Twombly, Poussin, Emin and Hungarian Photographers

A bit of an exhibition round up. This is not, as you might think, four exhibitions, because at Dulwich Picture Gallery at the moment they have a combined Cy Twombly/Nicolas Poussin exhibition. Which might seem like a rather odd choice at first glance, since they lived 330 years apart and one of them painted highly controlled classical paintings and the other did scrawly abstracts.

But there is a kind of logic to it. Both of them moved to Rome at the age of about 30, both use lots of classical references in their work, and Twombly specifically referenced Poussin in several paintings, most notably by painting a large group of four paintings called the Four Seasons, a subject Poussin painted 300 years earlier.

And while I don’t think it was exactly revelatory to see them together, it’s always interesting to explore these kind of comparisons, as an intellectual parlour game if nothing else. I guess you could argue that the Poussins brought out a controlled, restrained quality in the Twombly, for example, but it’s rather an elaborate way to make such a straightforward point. I did find myself warming to Poussin more than usual, though. Clearly he’s a great painter, but generally I find his work a bit sterile. But being displayed among modern paintings did at least make the paintings seem a bit fresher.

Meanwhile the Hayward is holding a retrospective of Tracey Emin. I went into it with mixed feelings. She has attracted so much bone-headed mockery from the media over the years that I’ve always felt the need to stick up for her… despite not actually liking her work that much. But seeing it all together it does hold up pretty well. The caricature is that she just splurges her personal life uncontrollably into her work for shock value; and that’s not completely unfair. But of course the execution is what matters, just as a confessional memoir could be good or bad could be good or bad depending on who wrote it. And at her best — some of the appliqué blankets, the video work — Emin’s work is sensitive and intelligent. On the other hand, by the time I had gone all the way round the exhibition, it was also starting to feel a bit repetitive. So she’s still not exactly my favourite artist, but I enjoyed the show well enough.

And at the Royal Academy is an exhibition of C20th Hungarian photography. Why Hungarian photography? Well, because five of the most notable photographers of the C20th — Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi — were all Hungarian. So they provide the core of the exhibition, but other, less famous people are included as well. In some ways the exhibition is about Hungary, with striking photographs recording the various wars political upheavals that engulfed the country, but it also includes many taken in other countries: Brassaï photographs of Paris nightlife, or Kertész shots of New York.

If there is anything distinctively Hungarian about the work, I couldn’t particularly see it. It did feel very European, somehow, and it reminded me again how much my idea of Europe was shaped by the Iron Curtain growing up. Austria ended up on one side of it and was therefore a ‘real’ European country; Hungary was on the wrong side and was part of some shadowy other Europe. And 20 years after the fall of communism, that sense of them not being part of the European mainstream still lingers. I don’t know how much that’s just me showing my age; people just out of university now, who were two three when the Berlin Wall came down, hopefully see the continent rather differently.

Anyway, geopolitics aside, the exhibition is definitely worth going to because it has some very fine photographs in it.

» The Triumph of Pan is by Nicolas Poussin; Hotel International, 1993, © Tracey Emin; Greenwich Village, New York, 30 May 1962 is by André Kertész.

‘The Wyeth Family’ at DPG

The Wyeth Family: Three Generations of American Art is an interesting little exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

There are three main Wyeths featured: N.C. Wyeth, an illustrator notable for cheerily technicolor illustrations for books of adventure stories; his son Andrew Wyeth, the most famous of the three, who painted highly realistic, formally composed, rather chilly new England landscapes, often with figures in them; and his son Jamie Wyeth, who paints rather freer, rather more colourful paintings, also largely of New England subjects. Andrew is clearly the pick of the bunch, though I certainly would have loved reading books with N.C.’s illustrations when I was a child… you’ve got to love pictures with titles like Sir Nigel Sustains England’s Honor in the Lists, Up and down went the long, shining blades with flash of sparks at every parry. Jamie is the least interesting of the three.

Although there can’t have been many exhibitions which cover the whole C20th, from 1916 to the present, and show less influence of Modernism. This really is Ron Silliman’s School of Quietude in paint. But since the SoQ appellation always annoyed me when applied to poetry, I’m not going to complain on that basis. Avant-Gardeism for its own sake doesn’t strike me as particularly worthy, and I’ve seen far too much boring contemporary art already, thank you. On the other hand, if you are going to be this technically conservative, you’d better be good, because unambitious mediocrity is really deadening. Andrew Wyeth I think clearly is good enough and distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd a bit… I’m not sure Jamie Wyeth is, though.

Exhibition roundup: Nash, quilts, Moore

Dulwich Picture Gallery currently has an exhibition of the English painter Paul Nash, best known I guess for his work as a war artist in both world wars. I know I first encountered him at school, when we were doing Wilfred Owen or Robert Graves or someone.

