William Blake, Hell, Death and Despair.

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It seems strangely appropriate in the wake of recent local and global events to be considering apocalyptic visions from the early 19th century. It might also be appropriate at a time when social media is saturated with ubiquitous solipsistic proclamations of despair, to note one from a different time that is uniquely beautiful. For as long as humans have had a notion of a violent afterlife, we have lived in fear of it, and sometimes through art and music that fear is given form. As it is here, in this drawing by William Blake, Dante Conversing with Farinata Degli Uberti, pen and watercolour over pencil and perhaps black chalk, 36.7 × 52 cm, 1824-27. It is an illustration of a journey through hell, although the characters in this vision don’t seem that perturbed by the eternal fire, they seem quite calm, calm enough to converse and exchange ideas. It is particularly modern. I always find the drawings of William Blake modern, I think it has something to do with his graphic ability being advanced, considering the overall composition, thinking ahead in the way only an engraver must be able to do. It is quite lovely, lyrical and elegant, the colour is sparing and applied in flat patches over the line. It is everything but violent, perhaps in the romantic age, everything was beautiful, even death. I like to think of Blake’s drawings outside of their illustrative purpose, this variety of media is my favourite for Blake, probably the last version before the printing process, the image is still a drawing but refined, developed through pen and watercolour. It is very theatrical in its construction and layout. I like the way the stage like layers bring us up close to the action. It is so like a stage that one imagines that the different aspects of the set could slide in and out of the picture frame like Baroque theatre sets. Trap doors into hell are opened and souls (Farinata Degli Uberti) are beginning to emerge. The city in the background is northern, there is a suggestion of heavy industry a premonition of an industrial hell, satanic, Sheffield, Manchester or Leeds. Perhaps the gentle nature of hell in this case is partly influenced by the fact that when Blake made the work, he did not actually have that much longer to live.

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Twombly Venus

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more straightforwardly figurative Cy Twombly drawing than Venus, 1962, pencil, coloured pencil, and watercolour on paper: 70 x 50 cm. It looks distinctly like a figure, or two very different figures in fact. The first is a head and shoulders, there is pink where a face might be, with curled hair around it, there are what look like the suggestions of clothes over shoulders in the pencil grey around the pink, there might even be a tie. Then, within this outer figure there is what looks like a more whole female naked figure, the venus of the title, there are breasts with nipples, there are thighs and a scribbled pubic area. This figure is obviously more likely, the word ‘Venus’ is written in an arc in the upper part of the image above what would be the head, but neither is clear or certain. Some violently used red line right in the centre of the drawing could be another word, ‘face’ or ‘lace’. All of the marks are augmented in a way that makes for a convincingly human like form with a shadow cast behind it. There is often an all over quality to Twombly drawings and paintings where areas of concentrated intensive mark making are spread across the whole rectangular surface, however the marks here are organised differently, the upper part of the paper left deliberately empty, acting as a background/backdrop. I like the way Twombly mixed his drawing media like a child; pencil scratched into wax or oil crayon, or scratched into wet domestic paint, he was clearly unconcerned about its longevity. I also like the way that in this drawing he uses a word as a way of making us interpret through a layer of meaning, in this case the Roman mythology which became a vale through which his work was seen after his move to Rome where he apparently lived near the Colosseum and the Forum, among the ruins. I can think of many reasons to move to Rome, one being to be among its great layers of ancient history and I imagine the everyday experience of ancientness might have fed into Twombly’s work in a way that made him refer to mythology, architecture and statuary almost unconsciously.

Franz West’s Joke

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Franz Wests drawing of five moustachioed men with quiffs in tuxedos is typically droll and deadpan. Deadpan could in fact describe West’s entire artistic output, as well as, in what is evident in many photographs of the artist, his own facial expression. The men portrayed here could quite easily be either clowns or gangsters; they look both intimidating and friendly, ridiculous in their uniform attire and passive posture. The drawing brings to mind the opening scene of ‘reservoir dogs’, the film director Quentin Tarantino’s early triumph and the figures contain that same combination of camaraderie and menace that the characters in the film have. The drawing has the grainy and smudged quality of old black and white film and the width of the paper is itself cinematic in its aspect ratio. Untitled 1973, pencil on paper, 10.2 x 19.4cm is made on what looks like a reused piece of paper that either has a striped texture or the drawing was made over something with a striped texture that gives the background the quality of a rubbing. The pencil is soft. The paper has an uneven border, it might have been previously stretched or folded. In many ways the drawing is too straight forward and formal but it still contains West’s signature combination of humour and irreverence. Despite its simplicity the drawing has a lot of detail, the men are uniformed in more ways than one, but are also individuals; different heights, hair slightly different, one moustache bushier than the next, different shaped sunglasses. They are throwbacks, Edwardians, Teds in the 70’s, middle aged out of place has-beens. They stand before what looks like a theatre curtain, they could easily be musicians acknowledging applause. This drawing is early but still in keeping with the rest of the artist’s work, it seems spontaneous and effortless, it is easy going. West seems a very singular artist, I can’t think of other artists that make work like him. It’s as if throughout his career and life he looked at what was going on at the cutting edge of art, then did exactly the opposite, poking fun, knowing the secret, being in on the joke. We are left to wonder while he has the last laugh.

