MY BACK TO NATURE (2)






I'm late. No time to look in the vitrine. Just time to glance in the direction of George's stages of the implied cross and to turn on my heel.

xWO0GaVLSBusNHkjX4ZGhg_thumb_bfb3

Another glance. This time to my left. I missed this yesterday. It's opposite the vitrine and missing from my diagram of the show. It features the glorious Study for Hanging Around (Landscape without Figures) which led to Hanging Around, the three paintings I considered too briefly yesterday.

4933flyySvin6rHTulUO8A_thumb_c022
George Shaw. Study for Hanging Around (Landscape without Figures), 2014. Ink on paper. 198 x 305cm

Very skilfully painted, one has to say. The dripping lines of ink seem to add to the anguish. Whose anguish? You-know-whose anguish. Plus two thieves.

That was painted in 2014. The same year that George Shaw began his two-and-a-half year residency at the National Gallery. Also relatively early was the series of paintings I'm going to look at now. I say that, because although they're dated 2015-16 like most of the show, they're painted on board rather than canvas. Influenced by the canvases he was studying on a daily basis, Shaw made the switch of medium in order to nuance his approach to the Old Masters.

Anyway, here we are, at the heart of the wood once more, otherwise known as point E. From hereabouts a line of nine small paintings, collectively called 'You've Changed
', can be viewed.

NIpyLdnuSDuRdvqY%ES5uQ_thumb_bf60

If this show was a long-playing record (circa 1965 to 1990, or whenever) we would be in the middle of the second side now. This is not where any singles are coming from, but the material does deserve to be here. Besides, albums that consist only of singles tend to be one-paced and lack depth. These paintings tell us something more about the painter's process and his thinking.

WkJTq3g8SSCO+LHqUeRt1w_thumb_c003
George Shaw. You've Changed (1), 2015-2016. Enamel on plywood. 30 x 21cm

I see a face in the bark of the tree. Eyes near the top of the trunk, big open mouth near the bottom. Is that what the painter is trying to communicate? I'm just going to move on quickly from tree to tree, at least to begin with.

These are soft-edged paintings. Almost sketches. On first glance I took the orange patch towards the bottom of the next tree trunk to be a protuberance, to be read sexually.

ww4ZxdGgS2WoUauDCSSgsw_thumb_c000
George Shaw. You've Changed (2), 2015-2016. Enamel on plywood. 30 x 21cm

But looking again, I realise I'm seeing right through the tree to a carpet of orange leaves beyond. This is an old tree, almost hollow and on the way out. Preliminary thought cum premature conclusion: "You've changed," is code for "You're dying."

Clearly we're not looking at the same tree from different perspectives. The one below is a slimmer tree-trunk.

PcDYgLlERlul1uZY+HDlng_thumb_c002
George Shaw. You've Changed (3), 2015-2016. Enamel on plywood. 30 x 21cm

'You've changed'. I wonder if the painter is noticing that each tree looks different to how it did on an earlier occasion. Though, if that's so, what is the timescale of comparison, days or years?

In all these trees, the bark has been removed in a patch or patches, revealing the bare trunk underneath. These trees are wounded.

6TMKaQV+TbG5t9KKVR3dow_thumb_c006
George Shaw. You've Changed (4), 2015-2016. Enamel on plywood. 30 x 21cm

Shaw may even be addressing the wood as a whole. There are many individual trees in a single wood. Just as there are many individual paintings in George's Tile Hill work. If so, the wood is always going to be seen as changing. "You've changed" is a given.

9oCYh%+5QYmwReC05Xr8hg_thumb_c004
George Shaw. You've Changed (5), 2015-2016. Enamel on plywood. 30 x 21cm

I pause in front of this huge tree, wondering what I should be noticing about it. That there is a hollow big enough for a man or woman to stand up in? That the bottom two branches evoke a crucified body?

I think it's important to both give each painting some attention and to keep coming back to the set of nine. And if I take a step back, the small size of these paintings in comparison to others, especially the triptych shortly to come, is striking.

