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February 27 2012

Abstract pioneer gets overdue retrospective

John Cecil Stephenson's work, overlooked in part because of poor self-promotion, celebrated in Durham exhibition

He is one of the earliest and most accomplished of all British abstract artists, but also one of the least known and most overlooked.

Until last weekend, John Cecil Stephenson had been largely neglected with no public gallery or museum staging any exhibition of his work in almost 40 years – an injustice finally righted by Durham Art Gallery, 47 years after his death.

More than 50 works have now been gathered for a show given the title Pioneer of Modernism, which opened to the public on Saturday. Curator Conor Mullan said Stephenson worked in undeserved obscurity for most of his life. There were two reasons, his background and his personality.

"He just didn't play the game enough," Mullan said. "He didn't compromise and he just was not in to the politics of art, he couldn't deal with it."

The exhibition celebrates probably the most important 20th-century artist to come from County Durham. Born in Bishop Auckland in 1889, Stephenson had a tough working-class background that, Mullan argues, had a profound effect.

"He felt unsure of himself. He wasn't very good in highbrow, intellectual, bohemian circles. They were the people you had to deal with to climb up the ladder in London and he just wasn't very good at it. He did not do the networking.

"Much like today, if you're not in to marketing yourself as much as the art then it's a hard life."

Stephenson, however, did manage to make a living from his work. He was also head of art at the Northern Polytechnic in north London, now London Metropolitan University, but never achieved the fame of his friends and peers such as Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian, whose friendship is explored by a show running at the Courtauld Institute, London.

Stephenson was one of Mondrian's closest friends in London. They were a similar age and had a lot in common. Mullan said: "Stephenson was a very reserved man and very precise. Everything had to be perfect and Mondrian was very much the same. They were interested in work and pushing forward in art."

Stephenson was part of what the poet and critic Herbert Read called "a nest of gentle artists".

Encouraged by the painter Walter Sickert, he took on a studio in north London in 1914 and lived there for the rest of his life. His near neighbours over the years included Read, Nicholson and the sculptors Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Naum Gabo.

The Durham exhibition focuses on Stephenson's progression through the 1930s at the forefront of modernist and constructivist art.

By the late 1930s a lot of British artists were looking at abstraction, but Stephenson was already there. Some of his work has an optical element that pre-dates op art and the work of artists such as Bridget Riley by around 30 years.

But for all his talent and his friends, Stephenson was always something of an outsider. A natural reserve probably held him back. "He was an important guy, he just didn't know it," said Mullan. He was acutely conscious of his working-class roots, but distant from them.

During the first world war he was assigned back to County Durham where he worked in the production of munitions.

Stephenson was treated badly by locals who saw him as a dandified student. "All his life he felt a distance from the working class, he felt a distance from the middle class and he felt a distance from the upper class," Mullan said.

"He basically kept himself to himself. He was a silent man, he did not say a lot."

Stephenson was overlooked during his life as well as after it and he did not have a solo show until he was 71. The next year, he had the first of a series of strokes and never worked again.

Loans for the Durham show have included works lent by the British Museum, the V&A, the National Galleries of Scotland and the Government Art Collection.

But there have been works that the exhibition has been unable to show, not least Stephenson's most famous work Painting 1937 which is owned by Tate.

Mullan hopes this show will help bring him to a wider audience and encourage others to think about mounting a proper retrospective – perhaps in 2015, 50 years after his death.

John Cecil Stephenson, Pioneer of Modernism is at Durham Art Gallery until 29 April © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 19 2012

Picasso and Modern British Art – review

Tate Britain, London

Soames Forsyte, of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga, must be the most enterprising art collector in British fiction. At the end of the first world war, while others are still investing in John Singer Sargent, he takes a punt on a work by Pablo Picasso. It is true that Forsyte doesn't struggle to save it when his house catches fire –Dégas take priority – but his prescience has already been established. Forsyte was buying Picasso long before his real-life British counterparts.

