John Minton - A Centenary, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 1st July - 1st October 2017.
John Minton died (sadly, by his own hand at only 39, though there’s a seven in his birth year too, hence the centenary) in the year I was born, so we are both subjects of a more or less arbitrary (I wish) anniversary. Sixty years. The only bright spot, for me at least, is that, according to the Japanese, the horoscope repeats on sixty year cycles so, if you make it that far, you can start over again, a new life as it were. The other advantage is that I remember at least some aspects of John Minton’s time, the post war decades. In particular, that there wasn't so much stuff. Things to buy. And everything seemed a lot more expensive.
Australia didn’t have the same level of shortages, of rationing of food and essentials, but our parents' generation, having experienced depression and war, were pretty intent on living a frugal life, consumer-wise that is. Against which the generations around me famously rebelled. And are still rebelling.
I remember from my childhood the kind of visual style of which John Minton was a master and though it’s now the signifier of a specific era (beautifully retro now of course) if there’s one characteristic which can be applied to John Minton’s illustration, his graphic design for book covers, advertising, etc. it’s a vision of plenty. Every available space is crammed with promise, with potential, with a suggestion of narrative, the excitement of the imaginative. His commercial art had to sell the books in which it appeared and in an age of austerity he could conjure monochromatic bliss in a swirling compression of multiple points of focus. There wasn’t just The Wanderer, there was the road, the walls, the hedges, the fields, the sky, the clouds, the sun, the lot.
William Blake and Samuel Palmer, among others, were the inspiration for a kind of post World War Two approach to seeing the world as maybe being more than the sum of its parts, that there was a spiritual dimension to our relationship to that which was there and that which we imagined was there. Had this artistic strain taken hold, the world may now be a very different place. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and John Minton was a casualty. Rather than seeing god in a banana leaf and the exotic in a slice of melon, the world started to be flooded with things, things to buy and things to experience, and the outward looking visionaries turned inward, people, artists, whoever, defining themselves by what they wore, smoked, ate, cooked, and putting themselves as the focus of paintings, the world gradually dissolved away, only there because we are here, at the centre.
So to time travel back, to have an hour or so immersed in the vision of a different kind of world, a different kind of life, is a joy. The kind of gift which keeps on giving. John Minton’s work is linked to its time, because we think so utterly differently now. This isn’t John Minton’s fault. It’s ours. We are diminished. He is exalted.
I am returning again and again, it seems, to the same theme. What does art which is about how people interact, look like? What can it look like? The more we focus on ourselves, our feelings, our inner life, the more isolated we become and the more jejune, the more desolate, the art we create. The more we turn inward, the more technology can massage and buff our personal space, our identity, our artistic expression, the more we lose touch with exactly that which Minton, Blake and the other Romantics and Neo-Romantics were trying to paint, to express.
What could art look like? Like John Minton’s. His portraits are as much about the floor, the walls, the clothes, as the person. His people live in the world, they are the sum of an ever changing, ever expanding, ever moving interaction. His work is beyond symbolist (though he dabbled early on) his paintings achieve that sense that they encompass worlds, that there is always more to see, more to find, more to imagine
It’s easy (and common) to assign to art from past ages attributes which we currently value (Shakespeare I’m looking at you), thus are paintings, plays, books etc. as much at the mercy of fashionable prejudice as any other item, cultural or otherwise. Since his death, John Minton’s art has suffered (at least two paintings in this exhibition had been forgotten, left unseen for decades) from the sudden change in the way we see ourselves, a change that seems to have rolled over every part of our lives, education, politics, social justice and seems most profoundly present in the arts where the cult of the individual genius now carries all before it.
John Minton maybe didn’t intend to be quite as radical as he’s turned out to be, but it’s a great blast of fresh air to stand before these paintings and to see what is possible when interaction with other people and with the world is expressed so clearly and with such certainty.