Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library review *****

Anglo-Saxon Kingsdoms: Art, Word, War

British Library, 30th December 2018

I mean it isn’t all books. There are charters and letters as well. And pottery, coins, art and jewels. But there are a lot of books. Oh my word though, what beautiful books. If you are at all interested in this period of history and the formation of our country, and you like, as Tubbs would say, precious things, (which haven’t been burnt, or otherwise destroyed, notably by the dispersal of monastic libraries in the 1530s), then this is unmissable. The British Library has wheeled out some of its finest treasures from the period, Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the St Cuthbert Gospel and Bede’s works, but it doesn’t stop there, with some extraordinary loans from the British Museum, Cathedrals (Canterbury, Durham, Exeter, Lichfield and Rochester), Oxbridge colleges (notably the Parker Library at Corpus Christi Cambridge) and generous institutions around the world (notably France, the Netherlands, Sweden and, maybe best of all, Italy).

The exhibition begins with the first Anglo-Saxons coming to Britain in the 5th century, takes us through the kingdoms that emerged, Kent, East Anglia, Northumberland, Mercia and Wessex, before England was created, as well as the continuing influence of the Danes, and, finally the Normans. We see how the history, art and literature of these Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms developed, and we see the emergence of the English language, (though don’t expect, unless you are an expert in these things, to be able to read the manuscripts. but do listen to the spoken originals and modern translations provided).

The earliest evidence of the language is contained in some cynic inscriptions and a Kentish law code in the first room, Origins. My first highlight though was the unique Spong Man urn lid from the 5th century, he looks so crestfallen, but then again so might you if you were sat atop someone’s ashes. The St Augustine Gospels from the late 6th century are something special, but the Moore Bede from the mid 8th century, copied out soon after the Venerable’s death at his own monastery Wearmouth-Jarrow, is a jaw-dropper. This is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the page on show tracing the journey of St Augustine, in letters. The script is pretty dense but this is basically the beginning of our written history.

The second room, Kingdoms and Conversions, has some exquisite jewellery from, amongst others, Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, but once again I was drawn to the scripts. The fragment of a letter from St Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, possibly from the late 4th century, brought here by Abbot Hadrian, various charters, letters and rules from the 7th and 8th centuries, the beginnings of our systems of law, and the Book of Durrow from c. 700 with its various decorative influences. These are trumped though by the beautifully preserved Echternach Gospels, maybe from Ireland, maybe Northumbria, maybe Echternach itself in Luxembourg, the even more spectacular Lindisfarne Gospels also c. 700, and, drum roll please, the Codex Amiatinus.

OMG. Now even if your are some bored teen being dragged around by your pillock of a Dad I defy you not to be impressed by this. First off, it is bloody enormous, 1030 leaves in total. Secondly the page it is open to, a full page illumination of a scribe at work, is just so vibrant and, finally, the history of the Bible itself is just so fascinating. One of three made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early years of the 8th century it was taken in 716 by Abbot Ceolfrith and chums to Rome. AC, poor chap, died on the way but in the 1300 years until now it has been cared for in Italy, latterly at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. Welcome home then Codex Amiatinus, if only for a short visit. It is the oldest complete Latin Vulgate version of the Bible; only the fragmentary Leon palimpsest is older. It was assumed to be Italian, from the 6th century, until some top-drawer research revealed that it was actually created during Northumbria’s Golden Age.

Take your time surrounded by these gems. There are more treasures to come but this room, for me, was the pinnacle. The next room, Mercia and Its Neighbours, details the rise of that kingdom, through military power and political skill, and the creation of a third archdiocese at Lichfield alongside York and Canterbury. Once again the Gospels (Barberini, St Chad, Harley Golden) will draw your eye, as will the Lichfield Angel if you have not see it before, but I was particularly interested in the various charters, from King Aethebald dated 736 and from King Offa dated 783, and the evidence of links with Charlemagne in mainland Europe. It made me reflect again on how the powerful choose leaders primarily to validate their own appropriation of land and capital, and spend an awful lot of time arguing with each other to secure leaders more amenable to their ambitions.

