Frank Auerbach – a sketch

Frank Auerbach
Frank Auerbach – self-portrait

Frank Auerbach – a sketch

An artist sees
          and listens
and listening sees
          the unseen
and vision becomes speech
          and speech becomes
lines and strokes and swathes 
           of chalk and charcoal
delicately smudged
          with the tip of the finger
turning the darkness into light
          and listening all the time
to what is seen and
          seeing all the time
what is heard
          applying the alphabets
of sound and shape
          dividing the darkness
with fragments of light
          seizing the energies
of expression and posture
          driven by the instinctive
desire to uncover the truthness
          the emotional hardcore truth
that lies behind the mask
          of careless inattention
or superficial appraisal :
          more than in dialogue
with the subject
          the artist teases identity
out into the open
          with gentle interrogations
striving constantly to achieve
          an ultimate rendering
not an essence
          not a resumé
not a replica
          neither a duplicate
simply a completeness
          of visual presence
that stands and speaks
          for itself

John Lyons

The Frank Auerbach Exhibition at Tate Britain in Pimlico, runs until 13 March 2016. Unmissable.



Moon Head


Moon Head 1964 Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986 Presented by the artist 1978
Henry Moore, Moon Head, 1964



Today’s poem, written this morning, was inspired by the eponymous sculpture by Henry Moore, contemplated during a visit to Tate Britain in Pimlico last Sunday. This relatively small piece, dating from 1964 and cast in bronze, is one of Moore’s most intimate and expressive sculptures. Its eloquent, wordless beauty, like that of any true classic, is inexhaustible.


Moon Head

The face has phases
       that ebb and flow
with the tides of time
       the soft sensuous bronze
of your face
       illuminated at the eyes
and the mouth :
       the smoothness of your skin
the modest inclination
       of the head poised
on the erect neck

The face has phases
       of intimate conversation
is locked in endless
       dialogue and through
a series of discreet whispers
       conveys confidentially
the irreducible delicacies of love
       Tough love
with its wisdoms that will outlive
       the futility of day-to-day

Here is a honeyed kiss
       cast in bronze
here at the point
       where lip and face
and panting breath
       interlock tenderly
here where beauty lies in
       the arms of the beholder

John Lyons


Lucian Freud – Girl with a Kitten

Girl with a Kitten 1947 Lucian Freud 1922-2011 Bequeathed by Simon Sainsbury 2006, accessioned 2008
Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten (oil on canvas) 1947

Art is analysis and projection. Art is perspective and choices. Art is narrative. Art is conscious and unconscious. Lucian Freud, grandson of the pioneer of psychoanalysis, paints a portrait of his wife, Kathleen Garman entitled Girl with a Kitten. She herself is the daughter of an artist, Jacob Epstein. Freud plays on her name: she is Kitty, and so he poses her with a cat. She appears to be throttling the cat, but it is the artist writing the narrative and so he is the one choosing to throttle the cat, yet when we examine the painting closely there are details to suggest that the cat is a paragon and the wife may be the aggressor: compare the eyes, compare the perfection of the cat’s hair to the wilder hair of the wife, compare the colours, the deathly pale of the wife, the warmth of the cat. So who is who in this relationship? Who the innocent, who the guilty party?

The entire portrait is chilling, the palette is icy. This is not a flattering portrait and one wonders how the wife would have felt when she saw the finished product. She is not a wife in possession or in repose, and if there is sentiment, it is certainly not sentimental. The bland background and the softness of her blouse heighten the intensity of her glaring faraway eyes. Her knuckles are tense with adrenalin. This is a portrait of a tempestuous relationship between the woman and the cat (or between man and wife). But the narrative is unresolved, as in a dream or a nightmare. The elements are disturbing and that too is a function of art, to unsettle, to challenge, to undermine the conventions, to go against the grain, to stick it in the eyes and mind of the observer.

As with so many canvases, the wealth of detail has to be examined in person. A reproduction can never do justice to textures, so there really is no alternative to paying a visit to Tate Britain in Pimlico to see this masterpiece for yourself.

Lucian Freud, grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was born in Berlin in 1922 and came to Britain in 1933. In 1946–7 he travelled to Paris and Greece. On his return to London in February 1947, he began a relationship with Kitty Garman, the eldest daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein and the model and collector Kathleen Garman. The subsequent marriage between Freud and Kitty was short-lived – they wed in the spring of 1948 and divorced in 1952 after having two daughters. Girl with a Kitten is one of eight portraits that Freud made of his first wife.

