Monthly Archives: April 2018

In Bruges: A Rewarding Encounter with Frank Brangwyn


In the middle of February, I spent three days in Bruges undertaking preliminary research for my dissertation and taking in many of the artistic pleasures of this enigmatic city. On the second day, I met with Laurence Van Kerkhoven, Assistant Curator at the Groenigemuseum. She gave me details of the fin-de-siècle works in their collection and we discussed some of the ideas behind my dissertation. Then she took me around their permanent display of works by Frank Brangwyn, on the first floor of the Arentshuis, a fine eighteenth-century house that forms an annex to the main museum. I had seen the display before but this time Laurence drew my attention to Brangwyn’s various depictions of Bruges and she reflected on the diversity of his practice.


But who was Frank Brangwyn, I hear some of you say? He was born in Bruges in 1867, the son of William Brangwyn, a British architect and designer, who based himself in the city for some years. In 1874, the family returned to London and, around 1882, Frank was taken on by the studio of William Morris. He only spent two years there and, at the young age of 18, he launched his career as an artist, working from the start in a wide range of disciplines.


Brangwyn’s continuing connections with Bruges

Brangwyn always maintained his connections with Bruges and in 1936, towards the end of his career but when he was still highly regarded as an artist, he gifted a substantial body of work to the city of Bruges on the understanding that a museum would be created to display them. The museum remains popular but, beyond Bruges and even in his home country, Brangwyn is largely forgotten, despite his considerable reputation across Europe in the early twentieth century.

I asked Laurence about this. In her view, there are several reasons for the comparative neglect of Brangwyn. Partly, it may be due to the range of his practice, which is very much on show in Bruges. It may also be because his work cannot be pinned down stylistically; it doesn’t fit neatly into any one school or movement. It was also evident from the work on view that, in the 1920s, the quality of his work began to decline as he became increasingly detached from wider developments in the art world.

In Britain, he remained well thought of; he was knighted in 1941 and in 1952, four years before his death, he received the first retrospective of a living artist at the Royal Academy. But this was at a time when the ‘young-bloods’ of the Pop and Op art movements (Hamilton, Hockney, Riley et al.) were beginning to look outwards and in the process they turned their backs on most pre-1945 British art. Hence, after his death, Brangwyn and his work faded into relative obscurity.

The outstanding English artist of the time?  

Yet at the beginning of his career, Brangwyn was perhaps seen as the outstanding English artist of the period and he had success in many different fields. In 1885, when he was only 18, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy. Two years later, his work was shown at the Paris Salon and, in the same year, he became a corresponding member of the Munich Secession. In 1895, he was commissioned by Siegfried Bing to provide murals for his newly-opened gallery in Paris – L’Art Nouveau – which was at the centre of this new movement. Two years later, he was a founding member of perhaps the most famous of the secessionist movements, the Vienna Secession, and, in 1899, he was commissioned to produce stained-glass designs for Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Thus, by the turn of the century, when he was just over 30, Brangwyn’s work was recognised and celebrated in Britain, across Europe and in the USA. In the following decade and a half, he was extraordinarily productive exhibiting widely and representing Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1905, at the Ghent World Exhibition in 1913 and at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1914.

The display in Bruges provides an excellent overview of his work during this period and later and I thought it might be of interest to highlight some of the pieces that caught my attention as I went round with Laurence.

Brangwyn as an interior designer

The two years Brangwyn spent in the William Morris studio gave him an idea of the importance of the decorative arts and he worked as an interior designer for all of his career. In the gallery, is one of his earliest commissions, a carpet design called ‘The Vine’, which he produced in 1896 for Bing’s, L’Art Nouveau. This was an impressive achievement for a young British artist; at a time when the decorative arts were seen across Europe as being on a par with the fine arts.

Brangwyn carpet

Brangwyn (design), The Vine (carpet);Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Another example of his work on show is a chair he designed for the British pavilion for the 1905 Venice Biennale. The simple lines of the chair, which formed part of a total scheme of decoration, show how his work was progressing away from Art Nouveau towards Art Deco at the very beginning of this movement.