The Favourite, Richard II, C18 British history, Brexit newsflow, this exhibition. All entertainments and/or learnings on the Tourist’s plate in the last couple of weeks, all variations in part on this theme. Similarly the next room, The Rise of the West Saxons, which charts the ascendancy of King Alfred and his successors and the idea of an England. Now the Tourist cheerfully confesses that he is addicted to The Last Kingdom, the TV series now in its third season, based on Bernard Cornwall’s The Saxon Stories novels. Now it is a bit daft at times, and cheesy, and the main protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and his mates, do, implausibly, get about a bit. He may be fictional but many of the other players on show were for real and, in David Dawson playing Alfred, it has a top-notch actor showing his class. Like I always say, take your education wherever you can.

By 880 Alfred had made peace with the Danes, who were increasingly “naturalising”, and promoted a cultural leap forward, with the development especially of the English language. This legacy continued through grandson Aelthelstan, the first King of England from 927 to 939, who claimed control of Northumbria and submission from the Scots, Welsh and remaining Britons. Aethelstan centralised government, expanded the reach of the law, founded places of religion, (his personal psalter, a pocket gospels, is on display), and got stuck into European politics. So there you are little Englanders. Even when little England first became a reality we were tied to that pesky Europe. It will never go away whatever you may think. BTW, in my final, I promise, “look at me” moment in this post, I walked past the very spot where Aethelstan was crowned not a few hours ago. Outside the police station in Kingston-upon-Thames. I kid you not.

So no surprise that I took a long look at the Council of Kingston document in the exhibition which dates from 838 and confirms the alliance between Ecgberht, Alfred’s grandad, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The beautiful Stockholm Codex Aureus, on loan from, er, Stockholm, will also detain you but it is the famous historical documents, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser’s Life of King Alfred, the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum the Dane, a translation from Alfred himself and the Foothill Letter from the early 10th century, the oldest letter in the English language, that require careful examination. History. Boring. Think again.

Highlights of the next room, the self-explanatory Language, Learning and Literature, include the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, the greatest Anglo-Saxon literary relic, the Junius Manuscript, 1000 lines of Old English verse, the Old English Hexateuch, the first six books of the Bible and the Old English translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. If your interest extends to natural sciences, medicine and mathematics then you will be fascinated by this section.

The next room, Kingdom and Church, is focussed on the elevation of the Church under King Edgar, Alfred’s great-grandson. The highlight here comes at the end with the display of the Utrecht (825), Harley (first half 11th century) and Eadwin (c. 1150), Psalters displayed side by side. Seeing how one was copied into another into another is just amazing. Prior to this though the room is stuffed full of dainties, notably the Benedictional of Aethelwold from the 970s, the Vespasian Psalter from the second quarter of the eighth century, (the earliest Biblical text in the English language), the Boulogne and, especially, Trinity Gospels and the Winchester Troper.

The final room, Conquests and Landscapes, looks at the return of the Danes under Cnut and then the Norman Conquest, culminating with the BL’s Domesday Book and a short video.

I could go on and on but no purpose would be served in this. I have my catalogue accompanying the exhibition and can safely say, as one who regularly purchases such items, (and doesn’t always look at them immediately), that this is one of the most informative, involving and attractive I have ever seen. Even the short exhibition guide is a mine of information and the notes to the exhibits themselves could not be clearer.

All in all, and given the potential bone-dry bear-trap of a subject, early English history, and exhibits, in a word books, (though there is, as I said, plenty of other material on show here), this is a triumph. Maybe not enough to persuade those for whom history and manuscripts are anathema but if you have any interest at all, from any angle, don’t hesitate. No need, as ever with these things, to dutifully read every note or take in every exhibit. But if you can’t find at least a few items that command your attention I would be amazed.

It is on until 19th February. Usual rules apply. First thing in the morning. Sunday afternoon or the later slots on Tuesday when this opens until 8pm. And avoid the last week.

