Saturday, 31 March 2018

Country and Eastern: the Kettle’s Yard of Norwich?

It might seem far-fetched, but in some ways Country and Eastern, a Norwich-based retailer of Indian objects, fabrics and clothes, as well as a museum of Indian applied art, plays a similar role to Kettle’s Yard. What? I hear you say. How can you compare a retailer to an art gallery? It’s very simple.

  • Both display in close proximity natural objects and created objects
  • Both show art created out of natural materials, that is as much about enjoying the material as the art created from it
  • Both have an arresting quality, teaching you to look at and to enjoy
  • Both create scenarios with arranged objects together, giving a satisfying and pleasurable sight
  • Both are happy to combine cheap, mass-produced objects with objects of considerable skill and rarity value.

  • Both are housed in an inspiring environment, reusing a space in an imaginative way. 

Country and Eastern is a model of how the art gallery shop should be. Instead of the art-going public buying feeble and inferior replicas of the art on display, at Country and Easter, you can buy the same vision – the same lovely colours, the same workmanship, the same art – and recreate it at home.

How could you fail to respond to such a rich array of lovely colours?  Just as Alfred Wallis can produce images as satisfying as those by an art-school trained painter, so can simple block prints of bright colours have as satisfying an effect as rich and elaborate (and highly skilled) metalwork.

And I can’t help feeling that buying things from Country and Eastern is far more likely to benefit local workers than anything on sale in the Fitzwilliam shop (or the Kettle’s Yard shop, for that matter).

Friday, 30 March 2018

Jim Ede: a twentieth-century Ruskin?

I don’t know if anyone has noticed the similarities between Jim Ede and John Ruskin. Both dedicated much of their wealth to disseminating a sense of beauty; both were crackpots, managing to inspire the reader and appal the reader, sometimes in equal doses. Both had an exquisite sense of the visual, combining both things created by humans and purely natural phenomena. For Ruskin, it was the Swiss mountain landscape; for Ede, it was natural substances such as a beach pebble or an old piece of wood.

Having just visited the expanded Kettle’s Yard, I find the challenge is to how to combine the inspiration and sense of wonder with muddle-headedness and overweening sense of rightness that often applies to people with the money to buy objects. It’s impossible to capture it in a single post, but here goes.

Incidentally, one thing I noticed is that apart from a cafĂ© and a revised position for the shop, nothing at Kettle’s Yard appears to have changed. Lots of things were added, I understand in basements and overhead, but nothing that can be seen by the visitor. This is architecture attempting to be invisible, and in this case it is very successful. It reminds me of the invisible extension to the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich.
Where did Ede get the money to buy, and to totally transform, the cottages that became Kettle’s Yard? There are only two clues in his A way of life: first, his father gave him some money to enable him to buy a house in Hampstead – the sale of this house would have generated lots of money. Secondly, Christopher Neve in Country Life notes that Ede made money by selling Gaudier-Brzeska works. Perhaps many years after the artist’s death Ede was able to make a lot of money selling several of the original works and replacing them in Kettle’s Yard by casts.
So what did I like, and what did I dislike, in Kettle’s Yard?

Ede has a genius for creating spaces. Since the most memorable aspect of the original Kettle’s Yard building is the two bay windows, and it turns out that Ede added them during the work of knocking three or four cottages together, it can be said the resulting space is Ede’s creation. He manages to preserve an artisan-like feel to the space without prettifying it too much. Of course, Kettle’s Yard is wildly popular today because the interiors of the original building correspond with current style for interior design – bare floors, stripped wood, irregular shapes. But he can’t be blamed for that.
Similarly, Ede has a genius for placing objects in apparently simple ways that create a very satisfying effect. Some pebbles, together with a small sculpture or dish, just look right. Typically he gathers objects together on a round table or cupboard top.

He uses and creates wonder from very simple shapes: round tables, spiral stairs, round bay windows.
He makes use of light in the original building to cast magical shadows on these objects. In the afternoon, when the visitor walks around the building, the light through the west-facing windows can be powerful and very evocative. Of course, this breaks a cardinal rule for art galleries not to have any direct light, and therefore no shadow. This is a building the celebrates shadows.
He uses found objects to create magical effects. The long tables with iron legs were actually beams holding up a workshop on the original site, that he repurposed.
So where does it all go wrong? The effect starts to jar as the visitor walks down the steps to the first extension, by Leslie Martin, opened 1970.

