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Reviews by Paul Gough

Queen Square Bristol
Andrew Kelly
Redcliffe Press, Bristol, 2003
ISBN 1 900178 84 2

It’s something of a truism to suggest of Bristol’s city centre that much of what was not destroyed by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War was soon finished off by the urban planners in the 1950s and 60s. In the case of the elegant quadrangle of Queen Square however the accusation rings horribly true, or should I add ‘almost true’.

In this entertaining and lavishly illustrated text, Professor Andrew Kelly relates the epic tale of the largest Georgian Square outside London (apparently only that of Lincoln’s Inn Fields surpasses Queen Square in scale). Known initially as ‘The Marsh’, the site has changed ownership and function many times, having variously been used for wrestling, grazing, bull-baiting and, in 1574, providing the site for a viewing platform where Elizabeth I watched a three-day mock battle staged on the nearby river.

Ruination has been wrought on the Square several times not least during the Reform Riots of 1831 when it seems most of the irate citizens of Bristol declared their violent opposition to the electoral system. Even I.K.Brunel and William Muller (arguably the city’s greatest painter) roamed the streets to drink in the spectacle of destruction. Pictures of the morning after the ‘dreadful conflagration’ show charred ruins, toppling buildings and what would seem to be irreparable damage. But re-building eventually commenced though the Square soon became something of a ghetto, housing a transient population of sheep, dock workers, actors and comedians – the latter from the Theatre Royal nearby.

Perhaps only the aerial views of the harbourside do justice to the madness of Bristol’s ‘planning’ mania of the twentieth century. Without a Civic Society to contest the road building scheme, and with the indulgence of figures such as John Betjeman, planners in the mid-1930s lopped off the corners of the square and drove a wide carriageway diagonally across its splendid green, isolating the talismanic statue of William III and bringing decades of noise and fumes into the heart of the city. Kelly estimates that over 1,200 bus journeys traversed the square every day until an inspired renovation plan emerged in the mid-1990s.

The book concludes on a bright note: with a new spirit of partnership in the city, with public and private sectors working together, and with a vision to rebuild the harbourside, Queen Square was transformed. Recognising the need for good public spaces, the Square was recreated for the modern city: the dual carriageway removed, paths restored, car parking sensibly managed. On the eve of the new Millennium, Queen Square provided the perfect forum for the city’s celebrations. As an illustrated history, guide and reflection, Professor Kelly’s latest book does full justice to one of the success stories in Bristol’s recent renaissance.

Paul Gough

Willow: paintings and drawings with Somerset voices
Kate Lynch
Catalogue published by Furlong Fields Publishing, in association with the Brewhouse, Taunton, 2003
ISBN 0 9544394 0 6

In the introduction to this lavishly illustrated catalogue the botanist David Bellamy lists the new words to be discovered in the strange lexicon of the willow: ‘reaps and willys’, ‘slewing a hurdle’, ‘spiling’, ‘stripped withies’, ‘straightforward bottom’ and a ‘three rod wale’. Luckily explanation is not far away; in a careful arrangement of text and image, the painter Kate Lynch sets up a dialogue between the basket-weavers, hurdlers, diggers and bat makers and a sequence of painted images drawn from three years on the Somerset levels and moors. The result is an exhibition that tours the west country, Norfolk and Lancashire during 2003, before it goes on to village halls in North Devon.

‘In getting to know the land’ wrote Lynch, ‘I met the willow growers and basketmakers whose families have farmed this flat, often wet, landscape and hand-crafted its harvest for generations. As I was drawing the local growers and basketmakers, I was not just in the here and now, I was time travelling back 200, even 2,000 years, for willow-weaving in Somerset goes back to the Romans and beyond.’ And in her oil paintings these characters emerge not just from the gloomy past but the from the rain-sodden interiors of her paintings. Using a limited palette and close tonal range she captures the physicality of the work, the hacking, the stripping, carving, weaving, and building of complex shapes.

It is odd to reflect that the very charcoal with which she draws has also been used to grow and craft the subject matter of this rich and varied show, which is beautifully complemented by an informative and well crafted book.

