Stella Bowen and the European Portrait Tradition

Transcript of a talk presented by Andrew Sayers, Director, National Portrait Gallery, at the Memorial on 23 May 2002

The exhibition Stella Bowen Art Love and War gives us a long-awaited opportunity to understand and enjoy the work of Stella Bowen. Like all good surveys of a single artist's work, the exhibition gives us the shape of the artist's career, it brings together drawings and finished works thus allowing us to see the artist's mind at work and it gives us the chance to assess the particular strengths of an artist.

Yet surveys of a single artist's work can never give us a complete picture of the context in which that artist worked; we cannot expect that of an exhibition. The things we can expect of an exhibition gives us in superb fashion. We can expect that a retrospective will give us a picture of the artist's immediate milieu, her circles of friends, family and supporters, it will give us pictures of the the places she inhabited, the landscapes travelled through and that it will show us what she made of the opportunities she was given to find a personal take on a particular subject. In Stella Bowen's case, her personal take on a challenging subject - the war - appropriately, is given full exposure here.

What we cannot expect of an exhibition is that it will give us the complexity of the visual world in which an artist worked; it can but hint at the many thousands of images that surrounded her and how she saw herself and her art in relation to these images.

So, in this talk I want to suggest some of the art-world contexts which might help to get a sense of the why and the how of Stella Bowen's paintings.

In broad terms there are three contexts for Stella Bowen's art. Firstly there are the art worlds of Adelaide, England and France in the first half of the 20th century, each of them with their own casts of players, exemplary careers, institutions and expectations. Even to sketch these art worlds would a great deal of space. Secondly Stella Bowen's work can be seen in relation to the single most influential person in her life, the writer Ford Madox Ford with whom she was initmately involved from 1917 until 1927 (and remained involved with for a decade beyond); and the third of the contexts that shaped Stella Bowen's art is the context of the past. Any serious painter has a deep engagement with the lessons to be learned from looking at pictures in old-master collections such as London's National Gallery and the Louvre. To quote a contemporary of Stella Bowen's in London the painter and influential teacher Mark Gertler; 'What more does one want but a room, materials and the National Gallery?'

It is very clear that the greatest of Stella Bowen's old master enthusiasms was Hans Holbein, Holbein whose masterpieces The Ambassadors and the portrait of Christina, Duchess of Milan could always be studied in the National Gallery. In this exhibition Stella Bowen's drawings of Ford Madox Ford, of Sidney Huddleston and of the artist's daughter Julia done in the 1920s are conceived and executed in a manner derived from Holbein's portrait drawings. Holbein's drawings were executed either in silverpoint or in chalk whereas Stella Bowen used a modern tool, the pencil. Yet she employed a precise linearity, a faint colouring of face and hands and bolder colouring for specific pieces of costume that is directly from Holbein. Occasionally - à la Holbein - she wrote the name of the sitter across the lower or upper edge of the sheet.

The portrait of Ford Madox Ford playing solitaire, painted around 1926 is also a Holbeinesque painting. It is small - the same size as Holbein's smaller portraits. In the painting of Ford, the sitter is set in a shallow niche of shadowed brown walls and a table edge runs across the front, just under his hands. Both are characteristically Holbein portrait devices. The paint is appropriately thin and flat.

Bowen's most Holbeinesque painting was, without doubt Le Restaurant Lavigne painted in 1926. While the subject was decidedly secular, the painting was composed as a Renaissance tryptich, the waitresses disposed on each side of the proprietors like the devoted worshippers in Holbein's great masterpiece, The Meier Madonna in Darmstadt, or, as the artist herself put it, like a chorus of angels.

Stella Bowen's Holbein phase lasted through the 1920s and was perfectly in accord with the times. Everyone was painting thin and flat in the 1920s. Form and design were everything; no-one wanted sloppy impressionism or sentimental blurring or gluggy paint. You had to see and paint clearly. In her autobiography Drawn From Life, published in 1941, Stella Bowen described the views on painting she held in the early 1920s. 'For years …' she wrote, 'I could not feel any virtue in a picture done in thick opaque paint, or with undefined edges'. It is not surprising that the precision of Holbein was so attractive to her.