FzVBLKjGQ3+3ywYjcuK6zQ_thumb_bfa4

Numbers eight and nine in this series have a definite reference to the crucifixion, that being the wound to Christ's side referenced by red paint on bark.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Next:

2a2hUh3VSfStlhoBmbDscA_thumb_c007.OwpVHwpTTvaT1xe9YqQUEQ_thumb_c040
George Shaw. You've Changed (6 and 7), 2015-2016. Enamel on plywood. 30 x 21cm

It seems I can't help speed up a bit, taking in two trees at a time.

ZcEvNeupRWOfHphv6mpT5Q_thumb_c005.QQy9KIG+QgGrBOiBRtxZHA_thumb_c001
George Shaw. You've Changed (8), 2015-2016. Enamel on plywood. 30 x 21cm

I reckon the plea "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" must come in between those last two paintings. But I walked too fast to hear it. I don't blame myself. At the heart of the wood, one gets to sit down and consider a magnificent spectacle, and I feel I've been putting that off for too long.

0LbPxjigQZWQ0%XwCWk9vg_thumb_bf5a

Each painting consists of Humbrol enamel on a huge canvas, 178.5cm by 198 cm. Clearly Shaw uses big pots of paint, not the tiny ones of popular imagination, but then he has done for some years now. About six paintings that I recall from around 2011 were 147 x 198 cm, which is almost as large.

First up is
The Rude Screen, which is anticipated by two earlier pictures in the show featuring the blue fabric. Just as the paintings are spotlit in the gallery, I'm using the 'enhance' facility on my iMac's 'Pictures'.

E7LSXoSjTx2AWFu3NHvlwA_thumb_c02f
George Shaw. The Rude Screen, 2015-2016. Enamel on canvas 178.5 x 198 cm

Shaw tells us that this painting is in part inspired by the work of Titian, in particular by the following picture of Diana and Actaeon from 1556-9. Actaeon on the left, has drawn back a drape to reveal a group of naked women, servants of Diana who sits towards the right of the composition. To my eyes, Actaeon is over-acting his part and Diana's head does not quite belong to her body.

XEBBUog0ThG+0Fi09xT4Rg_thumb_c034
Titian. Diana and Actaeon, 1556-9. Oil on canvas 184 x 202 cm

On first glance, you might reckon that the Titian scene has been mightily simplified in Shaw's panel. But just wait and see how things reveal, if I can put it like that. The mounds of youthful female flesh are moved to the middle picture in Shaw's vision. The pages torn from porn mags have cropped up in three earlier images in the show, you might recall. After trees themselves, it's a main motif.

SJDX2hasSbCoHezWNtPgFg_thumb_c031
George Shaw. Möcht’ ich zurücke wieder wanken , 2015-2016. Enamel on canvas 178.5 x 198 cm

Google wants to translate this painting's title as 'I want to shake my back again'. Perhaps a better translation is 'I want to stumble back again'. Though neither translation takes account of the obvious pun.

Let's stumble our way to Room 6 for a moment, to see how Titian's triptych builds up. I'm not that familiar with the NG yet, so I use their free map. I follow the line that heads off at 7 o'clock.

uVvJtUdtSLeDTbXQY0pKpg_thumb_c035

Room 6 in the 1500-1600 part of the Gallery. This is the sort of spectacle that Shaw has tried to conjure up by different means in the Sunley Room. When I say by different means, mostly I mean 'without figures', a tough ask.

xdMiFU1MT6+ZSSbNmnPEDg_thumb_c041
Titian. Diana and Callisto, 1556-9. Oil on canvas 187 x 204 cm

In this picture, Diana is humiliating Callisto who has become pregnant after Jupiter, king of the Gods, seduced her by disguising himself as Diana. Diana and Callisto and Diana and Actaeon were painted for King Philip II of Spain between 1556 and 1559 and belong to a group of large-scale mythologies inspired by the Roman poet Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’

If you took the above painting and tore it into
Mayfair- or Penthouse- or Playboy-sized pieces then scattered them on the forest floor would you not get a scene like Möcht’ ich zurücke wieder wanken?

Back to the Sunley Room to see the third part of Shaw's triptych.

jFmRMMgvRNmtLSVY%g198Q_thumb_c030
George Shaw. Every Brush Stroke is Torn Out of My Body, 2015-2016. Enamel on canvas 178.5 x 198 cm

The title is a line delivered by Tony Hancock in The Rebel, a film that came out in 1964. Shaw quotes some more dialogue from it in an essay in the National Gallery's catalogue accompanying My Back to Nature. Poor Hancock - so aspirational, so misunderstood.

