Frederick Etchells and his sister Jessie were close to members of the Bloomsbury group. They stayed with Vanessa Bell at Asheham, around the time of this painting and it may have come into the possession of Vanessa Bell then and moved with her to Charleston farmhouse in 1916. He was one of the artists who became involved in the Omega Workshops in 1913, organised by Roger Fry with a number of the Bloomsbury artists, designing and painting furniture and ceramics. Etchells also worked on the murals for the Borough Polytechnic in 1911 with Grant and Fry, painting one of Hampstead heath, and he continued to be close to Fry even when he later exhibited with the new Vorticist group, when his work took on more angular and abstract characteristics.
Etchells had trained at the Central School of Art but then spent a period in Paris, like Duncan Grant, where he came into contact with Picasso, Braque and Modigliani and other artists behind the innovations of Post Impressionism. His paintings show their influence. Etchells later became an architect after the war and it was he who advised Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant on the design and fitting of the wall paintings for St Michael’s Church, Berwick.
Palm Sunday’s readings are in two parts. The account of the entry into Jerusalem and the Passion are both taken from the Gospel of Luke. The Gospels, as Gerald Sloyan has pointed out, do not show all the detail, only what is important: ” Christ’s suffering and death were early transposed into the theological key of mythos“. Early Renaissance painted versions of this and other Passion scenes, such as those of Giotto and Duccio, mirror this in their spared down treatment of the theme. The artists of Post Impressionism sought to recover this approach to painting and set aside the emphasis on likeness and appearance since the Renaissance. A scene from the Passion narratives, where the evangelist has similarly limited his material to what is essential, provided an ideal vehicle by which to use the design to convey meaning, which Etchells does here in several ways.
Etchells has taken the traditional theme The Entry of Christ in Jerusalem and transposed it to an indeterminate shoreline. The shore, a frequent setting in 20th century art, is not only a place of leisure in modern life, but also it is something pared down and primeval, too. It makes an ideal setting for the cosmic event which is about to unfold as the Messiah begins the passage to New Creation. The detail is spare in Etchells painting, just as it is in Giotto and Duccio’s paintings which Etchells was almost certainly familiar with. What is important is not showing a likeness of reality but only essential elements. The figure of Christ moves from right to left parallel to the picture plane, greeted by several pairs and groups of three figures either side, some waving palm frond, those in pairs moving in rhythm. These stylised figures are reminiscent of the figures of Matisse in the Dance I. The treatment of the figures is very like the mosaic of the Magi in Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo, which Grant had recently visited
Christ is riding into the setting sun, made apparent by the long blue shadows which fall behind the donkey. Christ will pass through darkness and death to become himself, the new life and light. Indeed, the blue halo around his head seems like the sun on the horizon.
This painting shows Etchells experimenting with the techniques of Post Impressionist artists (which in turn look back to Manet), in the flat planes and expressive use of colour. Etchells knew many of these artists and their paintings from Paris, but Fry had organised two exhibitions of Post Impressionist works at the Grafton galleries in London, in 1910 and in 1912, when Matisse’s Dance I and Red Studio were shown as well the plaster maquette for Back I. and works by Seurat whose le Cirque seems particularly influential. His use of the Golden Section in the painting and angles of 30 and 60 degrees, which were particularly harmonious, according to the theories of Charles Henry, published in ‘Cercle Chromatique’ can be seen also in Etchells’ work, designed according to harmonic proportions.
In Seurat’s Le Cirque, the spectators passivity is contrasted with the action and skill of the circus troupe. In Etchell’s painting, the spectators cheer and greet Christ with movement and graceful gesture, but there’s a similar contrast set up as Christ the solitary figure, on a donkey, moves between the figures waving on the way to the cross and to resurrection