Tag Archives: painting

Come to Dust

A MINOR COINCIDENCE: reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, I was struck by the moment when Clarissa looks into the window of Hatchards’ bookshop and reads from an open volume lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:

The lines of poetry are from a song in the fourth act of Cymbeline. They are alluded to a number of other times in Mrs Dalloway, becoming a sort of motif in the book:

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages

Thou thy worldy task hast done,

Home art gone and ta’en thy wages:

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers , come to dust’.

They seem to underline the theme of of death that runs through the novel, and the importance of grasping time before it runs through one’s fingers.

Quite by chance I read Mrs Dalloway while writing about the paintings of the artist Glenn Brown. One of his paintings, titled Come to Dust, made a strong impression on me hanging in an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery (just up the road from Hatchards’, off Berkeley Square) a few years ago.

Come to Dust, by Glenn Brown. Oil on panel, 115 by 71 cm. 2017.

Come to Dust is an eyecatching, unsettling image of St Catherine, using as a source a seventeenth-century painting by Bernardo Cavallino in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

St Catherine, by Bernardo Cavellino. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Brown takes older paintings, from Rembrandt to Auerbach, and makes his own versions of them, distorting them, altering the colours, and rendering the brushmarks in his distinctively flat, illusionistic style. 

Brown also used the words from Shakespeare’s song for his title, Come to Dust. The theme of death and decay, of a troubled relationship with the past (in his case with the history of art), runs throughout his paintings. I began to wonder (particularly because it was Dalloway day) how you might draw, if at all, a connection between these two very different artists, Brown and Woolf.

I do not know if Brown reads or likes Virginia Woolf. What would Woolf have thought of Brown’s paintings? Perhaps she would have appreciated his quotations, his refined technique, and often highly emotional subject matter, as well as his literary titles. Perhaps not. 

Beyond that it is all just a coincidence, but of a type that seems fitting for Mrs Dalloway, as if the writer and artist had collided for a moment on the corner of a street in Marylebone. One moment in Mrs Dalloway, at least, seems to mark a sort of imaginative convergence between the two: the famous description of the elderly woman Peter Walsh sees outside Regent’s Park Station, singing of love:

‘As the ancient song bubbled up opposite Regent’s Park Tube station still the earth seemed green and flowery; still, though it issued from so rude a mouth, a mere hole in the earth, muddy too, matted with root fibres and tangled grasses, still the old bubbling burbling song, soaking through the knotted roots of infinite ages, and skeletons and treasures, streamed away in rivulets over the pavement and all along the Marylebone Road, and down towards Euston, fertilising, leaving a damp stain’.

Woolf’s description doesn’t make me think of any particularly painting by Brown. It is more that her description of the old, bedraggled woman, both elegant and putrid, singing of love on the Euston Road, seems so close to the ‘Come to Dust’ atmosphere of Brown’s paintings. 

When We Return You Won’t Recognise Us, by Glenn Brown. Oil and acrylic on panel, 120 by 93 cm. 2020
Darsham Songs, by Glenn Brown. Oil, india ink and acrylic on panel, 82 by 129.5 cm. 2016

Remains To Be Seen, Snape Maltings

I returned today to ‘Remains To Be Seen’, a poetic, meditative exhibition spread over the site at Snape Maltings, showing the work of Paul Benney, Laurence Edwards and Kiki Smith. It is part of the Aldeburgh Festival and runs until 26th June.

It is impressively curated by Isabel de Vasconcellos and feels very much an exhibition for the moment: a meditation on mortality, belief, and survival, and on the fragility and strangeness of the human body.

Laurence Edwards’ stateless bronze figures wander into the reed beds at Snape, carrying the accoutrements of their survival with them. They might be figures returning from, or going to war. Another figure, titled Heft carries a great bundle of sticks in the opposite direction, as if building a shelter from storm-fallen branches.

Kiki Smith’s large bronze sculpture, Seer (Alice I) drifts through the largest gallery, an image of monumental innocence and mystery. Alongside are paintings by Paul Benney which play on the paradox of legibility and mystery in religious painting, and also Minotaurus a self-portrait wearing an intriguing candelabra headpiece.

Elsewhere, Edwards shows a bronze sculpture made from a clay model of a frozen barn owl, with the attached story that the sculpture was lost twenty years ago, but then miraculously dug up by a friend last Easter.

Kiki Smith’s Girl with Stars echoes the form of Seer (Alice I), a childlike figure suspended in a magical space. She looks over a bronze cadaver, A Thousand Tides, by Edwards, itself surrounded by animated paintings by Benney, showing candles burning down in bell jars, turning into smoke.

One of the most striking stories is that behind Benney’s painting of an Icarus figure falling through a large industrial space. It is recognisable, by the skylight and gantry, as the Turbine Hall, now Tate Modern. Benney tells the story that his father, the goldsmith Gerald Benney, had his workshop nearby, and that as a child, Paul and friends would break into the derelict power station and run wild in the Turbine Hall, building dens and camps, like the one he shows illuminated in his painting.

A Natural History of Painting: Gerhard Richter

SOME YEARS AGO I WAS COMMISSIONED by a well-known London arts publisher to write a short book – what is known as a monograph – about the life and work of the German painter Gerhard Richter (born in 1932).

As an art student in the early nineteen-nineties, I was fascinated by Richter’s art — by his technical ability, the extraordinary range of his imagination, and the relentless twists and turns his work took — you never quite knew what was coming next.

After art school, I went to live in Germany, first in Munich, and then for some time in Berlin and Düsseldorf, travelling in the meantime all over the country. I became fascinated by the way art played a role in the reconstruction of Germany after 1945, and the long shadow of the War years, which I saw in the lives of friends as much as the work of contemporary German artists.

All this led to my first book Fault Lines. Art in Germany 1945-55, published in 2007; and, subsequently, the monograph on Richter that I wrote over three months in the autumn of 2009, A Natural History of Painting. The Art of Gerhard Richter.

Despite the fact that I had obtained permission from Richter to reproduce his paintings, for some reason the publisher was very slow in producing the book. After six years I reclaimed copyright to the text, thinking that something might be done with it — but nothing was. I printed a copy and stuck it into a sketchbook, so that it exists now only in one copy.

A Natural History of Painting. The Art of Gerhard Richter describes the spectacular course of Richter’s work against the background of late-twentieth century German and European history, taking the story up until around 2007, when Richter was seventy-five years old.

Since then I have been impressed for the most part by his drawings, some of which were shown at the Hayward Gallery in the exhibition ‘Gerhard Richter: Drawings, 1999-2021’. I wish now that I had written more about them in the book – they are among the most sensitive and beguiling of his works, despite their modest size and appearance. There may well be other interesting works made over the past fifteen years, but I have not seen them.

7.1.2021, drawing by Gerhard Richter
17 Juli 2020, drawing by Gerhard Richter
16 Juli 2020, drawing by Gerhard Richter

Here is a link to the final pages of the unpublished book A Natural History of Painting. The Art of Gerhard Richter. (The images are a little blurry on the draft layout, but somehow this seems appropriate for Richter).

I would write a different book nowadays, but the original manuscript still conveys, I think, the great love I have for Richter’s work.