At times like these, with the coronavirus lockdown in force, when the world seems a strange place and everything feels just a little overwhelming, a bit of art might be the antidote we need to pick up the mood. So, in the hope of spreading some optimism, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery shines a spotlight on five particularly uplifting paintings from its collection of modern British art.
Vanessa Bell's Nude with Poppies is a good place to start. This small but bold painting depicts a reclining figure on a bed of light blue, against a background of soothing green waves. With their association with sleep, the suspended oversized poppies enhance the theme of rest and relaxation. This was particularly apt for the decoration of a bedhead for Bell's fellow Bloomsbury associate Mary Hutchinson.
There is uncertainty around whether Nude with Poppies is a preparatory design for the work, or a record of it. Whichever the case, it is a significant example of the ethos with which Bell and her contemporaries from the Bloomsbury Group were working. Bringing contemporary art into everyday life meant breaking down boundaries between art and craft. The creation of the 'Bloomsbury Interior' meant something as mundane as a bedhead could become a work of art.
Bell was also progressive for the way she painted, and Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 had a profound influence in her work. Seeing work by the modern French masters such as Henri Matisse, encouraged Bell to experiment with the simplified, monumental forms and bold colours demonstrated in Nude with Poppies.
The influence of Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury painters is often felt in the decades that follow, and can be seen in Ivon Hitchens' Spring in Eden. The decorative use of bold outlines and light colours come together in a visual display of freshness and energy. The rose pink outline of the torso, the organic flow of green and blue objects, and the suggestion of cheerful yellow daffodils in the foreground create an indulgent image of springtime.
Painted in Hitchens' Hampstead studio in spring 1925, the work is essentially a large still life, with a mirror, flowers, a bowl of fruit, and a cast of a sculpture by Alphonse Legros. In the background, what initially appears to be a window to a sunny exterior scene, is actually the corner of a large canvas. In fact, the title of Swindon's painting, Spring in Eden, refers to the canvas represented, which was intended as a mural of the Garden of Paradise: a war memorial in the Church of St Luke, Maidstone.
Thus the sophistication of the work lies in its careful placement of objects, which manipulate the viewer's perception of space. What could be a cramped studio is transformed into an open and spring-filled paradise.
Another work of great colour and dynamism is Girl Selling Flowers, painted by a young Desmond Morris in 1946. Morris has earned his fame in many guises over the years, contributing valuable work in broadcasting, filmmaking, zoology, anthropology, writing and surrealist painting. It was in Swindon that he began his successful artistic career, and met his inspiration for this early work.
Girl Selling Flowers was painted when Morris was just 18 years old, and depicts his girlfriend at the time, Diana Dors. The big red lips and blonde hair were defining characteristics of the Swindon-born actress and model, and other signs of the glamorous Dors can be detected in the shapely leg and black stiletto heel. But these latter details are almost swallowed up in the rest of the scene, which represents the noise and colours Morris encountered at the Petticoat Lane Market in London.
A great mixture of urban and organic life presents itself in bold colours and flattened simplified forms, layered on top of each other in a way that is almost evocative of a collage. The effect is a delightfully chaotic scene of shapes and colours, in which the eye is always drawn back to the bright red lips and splash of yellow hair.
This style is quite different from the biomorphic forms set in stark surreal landscapes for which Morris is now known. Yet in Girl Selling Flowers we can detect the playful and inquisitive character of his later work, but through the eyes of a young man captivated by beauty and energy.
From young love in Swindon to roaring bohemian London: Landscape was painted by the popular and sought-after Denis Wirth-Miller in 1956.
Wirth-Miller was part of an alternative post-war art scene littered with huge names in modern British art. Most notable is Francis Bacon, who had a huge amount of respect for Wirth-Miller, and collaborated with him on several paintings. Yet, despite being somewhat eclipsed by the legendary painter in recent years, Wirth-Miller was a well-respected painter of landscapes in his own right.
Though the location of Swindon's Landscape is uncertain, the work is a perfect example of Wirth-Miller's distinctive, flat landscapes of East Anglia and Dartmoor. A flat horizon line sliced through with energetic sweeps of paint gives one a sense of travelling through the landscape at speed with a bright blue sky above. Like many of Wirth-Miller's landscapes, it is infused with great sensitivity and dynamism.
Finally, we land in the 1980s with Gillian Ayres' Florestan, a painting of uncensored energy and freedom of expression, created at a moment in her long career when colour was at its most vibrant. Such was the excitement generated by Ayres' work, that during this decade she was named runner up for the John Moores Painting Prize in 1982, and nominated for the Turner Prize in 1989. In 1986, the same year Ayres was appointed OBE, Florestan was created.
Upon the large canvas, over 130cm square, sweeps of yellow, pink, blue, red, orange and green come together in a noisy symphony of marks and colours. Suggestions of images move in and out of view, but ultimately the painting is about the way those marks and colours relate and respond to one another. In this sense, Ayres' working method is similar to a composer writing a piece of music, so it is perhaps apt that she named it after one of the main characters in Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio.
Katie Ackrill, Project Engagement Officer for Art on Tour, a project based at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Art on Tour has developed extensive digital engagement work, including podcasts, articles and family activities, which you can find at www.swindonmuseumandartgallery.org.uk/artontour