Vanessa Bell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery review ***

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Vanessa Bell 1879-1941

Dulwich Picture Gallery, 3rd June 2017

Sun shining. Dulwich Park at play. Bit of a picnic then off to the Vanessa Bell retrospective with SO, BUD and KCK. This is London. It won’t go away.

Dulwich PG does a fine job in bringing together thoughtfully curated exhibitions of the non-blockbuster names in a concentrated way. Nothing to frighten the horses but not too stuffy either. And the location is always worth the journey. In the last couple of years I have enjoyed exploring the work of artists as diverse as Nikolai Astrup with his bold Norwegian landscapes, the under-appreciated Winifred Knights, Eric Ravilious with his exacting eye and best of all MC Escher with his unique prints (so good I saw it again in the Hague). There have been some disappointments: the Adriaen van de Velde was the final proof that I just don’t get on with Golden Age Dutch landscapes.

This, broadly, was a success. I am not utterly convinced that the talents of the leading lights of the Bloomsbury Group were as considerable as they might have imagined. Their louche lifestyles (Bell was married to critic Clive Bell, was sister to Virginia Woolf, and had affairs with artists Roger Fry and Clive’s lover Duncan Grant) and absence of home-grown competition, might have secured them a more elevated place in British cultural history than is warranted. I am probably wrong on Virginia Woolf, the SO is the expert here, though interesting to note that Woolf herself envied her sister’s talent with paint, and certainly wrong on John Maynard Keynes, who applied his massive intellect, with self-evident success, to the world of Mammon rather than the Muses. I know it is a class warrior cliche to have a pop at this lot but generally I am not sure much of the painting that come out of the key BG figures was actually up to much.

Vanessa Bell though represents the best of the rum bunch however. This exhibition, apparently the first retrospective of this scale which surprises me, does highlight though that she never seemed to shake off the influences of her Continental peers, notably all those post-Impressionists. There are traces of German Expression here, a bit of van Gogh there, some Cezanne in the landscapes, Monet haystacks, Matisse dancers, some abstract experiments, a still life that is a dead ringer for her teacher Sargeant’s style. After a while however her voice does emerge and the whole does turn out to be more satisfying than the sum of the parts. The paint is tenderly applied and the colours, which are undeniably muddy throughout, do start to push out. The subjects, whether it be her toff mates, the lovely landscapes and houses she was fortunate enough to frequent, or the well composed still lifes, are undeniably attractive even if they don’t say much beyond that to me. I just can’t see the radical painter that others identify.

So all in all a very pleasant experience. I mean that in both a good way and a not so good way. This is the document of a privileged life seen through the art of a privileged woman. They are very pretty pictures but nothing that offered any new perspectives for me. Definitely worth viewing but only as a complement to other more challenging contemporaneous artistic output.

 

 

Howard Hodgkin at the National Portrait Gallery review ***

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Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends

National Portrait Gallery, 18th May 2017

I haven’t really known what to make of the work of Howard Hodgkin who sadly passed away just before this exhibition began (having been involved in its creation). And I am still not sure what to make of it.

This was the first time I have seen a solo exhibition; previously I had only seen a few works in permanent collections. Now clearly it is impossible, at least for me, not to bowled over by the vibrant colours that he employed in his work and by the exuberance of the mark making. On the other hand I cannot say that I get any great reaction beyond this.

This exhibition focusses on his portraiture. This was largely done from memory and Hodgkin was always trying to capture the essence of the person or persons he was painting – the memory if you like. This means that his portraits became ever more abstract through his career, such that, by the end of his life, just a couple of broad brush strokes might suffice to capture the emotional core of his subject.

The problem for me is that as an observer I have no knowledge of these subjects (many of whom were fellow artists or collectors) and so cannot relate to the essence he has focussed on. So I am then just left with the colour and the patterns which, in some, though not all cases, are extraordinarily bold, vivid and certainly uplifting, with beautiful paint, but, unfortunately, offer me nothing beyond that. With more figurative portraiture, though not mimetic, I am able to see and examine the subject in a way that Hodgkin’s work precludes.

So definitely worth a good look and I have learnt far more about this important, though taciturn, British painter of the last few decades, but I am not sure he is an artist I will seek out in future visits unlike some of his contemporaries. Though as with other vivid colourists, there is no doubt that a good stare at their work makes subsequent real world colour burst into life, at least for a few hours. Be happy.

