Exploring the School of Art Collection 2018

As part of the first year art history module Exploring the School of Art Collections, students have the opportunity to write a small piece for this blog. This year the group decided on the theme of ‘The Stage’. Each student had the opportunity to choose from a selection of prints, drawings and photographs featuring theatres, concerts, ballets, circuses and more. They only had one week to undertake some research before presenting their drafts. They all worked very hard on these projects so please take the time to view their efforts.

Theatre, Le Paradis

Theatre, Le Paradis, Jules De Bruycker, 1907, etching with soft ground

This etching by Jules De Bruycker immediately caught my attention due to the melancholy atmosphere of the scene. De Bruycker observed the reality of the economic decline in his home city of Ghent; creating etchings of the poverty around him by visiting flea markets, the cheap sections of the theatre and waiting rooms. The intriguing way that De Bruycker chose to remove the performance from our sight, instead forcing us to view the audience as the focal point fascinated me. When considering the theatre in 1907, the images which come to mind are of grand, wealthy couples and luxurious velvet seats. The stark comparison to what the mind expects and the reality which De Bruycker proposes through his work is interesting; by removing the performance he has managed to make the viewer reflect on the lives of the members of an audience and put them at centre stage instead.

We are viewing the audience from a side view, as they are all intently watching what we presume to be a performance down on the stage. The audience are all men, most of which are slumped forward with a weary, almost downtrodden air to them. It is heavily implied that the men are not wealthy, as they are ‘up in the Gods’; the highest and cheapest seats in a theatre. One man is stood with his head stuck in the rafters, obscuring his view. The man in the foreground of the picture is watching with theatre glasses, emphasising the great distance from the stage. Although all of the men are wearing suits, they do not appear particularly tidy in appearance; they are almost depicted as caricatures with their exaggerated gaunt features, ungroomed hair and oversized suits which hang dejectedly from their bodies. The theatre is shaped like a round viewing gallery, with wooden benches for seats; the audience seems to be scarce, which could be due to the expense of the theatre in this era. Chiarascuro is used to great effect within this etching, particularly where the bold light source coming from the gas lamp in the top centre of the piece casts strong shadows from the men. This allows us to see the rich detail of the etching, particularly in parts where De Bruycker has built up deep tones through line work, and even created movement in the suits of the men through the creases of their well-worn suits.

The etching immediately made me question why there was a lack of women in the audience; was De Bruycker’s intention with this piece to actually highlight the gender imbalance? As a female in the 21st century, it is hard to perceive a time where women would not have attended the theatre, or imagine seeing an audience solely occupied by men. It is possible that women were unwelcome in the audience, particularly in the highest seats where the behaviour sometimes took a raucous turn. The etching was produced in 1907, before the First World War. Ghent was at the centre of the industrial revolution in Belgium, and many of the workers suffered miserable working conditions. Money was scarce, which could explain the poorly populated audience, despite being the cheapest seats in the theatre. The lack of women in the audience could be due to the majority of working class women relying on their husbands to bring in the money, whilst they did the housework. Having no income of their own would have meant that if there was any spare money for leisure, it would have been the man that used it for things such as attending the theatre. It is interesting though, how arts and culture were still important even in poverty stricken times, as a break from the mundane work of the day – De Bruycker could be choosing to highlight this through the etching. After the war broke out several years later, the men would have gone to war which would have left theatres to go into decline.

Farrah Nicholson – Fine Art and Art History


Backstage, Bertram Mill Circus

Backstage, Bertram Mill Circus, John Roberts, etching, 1949

Backstage – Bertram Mill Circus is an etching by John Vivian Roberts created in 1949. It is a particularly stunning, if not thought-provoking piece. The scene is comprised of five central figures, standing posed in an open space with a vintage circus poster behind them. It is safe to assume that these figures are circus performers, however their situation is more ambiguous. The heavy contrast between light and shadow that runs along the right side of the print, suggests some sort of spotlight is being shone on the group, much like in a performance situation. However, the title of the piece and the figures’ stances suggest the opposite.

