Strange, I suppose, to be writing a review of an exhibition just as it's closing, but I left my visit to the Ravilious exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery pretty late. There is no real point therefore in me urging you to go,but I'm inclined to do so because this exhibition is an absolute stunner. All my hopes, all those anticipations, for it were amply met.
As I talked about obliquely in my first post about King's Lynn there is always a risk of disappointment when you see, or meet something or somebody who has occupied such a special place in one's mental life, in one's imagination for so long; and the work of Eric Ravilious (1903 - 1942) has occupied such a position for a long time ever since, as a teenager, I came across an article about him in 'House and Gardens'. That was in the early/mid eighties. I still have that article. This was however my first encounter with the real thing, and it was, at times, an emotional, even overwhelming, experience. That was partly due to the number of visitors, and the number of actual work on display. The four smallish rooms were crammed with both. But mainly it was the sight of these large and beautiful paintings in all their subtle, muted intensity. Although there were examples of his wood-engravings and lithographs the exhibition overwhelmingly, and rightly, concentrated on his watercolours which were produced between c1930 and his death off the coast of Iceland twelve years later; twelve years of a quiet and growing mastery of technique. Learning from the 18th century British masters of watercolour such as Cotman, Ravilious produced work that is highly organised, thought through; there appears to be little of the spontaneity we associate with, say, the work of his contemporary John Piper. However don't let that put you off from searching out Ravilious's work for yourself. His work is not strained, but it does have a haunted, slightly uneasy melancholy quality, which is partly down to his choice of subject. His method of working establishes a distance between the viewer and the subject. There is a delicacy and transience to them that I find hard to grasp let alone define
When I started this blog it was merely a way of publicizing my writing, particularly my novel 'Chameleon', however over time it has grown in directions I hadn't envisaged. One of the themes that has emerged is that of the everyday. the mundane and the over looked whether it is a street in a Suffolk village, a parish church, or the carved street signs in Bath. And it is that in Ravilious's work that both resonates with, and informs, my taste.
As I write these words I am reminded (perhaps oddly) of the architectural drawings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh I saw in the eponymous RIBA exhibition this summer; there is the same interest in light - at times it appears that Ravilious paints with light (I was upbraided at college for doing that. My tutor said I was too young (!) to do that. A curious and deflating, disabling statement. He had probably never seen a Ravilious) - and both are drawn to the idea of the North; an idea we also find in the work of Ravilious's literary contemporaries W H Auden and J R R Tokien. It was Tolkien who, I think, came up with that haunting phrase: 'the Nameless North'. Perhaps, it can be argued, that the Picturesque (and Romantic) tradition in which both men stand is a rejection of the 'South'.
Like Mackintosh Ravilious too is essentially a linear artist in that he is inclined to think in line, rather than mass. The technical problem resulting from that thought pattern - how therefore to represent mass - he answers with the use of cross-hatching, analogous in technique to that of his wood engravings. This allows Ravilious the necessary illusion of the 3 dimensions, but also to build up rich colour and texture (where needed). On the whole, though, Ravilious's colours are muted, subdued. He also uses wax resist, and scracthing out, to let in the light. A pencil is used not only to outline forms but to help describe shadow. (His pencil shading is actually quite loose.) In a sense Ravilious is a pattern maker, and he is both drawn to it as a subject (his love for the mundane and the domestic) and to its utility as a way of describing volume and mass whether it is the wallpaper of a farmhouse bedroom or the seat of a third class railway carriage. It is unsurprising therefore that Ravilious also designed things himself, including patterned papers.
Ravilious has been slowly gaining in popularity over recent years, and I'm tempted to say that in these politically uncertain days his art, which is perceived as very English (in its understatement) and nostalgic, answers a need in the viewing public. However I don't think that is the whole truth, or even some of it - I'm not somebody who believes in the 'zeitgeist'. The work of Ravilious talks to us in a quiet voice, using very often the mundane, the commonplace, the everyday, of things that in fact quite profound. And I'm certain that his subject matter is a deliberate choice; his choice of subject is not immaterial as in, say, the work of Roger Fry. His work, including that produced as an official War Artist is rooted in the everyday, the uneventful. The human figure is largely absent. And it is in that rootedness in the undramatic, the common experience of us; which in its particularity is related to the Romantic tradition of British Art and he perhaps picked up from Paul Nash, who was his tutor briefly at the RCA which also partly explains his current popularity. However, by painting them, and thereby changing them, Ravilious has endued them with a power that is emblematic and imaginal.