This exhibition did include some of that work, but also provided a bit of context for me. It was certainly interesting to see the kind of surrealist/symbolist paintings he did, often of the English landscape, when it wasn’t wartime. But it wasn’t really to my taste; it didn’t trigger that acquisitive urge. All else being equal, I am drawn to paintings which use strong, clear colours and sharply defined forms: Vermeer, El Greco, Matisse. Provençal Van Gogh rather than Flanders Van Gogh. Paul Nash is kind of the opposite: grey-brown tones and splodgy brushwork.

Meanwhile, the V&A has its first exhibition of British quilts, Quilts 1700-2010. I went to see it at an evening event in aid of Fine Cell Work, a charity that teaches prison inmates to do needlework as a rehabilitation exercise. There’s a quilt in the exhibition made by inmates with FCW; it is given context by a quilt made in a Japanese POW camp and one made by inmates on a prison ship who were being transported to Australia in 1841. Not surprisingly, the exhibition is keen to tease out this kind of social history from the quilts, but the other pleasure of it is just the extremely high quality of work on show. I’m fairly familiar with this stuff — my mother is a keen quilter — but they really have put together some great pieces.

The curator of the exhibition has managed to seriously annoy my mother by coming out with stuff like this in the Guardian:

Curator Sue Prichard thinks this enthusiasm is partly due to the global downturn. “I started on this project in 2004. Now there is a huge revival of interest in traditional crafts. There are a lot of women out there who are really keen to learn new skills and step away from their computer and their Blackberry.”

or in the Times:

Ms Pritchard said she hoped that the museum would inspire a revival of the craft through workshops that would teach people traditional techniques.

Because if there’s one traditional craft which didn’t need a revival, it’s quilting. That’s what appeals to me about quilting; it’s a genuinely living tradition, a vernacular art form which is thriving. It doesn’t need to be supported by government grants, it’s not the preserve of a handful of obsessive enthusiasts. Quilt shows are big business; indeed, the V&A’s exhibition is their most successful ever in terms of advance ticket sales. If there’s one criticism I have of the exhibition, it’s that it doesn’t give much sense of the liveliness of that current tradition. That gripe aside, it’s well worth visiting.

And finally Henry Moore at Tate Britain. Henry Moore was perhaps the biggest name in British art in the mid-C20th century, but he’s probably been rather out of fashion for a couple of decades, so it’s quite interesting to see this big show at the Tate.

Rather like the Paul Nash, I can’t say this particularly excited me, though it had its moments. Moore’s sculptures are often quite appealing as objects, with their curves, and the textural qualities of the materials; but it often feels like they are attractive in the same way as a weathered tree stump. Don’t get me wrong, I like a weathered tree stump as much as the next person, but I kind of feel that art could aim a bit higher than that.

The most interesting bits were probably the famous drawings of people sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz. Even though he makes the people look so much like his own sculptures, they have more impact than the sculptures themselves. They seem to hit a sweet spot between sculptural dignity and living humanity. There were some fine pictures of coal miners at work that managed the same trick.

Some of his post-War sculpture had some of the same human vulnerability and oddness, a bit of edge to it; but generally he seems to have reverted to weathered tree stump territory. Perhaps his greatest strength was a knack for producing sculptures that really worked as public art: large scale, impressive, and just about modern enough while unlikely to offend anyone.

‘Sickert in Venice’ at DPG

Last time I saw much of Walter Sickert was at the Tate’s exhibition of the Camden Town Group which I briefly commented on here. I didn’t enjoy that show much: lots of dingy grey-brown cityscapes and interiors which, whatever their other qualities, were not exactly full of joy. Still, Venice, city of Canaletto, all Mediterranean light and sparkling water: surely that will be a bit more jolly?

Umm… no. It’s hard to believe, but Sickert’s paintings of Venice are even darker and dingier than his paintings of Camden. He did a bunch of very Whistler-influenced evening and night paintings; but where Whistler managed to make his paintings of the Thames shimmering and luminous, Sickert just makes Venice look dark. His paintings are like walking around a city at night with sunglasses on.

He also did some interiors featuring sickly-looking prostitutes that are rather like the pictures of sickly-looking prostitutes he did in Camden. Only in slightly different clothes.

Interestingly, in the shop they had some postcards and prints of the works in the exhibition that made them look glowing and vibrant, like La Giuseppina against a Map of Venice above, which I’ve taken from the Tate website for a previous exhibition but which is currently in Dulwich. Looks great, doesn’t it? Well, I don’t care what they look like in carefully tweaked reproduction; in the flesh they look gloomy and frankly a bit rubbish.


Coming of Age: American Art 1850-1950

This is a touring exhibition of paintings from the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts that is currently at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Though it will be going to Venice and then Fort Lauderdale later in the year, if that’s more convenient for anyone.

