Goya: The Portraits

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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).

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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.

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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.

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Fabric of India

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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 – www.piano-nobile.com

Frieze Week Art Fairs

So after four days and five art fairs, here are a few selected highlights…

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First up was Multiplied at Christie’s South Kensington (left) – ‘the UK’s only fair dedicated to contemporary art in editions’, which I have written about for Candid Magazine here (http://www.candidmagazine.com/multiplied-2015-contemporary-editions-fair-christies-16-18-october/).  I was fascinated by the manifold techniques used to reproduce works in multiple – from traditional printmaking practices to modern digital and 3D printing, as well as many combinations of the two.  At TAG Fine Arts, beautiful materials were used to elevate trivial subject matter – Chris Mitton’s crumpled tin can in Carrara marble (right) or David Shrigley’s polished brass tooth.  unnamed-5C&C Gallery in contrast were showing a selection of 3D printed pieces that looked like sculpture (one was based on a large bronze owned by Damien Hirst, another on a hand-painted disposable coffee cup by Paul Wescombe, below left) but were at one remove from the hand of the artist, raising questions about the relative input of artist and machine in the digital printing process.

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Many works were deceptive, appearing to be drawings or paintings but in fact printed – for example, Emma Stibbon’s intaglio prints at Rabley Contemporary (‘Broken Lead’, below right) were created by painting onto a negative which was then exposed onto a light sensitive plate and printed in the traditional way – except that the expressive, painted brushstrokes are still visible so that the precision technique is subverted.  itemsfs_4450Equally deceptive is Susan Collis’ ‘Something’s Gone’ portfolio shown by Used Paper (below left); the effect of spontaneity – a white paint splash – is produced by a time-consuming method of dense cross-hatching in biro, the image then transferred to a plate and printed.2TC_19_06_14-0099_440_599_s

The Made in Arts London stand showing student and graduate work was particularly impressive, more than standing up to the Royal Academy stand opposite.  Anastasia Pudane’s screen prints such as ‘Three Spririts from the Past’ showed her roots in illustration with a nod to Edward Gorey, while Joseph Jackson’s photographic prints of the locations of past crimes on small glass panels reflected his interest in photojournalism and documentary.  Pablo_Bronstein_Chatsworth_GElsewhere I admired Georgie Hopton’s photo-gravure prints – interior scenes with reflections of a nude in a mirror that reminded me of Francesca Woodman – at Galerie Simpson. Meanwhile, Nottingham Contemporary had several Pablo Bronstein hand-coloured etchings from their recent exhibition ‘The Grand Tour: Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth’ which celebrate the architecture in his humorous baroque pastiche style (‘Chatsworth Sauce Tureen in Gold’, above).

unnamedFurther East, at the Old Truman Brewery, there was more innovation – and since stands were dedicated to artists rather than galleries, there was all the more opportunity to find out directly about the techniques used and the ideas behind the work.  Making a bee-line for the tea stand, I realised it was surrounded by an installation piece by IMA Studio, comprised of fluttering pages climbing the walls and gathering in corners like erudite swarms of butterflies (above left).  Numerous times I noted a tendency towards the reinvention of traditional materials: Alex McIntyre’s landscapes (below) are created from a gesso ground – like very fine porcelain plaster which can be rubbed or incised to create textural effects – with the colour infused by a layer of ink washed over the surface and pushed into the marks made.

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Sarah Kudirka’s ‘City Skies: Paint + Polaroids’ used polaroids as the ground for painting little abstract oil studies, the cube format lending a tiled effect when displayed en masse, a mosaic of the ever-evolving city’s rooftops.  ThumbnailKirsten Baskett creates heliogravure prints in Prussian blue on delicate Japanese Kozo paper; ‘Blueprints’ (right) echoes the cyanotype prints of early 19th century photography, capturing obsolete objects such as typewriters so that they appear like a fading memory.  These fragile documents are then encased in clear resin, frozen in time.  unnamed-2There are some really entertaining stands: Elle Kaye’s is packed full of extraordinary taxidermy including several peacocks and a full size zebra (left); meanwhile Carolina Mizrahi presents an entirely putty-pink coloured stand, from her fashion style photographs to the carpet and interior furnishings (below right).

