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Saturday, 14 March 2020

‘JULIAN TREVELYAN: THE ARTIST AND HIS WORLD’

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester


“I have lived the life of a somnambulist, grasping at experiences, often dangerously tottering on the edges of dark places.”
- Trevelyan

The Cloud of Imagination


The most striking thing about Julian Trevelyan’s ’Self-Portrait’ (1940, above), unsurprisingly used for this show’s poster image, is of course those piercing eyes. It’s a painting which seems to gaze deeper into you than the other way around. In fact those eyes, with the rest of his features, seem more differentiated from his head than his head does from the background. They come out at you.

Yet at the same time the tempestuous sky, with its blues and purples, seems continued in what should be the whites of his eyes, like he’s channelling his environment. It seems a bold statement. How did this man ever come by such a look?

Much like the recently-seen Christopher Nevinson, Trevelyan was a British artist who contracted Modernism from a visit to Paris. Which he described as “the workshop where the future of painting was being beaten out”. But he hit the boulevards in the early Thirties, and the company he kept were not Futurists but Surrealists, including Masson, Giacometti and Calder.


’Riot In the Studio’ (1933) perhaps summarises the way this manifested. With an outbreak of amorphic forms in an otherwise realistic studio, made from brick walls and floorboards. They don’t seem to sit still even as you look at them. (“Form it was, but no form” he said at the time.) This isn’t just a new way of doing art. This is telling us the reality we thought we knew proved to be inadequate.


’Figure (After Pierro Delle Francesca’) (1933, above), largely built from one swooping line, looks like a doodle which transposed itself into a finished work. The Surrealists had a penchant for painting mannequins - sometimes just costumes - as if imbued with life, and this looks like the idea of a thing made into a thing itself. It’s carrying two pieces of paper, where the one we can see looks reductively to be a drawing much like itself. The yellow moon at upper left looks like a part of pictorial space, but trace it round and it morphs first into a big black comma then a (yellow again) snail shape.


Perhaps because of its date (1935) the show seems keen to view ’Hypnosis’ (above) as a warning of the rise of Fascism - “a mind controlled by trigger mechanisms. Perhaps the Nazi salutes by storm-troopers he had seen.” A barked order causally stirs a brain-cog, an arm winches upright. But that seems too reductive. The machine elements look too elegant for so brute a purpose, almost like a Calder mobile, and too impractical. They’d be useless as a blueprint for any actual mechanism, even if they are actually blue.

As said over the Academy’s ‘Revolution: Russian Art’ show, “like the gestures of a stage magician, the gears and pistons of the machine are merely showy accompaniments to the central act of magic.” In other words Modernism’s model of the machine tends to be magic with added cleverness. It’s fetishised for an irreducible complexity which is only formally connected to its function. Cogs and gears are there to represent, not to turn causally.

And this sense of machine as mystifying object is central here. This work is not about fascism but Freud. It’s in a similar category to the assembled mechanical objects in Duchamp’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ (1915/23). It evokes the way we’re subject to unconscious drives, operating literally behind our sight, with the result we can often be surprised ourselves by what we do. This was something the Surrealists found not controlling but liberating. There is one thing in the word so vast, so inscrutable, we could never make it known to us. And that thing is ourselves.


Significantly, the rather wonderfully titled assemblage ’Machine For Making Clouds’ (1937, above) uses another mechanism - this time a mincer. (Try not to think about how much the head looks like David Cameron.) The analogy is clearly the mind’s ability to imagine. There’s an obvious connection between the cloud and those amorphous shapes flying off the canvas we saw earlier. It also echoes the way thought bubbles in comics resemble clouds.

But this is made into a mechanical process. How does the brain, a lump of tissue sitting on our shoulders, connect to the mind – the place the human imagination lives? Artists of this era often favourably compared the human body to a machine, most famously Leger. Why not do the same for the human brain, see it as a dream producing factory?


‘Untitled (Babylon II)’ (1936, above) is made up of marks incised in a long stretch of slate, sometimes coloured in. This could be read as blocked figures inhabiting a linear landscape, perhaps with one slate standing for day and the other night. But there’s also a vibrancy which, like many Paul Klee works, suggests a form of notation. Musical notation is semi-onomatopoeic, acting as a seismograph of the sound even for those of us who can’t actually read the stuff. Yet at the same time most of us can’t read the stuff, so that sense of suggestion comes accompanied by an air of mystery.

But if Klee is also operating in the interchange between symbols and hieroglyphs, he is rarely this linear. His images aren’t corralled by staves, they dance and career. They’re as much a dancefloor as they are the script that set off the dancing. You feel asked to look at them, not read them.

Here, the use of ‘Babylon’ in the title suggests not so much musical text as actual text. As much as Klee it’s a forerunner of works by Abstract Expressionist artists such as Mark Tobey. Of whose 'Written Over the Plains' I said: “It's title refers to hieroglyphic shapes found on ancient tablets, many of which remain unreadable to us… when you take the familiarity of that Western alphabet away, what is left becomes mystifying at a more basic level… It's language turned back into pictures, which reduces us to the stupefied level of small children staring mutely at the pages of a book.”

