Abstract Colour: Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly and John Hoyland

Haphazard, I visited three exhibitions over the weekend; as it turned out, each had something in common. All three artists reached their mature, abstract styles during the 1950s, a period when American Expressionism dominated the avant-garde.  Two were in new venues designed by Caruso St John; another – Tate Modern – is about to launch its new extension by Herzog & de Meuron.  All made an impact with their extraordinary use of colour and their glorious, tactile, textural use of paint.  For a start, Agnes Martin…

agnesmartinuntitled1959092

I rushed to Tate Modern first of all as I realised that the retrospective of Agnes Martin was about to end.  Martin’s early abstract works referenced numerous masters of American Expressionism as she tried out various different approaches. The earliest are somewhere between Joan Miro and Cy Twombly, with floating biomorphic forms on a painterly white ground and lines like threads or roots or scratchy hieroglyphs.  ‘Harbour’ develops the amoeba-like forms into something more solid, with echoes of William Scott; while further on the shapes are simplified as Martin moves towards a paler vision of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman – both of whose influence she acknowledged (‘Untitled’, 1959, above).

Untitled 1962 (acrylic rpiming, graphite and brass nails

In fact, Martin was taken on by New York art dealer Betty Parsons, who represented both Rothko and Newman.   From Taos, New Mexico, Martin moved into a sailmaker’s loft in New York to take up this offer; here she experimented with ‘found’ objects, producing some sculptural pieces using driftwood and nails, and also incorporating nails into paintings on canvas such as ‘Untitled’ (1962, above).  These remain an anomaly in her career, but were perhaps in some way instrumental in her move towards ever simpler forms – squares, rectangles, dots and repetitive linear marks.

Friendship 1963

Morning 1965 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 Purchased 1974 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01866

‘More and more I excluded from my paintings all curved lines, until finally my compositions consisted only of vertical and horizontal lines’ Martin has explained; yet her series of large square canvases from the 1960s-70s show the powerful effect that this austerity of means could produce.  The ‘aesthetic of the grid’ is explored in all its subtle permutations (even using gold leaf in ‘Friendship’, 1963, above top); Martin painted the canvas – usually white or pale grey – before constructing intricate grids using pencil lines.  An early series from the 1960s are like an intense study of workbooks – maths books, accounting books, lined notebooks – rational and repetitive in design, but on a grand scale strangely hypnotic and deeply calming (‘Morning’, 1965, above).  The human hand is ever there, in the texture of the painted background and the lines which sometimes waver very slightly and do not quite meet that edge of the canvas – yet the superimposed grid structure contains and controls this human fallibility.  Together the series has an almost monumental presence. It is interesting that curator at this point informs us that Martin suffered form schizophrenia.

on a clear day 1973

This striving for control and perfection is given new form in a series of thirty screen prints, ‘On a Clear Day’ (1972, above), completed in Stuttgart, Germany.  There is something perverse about using the roundabout method of screenprinting simply to reproduce pencil-drawn grids, perfectly.  Some grids are contained, others open-ended, untethered and infinite; all thirty are different, variations on a theme rather like music.  Then colour returns with a series from 1974, pale pinks, blues and yellows softly applied to a surface of acrylic gesso in precise rectangles or stripes, delineated by the ever-present and just-visible pencil lines (‘Untitled #3, 1974, below; ‘Untitled’, 1977, study on paper, bottom).

Untitled #3 1974

Untitled 1977

The grey paintings that began in 1977, though reduced in colour range, are more varied in technique.  In one, Martin uses a textural gypsum ground covered by a wash of Indian ink on top of which her habitual horizontal bands are drawn in graphite.  Some paintings are graphic, using flat planes of paint and sharp edges; others are like studies of the surface of rocks, up close and on a large scale (‘Untitled #12’, 1977, below).

Untitled #12 1977

Next door is a series of twelve white paintings, ‘The Islands’ (1979), with pencil lines as fine as cobwebs and such pale modulation of colour that it might just be one’s vision playing tricks.  They are dreamlike, the shifting lines creating a silent rhythm, almost pulsating around the room.  Everyone was silent, inspired by a contemplative awe; or was this prompted by the curatorial text asserting that the paintings should ‘invite concentrated looking’ and ‘convey a contemplative quality’ reflecting ‘East Asian philosophy and spirituality’?  Context and cultural norms will always play a part – a painting above an altar will often inspire awe and a certain mystical transcendence that it might not if it were on the wall of a canteen or an office, though it might still glean respect and admiration.

Untitled #5 1991 Agnes Martin 1912-2004 Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Milly and Arne Glimcher in honour of Anthony d'Offay and ARTIST ROOMS 2012 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T13717

Martin’s later career (she lived until 92, back in New Mexico) shows her revisiting past styles – the colour stripes, the grey paintings (‘Untitled #5’, 1991, above), the early Rothko-esque canvases – but with a brighter, looser paint surface, and in some the introduction of solid geometric shapes superimposed (‘Untitled #1’, 2003, below).  These are the closest Martin gets to ‘landscape’; while the work of other artists drawn to New Mexico, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, are suffused with natural forms, there is none of that here.  Yet there is a common feeling for the wide empty spaces and timelessness of that land, something primitive and elemental.

Untitled #1 2003

Next episode: Cy Twombly at the Gagosian and John Hoyland at the Newport Street Gallery…

Sickert in Dieppe

Dieppe Harbour c.1885The Pallant House Gallery in Chichester has achieved a duel triumph with ‘Sickert in Dieppe’.  The exhibition is both a focused study of the development of Sickert’s technique and a biography of the artist and the city as both underwent seismic change during the turbulent years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It brings together many disparate works that I had never seen before and which revealed a different side to Sickert’s life and work.

La Plage c.1885Whistler was the first great influence on Sickert, who left the Slade to work as his ‘apprentice’. Whistler’s motto was “we have only one enemy and that is funk”; his method was to work ‘wet on wet’ with thin oil paint, which demanded confidence as there was little margin for error.  When done well this gave a smooth surface and subtly graduated tonality. Some of Sickert’s small early oils on panel (which he called ‘sunlight pochades’ – pocket sized and completed en plein air), such as ‘La Plage’ (c.1885, above) and ‘The Harbour, Dieppe’ (c.1885, top), are very Whistlerian in this respect.  The panel is unprimed, so that the colours have a muted quality and yet retain an enigmatic resonance.