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And so to Frieze…  I will gloss over Mark Leckey’s giant inflatable Felix the Cat at Buchholz Gallery and a giant ostrich/ aubergine sculpture by Darren Bader at Sadie Coles – remnants of the children’s playground approach that seemed to dominate last year (thanks to Carsten Holler).  This year Gagosian’s stand was far more impressive, dedicated to Glenn Brown who investigated the religious across art history with detailed pen and ink drawings of the Virgin and unnamed-1Child after Murillo and a riff on Durer’s drawing of feet with stigmata (left); among these were placed sculptures that appeared to be pure pigment – a 3D painting – some engulfing traditional bronze figures of putti (below right).unnamed

While the motifs used are religious, the colours were inspired by German Expressionists such as Kirchner; of the concept, Brown (quoted in The Art Newspaper) says ‘The idea of the floating form, a figure breaking apart, rotting and decaying, has a spiritual element.  Decay is just a form of change … nothing is ever really lost in this world.’

unnamed-22White Cube showed their usual roster of artists – a predictably Hirst-ian colour chart, an Emin-ified strip of neon amid a bed of barbed wire – within, yes, a white cube space.  Hauser & Wirth presented a forest of small scale sculpture on plinths.  Victoria Miro had some Conrad Shawcross sculptures (left) which would have looked more impressive outside; within a marquee overcrowded by ‘look at me’ canvases and installations, they hardly stood out.  Next door at the Lisson Gallery was one of Anish Kapoor’s dark circular concave voids which I remembered seeing on a larger scale at his RA show.  unnamed-2Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac was showing several Rauschenbergs – acrylic colour over black and white photographic prints on aluminium – and a Tony Cragg sculpture, ‘Runner’, as well as a sculptural painting (there was a definite theme for using paint to create three dimensional effects) by Jason Martin in a piercing Yves Klein blue (right). The Sunday Painter, a Peckham-based gallery, was a welcome addition to the established contemporary scene: they showed just one piece, Samara Scott’s ‘liquid sculpture’, a unnamed-27shallow pool full of colourful rubbish embedded in the floor of the marquee (left).  Scott has described her work as ‘trembling, putrid glitter … like the sewers of a tranny club. Or that horrible festering crustiness of putting eyeliner on in a festival portaloo.”  The new Tracey Emin? More fun than the bed, I thought, although there was a very real danger of my phone becoming part of the art as I avidly instragrammed.

The Frith Street Gallery presented an interesting CP-237-13_72array of work with Tacita Dean’s series of photographs, ‘Blue Line’, and Cornelia Parker’s ‘Black Path’ (right), a grid-like floor sculpture in etiolated black bronze that traces broken paving stones in Giacometti-esque style (this was raised just off the floor, possibly following an ‘accident’ at the Whitworth Gallery opening in which a visitor tripped and hurt her hand).  rimbaud4Other impressive photography appeared courtesy of Anthony Reynolds Gallery with Paul Graham’s photographs from the series ‘A1: The Great North Road’ (1982), and P.P.O.W. Gallery with Carolee Schneeman’s feminist, performative ‘Eye Body Series’ and David Wojnarowicz’s ‘Arthur Rimbaud in New York’ portfolio (above).

unnamed-11Over at Frieze Masters a trend for ‘crossover displays’ combining ancient and modern art on one stand was noticeable.  Axel Vervoordt exhibited a stunning pairing of a Roman bronze torso (left) with abstract Korean paintings such as Kazuo Shiraga’s ‘Seiku (Sacred Dog)’ of 1964, while Hauser & Wirth joined up with Moretti Fine Art to present an enthralling mixture of stand-out pieces from Renaissance memento mori to modern and contemporary art (Henry Moore, Agnes Martin).  The calibre of Frieze Masters is very high; most stands are museum quality in terms of works and presentation.  unnamed-12I particularly enjoyed the combination, at The Fine Art Society, of a small bronze cast of ‘The Sluggard’ by Lord Leighton below a red lustre charger by William de Morgan (right), accompanied by the impressive canvases of Sickert (whose ‘Facade of Saint-Jacques, Dieppe’ has come straight from the brilliant exhibition at Pallant House Gallery), Henry Scott Tuke and others.  There were some stunning drawings and paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele at both Richard Nagy and W&K – Wienerroither & Kohlbacher (below left).