Now we are dealing with a completely new space. Unfortunately Martin has failed to appreciate the unplanned and lived-in feel of the original building; the new building has windows, rails, walls that are all too regular. It feels like a new building. It has lost, in a word, the intimacy of the original (even if the “original” was largely Ede’s creation). It does not feel domestic. Like most galleries, the space works in parts but not as a whole.
It’s at this point that the visitor starts to notice Ede’s fondness for art with words. There is a glass panel in one window with a quote from the Book of Job in the Old Testament. For Ede, all art is religious, and while I am happy for that to be a background theme of his, I notice that his descriptions of the art he chooses focuses on a religious interpretation, and a very single-minded interpretation at that.  He quotes Simone Weil approvingly: ““the beauty of the world is almost the only way by which we can allow God to penetrate us”, and for Ede, the beauty of the world is expressed by Kettle’s Yard, which he sees as a manifestation of God. For example, “If I had to find another name for God, I think it would be balance.”
It is questionable to discover that powerful and moving objects such as the wood sculpture “Gate” are described by Ede as “the Eternal Gate through which we must all pass”.  This was written by a man in his eighties, perhaps, but Ede is a man seeing religious symbolism in everything he looks at.
And even judged just by “rightness” of display, much of Kettle’s Yard is just wrong. 

The paintings in the attic, for example, are almost all hung on walls following the line of the roof, which makes them difficult if not impossible to see. Yet Ede claims one corner of this attic “becomes a piece of stillness … Be Still and know that I am God … I search always for this stillness”.  I see a cramped distorted space in the attic, and I don’t see stillness.
Similarly many of the objects in the Martin extension are beautiful, but I don’t think they gain from the space; they are beautiful despite the space. The Martin extension shows the Ede approach reduced to a formula: add a few non-matching chairs, add some corner cupboards, a small carpet or two, and some pebbles … but the objects are in the end defeated by the space, just as the Kettle’s Yard objects when displayed temporarily in the Fitzwilliam had lost so much of their magic. They felt out of place.
Finally, the exhibition space at Kettle’s Yard bears no resemblance whatever to the original building or even to the values that Ede promoted. He praised beauty above all, and the contemporary galleries are only very infrequently about beauty. They lack the serendipitous, the domestic scale, the juxtaposition of old and new, of created and found. So whatever magic Ede created is lost before the visitor has even left the gallery.
As for the latest (2018) extension, I didn’t even notice it! The gallery has been expanded, but the original house has been put back precisely as it was before, with not a pebble (or a lemon) out of place.  
Which leads to another, final question: should the house exist as a complete fossil?  One reason why the recent exhibition of Kettle’s Yard objects at the Hepworth in Wakefield exhibition was that it both was, yet was not, Kettle’s Yard. It took some aspects (such as a spiral staircase, and rush circular mats) and combined them with totally new objects to create something new but inspired by Ede. There’s a thought for the Kettle’s Yard curators.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Can a book depict an art gallery?

I’ve been in a fair few art galleries in my time, and Kettle’s Yard is one of the most individual. What makes it so different? And can that difference be communicated in a book? Since the art gallery has just reopened after a lengthy closure and enlargement, this is a good time to try to assess what makes it distinctive. Is it just an arrangement of objects, or is it something more mysterious, associated with  Kettle’s Yard itself, the building once lived in by Jim Ede? All these questions became more apparent when, during the gallery closure, some of the Kettle’s Yard collection went on tour around British galleries and could be seen in very different surroundings. A few pieces from the collection were on show in the Fitzwilliam. Parts of that building are very dour and soulless, and the few sad pieces on forlorn display, surrounded by dreary glass cabinets of porcelain, looked very sad indeed. You would have said there was something about the place, since the same works of art that had earlier inspired you now looked dusty and unimpressive.

A good starting point is Jim Ede’s own book, A Way of Life (or, as he presumably decided it was to appear on the cover of his book, A way of life).  Published in 1984, it is one of the worst designed books I have ever read. The text looks horrifically over-sized for the page. There are no page numbers. None of the pictures has a caption. There is an index of quotations, but no index to the book contents, or index to the photos. The book, perhaps like the collection itself, does not appear to have any organizing principle. The book ends with 12 pages of full-page photographs, that are announced at “an unexpected extra!”. They are interesting, but look to be just that: pictures that arrived after the book had been created. They are followed by a quotation from Antony and Cleopatra that appears to have zero relevance to anything that has come before in the book. In other words, the book is a hotchpotch - and unlike the gallery, a failed hotchpotch. 

