Sunday, 28 September 2014

"Into the sweet morning fog" - Turner, Kate Bush and Mary Anne Aytoun Ellis

I have just returned from my first visit to China, about which I will be writing over at the Royal Pavilion blog soon. I spent the day before my departure in London, where I visited two exhibitions and saw Kate Bush in concert (yes, I managed to book tickets in those twenty minutes it took for them to sell out). By coincidence water was the dominant theme running through the day.

Turner: Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth c.1842
Tate Britain's Late Turner - Painting Set Free brought many of Turner's near-abstract, breathless, centrifugal works together, and his Snowstorm once again punched me in the stomach. Is this the perfect sublime sea picture? Water, ice and snow in destructive yet utterly beautiful, moving form. I have an 1840s engraving of it at home - a pale copy, but still effective.  Another highlight for me was to see his two "Goethean" colour theory canvases together, Shade and Darkness - The Evening of the Deluge, and Light and Darkness (Goethe's Theory) - The Morning After the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis. It seemed fitting to contemplate these two pictures shortly after having received my PhD. They marked the beginning of my research into colour six years ago. Interestingly the curator suggested in the label text that Turner may have alluded not just to the biblical Moses in the title but also to the British eighteenth century colour theorist Moses Harris.

From a blockbuster exhibition to the opening of a small but magical exhibition of paintings that was almost entirely devoted to water: Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis's 'Place and Memory' at the Portland Gallery.

Dewpond, Egg tempera on paper, mounted on panel

I recently visited Aytoun Ellis's studio in Lewes, with a view to contributing in some form to the project Springlines, a collaboration between Aytoun Ellis and the poet Clare Best, a friend of mine. Together they have been exploring hidden and mysterious bodies of water across the South Country of England, such as furnace ponds, dew ponds, old clay pits and ancient wells, "mapping and illustrating the psychogeography of water in Sussex".

In Mary Anne Aytoun Ellis's studio,
Whereto a Spirit Clings on the easel
I like visiting artists' studios, as it gives me an opportunity to see the raw materials of their art, find out which pigments they use and how they work, in the hope of getting closer to the substance of art. There is also an element of voyeurism to this, of course. In Aytoun Ellis's studio I revelled in the multi-layered complexity of her paintings, their slow development, the apparent cruelty with which she scrapes off large areas of paint, adds another layer, more detail, then erases and reworks her watery images again. I looked at the works in progress, paintings like palimpsests, and wondered whether she ever considers her paintings finished, or whether they reach an imposed state of finish only because eventually they need to be framed, displayed and sold.

Some of Aytoun Ellis's pigments. 

In any case, the fluidity of materials and the artist's technique suit the dominant subjects of her work: water in many shapes and forms, meadows, hills, trees, hedges, undergrowth, all in glorious realistic detail, yet often under a veil of mist or blue moonlight, the imagery only occasionally punctuated by birds, sheep, deer or a steaming horse. In the studio the paintings appear organic, evolving, as if growing out of the walls and floor. In a gallery space they assume a strong and uncompromising air, encapsulated perfectly by the astonishing Caballus. The exhibition at the Portland Gallery is only on until 3 October, so if you find yourself in London in the next few days, perhaps in search of Turner, drop into the Portland as well, for a rare opportunity to see Aytoun Ellis's work.

‘Place and Memory’
at Portland Gallery, 8 Bennet Street, London SW1A 1RP
18 September – 3 October 2014

From there I went with my golden ticket to see Kate Bush's theatrical performance Before the Dawn at the Hammersmith Apollo. Much, perhaps too much, has been written about it, so I will refrain from adding to all the well-deserved praise. There was much water imagery in the style of Turner and Aytoun Ellis, from ferocious storms, shipwrecks and souls lost at sea to frozen rivers, fog, and a painter working en plein air, with rain turning his canvas into something unpredictable and new. The entire The Ninth Wave performed as a stage show - need I say more? I was transported back to my angst-ridden, intense late teens by Ms Bush, in an entirely good way. Under Ice (from The Ninth Wave) has for me always conjured up memories of the flood plains of the Rhine near Düsseldorf freezing over, providing a rare opportunity to skate for miles through winter trees. On this occasion though I couldn't help thinking of Aytoun Ellis's Frozen Water, and what a perfect visual equivalent it was to Bush's eerie piece.

Frozen Water, Pencil and egg tempera on paper mounted on gessoed panel
And by complete coincidence, both artists used a single feather in their iconography, Bush on the curtain during the interval, Aytoun Ellis in a small format painting, both almost tangible, painted in painstaking and sensual detail:

Taking photographs was not allowed during the performance, so a picture of the rather beautiful ticket artwork will have to do, featuring colourful entangled sea creatures.

Even the confetti shot from canons before the interval continued the water theme, with blotchy hand-written lines from Tennyson's The Coming of Arthur (from Idylls of the King) printed on the paper:

Poetic trophy confetti from Before the Dawn. I will not sell this on Ebay.
After all this walking on water I was ready for a trip to desert plains in north-western China the following day, of which more later. But during the 11-hour flight I could not stop humming Hello Earth and thinking of water.