Printmaking explored: The American Dream

 

The British Museum is exhibiting recent additions to its print collection that celebrate contemporary innovations in the medium.  ‘The American Dream: Pop to the Present’ presents a rich display of different US artists’ work from the last half century, beginning with the expected Warhols and Rauschenbergs before turning to the experimentations of Conceptualists and Minimalists – and also engaging with the political and social use of printmaking.

The range of techniques is fascinating and impressive.  Alongside the instantly recognisable ‘Flags I’ (above, 1973) by Jasper Johns – though here in screenprint form, using thirty-one different screens to create a pseudo-painterly effect – Jim Dine’s series of etched Paintbrushes (above, 1973) are more subtle, but full of charm with their dancing bristles against an ink spattered background that epitomises the debris of the creative process, the artist’s studio.

Ed Ruscha’s slick and witty screenprints – such as the iconic ‘Standard Station’ (above, 1966) – and his lithographs ‘Made in California’ and ‘Ooo’ which experiment with dripping pigment onto the stone plate to create colour saturated words in space, comment on the advertising and consumerism of sixties California.

The woodcut or linocut may seem a more primitive printing method in comparison but the results are no less distinctively modern.  Wayne Thiebaud’s ‘Gumball Machine’ (above, 1970) celebrates another ubiquitous Amercian consumerist icon, while further on in the exhibition Vija Celmins’ ‘Ocean’ (below) – a woodcut which took the artist a year to create – is so accomplished that one has to peer closely to convince oneself that it is not a photograph.

Beyond the minimalism of Donald Judd et al, we return to figuration and an interesting series of portraits by Chuck Close who experiments with paper pulp in his portrait of Keith Hollingworth (1981); the features are formed from a grid of small round pieces of dyed paper pulp in varying shades of grey.  A similar technique is used in ‘Phil Spitbite’ (below, 1995) – a portrait of composer Philip Glass – with the squares of the etched grid each filled by spitbite aquatint.  Another portrait of Keith, ‘Keith/mezzotint’ (1972), reinvents the antiquated method of mezzotint, rarely used since the 19th century, which involves rubbing back or burnishing the light areas from a textured (and therefore ink-holding) metal plate. Close was so pleased with the cumulative effects that this technique revealed that he allowed the grid guide to remain and this fed into his later work.

The accidental, revealing the hand of the artist or the flaws in the materials, was embraced by others too; indeed, ‘Accident’ (below, 1963) is the title given to one of Rauschenberg’s famous lithographs displayed here.  Producing some of the largest ever single plate lithographs – notably his magnificent ‘Booster’ (1967) and ‘Sky Garden’ (1969) – his ambition at one point got the better of him and the lithographic stone broke in the printing process; Rauschenberg not only made this a feature but even added some stone chips at the bottom to exaggerate the effect.

What impresses elsewhere – in the massed ranks of Marilyns or electric chairs by Warhol as well as in the careful, pale geometricism of Josef Albers (below) – is the exceptional choice of colour juxtaposition.  For all their brazen simplicity, the effect is striking, beautiful and perfect.

The second part of the exhibition addresses the political, both serious and satirical, from Jim Dine’s photo-etching with stencil colour ‘Drag – Johnson and Mao’ (below, 1967) to Warhol’s green-faced portrait of Richard Nixon above the scrawled incentive to ‘Vote McGovern’ (1972) and the feminist and race-related statements of Ida Applebroog, Kara Walker and Louise Bourgeois, among others, all making a powerful, unmistakable statement in the most simple pictorial terms.

The final gallery attempts to bring us up to date – most successfully perhaps by reintroducing Ed Ruscha, whose 1960s screenprints summed up the optimism of Pop Art and the American Dream.  Here, ‘Standard Station’ reappears, this time drained of colour, a simple embossed white image, a ghostly shadow of the high hopes of yesteryear.  Accompanying this are a couple of rusty signs riddled with bullet holes (‘Dead End 2’, 2014) – in fact they are mixographia prints on handmade paper, another extraordinarily effective technique – that seem to spell out the disillusionment in Trump-era America.

For prints currently for sale – including woodblock prints, etchings, aquatints and pochoir prints – please visit: https://www.kittyhudsonart.com/prints-1 

 

Oscar Andreae in Italy 1862

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In 1862 a young man named Oscar Andreae travelled to Italy, stopping en route in Nimes, Tarascon, Toulon, Cagnes and Nice, where in April 1862 he sketched a bird’s eye view of the Port of Nice (right), the rocks and the old chateau seen from Mont Alban.  The Fort of Mont Alban was constructed in the 16th century to stave off a combined Franco-Ottoman army; for Nice was then ruled by the Dukes of Savoy and – bar a few decades under Napoleonic rule from 1792 to 1814 – it was in effect ‘Italian’ (part of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia) until 1860, only two years before Andreae visited the city.  The Treaty of Turin was signed in 1860 by the Sardinian king and Napoleon III, ceding the city to France in return for help in the wars of Italian Unification against Austria.

