I think I get Henry Moore. As I walked into this exhibition space, before I’d seen anything being shown, I was thinking “His work reminds me of those old statues they dig up every so often, a rendering of a fertility goddess, all curves, breasts and buttocks. Those old things that some prehistoric culture held in high-esteem, but as that culture disappeared, found it’s way into the the detritus left behind, there to sit idly and unadmired for centuries, thousands of years. To be rediscovered by us, or a slightly earlier version of us, and placed in a museum, to again be worshipped, but for different reasons this time”
Well – I didn’t really think all of that just as I was walking in. This is an expansion of some fleeting thoughts I had as I walked in. “Henry Moore. Statues. Breasts. Old statues. Haha – breasts” is probably a more accurate representation of my thinking process. I don’t know about you, but I can have these seemingly thoughtless thoughts, which actually mean a whole lot more than they appear to outsiders. It’s just that I’m intimately acquainted with them. I know what they’re thinking, those thoughts.
So I’m thinking about connections between Moore’s sculpture and prehistoric idolatry, and the focus of the first section of the exhibition is about the affinity Moore felt with tribal cultures and their imagery and sculpture. How he loved and admired their naturalism, their connection with nature and it’s forms. The connection is so strong – to me a lot of his sculpture looks like it’s eroded from the stone, rather than been sculpted from it. Or that it is a work that was once more detailed and defined, that has been left out in the elements, so that the detail has faded, and all we are left with is a representative form of what the work used to be. A work that was perhaps once part of a forgotten culture, that has reappeared out of the earth.
The other thing that struck me about his sculptural work, certainly the pieces that became his trademark, was how two-dimensional they are. Not two dimensional in terms of being flat or uninspiring. Rather, two dimensional in that they are an attempt to show both an interior and an exterior of the form, I think to gain a deeper understanding of the form itself, how it “hangs” together. I’ve tried to think why he might want to represent the exterior and the interior. I can only think in terms of the opposites that interior/exterior conjures up: psychological/physical; “under the skin”/purely physical impressions. There was a quote on the wall in the exhibition, from an art critic (and it’s not a perfect remembrance of the quote): “he makes us think beyond a simple epidermis”. He’s trying to see beyond purely physical impressions, to get under the skin, to see the real, as well as the apparent. Which, I guess, you could argue is what all sculptors do. You often hear about how a certain sculptor sees themselves as releasing a form from a stone, thereby giving the stone it’s true form. Maybe Henry’s going one step further – giving the stone it’s true form, and the form it’s true representation. Every sculptor’s aim? Yeah, maybe. Y’ain’t gonna spend all that time pissing about with a material that doesn’t really want to work with you, all the while aiming to make something that kind of looks like a chicken with a car boot for a head. For example.
I think he was trying also to define, or rather examine and present, the salient points of the forms he sculpted. The position of an arm, the way a body turns, or reclines, or holds another. I think the best example of this, or at least the piece that made me stop in my tracks, was a depiction of the death of a warrior. This figure hasn’t even hit the ground yet – he is actually suspended in mid-air, about an inch off the ground. In a sense, he is immortal – our impression of death in this instance is that it will occur when he hits the ground, which he will never do. Once one gets over the marvel that is this suspended sculpture, one notices the agony that expressed here. The tilt of the head, the position of the shield, a leg upraised – all signal the last moments, the final movements, the ultimate gestures of this figure. No matter who he is this soldier, who he has killed or maimed, there is an agony for the viewer too, being present at his death, at the moment he ceases to be. Perfect.
I am intrigued with the constant markings Moore made, that weren’t explained or seemingly even noticed, in anything I read about his work. Many of the figures had these markings – they reminded me of the plimsoll markings on ships, or basic representations of crop circles. I can’t help thinking that they are somehow they are connected with his “string” sculptures, but that may be too simplistic, because these two are the only examples of line (and here I mean “line” as characterised by a single pen stroke, or piece of string) that I could see in his sculptural work. I think the lack of explanation around this aspect of his work is the one frustration I had around the exhibition; but it is a frustration paired with a sense of exclusivity, that I seem to be the only one that has noticed these markings.
I had always only seen Henry as a sculptor, but naturally these retrospectives tend to explain a bit more fully the totality of the artist, as opposed to contemporary exhibitions. A highlight for me, as well as for many people there, in fact what attracted many of us there, was his World War II “underground” drawings created during the Blitz, of Londoners sheltering in the underground stations. Appealed to my history-boy side that is so fascinated by dubya-dubya-too, but also as depictions of places that I am now familiar with, but in such a different context. Something about them bore such truth – perhaps the hauntedness, the ghostliness of the people, living their lives to survive, shadows of themselves. And another example for me of the history that this place, my new home (not home with a capital H yet), is so replete, so imbibed with. And I think that might be part of the reason that I felt so close to Henry – that he is explaining to me part of my new home, his part of my new home, the Henry Moore chapter.
