Bomberg at Pallant House Gallery review *****

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Bomberg

Pallant House Gallery, 9th January 2017

Best British painter of the twentieth century? The mighty triumvirate of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David Hockney from the second half of the century certainly would be in with a shout, though Bacon is easy to admire though sometimes hard to like, and Hockney spectacularly drops the ball sometimes. Of these three Freud would get my personal vote. Then again the oddball Stanley Spencer gives me more pleasure though, where he is concerned, you can have too much of a good thing. At the beginning of the century, and assuming his birthplace doesn’t disqualify him, Walter Sickert surely must be nar the top of the list, for his own work and for his profound influence on others.

I would also put in a shout for some personal favourites, Gwen John, Michael Andrews, Richard Hamilton, and, resolutely unfashionably, Graham Sutherland and John Piper. Right now Peter Doig might also get a nomination.

But, if it were just down to me, David Bomberg (1890-1957) would get the prize. Usual story. Feted at the beginning, ignored by most during his lifetime, only managed to scrape a living, died in poverty, reputation resurrected soon after his death, critical stock rising ever since. And, in the last decade or so, finally beginning to be recognised as the master he was.

Whilst this exhibition suffers a little from the absence of some of his most famous early modernist works, from the Tate’s collection notably, it is still, in my view, a stunning exposition of his work. The early experiments with cubism and vorticism, the moving evocations of inter war East End life, the failed war painting commissions despite being more talented than peers, the sun-bleached landscapes following the sojourns in Palestine and Spain and the free-flowing abstractions (thanks Cornwall) and expressionist portraits of the later years. 

Line, light, angles, volume, draughtmanship. All plain to see. But what does it for me is the vast, and never ending, array of colour he employed. Take your time to soak in all the works displayed, (there is nothing duff here at all), then run around again and just seize on all that colour. Oh, and remind yourself just how clever Bomberg was at telling the story behind the painting. With many figurative painters the story takes time, and/or requires assistance, to crack. With Bomberg place, time, personality, drama are immediately apparent.

Whilst Bomberg may not have got justly rewarded in commissions for his brilliance, and was unable to secure a position at a premier artistic institution, there were some who appreciated what he might show them, notably his students at Borough Polytechnic. And fortunately there were enough enlightened souls there, and from the artistic groups based there, to secure his legacy, which informs this exhibition, and offers an insight into his artistic philosophy, “the Spirit in the Mass”. Not sure I completely grasped where he was coming from but I think I followed the gist. The remarkable people at the Ben Uri collection, with whom he worked, have also lent a hand in stewarding many of his key works over the years and co-curated this exhibition.

Hanging over much of the exhibition is a sense of detachment and disenchantment. This maybe reflects his struggles to get by financially from his work, the horrors he faced on the front in WW1 and the damage to London he documented in WW2, the observation of the struggles of working class life, and, most vividly, his position as an outsider thanks to his first generation immigrant status and his Jewish faith. The landscapes he chose to capture are harsh not verdant. Yet the paintings are never angry, dark or hectoring.

It would be really tricky to pick out the highlights but if you backed me into a corner I would say the Self-Portrait drawing from 1909, Ju-Jitsu from 1913, Barges from 1919, Ghetto Theatre from 1920, Pool of Hezekiah from 1925, Kitty from 1929, The Gorge at Ronda from 1935 and Cyprus from 1948. Look at these, and surely you will have to agree with me. If you don’t, well, as it happens, the Pallant House permanent collection is as good a place as any to view the alternative candidates for best British artist of the C20 (though not Bacon, Freud or Hockney – prohibitively expensive).

If the genteel surroundings of Chichester are not accessible, (remember the Cathedral round the corner itself has much for the artistic eye to feast upon), then this will travel to the Laing Gallery in Newcastle and then  the Ben Uri itself in London. Do not miss this.

 

 

Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery review *****

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Cezanne Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, 14th December 2017

Frankly they could have hung the 50 or so paintings here upside down and turned the lights off. I would still have given it 5 stars. It’s Cezanne. The painter who showed all the other painters who have come since how to paint,  by showing them how all the other painters who came before had painted.

Line, mass, volume, light, colour. These are the preoccupations of all painters for sure but it was Cezanne’s obsession with seeing the underlying structure of things that was his gift to the world.

