Palingenesis, and the Art of Everythingism

Two important exhibitions in London last weekend: Natalia Goncharova Retrospective at Tate Modern, and Lee Krasner: Living Colour at Barbican.

In Goncharova’s famous painting, The Cyclist, the figure is willfully heading in the opposite direction to that indicated by the pointing authoritarian finger.

It suitably sums up Goncharova’s spirit. A leading figure of the new avant-garde art scene in Russia, she defied convention at every turn.

The Cyclist (1912-13), with its Futurist devices of depicting time and speed with multiple outlines, challenged the Italian Futurists obsession with machines by choosing a more peaceful mode of transport, a bicycle.

 

Born in 1881, the same year as Picasso, Natalia Goncharova was a generation older than Lee Krasner, with origins very different to that of Krasner’s Jewish parentage.  From a family of impoverished aristocrats, Goncharova learned about the lives and traditions of the peasants who lived on the family estate, which was to become a great influence on her work.

The first modern artist to have a retrospective exhibition in Russia, Goncharova had previously been charged with obscenity and had her paintings confiscated for daring to paint the female nude so explicitly.

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The breadth of her work is astonishing. Painter, printmaker, fashion and set designer, she also embraced and initiated art forms such as Rayonism. To indicate the diverse range of her work,  life-long partner, Mikhail Larionov coined the term ‘everythingism’.

She was one of the first Russian artists to perceive and value the high artistic merits of Russian national creativity, and some wonderful samples are shown in the exhibition. In Round Dance, 1910, for example, the artist imitates peasant woodcuts in paint. She portrays the peasants with faces like in icons, which has the effect of a attributing to them a saintly status.  She explained that ‘the need to go back to these naive forms of art, is necessary to find new forms’.

Natalia-Goncharova-Round-dance       goncharova

Folk art is not refined. But it is sincere, revealing the instinct of the tribe/community, the people unconsciously preserving the treasure of these primal concerns. Goncharova recognised this. She also recognized the power of folk tales and mythology, and her ground-breaking sets and costumes for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel (1914), produced by Diaghilev as a part of the famous Saisons Russes in Paris, are based on the Old Believer lubki’s subjects and colour palette as well.

I got the sense that Lee Krasner (1908-84) was just as determined, radical and brave. She also refused to develop a ‘signature image’;  being restless like Goncharova, she continued to experiment with different styles and forms throughout her life. It was most important to her that her paintings emerged authentically from within.

“I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point.”

The show at the Barbican gives a rich overview of her life and career from early self-portraits and life drawing, showing a progression into the abstract expressionist works for which she is known.

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Siren, 1966

I was particularly interested in the ‘hieroglyphic’ images and her abstract alphabets, what she called her “mysterious writings”. They reminded me of Mark Tobey’s ‘white writing’ paintings:  dense, rhythmic nets of black paint over multicolor backgrounds or meticulously over-written in white like sacred scripts.

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It was after her husband died and she was able to work in the barn space that she really found her artistic identity. Here she could work on an unprecedented scale, tacking lengths of canvas directly to the wall. She then produced her ‘Night Journeys’ series of paintings, made during chronic insomnia using organic, umber tones because she didn’t like using colour in artificial light.

Vibrant colours returned some years later in a shift from soft, biomorphic shapes to more hard-edged abstract forms. Palingenesis, titled after the Greek word for re-birth was something Krasner considered fundamental for her practice.

“Evolution, growth and change go on. Change is life.”

Lee Krasner Palingenesis, 1971 Pollock Krasner Foundation_0

Palingenesis, 1971 by Lee Krasner

In another act of metamorphosis, she tore up work she wasn’t happy with and created astonishing collages from the fragments.

Burning Candles, Desert Moon, and Bald Eagle collages by Lee Krasner.

 

“Painting is a revelation, an act of love…as a painter I can’t experience it any other way.”

lee krasner painting portrait in green in her studio 1969

Inscape/Outscape

My brother and I currently have work on display in Kemi’s cafe, Pontcanna.

