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Jan 26 / Simon


The Independent, 19-5-2015
Syrian artist Sara Shamma tells Simon Tait about the fear and fury that shaped her disturbing new work
Hanging in the private office in Damascus of Asma al-Assad, the wife of the president of Syria, is a portrait of her commissioned in 2011 from one of her country’s leading young painters. “I will never paint a picture like that again,” says the artist, Sara Shamma. “That Syria will never exist again, and I am a different painter now”.

Now, Shamma paints the visceral nightmare of the Middle East that she sees spreading across the world: men and women trapped in graves; faces distorted by laddered stockings as a garrotte hovers; a man suspended hand and foot by chains like the butchered bull behind; another trapped and taunted by the kidney that is the subject of an enormous illicit and murderous trade; another eating his own foot.

Her exhibition of 15 new paintings opening at Truman’s Brewery in London on May 11 is called World Civil War Portraits, more a collective portrait of a phenomenon that started for her as a local crisis and has grown to a global catastrophe and a fear that dominates her.

In November 2012 Shamma was in her comfortable suburban home in Damascus with her children, waiting for a car to take her to her studio – a ten minute walk normally but by then a complicated one-and-a-half hour drive. Just as she leaned forward to kiss her two year-old son, Amir, a car bomb exploded outside her door, leaving them unharmed but shattering glass and their Syrian lives for ever. As soon as roads were open, she fled with Amir and the baby Amal to Lebanon. She will never return, though her husband Mounzer Nassa continues to work in Syria organising UN food aid convoys.

“The human spirit has died in Syria, and it is dying elsewhere now,” she says, turning to the most recent shock of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations in January. “Those are French citizens doing this, not Arab insurgents,” she says in her uncertain English. “I feel the fear now wherever I go”.

She calls this art painting from her unconscious. They are not her dreams which are more surreal, she says, yet there is allegory in most of the images, with ghosts and shadows lurking and menacing. She doesn’t know what will happen when she starts to paint.

Shamma, now 40 and the daughter of a civil engineer and a child psychologist, went to art school in Damascus and was part of a nascent but flourishing movement through the 90s and early 2000s, and her reputation was becoming international. In 2004 she was fourth in the BP Portrait Award with a self-portrait made with barely perceptible brushstrokes, more than competent but unremarkable.

But most of the new paintings, all done in the last nine months, are furious, huge sweeping brush strokes carving out the shapes of her fury on large canvases. Eyes are mostly blue because they are more expressive of the fear and anger she feels. The face of the man whose features are smeared inside a tattered stocking, Incognito 1, was done entirely from her imagination as most of them are, and started as an exercise in figurative painting but became a garrotting: except that the hands holding the ligature are both right hands, one a fist gripping the rope, the other gently guiding it with fingertips.

“I like painting to give me very different facts, like the dream,” she says. “I want it to take me to another world, I don’t want the painting to describe something real. Sometimes it takes me to a horrible place, but I don’t feel that when I’m painting”.

She uses photographs and often takes her camera to a local butcher’s shop for images of carcases, skeletons and organs. The viscera symbolises the shameless inhumanity of the war and contrasts it with the normality humans strive to recapture. So in Butcher a huge cow’s liver is seen next to a tall figure, a benign-looking woman. She is actually the butcher (so sensitive to the task of killing the animals in the halal way, Shamma says, she feels physically sick at having to perform the act), but closer to, the flourishing brushstrokes that make her face show the panic, anger and hopelessness that haunts all these faces.

In her self-portrait she caresses a human skull, a grotesque affection for the lost past, but behind her is a set of bones set like a throne, the actual skeleton of a gorilla; intervening is her daughter’s semi-inflated pink balloon, a sharp intimation of life continuing.

Many in the Syrian art diaspora are finding it impossible to paint, unable to assimilate to life in Lebanon, Dubai or wherever they have escaped to. Shamma says they have to forget the old Syria and move on, as she has.