Goya and war

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In this drawing by Francisco Goya, ‘Prayer’ 1800’s, water colour on rag paper, a pathetic figure, a man, his face haggard and weary, kneels before us, it is as if he has only recently collapsed, and is unable to stand on his feet any longer. His arms are raised, open and submissive. His head leans back and he looks upwards as if pleading. Praying though as the title suggests seems to me far from his thoughts, it is mercy his bedraggled figure seeks. His posture is more akin to pleading with mortal oppressors, rather than the meditative act of kneeling to ask ones God for help. The drawing portrays utter desperation to the point of sacrifice, the person can go on no longer, take no more of whatever it is, assumingly war and its associated mess. This drawing is probably a provisional study for a print in Goya’s’ Disasters of War’ series it is rendered effortlessly in as few strokes as is necessary to represent the figures dramatic pose. It is made with a light touch and the redness of the paper lends atmosphere to the subject. Goya’s disasters series are now familiar to anyone with an interest in the history of contemporary art, they are broadly influential. I find them too depressing to look at with any regularity, I much prefer the Los Caprichos series which although still dark and brutal, have humour and are in many cases ridiculous and banal and much more modern and innovative because of this. I also prefer looking at his drawings rather than his prints, they are looser, often fragmented and more ambiguous, and they are also obviously closer to the artists hand and therefore his thought. This drawing denotes an isolated moment of humanity at its most pathetic. Today when we are constantly fed the desperation of others displaced by war in some or other way, we have perhaps become desensitised to this kind of image and indeed much more graphic imagery of those for whom the point of desperation has passed, given way to an inevitable horror. It is perhaps a guilty pleasure to look at war in this way, a drawing softens the blow, gives an opportunity for distraction from the real. In a drawing we can always see something else, beauty where we least expect it.

Asger Jorn, drawing on two pieces of paper

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This drawing by Asger Jorn is actually two drawings cut and spliced together. It is unfeasible without seeing the object to determine the exact arrangement of materials. Whether the drawing underneath (top to bottom) is intact as a whole rectangle with the top section stuck over it, or is it the other way round. Or if both are actual fragments and the curved rips meet perfectly, although this doesn’t seem likely. We can also only speculate as to how Jorn made the work, was it originally two drawings that were unsuccessful as singular propositions, but that through Jorns improvisation became successful as one. Or indeed if he intended from the start to make one drawing from two separate drawings, which is also a realistic scenario. It is listed as ‘Ink on two pieces of paper’ 1950, 44.5 x 33cm. It is vaguely figurative and looks like each sub drawing is made on the same type of paper, with the same ink and perhaps if not at the same time, then around the same time. Each drawing has marks that could at one point have suggested a collection of figures. These have subsequently been amalgamated into more distorted and ambiguous figurative pairings, both left to right and top to bottom. Parts of figures are certainly recognisable, there are legs and arms, and there might be a hand, some breasts, and teeth in a monstrous mouth. Jorn was known for pictures that had a recognisable duality in the composition, creating engaging oppositional tensions. The bold lines and ergonomic composition are fast and confident, Jorn was interested in spontaneity and it makes perfect sense for him to quickly outline these scenarios in a way that made the outcome unpredictable, and it is perhaps also completely understandable that when he was not surprised enough by the outcome, he might tear the two in half and make one, just to deny easy interpretation. Jorn’s rather drastic solution to a drawing lacking vitality is an indication of his ability to contort accepted modes. It’s clearly the drawing of an agitator, constantly seeking new possibilities in art and life. His legacy confirms this idea; COBRA, Situationism and of course, three sided football.

