Dora Carrington:A Diffident Artist Dug From Obscurity

The Art of Dora Carrington by Jane Hill Thames and Hudson, 144 pp., $24.95

IT is, perhaps, slightly disenchanting to end a book on a artist by observing that: ``Although she had the makings of a great painter, [she] was too gently made and seemingly had no desire for posterity through progeny or paint.''

But that is how Jane Hill, author of the latest study of ``The Art of Dora Carrington,'' does end her book. Such an epitaph, while it cannot be called untrue, leaves the reader with an emphasis on failure that the rest of this book had gone some way toward mitigating.

The book is an attempt to look with serious concentration at the achievements of this multitalented English artist (1893 - 1932): at what she managed to do as an artist in spite of the complications and frustrations of her life. She saw these complications as a dichotomy between her devotion to people on the one hand and to art on the other.

Such difficulties were often visited upon her, admittedly, because of her own character and because of her relationships.

But she seems to have also felt she was limited by the attitudes of those around her. Nevertheless, the artist in her was forever bursting out as if it were something that no one, and no circumstance, could restrain.

Hill's book furthers the move in recent years to take Carrington's art seriously, to dig it out of the obscurity in which it was for many years buried.

Numerous reasons have been put forward for this obscurity: Carrington's privacy and almost deliberate diffidence about exhibiting her work; the low esteem in which society held women artists of her day; her tendency to be self-destructively dismissive of her own work; and the way in which her devotion to the biographer and essayist Lytton Strachey linked her with his circle - the Bloomsbury Group - and took her away from the artists she had known from her student days at the Slade School of Fine Arts.

She felt increasingly isolated from both the encouragement and criticism of most other artists.

It is not without significance that she poured a considerable amount of energy into letter writing and keeping her diary; she was surrounded by writers. Her letters, however, were sprinkled with marvellous and humorous little drawings.

Although the Bloomsbury people were literary, they included some outstanding luminaries of the art world, most notably Roger Fry.

Fry was a writer - an influential critic - it is true. But he also painted. He set up and ran for some years the Omega Workshops to produce well-designed objects made by artists and craftsmen. And he organized exhibitions in London that introduced the French artists; he was the first to label ``Post-Impressionists'' to the parochial English.

Carrington was one of his Omega artists. And she was impressed by Cezanne and Matisse among the French painters whom Fry made known in England. But later she came to feel that Fry's opinions had not been as important as had been thought.

THAT Fry employed Carrington's talents at the Omega Workshops may have contributed to the way in which she began to diversify her talent. She made a great deal of what is too often overlooked as ``decorative art.'' She always talked about her ``serious'' painting - portraiture, still life, landscape, and figure painting - as different from her ``light'' work.

A certain irony may have been in this, however, because she actually poured an incredible amount of time and energy into all kinds of imagemaking other than conventional easel painting. There is no evidence that she did not give to her murals and tile designs, her silver-foil-backed glass paintings, her woodcut book plates and book illustrations, her decorating of the walls and furniture in her own and other people's homes, her door panels and trompe l'oeil shelves full of ``books'' every bit as much care and toil as her work on canvas.

Why, in spite of the growing appreciation of Carrington as an artist, has no one yet fully admitted the equal validity of this side of her work?

It could be partly because it has a tendency to be eclectic, sometimes re-creating past styles for the sheer delight of it. Her fine inn signs, for instance, pay direct tribute to the anonymous, itinerant sign-painters of the 18th century.

Yet she was never - could never be - a naive artist except by conscious ingenuity; she had had much too effective an art school training for that.

Her adaptation of the techniques and visual language of English folk art was probably a natural extension of the love of England that shines out of many of her landscape paintings, and even out of her portraits: After all, they were also a conscious adoption of traditional genres to her own ends.

HER portrait subjects, from the aristocratic self-absorption of the languorous Lytton Strachey to the frank expression of the maid-of-all-work Annie Stiles, seem quintessentially English. Furthermore, they express in their contrast two sides of the artist herself - the aesthetically sophisticated and the vernacular.

Her vernacular directness, stemming from her admiration of popular and folk art, saved her ``high art'' portraits of ``well- bred'' sitters from being mere flattery. Her portraits have an unnerving, ironical honesty which did not always please.

When actually wielding her brush, she was far from diffident. She knew closely most of the people she painted, but her familiarity with them did not hide their secrets from her penetrating eye.

Whether it was her circumstances or her inclination that led her to diversify her art to include house decoration, it remains a question why we take the furniture, the fireplaces, light-fittings, and wall-coverings of an artist-architect like Charles Rennie Mackintosh absolutely seriously, and yet dismiss Carrington's work in such an area as mere domestic decoration, or the second-best outlet available to a frustrated female painter.

Hill's study does redress the balance, giving Carrington's decorative work detailed attention. But even this book tends to relegate it to a lesser importance by reproducing far more easel paintings in color than decorative projects.

Hill makes much of Carrington's sense of color, and her descriptions of the colors she painted some of the rooms she decorated are mouthwatering.

Presumably, all that is left of much of this work are old black-and-white photographic records. But if her decorative side is to be considered as much a part of the whole of Carrington as anything else she did, a book that reproduces much more of her work in color would at some point be welcome.

In the meantime, Carrington the artist has been given one more leg up the ladder of acceptance, whatever she thought of posterity.

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