The Red Shop (The October Sun) c.1888Sickert knew Dieppe from an early age; his mother had been to school there and returned with her small children for holidays.  In the 1880s Whistler travelled to Dieppe with Ellen Cobden (whom he married in 1885). Through Whistler, Sickert was introduced to the French Impressionists, and formed a particularly close rapport with Degas.  ‘The Red Shop (The October Sun)’ (c.1888, above left), a small oil on panel, shows a new approach to colour with its vibrant geometric planes of vermilion against soft ochre tones – it has all the impact of a Rothko in miniature.  If anyone inspired the use of such daring tones it was Degas; he uses the same shade in ‘Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando’, completed just a few years before the two artists met.

The Laundry Shop 1885Degas also encouraged more structure in Sickert’s compositions, and a greater emphasis on the human and the architectural.  ‘The Laundry Shop’ (1885, right), on a similar scale to ‘The Red Shop’, shows in the nearby preparatory drawing the technique of ‘squaring up’ that Sickert now adopted and which is visible in much of his later work, a technique based on the Renaissance practice of transferring designs from cartoons to frescos on a vast scale.  It is also closely cropped, like a snapshot of everyday life taken in passing – another Degas-esque trait that perhaps stemmed from the fashion for Japonisme in the late 19th century, particularly the elongated and stylised woodblock prints.

The Fair at Night c.1902-3Larger paintings of this early period include ‘The Fair at Night’ (1902-3, left) which is much freer in execution, as if Sickert is sketching directly onto canvas.  The shadowy, silhouetted foreground giving way to bright sunlit architecture beyond would become something of a feature in Sickert’s Dieppe paintings.  ‘L’Hotel Royal, Dieppe’ (1894, below) is quite different, a beguiling, mysterious painting with no movement or noise and unsettling, slightly sickly, shades of mauve and peppermint green.  It embodies the melancholy of dusk and the end of summer.

L'Hotel Royal, Dieppe 1894Appropriately perhaps, the Decadent poet Arthur Symons dedicated the following  verses to Sickert – they sum it up beautifully…

Le Grand Duquesne, Dieppe 1902The grey-green stretch of sandy grass,
Indefinitely desolate;
A sea of lead, a sky of slate;
Already autumn in the air, alas!

One stark monotony of stone,
The long hotel, acutely white,
Against the after-sunset light
Withers grey-green, and takes the grass’s tone.

Listless and endless it outlies,
And means, to you and me, no more
Than any pebble on the shore,
Or this indifferent moment as it dies.

The Facade of Saint Jacques c.1899-1900Other landmarks of Dieppe were painted with equally restrained drama. ‘Le Grand Duquesne, Dieppe’ (1902, above right), a statue of the Dieppois navel hero, is depicted in silhouette as the façade behind is bathed in evening sunlight.  The church of Saint Jacques was one subject that Sickert returned to countless times (an example of c.1899-1900, right).  These paintings have been compared to Monet’s series of Rouen Cathedral, but there is less interest in the changing effects of light and season than in technical experimentation – some are loosely handled, some tightly squared up; some use a bright peach-coloured ground, some darker; some use the separated brushwork of Impressionism, some the flat planes of Symbolism.

Les Arcades de la Poisonnerie c.1900In 1898, after separating from Ellen, Sickert began a relationship with the Dieppoise fishwife Augustine Villain and soon after moved in with her.  He became very fond of her small horde of children and of the simple working class life. ‘Les Arcades de la Poisonnerie’ (c.1900, left) was next to the fish market where Augustine worked and was a view that Sickert painted several times during this period.

Cafe Suisse, Dieppe 1914When war was declared in 1914 Sickert was living in the countryside outside Dieppe with his second wife, Christine (nee Angus), a pupil whom he had married in 1911.  The happy pre-war years at the Villa d’Aumale at Envermeu inspired Sickert to paint landscapes again; his tones became lighter and paint thinned after a period using a more impasto style during the Camden Town paintings of the late 1910s.  ‘The Obelisk’ (1914, below left) is one such idyllic landscape, though the curator Katy Norris points The Obelisk 1914out the symbolism of this war memorial being painted just as war was looming once again – Sickert had struggled with the perspective of this picture and, using this analogy, declared that he could only deal with ‘one war at a time’.  Another similarly bucolic scene of corn stooks is also given more sombre significance; harvesting was stopped as conscription papers were issued, the stooks themselves seeming to presage the serried ranks of soldiers who had disappeared from the fields.

Back in Dieppe, Sickert painted ‘Café Suisse, Dieppe’ (1914, above right), a typical scene of sunlit facades from a shaded arcade; but here too the war makes itself felt, with soldiers recognisable by their red and blue uniforms and schoolgirls in their straw hats, perhaps preparing to return to England.

Christine Drummond Sickert (nee Angus) buys a Gendarmerie c.1920

The Sickerts had to return too for the duration of the war.  However, they returned to Envermeu as soon as it was over and regained their quiet country life.  In 1920 the Sickerts bought a house, the Maison Mouton; the occasion is recorded by Sickert’s lovely lamp-lit portrait, ‘Christine Drummond Sickert, nee Angus, buys a Gendarmerie’ (c.1920, right) – for the house had indeed a chequered history, as a gendarmerie, a horse dealer’s and an inn: the bedrooms were all numbered.  Tragically, Christine’s tuberculosis began to worsen again and she died shortly after moving into their new home.

The System 1924-6Ever since returning to Envermeu (‘The Happy Valley’ as he titled it on his etchings) Sickert had made forays into Dieppe, frequenting the cafes chantants and the casino.  Now he could no longer bear the scenery of Envermeu that was so deeply connected with Christine – ‘[the landscapes] are like still-born children’, he wrote – and moved into an apartment in the town.  He took up figure subjects again, picking out, with shades of Degas’ absinthe drinkers, the down-and-outs on the fringes of society. ‘The System’ (1924-6, left) picks out just such a character who, amidst the anonymous crowds, is caught in a moment of private desperation.

