Alexander McQueen at the V&A

I went to see the McQueen show at the V&A — ‘Savage Beauty’, the same one that was previously at the Met — and it was terrific: enormously varied and inventive, with loads of striking and interesting stuff to look at. Being a bit sleep-deprived after staying up late to watch the election results come in (and what a depressing vigil that turned out to be), I did find it all a bit oppressive by the end; too much visual stimulus, loud music, dark rooms and spotlights. It’s the feeling I get when I’ve been in a supermarket for too long.

mcqueen

Still, the frocks were great. Like a lot of haute couture, much of it is spectacular but barely wearable, and it’s tempting to call it ‘theatrical’, although in fact theatre rarely has this kind of spectacular costume; and film perhaps even less so. It reminded me how terrific the Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes are in Fifth Element; it would be great if more films had that kind of extravagant visual aesthetic. Imagine a superhero movie with the costumes designed by Alexander McQueen, instead of the blandly, generically ‘cool’ versions that the studios manage to produce. Or one of the new Star Wars movies, or the Lord of the Rings; movies set in alien worlds where anything is possible, and with enough money to actually make these kind of incredibly labour-intensive costumes… wouldn’t it be great if they were just able to be a bit stranger, and more extravagantly individual?

McQ.342.EL

I was slightly uncomfortable with some of the tribal-influenced collections though; I’m generally a bit wary of claims of cultural appropriation, just because throughout history, culture has always been invigorated by the mixing together of influences from different traditions. I understand why people are uncomfortable with white European fashion designers using ‘exotic’ influences in their designs in a rather unthinking way, but I think it can be done in a way which is fairly innocent — although as a white European man perhaps I’m just showing my biases.

However: taking a load of imagery from indigenous African and South American peoples, lumping it all together as ‘tribal’, combining it with animal imagery and throwing around a lot of rhetoric about primitivism and the noble savage… that is definitely the wrong way to do it.

McQ.2001a–e_McQ1110_Rom_national_AW08_Look42_037-f2LOWRES.AV0.EL

» Images all from the Met website for the exhibition and © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce.

 

Exhibition roundup: History is Now, Marlene Dumas, & Cotton to Gold

The South Bank Centre is marking 70 years since the end of WW2 with a collection of events entitled Changing Britain. The Hayward Gallery’s contribution is an exhibition History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain.

Filtering collective history through their individual perspectives, seven British artists of different generations and backgrounds – John Akomfrah, Simon Fujiwara, Roger Hiorns, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth and Jane and Louise Wilson – each curate distinct sections of the exhibition and provide their unique ‘take’ on recent British history.

As you might imagine, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. John Akomfrah has selected a whole range of films from the Arts Council Film Collection, which I pretty much skipped, because who has the patience to watch seventeen different pieces of video art in a row? I hope some people do, but not me. Roger Hiorns has put together a whole exhibition of material related to the BSE crisis, arranged chronologically, and I found it really interesting to go back and revisit that period but I’m not sure I was responding to it as art — whatever that means. The only reason it couldn’t have been an exhibition at the Science Museum is that contemporary art has a willingness to be more boring — or at least dense and text-heavy — than a traditional museum would dare.

evil-banalbig

The two I enjoyed most were Hannah Starkey and Richard Wentworth. Hannah Starkey selected 70s, 80s and 90s photography from the Arts Council Collection, which she juxtaposed with commercial photography in a somewhat heavy-handed but still effective way. So glossy ads for fashion and booze were contrasted with grimy, peeling 1980s unemployment offices and so on. I don’t know if that contrast was absolutely necessary — the photographs would have been effective on their own — but it was still good. Richard Wentworth’s was the most crowd-pleasing section. To quote the blurb: ‘Through his eclectic selection of objects, artworks and artefacts Wentworth takes us from post-war austerity to the optimism of the 1950s and into the gloom and paranoia of the Cold War.’ So there was some art by people like Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, lots of press clippings, lots of old books which were thematically appropriate but also appealing for their mid-century graphic design, various objects like a 1950s TV, and most dramatically a decommissioned anti-aircraft rocket launcher out on the balcony.

Meanwhile at Tate Modern they have Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden. Marlene Dumas is a South African artist who paints rough, blobby paintings, nearly all of people. I enjoyed it much more than I expected because the Tate have done a terrible job of marketing it. Or at least a terrible job of marketing it to me. All the pictures I’d seen made her work look dismal and unattractive, and quite a lot of it is a bit like that: lacking immediate visual appeal (which is not the same as being bad, but doesn’t make me rush to go and see it). Particularly, there are paintings in black ink which are dark and grey and miserable looking. But actually her larger oils are much more likeable, and some of them are even quite colourful. I didn’t come out of the exhibition as her biggest fan, but I certainly liked it more than I thought I would.

And at Two Temple Place is Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were some people in Lancashire making a hell of a lot of money from cotton mills and other industry. And some of them put that money into collecting historical manuscripts, or old coins, or beetles, or Turner watercolours, or Japanese woodcuts… With the result that there are apparently some particularly notable regional museums up there. But for the moment a lot of those coins and beetles and whatnot have been lent to Two Temple Place.