“The whole country now is destroyed, the people are destroyed as well, their mentality is destroyed, I think the culture is destroyed,” she says. But there is hope, even in her own children. A delightful actual portrait is of her son, Child’s drawing: on one half of the face she has got him to make his own drawing of what he was thinking as the portrait was being made, and could hardly be more affectionately intimate.

“Maybe it can be built again, I don’t know,” she says of the Syrian art scene, “but it will have to evolve in another way. The Syria we knew is gone”.

World Civil War Portraits is presented by StolenSpace at
Tie Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL, May 11-May 25

Jan 26 / Simon

Grappling with Structure

Giacometti: Pure Presence, National Portrait Gallery, London, until 10th January 2016
Simon Tait
The London Magazine, December 2015 – January 2016
Giacometti lived a peculiarly double life, despite his lifelong quest for a “real”, as he put it. From the age of 21 he mixed in the dizzying artistic milieu of Montmartre, experimenting and eventually coming to terms with his own perception, pulling his art towards the acetic spindly bronze figures, the Pure Presence of the exhibition’s title, that would bring him acclaim. But for the summer he went home to Switzerland to paint quiet little conventional still lifes and portraits of his family. Which was the real Alberto?

What the curator Paul Moorhouse does with this account is trace Giacometti’s development from the very beginning through his portraits. That way he attempts to grasp the unique reality of perception Giacometti strove after turning away from the straightforward Impressionism he began with.

In Paris Giacometti lived in what became a rather famous squalor, eventually kept in some sort of order after the Second World War by a devoted wife, but he came from a well-to-do middle-class Swiss family.

His father was the successful Post-Impressionist painter Giovanni Giacometti who saw his eldest child’s promise with a pencil very early. At 13 he was given some Plasticene and made a head of his younger brother which pleased Giovanni so much he cast a bronze of it, and at 17 he was sent to art school in Geneva. His father took him to Italy where he discovered Tintoretto and Giotto who opened his eyes to the audacity that was possible in capturing the human form. In 1922 Giovanni decided to send him to Paris and the best artist/teacher there Antoine Bourdelle at the Swiss-founded Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where the stifling academic rules of the Ecole Des Beaux Arts were eschewed and life drawing was the key discipline.

Alberto was 21 and for the next decade or so in Paris he experimented with Abstractism, Primitivism, Cubism, and most intriguingly Surrealism. His friends were André Breton, the leader of the Surrealists, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Man Ray, and later Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. At the opening of his first solo exhibition at the Galérie Pierre Colle in 1932 the first through the door was Picasso.

We see nothing from this Parisian maelstrom of activity when Giacometti was looking for his own reality in the only city in the world where he had every new thought on the matter immediately to hand. Instead we see the other side of his creativity, the gentle portraits of family done during his annual returns to the cosy tranquility of Stampa, the family home village near Switzerland’s Italian border. He was looking for his metier, and in 1921 he made a marble relief portrait of his mother from a chalk drawing by his father of more than a decade before. In Post-Impressionist patchwork oils we have his sister Ottilia, his brother Boris sleeping, his other brother Diego, who was to be Giacometti’s principal model for the rest of his life, standing in the living room, tall, handsome, neatly dressed and aggressive, quickly painted and apparently looking for a fight. But what was Alberto looking for?

We see him grappling with structure in pencil, oil and bronze. In his sculptures from the early 1920s Giacometti is even scribbling on his forms to get his structures, and he struggles particularly with his father’s likeness – he has bronzed a head of Giovanni and scratched on it the facial features that are effectively graffiti. Another head of his father looks naïve, until on closer looking you see the detail he’s worked up, every hair of the salt and pepper beard in place. It’s as if by returning to the domus he goes back to his creative nursery to remind him of the basic tools before he plunges back into the crucible of Paris and the struggle for his real.

But he abandoned many pieces, dissatisfied with his attempts to create a completely accurate head and continually starting again: his hand was not conveying to the clay what was in his mind’s eye – while his painted portraits, and there’s one of himself in the act of painting, are resolutions his father would have approved.