Au Cafe Concert, Vernet's Dance Hall, 1920‘Au Cafe Concert, Vernet’s Dance Hall’ (1920, right) and ‘O Nuit d’Amour’ (c.1922, below) are two views Sickert made of this cafe concert which seem to position the artist – and with him the viewer – on the outside looking in; though full of lights and music the sense of melancholy is exacerbated by the empty tables in the foreground.  Despite his grief, this final spell in Dieppe certainly proved fruitful; in his studio on the rue Aguado Sickert painted shadowy interiors akin to the Camden Town paintings, such as ‘The Prevaricator’ and ‘L’Armoire a Glace’, as well as one of his most striking portraits, of Victor Lecourt – ‘a superb creature’ – standing in Sickert’s apartment among the myriad patterns of the furnishings and with the Dieppe dusk framed though the window beyond, solid and erect.Walter-Sickert_-O-_3359160k

Sickert returned to London in early 1922, and though he visited Dieppe from time to time it was never again his home.  The town deserves this dedicated exhibition; Sickert’s reputation is based excessively on the notorious Camden Town murder paintings – on the basis of this show, it should rest in Dieppe.

Art Licks Weekend 2015

lucy joyce

cheap drinks vanLast Saturday I went on a tour of Art Licks Weekend, a festival of young and emerging contemporary artists, curators, independent galleries and project spaces in South and East London (mostly Peckham)… and here is the review published by Candid Magazine:

http://www.candidmagazine.com/art-licks-weekend-london-2-4-october/

Top: Lucy Joyce’s ‘Motorway Becomes Sea’ commissioned by The Ballad of Peckham Rye

Above: Cheap Drinks Van in Choumert Grove Car Parksafehouse

Right and below: Jill Quigley’s ‘The Cottages of Quigley’s Point’ at ‘Inter//vention’ curated by Seen Fifteen at Safehouse 1, Peckham

safehouse 2

 

Watercolours Explored at the Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam’s recent exhibition, ‘Watercolour: Elements of Nature’, is a concise tour de force, presenting a medium that while often subtle is at its best spectacularly beautiful.  With works drawn from the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, the show traces the history of watercolour from the 16th century to the present day, at the same time showing its vast technical range and adaptability.

Nicholas-Hilliard-1547-1619-Henry-Percy-9th-Earl-of-Northumberland-c.1595-299x250At one extreme are miniatures, with examples by Nicholas Hilliard (‘Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland’, c.1595, above) and Isaac Oliver, the watercolour portraits painted onto ivory or vellum with brushes of only a hair’s breadth.  Plants were studied with  similar precision; a Magnolia painted on vellum (1811, below right) by the famed botanical painter, Pierre-Joseph Redoute, looks so immaculate it is difficult to discern any brushstroke at all. Gum arabic was frequently mixed with the paint to give a glossier and more transparent effect as well as heightening the intensity of the colours.

Pierre-Joseph-Redouté 1811 Magnolia macrophylla-1811 vellum

It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that watercolour reached its peak.  Alexander Cozens’s paintings illustrate his radical ‘blot technique’ by which he encouraged his students to create landscape compositions from the imagination by starting with a blot of ink or watercolour (earning him the nickname ‘Mr Dingy Digit’!). This echoed a move away from the rigidly topographical towards ideas of the ‘sublime’ and Romanticism, which became fashionable in art and landscape design in the late 18th century.

1131299John White Abbott, a pupil of Francis Towne (the stunning ‘The Source of the Arveyron’, 1781, was shown at the recent Tate Watercolours exhibition), shows the influence of his master in his use of pen and ink outlines with a thin colour wash, for instance in ‘Trees at Peamore Park, Exeter’, 1799 (left), which flattens the forms making them both decorative and slightly ethereal.

Cornelius-Varley-Three-studies-of-Mount-Snowdon-c.1805Cornelius Varley’s ‘Three Studies of Mount Snowdon’ of c.1805 (right) shows even looser and more experimental brushwork. Designed as a sketch and therefore not comparable to the finished pieces next to which it hangs, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the artist playing with watercolour’s unique capacity for the graduation of colour tones.

Peter De Wint is an artist I knew little about, but who, along with David Cox, was one of the great English watercolorists. Examples of both artists’ work are chosen to show their use of variously textured papers – Cox used ‘Scotch’ wrapping paper for its rough texture and dark flecks – and paint used on a dry brush, diluted or with gum arabic, to achieve different results that bring alive the contrasts within their landscapes (Peter De Wint, ‘Yorkshire Fells, c.1812, watercolour with gum arabic, below).

Yorkshire-fells, c.1812, wc with gum arabic, Peter de Wint

I have always loved John Sell Cotman, whose style I associated with that of Francis Towne; here some very different works are picked out in which he uses a thickening agent to create much more intense colours than the typical pale washes of ‘A Shady Pool’ or even ‘Dolgelly’ (1804-5, below top).  ‘Postwick Grove’ (c.1835-40, below bottom) and ‘Bass Rock’ both use a deep turquoise shade to turn the pallid idyll of an English afternoon sky into a vivid, dusky, almost mystical firmament.

Cotman-Dolgelly 1804-5

Postwick-Grove, c.1835-40, wc, Cotman

Several artist focus closely – like the earlier botanical painters – on the tiny details of nature; William Dyce’s ‘A Landscape Study of Rocks and Grasses’ is as 1132996immaculately observed as Durer’s famous ‘Great Piece of Turf’ (1503) while Ruskin’s ‘In the Pass of Killiecrankie’ (1857) uses watercolour with a more opaque bodycolour on board to evoke the rocky banks of a Scottish burn – every minute crack of granite and frond of heather is extolled in paint. 7.-The-Magic-Apple-Tree c.1830Samuel Palmer also mixes his paint with gum arabic or similar medium in ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ (c.1830, left), using this alongside Indian ink to create vivid colours that achieve a depth, solidity and substance at the centre where the apples cluster.  Palmer was a follower of William Blake whose visionary subjects and technical experimentation he inherited, standing apart from the mainstream British landscape watercolour tradition. John Linnell, who introduced Palmer and Blake, is also featured, though his lovely ‘Sunset’ (1812) is without the strange otherworldliness conjured by his colleagues.

Shakespeare-Cliff, Dover, c.1825, wc, Turner

Then of course there is Turner, master of the watercolour.  Here there is only ‘Shakespeare Cliff, Dover’ (c.1825, above) to represent him – though an excellent choice to show how his twin interests in the effects of nature and the use of watercolour as a medium sometimes resulted in almost abstract, highly expressionistic compositions that were well ahead of his time. (There was, however, an room adjacent dedicated to the Ruskin bequest of Turner watercolours, full of exquisite examples such as ‘Brunnen, Lake Lucerne in the Distance’ 1841-3, ‘Orleans, Twilight’, c.1826-31, and ‘Venice from the Lagoon’, c.1840).Giudecca, 1913, wc over graphite Sargent

 

Appropriate then that he should immediately precede the French and English Impressionist and Post-Imp watercolorists.  This last, ‘modern’, section of the exhibition is disparate – but understandably so, as art diverged in the late 19th and early 20th century into so many different movements.  And it doesn’t matter given the objective of this show – rather, considering that it represents the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, is says a lot for the eye the purchaser and the calibre of bequests – for each work selected illustrates an outstanding mastery of the medium, each in an entirely different style running the gamut from fluid washes of sunlight or mist made solid through to carefully composed still lifes emerging from a void of white paper. (John Singer Sargent, ‘Giudecca’, 1913, above; Whistler, ‘Grey and Silver, North Sea’, c.1884, below).

