The black sheep of the contemporary arts family is commonly supposed to be beauty, but if you are truly determined to be erased from the Blackberries of your creative friends and relatives you should try putting in a good word for charm. The drama-free, accessible beauty of small gestures and quiet moments, charm is simply too nice, an embarrassment best left to historians of the eighteenth century and the home styling pages of middlebrow newspapers. True art is not supposed to be comfortable or easy to live with – it should challenge! address! engage! – and the vital processes of discourse and narrative are expected to convince by argument and assertion, not rely upon the suspect crutches of easy sociability and gentle persuasion.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh. La Rue du Soleil, Port Vendres 1926
From the Hunterian Art Gallery
Charm has an obvious and close relationship with kitsch, and the art world’s wholesale embrace of the lowborn and tacky might make the rejection of charm seem like an inconsistency. The difference however is real, and is at base a distinction of class: charm is the kitsch of the chattering classes. Celebrating authentic kitsch is a way of elevating the decoration of unexamined lives, and it allows the artist as anthropologist to gather credits for revealing overlooked truths. Works with a self-aware artistic charm however, are already recognised for their explicit art value – canonised even – and are found, not in obscurity, but framed in reproduction over a thousand sofas. They present an artist or critic with nothing to do except admit to having joined the consumerist mainstream. There is a certain macho element to the rejection of charm, but also a combination of aristocratic yearning for singular art objects and the playground desire to be part of the exclusive cool set. All of which leaves these works dangling, acknowledged perhaps as icons, but so ubiquitously appreciated as to be irrelevant.
However, an appreciation of charm can be much more than a milquetoast taste for girls on swings or a way of taking refuge in a tidy list of uncontroversial art talking points. Charm has a serious and deep-seated link with aesthetics, particularly with the Gesamtkunstwerk idea that your life and the environments you create about yourself should represent a holistic approach to making and enjoying art. As a refusal to be seduced by melodrama and the lure of the exceptional, charm crops up regularly in the ebb and flow of contemplative and expressive forms of art. From Sung scholar poets to Gilpin’s picturesque and the eighteenth century cult of sensibility, charm is always there, and at its best it proceeds well beyond its caricature of a sincere prettiness to an informed appreciation of subtlety and nuance.
Eric Ravilious Chalk Paths 1935
In my personal work I find myself returning to the subject of charm repeatedly. Partly because my obsession with pattern and form leads naturally to the applied arts and the makers of designer consumables; partly because my concentration on plants and agrarian landscapes has me sharing subject matter with the unpretentious, undemanding home decoration market; but mostly – at least at the conscious level – because many of the works I group under the heading of charm have an explicit concern with the interaction between the past and the present. This last point is my own yardstick, used to separate the kitsch sheep from the art goats: the harder an artist works to eliminate the marks of the present, or to squeeze their work into a preconceived notion of how the world ought to look, the less interest I have in their work. My favourites have what Kitty Hauser in her book “Shadow Sites” calls an archaeological imagination:
“The difference between a preservationist and an archaeological sensibility is often one of emphasis: while preservationists tend to mourn the disappearance of a historic landscape, campaigning for its conservation, the archaeological imagination perceives the presence of the past in a landscape despite the incursions of modernity. To preservationists, modernity tends to be an irremovable barrier in the way of aesthetic pleasure, whereas to those who see the landscape archeologically, it is a barrier that can be seen through, over, or round: the past may no longer be so evident in the modern landscape, but its increasing invisibility does not make it sensuously unrecoverable.”
John Nash The Flooded Meadow
Hauser’s book concentrates on the last great serious-minded generation of British artists, working before Pop and post-modernism doomed them and their concerns to a tragically irrelevant uncoolness. In my own youth this school was both everywhere and nowhere: everywhere in the form of superseded design elements on coronation mugs, illustrations for children, and the covers of unloved secondhand books; nowhere when it came to arts reporting or discussions of contemporary activity. To my regret, I have only recently started to try and visit the shrines of the movement like Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, or Coventry and Liverpool Metropolitan cathedrals, and at least part of the reason has been a personal version of the gut prejudice against the perceived triviality of charming art.
It is ironic then that I find my own visual explorations of the land around me leading me to a close affinity with an art movement I have always respected, but have rather taken for granted, and never really loved. In particular, the landscapes of Eric Ravilious and John and Paul Nash now have a force and relevance that surprises me given my prior neglect. Perhaps it is just a question of growing up.
Paul Nash The Orchard c.1914
What I have always loved is the line-strong, semi-abstract feel of prints, etchings and engravings, and the tones and overall look of watercolour paintings, so it is possible that gravitating to the English New Romantics was inevitable. Paul Nash in manifesto mood describes this preference as typically English:
“English art has always shown particular tendencies which recur throughout its history. A pronounced linear method in design, no doubt traceable to sources in Celtic ornament, or to a predilection for the Gothic idiom. A peculiar bright delicacy in the choice of colours – somewhat cold but radiant and sharp in key. A concentration, too, in the practice of portraiture; as though everything must be a likeness rather than an equivalent; not only eligible persons and parts of the countryside, but the very dew, the light, the wind as it passed.”
I see a similar approach in the graphic arts of many of the early C20th European folk-romantic movements, as well as in much Chinese and Japanese painting, so I am not convinced that in my work I am merely reproducing an inherited English aesthetic. What is clear is that Nash’s comments are directly applicable to my photography.
Paul Nash The white horse at Uffington
Paul Nash Boat, Atlantic
Both photographs are from “A Private World“, a portfolio assembled by John Piper from Nash’s negatives after his death. Available online as part of the UK government collections, or reprinted and for sale at Abbot and Holder.
Nash himself took many photographs and regarded at least some of his photographic work as on an artistic par with his paintings and watercolours. This excites me, not because I want to join in the usual supine photographic joy when an acknowledged artist condescends to treat photographs with respect, but because what I find most attractive about the formal aspects of this school of art turns out to be largely a matter of seeing. Painters are usually described as having the freedom to put anything into their work they care to imagine, and it becomes easy to console myself that their paintings are more interesting than my photographs because they are not constrained by the particularity of an actual place and time. That Nash’s photographs have so much in common with the composition and design of his paintings entirely negates this, both as an excuse and as a discouragement.
It is no secret that I am fascinated by how the past lives on in the landscape, both as physical forms, and in the unquestioned mental attitudes associated with tradition and habit. My desire to acknowledge and recognise the past is tempered by an intrinsic suspicion of the consumerist heritage industry, and it is a relief and a pleasure to have finally woken up to the existence of an artistic movement with similar concerns. I already see myself as a sort of neo-pictorialist, and just as soon as I graduate from charm school I will be adding neo-New Romantic to my list of working titles.