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.


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).



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.


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 – 

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).



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.


William Foyle – New Paintings


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.


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

Ragnar Kjartansson’s ‘The Visitors’


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



Exhibition On Screen: Goya – Visions of Flesh and Blood

The restrained vibrato of strings with a Spanish twang accompanies the mysterious steps of stockinged legs before the figure of Goya appears and his voice is heard, reflecting on poetry and art – then with a triumphant crescendo the title unfurls on screen.  This is the wonderfully cinematic introduction to ‘Goya – Visions of Flesh and Blood’, a feature length film presented by Exhibition On Screen.  Pioneers of exhibition films for cinema, Exhibition On Screen was the brainchild of Phil Grabsky, director and producer at Seventh Art Productions; beginning a few years ago with ‘Leonardo’, he works with Arts Alliance Ltd to bring these films to cinemas around the country.  The idea works both as a means for those with limited mobility to see the exhibition on a scale and quality almost equivalent to first hand, while also acting as an extension and enrichment to a gallery visit.


We begin in the National Gallery, with the institution’s director Gabriele Finaldi standing within the exhibition of ‘Goya: The Portraits’.  Then the exhibition’s curator, Xavier Bray, begins our tour with an introduction to the artist at the beginning of his career as a portraitist, ‘crude’ and almost too direct; meanwhile art historian Juliet Wilson-Bareau draws our attention to the incredible interaction between the artist and sitter that Goya captures and which makes such a powerful impact.  The camera pans in on the faces with the their dark eyes, alive and transfixing the us as if we were the artist behind the canvas.  Only recently has the development of technology allowed such material to be reproduced to such a high quality on a cinematic scale – every detail is astonishingly clear, the brushstrokes almost tactile.


Then we are swept off to the landscapes of Aragon and Saragossa, immersed in the heat and colour of Spain while a brief biography of Goya’s early life is narrated.  At each stage of his career we gain access to the surroundings that the artist would have inhabited: the Royal Palace in Madrid (above left) where Goya was official court painter to Charles IV, the country house Goya bought in his later years.


The film also allows us to see Goya’s letters (including those to his childhood friend Martin Zapater – full of scurrilous sketches, descriptions of food, his dogs, his finances and court intrigues) and his wonderful Italian sketchbook (above, c.1771) which is stored at the Prado in Madrid, as is the family portrait of Charles IV, forbidden to travel (below right), and which gives a fascinating insight into the working methods of Goya, the freedom of style and independent nature of this self-taught artist.  unnamed-4And, when it comes to his large-scale public commissions, such as his altarpiece for the chapel of San Bernardino de Siena in the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande, we are taken into the building itself where the camera glides over the architecture, showing off the grandeur and scale of the building and the accomplishment of Goya’s painting in its intended context (below left).


Later in the film we are shown behind the scenes in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC – where a conservator, Joanna Dunn, talks about her work on the Portrait of Dona Teresa Sureda (below) – and into the studios of contemporary portraitists. Dryden Goodwin talks about the technical process of drawing, combining the humanity and physicality of his subjects, while Nicola Phillips, a ‘court painter’ of the 21st century having painted Princes William and Harry, talks of the relationship between artist and sitter, and of her admiration for Goya’s ‘extraordinary psychological grasp of personality’ and ‘extreme attentiveness to body language’.


Frequently we return to the National Gallery, back to the curator and art historians, to the paintings themselves; the personalities are revealed, their costumes unpicked, the technical approach deconstructed so that each comes alive.  Letizia Treves, curator of Spanish Paintings at the National Gallery, describes Goya as a ‘truthful’ or ‘naturalistic’ painter rather than ‘realistic’, an artist who finds the essence of a sitter’s character, imbuing his portraits with an immediacy and humanity, and through his own depth of interaction putting himself into the portraits.  The idea of portraiture at this time in Spain was to be an equivalent to the real person; thus Wellington looks gaunt and tired, as if just this minute retired from the field at Waterloo (below); Don Andres del Peral, the court gilder and a colleague of Goya’s,  looks out with eyes that are piercingly alive, in the process of turning to us in conversation.