And Vincent. Oh, Vincent. I always, always loved the little beat-up A4 print of Cafe Terrace at Night that followed myself and my former partner around numerous flats. I was never sure of what it was about that painting that made me love it so much. I have a bit more of a vocabulary about that now. I think a large part of it was the light that seemed to emanate from it. He didn’t just paint an area yellow, to signify light – he seemed to somehow have captured and poured light into the picture.
I read about this exhibition months ago – a collection of Vincent’s paintings (not a lot of the really famous ones, but some very familiar ones), along with beautifully descriptive letters of the paintings and his life to his brother Theo, and I just needed to go. I had also read that if you went too late in the day, you could expect queues of up to two hours. Not wanting to experience that – the English apparently have a penchant for queuing, but I do not wish to add that to my palette of English experience – I figured I should arrive at the Royal Academy by 9am, to be there, my nose pressed against the windows, when the doors open. Running a little late (because of some crap occurring on the Central Line, the bane of my life recently), I managed to get there at about 9.15. Cool – queue didn’t look too bad – maybe only 5 minutes or so. All good. So I walked up and joined it, to find it wasn’t moving at all. Why? Because the fucking place didn’t open until 10am! So – a 45 minute wait until the doors open. They let the ticket holders in first, so there’s another ten minutes. Waiting to buy a ticket – another ten minutes. Cool – I have queued for 1 hour and 5 minutes, to avoid a two hour queue – a saving of 55 minutes, surely? Not really, when you consider that the people at the back of the queue when the doors opened only had to wait for a total of about 20 minutes before they got in. Everyone seems to get this shit but me.
As I said, I’ve always had a strong affection for Vincent, after carrying Cafe Terrace at Night around the country. But it was also his story that made me feel for him. The disturbed personality, that did such great harm but could also produce such great, awesome beauty, always struck me as pure cruelty – a man who produced the work that he did, but could find no joy in it and who never realised the joy that he would bring to the world. By the end of my time with him, I realised that I was quite wrong in some of my assumptions, but my admiration and love for the part that I knew remained, although larger. I very nearly cried when I saw the first painting, certainly not one of his most beautiful – Still Life with a Plate of Onions 1889. Not one of his most inspiring titles either – but here it was, my first moment of being in the same room as this man whose work I had so often passed in the hallway, ate dinner with, or sat on the toilet, staring at.
One of the things that jolts me about Vincent’s work is the weird perspective in some of them, even the later ones such as Still Life With a Plate of Onions, and The Bedroom1888 (not in the exhibition unfortunately), where the perspective seems almost right, but some elements are slightly out of whack (the candle in Onions, and both the back wall and the chair in The Bedroom). You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was someone who’d never really mastered perspective. In fact, early on in his career – which to my amazement spanned barely 10 years – he writes in one of his letters that perspective is “downright witchcraft or coincidence”. And then you see other works, from quite early on, where he was obviously working hard, and succeeding at mastering it, for example the paintings of the view from his studio in Den Hague.
And that is something that struck me throughout this exhibition – his desire, his need to master. He writes “I always like to work on portraits that are vulgar, even garish…it teaches me, and that is what I ask of my work above all.” Is this a particularly Dutch thing? Dutch people I have known well seem to possess this trait in abundance. What a gift! And I guess, at times, a curse. But that effort at mastery seems to have paid off so quickly. Some of the drawings he was producing after a year or two – such drawings! The first one shown (A Marsh, 1881), just stopped me dead. This was a year after he had decided to become an artist – or more accurately, a year after he had taken up art to become the artist he had decided he wanted to be. He would so often produce two versions of the drawing or painting. The actual work itself, and then a representation of it in a letter to Theo. These he called his “scratchings” or croquis, but they do at times rival the actual work itself. And I can’t help thinking that this second representation was part of his analysis, his dissection of the work, his need to master – not just in producing a work, but his understanding of it post hoc.
This drawing is also illustrative of another aspect of him that I discover – his honesty. So much of his early work is dark – stormy, wintery, wet, flat, stark. He’s not trying to produce a postcard version of what he sees; he’s not producing an artwork as such, but rather recording a moment, exactly. One of my favourite pieces of this dark early period is The Vicarage Garden at Neunen, 1884 – not because of the painting itself, which I think rather ugly (it reminds me of one of those dark and stormy shipwreck paintings), but rather because of the word he uses to describe the “little black apparition” in it. She is a spookje – fantastic word, no? But it is around this time that Theo begins to encourage him to lighten his palette, and Vincent soon reports back that his “palette is thawing”, a fantastic choice of words I think. But still he hasn’t developed the mastery of light and colour that he most certainly achieves eventually. It is not until he travels to Paris a couple of years later, that colour comes to him like an explosion, and the “typical” Vincent begins to shine through, in both portraiture and landscape. But what a strange way he has of depicting colour and light! The Night Cafe 1888 for example – lights do not emanate that way; or Portrait of Dr Gachet 1890 – what wall is coloured so? But I think it comes back to his honesty – when he painted the Postman Roulin, he wrote that he had no interest in depicting an exact physical likeness or individual psychology, and he despised the dead realism of the photograph. He wanted to paint Roulin “as I feel him”. These images spark and crackle with energy.
