The Summer Exhibition 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gardens, Monet and other Artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy

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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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Scenes of the Sixties

owkreoneyhko7uu8aidbThe back of the Royal Academy has appeared in many different guises in recent years.  Having seen an eclectic mixture of contemporary art, from RA schools shows to Haunch of Venison exhibitions, its stately interiors now host a more sober array.  A perspex display case stretches the length of the walls of the three first floor galleries; within are a sequence of black-and-white photographs, grouped or single, almost all the same size and mounted simply on board.  These narrate the sights and experiences of Dennis Hopper, actor and director, during the years 1961 to 1967.

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This seems an peculiarly apt mode of presentation – unframed and all of equal size – for pictures that capture the decade’s ideals of equality and freedom.  The subject matter is delightfully serendipitous; from informal portraits of artists and actors, such as Paul Newman (left), to documentary-style images of a civil rights march in Alabama (above right), to a street scene from a car window (Double Standard, below) to the abstraction of a peeling plaster wall.  The display of these images is as close as possible to their original exhibition at Fort Worth, Texas in 1970, after which they were never shown again in public until recently re-discovered by the current exhibition’s curator, Petra Giloy-Hirtz.

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The years that Hopper documented saw an intense period of social change, especially in America where the civil rights movement added a serious political dimension to a decade often associated with youthful rebelliousness.  He captures the pioneers of Pop Art, the emergence of hippies and Hell’s Angels, but also the passionate speeches of Martin Luther King and the poverty of street children in a manner that is both informal and perfectly composed – worthy of comparison with the great photojournalists Cartier-Bresson and Capa.  Hopper’s intense creative phase of photography ended in 1967 when he began directing his seminal film, Easy Rider – but the whole exhibition in hindsight seems to lead up to this very conclusion: the multiple series of images appear like story boards, many small clips from the film of Hopper’s life.

hippie-girlThe RA’s Burlington Gardens rooms are almost too large and imposing a venue for such unassuming pictures, which demand you to peer in closer to enjoy the story, and get lost in a real or imagined nostalgia.  Equally, the gem-like abstract photographs that beautify the tawdry fabric of a city lose a little of their power in this vast stuccoed space.  Though the ‘white cube’ gallery space might seem a little dated now, its sharp design and sixties origins would suit this show.  How distant this world is comes sharply to mind with the final few snapshots of indistinct images on a small TV screen of the first man on the moon; now that news is so instantaneous and pervasive it is hard to imagine the need to capture moments of history in this way.

Daumier: Paris, Politics and Painting

I became gradually more impressed by Daumier as both a draughtsman and a painter as I made my way through this retrospective exhibition at the RA.  I will leave aside the satirical  lithographs, as they are well-known – indeed their fame, one starts to realise, has rather distorted Daumier’s reputation.  They do, however, provide a useful chronological anchor, their topical subjects allowing an easy (and entertaining) narrative handle on French history as it unfolded during the artist’s lifetime.

8831-charles-philipon-honore-daumierAt first Daumier’s oil paintings appear heavy-handed and ill-defined – especially in comparison to the precise and dynamic line of his pen or etching needle.  The large opening canvas of the ‘The Miller, his Son and the Ass’ (1849) is a case in point, like a second-rate copy of an old master.  However, we quickly reach the early prints for La Caricature (1830-32) and its successor Le Charivari, which would become his lifelong employment.  Both were edited by Charles Philipon, who makes his appearance in a lively lithograph showing the hawking of these journals, and also in the form of a small clay portrait bust, looking not unlike Mr. Punch (left, 1833).

EcceHomo-DaumierIn the next space, however, the large oil painting ‘Ecce Homo’ (right, c.1849-52) provides the centrepiece, and strikes a wholly different note.  The expressive, sketchy brushstrokes create an immediacy that combines with the dramatic sepia-toned contre-jour effect to throw us into the seething crowd who strain their eyes to see the hazy silhouetted figure of Christ against a halo of sunlight.  Daumier, a Republican at a time when the new Republic threatened to become the Second Empire, might have used this subject for its allegorical power to comment on the contemporary situation.  But it is in fact a timeless danger that is illustrated so powerfully, one that persists from the days of Jesus to the present; that of the political orator’s ability to manipulate the masses – with callous recourse to an innocent scapegoat.  Jesus here symbolises the Republic, betrayed by its people.