At the Academie, although he had praise of his drawing, he had difficulty with the nude form, finding it impossibly complex. He stuck to heads, going back to Cubist basics to find structure. Then for a while he abandoned working from the life completely as being too distracting from the essence, using only memory to try to capture his wanted image.

Then in 1933 Giovanni died and Giacometti had a complete re-evaluation of his work, almost as if released from the need to conform with the values his father espoused. He broke with the Surrealists and worked with a new independence, renewing his efforts to resolve the problem that each time he looked at his model he saw something different.

He began to model to the size he saw in perspective, rather than actual size, and there is a drawing of his mother Annetta from 1937 in which he has abandoned all signifiers of identity to leave a solitary presence, as Moorhouse describes it, and she was a regular model until her death. From this point his Swiss and Parisian selves seem to be reconciled. A resolution began to form when that year he saw his model Isabel Nicholas at a distance in the Boulevard St-Michael, her features unseeable but her presence unmistakeable, surrounded by and commanding space.

The war was an impasse in Giacometti’s Parisian quest and he went back to Switzerland in 1941 when he met his future wife, Annette, his other main muse from then on. He stayed in Geneva where he made tiny sculptures of anonymous human forms. In 1945 he brought them back to Paris in matchboxes, and they were the start of the tall, thin figures that are the Giacometti the world knows, the Pure Presence.

We don’t think of Giacometti, who died in 1966 aged 64, as a portraitist, but by being in the National Portrait Gallery this exhibition makes clear that, in the simplest terms, that is what he is. But this exhibition sets out to show that to say he is a portraitist is as inadequate as to say he is a sculptor.

Jan 26 / Simon

Metaphors of a Troubled Mind

Lucky to be an Artist, Unity Spencer, Unicorn Press, 2015
Simon Tait
The London Magazine, October-November 2015
The title Unity Spencer has chosen for her autobiography is ironic, although not intentionally. She may have been lucky to be an artist, but she had the supreme misfortune to be the daughter of a great one.

The children of great artists are on a hiding to nothing. They have the creative genes, often, and may be talented, as is Stanley Spencer’s daughter, but are doomed always to be compared, and negatively.

For Unity it was many degrees worse. Born in 1930 she was effectively abandoned by her parents, her mother to mental illness when she was eight, and her father when she was three to the disastrous and short-lived relationship with the artist Patricia Preece. Unity’s life as related in her book has been cursed by self-doubt, depression, frustration, exploitation, misplaced trust and the mental cruelty of people who should have loved her.

Not least damaging was the careless insensitivity of Stanley. As a teenager she was desperate to be part of his lonely artist’s world and when he was painting his complex allegorical piece Christ delivered to the People she offered to help with the boring bits, painting some of the pebbles. “He was very sweet and considered for a moment, and then with a little heave said, ‘I think I’d better do them myself’”. What a devastating dismissal for a vulnerable and lost young woman.

Yet through it all she paints, not with conspicuous market success – she would always be compared to Stanley – but because that is what she does. She is an artist.

This was a valiant project for her to take on, confronting all those demons and making her struggle so public. Both her parents – Stanley (“D”) and Hilda (“M”) – were artists and she adored them unconditionally, but the saddest line in her memoir, almost a throw-away, is that D “loved art more than me”.

Stanley and Hilda both came from families of artists. Hilda was the daughter of George Carline, the British painter and illustrator, and she met Stanley at the Slade (where Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Paul Nash and David Bomberg were all fellow students). They were married in 1925 and their first child, Shirin, was born a year later. By the time Hilda arrived in 1930 Spencer was famous – in 1927 his enormous The Resurrection, Cookham was described in The Times as “the most important picture painted by any English artist in the present century”, and he was engaged in his gargantuan opus, Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, his homage to the First World War dead of which he had first hand knowledge. Unity recalls crawling around at his feet while he was finishing what would be his greatest monument.

