Dick French: On The Town – March 2017

Now my wedge is worn down to a nubbin so I’m trying to scratch a few dibs out of this art world. I’d done a few beauty panels and I’m punting them round town when I meet this dame in Covent Garden. I’ve known her a year or so and now she’s working the spigot in this bar on Long Acre. Now this is a classy trap, inhabited by the better class of West End rum pots. This Judy is Class A and she dresses in a manner that suggests she’s not afraid of catching cold. I like the way she always lets her bra strap hang down. She’s from that Hungary, where I hear you can commit all manner of depravity in the street without attracting attention. This must be dispiriting for them as likes an audience. I had a nightmare once when I had that Joan Collins over a bar stool of a Friday night in the French and nobody was taking any notice. During the season she’s always glued to the rugby on the tele so I enquire into this situation and she says to me like this: ‘It’s not the rugby Dick, it’s the men.’ And then she pulls me close and whispers in my shell-like, and I reply to her like this: (but this confidential riposte comes out a bit louder than intended, causing no small amusement and then some among the rum pots.)

‘A week off work to recover? I don’t believe it. The team maybe!’

By and by comes Oat Willie. Now this is a curious character and carries a little sack of oats over his left shoulder at hip height. He alternates fistfuls of beer on the right with fistfuls of oats on the left. He’s fond of talking about his practice so much that many of the rum pots consider him to be no great asset to the community and give him the back of their necks. He’s fond of the bogey weed and I personally consider him to be higher than a cat’s back, which is no great commendation. By and by he shuffles off down the bar to gaze at Zoë, for such is the pancake’s name. He even offers her a dip in his little sack but she declines, it being a bit sweaty after a couple of pints. He associates with such low-lifes as John the Stud and Dave the Reptile who really have no business in a high class art blat.

Dirty Harry sends me a free hack ticket to that Royal Academy to have a glaum at this show of Russian Revolutionary art. So I’m sitting on the No 14 bus admiring the great relief along the front of the Gaumont cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue. It takes you from medieval times to the Charleston and apart from the Parthenon it’s one of the greatest friezes I’ve ever seen. A traffic jam is not always such a bad thing.

At the Academy they’ve draped the balustrades in red swags and put in a beautiful new crimson stair carpet at the entrances so it’s a bit disappointing when you get inside. It’s not that the pictures are particularly bad, although few of them appeal to me, but most share that “cellar-stored” look common to many early 20th century paintings; cracked, yellowed and dingy. A few things I liked. A painting by Isaak Brodsky which reminded me a bit of George Bellows’s shock worker, a figure stripped to the waist standing on a crane jib. Like Bellows but without the enjoyment in the paint, which is a characteristic of most of these artists. None of them relished the medium. Maybe they couldn’t afford to.

Israel Lizak is an exception with his painting Walk. It reminded me a bit of Gorky and is an abstraction of an elegant woman in a hat from ’28. And then there’s Vladimir Tatlin who you could say has pride of place with his large model of The Worker’s Flying Bicycle. It never flew but it’s a great idea. And there’s rather a beautiful small photo of the profile of poet Anna Akhmatova by Moisei Nappelbaum (see illustration). She was denounced by the Bolsheviks as ‘half-harlot half -nun’. “Her tormented mouth through which 100,000,000 people scream.” There’s a woman down our street like that.

On the way out a woman who was clearly upset was saying how sad it had all made her feel. And I had to agree. Apart from all the ghastly goings-on I can’t stand pictures of peasants.

Up the Burlington Arcade the Fountain Pen Shop has closed down. Some of them cost many hundreds of pounds but were rather beautiful. On Berwick Street the blood oranges have just arrived and the daffodils have come out in the French pub.

Sent on a mission on your behalf I failed miserably. It had been suggested I look at the David Hockney retrospective, an unpleasant job but someone’s got to do it. The queue was such, hundreds of them, that I lost all enthusiasm. Even after buying a ticket – twenty quid! – you have to wait around for an hour before they let you in.

I decided to look at the Paul Nash show instead. A wise decision. The first room is called Dreaming Trees. They look like etchings but are mostly pen and ink. The catalogue describes them as ‘Symbolist’, but I disagree. Trees, hills, landscapes and a few ghostly figures which take time to emerge. They convey a sense of mystery which is not transcendent but embedded in the nature of all things themselves. There’s no need to look for anything else, ‘things’ are sufficient for those with eyes to see. Then came the war and a remarkable transformation. He started to work in oil and to make the pictures for which he is most famous.

“There are men who want the war to last forever. Feeble and inarticulate may be my message. But it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls” 1917

Starburst shell over the Ypres Salient at night … blacks and various shades of viridian, the light from the starburst picking out the troops helmets as they go slightly downhill on the duckboards. In the same room are The Menin Road and We Are Making a New World, the paintings for which he is most acclaimed.

After the war he turned again to landscapes with rather mysterious qualities but without the intensity of his pre-war work. In the ’20s he went to live in Rye and got to know the 20-year-old Edward Burra – Nash was 35. Burra disliked Nash’s wife Margaret, who was much involved in folk music and morris dancing.

“Such fun. We do Widdy Come Toddy, Parson’s Fuddle and Fuck a Chickabiddy and Flummox a Bubby Nit in the Navel. And also Maiden Heads Bung-Ho.” (Burra’s letters)

Nash himself was quietly appalled by how his wife carried on. Burra considered that Nash couldn’t draw but although his figures were rather weak it didn’t really matter in his best work. Then in the ’30s he became committed to the idea of International Modernism which is strange considering how idiosyncratic his work had been. He liked the idea of a life force within inanimate objects and put together arrangements which nowadays look like very ordinary art school exercises. Later on in the ’30s he got involved with the Surrealists.

There’s an interesting film of him during the Second World War working in the scrapyard of German bombers at Cowley in Oxford, the drawings and photographs of which led to his famous picture Totes Meer of 1940. The chalkiness of a lot of his pictures, which I’ve always considered one of his drawback, didn’t really bother me, until the very late things of wheeling sunflowers which are supposed to be symbolic of death. He died in 1946.

Dick French
The Jackdaw Mar/April 2017