If this meant making the subjects of his portraits sit for days on end then so be it. If this meant working and re-working tiny parts of his paintings or giving up entirely if he didn’t get it right then so be it. Clearly if you are not going to churn out sycophantic likenesses to order then you ain’t going to drum up too much business. So it was with Cezanne. Though fortunately once banker Dad was on board with the painting gig, our Paul didn’t have to worry too much about earning a living. which meant he could paint the same thing, or person, again, and again, and again, and again, and again …. until he, rather than subject/buyer, was satisfied. Though by all accounts he rarely was.

This then is why we have so many likenesses of the same subject, Dad, Mum, Uncles. Mates, son Paul, and, of course, wife Hortense (painted 29 times). This exhibition set out to collate and show these “repeats” to best advantage, and this, together with the insight into his early and late portraiture, is what made the exhibition truly revelatory to me. Odds are, one way or another, if you have a healthy interest in art and seek out most of the great collections in the Western world. you will get to see an awful lot of the paintings on display here. But to see the same subjects, hanging together, is properly thrilling.

Cezanne wasn’t interested in delving into the psychology of his sitters. No journey into the soul, or other such claptrap, on show here. Nor was he interested in mimetic likeness, with or without flattery, in contrast to the portraiture of the previous three centuries. Photography changed all that. Nor, as far as I can see, did he care too much about the social context in which his subjects might be placed. Few of the more mature portraits have much in the way of backdrop or background. The outdoors, famously in the context of that bloody hill, inspired PC but not really when it came to pictures of people. He found it just too difficult apparently, (though right at the end there is a dark, disturbing picture of his gardener, M Valier, ostensibly outdoors though you would be hard pressed to believe it).

On the other hand though I don’t think Cezanne wanted to show himself in these portraits either, even in the self-portraits. I reckon for a lot of the Impressionist, Post Impressionists, Expressionists, Post Expressionists, and anyway else who dabbled in portraiture in the C20, the picture often says as much about the artist as the sitter. PC only wanted to capture what he saw. Nothing more, nothing less. Most of the time his subjects are doing nothing other than sitting and looking.

The first couple of rooms show PC’s early experiments with portraiture. The influences of, variously, Courbet, Manet, Pissarro, and in a different way, Zola, are explained. We start to see how the techniques are refined, bolder brushstrokes, use of the palette knife, maybe too much at first, (the renderings of his Uncle Dominique), the building of the whole from little patches of colour, the “constructive brushstrokes” that evolved from his landscapes. Repetitions, eliminations, areas where ground is absent. To capture light, for sure, but also to render shape, mass, volume, in an entirely new way. Making the animate, not inanimate, but very, very still, and properly intense. Cutting everything out between eye and mark. Breaking it down to build it back up. Dialectical painting. The room with the multiple, depersonalised portraits of Hortense is where it all makes sense.

Always the same but always different. Obsessive. Not giving a f*ck what anyone else thought. A cast iron nutter. All, as any fool knows, perfect maxims for any artist to follow.

There has, I gather, never been a comparable exhibition of Cezanne’s portraits. It took a decade to pull this together. Cezanne produced around 160 portraits out of a total 1000 works. That means around a third are gathered together here. If you were in Paris last year you will no doubt have seen this. If you are in London now and haven’t seen this you are a mug. Sorry to be so rude but it’s true. Fortunately you have a month still to put this right. Exhibition of the year in 2017. Obviously. Once in a lifetime opportunity. Probably. So get on with it. Now. And if you are anywhere near Washington, (DC not Tyne and Wear), from March this year, book now.

Try this. Look at someone you know very well. Look at them again. Then stare at them. For a vey long time. Think about what you see. It is a revelation. Look at a Cezanne portrait. Really look. That is what he was about. Never really occurred to me to do this until I started reading about “art”. Just goes to show. You may look but you rarely see. Of course it also means you will be prone to spouting all manner of dreadful, pretentious guff.

Dali/Duchamp at the Royal Academy review ***

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Dali/Duchamp

Royal Academy, 29th December 2017

I don’t really get Salvador Dali. Maybe it is the over-familiarity with images of his work. Maybe it is the obviousness of the in-yer-face Freudian, symbolism. Maybe it is the flat, lifeless effect of his paintings. Maybe it is the fact that once he found a formula that worked he didn’t let go. Or maybe it was the fact that he was a bit too full of himself. I admit there is a lot of fun to be had in scouring the canvases, (and, in this fairly concentrated display, you get a fair few for your money), for his wackier conceits. But it is a transitory, and for me, slightly cheap, pleasure. Mining the sub-conscious always seems to require Surrealists to think just that little bit too long and hard about what they want to show and tell. Contrived not automatic.

