Modernity in a medieval city

Modernity in a medieval city

Modern Masters in Print, Usher Gallery, Lincoln, until 30 March, admission free

Just down the hill from the superb Lincoln Cathedral is the Usher Gallery, the rather unlikely setting for this peripatetic V&A exhibition, which quit London last year in a flurry of hyperbole, and gave rise to a BBC TV series.

Endowed in 1921 by Lincoln jeweller James Ward Usher to house his private collection of ceramics, clocks, coins, silver, enamels and miniatures – and his own range of Lincoln Imp-bearing bijouterie – the Gallery opened in 1927, in a rather dour neo-classical building by the busy Blomfield. It has an echoey, institutional feel despite a major revamp several years ago, and a highly respectable collection, including works by Turner, Lowry and Stubbs, good 18th century porcelain, and sculpture by Nollekens and Epstein. There are also borrowings – a vase by Grayson Perry inspired by motorways and Walthamstow (more appealing than it probably sounds), and Kimathi Donkor’s ethnically outré Toussaint L’Ouverture at Bedourete, showing the Haitian hero spurring his horse and country into splendour (and squalor). There is a predictable, PC flavour to this and some of the other new pieces, as if the curators feel they need to nod to tiresome north London mores. Yet the abiding impression is still pleasantly provincial – limestone staircases, oils of Lincolnshire worthies (most famously Benjamin West’s imposing portrait of Sir Joseph Banks), cabinets where epergnes nuzzle orreries, and an odd, short corridor lined with stopped longcase clocks from Lincoln, Grimsby, Louth and Market Rasen.

This bastion of justifiable civic pride is now playing host to some fifty prints by Matisse, Picasso, Dalí and Warhol from the V&A’s collection, including some of the most familiar images of our time. The aim of the exhibition is never quite spelled out, but one supposes it is to cast light on the modern Western mind as a whole. While it is a worthwhile enterprise in itself to bring works by such titans to provincial audiences, focusing on prints simply because they are prints seems a little pointless. Visitors skimming the very brief introduction in the V&A booklet will probably not need to be told “Each artist used the print in his own way”. The four artists’ legacies were apparently examined in the TV series, but at Lincoln the only publicity material was a catalogue raisonné.

I confess to not relishing Warhol, although I acknowledge the interesting questions his work raises about how art is defined and created. So I drifted almost indifferently past his three Marilyn Monroes, images as over-exposed as their unhappy subject was during her life – although they were easily the three most colourful works in the exhibition’s subfusc space, dazzling out from the black walls and the adjacent examples of palette restraint.

Matisse is arguably not well-served by the exhibition’s focus on his monochromatic prints, because he was, after all, chiefly notable for his use of colour. His 1950 print Marie José in a yellow dress, featured here, is an exception; it was his only original etching in colour, but even that seems drained of vitality by the surrounding sombreness. Sans couleur, his odalisques seem insipid and almost asexual, and the textiles whose patterns and textures so intrigued him look like they have been subjected to too hot a wash.

The Frugal Repast

As we move onto Picasso, whom the catalogue calls an “artistic chameleon” and who of those featured is probably the best known as printmaker, we are faced with more images we have all seen in books – The Frugal Repast, his Lescaux-inspired ecstasies, his bull-fights, The Dance of the Fauns, Skull of a Goat on a Table, and Minotaur, Drinker and Women. But howsoever casually familiar, seen up close for the first time one is brought up sharply with a new appreciation of the artist’s fluidity, wit and verve. And then there are his illustrations to Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, sketched so freely, and yet with consummate control – conveying perfectly the vitality of his subjects. (I must, however, take issue with the catalogue’s description of The Flea as being “sensual”; it shows a woman removing said invertebrate from an intimate part of her anatomy, and unsurprisingly was not used by the publisher.)

I had not previously seen – or if I had seen it, it had not registered – The Rape, from the Vollard Suite, a powerfully disturbing image full of what the catalogue calls “strained intensity” – distorted limbs and brutish energy, part-nightmare and part-corybantic fantasy. Nor, strange though it may seem, had I really thought of Picasso as portraitist, and yet my ignorance was partly rectified by the purity and poignancy of Profile Against a Black Background. These items alone made me glad I had come. The Picassos give the exhibition much of its heart and heft.

Few will like everything Picasso produced during his “chameleon” career, and it is rather common to meet people (especially conservative-oriented people) who reject him in toto as being somehow in opposition to the Western tradition. Yet his work was a necessary antidote to the conventions of his period; and not all of it is artistically unprecedented. His subject matter is often classical, and there are hints of many other artists in his work; for example, his Buffon illustration of The Cock is strongly reminiscent of Doré’s illustrations for Gargantua and Pantagruel. As for him being in some way radical, what could be older or more ‘rooted’ than Bronze Age imagery? In any case, is not innovation part of what it means to be a Westerner?

An unexpected treat came in the shape of Dalí’s 1968 advertising posters for France’s S.N.C.F., which happily combine Surrealist imagery with Shell Guide-style iconography and colouring. There were apparently six of these, although only four seem to have made it into this exhibition – Paris, Normandie, Alsace and Roussillon. These wänderlust-eliciting items feature obviously evocative images – the Eiffel Tower, Mont St. Michel, and so forth – but also in-jokes and self-advertising, as you might also expect, with Dalí interposing segments of his own earlier paintings into the compositions.

The mustachioed japester also played around with printmaking, once apparently detonating a bomb filled with nails and keys beside an engraving plate, to see the scratchy results. On another occasion, he dipped snails (rather cruelly) in ink, and placed them on a lithographic stone to see what would happen.

Wide-eyed vivacity bubbles up from works like The Blue Owl, and (my favourite) Don Quixote, a dynamic Futuristic swirl in which the comic hidalgo’s ruff is seen to be made up of tiny armed soldiers. Phobias are discernible in Grasshopper Child – it seems he was terrified of locusts – and perhaps some of the disjointed illustrations he provided for what De Jonge called the “sustained sick joke” of the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror.

How satisfying it is to find such strangeness among the snuffboxes – and yet is it all that strange, when one considers the surrealism of the medieval minds that threw up the Cathedral and populated its highest places with angels and Imps?


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