In all three of these large paintings, Shaw has interfered with Tile Hill wood as is. First, by draping the tarpaulin over
a branch, then by spreading pages from porn mags over the ground, and lastly by daubing red paint on a tree. Though the red paint alludes to blood - as it does in two of the paintings on the adjoining wall - it's not quite the right shade of red. A fact that is underlined by the comic note of the title.

Back to Room 6 for the Titian that's just round the corner from the other two. In this third Diana picture, the Goddess has shot the peeping Tom, Actaeon, with an arrow, and her dogs have set upon him. One dog pawing the falling man's side. Though when I say 'man', his head has been transformed into a stag's. Another hart of the wood.

CvSF0lbGSg2rwRUZpjDncQ_thumb_c036
Titian. The Death of Actaeon, 1556-9. Oil on canvas 179 x 198 cm

How do the three Titian paintings sit together in Room 6? Like this:

CYnpKpAmSpy3p%5FPPAQkA_thumb_c033

Difficult to ignore the maroon walls and the gold frames, but it is possible.

And the three Shaw paintings in the Sunley Room? Behold…

LHq7b8tRR52ii7+P64tkDw_thumb_bf9f

Actaeon will forever regret the day he wandered into a Tile Hill wood with a porn mag under his arm. As soon as he so much as sniffed the pristine, glossy pages his fate was sealed.

The triptych is not 'simply' a tribute to Titian. Indeed it's just as much a tribute to a painting by Poussin called The Triumph of Pan. Poussin (1594-1665) was the toast of Rome, while Titian (1488-1576) was the maestro of Venice. Both Italian cities are a long way from Coventry, one might say. But one might also say that Titian was principally pre-Shakespeare and Poussin principally post-Shakespeare, the poet having been brought up in the Forest of Arden, remnants of which are all around Tile Hill. Coventry, Rome, Venice, these places can be talked of in a single sentence. Just as Shaw, Poussin and Titian can be.

UuVgWSwrRh6MsimGkab1og_thumb_c03b
Nicolas Poussin. The Triumph of Pan, 1636. Oil on canvas 140 x 146 cm

There is a lot going on in this picture. Pan, the God of woods and fields, is the statue at the back of the group. Men and women are partying. There is music, feasting and drinking, and there may have been an entertainment involving masks. Two of the males - particularly drunk ones - have the legs of goats, which makes them satyrs. Lots of bare flesh and smiling faces. The triumph of Pan would seem to be that everyone is having a good time. Would that things were really that simple.

The painting can be transformed into a triptych to correspond with George Shaw's. So first we have the rude screen:

lCF2Cxk6RrqPRn5XzhLjhA_thumb_c038.E7LSXoSjTx2AWFu3NHvlwA_thumb_c02f

Not an exact match of blue nor of line, but Shaw is trying to convey the first panel of the Titian at the same time, so that's to be expected.

Next the middle panel:

hZt6uZjSR0S2oITSrXmBrQ_thumb_c03c.SJDX2hasSbCoHezWNtPgFg_thumb_c031

In his essay for the National Gallery's catalogue, Shaw discusses what's on the ground in the Poussin. He points out that if all the revellers were to disperse then the detritus left behind would echo a Tile Hill wood scene of the last fifty years. Shaw speculates whether the cloth covers up a body. I wonder whether it covers up a torn up version of Diana and Callisto.

Finally, the right-hand panel:

DNh5iA46RmizAUGN5zATyg_thumb_c044.jFmRMMgvRNmtLSVY%g198Q_thumb_c030

It seems that the same red paint that Shaw splashed onto the tree was wiped across the face of Pan, bringing him closer to Christ on the cross.

