Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery review ****

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde

Barbican Art Gallery, 15th November 2018

Here’s another smart bit of curating from the team at the Barbican, in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou-Metz here led by Jane Alison. Track the history of modernism in art – not just painting, but sculpture, photography, design, print, literature and architecture, with a nod to the commercial where appropriate – through the couples which created it. 

The net has been cast wide, both in terms of the number of artists involved, 46 partnerships in total, the themes that are explored, including love, sex, passion, politics, collaboration, abstraction, communication, and the nature of the relationships, straight, gay, bi, polyamorous, homoerotic, controlling, liberating, disturbing, equal, unequal, conventional, unconventional. 

With a few exceptions there isn’t a great deal of material here to map each couple but the quantity, and the clear and direct tone, display and messaging, makes up for that. The private connections are fascinating in themselves but also shed a lot of light on how art and artists have changed society since the turn of the C20.

There are a fair few relationships that you might expect to appear, the Bloomsbury Group permutations, Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson and then Barbara Hepworth, Alma Mahler and Gustav and Oskar Kokoschka (who really couldn’t let go), Jean Arp and Sophie Tauber, Lucia Moholy and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Delauneys. And then there are a few which I didn’t anticipate. The Aaltos, Gustav Klimt and designer and businesswoman Emilie Floge, Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder. 

It is hard not to be drawn into the stories of those women artists whose contributions, the exhibition argues, may not have been justly recognised in the shadow of their more “famous” partners, Camille Claudel and Rodin, Maria Martins and Duchamp and, arguably, Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington with Max Ernst. The fate of Dora Maar, Picasso’s early muse, and Unica Zurn, the “inspiration” for Hans Bellmer, will likely disturb. A lot of these fellas don’t come across well here. 

Most interesting for me. The intense friendship between Lorca and Dali. The portraits of Romaine Brooks, (her lifelong partner, and oft-subject was the writer Natalie Barney), entirely new too me, Lee Miller, during her years with Man Ray and Roland Penrose, she is a cast-iron genius though here, as elsewhere, the submission is unsettling, and, best of all the extraordinary creative partnership of constructivists Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko. Now they were the future, and looking at their work, they still are. And as far as I can see they were genuinely equal with no hint of the f*cked up sadism of the surrealist fringe. There they are above in the 1920’s looking pretty cool. 

Well worth a look. It may end up being more biography than art and it is probably fair to say, like most of the Barbican’s exhibitions, it is designed for the slighter, and maybe outre, attention span, but, let’s be honest that is sometimes what the head, and feet, requires. Don’t expect to be bowled over by amazing art, but do expect to learn something. Tie it in with something else – it’s not like there isn’t plenty going on at the Barbican. 

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain review ****

Edward Burne Jones

Tate Britain, 11th November 2018

Turns out Burne-Jones isn’t quite as awful as I had previously thought. Don’t get me wrong. All that hippy-dippy, fey, dreamy. dusky-toned, doe-eyed, ginger-permed, long-bodied, nymph-y, mannequin-esque, briar-strewn, Arthurian, industrialisation-denying, fake-Medieval, cod-Renaissance daubing is still guaranteed to do my head in. But I will concede that he could draw. Really draw and there are details, even in the worst of the fairy-tale illustrations, that deserve a properly good look.

I can’t change my immediate reaction to art but I can try to explain it to myself. And, if I am honest, with Burne-Jones, and the rest of the original pre-Raphaelites, and their Arts and Crafts and Neo-Gothic mates, it is in part the context in which they produced their art (and design) that winds me up as much as the work itself. As with this exhibition there are elements that I can concede give me pleasure, the colour (when vamped up as in the stained glass for example), the line and form (notably in drawings, textile, church interiors, tapestries) and the belief in the power of the aesthetic. They started off with the right inspiration, the jewels, (and working practices), of the early Flemish and Italian Renaissance, (the clue is in the pre- moniker) and their vaguely humanist intention to eschew purely religious imagery is commendable. But that doesn’t excuse the lifelessness of their subjects and the utter irrelevance of their mythologies. At the end of the day Burne-Jones ended up churning out knights in armour and pretty ladies for the great and good in Victorian society; the fate of many an artist through history for sure, but these chaps ended up as the reactionaries they purported to abjure. 