Jannis Kounellis Sees

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Quite a lot of the drawings I have seen by Jannis Kounellis appear to be made in relation to interior architecture, they seem to each embody a room of sorts, which in most cases represents a gallery, and perhaps they are ideas for the installation of exhibitions by Kounellis, formulations of what goes where, that sort of thing. In fact after looking at more of his drawings they are nearly always plans, ideas for different spaces in which he will later place more physical, three dimensional, sometimes even living objects, as well as drawings. In Kounellis’s work the room/space/gallery is a kind of stage on which he places the components/characters of his art. The room in his drawings as a space for thought and reflection has been comprehensively examined in an exhibition in 1991. Curated by Rudi Fuchs and titled ‘La Stanza Vede’ (translated, The Room Sees) the exhibition presented over 100 of Kounellis’s drawings spanning a twenty year period between 1970 and 1990. In the catalogue essay Fuchs articulates Kounellis’s room drawings brilliantly, ‘The room is the place of action,’ he compares the drawings to writing, ‘because while drawing the artists imagination enters into the space and texture of the room.’ Fuchs R. H. (1991) The Hague. This drawing, Untitled, 1985, Charcoal on Paper, however is different, it feels more observed than imagined its subject is external rather than internal space. It clearly represents the kind of arcade of shops and cafés you might come across in a street in Rome, where Kounellis has spent most of his working life, and where in summer the heat can be so stifling that the simple act of moving around is only made possible by the existence of these shade giving walkways. There are the familiar arches, there is even the suggestion of a shop window with items displayed and the extreme shadows cast by a high sun. Unlike the room drawings which are more atmospheric, dreamlike and nebulous, this vigorous depiction perhaps gives us the artist seeing rather than writing, placing him in the world rather than the gallery. I have always thought that drawing is a fundamental aspect of arte povera; a movement Kounellis is associated with, its simplicity, its economy of means, its relationship to the everyday and to the basics of child development all align drawing with the ethos of the movement. It’s refreshing to see drawings from someone with such a varied output and to see how drawing has continued to play a major role throughout his development as an artist.

Bonnard’s argument

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Strangely, I have frequently made the mistake of thinking Bonnard was English (as if Pierre wasn’t obvious enough), considered him someone who trained in Paris rather than someone French. I think it’s because his version of post impressionism is a little more open and explorative, lacking the rigidity of people like Seurat or Gauguin, his work is more inconsistent and muted than his contemporaries, as if he’s looking for something else. He is perhaps more of a modernist, more Bloomsbury than Arles. In saying this however I am thinking about his paintings specifically. His drawings are a different thing all together. They lack the decorative elegance of his paintings, they are colourless and edgy. Bonnard’s observations of Parisian life are full of energy, they have an authenticity to them, there is no doubt that they are made in the moment, and he is there. In this drawing, ‘Study for Conversation’ Pencil, pen and ink on paper, 1893, 15.5 × 20.3 cm, a man and a woman appear to confront each other, the ‘conversation’ seems less than friendly, the man’s face, grotesque and aggressive, is contorted in anger. The woman appears more submissive, tearful and frightened, reproached by the man for something we’ll never know. It looks as if the drawing has been made initially with pencil as a response to something Bonnard is witnessing first hand and then its main assets reinforced later with heavier ink. The woman’s tangle of curly hair and bonnet, her fearful profile, the man’s seemingly mangled mouth; too close to the woman for comfort, spitting, behind a ragged walrus moustache, these are all picked out by Bonnard. There is something in the background, it looks like a carriage being driven by a coachman, reinforcing the context. I imagine the scene witnessed at street level through the window of a café. Our proximity to the action supports this theory. Bonnard’s marks both in his paintings and his drawings flatten the image, we are aware of the surface. A colourist, he developed a way of drawing that incorporated a vocabulary of marks that replaced colour or became a kind of shorthand for colour. The paper has another drawing on the back of it, its indentations and darker areas are visible in the background of ‘study for conversation’ adding to the depth of the image, the mystery of the subject, and the sense of Bonnard quietly recording life.