IMG_5353Looking the other way from this fortification one sees the Gulf of Villefranche, the Bay of St Jean and the Corniche, the route that snakes its way along this spectacular rocky coastline (left).  In view of the recent secession, both French and Italian names are used interchangeably by Andreae, with this sketch (below) entitled ‘Villafranca 18 April 1862’ and the inscription opposite noting ‘Port de Villefranche avec la fregatte russe’.  One of the deepest natural harbours on the Mediterranean, Villefranche became an important Russian naval base in the late 19th century.

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IMG_5355The Corniche leads on to Monaco, where Andreae sketches the new principality’s position on a rocky promontory (right and below). Monaco had been a protectorate of the Kingdom of Sardinia for much of the 19th century; the Franco-Monegasque Treaty of 1861 – a year before Andreae’s tour – confirmed Monaco’s sovereignty.  The glamour and wealth we associate with Monaco today is nowhere to be seen in this image of a provincial coastal town – however, the famous Monte Carlo Casino was to open the following year, in 1863.

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Menton (below), being in the County of Nice, was also annexed by France in the Treaty of Turin. At this time it was quickly becoming a popular destination for convalescents, following the 1861 publication of ‘Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean’ by Dr. James Henry Bennet, whose tuberculosis was miraculously cured by spending those seasons in Menton.

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And then in March 1862 Andreae reaches the newly unified Italy. Victor Emmanuel had been proclaimed King on 17th March 1861 and Rome declared the capital ten days later.  However, Rome was still not officially part of Italy, remaining under the control of the Pope (with the protection of Napoleon III).  Just over a year after Andreae’s visit, the anti-Catholic Garibaldi would reappear from his brief obscurity on the island of IMG_5358Caprera to organise an ultimately unsuccessful march on Rome. The first stop was Porto Maurizio (now part of the city of Imperia, created by Mussolini) where Andreae sketches the Ponte d’Oneglia (left), a suspension bridge across the Impero.

IMG_5359Along the coast in Genoa he sketches the lighthouse or lanterna (right) – a symbol of the city’s maritime connections and for many centuries the tallest lighthouse in the world – and the gardens of Andrea Doria (below left), a Genoese condottieri and admiral of the 15th-16th centuries.

Then he heads to the lakes, stopping beneath a tree near Bellagio to sketch a view of Lake Como (below centre).  In the early 19th century Bellagio had become popular with the Milanese nobility after Count Melzi d’Eril, Duke of Lodi and chancellor of Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy, built a luxurious summer villa there.

IMG_5360The beauty of the landscape also appealed to artists, writers and composers (Stendhal, Liszt and Flaubert, to name but a few) in this era of Romanticism and ideas of the Sublime. Next there is a view of Camerlata (now part of Como – below centre) with a few villas encircled by hills, a stone tower standing like a beacon above them. In 1859 Garibaldi and his Hunters of the Alps defeated the Austrians just outside Como, and Andreae notes in his sketchbook ‘c’est par cette valleé que Garibaldi est entré 1859 à Camerlata d’où il a chassé les autrichiens.’

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A view of Arona on Lake Maggiore shows the majestic castle, la Rocca di Angera, atop a rocky promontory with the town strung out along the shore beyond (left).  IMG_5364The castle is owned by the Borromeo family, originally merchants who set up a bank in Milan.  In 1446 Vitaliano Borromeo became Count of Arona, while in the 16th century his descendant, Carlo Borromeo, became a cardinal, then Archbishop of Milan and was eventually canonised.  The Borromean Islands – the Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori & Isola Madre, which Andreae sketches from a boat (below) – have been in the family since the 16th century, the palace and famous terraced gardens (complete with white peacocks) of the Isola Bella built in the 17th century.  Floating on the mirror-like surface of the lake, they appear as a beautiful dream, as they still do today.

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To see more drawings by Oscar Andreae please visit www.kittyhudsonart.com

Edward Burra – ‘Figures in a Bar’ (1931)

Burra - Figures in a Bar 1931

Edward Burra’s lithograph, ‘Figures in a Bar’ (right), was produced in 1931.  A few years earlier, in April 1929, Burra’s first solo exhibition had been held at the Leicester Galleries and in 1930 he had shown work with the London Group and exhibited a series of woodblock prints at the Redfern Gallery.  He was beginning to establish himself as an artist, yet still experimenting with both media and subject.

A key influence in Burra’s early career was Paul Nash whom he had met in 1925.  Nash introduced Burra to printmaking – notably wood engraving – and to the ideas of Surrealism.  Though never a fully signed up member of the British Surrealists, there is a strong surrealist vein running through Burra’s work; but it is born from a fascination with the real, exaggerated and caricatured, rather than any deep interest in the subconscious.

