Modigliani at Tate Modern review ***



Tate Modern, 5th March 2018

One Modigliani nude or one Modigliani portrait is a thing of not inconsiderable beauty. Less so, one hundred, or what feels like hundreds. The elongated bodies, the mask-like faces, the blank, almond-shaped eyes. Look beyond the USP’s though and the influences, from which Modigliani never really escaped in his short life, are clear. Cezanne, Kees van Dongen, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Braque, his mates Soutine and Brancusi, the art of Africa, the Khmer art of Cambodia. If you mix with the best there is a chance your own work might fall a little short though.

Mind you this has proved a pretty popular exhibition I think. I postponed on a couple of visits to the TM, put off by the queues. If there’s a queue to get in, I reckon, you ain’t going to get to see much. This may reflect the virtual reality recreation of AM’s last studio space in Montparnasse which forms part of the entertainment. No surprise that I can’t be doing with that sort of thing. It probably also reflects his bad boy reputation. He managed to hold out until he was 35, eventually succumbing to the TB which he carried through his life, but was permanently poorly and penniless,not helped by knocking back the absinthe and smoking prodigious quantities of hash, in part to hide the TB symptoms. He dressed like a dandy, when he wasn’t getting his kit off in public, never missed a party, and wasn’t picky in his choice of lady friends. He was a very good-looking chap. He read all sorts of dodgy literature to prepare himself for the life of bohemian excess, Nietzsche was a favourite, as well as immersing himself in all that Antiquity and the Renaissance had to offer in his native Italy, and, when in his cups, he reportedly worked like a dervish.

Barely sold a canvas in his lifetime and destroyed a lot of his early stuff. Relied on mates and dealers for studio space and materials. Moved to Paris in 1906 and lived in Montmartre and Montparnasse, natch. Eventually his dealer Leopold Zborowski sorted out a public exhibition for him in 1917 in Paris to showcase his nudes, but this got “closed” on its opening day by the coppers because it was too dirty, what with loads of lady fluff being on show. Dumped his muse, poet and art critic Beatrice Hastings, to take up with young toff dauber, Jeanne Hebuterne, with whom he had a daughter. Wants to marry her, but Mum and Dad unsurprisingly think their daughter can do better than a penurious, drug addled artist, raddled with TB, and say no. He dies, she, eight months pregnant, chucks herself out of a window.

And if all that were not the epitome of artistic excess, he goes and gets himself buried in Pere Lachaise. So AM had, and has, a reputation to keep up. Which has been fuelled by avid collection of his many works (and plenty of fakes) through the last century. The first work in the exhibition is a self-portrait from 1915 where AM sees himself as Pierrot, the sad clown, the trusting fool, one eye obscured, which sets the scene for AM’s invention of himself as the ultimate bohemian artist.

Is the art any good though? Well there is a salacious thrill in the room of nudes but, engage your brain and it soon passes. His models wear expressions of complete indifference. The transactional nature of the nude painting has rarely been more apparent. Cliched soft-porn? Don’t ask me, there’s some worse stuff from the High Renaissance, but it’s pretty sleazy. The portraits show more variation if you ask me, with posture, expression, colour, there is much to ponder and, I admit, enjoy. There is much biographical significance given his wide circle of mates in the heady atmosphere of Paris in the 1910’s (and the 1890’s, 1900’s and 10920’s mark you). Cocteau, Picasso, Gris, Rivera, amongst some lesser lights.

There still seems to me to be a hefty distance between artist and subject, and not just because he painted masks. Not quite the distance that Cezanne employed to allow him to concentrate entirely on what he saw in his portraits. (Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery review *****). Modigliani does not, alchemically, turn people into brush strokes even though his portraits echo those of Cezanne. Nor is this the confrontational distance that his mate Chain Soutine conjured up in his portraits of hotel folk, the f*ck you stance of his bell boys for example, (Soutine’s Portraits at the Courtauld Gallery review ****). No this is a distance, a lack of connection, which seems to me to be closer to neo-classical portraiture. Filtered through the lessons of cubism, Modigliani can then focus on what, I think, he mastered, to wit, the line. It is not the colour, the brush stroke, the paint, which excites, but the first marks, the lines that create the structure. The shape the faces, the curve of the thighs. One of AM’s nudes is even explicitly posed to ape Ingres’s Grande Odalisque.

