T. H. Wintringham

Artists’ International

Source: Left Review, Vol. I, No. 2, November 1934, pp. 40-1
Transcription: Phyll Smith
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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The first exhibition organized by the British Section of the Artists’ International was held in London during the first fortnight of October. It consisted of some sixty paintings, drawings, lino cuts, etc., with posters, photographs and sculpture. In the quality of the work gathered for exhibition, the number of visitors and the interest displayed, this first effort by a young organization was remarkably successful.

Almost all the work was that of members of the Section. A few pieces are by artists who are not members: Eric Gill shows two small pieces typical of his craftsmanship.

A general first impression: these artists have come fairly recently to realize that politics are of dominating importance to them in their work, fairly recently have decided to put their ability at the service of the working-class movement their work therefore—naturally—shows more real acquaintance with, more real feeling for, the working-class political movement than for the working class itself. Because of this there are several paintings and drawings of meetings, marches, banners that are unsuccessful; they make patterns without showing in and through these patterns the strength, endurance, solidity-in-movement of the class force that shapes these demonstrations. Exceptions to this criticism a painting of a Street meeting at night by James Lucas and two black and white drawings by Boswell. The painting gives the full quality of the darkness of a London street, a heavy darkness of which sky, houses, road surface and people are equal components; a single Street lamp shows the speaker and the red flag on the platform. The flag, the only patch of colour on the canvas, speaks, and speaks vehemently, against the darkness. There are other flags in this exhibition that yelp, against nothing.

Boswell succeeds in his Street scenes by the solid, normal, seen individuals that make up his groups, their attitudes, the caps they wear as if they had been born in them. As those who saw the first issue of the LEFT REVIEW will realize, the man can draw.

There are too few pictures of men working, none of women. Two drawings of hay-stacks, with men straw-thatching them—as haystacks they are admirable, as men at work negligible. (One of these attempts to get “into line” by a caption that states the labourer’s wages; this is an admission of the drawing’s incompleteness.) But there is one outstanding painting of men at work a bakery by A. E. Webster. It gives the feeling of the cellar, of the warm choking steam and smell of new bread; details are put in with simple certainty—tap, oven, bench, loaves belong where they are. The painter has worked in a bakery; it makes a difference.

One very honest and skilful picture of what a worker looks like is the painting of a London postman by Percy Morton.

C. H. Rowe’s larger canvas of a pit rescue gang, two men carrying a stretcher, has a robust, almost monumental solidity in its main figures that makes the secondary figures, women and men at the pit-head watching for the rescued and the dead, seem rather insignificant. And one feels that these women and men are mourners, mute with sorrow, debris of life. The artist has not perhaps felt entirely the continual unquiet, the undertone of anxiety and waiting, that dominates a pit village every day, while the men are below ground, is the weft of its life—a waiting that is gathered up by news of accident into a tension not of despair and mourning but of racking hope. This tension is not in Rowe’s painting therefore it gives a feeling of being static, posed, not alive.

The nature and effect of the background is another weakness in this picture—which deserves the fullest criticism because it is a courageous and able attempt to handle the “biggest” subject in the exhibition. The background is anonymous: pillars or buildings. But a pit-head is a machine-place. There ate rails, weighbridge platforms, wire ropes underfoot; overhead wire ropes carrying loads, trestles of the pit-head; all round are screens, pumping machinery, ventilating machinery, the power-house. All this is absent. Yet it is of the essence of a miner’s life that he is entombed daily not only under the ground but in the dark of a vast machine. The parallel machinery in factories, on railways, in ships, is absent throughout the exhibition; exceptions are trivial.

Yet how can the industrial worker, maker and product of the machine and the factors-, he represented in full relief if the factors’ and the machine are left out of account.

A. J. Wray shows “The Bees and the Drones,” the interior of a workshop in which blue-overalled workers are bent over the work, in lines; past them Stroll idlers brought by a director to look over. The contrast loses half its point because the machinery is not even indicated the thing stated about the workers is that they bend down over their work in rows, not that they control intricate machinery, apply the power of great engines, are skilled, produce.

Two pictures of cement works by Margaret Angus, of considerable technical merit, are pictures from the outside of the works. Another painting by the same artist, of harvesters, is not so sure in line and has harvest sunlight in it, hut not its sweaty unendurable heat. “Dockers,” by Pinchos, has the atmosphere of a little sleepy port in Sussex or Brittany ; some men are loading a small lighter by hand. L. Wyatt’s hunger-march contingent has as background furnace-stacks, but these are allowed to make the men squat and grotesque, and again it is only the outside.

Of the criticisms of bourgeois life, art used as a weapon of attack, the Merrie England “of James Holland is the most considerable: a road-house swimming-pool with its typical inhabitants is a subject that gives the revolutionary fine scope for brutal satire. But one of Edith Tudor-Hart’s remarkable photographs is almost equally powerful: it is called “Sedition?” and shows three detectives taking notes at a meeting. The expression on the face of one of these “gentlemen” is indescribable in print.

The Workers’ Camera Club also show effective photographs, mainly of incidents of the movement. The architect’s group of the Artist’s International fill a va1l of one room with a poster-montage contrasting the housing plans and achievements of capitalism and socialism. The material in this is striking if studied; as a poster it is too disconnected.

b Taken as a whole the exhibition is a great and cheering contrast to the work of bourgeois cliques and individuals. It is a big start. There is clear need for these artists to get closer to the working class, more inside the class struggle, if they arc to do the work they can do. This I believe the majority of them will achieve.