A Venetian Constant
Geoffrey Humphries’ love of Venice and the nude shines through in his upcoming Belgravia exhibition
Article by Rupert Watkins
Venice is perhaps a daunting city at the best of times. The unique and glorious city of the Doges, Monteverdi, Canaletto and Turner, it has inspired art, devotion and beauty for centuries. For Venetian resident – and minor celebrity – artist Geoffrey Humphries it is the backdrop, spine and tapestry off which his art flourishes. “Whatever you paint, the big boys are beside you,” he comments, “one is forever in their debt.” Despite the ever corrosive corruption of mass tourism, wandering by naff trinkets and crumbling facades with equal ignorance, it retains – just – a gracious and elegant air.
Having left the UK in the 1960s as an impoverished art student, Geoffrey has made Venice his own. From his studio on one of the city’s former industrial islands, Geoffrey can all too easily see the changing face of this, “grande dame of the Adriatic” as he refers to it. “The hordes retire with their pizzas and bottled water only to discover the Venetians have gone. The Giudecca – once the dockland and a district of ill repute – is where I’ve remained these last 50 years and (it) struggles now to maintain its bad reputation.” Many native Venetians have over recent years simply upped and left – and what, ultimately, is a city if it has no guardians – its own constant inhabitants – to keep its soul its own?
From an artist’s point of view, the light continues to be a constant source of inspiration for him. The reflection of the light in the water, the extra colours in the evening sun all provide a unique starting point for his compositions, “it’s not intimidating light. Venetian light is best described by Guardi – the silvery resonance of Guardi is glorious.” As a painter, Geoffrey has ploughed his own artistic furrow for many years, he adores paining women; the nude, “I’m never too worried if they move, it means you change things, but then you see something else.” Yet the nude as an art form in this day and age is overlooked – if not actively suppressed. “For more than 25 years art schools considered anatomy of the model dead wood, hence a generation of graduates with no understanding of the art form or the human body. More often it is the teachers who are frightened of the nude, and so she is overlooked.” Whilst Geoffrey’s sense of colour and composition is often compared with John Singer Sargent and James Whistler, there is perhaps more than a hint of Toulouse-Lautrec or Degas-esque fluidity in how he animates his models.
In recent years, he has painted Venice itself ever more. Rather than being an elegance presence supporting his models, Geoffrey has used watercolour in rapidly and vigorously composed compositions, capturing the energy of the city; people move, talk and laugh as vaporetti criss-cross the canals. He revels in the city’s openness, “she is a welcoming guest – her contribution in having inspired and created a world of art in herself may cause pain for the fainthearted, but then again that’s what is needed.” In many ways capturing of the spirit of Venice sums up Geoffrey’s belief in what art itself should stimulate, “it is about spiritual energy. You are transporting the truth of that world into the beauty of this.” He renders the true spirit, the truth, of this “city of mirrors” (in novelist Erica Jong’s words) capturing a nuance – a moment in time – in the overall history of this fragile city.
Given his longevity, Geoffrey continues to take a long perspective over the cyclical nature of the art world, “the more it changes, the more it looks the same.” There is rightly little time for the transient enthusiasms of the contemporary art cognoscenti, it has all been ground down to a commercial and somewhat mercenary oriented product. Art schools are increasingly one dimensional, “they got rid of the B stream bum with a flair with a pencil and now too much produce a corporate product to handle the vast sums of lolly being thrown around the modern art market.”
With this wonderfully bohemian attitude it is perhaps hardly surprising Geoffrey’s studio gained a reputation for parties. Models, visiting aficionados and Venetian aristocracy have mingled at many an all-night bash. With this excellent form behind him, it seemed a necessity – if not downright rude – not to check for his secret to a good party. “Presentation and plenty of ice,” is the succinct reply. For those of us perhaps lacking the mirror clad studio overlooking a Venetian lagoon, he sagely adds never to compete with other occasions such as New Year’s Eve or football matches – and never serve beer. Certainly for that comment alone, Geoffrey Humphries deserves our time and attention.
Geoffrey’s solo exhibition “An Englishman from Venice” is on at the Osborne Studio Gallery, Belgravia September 26th – October 12th.
Enquiries: Osborne Studio Gallery, 2 Motcomb Street, Belgravia, London / 0207 2359667 / www.osg.uk.com/exhibitions/