DVD A Simple Approach in Oils || Roger Dellar

Simplicity is a complicated thing. It takes a lot of skill and experience to learn how to extract the essence of a scene without fiddling, over-working and getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. In the five paintings demonstrated here, Roger works from a basic blocking-out of shapes, a carefully selected palette that reflects the dominant colours and an economy of brushstrokes. His remark, “I’m lazy; I only use a few brushes” is disingenuous – there’s nothing lazy about it and, although he’s not one of those painters who thinks hard before making every mark, each one is deliberately placed. There’s no random working, placing and re-placing. It’s fascinating to see how he works from the general to the specific, with details at first scratched into shapes and blocks before being delineated with colour some time later.

Of the five scenes, three involve water – the other two are in the centres of Chichester and Midhurst. The common factor is that there’s a lot going on – different craft on the water, details, people coming and going or a jumble of buildings. A literal approach, where everything is recorded, would be indigestible, but Roger’s way of building up manages to leave nothing out while at the same time omitting all extraneous matter. That’s what I meant by the complication of simplicity: it’s not just about developing an eye for a picture, but about the means of putting it down on canvas.

It’s also worth noting the palette exposition that starts the film. These are usually a matter of “this is my palette, I put these colours on it”. Roger’s is much more, because he works with such a limited range and he explains here and throughout the film how these are chosen to reflect the scene in front of him. His idea of having two sections of white, one for warm and one for cool colours is a neat one, too. Palette explanations are rarely of more than passing interest, but this is riveting.

After I watched this film, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it. I left it overnight. “It has to mature”, I said, and it has. Roger doesn’t instruct, he just explains what he’s doing, so extracting the information is like brewing coffee – it can’t be hurried. I find I have a surprisingly clear memory of almost the whole film and that’s a measure of good explanation – simplicity always leads to comprehension.

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Intimate Geometries: The life and art of Louise Bourgeois || Robert Storr

This is an important book – a significant undertaking written with great scholarship and integrity and will be of particular relevance to academics and students, but I believe it will be of interest to anyone who has seen and admired the work of such an intriguing artist and wishes to learn more about her life and her creative influences.

Robert Storr, the author, is currently Dean of the Yale School of Art where he has served two tenures. Formerly, between 1990 and 2002, he was a Curator, then Senior Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He has written over 30 books on art and painters including, in 2003, a book on Louise Bourgeois. He knew the artist well for the last thirty years of her life and as such he is eminently qualified to write a detailed account of her life, her work and its influences from a personal and an intellectual perspective.

Anthony d’Offay (2013) has described Louise Bourgeois as one of the four great women artists of the 20th Century citing the others as Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo and Agnes Martin (all of whom have had major retrospectives at Tate Modern in recent years). However, Louise Bourgeois is unique among them in having a creative practice spanning seven decades and incorporating a variety of media including drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, textiles and text. Frances Morris (now Director of Tate Modern) selected Bourgeois’ pieces, Maman (1999) and I do, I undo, I redo (1999) for the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 and perhaps this was the first time that Bourgeois’ work had exposure to the general British public. Since then her work has been shown there at a major retrospective in 2008 and at numerous other British art galleries.

The book follows a template, being organized historically and providing a clear sequential account of the artist’s life including photographs of the people and events described and of contemporaneous work. Each chapter is followed by a Portfolio devoted to larger photographs of selected work relevant to the chapter. Hence, Chapter I, entitled A Family Romance describes Bourgeois’ family life and background and those who influenced her. It describes the origin of her psychological turmoil – still evident years later – and which was to become the seed corn of her work. The Portfolio which follows is devoted to work made during the period 1930 – 1944. The biographical account is not limited to people and events, but incorporates quotes and commentary on Bourgeois’ thinking and other influences which contributed towards her making. This serves as a useful guide when examining the work illustrated in detail.