It’s an enjoyable kind of exhibition to visit: the building is attractive, entry is free, and if one cabinet leaves you cold, well, the next one will have something completely different. Last year they had a similar exhibition of items from the various University of Cambridge collections; I think that one was better, with more varied and more remarkable exhibits, but Cotton to Gold is enjoyably eclectic in the same way.

» The painting is Evil is Banal, Marlene Dumas, 1984. Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. © Marlene Dumas. Photo credit: Peter Cox, Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern

I finally got round to visiting the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate Modern — it ends on Sunday — and it was enjoyable. Not so much because I absolutely loved the work; I liked quite a lot of it, but if there was another Polke exhibition next year, I wouldn’t be excited to see it. No, it was a good exhibition to visit because the work was varied, and going through thirteen rooms of work you’re lukewarm about, it helps if at least each room is a bit different.

Sigmar_Polke_Freundinnen-1

So it started off with some Pop Art-esque commentary on consumerism and mass culture; there was work playing with the idea of the artist as Artist/egomaniac (with titles like Polke as Astronaut, and Polke as Drug-Pulverized Polke in a Glass Pipe); and commentary on the idea of Modern Art (“Malevich looks Down on Pollock”); then a 1970s hippy phase when he travelled around India and Afghanistan, took lots of drugs and made collages of pornography and psychedelic paintings with references to magic mushrooms, Alice in Wonderland and Mao; a series of watchtower paintings which used a stencilled design of a hunting watchtower to reference both Nazi prison camps and the Iron Curtain; there were some big paintings using unusual materials like neolithic stone tools and meteorite dust… and so on.

I’m often aware how much my reaction to works of art is dependent on factors which are extrinsic to the work itself: if the exhibition is too small, I might get all the way through it without ever getting into the right mindset. If it’s too big, it doesn’t matter what they put in the last few rooms, because my concentration will be gone — something that happened at the Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain recently. It’s much more difficult to engage with the work if the gallery is too crowded, or there are lots of small works so you are constantly in mini queues to look at them, or if there’s a group of schoolchildren bringing out the terrible acoustics of big unfurnished rooms. Or you can simply be in a bad mood or a good one.

In the case of the Polke, the exhibition was almost too big; but it wasn’t too busy, the works were large and varied, and the schoolchildren were old enough to keep their voices down, so it was a pleasant experience. But there’s something odd about reviewing an art exhibition as though it was a bed and breakfast (a little bit cold in the Turbine Hall, but lovely views of the St Paul’s…).

Anyway.

One other thing I thought was interesting was a curatorial decision. On the website the blurb says:

He worked in off-the-wall materials ranging from meteor dust to gold, bubble wrap, snail juice, potatoes, soot and even uranium, all the while resisting easy categorisation.

It’s the ‘snail juice’ I want to pick out. In the exhibition itself it calls it something like ‘dye made from crushed snails’. But when you read the label next the painting in question, it turns out to be Tyrian Purple. That is, the highly prized dye of classical antiquity that was used by the Romans to colour their ceremonial togas. Which is indeed made from crushed snails; but referring to it that way, without any hint of the cultural context, seems, you know, weird.

» The image is Girlfriends, 1965/66, from the Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart. See lots more of Polke’s work in this review of the exhibition when it was in New York.

Damien Hirst at the Tate

So I went along to see the big Damien Hirst show at Tate Modern.

It rather lacked the element of surprise; whatever Hirst’s other qualities, he is a great self-publicist, so anyone living in the UK with an interest in art is already very familiar with his work. His earliest student pieces were new to me; apart from that I think there was only one work in the whole exhibition which I didn’t immediately recognise.

I didn’t come out of this feeling very enthusiastic. Sometimes you go into a big retrospective, and seeing all the work together makes it more powerful: because you can see the threads running through the work, or the development, or you absorb the artist’s aesthetic and gain a deeper sense of what they’re trying to do which you don’t get from individual paintings.

I think the opposite is the case with Damien Hirst. His work often works well in a mixed exhibition: it has a clear, simple quality to it and a designery aesthetic which helps make it stand out when it needs to compete for your attention. But when you put a whole lot of his pieces together, it starts to seem obvious and corporate and a bit dull.

You can see why Hirst became so commercially successful: his work is instantly recognisable, easily produced in large quantities, and looks modern without being too difficult or threatening. Just as Abstract Expressionism was the perfect art for big corporations in postwar America, when they needed something modern looking to hang in the lobbies of their shiny new glass and steel office buildings, so Hirst was the perfect artist for the time before the crunch. Ideal for people who find themselves with a startling amount of money but who don’t have much confidence in their own taste. Like Prada or Bentley or Patek Phillipe.

And why not, after all. He didn’t create the madness of the art market, he just did a very good job of exploiting it. And he’s used his money to build up his own big collection of contemporary art, which I believe he’s planning to open to the public. So I approve of that.

And despite the grumpy tone of this post, I don’t dislike his work — but seeing a whole load of it one place made me like it less rather than more.

» The picture is Psalm 23: Dominus regit me. Butterflies and household gloss on canvas, 2008.

‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination’ at the British Library

I went round this exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Royal collection today. Any of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I got a bit distracted by finding birds in the margins. I found 17 species in total*, which is pretty good. And I mainly started looking for them because it was fun, but I do think it’s interesting that birds of clearly identifiable species seem to outnumber the invented, whimsical ones.

Admittedly, quite a few of the species were found on one particular page that seemed to have been illuminated by a genuine enthusiast, a medieval birder. Not only did it have a crane, a jay, a green woodpecker and a kingfisher, which are all striking birds, and the most unexpected bird of the lot, a seagull; it also had a pair of bullfinches. The brightly coloured male is an obvious choice to liven up a margin, but including the female seems like the work of someone who actually liked birds.

The exhibition is certainly worth a visit, even for non-birders, although personally I think I would have enjoyed it more with half the number of exhibits (as long as they didn’t discard any good birds, obviously). I just found that by the end I was losing concentration a bit.

*Great tit, chaffinch, goldfinch, robin, jay, crane, peacock, green woodpecker, kingfisher, bullfinch, common gull, pheasant, hooded crow, redpoll, magpie, hoopoe and blackcap.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Grayson Perry has curated an exhibition at the British Museum that combines his own work — ceramics, textiles, ironwork — with objects from the museum collection. Which must have been *the most fun ever*. I mean seriously, I’ve spent hours browsing the BM’s collection online, looking for things to post to Tumblr, but how much more fun to actually wander around the stores, talking to the experts, poking around in drawers and cabinets, and actually handle everything, with an open-ended brief to find anything which is beautiful, or interesting, or funny.

In fact, if it had just been stuff from the collection with some commentary from Perry, that would be enough to make a very interesting exhibition, because he always writes well and interestingly about art and he clearly has an excellent eye.

But the inclusion of his own work does work well. His work always combines a seriousness with humour and absurdity, and its presence affects the way you look at the other objects. Human beings often are absurd, after all, and museums aren’t always the best places to bring that out. For that matter, museums don’t always do seriousness very well. I mean, they’re good at dry, academic seriousness, but they don’t necessarily create the environment for human seriousness.

And in turn it gives you some insight into how he sees his own art to see the things he’s chosen to show alongside his work, and the themes he arranged the exhibition around: pilgrimage, magic, sexuality, maps and so on. And since I haven’t said so explicitly yet: Perry’s work is interesting and attractive in its own right.

So, yeah, a playful, entertaining exhibition full of striking, interesting and beautiful things. Go and see it.

» The image is of a painted wooden figure of a dancing Bes holding a tambourine, standing on a lotus. It’s Egyptian, from about 1800BC. It is from the BM, but it wasn’t in the exhibition.

‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum

So I went along to see the BM’s exhibition of medieval reliquaries. Which was a pretty amazing display of medieval craftsmanship: rock crystal, enamel, ivory, glass, and lots and lots of gold.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have, though, because by the time I got there I had a bit of a headache. And it really didn’t help to be peering at lots of spotlit, shiny gold, trying to make out all the exquisitely worked detail. When I came out I had to take shelter in a dark quiet pub and nurse a pint of orange and soda for a bit.

I actually think gold is a slightly unrewarding material for this kind of thing. The overall effect is spectacular; particularly, presumably, in a dark church lit only by candles: bright, shiny, warm, glowing. But the very shininess makes it much harder to pick out the fine details of the craftsmanship; it was more rewarding, I think, looking at the fine work in materials like ivory and alabaster.

Apart from the sheer quality of the exhibits, it was anthropologically interesting. The scale is staggering, apart from anything else; there was apparently one church [I think somewhere in central Europe, from memory] which had 19,000 relics. It must have been a huge industry; not just the relics themselves, but the reliquaries, altars, altarpieces. And that was just the start of it. All that religious paraphernalia — the chalices and patens and thuribles — the ecclesiastical robes, the figures of saints, the murals, the stained glass windows; the whole business must have provided employment for thousands and thousands of workers. Goldsmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, painters, embroiderers, all employed primarily to produce religious objects, either for the church or for private devotion. The Reformation must have been economically catastrophic for them: it was effectively a whole economic sector disappearing.

The other striking thing, and I know it’s not exactly an original observation, is how ludicrous the relics often are. The foreskin and umbilical cords of Christ probably win the prize in that respect, although all the other relics directly associated with Christ also tend to strain credulity: fragments of his manger, bits of True Cross, thorns from the crown, the spear that pierced his side, the sweat band, the magic sponge, all of which were claimed as relics. If you don’t believe in miracles, it’s very difficult to get into the mindset of a society that sees them everywhere; but even so, surely people must have been dubious about this stuff? Perhaps the idea was that the genuineness of the prayer was more important than the genuineness of the relic, although they certainly didn’t act that way.

Going to this exhibition soon after going to the Horniman Museum exhibition Bali: dancing for the gods, I was left thinking how ritually impoverished my own life is as a (somewhat culturally protestant) atheist. Apart from the occasional weddings and funerals, just about the only festival I regularly celebrate is Christmas — and that only consists of gift-giving and turkey. I don’t even usually do anything about Guy Fawkes Night or Halloween, let alone Easter or saints’ days or whatever. I can’t say I feel I’m missing out on an important part of life, but maybe I am. It’s hard to tell how often these events were genuinely spiritual in nature, and how much they were a kind of entertainment in a society without novels, TV, cinema and computer games to keep them amused.

