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 Real Van Gogh’ at the Royal Academy

Not that rubbishy fake Van Gogh that other galleries having been fobbing us off with, then.

The exhibition’s full title is ‘The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters’. The inclusion of some of Van Gogh’s letters supposedly provides a bit of biographical-intellectual-psychological context for the paintings. Which is an interesting idea, but calling it ‘The Real Van Gogh’ is still ridiculous.

The show hardly needs a special hook to attract the public’s attention; it is, somewhat surprisingly, the first major Van Gogh exhibition in London for 40 years, and I’m quite sure that it will be packed for the whole run. And rightly so: it has a lot of marvellous paintings in it. Van Gogh is so universally popular that the bloody-minded part of me almost wants to argue that he’s overrated, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Quite apart from anything else there is to say about his work, there is just such a lot of straightforward pleasure to be had from it.

Looking at the late landscapes I found myself thinking of El Greco: the strength of colour, the tension in the distorted forms, the stretching of the possibilities of figurative painting without losing that connection with real objects. By which I mean: he doesn’t seem to have been heading towards abstraction in that way that, in Cezanne’s landscapes, the mountain sometimes seems to be fragmenting into patterns of light and colour. Van Gogh’s landscapes are full of the thingness of things.

So it is a marvellous exhibition which I highly recommend. On the other hand I thought the letters were a bit of a sideshow. Most of them were written to his brother Theo; in the relatively short sections which the curators have translated from Flemish or French, Vincent talks about what he has been doing, how his work is going, and provides little ink sketches of the paintings he has been doing. It’s quite interesting; you do get some sense of his personality, of how articulate and thoughtful he was. And some of what he has to say about the work is somewhat interesting. But even without buying into the Death Of The Author idea that the artist’s life is irrelevant to understanding the work, I do think there is a limit to its value. Artists’ comments about their own work always seem so vague and generic compared to the specificity and particularity of the work itself; which I guess is why they end up as artists rather than writers. And the awkwardness of putting too much text in an exhibition mean that you’re not getting that much of Vincent’s thought anyway.

Perhaps there is a particular value in providing this kind of biographical material for Van Gogh, since he is probably still widely thought of as the mad genius artist. The letters at least give a more rounded sense of a real human being, since he comes across in them as, well, fairly normal. Intelligent, good with languages and incomprehensibly good with paint, but certainly not frothing at the mouth. I guess that point is worth making.

Exhibition round-up

Sorry for the slight hiatus; it was a combination of the cricket and Dragon Quest: the Chapters of the Chosen. But there’s a pause in the cricket*, so I’ll just quickly round up a few of the things I’ve been to see recently.

Firstly, the big Baroque exhibition at the V&A, which I went to see a few weeks ago and actually closed yesterday. This is exactly the kind of exhibition that the V&A does a superb job with, and I was glad I went, but I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for it because, well, it’s the Baroque. It’s the aesthetic of wealth and power, of an exquisitely crafted, gilded boot stamping on a human face forever. I didn’t warm to it.

There were interesting items and impressive ones, but not many were likeable; almost none triggered the acquisitive itch in me. The slight exception was actually a video reel of Baroque buildings. Craftsmen obviously struggled to capture the grandeur, ambition and megalomania of the Baroque in something like a  candlestick or a side-table — although it didn’t stop them trying — but if you’ve got a whole church to work with, or a palace or an opera house, you can produce something magnificent.

And I suppose you can argue that once you’ve got your church or your palace, you need some suitably pompous candlesticks and side-tables to match the decor. I still can’t get excited about going to look at them in a museum.

yogi

A more enjoyable exhibition was BM’s Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur. These are paintings that are in a style that I associate with Persian miniatures — and of course the Mughals were Persians, more or less — but on a much large scale.

Different Maharajas commissioned different works. The exhibition starts with paintings of court life, mainly represented here as lounging around in the palace garden surrounded by scantily clad women. Then as, we move into scenes from Hindu mythology — some of them looking remarkably like the first paintings except with Shiva sitting in a garden instead of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, but others with more dramatic subjects from the Ramayana. And then it shifts into a more esoteric, mystical tradition within Hinduism, with paintings of the creation of the universe from nothingness, spiritual maps of the universe, symbolic maps of the human body with chakras and so on.