Grey and Silver, North Sea, c.1884, wc, Whistler

Pissarro’s landscape studies of Eragny and Gisors in springtime sing with limpid colour redolent of sunlight after rain; Signac’s Mediterranean scenes of boats in harbour place colour in careful harmony, a light-handed lesson in Chevreul’s theories; Cezanne’s ‘Still Life – Flowers in a Jar’ (c.1890, below left) uses pale tints of watery colour to outline the skeleton of his composition, leaving the bare space to speak of volumes.

8.-Still-life-flowers-in-a-jar c.1890Philip Wilson Steer, a leading British Impressionist and founder of the New English Art Club, now out of fashion and usually overlooked, is represented by a loose watercolour sketch, ‘Chalk Pits, Painswick’ (1915) – a short reprieve from his war work as an artist with the Royal Navy. British Modernism is represented by Paul Nash’s ‘Monster Field Studies’ – surreal, anthropomorphic postwar depictions of the ancient landscape of southern England – and by David Jones’ intricate yet ephemeral interior ‘The Shepherdess’ (1930); the contemporary finale by a lone Barbara Rae abstract that looked a bit lost by the door.  I had peered in at every painting, initially interested in the technique, then transfixed by its small, beautiful, unknowable world; an hour later I had reached the far end of the room and left with energy and inspiration.

Mayfair Meandering: Avigdor Arikha and Keith Arnatt

Self Portrait hand on head 2003 drypoint

Midway between lunch in Soho and Green Park tube I detoured down Albemarle street on a gallery trawl.  My first port of call was Marlborough Fine Art, where I found a retrospective of Avigdor Arikha’s paintings and works on paper dating from the mid-1960s until his death in 2010 (‘Self-Portrait Hand on Head’, drypoint, 2003, above).  The gallery represents the artist’Samuel Beckett Seated, etching, 1972s estate and has curated a concise exhibition representative of the many different mediums and subjects that attracted Arikha after his return to figuration in 1965.
Having begun as an abstract expressionist in the 1950s this was quite a sudden about-turn, which is attributed to the artist’s friendship with Giacometti whom he met after settling in Paris in 1954.  Certainly Arikha’s etchings and drypoints reflect something of Giacometti’s austerely monochrome style with their layers of nervously jagged marks creating tight and psychologically penetrative portraits.  Robert Hughes described Arikha’s works as having an “air of scrupulous anxiety”.  The adoption of printmaking went hand in hand with Arikha’s return to figuLe Pain 1976 etchingration, as if in turning away from the abstract he felt the need to turn away from the loose painterly qualities of oils to in a definitive and decisive manner. Looking back on his abstract period, Arikha recalled “I was quite successful as an abstractionist. But I started painting my own set of forms over and over again. Finally, it repulsed me.” His portraits – mainly himself, his wife and his great friend Samuel Beckett – are precise, with an intimacy and directness that makes one feel almost uncomfortable (‘Samuel Beckett Seated’, etching, 1972, above right).
Alongside these are studies of trees and flowers in soft drypoint or sugar lift aquatint, and still lifes such as ‘Le Pain’ (etching, 1976, above left) or a pair of shoes that in their isolated centrality seem to deserve the status of ‘portraits’ too.

Jerusalem Bread 1981 oil on canvas

Trees at Evian 1997 Sumi ink

Orange tie folded 1975 watercolour

By the early 1970s, Arikha began painting again, but continued to experiment with different materials.  The greater part of the hang alternates his charcoal drawings – soft, loose, expressive but ascetic portraits – with drawings in Sumi ink, paSleeping nude and indian rug 1985stels and oils that range from the human figure to still life and studies of natural forms (‘Jerusalem Bread’, oil on canvas, 1981; ‘Trees at Evian’, Sumi ink, 1997; and ‘Orange Tie Folded’, watercolour, 1975, above; and ‘Sleeping Nude and Indian Rug, 1985, left).
All have a contemplative stillness that turns the trivial – a piece of toast sitting on the grill, a jacket carelessly strewn or a glimpse through a doorway – into something abundant in meaning.  These are almost surreal in their awkward simplicity, their latent anthropomorphism, speaking of a wealth shared history with poetic concision.

A dead leaf 2002 - pastel on board

A little further up on Grafton Street Spruth Magers is showing the photographer and conceptual artist Keith Arnatt. ‘Absence of the Artist’ focuses on Arnatt’s work between 1967–72, key years in which modernism began to be replaced by a more sceptical post-modernist ‘dematerialisation’.  For Arnatt, at the forefront of this movement, this took the form of site-specific or time-based performances, which he recorded by means of photography.

KAR_Install_Absence_of_the_Artist_SML_2015_08

As the title suggests, Arnatt’s work questions the role of the artist. “He thought there was a governing idea of art as driven by a central figure – the artist – and he was interested in what happened if you made that person disappear,” explains Matthew Arnatt, the artist’s son.  This is explored in literal terms in ‘Self Burial’ (1969, below) in which a sequence of nine photographs documents the gradual disappearance of the artist into the ground.

self burial 1969Arnatt wrote of this:

An interest in illusion (and delusion), in the sense of creating a false impression runs throughout much of my work. For example, the ‘Self Burial’ photographs create the illusion that something is happening to me’

‘… it is true to say that the apparent absurdity, or silliness, of Self Burial is an important part of what I liked about it … And I also rather liked the slightly Chaplinesque quality of the photographic sequence— the fact that it shows me just standing there whilst something quite alarming seems to be happening to me (a metaphor for my condition as an artist?).’

