Reviews by Joyce Glasser Eric Ravilious: Went to War (July 1, 2022) Cert U, 88 mins
Writer, producer and director Margy Kinmonth’s lavishly illustrated documentary is the first feature film about London-born artist Eric Ravilious (1903-1942), who immortalized the land and seascapes of Sussex and Essex in charming watercolors and engravings, earning him the nickname a quintessential English artist. But the film’s insightful commentators question the simplicity of this view and point to signs of interwar anxiety.
As the title suggests, however, the film focuses on Ravilious, the First World War martial artist, in addition to the interwar art. Appropriate for a title of “war” and a pun on “drawn,” the film begins with schoolboy Eric sketching World War I war planes and ends with 39-year-old Eric drawing World War II planes, like the one he was in for a search and rescue mission when it crashed over Iceland in 1942, killing everyone on board.
This is a cradle-to-grave biopic, but unusual and effective one that can be told in part in Ravilious’ words, voiced by Freddie Fox. Fox revived Ravilious’ enthusiastic letters about his art projects, written primarily to his wife and two mistresses, some of which were inherited by his only surviving child, Anne Ullman.
Kinmonth does not gloss over Ravilious’ wife, the artist Tirzah Garwood, or “Tush” as Ravilious called her, who describes their meeting at Eastbourne School of Art in 1926 and includes home videos of their wedding. With nuanced emotion, Tamsin Greig conveys Tirzah’s tough 12-year marriage through her letters and her autobiography, intended for her three children. Long live Great Bardfield and all the best to you.
Ravilious was by all accounts handsome, cheerful, intelligent, witty, and light-hearted, qualities that made him a desirable companion and that he carried over into his art.
Although Ravilious gave up his extramarital affairs when his son John was born, he was always on the ground even before he went to war, painting and leaving Tirzah to raise the family and keep house at the expense of her own career.
But there were happy times, including the early days at her beloved rural retreat overlooking the South Downs called the Furlongs. A highlight was their collaboration on the gorgeous murals for Oliver Hill’s new Midland Hotel in Morecambe Bay, although they knew the murals would not last for technical reasons (not their own).
Ravilious’ father made a living selling lightbulbs after losing his antiques business in World War I, and throughout his life Ravilious was short of cash. Nonetheless, in 1924 hard work earned him a scholarship to the Royal College of Art (RCA), where his influential teacher was official (WWI) martial artist Paul Nash. As curator/writer Alan Powers points out, one factor that would bring Ravilious into the war was not only the opportunity to travel and paint new and unusual locations, but also the regular paycheck for painting all day long. It was a combination he couldn’t resist.
At RCA, Ravilious befriended Edward Bawden, another future war artist, with whom he collaborated on an early commission for murals for the Morley College Tearoom (sadly destroyed in World War II). The two friends shared The Brick House in Great Bardfield, Essex with Tirzah and Bawden’s wife Charlotte from 1931 to 1934, forming the Great Bardfield Artists Group.
Complementing the off-screen commentary, daughter Anne (now 81), granddaughter Ella and a handful of curators and well-known artists and writers appear on-screen to provide insights into specific artworks. A criticism of the documentary is that in other cases the paintings appearing on screen are not identified by labeled titles, so in most cases we do not know the name of the painting we are looking at (and consequently, how). in a museum or private collection).
Ullman, Alan Bennett and Essex artist Grayson Perry join in a delightful discussion of Ravilious’ famous Alphabet mug, designed for Wedgewood and now a treasured collector’s item. Curiously, Ravilious’ early designs for Wedgewood were considered “too high above the public’s heads”. So what could be more fundamental than the English alphabet? But Ravilious’s imagination works magically on all objects. The illustrated letters form a self-portrait as he selected items that held special meaning for him.
Grayson Perry marvels at Ravilious’s ability to transform ordinary subjects into paintings with such bold precision that the atmosphere in his Farmhouse bedroom is so tangible that “you can smell the moisture”. Robert Macfarlane comments on Ravilious’ gentle, almost abstract paths that draw the eye into the work so that one wants to follow them. It is as if the artist were dreaming back into a ‘pre-national’ landscape and Macfarlane was questioning not only Ravilious’ identity as ‘a thoroughly English painter’ but also the soothing nature of his ‘traditional’ figurative subjects.
Look at Tea at Furlongs, Alan Bennett is struck by the eerie, still atmosphere and the absence of people – as if they’ve hastily departed – which belies the quaint title and quaint table overlooking the countryside. Curator John Russell comments on Ravilious’ famous watercolors and engravings of the mysterious Chalk Figures on the Sussex Hills, noting how Ravilious melds the old (the ancient Chalk Figure) with the modern barbed wire (just invented).
The reason Ravilious isn’t more famous may be that his preferred medium, watercolors – and drawings (many made into prints) – were not as marketable or appreciated as oil painting. But when he was assigned to a submarine during World War II, the boat’s movement and cramped quarters made speed a virtue.
Ravilious was attached to the Admiralty with the honorary rank of Captain in the Royal Marines from February 1940. The film describes his quests and journeys, again primarily through his letters to Tirzah, who during this time was suffering from the cancer that would kill her 1951. “This assignment [in Iceland] must be the most exciting of the war yet,” Ravilious wrote in his final letter to Tirzah, read in full at the beginning and end of this compelling and insightful film.
For the schedule of theaters showing the film and questions and answers follow this link.
A revealing and richly illustrated biopic of the underrated British artist.
Source link A revealing and richly illustrated biopic of the underrated British artist.