Review: 'Edward Wadsworth: His Life and Art'

This new exhibition at the Cooper Gallery in Barnsley is certainly ambitious. Despite only featuring a relatively small number of works it attempts to tell the whole story of Edward Wadsworth as an artist. More, it seeks to position his paintings, woodcuts and drawings in their autobiographical, socio-political and art-historical contexts. It is pleasing to report that it largely succeeds in its aims.

 

The earliest piece on show is ‘Landscape’, a work in gouache and graphite on paper from 1913. Here, already, we can see the seeds of that dynamic, hard-edged style that was to grow to fruition in the coming years. In this piece the artist depicts a patch of woodland in a fairly recognisable, representational manner. There is no doubting the subject. However, this is nature not as a Romantic poet might see it or as an impressionist painter might capture it. Instead, it is nature reimagined and re-presented as a series of not-quite interlocking units. It is nature as a machine that doesn’t quite fit together and which might therefore always be threatening to collapse in upon itself. The work slices its subject into parallelogram tiles of green, yellow and purple in a style not that far away from cubism and which shows that Wadsworth was already being pulled towards the vortex of Vorticism that was just ahead.

 

This Vorticist period is represented by a number of brilliant and at times brilliantly cold feeling woodcuts. It is for perhaps for these radical works that Wadsworth will be remembered. They are certainly his most easily recognisable pieces. Let’s not forget that the artist was at the centre of this swirling movement in art and literature, was friends with Percy Wyndham Lewis, who he met through the Omega Group, and contributed to Blast.

 

In both ‘Abstract Composition’ from 1915 – whose very title gives us a clue as to what’s at stake here – and ‘View of a Town’ from c. 1918, one of the key tensions at work in vorticist art makes itself clearly felt. This is the tension between, on the one hand, the abstract and, on the other, the representational. Of course, this tension does not really begin here in this period; it certainly doesn’t end here. Nevertheless, these works display a particularly fascinating iteration of that opposition. Whilst ‘Abstract Composition’ is, ostensibly, just that, the image’s design is suggestive of certain things. For instance, the picture leads the eye downwards, as though we’re looking down a vorticist stairwell. At the same time, the ostensibly representational woodcut of the town is strangely de-contextualised and de-textured so that it actually loses some of its representational qualities. It tends towards the abstract. Are those houses we’re looking at? Are those gardens? Roofs? It is hard to say.

 

The industrial landscapes that Wadsworth produced in 1919, and which depict the Black Country, are indelibly haunted by the blackened and charred fields of the First World War. Much like those views produced by his peer and fellow student at The Slade, London, Paul Nash, Wadsworth presents vistas in which the very ground seems scarred.  Here, the tiled green trees of ‘Landscape’ have been obliterated. Chimneys have grown up in their stead, their billowing canopies of smoke and smog casting shadows on the ground below so thick that nothing can grow there.

 

These finely executed works are more than just historical records of the industrial-technological complex and its devastating effects on the countryside. In ‘Ladle Slag, Old Hill [2]’, for instance, Wadsworth draws objects that resemble ruined, tumble-down pyramids as though to suggest that what we’re dealing with is a landscape of broken mourning, or of lost connection with knowledge. In ‘Factories/View of Wednesbury II’ the slag takes on an eerie sea-like quality, so that it starts to resemble either mudflats or the sands revealed by a retreating tide, the wash on the paper giving the swirls just the right wet tone.

 

The later works show Wadsworth to have been a restless artist, even when depicting still life subjects. In ‘Fort St Nicholas’ from 1926 he presents a view that looks, to contemporary eyes, almost like fantasy art, or at least fantasy concept design work. Here, hatched cross-shading is combined with colour to suggest the right sun-baked, Mediterranean tone. However, despite this gesture the overall feel is still of a flattened out effect that emphases structure and shape over texture, so that the lines of the boards composing the huts in the foreground are the most detailed aspect of the work.

 

In a nice curatorial touch, the exhibition juxtaposes two works of similar subjects that in fact treat the material very differently and reveal the two ends of Wadsworth’s creative impulse. These works, both tempera on board, are ‘Slump/Low Tide’ from 1935 and ‘Honfleur, Entrance to Harbour’ from 1939. In the first of these scenes the artist describes boats at the water’s edge, a jetty and some other vessels in flattened out panels of colour that are again fairly devoid of any lived texture, of the grain of Being. In the second he portrays his harbour scene in a manner that is all texture, grainy and gritty. This is achieved through the use of pointillism.

 

We are encouraged by the curators’ notes to find in ‘Honfleur, Entrance to Harbour’ – and in particular it’s lack of any human subjects – something ‘foreboding’, something that seems to anticipate the coming war. I would disagree with this. For a start, hardly any of the works on display here feature human subjects. However, my main feeling on this stems from Wadsworth’s turn to a pointillist style which causes the image to resemble the works of Seurat, sure, but also those painted in the same style by Camille Pissarro in the 1880s. The ‘Honfleur’ painting can therefore be viewed as a curiously impressionist, or neo-impressionist work. In its choice of subject matter too – Honfleur harbour – the painting recalls the work of those nineteenth-century impressionists, who depicted nearby Trouville and the surrounding area in detail. To my eyes, it also recalls the landscape of Proust’s fictionalised Normandy.

 

So, if there is any sense of ‘foreboding’ here it is not in the absence of people but in the artistic decision to turn back to such ‘historic’ styles and subjects. (I recognise that this turn was not confined to this one picture.) For me, ‘Honfleur, Entrance to Harbour’ is a work of disillusion and sadness. It is even one of artistic, nostalgic melancholy. The contrast to the works produced around the outbreak of World War One, with their radical, forward-facing style couldn’t be sharper.

 

A number of things become apparent when surveying this exhibition. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is the broadening of Wadsworth’s colour palette. Apart from ‘Landscape’, the early works on show are all either monochromatic or muted in tone – perhaps the result of their being woodcuts. However, by the time we get to the last works here we are confronted, as we are in ‘Pendent’ (1942) and ‘Dahlia’ (1945), with Technicolor splashes of vibrant red and yellow. The second is the extent to which Wadsworth changed his approach to art over the years, although this shouldn’t surprise us given the length of time that he was productive. The work on display here suggests a refusal to settle into a pattern or to be confined by the rules of a ‘school’ which, despite being freeing when first proposed, can soon become restrictive when adhered to as a kind of artistic prescription.

 

 

The exhibition ‘Edward Wadsworth: His Life and Art’ runs at the Cooper Gallery, Barnsley from Saturday 14th September 2013 until Tuesday 24th December 2013.

 

For more information about the exhibition’s opening times see the Cooper Gallery website here.

For further information, see the Barnsley Museums website, here.

 

 

Related:

If you enjoyed reading this review you might like reading one of my old reviews – the one, written for the DigYorkshire website, of the ‘Love in A Cold Climate’ exhibition that was at S1 Artspace in Sheffield from March to May 2013. To read this old review, click here.

 

 

 

© James Holden 2013

Published Friday 27th September 2013