Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Friends Reunited

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Friends Reunited

Article excerpt

Cedric Morris & Christopher Wood: A Forgotten Friendship Norwich Castle Museum, until 31 December The Estate of L.S. Lowry: A Selection of Works Crane Kalman Gallery, 178 Brompton Road, SW3, until 12 January 2013 There has been a great deal written about Christopher Wood (1901-30), billed as the great white hope of British Modernism, who perished by his own hand before his full potential could be explored. Friend of Ben Nicholson, with whom he supposedly 'discovered' the naive painter Alfred Wallis in 1928, he was a Europeanised sophisticate who knew Picasso and Cocteau and dabbled in Cubism and Surrealism. He was a talented painter with a penchant for harbour scenes, but, as this fascinating exhibition suggests, his gifts have been exaggerated (no doubt because of his romantic life story), while the achievement of his older contemporary Cedric Morris (1889-1982) has been marginalised and largely ignored. Morris is pigeonholed as a charming if slightly artless flower painter and plantsman, a peripheral figure, whereas Wood is placed at the hub of English avant-garde art. In fact, the reverse is just as true, and the reality lies somewhere in between.

Morris, who had been visiting Cornwall since 1919, knew Wallis before he was recognised by Wood and Nicholson as the radical new direction for British Modernism. What Wood & co. made such a fuss about, Morris absorbed quite naturally. (And it should be noted in passing that the natural painter never makes such good art historical copy as the artist with an agenda. ) This exhibition allows us to see for the first time how Morris anticipated Wood, and painted very similar subjects with equal, if not greater, panache.

Actually, it's a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition with an excellent selection of paintings by both artists, and a wall of drawings as an added bonus.

From the very beginning of the display, where the visitor is confronted by a pair of self-portraits, the tone of revisionism is established. Wood's self-portrait offers him up as a florid-faced youth confronting the world with self-conscious bravado, his redtipped paintbrush held between his legs like an extension of his masculinity. Morris, by contrast, looks much more soulful and mature, posed against a wooded hillside, very different from Wood's urban setting of Parisian rooftops. Yet Morris also lived in Paris (before Wood), and there are some of his Parisian cafe scenes here to prove it, though his landscapes are the real revelation. Consider 'Landscape at Newlyn', 1919, reputedly Morris's first oil painting, and a marvellous piece of pattern-making that makes complete sense of the prevalent flattening of space. Wood wasn't attempting anything like this until half a dozen years later, and it's clear that Morris acted unofficially as his mentor. The forgotten friendship, now gloriously rediscovered, speaks principally in Morris's favour.

At last, standardised art history, which places Wood above Morris as a radical and experimental artist, is firmly challenged in this exhibition. I'm all for questioning received ideas, and just around the corner in Norwich Castle's permanent collection is a room dominated by the paintings of Alfred Munnings, arch-enemy designate of modern art as taught by Morris at his East Anglian art school. …

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