In Julian Temple’s recent documentary for the BBC, Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson described the moment he was forced to confront his own mortality. Diagnosed with an inoperable tumour and given a year to live, he walked through the hospital doors and into the countryside. ‘It was a beautiful winter’s day’, he remembers, ‘and suddenly I felt this elation. You’re vividly alive – every little thing you see, every cold breeze against your face, every brick in the road… The very paving stones seemed to be shimmering… Everything was tingling… Suddenly everything lifted off me.’ Wilko explains how his diagnosis woke him up, in the most profound Zen sense, to the beauty of the present moment. With his future amputated, today was all he’d have. It was enough.
This ecstatic awakening floats into my mind as I wander round the David Jones exhibition at Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery. Halfway through this retrospective, the guy-lines that once tethered Jones’s figurative imagery together in tidy Modernist tinged compositions appear to loosen and break free. It’s not a descent into abstraction and nor is it, I think, a loss of control. It looks as though the artist has started to lean into the fluidity and subjectivity of his perception. In doing so the world shimmers before him like it did for Wilko.
Jones was born in Wales but raised in London. At the age of twenty, in 1915, he joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, fought on the Western Front for nearly three years and was wounded in the Battle of the Somme. After the war he published a famous epic poem, ‘In Parenthesis’, inspired by this undoubtedly horrifying ordeal. Knowing little about Jones aside from these rough biographical facts, I visited the Chichester exhibition vaguely expecting to see pictures inspired directly by the war. Yet this is not an exhibition of war art. Life in the trenches offered the artist precious little time to sketch and create artworks. There are a few observational wartime drawings early in the display, but this is, if anything, a show about what someone does after surviving such a shattering early experience. How does it shape their peacetime vision?
After the war ended, Jones retreated, quite literally – joining Eric Gill in his artists community at Ditchling in Sussex. Here he converted to Catholicism and began to focus much of his energy on the craft of printmaking. The wood engravings in particular, which owe much stylistically to Gill, have their feet planted firmly in two worlds. The flattened forms and packed frenetic compositions are Modernist, evoking the jagged vistas of Vorticism and the multiple viewpoints of Cubism. Yet their tone is altogether more antiquarian, for these are illustrations of Medieval mystery plays which hint at the stylized church art of the pre-Renaissance.
As I stroll through the show, I get the sense of Jones as a man apart – neither a reactionary figure nor a gung-ho Modernist. That this quiet man, who’d witnessed the tanks and bombs of World War I, might not really delight in the promise of the modern mechanized age is understandable. Though he was a member of The Seven and Five Group, which also included Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore, he did not follow his contemporaries in the charge towards full blown abstraction. His deeply felt, religious tinged work seems now to sit more readily alongside lone painter-poets like Blake and Rossetti.
The late 20s were a time of frenetic creativity and change for Jones. In 1927 his fiancée Petra Gill, daughter of Eric, ended their engagement. Jones was heartbroken and threw himself into work, particularly the completion of his epic war poem ‘In Parenthesis.’ Shortly after this was published in 1932, Jones suffered a nervous breakdown. This period also coincides with a loosening in the artist’s mark-making style. His eyesight had deteriorated considerably and he was forced to give up engraving and embrace a different aesthetic.
The large scale watercolours of this period fully separate colour and contour. Ben Nicholson had experimented with this, but Jones runs with it. In its simplest form, with an image like ‘The Leopard’, the watercolour is barely there – a few spots and a couple of meandering lines which wander across the hind legs. There is a sense of power and musculature in the drawing – tempered by a dash of playfulness and softness in the limpid colour. (It’s worth saying that these subtle watercolour images reproduce far less effectively in the catalogue or, much reduced in size, on this blog. They are experienced best as originals).
Elsewhere, the pictures are raging forcefields of watercolour marks. At times they seem to fight with the line drawings. The colour doesn’t fill in the shapes – instead it marks out its own parallel world, splitting off from reality and partially veiling it like a Cy Twombly gauze. Seen in the flesh, there is something which prevents these from lapsing into incoherent fuzz. The gallery wall labels suggest that the pictures intimate ‘a spiritual world shining through material things’, as light shines through a soft curtain. This is particularly true of a restive series of watercolours Jones painted at a beachside house, just down the road from me in Portslade. They depict the sea, seen through the windows and doors of the property. At high tides, the fulminating waves would break over the balcony of the property. These pictures seem to hint at the blurring of exterior and interior spaces – sea and land, house and beach, window and balcony, imagination and reality.
As I walk through this show, I notice a change in my mood. The pace slows a little. I approach the first couple of rooms in my customary cerebral gallery-blogger mode, reading labels and making notes. A few rooms in, my notebook drops and I start looking straight at the images. Language falls away.
Years back, on my art history degree, I remember they told us to steer clear of value judgements. This was, it seemed, always the golden rule. Artworks are documents, and the good art historian must not allow an emotional response to distract them from rigorous analysis of these most sacred primary sources. I understood the necessity of this but never entirely embraced it. My response to art I enjoy is a primarily felt response which oftentimes can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) be framed in language. It’s elusive, but it’s really the reason I visit exhibitions – to be moved by something that circumvents analysis. There’s a 1949 drawing in this show called ‘Major Hall’s Bothy.’ It’s a large sketch of trees, almost a metre high. It’s tentative, yet powerful, and seems to capture some strange, universal and very human fragility.
A woman next to me stares impassively at the picture for a moment and I have to stop myself from turning to her and saying ‘please tell me you’re feeling this too.’ She’d think I was mad. I don’t want to leave this picture. I eventually come back to it three or four times.
After the show, I learn a little more about this period in Jones’s life. The artist had experienced a second far more serious nervous breakdown, and spent a period of time in a residential treatment home. He was suffering from agoraphobia, and ‘Major Hall’s Bothy’ was drawn through a window. It is a drawing made by someone whose wartime experience has caught up with them in a big way. It is the image of a world seen from a degree of painful separation, a world the artist now quite literally fears to walk in. Yet it’s a drawing, too, by someone who is over the worst, and seeing the beauty and hope for recovery and peace that lies in wait for them, just outside the window.
I feel a sense of re-invigorated zeal in Jones’s late series of hand-lettered pieces, which fill the final room of this show. In his last working decade, Jones focused his attention on these smaller calligraphic works, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Many are significant texts for him, but by no means are we required to read and understand them. They are celebrations of the beauty of letterforms. Seen together as a group, the works suggest that the ageing Jones has retreated to an altogether more internal, contemplative place – evoked by the associations between these Latin inscriptions and the cloistered lives of scholarly monks in bygone eras. Yet Jones also referred to these pictures as ‘my form of abstraction.’ At the end of his life it seems apt that this painter poet forged an abstracted union between language, shorn of its need for interpretation, and paintings, separated from their need to illustrate the world. It feels as if, in this space of pure aesthetic beauty, Jones found a little peace.
‘David Jones: Vision and Memory’ is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until Feb 21st 2016. Admission to exhibition and permanent display: £9