Is a mind a prison?

Is a mind a prison, by Bob Law (1970)

Is a Mind a Prison 1970 Bob Law 1934-2004 Purchased 2006
Is a Mind a Prison, Bob Law (1970)

One of the most curious artworks on display at Tate Britain, is a two-dimensional sculpture by Bob Law (1934–2004) entitled “Is a mind a prison”. This piece is an obelisk-shaped tablet of lead, upon which some seemingly incoherent lines of poetry have been etched. The title of the work is a question, which in itself is unusual in the world of art: despite the fact that one of the fundamental aspects of art is the asking of questions, most paintings and sculptures have simple affirmative titles. Bob Law’s obelisk is also simple in form: it could represent a chapel, or perhaps even a spaceship, one of the notions clearly indicated in the poetic text. If we examine the geometrical shape of the lead tablet it is basically a rectangle topped by two equilateral triangles which suggest a roof structure. The words on the tablet are imprisoned within the space, just as the words in our minds are locked in. Cell within cell.

We are all on a journey, all travelling through space aboard planet earth, and in the course of our journey we will all be confronted with a series of adventures, highs and lows, as though the gods have taken offence and set out to make our homecoming as difficult as possible, just as they did for Odysseus in Homer’s poem.

Bob Law’s reference to redshift is to the cosmological effect caused by the expansion of the universe whereby light sources moving away from the observer are red in contrast to light sources that approach the observer which are blue. Expansion is process. Expansion within the space of our minds within cosmic space. Would you like to be the daddy longlegs, the kingpin, the big daddy on this trip at the end of which we will all be judged for our actions? And so on. . . .

Bob Law was known as one of the founding fathers of minimalism. However, this piece demonstrates that a minimalist technique can be highly expressive. Minimum of resources for maximum effect, Samuel Beckett might have written. Here the combination of sculpture and poetry challenges the observer to stop and to think about structures, about cells contained within cells and questions contained within questions, one art form contained within another.

On the afternoon that this piece caught my eye as I strolled through the beautiful, spacious, well-lit galleries of Tate Britain, and perhaps because of its location by a doorway, it reminded me very much of one of the Stations of the Cross that can be seen in so many churches. This in turn made me think that art galleries do, in fact, have a strong spiritual dimension, not so much because their spaces can replicate churches, but rather that underpinning the work of all the artists on display is the common link of spirituality, albeit manifest in disparate forms. Their work makes contemplatives of us, urging us to meditate on the nature of the human condition. What is it to be human, what is beauty, what in the world around us is worthy of note, what values best define the essence of human goodness, what content and what colours and shapes should be used to celebrate life even as we question its purpose?

All of which explains why the appreciation of art is so liberating and uplifting and why it is so important to incorporate it in the educational process for our young children. But it also has to be appreciated, where possible, in situ. So get down to Tate Britain in Pimlico as soon as you can and when you’re there, take your time, it’s all you have.

Carpet – Lubaina Himid

The African artist, Lubaina Himid was born in 1954 in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Her art focuses on themes of cultural history and reclaiming identities and she was one of the first artists involved in the Black Art movement in the 1980s.

Himid Carpet
Lubaina Himid, Carpet, (1992, acrylic on canvas)

Her own description of her 1992 painting, Carpet, draws out the composition’s allusion to patchwork and cloth, and the idea that cloth can bear the traces of the activities for which it is used:

Patterns, colours, cloth flapping, beating in the wind. Robes wrapped against the sun and the cold of the night. Fabric highly coloured, woven, sewn together. Umbrellas tents canopies flags banners. The patterns on the cloths hold the clues to events.

To me these words give it away. I have never been to African, but the African presence in many countries in Central and South America is unmistakable. Travelling on buses through those regions, one of the most common and striking sights was to see brightly coloured washing hung on lines or fences or even bushes to dry. What to the European eye would seem to be rather brash colours, in African cultures is simply a statement of the vitality and beauty of life. Africa is, after all, the bedrock of European culture and its influence on painting and music is too obvious and too fundamental to be ignored.

Think of Carpet as a statement of life and appreciate how the blocks are not symmetrical nor posed symmetrically on the canvas upon which the letters appear to dance, and you get the idea of a buzzing dance floor capturing thus the vibrant energy of African culture. Another way to look at it would be to see the canvas as shorthand representation of our DNA code. Homo sapiens, emerged from Africa, as we all know, and these are the genes represented on the canvas, the genes too of all the wonderful creativity that has spread throughout the world.