Paul Gough

Public Sculpture in the City of Bristol
Professor Douglas Merritt
Redcliffe Press, Bristol, UK, 2002
ISBN 1 900178 04 4

Public sculpture and monuments in Bristol

In recent decades ‘public art’ has had a mixed press. One eminent British architect recently likened the attempts to use large sculptures to prettify bleak urban spaces as putting ‘lipstick on a gorilla’ – a pointless exercise in civic self-aggrandizement. This is however to simplify an extraordinarily complex process involving planners, fund-raisers, commissioners, civil authorities and, occasionally, the artist. Public sculptures and monuments rarely come about by accident. They are a physical manifestation of competing interests and ideologies. Monuments are pivotal elements in the symbolic topography of every city. The statues, memorials, obelisks and other rhetorical furniture function as forms of civic art that help to contain and convey different levels of memory. Who exactly determines and controls that memory is one of the more fascinating, but rarely considered, aspects of a city’s history.

As is evident in this very necessary study of the public art of Bristol, its monuments, statues and memorials have rarely been sited without some consideration of their role in a symbolic landscape. Witness, for example, the furore over the location of the municipal memorial to the dead of the Great War. During the 1920s its location, financing, and commemorative function were the focus of widespread disagreement and division in the city. It was not until 1932 that the Cenotaph was finally unveiled, fourteen years after the Armistice. Each November after a cycle of dormancy its symbolic value is re-activated and energised by the elaborate ritual of Remembrance Sunday. This was not always the case. In 1930, during the height of the bitter rows about where to put the Cenotaph, an embittered Bristolian wrote to the local press under the banner ‘Scrap the statues’:

It is the growth of an evil which we have permitted to flourish and spread under our very eyes. No visitor to England can have failed to notice the number of statues of unknown worthies which obstruct most of the squares and open spaces. … As matters stand at present we are allowing our cities to resemble a large jumble room full of trifles that have ceased to have even a sentimental value for us.

It is to the credit of Professor Merritt and his team that we have the present volume to illuminate us all, to shed light on the ‘unknown worthies’ and the large jumble room’ that constitutes our furnished city.

Professor Paul Gough was chair of the Bristol and south-west UK Regional Archive Centre for the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association. The Centre received support and funding from the Faculty of Art, Media and Design, University of the West of England, Bristol.

Paul Gough

‘Chicken Run’ – my part in the great escape

Mid-1997, while painting in my studio I had a telephone call from Peter Lord, Director at Aardman Animations in Bristol who wondered if I could spare an hour to mull over some ideas with their production team on a new film.

For an hour Nick Park, Peter and their executive producer introduced me, somewhat tentatively, to the plot and current thinking behind their new film. From their rather vague descriptions I guessed it would feature lots of chickens, a POW camp, and some curious plot-lines that were then marinating in their heads.

Nick had recently seen the US piglet-biopic Babe and was deeply dissatisfied with the topographical inaccuracies of the film. Ostensibly set in the US, but filmed in New Zealand, the farmhouse was a smorgasbord of vernacular styles : a bit of a thatched roof here, some half-timbered frontage there, Cotswold dry stone walls everywhere else. Nick, a fastidious designer, had always believed in topographical verity – look closely at any of his Wallace and Gromit films and you will see how carefully he constructs brick walls, designs a terraced street, and models the features of a limestone plateau.

Over time, it emerged that the new feature film would be set in a specific part of northern England and at a particular time period - the 1950s. My task was to compile a vast collation of images of the Yorkshire Dales form that period. Once compiled, the images would form a visual scrapbook for the art director. Two months, and several visits to Yorkshire and to sundry rural life museums later the imagery was assembled. I gave the directors and producer a short lecture on British art in the 1950s to set the scene and to give some idea of the colours, textures and visual language of the period – rather dismal ochres, subdued greens and cloth cap figuration, if the truth be told. Soon after, this collation of several hundred drawings, photos, postcards, and colour slides was whisked off to a big shed on the outskirts of Bristol where, for several years, an army of animators strove to bring Chicken Run – the feature film into the world.

For those who have yet to see it, the film is rather dark, rather capon noir, leavened by some wicked one-liners from two racketeering rats – ‘poultry in motion’ they observe of one pirouetting chicken. There is a four-, maybe five-second sequence as our hero, Rocky the Rhode Island Red (played by Mel Gibson) makes his escape by tri-cycle in front of a backdrop of rolling dale and dry stone walls - five seconds of topographically exquisite Yorkshire landscape. Try not to miss it.

