Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, Joan Eardley, 6 November 2007 - 13 January 2008
Fiona Stevenson, Exhibition Catalogue, Joan Eardley, 2007, illus. p. 29, cat. no. 25
In the summer of 1948 Joan Eardley won a travelling scholarship from Glasgow School of Art and on 27 September she set sail for Italy. The first place she visited was Florence and she was immediately captivated by the architecture, the frescoes and of course the people that she encountered. In the introduction to the 2007 Royal Scottish Academy exhibition catalogue Fiona Pearson describes how "in Florence Eardley looked at frescoes by Giotto in Santa Croce, Fra Angelico in San Marco and above all those by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine. In a sketchbook full of drawings and notes Eardley wrote: 'The stone wall in particular with bulging massive blocks of stone is what one is familiar with from having walked by almost these very walls in Florence to reach the church of the Carmine where the Masaccios are. And as one walks by them again now these impenetrable prison like walls of stone seem to be Masaccio forever after – they become a painting of Masaccio and the maimed and crippled beggars who loll against them – hands outstretched asking for alms seems only to be again Masaccio ...suddenly time is as if nothing is lost...Masaccio saw what we see now and painted what he saw – the beggars, the poor people of Florence...also Cezanne and Van Gogh pink houses olive trees etc and we see them now almost as though they might have been painted only yesterday."
Pearson further describes in the how "[Eardley] in her descriptions of the people and places and her wish to paint, there is a certainty and self-confidence which made her shun the fashionable and material comforts of Italy; instead, she went in search of the primitive." Interest in the everyday subjects was something Eardley had already began to explore during her early years in Glasgow and can be seen in works such as The Rush Hour (1938), A Pot of Potatoes (1944), The Mixer Men (1944). Eardley herself recalled how "in Italy and in Paris too one realizes all the time how the great painters of these countries painted only always the simple everyday things that were around them." Her affinity with the primitive subjects she so loved to paint is evident in the integrity and truth with which she paints.
Having spent an important initial period in Italy, Eardley expressed her strong desire to visit Paris to see the contemporary paintings in the plethora of public galleries and exhibitions, a world away from Renaissance Florence. She delighted in all that Paris offered; commercial galleries selling works by Picasso, Braque, Rouault, Modigliani and Utrillo, artist's studios, print shops, the Boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre, the Rodin Museum and a show a the Petit Palais of masterpieces from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich including 'terrific Rembrandts' and 'wonderful El Grecos'. Having immersed herself in the modern art world in Paris, she returned to Italy on 23rd January 1949 this time headed for Venice. Soon after her arrival she became ill with flu and had to return to Florence to find English speakers and to find a doctor. This was a period of great distress for her and she recorded her feelings of isolation, vulnerability and inability to cope which probably resulted in her decision to never again travel abroad unaccompanied.
Despite her illness, Eardley's appetite for Italy could not be suppressed and by 4 February she was back in Venice, taking lodgings with two elderly ladies on the top floor of a waterfront building in close proximity to Piazza San Marco. Eardley spent much of her time in Venice working in pastel, only producing a small number of finished oils, the two most significant being Beggars in Venice (the present work) and Venetian Beggar Woman, No. 2. The subjects of these major works are significant, showing her affection for and interest in disenfranchised figures in society. In this seminal early painting we are shown a poignant snapshot of a subject and style to which she would return throughout the 1950s painting the street children of her native Glasgow. Italy opened her eyes to much of what is considered her trademark subject matter.
The crippled figures at the centre of the composition are situated in the Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo outside the Scuola Grande di San Marco, the canal on the left hand side known as the Rio dei Mendicanti running from San Giovanni e Paolo, passed the Scuola Grande and out towards Murano. Walter Sickert painted this exact view on a number of occasions. Scuola Grande di San Marco itself, with its monumental façade, was built in the fifteenth century as a great philanthropic confraternity. A particularly poignant influence when discussing Beggar's in Venice is Giotto, widely regarded as the father of the Italian Renaissance. One of the most individual elements of Giotto's work is his development and use of the colour blue which allowed his to create a continuous narrative throughout a series of frescoes. Eardley was profoundly affected by the beauty of Giotto's painting and one may assume that the images, and particularly the colours, she saw for the first time would have made a lasting impression and directly informed her art. The vibrant blue tones which penetrate almost all areas of the composition and the aggressive reds which imbue the central cripple's upper body and the architectural details in the buildings beyond have hugely striking visual impact.
The influence of Eardley's trip to Italy can be noted in the paintings that she produced in the immediate period after her return, in particular a painting entitled Street Kids (c.1949-51) which hangs in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. The diagonal axes within the composition, the long-limbed figures and the use of the trademark blue pigment, which is observed in abundance in Beggars in Venice, all refer directly to the developments she made and the influences she picked up during her early trip abroad. In an article for the autumn 2008 edition of The Scottish Art News, Fiona Pearson identifies that "Eardley's Italian portrayals of beggars was the first intimation that she would spend the rest of her short life documenting the lives of the disenfranchised – the poor, the peasants, the tenement children and the very old." Beggars in Venice is a rare painting within the body of Eardley's short output as an artist and stands as the most important of her paintings to be offered at auction.
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