John Roberts was an English artist and teacher who specialised mainly in printmaking and illustration. His main fascination, that can clearly be seen in his work, is contrast, “in the bizarre and the strange meetings between objects” (Roberts 1986). His goal with his artwork was to capture scenes that vastly contrasted with others’ perceptions and expectations of what the scene would typically be. In this case, when someone is told “circus”, they may expect images of inhuman performances and extraordinary sights, yet Roberts decided to capture this scene of the performers simply standing, waiting to be shown to the world. Bertram Mill’s circus was a part of Earl’s Court in London and, during the 1940’s, circuses had become very popular amongst the British public. This followed the success of P.T.Barnum’s circus in America. However, the performers of the circus were never shown to the public, except during performances, after which they were hidden away, and this is what made Roberts’ print have such an impact. Much like today, the audience would have regarded these performers as separate from the general public, simply because they would never be seen outside of a performance space. So to see these performers cowering away from the spotlight with such sombre expressions, would have completely challenged the British public’s expectations of the circus.

 This piece would have been regarded as revolutionary for its time and today, I would argue, that it still has a hidden depth of meaning. While performances have changed considerably since the 1940’s, we still regard performing as an art and as something to enjoy. Yet how often do we consider the pain or discomfort each performance causes to the performer? I would say that this piece evokes curiosity in its audience, to consider to what extent every performance is a discipline.

Katie Rodge – Fine Art and Art History


René Ray

René Ray, Angus McBean, silver print, 1941

How to depict a mystery?

When looking at this portrait of the actress and novelist René Ray, it appears that Angus McBean has already answered this puzzling question. The idea which he chose to display is consistent with other examples of his original work as a photographer. This surreal vision of the woman presents her as an ambiguous character. It creates an awareness of the illusion often related to the art of photography.

A dreamlike, although minimalistic, scene presents us with a different approach to black and white portrait photography. One of the actress’s hands is graciously hiding behind the massive volume. The other is visible and enhanced by a contemporary use of the chiaroscuro effect. René Ray with her distant gaze is observing something behind the camera. This melancholic and mysterious expression tempts us to discover her thoughts. Knowing the artist’s previous career as a mask maker, the viewer can assume that the novelist, with her mannequin-like appearance, can wear a symbolic mask of indifference. The image of her as a persona on a stage corresponds with Shakespeare’s idea of Theatrum Mundi. She is placing two fingers between the pages of, what it seems to be a book containing royal crests. It may be considered as a prophecy of her becoming the Countess of Middleton in 1975. The artist had chosen to multiply it in the background of the portrait, which emphasises its unreal atmosphere. In the photographer’s portfolio we can find other depictions of public personalities, created in a similar way to his vision of René Ray. Whether it was a portrait of a journalist Nancy Spain or a theatre historian Walter James MacQueen-Pope, these images tell the stories of these characters not merely through a focus on the face. As in René Ray, it is the background which serves us with the narrative.

There is something about the way she is pressing that tome so close to her, yet still maintaining that effortless and delicate impression. Her subtle smile is not a usual expression of delight which is often associated with the celebrity portraiture. The artist creates an image with an oneiric atmosphere, in which reality becomes surreal. Angus McBean has somehow succeeded to capture the timeless nature of the picture. The only things which set the work in the 1940’s, are the woman’s hairstyle and makeup.

The magical features of McBean’s photographs, created with the advanced use of technical skills, are a declaration of his own individuality. He continued to design eccentric portraits of public personalities. Alongside many other British figures, it was Vivian Leigh who became his muse. Their professional collaboration led to various theatrical and inventive images. Unfortunately, he was not able to express himself in every aspect of his life. After being arrested because of his sexual orientation, which was considered a crime at the time, his perspective changed. He engaged in more commercial projects, such as the creation of the first album cover for The Beatles. He also made numerous surrealistic self-portraits and innovative Christmas cards. The Welsh photographer with an avant-garde style became a vivid example of an artist, who is not afraid to describe the truth with the use of his imagination.

Helena Zielinska – Art History


Scene from the ballet ‘L’Apres Midi d’un Faune’

Scene from the ballet ‘L’Apres Midi d’un Faune’, Keith Vaughan, silver print, 1933-36

This silver print shows a scene from Nijinsky’s L’Apres-midi d’un Faune (Afternoon of a Faun) based on the poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. The ballet was performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and probably choreographed by David Lichine, the faun. There are seven nymphs in Grecian-inspired costumes originally designed by Leon Bakst. Lichine, towering above a line of nymphs on an artificial rock, looks like a statue as he gazes to the left side of the stage.