What are the organizing principles behind Mr Ede? An attachment to 1920s art, a strong but rather vague religious sense  throughout, together with the oddest mixture of the profound with the trivial.  Captions written by Ede range from “I had forgotten about this unfortunate stain” to art criticism that leaves a lot to be desired: “This painting by Christopher Wood … even when almost black still has a magical quality. He gave it to me more than 50 years ago.” This text fails as a concerted discourse – I’m sure it was deliberate, but it is a maddening effect. It is the combination of mundane and formal that most people separate into different worlds before going public.

Perhaps that is the achievement of Kettle’s Yard – it manages to be a personal statement at the same time as being a collection of artefacts. Or is it simply a bag of tricks, that could be replicated anywhere? Let’s look at how Kettle’s Yard creates its effect (and how the Wakefield Hepworth gallery exhibition of Kettle's Yard content was able to replicate it):

  • Armchairs everywhere, very rarely matching. Armchairs, like sofas, invite you to sit down and relax. You don’t find armchairs in a standard art gallery. Armchairs suggest home – as furniture companies realised many years ago.
  • Everywhere there is a mixture of artworks and incidental, homely details. Fresh flowers appear next to carefully arranged groups of pebbles, next to formal works of art. 
  • Nothing appears to be hidden behind glass (although many of the paintings are behind glass)
  • The art is all on a scale that fits a private residence.
  • There are many spiral rush floor rugs. These suggest a domesticity, a rustic quality so powerfully that they even worked when Kettle’s Yard objects were shown in the brutalist reinforced concrete of the Wakefield Hepburn Gallery – what should have been the most unsympathetic environment for Kettle’s Yard objects.
  • The collection has the name of an owner, and the location is the owner's house. The owner has not just a first name but a colloquial, friendly name - not "Kenneth Clark" but "Jim Ede". I don't think Kenneth Clark's house would have looked like Kettle's Yard at all. 
  • The book shows many lighting effects – of course, these would only be visible at certain times of day, and perhaps not noticeable to the public visiting when the sun is high in the sky. Are the photos, in other words, suggesting an atmosphere not found in the house itself? 

So here’s the question: could you follow this formula in any art gallery, and transform the environment?  Given the frigidity of the Fitzwilliam Museum, it might be worth a try there, for a start. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Inventing the Individual: a perverse view of the last 2,000 years

You could say that Larry Siedentop is swimming against the tide. You notice it first of all in the jacket image for the UK hardback edition. He uses Van Eyck's The Goldsmith,  a portrait from 1436, which you or I might see as a perfect example of the newly invented "individual", a modern staring at us through the picture frame. But that's not how the book sees it. According to the author, individualism started with St Paul.

Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual gives the impression that it could have been written at any time in the last 50 years. His intellectual heroes are the little-known Fustel de Coulanges  (“religion was the sole factor in the evolution of ancient Greece and Rome, the bonding of family and state was the work of religion … ancient religion thus consisted of worship of divine ancestors through the paterfamilias”) and the unread Francois Guizot (only remembered as prime minister of France, not for his vast quantity of historical writing).  You could even interpret in the acknowledgements to Siedentop’s book a thanks the woman who typed the manuscript (he doesn’t actually say this, but she is thanked for ‘patience in the face of the successive revisions of the manuscript’).  Looks to me like the author has himself something of the paterfamilias.

This book is about how the individual became the organising social role in the West – no arguments about that. What is novel, at least novel for the 21st century, is that Siedentop claims this individualism started with St Paul. The author’s argument is that ancient religion was all about the family (“the religion of the Greek and Roman pre-history did not speak to the individual conscience. Rather, it spoke to and through the family.” In contrast, St Paul emphasised a  personal relationship with God: “the atmosphere of the New Testament is one of exhilarating detachment from the unthinking constraints of inherited social roles”.

In some way, which I chose not to examine in detail, this individual relationship became the dominant mode of the Church through successive medieval popes creating a centralized administrative system in the C12 and C13. This I fail to see. As a result, in Siedentop’s view, the Renaissance loses much of its importance (even though the one thing about the Renaissance that everyone will tell you is that it was the age that invented the individual). In fact, he argues perversely that “secularization depended on the idea of personal freedom”, which itself was a product of Christianity.

I can believe in “liberal secularism” as the dominant mode of thought in the West today, but it seems to me stretching things a bit to identify the origin of liberal secularism with St Paul. Not surprisingly, there is next to no mention of the Enlightenment in Siedentop’s book.  The idea of individual freedom and equality owing their origin to the despised and ridiculed Christianity would make Voltaire and Diderot turn in their grave (not of course that they would have complied with such a Christian tradition as burial).