Magazine article The Spectator

Singular Sensation

Magazine article The Spectator

Singular Sensation

Article excerpt

Prunella Clough Tate Britain, until 27 August Harry Thubron: Collages and Constructions 1972-1984 Austin/Desmond Fine Art, Pied Bull Yard, 68-69 Great Russell Street, WC1, until 27 April

It was a privilege to be a member of the jury that gave Prunella Clough (1919-99) the Jerwood Prize for Painting in 1999. On the one hand, we wanted to draw attention to the fact that she was an immensely distinguished painter who had remained largely unknown and publicly unrewarded during a long career, and on the other we wished to recognise the high quality of her latest work, some of the finest she'd ever done. In many ways, Prunella was her own worst enemy, being of a modest and self-effacing temperament, much given to doubting her very real achievements. She had enough private money not to worry about selling work, which also made her keep her prices low, much to the fury of contemporaries who had to earn their living by the brush.

But she was consistently generous to others in greater need than herself, giving substantial sums often anonymously to art schools and to individuals. She was a remarkable woman and a remarkable artist, and finally the Tate has got round to celebrating her very singular vision.

In three galleries at Millbank is a selection of her early and late work, bearing witness to a continuity of interests, and demonstrating that she was never really a Neo-Romantic artist, though often grouped with them. Clough's early impetus was in fact towards a stylised realism, focusing on the urban scene and its industrial wastelands filtered through a Cubist faceting. The paintings in the first room seem to share an affinity with the Italian realist Renato Guttuso and reflect the influence of the Picasso-dominated Polish émigré Jankel Adler (1895-1949). On this showing, Clough's urban grittiness offers a link between Neo-Romanticism and Kitchen Sink. The most memorable paintings in this room (and I've never been keen on the way she generalises people) are the classic sandy-toned 'Cooling Tower II', from 1958, all subtle textures and abstracted shapes, the tougher black structure of 'Industrial Interior V' (1960), and 'Man Entering Boiler House' (1956), in which the human element is a minimal part of the richly observed façade.

The urge to abstraction is already well defined in these paintings, and it is no surprise that Clough is known primarily as an abstract artist, though one with her eye constantly on the world around her. She took countless photographs of things in the street -- the way the pavement was broken or disrupted, displays of plastic goods, litter, reflections -- and these sometimes reappeared obliquely in her pictures. A cabinet of documentary material, including letters and notebooks of verbal descriptions of things seen, is in Room 2, along with six framed works on paper. Clough made many mixed-media drawings, experimenting with forms and ideas, and it's good to see some here. Around the walls are several of the best paintings of her mid-to-late period, including the hypnotic 'Wire Landscape' (1985), 'By the Canal' (1976) and the witty 'Double Diamond' (1973). Also here is 'Electrical Installation'. Is this extraordinary painting really as early as 1959? It looks so utterly fresh and contemporary.

Whenever I hear the phrase 'painters' painter' I am tempted to reach for my revolver, for exhibition organisers often use it to explain why a particular artist's work is not deemed suitable for popular consumption. As if the plaudits of your peers somehow disqualify you from general consideration, or the art that artists like must be too rarefied for public taste. …

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