Exhibition of Brush Drawings and Etchings
by Gertrude Degenhardt
August 26th - September 15th 2005
Opening Speech by Bob Quinn
Gertrude & "Charlie"
It was George Bernard Shaw who said that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire.
Shaw may have been a great playwright and a brilliant music critic but he knew little about the dance. These prancing, dancing couples by Gertrude Degenhardt would be beyond his comprehension. They transcend base desire.
However hard it gets to believe it, in the moronic inferno of our consumer culture, there are moments and actions that are transcendent. We must believe that. If there were no such moments we would have to imagine them. And we do. And so does Degenhardt. With the ribbons in these pictures, she nails our transcendent colours to the mast.
There's another word that applies. I believe 'ecstasy' comes from the Greek and means 'standing outside ourselves'. These pictures are about many things and one of them is ecstasy. There is not a single observer here who does not realise that the relationship between man and woman, between human beings, - particularly nowadays - is fraught, dodgy, precarious, fragile. In these pictures she reminds us that at the worst of times we can get together, stick a geranium in our hats and dance. Get outside ourselves. Snap out of it. Face the music and dance.
Dance is the metaphor for such moments and these pictures etch some of them on our bruised sensibilities.
Gertrude looks at us, at our absurdity and pretension and instead of a mortal assembly of dust she sees the dancer, the music in each of us. With whatever alchemy she possesses, she turns our base matter into gold. However, these are not pretty, feel-good pictures. In each and every one of them, as my English teacher used say, there is an underlying note of pathos.
Thirty years ago one of their grannies gave my children a doll. It had a yellow body as shapeless as a bean bag It had golden curls and, its most striking feature, a smile as wide as its face. We named the androgynous object - Charlie.
It could neither stand nor sit on its own. It slumped. Successive chewing and general abuse by kids and dogs and cats removed the curls until it was almost bald. Charlie still smiled. It was a football, a toe rag, sometimes a comfort blanket, a soother; its body became even more shapeless. It survived winters buried under weeds in the garden. It endured dunking in the bath and in the toilet, too many house moves. I don't know how many times I had to stitch, sellotape or superglue its head back on.
It looked good in the window of the washing machine, better than TV, but generally it became a filthy, unhygienic object. It was redeemed only by its smile.
And if you held it by the neck you could make it dance.
After 30 years, Charlie is still a member of our household.
Now that I possess some of Gertrude Degenhardt's work she will forgive me for saying that her pictures have the same effect on me as Charlie: they cheer me up.
A word about her skills: she must have been born watching, listening, with a brush clutched in her hand. I find it incredible that all these colourful dancing couples, all those tiny crotchet and quavers, all those subtle expressions are made, not with a sharp pen and ink, but with a brush.
On the other hand, her pen and ink figures remind me of MacLiammoir, Aubrey Beardsley and of course, Gerard Hoffnung. But no other painter of my acquaintance catches the sheer exuberance of music and dance so well. These pictures put me in mind of a good party or wedding where people feel safe among friends, are not judgemental, relax their inhibitions, kick their heels up, do their party pieces, make fools of themselves - and make you smile rather than sneer.
Good art, if I may be so bold, has three qualities: consummate skill, an understanding of the human condition in all its sadness and glory, and a wicked sense of humour. In the horrors of the twentieth century Beckett had it, Myles na gCopaleen had it. Rita Ann Higgins has it. At 82, Kurt Vonnegut still has it. In the 19th century, Degas, Toulouse Lautrec and Goya had it. Earlier there was Breughel. Degenhardt carries on this tradition.
And, by the way, these pictures are not about other simpler, uninhibited people and times. They are about us now, and our possibilities. They are an exorcism of gloom and also an exhortation.
In them, though we might no longer be Nureyev and Fonteyn, all of our threadbare souls clap their hands and dance. Look at Couple D'antan. The old man on crutches, the old lady bereft of cosmetic: they can hardly walk but, joined at the head they can still dance. Look at the beribboned, otherwise naked pair in Lovely Molly, 1 & 2. That's not lust; that's joy undressed and unconfined. These figures are not captured, pinned down on paper. They are set free, released by the artist. They all look as if they are going to jump not just out of their frames, but also out of their skins.
And of course, Gertrude's late and much-lamented husband, and our friend, Martin, with his own sense of humour, is always present in her exhibitions. The two of them and their pictures remind me of what Keats wrote: Oh precious youth, thou wilt forever love, and she'll be fair?
Finally, As the song goes: I've got rhythm, I've got music, I've got my gal; who could ask for anything more.
Who could ask for anything more than the humanistic insights that Gertrude Degenhardt offers us?
Thank you for your attention - and, Gertrude, thank you for paying such close and loving attention to us fellow-fools.
The Kenny Gallery
26th August 2005