Now in contrast your man Marcel Duchamp was the real deal. I am glad I have no artistic talent, (actually I am not but I have learnt to live with the disappointment), because if I were a plastic artist then I would be constantly peeved by the discovery that any great idea in modern art had already been realised by M. Duchamp. The rejection of painting and embracing of “non-traditional” media, ready mades, “anti-art” and the challenging of the commodification of art, conceptualism, game-playing and changing identity, Scratch the surface of many a contemporary artist and M. Duchamp will be visible and, without him, public discourse on the question of “what is art” would be far more muted.

The exhibition does an excellent job in portraying the friendship between these ostensibly disparate figures. Both were driven by a need to tear down convention, in art and life, and their understanding clearly went beyond a shared passion for smutty jokes and dodgy puns. IMHO though Dali’s impact, in retrospect, has been superficial, a poster art dead end, whereas, as this exhibition fleetingly shows, Duchamp’s artistic enquiry was profound. Whatever your reaction to a urinal turned upside down and signed R, Mutt you will have had a reaction. And this is 2017, (well 2018 since it has taken this long to get off my lardy arse to write this). Imagine what those lucky few observers must have thought when then first saw this 100 years ago. An artist with a female alter-ego. Commonplace now but revolutionary then. A bloke who convinces everyone he has given up art to become a chess professional. Brilliant. Taking stuff he found and sticking it together to make new things. Most major modern and contemporary artists from the middle of the last century onwards, and students today, will have had a period when they have a go at this. The results are normally awful. But Duchamp got there first. Sticking a tache on the Mona Lisa. A bona fide meme if I am not mistaken, so be grateful to M. Duchamp. Chance, language, gesture, semiotics, maths, provocation, the rejection of “craft”. All fundamental tenets of the today’s artistic conversation, all “invented” by M. Duchamp.

As you might expect carving a way through the work of these two boundary-breakers, given their eclectic output, and constraints on what they could beg, steal or borrow, likely presented a headache for the curators. They have chosen to cram as much as they can into a few of the RA rooms, which highlights the imaginations of both artists even if it does make viewing a jostled affair. It also means there is little escape from the overt misogynism of both. I was most interested in Duchamp’s early paintings (Cezanne’s influence plain to see), the wealth of holiday snaps, Duchamp’s St Sebastian, that moustache in L.H.O.O.Q. , Dali’s experiments with Cubism, then Duchamp’s (so much better). Best of all The Bride Stripped Bare …. , reconstructed by Richard Hamilton, and Duchamp’s messing around with optical discs.

I suspect I was in the minority but I would have been so much happier just with Duchamp alone, with as much contextual material as the curators here, Dawn Ades and William Jeffett, Sarah Lea and Desiree de Chair. would have dared to throw at me. Even so there was much to chew on here and more to go away and learn.

Impressionists in London at Tate Britain review ***

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The EY Exhibition: Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile 1870-1914

Tate Modern, 30th November 2017

Would I pay £17.70, the full adult price to see this. Hmm. Maybe. Different story if you are a member, (as you should be if you can afford it), but, if not, I’d say you would be much better spending your corn on the Rachel Whiteread retrospective upstairs. Given the fact that it was pretty busy on the Thursday afternoon when I waltzed in, I think I can safely say that the verdict of the public is less circumspect than mine (unless they were all members of course).

The big draw are the paintings of the Thames by Monet in the penultimate room which come from 1899 to 1901 when he took up residence each winter in the Savoy. In total Monet painted over a hundred views in the series, 37 of which appeared in a famous exhibition in 1904 in Paris. Drawn from various collections and with his famous view of the Houses of Parliament predominating, you don’t need me to tell you how marvellous they are. Any Monet series seen together is a thing of wonder, and these in particular are dear to my heart since I know the vantage point a few floors up in St Thomas’s rather better than I would like to. Is that enough though?