There is also an element of technical genius here. I can’t remember the psychological term (I’d have to dig out my old undergraduate Gleitman for that, which I don’t think I even own anymore), but the eye, or more correctly the parts of the brain that deal with eye function, have a way of resolving disparate colours and dots into an overarching colour or shape. The pointillists use it as an obvious tool; it can also be seen in old newspaper photos, where the image is made up of thousands of dots, which blend into a singular as the eye moves away. But colour can also be represented this way – 100 dots can have a randomly spread ratio of 70/30 red/white, and appear as a block of pink when viewed from a distance.
It is something that I decided as I walked around the exhibition – that it can be very tempting to analyse parts of Vincent’s paintings that he only ever intended to employ as technical aspects. Because the gallery was so crowded, to get any view, you are forced to get very close, and you find yourself analysing every brushstroke. And while that is fascinating from the technical aspect, it in no way tells the whole story, and I think it does not tell the story he intended. I came to this conclusion when I sat down to look at Boats at Sea, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 1888, my favourite piece in the exhibition. I initially had a good long look at the painting close up, and loved it – it was like looking out of an open porthole. My back was sore, so I went to have a sit down, and strangely the crowd seemed to part, so I had a very good view of the painting from some four or 5 metres away. And it was only then that I noticed the depth and tumult of the ocean – there were two waves that I had not appreciated at all, that just came alive when I moved away. What control he must have had over his work, while living so closely to it as he painted it, and yet being able to maintain that distant view. It is this painting that makes me connect with him in the strongest way, with the innate beauty of this moment that he could express so well.
But, for this past half hour, he has been sitting there, looking at me. I have been aware of him, but have tried not to look at him, because – well, because it just makes me sad. His Self-Portrait as an Artist 1888 adorns the doorway between two galleries, and I stand there looking at him for 5 minutes. I want to put my hand on his shoulder and tell him it will be OK. The day before I am sitting at Camden Lock, and I see a family walking past me, two parents, two kids. The son – about 16 years old, bad skin, overweight. He has a look of total, abject misery on his face, and I look at him, wanting to help him, wanting to tell him that this time will be the making of him, that he will look back and be so proud that he has surpassed himself. And frankly, to beg him not to hurt himself, because he looks not to far away from that either. But… we don’t, we can’t. And as I looked at Vincent in that gallery, I thought about all the beggars, homeless, mad and unwashed, all the people we fleetingly think we should help but don’t, and then eventually learn to ignore. Am I only empathising with him because he is now considered a “great” man?
Much of the last part of the exhibition is taken up with landscapes that he completed while in Arles, in the last years. He painted and drew some wonderful views across the fields toward Arles, and it is here that he produced Cafe Terrace at Night. And many, many paintings of orchard gardens, which I am no fan of, but I expect he painted them in order to work something out, to dissect an idea, to master something. Incredible too, that he could produce different versions of the same view or scene, using a different media. Again for technical reasons, or was he recording different truths, that could only be carved out using different methods? One piece I knew I had seen before, but could not place it for a moment. It was an ink drawing of The Langlois Bridge with a Lady with A Parasol 1888, and I remember seeing a reproduction of the painting of it in my Aunty’s house when I was a wee lad. I also remember disliking that picture intensely when I was a child – I have no idea why now, but perhaps it was too complex, too different to my own experience.
We get close to the end, to the time of asylums and misery, but also in the letters a remnant of positivity, and passion. His work takes a strange twist at Saint-Remy, the asylum where he was hospitalised. In Cypresses 1889, The Olive Trees 1889 and Mountains at Saint-Remy 1889 the brushstrokes take on a strange whirling, whorling flavour, and again the palette becomes a bit darker. It is very tempting to blame this disturbing aspect upon the mental disturbance – but also hard to deny that in all his work, it has always been about honesty, and about “painting Roulin ‘as I feel him’ “, so perhaps it was very much his intention to paint through his disturbance. I find no real pleasure in looking at these paintings, but I cannot deny that they possess the energy and vitalism so evident in his work. In Cypresses, if you take your eye away from it for just a moment, you could swear the suggestion of movement among the trees.
And then he is gone. A half-finished and blood-stained letter is found on him after he shot himself, and displayed here. It’s as if he pulled the trigger in the middle of a sentence, until we realise it is a draft of another letter that he sent to Theo a few days before. Right up to the end he is discussing current work, asking Theo to send more supplies for both himself and an artist friend. So very few clues – but why do we need to know? It should be enough that we have this body of work, this legacy – the paintings, but also the thoughts and croquis, put down on paper and absolute treasures in their own right, and saved by a loving brother (who was dead himself within 6 months) and his wife who realised their value.
And I finally leave the gallery, blinking in the light, starving, quite exhausted. Not that I’d left anything of myself behind, but rather that I’d taken a little bit of him with me. Something to add to the little bit of him that I’ve always carried.