But whether you take the work as hieroglyphs or notation, they point the same way. In Trevelyan’s double title it’s simultaneously suggested that we should and shouldn’t be able to read this. The effect is a reading which should be as clear and direct as those symbols, but but which hovers just out of reach.

Go North, Young Man

In 1938 Trevelyan resigned from the Surrealists. (I love the way these movements were so absurdly formalised. Did he have to give a month’s notice and use up his annual leave?) He returned to England, but this time went North - initially to Bolton. Though he’d grown up in Surrey, his grandparents had lived in Northumberland and he’d been, in Ariane Banks’ words, “transfixed by the gritty urban landscapes… that conjured up another word.” (Pallant House magazine, Oct ’18/ Mar ’19.) Can you be re-transfixed? It seems you can, for he was.

Remember the old Style Council record ’Speak Like A Child’? (“I really like it when you speak like a child/ The crazy sayings like I'm so free and so wild.”) Trevelyan adopts a naive style that leaves him free to paint like a child. Of course having had little formal art education, he may have been embracing a direction he was largely forced down as much as recklessly making a bonfire of Renaissance rules. But with art all that matters are the results.

Mired in adult mindsets, we’ve come to frame the world as a kind of technical drawing we can use for navigation – mapped with mathematical precision but its precise surfaces devoid of substance. While Trevelyan’s naïve style has a child’s-eye animism, imbuing the most inanimate of objects with a sense of life. Even sheds. As in ’Sheds’ (1939/40, below). They seem grub-like creatures, unattached to the ground they cluster together, pipe vents functioning as antennae.



While ’Three Children’ (1939, above) more deliberately plays with perspective. The title-grabbing three kids are placed front and centre. The rest of the composition recedes away from them. We know how this sort of thing works.

As seen in the Tate’s British Folk Art show: “Objects are often sized according to the relative significance rather than their physical size or place in the composition. Notably, within themselves, figure are normally proportionate.” Here there may be a perspective, but it’s a crazy one. They’re bestride their world like colossi. That toy train must be about the size of a Great Dane. The left shoulder of the main figure seems irresolvably confused with the bare trees behind him.

And when the three giants are children and the semi-silhouettes behind them all adults, what we see isn’t some simple-minded innocence of Renaissance rules but a deliberate scuppering of them. And this is exacerbated by the urban setting, when folk art styles are so popularly associated with the rural and traditional.


Similarly ’The Potteries’ (1938, above) is made up of curves, winds and soft angles - the ways art normally depicts the countryside, now relocated to the town. This time the ground drops away, drawing your eye to those belching chimneys. The consequent black cloud looks to be a permanent addition to the sky. As all the figures look blackened by it, it also functions as the black cloud above the head from cartoons immemorial. And look at all those figures, each one trudging towards us. The first one has got close enough for eye contact. And he doesn’t look that thrilled to see us. In fact a great sense of menace pervades over this painting, as thick as that cloud.

Poor neighbourhoods often by necessity build up a defensive civic pride around themselves. People will tell you, with varying degrees of tongue-in-cheekness, “this may be a dump but it’s our dump.” And they are not necessarily appreciative of outsiders telling them how pleasingly aesthetic their dump is, especially as they then tend to go back to their feather beds leaving you where you are. This might be best summed up in the film ‘La Haine’ (1995) where reporters try to interview the estate kid protagonists without leaving the safety of their car. Who reply angrily “we aren’t in the zoo!”, before backing their point up with projectiles.

This leads onto something. Its ultimately untangleable how much posh boy Trevelyan is seeing British workers as a subject worth of artistic study, and how much using them as a symbol of childlike innocence – the uncorrupted indigenous tribe who aren’t in remote Tahiti but handily up the road.

Not much earlier, in 1933, Orwell had published ’Down And Out in Paris and London’ where he’d lived the life of a lumpenprole. Yet unlike Orwell Treveylan was not motivated by socialist conviction. Industrial Bolton must have seemed, in its own way, as exotic to a Surrey-born, Cambridge-educated artist as had Paris. Possibly more so, as little of the distinctive landscape of Paris enters Treveylan’s work. And it’s this exoticism he paints. He had joined Mass Observation, intended as “a mass recording and cataloguing of public opinion.” 

But, like Lowry, he depicts environments first and then the human figures within them. (And even within Mass Observation Tom Harrison, with who Treveylan was much associated, was an anthropologist whose pre-Bolton placement had been the cannibals of the New Hebrides.)

And speaking of Lowry it’s tempting to see a divide between Southern posh boy Trevelyan and the native Northerner. Yet he’d grown up in Victoria Park, a relatively suburban part of Manchester. What may be more significant is that he was a reclusive individual and his crowds are often portrayed at a distance, rarely eyeballing their audience. Whereas Trevelyan was a more gregarious character. Painting in the street he inevitably interacted with his subjects. Seeing accomplishment in art as an encumbrance to expression, he became associated with an exhibition of ‘Unprofessional Painting’, first shown in Gateshead. 