Daumier_Honore-Ratapoil-1851-IIFrom the same political concerns the character Ratapoil (literally ‘skinned rat’) was developed, initially in the pages of Le Charivari, and then in sculptural form (left, c.1851).  He epitomised “the shady agent, the indefatigable representative of Napoleonic propaganda” – and by Daumier’s death in 1875 his name was in the dictionary, defined as ‘a supporter of militarism, and particularly of Napoleonic Imperialism.’  Ratapoil’s exaggerated pose and sharp features place him somewhere between a self-confident dandy and a fiendishly plotting deviant; it is a fiercely expressive statement of the artist’s views on the corrupt political machinations in France.

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From here, the ‘Visions of Paris’ of the show’s title come to the fore.  ‘The Laundress’ (right, c.1863) was a regular sight for Daumier, who was living on the Quai d’Anjou on the Ile Saint-Louis.  He painted numerous versions of this duo as they traipsed back from the ‘bateaux lavoirs’ on the Seine – evidently late in the day as the Quai d’Anjou is in shadow while the opposite bank is bathed in light by the setting sun.  Despite its diminutive size, this image was likened by his peers to Millet’s ‘The Gleaners’ for the figures’ quiet and stoical  monumentality.  Beyond are two large canvases entitled ‘Man on Rope’ that, in a manifestly unfinished state, are intriguing in their ambiguity.

2The paint surface is like that of a crumbling fresco on the walls of a long-neglected Italian Renaissance church.  The limbs, deftly sketched in ochre, have the muscular contrapposto of a Michelangelo cartoon.  Yet the figure’s purpose and the focus of his gaze remain a mystery; he hangs suspended precariously in a moment of frozen time.  That he is a whitewasher working on the facade of a building is the most plausible interpretation (though less romantic than the idea of an eager Romeo or an escaping convict) – but recent critics have proclaimed this irrelevant; in its enigmatic state, the painting is understood as an allegory of suspense, instability and transience, and viewed in this way it is radically modern in its existential expressiveness.

daumier---print-collector-detailCertain characters and types particularly appealed to Daumier as an artist – among them lawyers, amateur print collectors, and street performers.  Here we can see his multiple approaches and reworkings of these themes – in pencil, pen, watercolour and oil, and in scenes of dynamic performance as well as silent contemplation.  A barrister, one arm clutched by the pathetic figure he is representing, points with a dramatic gesture

DB3_2 and wild-eyed intensity to the picture of Christ presiding over justice on the wall of the courtroom (‘The Defence’, left, c.1865).  Meanwhile, a bourgeois gentleman in shabby greatcoat and top hat rifles through a portfolio of prints, absorbed in his perusal (‘L’Amateur d’Estampes’, above, c.1860).  The street performers are the most poignant; the hang alternates images of pierrots and strongmen playing to the crowds with backstage views where we intrude on their exhaustion and dlead_imageespair, costumes hanging from hunched shoulders, ridiculous and degrading.  The figure of the lone Pierrot, pitiful in his awkwardness, was famously painted by Watteau in ‘Gilles’ (1719) which Daumier would have seen in the Louvre.  In ‘Street Scene with a Mountebank Playing a Drum’ (right, c.1865), however, the costumed figure is surrounded by the bustle of the Parisian street, rather than stranded within the idyllic fantasy world of the fete galante, and he is not a fictional character but a tired and aging man earning his living; yet he still appears isolated and ill at ease, a figure of fun with a sad expression of stoic endurance.  Sickert would be an important beneficiary of this subject matter, translated to the music halls of Edwardian London, and the beaches of the ‘Brighton Pierrots’ (1915).

daumier-key-55-24506This same capacity for endurance is seen the travellers in the ‘Third Class Carriage’ (above, c.1860-3), who tolerate their uncomfortable journey with dogged patience, absorbed in their individual thoughts or tasks.  The amber glow that suffuses the carriage might have made this a C19th social narrative full of pathos and high-minded moralism.  Instead, like ‘Man on Rope’, the figures are simply seen suspended mid-journey, their lives and cares unknown; prefiguring the symbolism of Denis or Ranson, and the early studies of peasants and townsfolk by Van Gogh (who was an ardent admirer), they are presented as solid, human, in honest and unjudgemental terms.

Lunch in the Country (c. 1868) by Honore Daumier, part of the Visions of Paris exhibition‘Lunch in the Country’ (c.1867-8) depicts a more animated assembly.  The deft outlines and spontaneous, lively brushstrokes bely Daumier’s skill as a graphic artist as well as his gift for capturing character and atmosphere.daumier_quixote2

From his fascination with the people and politics of Paris, from the immediacy of the everyday, Daumier started to retreat towards the end of his life into the realm of the imagination, and this is reflected in the significant number of studies and paintings he produced of the the figure of Don Quixote. ‘Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’ (right, c.1866-8) employs the contre-jour technique that Daumier established to such effect in his earlier oils such as the series of laundresses, and the figures still retain all the substance of the man and his ass of 1849.