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In ‘Photography and Modern Art’ (in The Listener, 1932) Nash also describes the influence that photography had on Burra’s work: “I would suggest that Burra’s extraordinary fantasies, perhaps the most original in imagination of any contemporary English artist, owe something to his keen appreciation of the aesthetic of modern photography.”  This appreciation was hardly surprising given that one of Burra’s closest art school friends, Barbara Ker-Seymer, having learnt the art from society photographer Olivia Wyndham, had just established her own studio in 1931.  She took striking portraits of figures such as Nancy Cunard and Julia Strachey – and  a snapshot of Burra in Toulon, 1931, above left – as well as assignments for Harper’s Bazaar.

dockside-cafe-marseilles-by-edward-burraOther reviews of Burra’s 1929 show judged his work as part of a long satirical tradition exemplified by Hogarth and Cruikshank, the Vogue critic remarking that “this young artist uses the artistic idiom of modern Paris to record Hogarthian observation and satire” (Vogue, April 17, 1929).  ‘Figures in a Bar’ is a classic example of Burra’s exaggerated social types, in a style permeated with bawdy humour and witty detail.  Yet it is so definitively placed in the contemporary world of the late twenties and early thirties that any comparison to Hogarth is based on generic qualities only.  Burra’s satire is indisputably modernist in its (sexual) ambiguities, unexplained symbolism and doubtful narrative, and in its rejection of any moral judgement (‘Dockside Cafe Marseilles, 1929, above right).

Another art school friend, Billy Chappell, a ballet dancer, designer and director who would go on to work with Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois, looks back to these early years in introducing his collection of Burra’s letters:

“Seen in retrospect, the potent era so inaptly dubbed the ‘Roaring’ twenties (screaming would possibly have been more suitable) leapt into being – as Minerva from the brow of Jupiter – fully armed and kitted out with knee-length skirt, cropped head, futurist colours and spike heels.  She appeared clutching a foot-long cigarette holder of enamel and jade in one hand as with the other she tucked a small pack of cocaine down her plunging décolletage.  Her sudden and subversive appearance was heralded by a blaze of black jazz, her whole person aglow with an aura of spectacularly appalling behaviour.”

harriet-hoctor-picturesIn 1931 the photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer, a lifelong correspondent of Burra’s, wrote to him – and her brilliantly gossipy letter illuminates their buzzy social circle and shared interests in films and jazz:

How about coming up to London & spending a week with your old pals at no 19?  Sophie is in London, & Marty is the photographer now, & takes still lives all day, so I can’t go near the camera.  I took some lovely congo portraits of Mrs C Lambert, who is furious, Constant of course is delighted.

Harriet Hoctor [ballerina and actor, above left] is glorious rehearsing the girls in black mirror velvet pyjamas and her hair bundled into a large & soiled pink hair ribbon … she is always tottering about the stage in this position [sketch of figure bent over backwards en pointe], whatever is being rehearsed in the front of the stage, this strange vision is to be seen staggering about in the background quite by itself, its really quite frightening, with waving arms, the girls are frightful, & the chorus of male fairies is led by George Goodenough … Have you heard Adelaide Hall singing “Minnie the Moocher” on Brunswick?  You will adore it, its absolutely marvellous.  

1dsf68aza9ula8asPeter Spencer is back from making a film with Rex Ingram [director of the silent screen, right with Alice Terry] & full of such revelations. (1) Alice Terry is as fat as a pig & can hardly waddle, but is lovely. (2) Ivan Petrovitch is so fat that they have to put chests of drawers etc in front of him to hide as much as poss for close ups.  (3) Ramon Novarro was so spotty when he was discovered for Prisoner of Zenda, that they had to take all the long shots first whilst he was receiving treatments from the skin specialist, & he was cured by the time they were ready for the close ups!  (4) Rudolf Valentino was completely blind in one eye, also had a wall eyelid, which is why he always drooped his lids, & eventually brought his entire success!!

cunard_seymerI have a lovely pamphlet from Nancy Cunard called “Black Man & White Ladyship” privately printed in Toulon, such a scandal has never been read [Nancy Cunard photographed by Barbara Ker-Seymer, left].

So this was Burra’s world when he produced ‘Figures in a Bar’ for the Curwen Press. The Curwen Press was established in 1863 and it was Harold Curwen and Oliver Simon who in the 1920s developed links with the Royal College of Art and employed many now famous artists and designers such as Claud Lovat Fraser, Barnett Freedman, Edward Bawden, Albert Rutherston, Edward Ardizzone, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and Edward McKnight Kauffer.  From the 1930s the Press promoted the use of lithography to produce original work on a wider scale. Contemporary Lithographs, established in 1936 by the Press with the help of John Piper, was a pioneering scheme that made the Curwen Press a centre for modern art.  It is from the Curwen Archives (now located at Chilford Hall in Cambridgeshire) that this lithograph originates.

See Edward Burra, ‘Figures in a Bar’ on KittyHudsonArt.com

The Summer Exhibition 2016

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Usually the sheer quantity and diversity of work in the Summer Exhibition is something of a poisoned chalice for curator-RAs who want to impose any order or theme.  This year, however, Richard Wilson seems to have been fairly successful.  The theme quickly became obvious: Artistic Duos (see Eva & Adele’s ‘Transformer-Performer Double-Act VIII’, above).  Even as we climbed the stairs to the vestibule, 3810Jane and Louise Wilson’s ‘Atomgrad’ photographs (left) filled the panels to either side with scenes of derelict interiors, fallout from the Chernobyl disaster (this theme of urban wasteland and empty interiors was another that reappeared later on).  By the time we entered the central hall – the first gallery, in an interesting break from tradition – we were left in no doubt: from the petrified petrol pump, a forlorn centrepiece by Allora & Calzadilla, to the twinkling lights of (literally) ‘Forever’ by Tim Noble & Sue Webster, almost all the disparate works were double acts.

