Meet the artists: Max Fletcher

An interview with Max Fletcher, Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from January–March 2021.

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

One of the paintings that you will show in the March Mostra develops a specific moment of the novel News From Nowhere by William Morris. Can you tell us more about it?

One of the paintings that I’m showing in the March Mostra refers loosely to a moment from News From Nowhere. The painting is part image and part text. The image consists of a pile of manure and a horse with the caption ‘Manure For Sale’. Morris’ novel was published in 1890 and outlines a utopian future in which central London is unrecognisable. Revolution has been deferred by more than sixty years to 1952. Nelson’s Column, being a monument of imperialist conquest has been taken down and, in its place, sits an apricot orchard, taking up the entirety of Trafalgar Square. Morris, a keen anti-parliamentarian envisaged a similar substitution taking place at the site of Parliament, now a dung market.

1952 acts as an interesting pivot between the 19th century and the present. E.P. Thompson details how Morris was greatly influenced by the Paris Commune and initially hoped that radical societal change was imminent. Indeed, the Communards’ dismantling of the Vendome Column, a monument to Napoleonic conquest, was surely the inspiration for Morris’ reconfigured view of London. Yet the postponement of the revolution by over sixty years demonstrates Morris’ shift towards a view where years of struggle would lead to “demi-semi socialism”, improving the material conditions of many but leaving the make-up society essentially unchanged. In many ways, Morris was proved right. Better social housing and the introduction of the NHS improved life for many, but exploitation remained.

Years of slow progress did not lead to revolution in England and if we jump from 1952 to 2021, many of the critiques produced in News From Nowhere remain. Even the motif of parliament as a dung market seems pertinent and seemingly has sway across the political spectrum. Trust in politicians is arguably at an all-time low and many of the public sector goods and services that were in place in 1952 have now been privatised. The painting of the horse is a collaboration with a friend, Cole Denyer. The image of the horse is placed next to a poem by Cole. The poem is titled Parliament House or Dung Market, a nod to News From Nowhere. It uses history as a means of addressing the present, utilising both text and image to structure painting, while considering the continued resonance of Morris’ work today.

Renato Guttuso, Bozzetto per La Vucciria, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna.

Is Gramsci’s prison journey to Turi still present in your works for the March Mostra? If so, how are you expanding your research on it?

Antonio Gramsci’s journey to Turi remains central to the work that I am showing in the March Mostra. At the December Mostra, I showed a series of paintings that were based upon Gramsci’s journey from Rome to Turi. In 1928, upon the Public Prosecutor’s now-famous declaration that “for twenty years we must stop that brain from working”, Gramsci was transported across Italy while chained in such a way to prevent him from either lying down or standing. The journey itself ought to have taken no more than a day but in Gramsci’s case, it lasted over two weeks and took place during the sweltering Italian summer. Having been denied the medical care that he urgently needed before the journey, Gramsci arrived at the prison in Turi in an almost complete state of physical collapse.

I asked friends to respond to this journey in form of short written pieces. The texts that I received formed the basis for a series of collaborative text/image paintings. I would paint the image of a cattle truck and pair it with a short text on Gramsci’s prison journey. The only condition for the texts was that they must not refer to Gramsci by name, while the painted cattle trucks would be based on models that I had bought, generally online. These were not necessarily Italian and indeed were often models of English trains used in the 1920s. As such, the associations that the paintings bring to mind are likely numerous and not necessarily of Gramsci’s journey to Turi.

Over the past month, I have been working with an artist in Rome, Mahsa Razavi, to make some sculptural casts of one of the model cattle trucks. The sculptures are a 3:1 scale enlargement of the original model and are all cast from a mould made by Mahsa. There are five casts in total, each coloured differently and scattered around the gallery space.

Casa del Bimbo, Colonia Marina Umbra Pio XII, Rimini. Photo by the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).