Sunday, 16 April 2017

A puzzling painting

Ric Hyde is a long-established living British artist. He lives in the West Country, and is presently one of the guest artists currently being exhibited in the Willoughby Gallery at The Castle in Bude. The exhibition opened on 1st April. I was there on 4th and 7th. On the 4th, this picture of his was on the wall:

As you can see, it's quite eye-catching. And clearly has a deep meaning, to which we'll return in a moment. I found it both admirable and puzzling. I took a careful photo of it (reproduced above). I neglected to shoot any information card stuck on the wall next to it, so I came away not knowing the title of the painting. Driving away from Bude, I thought little of the omission. I was pretty sure I'd seen this painting before, possibly on TV, possibly in something I'd read. The expression on the young girl's face in the right half of the painting - the girl with pony-tails - seemed familiar. Anyway, I thought I'd have no problem identifying the name of the painting and learning more about it from a well-informed art source, if not in something published by the artist himself.

But I was wrong. Searching Google did not turn up an image of this painting. So I couldn't follow anything up. Well, I could go back. I was minded to revisit Bude anyway. I could take another look, and this time note down the title of the painting.

So on the 7th I walked in, and...oh!

The Castle, the former home of Cornish inventor Goldsworthy Gurney - whose clever and efficient large-building heaters in cast iron were installed in many a cathedral around the country during the nineteenth century (and have been mentioned more than once in these annals) - is Bude's best local venue for exhibitions, and events like weddings. And since I'd  seen it three days before, the Willoughby Gallery had been prepared for a civil marriage ceremony. Where was the painting I'd come back to see? They'd put a mirror where it had been, over the fireplace.

The mirror facilitated a great shot of the room from the officiator's viewpoint - necessarily showing myself holding up the camera, of course!

So far as I could see, they had left all the other paintings in place, including one of teenage boys in bathing costumes frolicking about (the painting above my head in the photo). But a painting of nude women and girls had clearly been thought inappropriate for the ceremony. They'd taken it down, and put it away somewhere. Well, no doubt it might have distracted the onlookers somewhat. Nudity tends to. But then I saw this:

Ah! So it had been a same-sex wedding - two men. Oh well, a parade of nude female flesh definitely hadn't been the right backdrop then. The ceremony had taken place just two and half hours before. The guys had done the deed, and were now presumably enjoying their reception at another spot. They clearly couldn't have lingered, nor their guests, because the place was completely tidy. There was nothing to suggest that a boatload of people had come and gone. You could in fact have held another wedding there straight away.

But no painting, no card to say what it had been called. So it was hardly Mission Accomplished.

On the side walls of the gallery were two other Ric Hyde paintings, more typical perhaps of his work, showing slightly insalubrious scenes. Adjacent was a card with some information about him:

One of the paintings showed two lissom, nude girls sunning themselves at what seemed to be a sewerage farm. One was actually dipping her hand in the sludgy water:

I couldn't see a card next to this painting, to say what its title was (so maybe the tidied-away painting of nude women and girls hadn't been identified either...?).

This was the other painting:

It showed a lurid party scene inside industrial premises. Some of the participants were sick and green-faced with too much self-indulgence. People had paired off in ill-matched ways. Sexily-clad women abounded. Sex was happening here and there. There even seemed to be a hanged man. It could have been a weird and out-of-hand office party, and yet there were some children there too. I'm thinking it was all an allegory of the Human Condition, painted with a wry sense of humour.

This time there was a card next to the painting:

So! If you 'get' the painting, like it,  and have £3,500 to spare, it's yours. The exhibition is not yet over, and 'Factory Dance' may still be available. (I didn't buy it myself)

By the way, this wasn't a 'Ric Hyde exhibition'. They were showing selected examples of half a dozen North Cornwall artists, the main one being in fact Irene Jones. A similar exhibition, also with her work as the major component, was put on in 2016, entitled Not of our Time.  So this was Not of our Time II.