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And this playful approach continued in Room II where Gilbert & George’s ‘Beard Aware’ (above), a entire-wall-sized multi-panel photographic work that looks very much like most Gilbert & George works loomed over a sorry pile of charred bones on a low white plinth.  Self-portrait-BGThe only thing that bothered me about Zatorski + Zatorski’s work (right) – which I really rather enjoyed as a typically unsubtle post-modern momento mori – was that it’s title, ‘Self Portrait as Charcoal on Paper’, suggested that the bones belonged to the artists, which could not be true as they must still be alive to have arranged said bones so beautifully.  Perhaps in this case the title was not meant to be taken so literally.

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The Small Weston Room, usually given over the the small and charming public entries, was this year the showcase for one of the twentieth century’s original Artistic Duos, Bernd & Hilla Becher.  They were represented by five of their classic series of photographs documenting water towers, gas cylinders, cooling towers and stone works in Germany’s industrial Ruhr and beyond.  The apparently abandoned structures stand as monuments to a declining industrial powerhouse, similar to the ‘Atomgrad’ pictures in their haunting and melancholy stillness.

David-Nash---Big-Black-xlarge_trans++Cca9BU0TuyHkZJzHTSJqzg57EFzlVrO-V_kNyX87nOkJock Mcfadyen’s Room IV was something to do with nature.  In fact what struck me was the repetition of charred remains (of nature).  David Mach’s ‘Dark Matter’ and David Nash’s ‘Big Black’ (right) dominated the room, the one charred wood punctuated with screws (in the voluptuously sculptural form of a Henry Moore reclining nude crossed by a morbid Yayoi Kusama), the other a monolithic charred redwood fragment, still imposing even post-cremation.   These were in curiously apt juxtaposition with Colin Watson’s lovely little oils of Great Tits, recently expired.

As ever, I enjoyed the print rooms; though more subtle than many other works the range of technical experimentation is fabulous.  I was less impressed that the ‘featured’ exhibit here was a potato print.  Yes, it harks back to a primitive childish urge to creativity, but the Royal Academy is supposed to represent the highest achievements in artistic endeavour, not primary school play-time.

Pink Flats (large)

mediumFurther on, Jock McFadyen’s ‘Pink Flats’ (above) and Paul Crook’s ‘Yellow Flats’ were a colourful counterpoint to Aono Fumiaki’s ‘Mending, Restoration-‘ and ‘Mending, Substitution, Consolidation, Coupling-‘, a series of fragmented objects rescued from the East Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2012 and combined with other materials such as plywood, books and acrylic to form a new, complete sculptural object (left).  Both spoke in different ways of destruction and reconstruction in an urban context, and were accompanied by other comments on similar theme: Adam Fowler’s editions_tim_shaw_27‘Demolition Sequence’, Idris Khan’s multi-layered prints of London landmarks which evoke the fast-changing nature of the city, or Christopher Hughes’ bird’s eye carbon drawings of Homs, Syria and Nagasaki 1945, both cities rapidly imploding.

The Lecture Room made a superb Sculpture Gallery, the walls lined with shelves to show the smaller works like a bizarre curiosity shop.  It was a relief for the eyes to rest on Anish Kapoor’s smooth pale alabaster sculpture amidst all the confusion.  Also Tim Shaw’s sprightly little bronze Dancers on Balls (no.VI above).

Unfortunately, out in the courtyard Ron Arad’s ‘Spyre’ (below), which had promised ‘unpredictable acrobatic postures’, did not seem to have shifted an inch.  Perhaps we had missed the show.

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Gardens, Monet and other Artists

Claude Monet, Lady in the Garden, 1867 Oil on canvas, 80 x 99 cm The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

The Royal Academy’s ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’, begins and ends with Monet; Matisse barely appears, perhaps included in the title purely for alliterative effect.  Monet provides the constant touchstone running through this beautiful exhibition, and it is a joy to see the development both of his painting style and his gardens from the 1860s – on the cusp of Impressionism – to the majestic waterlilies of his final years.  The RA has brought together a fascinating range of lesser known canvases (many from private collections and American museums) that are the more interesting for not all being ‘masterpieces’.  4409There is ‘Lady in the Garden’ (above, 1867), a smaller and simpler version of the Musee d’Orsay’s magisterial ‘Women in the Garden’; and then there is the comparatively garish scene of the artist’s children dwarfed by hordes of sunflowers of 1880. ‘The Artist’s Garden at Argenteuil’ (1873) and Renoir’s almost identical view with Monet at his easel (above right) contrast with the early flower studies by these artists and illustrate the rapid – and t0 many unsettling – development towards Impressionism.

