Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso review — it’s carnival time in Cambridge

A review by Michael Prodger for The Times of London.

Largely courtesy of the nation’s Protestant heritage, the carnival tradition in Britain is a muted affair. Elsewhere, however, in places where Catholic roots run closer to the surface, the instinct for ritualised abandonment remains vibrant. Carnival, Mardi Gras, bacchanalia, kermesse and masked balls offer a world temporarily without rules and spring from the urge to slough off daily cares and oppressions — customarily a final splurge before the privations of Lent.

Nowhere is this practice more alive than in the Caribbean, where the islands, in their slightly different ways, celebrate with music, dancing, dress and feasting. In Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, three West Indian artists look at their own experience of carnival in conjunction with works chosen from the gallery’s own collection and the Fitzwilliam Museum.

John Lyons, Whip Snake, 2004; woodcut

John Lyons, Whip Snake, 2004; woodcut

Paul Dash (born in Barbados in 1946), Errol Lloyd (born in Jamaica in 1943) and John Lyons (born in Trinidad in 1933) show their own work alongside pieces by the likes of Graham Sutherland and David Bomberg, Albrecht Dürer and Francisco Goya. At times the correlations can be a stretch and this is a very wordy exhibition with lengthy wall texts explaining correlations and shared (whether real or imagined) sensibilities.

Sometimes the links are tangible: Goya’s Caprichos etchings are full of witches and folkloric superstition and Lyons’s expressionist picture of masked revellers Mama Look a Mas Passin (1990) contains the Jab Molassie Devil character while another features the Obeah Woman — a Trinidadian witch. Elsewhere the relationships are rather more willed: animal and nature spirits may play a role in Caribbean carnival, but it is hard to think of a less public artist than David Jones (1895-1974) whose etching of a puma is co-opted here. Nor does a Helen Frankenthaler landscape objectively have much to do with the tradition either.

Avinash Chandra, Design, 1961; pen and ink and watercolour on paper

Avinash Chandra, Design, 1961; pen and ink and watercolour on paper

The work of the three painters comes more clearly into focus when seen alongside a selection of European works showing communal celebrations, from Dürer’s Torch Dance at Augsburg (c 1518) and Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s A Village Festival (c 1564-68) — full of puking, canoodling, brawling and entranced rustics — to Jacques Callot’s commedia dell’arte figures from the 17th century and Charles Conder’s early 20th-century fancy dress party. Then Dash’s revellers that emerge from a mass of hatched lines, Lyons’s brightly coloured if sinister masqueraders and Lloyd’s kaleidoscopic Notting Hill Carnival dancers seamlessly take their place in a long historical line of carousers who hold real life at bay and become someone or something else, even if just for a day.
To Feb 19,

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