Space Shifters exhibition at the Hayward Gallery ***

Space Shifters

Hayward Gallery, 21st December 2018

Here is another one of the cleverly constructed exhibitions from the Hayward team which brings together a variety of visual works (20 in total), in different media, from different artists which delight, intrigue and entertain. The works span some five decades, (with some new commissions), are informed by a minimalist aesthetic and look to explore our perception of space. Materials are pure and often translucent, indeed many of these works relied on advances in material technologies to become possible, forms and lines are sharp and clearly defined. There is a bit of reflection going on, as in mirroring not contemplation. If art is the manipulation of light then this is, definitively, art.

Before the refurb the gallery offered us Psycho Buildings in 2007, Invisible in 2012, Light Show in 2013 and The Human Factor in 2014. There may have been others the Tourist failed to remember. They pack in the punters, make you think and maybe smile, at least whilst you are there and make good use of the now smartened up Hayward space. Perfect for the Instagram generation.

And that, at the risk of coming across like the old buffer I am, is part of the problem. Whilst individually there are some fine works on show here, the overall effect is a little numbing and, once the novelty has passed, not entirely fulfilling. Still if you take the exhibition as you find it you will enjoy it, no doubt about that, and there maybe one or two artists whose work is sufficiently interesting, work that really does change and engage with the space around it, to make you want to seek out more.

For me those artists would have to include Richard Wilson and his installation 20-50 originally created in 1987. Now there was a bit of a queue to see 20-50 and I confess that we, for on this visit we were a large tribe, the SO, BD, LD, MSBD, TTEW and MSGS alongside the Tourist as expedition leader, frankly didn’t have time. But you must make time, for if you have not seen it then you are in for a treat. The work is doing something of a tour before it sets up in its permanent home in Tasmania where I gather a gambling millionaire has bought it. Now it used to live for many years in the various Saatchi Gallery incarnations (see above) so if you are a contemporary art buff chances are you have seen it. Whilst the outcome will vary according to its location, its function, material and meaning is essentially fixed. Wilson basically floods a room with used engine oil then builds a pier over it so that the viewer is surrounded by the oil on three sides. The mirrored reflection from the utterly smooth, viscous, velvety, unctuous surface makes it feel like you are in a doubled space, stretching down into infinity and revealing every architectural detail of the space above the surface. That surface is dark, unyielding and perfectly flat. The temptation to chuck something in is overwhelming but then so is the desire to preserve this unbroken surface. Oh and the smell is overpowering. This you won’t forget in a hurry.

Mr Wilson is all about intervening into architectural spaces. Inversions, distortions, changing scale and material. He is a big noise in contemporary British sculpture. If you like this check out Slipstream in Terminal 2 at Heathrow, Shack Stack at Grosvenor Waterside, Square the Block on the LSE at the corner of Kingsway and Sardinia Street and A Slice of Reality at Greenwich Peninsula. Readers elsewhere might find one of his public works closer to home. I would loved to have seen Turning the Place Over, Hang on Lads I’ve Got a Great Idea and Queen and Gantry. His work succeeds thanks to the audacity of the ideas, its scale, the way it questions our notions of space and function, the way it disorientates our senses, its humour and the skill and process required in its execution.

Nothing else in the exhibition really comes close. Anish Kapoor’s trademark Non-Object (Door) reflects and distorts the space and things around it including us, like an old style Hall of Mirrors at the funfair. It’s amusing though not as thoughtful as Sky Mirror, Blue on the roof of the gallery which concave, selected surface inverts and saturates in blue the reflected sky above. (The Sky Mirror outside Nottingham Playhouse is another example of the beautifully simple idea. Apparently it is Nottingham’s favourite landmark thus proving the point that contemporary civic art can induce pleasing reactions beyond the purely aesthetic).

Jeppe Hein’s 360º Illusion V is comprised of two rotating mirrors placed at right angles which creates curious double reflections of us and others. Perfect for Homo sapiens who love gawping at each other. Polish artist

Alicja Kwade’s WeltenLinie is an even more satisfying illusion, a steel frame partially filled with double sided mirrors and carefully placed objects which really does mess with our heads. Punters can and do walk into the mirrors, the artificial objects on the floor can and do change shape and colour. You know how it is happening but that doesn’t making it any less fascinating or amusing. Her Medium Median was shown at the Whitechapel Gallery a couple of years ago and was, in a different way, as equally arresting as an installation.