We present work in dialogue with each other, working from very different perspectives. Matt paints plein air from landscapes around Somerset and Portsmouth, while my paintings emerge from inner imaginative worlds. I am interested in capturing fleeting moments from the mundus imaginalis, or Otherworld: the place where stories live and have an independent existence.

Matt studied art at Southampton Institute, and is interested in art as therapy, valuing the tranquility of mind that comes from painting the forms and colours he sees in the landscape while out walking.

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Animating the Aliens

On the after-school Storytelling and Art course at Llanover Hall, the children decided to create a theatre out of cardboard. As our theme for that week was Sci-fi, everyone made alien characters to star in the show. On the first week, the parents got a preview of act one, with one boy being narrator, others changing the set and moving the characters.

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Over the weeks, Future Class Theatre continued to develop. Scenery and back drops were painted. A script with four scenes was written. Characters were made out of air-drying clay and painted. And finally, a mini animation of the story to be edited.

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sculpting aliens out of clay

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painting the theatre

 

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Windows on the World

In their passports, participants of the Storytelling and Art from Around the World course inserted a picture of themselves as a character of their choosing complete with name, magical attributes, and planet of origin.

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Using coloured acetates, windows were made to look in upon various characters created in response to folk stories. This week: Il Gatto Mammone, or The Tale of the Cats in which a girl tugs up a cauliflower revealing a large tunnel into the earth that leads her to a house of cats and adventures therein.

 

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This Is What I Would Turn Into At Night

Here are some of my favourite art works by children I have been working with over the past months. They have been responding to old folk stories from many cultures.

The Lady of the Lake (Wales)

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Maui’s Magic Fishing Hook (Maori)

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The Fox Maiden (Korea)

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Guardian Totems (Korea)

Medusa (Greece)

 

Gelert (Wales)

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Baba Yaga (Russia)

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Blodeuwedd and Twm Carnabwth (Wales)

Aztec Gods (Mexico)

The Bird with Two Heads, and Ganesha (India)

Huitzilopochtli (Mexico)

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Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave

For the last week of this five week cycle of storytelling and art from around the world, we travelled to Russia to hear about the enigmatic Baba Yaga.  She is a many-faceted figure, variously seen as a Moon, Death, Winter, Earth Goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, or archetypal image.[4]

After discussing some of Baba Yaga’s traits: iron teeth, lives in a house that walks around on chicken legs, sails through the sky in a mortar yielding a pestle,  the children listened to one of the many tales involving Baba Yaga: Vasilisa the Brave. It exhibits Baba Yaga’s ambiguous nature – scary, yet wise, and the choices of a girl who triumphs through courage and perseverance.

Below is a selection of the wonderful illustrations of Baba Yaga by children on the course. I’m always amazed at the detail, personality and energy of these drawings that the children do without hesitating as they listen to the stories.

 

Vasilisa’s magic doll by Lily.

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Stories from the Dreamtime

For Week 3 of the Children’s Art and Writing course, the children listened to three stories from the Dreamtime creation myths of Aboriginal culture: How the kangeroo got her pouch, Barramundi, (how the fish came to be in the waters), and a Kunwinjku Dreamtime Story of the long-necked turtle and the echidna, telling why they live in separate places. The children learnt about animals from Australia they had never heard of such as the wombat and the spiny anteater (echidna). They painted and drew their own images from the stories after looking at examples of aboriginal art for inspiration.

The children learned how every hill, water hole and tree, living creature and natural phenomenon was believed to have come into existence in the Dreamtime. They learned how everything about aboriginal society is inextricably woven with, and connected to, land.

 

In Esme’s story, the great god Byamee, who had been in disguise as a wombat, goes into a bar to celebrate his discovery of the creature with the kindest heart. The sky spirits speak to each other in secret symbols.