A Line Made by Walking 1967 Richard Long born 1945 Purchased 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P07149

A self-parody-cum-postmodernist-critique perhaps – but with a good dose of self-indulgent wit. A more interesting investigation of illusion and perception is ‘Mirror lined pit (grass bottom)’ and its companion piece ‘An invisible hole revealed by my own shadow’ (1968-9) which trick the eye, the ‘invisible absence’ of the pit only revealed by the artist’s shadow, which is yet another absence. Performance art – by nature transitory and preserved only through photographs and documentation – gained status during the 1960s and 70s, and Arnatt’s work is closely related to land art such as Richard Long’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’ (1967, above left). In this photographic piece the artist, though absent, records his physical presence within the landscape.  It was a radical new approach and hugely influential in expressing contemporary concerns with impermanence, motion and relativity.

Keith Arnatt ~ Art as An Act of Retraction (Eating His Own Words) -3

While Long’s work is ultimately reflective, and expresses a quietly powerful, elemental dialogue between man and nature, Arnatt takes radical ‘dematerialisation’ to ridiculous levels.  ‘Is it Possible to do Nothing as my Contribution to This Exhibition?’ is a perverse and pointless pseudo-philosophical text. However, on the adjacent wall hang a series of eleven photographs representing Arnatt eating various bits of paper (‘Art as an Act of Retraction’, 1971, above right); the final frame contains the words in list form: ‘Eleven Portraits of the Artist about to eat his own words’.  Perhaps a repentant acknowledgment of the lengthy and pretentious tract…

Absence of the Artist 1968

As a photographer, Arnatt’s talent is undoubted.  And he is at his best here in the witty, quasi-surreal images that hark back to the visual puns of Rene Magritte, such as the eponymous ‘The Absence of the Artist’ (1968, above) – a sign bearing these words, pinned to a stone wall – and ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self’ (1969-72, below).

Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self 1969-72 Keith Arnatt 1930-2008 Presented by the artist 2000 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07647

The show is sparse.  In fact, any fewer works and it would hardly justify the title of exhibition. Perhaps this is standard for the presentation of ‘conceptual’ art?  But, having first come across his work at The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition in 2007, which considered his later career from 1972-2002, I have always considered Arnatt an inspiring photographer, and while interesting in revealing his early work, this display did not do justice to his considerable talent in this field.

Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

unnamed-4

An antidiluvian forest has materialised in the courtyard of the Royal Academy; at night it feels almost like stepping into a fairytale.  These natural forms, sprouting from the concrete paving, are at the same time relics restored to a semblance of life. Tree 2009-10As curator Adrian Locke writes on the RA blog: ‘In China, trees are venerated as important counterparts to the dead on earth … Ai’s trees are made from parts of dead trees that are brought down from the mountains of southern China and sold in the markets of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. Ai transports these to his studio in Beijing where they are made into trees … Tree has been likened to the modern Chinese nation, where ethnically diverse peoples have been brought together to form “One China”.’

This prelude encapsulates the recurring themes of the exhibition: scale, materials, recycling/renewing, politics – and the human factor: all are united in this preliminary concept, the largest gathering yet of Ai’s trees, thanks to a massive Kickstarter campaign of public funding.

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Inside the echoing neo-classical galleries of the Royal Academy with all their gilding, plasterwork and marble one is yet struck by the scale of the work, the quality and weightiness of the materials. ‘Bed’ (above, 2004), its outline following the pattern of China’s borders in fragments of demolished Imperial temples, unfurls its ironwood form across the floor of the first gallery. Its impact is architectural, enduring and resilient – but at the same time isolated and dislocated in time and place.  In ‘Grapes’ (below left, 2010) a troupe of Qing dynasty three-legged stools perform a gymnastic back flip, while similarly venerable tables begin to climb up the walls.

Grapes 2010Ai Weiwei is best known as a political dissident, famously undergoing incarceration and constant surveillance by the Chinese state authorities.  This experience and his personal struggle for freedom of expression permeates the exhibition.  However, the extensive texts introducing each gallery were crucial to understanding the layers of meaning contained within each piece. The porcelain crabs, for instance, though lovely objects in themselves, made a lot more sense once one knew that the Chinese word for crab is a homonym for ‘harmonious’, which is a catchword of the Chinese state and is also consequently used as slang for censorship.  But these little crabs are not just metaphorical statements; they tell the story of an actual event. Souvenir from Shanghai 2012On the night that his Shanghai studio was demolished at the insistence of the state in 2011, Ai organised a public dinner where thousands of people dined on crabs. Ai himself was under house arrest but orchestrated this subversive ‘performance piece’ nevertheless – now marked by an edifice of rubble and a pile of porcelain crabs (one escaping up the wall…)

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People are at the heart of Ai’s conceptual approach.  The handmade or artisan nature of every element is emphasised, reflecting the status of the individual as opposed to the mass-produced, the human as opposed to anonymous cogs in a communist machine.

Straight 2008-12This last is made tragically clear in the lists of names of all the individual children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that line the walls around ‘Straight’ (above and below, 2008-12), an arrangement of thousands of metal bars made to strengthen the concrete of the jerry-built schools that collapsed. They trace the jigjagged path of a fault line in rusty earth colours, signifying the terrible power of nature. What gives the work such power is the history behind these objects (brought home by a documentary style film) and the scale of it once massed together, each rod representing a human life lost, as well as the time and effort that went into straightening each and every one by hand, despite Ai’s imprisonment and every other effort of the authorities to impede his message from reaching the world.IMG_3770

Ai’s skilful recycling of materials, creating a new beauty out of destruction, is ruined by his own acts of vandalism in the gallery of vases.  Here, neolithic vases are variously dipped in garish industrial paint (below), emblazoned with modern commercial logos, or smashed – as in the triptych of photographs ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ (1995). unnamed-1This wanton destruction in the name of ‘art’ seems a facile statement made in bad taste, but Louise Cohen plays devil’s advocate on the RA blog, asking: ‘was he sacrificing one pot for the greater good, highlighting what’s happening to Chinese heritage every day? Or was he asking us to question what we value?’  It is pointed out that fakes are rife on the Chinese market, while the techniques used to make them are probably the same as those used originally. Equally, once branded as the work of Ai Weiwei, is the ancient Han vase more or less valuable? It is food for thought.

flba0ckbfloyxgvnmcxuAll the materials used are distinctly Chinese, speaking of China’s history, its cultural and political identity.  Besides the wood of the Imperial temples, there is marble sourced from an Imperial Chinese quarry – the same used for Chairman Mao’s mausoleum – fashioned into a marble surveillance camera (right, 2010) trained upon a marble pram upon a marble lawn.  There are jade handcuffs displayed like precious ornaments in glass vitrines, and hand-painted porcelain fitting together into a map of China, the ‘Free Speech Puzzle’ (below, 2014).

z8czyhksjtkdj0fpv1rnSo although this is in many ways conceptual, performative art it confounds these boundaries to present room after room of visually astounding and materially exquisite objects.  And although Ai exploits the publicity and the PR stunt, his work speaks of more than yesterday’s news – it engages with history, culture, civilisation and humanity in a simple and powerful way.  And he has created a chandelier from bicycles – no excuse needed to love that.

