with Brighton and, whatever my actual geographical coordinates may indicate, I feel fairly safely located in the middle of middle England – a hunch reinforced when I reach my destination at the rather lovely Pallant House Gallery.

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In fact, the Gallery comprises an 18th century Queen Anne townhouse onto which has been bolted a rather cool, modern Modernist extension.  It’s definitely not an example of the Ernie Wise school of design, since you can very clearly see the join, with the architect, Colin St John Wilson, evidently completely unconcerned about trying to smooth the visual transition from the stylish old fashioned building to its new, functional adjunct.  On the right is a façade ornamented by the elegance of a symmetrical arrangement of large white-framed windows while its neighbour is a grim wall of brick, broken only by some pencil thin slits and slots.  I’m not sure it’s an entirely happy marriage but then Wilson is most famous for the disappointingly dreary British Library building on Euston Road, the design of which Prince Charles, quite reasonably, compared to looking like an academy for secret policemen.  Sadly, it seems that he was allowed to repeat his peculiar brand of bland brick fetishism here, presumably an aesthetical price the good citizens of Chichester felt willing to pay in order to acquire the donation of his impressively large Modern Art collection.  As far as I can tell, it’s the work that Wilson left them that is responsible for the bulk of the large selection of Pop Art works that are presently on display.  The room is full of works by Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield and most of the other big names of the period, with the odd exception being the notable absence of anything by David Hockney.  It seems a bit surprising that no arty benefactor has stepped forward to fill the gap but, even with this lacuna, the rest of the display adds up to a reasonable overview of the colouful movement that help make Britain appear to be at the very centre of that most swingingest ‘60s decade.

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As for the rest of the permanent collection, most of that is displayed in the nine smallish rooms of the original old Pallant House building.  The result of half a dozen different bequests, the collection is inevitably a bit of a mish mash mix but it covers much of the mainstream output from many of the better known British artists who achieved some level of popularity and fame during the first half of the 20th century.  If the result is all a bit downbeat, parochial and doesn’t provide a particularly exhilarating visual experience well, that’s not so much a reflection of any fault of the Pallant House Gallery’s curatorial staff, nor any particular slur aimed at the intelligence or taste of any of the benefactors.  No, the problem lies with the artists of the time and though it pains my patriotic instincts to have to admit it, for most of the Modernist century most British artists, even the better known ones, definitely deserve to be consigned to the second division.  Consequently, among the room displays that vary between general themes, such as portraiture and landscape, and wider stylistic groupings of local Surrealists and Abstractionists, there are no really great artworks but many competent and interesting pieces and perhaps an equal number of small gems and total duffers.  As for deciding exactly what painting falls into which category, I think that’s perhaps a matter of taste for the individual but as for giving a very general flavour for what’s on offer, it’s probably sufficient for me just to reel off some of the names.  So, amongst those in the figurative camp, there are works by Walter Sickert, Duncan Grant, Alfred Wallis, Lucien Freud, William Coldstream and John Bratby while those representing the Abstract and Surreal side include Eileen Agar, Edward Burra, Merlyn Evans, Henry Moore, William Gear and Ben Nicholson.

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Back across to the modern building there is a very comprehensive, temporary display of works by Christopher Wood that probably does a fairly good job of confirming his place in the history of Modern Art as the almost the archetypical 20th century British artist:  moderately talented but unexceptional and perhaps just not quite self-confident enough ever to be truly innovative or radical.  If the expectation or hope of the curators was to overturn that view then I think it was probably a mistake to gather together quite such a large display of his works since the combination of so many pieces may even overemphasise the artist’s limitations as he moves from one style to another, from a sort of colourful Post Impressionism to a quirky quasi Primitivism, before settling on a fairly run of the mill realistic figuration.  The introduction of an inappropriate zebra in the landscape of one of his very last works has been taken as a sign that Surrealism might have been his next port of call but, sadly, his suicide in 1930 at the age of just 29 means that the thought must remain forever speculative.

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Finally, the Gallery has a small display of works by Friedrich Nagler who seems to have spent a life-time carving small cartoon style heads from a variety of materials including bone and ivory, plastic and metal.  It’s probably the ones moulded from pieces of bread, however, that are the most curious and confirm his position amongst that odd band of characters classed as Outsider artists.  Doubtless, some viewers find the disingenuity of these kinds of displays really quite awe-inspiring whereas I have to admit that witnessing these expressions of obsessional and compulsive behaviour make me feel just a little bit queasy.  Consequently, I’m quite pleased to exit the Gallery and make my way along the short walk through the city to get to its Cathedral.

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I’ve never been much of a churchgoer but on this occasion it seemed worthwhile to make an exception, indeed to make a sort of pilgrimage, since the building contains a stained glass window by one of the titans of Modern Art, Marc Chagall.  While the simple sketchy figures and bright crystalline colours are instantly recognisable as being in the style of the great Russian emigre, the work is set quite high up the wall and it’s not at all easy to make out exactly what’s going on or which biblical passage or scene the artist has chosen to represent.  As far as I could make out there seemed to be a man standing on a green duck, a horse playing a piano, some angels fly through the air and…well, let’s just say it seems to be a fairly loose interpretation of one of the less familiar parables.  Elsewhere in the Cathedral is a large tapestry by John Piper, abstract and colourful and quite unlike the figurative and fairly drab style of paintings that I usually associate with the artist.  Presumably the commission must have given him some kind of truly enlightening inspirational experience, or maybe I’m less familiar with his work than I thought I was.  At any rate, the Cathedral is clearly quite pleased of its association with contemporary art as there’s also a small Graham Sutherland painting on display, although it’s been stuck behind a roped off section which makes it impossible to get close enough to get a clear look at the scene being portrayed.  Consulting my Cathedral guide I find that it’s Sutherland’s take on the Noli me Tangere scene which rather makes me wonder whether the fact that it’s been deliberately placed so far out of reach of the public is not some kind of ecclesiastical attempt at conceptualistic drollery.

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3 responses to “Bland Brick Fetishism

    1. I think probably representative of the period. I’ve looked back in my notes and found 5 women artists who I didn’t name check: Winifred Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Prunella Clough, Barbara Hepworth and Jann Haworth so maybe subconscious prejudice on my part although I’ve never been much of a fan of any of the first three; thought the Hepworth was a good piece but misplaced in the Pop section; liked the Haworth of Mae West Dressing Table.

      1. Ah well a lessen for the future! Still I realise its a general problem when looking back before the last 40 years. Though I personally have some books which try to address the balance of the past. It seems there have frequently been women artists in the past who have just not made it into the history books ( and therefore the collections) for a variety of reasons. I have one very exhaustive and interesting book on the subject: ‘Women, Art and Society’ by Whitney Chadwick. I reviewed it for CV Publications many years ago. Maybe out of print now but worth a try. Full of wonderful work by women artists going back centuries and exploring the reasons why they remain unknown.

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