But Stanley was in many ways a child, often wise and penetrating but also willful and selfish. Born in the village of Cookham in Berkshire he was miserable whenever he was away from it, though Hilda had no love for the place, and Unity had a love-hate relationship with it for most of her life. He had what ought to have been an idyllic family life, a loving wife, two adorable daughters, a home in his beloved birthplace and a successful career (in 1932 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy). Yet he fractured it irreparably by going off with the predatory Preece and marrying her, though she soon returned to her lesbian lover leaving the marriage unconsummated. Yet to Unity, her sister and their mother, “he was pure and true, without an atom of falseness”.

The truth is probably that the Preece affair damaged Cookham for Unity for ever, and what love she had for the village was because that was where Stanley was, even after his death in 1959, and was not grateful when the Cookham house subsequently fell to her. For Stanley he had no sense of responsibility other than to his art, so that his daughters were farmed out to different areas of the extended family, to people that in her chronicle seem to be caricatures of the idiotically straight-laced adults from Richmal Crompton’s William books. When a year or two after Stanley’s death (the poor muddled M had died of cancer in 1950), scared, alone and confused about love and sex, Unity shacked up with a paranoid egomaniac 20 years her senior, Leslie Lambert, and at 31 had a baby, many of those in loco parentis never forgave her.

Through it all she painted. Sometimes it was hard when she found “the business of drawing and painting a distressing experience” and she felt anger which “rose like sap as I thought of the cruel irony that my father… could have contributed to such a loss in me. I knew I had talent, and a gift to be an artist…”.

So she kept drawing, painting, making prints, her son John keeping her feet on the ground. Her pictures are not her father’s meticulous forms, they are more post-impressionistic, more passionate, and her metaphors are of her own troubled mind rather than his religiosity. Her sense of colour is subtle, her forms are sure but fluid, her depth palpable, her composition seductive. A pencil drawing of Stanley, or as he would have called it a “kopf”, done two years before his death is sensitive, accurate but full of concentration and life, while the oil for which this was a sketch is a contemplative and touching account; and 35 years later another drawing of Clapham High Street is a neat and busy streetscape that tells its story simply.

“People say to me, ‘Oh Unity, it must be so relaxing to be an artist’. Absolute rubbish. Art is hard work. I am lucky to be an artist.”

She taught, mostly boys, which she found at times frustrating but at others fulfilling, but now she continues to look, to admire and to experiment with lithography and etching. In 2001, aged 70, she went to a weekend organised by the Landmark Forum, a self-help programme, at which she was encouraged to stand up ands say what she was giving up: “I was giving up being a victim. As I said those words, the depression that dogged me for most of my adult life left me in a flash and I never suffered it again”.

Jan 26 / Simon

Classical Innovator

Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint, Wallace Collection, 12 March 2015-7 June 2015
Simon Tait
The London Magazine, June-July 2015
The most important image in this little exhibition has no title or date, in fact it isn’t really a painting at all. Its label describes it simply as “Experimental Canvas”, and it is a laboratory and archive for probably the most inventive English painter of them all, the painter that lifted the status of portraiture beyond society vanity. “The problem with Reynolds” his bitter rival Gainsborough is supposed to have complained “is that he is so various!”

On this medium-size scrap of canvas, one of several he would have had in his studio over a long career and preserved in the Royal Academy, Reynolds would try out pigments and media; the daubs are sometimes let to run, the thing has been turned round to find a new space or place a smudge nearer to his painting, and is laced with his notes – one can be made out as “Orp. White Y with the Varn” which can be translated as “orpiment, white, yellow with the varnish”. Orpiment is a mineral that makes a deep orange colour.

Joshua Reynolds was an Enlightenment man whose friends in his younger life included the likes of Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Edmund Burke, chums who are said to have persuaded him against his own judgement to agree to be the first president of the Royal Academy. The RA was the medium by which generations of young artists learned the practice and thoughts of the extraordinary.