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The gap between these two pairs of paintings was filled, in historical terms, by the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune.  Frederic Bazille, killed in this conflict, is an often forgotten contemporary of the early Impressionists.  The ghostly figure in his sunlit garden scene ‘Les Lauriers roses (The Terrace at Méric)’ (above, 1867) is a poignant reminder of a career cut short. nasturtiums-1.jpg!Blog It is also good to see more of Caillebotte, a more precise Impressionist whose passion for gardening is clear in the most believable of many painted nasturtiums (left, 1892), and in ‘The Wall of the Vegetable Garden, Yerres’ (below right), a view that would be chosen by none but a gardener.images

Then the exhibition opens out to embrace a host of international artists, including several I didn’t know such as Joaquin Sorolla and Laurits Tuxen, and others whose paintings of gardens were new to me.  Sorolla’s portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany (below right, 1911) surrounded by a an explosion of blooms is a floral highlight, while Singer Sargent is represented by numerous lilies from the same period as ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ (though the absence of this piece is not quite compensated by ‘Garden Study of the Vickers Children’).84972034_Painting_the_Modern_Garden_Monet_to_Matisse__Royal_Academy_IMAGE_TO_PROMOTE_EXHIBITION-large_trans++eo_i_u9APj8RuoebjoAHt0k9u7HhRJvuo-ZLenGRumA

The RA must have relished the garden theme as an opportunity for a theatrical approach with the ‘atrium’ construction in the second gallery and the ‘greenhouse’ effect display cabinets.  The garden benches I could live with but for the rest I would have preferred the gallery walls to be used to their full glory, to see the painted geraniums tumbling from above, the lilies below, the canvases clustered as they would have been at a Paris Salon in very similar rooms to these in the late 19th century.

painting-the-modern-garden-monet-to-matisse-at-royal-academy-of-artsThe ‘Avant-Gardens’ gallery (I forgave the pun) is an odd mixture, though successful in highlighting the many diverse directions taken by artists in the early years of the 20th century.  Some could have been better represented – Matisse particularly, and from all Van Gogh’s sinuous irises and flowering cherry blossom a strangely static and formal Auvers garden scene has been chosen.  Nonetheless there was a glorious selection, with Klimt’s mosaic of leaves and flowers (above left), Kandinsky’s Murnau garden of 1910, Munch’s glowering, biblical apple tree in pure blue, green and yellow, and Emil Nolde’s thickly impasto poppies (below right, 1908).PaintintModernGarden_slide1

Meanwhile it was a pleasant surprise to find lesser known (and difficult to classify) artists such as Henri Le Sidaner and Santiago Rusinol represented so well, their canvases facing one another across the subsequent gallery, the one crepuscular (‘Steps, Gerberoy’, 1902, below), the other drenched in steps-gerberoy-by-henri-le-sidanierSpanish sunlight (‘Gardens of Monforte’, 1917, below).  Both artists had inherited the Impressionist interest in atmospheric light effects, but rejected other elements of the creed; Le Sidaner, if anything preferred the term ‘Intimiste’ while Rusinol rejected the broken brushstrokes of Impressionism, preferring to maintain the solidness of 2480objects.  Similarly, the Nabis painters Bonnard and Vuillard worked from memory and sketches rather than completing their work en plein air and adopted the Fauve technique that gives blank canvas a positive role in the composition. A whole gallery is given over to large scale works by these two artists, including Vuillard’s two panel  ‘The Garden of Le Relais at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne’ (1898).

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Then, swiftly, as if with relief, the narrative returned to Monet, with two rooms full of waterlilies and weeping willow (above, 1914-15), sensuous and contemplative, allowing the eye to melt into the deep pigments, the reflections and stillness.  The final Agapanthus triptych (part below, 1916-19) was a the culmination of this period and – reunited for the first time in Europe since it was painted – a suitably climactic finale.

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Avedon Warhol at Gagosian

The idea of an exhibition pairing two artists is far from new; but the Gagosian’s inspired juxtaposition of Richard Avedon’s photography with Andy Warhol’s screenprints creates a dynamic game of compare and contrast between two of the 20th century’s artistic pioneers.

From Gagosian Gallery
Photograph by Richard Avedon. Copyright: The Richard Avedon Foundation.

Both artists were fundamentally concerned with portraiture, and worked to reinvent that genre in the newly liberated society of 1960s America.  The austere spaces within Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery are divided roughly into a number of themes, from ‘social and political power’ and ‘celebrity’ through to ‘mortality’.

From Gagosian Gallery
Private Collection. Copyright: 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

 

One is immediately reminded of just how innovative Warhol was. He continually experiments with combinations of silkscreen printing and paint – and other media (a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat is created from ‘acrylic, silkscreen ink and urine on canvas’).  Cropping, doubling, colour are used to challenge conventional presentation and notions of gender and morality – as in ‘Walking Torso’ (1977) – devices that Avedon also employs in photographs of counterculture, celebrity or notorious figures.

From Gagosian Gallery
Photograph by Richard Avedon. Copyright: The Richard Avedon Foundation.

Avedon expands the concept of portrait photography using scale – ‘The Family’ (1976) is a line-up of the movers and shakers of American culture and politics covering an entire wall, while ‘Andy Warhol and members of the Factory…’ (1969) is a life-size group portrait in three frames – and framing devices: a portrait of Francis Bacon (1979) depicts the artist twice,  arbitrarily cropped.