The film combines the best of the TV documentary tradition with the drama of the cinema experience – as director David Bickerstaff has emphasised, the film is an ‘emotional journey’, costume drama, history, biopic, and certainly very different to the more analytical progress one makes through a gallery.

‘Goya – Visions of Flesh and Blood’ will be released in cinemas nationwide from 1st December 2015. For more information visit

Goya: The Portraits


There is something quintessentially Spanish about Goya’s portraits.  But perhaps that is because what we have come to see as Spanish in art has been irrevocably shaped by his pictures.  Like his predecessor Velazquez, Goya chronicled a critical period in Spain’s history – the Napoleonic invasion and the Peninsular War illustrated in all their horror in his famous ‘Black Paintings’ – and at the National Gallery we can now appreciate the characters involved whom he brings so vividly to life.

dona_maria_teresa_de_vallabriga_y_rozasGoya painted royalty and aristocracy, ministers and diplomats – but these are not the staid formal likenesses of previous generations.  A large and arresting group portrait dominates the first room of the exhibition and introduces a tone of intrigue and bravado tempered by a light-hearted wit.  ‘The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon’ (above, 1783-4) shows the younger brother of the King of Spain at a table with his wife as she has her hair dressed, other members of their household crowding around and the artist himself in the foreground shadows, his back to us as he paints the scene.  The Infante had been forced to marry in an effort to halt his overzealous Goya-X7161_432promiscuity, and banished from court; Goya stayed with his household over several summers, also painting simple but beautiful bust-length portraits of the couple (‘Maria Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas’, 1783, above right). In the group portrait the eyes of all the participants focus somewhere different, each has his or her own secret agenda – especially the two figures to the far right, one grinning out at us, the other skulking furtively behind, hand reaching into a pocket…  In one concise set-piece Goya speaks volumes about the intricate network of relations in the exiled court, the outward theatricality hiding layers of scurrilous gossip and subterfuge.

DP287624Next door there is a tender family portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their children (above left, 1788).  Perhaps influenced by the Enlightenment neo-classicism of David in France, Goya leaves the background empty; the figures are grouped in natural poses, the Duke leaning in in frozen movement, the children playful and the small dogs refusing to stay still – an appropriately avant-garde approach to depicting one of Spain’s most enlightened families.  Nearby there is a portrait of a small child in a splendid red suit and silver sash (‘Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga’, 1788, right) with his pet magpie on a string, looking out at us with cherubic innocence while behind him three crouching cats look on their intended prey with greed.  There is a lively comedy to the picture that enhances what is already an affecting portrait.

goya_220Then we meet some of the personalities of the new post-French Revolutionary administration – along with the artist himself, in the small ‘Self-Portrait before an Easel’ (left, 1792-5).  Light streams in behind him, perhaps symbolic of the Enlightenment thinking embodied by the surrounding characters.  There is Ferdinand Guillemardet, the French ambassador in an extravagant swagger portrait, wearing the uniform of the Directoire; there is Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a writer and reformist politician, his quiet intellect symbolised by the statue b-m-26of Minerva (below left, 1798), and Francisco de Saavedra, the Minister of Finance and man of action, painted with correspondingly rapid strokes; and there is the ruddy-cheeked poet, politician and lawyer Juan Antonio Melendez Valdes, whose highbrow, critical, moral intellect is incisively captured in this portrait (right, 1797).



The Duchess of Alba is a highlight (below right, 1797); with her haughty expression outlined by thick black brows and the extravagant black lace mantilla she epitomises both Spanish tradition and feminine power.  She points imperiously at the ground where an inscription reads ‘Solo Goya’, a proud indication of status by the artist that also reminds us of the extensive estates that the widowed Duchess owned – and her fiery temper.