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Eric Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery

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Working predominantly in pale hues of pencil and watercolour, Ravilious’ style is precise and architectural yet he has an idiosyncratic vision. The exhibition begins with pictures that reflect this aptitude for homing in on the unexpected beauty and oddness of the ordinary. ‘Talbot-Daracq’ (above, 1934), for instance, takes as its subject a rusting car, the parts strewn across unkempt grass behind a wooden shed: a scene one would pass by without looking twice. Yet the derelict machinery is rendered with the exactitude and aestheticism of graphic design.

Eric Ravilious - Downs In Winter (1934)

Ravilious’ debt to his tutor at the Royal College of Art, Paul Nash, is clear from the start: like Nash, he sees both the geometry in nature and the surreal. The man-made and the natural co-exist in peaceful yet uncanny scenes – most without any living human presence (as in ‘Downs in Winter’, above, 1934). westbury horseAs do the ancient past and mechanised modernity in pictures such as that of the ‘Westbury Horse’ (right, 1939), dominating the chalk hillside with a train steaming along the valley below seeming toy-sized in comparison; or ‘Ship’s Screw on a Railway Truck’ (below left, 1940), stranded in a snowy landscape.

eric-ravilious-ships-screw-on-a-railway-truck-1940And, like his tutor, he is a master of his medium. Watercolour (which predominates in this exhibition – his printed work very much sidelined bar an interesting series of lithographs) is a very English technique – particularly well suited to our climate – and often unfairly sidelined, though Tate’s ‘Watercolour’ exhibition in 2011 certainly made a good attempt at rectifying that.  But in the early 20th century, and especially the interwar decades, watercolour made a significant come-back among the British Modernist avant-garde: in addition to Nash, Edward Burra, Graham Sutherland, John Craxton and John Piper, to name but a few, were advocates of this subtle and delicate medium. Ravilious made it his own, and it is to the credit of the curator, James Russell, that the ways in which he did this are represented to the spectator in an understated yet illuminating manner. A small text appended to ‘Vicarage in Winter’ (below, 1935), for example, points out the cross-hatching technique that Ravilious brought from his experience in wood engraving to create the luminescent, pellucid light of an English winter’s dawn.

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Ravilious’ career was cut short by his untimely death in 1942 – lost in action in a plane over Iceland – and therefore the exhibition chooses a looser thematic, rather than chronological, structure. The major theme that runs through the exhibition, alongside and in contrast to the timeless landscapes, is that of ships and biplanes preparing for war (‘De-Icing Aircraft’, below, 1942).de-icing aircraft 1942

Ravilious was signed up by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in 1939 and assigned to the Admiralty. His subsequent paintings of ships in dry dock and on the North Sea pay homage to earlier war artists such as C.R.W. Nevinson (especially ‘HMS Glorious in the Arctic’ of 1940, below, with its jagged, jazz-age streak of light across the water) and Edward Wadsworth, whose ‘Dazzle Ships in Drydock at Liverpool’ (1919) appears the Futuristic forerunner of Ravilious’ ‘A Warship in Dock’ (1940).

HMS Glorious in the Arctic 1940

People do sometimes appear in Ravilious’ work – theatrical and puppet-like in the design for the Morley College murals, more serious in the lithographs from the ‘Submarine Dream’ series, but still with the two-dimensionality of story-book illustrations.  More frequently one is struck by the absence of people, especially in the his bedroom interiors such as ‘A Farmhouse Bedroom’ (below right, 1930s).

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This painting is deeply unsettling with its weird architectural arrangement – a seemingly dead-end corridor, a ceiling like a gauzy canopy – and de-stabilised perspective that recall Paul Nash’s hallucinatory ‘Harbour and Room’ (1932-6), created during the years that Nash was most closely associated with British Surrealism. The exhibition panel suggests comparison with the interior scenes of Van Gogh and Vuillard; though I can accept the influence of a post-Impressionist predilection for pattern here, Van Gogh connection seems based only upon the subject matter of a bed and wooden chair.

Train Landscape 1940

‘Train Landscape’ (left, 1940) also seems oddly deserted, as if something has caused the inhabitants of the carriage to flee, the seats still warm.  Again the White Horse appears, a symbol of the historic English landscape that captured Ravilious’ imagination, and which he would revisit in his well-known paintings of the Cerne Abbas and Wilmington Giants.

The Greenhouse - cyclamen and tomatoes 1935

Another empty interior – of flowers on a country kitchen table – is akin to Winifred Nicholson’s compositions, while other images are closer to Ben’s precise linear style.  This geometry combines with Ravilious’ love of natural forms in the wonderful ‘Greenhouse – Cyclamen and Tomatoes’ (above, 1935).  It is a trait that teeters on the edge of surrealism; like Edward Burra, Ravilious paints ‘living landscapes’ with gently slumbering hills or hedges that roll and glower, threatening to submerge the insignificant figure in ‘Wet Afternoon’ (below, 1938).

Ravilious, Dulwich Picture Gallery FOR REVIEW USE ONLY

Ravilious’ ability to portray in watercolour the harsh and brilliant effects of fireworks as well as the shifting and subtle natural light of dawn breaking or the onset of a summer storm is unsurpassed.  Coupled with his empathy for English landscape and history, his work is a transcendent document of a time and place that speaks more forcefully than words.

 

Sonia Delaunay: Art and Design

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I finally saw the well deserved retrospective of Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern  just before it closed.  Much seems to be made of the rehabilitation of modernist women artists by Tate over the past year, but it seems unhelpful, almost regressive, to highlight their gender; one hopes they would have been deemed worthy of exhibition regardless.  (Indeed I don’t remember a retrospective of Robert Delaunay’s work on this scale in my lifetime, so it’s hardly as if Sonia has been badly done by).  Overlooking any curatorial bias, it is a well designed presentation of a remarkable artistic career.

