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Friday, 1 January 2016

David Jones: The complex Catholicity of Christian modernism

David Jones was a modest man with a modest name who achieved a modest degree of fame. What is there about him and his work that would necessitate a post-Christmas journey to Chichester in the period when engineering works combine with defective trains to lengthen journey times and send passengers through the Sussex countryside on rail replacement buses?

Though modest, Jones was a multi-talented artist, as painter, engraver, poet and maker of inscriptions, who had a powerful influence on many artists and writers, not least the ceramic artist and author Edmund de Waal whose installation of his works at Pallant House includes a new piece inspired by Jones' poem 'The Anathemata'.

Pallant House have curated the first major retrospective of Jones' work for twenty years. The complex Catholicity of his Christian modernism has often limited his appeal, meaning that such a substantive exhibition is unlikely to occur again in my lifetime unless the value of his work and the size of his reputation reverts to the period of his membership of the 7 and 5 Society (works from whose members can also be seen at Pallant House), when his work sold at prices exceeding those of Ben Nicholson.

His faith framed and formed much of his work from the point of joining the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, the craft community founded by Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler at Ditchling. Gill, Jones and the Ditchling Community were part of The Third Spring, a flowering of Roman Catholicism among artists and intellectuals which had G.K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain as its guiding lights and which saw a flourishing of sacred art societies, similar to that at Ditchling, across Europe. Jones developed his thinking and practice, as artist and poet, in ways which deepened the insights he gleaned from Chesterton, Gill and Maritain to create an art and theology which is sacramental and iconic.

'David Jones: Vision and Memory' brings together 80 engravings and watercolours which focus primarily on literary illustration (engravings) and landscapes (watercolours), alongside a smaller number of substantive portraits and inscriptions. Images, for Jones, are never simply the illustration of texts or the copying of nature. Instead, like icons, his images are windows into the divine because his aim is always that his image participates in the reality of what is depicted and therefore is itself sacramental. He described this in terms of the universal in the particular and found visual means to its depiction in a merging of exterior and interior often using doors or windows as framing devices while utilising the transparency of glass.

From seascapes at Portslade to late still lifes at Northwick Park Lodge in Harrow-on-the-Hill, Jones used shallow space as a stage on which to bring together interior and exterior, natural and artificial, past and present in unitive visions suffused and imbued with light.

Jonathan Miles and Derek Shiel write in 'The Maker Unmade' that: 'By rigorous habit, the artist would not only be able to reveal this or that object under the form of paint but also make an epiphany, make the universal shine out from the particular. Thus, what is re-presented also becomes a sign of something else and if that something else is significant of something divine, then the art can claim to have a sacred character or function, a sacramental vitality.'

Similarly, Rowan Williams has argued that what preoccupies Jones from the beginning is 'precisely what so concerns Maritain, the showing of the excess that pervades appearances.' As his work develops, Jones comes to see that you paint ‘excess’ by: 'the delicate superimposing of nets of visual material in a way that teases constantly by simultaneously refusing a third dimension and insisting that there is no way of reading the one surface at once. As in the Byzantine icon, visual depth gives way to the time taken to ‘read’ a surface: you cannot construct a single consistent illusion of depth as you look, and so you are obliged to trace and re-trace the intersecting linear patterns.'

Jones said that he regarded his poem ‘The Anathemata’: "as a series of fragments, fragmented bits, chance scraps really, of records of things, vestiges of sorts and kinds of disciplinae, that have come my way by this channel or that influence. Pieces of stuffs that happen to mean something to me and which I see as perhaps making a kind of coat of many colours, such as belonged to 'that dreamer' in the Hebrew myth."

Jones believed that objects, images and words accrue meanings over the years that are more than the object as object or image as image. Therefore all things are signs re-presenting something else in another form. Recessive signs which re-present multiple signification are what Jones aims to create in works such as ‘The Anathemata’ and 'Aphrodite in Aulis'. Maritain suggested that such multiple signification is what creates joy or delight in a work of art as “the more the work of art is laden with significance … the vaster and the richer and the higher will be the possibility of joy and beauty”.

'Aphrodite in Aulis', to be found in the final rooms of the exhibition, is full of Jones’ preoccupations: “the Grail, the Lamb, the soldiers (Greek and Roman, Tommy and Jerry), Doric, Ionic and Corinthian architecture, the moon, the stars and the dove.” These disparate ideas and images are held together firstly by Jones’ composition with the whole painting revolving around the central figure of Aphrodite and secondly by his line which meanders over the whole composition literally linking every image. By holding these images and what they signify together in this way, Jones is able to create an image that both laments the way in which love is sacrificed by the violence and aggression of macho civilisations and also, through his crucifixion imagery, to hold out the hope that love may overcome that same violence and aggression.

Jones chose to explore aspects of coinherence and relationality at a time when progress was achieved through specialisation and when World Wars were undermining belief in human brotherhood. Relationality, however, was fundamental to his vision enabling him to explore the links between past, present and future within works that aimed at being holistic and reconciliatory. The meandering lines, journeys and passages Jones uses to explore these links fully justified and complemented the somewhat circuitous journey I made to view the exhibition.

'David Jones: Vision & Memory' is at Pallant House, Chichester, until 21 February 2016 before travelling to the Djanogly Gallery in Nottingham from 12 March – 5 June 2016. A concurrent exhibition 'The Animals of David Jones' is on show at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.


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