17 MARCH 2007, Page 65

Gruesome twosome

Andrew Lambirth

Gilbert & George Tate Modern, until 7 May Home and Garden: Domestic Spaces in Paintings 1914–60 Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, E2, until 24 June Acourier staggered up the stairs to my flat bearing Gilbert & George: The Complete Pictures with an essay by Rudi Fuchs (Tate Publishing, 1,200 pages, 1,500 full-colour illustrations, £39.99). It’s a twovolume hardback which comes in its own carrying case, but I was glad not to have to bring it home myself as it weighs over a stone on the bathroom scales. It is the season of G&G overload, for that muchexhibited, much-publicised and overplayed pair have been given the signal honour of a grand exhibition of 18 galleries at Tate Modern. A whole floor is devoted to their asininities, which is nothing short of a disgrace. Never have I been to so empty and arid a major exhibition, the most overweening display of narcissism ever to have been mounted. Some of the very early work has an elegiac poignance, when they made large drawings or worked in blackand-white photography, but the day they discovered colour was a disaster for themselves and for British art.

It’s simply extraordinary that so large a proportion of the art establishment should be taken in by G&G. Usually sensible reviewers wax lyrical about their achievements, and the Tate is presumably proud of this monotonous imposition of a show. Monumental scale does not equate with importance, and slogans don’t indicate understanding. My main objection is the aesthetic and intellectual poverty of the work, its lack of content or concept and its depressingly stereotyped presentation. Narcissism is really only of all-consuming significance to its subjects, and to those gullible enough to be readily seduced by mild shock tactics, exhibitionism and other related gimmicks. To anyone who enjoys art and independent thought, the offerings in this show are quite unbelievably dull and tedious. At the press view G&G were being interviewed in front of their work. They want people to be more elaborate and complex, they intoned. Jolly good — just wish their work was.

An altogether more worthwhile exhibition is to be found at the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch. This is the third part in a series of shows examining the urban domestic interiors and gardens of the English middle classes through paintings. Earlier exhibitions in 2003–4 have dealt with the period 1675–1914, and now we are thoroughly in the 20th century with a selection of some 40 pictures documenting the daily experience of life at home. The curators have subdivided the subject into three themes, and the handsome and informative catalogue (£20 in paperback) follows this demarcation: Portraits; Room or Garden as Subject; and Genre. The exhibition opens with a big impressive painting of figures on the threshold, both inside and outside. It’s by Richard Carline, is called ‘Gathering on the Terrace at 47 Downshire Hill, Hampstead’, and depicts his family and friends, a dramatic scene, full of hidden tensions. In the doorway, with arms histrionically spread like Christ on the Cross, is the artist and writer James (Jas) Wood, with Stanley Spencer to his left and Hilda Carline (who became Spencer’s beloved wife) to the right, like the two thieves. Assorted others peer or glower. Henry Lamb, as if viewing this parade of passions from a director’s chair, is at bottom right. What a crew. As Richard Carline said: ‘I sought to convey the conflicting personalities at our house.’ He certainly managed that.

Light relief from a surprising source is near at hand, from Henry Tonks, martinet of the Slade. His utterly charming and very funny little painting ‘Sodales — Mr Steer and Mr Sickert’ (1930) depicts the two friends relaxing at the fireside, Steer drowsing over his cat, Sickert all unbuttoned bonhomie in a wonderfully rumpled loud checked suit and lavish beard. The lethargy of one is gloriously counterpointed by the smouldering energy (the cigar is smoking) of the other. Meanwhile the setting, with its mantelpiece ceramics, French prints and cupboards of china, attests to Steer’s passionate and inspired collecting. How lovely to see this painting again, once a familiar sight at the Tate. One of the ways in which this exhibition is valuable is in bringing together the less well-known with the familiar and the unknown. Charles Burleigh (1875–1956) is not widely popular and yet look what a fresh (if slightly subdued) rendition of the ceremony of afternoon tea he gives us, with the French windows open on a leafy garden.

All these paintings are featured in the Portraits section, as are Carel Weight’s powerful portrayal of Orovida Pissarro (granddaughter of the Impressionist) and Norman Blamey’s meticulous meditation ‘My Wife and Son’, almost religious in its intensity, like a reprise of 15th-century Flemish art. The next category, Room or Garden as Subject, contains some equally splendid pictures. A Hampstead garden by Sickert is an exercise in the effect of moving dappled light, and it’s appropriate that you have to move about in front of it to see it properly because of reflected gallery light. Next to it a rich interior by Harold Gilman glows with vibrant colour and intricate pattern. A couple of classic Hampstead interiors, colourful but sedate, by Ellen Nicholson and Mary Hill respectively, are hung together to good effect. A fine David Jones watercolour, of back gardens in Brockley in April, takes us briefly out to Kent, before we return to the dark, mysterious ‘London Garden’ of the littleknown R. Kirkland Jamieson (1881–1950).

Hampstead does very well in this show. Paul Nash’s ‘Grotto in the Snow’ (1939) is set there, a pale interesting subject and far more relevant to the exhibition than the strange inclusion of his painting ‘Lares’ in the Genre section. Kay Allen’s small study of her roof garden in Holborn goes rather well with Phyllis Bray’s magical gouache of an overgrown plot in Frognal (borrowed from the Hampstead Museum). Two paintings by Herbert Victor Tempest (1913–2003), a new discovery for me, celebrate the suburb of Plumstead, with an excellent and oddly heart-warming vista of radiant roofs, hedges, trees and back gardens. There’s also Victor Pasmore’s beautiful semi-abstract ‘The Gardens of Hammersmith No. 2’, and an interesting Julian Trevelyan mingling interior and exterior, with the river coming into his wharfside home. A large interior by the currently underrated Edward Le Bas (1904–66) brings the interweaving of complex pattern and colour harmonies to a new and subtle resolution. Strong pictures by those masters of heightened realism John Bratby and Freddy Gore (though surprisingly nothing by his father, Spencer Gore) bring this section to a memorable conclusion.

The final category is Genre. As David Dewing points out in the catalogue introduction, while genre painting in the 19th century was apt to be concerned with moral lessons, in the 20th it was preoccupied with emotions. (Oh, the fatal allure of self-expression.) So we have Victor Pasmore fretting in the indistinct but luscious lamplit blackout (it’s 1941 and wartime), while his more placid wife sews. There’s an untypical Ravilious of Bonfire Night and a highly charged studio supper by Amy Katherine Browning. The show ends with a magnificent Ceri Richards, ‘Interior with Piano, Woman and Child Painting’ (1949), Matissean in its influence but utterly Richards in its subject, the green mother in reverie with a ‘Rape of the Sabines’ as painting-within-painting and subtext. Although the exhibition’s thesis is keen to interpret pictures as sociological signs and sources, or as useful biographical statements, there is much to be enjoyed here in the way of pure painting and image-making. And what a relief after Gilbert & George. Highly recommended.