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The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art

Tate St Ives  10/10/09 - 10/1/10


Drawing on a body of theory (Meyer & Pel, 2003) in which magic is placed as a counterpoint to modernity, the curators have juxtaposed an incredible body of work in the ‘Dark Monarch’ exhibition.

As in many recent Tate shows the old and new are collapsed together. There is no attempt (thankfully) to take the visitor on an educational tour. Instead there are a multitude of perspectives that play with the meeting points of both art and the occult as transformative, as obscure hermetic practice, as a search for truth, and escaping logic and reason. Attempts to bring order, categorization and meaning, are, in many ways, overpowered by drifts of fancy, with the curators focusing on the  ‘cumulative impossibility of the potent conjunction’.

But it is not only the conceptual conjunctions that are interesting, it is the eye for detail and the overwhelming aesthetic of the show. There is a haunting beauty about the way in which work is placed, and gallery space is utilized.


Damien Hirst 'The Child's Dream'


Simon Periton 'Il Cornuto'


The first section of the main exhibition is probably the most schematic, with a firm subject area: ‘Rocks & Stones’. The words mysterious, threatening, brooding, and foreboding, are used to describe abstracted landscapes interspersed with sculptures. Juxtaposed in this room are post-war apocalyptic landscape scenes, work featuring Cornish sacred stones, Weschke’s Pillar of Smoke, and a Sven Berlin cabinet featuring his book Dark Monarch.

The very first image is The Combat, a pencil and ink wash drawing by Paul Nash.  Described by the artist as '...a black abyss, where gaunt hills brooded dark and evil….a dread place seen only in dreams’, it shows a timeless battle fought between two figures - both half-bird and half human. There is no simple ‘good and evil’, both are hybrid. Placed next to Henry Moore’s Three Points (1939-40), this image emphasizes a delicate tension, and frisson between belief systems in a secularized society that has no longer has truck with truth.


Peter Lanyon 'Construction for Lost Mine' (foreground) Karl Wescke, Sven Berlin (background)


Barbara Hepworth 'Two figures (menhirs)' (foreground)


It prepares the way for what follows. At the bottom of the stairs, the juxtaposition of Mars Ascends (1956), by Bryan Winter, and Latham’s Little Red Mountain, enhances both works. In the curved gallery beyond, (Lower Gallery 2), Eva Rothchild’s work dominates, with Stairway (2005), an arrangement of triangles cascading downwards, with implications of secret life and second sight, placed next to the mask-like High Life (2004).


John Latham 'Great Uncle Estate', Cerith Wyn Evans 'Something Like a Picture'


Mark Titchner 'Untitled Z.O.P (Zone of Protection)'


Ithell Colquhoun


Disappointingly, despite this section being called The Mantic Stain after Ithell Colquhoun’s writing, there is only a collection of her small sketches and watercolours (picture above) and only one painting: 'Abstract Vegetation' (1944) in the Upper Gallery curved display case (pictures belowX2). Displaying her library of occult books, nearly but not quite, makes up for this. Beautiful and bizarre, the display also takes in Nash’s romanticism, Austin Osman Spare, fantasy, new age spirituality and the feminism of Penny Slinger.


Barbara Hepworth 'Form (Opus 82)'(foreground), Paul Nash (background)


Penny Slinger (foreground)


In the Apse, magic returns with Derek Jarman’s Sulphur from the Art of Mirrors (1975) (picture below). His super-8 film features figures playing with mirrors, and fire in a grainy, multi-layered fantasy. The overlapping imagery includes a thrown dice which reminds us of the poetry of chance, and chance encounter. Adam Chodzko’s seemingly incidental Secretors, (1993) made from lead crystal and ‘manifestation juice’, are placed out of the usual line of vision. They are intended as spectres to be glimpsed, and they haunt us from the corners of our eyes. They make for unexpected encounters, in a show that already has plenty.

My chance encounter was with Black Square (2008), by Gillian Carnegie, in Gallery 3. I had already seen this in a London show over the summer. In wonderfully thick, black paint a tree emerges. This is painting in 3-D, and it invites you to walk around it, to see if you can peer behind the apparition. Claire Wood’s Daddy Witch (2008) in enamel nearby is equally beautiful (picture below).


Derek Jarman 'Sulphur'


Barbara Hepworth 'Disk with Strings (Moon)', Clare Woods 'Daddy Witch', Cerith Wyn Evans


Path through a wood in Gallery 4 (picture below) is a strange collection, from a portrait of a plump white patience-playing girl by Meredith Frampton (1937) above the door, and hikers (J.W. Tucker, 1936), to paintings that return to original themes of sickly foreboding and magic by Michael Ayrton (Skull Vision, 1943 and Orpheus 1941). This room is either light entertainment (I loved Steven Claydon’s contemporary sculptures with their hessian presentation values, and random objects) or hell (the walls are painted red).


Michael Ayrton, Steven Claydon, Paul Nash


David Thorpe 'The Invincible General', Steven Claydon 'A lark Descending (Preparations for Leda)'


The final room - entitled 'Mansions of the Dead' - is white and filled with light (pictures below X2). Seemingly we have a resolution to the first image of the show: The Combat. Fay Pomerances’s 1967 Sphere of Redemption, is illuminated with the light and colour from John Russell’s 2009, Untitled (Abstraction of Labour Time/Eternal  Recurrence/Monad). It is the end of dialogue between extremes. Even Cecil Collin’s pieces show resolution as the titles reveal: Angel Images and Negative Spectres in Conflict (1933),  Hymn (1953) and Angel of the Flowing Light, (1968). These are heavenly.

In experiencing this show, audiences are invited to make their own journey, with their own internal landscapes.  For just as art practice involves ‘moving between a number of different points of view, like the moving camera in a film’ (p172, Lyas, 1997), this exhibition roves around, and leaves us to our individual responses. It is not just a rétourne, a journey to the past, or a search for meaning in a meaningless art world, but a reminder to us all that art can be aesthetic, sublime and magic.


 John Russell, Fay Pomerance, Cecil Collins


Fay Pomerance, Adam Chodzko, John Russell


Delpha Hudson 14/10/09



Clark, M., Bracewell M., Rowlands A., (eds) (2009), The Dark Monarch, Magic and Modernity in British art , Tate Publishing

Herwitz, (2008), Aesthetics, Continuum:London

Lyas C., (1997), Aesthetics, Routledge:London

Meyer b., & Pel, P,(2003) Magic & Modernity, Interfaces of revelation and concealment,


see 'interviews' for interviews with Alun Rowlands, Michael Bracewell, Martin Clark and Adam Chodzko