Leeds Art Gallery

I spent an enjoyable hour wandering around Leeds art gallery after lunch. I looked round the Victorian gallery more quantitatively than qualitatively: most paintings were on “home-grown” themes – Lady Godiva, landscapes, scenes from Victorian life – but the others reminded you how global and extensive Victorian references could be. It wasn’t just the classics and the Bible, but also the empire that provided subjects for paintings. Some haven’t aged well:

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Retribution by Edward Armitage, 1858, oil on canvas. Britannia slays the Bengal tiger in retaliation for the Sepoy rebellion in 1857. Hmmm. Perhaps the modern equivalent is making a film like “Where Eagles Dare”. And I mustn’t forget the bust of Goethe downstairs in the Tiled Hall café has his face smashed in.

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The Little Seamstress, Matthew Smith, oil on canvas, 1917

Upstairs I did Matthew Smith a disservice by sniffing that his Little Seamstress looked derivative of Chaïm Soutine’s portraits, but this actually predates them. (But I still don’t like him.) I confuse Frank Auerbach with Leon Kossoff, but I can’t help but feel drawn to the former’s messy paintings of [the demolition of] London’s buildings, like the Carreras Black Cat factory in the Courtauld. The rest . . . meh. David Bomberg is more intriguing, but I don’t know why I think that.

I looked more closely at the gallery’s “workroom”. In addition to Frank Brangwyn’s illustrations of the dignity of labour (mostly muscle combined with heavy machinery), there are some great 1932 chalk drawings of Diego Rivera’s – I think for the Detroit Ford factory murals, and arguably less heroic than Brangwyn’s. (In the highly unlikely event that I should ever get on an aeroplane and go to the United States, that would be the kind of stuff I would want to see. To hell with the Grand Canyon.)

I looked at some contemporary art but came away uninterested. Aesthetically I find it lifeless, and, for me, it lacks the secondary attraction of depth – by which I mean that it has had no time to gather any history or connotations to give it resonance. I’d rather read a newspaper article or watch a film if I want a take on modern life. For all its flaws, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was far more interesting than what is displayed in art galleries as contemporary art. (Perhaps I am simply ignorant. It wouldn’t be the first time.) I looked at a painting by Lubaina Himid; she has recently won the Turner Prize, and I now realise that the painting in the Harris which always makes me think “How on earth did that get in here?” is one of hers. Yes, the colours are very warm and very un-northern-European, but that’s been done before. If I want a take on colonialism I will ruminate on Retribution above or go to a performance of Madame Butterfly (which, coincidentally, is what I have just done). (Actually, I find it more cause for celebration that a Preston  artist has won the Turner Prize.)

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The Day of Atonement, Jacob Kramer, oil on canvas, 1919

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The Blue Hat, Jacob Kramer, oil on canvas

But, anyway, my big find was Jacob Kramer (Epstein bust of him on display, natch). The panel at the entrance to the room states that Kramer’s intention was to escape the physical appearance of the object and focus on its spiritual form. (Yes, there was one painting that looked like a restrained Kandinsky.) But what was more interesting was to see a handful of his paintings together and realise that he experimented: some paintings were all angular forms, some were free-flowing, and his portraits ranged from Easter Island profiles to smudges.

I had a similar experience next door at a Henry Moore exhibition of his early work, including his student years. I’m so used to the handful of well-known massive Moore statues that I had never considered the fact that he must have experimented before he found a form that he made his own. There were letters with sketches from his early years which – like Paul Nash’s in York –  must have been a pleasure to the recipient. A small sculpture that was very similar to the one that had caught my eye at the Louvre-Lens. (Moore spent time in the British Museum; they must have a couple there.) One forgets how much an artist experiments before finding the style that defines him/her for posterity.

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