The kindness of strangers, well friends in this case, may also have had an effect on my viewing. We were a big party, with the SO, who inclines to the hyper-real in art, (though understanding that paint on canvas in two dimensions could hardly be more artificial), KCK who is an admirer, BUD the ever-curious and the Blonde Bombshells, who know their artistic onions. Me banging on about the preposterous narratives in the paintings, creepy friends and family who are persistently featured (after raiding the dressing-up box), the cut and pastes from Renaissance masters, the pointlessness, introversion and body fascism of this obsession with “beauty”, the upper-class, biscuit tin sentimentality, the failure to move on or develop his art, the dodgy androgynous eroticism, the all-round sameyness, would clearly have been border-line patronising. 

Particularly since I could be found avidly staring at many of the works looking for all the world like some-one who might be enjoying them. And as I discovered that Burne-Jones was not the la-di-dah toff I had assumed but working-class and self-taught. And Jimmy Page has pitched in with his Holy Grail tapestries. Which seems apposite. Led Zep were often musically at their very best (Immigrant Song, Stairway, Achilles Last Stand, No Quarter) just as lyrically they were off with the fairies. 

What was most interesting then? The early drawings, Going to the Battle, Buondelmonte’s Wedding, the stained glass from the V&A (if you ignore the pretty faces), the various pencil studies, the bodycolour nymphs enhanced with metallic paints, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, The Morning of the Resurrection, Love and the Pilgrim, the Lucien Freud-like portraits, details of the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty and Perseus/Medusa series, The Fall of Lucifer and certain of the tapestries, like the Adoration above. Though I can’t say I “liked” these works, admired might better cover it. And much of the rest still annoyed me. 

So Burne-Jones. Sublime or ridiculous? You decide. For me he was both. Simultaneously. Conservative Victorian or symbolist visionary? Again a bit of both. Style over substance? Certainly but that is exactly what he and his peers set out to deliver I’ll warrant. I can see why people like Burne-Jones’s art. I just can’t quite see exactly what it is they like. It is, at least in the big, showy, famous works, very, very detached from any reality, yet seems to be prized by many for its verisimilitude. I have a feeling you could use Burne-Jones as the ultimate artist in one of those sociology attitude tests. All that useless beauty as Elvis (C not P) once said. 

Me? I would still rather spend a couple of hours with one van Eyck. More beauty. More skill. More reality. More meaning. More life. 

I can’t fault the curation though, Surprisingly this is the first full-scale survey in London of EBJ since 1975, amazing given his popularity, and the Tate has built handsomely on its own catalogue to give us the whole shebang. Downstairs in the tomb-like Manton St galleries. Which doesn’t suit every artist but sets EBJ’s sleepy melancholy and false colour palette off to a tee. There is a kind of cumulative surrender in seeing so many, large-scale, paintings hung together. 

And can anyone tell me who the bloke with the chiseled features and scary eyes is who keeps cropping up? 

Monet and Architecture at the National Gallery review *****

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Monet and Architecture

National Gallery, 14th June 2018

I am not the biggest fan of Monet’s later, post-Giverny work. Loved the actual garden, the white suits, the pipe, the spectacular beard, the repetition and the joy. But the colours make me queasy and the smudginess is disorientating. I know that is what his eye could see but it still unsettles me. And then there is that general “pretty-pretty” thing about Impressionism, and the way it is has been confiscated by the cultural imagination, that puts my back up.

The earlier stuff though does the business and pop a building in, or some other expression of the built environment, and I am a buyer. It offered up another set of shapes, beyond the natural, for our Claude to explore, and provided anchors for the eye. And later on, in Rouen, or London, or Venice, new textures. And when you see room upon room of paintings of such beauty it is, cliche-alert, breath-taking. This exhibition is an aesthetic delight. No need to think about context, concept, history, method, material, technique, message, or anything else for that matter. Let there be light as some other important old fella with a big white beard might have said.

That’s it. Just go. And be happy. I’ve nothing else to say.

Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery exhibition review ****

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Andreas Gursky

Hayward Gallery, 4th April 2018

Odds are you have seen one of Andreas Gursky’s giant, hypnotic, immersive photographs. He charts the relationship between man and environment, fiddling with perspective, highlighting the repetition of our own industry and locating the beautiful and the ugly, often simultaneously. His viewpoint is oftendistant but his technique and process yields intense clarity and detail. You may start this exhibition thinking “yeah, so what” but by the end you will be enthralled, perturbed and maybe a little overwhelmed.

AG was born in Leipzig in 1955 but grew up in Dusseldorf when his family escaped to the West. His parents ran a commercial photography studio and he studied photography in Essen and then in Dusseldorf under Bernd and Hilla Becher. They are the conceptual artist couple who turned work-a-day industrial buildings into monochrome beauties. His peers, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Hofer and Axel Hutte, made up the so-called “Dusseldorf School”, the name as bracingly unambiguous as much of their photography. Even those of us with only a cursory interest in photography will have encountered most of these artists. He used film early on but turned digital in the early 1990s extending the scope of his experimentation, notably with perspective and scale.

His early works shows people in his native Germany engaged in leisure activities dwarfed by both the landscapes they seem lost in and by the industrial or commercial activity which crops up at the margin. A sharp contrast of rural and urban, they hark back to the Romantic landscapes paintings of the previous century. He wasn’t averse to manipulation, as are painters, Rhine II, above, has been constructed by editing out a power station. Apparently this is the most expensive photograph ever sold $4.3mn.

Indeed there is a painterly sensibility throughout the exhibition in the use of colour and form, with nods to all manner of artistic movements, and even some straight homage with a photo of three Turner landscapes. These are not “true to life”, Gursky explicitly wants to “construct reality”, which brings them much closer to paintings than photos, albeit in blazing high definition.

Pretty soon he was on to architecture, focussing on the engineering necessities, unusual perspectives, public areas, any people on show once again are tiny in comparison to the structures. There is a minimalist intent to the work even if the outcome is complicated by repetition.

He pushed printing technologies to their limits in the 1980s and 1990s to create scale which allows to look at the pictures up close, to revel in the line by line detail, as well as from further away to take in the whole. It is a lot of fun moving between the two viewpoints, especially where he has taken this to abstract extremes with carpet tiles. pyramids, ceilings and the like. It also works when he has photographed industrial landscapes or townscapes from distant characterised by rectilinear structures, the containers and apartment blocks of the port of Salerno for example, the interiors of factories and warehouses, Amazon, devoid of workers, or a 99 cent store, roof reflecting, or across the roofs of a Tokyo suburb.

This tells us a lot about how organisation and process defines so much of our built environment and maybe something about the alienation that characterises complex economic systems. The perspectives merge background and foreground which again invites close examination. This is often achieved by combining multiple images to eliminate depth of field and it gets more disorientating the longer you look. He evens creates captivating viewpoints from space by manipulating satellite imagery.

As well as engineered structures he also photographs crowds from elevated viewpoints, whether it be open outcry trading floors, the energy of mass raves or the orchestrated choreography of displays in North Korea. These often create a sense of time standing still, especially where the image has been manipulated such as the F1 Pit Stop, despite the apparent frenetic activity (there are way too many mechanics in attendance here and the two crews are at different races!). This manipulation has been taken to greater extremes in more recent work such as the picture of Iron Man and his lady friend on a tropical beach, or the four German Chancellors improbably admiring a Barnett Newman minimalist painting. I’m not sure these measure up, (literally in some cases as these works are smaller in size), to the earlier studies, but they are often witty, like the shelves in the Prada store with product digitally removed.

It was a dullish day on my visit so the newly restored Hayward Gallery top floor lightwells were not shown off to full advantage but that might have been just as well given the dizzying amount of information the eye has to take in across this extensive retrospective, some 70 works in total. Even at the best of times I find it pretty demanding to create an impression of what I have seen or heard in these primitive posts. This exhibition was especially tricky to capture. I suggest you just go and see for yourself. For what is most extraordinary is that, with all the manipulation and technical wizardry, Andreas Gursky seems to capture exactly what we think we see. The eye and brain is no camera. AG knows that and knows we are just a little bit afraid of what we can do.