159699In the Courtauld’s version of ‘Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’ (left, c.1870), however, the subject has come to symbolise the tension between the real and the imaginary – literally, as the faceless figures are gradually absorbed into the all-encompassing earthy tones of the surreal desert landscape.  This passage from reality to imagination is illustrated even more cogently in ‘Don Quixote Reading’ (below right, c.1865-7) in which the character’s legs are well-lit and defined, as if grounded in the physical world, while his torso and head are indistinct and vague, disappearing into a dreamland conjured by the open book on his knee.

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It goes without saying that Daumier was a man of his time; that is evident from the sharp and witty political ripostes he produced over many decades for Le Charivari.  But having seen the scope of his non-journalistic paintings and drawings I would go further and say that he was an artist well ahead of his time – proven by the fact that these works were not exhibited until just before his death in 1879 (by the far-sighted dealer Durand-Ruel, an early supporter of Impressionism) and only came to be appreciated in hindsight,through eyes accustomed to modernism.  ‘Two Sculptors’ (below) is no longer viewed as an ‘unfinished’ sketch lacking narrative significance, but as a forerunner of modernism – described by Baudelaire as ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’, that, once combined with ‘the eternal and the immovable’, produces great art.

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Exhibitions – part 1

On Thursday I saw the Bronze exhibition at the RA.  Far later than everyone else, I know, but in the relative peace and tranquillity that presides at 8am.  In a pre-coffee state, I was quite prepared to ignore all the blurb and just look at the sculpture without trying to form any sort of art historical interpretation, or even a compare and contrast sort of attitude; if anything I returned to my childhood approach – ‘out of everything in THIS room, what would I take home?’  Well, of course what I would really like is to have the entire Royal Academy as my personal museum, on a deserted island a bit like the one in Bond where he first meets the villain.  But failing that, here are some of my choices and rejections.

The Dancing Satyr, yes, as this was the only piece in the first room so no difficulties there.  Only if I had some sort of circular entertaining space with spectacular lighting.  Really, what better to set an example for a really Bacchanalian party than this figure totally absorbed in his ecstatic dance?  The only really obvious example of influence the curators allowed was the (not quite) juxtaposed Etruscan votive figure with a small Giacometti.  I found that very satisfying among the overwhelming variety elsewhere.  The Etruscan version showed a smiling boy’s face with a sort of Tintin quiff aloft a very elongated body; Giacometti’s figures are more melancholy, haunted, a tortured aspect to their roughly modelled, skeletal features – maybe they feel their lack of votive purpose in this alienating modern world?

The animal rooms were always going to be a difficult choice.  Who wouldn’t want a small elephant from Shang dynasty China from which to pour their wine?  Or a pair of good-natured and well-groomed leopards from mid C16th Benin to guard one’s entrance?  The Egyptian cat was perfect, sleek, mysterious, and utterly contemptuous of its neighbours – Picasso’s baboon (constructed from a vase and two of his son’s toy cars – can you imagine the distress of the small boy? Unlikely that he appreciated his father’s artistic Genius in this case) and Germaine Richier’s Praying Mantis, a towering but petrified threat.  The monster pug was in a league of its own.

Too much to write about… Only I can’t resist mentioning Adrian de Vries’ Hercules, Nassus & Deianira (1622); oh, the drama of the rearing centaur and his hapless victim – totally ignored by the mongrel who is wearily trying to protect his flask of wine.  And the Etruscan Chrysippos Cista – one of the few blurbs I did read, but which failed to inform me why there should be two soldiers carrying a naked woman horizontally on the lid (dead? drunk? fainting?) or why the claw feet of the vessel rested upon squashed toads.  And nearby, the Aquamanile Lion from Hildesheim, who with downturned eyes seems to smile indulgently as a lizard-like creature with a fleur-de-lys tail whispers in his ear (helpfully forming a handle in the process).  Or the Emaciated Buddha, a sad sight with his protruding ribs and veins in the company of so many well-fed brother buddhas (not one I would take home; he is not enjoying the party).

The contemporary additions were well chosen to show the diversity with which bronze could be employed; however, it was difficult not to notice a certain art-for-art’s-sake quality – in contrast to the functionality or decorative purpose of the sculpture of the past – which sometimes slipped into cynical subversiveness in the case of Jasper Johns or Jeff Koons.  Hepworth and Kapoor provided positive examples of absolute abstraction that allowed an appreciation purely of material and form without distraction.  And in the last room, Brancusi’s Danaide (1918) would be my final choice.  Primitive and glowing, in symmetrical perfection, her ghost of a smile silently and hesitantly heralding peace and the modern age.