Brangwyn chair

Chair designed by Brangwyn; Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Brangwyn as a colourist

In the meantime, Brangwyn was exhibiting his paintings widely. His practice as a painter was greatly influenced by his travels with fellow artists to Turkey, South African and Morocco. Perhaps his most significant companion was Arthur Melville, who he travelled to Spain with in 1892. Melville, who was 12 years older than Frank Brangwyn, was a member of the Glasgow Boys and an inspiration to the later Scottish Colourists. (Co-incidentally, one of Melville’s early works, The Lawn Tennis Party at Marcus, is currently on show upstairs in the Barber in the exhibition The Rhythm of Light: Scottish Colourists from the Fleming Collection).


Melville, The Lawn Tennis Party at Marcus, 1889; Private Collection. (Image: Bridgeman Education.)

By the 1890s, Melville had developed a free style of painting that clearly influenced Brangwyn’s early paintings, which – like Melville’s – are saturated with light and colour and full of human activity and movement. In Bruges, they have several examples of Brangwyn’s work from this period; notably Fishermen at Sea in a Squall of 1908, which exemplifies his fluid and exuberant style.

Brangwyn 'Fishermen at Sea in a Squall' .jpg

Brangwyn, Fishermen at Sea in a Squall, 1908; Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Brangwyn as a printmaker

Frank Brangwyn was a significant graphic artist and printmaker. His early work was much in Morris’s mould (as for example in a series of bookplates on display in Bruges) but his work, later, became darker and more expressionistic; as in his series of prints of railway stations. La Gare of 1910 shows his effective depiction of atmospheric effects and his expressive use of flowing, tangled lines.

Brangwyn, La Gare

Brangwyn, La Gare, 1910; Museum Artenshuis, Bruges

Brangwyn, like many artists of the time, was influenced by Japanese prints and he took this interest further when, in 1910, he formed a highly successful partnership with a Japanese woodblock artist, Yoshijuro Urushibara. Brangwyn collaborated with Urishibara for the next 30 years; perhaps their most celebrated work is a series of coloured wood block prints for a book of poems on Bruges by the English poet and art historian, Laurence Binyon. The Beguinage, Bruges is a highly evocative image which channels earlier Symbolist views of Bruges (some of which are on view in the main gallery of the Groenigemuseum) and which reinterprets them in a pattern of delicate lines and misty tones with a tell-tale lit window (a typical Symbolist trope).

Brangwyn 'The Beguinage, Bruges' .jpg

Brangwyn, The Beguinage, Bruges; Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Brangwyn as a social commentator

Brangwyn’s work does not, on the whole, address social issues and concerns. However, the outbreak of the Great War, caused him to consider the impact of the conflict and his position as a British-based artist with connections in Belgium. Brangwyn did not become an official war artist but during the war he produced a large number of prints and images. Some of these tended to be jingoistic (as in his recruitment posters) but others were more reflective. Like many other artists and writers, he became aware of the human cost of the conflict and it should be noted that his colleague, Laurence Binyon, was a celebrated war poet.

Throughout the war and after, Brangwyn produced a series of powerful images highlighting the plight of refugees, starting with the mass displacement of people caused by the surprise and brutal German invasion of Belgium at the beginning of the war. His later Refugees of 1927 seeks to universalise the refugee experience at a time when many artists were seeking to consign the war to the past.

Brangwyn 'Refugees' .jpg

Brangwyn, Refugees, 1927; Museum Artenshuis

Brangwyn and the avant-garde

Laurence added that Frank Brangwyn and his work are in currently being re-evaluated. Her work at the Groeningemuseum has undoubtedly been important in keeping his reputation alive and, recently, several smaller British galleries have had exhibitions of work focusing on specific aspects of his overall practice (as in the William Morris Gallery’s Frank Brangwyn and the Art of Japan, held on the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2017, when I saw more of Brangwyn’s and Urishibara’s collaborative work). And back in 2006, Leeds Museums and Galleries held a broader retrospective of his life and work. This had an excellent accompanying publication with a series of essays on different aspects of his practice, which is in the Barber Fine Art library. Although the exhibition and the publication tends to underplay his Bruges works, which is curious considering it travelled to the Groeningemuseum.