Monika Sosnowka is another Polish artist whose work here, Handrail, subverts interior architecture, here the humble handrail, and is wryly amusing. Larry Bell is an artist I have come across before and his Standing Walls is at the mainmast end of large scale minimalist sculpture. Literally for the purist. As is Robert Irwin’s classic, and slightly menacing, Untitled (Acrylic Column).

Roni Horn is one of a more recent generation of minimalist sculptors who uses glass, here to make a cylinder Untitled (“Everything was slipping as if the universe were a mistake”), which is both simultaneously heavy and light and, for all the world, looks like a pool of water. One of my favourites. As was Ann Veronica Janssens Magic Mirrors (Pink and #2 and Blue). Each is comprised of a shattered pane of safety glass encased by two normal glass sheets lined with filters that allow light to pass through selectively and thus throw shadows on the wall with different, changing and blurring colours. Really captivating as the number of selfies being taken attested to. I will need to check out more of her work.

A century of modernism, and now several decades of minimalism, in art, architecture, design, fashion, graphics and so on, means that we are now all pretty much programmed to embrace this aesthetic. There may be a generation that prefers velour and Toby jugs but they are on the way out. Glass, steel, perspex, resin, artificial light, saturated colours, our world is surrounded by these materials. It is work we work, where we study and where we live. We see, touch and feel spaces and objects informed by mathematics and not messy or maximalist organics. Is this what makes these art works so seductive and will this ever change? Search me.

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. 

Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery review *****

Mantegna and Bellini

National Gallery, 11th November 2018

11th November was turning into a very busy day for the Tourist. Fresh from the heady Edward Burne-Jones phantasmagoria at Tate Britain and a proper Sunday lunch, it was off to the National, now solo, for these Old Masters, before rounding off at the Barbican for a bit of choral pleasure (I realise that sounds a little dubious).

Anyway this double header was everything the Burne-Jones wasn’t. Indisputably, vibrantly, thrillingly, alive. Now I know that endless bible extracts, with Jesus suffering and the Virgin Mary looking beatific might not strike you as the stuff of reality, any more than the silly romantic legends that make up the pre-Raphaelite world, but trust me they are. The religious settings, like the music of the time, were just the templates to tell more human stories as well as create work of astonishing beauty. If the Church is the only patron, or rather religious images are what wealthy patrons require, then that is what artists will provide. Can’t buck the market. For me this very restriction on subject is what creates the conditions for supreme innovation.

And in this exhibition we get the ultimate BOGOF. In 1453 Andrea Mantegna, already an established painter, trots in to Padua to marry Nicolosia Bellini, daughter of the venerable Jacopo, to become the brother in law of Gentile, and, our subject here, Giovanni. Giovanni, a relative novice, picks up on Andrea’s compositional experimentation and fascination with antiquity, and, in time, for me at least, overtakes him. Mantegna in turn harnesses Bellini’s facility with landscape to produce his greatest works when he moves in 1460 to the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Bellini stays in Venice, but even apart they tread similar paths, though with different results. Mantegna’s precise, flinty, sculptural, sharper, masculine, intellectual work contrasts with Giovanni Bellini’s lighter, softer, airier, more lyrical, enigmatic and emotional output. Same subjects and stories. Radically different ways of seeing and showing them

Guess which is which in the The Presentation of Christ in the Temple above? 20 years separate top from bottom. I’ll leave it to you.

This is not the only direct comparison in this superb exhibition. It would be fascinating just to play that game over a few paintings but here they just keep on coming across the six rooms. Some may be familiar to you (from the National Gallery, British Museum or Berlin museums from which they are drawn)  but it doesn’t diminish the wow factor.  Saint Sebastian, The Agony in the Garden, Crucifixions. The curators walk you through how and why the brothers-in-law created their own interpretations, which, for the interested layman is insightful, though you have to make sure, post comparison, you take the time to examine each painting individually. However there are enough individual unique subjects to offset the comparisons and avoid being overwhelmed by the scholarship.