Holbein was one of Ford Madox Ford's artistic heroes. In a 1923 letter to Stella Bowen he counselled her to pay more attention to the Old Fellows (as he endearingly described them), rather than to her modernist peers. He wrote; 'As for not going to the Old Fellows - you must go to them! - the serene ones, like Holbein & Cranach & Simone Martini …'

Ford's phrase , 'the serene ones', gives us a clue that there was far more to his passion for Holbein than simply an admiration for thin paint. In 1905 Ford had written a book on Holbein. Unlike a great deal of art history written in the early years of the twentieth century Ford's book is a rewarding read. It tells us what Holbein meant to Ford. To the extent we can take her as having been profoundly affected by his ideas on art, we can perhaps deduce what Holbein may have meant to Stella Bowen.

In his book Ford tries to define Holbein's power as an artist. He writes that Holbein had 'a gift that leaves [him] still far enough ahead of the most modern of the moderns - a gift of keenly observing his fellow-men, and of rendering them dispassionately'. Ford returns to his theme of dispassionate observation again and again in his book; Holbein he says
does not take [his sitters] in their 'moments', he does not show them under violent lights or in the grasp of strong passions. He rounds them off, catching them always at moments when the illumination, both of the actual atmosphere and of their souls, was transfused and shone all around them. Thus he has left us a picture of his world, as it were, upon a grey day.

I particularly like that last sentence and gives us some of the flavour of Ford's evocative observations. The book is very turn-of-the-century with its art-for-art's-sake message. Ford writes; 'If I wanted to find a figure really akin to [Holbein's] I think I should go to music and speak of Bach. For in Bach you have just that peculiar Teutonic type of which Holbein is so great an example: in the musician too you have that marvellous mastery of the instrument, that composure, that want of striving. And both move one by what musicians call 'absolute' means.' And so on.

I have quoted Ford at length here to make the point that while we may look for (and easily find) motifs and stylistic devices in Stella Bowen's work that are derived from old master painters, there was always a deeper meaning to be sought in their work. In Drawn From Life Bowen relates her encounter with the art of the early Italian Renaissance on her visit to Italy in 1923. She writes;
I had expected to be worried by the crudities of the early painters and to find difficulty in understanding them… Actually it was precisely the formal patterns of the earlier painting which enchanted me as I had never before been enchanted. It was like the first time I heard Bach - long ago in Adelaide - and although I have come better to understand certain other forms of art since then, there has been nothing to compare with those early loves for pure spontaneous pleasure - nothing which so quickly rang my bell.

In the 1920s Stella Bowen was deeply in the thrall of what she described as 'the formal and pellucid serenity of those candid early masters'. She was seriously turned off the painters of the later Renaissance; they were she said 'all highlights and anguish'. But by the beginning of the 1930s when she was no longer living with Ford Madox Ford, it is clear that Stella Bowen' s artistic sympathies were widening. In her exhibition at the Galerie Barriero in Paris in 1931, paintings such as her portrait of Edith Sitwell and the study of the same sitter's bejewelled hands wrapped around an African mask would have struck a different note to the portraits of the 1920s - they do not depend for their success on poster-like definition and high-keyed tonality. In fact they are energetically painted - the brushstrokes impart vigour to the work and the forms are modelled richly in shadow. Yet they retain a structure of formal coherence - the quality Bowen described as 'architecture'.

The stylistic shift that occurs in her work in the early 1930s is most easily demonstrated by comparing the two self-portraits in the exhibition. The earlier of the two is concieved as a series of elegantly modulated planes, the later as a form modelled with directional brushstrokes. The building up of form in this way comes from another tradition of painting. It is a patient, architectural approach that has its origins in the traditions of Italian Renassance drawing so deeply admired in London's art schools. Constructing with a point - in this case, the point of the brush.

In short what we see in Stella Bowen's portraiture in the 1930s and 1940s is an increasing sketchiness. In Drawn From Life the artist explained that this shift was driven by economic necessity;
I developed a technique for doing portrait sketches in two or three days and got a good many orders. But this way of working led me further from the small, tight and formal painting on panel which was my natural bent … Unfortunately sketchiness has never been one of my qualities. Nevertheless the quick portraits sold well and encouraged the delusion that I should someday achieve financial security by my brush.