The West Wind - Winslow Homer

I didn’t have hugely high expectations, because the DPG exhibition space is fairly modest in size for a review of a whole century of art, but actually the show works well. It may not be the definitive exhibition of late 19th and early 20th century American art, but it has enough material to suggest an overall narrative, including plenty of enjoyable work. With a very few exceptions it’s one painting per artist, so there’s a kind of lucky dip feeling about the whole thing; especially since it’s hung without too much editorial commentary. It’s like: here’s a load of paintings; see what you think.

Wave, Night - Georgia O'Keeffe

There are plenty of big names represented — Winslow Homer, Sargent, O’Keeffe, Hopper, Whistler, Pollock — but with the one-painting per artist thing, they are very much in the context of other peoples’ work. I don’t know enough to judge how representative that context is, but it worked pretty well for me.

Acrobat in Green - Walt Kuhn

Here and there on the walls between paintings there are quotes from the artists about art and, often, Americanness. I think it’s quite a nice device: it provides some context, some connection to the painters, but again without too much curatorial commentary.

So all in all, not a life-changing exhibition, but well worth popping in and having a look.

» The Addison website has photos of all the work in the exhibition. Those I’ve picked out are The West Wind by Winslow Homer, Wave, Night by Georgia O’Keeffe and Acrobat in Green by Walt Kuhn.

Self-Portraits from the Uffizi

The full title of this exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is Artists’ Self-Portraits from the Uffizi. But I don’t think it’s overly pedantic to point out that self-portraits are pretty much always by and of artists. The Uffizi has a collection of 1600 self-portraits, apparently; 50 of them are currently in Dulwich, arranged in roughly chronological order from Filippino Lippi in 1485 to Mimmo Paladino in 2003.

The Uffizi isn’t apparently in any hurry to embrace the internet age, so I can’t illustrate this post with any pictures from the exhibition. Instead, here’s one by Gwen John which is in the Tate:

Self Portrait by Gwen John

I wandered into the exhibition whimsically wondering if I was going to be able to see some kind of common trait in the portraits; some kind of physiognomical identifier of artiness. Well, if this exhibition is to be believed, artists are much more likely to be men, but apart from that they didn’t have much in common physically.

There was a certain kind of expression, though: whether the artists were presenting themselves as glamorous men of substance or bohemians or just unadorned faces, they all tended to share an expression of quizzical detachment.

It would be tempting to see this as indicating a painterly scepticism about portraits; the expression of someone who has seen behind the curtain and knows that a painting is deceptive: contingent, unreliable, manufactured.

In fact, though, it’s probably just the expression of someone examining his own face in the mirror.

‘Canaletto in England’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery

I almost forgot to blog about the Canaletto exhibition at DPG which I went to on Friday. As the title suggests, it focusses on Canaletto’s time in England. I knew he’d painted a few paintings of London, but I was surprised to learn that he lived here for nine years.

Not surprisingly, the show has been a big hit. He isn’t one of the top gods in my personal artistic pantheon, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Canaletto that I wouldn’t like to own. Elegant cityscapes bathed in sunlight and full of glittering water, with lots of little figures so that there’s always something to look at in the details: what’s not to like?

However, the Venice scenes he’s most known for can feel a little production-line. The Wallace Collection has a whole roomful of Canalettos. Seeing them all together, the sense of a commodity produced for the tourist market is overwhelming. So an exhibition of English scenes not only has local interest, it also offers a different perspective on the artist. This is Warwick Castle, which normally lives at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery:

By no means my favourite picture in the exhibition, or even my favourite picture of Warwick castle, but I couldn’t find many online. I rather liked this one, but the colours look screwy to me in that version.

As a Londoner, I was naturally drawn to the London pictures, although in fact if it wasn’t a few landmark buildings (St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey especially), I wouldn’t have felt confident identifing it as London. The period (1746-55) is just at the start of modern London, and there are enough C18th buildings left in London that the scenes often look generally Londony; but the specifics are almost all different. The skyline is dominated by church spires instead of office buildings, the river is heaving with traffic, and most of the key buildings haven’t been built yet. That in itself is part of the interest, of course.

It’s rather hard to find descriptions of Canaletto that don’t sound like damning with faint praise: his paintings are elegant, decorative, likeable. To some extent this is just a reflection of a shift in taste; we’re all Romantics now, and we’re all suckers for the sublime. In 1826, Hazlitt wrote, in ‘On Depth and Superficiality’:

Elegance is a word that means something different from ease, grace, beauty, dignity; yet it is akin to all these; but it seems more particularly to imply a sparkling brilliancy of effect with finish and precision. We do not apply the term to great things; we should not call an epic poem or a head of Jupiter elegant, but we speak of an elegant copy of verses, an elegant headdress, an elegant fan, an elegant diamond brooch, or bunch of flowers. In all these cases (and others where the same epithet is used) there is something little and comparatively trifling in the objects and the interests they inspire… [long snip]

The Hercules is not elegant; the Venus is simply beautiful. The French, whose ideas of beauty or grandeur never amount to more than an elegance, have no relish for Rubens, nor will they understand this definition.