Paul Gough
Credited for Design Research
‘Chicken Run’ Aardman Animations / Dreamworks 2000

Exhibition Review
Kurt Jackson
The John Davies Gallery, Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire, UK
June 6th - July 4th 1998

There are so many artists who have stamped their mark on a landscape with such authority that it is almost impossible to see it now with an indifferent gaze. Many landscapes might be thought to be well out of artistic bounds, it’s like trying to paint Provence after Cezanne (as opposed to Nature after Poussin - a much more complex proposition) or to attempt to sketch ballet dancers without having to negotiate the weight of Degas’ mastery. In British art, an attempt to capture the ‘Sense of Place’ has long been a powerful drive. Rooted in high Romanticism it has fuelled dozens of the best artists forever locating them with a particular tract of land - Sutherland and Pembrokeshire, Paul Nash and the Wiltshire Downs, Joan Eardley and north-east Scotland.

It is still impressive then to see how wide a range of painting emerges from that curious peninsula of West Penwith - the big toe of England - sandwiched between Penzance and St Ives. There is, however, little picturesque about this part of Cornwall. An artist must guard against conventions of representation and overt prettiness. Kurt Jackson understands this. Living in St Just, surrounded on three sides by the ocean, he knows that though the light may be brilliantly clear the landscape is a curious mix of industrial sublime and natural rawness.

Since the mid 1990s his Cornish water-colours have been punctuated by the distant silhouettes of redundant tin mines, or more oddly with bands of travellers and their procession of eccentric vehicles. I can think of few other plein air painters who have responded to such subjects. Not that Jackson is a social commentator; he is fascinated with the ways in which light shifts and mutates. He can catch that moment when sunlight pours through a heavy rain shower or how it energises a featureless moorland. In this show Jackson has broadened his repertoire. There are images drawn from the Scillys and from Derbyshire. He seems to have pulled back from a sub-Taschist mannerism of loading the picture plane with dots and dashes. As a result the work is tighter, often more complex in its spatial arrangement, but always an invigorating reaction to a sense of place.

Paul Gough
Commissioned for Galleries June 1998

Exhibition Review
Ian Humphreys, Paintings
Beaux Arts, Bath March 1998

As a genre still-life painting is often considered a modest and unambitious occupation for an artist. Yet, some of the greatest artistic innovations this century came through the study of objects gathered on a table-top - think of the subtle distortions in late Cezanne, or the endless fragmentation in the Cubist work of Picasso and Braque which heralded a huge shift in our understanding of pictorial space. Consider also the single-mindedness of Giorgio Morandi for whom the lowly still-life was the focus of a lifetime spent in playing subtle games of placement and re-arrangement. One of the finest paintings in the modern collection at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery is a humble subject of pears on a plate (by Matthew Smith) bought to life by an extraordinary palette of crimzon and yellow. A similar celebration of colour and nature morte is evident in the work of many RWA painters, not least the artist chairman Derek Balmer.

Something of this fascination with endlessly re-arranging familiar objects is evident in the paintings of Ian Humphreys. Like Morandi, these are highly charged images in which boxes, vases, flowerpots and tea-caddies seem to be lined up in family groups. But the initial sensation of aesthetic accord soon gives way to an overbearing sense of intrigue and barely concealed emnity between the cast of characters. Humphrey’s skill lies in his ability to manipulate each player, defining their own space and, most crucially, their precise relationship to each other. Like a theatre director, he uses exaggerated lighting, cast shadows and position on the stage to announce and underline complex pecking orders that are then locked into place by the finely articulated painted surface.

The hierarchies between inanimate objects may not, however, be the first thing one notices in his work. These are large and painterly pieces. Paint drips from the foot of each canvas; the residue of many layers of work. The fluid surfaces threaten to flood the apparent solidity of the pots and boxes, adding yet another element of tension to these extraordinary paintings.

In several pieces the paint is applied in dense bands of glazed colour. At nearly five feet square Oxide is a powerful image in which a family of five disparate objects huddle under the brooding weight of a red lead mass, like an oppressive stormcloud over vulnerable figures. Humphreys is an exciting painter, keeping the still life genre well and truly alive.