Well it all kicks off pretty well. The curators begin with a fascinating insight into the artistic response to the “terrible year” of 1871 which saw Paris devastated following the loss to Prussia in the war, the fall of the Second Empire, the three month siege and the brutal suppression by the French army of the Paris Commune. There is a Corot painting of Paris on fire with an Angel of Death departing high overhead and some powerful, and familiar, Manet drawings. The rest of the art here certainly shows what the artists who crossed the channel were escaping from. This was a time when the Brits welcomed foreigners with open arms. (catch a boat down the river and see a fine play, Young Marx, about another person who pitched up here and then enriched world culture). In fact London has been pretty much doing that throughout its existence so I doubt a bunch of ignorant pensioners in the shires will stop it.

Anyway a network was created when dealer Paul Durand-Ruel set up shop, and he embraced the young Monet, who spent a year here, (before his return at the end of the century), on the advice of Charles-Francois Daubigny (who isn’t a bad artist as it happens). Mind you I am not sure Mrs Monet enjoyed London judging by the face on display in her portrait. The slightly older Camille Pissarro popped up in Sarf London and Alfred Sisley joined the crew in Kensington, (proving that the French have always opted for the smartest bits of London). As we all know Pissarro and Sisley could paint, so Room 2 is a delight, though most of the works are familiar from permanent London collections. Anyway so far so good.

And then we get “James” Tissot. Now he may have been taking the p*ss out of genteel High Victorian Britain but, even if he was, it doesn’t make the paintings any more interesting. Stagey, bright and long on frocks I just can’t get on with them and there are an awful lot of them. Even so they make sense in the context of the story that its being told, so they certainly add to the exhibition, and, mockery or homage, they say a lot about the upper class Brits when they ruled the world. His friendship with the editor of Vanity Fair, Thomas Gibson Bowles provided the introduction to Society, (Tissot produced caricatures for the magazine), and Tissot ended up shacked up with his lover in St John’s Wood, which seems a posh thing to do.

What follows, rooms devoted to Alphonse Legros, who mixed with that rum pre-Raphaelite posse, Jules Dalou, Edouard Lanteri and worst of all Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, is just not my cup of tea at all. These fellows were French emigres for sure, and part of the London artistic community, and very highly regarded by all accounts, but their painting and sculpture just looks like sentimental Victorian, faux-classical kitsch to me. It pads out the exhibition for sure, and there were plenty of punters who seemed to be lapping it up, and ignoring my admittedly inaudible snorts of derision. I admit I am an almighty cultural snob but it just didn’t seem to me that these chaps fitted the Impressionist billing, at least as I understand it.

We then had a mixed return to form centred on the Impressionists take on peculiar British sports and the outdoor places where they played them and took the air. Cricket and rowing understandably fascinated our Gallic chums. Again though it is Sisley and especially Pissarro who do the business with Tissot lagging behind. Especially admirable was Pissarro’s stout refusal to paint any part of Hampton Court Palace when he lived round the corner, even as he documented all the spaces around it. Given its majesty this took a pigheaded commitment to the “everyday life” tenets of Impressionism.

My eye in this room though was drawn to the best picture in the exhibition, Monet’s Leicester Square at Midnight from 1903, normally housed at the Musee Granet in Aix-en-Provence. Hello. If some-one told you this was painted decades later you would have believed them. I know the weather in London is, and was sh*te, compared to the South of France, but there was no need for Monet to depict this quite so graphically. Like the first and second generation Camden Town painters this is murk, night, light, rain and fog but also pure, beautiful and very colourful paint. More Expressionist than Impressionist?

This leads into a room full of fine paintings, of fog, the Thames and Westminster, as a starter before the Monet entree, with works from our friend Pissarro and three of Whistler’s nocturnes. The latter are undeniably atmospheric, with a definite thematic and stylistic link to his French contemporaries, but again you can see these any day of the week upstairs. After the Monet room, the curators have somewhat bizarrely tacked on some of Derain’s Fauvist views of London, specifically Charing Cross Bridge. I have never been entirely convinced by his paintings but they are arresting, he was French, he was inspired by Monet. Yet obviously they are not Impressionistic, nor was he in exile.

So there it is. Influences, precedents and antecedents of course matter in an overview of this sort. The sub-title of the exhibition indicates that it covers French artists in exile from 1870 to 1914. Which is exactly what it is. There is a clear, if somewhat cliched, insight into Victorian London. And there are some truly stunning paintings. But there is also some frightful, in my opinion, padding, and this detracts from the whole. If you like Monet though …..