802D3006-F479-9B08-51678DB5B2A0803CAs well as his famous Black Paintings and Disasters of War etchings Goya also painted portraits of many of the protaganists in the upheavals of the early 19th century.  Charles IV was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Ferdinand VII in 1808, whom Goya paints with barely repressed irony almost smothered by the weight of his regal regalia, his short stature and stubborn expression eerily similar to that of Napoleon in Imperial guise.  He was a narrow-minded reactionary, power-hungry and unenlightened, and probably did not sense the subtle subversion latent within his brazenly propagandist portrait (left, 1814-15).  Goya-X7219_432Goya also painted General Guye (below right, 1810), Governor of Seville under Joseph Bonaparte, who had been placed on the Spanish throne by Napoleon in 1808, and the Duke of Wellington, who led allied troops to recapture Spain and restore Ferdinand to the throne.dam-images-resources-2007-04-thaw-resl03_thaw

In the next room are portraits of Goya’s friends and fellow artists; though no more or less incisive, the intimacy of these is in stark contrast to the preceding galleries.  The most striking are those of Andres del Francisco-De-Goya-D.-Juan-de-Villanueva-SPeral (below right, c.1798), the master gilder at court, who in turning his face towards us reveals its droop – the effects possibly of a stroke; and Juan de Villanueva (left, 1800-5), architect of the Prado, who is caught in mid-speech, endowing the portrait with a lively warmth and immediacy.





The centrepiece of the final room is the ‘Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta’ (below, 1820) in which the aging artist is propped up in bed by his doctor who offers him a cure; in an inscription underneath Goya gives thanks to Arrieta for saving his life.  It is curiously old-fashioned, the text and the subject lending the religious air of a medieval manuscript or fresco.  The painting is hung to face the exit, so that one can see it simultaneously with the group portrait of the Infante’s court hanging to face the entrance; it makes a joyous and satisfying conclusion, the two masterpieces representing youth and age, spirited ambition and disillusionment – and how far those pre-revolutionary days of 1783 must have seemed in 1820.


Fabric of India


IS.3:1-2013; IS.3:1-2013 Sari and matching long-sleeved shirt Sari and shirt with black and white houndstooth design, handwoven double Ikat silk, India, 2011 Abraham and Thakore; Murli Saree Emporium, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, Hand-woven in workshops of master weaver, Mr Goverdhan of Murli Saree Emporium, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. The Houndstooth fabric was commissioned by Abraham and Thakore and handwoven in the workshops of master weaver, Mr Goverdhan of Murli Saree Emporium, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh Hyderabad; The shirt was tailored in the studio of Abraham and Thakore in Delhi. Delhi The outfit was part of Abraham and Thakore's winter 2011/12 collection. The Shirt is unique and was made specifically for the ramp show, it was heavily photographed for Vogue and other fashion magazines. 2011 Handwoven double ikat silk

The Fabric of India exhibition at the V&A begins with a contrast.  Two contemporary Indian fashion designs – a dress covered in fluorescent silk and vinyl butterflies by Manish Arora and a houndstooth pattern ikat ‘office’ sari by Abraham & Thakoon (left) – are displayed on mannequins in front of a beautiful traditional block-printed cloth (above).  The show’s intentions are concisely stated: this is about the history, production and uses of Indian fabric – but equally about the relationship between the historical and contemporary, between artisans and artists, and between traditional and cutting edge.


The first gallery is a fascinating introduction – using a combination of raw materials, fabric samples, finished items of clothing, text and videos – to all the traditional methods used in the production of fabric in India.  We start with dyes (and, just as importantly, making them stick) and raw materials such as silk, where they come from and how they are extracted and woven; then there are methods of embellishment, with gold threads, beetle wings and mirrored pieces, printing, tie-dying and batik methods, and embroidery.  It is difficult to tally the extraordinary complexity and detail of the finished pieces with the simple explanation of the techniques employed, and demands a new respect and awe for the artistry of these anonymous artisan-producers.


The exhibition then considers cloth produced for religious purposes, the variety of temple hangings, flags and prayer mats reminding one of the religious diversity of India – and yet how, in their fabric hangings, Jains, Muslims and Hindus all had something in common.  In contrast there are the fabrics produced for secular purposes – the courtly textiles of Islamic sultans, Mughul emperors and Hindu rulers in the south.  Wall hangings depict flowers, animals and figural narratives – one long textile illustrating the progress of a battle looking rather similar in design to the Bayeux Tapestry (above) – though utterly different in technique.

