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Michael Bracewell and Alun Rowlands on Romanticism in Modern and Contemporary Art

Michael Bracewell and Alun Rowlands are co-curators, with Martin Clark, of 'The Dark Monarch' at Tate St Ives, where they were interviewed by Rupert White



RW We have a fairly clear idea of what Romanticism was in the last century and the century before. Is this still a useful concept to understand aspects of art now? The Dark Monarch exhibition suggests it might be.

MB One of the things we thought about is that the School of Neo-Romantic art in Britain isn't well defined art historically. They didn't sit down and write a manifesto as such. It was a loose-knit group of artists that came together in the early 1930s. One of the things they were interested in was in overturning what at that point was a Francophile tendency in British Art, and so they preferred to look back to artists like Samuel Palmer and William Blake as being inspirational figures who were looking at nature, in particular, in a visionary or religious sense.


The school you refer to is represented here by the likes of Michael Ayrton, John Craxton, Cecil Collins, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash and a number of others. So at some level there was an assertion of national identity...

MB And specifically about nature, and the British countryside and history, this whole thing about exploring landscape.

But what's interesting about the Neo-Romantics is because they start coming together and making work in the 30's there are also these presentiments of war running throughout as well - so something like a landscape has a heightened atmosphere.

They were into this idea that you can go into the landscape and experience presences and personages; but also running through was this idea that you were rushing towards an apocalypse; that there was a darkness there. So throughout a lot of the works in this show you realise they are referencing threat, darkness, war fear etc.


Quite a lot of these themes were also explored in the Barbican Neo-romantic show of 1985...

MB 'A Paradise Lost' yes


The big difference here is the St Ives context and the contemporary work that's also featured. To what extent are those themes carried over into the more contemporary work?

AR Its that strangeness, that darkness, that threat or apocalypse that attract through, though not in a direct fashion. The contemporary artworks in this show carry a kind of potency or efficacy around them: that's what they share with the older works though its not a linear relationship.


They have an energy that one might associate with the occult - with irrational dark forces - but what's missing is the landscape element maybe...

MA Well infact two of the contemporary artists Clare Woods and Goshka Macuga (left) refer directly in their work to Paul Nash's studies of landscape. Clare has made a big painting called Daddy Witch and Goshka has made work in the past that refers to Paul Nash.



I guess its not landscape as place - as you were alluding to earlier ie associated particularly with Britain - its a more abstract notion of landscape as a part of a timeless natural world

AR Or an internalised kind of landscape which of course the Occult seeks to go back into: the space of the seance or the vision.


Interesting. To what extent are the contemporary artists directly influenced by earlier art - the likes of Paul Nash - and to what extent are pop culture and other influences coming into play. I'm thinking here particularly about the Beats and 60's counter-culture, for example, where there was an interest in the Occult.

MB One of the pieces that has been made specifically for this show by Mark Titchener that is a Psychic Zone of Protection (picture below right)...

AR ...drawn from Occultic literature from the 30s and after - from Dion Fortune - so the ingredients and the formal qualities of the artwork are actually drawn from an instruction manual.


Its nice to see Derek Jarman in this company as well (picture right). I remember reading an article by you, Michael, about the Jarman, Wyn Evans, Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark set: the underground fashion scene that preceded Brit Art. A lot of them were influenced by the camp occult iconography of of Kenneth Anger the American underground filmmaker.

MB When we were researching this show Jarman becomes this fantastically interesting figure, a linking figure generationally...

AR Very early on he became a meeting point between different groups of artists.


Between the Modern and the Post-modern or contemporary? His early paintings feature standing stones...

AR He connects back to John Dee and the alchemy of filmmaking

MB We have actually borrowed Derek Jarman's copy of The Occult Philosophy of Cornelius Agrippa.


Someone like Jarman was quite subversive and anti-establishment, and I think that's largely how and why he used the Occult and Occult references. But there seem to be a range of approaches to the subject.

AR Yes. You mention Cerith Wyn Evans. He quotes from various sources. He's particularly been using The Changing Light at Sandover, the James Merrill epic seance novel written from seance sessions. The flickering on-off of the lights of some of his pieces all allude to that kind of knowledge...


So we are seeing artists taking an interest in these ideas again, possibly as a move away from more narrow strategies of conceptual art.

A lot of 'Brit Art' in the 90s had traces of a punk ethos that was very direct and assertive and anti-mystical has there been a reaction against this?

MA I think one way of looking at it is touching on different aspects of the gothic. Gothicism emerged in the 19th century as a reaction towards an increasingly technological and industrial society. I think that that's one way of plotting these strands. If you've had a generation of artists who have been through advertising and popular culture they've grown up in it - in that soup of technology and mediation - and maybe they're beginning to look at more cerebral, spiritual things. And they're looking back a lot. There's been a huge interest in reassessing modernism.

I think you're right: its a generation on. They've done popular culture. They know that advertising is terrible and we're surrounded by celebrity - so lets move on and look at something else. You could say its a Gothic reflex, its a reclamation of sorts.