Interest in Frank Brangwyn and in many of his English and Scottish contemporaries is growing (as per the Barber’s Scottish Colourists exhibition). Part of this reflects a wider understanding of the development of the pan-European avant-garde, when Brangwyn’s work came to the fore. The period between 1880 and 1914 was a time of unparalleled cultural dialogue and exchange and artists like Frank Brangwyn are now being re-assessed as significant participants in the avant-garde. Brangwn may not be a major figure but his early work and practice is in many ways emblematic and deserving of greater attention.


Why I like this Module: Victorian Art and the British Empire

LOUISE GREENHILL (second year student)

As part of the second year module ‘Victorian Art and the British Empire,’ taught by Dr Kate Nichols, we all visited the Ikon Gallery in Brindley Place to see their exhibition on Thomas Bock (ran from 6 December 2017 – 11 March 2018) as in Week 9 of the term we would present our research on this subject to small groups of visitors from the Ikon’s Legacy Group for adult learners. From the start the project promised to be interesting and of particular interest to me was the fact that Bock himself was a fellow Brummie!

Thomas Bock was an engraver who was deported to Tasmania, then Van Diemen’s Land, in 1823 where he became a convict artist. The focus of our study was on the detailed watercolour portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people that he produced, which are striking in their sympathetic and personal depictions of each individual.

One of the main themes of this module is the idea that studying imperial art should give a voice to the colonial subjects depicted and recognise the two-way exchange between both cultures, and this is what we tried to do in our research of Youth Sitting. There is some evidence, mainly facial features and the records of the group, to suggest that the subject of this portrait was actually a Hawaiian called John/Joseph/Mclain/Mclean who worked as a sailor and travelled from Hawaii to New York to Liverpool where he was arrested and sentenced to deportation to Tasmania, so he turned out to be a very interesting man to research.


Youth Sitting

Perhaps the most interesting part of this portrait is the fact that the subject is portrayed completely naked, unlike the portraits of the Aboriginal people who are often wearing intricate, detailed outfits. The oddly flat proportions of the torso and the way in which the head seems superimposed to the body led to the theory that “John” was originally sketched with clothes which were, in a sense, removed in the final version. Further evidence to point to this is a preliminary sketch made by Bock which shows “John” again but he is wearing trousers and in the top right-hand corner of the sketch two figures that are sitting in the same cross-legged pose as our subject, are clearly wearing European style shirts and trousers. His nakedness is intriguing because as someone who had travelled around the world and was technically an English convict he surely would have worn English clothes as shown in the sketch. So why did Bock make this artistic decision? Perhaps he wanted to depict the group as similar, he also put a traditional Aboriginal spear into the portrait. Perhaps Bock himself, as a white European man, did not differentiate between different ethnicities. We even wondered if “John” himself wanted to be shown as similar to the Aboriginal people so that he could make a fresh start in Tasmania after his arrest. These are all just theories and there is no conclusive proof either way but the project raised many important questions about the importance of dress in imperial portraiture, the accuracy of portraits and the conflicting intentions of both artist and sitter. Thinking through all these issues and more besides made ‘Victorian Art and the British Empire’ a very interesting module indeed!!





Professor Matthew Rampley’s New Grant Award

The Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies is delighted to announce that Prof. Matthew Rampley has been awarded an Advanced Grant by the European Research Council. The award of €2.4 million is for the five-year project Continuity and Rupture in Central European Art and Architecture, 1918-1939. It examines how the arts responded to the political upheavals in central Europe after the First World War, in particular, the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the creation of the new states of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. How did such huge political change affect architecture and the visual arts? Many artists and architects were keen to embrace the new opportunities that were available, and happily consigned the memory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to oblivion, but others were either ambivalent about its loss or mourned its passing. How were such varied attitudes expressed? Moreover, how did the governments of the newly created states define themselves, and how did they use the arts to promote such definitions? The project is thus an examination of the culture and politics of memory in the visual arts, and it has contemporary relevance. Most states of the former Austria-Hungary still enjoy a special relationship as members of the Visegrad group; there is a sense, therefore, that the old Empire cast a long shadow into the present.

Jaromir Funke. Photograph from the Cycle “Time Persists” (1932). Source Artstor.

Jaromir Funke. Photograph from the Cycle “Time Persists” (1932). Source: Artstor.


Vilmos Huszár Composition (1921) Source Artstor.

Vilmos Huszár. Composition (1921) Source: Artstor.