And so this, a critique of Trevelyan’s work, gets caught up within it. Which is tangled further by his continued insistence that the idyllic goes hand-in-hand with the sinister. Lowry is forever finding the poetry in grey Satanic mills, insisting you just need to know how to look at them. Trevelyan sees the two things in co-existence - a bleakness which is nevertheless enticing. It’s summed up by those chimneys in ’The Potteries’. Though there’s a couple of the thin cigars we’re used to, most are rounded and irregularly shaped. They look folksy rather than industrial. Their shape is even echoed by the steep hill behind them. And yet they exude that thick smoke. (Yes, the actual chimneys may well have looked that way. Trevelyan is still using them.)

He also collaged these scenes. Rather incredibly, he’d create these from life. The show includes a suitcase he’d schlep around, stuffed with scraps of paper (below). The wind, he’d complain, could prove an obstacle.


This may be a Surrealist inheritance. Yet curiously there’s little surreal about their content, they’re quite straightforward depictions. It’s as if he was unwilling to make an absolute break from before, when he really should have. Further, paints is often considered the medium to portray nature, so using it for urban environments can feel something of a twist. The same isn’t true of collage.

Their failing might be to work too well. You don’t clock them as collages from a distance, and when you come in close the pieces fit together too neatly. There’s nothing strange or jarring, no Dada war with meaning. When for example he uses blocks of text to create the sides of buildings, they resolve into walls quite readily.


One of the best is ’Rubbish may be Shot Here’ (1937, above). The neat lines of the buildings in the upper section jar against the jumble of the lower. As only that lower part contains human figures, squashed down into one third of the space, with the most central ones placed behind bars, it’s clear we’re looking at urban alienation. People built this place. But it’s an environment they cannot be at home in, they’ve been made its detritus.

Living Free Flowing


In 1935 Trevelyan moved to the Thames-side location of Durham Wharf, where he stayed until his death. It inspired many works, many of which came to be called ’Durham Wharf’. In ’Durham Wharf’ (1940/3, above) the sky is a very English gunmetal grey, and the belching chimneys from the Northern works remain. Yet the grass is almost luminously green, particularly where watered from that oversize can, and just above the roses in the lower right is a red heart. To the right, a steamboat and yacht co-exist on the river.


Another ’Durham Wharf’ (1944, above) reprises many of the elements while sliding across to take in more of the river. This looks a brighter day, though a very blustery one - with the trees bent and the river a raging torrent. The chap sat so casually on the edge of that barge would seem to be asking for trouble. Yet the male figure is placed between a black cat and a gaggle of swans. Presumably Trevelyan himself, he’s even washing a frame in the raging tide. Both paintings have such a strong idyllic feeling to them. They show nature’s tempestuousness, but human figures still in interaction with it.


The later print ’Durham Wharf’ (1971, above) is ostensibly an interior, but the river fills the windows of the darkened room as if they are a secondary frame. The verticals of the windows are continued in the floor, the triangles of the boats in the ceiling. It looks almost like one of those submersibles in nature documentaries which are effectively a glass ball, offering views in every direction. While ’Renoir Gone Wrong’ (1988, below) is located outside, with the black-and-white triangles of the boats echoed in the far woman’s dress.


Notably Trevelyan’s self-portrait, his “this-is-who-I-am” moment (seen up top), also uses this backdrop. Because in a sense they’re all self-portraits. This is the conceit that by some sympathetic magic the place you inhabit becomes associated with the workings of your mind. To live here means that your mind is open, free-flowing, porous to influence. “A great river is like a biography”, he once said. Notably, it’s the very opposite of the stereotypical artist’s garret, the Rapunzel tower you exile yourself into.

With these last two works we’ve already hit on his next development. Having learnt print-making in Paris, post-war he returned to it. He became the Head of Etching at the Royal College of Art, in the process influencing Hockney, Kitaj and Ackroyd. These prints influenced his painting. Then, from 1963 onwards, dwindling health meant he could only produce prints.


Prints offer little space for suggestion. They’re a definite medium, you either make a mark or you don’t. So the best examples turn this limitation to their advantage. For example ’Paddle Steamer’ (1986, above) uses geometric blocks for clouds and repeated hieroglyphs for human figures. Though sky and sea are bright blue, with the foreground figures engaged in that inscrutably impassive featureless face-off there’s a hint of menace that recalls ’The Potteries’. In fact that black cat exudes the stuff.


And ‘Manhattan’ (1982) condenses down still further into solid outlines and bold colours, looking like almost no other work based on that over-used subject. The featureless skyscrapers seem almost a natural phenomenon, aiming at the red sun in the way plants will grow towards the light.

Despite his Parisian coming-of-age and debt to Surrealism, there is a restrained Britishness to Trevelyan, Like Paul Nash before him, he doesn’t depict dramatic events or even movement over-much. Leading to virtually the same debate as over Nash. Painting and print-making aren’t about dramatic events so much as the power of suggestion. The art that haunts is the art that lingers. And his combination of idealisation and menace is quite unique.

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