The choreography of this ballet shows a young and healthy-looking faun meeting and flirting with the nymphs. The original poem starts with the faun saying, ‘These nymphs I would perpetuate’, indicating the desire the faun feels towards the nymphs. Later, Lichine used the story for Spring Night, an experimental ballet film where he falls in love with a human, performed by Nana Gollner, who turned into a nymph one afternoon. He returns into stone when she becomes a human again.

On the 8 April 1941, Vaughan wrote in his journal that ballet ‘’is a thing of the blood and body more than the mind or the spirit. It draws you out and leaves you in a state of suspension, like a delayed orgasm.’’ Vaughan was originally a painter best known for his abstract male nudes. He kept journals including his doings, thoughts and ideas. These journals demonstrated that he was a gay man having difficulties because of his sexuality. He committed suicide by drug overdose in 1977, two years after a diagnosis of cancer.

Melike Durmus – Fine Art and Art History


Greek Myth Ballet

Greek Myth Ballet, William Frederick Colley, colour lithograph, 1937

This lithograph describes a ballet on the theme of Greek mythology. In the foreground a partially clothed female raises her left hand and kneels on her right knee before a God-like, nude male who raises his right arm. In the middle ground, on the left, we can see two standing female nudes one of whom holds a Greek helmet. This helmet is specifically a Spartan helmet, a symbol of strength and power. On the right, there is a robed figure on a chariot holding the reins of three horses. It is likely to be the kind of chariot used for ceremonies. The scenery depicts a sky, clouds and the Parthenon.

William Frederick Colley was a painter and printmaker. He studied and taught at Birmingham School of Art. He was inspired by the avant-garde movements of Futurism and Vorticism. Consequently many of his lithographs are observations of society including industry, music halls and workers, but he was also fond of depicting animals.

This lithograph though refers to Greek mythology, a series of stories about Gods and magical beings of Greece which formed an important part of the religion of ancient Greece. The best description of this picture would be ‘A worshipping to God’. Greek gods were like humans, but they lived forever and were much more powerful.

Another important aspect of this picture is the use of colour, particularly the complimentary colours of blue and orange. This combination creates a simultaneous contrast in the way these two different colours affect each other. The theory is that one colour can change how we perceive the tone and hue of another two colours placed side by side. The actual colour does not change but we see it differently. Why did Colley use this particular combination of colours? Was he aware of the symbolism of colours? Blue symbolises intelligence, stability, confidence, faith and heaven. Orange represents joy, balance, success, passion and determination. This connection of orange and blue together can symbolise freedom and they certainly add to the dynamism of this particular print.

Rebecca Chrenkova – Art History 


Ram Gopal

Ram Gopal, Angus McBean, silver print, 1951

Angus McBean photographed many performers of stage and screen including this image of the dancer Ram Gopal. The use of black and white photography requires us to use our imagination. Whilst we can see Gopal’s unusual costume it can’t show us how vivid and colourful this dancer’s costume was. We also have to imagine his movements and the music that was accompanying him through the whole performance. We have only a little scrap of evidence but we can investigate further. Half of his silhouette is gently tilted to the right, and his head turned in the same direction. His makeup emphasises his delicate features and his obvious slightly feminine beauty. He is muted and intensely focused on the dance, but he is not lost in his world. Eyes sometimes might be like the curtain, isolate us from everything and everybody around us. However he has not closed his eyes, he has not drifted away. We can see him glancing down gently preparing with concentration for the next move. The fact that this photography is monochrome actually enhances the calmness emanating from him. His chest is covered with what seems to be decorated feathers. However, those feathers seem to be more like leaves covered with shiny sequins which might imitate soft drops of rain. In the middle of his torso, there is something like a rope connected to the bunch of leaves and together they create a palm. The decorative clothes did not steal too much attention. They are not the most important, but they seem to be a lustrous, subtle and splendid part of Gopal’s story which he tells us through his dance.

Another artist, Felix Topolski, also decided to immortalise this Indian dancer but in a different medium. In his watercolour full portrait Pandit Ram Gopal, we can notice that again his well-thought costume does not distract us, but it completes the whole picture instead. These images of Ram Gopal portray him as a charismatic figure. He was widely regarded as a dancer of genius and Angus McBean , and others artists, managed to convey the charisma, assertiveness and sensitivity of one of most notable exponents of Indian choreography outside his native country.

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