I’m not sure Canaletto would have been very sympathetic to Hazlitt’s definition either. I’m not sure I am completely, but for better or worse, our taste in places and art has been re-shaped by the Romantics. The Romantic approach has its own pitfalls, of course; insisting that art should have profundity and authenticity tends to result in a lot of fake profundity and fake authenticity. And the borderline between sublime and kitschy is wafer-thin. I really like this painting (Gordale Scar (A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale) by James Ward), but its wildness is so theatrical that it’s difficult to take it completely seriously:

No 500 pixel version can do it justice; the real thing is 14′ wide.

Anyway, I’ve wandered off the point slightly. I actually think, despite everything I’ve been saying, that Canaletto’s paintings are just too attractive to be easily dismissed. Here’s one (Old Walton Bridge Over The Thames) which is actually part of the Dulwich permanent collection. Unusually, it has a few clouds, and is perhaps all the better for it:

Nice, innit. For a video introduction to the exhibition, go here.

Adam Elsheimer at DPG

There’s an exhibition of Adam Elsheimer paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. From the DPG site:

On hearing of Elsheimer’s early death Rubens wrote ‘Surely, after such a loss our entire profession ought to clothe itself in mourning. We will not easily succeed in replacing him; in my opinion he had no equal in small figures, in landscapes, and in many other subjects’. This exhibition is a unique opportunity to re–discover this painter ‘without equal’.

I admit I’d not heard of Elsheimer, but apparently he was an important influence on Rembrant, Rubens and Claude Lorrain. He makes an excellent choice for an exhibition at a small gallery, because he wasn’t very prolific and his paintings were small. That (and the fact that he’s not so well known) has allowed them to exhibit effectively his entire output: 30 of 34 accepted surviving paintings.

The paintings are small because they’re on copper, and apparently copper sheets had to be small for practical reasons. I found myself wondering whether he did small paintings because he liked working on copper or he worked on copper because he liked doing small paintings. I know that it’s not the most sophisticated aesthetic response to get fixated on the size, but I do think there’s quite a profound division between people who are miniaturists by inclination — in painting, poetry or whatever — and those who like the grand sweep.

The distinction is brought out in Elsheimer because many of his paintings have the kind of complex, dynamic compositions that you can imagine being painted ten foot tall by his contemporaries. This picture, The Stoning of Saint Stephen, which normally lives in the National Gallery of Scotland, is one of his larger works, but it’s still only 34.70 x 28.60 cm:

The size means they have less immediate impact, but there’s an intimacy in viewing these paintings; there’s only really room for one person in front of each, and you find yourself standing with your nose practically touching them. And the execution of tiny details is fascinating in itself. Still, I found there was something weirdly constrained about them, as though the practical explanation for why they were small wasn’t quite enough to explain it.

‘Rembrandt & Co: Dealing in Masterpieces’ at DPG

‘Rembrandt & Co’ is on at the moment at Dulwich Picture Gallery, as part of the 400th birthday celebrations. Rembrandt’s 400th birthday was July 15th. To quote them:

Dulwich Picture Gallery explores, for the first time, the story of one of the most important art dealerships in 17th-century Amsterdam. The exhibition will show 19 Rembrandts from this period along with work by his contemporaries.

The idea presumably is to provide context for the Rembrandts, although a cynic might point out that it’s easier to persuade other galleries to loan you their Flincks, Ovenses and de Lairesses. They have got hold of some major works, though, most notably the portrait of Agatha Bas from the Royal collection and Man in Oriental Costume (“The Noble Slav”) from the Met:


I found this painting interesting because it’s so grand for what is basically just a character study – not a portrait of anyone in particular, or a historical or religious subject. It’s 5′ x 3′ 8″ and both very imposing and highly finished. I suppose there’s no reason why an important painting needs to be on an important subject, but it’s still slightly odd; almost as though it’s a quiet joke on Rembrandt’s part.

There were some nice prints as well, like this view of Amsterdam:

I always think it’s striking how much difference the medium makes. You can see similarities between Rembrandt’s prints and his paintings, particularly with the portraits and biblical scenes where the composition and the use of chiaroscuro is similar, but the feel is so different. You can see quite a few Rembrandt etchings and copperpoints on the Rembrandthuis website.

I didn’t find the context of the other artists’ work particularly enlightening, although it did emphasise the quality and distinctiveness of the Rembrandts. It also brings out the ruthlessness of time’s effect on art. These were all respected and successful artists in their day, but not many of the paintings offer much to the modern viewer. Some are quite attractive, but hardly any of them spark any kind of connection. For me, at least.