How late we were to acquire (if not love) Picasso is one of two stories in Tate Britain's big spring show. It's a cracking tale of politics, class and cultural cringe, more or less pieced together through the captions and catalogue.

The other story is of Picasso's influence on British art. You might argue – the curators do – that Picasso is almost synonymous with modernism and therefore his influence is diffuse. But this show is very precisely focused. It looks at three artists who paid sharp attention without being overwhelmed – Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon, David Hockney – and five more who swooned. It is told in 150 works, almost half of them by Picasso; the comparison is frequently cruel.

Picasso's first British airing was in Roger Fry's momentous Manet and the Post-Impressionists in 1910. Putrescence, pornography, infection: the press blew up like bullfrogs and were still mocking the Spaniard in 1949 when the Tate finally acquired its first cubist Picasso. Only the Bloomsberries and a handful of Forsytes bought him. "I find him perfectly charming and quite easy and simple," wrote Vanessa Bell from Paris with telling complacency. If his admirers couldn't see the complexities, then what hope for a public who scarcely saw his work in museums before the second world war?

The attention from Bloomsbury may have been a curse. When Picasso stayed at the Savoy in 1919, designing ropey costumes for Diaghilev (exhaustively represented here, and not a patch on Bakst), the group monopolised him in Garsington and Gordon Square. Other British artists were suspicious, and as the excellent catalogue puts it: "his presence left scarcely any mark on British art".

The exception at this stage was Duncan Grant, whose weak pastiches are an embarrassment to this show. "Why, when I ask about modern artists in England, am I always told about Duncan Grant?" Picasso is said to have inquired. It doesn't get much better later on with Ben Nicholson's guitars and Gallicised still-lifes in the 1930s. "Au Chat Botté Dieppe" is neatly lettered across a tabletop viewed through a window, all done in quasi-fractured planes and chalky tones – cubism Cornish-style.

Nicholson, displaying the anxiety of influence, nicknamed the Spaniard "Piccy" and "Picz". Henry Moore shrewdly avoided all mention of his artistic forebear. To appreciate the necessity of this tactic you need only compare Picasso's The Source with Moore's Reclining Figure, two monumental figures placed conveniently adjacent at Tate Britain, and ask yourself whether the latter is likely to have come into being without the former.

It is one of a dozen instances in this show of something pretty near to plagiarism. Each artist has a different Picasso: cubist for Grant and Nicholson, neoclassicist for Moore, surrealist for Francis Bacon. The Bacon room is the least impressive because it insists upon the similarities between the open-mouthed figures in Picasso's Dinard period and those in Bacon's Crucifixion paintings as if they had a shared idiom, meaning or impact. Bacon acknowledged Picasso very readily, but whatever he absorbed feels quite inconsequential to the exuberant agony and grandeur of his art.

If Bacon looks diminished, imagine the effect on everyone else. Graham Sutherland comes over as a second-rate copyist, David Hockney as a lightweight comedian pulling cubist effects with his camera. Hockney can take care of himself, of course, but what is the lasting value of a show where so much of the art is effectively downgraded?

There are masterpieces: several Picassos, including his beautiful portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, her face two kissing forms like the new moon holding the old in its arms, silky flesh bathed in moonlight, and Wyndham Lewis's Workshop, that marvellous concatenation of geometric planes in coruscating pinks and mustards that almost resolve into windows, ladders and shelves, by day and also, as it seems, by night.

If this relates to Picasso, it is via futurism, and speaking not of pictorial languages so much as the dynamism of modern life. And that is how it goes at Tate Britain: surely Grant got more from Matisse? If Lewis, then why not William Roberts? Did they really mean to make the British look so puny? Extraneous questions are raised from one room to the next; it is no way to experience art.

How Picasso finally arrived in Britain, how his communism affected Anglo-Saxon attitudes, who saw his work when and how they responded: Picasso and Modern British Art is tremendously enlightening – as a catalogue. The show is another matter. It needs to fit the pictures to the text and ends up shrinking the art. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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