Paul Gough
Commissioned for
Galleries March 1998

Exhibition review
PARA-CITIES: Models for Public Spaces
Vito Acconci

Marion Coutts, Nils Norman, Mick O’Shea, Eva Rothschild, Uri Tzaig
Arnolfini, Bristol
Sunday 14 January – Sunday 4 March 2001

Imagine, if you can, a traffic roundabout that ‘responds’ to the movement of approaching vehicles: from a flat circle of lawn a series of telescopic rings emerge out of the ground as cars trigger off sensors in the tarmac. Like a slow-motion jack-in-the–box the circles raise higher with each passing car, releasing a cascade of water lit from within by a lurid blue glow. As the vehicles move away, the spiral edifice sinks gradually back to road level. Sadly, this proposal for the Eastern roundabout on the A13 in the Borough of Barking and Dagenham has yet to make it off the drawing board. Happily, a miniature version of this ‘self-erecting architecture’ can be seen in an inspired and mesmeric show at Arnolfini, the first in this country of Vito Acconci’s work since 1975.

Acconci is perhaps one of the most influential artists to have emerged from New York in the 1960s. Renowned for his provocative and radical performative works that explored the body as a physical, psychological and social phenomenon, Acconci and his studio of artists and architects, have recently focused on architecture and the built environment. Characterised by a dynamic eccentricity, the studio has created a myriad of visionary and hypothetical projects.

One of several completed schemes, Courtyard in the Wind is a landscaped forecourt for an administrative building in Munich that revolves. A wind turbine positioned on top of the building powers a turntable cut into the courtyard that spins the ground through 360 degrees. A lethargic worker crossing from one side of the block to the other could find themselves back where they first started as the revolving ring displaces the landscape. Other schemes – such as Garbage City built and powered by methane gases from an 80 metre high rubbish dump near Tel Aviv – remain theoretical projects, interventions that are both whimsical and unnervingly political.

It is not easy to stage shows of architectural schema (as the RWA will know) but Arnolfini has been transformed into a tented city of suspended hangings or ‘skies’ which act as projection screens hovering above models that are tilted crazily and lit from within and above. Throughout the show Acconci’s spoken narrative creates a ‘possible city, a city of cities, a city within a city’. It may be a show where ‘Mad Max meets the local authority’, but for wit, intelligence and sense of liberation, it is an inspiration.

Paul Gough
Commissioned for
Galleries, March 2001

Exhibition review
Terry Setch, Paintings
Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, UK
4 March – 7 April 2001

The Royal West of England Academy at Bristol has been going through something of a renaissance in the past few years. Boasting some of the best naturally lit gallery space west of London, it is about to embark on a dramatic refurbishment of its stately exterior and a staged improvement in each of its five galleries. Renowned for expansive, but rather conservative shows that celebrated core values in easel-painting and plinth-based sculpture RWA has recently staged more epic events: Albert Irvin, Richard Long, Peter Prendergast, Sonia Lawson have each had impressive one-person shows that have not received the attention they deserved. Following an explosive show of paintings by Martyn Brewster, the Academy has now turned over its galleries to Terry Setch, stalwart of British art for over three decades.

There is a memorable photograph of the artist, clad in rubber waders, semi-immersed in the Severn estuary grappling with the rusted innards of a catering fridge. As creative scavenger, Setch has been associated with the tidal waters off south Wales for over 25 years, where he forages for household and industrial detritus exuded from Avonmouth and the shore around Cardiff. In the hands of a lesser artist such (very) raw material might result in grimy collage and bleak assemblages. Not Setch. Using materials that are the most indestructible – polythene, polystyrene, polypropylene – he creates extraordinarily luminous images, incorporating bottles, shards of plastic, electric cable and twine. Using wax, he melds the objects into the surface, often shrouding them in layers of clear polythene and blurring the images in the way that sea mist obscures the light. The work in this show positively shimmers and gleams, especially in the very recent computer-generated prints on linen.

Sisley painted from the cliff-tops on this stretch of coastline and across the estuary Marconi transmitted the first radio waves across water. These are important historic markers for Setch and, although his inspiration is drawn from the huge spaces and voluminous tides of the Severn there is a global quality to the work. Setch is creating metaphors for our ecologically precarious predicament, yet his work is seductive and highly aestheticised – an interesting balancing act that brings a disquieting tension to this show in these remarkable galleries.