» The images are all from the British Museum collection, because those are conveniently online, although the exhibition has many items borrowed from other institutions.

Top is the St Eustace Head Reliquary, German, ca. 1210.

Then a reliquary cross in cloisonné enamel and gold, Constantinople, early C11th. The Virgin is flanked by busts of St Basil and St Gregory Thaumaturgus.

The little bundle is a relic of St Benedict, one of over 30 relics in a single German portable altar from 1190-1200.

Last is the iron bell of St. Cuileáin in a copper alloy shrine, from Ireland, a C7th-C8th bell in a C12th shrine.

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 Cult of Beauty’ at the V&A

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. I’m tempted to sum up the exhibition as ‘The Pre-Raphaelites and their furniture’, given my recent post about how much I dislike the Pre-Raphaelites. But actually the exhibition is rather broader than than that. The Pre-Raphs do feature heavily, but it’s also the Arts and Crafts movement, Japonisme and so on; lots of Whistler, William Morris, a bit of Aubrey Beardsley, and designers like Christopher Dresser and Edward William Godwin.

And although most of this stuff is not to my taste, the V&A does this kind of exhibition superbly well. The quality of the exhibits is extremely high (I would expect nothing less), and it is always interesting to see fine art and decorative art from the same cultural moment displayed together; so often we see paintings hanging in plain, austere galleries, with no context but each other.

All the things that annoy me about the Pre-Raphaelites annoy me much less when it comes to furniture and ceramics and wallpaper. My problem with them, essentially, is that they are superficial: flashy, decorative, overly obvious. And the way that the paintings tend to pick other ancient or exotic cultures and reduce them to a stylistic quirk actually offers a clear parallel with the ‘Japanese’ furniture of the time. But it doesn’t bother me because after all, the decorative arts are, well, decorative. The moment you make a table which tries to do anything other than provide a stable flat surface, or a pot which does anything other than hold water, you are in the world of decoration and surface. Which isn’t intended to belittle those things: I’m fascinated by design, I love beautiful objects and I think that anyone who works to make sure that the objects around us give us pleasure is doing something very important.

But it says something about my different relationship with ‘fine art’ that I actually find Pre-Raphaelite paintings almost offensive. They irritate me in a way I can’t say I’ve often been irritated by a wardrobe or a candlestick, however ugly or ill-conceived I might think it is. I might be similarly annoyed by an object which doesn’t work properly because of bad design, but not usually by simple ugliness. What exactly that says about me… I’m not sure.

The figure who sits slightly oddly at the centre of this exhibition is Whistler. He seems stylistically apart the other artists; his paintings are exercises in understatement and control, and instead of scenes from myth and legend, he mainly paints people in houses. There’s a painting in the show (no doubt called something like Symphony in White) of a girl in a white dress. Apparently, when other people offered ingenious interpretations he insisted that, on the contrary, it was just what it looked like: a girl in a white dress standing in front of a white curtain.

So it’s tempting to see him as out of place in this exhibition, to think that really he should be over in some other gallery, maybe with the Impressionists. But clearly he is part of the same movement. There’s a room he designed for someone’s house (or at least a projection of it you can walk into) and it is full of the typical aesthetic motifs: peacocks, sunflowers, bamboo, blue and white porcelain. In his hands it’s rather lovely, I think; a lot of the interiors in the exhibition look like they would be claustrophobically busy — decorative knickknacks arranged on decorative furniture in front of elaborately patterned wallpapers and richly coloured patterned fabrics. Whistler uses the same motifs and while the result is still pretty full-on, with lots of strong colours and decoration everywhere, it is relatively cohesive and elegant. Even so, it’s hard to reconcile the richly decorative style with the simplicity of his paintings.

Although, having said all that, the exhibition did provide a good example of why the whole concept of ‘good taste’ should be treated with suspicion. In about the second or third room there was a group of paintings by Albert Joseph Moore. In some ways they are fairly typically Pre-Raphaelite: blank-eyed women with indistinguishable faces lounging around wearing ‘classical’ robes in a generically exotic interior. But the palette is all restrained pastels, and composition is carefully balanced and designed around a strict grid system. And I found myself thinking that’s a bit more like it, because they were more ‘tasteful’. But that seem like a pretty dismal way of thinking. To prefer the anaemic, milquetoast, decaffeinated version because it’s more restful: well, it’s not exactly going to produce art which is ambitious and interesting.

It is a fascinating conflict: I do think our lives would be hugely improved if more of the things around us showed evidence of good taste. Buildings, household appliances, packaging, signage, clothes, websites, books, posters, furniture… we are surrounded by things which are ugly or just mediocre. Which make our lives just slightly worse rather than better. But I also think that good taste is the great enemy of creativity and individuality, a stifling force that needs to be continually pushed back against. Especially since it is very difficult to separate an even somewhat objective idea of ‘good taste’ from simple social conformity.

» The vase is designed by Walter Crane, the sideboard by E.W. Godwin, the sconce by Thomas Jekyll, the wallpaper by William Morris, and the teapot by Christopher Dresser. The two paintings are Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle by Whistler, and Reading Aloud by Albert Joseph Moore.

