Wednesday 17 July 2013

Folk art: Rory McEwen

I had one of those brilliant 'Woah!' experiences at a gallery a few days ago, where you go along expecting something to be fairly interesting - a good and no doubt improving way to pass the time - and actually find it's one of the most powerful and moving events you've witnessed in ages. To borrow Emmylou's phrase - it's like stumbling into grace.

We were in Kew Gardens (or, ahem, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - to bestow unto them their full title). There's a mini-festival there every July and we had tickets to see Bellowhead that evening - so rather than just fry then melt at home, why not spend the day in the Gardens?

Mrs Specs (who I should add, for full disclosure purposes, works at Kew) had heard that the current exhibition in Kew's rather swish modern gallery - devoted, as you might expect, to botanical art - was particularly good. Oddly, given the pleasure I get from photographing plants and flowers, I've never really taken the time to study floral painting or drawing in any great depth. I don't know why this is - perhaps that's a subject for another day's post. But I was no more than mildly curious as we headed inside, attracted at least as much by the prospect of the air conditioning as the artwork.

This indifference lasted approximately the time it took to view the first couple of Rory McEwen's pictures. They are among the most vibrant and realistic paintings I have ever seen - of any subject. The flora depicted have a vivid shine that gives them a 3D feel, without compromising the minute detail the discipline requires. 

McEwen's decision to use vellum instead of paper or canvas would be a major contributing factor to this: the surface itself is not entirely flat, which helps the plants appear to have a 'shape' - plus it has a smooth sheen instead of the slight perforation or 'grain' effect you see on other surfaces.

As I went round the exhibition, I decided that there isn't a single uninteresting thing about Rory McEwen. He seems to have been a kind of 'Pre-naissance Man', in that he turned his hand to a variety of artistic endeavours and was supremely accomplished at them all. In the beginning, he was more folk musician than artist, and the video I've embedded at the bottom of the post is one of the only performances I can find on YouTube. Sadly - while it shows him harmonising like a dream, performing alongside Martin Carthy and Davy Graham, no less - he isn't playing guitar himself. Unusually for the time and genre, he used a 12-string, and according to Van Morrison (in the short film bio running on a loop in the exhibition), he was the only person getting anywhere close to the intricacies of Leadbelly's playing. Frankly, to hear Van Morrison being nothing but complimentary about someone is probably one of the most decisive measures of their genius you could wish for.

Clearly, the musical aspect is going to give me an extremely soft spot for the guy, so let's temporarily put that to one side. My over-riding impression of his particular achievement in the visual arts is that he pursued the career of a completely free, innovative, questing artist, focusing on - and inevitably finding - new ways to express himself ... without losing an iota of integrity as a 'botanical artist'.

As his art developed, there would still be a plant or flower in the picture, but increasingly more of Rory, too. He painted a glorious series of grasses, where you can clearly see his interest in the modern and abstract come to, er, fruition and yet it's still instantly obvious what you're looking at. Venturing into total abstraction - and sculpture - he made a series of glass grids marked with lines at different angles, unable, I imagine, to fully break away from imagery of branches, stems and roots.

Roots. That word brings me back to the music. I don't think it's necessary to look at McEwen's art and music separately. Folk music is rich in imagery of the soil and the ground, of flowers and trees, and of the effect (kind or hostile) that nature has on the people it shares the planet with. I can see how these twin interests could spring up and flourish together, informing each other. I can see how McEwen might try and merge his own creativity with the traditional approaches to botanical art, much like a folk musician interprets ancient songs in their own style and arrangements.

Once McEwen found out he was dying, he began a series of leaf paintings. They retain the incredible detail of the earlier work - his eye doesn't seem ever to have dimmed - but they sit isolated and off-centre in the frame, as if unable to remain fully upright through lack of strength. Some of them are broken and decaying, but re-assembled, as if to say - 'I might be shattered - but I'm still holding it together.' The video biography notes that these pictures are not named according to the species of tree - instead they are all titled after the place where McEwen noticed and found the leaf. How could this man make his pictures of plant life say so much about being human?

* * *

I haven't even touched on some of the great paintings in this exhibition, so please just go if you can. You've got plenty of time - it's on until 22 September - and the page on the Kew Gardens website with all the details is here.

Finally, here's the man in action.

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