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Galleries were clearly making the most of the recent retrospective of Agnes Martin’s work (for instance at Peter Freeman/Georg Laue, where a wall of her small watercolour studies for the pale striped abstracts hung) – and the current Auerbach show at Tate Britain too, with a mini-retrospecive at Marlborough Fine Art.

Photography was again a highlight with Colnaghi/Bernheimer showing a selection of some of the greatest images of Jeanloup Sieff, Horst P. Horst and Norman Parkinson.  Meanwhile, over on the other side of the marquee in the Spotlight section were some noteworthy small displays –Unknown of Boris Mikhailov at Sprovieri, David Goldblatt’s Johannesburg at the Goodman Gallery and Allan Sekula at Christopher Grimes Gallery.  Mikhailov’s ‘Yesterday’s Sandwich’ series (right) of double exposed images from the late 1960s layers the human body with landscapes and objects in colourfully surreal compositions that lie somewhere between the conceptual and documentary – in the artist’s words ‘the montage is an assemblage of elements with conflicting meanings, reflecting the dualism and contradiction of society’.

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The highlight of the fair, however, has to be Helly Nahmad’s stand which recreated the interiors of lunatic asylums (above) such as those that inspired Jean Dubuffet in 1945 as he developed the Art Brut style.  Art Brut, the gallery asserts, ’embraced the outsider, including the primitive, the eccentric, and the untrained’; but the stand’s juxtaposition also questions the moral position of such appropriation – and by extension the position of us as spectators or buyers.  Dubuffet’s works hang opposite, their ‘madness’ neatly contained within canvases on a clean white wall.

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Sluice_ is an art fair for emerging and artist-led projects staged in the Bargehouse at Oxo Tower Wharf; it is an ideal, unrestored venue and the best of the exhibits use this aesthetic dilapidation or are complemented by it.  Up at the top, under the eaves (left), Vacuous presents ‘Unspecified’, loosely grouped around the use of miscellaneous discarded objects, reinterpreted and transformed into ‘art’; so appropriate is this to the space that the work looks site-specific.  unnamed-9Helen McGhie’s ‘Corner(ed)’ (right) layers photographs of crumbling plaster walls and wrinkled skin, musing on ideas of aging and decay.

unnamed-16One floor down, Keran James (at Studio 1.1, left) uses a combination of mirrors and opaque forms to play with space, reiterating imagery of the space itself and reflecting (on) its innate though decaying beauty.  Further along at The Florence Trust William Martin’s ceramic cups – ‘Babel’ – are stacked in precarious towers, their artisan, earthy quality resonating with the worn floorboards on which they stand, throwing long shadows in the afternoon light.  But this is not simply a sculptural exhibit to stare at; the visitor is encouraged to take a cup (with Jenga-like care) and fill it with water from a dispenser, a work usefully entitled ‘Help Yourself’. Audience participation that serves a purpose.

unnamed-10Ceramics reappear downstairs at MADE, where Beth Dary’s porcelain barnacles (right) cling to a steel column as if they had been there for ever, as if the building exists on the edge of the ocean.  Dary also uses materials such as glass, beeswax/encaustic and egg tempera, creating natural forms that, in remaining vulnerable, question the human impact on the environment, a ‘powerful symbol of our fragile yet potent interplay with nature.’

After such a lot of high culture it’s back to nature for me too; having managed to kill a hydrangea in London I have retreated to back to the countryside where the plants thrive and mental struggle goes no further than selecting which vegetable to dig up.