La Finlandaise 1907Sonia’s early work, such as ‘Yellow Nude’ (above, 1908), shows her absorbing the profusion of modernist styles that burst forth in the early years of the 20th century.  In ‘Yellow Nude’ the angular dark outlines and acidic colours of the German Expressionist ‘Die Brucke’ artists are a clear influence; in others, the cloisonniste colouration of early Gauguin and Emile Bernard  jumps out, or the pure Fauvist hues of Matisse and his use of patterned textile backdrops in ‘Young Finnish Woman’ (above left, 1907).

Sonia’s interest in using an array of media and crossing the boundaries between art, craft, literature and performance can be seen from early on in her career.  A patchwork cradle cover of 1911 and a painted coffer are equally effective manifestations of her experimentation with colour theory and an increasing abstraction of form, while her friendship with the poet Blaise Cendrars led to illustrated prose poems in 1913.

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It is at this point, as the exhibition begins to explore her developing abstraction through an exploration of colour contrasts, that Sonia’s husband Robert should have made an appearance.  The couple met in 1907 and married in 1910, and together evolved the theory – or two man movement – known as Simultanism (or later, Orphism).  Nevertheless, the space is amply filled by Sonia’s large canvases, with standout works such as ‘Bal Bullier’ (above, 1912-13) and ‘Electric Prisms’ (below, 1914).

Sonia Delaunay, Prismes electriques 1914 (Download high resolution image 670.56 KB) Prismes electriques 1914 © Pracusa 2013057 © CNAP

The Delaunays went to Spain when war broke out in 1914, and it was in Madrid four years later after the Russian Revolution cut off support from her Russian family that Sonia opened her shop, Casa Sonia.  Here, the large gallery devoted to her textile and fashion designs is a treasure trove of original designs, fabric samples, garments, archive photographs and film.  03-sonia-delaunay-tate-700x1146The designs themselves are deceptively simple but extraordinary in repetition, and must have made a bold impact in post-war Europe.  The influence of her work with graphic design and her friendship with Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, are both evident.

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Some of the monochrome designs seem to anticipate Bridget Riley’s Op Art by several decades.  The wool-worked swimsuits however, though beautifully sewn, look rather impractical.  Back in Paris, Sonia showed her designs at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925, from which Le Corbusier coined the term ‘Art Deco’ – and she appears an ideal figurehead for this modern and urbane style.

Considering her disregard of boundaries between the art forms, it should have been no surprise to learn that Sonia was closely associated with the Dada movement at this time, collaborating with its poets to produce ‘dress-poems’, their words incorporated within her dress designs.  Costume and set design – of ‘Le Petit Parigot’ in 1926 for example – were a natural progression for an artist so allied to the performative element in art.

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In 1937 the Delaunays were given the opportunity to work on a larger scale than ever before, producing panels to decorate the ‘Pavillon des Chemins de Fer’ and the ‘Palais de l’Air’ for that year’s Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris.  For the latter, three enormous murals depicting a propeller (above), an engine and an instrument panel were created, here displayed in their own gallery where their colour still has the power to astonish.  The combination of such bold flat colour planes with mechanical forms outlined against them strongly foreshadows pop art, especially calling to mind Patrick Caulfield and Michael Craig-Martin.

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Robert died in 1941 in the South of France, and Sonia’s paintings after this blow returned to the abstract geometric forms of simultanism, though the palette alters.  First lighter pastel colours emerge, then darker and more opaque pigment from the 1950s, and new elements are introduced as the concentric circles are diminished to make way for rectilinear forms and curving lines – the last most overtly in ‘Syncopated Rhythm known as the Black Snake’ (above 1967).

Considering how well suited her work is for reproduction it is astonishing that Tate has produced not a single postcard; Sonia, with her excellent commercial sense, would surely be dismayed by this failing.

Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain

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This is one of those refreshing exhibitions where there is little need to read too much (though Hepworth’s was an interesting life).   Instead one can simply admire the incredible forms that she created, her truth to materials and the aesthetic perfection she achieved through a finely judged balance of volume and weight.  The toad (above, 1928) jumped out at me in the first gallery, for these very reasons: the onyx used is so supremely toad-coloured, and Hepworth’s sensitive carving gives such a strong suggestion of the languorous sliminess of the creature, working with the veins of the stone to delineate his slippery form.  He appears amid a menagerie of animals and birds by those who influenced Hepworth’s early career – Jacob Epstein’s architectural, almost mechanically geometric doves, Henry Moore’s knotted marble serpent, her first husband John Skeaping’s beautiful lapis buffalo and bronze fish, as well as equally sumptuous carvings by artists now virtually unknown such as Alan L. Durst and Elsie Marion Henderson.

Mother and Child 1934 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1993 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T06676

The second gallery shows Hepworth’s work alongside Ben Nicholson’s, providing a narrative of their fruitful artistic interaction – as well as their domestic relationship, as Hepworth’s profile filters into Nicholson’s otherwise abstract compositions (echoed in her own experiments with photograms, and her touching sculpture ‘Two Heads’), and after giving birth to triplets Hepworth’s sculpture turns increasingly towards motherhood as a subject matter, as in ‘Mother and Child’ (1934, above).

Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) 1935 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03131

Then the perspective is broadened as we are invited to consider Hepworth as a key figure in international modernism.  The pieces displayed are entirely abstract, the forms simplified to smooth rounded totems and spheres or geometric solids, placed in harmony (or tension) with one another – ‘Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster)’ (above, 1935) is exemplary, each carefully juxtaposed element as coolly tactile as a wave-worn pebble yet as powerfully elemental as a monolith.

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‘Pelagos’ (above, 1946) marks another development in Hepworth’s oeuvre.  After all the horrors of the Second World War, she found the purist abstraction of Constructivism – inspired by friends such as Naum Gabo and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy – unfulfilling on a human and spiritual level.  Drawings, both abstract and figurative studies of surgeons at work, chart these changing attitudes, a mental process of adaptation.  Her post-war sculpture becomes more organic, evoking natural forms in warm-hued wood, in this case elm with a painted white interior.  Photographs of these sculptures displayed in the Cornish landscape were meticulously choreographed  by Hepworth, whose move to St. Ives at the outbreak of war had a clear impact on her work, made clear in the wave-like curves of ‘Pelagos’.