 

 

The Cardinall’s Musick at St John’s Square review ****

The Cardinall’s Musick // Andrew Marwood - London Wednesday 5

The Cardinall’s Musick, War and Peace

St John’s Smith Square, 19th November 2017

  • William Byrd – Kyrie from Mass for five voices
  • William Byrd – Ad Dominum cum tribularer
  • Benjamin Britten – Advance Democracy
  • James MacMillan – When you see the millions of the mouthless dead
  • Orlando Gibbons – O Lord in thy wrath
  • James MacMillan – A Child’s prayer
  • William Byrd – Agnus Dei from Mass for five voices
  • William Byrd – Kyrie from Mass for four voices
  • Philippe de Monte – Super flumina Babylonis
  • William Byrd – Quomodo cantabimus
  • James MacMillan – Emitte lucem tuam
  • Arvo Pärt – Da pacem
  • James MacMillan – Christus vincit
  • William Byrd – Agnus Dei from Mass for four voices
  • William Byrd – Peccavi super numerum

Sitting in Thomas Archer’s fine Baroque masterpiece church, rapt audience, listening to one of the UK’s finest ensemble interpreters of C16 and C17 British vocal music, here singing a diverse set of texts from composers past and present framed by extracts from William Byrd’s finest works, the Masses for four and five voices. And all to remember the fallen of past conflicts.

The Britten piece is packed with drama and I see nothing wrong with the pungent warning against Fascism in the text. As ever with the James MacMillan’s work the directness and invention wins you over but I have to say A child’s prayer, written in memory of the victims of Dunblane, pulls you right up with its repeated dirge of “Welcome”. Even by Part’s standards Da pacem is sparse but still so powerful. The biggest surprise of this excellent evening however was the Philippe de Monte motet which apparently stuck a chord with the nominally recusant Byrd. And the concluding five part Byrd motet, Peccavi super mumerum, which was new to me, left me pinned to my seat.

Don’t go through your life without William Byrd. I should probably stop there. So I will.

Designs of the Year 2017 at the Design Museum review ****

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Beazley Designs of the Year 2017

The Design Museum, 8th November 2017

If you have any interest in design you are probably on to this but, if not, you should be. This is the tenth year of the exhibition, now held in the basement of the Design Museum’s plush new Holland Park home. I have been in the previous three years and, as before, there is plenty to fascinate and wow the imagination of the layman.

The exhibition comprises 62 projects divided into six categories: architecture, digital, fashion, graphics, product and transport. These are contained within a grotto like structure made up of some sort of curious paper mache like material. Very playful. There’s even some Lego to keep the kids occupied; one of the products is some natty “sticky strips” that might allow your Lego creations to defy gravity. I divined a more interventionist vibe than in prior years with a very definite focus on recycled materials and on minimising ecological impact. Sexy brand stuff was thin on the ground. The designers on show plainly what to make good things happen. Hats off to them.

Now I have to confess that I find the architecture, product and transport categories more interesting than the digital, fashion and graphics categories but there is literally nothing here that doesn’t get the brain cells working in some way. The Smithsonian National Museum of African_American History and Culture in Washington, Zaha Hadid’s last building, at the Antwerp Port Authority (I’ve seen it – it’s bloody awesome) and the  controversial Benetton store in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, stood out in the architecture section. My favourite though was the Croft Lodge Studio fashioned out of a derelict C18 cottage. I want one. In transport the standout surely was the Scewo mobility chair which can climb stairs. I also fell for the self-driving, electric tram system from China which is guided by a double-dashed strip on the street! As for products I was drawn to the search and rescue drone designed to help migrants in the Mediterranean, the Gita robot personal helper (though it could get very annoying) and, especially, the Sufferhead Original Stout beer concept, a powerful idea.