The woman in the blue dress seems to be plying Pan with garlands. Indeed, all the dozen or so figures in the composition have a garland of ivy or leaves or flowers in their hair. Which makes me suspect that what starts off like this, so sweet and light, so 'at one with nature'…

8eSnG4dhTWyMrDcZKU26DQ_thumb_c043

…over years and years is reduced to this (that's the once-young woman, bottom right):

PcDYgLlERlul1uZY+HDlng_thumb_c002.6TMKaQV+TbG5t9KKVR3dow_thumb_c006
OwpVHwpTTvaT1xe9YqQUEQ_thumb_c040.WkJTq3g8SSCO+LHqUeRt1w_thumb_c003

"You've changed."

"You've changed."

"You've changed."

"We've all changed!"

The triumph of Pan is that he is immortal. Sadly, the golden lads and lasses are not.

I keep sitting. Thinking about the passing of time.

It was in 2013, after I'd written the main batch of essays on this site, that I met a friend in Tile Hill. Actually, we met in Kenilworth, where John lives, and he drove us to Coventry and parked on the estate. We wandered the streets for a while, I fed him the results of some of my research, and we ended up sitting in the pub. Which pub? The Black Prince, of course, a place that George has painted more than once.

Anyway, that allows me to imagine that I'm sitting here now with my friend, as George Shaw once sat here with Waldemar Januszczak. John reminds me of the 1970s when we were at college together. Those were the days of - amongst other things I hasten to say - long walks to backstreet newsagents to buy porn mags. Not walks we did together, but separately.

LHq7b8tRR52ii7+P64tkDw_thumb_bf9f

Our attitudes to women have transformed since then. Having established friendly relations with many, and full relationships with some, we no longer objectify women's bodies as we once did. It has to be emphasised that in those days women's place was in the mind's eye of men, as mothers and sexual objects. As has been well-documented recently, it was difficult for women to publish books, be artists, establish a professional career: so many things were out of their reach.

All that has changed, and is still changing for the better. An oblique way of illustrating this: I read as many books by women as by men these days. And all the excellent telly in the last year (
Fleabag, Killing Eve, Gentleman Jack, The Handmaid's Tale) has been written by - and stars - brilliant women.

Men and women have changed. John and I have changed. But not altogether. Last time we met, I told John I was going to abstain from orgasm for a month. Now he asks me how that went. There is only one honest answer, but I must put a brave face on it: "EVERY DROP OF SPERM HAD TO BE TORN FROM MY BODY!"

I've been wanting to deliver that line for some time. Now I can move on. Position G. The last two paintings in the show. First, I step back to see them in relation to what's just gone before.

3FyTv0%eS0eIblf3GOnn8w_thumb_bf59

The smaller picture is of a tree, it's called Portrait of an Old Midlander. Although it looks to be part of the 'You've changed' series, it's bigger than those, the same size as the set of paintings that include The Heart of the Wood, Recto and Verso.

qkA5MJLrR+m1YYe%vLq1xw_thumb_c048
George Shaw. Portrait of an Old Midlander, 2015-2016. Enamel on canvas 45 x 35 cm

In his essay, Mark Hallett juxtaposes the image with a late Rembrandt self-portrait. He writes 'In Portrait of an old Midlander the gnarled and fissured surfaces of an old tree-trunk are rendered as the equivalents to the pock-marked and wrinkled features of Rembrandt's elderly face in the gallery's Self-Portrait as an Old Man.'

jBtlqOa1TNaoLy4ceETryA_thumb_c04a……..ql9qDbx3QxWD4AV4pTqn2g_thumb_c04b
George Shaw. Portrait of an Old Midlander, 2015-16. Enamel on canvas 45 x 35cm. Rembrandt, Self-Portrait as an Old Man, Oil on canvas, 86 x 71cm

Does Hallett know that far a fact? Well, he has talked to Shaw, who does mention the Rembrandt self-portrait in his essay in the National Gallery catalogue.

Here is my contribution to the discussion. I hope it does justice both to Rembrandt and to Shaw.

A8s2ngG7S%SlI830GGM3zA_thumb_c04c
Duncan McLaren (actually, George Shaw and Rembrandt), Self-Portrait as a Changed Man, 2019. Digital image.

The final picture of the show is shown below. George pissing against a tree. Apparently, it was still wet (the painting, not the tree) when the photo for the catalogue was taken.