Chris Levine: ‘Angel Presence’

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Night had fallen and the portals of the Danish Church on the fringes of Regents Park were dramatically candlelit.  Within, however, the illumination and drama were of a different order altogether.  Walking down the nave through beams of red and blue light, half-images moving dream-like across the walls, was an uncanny experience.

Frieze  press images 68This was my introduction to Chris Levine’s new site specific, immersive light and sound installation, ‘Angel Presence’.  Levine uses cutting edge light-based technologies and has collaborated on projects with Swarovski since 2004.  In ‘Angel Presence’ a laser beam hits a cluster of Swarovski crystals hanging like a divine disco ball at the heart of the space, diffracts, and throws out light across the church.  Despite an extensive career working with light, Levine admits that there is always an element of the unknown in a new space, as each structure reacts to the light in unique ways.

Perhaps best known for his holographic portrait of the Queen, ‘Lightness of Being’, this show reminds one of the true scope of using light as a medium; where holography produces something solid and finite – even if the image itself seems to move, presenting a deceptive depth – ‘Angel Presence’ presents light as an intangible and enigmatic visual experience, conversely infinite.

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There is also the sound element.  Putting on headphones, the rhythmic undulations merge sense and sight, so that the mind is quietened as rational, conscious analysis is halted.  Amidst our frenetic daily realities, Levine has aimed to create a ‘meditative state of heightened awareness … recalibrating and harmonising us with reality’. This concept has echoes of Eastern spiritualism and yogic traditions such as ‘Om’, a sacred sound and symbol often used to aid meditation. A sense of ancient mysticism is produced by the most contemporary technology.

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The choice of a Protestant church as a site for this installation is therefore interesting.  Various forms of spirituality are successfully unified here – yet Levine deliberately chooses not to use the word ‘religious’; its violent connotations in a world torn apart by religious conflict are the antithesis of what this piece is about. At the same time, however, the installation very much speaks to the Christian past.  The beams of light passing through the crystal echo what medieval craftsmen aimed for with stained glass windows which filtered natural rays of light in order to induce a sense of awe and piety – a mystical sense of benediction – among the congregation.  Levine also spoke  of the idea of ‘purity’ inherent in single wavelength light – a word that might also refer both to the quality of a substance such as crystal and to a moral state that seems defined in the simple whitewashed walls of the church over which this pure light travels.

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The result is hypnotic and transcendental; in the midst of Frieze week frenzy, it offers the ultimate restorative.

Images by Andrew Atkinson

Abstract Colour: Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly and John Hoyland – part II

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Caruso St John seem to be the architects of choice for contemporary galleries at the moment.  Gagosian have worked with the architects before – on their London Britannia Street, Rome and Paris galleries; Damian Hirst has clearly been impressed by the success of these spaces and chose to work with them on his enormous Newport Street Gallery.  The new Gagosian (above and below) is on Grosvenor Hill, a quiet paved mews in the heart of Mayfair.  The design is slick but unobtrusive, simple rectilinear forms, slim pale bricks and large squares of plate glass – the ultimate ‘white cube’ approach.

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Gagosian have inaugurated this space with an exhibition of Cy Twombly, following a tradition which has seen the artist inaugurate galleries in London Britannia Street (2004), Rome (2007-8), Athens (2009) and Paris (2010).  The first room displays sixteen works on paper from the 1969 Bolsena series – the classic Twombly accumulation of scratchy mark-making, numbers and scribbled shapes in crayon and pencil that flow from the bottom corner of the sheet like an eruption from the mind of a frenzied mathematician or scientist.

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The second room contains more recent work – two enormous, ‘as yet unseen’, Bacchus paintings (2006-8, above) which take up a wall each.  Red acrylic is swirled over the canvas with joyous abandon and allowed to drip, the solid, purposeful, gestural strokes in tension with the thin, passive drips that coalesce into layers of pigment, an orgy of blood or wine.  On the two walls between hang another pair – Untitled (2007, below) – of a similar scale, each a diptych, one thinner vertical panel painted with jagged blue lines reminiscent of a hospital monitor, the other almost square and scrawled with purple amoeba-like forms.  The latter, like the Bacchus paintings are energetic and dripping with paint, full of life.

