Thursday, 27 September 2012

Research Point: Eric Ravilious

Eric Ravilious 

Eric Ravilious (1903 - 1942), was an artist, designer, illustrator and wood engraver. I was asked to find out more about the artist and his techniques as part of the project 'Making Marks'. In the example of his work shown in the folder the artist had used a sharp implement to scrape into the paint to give the effect of grass. I approached this by first looking for images of this artist's work online. I found many landscapes, scenes from the interior of houses and war scenes painted in watercolours. There were also lithograph and wood engraving illustrations as well as Wedgewood pottery designs.

I must admit that when I first looked at the landscape and empty interiors (without people) they left  me cold. The artist has used subdued and muted colours to describe the landscape. Because of the limited tonal range they look a bit flat and the van in the landscape and the clutter in the bedroom have a naive 'toy-townish' quality. 
However, on looking more closely I could see the variety of marks he has managed to make using watercolour paints. There are lots of hatching marks and striations here, something I would associate more with pen and ink than the medium used. The artist has scraped the paint about and left stripes and patches of blank paper. There's no splashy wet-into-wet work here it's all quite dry and scratchy.

Link to HMS Glorious in the Arctic

The images are also stylised, and the naive quality is probably deliberate . It doesn't appear that Ravilious was looking to create a realistic landscape but to break it up into simple shapes. This is particularly evident in the image of HMS Glorious in the Arctic where the reflection of the sun on the sea creates a strong geometric zig-zag.

Link To Barrage Balloons Outside a British Port

It is also striking that even in his war paintings this style on the aeroplanes and barrage balloons make them seem child-like and therefore not threatening. There is no sense of danger or suffering apparent in Ravilious's recordings of the second world war.

I read a bit more  about the artist in order to try to place these images in context. I got some idea of where Ravilious's landscapes originate from when reading Frances Spalding's book 'British Art Since 1900' (World of Art- Thames and Hudson 1986) - this is quite an old text which I picked up a cheap second hand copy of - it was nevertheless an interesting read. In Chapter 3 'Painting and Printmaking in the 1920s' Spalding says of France and England:
'In the aftermath of war both countries underwent social and economic reorganisation..... Artists in both countries felt a need for a return to order. ......Because there was a widespread return to traditional subjects, this post war period is often regarded as reactionary. But it was also a period of great diversity, producing in some instances, a richly imaginative art, inventive and original . It also saw a revival of the British landscape tradition, its sense of place now made poignantly fragile by the more rootless nature of twentieth-century life'

Eric Ravilious and his friend Edward Bawden were part of this landscape revival and both used unusual handling of watercolour paint:

'Both Ravilious and Bawden allowed their experience of wood engraving to direct their handling of watercolour. Often the brush drives its way over the white paper creating striated patterns much like those found in wood engraving. In Ravilious's watercolours angular recession often enhances their tautness. He strains conventions, introducing to landscape painting an understated melancholy. His scenes are usually lit by a chill winter light; even when the sun does appear, it does not warm the scene . This use of light gives to his pictures a severe beauty, a detachment that excludes not only the viewer but also the artist, and which allows for a predominantly mental grasp of the landscape'

Link to Wood Cut Print of Garden Tea Table 1936

You can clearly see the similarity of the striations on the woodcut above and the marks on the watercolour landscapes.

But what about the war scenes. Why do they seem so 'jolly'? Part of this may come from the personality of the man himself. He was apparently a generally very cheerful man. Paul Laity, writing a book review in The Guardian on 30.4.11. describes him as' the very opposite of a tortured artist.' 
and clearly his relentless cheerfulness comes across in his designs. 
However, it was not just the man's personality but also the prevailing attitude around the second world war which may have influenced his output.  As Spalding Says:
' The horror and pity of war were now too familiar to make necessary the savage anti-heroic message seen in some of the first world War paintings. Most artists regarded the 1939-1945 war as a fact and necessity, not a political crusade. Like the poetry of this period, the mood was low key, the stance not one of protest but passive and celebratory. The war was to be accepted, endured and observed'.
The War Artists' Advisory Committee gave artists full time salaries to 'record the war' so effectively many of the artists around that time were part of the 'propaganda machine' and this might help to explain these cheerful images which go along with the 'keep calm and carry on' message from the government. If you compare Ravilious's work with the Paul Nash's work from WWI (Ravilious studied under Paul Nash) you will see that the latter's work is much darker and also more stylised.

Link to Paul Nash: We Are Making a New World

Link to Paul Nash: Wire 1918

From my 21st century perspective as someone who in common with many is fed up and exasperated with the 'War on Terror' I find I am much more drawn to the paintings created by Nash and his sarcastic tone in the title of the first image. I can also see why, confronted by such images a person might be tempted to go out and paint the beautiful British countryside.
This was an interesting exercise for me. If I had not been asked to look at this artist I doubt if I would have found his work or looked at it closely independently. It has helped me to see that you do not have to immediately like a piece of work to learn something from it and also that placing the work in the context of history can help to explain why the artist worked in the way that they did.

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