Age of Terror exhibition at the IWM review ***

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Age of Terror: Art since 9/11

Imperial War Museum London, 24th November 2017

The IWM has a splendid collection of war art which is always worth seeing and reflecting on when it is exhibited. Here the curating team has assembled 50 or so works from 40 or so artists to reveal how they have responded to war. conflict, terrorism and security since the events of 9/11. So a first for the IWM I think in terms of contemporary work on this scale.

To quote the curators. The exhibition explores four key themes: artists’ direct or immediate responses to the events of 9/11, issues of state surveillance and security, our complex relationship with firearms, bombs and drones and the destruction caused by conflict on landscape, architecture and people. By and large they succeed though the plethora of artists, approaches, media, messages and effect makes it a bit jumbled. It is concise enough though, some very fine contemporary artists are displayed and there are a handful of works that really make you think. Mind you there are also a few that don’t stand up to much scrutiny.

The exhibition begins with a video from Tony Oursler who lived in Manhattan and recorded the day’s events in an immediate and spontaneous way, You may well have seen some of the footage before: that doesn’t make it any less raw or affecting. Hans Peter Feldmann’s 9/12 Front Page, which collated front pages from major newspapers around the world the day after, has a similar effect. And Ivan Navarro’s The Twin Towers which follows is another striking work, a light installation which creates the illusion you are at the top of the towers looking down through them. The next couple of rooms have some interesting works, for example Gerhard Richter’s September from 2005 which depicts the tail-fin of a speeding jet, but here it is a print not the original oil, and one of the rugs created by Afghan craftsman, which also appear later on. But there are some failures as well, Grayson Perry’s pot, Dolls at Dungeness, and the Chapman Brothers Nein! Eleven!, which is pretty facile.

Ai Weiwei’s Surveillance Camera with Plinth, works as do his other marble renditions of everyday objects, and makes its point, but doesn’t really get more interesting on repeated viewing. Jitish Kallat’s Circadian Rhyme, showing the gamut of everyday situations where we are now searched, makes a similar point through the use of model figures. Further on I was most struck by Rachel Howard’s iconic image Study, Mona Hatoum’s Natura morte, delicate, shiny Venetian glass versions of grenades, by Francis Alys’s video, Sometimes Doing Is Undoing and Sometimes Undoing Is Doingcontrasting the maintenance of automatic weapons by both sides in Afghanistan, Head of State by kennardphillips and, especially by Omer Fast’s 30 minute film, 5000 Feet is the Best, with its repetitions, genre swapping and blurring of fact and fiction. The nature of warfare in the age of the drone is also considered by James Bridle Drone Shadow, an outline created on the lower floor of the IWM. 

As I say there are other works, usually video, that didn’t really leave any impression on me I am afraid, and maybe diluted the overall impact of the exhibition. The direct responses to the events of 9/11 and the works which explore the nature of modern warfare were most effective. Worth seeing I think, it’s on until 28th May 2018, and worth taking the time, with the best of the art here, to think about the impact of 9/11 and the way the “war on terror” has changed our world and the nature of conflict.

 

Natural Selection exhibition at the Former Newington Library review *****

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Andy Holden and Peter Holden: Natural Selection

Artangel at the Former Newington Library, 24th November 2017

This might just be the best exhibition I have seen this year. The Former Newington Library was new to me I confess, and reeks of institutional instruction, which matched the tone of this “installation” to a tee. Apparently it used to contained the natural history collection of a father and son, Richard and Henry Cumming. Well done to Artangel for sniffing out the space and to video artist/cartoonist/animator Andy Holden, (who i See has his own band, the Grubby Mitts), and his ornithologist Dad, Peter, for creating this marvel.

It all apparently started when Andy, who could have stepped straight out of a 1970s Open University TV programme, saw a blackbird building a nest in Dad’s garden. Cravatted Peter Holden, who could in turn have stepped straight off Blue Peter, (in fact he was did), is an avian guru and, when Andy returned home after art school, their shared passion was rekindled. This then, even before we get to the bird and other stuff, is a poignant study of a father and son relationship. (It even begins with Andy in the pram wrestling with a book on birds).

After a series of joint lectures Andy started to gather material for the first part of the exhibition on bird’s nests. Upstairs there are some marvellous examples of nests contained in a vitrine in an “old style” museum format, another collection of feathers, a smattering of bark, a giant recreation of a bowerbird’s bower and some other bits and pieces. Not all is what is seems: this turned wooden objects are created from sonograms of bird song and some of the nests were created by Andy and mixed in with the real thing. Art and nature start to intertwine.

