Monday 25 March 2013

Fish wives night out

It's been a while since we had a girl's night out and a real giggle. So I had a look round for something really fun and interesting. This can mean a couple of things. It could entail something really new and special, or merely critically acclaimed with red carpets and champagne. Obviously.

So when I told Vicky to expect really bad art and fortify herself with a nice cornish pasty and a pint of cider, she thought I was joking. I wasn't. I'm always deadly serious when it come to art. I'd seen an advert for 'Amongst Heroes: the artist in working Cornwall' at 2 Temple Place. This spectacular venue specialises in exhibiting art from galleries outside London and this is what it said about this exhibition:
‘Amongst Heroes: the artist in working Cornwall’ will explore artistic representations of the Cornish figure at work, primarily between 1880 and 1920. These powerful depictions of working Cornish men and women produced by visiting artists to the region played a significant role in the national development and recognition of Cornwall as a centre for the production of a particular kind of realistic, rural art.

Realistic rural art from 1880s onwards is always guaranteed to provide entertainment in a bad way. Now I appreciate I'm being a little bit unfair here so let me tell you what was going on in my mind. Many of the artists going to Cornwall at this time were establishment and very highly regarded artists, usually working under the auspices of the Royal Academy. This was not going to be cutting edge salon des refuses, modernist painting but good old fashioned Art in the proper, Times of the times, approved manner. I tend to avoid this stuff simply because it doesn't do anything for me but after a continuous diet of new and interesting, it can be quite refreshing to return to the basics and see how it makes you feel. 

Which is why Vicky and I were standing a room full of salty sea dogs, seascapes, pilchards and very heroic women. Feeling all at sea. 

To relieve the large scale paintings, there were models of ships, a large boat and a cabinet of curiosities which I shall return to. Upstairs in the main gallery, there were fishing crafts (net making/mending etc), portraits, metal working, mining and farming themed paintings. Most of these paintings were from various galleries in Cornwall, some from private collection. The paintings, I cannot deny, were well crafted, admirable and picturesque, however, just not speaking to me.

In that first room the items in the cabinet were very striking. Using the new technologies of photography along with newspaper illustration, these small , domestic size black and white images were incredible. The photo portraits of fishwives were immediate and appeared uncontrived, whilst the newspaper series on fishing industry seemed lively and dynamic, incorporating people and operations. It seemed that the new imaging technologies was more appropriate to capturing the business of fishing than the large scale, heavily worked oil paintings. 

The paintings of mining operations upstairs were fascinating and seemed familiar to someone who has seen the modernist art of the futurists, for example, a group who  were obsessed with new technologies. I imaged those artists turning their back on the horse drawn carts and fishing boat vistas, to gleefully capture dirty mining operations and ugly new harbour developments. Some of the photographs of the time seem to speak the language of change far more than the paintings.

© Harold Harvey, Bridgeman Art Library
© The Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro
None the less, there was one chap called Harold Harvey who really stunned me. His portrayal of miners pushing carts was light years away from the foamy sea and nets of fish downstairs. These worker were non specific 'every men' and they speak of a time where men were essentially machines, slaving for the production of stuff which had to be dragged out of the soil. Dangerous, hard, and definitely not picturesque. It also turns out that he was the only Cornish native of this group, wasn't an academician and hated going to London. I wonder if this is why his work has an authenticity?

I'm not suggesting that oil painting is an inappropriate medium to capture scenes of a world which was dying out. Indeed conversations revolved around tales of country grandparents continuing to farm with horses until well into the 1950s. However the world has changed, and many of these farming, mining and fishing scenes have receded into history, along with this style of painting. I find it's hard to like, if not hard to appreciate.It's important to sometimes step out of your comfort zone and just take time to compare painting styles. 

Now where is that cream tea?

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