The Ragged School Museum, curated by Jenni Lomax

Essays by Erica Davies, Jenni Lomax and Antoni Malinowski

Erica Davies
Jenni Lomax
Antoni Malinowski

Transformation, vision and light – Erica Davies

The battered buildings had seen better days, a murky photograph shows every window shattered, brickwork dingy. Nos 46 -50 Copperfield Road were destined for demolition, and in the bomb-damaged streets of East London who cared that another set of derelict warehouses disappeared?

Local activists did, they campaigned for the buildings to be saved and raised funds to buy them. Layer by layer research brought into focus the extraordinary history of the buildings stretching back to 1872; a history where destruction was imminent more than once. Empty and failing as canal side warehouses No 46 was leased by the formidable Thomas Barnardo to become a free school for some of the poorest children in Victorian London. This was one of the largest ragged schools where Barnardo’s vision aimed to transform the prospects ofthousands of pupils through education, training and nourishment.

When the school was extended in 1895 two dramatic staircases were added. They lead us up to the light-filled rooms now transformed by the luminous paintings of Antoni Malinowski. An artist’s eye and sensibility comprehend the transformative effects of light, especially light reflected from the rippling water of the Regent’s Canal. Antoni has brought his profoundunderstanding of the magical effects of light, movement and pigment refractions into view. He shows how a building with the humblest of origins can become and entrancing space for paintings. A new chapter of our history begins.

Botticini Inspired, 2018
Synthetic tempera on polyester
243 x 150 cm

Light Facing – Jenni Lomax

Facing North – gazing through the café windows onto Camden Arts Centre’s leafy garden. Adjusting focus from the trees beyond to the surface of the window panes, a rhythmic pattern of small green and pink brush strokes reveals itself. Like a ‘murmuration’ of birds, painted marks form and re-form in the shifting light of the room.

This painting on windows by Antoni Malinowski was intended to be a temporary thing, a delicate threshold between inside and out. It was made in the summer of 2014 to converse with the exhibition of works by the late Shelagh Wakely, showing in the galleries and garden at the time – a conversation on ephemeral magic, temporality and the behaviour of light.  The exhibition ended in the autumn and the painting remains, though it comes and goes with the changes of the day.

In the intense city sunshine of Milan, fierce light from the South strikes the red painted wall of a building opposite, causing a wash of pink to flood across through the windows of Assab One. In this old printworks turned art space the colour falls on the surface of a painting made directly onto one of its walls. Here Malinowski’s paintings occupy a rectangular room with two solid walls – one very long that is split by flat columns into a series of shallow bays- the other much shorter with a clear run. Seven of the works in this exhibition are stretched canvases placed in a simple and gentle rhythm – two on the short wall and one in each of five bays along the other.

Time spent observing the daily performance of light and its effect on the physicality and substance of the space prefigures Malinowski’s placement of the works; his choreography heightening the spatial relationships, both within each painting and of one to another.  Colour and its perception through light are his base material, carried in a mixture of pigment and nanotechnologies that work with the human eye. This alchemic medium is applied with fine brushstrokes in gestures that construct new orders and dimensions of form within space.

The title of the Milan exhibition, Quasi visto – in English ‘Almost seen’ – is the name of a wall painting in three parts, sited at the start of the short wall and at both ends of the long one. The available evening, spring light is playing most intently on the right, the shimmering colours causing the angles and architectural planes within the painting to undermine the certainty of the solid concrete wall.

Looking upwards at the sixteen-section, Renaissance style dome of the Cappella Portinari in Milan’s Basilica di San Eustorgio. The decorated, circular arrangement of feather shaped tessellations that are coloured in the order of the spectrum, starting with red, rising through to violet and then to a point of natural, white light. While the structure is held up high by a joyous dance of terra cotta angels, the gradation of colours and the tricks off the light make it difficult to discern if the form is concave or convex– are these rainbow wings reaching up to touch Heaven or down to brush the Earth?

Sitting in Antoni’s studio in West London, the afternoon sky is grey and though well into spring it is unseasonably cold, yet this room is still full of light. Pinks, golds reds and browns flow across the surface of three recently completed canvasses as the pigments and fading daylight work their magic. Making the billowing shapes seemingly pass from one state to the next.

Here in East London- at the top of the Ragged School Museum building, in a huge, empty room that leads in to another of similar size. Their walls, with dark brown dados giving way to a greenish-blue above, reveal their past purpose, occasional use and one-time neglect – the already unstable colours and surface does away with the need to activate them with wall paintings. For this exhibition Malinowski has thought about the strong architectural qualities of the building and the potent history that is held in its fabric. The structure of the space and movement of light in the rooms will forecast the placing of a series of paintings of varied proportions and sizes, including some shown in Milan and those seen in the studio.

Dawn to dusk, windows on the east side, overhead and on the west catch the daily transept of the mid-summer sun. At times, people can be heard playing in the vibrant green park to the East – from the West the canal reflects ripples of early evening light up into the building – with it a Venetian atmosphere and the memory of Tiepolo’s skies -water birds ruffle their feathers and -almost – there is a feeling of that gentle touch of an angel’s wing.

Almost Described – caput mortuum, 2017
Synthetic tempera on polyester
122 x 177cm

Light triggered – Antoni Malinowski

And there I found myself at the Fondamenta degli Incurabili. I was commissioned by a Swedish collector to make a wall painting in his Venetian residence. For half a year, almost every day I took the vaporetto from Zattere and often popped in to the nearby Gesuati church to yet again look at the play of light on the magnificent Tiepolo ceiling fresco.