From Gagosian Gallery
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution Dia Centre for the Arts. Copyright: 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Avedon often uses doubled images; Warhol responds with works that seem intentionally to play off the effects of photographic techniques (the silkscreen of ‘Keith Haring’ has the appearance of an enlarged negative image, exposed three times over).  Neither creates ‘perfect’ images; Avedon’s photograph of Louis Armstrong is heavily blurred, capturing the musician in movement, mid-performance.  Warhol layers paint, erasing subtle detail yet somehow saying a great deal more.  Both capture the transience of glamour, the rapid rise and fall of celebrity, the age of consumerism.

The gallery on the theme of ‘mortality’ uses these same methods to approach ideas of aging and existence, violence and salvation with screenprints of a skull, a gun, ‘The Last Supper’; Avedon’s ‘Brandenburg Gate’ photographs of 1989 sit alongside. Simple, frontal self-portraits confront the dilemma which Avedon sums up so concisely: “Photographs … deny that we age at the same time as they chronicle our mortality.”

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War

web 5848 28, Lee Miller in steel helmet specially designed for using a camera, Normandy, Unknown Photographer, 1944

Lee Miller’s career was by any standards extraordinary.  But it was also beset by contradictions – one of the most fundamental being that the Second World War, though it gave her the opportunity to become a supremely talented and courageous war correspondent and photojournalist, left her emotionally and physically exhausted, never again to produce such exceptional work. (‘Lee Miller in steel helmet specially designed for using a camera, Normandy, France’, 1944, by unknown photographer, above).

web Anna Leska, Air Transport Auxilliary, Polish pilot flying a spitfire, England 1942 by Lee Miller (4327-45)The Imperial War Museum’s exhibition focuses on Miller’s photography during the war years, using it in a documentary fashion to tell the story of women’s participation in the war effort – through the eyes of a woman who herself played a crucial role.  This makes the show a fascinating combination of objective historical narrative and deeply personal biography; the walls of black and white photographs depicting land girls, nurses and female auxiliaries (‘Anna Laska, Air Transport Auxiliary, Polish Pilot flying a Spitfire, White Waltham, Berkshire’, 1942, above left) are broken up by display cases containing Miller’s service uniform, telegrams and letters to her future husband Roland Penrose or to her editor at Vogue, and items she took from Hitler’s apartment when she found herself there on assignment immediately after his suicide.  There is also the chance to watch British Pathe clips of Miller at work after she returned from these assignments and published her book ‘Wrens in Camera’ (1945), giving a brief sense of the living woman behind the camera.

web Fire Masks, London, England 1941 by Lee Miller (3840-9)Lee Miller began her career as a model before learning the techniques of photography from avant-garde artist Man Ray in Paris in the 1920s, and becoming closely associated with the Surrealists.  However, the exhibition really begins with Miller being commissioned as official war photographer for Vogue in 1939; during the early years of the war fashion shoots overlapped with documentary journalism, as Miller produced images of a model in a chic tweed suit posing among bomb-damaged houses, models sporting fire masks (‘Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London’, 1941, above right), and the Vogue editorial staff displaced to a basement beneath Bond Street.

9b77caf0-fbe9-4c56-989f-7d2916e3dd27-2060x1392Then there are beautifully composed pictures of Wrens, land girls, territorial or air force auxiliaries and US nurses going about their daily tasks; as a woman in uniform Miller had unprecedented access to – and empathy with – her subjects, picking up on the small poignant details of clothes drying in the window or a child’s photo propped on the mantelpiece.  This empathy comes to the fore once again in the photographs Miller took in Europe immediately after the war ended: shaven-headed French women (‘Woman accused of collaborating with the Germans, Rennes, France’, 1944, above left), German women filling in trenches outside Cologne, starving Viennese children tended by nuns.  Even amid the rhetoric of victory her images underline the moral confusion of the post-war period, the trauma and displacement of families and communities, conveying a sense of universal suffering, mixed with relief and uncertainty. (‘Two German women sitting on a park bench surrounded by destroyed buildings, Cologne, Germany’, 1945, below right).

wood09_3724_02Some of the final photographs are haunting in their prescience.  They capture an atmosphere of heavy foreboding, a brief hiatus between war and the harsh Communist regime that was about to descend upon eastern Europe –  the two upper class women gossiping beneath a huge image of Stalin in east Berlin, the Romanian queen standing small and fragile in her empty palace, a Hungarian countess with a bag of groceries on the street.  But for Lee Miller, the end of the war saw the end of her career as a photojournalist (though she produced several more books from her home at Farley Farm in Sussex); the impact of her war experiences led to bouts of depression and the full extent of her creative output was only discovered by her son Antony after her death.  Seventy years later, this is a fitting tribute to her achievements.

Images: © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015 and The Penrose Collection, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War’ is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ until 24th April 2016 – www.iwm.org.uk 

Auerbach at Tate Britain

UnknownFrank Auerbach’s early work is surprisingly sculptural. Even the charcoal portraits are rubbed back and reworked, torn, patched and built up again (‘Self-Portrait’, 1958, right).  The oil paintings in this first gallery are literally three-dimensional – relief sculptures within a box frame – the peaks and troughs of paint like an angry sea, coalescing into figural forms only when one steps back and allows the surface to flatten out.

