From Beachy Head to Muggery Pope: John Skoog sees the dark side of Eric Ravilious

By Richard Moss Published: 04 April 2014

Think you know Eric Ravilious? Then look again as John Skoog brings the strangeness of Scandinavian Noir to bear on the works of Eric Ravilious at Towner in Eastbourne

Click on the picture below to launch a gallery of images from the show

The stillness of Scandinavian film making is casting dark yet strangely illuminating shadows across the work of Eric Ravilious at the Towner in Eastbourne.

Swedish artist John Skoog, whose film Redoubt is the touch point for this shadowy recasting, explores Ravilious the modernist, whose own taste for the bizarre is sometimes lost in the strong sense of nostalgia his work evokes.

The stillness of the winter day, stark winter trees, the frozen folds of the ploughed field and the derelict farmhouse are motifs that make effortless appearances in many a Ravilious painting, and they make suitable companions in Skoog’s film Redoubt.

With its slow tracking shots and fragments of conversations, Redoubt slowly unfolds to explore a crumbling concrete and scrap metal fortress made by Swedish farmer Karl Goran Persson as a Cold War refuge against a possible Russian invasion.

The film closes on Sunday (April 6) but the atmospheric curation left in its wake, which Skoog and his co-curator Bjarke Hvass Kure call Near Dark, can be seen until early May.

Skoog is a surprisingly sympathetic interpreter of Ravilious; apart from sharing an understanding of stillness and landscape he teases out the dark counterpoints in an artist who loved to lace his paintings with doors left ajar, plates abandoned on tables and other tropes that hinted at unease and strangeness.

Sketches, tantalizing fragments of colour tests and a few familiar paintings, including Ironbridge Interior (1941) and Garden Path (1934), hang together in a restrained display that at times seems like a crime scene.

There are unfinished masterpieces such as Beachy Head (1939) and examples of eerily nocturnal scenes of the Downs by artists unknown and forgotten. Even Edward Bawden’s Back Garden at Great Bardfield (1933), with its village bobby pulling at the door of a garden shed, seems shot through with the still peculiarity of Scandinavian film – albeit mixed with the spirit of Ealing.

Gertrude Hermes’ woodcut, Through the Windscreen (1929), meanwhile, is pure Film Noir with its halo of headlights against the trees and telegraph poles of a darkened country road. Given Ravilious’ love and mastery of woodcut, it’s a beautiful addition.

And then there’s Skoog’s film, ‘Sent pa Jorden’ or ‘Late on Earth’, sitting amid this sparse obscurity with its images of children playing in summer fields, and a troubled teenager screaming at a passing train. The parallels with Ravilious may seem tenuous, but look again and the modest narratives of these largely silent figures in the landscape seem comparable.

The intriguing re-assembled fragments of Muggery Pope, a derelict farmhouse that Ravilious and his wife Tirzah briefly considered moving in to, close the exhibition.  Presumably painted (then ripped up) by Ravilious after one of his expeditions with Peggy Angus to the isolated ruin on the South Downs above Newhaven, the scraps of this aborted scheme are pieced together forensically in a glass case.

You get the sense that Towner’s Ravilious collection is like some iceberg, with its mass submerged beneath the surface. This must bring with it its own problems – not least how best to display it and satisfy the demand to see it.

For now, Skoog shows how you can use a collection to shine a fresh light on a familiar figure, and rather than a pre-war England of pipe smoke, garden sheds and rolling hills, succeeds in conjuring something quite different. 

  • Near Dark is at Towner until May 4 2014. Open 10am-5pm (closed Monday except Bank Holiday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @Townergallery.

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