The exhibition opens with a book of drawings. Pretty much all that remains of Daddy Jacopo’s art. We have to assume, given the importance of family and patronage in making and selling art in the C15, that Jacopo will have had a big hand in the direction of the business. He certainly kick-started the expanded artistic ideas that would emerge from the extended family. Alas this is the last we hear of him. Still the eye is probably already alighting on the two Presentations and your first starter for ten. 

What did Mantegna bequeath the next generation of the Italian Renaissance? The rise of the classical theme. The big picture. Literally in his Triumphs (of Caesar) of which just three are shown here (check them out in Hampton Court Palace when they return). Maybe the birth of the individual in art. That he was a master of perspective following in the footsteps of Masaccio and Uccello, and, in a different way, Donatello, is made pretty clear here. 

And Bellini? Colour, back-stories, people you can identify with, even if they were in deserts or on crosses or generally undergoing some sort of taxing trial or trauma. Maybe Mantegna was the more obvious influencer in his day, but Bellini, “the best Venetian painter of the C15”, may have endured for longer. I reckon I can see in him a thread through to Courbet and, eventually, the modernists. 

Mantegna imposes his narrative from without. Bellini’s flows from within. Pretentious w*ank. Maybe but fast forward to the end and compare Bellini’s OMG portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan, the cerulean background, the gold and silver impasto cloak, the confident, steely gaze. Perfectly lit. A very formal, contemporary portrait, that also looks timeless. In oil. Which Mantegna never used. Look then at his Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, painted in his 70’s. A complex, symbolic, Classical allegory. Intellectual to a tee. Painted for private contemplation not public edification.

Warm flesh. Cold marble. Head or heart. Fortunately in this exhibition you don’t have to choose. 

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? 

Aftermath at Tate Britain review ****

Otto Dix Skull from The War (1924) - http://www.moma.org/collect

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One

Tate Britain, 29th August 2018

Historians abhor teleology these days. It’s a tricky business identifying events that “changed the history of the world”. For us simple layfolk though the First World War must surely mark a defining shift in the human experience. The scale, (over 10 million dead and 20 million wounded worldwide), the use of technology, the commitment of capital, the ideological fallout, the death-knell of empire. Take your pick. Things really changed after that.

We are approaching the centenary of the end of that War. Time to contemplate. And, here, a time to review the interpretation that artists put on this period. Well specifically the period after the war, (the works span 1916 to 1932). A smart idea. There are innumerable works of art that document the war itself, the exhibition kicks off with many of the most striking, but exploring the aftermath allows for insights into the different ways artists responded to the war’s legacy and to the, maybe, new beginnings. It also means the curators, led by Emma Chambers, were able to extend beyond British art and into Europe, primarily Germany and France (London, Paris and Berlin to be more exact). There are some stunning works on show here, a valuable history lesson, and more diversity of message than you might expect. You’d be daft not to take a look. Particularly if you have any interest at all in this period of history. Which, inevitably, you should. Art helps us to remember and understand in a way that words something fail to convey.

Room 1 looks at the devastation wrought by the war. Many of the artists here were participants in the conflict, either as soldiers, or in an official capacity. The polity back home generally didn’t want to know, nor did the authorities want them to see, the full horror of war. The depictions of battlefields, mud, pitted with craters, shorn of vegetation other than twisted tree stumps, eloquently made the point. Before the war many artistic movements, (Futurism, Vorticism), grappled with the impact of fast changing technologies on society. This impulse found its way into their war art.

The experience of war drained their optimism. Some artists could not contain their shock and anger at what they saw and went beyond symbolic representations of death, such as the abandoned helmet, to show actual bodies. The room also contains some fascinating early footage of the devastation in Flanders, filmed from an airship, and, intriguingly, guide books to the battlefields to help those who visited to pay their respects.

The most devastating works of Paul Nash (Wire), CRW Nevinson (Paths of Glory) and, most interesting here, the long neglected and once vilified Irishman William Orpen (Zonnebeke and Blown Up), may be familiar but are still striking, as is Luc-Albert Moreau’s shocking Chemin des Dames Assault. Richard Carline’s painting of a battlefield from the air (Mine Craters At Albert Seen From An Aeroplane) is intriguing but the most prominent works are the two sculptures, Jacob Epstein’s machine man Torso in Metal and Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s The Fallen Man, maybe the most famous loaned artwork here. Lehmbruck never escaped the horror of war: he killed himself in aged 38 in 1919.