David Lynch, stump of tree

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I am an admirer of the films of David Lynch and since first becoming aware of his drawings and paintings I’ve been a fan of them too. Often visual art shows by people who are internationally renowned in other areas of culture are misplaced, the folly of desperate museum directors trying to fight off the cuts with celebrity, or a rash commitment made by a curator after too many drinks. But not however in the case of the world famous film director, who has had gallery exhibitions throughout his career in film, most recently at Brisbane’s GoMA. If in the future film comes to be known as the medium of our time or perhaps more likely of the 20th century, Lynch will be thought of as a key figure in its history. It could be the current stagnation and mediocrity of film output that drive him to visual art, or just that making a film is so collaborative and all encompassing, that it might be quite a relief to paint and draw in solitude. There is a clear relationship between his two outputs and his drawings in particular are a good indicator to how he might formulate ideas for film. In this Drawing ‘stump of tree’ the tree is like a figure holding out its hand maybe as a greeting, maybe pleading for help or mercy. The watery stains around and behind the tree function as sky, there is a distinct black cloud, more drawn than stained, hovering ominously over what would be the head of the figure/stump, and there is a moon or black sun, or eclipse even. The general feel is of a stage or set, but minimal like that for a Beckett play. The writing on the drawing seems out of place, we already know it’s the stump of a tree in the title and in its look. Perhaps this is the mark of an artist engaged with not his primary method or material and therefore not quite as accomplished as is necessary. In drawing as in film Lynch has the ability to conjure the darkest viewpoint from any subject and to encourage us to do the same. His imagery is always at its best when simple as it is here and his images have the ability to stick in the mind. The thought of a weeping man, in what is undoubtedly to my mind his masterpiece Twin Peaks, disorientated and repeatedly exclaiming, ‘wrapped in plastic’ is much more etched on the common consciousness than any graphic horror.

Sigmar Polke’s hand

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This drawing is by Sigmar Polke, Untitled, 1988, watercolour on paper, 70 x100cm. It appears to contain at least one figure on the right, which may or may not be wearing a German helmet from WW2 with a swastika on the front of it. There are two big eyes, too wide apart and a pig like nose, a body, too small, if it is a German soldier from WW2 it’s more of a caricature. The figure seems purposeful, striding or standing with legs apart staring at something unknown. The line describing the body is interrupted and then restarted with yellow paint instead of black. From the left of the image some kind of force emanates, a flash or an explosion represented by force lines from the bottom left hand corner and patches of two different types of yellow paint. It is as if Polke has stopped and started the drawing a number of times, the different layers of drawing, some nebulous others decisive and descriptive, might not have had an intended relationship. The linear parts appear to be over the top of the stained watery parts and the lines have different intensities, some grey, some black and some blacker. The paper has buckled under the weight of the wet medium, this only adds to the action. There is some sort of structure and ornamental swirls that might describe an interior with furniture. The figure could be on the phone, a confusion of lines in the centre fractures any straight forward interpretation but there is an all-over quality to the picture, things are evenly distributed and balanced. I like Sigmar Polke, I once held his hand during a ceilidh in his honour upstairs at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool after his show ‘Join the dots’ opened in the Tate in 1995. Someone’s very good idea was to give him a hearty Liverpudlian/Irish welcome, the traditional local lobscouse stew and the ceilidh seemed appropriate. During a Barn Dance you tend to hold lots of people’s hands one after another which is part of its charm, the innocent contact with others involved in a common joyous act. Through Sigmar Polke’s hand I felt his enjoyment of the situation and what I decided at the time and still believe was his innate sense of fun.

Kurt Schwitters, Merz 370

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The radical experimental art of Kurt Schwitters stands out in its singularity, although aligned at different times in his career with different groups of artists, there is always a sense when examining his work that he was out on his own in terms of his originality and shear invention. Restlessly exploring materials and processes to make his work; this drawing alone, Merz 370 Blue Spark, 1922, collage of cut coloured paper 20.6 x 17.1cm involves sticking, overlapping, scratching, angling, pealing, tearing, and everything else you might imagine a collage of the time to contain. The avant-garde nature of this simple collage cuts a swathe through the work of his contemporaries who more often than not relied on a veil of knowing criticality via; politics, shock, melodrama, flamboyance or a sort of contrived eccentricity to make their work stand out. Schwitters achieved his goal with economy, here the simple alignment and misalignment of papers, slightly different shades of brown and grey is unselfconscious and confidently different. His Oeuvre incorporated; painting, sculpture writing and performance, including singing and sound poetry. He was an innovator to the point of inventing a completely new art form so ahead of its time that even now, contemporary artists, curators and thinkers organise whole exhibitions and conferences in an attempt to unpick his ideas and examine his legacy. Some of the most critically engaged international exhibitions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have had Schwitters’ Merz at their centre. Yet considering his continuing impact his profile remains in lots of ways modest compared to other influential artists, one could argue that now, a decade and a half into the twenty first century that his influence is far greater than that of Duchamp who every artist worth his salt has been falling all over since the 1950’s. Schwitters’ project continues in the work of many contemporary artists and curators around the world. It also lives on in the Lake District where he ended his career. Go to Elterwater, visit the merz barn where he carried out his last big experiment and listen to the brilliant Ian Hunter tell his stories of Schwitters, including one of him performing his Ursonata on pub tables in Ambleside of all places.