In the Tate August1 2014

 

(04) Something of the grandeur of watching the Zeppelins go by-

from an advert for the Ethyly Corporation, 1952, 17 x 24cms.

a comparative painting of the period

"Going Round in Circles", Eyre Railroad advertisement 1946

"More Turns than a Merry Go Round" Bundy Tubing 1952

PLAY, Heywood Sumner

MERRY GO ROUND, Marvin Cone US 1934

 

 

Mark Gertler (1891-1939)

 

These are the bare bones of a lecture given after 1980. Each time I gave the lecture, audiences added more to my understanding. Further reading about London at War 1914-1918 revealed more relevent aspects to the study of the painting. To this day, I still find references to Zeppelins over London, and difficulties experienced by civilians at the start of Mechanised Warfare, harmonise well with an understanding of the mood Gertler had created in this work.

I saw the painting at the Ben Uri Gallery before it was transferred to the Tate Gallery, a terrible and grave painting that oppressed and puzzled. In the Ben Uri it was difficult to get back from it and it was frighteningly oppressive. It was certainly unlike anything else I had ever seen, and was unbelievably painted by a British artist.

I was told by the Curator that there was a huge weight of pigment on the back of its canvas because, standing unsold in his studio, face turned to the wall, it bore the scrapings of Gertler's palette on a daily basis.

The image of the Merry-Go-Round as Carnival attraction struck a resonance with me because from childhood I always feared the mad, abandoned machine fixed to the Fairground floor. Hitchcock chose the Merry Go Round increasingly out of control as a setpiece in Strangers on a Train.

Giving money for the privilege, you sit clutching a garish chicken or horse screaming with pain, then as the machine is activated, you share the air of hysteria gradually gathering among the riders and their spectators, with the earspiltting music that accompanies the experience. The wheeling shapes circling above above the steel machine seemed more ominous than clouds (which was one explanation).

Contemporary influences (either consciously or unconsciously) absorbed by the artist,seemed to require closer study. As always D.H.Lawrence was attuned to the energy of the work and its emerging programme of meaning. The example of the Shrove Tide Fair in Diaghilev's ballet Petrouchka which most of Gertler's set had seen before 1914 provided one aspect of understanding. The convergence within the image of the Merry-Go-Round, of reflections on the Circle Line as a means for poor East Enders to escape Zeppelin bombing, and the destructive circling of the Moth around the Flame emerged over the years.

THE CIRCLE LINE AS MERRY-GO-ROUND, PUNCH 1913

I submitted an article to Apollo and Denys Sutton. Luke Gertler read the text and I was most encouraged. It just never appeared.I have ceased to write to persuade, but here present the central texts and thoughts for you to construct into what you will. The perfectly turned argument that finds an admiring peer review before an acclaimed academic publication seems hollow now. Much more exciting is the way in which exploration of the context in which a work of art was created helps to bed it down in the imagination, establishing a persuasive direct line to the impulse of image making. It helped I was teaching practising artists, many of whom were intellectually incapable of the towering structures later generations of scholars may infer.

The previous art historical analysis of the painting was primarily style based whereas the rawness and impact of the painting seemed to demand discussion of direct responses to experiences of the War on the Home Front -

• the sublime spectacle of destruction of life and property from the air;

• bewildered civilians taking shelter in the Underfound and in particular using the Circle Line to escape the bombing;

• Gertler's guilt at being protected in Hampstead while his family living in the East End were in danger of being bombed;

• the pictorial possibilities of the scenario accommodating a cross section of British society trapped in the claustrophobic cycle of destruction;

•set against an understanding of Diaghilev's ballet Petrouchka (set in a fairground) as symbolic of the destruction of the innocent by brute force.


While preparing for the lecture I met a man in the street who had seen a Zeppelin coming in on the wind in 1917. He remarked with a sense of the awe he felt at the great silver cigar shape in the night sky, coming in on the wind on a journey down to the East End of London.

Incidentally. I found in the archives of Reckitt and Colman's a Zeppelin Detector given away with mustard that calculated for you the likelihood of an attack, based on the direction of the wind.

 

Here is a small collection of visual material I have collected over the period that tests my own responses to thechaos of destruction and its peculair attraction. The Menu includes also responses from a wide range of people to the spectacle of Zeppelins over London.

Reflections on aerial bombing in 1916 certainly chimed well with my anxieties experienced in the 1980's in Norwich, being at the epicentre of the American airbases.

 

Compare with Gertler's painting of Swingboats, an illustration of a Swing Boat from a book on Garden Design, Amsterdam 1802

ZEPPELINS - THE AESTHETICS OF BEING BOMBED

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LECTURE NOTES


Merry-Go-Round ; 76' x 56'; Tate Gallery London,

finished by September 1916 and exhibited at the London Group 1917.


" Gertler is by birth an absolute little East End Jew.... He is rather beautiful and has a funny little shiny black fringe; his mind is deep and simple, and I think he has the feu sacre." Edward Marsh 1913.
 
The talk addresses the problematic subject matter of the painting.
 
Why is the image of the Merry Go Round associated with hysteria rather than happiness ?
What is the significance of the painting in its contemporary context ?
What influenced its extraordinary imagery ?
 
The Cylic in pictorial imagery,

Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951).
Gertler's early subject matter in the East End.
Early work, Rabbi and Daughter 1912.
 
The influence of Diaghilev and Petrouchka, 1912. The Benois sets for Petrouchka, see A.G.Houbigant, Moeurs et Costumes des Russes , Paris 1817, (01) lithographs of Russian scenes upon which Benois seems to have based his celebrated Fairground sets for Diaghilev.
The influence of D.H.Lawrence, Women in Love ,1921,written from 1912 and The Rainbow, Sept. 1915
 
The Home Front during the First World War, the early bombing raids on London, the early shelters in the Underground
Effect on civilian morale. (01. 02, 03)
 
 
The nature of Gertler's creativity.


