A Venetian Affair

by Mary Rose Beaumont

June 2004

“Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee, And was the safeguard of the West”. With these resounding lines Wordsworth began his sonnet “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic”, mourning the annexation of Venice by Napoleon and the consequent shame that she suffered when he carried off, besides other treasures, the bronze horses which had for centuries adorned the façade of San Marco. Wordsworth is only one of countless artists – painters, poets, composers and film-makers amongst others – whose imagination has been captivated by la Serenissima. As a setting it is incomparable, and for Bill Jacklin it presented an irresistible challenge: as a bystander one is drawn into the drama of the ever-shifting crowds and the ever-changing light, ongoing interests which have been crucial to his work. Furthermore the architecture of Venice has an affinity with his early paintings: the lozenges and geometric patterning of the Doge’s Palace and the severe verticals of the narrow alleyways relate to the systems and grids in his work of the 1970s, exemplified by the seminal watercolour ‘Buddha with Leaves’, 1976.

Jacklin’s early drawings and paintings were executed in his native London, but when he moved to New York in the mid-80s he extended his range (literally as well as metaphorically), responding to the vibrant urban life of New York City. His period as Artist in Residence in Hong Kong in 1993 continued his fascination with bustling crowds, high-rise buildings, water and light. Now with the Venice paintings and monotypes he has upped the ante: water is omnipresent, the light shivers and refracts and the crowds ebb and flow in a continuous stream.

It is a truism to say that artists carry within them their own imaginative world, but perhaps it is truer of Jacklin than most. The crowd which marches down Sixth Avenue in 1986, the skaters who glide gracefully round the rink in Central Park in 1990, or the massed ranks of bathers on Coney Island in 1992 are easily transmogrified into patchwork figures in the Venetian ‘Processione’ of 2003. They jostle through the Piazza San Marco, cross over a couple of bridges and eventually reach the sea. To quote Wordsworth again: “And when she took unto herself a Mate, She must espouse the everlasting Sea.” It is towards the Lagoon that the ‘Processione’ are charging in a headlong rush.

The piazza which is dominated by the square white façade of San Maurizio is the setting for another series of processions which undulates forward in one painting and in another breaks into a circle to listen to a group of musicians, finally dissolving into a night scene where all is blurry and phantasmagoric. A prominent feature in San Maurizio II is a well head which is a inescapable reminder of the moment in visconti’s ‘Death in Venice’ when Dirk Bogarde, as the love-sick Von Aschenbach, sinks hopelessly down, his face streaked with mascaraed tears. The well head takes on a darker aspect in the night-time scene, hinting at the underlying melancholy in much of Jacklin’s work.

Turning from the processions of people Jacklin takes the bridges themselves as his subject. In the magisterial diptych Bridges of Umbrellas I the slanting beam of light bounces off the rain-splashed canal and picks out the umbrellas as they move across the picture space, the sense of movement accentuated by the double exposure like a freeze frame in a film. In Bridge of Umbrellas II the sun has come out and the passengers are bathed and contained in what Monet called an ‘envelope’ of light. In Verso al Luce the sea is a distant prospect viewed mistily beneath the bridge on which a single figure stands at the precise centre, a static moment broken by the light of birds circling above and the single barely perceived boat ploughing through the choppy water.

Piazza San Marco itself is the perfect stage set for the series of unidentified ‘incidents’ which are depicted there. Indeed it was the conqueror Napoleon who commented that it was “the finest drawing room in Europe”. In Avvenimento nel Quadrato I-II the crowds of people run hither and thither, their shadows shifting and blending; in III-IV some of the figures have come to rest, forming a small group. Once again the comparison with film-making is apt: as the series progresses it is as if the zoom lens in the camera gradually closes in and the figures, which began as a disparate group, separate into recognizable individuals. The Campanile is a constant presence, sometimes close-up, sometimes distant, the basilica of San Marco and the arcades swimming mistily into focus. The composition in these paintings is closely related to the scenes in Central park, New York, such as Before the Meeting, Great lawn I, 2000 with its vast central space and surrounding turret-like buildings.

In the large paintings Prima della Tempesta I crowds are hurrying over the Ponte dell’Accademia on a blustery day, shot through with brilliant shafts of sunlight. A storm is approaching and the sense of chaos is all-pervading. Perhaps they will take shelter in the Gallerie dell’Accademia and look at Giorgione’s famous and enigmatic painting ‘La Tempesta’, whose mysterious presence lives in my mind’s eye.

The monotypes are to a large extent mirror images of Jacklin’s paintings in their subject matter. In the Processione the crowds flow like a winding snake through the picture space, past the church of San Maurizio, over the bridges, through the Piazza San Marco, towards the sea. In this series there is a powerful resemblance to Boccioni’s Riot in the Galleria, 1910 (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera) in which gesticulating figures rush wildly about in a pointillist haze. The figures flowing up over the bridge between high walls in Processione I are closely allied to the nebulous figures in Escalators I, Hong Kong, 1994. both display a feeling of urgency and impending chaos which is never far away from Jacklin’s crowd scenes.

Bridges are a metaphor for moving from one state to another, of constantly being in transit, always in a state of motion but never arriving. In Ponte dell’Ombra IV the figures are shadowy, silhouetted against the light, figures from another world, whom one could fancy crossing the Styx into the underworld. This feeling of an underworld is emphasized by Sotto il ponte II where the single boat, perhaps piloted by Charon is making its way through the storm-tossed water under the huge shadow of the bridge. The Ponte degli Ombrelli and Ponte degli Uccelli series, which call to mind Japanese printmakers such as Hiroshige (beloved by Van Gogh), are less threatening.

In the Calle al luce series the tall, canyon-like walls emphasize the diminutive size of the individual who darts into a doorway. Is he/she seeking shelter, or running from some undisclosed danger? Here again Jacklin’s sense of drama may be seen in parallel with Nicholas Roeg’s deeply disturbing film ‘Don’t look Now’, which exudes an underlying sense of menace. As the Calle al luce series progresses the images open into Verso il Mare and finally, gratefully, we reach the sea.

When we do reach the sea, however, it is in an angry mood. The little boat in Tempesta II is storm-tossed, barely afloat in the turbulent waters of the Lagoon. Thundery light bursts around it, almost literally dissolving the visible surface. This fraught crossing is towards the island of San Michele containing the cemetery where the remains of Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky, amongst many other exiles, are interred. Here above all places is epitomized the change and decay which is an integral part of Venice’s melancholy charm. In this series Verso il Cimetero the spirit in the monotypes attain a kind of uneasy peace as the whirling maelstrom of the tempest is stilled.

The shifting patterns, the forms which move in and out of focus, the transition from one state to another, the process of change and above all the light, which can alter from an incandescent blaze to a sulky glow, all constant themes and variations in Jacklin’s work, are equally present in both the paintings and the monotypes. His Venice is far from serene.

A final grace note: Jacklin is working on an as yet finished triptych to be called The Feast, in which past, present and future are contained. A group of men and women sit round a table, children frolic nearby, and in the background is a suggestion of a Porcessione heading towards the Lagoon. I like to think that the spirit of Veronese’s immense ‘Feast in the House of Levi’ in the Gallerie dell’Academia is hovering over this crowning salute to Venice.

-Mary Rose Beaumont, 2004