Published  27/07/2006

Jeremy Gardiner: Ancient Landscapes/The Poetry of Crisis

Jeremy Gardiner: Ancient Landscapes

Foss Fine Art/Aldeburgh Gallery, Aldeburgh
22-28 June 2006

The Poetry of Crisis

Peter Pears Gallery, Aldeburgh
10-24 June 2006

Benjamin Britten, together with the other founders of the English Opera Group, chose Aldeburgh as the group's home and site of the annual festival in 1948. This Suffolk town's association with one of the major British composers of the mid-20th century makes it an appropriate venue for two exhibitions that connect to a parallel tradition in British painting.

'The Poetry of Crisis' is subtitled 'British Art 1935-1950', and exhibits a number of works drawn from the private collection of Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries. It is being shown in conjunction with performances of The Rake's Progress, the libretto for which was co-written by WH Auden, and is intended to provide an impression of the artistic context in which Stravinsky's opera was conceived. The paintings are hung in three chronological groups, set before, during, and immediately after the Second World War. The exhibition makes little serious attempt to relate the work to Stravinsky or Auden, but is interesting in its own right, both as a wide-ranging overview of British art during this period, and for some of the wonderful paintings on show.

Across the high street in the Aldeburgh Gallery, contemporary artist Jeremy Gardiner is showing paintings and monoprints that take as their point of departure the landscape of the Isle of Purbeck, the beautiful and geologically unique peninsula that forms the southern boundary of Poole harbour. The coincidence of these two exhibitions is a happy one, as Gardiner's work continues in the traditions of several of the painters exhibited in 'The Poetry of Crisis', especially Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland.

The first Nash painting in the exhibition is 'Study of a Wooded Landscape' (1935), a watercolour that is Blakean in its luminosity and strength of line. It displays the intensity of vision and attachment to natural forms that Nash carried alongside his interest in various currents of the avant-garde.

Gardiner also uses a strong line, physically cutting into the painted wooden boards of his Corfe Castle series. Like Blake's and Nash's, these are lines of power, appropriate for a locus of military strength such as Corfe. As the castle was mined after the Civil War and much of its material incorporated into the vernacular architecture of the village houses, so Gardiner's incisions deviate from depictions of the ruined keep into other, less definitive patterns. The energy is released into sinuous curves that tattoo the surface and take part in a complex interplay of texture and colour.

Nash lived for a time in the nearby town of Swanage, and one of his most striking surrealist paintings, 'Landscape from a Dream' (1936-38), is set on the Purbeck sea cliffs. A hawk is perched in front of what might be a mirror, or a painting, in which time has shifted: although the landscape is similar within its frame, the sky is pink, compared with the deep blue outside. The hawk is regarding its own image or reflection, while behind it, another bird wheels in the dawn or evening sky. Floating balls of what could be hay, or simply circular shapes, are set both within the frame and without it, mirroring the red sun. This painting, on show in the Poetry and Dream gallery at Tate Modern, suggests a reading of Nash's surrealism as an attempt to configure another reality (a 'dream') as a place of associative power outside time, where abstract and realist elements could coexist.

Returning to 'The Poetry of Crisis', Nash's 'Encounter of Two Objects' (1937) also juxtaposes painting from nature with geometrical shapes in a manner reminiscent of 'Equivalents for the Megaliths' (1935). Two worked stone objects, possibly flints, are portrayed against a plain dun backdrop; one is rounded and smooth, the other chipped like a Neolithic tool. The round stone has two perfectly circular holes bored through it, while the other supports a small pale cone, made strange by perspective, that casts a strong pyramidal shadow. The veining on the stones suggests the cracking of eggs, another surrealist motif.

Gardiner shares more with Nash than a love of the Purbecks. His Corfe series works are painted onto laminate board, and by cutting away layers, Gardiner has turned a flat surface into one of gradients and relief. This achieves several things: it introduces light and shadow into the experience of the paintings; it allows the artist access to another methodology, that of the architect's plan or maquette; and it puts geometrical shapes right at the heart of the paintings. In 'Corfe Castle from Plukenet Tower' (2003), for example, the incised lines that depict the walls skim like an ice skater's tracks through a pale, raised rectangle that dominates the deeper greens of the lower levels. This integration of geometrical shape with detail from life seems to me to be very much a continuation of Nash's project by other means, although Gardiner's flavour of abstraction also finds its precursor in the colour planes of John Tunnard, also exhibited in 'The Poetry of Crisis'.

The recurrence of the same sites in Nash's paintings - Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, the beach at Dymchurch in Kent - suggest an attachment to those places the artist felt held a special significance, a genius loci that needed to find its expression in paint. There is no doubt that the places Gardiner has chosen to work are also heavily loaded with associations. 'Bloody Keep, Corfe Castle' (2003) is a work in which the village's sanguinary history is recalled: the castle saw the murder of the Saxon King Edward the Martyr, and later the internment and starvation to death of enemy combatants during the reign of King John.

The brutality of war casts a long shadow over many of the works in 'The Poetry of Crisis' too. Drawn in 1938, Jacob Epstein's illustration to Baudelaire's La Fontaine de Sang shows a martyred man, pierced with arrows like St Sebastian, with blood gushing from his wounds to flood the streets. The image, like Baudelaire's poem, seems prophetic of the carnage to come. Other notable works documenting the war include Robert Colquhoun's 'Figures in an Air-Raid Shelter' (1941) and Graham Sutherland's 'Bomb Damage and Devastation, London' (1941). The first of these is reminiscent of a medieval carving, with the figures bent to the constrictions of their shelter like decorative motifs within the curve of a tympanum. Sutherland's work in gouache, chalk and pencil is a group of discordant architectural motifs set against a purple backdrop that fittingly evokes the bombed-out chaos he was commissioned to record as a war artist.

Yet it is an earlier Sutherland drawing in this show, 'Pembrokeshire Landscape - Valley above Porthclais' (1935), that seems to echo Gardiner's paintings more closely. The density of line, the use of stippling and mark-making that Sutherland's training as an engraver lent his painting are more evident here; and these are techniques Gardiner also puts to good use.

His Jurassic Coast series of works are painted onto long strips of thick, handmade paper, recalling in their shapes the ancient 'strip lynchet' fields that still line the hills below the village of Worth Matravers. The works are distinguished by a bold use of deep, geometric colour fields that often provide an anchor of stillness at one end of the painting, a balance for the intricate layers of collage, paint and sgraffito. The processes that Gardiner has applied to these works - painting up, cutting and tearing into the paper, rubbing down, incising and marking - have yielded a sort of transparency, a simultaneity of vision that is remarkable.

There is an exactness of detail that gives these paintings their authenticity: the ghostly images of ammonites and shells are geologically accurate; the contours of the cliffs are recognisable to someone familiar with the area; yet the paintings go beyond skilled draughtsmanship. The perspectives are impossibly multiple, folding into the same space intense close-ups of dendritic fossils, far-off and mutually exclusive panoramas, and geometric fields of distressed or pure colour. The works strive for an emotional and historical understanding of place that is beyond a single human perspective, and in doing so connect to a spiritual tradition in British landscape painting that descends from Blake, Palmer and Turner through Nash and Sutherland.

James Wilkes

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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