Tag Archives: 20th Century

First Impressions: Robert Polhill Bevan ‘Showing At Tattersalls’, c1919


This pleasing composition has two groups at the sides of the painting, which lead out towards the viewer, creating between them a space for the viewer, psychologically inviting them into the painting.  This could be seen as typical of the Camden Town Group’s desire to create paintings for the people, which they could empathise with or in a sense participate in.  The piece is made up of smooth planes and dark, thick outlines around the figures and objects.  Figures are not particularly detailed, largely obscured by their long coats and hats.  Where we so see their faces, they present cartoon-like but serious expressions, deftly represented.  There is individualisation, as the two men we see most of are quite different, the man on the right thinner and longer nosed, whilst his equivalent on the left is broader and fuller.  This gives us a greater sense of being in the scene, and evokes the mood.  Details in the painting are appropriate to the scene, not over emphasised or simplified.  The horses however are near perfect in their anatomical details.  Long brushstrokes on the trotting bay align with muscles and their movement, so Bevan effectively gets across a sense of the horse’s musculature, without having to go into an unrealistic and uncharacteristic level of detail.  Some of the angles on the horses are perhaps a little too sharp, but this minor issue can easily be accepted within the bounds of Bevan’s personal style.  The horses’ legs are depicted highly realistically, each tendon seems to be understood, and the hooves are similarly well executed, and realistic to the angle of the legs, which show us, one side together, the apart, that the horse is trotting, demonstrating its movements to the prospective buyers who look on.  Tattersalls was one of the most important horse sales in Britain at the time, where the elite of the racing world went to trade horses and search for the next Grand National winners.  In the level of care he has paid to the horses, Bevan concisely puts across the sheer strength, and indeed huge monetary value of these fine animals.

The brick flooring takes on an almost pattern like appearance as it recedes into space at an angle.  Its soft peachy pink is a pleasing colour, but the dark lines marking the division of bricks seem almost too even, and it is not quite clear how the figures and animals fit into this perspective.  However shadows are naturalistically depicted, they are coloured, and seem to reflect the shapes that cast them.  The backdrop is a simple yellowish building that can easily be imagined as stables.  Backdrop is quite an appropriate term, as it seems that it acts as a stage setting for the horses to be displayed against, while the audience, the buyers, are set back closer to the viewer, who takes on the position of part of this audience.  The chestnut horse is distinctly outlined in black against the red door behind it.  This simple scene uses a subtle palette, and crisp depictions to evocatively portray a world that is now much changed.  Robert Polhill Bevan has created a charmingly simple piece, whilst still maintaining an appropriate level of realism so as to allow the viewer to almost step into the painting.  The painting is bereft of unnecessary details, and in this it vividly conjures the mood and energy of this elite world for the everyday viewer.

First Impressions: Peter Blake: A Museum for Myself, 1982

Ostensibly blurring the line between Peter Blake’s art making and his obsessive collecting, the piece is a collage of artefacts of significance to the artist.  The composition is jigsaw like, the different elements have been placed together seemingly just because they fit neatly side by side one another.  There is little sense of an overall palette other than what one would expect of a collection of old photographs, posters, and other largely paper-based objects: black, white and off-cream recur throughout the piece.  A line of shards of pottery act as a frame along the top of the piece, but this could equally simply be the continuation of the desire to fill the space as completely as possible.  This space at the top is too small for most standard photograph shapes and sizes, and we should perhaps also consider that black and white photographs might be hard to see in this relatively dim space just below the frame.  The case itself is interesting: it looks quite worn, with various nicks and dents, wood painted black.  It is a case, not a frame, the glass cover and its depth highlights its unsuitability for a conventional painting.  It is interesting to wonder which came first: the case, or the objects.  If it were the case, the objects might lose some of their significance, simply chosen to fill a certain space.  Vice versa, their importance would be heightened, they were chosen for their significance to the artist, and their housing carefully chosen.  I can’t help but think the case may have come fist.  Largely arranged in horizontal bands, the objects seem to come from a wide variety of backgrounds, “Hallo” emblazoned on the box of a small water pistol, signed photographs of each of the Beatles, postcards of flowers, and an old five pound note only a small selection.  But the idea that each of these tells us something about the artist might be deceptive.  Certainly all of them did not naturally come into his collection, they are not necessarily artefacts from his own life.  Some (if not most) were bought in the condition in which they go into the piece.  Blake is an obsessive collector, visiting flea markets and second-hand shops seemingly wherever he goes.  So the idea that this tells the story of his life, or the people he has met, has to be seen in line with this knowledge.  It is an interesting exploration of how we see the artist’s involvement in the process of modern art-making.  Blake has chosen all these pieces, they must tell us something about his character, as he saw some merit and interest in them.  So it becomes a question of whether we see the art-making process as the act of an artist imbuing a creation with his thoughts, feelings, collected life experience and experiences, or from a point of view whereby the artist’s choices are based on a desire to stimulate the viewer’s interest, and to offer them a view of a world different to their own (whether or not it is that of the artist becoming irrelevant).  Blake could be said in this piece to offer the view many different worlds, periods and sub-cultures.  Perhaps it is telling that included among the objects is a Marcel Duchamp autograph, with Peter Blake’s name next to it (the only form of signature on the piece).  Perhaps Blake finds ready-mades which come to tell us something about his interests at that time in his life.  He creates a postcard to himself form his own past, using the postcards of others, from the past.  I will not claim he has created a piece I find aesthetically pleasing, but the explorations of the meanings in modern art does make for a thought provoking piece, with more to offer than it might first seem.  He (deliberately or not) brings us to question what we think an artist should offer the viewer in today’s society, and whether they should continue the Romantic tradition of artists as giving their audience a view of the world through their own eyes and wisdom, or if it is simply enough for them to present us a view of the world, and leave us to draw our own conclusions.  I for one can still not quite decide which Peter Blake would seem to fit himself into.