In Colour – Sickert to Riley is the second exhibition in the new Wolfson Gallery at Charleston. Curated by the textile designer Cressida Bell, it runs until the 26th of August. Thirty one paintings by thirty one twentieth century British artists, all engaging with colour in their sometimes very different ways.
While evoking ‘a grey dusty withered evening in London city’ in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens conjures up a wonderful phrase – ‘the national dread of colour’. And indeed, we often seem to have had an ambivalent attitude to colour. Reviewing the 1910 New English Art Club exhibition, Huntley Carter identifies and praises a small group of ‘colourists’ within the club’s ranks – Lucien Pissarro, Harold Gilman, Robert Bevan and Spencer Gore (the last two also feature in Cressida Bell’s show). However, he then cautions that ‘three fourths of the human race are unaffected by colour, except in a hostile form. Pure, clean colour arouses in their honest bosoms an exasperation only equalled by that called forth by the so-called indecent forms of art.’
I don’t know whether Cressida Bell would agree. Viva readers may remember the (very colourful) cover she did for the February 2019 issue. In the accompanying interview with Joe Fuller, she expressed a wish that people would try wearing more colour, ‘because it’s so life enhancing’. So perhaps we’re not there just yet. But it would be wrong to see the Charleston exhibition as any part of a colour crusade. True, there are big bold pictures just bursting with colour by the likes of Terry Frost and Howard Hodgkin. It would be surprising if they weren’t featured. But I think Cressida Bell is trying to do something rather subtler, choosing paintings where the arrangement of colours, the patterns, the colour balance are paramount. This might explain the presence in the show of artists such as Charles Ginner, Ethel Sands and Sickert, especially Sickert, that you would not associate primarily with colour. And as she said in the Viva interview: ‘I’m trying to look for works of art where you can tell that the artist has superimposed colours on the painting, rather than actually seeing them.’ This would apply, for example, to Stanislawa de Karlowska’s At Churchstanton, Somerset.
What, I suspect, is of primary importance to Cressida Bell is that we have a totally unmediated response to the paintings. So, for example, no distracting captions. If you want to know the identity of the painter, the name of the picture, where it’s usually to be found, you have to refer to the printed handout. Even on that, Cressida Bell’s thoughts on individual paintings, and there are only a handful of these, are so tentative as to be positively endearing. It’s all tremendously refreshing.
One criticism. The walls of the gallery have been painted in four different colours, especially for the exhibition. Far from enhancing the paintings, it positively distracts from them, from the colour in the paintings. A disastrous decision? I think so, but perhaps it wasn’t Cressida Bell’s idea. And maybe I’m just wrong.