This essay was written by Dr. Robert Burstow in 1986 and was previously published in the UK Art Magazine, ASPECTS, (Winter Issue 1986), and in the Catalogue of the solo exhibition of the same year, Geoffrey Nawn Drawings: 1985 -1986 at Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham, UK.
In the spirit of T. S. Eliot’s lines from Four Quartets * – and the fact that 2021 is the 35th anniversary of its original date – I am pleased to be able to publish Robert’s perceptive essay in the blog. I am grateful for his permission to do so and indeed for writing it all those years ago. Geoffrey Nawn
*We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Dr. Robert Burstow is Associate Professor in History and Theory of Art at the University of Derby, UK. and a Researcher, Author and Independent Exhibition Curator.
“Every single serious artist working in Britain today…subscribes to the politics of disillusionment.” 1 This was the view recently expressed by one well-known critic and, despite the hyperbole, it remains a valuable indicator of what has proved a pervasive impulse in contemporary art. The last five years or so have seen a growing despair at the social conflicts which divide our society. The same period has also witnessed a widespread return to the traditional dominance of painting and drawing, coupled with a return to the use of resembling imagery. A desire to address again some of the humanist issues which for centuries had been considered unquestionably within the province of pictorial art has united, for several artists, these disparate developments.
Two of the most obvious characteristics of Geoffrey Nawn’s drawings are that they employ figurative representation and confront subjects that are inherently in the public domain. While they are dependent on current practical and critical discourses, which ultimately give them their fullest meaning, they may also be comprehensible and relevant to a wider audience. Nawn speaks of an ” absence of morality” in contemporary life and here he is not thinking of a personal, usually religiously – based morality which led Victorian painters into reproving didacticism, but of a collective secular morality which ought to inform our social policies and practices. And as the social reforms of the early post-war years are swept away, the need increases for an art that sensitively reveals our communal impoverishment.
Since the ” Art for Art’s sake” movement of the late nineteenth century, the idea has gained currency and inflected much modernist thinking, that art which is politically engagé cannot possess the virtues of “great” art. Yet historically this notion is a non sequitur: are Michelangelo’s David or Picasso’s Guernica, to name but two examples, demeaned for being responses to specific political situations? As a committed Florentine republican, Michelangelo was evidently willing to celebrate his government’s triumph over Medici rule while Picasso’s rage at the fascist bombing of his native country gave rise to one of the most impressive monuments of the century. We must ask how much the devaluation of political content in art represents a strategy to outflank avant gardism which has traditionally posited a challenge to the establishment.
This neglect of artistic intention constitutes part of a much broader depreciation of subject matter in art in favor of an emphasis on formal innovation, popularly portrayed through critical misrepresentation as the primary objective of modernism. Roger Fry initiated the tendency in this country to give an unjustified prominence to formal analysis at the expense of the relationship of form to content, and, by the 1960s, the importance of content in contemporary art was so diminished that it could be a commonplace of studio discussion that form is content. The influential American critic, Clement Greenberg, codified Fry’s misleading account of modernism into a thorough-going formalism, suggesting that even early modernists, such as Manet, had recognized that, “the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique to the nature of its medium”.² Greenberg’s reductionism denied to art its ancient religious, political and commemorative functions as a widely intelligible mediator of social values and effectively created an unjustified hiatus between the “Old Masters” and the modernists. When Greenberg’s puritanical prescriptions reached their apogee in the decorative blandness of a generation of hard-edge stripe and circle painters, a terminus of sorts was encountered, hailed by some as the end of painting.
While the precise terrain of Post -Modernism remains in dispute, one of its characteristics would seem to be a reclamation of the signifying practices of a range of conventional formal ( classicism, gothicism, etc.) combined with an acknowledgement that authentic expressivity cannot exist independently of such languages. Thus for the contemporary artist such as Nawn who demonstrates an historical awareness of both historical and cultural conditions, the problem posed is one of reconciliation between the need for expressive content and an acceptance of the inherent relativity of expressive form.
Nawn’s three Head drawings focus attention on the cerebral and reflective aspect of the human personality. By depriving the individual of the pleasure and rewards of the body, thereby condemning him to the passive rather than the active life, he is rendered impotent. On the far horizon of each landscape is an industrial complex isolated from the human element by a wide stretch of water. While industrial landscape has provided a subject for art since the late eighteenth century Romantic painters of the Sublime, it was once a vision of wonder and excitement. Here it only suggests the alienation of Man from a monolithic, externally controlled means of production. Moreover, cut off from his own personal means of production (and reproduction) and disenfranchised from the collective power-base, the individual is still so entangled within the hierarchical system that he is unable to respond, or even fully recognize, his own trauma. This seems implicit in the imprisoning or gallows-like structures, the fixed frontal gaze, and, in the first Head, the mirror’s blank reflection.