So the painting was a late addition, and a bold choice. For when was the last time George Shaw painted and exhibited a figure, never mind himself? But it makes sense. The blue clothes bring to mind the blue tarpaulin that has been put to such good use. George bows his head to the tree. He may even be leaning his head against it. Skin to skin, face to face.


ID23VibiRIqqHPUKEc3v1Q_thumb_c049
George Shaw. The Call of Nature, 2015-16. Enamel on canvas 86 x 70.5cm

Let's just hope George Shaw is not pissing on Rembrandt - or Poussin or Titian. How does Omar Khayyam put it in his Ruba'iyat?

'From that wine-jug that has no harm in it
Fill a bowl, boy, and pass it to me,
Before by some wayside,
A potter uses your clay and mine for just such a jug.'

Not quite the same situation, but a rough parallel.

I'm at the end of the exhibition. But the end of the show joins smoothly with its beginning. The set of 14 images titled
The Sadness of the Middle-Aged Life Model asks to be read in a different way than before. This is because the images only imply the cross, they don't illustrate it. Indeed, do they imply the cross? Do they not equally imply the can?

If the above picture can be thought of as George Shaw relieving himself after drinking a single can of Tile Hill lager, the following images could be George after 13, 14 and 9 cans, respectively.


7l%zHhVwR02FRY9Tb9j9YA_thumb_c04fPGQhhm2fTnSZaPrEQpUilg_thumb_c0501Lf4WjFNRvC3%m1RaFYFtA_thumb_c051
George Shaw. The Sadness of the Middle-Aged Life Model, (13, 14, 9 of 14) 2015. Charcoal on paper, each 61 x 46cm.

I suppose I could re-order the images so that they are can-o-logical. But aesthetically, I feel the above order works better.

Actually, what I'm looking for is something in between the cross and the can. And I think I know what it is.
It must have been quite some challenge to have been Associate Artist at the National Gallery for so long. You bring your own practice to the hallowed institution and you have to allow it to be influenced by the History of Art and measured against the History of Art.

Shaw's come through it all, leaving
My Back to Nature as proof of his survival and success. He's still painting about Tile Hill, his own inheritance and territory, but all the more conscious of the history of painting in Europe over the last thousand years. When painting his responses to Titian, Poussin and the rest, he eventually succumbed to their precedent and switched to canvas, a much more absorbent material than the wooden boards he'd used before. Why not go the whole hog and switch from Humbrol enamel to those oil paints that have stood the test of time? Isn't that what Rembrandt, Constable and Poussin all whispered down to him from the walls? Those traditional oil paints which are so flexible, giving fluidity and solidity, depth and lightness all at once.

Shaw was 50-years-old in 2016. That's middle-aged according to his own titling of the charcoal drawings, and it's still young for an artist when you think of what the likes of Titian went on to do post-50. But try telling that to Van Gogh who painted his last pictures when he was 37. The National Gallery has four van Goghs that I'm aware of.
Sunflowers and his own chair, painted while he was living in Arles; a view of grass studded with butterflies and a field of wheat with cypresses, painted when Van Gogh was an inmate at the asylum in Saint Remy.


8jeX9hY6TVmnDtNEtfScDA_thumb_c098.NhMf%ETLSTa+ZvpwcZqmmw_thumb_c096.XkuLV37JSt6eGqmISn6A7A_thumb_c08e.KcZyOdHDTM+5Zu8IFsRzWA_thumb_c097

Fancy having to walk past even just these four paintings on a daily basis while trying to do your own thing in a studio on the premises. Knowing that all four of the pictures both inspired and intimidated you. Spoke to you of the solitary life and shared mortality, the world's beauty and its solace.

Or is that a sentimental vision? If so, how about this: George Shaw on his back in Room 43, naked. He has something clutched tight in his right fist.

Vincent: "Is that a pot of yellow paint you've got there?"

George: "It's mine."

VIncent: "It's just the thing I need to touch up my
Sunflowers."

George: "Sure, you can have this pot of yellow paint, Vincent. But first you'll have to cut off my right arm to get it."

Vincent:
"Never did the Good Luck brother. Tern aroun to help the other."

George: "Nice try, Vince, but no coconut."










Acknowledgement The images of George Shaw’s works on this site are copyright the artist. The artist is represented by Anthony Wilkinson.