This is not an exhibition of specifically war art though and, with so much to choose from both in the Tate’s collection and down the road at the Imperial War Museum, the curators have shown admirable restraint. They make their point though.

Room 2 intelligently moves on to how the WWI has been remembered, specifically through war memorials. Cenotaphs in Paris and London, dedicated to just one of the countless unknown dead, created a focus for remembrance from their inauguration two years after the armistice to this day. No national memorial appeared in Germany until 1931 but, like Britain and France, local memorials were commissioned. These memorials combined the abstract with, often, detailed figurative representations of the men who served. We were struck by Charles Sergeant Jagger’s dramatic, realist figures and by Eric Kennington’s more cubist maquette for the Soissons Memorial. BUD, my accomplice for the afternoon, was also impressed by the monumental lines of Marcel Gromaire’s famous War portrait and I had my first dose of the master Stanley Spencer with Unveiling Cookham War Memorial.

However it is hard not to drawn to Ernst Barlach’s extraordinary angel The Floating One. Barlach’s sculptures, along with Lehmbruck’s, were largely destroyed by the Nazis, who viewed them as “degenerate” but a mould of this piece survived. There is also, in a similar “Expressionist” vein, a sketch for The Parents monument by the genius Kathe Kollwitz (the model for The Floating One we see more of her later in Room 5). Barlach initially supported the Great War: his participation changed this.

Take a good look too at another Orpen painting, To the Unknown British Soldier In France, apparently a coffin draped with a Union Jack at the entrance to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, commissioned at the time of the Treat signing. Read its history though. It didn’t start out this way. Lack of respect, censorship, class division. Decide for yourself.

Room 3 offers yet another perspective on the years following the War. In our world, for those of us lucky enough not to live amongst conflict, images of war appear commonplace but the reality of its human impact is still largely concealed. In the 1920s, in Europe, this was not so, as the plight of damaged war veterans, in economies still disordered, was visible to all. The works here are some of the most poignant, and most angry, in the exhibition. In Britain artists were employed to create a medical record of the injuries suffered by the soldiers. The pastel sketches of Henry Tonks from the Hunterian Museum were not originally intended as “art” but they create a powerful impression. In Germany the veterans were the subject of far more explicitly political paintings and drawings from the hands of Otto Dix, George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Kathe Kollwitz.

This is the most powerful art in the exhibition, especially the prints from these artists and Georges Rouault in Room 5. Beckmann’s Hell series of lithographs from 1919, the Der Kreig etchings of Dix from 1924 and Kollwitz’s similarly titled etchings from 1922 and Rouault’s sacred Miserere et Guerre photo-etchings from 1927 demand your attention.

Whilst some of the Dadaist work in Room 4 fails to leap out at me, and the Surrealist painting from the likes of Max Ernst and Andre Masson can be safely ignored in my view, do seek out John Heartfield’s photo-montage, After Twenty Years: Fathers and Sons, and then delve into this astoundingly modern artist’s output (and life) inter- and post- war, but especially from the 1930’s.

In Room 6, “Return to Order”, the curators show how the geometric and mechanised avant-garde forms and processes which dominated Western art before the war gave way to more realism and naturalism and a return to the traditional genres of portraiture, landscape and religion through the late 1920s and early 1930s. This despite the still chaotic economic and political backdrop, Pastoralism and classicism were reborn. I am not entirely convinced by this argument but it does give an opportunity to show off another Spencer, Christ Carrying the Cross, Old Military from Franz Lenk and soothing landscapes from the Nash brothers in sharp contrast to their war paintings.

Room 7, in contrast, shows that all was not necessarily well in inter-war society linking back to the political art of the immediate post war period and highlighting the deep divisions between rich and poor. Artists unsurprisingly sided with the left in the profound idealogical arguments that characterised the period. George Grosz’s Grey Day, which contrasts, once again, a veteran with a privileged capitalist, is one of the best paintings in the exhibitions.