A quick perusal and then you sit down for the video with father and son taking it in turns to explain and illuminate, whilst a central screen shows footage from their own field trips, as well as various documentaries and the like. They look like old style nature documentaries but as father and son range through types of nests, nest sites and nest materials, some fascinating themes emerge. Peter Holden focusses on the “scientific” explanations of nesting behaviour, Andy gets you thinking about the bird as creator, even “artist”. The “practical” and the “beautiful” are explored.

How do those birds who build these elaborate structures “know” what to do? Do they have a picture in their “minds” of what they want the nest to look like? Why does the bowerbird go to so much effort in creating his bower, and the extraordinary display of themed objects he gathers? How does this relate to the Holdens’ own collections? Can it really just be a process of “sexual selection”? How do partners, families and communities collaborate (various bird species of course but also here father and son)?

Downstairs we first encounter a rook character in a cartoon strip that Andy created which has his father Peter as a “Mr Holden” charged with keeping the rook in line. The father/son relationship mined further. 

We also have another “collection”, How the Artist was Lead to a Study of Nature, which recreates the hoard of 7,130 eggs police discovered at a “collector’s house in 2006. These eggs are laid out on the floor in cardboard and plastic boxes, as they were on discovery, which also emphasises their fragility and increases the level of temptation for us the audience as these are undeniably beautiful objects. As a kid I was fascinated by birds, and the opportunities the world of ornithology gave to a boy who craved the pleasure of classification. Observing, ordering, listing, collecting. This never extended to eggs, that was already forbidden, but I could see the attraction. This, fortunately, never developed into a full blown, twitching habit, I have seen the impact this can have first hand, but I understand the obsession.

Next door is a video installation, The Opposite of Time, narrated this time by Andy Holden alone, in the form of an animated crow who first appeared in Peter’s RSPB magazine contributions. The crow passes through real habitats, notably when charting the battle between egg “collectors’ and the RSPB and volunteers over the first ospreys to return to Scotland in the 1960s. However the crow, who ages, also flies across multiple paintings, representing the best of the British landscape artistic tradition (Constable, Turner, Nash, Ravilious, Hockney). There is a further screen showing photos and some film which documents the history of egg collecting in the UK, from aristocratic pursuit by “gentlemen of science”, through to the 1954 Act which criminalised it and finally on to the “working-class” undercover activity of more recent decades.

This becomes an insightful analysis of the psychology of collecting, and how the public and scientific consensus on the morality of the “hobby” has changed through time. What makes the desire to possess so powerful that “collectors’ are prepared to destroy the very thing they purport to love? How can we enjoy such aesthetically exquisite objects, knowing their history? What gives humans the right to collect from nature? Why were toffs feted for their “scientific advances”, whilst the dispossessed collectors of today are banged up?

There are multiple parallels through the exhibition with “human” artists. The materials used by sculptors (Andy Goldsworthy), the landscape artists (Richard Long’s mud), the forms we encounter (Barbara Hepworth eggs), the collections and classifications of conceptualists (Susan Hiller), the ready mades and found objects tradition (from Duchamp on), the Pollock like lines on many of the eggs, the watercolour like pastels. Play your own game with this.

So there you have it. A natural history programme. An introduction to aesthetics. A history of landscape art. A lecture on class. Science and art. Father and son. Nature and nurture. Passion and obsession. Nerdiness. Eccentricity. Nostalgia. Some very pretty things. All in a couple of ramshackle rooms in SE17. The exhibition was extended but I think is now over. I do hope it gets another outing. I really, really need to see it again. 

 

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White exhibition at the National Gallery review ****

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Monochrome: Painting in Black and White

National Gallery, 22nd November 2017

For as long as there has been Western art there has been black and white painting. Used in preparation for works in colour, to heighten the impact of light on a subject, to “imitate” other art forms such as sculpture and photography, or simply for its own aesthetic power, it seems like many of the big names in the canon have given monochrome painting, or something close to it, a whirl.

