Saturday, 8 August 2015

01 August, 2015 ‘Ravilious’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery *****

The WestburyHorse,1939

For too many years Eric Ravilious was regarded as a minor graphic artist, a talented wood engraver and illustrator. That he was dismissed as merely an illustrator saysmuch about establishment attitudes to fine art in the post war years. And of course the sad fact that Ravilious died on active service in September 1942 also contributed to his disappearance from the fine art radar. The artist’s contemporaries such as Bawden, Nash and Piper rated him highly and indeed Bawden and Ravilious developed their water techniques literally side by side. But after the war and his untimely death he faded from the public consciousness and was largely forgotten.

The beginnings of a revival came with an Imperial War Museum exhibition in 2003, and his stock has steadily grown since then. The exhibition at the Dulwich is the first full scale retrospective of Ravilious’s paintings (almost all of them watercolours) and the gallery, with the help of the artists daughter, Anne Ullmann have managed to track down an impressive number of works, some of them such as Train Landscape and The Wilmington Giant familiar to many and others which few have seen before including much of his war artist work. Curator James Russell has chosen to display the works thematically rather than chronologically, and this is a very satisfying and instructive arrangement.

For instance, whenever Ravilious paints machinery or vehicles he always seems to find an angle or perspective that softens the utilitarian nature of these objects and makes them look almost organic. To have all these works grouped together allows us to appreciate this quirky approach which won him no friends at the War Office but satisfied his desire to produce arresting compositions. Submarines in Dry Dock is a good example. The bulbous flanks of the vessels seeing to be large whales

Submarines in Dry Dock, 1940

Something that becomes abundantly clear as one travels around the exhibition, is how Ravilious developed a watercolour technique which became entirely personal to him. A combination of dry brush strokes and cross hatched grounds evolved as he became more and more gripped by the medium which seemed ideal for the russets and earth colours of the Sussex Downs around Furlongs.

And another theme which recurs again and again is desertion. There are enough works on display to illustrate that he did not lack talent when it came to representing the human figure. But so often he leaves the composition deserted. Many of the landscapes are devoid of human life, and where human figure do appear, they are often solitary and seen from a distance. When it comes to interiors, this emptiness can be very affecting, as in A Farmhouse Bedroom.

A Farmhouse Bedroom 1930's

All of these works are invested with great beauty and tenderness, even the war time ones. They evoke a different age but are never mawkish or sentimental. I, for one, am thrilled at the impact this exhibition has had in spotlighting a major English artistic talent which was curtailed tragically early, but nevertheless left us with a wonderful inheritance of great paintings. Go see it if you possibly can.

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