Yet economic necessity was only part of the reason Stella Bowen's style began to change; the 1930s created different demands. Indeed the shift that took place in Stella Bowen's work from the severe and formal, more towards the loose and painterly, can be found in many other artist's work. Think of the Sydney painter Adelaide Perry, or even Thea Proctor. All of them rigorous adherents to form, to linearity and to compositional precision in the 1920s, but by the time the decade of the 1940s came around their edges were softer, forms were modelled tonally, the marks of the brush were celebrated not concealed.

It is an interesting feature of the history of portrait practice, that success does not entirely depend upon talent. Success also depends on the portrait artist developing a way of working that is convenient to sitters. Stella Bowen found such a method with her quick sketches - she could get convincing likeness - the fundamental demand of portraiture - quite rapidly.

What Stella Bowen thought was her natural bent was given a chance in her war work. In 1941 she wrote that she longed to have a chance to paint more group portraits and could not have imagined then the opportunities for such portraits provided by her work as a war artist. In her now famous Bomber crew and Halifax crew, Bowen had a chance to create complex group portraits in a style that was precise and finished and that owed a great deal to the artist she most admired. In his study of Holbein, Ford had described the way the artist painted decorations - heraldic devices and words - straight onto his pictures. In the lower part of the Bomber crew the names of the crew members, their rank and RAAF insignia drift across the surface of the painting. Here too is the quality of the 'static and universalised' portraiture that Bowen strove to create.

In her war-related paintings Bowen enjoyed the challenge of tackling subjects she described as 'foreign to my previous experience'. She tried out a number of ideas to deal with some complex pictorial problems, the most strikingly unusual of which would have to be the depiction of the processing of a repatriated prisoner of war and the painting titled At the Churchill Club, large and small worlds, a depiction of the distinction between the personal and the global. In both these works Bowen's approach seems rather awkward and contrived. Less ambitious and less forced works that nonetheless turn on profound symbolic meanings are the two paintings that preceded her appointment as official war artist, Flight from reason and The house opposite. Both of these 1941 works have bombed buildings as their central motif and have little precedent in the works of the old masters but many parellels in the works of Bowen's contemporaries. The art is London of the 1930s is jam-packed with paintings of the motif of the pot plant on the studio window sill with a glimpse of the wider world beyond. Yet in this painting of Stella Bowen's the world beyond is the literal surrealism of blitzed London, the scene that fascinated and appalled the generation of British war-time artists.

The house opposite is a very beautiful painting. To me it presents the best things in Stella Bowen. What are these things. Well, first, like a great many of her paintings it presents the world, as it were, on a grey day - its light comes from a clouded sky but its glow is the inner shine that comes from those pink flowers in a pot on the window-sill. This description could apply equally to her self-portraits. In all of Bowen's best pictures there is a shying away from a violent drama of light and shade; they are suffused with an even imperturbability. Where her paintings do admit strong light, as in her later self-portrait, she is apt to throw the principal motif into shadow. Yet the shadows are not opaque - they are warm and vibrant. The painting of the lace curtains in The house opposite, like the painting of the lace doily in La plante and Edith Sitwell's bangles and rings in Le masque, is wonderfully restrained and sensitive. Such touches of pure painterly delight make this exhibition terrifically rewarding. The portrait of Theaden Hancock, for example, one of Stella Bowen's last paintings, is full of beautifully rendered details, particularly the buttons on her jacket and cardigan.

But lest we get too carried away with details I want finally to return to Ford Madox Ford's book on Holbein to remind us of the search for a deeper thread of meaning in art. Of Holbein's work Ford made the point that his greatest portraits were those without a particular background or detailed accessories to worry the eye. 'The figures in the picture' he said of Holbein's portrait of his wife and children, 'exist just as at first sight a great human individuality exists'. This, I think, must have been the aim of Stella Bowen: indeed it is the aim of every true portraitist to place real people before us. True portraits give us images that are inhabited by likenesses and, through the artist's skill in creating a static image which we honour with our time and attention, give us images that cheat mortality.





Thursday 23 May 2002


Andrew Sayers