Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
The familiar genius of English graphic art, Eric Ravilious is revealed as far more complex and mysterious in this unmissable show of more than 80 of his watercolours
Sunday 5 April 2015
Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery is exhilarating, enthralling and outstandingly beautiful. It is also a revelation. This is the first major exhibition since his death in 1942 to concentrate entirely on Ravilious as a painter rather than a printmaker, and through more than 80 watercolours one sees him not just as the familiar genius of English graphic art but as a far more complex and mysterious mind – stranger, and even greater.
Ravilious is probably still best known for the magical alphabet mug designed for Wedgwood in 1937, with its fantastical lexicon of tiny images – the kettle singing on its hearth, the eerie diver down among the fishes, the birdcage, the old rocking chair, the merrily spewing whale, the new moon like a bright eye in the darkness.
These enchantments are what naturally come into his mind – curiosities, relics and planetary phenomena, alongside the humble and everyday. The mug could be a self-portrait by other means. It shows what drew Ravilious, and that is of course half of the joy of his art – the world he chose to depict. The secret door in the kitchen-garden wall, the scrubbed table bearing a fresh new loaf for tea, the rolling Wiltshire hills with pictures of horses cut into the chalk: it looks at first like the enchanted world of childhood. His paintings ask you to pay attention to ordinary beauty, to look at the overlooked once more, and they chime with our folk knowledge of drystone walls, blue and white striped china, cold linoleum, the hoed rows of vegetables gardens, the wheatsheaf, the beach hut and the twisting weathervane: the corner that is forever England.
But from the very start, the shadows in his art condense and distort the shapes of this world, so that every image has its latent strangeness. And Ravilious notices the queerest of shapes. A massive ship’s propeller, delicate as a butterfly yet monumental as a Henry Moore. The river Cuckmere scrolling through the landscape like Arabic script. An abandoned bus becomes a ship adrift on a sea of grass, set in pictorial motion by the tilt of a nearby shed. Rhymes compel him. He sees the affinities between railway lines and plaited hair, ploughed fields and telegraph wires, the dapple of first snow and the stipple of sea-dampened sand. And he loves distinctions; a tremendous painting of cement blocks shows them softly glowing compared to the barbed wire that cuts a spry dance around them (who else would find such abstract beauty here?). Hulls, tripods, rusty ploughs, piebald geranium leaves: he finds a distinct notation for each, as a poet might – this is the naming of parts.
Ravilious (1903-42) has been criticised for the joyousness of his art, as if he ought to find more anguish in life, especially with the approach of the second world war. Perhaps this has something to do with the intense popularity of certain paintings that rejoice in the visible world. These classics – and they deserve that word – are all in the Dulwich show. Here is the cottage at Furlongs with its welcoming chair, the soft bright light of the South Downs flooding through the open door. Here is the wonderful Train Landscape – the deserted carriage, the white horse fleetingly framed in the window, the mystical number 3 – and Ravilious’s transcendent greenhouse. So clear and ethereal and symmetrical in content and form, the white paper burning through the foliage like sunshine: this is the greenhouse from paradise.
Perhaps his is a generally serene and beatific vision. The head of the pig in the butcher’s shop looks sweetly asleep. There is no trace of the personal turmoil that must have come with several extramarital affairs. During the war, on missions to Scandinavia, what Ravilious notices is the darkly glittering blue-black sea, not the ominous hum of the aeroplanes above.
But there is something else that haunts these paintings, a kind of atmospheric strangeness. Take The Bedstead, pristine in its frugal description of the bleached white coverlet, the patterns repeating across walls and floor, the tidy iron bedframe. But a dark doorway leads into a subfusc world on the other side of the wall. We know now that this shadowy room will soon be bombed. But what did it mean then to Ravilious? Meaning is elusive in his art. What is the significance of that ringing number 3 in the train compartment, the recurring alphabets and symbols, the dozens of anxiously ticking clocks? All these rooms appear so shipshape and familiar, yet there is so often an unsettling excitement to them, or a dreamy sense that something significant might have happened there.
Some of this comes from the emotional power of the objects he paints – the empty chair, the glowing milk jug, the lone plough taking a rest in the field – stand-ins for all the people who don’t appear in his paintings. There is, too, the quality of the light; Ravilious often worked with the sun directly in his eyes, turning the world supernaturally sharp, yet also blanched and celestially bright.
But meaning seems confluent with mood, and that is governed by the nearly incredible variety and agility of technique. The tension in Ravilious comes not from some shattering event or dramatic expression, but from his own remaking of what he sees – from the captivating code of marks. You look into a scene, wondering (as with so many great artists) how on earth it was made, how the stars in the night sky glimmer then spark, how the rain changes direction with a few elliptical dots, how snow melts in loose cross-hatchings, how his brush mimics a pencil, how his pencil mimics a blade, how he could use such dry watercolour that it barely grazes the paper at times.
And the white paper is his partner in all this, visible through all these open marks – striations, streaks, cross-hatchings, confettis, gentle stripes and pale grids. The paper is how the light gets it, the source of that radiance that filters through everything, strengthening the marvellous clarity of Ravilious’s visions, but also imbuing them with a sense of impermanence and fragility.
And light eventually becomes the protagonist of so many of the late works. In Rye Harbour, the water is a dream of pale stipples fading into nothingness (Ravilious as the Seurat of Sussex). In Room 29, Home Security Control Room – a wartime operations theatre that ought to be all pressure and threat – a woman reads a letter in an epiphany of white light reminiscent of Vermeer. Is it already the afterlife?
The light grows fiercer with the war. Dark figures stand in the morning tide, the dawn light sinister and cold, waiting to defuse a bomb. In the land of the midnight sun, the Arctic sunlight ricochets across the icy waters, which shiver with mystery beneath a sky streaked with vapour trails and aircraft. The artist will soon go up in one of those planes himself, flying into the light where he will vanish.
Ravilious’s plane disappeared on 2 September 1942 off Iceland. He was not yet 40. His death is strongly felt in this show as an abrupt and agonising cessation. The prolific stream of images simply stops, irresistibly raising the question of what he would have done next. Perhaps he would have travelled more, and we would have seen more of the world translated through his inexhaustibly succinct notations into a condensed poetry of painting – the world, in all its strangeness and beauty, perfected.
• Ravilious is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 until 31 August