Irene Jones had been inspired by stylised medieval representations of women. The girl just above with her arms protectively around a red steam engine is in a painting titled 'A Train for Bude'. Here's the shot of it I took myself on the 4th April (sorry for the reflections):

The protective posture, as if the red engine were her baby, and the Cornish-flag pendant around her neck hint at a proud local enterprise much desired when first proposed. As indeed it was, although in real life the railway took a very long time to reach Bude - as late as 1898. It did not have a long existence. Dr Beeching closed it in 1966, and ever since Bude has been difficult to reach, if you do not drive. Perhaps this Cornish maid would have thwarted Dr Beeching if she could. She certainly has an air of defiance. The museum part of The Castle - which I recommend seeing - has a lot to show and say about the railway at Bude. Just as well: virtually nothing is left to see on the ground. I was rather fortunate to be at Bude with Mum one sunny day in 1974, when the old station was still there to see, looking neglected and overgrown with weeds, but largely undamaged:

So many stations, and certainly all terminus stations, once had a newspaper and tobacco kiosk, almost always run by W H Smith. I bet that behind that corrugated iron there were yellowing piles of unsold newspapers and magazines from 1966, tied up with jute string. All the station site has long since been built over: there is nothing left to reinstate. No wonder Irene Jones' maiden looks vaguely displeased, if not positively angry.

Another Irene Jones painting caught my eye:

Again, the deep eyes and defensive face suggest vulnerability, violation, and keenly-felt loss.

But it's time to look closely at Ric Hyde's female lineup, and see what can be made of it.

Obvious things first. There are six figures standing on what might be a kitchen floor, or a chessboard. All are female, and all face the viewer - except the skeleton, who seems to to have a male pelvis and has his eyes on one of the naked women. Four of the six are very much alive. The grandmother-figure on the far right (who is carrying fruit that looks considerably more vibrant than herself) doesn't quite look as solid and three-dimensional as the others, as if she is not really there. The skeleton is of course not alive at all, but nevertheless is dancing, jigging about, projecting movement and an odd sense of ghoulish vitality.

Four of these figures are nude, or almost so, and two are showing their private parts. The grandmother is, by contrast, fully-clothed and covered up - though shabbily and unfashionably dressed.

The adult woman on the far left is carrying a baby in a blanket. The young girl next to her is holding a kitten. They might be mother and daughter. The other adult woman in the centre, and the girl with pony-tails next to her, might be a second mother-daughter pair: both have in common ribbons in their hair, and both have a flimsy, but effective, covering for their pubic area.

The skeleton has a skull adorned with flowers. He might be a dead father/grandfather, and those the fond protective hands of a close family member. But they look like groping hands to me. The adult woman in the centre is possibly the skeleton's daughter, but clearly does not like the skeleton's touch. Her pony-tailed daughter seems unconcerned at the skeleton's proximity. But she does look exasperated - why, I don't know. The adult woman on the far left is out of the skeleton's immediate reach, but nevertheless has a concerned expression on her face, as if worried about the future in general - or something off-picture that we can't see.

In the background is a fruit orchard (or is it the Garden of Eden?), presumably the source of the fruit being held by the grandmother. At ground level, there are garden flowers. A single, discarded red rose lies near the skeleton's feet, implying love rejected. Young pony-tails is holding up a little white flower. And there are two smug, sitting animals: a cat and a frog.

The painting seems full of symbolism, and might be interpreted in several ways. One would be that all families end up jigging the dance of death. But that's way too obvious! So is saying that it celebrates the confidence of youth.

The four unclothed females are clearly saying something strong and emphatic with their various degrees of nudity. Exposure of intimate flesh to this extent would in real life make them vulnerable to exploitation and harm. Perhaps the artist is saying that, whether clothed or unclothed, women are at risk. Children may not see the danger (the two kids are definitely not worrying) but their older and more experienced mums can. And grandmothers have learned that the best protection is to be fully covered up, almost invisible, and just resignedly fade into the background.

Surprisingly, the painting is not - at least not to my personal eyes - in any way erotic. I can of course easily imagine a lot of prudish people finding it provocative and (with the depiction of nude children being semi-taboo) almost obscene. It would surely have been considered decidedly risqué twenty or thirty years ago. My Mum would have thought so. But although arresting, I don't think the picture shocks. It does however make you want to look at it intently, searching for clues to tease out the artist's meaning.

Well, would I have it up on my lounge wall at home? Yes, definitely. I think it says something important about women and ageing. And I'm an ageing woman.

Would I pay, say, £3,500 for it, if I had the money? Yes. It's well-painted and interesting. It has some of the artist's mind in it, and isn't just a photograph.

Would I be happy for my friends to know that I owned it? Yes. I don't think any of them would find it disturbing, offensive, or in any way difficult to look at or live with. Unless, of course, their own experience of life had given them the ability - lacking in myself - of seeing whatever awful thing the painting might be saying.

Some hidden things are awful, and are really too hard to face. It's good to demand truth, and to understand what is real, and what is fake. But some knowledge can drive you to despair. I don't see despair in this painting, but I do think its message - whatever it is - is not a reassuring one.

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