IMG_3202‘E.O.W. Reclining Head II’ (1966, left and below) is a case in point; the paint swirls and sets hard across an invisible canvas like royal icing in plasticine colours. There is a very physical quality to these paintings, almost aggressively so; the jagged edges suggest that the paint has been moulded into these forms by hand, the primary colours run like harsh scars across the sitter’s cheek.

auerbach1halflegthnude-xlargeAnother, ‘E.O.W.: Half-Length Nude’ (1958, right), positively drips with pigment, the livid red and white tempered by a swamp-like greeny beige.  These late 1950s and 1960s works are already much brighter than those of the early 50s; paintings such as ‘Building Site, Earls Court’ (1953, below), which is so dark as to be barely legible, is described by Barnaby Wright (who curated ‘Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites 1952-62’ at the Courtauld Gallery in 2009-10): “Auerbach’s restless reworking of the subject resulted in expanses of thickly massed paint, its skin dried to a deeply wrinkled and puckered surface.  It is as if the paint has consumed almost all vestiges of the image itself.”  As the portraits become brighter, so do the cityscapes, revealing an angular, geometric framework of rigid lines so tactile that the paint almost becomes scaffolding (‘Mornington Crescent’, 1965, below).

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Auerbach’s working method is intense and drawn-out.  He paints over each day’s work time and again until something “seems to lock like a theorem”.  The late 60s brought a radical change, however, as he began to scrape down the picture before his next attempt, leaving the picture surface flatter and allowing the brushstrokes to appear more spontaneous.  ‘The Origin of the Great Bear’ (1967-8, below) shows this new freedom and fluidity of line, the sheer enjoyment in the very substance of the paint.

The Origin of the Great Bear, 1967-8

As the exhibition progresses swiftly through the decades one begins to recognise the features of Auerbach’s favourite models (E.O.W., J.Y.M., Julia and Catherine Lampert – the exhibition’s curator – all appear repeatedly) despite their elusive features, auerbachsubsumed in the paint.  Like Picasso, Auerbach can evoke a face – and a personality – with minimal lines, perfectly chosen (‘Head of J.Y.M. II’, 1984-5, left; ‘Julia Sleeping’, 1978, below right).

In contrast to the length of time each painting takes to complete, the end result expresses a fleeting moment, a sudden turn of the head, a chance encounter, a ray of sunlight through cloud… “It was normal for us to sit in a small room with no means. We wanted to say something profound and precise, something sharp about truth,” Auerbach recalls, “…to pin down an experience in its essential aspect before it disappears.”auerbach_julia_sleeping_fraaue1506_2_aodmainimage

The later landscapes become ever more cheerful, almost Fauve, in colour and lose their early rigidity.  The contrast is all the greater as Auerbach has worked in the same studio since 1954 and has painted these same surroundings over the decades. In ‘Mornington Crescent – Early Morning’ (1991) the pink and blue buildings seem to lurch and sway as if they have lost their anchor.

id70rtIn more recent years balance has been recovered, vertical lines pinning down the composition in ‘Hampstead Road – High Summer’ (2010, left) with its jogger caught mid-stride in the foreground.  Here in the penultimate gallery the charcoal drawings reappear, still a Giacometti-like palimpsest of lines rubbed back and layered, but lighter and more spidery, echoing the looser brushwork of the later oils (‘Self-Portrait II’, 2013, below right)

Auerbach-MarlboroughFineArtThis is an unusual retrospective in that the artist has had a free hand in selecting the paintings to be exhibited in the first six chronologically arranged galleries – and for the fact that the curator, who has chosen the works in the final gallery to ‘resonate’ with these, herself appears as the subject of a number of the paintings. It is therefore quite a personal show about an artist grappling with his medium and his subject, by those who understand the intense nature of these struggles best. These last room gives a greater understanding of both Auerbach’s daily routine, with multiple images of the route to his studio, and his habit of working on a large and smaller canvas simultaneously.  There are also two small etchings by the exit which appear an afterthought, though in fact the artist is a talented and productive printmaker.  As Auerbach states in a text applied to the wall of the first gallery by way of introduction, his intention was that “each [picture] be considered as an absolute which works (or does not work) by itself”; in this sense it is a revelatory sequence of – some sublime – images.

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William Foyle – New Paintings

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Hector Innes PhotographyWilliam Foyle’s new paintings – an impressively large collection, exhibited at the RCA – stick in one’s mind.  They are figurative, but concerned more with the qualities of the paint and its ability to express certain indescribable truths than with precise detail. They are the opposite of portraiture in fact: each figure seeming to represent an idea of humanity, a multitude of individuals condensed into one – but rather than diluting their identity in favour of a generalisation, the artist manages to somehow deepen its intensity so that, even without any indentifying features, one has the impression of seeing into their soul.

