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Wood work as evergreen as ever

PHILIP NORTON recommends a show of canvases by a ‘Modern British’ painter which belie their age

Christopher Wood: Sophisticated Primitive
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
5/5

“Modern British” painters are the focus of new and welcome attention this summer, with exhibitions of work by Stanley Spencer at The Hepworth in Wakefield and Winifred Nicholson at Abbot Hall in Cumbria.

And at Pallant House in Sussex, resident curator Katy Norris has created this exceptional show of work by the evergreen Christopher Wood.

Up until the late 1970s, the price of a “Wood” was shorthand for the state of the English art market.

If one of his canvases was “down” at auction, thoughts of a wage rise before Christmas would flicker and fade. An echo from more modest times, some years before the label “Modern British” meant anything at all. That didn’t stick until the 1980s, when the rise of the marketing term “contemporary” meant that “modern” now denotes “the old stuff.”

Once established, the descriptor successfully bookended every English painting from Walter Sickert to the shores of English pop. These were the pictures surrounding the students of the 1950s and ’60s and the artists were still the heads of most art school faculties.

Yet while much was seen by the pop generation as being trapped in a pre-war straitjacket, it is revealing how Christopher Wood continued to intrigue them.

This carefully researched exhibition — a remarkable experience — explores how Wood’s paintings continue to blossom 86 years after his death. Time changes our perspective and it is hard to see all this as the work of someone who died at 29, having produced barely 10 years of work.

In 1929, responding to Cedric Morris’s criticism of the “absolute disregard for technique” in his work, Wood commented that “it just depends what he calls technique, its that which I enjoy most doing.”

We have been exposed to so many ideas and theories about Wood’s paintings since then it is strange how they now feel so accomplished. In the last two rooms of the exhibition he joyfully arrives — via studios in London, Paris, Cumbria and Cornwall — in Treboul, Brittany, and the walls bubble with life.

If Ulysses and the Sirens is a small masterpiece, then it is surely one of several. Wood’s drawings shine too. There are lyrical and joyful sketches of life at the bar and the fairground. He catches the dog at the bar and the very spirit of the bar itself — the “evidence” as Walter Sickert called it.

As an exhibition space Pallant House provides a highly sympathetic and illuminating setting, with the canvases by Alfred Wallis, Sickert, William Nicholson and David Bomberg in their permanent collection providing much context, as do the handsome rooms of the fine Georgian building in which it is housed.

It speaks of the time in which Christopher Wood moved, when it was council property. And, if you had promised yourself that you would become “the greatest painter in the world” it’s possible to sense the restrictions he felt up against and perhaps how complete his triumph is.

The influence of the untrained “outsider” artist Wallis was central to Christopher Wood and it’s worth visiting the small but concentrated show of Friedrich Nagler downstairs in the De Longhi print room.

Like many “outsiders,” Nagler worked without critical acclaim or judgement. With a determined impulse to always make and create, he would produce new sculptures each day from an imaginative and resourceful range of material.

There is a faithful and life-affirming expression in these small forms and the captivating documentary film accompanying the exhibition shows how natural is the state of being an artist.

Christopher Wood: Sophisticated Primitive runs until October 2 and Friedrich Nagler: Wunderkammer until October 16, opening times: pallant.org.uk

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