Some ideas for the culturally inclined in London

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Here is a very brief round-up, (apparently I can drone on a bit so have tried to be disciplined), of the current and forthcoming major theatre and exhibition events in London that have caught my eye (and ear). I have a list of classical concerts which is still good to go for those that way inclined (Some forthcoming classical music concert ideas (with a bit of nostalgia thrown in) and will take a look at the best of the forthcoming seasons at the two major opera houses in another post.

No particular order and not at all obscure. There should be tickets available for all of these but in some cases you may need to get your finger out.

Hope this helps if, unlike me, you are not over endowed with time.

Theatre

I can vouch for the first four below and the rest are those which I think are likely to be the most likely to turn into “must-sees”.

  • Hamlet – Harold Pinter Theatre – June to September 2017

If you think Shakespeare is not for you then think again. Andrew Scott as our eponymous prince could be chatting to you in the pub it is that easy to follow (mind you, you’d think he was a bit of a nutter) and Robert Icke’s direction is revelatory. Plenty of tickets and whilst it’s not cheap they aren’t gouging your eyes out compared to other West End shows. Here’s what I thought.

Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

  • The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre – June to October 2017

This will almost certainly be the best play of 2017 and will be an oft revived classic. It is better than writer Jez Butterworth’s previous masterpiece, Jerusalem. Prices are steep but the Gielgud is a theatre where the cheap seats are tolerable. If you see one play this year make this it.

The Ferryman at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

  • Babette’s Feast – Print Room Coronet – to early June 2017

There are a couple of weeks left on this. Probably helps if you know the film or book. I was enchanted though proper reviews less so. Loads of tickets, cheap as chips, not demanding at all, lovely venue.

Babette’s Feast at the Print Room Coronet review ****

  • Othello – Wilton’s Music Hall – to early June 2017

Again just a couple of weeks left here. Once again perfect Shakespeare for those who don’t think it is for them. Big Will’s best play and an outstandingly dynamic production. Another atmospheric venue, though I would say get right up close. A bargain for this much class.

Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

  • The Tempest – Barbican Theatre – July and August 2017

This is the RSC transfer from Stratford. Simon Russell Beale, our best stage actor, as Prospero. Some fancy dan technology is employed. Reviews generally positive though you always get sniffiness from broadsheets whenever RSC plays a bit fast and loose with big Will. Not cheap but at least at the Barbican you will be comfy (if you don’t go too cheap).

  • Macbeth – Barbican Theatre – 5th to 8th October 2017

More bloody Shakespeare. Literally. On this you are going to have to trust me. Ninagawa is a Japanese theatre company renowned for its revelatory productions. So in Japanese with surtitles. But when these top class international companies come to the Barbican it is usually off the scale awesome. I’ve been waiting years to see them. Enough tickets left at £50 quid a pop but it will sell out I think.

  • The Suppliant Women – Young Vic – 13th to 25th November 2017

Reviews when this was shown at Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh were very good. Aeschylus, so one of them Greeks, updated to shed light on the refugee crisis. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, and you can probably wait until closer to opening, but I still think this will turn into a must see.

  • Ink – Almeida Theatre – June to August 2017

Writer James Graham’s last major outing, This House, about politics in 1970s Britain, was hilarious and insightful. This is based on the early life of Rupert Murdoch so expect a similar skewering. Directed by Almeida’s own Rupert Goold with Bertie Carvel the lead (the sh*t of a husband in that Doctor Foster off the telly). I have very high hopes for this,

  • Against – Almeida Theatre – August and September 2017

New play which sounds like it is about some crazy US billionaire taking over the world (I could be hopelessly wrong as Almeida doesn’t tell you much). Written by American wunderkind Chris Shin, directed by master of clarity Ian Rickson, and with Ben Wishaw in the lead. Don’t know how much availability as public booking only opens 25th May, but I would get in quick here and buy blind. Almeida now a lot comfier with the padded seats and still a bargain for what is normally world class theatre.

  • Prism – Hampstead Theatre – September and October 2017

New play from the marvellous Terry Johnson who writes brainy comedy Robert Lindsay in the lead role of a retired cinematographer. I have a feeling there will be more to this than meets the eye (!!) and will buy blind on the public booking opening. Usually around £30 a ticket so if it turns into a hit, as Hampstead productions sometimes do, it is a bargain.