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In between are placed a number of sculptures, which are so much more diminutive than the paintings – or even the works on paper – that they make less impact than they should.  One (Untitled c.2004) has the appearance of malleable clay with thumbprints indented, and yet is cast in bronze; it is the size of a battery or engine yet without the sharp edges or the practical purpose – it sits somewhere between the biomorphic shapes of the paintings and the mechanical formulae that the drawings suggest.  Another (Untitled 2001-2) appears to be a cloth tied with string around a slim wooden totem, covered – almost dripping with – white paint; yet this too is cast in bronze.

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188_N166_lore_570It is fortunate that the Newport Street Gallery (above) is named after its address; I was able to navigate my way by iPhone to a back street tucked behind the train line running into Vauxhall station.  The gallery encompasses three converted 1913 scenery-painting studios together with two new buildings, spanning almost the entire length of the street.  Treading in the footsteps of Saatchi, Damian Hirst has created this cavernous gallery space to show works from his own private art collection.  With one double-height gallery and part of the upper floor lit by the sky-lights of the jagged roof, clean wood and stone spiral staircases at either end and industrial concrete floors, this is cutting edge art world minimalism in design.

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He has begun with ‘Power Stations: Paintings 1964-1082’, a retrospective of John Hoyland, a British abstract artist who wholly deserves a reappraisal.  There is nothing ‘Sensation’ or Brit Art about it; Hoyland is a serious painterly painter.  He was influenced, like Agnes Martin, by the American Abstract Expressionists, whose work was exhibited at the Tate shortly after Hoyland moved to London from Sheffield in 1956.  The earliest works on show here (such as 17.5.64, above) are bright patches of colour – from black to orange and a luminous acidic green – that resonate with almost visceral force against deep saturated red backgrounds.  In fact all the paintings in the first room use stained red grounds with more solid blocks of colour superimposed; these are discrete forms, but with soft edges, some appearing to seep or melt into the background colour.

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In the next space are green stained grounds (12.6.66, above).  Much like Martin, Hoyland quickly stopped using circles to focus exclusively on rectilinear forms; unlike Martin, he uses these to create a sense of depth and space within his paintings.  In some of the green paintings the contrast between the relative opacity of the paint, and between the geometric forms plays with our perception of depth – like Escher drawings, one cannot quite tell where all the parts exist in space.

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The harsher grey on red of 29.12.66 (above) in the following room creates a more architectural space and a solidity that echoes the concrete floor, its one diagonal sufficient to create a strong perspective.  But this effect is undermined as the clean lines delimiting the areas of colour dissolve into one another at the top of the canvas.  After this, in the late sixties, Hoyland added more colours to his compositions which start to detract from the overall effect.  Upstairs the paint becomes thicker, more sharply defining the overlaid forms; it is more gestural, more textural, less controlled – but the dirtier, messier colour lacks vibrancy and it loses its power.

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A series from 1971, associated with the period Hoyland spent at his Wiltshire studio in Market Lavington, is a complete departure (23.2.71, above).  Hoyland suddenly turns away from his strong saturated palette towards pale neutrals and flesh tones, using very impasto paint on lightly stained, almost bare, canvas.  The approach appears far more spontaneous here, an explosion of marks burst out from the relics of rectinlinear forms at the centre of the canvas.

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In the 1980s Hoyland returns to his glorious colour fields – and for the first time begins to give his paintings titles alongside their completion dates. Many paintings of this period, such as Scando 2.10.80 (below) or Advance Town 29.3.80 (above), are formed around strong central diagonals.  The use of paint is more varied, with staining, drips, the palette knife and finger painting all employed with a freedom that recalls Twombly’s late paintings. The colours are layered so that some forms are only glimpsed at the edges of a superimposed plane of colour.  Memory 8.3.80, especially, builds up a sort of palimpsest of colour, like a billboard constantly stripped back, revealing little bits of the past: the painter revisiting his lifetime in paint.

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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…

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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.

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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

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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

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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.