Anyhow I am sure you will find something to draw you in. Now it is a pretty small space, so this won’t take up too much of your time, maybe an hour or so. Which means, if you aren’t to feel a little bit miffed by the 13 quid admission, (get an Art Fund Card to halve the price – all you cultural flaneurs should invest in one), you need to leave time to cruise the permanent exhibits in the DM. Up on the top floor is a compact overview of design history, piled up with some absolute classic products, which should equally please the nostalgic old and digital young. There is little that will surprise but much that will delight.

Best of all is the beautiful interior of the DM space carved out of the old Commonwealth Institute which has rescued, and restored, its truly stunning, though very problematic, hyperbolic, paraboloid (!) copper roof. The original building, completed in 1962, designed by Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall & Partners, is the finest modernist building in London IMHO, ahead of the Royal Festival Hall. After the CI itself was canned there was a real chance the building might be toast as well but fortunately pragmatism reigned, and architect John Pawson was finally wheeled in to oversee the salvation of the interior. Some whinged about the price to be paid to make this all happen, namely the development of luxury flats in the square in front of the new DM. Ignore them. These too are stunners, an understated design from Dutch wunderkind-architect Rem Koolhass’s OMA.

So pop on your smartest black designer togs and channel your inner Arne Jacobsen, Dieter Rams or Jonathan Ive.

 

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain review *****

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Rachel Whiteread

Tate Britain, 25th September 2017

If you take even a passing interest in contemporary British art you are probably aware of Rachel Whiteread, and you may well have seen some of her work. Even if you are not interested, or are firmly in the nihilistic, hater camp that thinks this is all bollocks (a diminishing minority I am pleased to say), you will have heard of her. In the early 1990’s the “popular” press got it another one of their pathetic lathers about her work House, in East London, which helped her win the Turner Prize. The “controversy” was then comically ratcheted up as Tower Hamlets council proceeded to knock it down, thereby getting us arty-farty, liberal types in a tizz. Thus proving the whole point of public art – engagement.

You might also remember her project Monument for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, a resin cast of the very plinth on which it is set. A perfect transparent mirror image. I seem to recall it was one of the more loved of the commissions in this most public of locations, but that might just be me.

You are also likely then to be aware of her making process which generally involves complex casting in a wealth of materials at a range of scales. Her chosen subjects are normally mundane, sinks, bog rolls, windows, doors, even rooms and buildings, but what she achieves is mesmerising.

For me this exhibition is a must see. It encompasses some her earliest work from the years following the Slade through to the exhilarating resin casts of doors and windows from the last few years. I gather she started as a painter but shifted to sculpture thanks to Richard Wilson. Thank goodness for that. Mr Wilson is concerned with with the nature of architectural space, and with creating striking ways of seeing this space, and it is pretty straightforward to read the thread through to Ms Whiteread. If you ever get a chance go see 20:50, Richard Wilson’s installation of sump oil. It will take your breath away. Or if you turn up early for some gig or other entertainment at the 02 walk east along the river until you see a bit of ship otherwise know as Slice of Reality. Or look out for Square the Block at the bottom of Kingsway or stop for a moment to admire the giant “wing”, Slipstream, before you enter the purgatory of Heathrow’s Terminal 2.

Sorry back to RW. I think Closet is the earliest work in the room (the gallery has been opened up to encompass all the works in the exhibition). This is a plaster cast of the interior of a wardrobe encased in felt. No immediate aesthetic attraction for me but it opens up the possibilities that RW has subsequently mined from the idea of “negative space”. That is the space around and, more importantly, inside the subject. Often explored in two dimensional images through the Modern age but less so in sculpture (though Bruce Naumann and other US minimalists/conceptualists had kicked off the exploration). Obviously casting is a fundamental part of the sculptural process but as a means to an end not usually the end. And this is what makes RW so important and interesting, especially when compared to other British artists of her generation who are a little more “shouty” and a little less insightful than RW in more opinion.

Next door to Closet is a plaster cast of a dressing table which is more interesting, as not only does the material itself have more appeal to me, the stimulus to eyes and brain as you try to unravel the “reversal” of the space gives far more pleasure. This carries through to the rest of the early works” sinks, baths, beds and furniture. They both are, and are not, what they purport to be.