Miró at Tate Modern

Without knowing a lot about Joan Miró, I’ve always liked his work when I’ve seen it. It’s interesting the way that the work of one artist will speak to you and another won’t… so I’ve aways liked Miró, never liked Chagall.

Or at least I say the work ‘speaks to you’ but that’s not the right metaphor; I don’t think it’s because the paintings are making some sort of intellectual or emotional connection. Or at least I don’t think that’s primarily what it is; it’s more to do with a basic visual aesthetic. I tend to like controlled, precise, carefully composed paintings with strong clear colours: so I like Vermeer, but find it hard to like Rubens. It’s suppose it’s a graphic design sensibility, really.

Articulating it like that does make me feel a bit shallow; taking great painters and sorting them into sheep and goats according to the most superficial and basic elements of their visual style, well, it doesn’t exactly make me a sophisticated judge. But there you go. It’s not the only factor which decides which work I like, but it certainly makes a difference.

So I was predisposed to like this exhibition. Which I did. I thought it was fabulous. Mainly because I liked all paintings, of course; but also because I didn’t know much about Miró, so it was interesting to see the chronological development of work. There was also quite a lot of biographical context, much of it related to Spanish politics — Miró’s Catalan identity, the Spanish civil war, WWII and so on. So that was all quite interesting.

But mainly I just love the paintings. I want to own all of them and have them on my walls.

» Women, Birds, and a Star, 1949. Which is in the Met, although I got the image from RMN.

Watercolour at Tate Britain

I actually went to see this exhibition about a week or so ago, but I’ll just jot down some belated impressions. It is, as the title suggests, a historical survey of watercolour painting, from the medieval to the present.

There are only a handful of medieval pieces, bits of illuminated manuscript, which just serve as a reminder that, although they are not what we usually think of as ‘watercolour’, that is technically what they are.

The exhibition makes the interesting point that originally watercolour was mainly seen as an adjunct to drawing: a work would be drawn in pencil or ink and then effectively coloured in, sometimes just with a few hint of colour to liven the drawing and sometimes in a more thorough way. So many of the early pieces are technical works of one kind or another: costume designs for Elizabethan masques, maps, plans of fortifications, as well as a few specific uses like portrait miniatures.

That technical aspect leads on to what is probably my favourite room of the exhibition, a room of scientific illustrations; especially botanical illustrations but also birds and mammals. Many of these were lent by the Natural History Museum or Kew, which is a clear sign that they were not originally created as Art, but they are gorgeous things. It even included some lovely C19th paintings of rock types — each one is a lump of rock on a plain white background, and they look like an elegantly minimalist conceptual art project.

After that we get into watercolour as an artistic medium in its own right. This includes plenty of ‘typical’ watercolours — landscapes, basically — but also a variety of paintings chosen at least partially to challenge that stereotype. So we have a room of war paintings, a room of ‘visionary’ paintings, a room of exhibition watercolours (i.e. large-scale C19th narrative paintings designed to compete with oil paintings for gravitas), and a room of contemporary work using watercolour.

My single biggest problem with the exhibition is that C19th British painting is not something I particularly enjoy. And that was the golden age of watercolour. So the aesthetic of the paintings was more off-putting than anything to do with watercolour as a medium. The exhibition watercolours seemed particularly pointless. I don’t like Victorian narrative painting and find the Pre-Raphaelites exceptionally noxious; seeing them painted in watercolour instead of oils didn’t make them any more likeable. Especially since there was no obvious attempt to make a virtue of the different medium: rather they seemed to be straining to make watercolours look as much like oil as possible.

And some of the paintings had clearly faded, which is the great technical problem of watercolour as a medium. There’s nothing much you can do about that, but it is a pity. There was a painting of some sun-drenched imperial outpost (Egypt? India?) which just didn’t look very hot, and I think it had probably faded a bit. So the shadows weren’t as dark, and the tones weren’t as warm.

As you can tell, I wasn’t blown away. But every room had something of interest and something covetable. And every so often there was a painting which was gorgeous and which could only have been done with watercolour: liquid and light and translucent. So it’s well worth a visit.

» The painting of the Lion-haired macaque, Macaca silenus, is by an unknown Chinese artist working for John Reeves, who employed locals to paint the specimens he was collecting while working in Canton from 1812-1831. That particular work is not in the Tate, though they do have a different monkey from the Reeves collection, lent by the NHM.

Jan Gossaert at the National Gallery

I went along to this with little knowledge and few preconceptions and on the whole was pleasantly surprised. I’ve said before I particularly like the Northern Renaissance for its more medieval aesthetic compared to the Italians. That’s actually less true of Gossaert; a lot of his figures have that contorted quality that I associate with, say, Michelangelo; of being posed in rather uncomfortable-looking positions with pronounced foreshortening. They also have a kind of fleshiness which relates to the Italians but also seems to make him a precursor of painters like Rubens and Jacob Jordaens.