He experimented all his life, and was notorious for it even in his own lifetime – it was known that the colours might well fade or the pigment break up. His biographer Joseph Farington wrote that each picture “was an experiment in some project of improvement suggested by his incessant endeavours to reach something unattained either by himself or others”. But others were not always intended to benefit the most, because was also a notoriously secretive man, using his own shorthand for notes and keeping his chemical ploys to himself to the frustration of conservators ever since.

When an Oxfordshire landowner, Oldfield Bowles, was deciding whether Reynolds or George Romney should be commissioned to paint his daughter he was warned against Reynolds’s use of pigments that tended to fade, but plumped for him when the collector (and inspiration of the National Gallery) George Beaumont told him that “even a faded picture from Reynolds will be the finest thing you have”. The result was Miss Jane Bowles of about 1770.

These days the Wallace Collection is known more for its rococo and French Romantic painters, its Bouchers, its Fragonards, its Greuzes. But the head of the Seymour-Conway family that built Hertford House which houses the museum, the first Marquess of Hertford, was a patron of Reynolds and, almost certainly on the advice of Horace Walpole, portraits of most of his family were commissioned form Reynolds. Most of these have been dispersed among the marquess’s large family, but four generations of successors bought his work, so that there are 12 in the collection now.

Through the last century conservators have steered clear of Reynolds’s pictures because of their unpredictability and without guidance because of his refusal to reveal his methods, but with support form the Yale Center for British Art and the Paul Mellon Centre a team of conservators and researchers was got together to examine them as well as restore them as near as possible to the way Reynolds saw them. It’s been a six year odyssey.

First of all, it works. The purpose of a review is to assess the value of a curated essay of an artist’s work and of the painting. In this case, the standard of the work is not in doubt, but because of the volatility of Reynolds’s work it has never before been possible to have such a good examination of how he did it. So this small exhibition of 20 pictures curated by Lucy Davis and Mark Hallett is not merely good, it is necessary.

Some of them, like John the Baptist in the Wilderness of 1770s, are too dangerously unstable to work on more than superficially because of 19th century amateurish attempts to deal with the flaking, but the use of radiography has helped the team look at Reynolds’s technique.

Colours, for instance, have faded often because of Reynolds’s use of red lake, a powdered pigment made, the Reynolds Research Project has discovered, from a cochineal dye which it turns out, is inclined to fade when mixed with other pigments like lead white, as in the face of the Duke of Queensberry of 1759. He used different oils, walnut for the blue sky in The Strawberry Girl of after 1773 and linseed for the dark background. He would mix resin and varnish with the pigment to get a gloss.

Reynolds was a devotee of the Old Masters and collected as many as he could so that at his death in 1792 his collection was worth a fortune, and he travelled in Europe to find out more. He plumbed their wisdom and techniques, but rather than copy them he used them so that his works can be seen as both classical and innovative, because he would also experiment with his construction.

X-rays of his is own early self-portrait of around 1748 when he was 25, experimental in that he is seen looking obliquely across the painting into light, his eyes shielded by his hand, show that his playing with light and shadow didn’t come off at first and he turned the whole canvas up-side-down to start again.

And it seems that his changing of mind in mid-making was often in collaboration with his sitters. He painted many of the great beauties of the day including the ac tress and writer Mary Robinson, often called “Perdita” because of her famous portrayal in The Winter’s Tale. Robinson’s affair with a cavalry officer, Banastre Tarleton, ended with his running away from gambling debts to Europe and Robinson pursued him as far as Dover when she seems to have had some kind of stroke and possibility a miscarriage after which she said she lost her looks. This unfinished portrait, Mrs Mary Robinson of 1783-4, does not hint at a faded beauty but at a forlorn one, her face turned to the sea with a “lost profile”. The radiography shows that at first she had her chin leaning on her hand in the more traditional “penseroso” pose of longing and loss; with her arm down and resting on a balustrade we suddenly have a more self-assured woman who will overcome her great adversity.