A wall panel from Tipu Sultan's tent. Cotton chintz with a white ground, patterned with acanthus cusped niches, each enclosing a central vase with symmetrical flower arrangement, predominantly in reds and greens, the green achieved by over-painting dyed indigo with yellow (a fugative pigment which has partially disappeared). An enlarged version of the flower-head motif appears in the main horizontal borders on a green ground, and scaled down on a yellow ground in the spandrels of the arch. Triple vertical borders separate the panels, at each end of which is a metal eyelet that has been whipped with thick cotton thread. A black and white merlon and rosette band runs along the top of the qanats. The outside of the tent is a seperate layer of coarse white cotton. Later Mughal, c.1725-50.

Here one began to get a sense of the influence that Indian fabrics had on European traders and, later, colonial officers and administrators: one of the long muslin gowns on display belonged to an Englishman, and an ‘India gown’ made of cotton is also recorded by Pepys in his diary.  However it is Tipu Sultan’s tent that dominates the gallery, splendidly draped from the ceiling and stretching around two sides of the wall, cocooning one in its mesmeric printed patterns of stylised palms and flowers (above right).


The international spread of India’s reputation for exquisite fabrics is charted in the next room; early fragments have been unearthed in Egypt and China, while by the 18th century they were exported to Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Africa (and thence to America via slave trade routes) – and of course Europe.  The different tastes and cultures of each destination were catered to and the differences are fascinating.  The origins of handkerchiefs and bandannas, chintzes and pashminas, pyjamas and sprigged muslins all become clear.  As Avalon Fotheringham writes in the catalogue, ‘the all-American bandannas we now associate with everything from the Wild West to inner-city gang violence are the direct successors’ to the Bengali handkerchiefs that America was ordering in quantities as early as 1800.

2015HV4936The Industrial Revolution in Britain disrupted India’s preeminence as a producer of cloth with new machines and factories entailing cheaper and quicker production at home, though the cloth was still exported to India for embellishment.  This inevitably led to protests – Gandhi promoting the plain ‘khadi’ cloth to symbolic status – and eventually to modernisation.  The following display brings us up to date, with both cinema and fashion promoting traditional techniques and thereby enacting  a reconciliation between old and new in an ever more globalised and consumerist world.  There is an astonishing Bollywood costume from ‘Devdas’ (above left, 2002), so encrusted with gold sequins and mirrors that is looks like a sculpture in precious stones – apparently too heavy to dance in, even the mannequin had to be specially supported.


Alongside this is Brigitta Singh’s Mughul style quilted coat (2014), block-printed with flowers that echo the cloth which introduced the show; Aziz Khatri’s ‘Ant Scarf’ updates such traditional techniques as tie-dye with abstract artistic designs inspired by nature, as do People Tree, a collective based in New Delhi with their popular ‘Disappearing Tiger’ design T-Shirt.  Meanwhile international fashion designers such as Azzedine Alaia and Isabel Marant have collaborated with Maximiliano Modesti, who founded Les Ateliers 2M in Mumbai, specialising in hand-crafted decoration for luxury brands, famously working on Lady Gaga’s 2015 Oscars outfit by Alaia and the intricate embroidery on Hermes’ ‘Cavalcadour Fleuri’ shawl.

IS.27-2012 Jacket Women's 'Ajrak' Jacket, digitally printed linen, designed by Rajesh Pratap Singh, Delhi, 2010 Rajesh Pratap Singh Delhi 2010 Digitally printed linen

But it is not all purely commercial; contemporary art in India has also begun to adopt these textile skills.  As the introductory panel points out, textiles as pure art – dissociated form their traditional purpose – are a new phenomenon, but in helping to revive traditional artisanal skills they also provoke a reevaluation of such techniques. Meanwhile Indian designers are experimenting with new technologies such as digital printing – the ‘Ajrakh’ Jacket (left, 2010) designed by Rajesh Pratap Singh uses a digital ‘skull’ print on linen, combining the hand-made with the high-tech. There is also a playful approach to incorporating motifs from pop culture, adapting traditional forms, weaving and printing processes to bring them subversively up to date – for instance the Khatri brothers’ clamp dyed silk ‘Moon sari’ (above right) and Kallol Datta’s ‘suicide print’ sari.  The designs are at once beautiful and interesting in a cultural sense; the exhibition is both an education and a visual delight.