Chapter II, One and Others overlaps with Bourgeois’ life in Paris and New York and describes the death of her mother and its aftermath and her life as a student of Geometry at the Sorbonne. However, her passion was art and between 1933 and 1938 she studied at the principal art academies in Paris and at various artists’ studios. A chance encounter with Alfred H Barr Jnr, a founding Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York led inadvertently to her meeting Robert Goldwater, a young art historian and researcher. Storr comments that Goldwater reversed Bourgeois’ internalised model of the ‘masculine’ based on her father. She married Goldwater in 1938 and followed him almost immediately to New York where she remained for the rest of her life. Alienated, she was unhappy initially but her mood and motherhood did not stifle her creativity and she continued to make work using the roof of the family home both as a plein air studio and as a source of inspiration (He disappeared into complete silence 1947). The Portfolio that follows covers the period 1944- 1955 and includes drawings, paintings and sculpture.

Chapter III describes the years between 1960 and 1970 and is entitled Inside – Outside – here Storr describes Bourgeois increasing exposure to the art scene in New York and the opportunities that were becoming available to her and upon which she was determined to optimize. But he also touches on Bourgeois’ deep psychological distress – difficulties in her marriage and her psychoanalysis. During this time she began a small venture – trading by mail order under the name Erasmus Books and Prints – it was not wholly successful but served as a refuge – a means of ‘disappearing’ during a time of emotional stress and unease when her husband and sons were away from home all day. Bourgeois was deeply troubled by Goldwater’s reserve and this triggered intense confusion about the relationship she had with her father. Her sense of her own sexuality and of womanhood made her feel insecure and aggressive in turn and she worked fitfully. However this period showed Bourgeois emerging to experiment with synthetics, with her attention being redirected from the external to the internal space or from the negative to the positive.

By 1970 Bourgeois was beginning to be recognized as an activist and on the front lines of the feminist cause: her promotion by the prominent feminists Lucy Lippard and Linda Nochlin meant that she was ‘ripe for discovery’. But in 1973 Robert Goldwater died unexpectedly and Storr reports that the impact on Bourgeois was incalculable. To fill the emptiness, she immersed herself in a broad social network. She ‘played mother’ to many but women particularly gravitated to her doorstep. At this point her work became more overtly preoccupied with the body; since the 1940s her sculpture had been ‘incised’ or ‘indented’ – suggesting vaginal openings, but the stone pieces of the 1970 -1980s became much more gender explicit and often ‘bisexual’ incorporating both vagina and phallus. Storr considers that Goldwater was Bourgeois’ shield and that his death left her exposed to her demons. She projected her ‘survivors guilt’ into her nemesis – ‘the father’ resulting in a body of work where her father was represented symbolically. Chapter IV, Janus, describing this period: 1970 – 1989 which represented the most significant and prolific creative period in her career to date and yet one when Bourgeois’ obsessive calculations were employed by her as a method against madness.

In 1982 MOMA held a retrospective of Bourgeois’ work. She was seventy- one, and previously relatively unknown. However this public exposure revealed her as a ‘force to be reckoned with’. A supporter who emerged at this time was Jerry Gorovoy who became her assistant and later also her constant companion and adviser. Despite public acclaim, Bourgeois’ insecurities never abated and in fact increased to the extent that she became reclusive, leaving home only to go to her studio and later, in her eighties, virtually ceasing to go there at all. Storr explains that the world (people) she had retreated from came, instead, to see her but ‘on her own terms’. However, the work she made between 1989–1999 – illustrated in the Portfolio which follows.

Chapter V, Rooms of her Own, is some of the most powerful of her oeuvre. Ferried between her home and her studio by Gorovy in an ancient Chrysler, later in his Ford Bronco and with the help of numerous assistants, Bourgeois made a series of Installations (rooms), which she called Cells. They comprised many materials of symbolic relevance to Bourgeois and included some of her own clothes. During this time she began to make her Spiders (the prototype being a charcoal drawing dating from 1947): this monumental series served as an homage to her mother. Storr quotes Bourgeois:

The theme of spiders is a double theme. First of all, the spider is a guardian, a guardian against mosquitoes… it is a defense against evil…the other metaphor is the spider represents the mother.