  • Young Marx – The Bridge Theatre – October to December 2017

So this is the opener from the team at the Bridge which is the first large scale commercial theatre to be opened in London for decades. The genius Nick Hytner directs and the play is written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. The last time these three came together out popped One Man, Two Guvnors. Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris (trust me you will know him off the telly) play the young Marx and Engels in London. Hard to think of a set up that could get me more excited but if any part appeals to you I would book now. There are loads of performances so no urgency but, if they have any sense at all, the seats here will be v. comfy with good views as it is all brand new, so taking a punt on a cheap seat will probably turn out well.

  • Julius Caesar – The Bridge Theatre – January to April 2018

Bridge again. Julius Caesar so probably need to know what you are letting yourself in for as solus Roman Shakespeare’s can sometimes frustrate. BUT with David Morrissey, Ben Wishaw, David Calder and Michelle Fairley, it is a super heavyweight cast. Same logic as above – it might be worth booking early and nabbing a cheap seat on the assumption they would be mad not to serve up the best auditorium in London if the venture is to succeed.

  • The Retreat – Park Theatre – November 2017

The Park often puts on stuff that sounds way better than it actually turns out to be, but this looks the pick of its forthcoming intriguing bunch. Written by Sam Bain (Peep Show and Fresh Meat) and directed by Kathy Burke. Comedy about a City high flyer who gives it all up but can’t escape the past. If anything is guaranteed to wheel in the North London 40 and 50 somethings then this is it. No cast announcement yet but I bet they rope some comic into the lead.

  • The Real Thing – The Rose Theatre Kingston – 2nd to 14th October

A co-production with Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre of one of Stoppard’s greatest plays. I really want this to be a cracking revival for my local.

Exhibitions

Here is the pick of the forthcoming blockbusters which I hope to get to see. The Jasper Johns and the Cezanne Portraits are the ones I am most excited about.

  • Giacometti – Tate Modern – just opened until 10th September 2017
  • Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains – V and A – until 1st October 2017
  • Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction – Barbican Art Gallery – from 3rd June 2017
  • Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! – Serpentine Gallery – from 8th June 2017
  • Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth – Royal Academy – from 23rd September 2017
  • Opera: Passion, Power and Politics – V and A – from 30th September 2017
  • Cezanne Portraits – National Portrait Gallery – from 26th October 2017
  • Monochrome: Painting in Black and White – National Gallery – from 30th October 2017
  • Impressionists in London – Tate Britain – from 2nd November 2017
  • Red Star Over Russia – Tate Modern – from 8th November 2017
  • Modigliani – Tate Modern – from 23rd November 2017

 

 

David Hockney at Tate Britain review ****

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David Hockney

Tate Britain, 2nd May 2017

OK so this is embarrassing so I will get it out of the way. I didn’t really know David Hockey’s works beyond a cursory glance at a handful of works in permanent collections and some mixed exhibitions and didn’t really know what all the fuss was about (this remember is about as popular an exhibition as TB has ever staged I gather). The idea that his fascination with new “ways of seeing” was somehow interesting or insightful felt like a bit of hype to me. I went it to this therefore expecting to be underwhelmed and finally to be able to write a review that wasn’t sycophantly gushing as is my wont.

Well I was wrong. When he wants to be this fella’s a marvel (though by no means consistently). So if there is anyone out there who didn’t know that (or was I the only one), I recommend you get along to this in the next three weeks before it closes.

So what turned me on? Well not all the scruffy early stuff though I can see its provocations. Not the first phase of LA swimming pool stuff – this is great yes (especially the buildings) but closer exposure didn’t bring to that WTF moment I look for in art. And not the IPad musings at the end. But the so flat, still, alienating double portraits, the room of amazing drawings, a few of the collaged photos and then the Wolds paintings, those paintings, and I was bowled over. I didn’t leave anything like enough time for those Wolds multiple canvasses so I will have to go back. It is like Van Gogh suddenly got serious with colour and that you are racing towards the vanishing point. So new ways of seeing – I get it now. And acrylic paint – no room for error – and the pure skill of the simplest drawings. There is still some pointless nonsense but this can be forgiven.

 

 

 

 

 

Creating Modernism in France at the Ashmolean Museum review ****

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Degas to Picasso: Creating Modernism in France

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 20th April 2017

So a day trip to the Ashmolean to take in this exhibition and a bit of the mighty Ashmolean’s permanent collection, (favourites include the Sickert room, the Medieval English collection and the Chinese ceramics and art). Well worth it since you ask.