Hector Innes PhotographyThe studies of neanderthals (‘Study of Early Woman’ I & IV, 2014, left and above right) depict totemic figures enshrined in earth colours, the thin paint in loose swathes across the background, elsewhere left dripping. The silent upright figures are defined by highlights and shadows, a white outline, light falling on a shoulder or cheekbone.  The isolated form, head and torso defined in black and white, recalls the truncated figures of Egon Schiele and Giacometti; the colours are those of cave walls, as at Lascaux, uncovered from the shrouds of time, and speaking of a mysterious civilisation that we can never fully know.

cat+12The series of holocaust figures are haunting, ghostlike, monochrome (‘Showers in Lodz Ghetto I’, right, 2015); the large scale canvases are predominantly black and the gallery low lit, so that one treads carefully in a tenebrous world of unspoken beauty and pain.  Like Rothko’s Black Paintings there is a sense of existential desolation contained within the pigment itself, scraped back and layered, austere in tone but rich in texture.  Some have a religious intensity that combines the symbolism of Munch’s ‘Madonna’ with a tragic vulnerability, as in ‘Figure IV’ (2015, below left), the naked form suggesting a Pieta.

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The figures or heads are scraped, scratched, smudged, half-erased, their forms at once emerging and disappearing into the shadows of the painting.  It is a powerful metaphor for both the unreliability of memory and the impossibility of knowing all of someone.  In the more specific context of the holocaust, it also makes a powerful statement about the calculated erasure of an individual’s identity; the poor skeletal bodies still proclaim their personhood – full of dreams, fears, memories, gradually stripped away, and now unknowable. It is the more tragic for being portrayed in such a restrained and delicate way.36+Head+of+Eve+I++.(mono+print)

Alongside the canvases are a number of monotypes (such as ‘Head of Eve I’, right) and other portrait heads in oil and acrylic. Some reveal elements of Frank Auerbach – in the heavily layered self-portrait with its decisive, energetic brushwork – and others the elusive 1960s portraits of Gerhard Richter, based on snapshots then deliberately blurred (‘Head I’, 2015, top). Both artists sought different means to counter the knowledge that painting is an imprecise representation of reality and that the essential nature of subject we see remains mysterious. Foyle, like them, knows this and creates what are more interesting and more rewarding paintings for it.

Hector Innes PhotographyThe space at the Royal College of Art has been well selected and curated; each canvas is allowed the space it needs and together they resonate – a tribute to the strong thematic focus of the exhibition. The technical experimentation is fascinating to see, the style subtly changing, but with a confidence and skill that makes me eager to see more.

(‘Portrait Study of Early Woman III’, 2014, left)

 

For further images and information please see http://www.williamfoyle.com

Ragnar Kjartansson’s ‘The Visitors’

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It felt like wandering into a venue as a band was getting ready for a gig – too early, a few people hanging around kicking their heels.  One screen would light up, then another, showing empty rooms; a figure flitted from one room/screen to another, checking the equipment, quietly whistling the beginnings of a tune.  Then off again. A sense of anticipation built up; preparations were being carried out – but for what?

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Then the screens lit up one by one, each revealing a different room and a different musician within the romantically bohemian Villa Rokeby in New York state.  A voice would sound from one, a string plucked in another, a refrain sung quietly elsewhere as the players tuned up.

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The venue is the top floor of Brewer Street car park in Soho, blacked out and kitted up by The Vinyl Factory who are presenting this exhibition of Ragnar Kjartansson’s ‘The Visitors’, a ‘multi-screen audio-visual artwork’.  There are nine screens in total, seven around the walls and two back-to-back in the middle; as music sounds from each in turn, the crowd constantly shifts about to catch a glimpse of the next performer – it is impossible to see all at once.  The sound surrounds you, all-encompassing, homophonic, the imperfections – gentle chatter, shuffle of feet, a cough, a untuned note – creating an intimacy and involving you in the performance.

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The music itself is haunting, melodic, the voices and instruments weave in and out, the tempo increasing and decreasing, it reaches a crescendo and then resets itself and begins again seemingly ad lib.  The same refrain repeats endlessly, melancholically, lovingly – each artist is isolated within their room/screen, absorbed in their own music but, linked to the rest by headphones, part of a synchronised collective whole.

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Each exquisitely staged screen could be a video piece in its own right, photographically composed, the contained emotion of each musician on their own empty stage like a sparse psychological study, an artwork in motion.  There is a figure in the bath (Kjartansson himself) holding his guitar above the bubbles; there is 4_RK_THE_VISITOR_ELISABET_DAVIDS06_web0another impresario-esque sitting at a grand piano puffing at a cigar as he waits for his cue; another sits with his guitar on the edge of a bed with paint peeling off the walls and a sleeping form behind him; there’s a raven-haired accordionist in a flowing white dress and bare feet; and one screen shows the inhabitants (and backing singers) assembled outside on the verandah while two men play with a small cannon.

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It is hypnotising, hard to walk away from, and despite its 64 minute duration you wish it would play on forever.  The music seems self-perpetuating, full of humanity, serendipitous, perfectly crafted but endearingly immediate, almost incidental.  As its melody fades away it reminds one of the transience of all such interaction, an Ragnar-Kjartansson-The-Visitors-2012-via-Luhring-Augustine-New-York-2existence of fleeting moments of togetherness before we fracture and dissipate like the colourful patterns of a kaleidoscope.  The artwork’s title, ‘The Visitors’, then makes sense on many levels: the musicians are visitors to the house, we are visitors to their performance; the artist also ‘pays homage’ to ABBA’s last album of the same name, after which the band broke up, underlining the fragility of relationships.  This too feels wistful, though there is no narrative, and you leave feeling uplifted yet bereft.

 

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