Sunday, July 7, 2013

Laurie Lee on Graham Ovenden's Art and Photography

Ovenden A Memory of MorwenstoweLaurie Lee was a novelist and poet who is best known for having written Cider with Rosie, one of Britain's most popular books. A film version was produced by the BBC in 1971 and has shown on television on numerous occasions. It was Laurie Lee who gave the Brotherhood of Ruralists (of which Mr. Ovenden is a part) their name. Mr. Lee was an enthusiastic supporter of Graham Ovenden's work from the early 1970s until his death in 1987. Mr. Lee wrote the Forward to Graham Ovenden's eponymous monograph (Academy Editions/St. Martin's Press, 1987). It is reproduced below, along with the text of a brief introduction to an unpublished photographic monograph which was superseded by States of Grace.

Laurie Lee
Ovenden CamilleForeword to Graham Ovenden (London: Academy Editions/St. Martin's Press, 1987).

Graham Ovenden is a natural-born artist of acute originality and grace who has captured regions and perceptions unmistakably his own. Nor are his intense appreciations of the world restricted to a single medium: best known as painter and draughtsman, he is also freely involved in the practice of music, poetry, photography, design and the precise discipline of architecture.

Ovenden Alice, Was It Only A DreamOvenden was an instinctive and self-directed artist from his beginnings; whilst still a child he was filling sketchbooks with both imaginary and direct drawings from nature. Amazingly, by the age of twelve -- having heard Wanda Landowska on the wireless -- he had built for himself a full scale harpsichord in good order and decorated it lavishly in the Claudian manner. This could, perhaps, be one of the earliest examples of his particular obsession: a love of harmony, yes, and of light and form which he has steadily perfected throughout the years. He is a man who not only reflects a world he wishes to see, but has also created from it keen and personal perspectives. It was some fifteen years ago when I first came to know Graham Ovenden's work, at a one-man show at the Piccadilly Gallery. I had wandered in by chance and was immediately entranced, not only by the brilliance of his landscapes, but also by his audacious explorations into almost forbidden territories -- among them a series of paintings of young girls, some nude or semi-nude, veiled by bands of shadow and light, whose faces, neither blossom-pretty nor waif-like wistful, showed that they were wiser in their brooding provocation and contained sexuality than any of their adult observers.

Ovenden Alice ( Jo)The reproductions in this book show some of these, together with the whole sweep of Ovenden's other skills and affections. We see here the full range of his landscapes, unexpected, unsentimental, but arresting for their luminous passion; studies of trees, the form of their roots and branches surrounded by a radiance of leaves and light. These landscapes belong to no other painter. Most of them are of the far West Country, many of them idyllic, others bearing the mysterious imprint of early man's presence on this land and the former life of the rocks.

Ovenden Betty (1986)Ovenden persuades us that these landscapes are also portraits -- there is mood and character in them. But it is the changing flow of light, set against the steadfastness of tree and stone, that seems happily to engage the artist, so that we see expanding cloudscapes, sweeps of water and waves, and often that brightest rural goddess of all -- the fertile and inconstant moon.

Indeed the occasional presence of the full moon, basking above this rural amplitude, reminds one of the artist's acknowledged indebtedness to the oblique influences of his youth, Samuel Palmer and William Blake, and later, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash. Even so, he is not an artist overstamped by influences. The world he offers comes from his own original vision, a romantic classicism wrapped in well-tempered truth.

The collection of works shown here, spans roughly thirty years, beginning with darkly observed photographs Ovenden made in the late 1950s reflecting the damp light of Rotherhithe and the East End, and an age of aproned street-children playing ancient games none of which will ever be seen again. We also have his figures in landscape, his superb portraits and his nudes which, as he says, are also primary portraits. Most nudes in art are little more than cyphers, bloodless clichés of complacent technique, all similar as garden gnomes. Ovenden's nudes are portraits, in that they are acutely observed studies of personality at exact points of time, each subject separate and caught in a moment of fate. They have names and faces, and the faces are often trapped in the suggestive stance of the body, as if not yet belonging to it, or not ready to acknowledge it. For the most part they are studies of young girls, at the time of questing, calculation, uncertainty and power, when the fluent prepubescence of mind and body has not yet been locked into a stiffened maturity.

Ovenden Duska as Ophelia (1978)This is one of Ovenden's outstanding gifts, the way in which he delineates with such tender perceptiveness the wayward witcheries of some of his younger models. Whether in pencil, paint, charcoal or conté, this lightness of touch and originality of view is visible throughout his work. In his Alice and Lolita prints, for example, a series of slumbers surprises, neither pretty nor shocking but haunting in their sombre assurance -- young visitors of night and dream; while his book illustrations, particularly those for Wuthering Heights, are of dimensions the book only hints at.

His work in pencil can be as light as gossamer, but often conceals darker shadows beneath. This poetry also has an assured lightness of touch which sometimes hides far deeper implications. Graham Ovenden is a masterly enigma. There is no one like him. He is an artist of penetrative innocence who still rules his own private island. And this book is part of its treasure.

Laurie Lee
Introduction to Graham Ovenden Photographs (unpublished)

Ovenden Anoushka Harris (2005)Graham Ovenden's photographic portraits and nudes of the girl child are in all probability the finest examples in Western Art.

I remember autographing a copy of my Two Women for Graham in the mid eighties. I did so as a humble student to his masterful and utterly honest depictions of girlhood. Like his mentor, William Blake, Ovenden stands as a unique and powerful reminder of an authentic vision that has not been sullied by the neurosis and falsehoods of popular culture; nor that of the obsessive and immodest dictates of the law.

During one of the many discussions we have held together, Graham rightly pointed to the fact that within the foundations of our culture, the Humanism of Ancient Greece remains as a bedrock of sanity and rational behavior.* The total body of self is that of the Gods and what more so when depicting the wholesome beauty of our childhood. I well remember when my own Cider with Rosie was first published how some moralists picked on the natural sensuality of girlhood and tried their utmost to defame this series of essays based on my boyhood experiences. I hardly dare write this, but I now wish I had been more forthright in showing certain members of the public their puerile actions and minds, for they are the true pornographers.

God bless Graham Ovenden and his enigmatic art, it enriches us all.

- Laurie Lee, 1988

*[An example of that sanity might be seen in the words of Protagoras, a Greek philosopher and teacher who lived around the 5th century BCE: "As to gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or do not exist. For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life." -BW]

(Mr. Ovenden's nudes have not been reproduced here, as blogspot is in the habit of deleting blogs containing images of minors (even non-existent ones) under the guise of banning "child pornography," regardless of what the actual images depict. The importance of this blog lies primarily in the defence of Mr. Ovenden and his work, which is not child pornography and does not advocate or in any way support child abuse.)

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