The portraits stood out for me; which, come to think of it, is often the case in these exhibitions. I guess that’s partially because of their human interest — they are the most gossipy kind of painting — and partially because the relatively constrained format strips away many of the things modern audience find off-putting about older paintings. I think there are various reasons why religious paintings and history paintings are not to modern taste, some of it to do with the subject matter, but also the style. Whereas a straightforward head-and-shoulders portrait, the subject looking out of the canvas, is probably the single genre of painting which carries through most directly from the Renaissance to now.

So there was certainly stuff to enjoy — not least some fantastic Dürer engravings and woodcuts which were in there for context — but I can see why Gossaert’s not as well known as some of his contemporaries. He was clearly a wonderful painter, but he just lacks the extra something to make him stand out. And the ways in which he is different from his contemporaries probably make him less to modern taste rather than more. Certainly less to my taste.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at NHM

I made my annual trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. I thought it was particularly good this year. Here’s a pleasing and particularly original long-exposure photo of a gannet colony by Andrew Parkinson:

You can see all the winners on the NHM website, but obviously it’s better to go and see the pictures blown up nice and big on lightboxes if you have the chance.

Gauguin at Tate Modern

So, I went along to the Tate’s big Gauguin show the other day… which to be honest was slightly disappointing. Not least because nothing seemed very surprising; I wouldn’t have said I knew Gauguin’s work very well, and I would have expected to learn more or see something new, but not really.

Obviously I hadn’t seen every piece of work before, although quite a few of them had turned up in previous exhibitions, like ‘From Russia’ or ‘Rebels and Martyrs’, or were from the Tate or the Courtauld anyway. But even those which were new to me generally felt like more of the same. Not just because he developed a fairly distinctive style and stuck to it, but because his hit rate isn’t that great: the best of his paintings are genuinely gorgeous things, but they seem to be heavily outnumbered by ones which are just a bit underwhelming.

And at the risk of sounding like a complete philistine: they are also disappointingly small. I think one reason they are almost work better in reproduction is that you can see a photograph and imagine the original painting as a large, impressive piece, when in reality they are rather small and cramped. I guess I wouldn’t expect him to be painting huge, wall-filling canvases in his hut in Tahiti, but fair or not, that was my reaction.

There is also of course the uneasy politics of the work: Gauguin was a colonial sex tourist who painted the Tahitians in his own version of traditional Polynesian myths, even though they had in fact long since converted to Christianity. One myth is as good as another as far as I’m concerned, but the fact he completely ignored the reality of Tahitian life in favour of preconceived images of the innocent noble savage, even while living with his thirteen-year old ‘wife’ — it’s all a bit icky.

Since this review has been so negative, I guess I should reiterate: I still think the best of his work is pretty great. I just didn’t enjoy the exhibition as much as I thought I might.

‘Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals’ at the National Gallery

On to more cheerful subjects — I went to see the Canaletto exhibition at the NG the other day. Which i enjoyed, entirely predictably; because I’m not sure Canaletto is one of the very greatest painters in the European tradition, but he is one of the most likeable. I’ve never seen a Canaletto I wouldn’t like to own. He clearly had a bit of conveyer belt going on at one stage, producing standard views of Venice for English tourists, but even at their most formulaic, his paintings are cheerful, decorative and full of engaging details.

This exhibition puts his career in the context of other painters of Venetian view paintings at the time, which makes for interesting comparisons. For example, there are three paintings displayed alongside each other of regattas on the Grand Canal, one by Canaletto and the others by, I think, Michele Marieschi and Bernardo Bellotto. The stylistic differences are interesting, but the most striking thing is how differently they portray the physical reality of the scene; the canal is about half as wide in the Marieschi* as the Canaletto, presumably to create a livelier, more crowded scene.

The other two most notable things, for me, were Canaletto’s early style and the works of Francesco Guardi. Canaletto’s earliest paintings of Venice were rather looser, with much broader brushstrokes; but they are also greyer and a bit grittier. They don’t have that amazing glowing Mediterranean light which is so much part of the later works, but also they make Venice look a bit shabby, a bit dirty; a city of faded glories. There’s a painting of St Mark’s square with market stalls clustered around the bottom of the basilica and campanile, and the size of the building makes the rather ragged stalls and people look paltry and insignificant, while the stalls in turn undercut the grandeur of the basilica.

I wouldn’t want to read too much into it — I daresay he was aiming for straightforward realism rather than biting social commentary — but it does make you realise how much more flattering his later paintings are. They are all glowing and sparkly, and while they do still have disreputable looking characters in them, they now look like lively local colour rather than slightly seedy. I have to say I rather liked the early paintings, but I can see why it was the later work that was so commercially successful. I don’t know whether he consciously changed his style specifically to make his work more marketable: it seems quite likely. And why not, after all.

And the Francesco Guardi paintings were interesting to me just because I was unfamiliar with his work. It’s much more stylised than Canaletto, with suggestive little brushstrokes and curious little pin-headed figures. You can see why his work was rediscovered and celebrated by C19th artists as being ahead of his time; he’s clearly moving in the direction of painters like, to make the obvious Venice comparison, Turner. Like Turner, he favoured scenes with a lot of water and sky — boats on the lagoon, rather than, or as well as, more architectural subjects.

* I think. I suppose I could try taking notes at these exhibitions if I’m going to blog about them later… nah.

» The picture is a detail from Francesco Guardi’s Venice: The Giudecca with the Zitelle.