Around the corner is a vitrine of 9 hot water bottles (and similarly shaped objects like enema bags!), another common subject for RW, and here we see the dimension that the variation in materials brings, resin, plaster, aluminium, wax, concrete and rubber. These are termed Torsos. A seemingly obvious process, with seemingly obvious subjects and seemingly obvious materials is transmuted into an homage to classical sculpture and the Renaissance masters who worshipped their forebears. There is also something of the womb about them. So we see the “concept’ become the subject and finally the object. Absolutely thrilling. Trust me.

In Room 101 and the floorboards cast in resin next to it further dimensions of RW’s art are revealed. Room 101 is a plasticised plaster cast of a room in BBC Broadcasting House where George Orwell worked and which was allegedly the inspiration for the eponymous space in 1984. So lots to chew on there in addition to the effect of the reversal of the space on a much larger scale than other subjects in the exhibition. Whilst there is a cast, Chicken Shed, in the garden in front of the Tate, and we have materials relating to the planning of RW’s more monumental outdoor works (definitely read up on these) ,we can only imagine what they look like but Room 101 helps. Next door the light falling on the resin floorboards emphasises the grain of the wood with every mark, scratch and knot evidence of time passing.

Nearby there is another fascinating large scale work in a cast of some library bookshelves. The detail of the pages from the books is intriguing as the spines are positioned inwards on shelves. So the shelves turn the knowledge inwards but we are not shut out. Imagine this on a much larger scale. That would be a sight to behold. And that is why I want to see the Holocaust Memorial or Nameless Library in Vienna which is exactly that.

The coloured objects and boxes along the back wall and far corner (relative to the entrance) of the exhibition room are less successful in my view, (along with the papier mache architectural fragments where are definition and detail is lost). Turning toilet roll cardboard tubes into things of rare chalky beauty is a masterly achievement, but, overall, the “fact” of the process, and any beauty in the form and function of the object (in contrast to the architectural subjects), is less visible to me. These pieces were produced after RW had completed Embankment for the Tate Modern Turbine Hall which had a mixed public and critical response I understand. I never saw it so can’t comment but the photographic record, conjuring up an ice palace, looks pretty groovy to me.

In contrast the mighty cast Untitled (Stairs) is exactly that, mighty. Like the floors on show the wear and tear of use sing out, but the reversal of the space is somehow less interesting, or maybe too familiar from the works of Escher and others. This is not true though of the wall of doors and windows, the most recent works, and for me the very best of RW’s work on show here. There are just beautiful. Especially the coloured resin casts. Seeing “through” the windows echoes their purpose. I couldn’t take my eyes off the resin doors, especially the two “antique” subjects from the C17 and C18 century, with the light casting shadows and reflections through on to the wall behind them. Mind you I do like old doors.

So when you finally tear yourself from these works, pass through the room of works by other artists curated by RW, which show the association with other British conceptual sculptors of an earlier vintage who also weren’t prepared to sacrifice aesthetic appeal in their work. RW has followed a clear and identifiable artistic journey but the link bank to the first generation of US minimalists and US/UK conceptualists is strong.

Then make sure to see Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) in the solemn Duveen Gallery. 100 coloured resin casts of the “internal” space of little side tables arranged in, I think, random order. Like tiny sentinels, ice cubes, soaps, sweets or children’s toys. A “terracotta army” of plastic. A New York panorama. The pastel colours echo the use of plastic in modern consumer goods. Yet the colours are faded, the opacity compromised, creating an air of melancholy. Sad, baby tables. Or rather the insides of sad, baby tables. I think I better stop there.

The exhibition goes on to 21st January next year. If a quick glance at pictures of her work leaves you cold then maybe you are excused (though I still think you are missing out) but if you have even the vaguest interest please check this out. The best exhibition in London this year (so far)? For me yes. If you crave colour, emotion, passion then this may not cut it. If you like simplicity, volume. form, function, detail – if you are in touch with your inner ascetic – then pop on your sharpest threads (all black was a favoured look on my visit) and get down to Millbank.

PS. I note on Wiki that Ms Whiteread spent a little time working at Highgate Cemetery fixing lids on time damaged coffins. I cannot think of work that would have bettered informed her art.