So this loosely, and not entirely accurately, titled exhibition takes in highlights from the very fine collection of Ursula and R Stanley Johnson, from the Romantics and Neo Classicists of the early C19, through Impressionism and Post Impressionism,  and into the myriad of movements through the early C20, notably Cubism. It does a grand job in showing just how complex and exciting the evolution of Modernism was in France (largely Paris obviously) during those heady days. The collection, I gather,  was initially centred around drawings which feature especially in the first half of the exhibition, but in the second half we do get some lovely paint. Just goes to show what you can do if you send years studying art history, inherit a gallery from your dad and then deal your way to this.

There are plenty of examples of drawings from the top notch greats of the canon but what I found most interesting was the showcasing of many works from those who might not be considered household names, notably Juan Gris (three works here), Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger and Jacques Villon. Talking of Juan Gris if you quickly tire of the crush of schoolkids and tourists ticking off of Guernica in the Reina Sofia wander off to Room 208 – a collection of stunners by Gris.

Now I can take or leave all the Romantic and Neo Classicist stuff, actually no I can leave it, with Ingres and Gericault in particular a complete mystery to me. There is however a fine JL David drawing (Old Man and Young Woman) once owned by a Mr Henry Moore apparently. So I only really started to pay attention at the Manets, in particular the lithograph here taken from the Berthe Morisot portrait in the Musee D’Orsay and the delicious watercolour of a Mirabelle Plum. Degas drawings are then given an extensive workout (I am sorry I just can’t get too excited about these) before we get to some wonderful Cezanne drawings with the Study of Pine Trees the most remarkable to my eyes. Manet and Cezanne – to this day I wonder why it took me so long to get it. There is also a Portrait of Doctor Gachet which apparently is Van Gogh’s only etching – great stuff.

From here it is the Picassos and Legers which I guess will wow the punters but I was drawn to Jacques Villon, the brother oF Marcel Duchamp and Raymond Duchamp Villon, and his contemporaries, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes. All three were part of the Puteaux group whose key exhibition was in 1912, the Salon of the Golden Section. In particular I would point to to Villon’s watercolour study Soldiers Marching, and the oil portrait and drawing of his father, to Jean Metzinger’s oils, The Yellow Feather and Landscape, and to Albert Gleizes’s Still Life, his landscapes and the Stravinsky portrait. For any of you, like me, who often finds themselves more admiring, rather than really enjoying, the cubism of Picasso and Braque, I think you will get a lot of aesthetic pleasure out of these particular works. I guess some might say they veer a little towards the decorative, (and some poncey critics won’t countenance them next to big Pablo), but there is an easy immediacy here and lots of lovely colour, so I am smitten. I had seen a smattering of works elsewhere by these three but paid insufficient attention. They are now firmly on the “actively seek out’ list. Apparently the Johnsons have a truckload of Golden Section artists. I would pay good money to see those.

So there you are. A wonderful collection, easy to take in, in a top notch institution. It was a bit busy when I went (same as the Fitzwilliam when I go) and it doesn’t have any late opening as far as I know but well worth a visit. Mind you only a week left – sorry.

Eduardo Paolozzi at the Whitechapel Gallery review ****

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Eduardo Paolozzi

Whitechapel Gallery, 6th April 2017

I guess most Londoners will be familiar with Eduardo Paolozzi’s work from his monumental public sculptures such as Newton outside the British Library, The Head of Invention outside the gorgeous new Design Museum,  a Vulcan on Royal Victoria Dock and the mosaics now restored to Tottenham Court Road station. These works represent perhaps the apogee of his oeuvre but this retrospective is an ideal insight into the works that lead up to this and into the themes with which he was preoccupied.

Mr Paolozzi was a big fella judging by the photos and looked more like a shipbuilder to me than an artist. So these glorious man-machine sculptures that he left us to enjoy somehow seem appropriate. But the exhibition also shows a much more delicate hand at work.

He is considered one of pop art’s pioneers. The slide show that appears early in the exhibition (the Bunk Show), with its collage of consumerist images culled from popular print media, understandably initially baffled its audience. This was the early 1950’s – manly, artistic blokes were supposed to be aggressively sluicing industrial quantities of paint onto vast canvasses, not cutting out adverts from magazines. But clearly our man was ahead of the curve. Moreover the obsession Mr P had with colour and line, toys and especially robots, and indeed the future generally was clear from the off. The early works also include a number of simply beautiful sculptures, not just in bronze, which show off the trademark human forms made up of bits of machine like Leonardo had just gone apesh*t in the toolshed. The influence of the likes of Giacometti, Arp, Brancusi and Leger (especially) is clear – Mr P was in Paris in the 1950s. And plainly there is a clear link back to cubism in his sculpture especially.