Don’t believe me? Well get down to Tate Britain and see for yourself.

Brown Eyes – George Clausen

Brown Eyes 1891 Sir George Clausen 1852-1944 Presented by C.N. Luxmoore 1929
George Clausen, Brown Eyes (1891) oil on canvas

One of the artists to catch my attention during my recent visit to Tate Britain was George Clausen (1852-1944), an English painter, who was born in London, and was the son of a decorative artist. He studied design in South Kensington from 1867 to 1873 and later went on to Paris to study under two rather traditional artists, William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Tony Robert-Fleury. Despite their conservative approach, Clausen would have learnt from them the importance of technical skills. However, while in Paris it was perhaps inevitable at the time that he would also come under the influence of the impressionists who completely rejected the academic style propounded by Clausen’s teachers.

George Clausen’s paintings concentrated on peasant figures and landscapes, though, as with the French impressionists, his real concern came to be the rendering of light in open air settings or in the shady shelter of a barn or stable. His portrait of a young peasant girl, entitled Brown Eyes, painted in oils on canvas in 1891, is an absolute delight. On the one hand it presents a perfect classical triangular composition, in which the girl’s white blouse dominates: however, the girl’s intense expression adds real depth and energy, and one wonders what has caught her attention as she looks out from the canvas over the shoulder of the observer. The field in the background provides a beautiful natural contrast, delicately captured with fine brushstrokes. So don’t delay, get down to Tate Britain and see for yourself the magic of this portrait, which is just one of the many treasures held in the permanent collection.

One final observation, although it is always well-attended, possibly because of its location in Pimlico, Tate Britain is not swamped by crowds in the way that other galleries can be. So if you’re looking for a leisurely, unstressed Sunday afternoon but want to appreciate some true artistic masterpieces, I can highly recommend the venue.

Jeremy Moon – Call that art?

Untitled [8/71] 1971 Jeremy Moon 1934-1973 Purchased 2006
Jeremy Moon Untitled [8/71] (1971) acrylic on canvas

When you walk into Tate Britain you are given a choice as to which rooms you visit. There are hundreds of representational paintings in which the subject of the composition is immediately obvious, a portrait or a landscape, for example, where the artist has attempted to render a likeness, pretty much like our ancestors sought to render the likeness of antelopes and bison and human figures carrying spears on the walls of the cave in Altamira.

So what on earth was Jeremy Moon trying to render when he produced “Untitled [8/71]”? The answer is simple. He was rendering a visual format we are all so familiar with: a grid. We’ve all seen grids a thousand times, probably see them everyday and we take them for granted. Timetables are laid out in grids, many gardens have trellises and if they are lucky will have English roses growing up the trellis making a wonderful combination of geometric and non-geometric forms. Chess boards and so many other board games are based around grids. So in a sense, even Moon’s non-representational paintings actually represent something. The fact that he does not title many of his works, however, indicates that he does not wish to give the observer any preconceptions over and above what is obvious in the paintings, no verbal stimulus that would in some way limit the observer’s perception.

But anyone could paint this, you might say. To which I would retort, “Okay, if you say so. Go ahead and try. And if you really think it’s child play, get a child to reproduce it.” The fact is that tremendous technical skill is required to produce a work such as “Untitled [8/71]”. Perhaps what is disconcerting is that the palette is very restricted, unlike a Cézanne or a Dutch master. The plastic arts can suffer from the same prejudices that affect classical music. If individuals are brought up on a lazy, limited diet to believe that all classical music has to sound like Beethoven, all opera like Verdi, then it can be difficult to appreciate the avant-garde composers. The problem here is not one of ignorance but of education. Real education is essentially about getting human beings to think and feel for themselves so that they trust their consciousness and their emotions. The patina of knowledge acquired in the educational process is just that, a patina: knowledge is not the same as thinking and feeling. Art is the expression of thought and feeling, consciousness applied to an expressive medium. What thoughts or feelings does a portrait, so well executed that it looks like a photograph, stimulate in the observer? Or, why did artists down the years stop painting antelopes or bison on their living room walls? Not that I’m knocking representational painting. If anything, what I find disturbing is how conventional schooling so often fails to provide young people with sufficient opportunity to explore the arts. Hobbyhorse again! “Get down,” says uncle Toby.

Born in 1934, Jeremy Moon was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1973. There is a website dedicated to his work where you can see many of his beautiful paintings However, my recommendation is, get along to Tate Britain in Pimlico as soon as you can and see the work in the original.