Tag Archives: Gillies archive

Quietly Great

In a comment on the last post Chris Murray brought up the ghosts of Williams Etty & Orpen and it’s been bugging me to the point that I’ve not been able to write anything since. However  being bugged is good- it shifts the ice pack in my brain.

In the take it or leave it stakes I’m definitely for leaving Etty: slick, salacious and pornographic. But Orpen‘s a very different painter, objective, warm & humorous. Last year Tate Liverpool had a wonderful show of 20th Century drawing called Tracing the Century and, for me, one of the high spots was a group of anatomy teaching drawings by the man. They were assured, informative and, above all, impressive as large (big!) pieces of performative drawing.What’s more they felt utterly modern, of now as much as of the early 20th century.

Anatomical Study, Male Torso c.1906 by Sir William Orpen 1878-1931 William Orpen, Male figure, Chalk on paper, 112x80cm  1906

Orpen was a contemporary of William Nicholson (Ben’s more talented dad and a real favourite of mine),  and Henry Tonks.

Tonks was a remarkable character. Trained originally as a surgeon he taught painting at the Slade school between the late 1890’s and the outbreak of the first world war, when he returned to medicine. At the end of the war he produced a remarkable series of pastel drawings (in the Gillies Archive) of soldiers with facial injuries and the subsequent reconstruction.

tonks FoBHenry Tonks, Pastel drawings, c1918

There is no sense of subjectivism here; individualistic expression or lack of attention would not only be an insult but render the purpose of these drawings redundant. They are a very modern record of the results of modern industrialised warfare and are as fresh and as relevant to conflicts today as they were then.

Tonks went back to the Slade after the war and became professor of painting. He taught Stanley Spencer,  Gwen & Augustus John, David Bomberg and William Coldstream amongst many others.

Tonks, Nicholson and Orpen were people of their time, late Victorians and Edwardians, confident and certain in the idea of objectivity, that there is really only one true way of seeing the world.  At the same time they were aware of and being  influenced by the work of the French realists, the impressionists and Cezanne and others.

There was a quiet greatness about these painters but ( and this is where I become uncertain) I am not sure that it is possible to work in this way to the same effect today. All artists are made by their times and circumstances. A realist (such as  J-F Millet or Courbet) working in France in the mid 19thC would have had a whole range of ideological and social concerns driving their work; Edwardian painters in London would have had another set of social & economic influences.

Since then the main thrust of artistic discourse has been away from description and towards investigating how art interacts with ideas (doesn’t it always, anyway?): cubism, surrealism,  Duchamp; into the post World War 2 years, when the (expressionistic)USA played out its ideological opposition to the (stuffy & socialist realist) USSR in a series of individualistic gambits about “freedom”. I over simplify but, along with all that and the accompanying technological changes, it’s no wonder that the same drawing done in 1906 will have a totally different meaning to one done in 2013.

We live, so I’ve been told, in a plural culture where all artistic positions are relevant. That doesn’t mean anyone will take any notice, however, and it might seem that the only arbiter of worth is the market. But I do know that every time someone takes up a pencil with serious intent and concentration they will make a drawing which is of that specific moment and that particular place and has just as much chance of reaching out to another human conciousness as the drawings of Orpen & Tonks.

(I have just discovered how to do links- I do hope it adds something)

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