Jan 2010 Journal

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Art notes

At the age of 96, Elisabeth Tomalin, ‘A Searching Journey in Colours’ at Kentish Town Health Centre until 15 December, can reflect on an astonishing career. The Dresden-born refugee came to Britain in the 1930s and, as war with Germany edged nearer, she joined the Ministry of Information to design propaganda posters with Abram Games. She became a successful architectural and, later, textile designer.

She is also a pioneer of the art therapy movement and was invited to return to her native Germany to lecture to the guilt-burdened second generation. The now frail lady with the delicate face and penetrating eyes had lost family members but was prepared to help younger Germans resolve their inner conflicts.

Tomalin’s one-woman show of paintings and embroidery is a synthesis of these elements and is strongly Symbolist. Most of her embroidery was done within the last two years and suggests an astonishingly youthful energy. Despite its purity of line, it reflects an obsessive activity: trees, flowers, birds and bright colours circumnavigate the canvas as though the artist is constructing her own parallel universe. Her paintings are dominated by religious themes: christs, buddhas, sadhus, synagogues and crucifixes have an almost childish innocence, but there are horrific images too - a bound man on a church exchanging glances with an onlooker; flying birds and beasts, whose playful intensity recalls Chagall. It is Tomalin’s response to the turmoil of her century.

You could be forgiven for thinking J M W Turner a self-centred, competitive artist who just had to be greater than any of his contemporaries. A man who would sneak into the Royal Academy hours before the show to put the finishing touches to his own work, having glimpsed the competition. And you would be right. Tate Britain lays bare the artist’s insecurities in Turner and the Masters (until 31 January). But there are more compelling aspects to the man whose stormy seascapes and sunsets have captured the most ineffable colours in nature. Here is a young artist pitted against the acclaimed Academicians of his day, struggling with his own vision against the more literal observation of artists like Claude Lorrain, Titian, Poussin or Canaletto. This was a conservative era whose standards of grand art were strictly upheld by the Royal Academy. But Turner was increasingly drawn to naturalism and the growing influence of Dutch artists like Jacob van Ruisdael, Willem van de Velde, Aelbert Cuyp and, of course, Rembrandt. Turner’s earlier works often exceeded those he tried to emulate; with deceptively broad brushstrokes, his landscapes are more subtly rounded, blended and almost metaphysical. A sail buffeted by the storm bends and billows with the wind, and you can almost feel its fragility. We are watching an English Impressionist break out of the formalism of his time.
Turner is flawed, however. He cannot paint figures: they desecrate his landscapes. The exception might be his formal, if charmless, portrait of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, in The Merchant of Venice. Though an undisputed master of light, the light of Rembrandt puts him utterly in the shade.
 

Gloria Tessler

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