Paul Gough
Commissioned for
Galleries, March 2001

Exhibition Review
A sculptor’s development, Anthony Caro:
a retrospective exhibition and education project
Atkinson Gallery, Millfield School, Street, Somerset
until 27th October 2001

Perhaps no other school in the land can boast a gallery like that at Millfield in Somerset. Housed in a bold modernist block, the Atkinson Gallery also contains the arts, crafts and design department enjoyed by the school’s pupils and their ambitious artwork covers the walls in a brilliantly lit central atrium. The surrounding grounds are strewn with sculpture by the luminaries of contemporary British art – Nash, Deacon, Williams, and Caro. Oh, that such plenitude could be spread across the public sector ! Nevertheless, under the careful guidance of curator Len Green, Millfield has hosted some stimulating exhibitions of British art in recent years. The current show is another coup.

Caro’s artistic development is here represented by a dozen pieces which relate his energetic progress from the lump modelling of the mid-1950s through the rectilinear, vibrantly coloured pieces of the following decade to the soft-edged rolled steel of the Flats Series produced in the mills of Toronto and Consett. It is astonishing how playful Caro could be with such unmanipulative material – he folds, bends, cuts, warps and then conjures it into sweeping arabesques drawn into the gallery space. It is however the more bulky work that dominates this show.

Two figurative sculptures from the early 1990s summarise Caro’s sojourn with the Illiad and the Trojan War. The Chariot of Achilles is a fine piece: the body of the vehicle is comprised of a pizza oven astride two heavy stone wheels which are set at an uncomfortable angle into steel runners. The gallery is dominated though by a far more sombre sculpture, the uncompromising Requiem which is a solid, enclosed sepulchre at the heart of the space. Reputedly made in memory of his mother who died in 1996, Requiem acts like a black hole absorbing the light in the gallery and relegating the other artwork to minor characters. With its unnerving bulk and impenetrable exterior Requiem arrests one’s attention : it is more achitectonic than sculptural, more deeply personal than some of the formalist pieces around it. This is however, much more than a good retrospective: using large scale photographs and a stimulating catalogue it is also a didactic exercise aimed at schools and art teachers. Caro may have written that his sculpture ‘is all about my emotions’ but his is also a disciplined and formal art that lends itself to the classroom where experimentation and play should thrive despite the regimen of the national curriculum.

Paul Gough
Commissioned for
Galleries, October 2001

Exhibition review
Brain Radio Installation
Margarita Gluzberg
Seven Worcester Terrace, Bath, BA1 6PY
8th June – 14th July 2002

In the world of contemporary fine art practice the continuing impact of drawing is often conveniently overlooked. The skillbase of so much work seen in commercial British galleries seems to embrace video and wiring, screen and sign, but rarely the crafts of making and construction. Obviously this is a crude caricature, but it is perhaps significant that throughout the UK we are seeing the emergence of degree (and master) courses in ‘Drawing’ – formerly a staple part of the Fine Art ethos.

Drawing can, of course, take multifarious forms; it need not be limited to the cabinet, or to graphite on modest sheets of paper: in terms of scale, process and medium, drawing is now an unlimited field of possibilities. Artists such as Margarita Gluzberg have embraced the expanded domain of drawing. Her large scale drawings depict often oversized and overgrown images of familiar creatures and artefacts:, cats, moths, spiders, cacti, wigs, beards, grass and in this current exhibition human hair and wires. Constructed from the tiniest individual elements her tactile, yet untouchable, drawings play with texture and illusion, object and surface, evoking themes of obsessive mimicry and anxieties.

Recently Gluzberg has started to create works that extend themselves as installations into actual 3D space, with imagery borrowed variously from shop window displays, consumer goods, and fictional creatures. In Bath, the second floor rooms of the gallery contain two huge drawings on distant walls; one seems to depict a woman’s head with a hydra-like emanation of precisely drawn lines that flow onto the floor and connect to another drawing of the back of a man’s head. The technique is obsessive, each line drawn with unnerving exactitude, each seeming to suggest a strand of hair but (as the title of the show indicates) also suggestive of electromagnetic waves, alternating currents and even telepathy. As if the imagery were not sufficiently disconcerting the installation is accompanied by a soundtrack (created by Cole L. and Al D.) that adds to the ambient tension.

This is the first installation show to be shown at Seven Worcester Terrace, and it is an impressive inauguration from an artist of real standing and conviction.