The pictures were attractive, never a bad thing, as well as being interesting. And the attempts to represent the unrepresentable were beautiful and more successful (whatever that means) than most Western equivalents I can think of.

I also went to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (“now in its 241st year!”). It’s always slightly more enjoyable than I expect; apart from anything else, it’s always interesting to go to an art exhibition where everything has a price marked on it. Vulgar of me, I know. But there’s just so much of it that you’re suffering from fried brain by two thirds of the way through.

And on the subject of art prices, check out this link: ‘If Famous Architecture Were Priced Like Paintings, a Le Corbusier Would Cost the Same as the Entire American GDP‘.

*after a heroic win for England at Lord’s, the first time we’ve beaten the Aussies there for 75 years. I could probably find quite a lot to say about the first two matches in the series — that 75-year losing streak is a fascinating subject in itself — but let’s stay on topic.

»The picture is Chakras of the Subtle Body, 1823, © Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

‘Byzantium 330-1453’ at the Royal Academy

The latest blockbuster exhibition at the RA is Byzantium 330-1453. It’s a big show, but then it does survey a millennium’s worth of art from a big empire.

It’s odd; I think most people who have even a general interest in history and culture have some knowledge, however sketchy or inaccurate, of classical Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. But the thousand year-history of Byzantium is somehow not part of that, and I was very aware going around this exhibition of how little I knew. It makes you think that perhaps the Great Schism of 1054, which separated Catholic and Orthodox christianity and so in some sense split Europe into east and west, is the pivotal moment in the continent’s cultural history.  

[ Editorial aside: every time I start to say anything I find myself very aware of my ignorance. But even at the best of times I tend to hedge opinions around with qualifications, and for stylistic reasons there’s a limit to the amount of verbiage I can hang onto a sentence. So let me say up front: I don’t want you to think that I think I know what I’m talking about. I don’t. ]

Voltaire apparently described Byzantium as ‘A worthless repertory of declamations and miracles, a disgrace to the human mind’, and there seems to have been a general dismissal of Byzantine culture by a lot of western writers. I’m not sure the exotic and peculiar version in Yeats’s poems is actually any more flattering, either. Perhaps it’s because if you’re from the tradition that sees the Middle Ages as a regrettable regression between the classical civilisations and the Renaissance, Byzantium looks like a bit of a mistake: they started as Romans, spent a few centuries developing a medieval aesthetic and then stuck with that for the next 500 years until the Renaissance came along and moved art forward again.

Or at least, I imagine the ‘stuck in a rut’ theory is a horrible caricature, but there does seem to have been a somewhat rigid artistic culture. The exhibition leaflet explains that between 730 and 843, the Byzantines had an iconoclasm. Which firstly means, of course, that a lot of the early transitional art was destroyed.* But also, to quote the exhibition leaflet, ‘Following the failure of iconoclasm the Triumph of Orthodoxy was celebrated in pictures and with an explosion of artistic activity. … Orthodoxy was declared to be the use of icons; and icons declared the nature of Orthodoxy.’

Whether it’s because of the strong identification of a artistic tradition with a religious identity, or because the icons were seen primarily as devotional objects rather than artworks, to my untrained eye they all look very similar. And indeed if you see, say, C19th Russian icons, they still all look fairly similar. It’s like statues of Lenin in the USSR: originality really wasn’t the point. In fact, when it came to statues of Lenin, originality would probably have been actively suspicious; I don’t know if the same dynamic is at play with Byzantine icons.

Anyway, getting back on to more solid ground: you should go to see this exhibition because it has lots of nice stuff in it. Icons, of course, both painted and in the slightly ridiculous medium of micromosaic; lots of carved ivory; manuscripts, featuring all sorts of attractive scripts, mainly Greek but some Arabic, some Cyrillic and some completely mysterious; chalices and other items inlaid with precious stones and fabulous little enamel designs; jewellery, coins, ceramics and textiles. The first few rooms are chronological, but other rooms are arranged by theme: ecclesiastical objects, domestic objects, icons, the interaction between Byzantium and the West, the influence of Byzantium on nearby cultures and so on. It is, as I said, a big exhibition, and a lot of the items are small, finely worked objects that really deserve close examination, which is never easy in a busy gallery; I don’t think there’s any straightforward solution to that, though.