Images: The Victoria & Albert Museum


John Armstrong: Paintings 1938-1958 – An Enchanted Distance

1556_1000John Armstrong’s paintings are an enigma.  Over a period in which many artists turned to abstraction, Armstrong remained firmly figurative, yet his spaces are hard to define and his symbolism elusive.  Perhaps best known for his participation in the short-lived movement ‘Unit One’, founded by Paul Nash along with Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Wells Coates and Herbert Read in 1933, and his powerful paintings inspired by the Spanish Civil War, Armstrong was a surrealist in all but name.  He claimed that what he painted appeared to him in dreams – ‘these things come to me as complete images, often when I am half asleep’ he wrote in 1953 – and an obvious comparison is De Chirico, whose uncanny style permeates the eerily silent spaces populated by anthropomorphic figures and empty, often Classical, buildings (‘Feathers Conclave’, 1946, below).


Piano Nobile presents a concise selection of paintings from Armstrong’s most prolific – and experimental – years.  Beginning in the late 1930s the works span an eclectic variety of themes, media and techniques.  The earlier work is painted primarily in quick-drying tempera – ‘a medium for those who have made up their mind’ in Armstrong’s words – yet there are a number of superb examples which show him to have been an equal master of oil paint.  He also veered from flawlessly smooth surfaces to a distinctive mosaic effect, square dabs of paint like tesserae creating the same visual effects that Pointillism sought.


In conjunction with religious subjects (to which Armstrong, son of a parson, returned repeatedly) this technique appears imbued with the hieratic symbolism of the Hagia Sophia or St Mark’s in Venice (‘Madonna’, 1945, above).  Elsewhere, political themes are uppermost – especially the threat of war which perpetually hung over Armstrong’s life and career.  His figures are anonymous and unseeing, standing in a deserted post-apocalyptic landscape; in ‘Encounter in the Plain’ (c.1938, top left) the loss of the Spanish civil war is made explicit in the tombstones lining the roadside while the head of an enormous blindfolded woman is literally in the clouds, while the post-war ‘Figure in Contemplation’ (1945, below), with its single shrouded form, is suffused with a ‘melancholic absence’.


A later Cold War era work, ‘Victory’ (1958, below), is arguably the most arresting image in the exhibition: a wildly staring scarecrow figure lurches towards us, arms akimbo – ‘the central figure is a parody of a human being – half-human scarecrow.  He’s the winner of a nuclear war. the crumpled lumps at either side – they’re the losers…’ described Armstrong.  Yet another scarecrow in the background might be taken as an image of the crucifixion, promising a kernel of hope amidst the ashes of civilisation.


But just as often Armstrong’s figures morph into leaves or feathers, standing enrobed and statuesque in those empty landscapes, or caught in an esoteric dance (‘Leaf Forms’, 1947, below left), the animated still life weighted with a complex and layered symbolism reminiscent of Magritte’s surrealist canvases.


The exhibition’s accompanying catalogue illuminates the other side of Armstrong’s career.  His work as a society muralist and designer of sets and costumes for film, theatre and ballet (including Alexander Korda’s ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’) is visible in the way he constructs a deceptive sense of space and depth; his knowledge of classics and service in the Royal Field Artillery in Egypt and Macedonia during World War I helps to explain his predilection for archaic and classical themes.  In the late 1950s Armstrong’s second marriage to a much younger woman produced the joyful ‘Thorn and Seed’ paintings (1958, below), while during these same years Armstrong was also associated with the ‘Geometry of Fear’ artists (Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi) – a term coined by his Unit One associate Herbert Read to describe a new Cold War era imagery belonging ‘to the iconography of despair, or of defiance’.


Like many British artists who reached maturity during the interwar years Armstrong has been somewhat overlooked; this must be attributed to the lack of a strong group aesthetic – there was no ‘Cubism’, ‘Futurism’ or ‘Camden Town’ that by style, subject or location could unite these disparate artists, as the rapid dispersal of Unit One proved.  Each with a uniquely innovative vision, they could not be yoked together.  Armstrong’s work assimilates the fear of war and hopes of fresh beginnings in contemplative yet unsettling compositions – it speaks of timeless truths and warnings that are equally applicable today. It is certainly time for a reappraisal.

‘John Armstrong: Paintings 1938-1958 – An Enchanted Distance’ is at Piano Nobile, 129 Portland Road, London W11 4LW until 8 December 2015 –