Category Archives: realism

Quentin Bell, May Day Procession with Banner (1937)


For many on the Left, the Spanish Civil War may have been a somewhat romantic affair. But it soon turned into an epic disappointment. It was a disappointment on the scale of WWII.

Pallant House in Chichester is currently showing the first exhibition devoted to British artists during the Iberian conflict. It makes a good case that 1936-1939 was a dry run for 1939-1945.

Had the Republicans prevailed it would at least have given the two other European Axis powers something to chew on. As things stood, it merely gave them aerial bombing practice.

It is well documented that the losing side, that of the Last Great Cause, found themselves in a three-way struggle for power between communists, anarchists and Trotskyites.

But that for me is what gives this painting by Quentin Bell a moving sense of the ideal. The May Day banners are red, and that for now is all you need to know.

They move in a tidal swell. They move away from the artist and his audience. It is as if their progress is towards something that no one can yet see. It could be a new dawn. It could be a disaster.

You can count less than 20 demonstrators, but the effect is of many more. This atmospheric painting throbs with crowd appeal. It appeals to our sense of strength in numbers.

Yet as in so many grand ventures, not everyone makes it out alive. Quentin’s brother Julian joined up as an ambulance driver and was killed just days after this painting was made.

And so a promising young poet, a son of a painter and a critic (Vanessa and Clive Bell) was killed mending potholes near Madrid. The horror of it gave his mother a breakdown.

So in that sense May Day Procession augur’s badly. Indeed the whole war augured ill. And yet the power of this image – and of the many banners and posters in the show – is undiminished.

There must be something about a crowd like this that Power and/or Money finds less and less able to tolerate. Look back at the future in 1937; there’s not a riot squad in sight.

Conscience and Conflict can be seen at Pallant House, Chichester, until 15 February 2015, then from 7 March to 7 June at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Reality Properties: Fake Estates (1973)

Reality can seem a debatable term. But is worth considering that the word came into use in the 1540s as a legal reference to a fixed property. Of course, the word realty still means possession.

So you could make a case for Fake Estates being a realist artwork par excellence. Because Matta-Clark took ownership of 15 lots of real estate in New York.

He did so via financial and legal means in the first instance, buying the untenable slivers of gutter space at auction and then collating the conveyancing paperwork.

And then he took ownership in the way artists are wont to, by photographing and writing about the empty spaces. Art offers another way to come into possession of a subject.

But reality, in the 16th century usage, has become a speculative business. Land is rarely purchased without a plan for turning a profit on it. In that sense, this project was fake.

Matta-Clark’s awkward, inaccessible lots would have been impossible to develop, and ownership merely passed into the hands of the city after his death in 1978.

Clearly, realist art does not speculate. It returns a form of ownership to the common purview. And such is the anarchic (and indeed anarchitectural) promise of Fake Estates.

The above picture shows Reality Properties: Fake Estates—“Maspeth Onions,” Block 2406, Lot 148 (1973) which can be seen in the Barbican until 22 May. See gallery website for more details on current show: Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta Clark – Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s.

Review: Christen Købke – Danish Master of Light

Christen Købke (1810–1848), View from Dosseringen near the Sortedam Lake Looking towards Nørrebro, 1838, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen© SMK Foto

Exhibition: Christen Købke – Danish Master of Light, The National Gallery, London, until June 13 2010

This is an exhibition in which each painting’s title is as precise as the brushwork. View of a Street in Østerbro Outside Copenhagen, on the Right ‘Rosendal’, in the Background ‘Petersberg’ is a case in point.

The picture itself has the gloss and attention to detail of a still from a period drama. It is a leisurely street scene revealing Denmark to be a place of harmony and plenty. Yet the realities at time of painting, during the first half of the 19th century, were social unrest and economic collapse

As in much of the work of Christen Købke a soft light picks out detail which may or may not be authentic. In Frederiksborg Castle, View Near the Møntbro Bridge, he has no qualms about airbrushing a too-modern 18th century staircase out of the scene.

Elsewhere in Portrait of Naval Lieutenant D. Christian Schifter Feilberg he includes a small window, but the finicky touch appears reflected in the end of an epaulette.

There can be no doubt, Købke was an idealist. Recent history, such as the Napoleonic Wars, may have ravaged his homeland but he responds with landscapes and portraits of meticulous calm and a warm, often rosy light.

The only hint of trouble is found in his bold compositions. The Danish painter crops buildings and goes with unusual perspectives.

In Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle with a View of Lake, Town and Forest it is the sky which fills most of the canvas. But Købke’s skies, whether blank, white and eternal, or filled with solid, static clouds also belie the passing of time.

Meanwhile, he paints the national flag, in View from Dosseringen Near the Sortedam Lake Looking Towards Nørrebro, with too much slow care for it to flutter.

But this was in one sense Denmark’s Golden Age. The arts were thriving. Both Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen were then writing. These were the good times which Købke’s aspic-like pictures did so well to preserve.

Written for Culture24.