The final room then goes a little bit off-piste by bringing together a diverse collection of responses to the rise of the “New City”. Mind you it does make you think about just how quickly the nascent optimism on show here would be snuffed out again by an even more devastating global conflict.

Overall this is an ambitious, powerful, valuable and often still shocking survey of the artistic response to the “Great War” made especially interesting for me by the rage, fury, sorrow and despair contained in the loans from various collections in Germany, (and the George Economou Collection in Athens). There are more than enough unexpected contributions amongst the big hitters and much genuine, if occasionally, unfocussed insight into the artistic response to the impact of war. If you have any interest at all in this period or subject then I would be mightily surprised if you haven’t already gone, or intend to go. That would be the right thing to do.

America’s Cool Modernism at the Ashmolean Museum review ****

5843121737_7c5264a2a6_o

America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keefe to Hopper

Ashmolean Museum, 26th June 2018

Those clever people at the Ashmolean in Oxford have come up with another fine exhibition to rank alongside last year’s survey of Modernism in France Creating Modernism in France at the Ashmolean Museum review ****). There are plenty of paintings, and photographs, on show here that you would be hard pressed to see without hopping over to the US, as there is b*gger all from this period in public collections here, and the theme, the “cool” in American art in the first half of the C20 is both aesthetically and intellectually interesting. An excellent counterweight to the recent surveys of Abstract Expressionism and American art in the 1930s which came to the Royal Academy as well as the Tate Modern exhibition of Black American art from the 1960s onwards.

There isn’t a great deal of pure abstraction here in contrast to what was going on, in large part, in Europe at the time. Most of the artists on show keep at least one foot, and often more, in the figurative camp. Indeed escaping the influence of those swanky French seems to be part of what many of these artists set out to achieve. There are some early experiments in abstraction in the first room but they are not really up to much. Landscapes and cityscapes predominate. This is not art rich in portraiture: indeed one of the defining features of the survey is the absence of the human figure. The artists here are generally fixated on the rise of modern, urban America: capital accumulation, the factories, the infrastructure, the cities, the technology. Lines are hard, sharp and exact, the natural light is sharp. Twilight and artificial light get a good look in. In the best of the work on there is a weird sense of alienation and stillness. A very detached eye. The rapid social and economic transformation seems to have unsettled some of these artist folk. The rural does get an outing, but this is agriculture as industry, and not the wide, open spaces of American myth. There are a fair few barns.

The paint colours are “cool”, washed out, not vibrant in the way that European art was preoccupied with at that time. Forms are precisely rendered. There is a fair bit of “flatness” on show. The influence of the exact, “abstract” and architectural photography of the likes of Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and, a new name for me, Imogen Cunningham is exemplified. There are a lot of buildings.

The core of the exhibition is the “precisionist’ art of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler but the curators have also succeeded in drawing a line back to the more naive, and near abstraction, of Arthur Dove, Helen Torr and early Georgia O’Keefe (Black Abstraction from 1927 is the stand out), which catch the eye in the first room, as well as forward to the uneasy genius of Edward Hopper. The exhibition ends with three blockbusters from said Mr Hopper, which, for me, are the best things here by far, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the ride up to this specific thrill.

So what were the biggest surprises beyond those artists I had some familiarity with? The three eerie townscapes from George Ault, New York Night No 2, View From Brooklyn and Hoboken Factory. It seems Ault trained in London, good man, saw three of his four siblings commit suicide, fell out wth his precisionist chums and was an alcoholic. Perhaps this explains his penchant for the twilight world.

His work is certainly a lot darker that Demuth. He is the one who liked text in his paintings of cities, indeed his must famous work is the iconic I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold which title about sums up the subject. Sheeler, who was an amazing draughtsman and nearly as good a photographer as he was painter, is probably the epitome of the “cool” aesthetic that the curators have tried, and succeeded, in showcasing. I was most taken with Demuth’s Welcome to Our City which I assume depicts his native Lancaster, Pennyslvania to whence he returned from New York due to ill health, and away from the circle of artists around Alfred Steiglitz. Sheeler’s Bucks County Barn (shown above) is almost hyper-real in its detail, barely distinguishable from his photographs of the same subjects on first glance, but as you look more closely a triumph of oil on canvas.

