ART IN THE SOUTH-WEST


The Museum of Somerset, Taunton, 9th November, 2019 to 18th April, 2020


Royal West of England Academy. Bristol, 14th December 2019 to 1st March, 2020


Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, 15th February to 26th May, 2020

Reviewed by Jim Burns



Tristram Hillier is often associated with Surrealism, and it can’t be denied that he was interested in ideas originating from Paris. He spent a lot of time In France the late-1920s and the 1930s, and was influenced by Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico. But it’s perhaps as important to point to Hillier’s earlier days at the Slade where he studied under Henry Tonks. No matter what style Hillier was painting in, he was always a superb draughtsman. There is a painting called “Alcañiz, Spain”, which both demonstrates his drawing skills and the lessons learned from de Chirico.

In the 1930s Hillier was invited to join Unit One, a forward-looking British group which included Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Edward Wadsworth. The latter appears to have had a significant effect on Hillier, especially in terms of the layout of his coastal scenes. During this period he, like several British artists, produced a number of commercial works for Shell, the Central Electricity Generating Board, and other organisations. Hillier’s sensitive handling of colour was put to good use in this context. The examples on display sit easily besides his “creative” works.  For a later (1955) commission from Shell he created twelve still lifes which clearly showed the influence of the Dutch Masters.

Hillier and his family were living in France when the Germans invaded, and only narrowly managed to get back to Britain. A period in the armed forces followed, but on return to civilian life, Hillier settled in Somerset, and many of his canvases are of country scenes. There is a witty one entitled “The Argument” which shows two tiny figures locked in some sort of dispute on a country road.

Hillier never abandoned his interest in surrealism (see “Ship Propulsion, 1950”, a work designed for the 1951 Festival of Britain), though he was a very English artist, and his paintings, whatever interior suggestions they may make, always have a fairly solid base in reality, especially of a non-urban variety.  The implication seems to be that an empty road could lead to something more disturbing,  and an isolated building may be less-innocent that it looks. The title of the exhibition, Landscapes of the Mind, ideally sums up Hillier’s intentions.

If Hillier went to Paris and other places in Europe to pick up new ideas, there were artists arriving in Britain and bringing some of those ideas with them. Refuge and Renewal: Migration and British Art is an informative and timely exhibition looking at the work of a number of artists and sculptors from Germany, Austria, and other countries, who left their homelands when the Nazis came to power.  It also looks back to earlier refugees, such as Claude Monet and Lucien Pissarro, both escaping the 1870 Prussian invasion of France, and the sculptor Jules Dalou who had identified with the Paris Commune of 1871, and was tried and convicted in his absence when the French Government re-established control of the city. He fled to Britain and remained until an amnesty enabled him to return to Paris some years later.

A number of Belgian artists arrived here when the First World War saw their country occupied by the Germans. I doubt that the name of Constant Permeke will ring many bells for the average British art enthusiast, but this is sadly true of a large number of the artists on display. Some of the better-known (if still not widely acknowledged) arrivals in the  1930s may be Josef Herman, Heinz Koppel, Jankel Adler(an influence on the Scottish artists, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde), Naum Gabo and Kurt Schwitters. Several brought ideas of German Expressionism with them, and Schwitters had links to the Dada movement.  Gabo managed to arouse interest in his work among the St Ives community of artists, to the extent that Tate St Ives currently has an exhibition focusing on his presence in the town in the 1940s.

It would be encouraging to think that the Refuge and Renewal exhibition will re-ignite sufficient attention in some of the lesser-known painters to encourage other public displays of their work. But perhaps I’m too optimistic? Their paintings may now be scattered, even lost, and in any case may not have been produced in sufficient quantities to provide for a balanced assessment. Many of the artists slid into obscurity in Britain and had difficulties finding jobs that had any links to art. It’s recorded that the artists Elsa and Ludwig Meidner lived in poverty and worked as a mortuary attendant and domestic cleaner respectively.

And so to Bath and the splendid exhibition of Poster Art, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Masters of Montmartre. It was, as might be expected, busy. For many people Toulouse-Lautrec seems to typify the Paris of the 1890s, with its colour, light, and supposedly general merriment. And the posters that could be seen all over the city played on the desire for entertainment and consumer goods. It was the age of clubs and cafés like the Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir, and of personalities like Jane Avril and Aristide Bruant.

The developments in lithography in the nineteenth-century had enabled printers to turn out quantities of brightly-coloured posters at reasonable prices. When artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Jules Cherét, and Theodore Steinlen were hired to create the posters it guaranteed that their quality would be reliable in terms of design and realisation. From the start, the artistic values of posters were recognised, and astute people began to collect them. There were poster exhibitions (advertised by posters, of course), and dealers who specialised in them. They were, in other words, acknowledged as an art form. And from a practical point of view, they provided a useful income for struggling painters, just as promoting Shell on posters financially benefited Tristram Hillier in the 1930s.

It shouldn’t be assumed that Toulouse-Lautrec was the main producer of posters. I mentioned Jules Cherét, and he was a prolific presence in the field. He may well have been even more-prolific than Toulouse-Lautrec when it came to posters. And he ranged over an equally wide area when it involved the subject-matter of the posters: The Moulin-Rouge (an interesting contrast with Toulouse-Lautrec), books, the singer Yvette Guilbert, the Folies-Bergèr, l’Odéon Theatre, a variety of commercial products, and much more. He perhaps wasn’t as generally distinctive stylistically as Toulouse-Lautrec, and didn’t have the personal behavioural qualities that earmarked him for later fame, or notoriety, depending on how you look at it. Toulouse-Lautrec was cut out to be a celebrity as well as an artist.

One of my own favourites is Théophile Steinlen who, among other things, designed a humorous poster advertising a brand of bicycle, and had a liking for cats. His most-famous design advertised the Chat Noir. Steinlen also knew about the seamy side of Parisian life, away from the frolics of the fashionable and wealthy. His 1899 “La Traite des Blanches” focused on the miseries of the white slave trade. Two versions of this poster are on display. In Steinlen’s original one of the women is bare-breasted, but it was censored and the public saw her demurely covered. Paris wasn’t the city wide-open to sexual illustrations that the English imagined it to be.

The exhibition isn’t going anywhere else in Britain besides Bath, so it’s worth making the effort to see it there.