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Rachel Giles


Dulwich Picture Gallery

Until August 31, 2015

The work of Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) may seem overly familiar to some. Because, in the current vogue for vintage and everything to do with British Modernism, his art is often reproduced along with that of his close friend Edward Bawden. You'll see Ravilious's watercolours and lithographs licensed on everything from greetings cards to crockery. At first glance, his oeuvre evokes a rather safe and pleasant sense of timeless Englishness: a glimpse of a hillside chalk horse from a railway carriage; the cliffs of Beachy Head; the inside of a greenhouse, bursting with tomato plants and cyclamens. His paintings have an artisanal quality about them, in a digital age where reproductions fly about the ether like feather-light birds, free of substance. The painstaking work of his hands is there to see in the obsessive cross-hatching, miraculously (and it must have been tediously) executed to render the texture of a hillside, a gravelly beach or the upholstery of a chair. The precision of Ravilious's hand and eye are breathtaking. His world is instantly recognisable. But what's really intriguing about him, and what this exhibition makes so clear, is that he takes the most mundane subject matter and twists it, distorting shapes ever so subtly, so that the familiar becomes less so. It's an obsession with form, heading towards abstraction. What could have been a twee landscape starts to take on a magical quality. In Wet Afternoon (1938) for example, a simple picture of a man walking down a country lane, the hedges loom monumentally, distorted beyond normal size, dwarfing the receding figure. Although Ravilious embraced the local and the domestic, this exhibition shows how he was willing to travel to find 'a good place', as he put it, to paint. As a war artist, in 1941, he spent several weeks on board a naval submarine, setting out from Gosport, Hampshire. His muted, subtle colours would not wash in depicting the gloomy conditions down below, so he used a more vibrant palette. The result, 'Submarine Series' is a fascinating dreamworld. In the imaginatively titled Commander of a Submarine Looking Through a Periscope, a captain looks through a periscope: and we can see what he sees, through the improbable imaginary porthole next to him - an aeroplane flying low across the sea. The sub's interior is like some hot, golden grotto made of wire wool. In Testing Davis Apparatus (1941), begoggled men bob awkwardly like corks in some huge testing tank. The pool is like a ritual, sacred space; the men are doll-like, uncanny. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote of the 'vibration of appearances which is the cradle of all things' in Paul C├ęzanne's works - the way the abstract shapes and colour created a new reality, a revelation, something deep and primordial beneath the surface. Ravilious's pictures vibrate as well. They have a spiritual quality of the sort you find in the work of Samuel Palmer or Stanley Spencer: a magic realism that some adore, and that makes others feel a bit queasy. Objects, forms and places that caught his eye have their own personality and their own psychological impact. One of my favourites is The Teleprinter Room, of 1941. A teleprinter, an archaic wartime telecommunications machine, lurks enormous and defunct, like something out of an old Dr Who episode. It sits alone, alluring and menacing; two dials on its casing look like eyes, and the cavity where its printed messages are spat out resembles like a gaping mouth. I understand that Dulwich's bijou space is best filled with pictures rather than long wall panels that disrupt visitor flow. But the lack of biographical information on Ravilious is frustrating. To leave out birth and death dates is odd. The circumstances of Ravilious's death, for example, are as mysterious as his pictures: whilst posted in Iceland in 1942, still a war artist, he joined an air-sea rescue mission which failed to return. He was 39. Dulwich should not assume that visitors know these things already. The first room is a muddle. You hope for some kind of introduction and you're given the snippet that he was the son of an antiques dealer. Childhood sketchbooks are mentioned - but they're not on display. Most of the pictures in this room are from his time as a war artist: I had to check I'd started in the right place. Despite these gripes, I guarantee it's worth the trip to enjoy the textures, forms, and singular luminosity that seem present in all of this artist's works. In 1940 he wrote to his wife, Tirzah Garwood, whilst in Norway: 'I've painted the midnight sun at last.' Little wonder he was delighted with this achievement: all his works, even the ones of rainy days, seem to fairly shimmer and vibrate with light.