The exhibition website isn’t very comprehensive, although there’s an education guide in PDF form which has some nice pictures.

* incidentally, there’s a lot of discussion around at the moment of science vs. religion, and whether science is compatible with religion; meanwhile defenders of religion point to the great works of devotional art from the Hagia Sophia and El Greco to Bach. It’s worth pointing out that art and religion haven’t always had the easiest relationship either, which is why so many English churches are the proud owners of statues that have head their heads knocked off.

» the picture is taken from the website of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, although the work, a tiny 9 × 7.4 cm C14th icon of St Theodore Stratilates in mosaic, is in the RA exhibition.

Cranach at the Royal Academy

Now this is my kind of exhibition. I don’t what it is I find so appealing about the Northern Renaissance; obviously, artists like Dürer, Van Eyck and Breugel are among the all-time greats of European art, but I love it all: van der Weyden, Memling, Bosch, Holbein, and indeed the star of this show, Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I like the Italian stuff as well, but there’s something about these northern painters I can’t get enough of. Maybe, as someone with a soft spot for the medieval, it’s because the continuity with the medieval is in some ways more obvious in the north. Maybe it’s because I am myself northern European; maybe there really is a northern sensibility — a gothic sensibility, if you like — which runs a great deal deeper than one might imagine. Or not.

portrait of a Saxon Princess, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Whatever the reason for them, it’s amazing how much difference these preferences can make. The other day I went up to see the Cranach, but the ‘From Russia‘ exhibition was still running at the Royal Academy and the queues were horrendous, so I popped in to the Pompeo Batoni at the National instead. Batoni was an C18th Italian artist who did history paintings and portraits, many of them English aristos doing the Grand Tour. I didn’t bother to blog about it because I just found it so boring. In the Cranach, on the other hand, I liked every single work, even the ones were it didn’t seem like he was really trying.

And there are a few like that; apparently he was famous at the time as a quick man with a brush, the person to go to if you’d just built a new castle and needed a dozen paintings on assorted themes to brighten up the place. He had a big workshop and churned out lots and lots of work, including many repetitions of the same themes. Compare, for example, these portraits of Martin Luther, all in different galleries: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Cranach was a friend of Luther’s, and as well as portraits of Luther he painted biblical scenes illustrating Protestant themes, illustrations for Luther’s German translation of the bible, and other Protestant propaganda material; yet that didn’t stop him taking commissions for prominent Catholics. There was a marvellous portrait of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg who was working on a Catholic version of the bible in German, painted as St Jerome, the man who translated the bible into Latin. He’s sitting in his suitably German-looking study, wearing his red cardinal’s robes, surrounded by animals, including a lion, a parrot, a squirrel and a family of pheasants.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

And I don’t suppose Luther would have approved of the sexy pictures of naked, pot-bellied, weaselly-faced blonde girls, who all look the same whether they are supposed to be Lucretia, Eve or Venus. One of these features on the posters for the exhibition, and the National managed to gain a bit of free publicity when it was initially rejected by London Underground as being too racy for them.

As you can tell, I give the show a big thumbs-up. I just don’t understand why it should be so much less popular than ‘From Russia’. It’s just as well it was, though, because these are the kind of paintings you want to get right up to, and take in the details.

» The RA’s exhibition website is pretty rubbish, as usual. Both the paintings above featured in the exhibition but I got the images from Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of a Saxon princess (they know she’s a princess by what she’s wearing, but don’t know which one) is from the National Gallery in Washington. Adam and Eve are in the Courtauld in London.

‘From Russia’ at the Royal Academy

This is a seriously impressive exhibition. The full title is ‘From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg‘. It starts with a little room of Russian paintings from the start of that period; then you get a whole load of French paintings that were collected by two Russian art collectors, Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, and are now divided between various Russian state museums; then the rest of the show is of Russian paintings again, which are more or less heavily influenced by the French work.

The French section includes major works by most of the biggest names in French art — Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Bonnard — whereas with a couple of major exceptions in Chagall and Kandinsky the Russian artists are less familiar. It makes for a good combination; the French artists are immediately enjoyable while the Russians, simply because they are less familiar, require a bit more evaluation.

