New World sub­lime

Many rarely lent paint­ings have been brought to­gether with pho­tographs and sculp­ture for the UK’S first ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion on the rad­i­cal 20th-cen­tury art move­ment in nearly six decades. Charles Dar­went con­sid­ers its ori­gins and di­rec­tions

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

The defin­ing im­age of Ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism wasn’t made by a painter, but by a pho­tog­ra­pher, hans Na­muth. In 1950, he pho­tographed Jack­son Pollock in the Long Is­land barn that dou­bled as his stu­dio, work­ing on the can­vas he called One: Num­ber 31. What makes the por­trait so com­pelling is that it’s so very wrong.

Pollock’s can­vas isn’t stand­ing on an easel, but ly­ing on the floor, un­stretched. It is also enor­mous—so vast that the top and both ends of it are cut off by the edge of Na­muth’s photo. Then, there’s the artist him­self. Pollock isn’t dressed like a painter, but like a beat­nik, in black jeans and T-shirt; his pos­ture is that of a speed skater. In his right hand, he holds a brush with which he is flick­ing what is clearly house­hold gloss at the can­vas on the floor. ev­ery­thing that art was meant to be in 1950—metic­u­lous, skilled, high­brow—is up­ended by Na­muth’s por­trait of the man who would in­evitably be dubbed ‘Jack the Drip­per’.

What was go­ing on? Thirty years be­fore, Ger­man artists had hit on a style they called ex­pres­sion­is­mus, an­gli­cised as ‘ex­pres­sion­ism’, the op­po­site of Im­pres­sion­ism. Where Monet and the rest showed an ex­ter­nal world of quick light and colour, ex­pres­sion­ists, trau­ma­tised by the hor­rors of the First World War, worked out­wards from their own psy­chic pain.

As is the way with art, this quickly gen­er­ated its own an­ti­move­ment—ab­strac­tion­ists such as Piet Mon­drian and Josef Al­bers, who dis­missed ex­pres­sion­ism as self-in­dul­gent. (‘Vomit, but with the el­bows this time,’ Al­bers hissed.)

Mean­while, Amer­ica, iso­la­tion­ist in art as in pol­i­tics, went on her merry way. A decade be­fore Na­muth’s por­trait, Pollock had been paint­ing faux-mex­i­can mu­rals. Like the ex­pres­sion­ists, it took a war to change him.

Jack­son Pollock’s swan song Blue poles (1952) cel­e­brates the very act of cre­at­ing a paint­ing. Dis­played for the first time with his mon­u­men­tal Mu­ral (1943), it is a highlight of the vast cen­tral Gallery 3 of the RA’S ex­hi­bi­tion hung with 16 of his paint­ings

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