20 AUGUST 1948, Page 14


Tim Arts Council currently honours Wales and Ireland. The large exhibition of drawings and paintings by Augustus John, first brought together for the week of the Eisteddfod at Bridgend, has now moved on to Aberystwyth. This is quite a comprehensive collection, lacking only the larger portraits and decorative com- positions, and forms a fittipg tribute to the painter's seventieth year.

To the Tate the Council has brought the exhibition of paintings by Jack B. Yeats which was first seen at Temple Newsam. Three- quarters of this dates from 1940 and subsequently, so the emphasis is on Yeats's later manner. On the principle, perhaps, that the best method of defence is attack, Mr. Thomas MacGreevy plunges right into his catalogue note with a claim at the outset that Yeats's drawing "has always retained the magically tender charm that it had in the beginning" and that "he must be ranked as one of the greatest colourists in the whole history of painting." These are big words. Whatever other qualities may be left intact after Yeats's assault upon the canvas, draughtsmanship and a colour-sense could scarcely, I should have thought, be included amongst them. Apart from the fact that there is no particular virtue in attempting to realise detail with a tool not designed for the purpose—the knife- Yeats's grasp of form is magnificently and openly faulty. If passages of his colour give pleasure, similar modulations of black and primaries froin the tube can be distinguished in any palette-scrapings. It is as idle to look for these things in his work asit is for those affecting qualities of tone his symbolic lighting forbids. The refinements of taste are not his purpose.

Yeats is an illustrator. The traveller on the heath, the clown on the music-hall, bars, race-courses and the dripping Irish sky are his subjects. If it sometimes seems that the clown has pulled on an old cloth cap and wandered over the mountains, or as if the traveller has somehow strayed through the stage door into the pantomime, well, maybe that happens in Ireland. A deliberate mystification, an added poetic undertone—perhaps part of the family occultism—is often the duty of Yeats's titles. What he does convey is the feeling of a moment of importance, a fragment of time torn from its sequence, and, sustaining it, a rich, vivid, full-blooded life, sometimes leavened by a boisterous humour, sometimes shot with a dark melancholy, but always unburdened by over-civilisation.

This moment of romantic particularisation is thrown on to the canvas with an extravagance and intensity of emotion and paint more akin to that of the Parisian and Nordic expressionists than anything in this country. I fail to find in the greater part of Yeats's output, however, that underlying apprehension of form, of tone, of colour, which can usually be found in a Soutine, a Kokoschka. If we have learned anything from the extremist movements of this century, it is surely that " pure " painting, be it purely formal or purely emotive, must eventually perish of its own excess.' All too often, it seems 'to me, the content of Yeats's statements are spilled and dissipated for lack of a structural container of adequate size. After this exhibition it is instructive to make for the Turner galleries at the Tate, where yet another instalment brings the tale of recon- struction near- its close. Turner's "first exhibited oil painting" here is something more than a curiosity, but after the formlessness of Yeats, study the formlessness of the Riva degli Schiavoni or the Sunrise. Nothing is going on in them, and yet . .