Monday, March 03, 2008

Modern Painters

At the risk of sounding like that indefatigable man about town Jeffrey Archer, I have been to see this exhibition, which has been sniffily, if not witheringly, received by the critics, who seem to be embarrassed by the whole Camden Town Group phenomenon. Well, they have a point, in as much as the Group does ultimately boil down to Sickert (a great English painter) and the rest (fitfully brilliant, but mostly playing with a Continental modernism they couldn't make their own).
One of the things that occurred to me, looking around what is actually a fascinating exhibition (for all its shortage of really really good paintings by anyone other than Sickert), was that London is peculiarly resistant to being painted. Whereas Paris virtually throws herself onto the canvas crying 'Paint Me!', London is an odd, rebarbative prospect, driving painters out to the suburbs and into edgy, marginal situations to find a subject that will really work. Even the best of painters have generally been unconvincing when it comes to London itself - the centre, the capital. Perhaps this is because London really doesn't have a centre or a single identity - as has often been remarked, it has the nature more of a string of villages than a city.
In the grimy, sooty, wanly lit suburbs of north London, the Camden Town Group certainly found their subject(s) - more convincingly than in their city centre paintings, which seem to be exercises in style. Continental modernism and London never made for a convincing fit - the various modernist tropes seem applied, not assimilated. What the Tate Britain exhibition does demonstrate though (even if the exposition makes heavy weather of it) is that Edwardian England was a darker, edgier and nervier place than might have been expected. It is another light on what seems to me (and, I'm pretty sure, to Bryan) an endlessly fascinating period, in which, in so many ways, we achieved some kind of optimal (if, of course, hugely flawed and socially unjust) model of what high civilisation could be. And then, of course, lost it all.


  1. High civilisation - so true. But the Edwardian darkness was so intense.

  2. Did we perhaps fall in love with the relatively new medium of photography instead?

  3. Speaking of Edwardian darkness, there is a plausible theory that the artist Walter Sickert may have been the infamous serial killer "Jack the Ripper".

  4. Most great cities are strings of villages, not single identities, so I doubt this accounts for the difference.

  5. Early modern painting was made of linen, a sturdy brownish fabric of considerable strength. Linen is particularly suitable for the use of oil paint. In the early 20th century, cotton canvas, often referred to as "cotton duck", came into use. Linen is composed of higher quality material, and remains popular with many professional artists, especially those who work with oil paint. Cotton duck, which stretches more fully and has an even, mechanical weave, offers a more economical alternative. The advent of acrylic paint has greatly increased the popularity and use of cotton duck canvas. Linen and cotton derive from two entirely different plants, the flax plant and the cotton plant.

    Gesso-ed canvases on stretchers are also available. These pre-stretched, pre-primed canvases are suitable for all but the most exacting professional standards. They are available in a variety of weights: light-weight is about 4 oz. or 5 oz.; medium-weight is about 7 oz. or 8 oz.; heavy-weight is about 10 oz. or 12 oz. They are prepared with two or three coats of gesso and are ready for use straight away. Artists desiring greater control of their painting surface may add a coat or two of their preferred gesso. Professional artists who wish to work on canvas may prepare their own canvas in the traditional manner.

    One of the most outstanding differences between modern painting techniques and those of the Flemish and Dutch Masters is in the preparation of the canvas. "Modern" techniques take advantage of both the canvas texture as well as those of the paint itself. Renaissance masters took extreme measures to ensure that none of the texture of the canvas came through. This required a painstaking, months-long process of layering the raw canvas with (usually) lead-white paint, then polishing the surface, and then repeating.[3] The final product had little resemblance to fabric, but instead had a glossy, enamel-like finish. This flat surface was crucial in attaining photographic realism.

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