My favourite painting was probably Matisse’s Harmony in Red:

Harmony in Red by Matisse

Apparently, when the collector bought it at a Paris show, it was all blue instead of red, but Matisse asked to hang on to it for a few weeks because he wanted to tweak it. It must have been a bit of a shock to open it up and find it had completely changed colour.

Of the Russians: there were lots I quite liked including, unusually for me, the two Chagalls. Among the people I was with the most popular choice for a painting to take home would be Altman’s portrait of Anna Akhmatova. I think I’d probably take one of the three Malevich paintings called Black Square, Black Circle and Black Cross which are just black shapes on white backgrounds. That kind of geometrical minimalism is a bit mysterious: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Those ones worked, for me, though I’d be hard pressed to explain why.

This exhibition has an obvious relevance to the whole modernism and politics discussion, since Russia went through an immensely creative period in art and architecture for the first two decades of the C20th, and for a while after the revolution this radical art was embraced by the party; but then the regime ruthlessly crushed it. Artists may have supported radical politics, but politicians didn’t necessarily support radical art. A dislike of ‘decadent’ art was one of the things Hitler and Stalin had in common.

» The Matisse image is from the Artchive.

Georg Baselitz at the Royal Academy

Baselitz is a German painter and sculptor. I thought that I knew nothing about him at all, but when I got to the exhibition several of the paintings turned out to be familiar.

Baselitz was born in East Germany, his father had been a member of the Nazi party, and he was studying at an art college in West Berlin when the Berlin Wall went up and separated him from his family and home town. So it’s not surprising that a lot of history and politics gets into his paintings or that they tend to be a bit angry. In fact, his earlier paintings, which are figurative but distorted and blocky, are reminiscent of some of those similarly angry-looking Picassos.

The Woodmen

Later he developed a different quirk: upside-down paintings. They are, apparently, actually painted upside-down, but they look like they’ve just been hung that way. It’s a surprisingly effective way of transforming even quite mundane paintings into something more interesting, and the early examples are fairly mundane, as though the point of them is the upside-down-ness and so the paintings themselves are much more straightforward representational works than those he had been doing before. Interestingly, as the paintings then get more abstracted, they stay upside-down, but because the subject is less clear the upside-down-ness is also less obvious.

The Gleaner

More recently Baselitz has started producing ‘remix’ paintings: new versions of his early works. So, for example, there’s a painting, I think from the 60s, called ‘The Great Friends’ that depicts two people among ruins and in front of a fallen flag. The new version is the same design, but painted in different colours and with different technique; he’s taken to painting them on the floor, making much use of dripped paint. No doubt this is partially the normal looking back of an old man. It was noticeable in the Louise Bourgeois show at Tate Modern that she has also returned to motifs from her childhood as she gets older. But also it is surely related to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany stirring up the whole messy subject of C20th German history.

I got the audioguide for the exhibition, which was interesting if not exactly sparkling, and it included contributions from Baselitz. Rather admirably, he never made any attempt to tell you what the paintings were about, or explain their symbolism or even their personal significance for him. Everything he said was to do with how he painted them and what visual effect he wanted to create. For example, he said about one painting that he wanted as much of the canvas as possible left unpainted and he was pleased because he largely managed to get it right first time and didn’t need to do much overpainting. He didn’t provide any reason why he wanted the canvas left bare; presumably he thinks he paintings should speak for themselves.

» The exhibition website is short of useful pictures, so the two I’ve included are from other sources. They’re not really the examples I would have picked given a free choice, but I wanted some kind of pictures, so they’ll do. The top one, ‘Meissen Woodmen’, is from the National Gallery of Australia; the other is ‘The Gleaner’ from the Guggenheim in New York.

Rodin at the RA

I went to the big Rodin exhibition at the Royal Academy today. It offered one of the simplest of art pleasures – looking at striking objects. His work has real presence, and not just because it’s made out of big lumps of bronze or marble. Their status as representational work seemed less important than the sheer physicality of them.