‘Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes’ at the V&A

I went along to the Diaghilev exhibition at the V&A. He’s kind of an interesting figure to name an exhibition after, since he was an impresario, rather than an artist or designer, or even a composer or choreographer. But under his stewardship, the Ballets Russes really does seem to have been an extraordinary focal point for European culture. I’m a complete philistine about music and ballet, so none of the choreographers meant anything to me, and the only dancer I’d heard of was Nijinsky; but even I’ve heard of composers like Prokofiev, Satie and of course Stravinsky. And even I know that the first performance of The Rite of Spring is one of the significant cultural moments of the twentieth century.

And I’m slightly less of a philistine about art, so I’ve definitely heard of some of the people who designed sets and costumes for him: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Giorgio de Chirico, Natalia Goncharova, Coco Chanel. And apparently Joan Míro and Salvador Dalí as well, although neither of them featured in this exhibition. And that’s apart from some, like Léon Bakst, who are specifically known for their design work for the ballet. It is a hell of a list.

And it’s a fun exhibition: lots of cheery colours, and gorgeous costumes that have a battered glamour to them; and costume designs, which are often even more appealing than the costumes themselves. And the single largest item in the V&A collection: the back cloth for one of their ballets.

I also checked out the Raphael tapestries. Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a set of tapestries with scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul, to hang in the Sistine Chapel, and one of the treasures of the V&A is the Raphael cartoons: i.e. the full size painted designs which the weavers worked from. To coincide with the current Pope visiting the UK, the Vatican has lent four of the actual tapestries to hang alongside the paintings for a bit.

And they’re quite interesting to see, although they have rather fallen victim to changing tastes. The Raphael cartoons have always been regarded as some of the most important bits of Renaissance art in Britain, but I don’t think I’m alone in finding them a bit unsympathetic. It’s not just the subject matter, although that doesn’t help; there’s something about these monumental groups of posed figures that is just a tiny bit, um, boring. Maybe it’s the self-conscious grandeur of them; these really are the Catholic equivalent of Socialist Realism. Then again, if Stalin had had people like Raphael and Michelangelo available, Socialist Realism might have been pretty fabulous.

» Top: costumes for female dancers in The Rite of Spring. Designed by Nikolai Roerich, 1913. Bottom: costume for a ‘Negro Lackey’ from The Sleeping Princess. Designed by Léon Bakst, 1921.

‘Picasso: The Mediterranean Years (1945-1962)’ at the Gagosian Gallery

Or ‘Picasso: The Cheerful Years’. I have no idea how cheerful or otherwise Picasso really was during the late 40s and 50s, but that’s the impression given by this exhibition.

The style which is most famously used in his earlier work, in paintings like Guernica and the Weeping Woman, to express something about the darker sides of the human experience, is here used in cheery, brightly coloured pictures of children playing.

A painting certainly doesn’t need gloomy subject matter to have artistic merit, but even so, this felt like Picasso-Lite; enjoyable enough, but more decorative, less intense. And why not, after all. He didn’t have anything to prove by that point.

‘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.

‘Rude Britannia’ at Tate Britain

I went along to Rude Britannia, the Tate’s exhibition of ‘British Comic Art’. Which was likeable enough, although much of the ground covered is pretty obvious: Hogarth, James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell, Spitting Image, Donald McGill, Viz. Bits of Punch, Aubrey Beardsley, Beryl Cook. There are also some pieces from the contemporary fine art world: the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Grayson Perry.

All of which is somewhat interesting and even sporadically amusing — although both 200-year-old social satire and wryly humorous conceptual art tend to be quiet-smile-funny rather than uncontrollable-belly-laughter-funny.

I suppose the suggestions is that there is some kind of overarching narrative about the British sense of humour or the British approach to art, but I’m not completely convinced. I guess if you were not British and were encountering all this material together for the first time, you would come away with a somewhat coherent overall impression: a kind of anarchic vulgarity which attempts to undermine anyone’s attempts at self-importance. Scatological humour and knob gags not just for their own sake but also because they are the enemy of dignity.

» Donald McGill, A Stick of Rock, Cock?
British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent
© Donald McGill Archive

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.

‘The Kingdom of Ife’ at the British Museum

I went to the BM to see the exhibition of art from the medieval west African kingdom of Ife (now in Nigeria). Ife is most famous for some extraordinarily high quality naturalistic heads cast in brass or copper, although the exhibitions also has various other pieces, including terracotta heads in the same style, jewellery, animal pieces and so on.

These heads are of such high quality that one of the first Europeans to see them felt they couldn’t possibly have been made by Africans: instead he hypothesised that they were evidence for the lost civilisation of Atlantis. Which is, umm, a bit cringeworthy. You know you’ve got a bit of a blind spot when you think that Atlantis is a more likely explanation than a previously unknown African kingdom with a strong metalworking tradition. Its especially embarrassing because while it sounds like something some Elizabethan explorer might have come up with, it was in fact… in 1900. Yikes.