Paul Gough
Commissioned for Galleries, July 2002

Book Review
Canvas of War
Laura Brandon and Dean F.Oliver
110 full colour plates / 10 bw plates / 3 maps
10 x 10 inches
Published by Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver Canada, 2000
ISBN 1-55054 – 772 – 0

Many of us will be familiar with the searing images of modern war painted by Paul Nash, Wyndham Lewis and CRW Nevinson. Few though will be as aware of the immense body of war art that was commissioned by the Canadian Government in the First and Second World War. The collection was the brainchild of the news magnate Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, who established a Canadian War Record Office in 1916. In the following two years he scooped up every available artist in Britain to record the efforts and achievements of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Incensed, the British government department responsible for visual propaganda complained ‘You’d think the Canadian’s were running the war!’ The scheme produced some memorable paintings, often vast in scale, by English artists such as Nash, Richard Jack and Charles Sims. In 1917 a draft of Canadian artists were commissioned and the collection, now housed in the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa was augmented by serious and harrowing images by Varley, Jackson and Milne.

This book plots the extraordinary achievement of Beaverbrook and the Canadian scheme. It accompanies an epic, and important, exhibition of over 70 paintings from both wars, which will travel through Canada in the next four years. Laura Brandon, Curator of art at Ottawa, has chosen wisely from over 5000 images produced in World War Two, most notably the surrealistic visions of Orville Fisher and Lauren P.Harris. The 110 superb reproductions are augmented by authoritative historical texts by the museum’s senior Historian Dean F.Oliver. In all, an important, and beautifully crafted book that tells us much about this substantial collection of war art.

Paul Gough
Commissioned by
The Artist magazine, 2000.

Book Review
The Dictionary of Scottish Painters: 1600 to the Present
Paul Harris and Julian Halsby
Canongate Publishing, Edinburgh
ISBN 0 86241 778 3

This is the second edition of a book which had glowing reviews when first published in 1990. With sixty new artists and twenty new colour illustrations it constitutes a thorough survey of all that is good in Scottish painting. In addition to entries on some 2,000 painters there are extensive passages on Scottish arts institutions and artistic groupings, information which helps place their work in a national and international context.

Skimming through the abundance of reproductions it is possible to detect the various influences that helped form a particularly Scottish approach to painting. Links with Paris abound, most obviously in the impact of Fauvist colour and the post-impressionist sense of design on the work of JD Fergusson, SJ Peploe and a subsequent generation of artists from Anne Redpath to David McLure.

But though Scottish painting may have borrowed its light source and palette from Paris (neatly avoiding the contaminated air of London on the way) it has long had a rich indigenous language that is rooted in northern Romanticism; this owes more to the Nordic and North American vision than it does the French. Such contemporary artists as Will Maclean, John Bellany and Elizabeth Blackadder depict a much darker, more symbolic world of private objects held up for our reverential attention. Besides a luminist palette and the northern lights, the other dominant genre in Scotish painting would seem to the the art of story-telling. The most recent generation of Glasgow Boys (Campbell, Currie, Howson, et al) are masters of heroic narrative. No subject is too complex or too vast. As Stephen Campbell once said of his studio habits: ‘I work for six days, then on the seventh I rest’, though the poverty of his painting reproduced on page 32 suggests he should have taken that week off.

Predictably, there are some oddities: the brevity of the entry on Barbara Rae for example. In Rae we have one of the most outstanding landscape painters the Scots have produced. There are also a surprising number of sassanach painters. One from Nottingham, for example, who is deemed an honorary Scot because he is an efficient painter of benighted oil rigs. Perhaps the space ought to have gone to exiled Scots such as London-based Jock McFadden whose social realism has an edge that not even the Glasgow Boys can touch.

If this book proves one thing, it is the outstanding quality of the four Scottish Art schools. Their belief in drawing and the value of critical traditions is evident on every page. Surprising then not to see an entry for the formidable academic leadership (and painterly talents) of Alan Robb at Dundee, but ever so glad to see an appraisal of Frances Walker, one-time tutor at Grays in Aberdeen, whose memorable instruction - ‘Aye now, remember, sign your name on the back, yer nay artists yet!’ - I shall never forget.

Paul Gough
Commissioned by
The Artist magazine, 1999.

Book Review
Andrew Kelly
Filming ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’
Publishers - I.B. Taurus, London, 1998

ISBN 86064 000 0

For many people Erich Maria Remarque’s extraordinary novel All Quiet on the Western Front will have been their first acquaintance with the First World War. Invariably it leaves a deep and lasting impression. Though not the first war film to be made, Lewis Milestone’s film of the book had a similar impact on audiences when it was released in 1930.