The experience of living in several northern cities and more recently, a long stay in Teeside, one of Britain’s bleakest areas of post-industrial decay, has no doubt shaped Nawn’s grim vision. Many of his landscape images are culled from his own photographs, but their humanity touches on a more universal melancholy, recalling the metaphysical alienation of De Chirico’s haunted townscapes or Philip Guston’s curiously juxtaposed objects. Although the legacy of Romanticism might have bequeathed a certain heroism to the suffering of these mutilated individuals, they evince only a thoroughly unheroic and self-conscious romanticism, mediated through historical precedents in Géricault and Goya.
Nawn’s thematic preoccupations may be better situated within the traditions of social realism. Despite their distortion and dislocation, his images are compatible with the essential attitudes of realist artists as outlined in the 1950’s by their most vociferous apologist, John Berger:
Realism is not photographic naturalism… They are realists because they feel deeply about what they observe in the actual world but never let their feelings about what they would like to see, obliterate what they know to be true, and also because, in their selection of what they choose to describe about one case, they try to discover those facts which are typical of many others.
Berger believed that the appropriate subjects for social realist art were working class people at home, work, and leisure, and urban or industrial landscapes. But where Courbet’s Stone-Breakers (1849), for example, sought to celebrate the new heroes of the Second Republic, by showing the nobility of manual labour, Nawn’s proletarian subjects are denied even the opportunity of gainful employment. Also, in contrast, Nawn’s realist intentions are realized through a collaging together of symbols which may involve dissonant conjunctions of scale and representation.
In Mountain, one of the larger more resolved drawings, the hand has breached the restrictive barrier and reaches aspiringly upwards, perhaps suggestive of the potential of manual labour to bring independence and freedom. But also, as the indispensable manipulative tool of the artist and, of course, of the ultimate Creator (traditionally symbolized by a hand to represent His absolute power) it may further suggest the capacity of creative invention to liberate the self into a metaphysical realm. The symmetry of the white mountain with its symbolic connotations of purity and transcendence appear to reinforce this optimistic conception. However, an ominous discrepancy in the scale and the location of the disjointed human anatomy undermines the optimism and suggests rather that we may remain prisoners of our own flawed make-up.
Intensely conscious of his origins, Nawn has recently turned from the social struggles of England to the very different problems of Northern Ireland. The protagonists seem to embody a similar contradiction as both the perpetrators of their own suffering yet also the victims of an historical situation. A familiar anguish haunts the Unionists portrayed in The Field but their averted glance betrays a sense of their own guilt. As the destination of the Orange parade, The Field may be seen as symbolic of an eventual destiny of Protestant Ireland. Against a background of derelict terraced houses and heavy industry (a traditional stronghold of Protestantism in Belfast) the sash-wearing Orangeman confronts us from his pulpit-like enclosure which perhaps demarcates the rigid social divisions of the Province. The drummer at his side suggests the brutish aggression which primitively stirs the factional hatred and blindly follows the manipulating Loyalist leaders. The symbolism of hands is again important in relation to power: the violence of the clenched fist which pounds upon half of a significantly split cross is slyly masked by the respectability of the bowler-hat, doffed with deceptive politeness. The intractable problems of Ireland provide another example of the struggles endemic to our society.
Divorced from an explicitly partisan context, a note of self-absorbtion is sounded in Man With Drum. An emphasis on the isolated head enclosed within geometric forms is reminiscent of the earlier decapitated heads. The drummer seems only to listen intently to the relentless march of time, or change, as he beats it out to his own tune. It is tempting to regard his withdrawn melancholy, which is only inflamed by the music of his drum, as a kind of transposed self-portrait of the artist caught between responsibility and reverie.
The American cultural historian, Christopher Lasch, has written of the widespread reluctance, increasingly evident in recent years, to make common cause, which has always been the driving force of social reform, and of a popular retreat into protective domestic isolationism.⁴ A stress on individualism, crucial to liberal notions of democracy and freedom has engendered a wariness of state provision, while, paradoxically, many individuals pay a high price for a nominal freedom, devalued by insufficient material means to enjoy it. Nawn’s drawing, Reverie, hints at such contradiction. The individual, repossessed of bodily form, is now released from the repressive structures of former drawings and is transported in an encircling fiery cloth. But the title suggests that this is only a day-dream or delusion; the actual sources of determining power remain remote and unattainable, smoking like Hades across the river Styx. Seduced by purely introspective liberation, which can only be partial and transitory, the individual forsakes the collective struggle. Here lies the moral dichotomy, acknowledged by Lasch, between personal and communal liberty.
Nawn remains preoccupied with the problematic choices forced upon us not only by our social conditions, but, in a broader sense, by our acceptance of the anxiety and responsibilities of an existential reality. Through the use of metaphor rooted in our everyday experiences, Nawn offers us an uncompromising vision of the restrictions and consequences which may govern the the morality of our actions. But in the struggles everywhere apparent in our society, Nawn perhaps sees an analogue of our own constant search to form ourselves.
Dr. ROBERT BURSTOW 1986
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- Waldemar Januszczak, The Guardian, 8.2. 86
- Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting, 1961
- “Social Realism and the Young”, New Statesman & Nation, 10.7. 55
- Cristopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, New York, 1979
Drawings by Geoffrey Nawn © All rights reserved