Archive for category Author: Michael Bird

Artists’ Letters || Michael Bird

This is one of those books that probably benefits from being dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover, a thing to be kept handy when there’s an odd moment to fill. This is not to denigrate it to the point of superficiality, but rather to recognise that, while informative and often illuminating, correspondence in bulk (rather like collected newspaper articles) can get a little repetitive.

The blurb describes this as a “treasure trove” and I wouldn’t quibble with that. Michael Bird has had the good sense to be selective, even if his collection does run to a fairly substantial 224 pages. He also includes plenty of visual material because artists, being artists, often fail to resist the inclusion of a sketch or cartoon. Being largely private letters, these are frequently acerbic or amusing and refer to the relationship between the sender and recipient. And, without labouring the point, Bird also explains the context of the epistle in question, adding to both understanding and enjoyment.

The book handily subtitles itself “Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney”, emphasising the breadth of its coverage (no, the creator of Mona Lisa didn’t communicate with the painter of Mr & Mrs Clarke and Percy). Curation in a collection such as this is key and Bird avoids the temptation to get too clever or to stick to the ploddingly obvious chronological arrangement. He arranges his material by themes and his chapter headings make it clear that he isn’t taking his task too seriously (I refer back to my suggestion of dipping in). These include “I saw a new giraffe”, “Your book on witchcraft” and “Hey beautiful” – all quotes, of course, not meditations on the inner workings of creativity.

This is a book of entertainment rather than erudition and it’s all the better for that. There are plenty of studies of art and artists that cover their working methods, philosophy and private lives. This one exposes the workings of their minds when they were thinking less about art than whether Michelangelo’s nephew should marry, Mondrian’s teeth are in good shape or how soon Jean Cocteau will recover from illness. (Picasso adds, “I’ve got good ideas for our theatre story” – Cocteau was working on ideas for the ballet, Parade.)

This contributes more to an understanding and enjoyment of art and artists than you might expect, by bringing its characters to life in their own words.

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The St Ives Artists – a biography of place and time || Michael Bird

You might be forgiven for thinking that not a lot can have happened in the life of an well-established artistic colony in the eight years since the first edition of this account was published. As Michael Bird points out in his introduction, the town itself has changed, much has been written and interpretations have changed. There has also been a series of exhibitions, including at the Tate Gallery outpost. It isn’t the art that has changed so much as the view of it.

This is a narrative account of a colony that did not establish itself entirely by chance and was, for the most part, populated by incomers rather than growing out of local work. That centred more around the fishing industry and it is the demise of this, as much as anything else, that has contributed to the changes in the town itself.

The story begins with the arrival of Terry and Kathleen Frost in 1946 and recounts the difficulties of a journey by train in the aftermath of the second world war, which provides a setting for what is an enthralling story as much as an art history. Such detail helps to emphasise the fact that artists are people who lead quotidian lives as well as producers of great works and figures in an elevated history.

The paper on which this is printed is designed to take type rather than illustrations, but there are plenty of these latter and they are reproduced surprisingly well. They are also carefully chosen to represent both the variety of personalities and styles that characterise a vibrant community that contributed a great deal to the art of the latter part of the last century.

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Lynn Chadwick || Michael Bird

Lynn Chadwick’s reputation took off after he won the International Prize for Sculpture at the 1956 Venice Biennale. Initially working with hand-forged iron, his favoured material turned, during the course of 1953, to sheaves of mild steel rods. Of his working process, he said, “a single weld may take an hour or more on a big thing, and you’re wringing wet at the end.”

Sculpture is always an intensely physical activity and brings the artist into greater contact with their material than many others, but this generation of workers was perhaps the most constructional there has been. This being the era of the Cold War, there was maybe a sense of both a plane of existence to preserve as well as a way of being to fight against and their pieces are never comfortable. The phrase, “forged in the white heat” is perhaps apposite.

This is a book which might well not have pleased Chadwick. Hostile to attempts to intellectualise art in general and his own work in particular, he maintained that “you improvise as you go along”, claiming to have no preconceived idea when a work started, how it was going to finish. Such statements can often be disingenuous. An artist may well not have a fixed idea of where a piece is going to finish, but they know their own working methods and which paths, when there is a branch in the road, they are likely to take. Even if they don’t have determined finishing point, they will generally have a starting one, even if it is only a state of mind. Disallowing the analysis of others is as often a way of preserving their own intellectual processes as it is of not wishing to see them diverted by others and having to argue with an outside assessment.

This substantial and well-written book is a thorough account of Chadwick’s working life and is comprehensively illustrated, his pieces being shown in studio as well as landscape settings. There are also personal photographs showing the artist both at work and relaxing.

Finally, did you want a justification of abstract sculpture? Try: “If you’re trying to make a thing like something else, it’s limiting.”

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