Being Modern: MoMA in Paris exhibition

SAM ROBINSON (second year student)

Situated on the western arc of Paris’s Boulevard Périphérique, perhaps better known as the Périph, the Louis Vuitton Foundation presents something of a welcome respite from the bustle of inner-city Paris. Having spent the best part of the week-long study trip rattling around the Metro in short bursts from Musee D’Orsay to Centre Pompidou, the semi-rural feel of the LVF building felt a bit alien.

Fondation LV

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the route I had opted for would take me on a scenic tour of the Parisian periphery – a mostly wintery scene, that is, made up of desolate woodland and dual-carriageways. Once the leafless canopy began to clear, however, the destination presented itself in the most striking sense. Several glass panels of a grand scale, arced and deflected, are held together by a semi-visible industrial skeleton to resemble the grandest, gleaning origami construction on the Paris skyline.

Home to the recent Being Modern: MoMA in Paris exhibition, the building is the product of architect Frank Gehry’s trademark obsession with warping and visually stimulating curvature (see Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum) and is something quite remarkable to behold. There is a strong sense of statement to Gehry’s architecture, a bold design that stands out both aesthetically and geographically.

The fact that the roof terrace might ordinarily offer exquisite views of the Eiffel Tower, if it weren’t for the quite deliberate placement of a web of hefty iron pillars, suggests that this building aims to stand apart from the traditional tourist image of Paris. This is the Eiffel Tower of the Périph.

An impressive sight, the LVF building nonetheless echoes the corporate excess of those that occupy it. For me, the uneasy cleanliness and air of expense sat at visible odds with the pretty bleak landscape of the Bois de Bologne in winter. Such feeling was probably best represented by the dozens of queueing visitors anxiously scraping the mud off their feet so as to not dirty the pristine white walkway, for fear of reprisal …. It certainly felt the shiny new product of Paris’ highest-end fashion corporation, a showpiece of expensive designer taste – a world distinctly apart from the functionality and industry of the Pompidou or Eiffel Tower.

That said, once inside, it becomes apparent that such an exhibition would most probably not have become a reality without the sheer cost of it all being able to be met. The volume of work on show on loan from the MoMA — over 100 objects — reportedly required no fewer than seventeen trans-Atlantic shipments to get it all to Paris, which, I’m guessing isn’t exactly cheap.

The first floor of the exhibition, which spanned four floors in total, offers a chronological examination of the MoMA’s history. Initially House by the Railroad by Edward Hopper, 1925, cuts a lonely figure – but only momentarily, as attention is immediately wrenched away by the plethora of instantly recognisable icons of twentieth-century modern art that lay beyond it. Should the eye veer too far left while viewing Hopper’s work, for example, the flitting projection of Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928) proves far too intriguing a distraction.

Whether this was merely a personal failing, my own attention deficit, or whether bigger questions are to be asked about the design of this show, there certainly was some sense of chaos to the display. Perhaps this was an inevitable result of trying to present so many objects — many of them very famous — of all different kinds in one space …. Whatever it was, certainly the show was a feast for the eyes, so much so that it often seemed difficult to concentrate on any one object.

Opus 217 by Paul Signac caught the eye, as a work returning from whence it came. It alludes to the great influence that Parisian and European art once held in shaping the future for American modern art, although after the first floor and the founding years of the MoMA, the art becomes noticeably more American in its identity.

The previously overwhelming collection also begins to thin, in that each individual work is allowed more room to breathe and not diminish into the overwhelmed whole. Andy Warhol’s infamous Campbell’s Soup Cans are allowed a vast amount of wall space, as are other iconic works such as Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl. It makes sense, too, of course, that the most iconic works and their makers are afforded the most space and so attention. Working in chronological order, floor by floor, presents a kind of ascent to a climax. Between each floor, there was an increasing, though indiscernible, buzz of anticipation as visitors escalated past the webbed glass sails of the exterior (somewhat in awe) to the very top.

In this sense I think America was very much the point of ‘Being Modern: MoMA in Paris’. There is some sense of an overzealous presentation of a pure American spectacle, as a show of national pride and brute strength via the medium of loaned artworks. Even so, the exhibition would essentially have been doing what it said on the tin – presenting the ‘MoMA in Paris’: the pinnacle institution of American modern art, showing off a tour de force roll call of world-renowned art to the rest of the world.


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