That’s pretty much all I learnt from this exhibition. No matter. There are more than enough wonderful paintings on display to paper over the fact that the thin premise is stretched beyond breaking point. And I don’t care about the “omissions” that the criterati always start bouncing up and down about whenever these thematic overviews are constructed. Of course I would be bloody ecstatic if Guernica was included, or a bunch of Goya’s “black paintings” had filled a room here, (mind you they have way more colour in them than you might think), but I think I get why they are not there. I also get why there are no drawings, the clue is in the exhibition title. Though they have smuggled in van Eyck’s sketch of St Barbara – fair dos though its van Eyck. Oh, and a piece of stained glass. And a manuscript. Hmm this pedantry thing is contagious.  Let’s just work with what we have instead of having a pop at the curators for stuff that plainly they had no chance of borrowing.

So what stood out for me. Well the Hans Memling altarpiece, the Donne Triptych from 1478, is a stunner. Shown partially closed so that we can see through to the intense colours of the Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors, with the saints Christopher and Anthony painted in grisaille on the outside panels looking like stone statues. Memling’s figures always look a bit “softer” to me than say van Eyck from a few decades prior, and the compositions more straightforward. I was also taken with the charming Nativity from another Netherlandish master, Petrus Christus (from around 1450) which was ostensibly included to show off the way grisaille was originally used in the margins of devotional paintings, here to create a frame from an architectural arch with some Old Testament action portrayed

in the same room I was also drawn to a couple of drapery studies from two of the finest Renaissance draughtsmen, Ghirlandaio (this from about 1472) and Albrecht Durer, a spooky women seen from behind from 1521. I know these are just bits of cloth but I can get very excited about cloth in Renaissance pictures and the monochrome heightens the contrast between light and shade.

In the next room most people seemed drawn to Ingres’s Odalisque in Grisaille, a monochrome version of his colour painting of the same nude lady subject. Her skin does have a strange waxy quality here but I am always a little uncomfortable in the presence of nudes (pictorially I mean, in real life I would be mortified). There are plenty of other stunners on show in this room led by the Jan van Eyck St Barbara from 1437, executed in silverpoint and touched up with ink and some oil in the background. Apparently the first deliberate monochrome work in Western art, it is not clear if this was what he intended, but it is amazing to see the detail of its creation close up.

Opposite this is a Maternity from the end of the C19 by Eugene Carriere, a Symbolist, which is striking for its ghostly representation of a serene, but somehow pained, mother and daughter, which echoes a classic Madonna and child. Next door to this is Picasso’s Infanta Margarita Maria from 1957, the little weeble princess from Las Meninas, here rendered in partially cubist fashion. Apparently he rendered all the characters from Velazquez’s meta masterpiece in all manner of ways, but this shows why PP is the man when it comes to monochrome and captures the essence of the brattish Infanta. I don’t know if she was a brat but she always looks pretty Veruca Salt, high maintenance to me.

As if that wasn’t enough there is also one of those scratchy, black and white oils from Giacometti, here of wife Annette from 1957, where he seems to obsessively paw at the paint to capture the spirit of the sitter. Colour never really played a part in Giacometti’s work so no surprise he is here.

The next room has a whole bunch of paintings intended to mimic sculpture including a Titian and a Tiepolo for those inclined to that sort of thing (I am not). The Mantegna is worth a good peek, with all its different stone colours, and dramatic movement, but it is quite busy. No surprise then that I was drawn to the Jan van Eyck Annunciation diptych from 1433-35. These amazing grisaille figures, unlike the Memling, were inside the diptych panels and were meant to emulate the small devotional panels made in prior periods from ivory. You could touch them. I mean don’t touch them. That will get you into a lot of trouble but they are perfect. The bottom of the plinths sit on the wooden frames, the niches recede into inky blackness, the drapes are incredible, the fingers so elegant yet the lady grasps her bible quite firmly, they both seem to have the best curling tongs ever made for hair, the shadow cast by the angels wings is properly fuzzy and the gravity defying stone dove makes me snigger every time. I say every time. I mean the one time I stood in front of this for an inordinately long time in the Thyssen-Bornemisza where it is housed along with some other Northern Renaissance gems. The Prado done the road has more than its fair share of Netherlandish wonders, best of all van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, worth getting on a plane to Madrid all by itself, but the T-B, gets close if you like this sort of thing. And the T-B is great if you want a whizz through Western art, with its half an Ark approach (one of everything).

Next door to this van Eyck is the equally extraordinary Head of A Woman (1520) from that egotist Durer again. It is a drawing, but what a drawing. Hair parted in the middle, eyes closed but not in devotion, head tilted back, round face, sort of chin dimple, light on the forehead, this is a very particular pose and a very particular model. Shiny, like metal. No sign at all of his preparation. He real was a clever fellow.