(Bourgeois’ parents had run a tapestry restoration atelier in Paris where undoing and reweaving threads – just as the spider makes and repairs her web – was her mother’s quotidian task). Another theme from this time are the fabric sculptures (Personages)- human figures, often dismembered or stunted, inspired by the amputees she saw as a child in the aftermath of the Great War.

The concluding chapter of this remarkable book, entitled Coda describes Bourgeois’ final years and records her frailty and continuing psychological vulnerability. In reviewing her output Storr writes that Bourgeois’ life and work weave in and out of the narratives of art history – embracing Cubism, Surrealism, the Schools of Paris and New York, Modernism and Postmodernism but that of greater significance is the breadth and depth of her visual culture: combining both intelligence and imagination and including her use of material, iconography and psychoanalytic concepts.

Bourgeois was an exceptional artist and this is an exceptional book.

A word of warning: this book is substantial: it measures 29.5 x 34.5x 5.5cms and weighs 5.4 kgs!


(This was written by my sister, whose dissertation for her Textiles & Mixed Media degree was: Does an artist’s childhood influence the art she makes? A comparative study of the work of Louise Bourgeois and Tracy Emin.)


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The Complete Guide to Anatomy for Artists & Illustrators || Gottfried Bammes

This is the most substantial book I’ve seen on the subject of anatomy. Substantial, however, doesn’t mean incomprehensible and, looking into its pages, it becomes possible to believe the jacket’s claim that the original German edition is “bestselling” – even though I doubt it would have troubled the literary pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Gottfried Bammes does a remarkable job of explaining every aspect of both anatomy and the practice of drawing it in a way that simplifies without reduction to absurdity.

Anatomy, rather like perspective, is complex and comes with the additional hazard that, when writing about art, any author needs to avoid something that looks like a medical textbook. That Gottfried avoids this is, in large part, down to the quality of the drawings he uses to illustrate everything. He has a lightness of touch that, while it might be out of place in a hospital lecture theatre, is more than adequate in a drawing studio. The result is not only manageable, but looks and feels manageable. On top of this, the way the book is structured makes each section a unit in its own right; you can concentrate on the room without feeling weighed down by the rest of the building, large and ornate though it is.

I’d hesitate to recommend this as a primer but, if you’re interested in anatomy for artistic purposes, I doubt you’ll ever find a better, and certainly not a more complete, guide.

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Zawn: Walking West Penwith/Cliff-edge painting by Paul Lewin || Paul Gough

Helpfully, the back cover blurb provides an explanation of the enigmatic title. “Zawn: a coastal inlet in a cliff face, with steep or rocky sides. Often the result of a roof-collapse in a littoral cave.”

This is useful to know, as it defines the content of this beautifully illustrated book, which exudes a sumptuous feel in spite of its relative slimness and soft cover.

The paintings themselves, some already existing, others produced especially for the book, are a superb evocation of coastal landscapes and of the weather that inevitably assaults a West-facing peninsula. I haven’t traced the chronology on a map, but there is a sense of a journey, as opposed to randomly-selected landmarks and that sits well with the idea of a coastal path.

The text is an account at once of the book, of Paul Lewin’s working methods and of the creative process as a whole. Whether you feel you need it, or whether these three things sit altogether comfortably together, is a matter of personal taste. Although what Paul Gough writes is firmly grounded in the work it accompanies, there is still a slight disconnect due to the tendency to expand and generalise. You might feel, though, that it adds to, rather than detracts from, the book’s appeal.

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Wynford Dewhurst – Manchester’s Monet || Roger Brown

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Wynford Dewhurst, you might regard the “Monet” claim as bold, perhaps even preposterous. Even a quick glance at this magnificent book will dispel that impression, though. The similarities are remarkable, but it’s also apparent that Dewhurst has a vision of his own and is no mere copyist.