In this thorough and compact book Andrew Kelly recounts the complex story of the making of the film and its extraordinary reception, most notably in Fascist Germany where its anti-war message was regarded as an affront to Nazi ambitions. Kelly’s book opens with an account of the state of film in the post-war period and follows with an appreciation of Remarque’s book and its enormous success - 600,000 copies sold world-wide within three months of its publication in January 1929. The rest of the book is dedicated to the film itself. Of particular interest are the preparations: the sets consisted of a trench system and a ruined village built at Universal Studio, a battlefield was re-created in a ranch 66 miles south of Hollywood where fake shell-holes were blasted with dynamite and filled with muddy rain-water. The film studio purchased 250 genuine uniforms and field accessories (for the grand sum of $27,500) complete with rifles, bayonets, gas masks, spades, entrenching tools and cooking utensils. So authentic was the film set that no sooner was it ready for filming, the Chief Sanitary Officer of Orange County closed it down. Even when it was declared ‘safe’ the set still cost at least one life, and very nearly another when an extra fell on 20 lb. of buried dynamite.

Like Remarque’s book, the film is extremely grim, very dark and rather Gothic, perhaps too much so for many English tastes. The NCOs are sadistic and systematically vindictive, the battle scenes are grotesquely violent and wilfully macabre (though a tour-de-force of camera work and technical production). Kelly, though, does not dwell on what was clearly a tough and demanding production, he also relates moments of humour and humanity on the set and in post-production.

Perhaps the real story of the film lies in its release and subsequent banning. In 1964 Milestone spoke with disgust at the ‘brutal cutting, stupid censors and bigoted politicos’ that had compromised his film. In no country did the film remain uncut: In New Zealand and Canada the censors made dozens of excisions, including (rather bizarrely) the line “When you come back you’ll all get some nice clean underwear.” But the worst scenes took place in Nazi Germany where, on its first showing, Goebels and his brownshirt cronies released mice, stink bombs and sneezing powder in the cinema, instigating a near riot that was repeated on four successive nights. Not only did the Nazi’s resent Remarque’s condemnation of war but they were ever fearful of the power of cinema, testimony to Milestone’s success in producing one of the three great anti-war movies of the century. Kelly’s book is not just for film buffs, it is an informative and illuminating guide to the book, the film and the painful aftermath.

Paul Gough
Commissioned by
Journal of Western Front Association, 1998.

Book Review
British Impressionism
by Kenneth McConkey
Phaidon, 1989 (2nd edition 1998)
ISBN 0 7148 29560

My abiding memory of the huge Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1980 was not the iconic brilliance of late Van Gogh or Cezanne’s robust dissection of Provence. Instead, I can wearily recall rooms of ersatz-Impressionism, endless pointillist canvases by pseudo-Seurats from all points west of Lichtenstein. It would be easy to pre-judge British Impressionism as yet another case of our inability to forge an indigenous artistic language, relying instead on foreign imports. But in this splendid and provocative book McConkey refuses to simplify impressionism as little more than technique; those painterly spots, streaks, sweeps, splodges and ‘other methods of looseness’ that we hold to be the trademarks of the French style.

Instead he identifies two diverging responses to Parisien art. On the one hand he examines those artist’s colonies (at Staithes, Cockburnpath and Cornwall) where an emphasis was placed on plein air realism. On the other, he analyses the establishment view that French Impressionism evolved from Constable and Turner, and that Monet was merely developing a style which was British in conception. Accordingly, the illustrations in the book (of which there are a great many) veer from the ‘grim cement skies’ of Newlyn artists such as Stanhope Forbes to the breezy evanescence of Laura Knight and Wilfred de Glehn. Both responses, argues McConkey, must be plotted on the complex spectrum that is British Impressionism. At one end were those realist painters who took their lead from Bastien-Lepage and insisted on historical verity, design and mass over atmospherics; at the other end is the radical painterliness of Roderic O’Conor. Somewhere in the middle lies the archetypal English version, an impressionism rendered down by tricks of technique: huge Home Counties landscapes loosely painted and brilliantly lit, but blighted by a numbing allegiance to late Constable.

This, though, is to simplify what is clearly a complex and absorbing period in our art history. McConkey is enquiring rather than judgemental. Wisely, he leaves the door open to further analysis of the British response, our understanding, he concludes, has ‘barely begun’. Even so, this is an engrossing addition to that debate.

Paul Gough
Commissioned by
The Artist magazine, 1998