" You ask what is the matter with me ? Well, it is something serious - the greatest crisis in my life - and you know what I have already suffered in the past. I fact for the time being I see no solution - the trouble is- my work - what is my value as an artist / What have I in me after all ? Is there anything there worth while after all ? That is the point - I doubt myself - I doubt myself terribly - after all these years of labour and you know how I worked - so so hard with my blood and I have lived and fed up my work - my work was by faith....." letter to William Rothenstein, c1925. September 1939, dies by his own hand.
 
 
1. Responses to the painting .


 

1.1"With its harsh flickering restlessness the painting seemed to be a comment on Mark's life in the various scenes through which he had passed - Whitechapel slum, young artist's Bohemia, fashionable society, the Garsington intelligentsia. It was impossible too to look at these mechanical soldiers going round and round without recalling the horrors of the deadlocked Western Front....." William Rothenstein, Men and Memories 1942.
 
1.2 "In this extraordinary picture the folk art figures express, although in a more sophisticated fashion, the brutality that the boisterous jollity of the traditional Punch scarcely masks.... Never again as far as I am aware did his folk art figures assume so grand or so sinister a form." John Rothenstein.
 
1.3 "Your terrible and beautiful picture[in reproduction] has just come. This is the first picture you have ever painted : it is the best modern picture I have ever seen : I think it is great and true. But it is horrible and terrifying. I'm not sure I wouldn't be too frightened to come and look at the original." D.H.Lawrence.


2.Gertler on Art and Creativity .


2.1 "I paint pictures which seem to me wonderful but no one understands them." Mark Gertler, May 1916. "Ideas for future pictures come to me very often and these ideas are so mysterious and wonderful that when they come over me - they come in waves - I get so excited and feel so physically weak that I can hardly stand." MG to Edward Marsh, August 17th, 1915.
 
2.2 "I get amazing visions for pictures, some of them too complicated to paint but wonderful as ghosts. I got wonderful ideas here on Bank Holidays. Multitudes of people. Bright feathers, swinging in and out of the clouds in coloured boats... a blaze of whirling colour; the effect would be something like a rainbow. It would be wonderful if one could give the effect of the whirl and the excitement, but it's too complicated an idea to paint yet." Gertler, letter to Carrington, 1915 written in Hampstead Heath.
 
2.3 "He was baffled by this association of art with things like politics and music-halls, which he had always accepted as part of the world's constitution, but essentially unimportant. He had no organised mental life. His ideas came direct from his instincts to his mind, and were used for immediate purposes or dropped back again to return when wanted." G.Cannan, Mendel.
 


3. Appropriate texts; the image of the moth and the candle .


3.1 "This world in which she lived was like a circle lighted by a lamp. This lighted area, lit up by man's completest consciousness, she thought was all the world : that here all was disclosed for ever. Yet all the time within the darkness she had been aware of points of light, like the eyes of wild beasts, gleaming, penetrating, vanishing. And her soul had acknowledged in a great heave of terror only the outer darkness. The inner circle of light in which she lived and moved, wherein the trains rushed and the factories ground out their machine produce and the plants and the animals worked by the light of science and knowledge, suddenly it seemed like an area under an arc lamp, wherein the moths and children played in their security of blinding light, not even knowing there was any darkness because they stayed in the light..... Nevertheless the darkness wheeled about, with grey shadow-shapes of wild beasts, and also with dark shadow shapes of the angels whom the light fenced out, as it fenced out the more familiar beasts of darkness."
D.H.Lawrence, The Rainbow,1915, of Ursula Brangwyn. Lawrence as an admirer of Thomas Hardy would not have missed the use of the image used to describe Tess in Tess of the Durbevilles.
 


3.2"You seem to me to be flying like a moth into a fire. I beg you don't let the current of work carry you on so strongly that it will destroy you oversoon.." DHL to MG
 


3.3 "He lived in a circle of light into which like moths came timid, blinking, lovable figures, and he loved them ; but they passed on and were lost in the tumultuous heaving darkness of life, into which alone he could not enter." Gilbert Cannan, Mendel ,1916.
 
 
 
Slide PUNCH May 26th 1909 p.363, and an example of much interest in airship question. Here Punch makes light but there was considerable unease at airships creeping in under the national defences.
 

BOOKLIST


For the standard biography see
John Woodeson, Mark Gertler Biography of a Painter , 1972;


Mark Gertler Selected Letters ,edited by Noel Carrington 1965;


The Letters and Diaries of Dora Carrington edited Noel Carrington;


John Rothenstein Modern English Painters , Vol ii, 1956;


Gilbert Cannan, Mendel A Story of Youth , published October 1916;


Robert Gathorne-Hardy, Ottoline, the Early Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell 1963;

Osbert Sitwell, Great Morning , 1948;

D.H.Lawrence, The Rainbow,1915;

George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England, Paladin 1966

SELECTED DATES

Born in Spitalfields, East London;
1906, long periods of sleeplessness and depression; , attended art classes Regent Street Polytechnic;
1908 to Slade School,met Dora Carrington, C.R.W.Nevinson, Paul Nash, David Bomberg, won Slade Scholarship, first prize for Head Painting;
1912 joined New English Art School, visited Paris, early influence of Piero, now allegiance to the Modern School and particularly Derain ;
1915 joined the Morell/Lawrence circle and left the East End for good.Moved to Penn Studio, Hampstead.
1919 first visit to Paris, change in his art from the depiction of the individual to the influence of the Ecole de Paris.