He would change things for effects, so that for the courtesan Nelly O’Brien of 1762-3 he has lowered the top of her dress, not to give a better glimpse of her décolletage but to reflect more light up to her face.

Perhaps the most stunningly successful change of mind is in his portrait here of Mrs Abington as Miss Prue of about 1771-2. Frances Abington was a former East End maidservant who became one of Garrick’s great comic actresses, and Miss Prue is an awkward but coquettish country girl in Congreve’s play Love for Love. But instead of presenting Abington in the role complete with mobcap and unruly curls as the painting began, we see her as a fine lady of fashion, sitting unconventially backwards on a dining chair and gazing intently straight at the viewer with her laughing, lustrous grey eyes. Because this, as far as Reynolds and his sitter were concerned, was the truth.

Jan 26 / Simon

Whitgift School shows old boys’ Great War artefacts

Simon Tait
The Times, 23 Jan 2016
Second Lieutenant Lionel Morris was still a schoolboy when he went to war. He was seconded from the Royal Artillery to the Royal Flying Corps 3rd Brigade, No 11 Squadron and on September 17th, 1916, he flew his Farman Experimental 2b two-seater biplane on a bombing raid on the railway station at Marcoing in Northern France. On his return he encountered a group of 20 German aircraft and in the dogfight that followed he was shot down. He managed to land his aircraft but was mortally wounded and died later that day, becoming the first victim of the German ace Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, who was to go on to record 80 “kills”. Lt Morris was 19.

Months before Morris had been a pupil at Whitgift School in South Croydon, and by a curious irony when Richthofen was himself shot down over Amiens 18 months later it was another Whitgift old boy, Lt. Col. George Barber, who supervised the autopsy.

Morris was one of 251 former pupils and staff of Whitgift who died in the First World War, and his story has inspired an exhibition at the school which will challenge major museums with what started two years ago as a school history project.

“I felt we should mark the First World War and we decided to concentrate on a particular year, 1916, and try to get under the skin of it”, said the headmaster Dr Christopher Barnett. “We started by gong through our own book of remembrance, but then, through the school and our families, we found so many collectors eager to lend objects to us, and we rather got carried away with the wealth of what came forward”.

Nearly all of the objects in the exhibition, which opens in March, have never before been displayed. They include a German light field wagon, found in a shed near the school where it had been restored by an enthusiast. The exhibition will focus on three major battles of 1916, Verdun, the Somme and Jutland, and there is a German battleship flag from the battle as well as an ensign from Rear Admiral William Goodenough’s cruiser. One of the families associated with the school has supplied the sign from Verdun station from the period, and there is fabric from the Red Baron’s triplane, signed by him. There is a letter from the son of the music hall star Harry Lauder to his sweetheart written on Christmas Eve 1916; Captain John Lauder was killed on the Somme four days later.

But this is not Whitgift School’s first venture into the realm of blockbuster exhibitions. In 2009 it mounted a display of 250 artefacts – most of which had never been on public show before – retrieved from the wreck of Henry VIII’s flagship The Mary Rose, pre-empting the opening of the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth by three years. It drew 35,000 visitors, and the exhibits even ran to the reconstruction of the head of the ship’s bosun from his skeleton, and of the ship’s dog.

There are reconstructions in the new exhibition, too: three full-size trenches are being recreated, British, French and German, using ten tons of sandbags, and there is even a computer simulation of Lt Morris’s last flight, for which Dr Barnett flew over Northern France in a light plane.

When the stricken Morris had managed to land his plane (behind enemy lines) Richthofen landed beside him to record the details of his victim. He had a silver cup made to commemorate it, and the original has long been lost, but the school is having a replica made for the exhibition, complete with details Richthofen would have had engraved on it: the date of the kill and the name of the aircraft.

Remembering 1916 – Life on the Western Front is at Whitgift School, South Croydon, March 12 th August 31st.