Having initially begun training as a lawyer, Dewhurst made his way to Paris at the age of 27, in 1891, to study art and was immediately attracted to Impressionism. His book, Impressionist Painting: its Genesis and Development, which was published in 1904, was dedicated to Claude Monet. It was the first major study of the movement to be published in English. His contentious thesis was that the English landscape tradition, and especially the work of Constable and Turner, was the at the root of French painting of the day.

It’s clear from the generous number and quality of the illustrations here that Dewhurst had a genuine and serious talent. There is no doubt that he was emulating the work of the man he regarded as the master, and who became his mentor, but his own stands well alongside that of other Impressionists and the English landscape painters he regarded as their precedent. You can judge for yourself, as their work also appears in the book.

Roger Brown, something of a specialist in this field, has resurrected the reputation of a man who, in the end, became something of a footnote in the history of art, despite having been an important figure in his time; albeit he produced little work after 1926 and died in 1941 in relative obscurity. The book accompanies an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery that, on the basis of what appears here, mérite le détour.

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The Diary of Mary Watts 1887 – 1904 || Desna Greenhow

Mary Watts was a leading designer of the Arts & Crafts movement and founder of the Compton Pottery, as well as the wife of the painter George Frederic Watts. While her husband was alive, she was also an assiduous diarist and recorded her thoughts both on art and on daily life with an artist who was at the height of his powers. There is a narrative to the entries that reflects Mary’s desire to make the most of what she felt was the most wonderful luck that had befallen her: basically, she worshipped Frederic.

The comparatively short period covered by the diaries is explained by the couple’s relative ages. Mary was 32 years Frederic’s junior. When they married in 1886, he was 69, she 36 and the 17 years cover the period from then until Frederic’s death in 1901.

Basing herself at Linnerslease, the house the couple built for themselves at Compton in the Surrey Hills, Mary was able to give full rein to her artistic talents. The diaries, begun at her husband’s suggestion, acted as a confidante where she was able to make the most of what she knew was the precious, but limited, time she would have with Frederic. Written in a tiny, almost illegible hand, there is no particular evidence that they were ever anything other than a personal memoir and they have remained unpublished until now. Desna Greenhow has rightly not chosen everything for this book, but concentrated on those passages that most illuminate Mary and Frederic’s story and the artistic, literary and political circles of the time. As a result, it becomes a social as well as a historical document that, while the style can be a little intense at times – “The sweet blessed air as we drove out was delicious … The blessing hand of the ceiling was over our heads in an instant” – her account of the life of an artist and musings on art and creativity hold the attention well.

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Sketch Your Stuff || Jon Stich

I’ve remarked in the past how refreshing it is when an author provides drawings rather than photographs in the (perhaps) inevitable materials section. It can be revealing of their skills with perspective too, as complex shapes are frequently involved.

When I first picked this up, I thought “I’ll bet it says it’s useful for when you’re stuck for ideas” and sure enough, the back cover blurb begins with just that. I’m not convinced, and I never have been. If you’re stuck for ideas, my guess is that you’re really stuck. However, there are days when you want to practise and it’s too cold or wet, or just not convenient to go out, and that’s when looking around the home is a good idea. And, as I said, there are some complex shapes there that can flex your perspective muscles like nothing else.

This is an imaginative book that will certainly convince you of its premise. Jon’s style is pleasantly loose and he sets himself a variety of challenges that include simple as well as complicated subjects – spectacles, mugs, a pile of tumblers, a self-portrait, an untidy bedroom, even a bathroom. I’m not totally sure he gets the perspective right every time but hey, if you think you can do better – well, there’s your challenge.

This is a book about drawing the mundane, which means noticing things you don’t normally notice, and lifting them out of everyday invisibility. It’s a brave premise and Jon carries it off really rather well.

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