He was at least right that these are genuinely remarkable objects, superbly crafted and of great beauty. In fact if you judge art by how much it looks like the thing it portrays — the Daily Mail school of art criticism — there is something extraordinary about this little flowering of naturalistic sculpture in a continent dominated by various kinds of highly stylised art. Certainly that was the Western press reaction when the bulk of the work was found; references to an African Donatello, to African sculpture standing comparison with the great works of Greece and Italy, and to these sculptures being a great mystery of African art. Because, of course, there is no higher ambition than to produce work which fits tidily into the European tradition, and it is inherently mysterious that Africans should be able to do it.

I’m being a bit glib, but actually the exhibition had me examining my own preconceptions about art (I haven’t reached any conclusions yet). Although these days we are all much quicker to see beauty in ‘primitive’ art, not least because its profound influence on Modernism helped change our expectations of what ‘fine art’ looks like, I think most of us have at least an implicit sense of a hierarchy which sees exquisite representational art as, if not better, then more developed or more sophisticated than the highly stylised carvings which we normally associate with Africa. And so these Ife heads seem to carry a significance beyond their beauty.

But the emergence of naturalism really require any special explanation? I guess it might need a society wealthy enough for some people to work as nearly full-time artists, but beyond that maybe all it needs is a shift in fashion. In fact, perhaps representational art is the kind that needs least explanation, since the logic of ‘making things that look like other things’ is so straightforward.

All such questions aside: it’s a marvellous exhibition and if you’re passing through London in the next three months you you should go and see it.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot and Ron Arad at the Barbican

I went along yesterday to see the new commission by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot in the Curve gallery at the Barbican. You may have seen it on YouTube, where it has been a bit of a hit:

The set-up in the video isn’t exactly the same as the one in the gallery, but it gives you the idea: a flock of zebra finches in a room with electric guitars and up-turned cymbals, who ‘play’ the instruments by hopping around and perching on them. They are free-flying in the gallery, and you can walk on paths between the instruments.

It’s an immediately appealing idea and quite memorable, so it will probably be something of a hit, at least by the standards of contemporary art installations. To be honest, though, I thought it was less striking in reality than it was in neatly-edited little close-ups on YouTube. It was more like being in a slightly odd aviary than in some kind of extraordinary art-place. People did seem to be enjoying it, though. I slightly wonder how much of that was just the pleasure of being in among all these very tame little birds, but perhaps I’m just projecting my own reactions. I did inevitably go into birdy-man mode, noticing that they were piking up nesting material and looking in vain for somewhere to put it, wondering why they were pecking a concrete wall, looking for mating behaviour.

And while zebra finches aren’t exactly imbued with an enormous amount of dignity at the best of times, there was something slightly off-putting about seeing these little birds with their own aims and desires in life being cajoled into being art. I’m not suggesting it was inhumane: they had grass and food and water, and lots of room, so by cagebird standards it seemed like pretty good accommodation.

Chris Ofili at Tate Britain

Chris Ofili is a contemporary British artist who is, I suppose, best known for using balls of elephant dung in his paintings. Indeed I’ve been well-disposed towards Ofili for years, ever since The Daily Mail or some other self-consciously philistine rag decided to be terribly outraged when he was nominated for the Turner Prize. It’s always irritating when hard-nosed tabloid journalists pretend to have the delicate sensibilities of Victorian spinsters, but it particularly irritated me because actually elephant dung is really very innocuous stuff: I remember reading about palaeontologists in Africa having ‘snowball’ fights with elephant dung, which gives you an idea of how harmless it is. They eat lots of dry vegetable matter and it passes through them barely digested, emerging almost as tightly-bundled balls of hay.

In retrospect, this quibble about the particular characteristics of elephant dung was rather missing the point. Especially since when you look at the early paintings he clearly was being intentionally provocative; for example, one of the titles is 7 Bitches Tossing their Pussies Before the Divine Dung. And several works with ‘shit’ in the title, like the distinctly creepy little sculpted head, made with elephant dung, dreadlocks and human teeth, called Shithead. And the painting of the Virgin Mary surrounded by snippets cut from pornographic magazines. Indeed, if you’re an artist who wants to shock people the Daily Mail* provides a valuable service; it must be difficult to find anyone easily offended in the world of contemporary art.

Not that the dung is just there to wind people up; it’s also a symbol of Ofili’s African background. Apparently he started using elephant dung after a trip to Zimbabwe, along with a dot-painting style inspired by cave paintings in the Matobo hills. The style developed into elaborate paintings that combine paint with collage, sequins, resin in layer after layer, and the effect is both decorative and very visually engaging: there’s a lot to look at in these paintings. The major theme is, broadly, images of black identity: hip-hop and blaxploitation movies provide a lot of the visual cues. These paintings really are gorgeous as objects, which always helps.

Over time his paintings got less aggressively confrontational and more, um, spiritual, I guess. But he still kept developing that style, with the dots and the elephant dung and so on, in various different ways, until recently he clearly felt he had taken it as far as it could go, because his latest paintings are quite different, much more straightforward, painted with big sweeps of colour. I’m sorry to say I wasn’t really keen on these new works: they didn’t have the same visual impact and they just felt a bit insubstantial to me. But it will be interesting to see where he goes with them, because he’s a talented man.

* And, incidentally, Rudy Giuliani.

» The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars 1998 © Chris Ofili. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Close Menu