The artist David Inshaw has been described as ‘perhaps the greatest living proponent of the English Romantic tradition’ in direct line of descent from Blake, Palmer, Spencer and Nash and it is somehow fitting that I am writing this on St George’s day as no other current artist seems able to express the essence of Englishness as he does.
His latest show is at London’s Fine Art Society, held to celebrate the artist’s 70th birthday this March, and the gallery is keen to stress that this is not just a retrospective as it also contains new work made expressly for the exhibition. It has been curated by the eminent art historian Robert Upstone, for 23 years Curator of Modern British Art at the Tate, who have lent Inshaw’s most famous work – The Badminton Game (1972-73).
This is the picture that brought Inshaw to public attention after it was displayed at the ICA Summer Studio show in 1973 and it is a good place to start viewing his work in the gallery. It shows two young women playing badminton in the garden of an imposing, Georgian red-brick house. All the elements in the painting existed near Inshaw’s own house in Devizes, but the artist has described how he changed them “in order to increase the mystery and wonder I felt all around me in this magic place.”
Inshaw was in love with both the women at the time and says he only realised in retrospect the phallic implications of the topiary in the background. He has since stated, “it’s a very hopeful picture and only slightly disquieting because I was discovering all about Wiltshire (but not so much about women).”
His process was to dress the girls in then-fashionable Biba clothes, photograph them and use these shots to produce drawings for the final work. He used extremely fine sable-hair brushes and the viewer can almost make out individual leaves, so precise was his eye. And, as Upstone points out, for a short period of time the pubic will be able to get very close to the canvas and study the artist’s technique in detail.
Michael Palin is a fan. Writing in the catalogue foreword he says: “It was The Badminton Game that did it for me. I was a big fan of Magritte at the time and here he was in an English country garden. There was something very satisfying about the way the elements of the painting – the trees, the house, the hedge – were all crisply outlined and grouped together like pieces on a board game.”
Inshaw has himself said that his main aim “was to produce a picture that held a moment in time, but unlike a photograph, which only records an event. I thought a painting could give a more universal deeper meaning to that moment, by composing one instant from a lot of different unrelated moments.”
However, this is not just Magritte in a Wiltshire garden but a Renaissance master is present as well. One of the principal influences for this work came from an early Italian panel Inshaw had always admired in London’s National Gallery, The Combat of Love and Chastity (probably 1475-97) by Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1444/5-1497).
“It has,” Inshaw recalled, “the quality I was seeking to bring to my own work. It is the moment held in time, as if you are aware of before and after, as if a film had stopped on a single frame, and you are aware, in that instant, of the emotion of all time. This is very difficult to explain. It’s what I still try to do now, because I think it is everything in painting pictures, and I look for it always. To isolate in time and space things that would normally disappear under the awful impact of other values. I wanted to pin down a moment, make it go on living, I wanted to be particular and yet general. I wanted to be excessive and yet modest. I wanted the picture to contain all my feelings and thoughts, happy thoughts as well as sad, full of waking dreams and erotic fancies. I wanted the painting to be of this world and of the world of daydreams.”
Inshaw still lives in Devizes and finds his inspiration in the local landscape and that of neighbouring Dorset, birthplace of Thomas Hardy, who has also been a great influence on his work. “I loved the way Hardy used landscape as a way of expressing human emotion,” he says, “and Hardy’s dictum that ‘the beauty of association is far superior to the beauty of aspect.’ You can find beauty almost anywhere really but if you have an association with a place or a person the beauty is increased.”
Inshaw’s landscapes are magical places, seeming to symbolise the power of the earth, with its unchanging elemental forces which resist the passing of time, unlike man. Oak Tree, a recent work on show dating from 2011, depicts a giant tree hit by lightning, its upper branches already white from earlier strikes but still proudly standing. The artist has previously said that he feels “happy surrounded by trees, trees inspire me very much and fill me with wonder.” This giant oak also seems to signify indomitable strength through the ages, rooted firmly as it is in English soil, a symbol of permanence while all else fades and dies.
Inshaw also tackles the inevitability of death by portraying women, symbols of creation and fertility since ancient times. And what women. Rosie shows a naked girl in all her glory, standing before an open window, a city view behind her. The moon, another common Inshaw image and a Roman symbol of fertility, rises above her left breast. She stands arms akimbo, confident, fully in control, the viewer perhaps slightly daunted by her relaxed gaze and posture.
In his book on the artist, the critic Andrew Lambirth has described Inshaw’s female nudes as “naughty and voluptuous, well aware of their sexuality. Provocative but decorous…they are very much of the here and now, unidealised and prepossessing.” Inshaw himself explains how they are the intersection of many things— “allegory, eroticism, ideal; but also reality.”
