Vienna then: Peckham Now! by Norman Rosenthal

Norman Rosenthal
Acrylic on canvas, 51 x 65 cm, 1989
NPG (150)

Norman Rosenthal (Citoyen Norman)
Acrylic on canvas, 50.8 x 61 cm, 1989
NPG (151)

The following appeared as the preface to Sacred and Profane / Drawing to a Conclusion, the catalogue of the 1997 exhibitions at the South London Gallery and the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Each woman and each man is thinking all the time - each waking moment and probably in sleep as well - is seeing, listening, touching, smelling, tasting as well as laughing or crying. There are also those who are able to metamorphose their impressions of the world around them into things. These are the artists. They are rare because what they do it nigh impossible - namely they cling onto thoughts and feeling both big and small, attempting to tie them down, making memorials and souvenirs of their thoughts, sometimes with words, or with sounds or, if they are visual artists, with materials like clay and colours. They turn these thoughts into objects, two or three dimensional that are hypothetically enshrined forever, even if the artists are perfectly aware that one day all they make will turn to dust and that even the most perfectly cast bronze will eventually melt down too.

Tom Phillips is an artist who is more than most alive to the transience of things, just because he is so widely read and has such awareness and knowledge, and take such pleasure in past and present cultures both local and world-wide. During a short life and career of sixty years he has never stopped looking, listening and feeling with such intensity that he has been able to connect and appreciate the folly and impermanence of things cultural. It is for this very reason that he appears so determined to cling to the concept of immortality and is driven to paint and sculpt as well as to write and make music and to leave strange and beautiful things behind, to assert for himself, and on behalf of us as well, that for all its intrinsic absurdity, life is alone worth living for the sake of thinking and making.

A manifestation (which vulgarly we call an exhibition) of his work in honour of his birthday at Dulwich Picture Gallery and the South London Gallery could not be more appropriate. The architecture of Sir John Soane, the paintings of Nicolas Poussin and the setting of the Peckham Road form a fitting background, full of precise nuances that fuse together, on the surface at least, the fiches and pleasures of high and low cultures. That is perhaps dangerous, politically incorrect terminology. But it should not matter to much in the preface of this small catalogue that in the words of that excellent but neglected Canadian art critic Bill Hurrell, is little more than the gong at the start of a movie. Echoes of J. Arthur Tank and Arno Breker.¹

Tom Phillips, as already implied, is an artist who places high value on the significance of words but who equally, from the cultural perspective of south London at the end of this century, realises also their limitations. South London may not quite have the coffee-house ambience of Vienna as it was at the beginning of this century of Modernism. Then cultural heroes like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schoenberg and Karl Kraus expressed both the limitation of words, as well as their overwhelming significance for communication as they constantly try to escape from our screaming or not so screaming skulls. But today, south London has its very own sophistication grounded, as was Vienna in its time, in the rich cultural mix that affords the alternately splendid and squalid backgrounds against which Tom Phillips does his work.

So how does Phillips break out of the limitations of the words that he love and knows so well? The next stop on the line for him is the image. And blessed is he who is able to organise himself and his helpers to fashion images of such ambiguity and wit that they cannot fail to lodge in the mind of anyone who takes pleasure in things conceived and made by artists. The images made by Phillips cover the widest spectrum of thoughts and materials, but yet have an unarguably consistent and recognisable tone. The artist's source materials range from the thousands of pornographic calling cards of prostitutes that infest all London phone boxes, but which are not without their own amazing iconography; to the solemn words of the Venerable Bede that Phillips subtly transposed into a contemporary key. Out of the first component are fashioned magnificent modern quilts, guaranteed to make feel guilty and equally to excite any man whose mind dares sleep under them. From out of the second are made sparse metal word crosses recalling the great tragedy of Golgotha that situate Christ between the good and bad thieves, a scene that artists have described in so may different ways for the better part of two millennia. Words cover both quilts and crosses, interesting us both for their content and abstract form. Both have their own nobility, just as Christ empathised so completely with the adulteress. Some may find the quilt Women's Work offensive - but not for the first time will such ambiguity be misunderstood - the quilt is surely meant as sympathetic and evocative memorial to the abuse that women have been subjected to throughout history, and which has given rise to an outstanding pictorial culture. This quilt is a new summation and shows once again, how art can be more effective and precise than any journalistic or sociological investigation.

So there we have it. What an artist does, if he does it well, is to get to the real point more rapidly and exactly than either the academician or the politician. His is a commentary rather than a call to action. But the awareness that an artist brings is an essential step and serves a kind of priestly function which can be prophetic or even act as a warning. Is it still possible to think alongside Richard Wagner of making the total work of art? We all doubt it now. We can no longer allow ourselves to be so totally convinced of ourselves, thank God. Tom Phillips, when all is added up, does strive towards the elusive Gesamtkustwerk. But in his work, he acknowledges too that the whole consists of little fragments, both sacred and profane. It is the small echoes, the kleine Freuden - the little pleasures - that permit the greatest response.

¹An affectionate reference to a much lamented and most energetic conductor of both R. Wagner and A. Schoenberg and who premiered Moses and Aaron in London - "Oh word, oh word that I lack." (translation co-incidentally by David Rudkin, a long-time friend of the artist).