In the next room the curators have, unsurprisingly, snuck in a Rembrandt from the NG vaults, Ecce Homo, which is the height of drama. The oil from 1770 by Etienne Moulinneuf takes a famous painting by Chardin, La Pourvoiese, which was turned into a best selling print, and then creates the illusion of broken glass on top. It has to be seen to be believed, is a fine addition to the long line of deconstructed art works and the curators are pleased as punch with the inclusion, but the joke wears off pretty quickly. Nothing else to detain me in that room, you may feel differently, that is your prerogative, so on to the next room, where the influence of the camera is writ large.

I got on very well with Norwegian Peder Balke’s landscapes and seascapes. They are the height of romanticism and a teeny weeny bit melodramatic but they stir the soul, no doubt about that. Who doesn’t like wind and waves, and his tiny little Tempest from 1862, looks like it was painted “plein air”, in fact with plenty of air. I imagine the salt in the old fella’s beard and the wind knocking over his easel.

The Image as Burden (1993) from Marlene Dumas, who is new to me, is very striking as is Vija Celmins Night Sky no 3 (1991) inspired by Jasper Johns. Yet the eye is drawn in this room to Chuck Close’s gigantic portrait of American sculptor Joel Shapiro. Close was no mean photographer and his early oils used cropped portraits as the source for hyper realist, monochrome likenesses that show every wrinkle and blemish on the skin and every detail of the sitter’s features. This one however dates from 1993. By now Close was paralysed and had to attach the brush to his arm. He therefore uses a myriad of ovals within squares in different tones to build up the portrait. From afar it is like a pixellated but still very graphic and exact likeness. Close up it dissolves into near abstraction

We are then treated to the master of the “photo as painting” in Gerhard Richter. with his Helga Matura with her Fiance, which amazingly was painted in 1966. Here Richter takes his trademark photo, this time from Quick magazine, as the source. Ms Matura was a prostitute who was brutally murdered, and was the subject of salacious press attention. Richter’s blurring technique and the grey palette, “the ideal colour for indifference”, is intended to create an emotional distance from the subjects and the event. It works. I still curse the fact that  missed the Richter retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2011.

On to the final, (well not quite final), room. Monochromatism, in its purest black and white form, has an obvious attraction for artists drawn to abstraction so there was much to choose from here. Pride of place, predictably, goes to a Malevich Black Square (1929) which, i didn’t know until now, was originally hung high up in a corner to echo Russian icon paintings. Swivelling round you take in a Black and White Bar I from Elsworth Kelly rendered in entirely flat paint, an Op Art classic Horizontal Vibration (1961) from, guess who, Bridget Riley, one of those ropey “closed door” grey tortoiseshell numbers from Jasper Johns, one of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square, 1965, a slightly dull Frank Stella, Tomlinson School Park I, 1959, one of Cy Twombly squiggly diptych from 1970, which, annoyingly, I was somewhat taken with, and a beautiful sheet of painted grey glass from our friend Gerhard Richter called Grey Mirror (1992, where does he think these titles up from).

Like I say this room is about as minimally abstracted as it gets. Mind you the final room has nothing in it. Except you bathed in yellow sodium light, so that you gradually turn grey as all the colour drains away. This is the court jester Olafur Eliasson playing tricks with you in his Room for One Colour from 1997. He was the chap he put that great big misty sun in the Tate and I saw another installation based on rippling water in Belgium somewhere that blew me away. The man is a marvel, (well the man, his studio and all his collaborators), who twists the basic elements, air, water, light, temperature, fire (well maybe not fire, yet), and then messes about with them using a hefty dose of technology to upset with the perception buttons in our heads. Sometimes daft, usually playful, and always, from the sound of them, beautiful, his large scale installations probably take ages to create and cost a bomb, but create delight. We need more delight.

So a thoroughly enjoyable exhibition even if its purpose is a bit tenuous. Perhaps best of all was the fact that the exhibition was not crowded so you can breathe and, most importantly, look. Some of the NG “Old Master” blockbusters in the bowels of the Sainsbury wing are so preposterously stuffed with punters at all times of the day and evening that, frankly, there is little point going. Not so here. You get to see a who’s who of Western art giants, with their technique exposed.