I neither have the time nor the income to traipse down to London to every exhibition I might want to see but I have been lucky to be able to peruse the massive and expensive tomes that pass for exhibition catalogues these days, for both Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art, at the British Museum, and Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 – 1900, at the Victorian and Albert.
There is, of course, plenty of Western erotic art around, some of it from the most unlikely figures. Turner and Lowry I believe indulged, if that is the right word, although I have not seen their efforts in this vein. What I am familiar with does not seem to have much to do with making love. It’s all about male lust often tinged with sadism. There are images on Greek pots and even Rembrandt has a couple of etchings of sex scenes, one of a monk rodgering a girl in a cornfield. Some of Picasso’s erotic images show women alone displaying themselves. Where the other sex is involved, and not in the forms of centaurs, satyrs or minotaurs, they display the same lustful characteristics. The many sculptor and model images suggest that the artist has leapt on his model as Rodin was reputed to do.
The Japanese shunga works are quite different. In the main, they show couples enjoying sex together. Women (I hesitate to write feminists for some are against penetration altogether) should approve, as there is great emphasis on female pleasure. Given the giant scale of the sexual organs of both sexes, there is no disguising the fact of male arousal but the curled toes of the women show an equal involvement. In one print, her furrowed brow, indicated with masterful economy by a tiny line, shows the intensity of the woman’s orgasm.
That said, the majority of images in this huge selection are not great works of art. They are inevitably very repetitious. I was pleased to find that I have a selection of the very best of them by Utamaro, Shuncho and Kuniyoshi in a Thames and Hudson paperback that originally cost £2-50. One of the finest by Utamaro is not explicit at all. It shows a couple lying on a balcony gently touching each other’s face and neck. All that is exposed from under the loose and beautifully patterned fabrics is a glimpse of the woman’s thigh and slender buttocks.
In the exhibition of Chinese painting at the Victorian and Albert Museum the very lengthy scroll Prosperous Suzhou is the work I would have most liked to have seen. The reproduction in its entirety is too small to make anything of. Leafing through the catalogue, I noted that the first reproduced detail could have been of the restaurant where a group of us ate on a visit to the city this year, but a fuller image later shows the city much changed. The scroll seems to have been made in imitation of the famous Riverside Scene in the Forbidden City, Beijing, painted about four hundred earlier later in the thirteenth century, which I have seen.
While in Suzhou, I visited the New Suzhou Museum designed by I. M. Pei of Louvre pyramid fame. He has a family connection with the city. There I saw an exhibition by a modern Chinese painter He Xi who works in ink and wash on quite a large scale and not in scroll form. His imagery includes fish, insects, plants, animal skins. His achievement is to bring forward the Chinese classical style in the most successful manner that I have come across. I have written before of a contemporary art cliché consisting of a sequence of identically framed variations usually with minimal content. In contrast to these dull works, He Xi has produced an intriguing version where landscapes in the styles of classical masters are contained in glass bottles of different shapes in a bonsai tribute to them. This was only one small part of a wonderful exhibition. I would have loved to take away a well-illustrated catalogue but none was available.
One is always wary about passing opinions on work one has not actually seen. For this reason, had I been in London, I would certainly have gone to see the murals from the Burghclere Chapel that are being exhibited at Somerset House while the chapel is being restored. Some regard these as Spencer’s masterpiece. I disagree. Much of Spencer’s work, for me, is flawed by awkwardness and arbitrary distortion and some of these defects seem to be prominent in this memorial work based on the artist’s Great War experience. The curved tops to some of the panels have led to unsatisfactory compositions. But what makes the total effect very ugly in every photograph I have seen is the white bands, broader than the faces of the largest figures that divide the paintings. If these were easel paintings, you would say that they were atrociously framed. Spencer must bear some responsibility. I have read that the scheme was closely based on a drawing of his. Apparently, he was inspired by Giotto’s murals in the Arena Chapel, Padua. But the dividing elements there are covered in geometric patterns, which make them blend in.
Surely, Spencer’s greatest work is the sequence of paintings he produced of the dockyards at Port Glasgow, as an official war artist during the Second World War. They are now in the Imperial War Museum but I was lucky to see them in an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh in 2000. The very long, unusually-shaped panels, each dedicated to a particular shipbuilder's craft, welding, riveting, plumbing etc., form tunnels of activity. Everything is lit by the glow of furnaces and welding torches forming harmonies of pinks, oranges and browns with contrasting notes of metallic blues. The figures are not stultified as they might have been if each was based on posed models yet there is not that wilful distortion that can mar some of Spencer’s other work. The actual paint handling is rather beautiful.
Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was a contemporary of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Duchamp famously said to Leger and Brancusi, after looking at an aeroplane propeller, ‘Painting is dead.’ His masterpiece the Large Glass uses pictorially, engineering technology, the chocolate grinder and the water mill, that would have been known to Leonardo, perhaps even to the Greeks. Spencer, the eccentric English painter, whose main inspiration was early Renaissance masters, completed his greatest work from imagery drawn from the cutting edge technology of his day.