Category Archives: Twentieth-Century

Three hundred and fifty six


La Princesa Ometepetl en su Jardin

c1980 by Abel Vargas
Instituto Nicaraguense de Cultura, Convento San Francisco, Granada, Nicaragua

Hanging on the cool stone walls of the sixteenth-century Convento San Francisco are a collection of Nicaraguan painters. The style of these artists unites them – all are naive in approach; colour is bold, lines are simple, creating a quiet and immediately accessible beauty to each of the works – no matter what the subject matter. When some of the paintings show the brutality of civil war or the ravaging of villages –  such as Amilcar Mendieta’s La Batalla de San Jacinto, 1988 – this naive approach is made all the more poignant; flat and two-dimensional blood seeping in puddles from Lowry-like matchstick men. Such violence, much of which is in living memory, is perhaps made easier to remember – or indeed to take possession of – in a style which is akin to the primitive painters of the country’s history. It is no surprise then that much of the other work by this group of painters is inspired by pre-Columbian legends, indigenous village life and mythological Nicaraguan figures. La Princesa Ometepetl en su Jardin is such a painting, showing the Princess of the island Ometepe ‘in the garden’. Vargas was born on the island of Ometepe – a mystical place even without the mythology, it is formed of two dramatic volcanoes and sits on Lago de Nicaragua – a lake so big that Spanish invaders thought they were setting out to sea when they first came across its shores. The painting shows the outline of the island’s distant volcanoes, their bright green tops, lush with jungle, misty in pillows of violet clouds. The jungle in the foreground appears shining and plump, abundant in leaves and lusciously healthy, with each detail picked out brightly. It is the almost childlike style of Vargas that lets nature appear so cheerfully; every leaf striving upwards, holding the jungle’s animals – the parrot, humming bird and tropical frog – still before us. The Princess herself appears as beautifully arranged as the green that surrounds her; serene in posture and composure, she holds out a red fruit, symbolising perhaps the passion, blood and love of her country. So perfectly undisturbed, Vargas’s garden is fanciful, yet not untrue; like so many Latin American artists and novelists, Vargas combines reality with mysticism to show another way.


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Three hundred and fifty two


The Three Million Case

1926 by Georgii & Vladimir Stenberg
KINO/FILM. Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen, GRAD: Gallery for Russian Arts & Design

The Moscow born Stenberg brothers were iconic artists of their time, working in a country so ignited with change that excitement and ideas flowed richly to those who could afford to have them. The brothers were key in the many emerging institutions of the time, co-founding OBMOKhU (Society of Young Artists) and pioneers of the Constructivist movement that encouraged the teeming overlap of disciplines. If you could construct you could build, and building meant anything from sculpture to illustration to set design, thus an all-encompassing art evolved. The Stenbergs designed many film posters – films being integral to both art and government propaganda – drawing on the poignant impact the new and freeing collage approach provided; perspective could be defied, scale muddled and colour bold. The Three Million Case poster is overwhelmed by the imposing and over-sized face of a protagonist, jarringly sliced in half. With red lips and a beauty spot, she should perhaps be the embodiment of enviable film-star glamour, yet her menacing stare and arched brows cut her persona far deeper. One side of her face lies in the darkness of shadow, while the other is illuminated with the stark beam of a spot-light – its source invitingly unknown. The two figures beneath, bending it seems to the dynamic line of constructivism itself, are so crisp a modern eye would think them digital. The pattern of their trousers – flat, meticulous and monotone – almost premeditate the pop art of Lichtenstein (postcard 93) and the like, casting these curious little figures as new-age silhouettes against the block of blue. The composition is finished – underlined – with a yellow block at the bottom; almost magnet-like, this bright line pulls the Stenbergs’ carefully arranged yet abstracted components together.

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Three hundred and forty eight


Jean Shrimpton

1963 by David Bailey
Bailey’s Stardust, National Portrait Gallery

Bailey’s Stardust was all we expected it to be: a glittering array of recognisable faces in their prime, captured through the magical lens of David Bailey. It’s no secret that Bailey has a knack for making people feel at ease – he has successfully photographed the trickiest of sitters – but his photos reveal more than this. Bailey turns his sitters into creations of their own personality, drawing on their humour, talent or physical beauty to create compositions that embody them. The classic black and white portraits are perhaps the most iconic examples of this, where each protagonist is left quite alone in their own monotone square. Drawn out by Bailey’s exquisite tone – the crisp edge of detail and the softly seductive creeping of contrast – each figure is cast in the role of flaunting themselves, not overtly but subtly; as if you briefly caught their eye. Jean Shrimpton – an infamous favourite of Bailey’s – shows us this. She is lit from the side, throwing light on the face that made her famous, illuminating her beauty as she draws us in with her eyes. The soft and milky greys of her skin are luxurious against the black out of her dress that sweeps – organically, abstractedly, sexually – across the lower half of the photo, ending out of sight. She appears to lean against the frame in which Bailey has captured her, the lines of his entrapment reinforced with a black outline. Compositionally, the shape Bailey creates with her body should be awkward, cocked to one side, but it’s far from it; the lines he creates are harmonious, a perfect balance. The exhibition wass filled with such evocative portraits, the most intimate depicting Catherine Bailey – a whole room celebrated her as Bailey’s muse. The star-struck atmosphere is interrupted by the intermittent inclusion of Bailey’s documentary photographs, including those from Papua New Guinea and the Live Aid photos. The effect of these hung opposite and next to his glamourous icons is a little jarring, though this could have been the idea.