Many of Inshaw’s paintings also portray fireworks and bonfires, not easy to paint, as Robert Upstone points out, and which, as he writes in the exhibition catalogue, “contain the awe and magic of our own childhood experience of Guy Fawkes’ night and the deeper primal human response to the elemental sensation of fire and darkness.
“More formally, flames and the night are an extremely challenging subject for an artist to paint, and Inshaw successfully pulls it off with a convincing record of the impression of how such things look and feel.”
Yet here again there is a highly personal subtext because the artist has written previously that his first amorous encounters occurred on bonfire night, so landscape and symbolism combine once more in an (almost!) virtuous circle of meaning.
Miss Campbell’s Shoes (2012) are exactly that, a pair of no-doubt highly-desirable Maud Frizon high heels. However, Michael Palin’s Magritte reference is once again pertinent as the image recalls the Belgian artist’s work of 1935, Le modèle rouge with its human feet morphing into a pair of lace-up boots. Inshaw’s imagery is far more gentle and again there is a sensuous, faintly erotic element, although more playful in style.
Had I the money I would be buying the likes of Oak Tree and West Wood (2010), (pictured on my Home page), the latter a far more subtle and controlled portrayal of a woodland scene than Hockney’s overblown and garish attempts at a similar subject in last year’s Royal Academy show.
There is also Coast Path, Dorset of 2012, in which Inshaw takes another seemingly prosaic subject, a finger post on the coastal walk, yet invests it with an intense clarity, as if discovering the sublime in the everyday. But if I could select any one work, it would be the understated yet beguiling Coast Guard Station, St Ives (2012). Sat two-foot square, it contains a wealth of detail about a commonplace building, its structure half-hidden behind a grassy mound, the Union Jack fluttering above its roof. It has a timeless air and a mysterious charm.
Since David Inshaw moved to the countryside in the 1970s, his style of working, including the physical way he paints and the brushes he uses, has altered. But his thematic approach has never wavered. Hardy possessed a fatalistic outlook about the evanescent human condition and our inevitable demise, yet Inshaw is, in his own way, displaying his love of life and raging, albeit quietly and in an understated English manner, against the dying of the light.
CANDIDA HÖFER – A RETURN TO ITALY For the past two years, German photographer Candida Höfer has been shooting the interiors of public buildings in northern Italy and ten of these works are currently on display at Ben Brown Fine Arts in London. Höfer visited Mantua, Venice, Sabbioneta, Vicenza and Carpi in a continuation of her previous studies of architectural treasures of central and southern Italy. She photographs the interiors of palaces, opera houses, libraries and theatres, with an eye for the smallest detail and an intense clarity. Yet people are absent from her photos. They reveal the sumptuous interior of a Renaissance palace or the sweeping colonnades of a theatre, but always empty, with no action or activity of any kind. In this way, they oddly resemble the work of the British studio of Bedford Lemere. Founded in the Victorian era, the firm specialised in shooting the interiors of great country houses and town mansions, obviously in black and white, unlike Höfer’s own stunning colour photography, but again always devoid of people, so emphasising the spaces themselves.
There is undoubtedly something atmospheric and mysterious about large, empty interiors, especially when they are so sumptuous and architecturally magnificent. There is a mood here which was also captured in Resnais’ L’Anée dernière à Marienbad, where the camera tracks endlessly through empty corridors and rooms, leaving an almost dream-like impression. Höfer herself came to photograph empty spaces after spending around a decade taking pictures of Turkish immigrant workers and their families in Cologne and Düsseldorf, yet, as she explained in a recent interview, it was this invasion of people’s space which led her to her later architectural studies. “I felt uncomfortable disturbing people, making them an object of my photographic work…Also it showed me how important spaces were in which people lived, worked, went to shop, passed their free time. This then brought me to spaces.”
Höfer progressed from smaller public areas such as railway station waiting rooms to the grand spaces she pictures today, each with an imposing sense of gravitas but which at the same time speak of entertainment, enjoyment, erudition and the natural human hunger for knowledge and self-improvement. These are not sad or depressing photographs. Höfer herself says that she seeks a sense of what the Germans call stimmig – “that the image has a sort of balance in itself” – and this she conveys by the angle she uses, straight on and sometimes from a slightly elevated position in order, she says, “to share the character of the space as comprehensively as possible with the viewer.” The photographs themselves sit grandly on the gallery walls, some as big as six feet by six, and this is necessary in order to study them in all their fine detail. A highly recommended exhibition. http://www.benbrownfinearts.com/exhibitions/65/overview/ http://www.benbrownfinearts.com/artists/34/publications/