We then move to a dazzling array of collages, screen-prints, textiles and even fashions (with some trusted collaborators notably through Hammer Prints and with JG Ballard) made up of bold colours assembled in intricate designs (the mosaics at Tottenham Court Road will give you the idea). This experimentation with media, material and image through construction and deconstruction continues upstairs. I confess that the prints, collages and textiles are less vital to my eyes than the sculpture but, even so, the effect of so many works (250 odd) is compelling.

He taught, he wrote, he inspired, he was a proper European (born in Scotland of Italian parents, worked in France and Germany as well as UK), he was knighted and he gave most of his work away to us. He ploughed his furrow, was a bit on the scatty side and didn’t really fit in with the kaleidoscope of artistic movements in the second half of the C20 (indeed there are a couple of works here that amusingly take the p*ss out of his more earnest contemporaries).

But his work is just really easy to like. In everything there is a sense of a child at play – which for me is always a good sign in modern art – and I smiled a lot. You could say, at the end of the day, that all this collaging was a bit one-dimensional but I think that is sniffily unfair. And yes the output was a bit variable. And maybe the later works are a touch self-regarding but isn’t that the way with most “popular” artists. But it doesn’t hurt your head or try to wind you up. And it does cheer you up.

So get yourself along to this. Whitechapel Gallery is usefully open late on a Thursday and is obviously perfectly placed for a spot of grub thereafter. There are still a couple of weeks left to go.

 

Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern review ****

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Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017

Tate Modern, 9th March 2017

Oh my giddy aunt. What to make of this. I am slowly clambering my way up the shaky but intriguing edifice that is contemporary art. I have a rough map in my head but still have a long way to go and need to put a lot more hours in. So that means soaking up anything that the smart people at the Tate can throw at me. After all if it never makes its way into a trophy national gallery show then it’s not art is it. But if everything was like this then the journey would be pure pleasure and no pain.

I knew nothing of Mr Tillmans before this exhibition. Well maybe I had seen one or two of the spectral images where he had arsed about with the photographic production process (don’t ask me how) like Exhibit A above. But my oh my, does he get about. Different angles and perspectives, lots of close ups, street scenes, night scenes, landscapes, seascapes, still lives, portraits, self-portraits, fashion shoots, adverts, studio manipulation, the studio itself, colour fields, colour fields in a box. It seems that everything which has been fair game to the fine, the decorative and the commercial artistic worlds in the past and present can be appropriated by Mr T. And all this work is displayed in all manner of ways to further the assault. The OED should probably create an addendum for its definition of prolific.

However, in the hands of a halfwits like me, and, no offence intended, maybe you, this plethora of photos would just be so much garbage. The world is not short of digital images but it is short of this man’s. It is just endlessly fascinating and thought provoking with a host of strikingly attractive images many of which leap far beyond my aesthetic hurdle. Waves, a deconstructed (literally) digital printer, car headlights, lobster claws, fungi, pears, an arsehole and a pair of bollocks in alarming proximity, a pair of jeans in a box. Just some of the stuff I can remember.

And then there is all the material with a political or moral perspective. No empty one-note sloganising here (well maybe a bit), but some developed ideas and provocations drawn from many sources. I particularly liked the room which juxtaposied newspaper and other media stories about key geopolitical events with extracts and lists from psychological and neuroscience journals outlining frontier research on cognition, behaviour and heuristics.

Oh to have the eye and brain of Mr T. Mind you, whilst I am a keen advocate of the elevated audio experience, (though in practice am addicted to my old style I Pod and newer MP3 kit), I have to draw the line at his taste in music. If you have state of the art kit then playing late 80s electronic, white funk/reggae reclusives Colourbox on it is a big mistake, (they were the worst band on 4AD and that is saying something). And a portrait of Morrissey only adds fuel to this particular lapse-in-musical-taste fire.

Still forgive and forget eh major when there is just so much life on show here. You kids with your constant screen tapping and minimal attention spans will love it. Seriously though, and switching off the curmudgeonly, misanthropic pose for a moment, it really will appeal to anyway with a interest in life. So that’s everybody. You look around. So does he. He is just better at knowing how and when to record and extend the experience than you are. So that you can then breathe it all in. The perfect synthesis of high and low art. And a lot of joy in the mundane and a child-like glee in his making process. Not unlike the Rauschenberg retrospective which was next door and just wound up.

Highly recommended and on until mid June.