That’s not entirely true, of course – you can’t separate it out in that way and pretend that they’d somehow be just as effective if they were abstracts. I’m not sure the claim would even mean anything. So what do I mean? I guess there’s a kind of impersonality to them. Whereas a painting is to some extent experienced as a window onto another reality, this work never had that kind of illusionistic quality; they are experienced much more directly as art-objects. Some of that is the medium, some of it is his style.

Much of the work in the show was fairly familiar — a lot of the exhibition is built around The Burghers of Calais, The Kiss, The Thinker and The Gates Of Hell. I didn’t realise he’s done quite so many sculptures of nekkid girls embracing each other, though. They all had different titles — The Earth and Moon, or whatever — but it was hard to avoid the conclusion that he just got a bit of a kick out of doing them. There were also various erotic drawings he’d done that featured girls prominently displaying their lady-bits, so I don’t think I’m jumping to any outrageous conclusions.

It made me think how few famous sculptors there are, especially since some of the most famous artists of the Renaissance (Bernini, Michelangelo) were sculptors. Between the Renaissance and abstraction, Rodin is almost the only really big-name sculptor I can think of, compared to the dozens of painters I could come up with at a moments notice. I guess the great ages of sculpture tend to be when it’s much in demand for architectural dressing; Greek temples and medieval and Renaissance churches seem to have been thick with the stuff. But still, that’s not really an adequate explanation. Even with sculpture relatively out of fashion, there were many thousands of statues, monuments, tombs and so on put up in the C17th – C19th, but somehow none of the sculptors managed to carve out a place in the public consciousness. Which I guess makes Rodin all the more exceptional.

Modigliani at the RA

I went to see Modigliani and his models at the Royal Academy today. In a sense, there was nothing very surprising about the exhibition since Amedeo Modigliani only really seems to have painted rather stylised portaits and very pink nudes, including this one of Joan Collins from 1917:

It (she?) looked pinker in real life.

The stylised portraiture is intriguing, because although the basic characteristics were fairly consistent — long neck, rounded shoulders, elongated face — and the paintings all have the Modigliani look about them, the overall effect varied considerably. Some came across as caricature, including this one:

Others have a rather impersonal quality that suggests that the particular model is almost irrelevant, that the subject is just a generic woman. This portrait of his lover/common law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, seems to me to tend to fall into that category, although not as much as some of his other pictures of her:

To get a sense of how stylised the portraits are, this is a photo of Jeanne Hébuterne:

Many of the portraits did manage to look like portraits — like they showed a real personality rather than a caricature or a blank —but I didn’t note down any titles in the exhibition and haven’t managed to track down good pictures on the web to use in this post. Which is a bit unfair on Amedeo, but them’s the breaks. I did enjoy the exhibition; the best of the paintings have a real presence to them, and they’re never less than likeable.

The most intriguing of his stylisations is perhaps the blank eyes. Some of his portraits have irises, but most have blank eyes. I can only guess that he chose to leave the eyes blank because otherwise they were too distracting. In that sense they unbalance a portrait.

In Green Park (the nearest tube station) I was amused to see that someone had scratched out the eyes on a movie poster in what I would like to believe was a reference to Modigliani, but was probably just because they were bored. I didn’t have a camera, but here’s a reconstruction:

And finally, a bonus picutre. When googling Modigliani, I discovered Cyclommatus modigliani:

I assume the beetle is named after some other Modigliani — an entomological relative — but you never know, perhaps it was named by an art-loving beetlist.

‘China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795’ at the RA

The Royal Academy’s own website doesn’t seem to be working at the moment (Tibetan hackers?), but Goldman Sachs, the corporate sponsor of the show, have a Flash slideshow you can see here which gives an idea of what it’s like.

I found it a bit dull. The exhibition is huge and the quality of the items is obvious, but it seems a bit same-y; and (because it’s all court art?), it’s all rather formal and grand. I also found it surprisingly un-surprising, somehow. I don’t know much about C18th China (anything, really) so I would have expected it to be more interesting just out of novelty value, but somehow it all seemed rather familiar. Perhaps I just haven’t got the enough knowledge to see the subtleties, or perhaps it actually is all a bit repetitive. It might have been a good idea to get the audioguide. These very big exhibitions are always a bit off-putting anyway; if it was a quarter the size, it might have focussed my mind a bit.

Close Menu