The two paintings from a precisionist follower, Canadian Ralston Crawford, Buffalo Grain Elevators, and Smith Silo Exton, take the inspiration of Sheeler’s rural buildings but lend it a more abstracted geometric construction. Great stuff.

There are also a pair of oil paintings from Joseph Stella, Telegraph Poles with Buildings and Metropolitan Port which show his association with the precisionists but also his early exposure to the Italian futurists. The handling of the paint here is a lot freer, there is almost a “smoky” quality, which I was much taken with.

Outside of these paintings I was also drawn to the carefully chosen lithographs on display. Louis Lozowick presents dynamic perspectives in drawings of Minneapolis and New York, there is a superior looking barn from the extravagantly named Benton Murdoch Spruance as well as a couple of fine examples from Sheeler again. Now I am not sure Grant Wood could reasonably be seen as central to the concerns of many of the other artists on show here. A regionalist, focussed on the rural, master of the “American Scene”, I don’t think he was big into for city or industrial subjects. He certainly has the air of detachment that others exhibit here though, albeit with a much heftier dose of irony and/or nostalgia, you are never quite sure. Anyway there are three of his tremendous lithographs in the exhibition, one of haystacks covered in snow, another of MidWest fields, and one of a barn and American Gothic style house. There are Durer-like in their detail and execution.

There is also Martin Lewis’s iconic drawing Which Way? with a car seemingly lost in a snowstorm. Lewis was born in Australia and came to the US to work as a commercial illustrator, a profession that  many of the greats of US art in the C20 took up to keep the wolf from the door, and which underpins the American take on modernism when compared to their rather more esoteric European peers. He found great success in drypoints, a technique he mastered on a visit to Japan, but his fame quickly faded. I think I have seen this image before but I can’t for the life of me remember where. I guessed it might have been used in connection with David Hare’s adaptation of George Simenon’s The Red Barn at the National Theatre directed by Robert Icke (a qualified success), but that image was actually another drypoint image of a barn in the snow by an artist I can’t identify. It seems that the  barn, in whatever weather, is the greatest staple of American art since the founding of the nation. There must be tons of academic papers on this.

Anyway Lewis’s drawing is not a barn but it is a perfectly wrought rendition of artificial light, here the car headlights against the snow, against the dark night. And it is probably a metaphor for the country itself, given this created in 1932, just as the US was emerging from the very worst of the Great Depression.

Now it turns out Lewis was a mate of Ed Hopper. who also has four etchings on show here, all of which show that his mastery of line. shadow and viewpoint wasn’t confined to painting. They would be worth the entry fee alone but, as I said above, there are also three oils to savour, which I think are on show in the UK for the first time. It is hard to believe that his big breakthrough didn’t come until the early 1930’s, and especially after the retrospective at MOMA in 1933, when he was already 50. Prior to that he too had to support himself as an illustrator.

I can’t believe that there is anyone who couldn’t get something valuable out of seeing Hopper’s paintings. The stillness, the light, the murkyish palettes, the shadows, the melancholy, the introversion, the uneasy suggestion. The SO, who doesn’t care for much art, adores his work reproductions of which are plastered on the walls around me as I sit writing this. Mind you, dare I say it, puritanical realism is her bag. Anyway suffice to say we love Hopper.

From Williamsburg Bridge (1928), shows the top floors of a handful of late C19 buildings seen from the eponymous bridge, with a woman perched on the ledge of one open window in the afternoon sun. Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942), is a view of a train departing, and the buildings opposite, framed by the platform. Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928) is a wider perspective of the railtrack and a cityscape.  All are wonderful.

So soak up what is on offer in this fine exhibition, see if you accept the curator’s argument, I do, and then take as long as you like with this Hoppers. It is worth it.

Many of the works on show are drawn from the Terra Collection for American Art and the Met. So thanks chaps. Just goes to show that there are some things that have come over from the States in recent weeks that aren’t, to borrow the language of astute political commentator Danny Dyer, twattish.