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This decisive attitude to the display of her work is explored further in archival photographs and film, before we return to her experimentation in wood with a gallery devoted to the monumental ‘Guarea’ works.  These enormous chunks of Nigerian tropical hardwood were a gift to Hepworth in the mid 1950s and encouraged her to work on a much bigger scale than she had attempted before.  Having just returned from a trip to Greece, each piece was named after a Greek location, such as ‘Corinthos’ (above, 1954-5). The scented reddish glow of the wood itself, as well as its size, imbue the sculptures with a primitive, religious or mystical aura.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World | Tate Britain 24 June - 25 October 2015 to promote exhibition only ...  Barbara Hepworth Oval Form (Trezion) 1961-63 Bronze 940 x 1440 x 870 mm Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections ©Bowness, Hepworth Estate

I was apprehensive in approaching the final gallery as Tate Britain has a tendency for ludicrous finales, with bizarre installations, multi-media displays or simply irrelevant/inferior contemporary art, in what must be a misguided attempt to make any exhibition ‘up-to-date’ or appealing to children… With Hepworth however we were safe; there was an installation of sorts, but it was relevant and fairly effective. From the 1950s Hepworth was exhibiting internationally and from the late fifties began using bronze which was more hard-wearing and allowed multiple editions; the final gallery recreates Gerrit Rietveld’s pavilion at the Kroller-Muller Museum gardens in the Netherlands where a retrospective of Hepworth’s work took place in 1965.  One of the sculptures displayed there – and now at the Tate – was ‘Oval Form (Trezion)’ (above, 1961-63).  As before, in Cornwall, Hepworth was delighted to see her work positioned within natural and architectural surroundings.  However, to get a real sense of the beauty of these late bronze pieces, one really must visit Hepworth’s garden in St. Ives.

The London Impressionist and Modern Sales

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They are always the high point of the year for auction houses – and the rest of the art world gathers round these dates, keen to siphon off some of the excitement, glamour and wealth.  Bookended by the Olympia and Masterpiece fairs, Christie’s and Sotheby’s were once again head to head last week, vying for record-breaking sales totals.

At Christies the top lot was Monet’s ‘Iris Mauve'(1914-17, left) –  complemented by vases full of fresh indigo irises that  flanked the doorway of the main saleroom.  The fluid, expressive style and large scale of the canvas is akin to his more famous water lilies, created during the same period in which Monet devoted himself to depicting his garden at Giverny.

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Irises as a motif are perhaps associated more readily with Van Gogh; however in this sale Van Gogh was represented by an early work very unlike the immediately recognisable bright, impasto, stylised paintings for which he is best known.  Firstly, ‘The Windmill near The Hague’ (1882, above) is a watercolour, a gentle, watery medium that seems entirely at odds with Van Gogh’s temperament; secondly, it is executed in muted naturalistic colours and depicts a traditional Dutch subject in a fairly unobjectionable way – a far cry from the harsh treatment of Dutch peasants in ‘The Potato Eaters’ (1885) and even more so from the primary colours and striated brushstrokes of Provence from 1888. Yet it has a certain charm to it, and marks an important step in Van Gogh’s early steps as a painter.

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While Monet’s Irises paved the way, there were more glorious floral paintings beyond. The vibrant flowers in Chagall’s ‘Bouquet pres de la Fenetre’ (1959-60, right) seem to hover within an aura of light against a dreamlike blue cityscape, with Chagall’s distinctive symbols of the rooster and the floating couple.  The flowers themselves are recognised as a symbol of romantic love within the deep luminous blue of this Mediterranean idyll.

341L15006_8B45Y_FinalMeanwhile, at Sotheby’s the piece de resistance was Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Gertrud Loew (1902, left).  One of several pale and diaphanous portraits of women, this painting shows an affinity to Whistler – as well as the late 19th century interest in Japanese art in the long narrow format and the ornamental ciphers in the top left corner.  It marks an important transition in Klimt’s work from a more traditional portrait style to the decorative, hieratic, symbol-laden ‘golden period’ paintings of just five years later.  Here we begin to see that ‘densely woven tapestry of ornament’ that conjures ‘sublime surface effects by playing with the contrast between abstract ornamental forms and the highly erotic sensuality of the figures’ (as cited by the catalogue).  Gertrud Loew’s father ran the Loew Sanatorium in Vienna, and the portrait was painted shortly before her marriage to Dr. Hans Eisler von Terramare.  It was private commissions such as this which established Klimt’s preeminent position in the Viennese art world of the day.alfred_sisley_le_potager_d5915638h

Both sales showed solid examples of Alfred Sisley’s work, the limpid colours and light brush marks creating quiet landscapes that yet perfectly capture the vibrancy of a fleeting moment in nature.  Christies’ ‘Le Potager’ (1872, above) shows a kitchen garden half in shadow; the formal layout of the beds gives a sharper perspective than many of Sisley’s compositions – in contrast to the rural landscape of ‘Chemin a l’Entree d’un Bois’ at Sotheby’s (1890-1, right). 046L15006_869F3-1It is one of many paintings inspired by Sisley’s move out of Paris following the Franco-Prussian war to the outskirts of Louveciennes where he was surrounded by the chateau grounds, cottage gardens and orchards. It was in this fruitful year that his work was brought to the attention of the Impressionists’ dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, whose impact on the development and promotion of Impressionism has recently been celebrated in an exhibition at the National Gallery.

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leonard_tsuguharu_foujita_jeune_fille_a_la_marguerite_d5914225hThere was a wonderful lively oil sketch by Manet at Sotheby’s, ‘Vue Prise de la Place Clichy’ (1878), and works by Bonnard at both, typically loosely handled and submerged in colour, with areas of blank canvas used as a positive element alongside the bold pigment (‘Cabanons au Cannet’, 1933, at Sotheby’s, above).  There were a good few compositions by Odilon Redon and Tsuguharu Foujita (‘Jeune Fille a la Marguerite’, 1960, right) at Christies which were unusual to see, august_macke_schlafende_reiter_d5914201has well as numerous German Expressionists from both Die Brucke and Blaue Reiter camps (such as August Macke, ‘Schlafende Reiter, 1910, left), and a few interesting early Mondrians in a nascent Expressionist vein – at Christie’s, ‘Farm Buildings in White and Red near a Green Field’ (1906-7, below).  There were some charming small Renoir oil sketches of girls, far less sugary and more immediately affecting for being unfinished, and a snowy Utrillo more enigmatic and full of subtle tonalities than the classic Montmartre street scenes.

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There were also a selection of highlights from the Modern British sale at Christies, including a wonderful watercolour market scene by Edward Burra – but Burra doesn’t belong among the Impressionists so that will wait for the next post…