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Three hundred and forty two


Winter Cavalcade

1938 by M. Barnard
London Transport Museum

There is perhaps nothing so synonymous of the style and feel of a point in time in our beloved London than the tube poster. With each age came the evocative ad – whether it was to depict the gentrification that would lure the Victorians, the collective determination of the homefront during wartime or the roaring style of the ’20s – London has always travelled underground. Various artists, many anonymous, were enlisted to design such posters, with focus often as much on the ‘art’ as the message. The icy blue of this poster immediately casts us into the chill of winter, broken only by the block colour of illustrative design. In jolly red and green – it is the festive season – the skier throws up their poles in delight, perched on the brink of the Winter Cavalcade, the letters of which curve harmoniously towards the figure, reflected with the juxtaposing arch of Earls Court above them – all components of this poster are harmoniously euphoric. The curved almost sculptural-like approach to the lines of the figure and its streamlined limbs are reminiscent of the bodies by Henry Moore; indeed Recumbent Figure (postcard 270) shares the same year. This celebration of the thirties’ interpretation of form is what makes this poster so evocative of time, yet the message is never lost. That iconic font and London Transport logo are instantly recognisable, though I’m not sure our modern London Transport would allow their signature blue and red to be tampered with for the sake of design.

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Three hundred and forty one



1927-32 by Stanley Spencer
Somerset House, permanently on display at Sandham Memorial Chapel

There are many attractions to Spencer’s Sandham chapel paintings: their multiplicity in showing different faces of war; their dedication in being painted pain-stakingly over 5 years; and of course Spencer’s distinctive style, evocative of a point in time. The struggle to produce such a poignant memorial is something most of the world are trying desperately to achieve in light of First World War’s centenary, which perhaps highlights how successful Spencer’s reflections are, albeit from actual experience. Although each painting is full of activity – whether it be a hospital scene, figures laid out in death or fatigue, the mundane but evidently necessary Filling Water-bottles – the soft detail Spencer applies in his painting slows each action down, drawing it out for our realisation and the inevitable emotion that follows. The figures are caught in the agonising tug of army life, which Spencer draws out visually with his style. Their faces, limbs and labours are pulled out before us – in Map-Reading soldiers’ arms are caught and drawn with desperation across the bushes in the background, while figures are draped languidly one by one across the grass. The ‘Map-Reader’ is then elevated in his task, floating above his men, picked out and swollen with responsibility as the map falls out in front of him. The arched shape that all the paintings adhere to encourages the feeling of looking in, peering into a world we can hardly comprehend, Spencer’s warped sense of perspective carrying us into the disbelief of what was reality. Yet, the paintings appear ethereal, highlighted in details such as the pure and small white leaves scattered across the bushes that give this painting a curious and quiet beauty, akin to Heaven rather than warfare.

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Three hundred and forty


Lovers in Blue

1914 by Marc Chagall
Private Collection

Lovers in Blue is an incredibly intimate painting; the emotion of love and that of lovers is something Chagall achieves in much of his work (see postcard 164), though this quiet intimacy is perhaps less common. His couples are often euphoric, celebrating their union in the fantastical tumbling of Chagall’s weightless world, but here we are drawn in closer, to their faces and tender kiss. The shaded eyes of one of the figures, together with the closed lids of the other, encourages this quiet and enclosed atmosphere. As if we are caught in a memory or dream, we are coddled in the colourific embrace that seeps across the painting in a passionate and intense indigo blue. The blue is carried throughout the palette of the painting, embedding the lover’s union in the canvas as it seeps through each colour used; their love is constant through the very pigment of the paint that describes them. The white that casts their faces is marble-like, sculptural in the angles of the figure on the left, lighting them up; they appear almost holy. The choice of colour makes this painting particularly poignant. With love and lust we might think of a bright and vibrant red – and Chagall is by no means afraid of bright colours – however, here he chooses blue. Calmer, more intense and less expected, the colour carries the weight of overbearing emotion, as Picasso’s Blue Period paintings do (see postcard 109). The blue creates both the painting and its poignancy, as we are instantly caught by its spell.

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Three hundred and thirty five


Orange Sweater

1955 by Elmer Bischoff
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Bischoff was part of the post-war American Bay Area Figurative Movement, a group of artists who rejected the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism (see postcard 140, a Jackson Pollock) for one that brought back figurative elements to painting. Paint is still laid heavily and shape abstracted, but the figurative definition in Bischoff’s work creates obvious or personal narratives, an element perhaps lacking in Abstract Expressionism. Reflective, Bischoff’s paintings are quiet; muted tones carry this emotion across Orange Sweater. Soft grey builds, contemplative, across the composition, changing subtly and in depth – allowing light to sing through a blind and the darkening of clouds to push against the window pane. Bright colour then announces itself poignantly, in the illusive orange sweater and the green that sweeps below it, caught by the bars of the window. Brush strokes are bold; the hand of the figure, the reaching arms of the plant summoned in a casual flick of a brush. The yellow figure in the distance takes this even further; a blur, their body is made up of lines and an oval head. Although the grey in the painting lightens to white, its effect is not cold: there is the tingling of creeping memory throughout, carried by the warm breath of yellow caught in the walls; ignited by the bright orange from the jumper, which draws us back in once again.

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