Right in the middle of the vast composition there is a large luminous grey cloud, above it flying putti and angels with piercing white wings touching the as if silk-woven ultramarine ash clouds. On that patch, on some bright days one can see a trembling light reflection that, bounced off the Giudecca canal, animates the subtly painted blue on blue distant clouds. The light vibration touches the large greyness, disperses its particles; the silvery shimmer penetrates the whole fresco.

The other Tiepolo ceiling, at Santa Maria della Pietà, depicts the Coronation of the Virgin. She is perching on top of a light-ultramarine large shape – a cloud or a huge mantle that is slopping down to touch the darker part of the composition. The Pietà church was for centuries attached to the monastery run by nuns called the Consorelle di Santa Maria dell’Umiltà, so beautifully depicted by Gaudi in their eighteenth century gentle and seductive theatricality. This charity focused on raising abandoned children, like the grandfather of my Venetian friend who was found there one foggy morning, in a basket at the Pietà’s steps.

A famous charity-themed painting is Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy in Naples commissioned by the charitable brotherhood who cared for the nearby Hospital for Incurables. The painting depicts the muscular angels with their huge wings crushing down with a breathtaking force, transmitting the grace to humanity that compels them to be merciful. The dramatically lit darkness below reveals the human miseries remedied by charitable acts – typically Caravaggio warts and all.

For over a century overlooked by passers-by, the luminous skies of Tiepolo remained invisible, incompatible with nineteenth century taste. This theatre of clouds, animals and angels was also hardly of any interest to most twentieth century scholars.

Almost Seen – Reflected, 2018
Synthetic tempera on polyester
243 x 150 cm

Written in 1951 by the art historian Roberto Longhi “Dialogo fra il Caravaggio e il Tiepolo” aimed to glorify the naturalistic, “proletarian”, “craving for truth” versus the theatrical, “aristocratic” approach. At a certain moment in the imagined conversation Caravaggio reminds Tiepolo, in indignant tones, how widespread the custom of wearing masks was in Venice. But Tiepolo counters this by remarking that in Venice even beggars wear masks. “Few words, but enough to dismantle and foil his adversary’s heated arguments as well as those of all future authors of proclamations in favour of a reality that is then unfailingly revealed to be so parochial as to be unable to accept even the mask.” – comments Roberto Calasso in his book “Tiepolo Pink”.

Great twentieth century American painter Philip Guston understood and incorporated Tiepolesque theatrical sophistication in his bitter-sweet, often pink and black paintings that last year, juxtaposed with the Venetian light, were radiating truly complex beauty at the Accademia.

As a child, together with my sister we loved playing theatre. We would transform any area of the small Warsaw apartment into an imaginary world. One was under a round table covered on such an occasion with a leaf-patterned deep green and orange linen bedspread.

Normally, on the dark walnut table there was only an ash-tray bought on Murano by my grandparents before the war. It was an elliptically round, asymmetrically flowing shape. A particular cool pink shade, almost lilac at its base; at its widest circumference the colour almost disappeared in order to come back as a warm pink with a strange hue of an almost burned caramel at its rim. In this cool / warm glassy substance there were – as if thrown there to swirl around – small dots of other colours. Transparent vermilion-red that in shadow became almost crimson and the opaque light-grey puntini – in shadow blue-grey but distinctly white in the strong daylight that was coming from the nearby window. The dots were dancing, swirling, coming forward and disappearing. On the ash-tray’s inner base there was a magic silvery reflection – the spectral refractions were making a fairytale world of miniature wonder and enchantment.

The stories hovering around my childhood’s family table included my parents’ memories from Stalin’s prisons where my father had spent eight years. The darker sides were always hidden by the veil of humorous repartee. Other, older stories were from the time before the Russian revolution and the Great War – the world of Mann’s “Magic Mountain” and “Death in Venice”.

Quite miraculously saved from the bomb’s fire, the old sepia photographs were looked at time and time again. On one an elegant man seemed mysteriously distant. Leon Władysław de Lenval, my mother’s great uncle, was a successful industrialist and a great philanthropist. A European par excellence he was born in Russian-occupied Warsaw but later lived mostly in Austria and Belgium. He used to spend the winters in Nice. It is there that in 1888, after the sudden death of his ten year old son, Leon founded a hospital for children. To this day the Fondation Lenval on Avenue de la Californie is a large, working hospital. Before that de Lanval had founded the first clinic in Poland for workers and then another large hospital. After my visit there last year I stepped into Warsaw’s November twilight and began to think about all those Caritas-themed paintings and the iconography of angels, the messengers of light.

The light-reflecting backgrounds of the new paintings make the paint strokes appear and disappear. This depends on the levels of reflection and refraction within the crystals of the ground mica pigment. The brilliant light pouring down from the 46 Copperfield Road skylights is going to trigger further play of electrons within the micro-structures of the pigments used. What is visible, what remains invisible, may suddenly show itself in a lower (obfuscated) light. Then, with brilliant sunshine, the rhythms of the brush-strokes will realign themselves in unexpected configurations. The stronger or weaker reflection of light will alter the tonal relationships within the canvases’ rectangles. The nano-technology interference pigments will bend spectral wave-lengths and bring to our eyes a colour. This colour is going to reveal its dichromatic alter ego with a perpetually changing London light.

At times the light patches reflected off the moving waters of the Regent’s Canal will pulsate across the Ragged School ceilings.

Botticini Inverted, 2018
Synthetic tempera on polyester
243 x 150 cm