Which maybe why I found the room of sculptures the most interesting. Modigliani didn’t persist with sculpture beyond a year or so in 1912: the work was tiring given his ill-health and the materials expensive. The limestone busts on display here are thrilling. The elongated faces, almond eyes, swan necks would all be exhausted in two dimensions but the debt to antiquity is here more vivid. The volume which is absent from the paintings brings a new, literally, dimension. The room prior to the head vitrines shows some of AM’s preparations and sketches for more substantive public sculpture where, again, the artistic precedents are writ large.

AM left Paris in 1917, at the behest of his dealer, (artistic not drugs), and headed to the French Riviera with Jeanne Hebuterne. Other artists did the same. There is a distinct shift in the intensity of his work, reflecting the light maybe, but maybe the poor fellow eased up a bit on the sauce. There is even a tiny landscape. It’s not much kop though. Still everything here seems a bit less of a struggle, less of a show than the wall to wall nudes of the prior room, mostly from 1917, with a few later, softer examples.

Gaugin, van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Modigliani. These are the biggest brands from the years when Western art was ruptured. I take a bit of persuading on Gaugin, but it’s not tricky to work out what’s special about the next four. But Amedeo Modigliani. Hm, on the basis of this exhibition I am not so sure. Definitely worth seeing this uncluttered, expansive, extensive and expensive collection, this is big bucks art after all, and there are a fair few paintings here secured from private collections, but not a patch on the Cezanne portraits which were, until recently, gracing the walls of the NPG (and where, mystifyingly, there were no queues on the occasions I visited).






William Kentridge: Smoke, Ashes, Fable at Sint-Janshospitaal review ****


William Kentridge: Smoke, Ashes, Fable

Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges, 20th February 2018

Off to Bruges and Brussels for a couple of days. Main purpose. To soak up the best paintings that the Northern Renaissance has to offer. Now you all know that it doesn’t get much prettier than Bruges, (though Ghent may just top it). Which also means that it should be avoided like the plague during the high season. And it should never be insulted with just a day trip. Do not miss the Chapel of St Basil, the Gothic Hall in the Stadhuis, with its “Medieval” murals telling the story of the City from C19 artist Albrecht de Vriendt, and Frank Brangwyn’s drawings and etchings in the Arenthuis. Ooh and don’t be sniffy about taking a boat trip.

The main reason for going though is the art. Specifically the first two rooms of the Groeningmuseum. Go in February. Get there early and you might just have the rooms to yourself. Room 1 has the extraordinary diptych from Gerard David, The Judgement of Cambyses, a warning to dodgy politicians everywhere, and a Bosch Last Judgement. Room 2 though will take your breath away. Impossible to know which way  to look. Hans Memling, Petrus Christus, more David. Further on Adriaen Isenbrandt, Hugo van der Goes and Jan Provoost. And works of astounding beauty from unidentified masters.

Topping it all is Jan van Eyck’s, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele. His greatest ever painting? I think so. Thus making it the greatest work of Western art ever. Swing your head round and you see his portrait of his missus Margareta. This must be the single best concentration of art in the world.

Of course you may hate this stuff what with all that religious mumbo-jumbo, preponderance of shiny things and “realism” that is anything but. You’d be a mug though.

In which case the Memlings in the ground floor of the Sint-Janshospitaal are also not going to do much for you. Shame. There are five astonishing works capped by the St John Altarpiece and Shrine of St Ursula. Take your magnifying glass. And see the fascinating videos which show Memling’s underdrawings and his immense skill as a draughtsman.

Or move on. For help is at hand. In the form of William Kentridge. Now I didn’t go specifically to see this carefully constructed collection of Kentridge’s recent work by curator Margaret Koerner. But it was fortuitous timing nonetheless. South African William Kentridge is one of the most renowned of the, how shall I put this, older generation of contemporary living artists. His work covers drawings, prints and sculpture, but he is probably best known for his animated films and for the installations that contextualise them. He makes charcoal drawings, which he then erases and changes, filming the results to create his glorious Expressionistic animations. His subjects are numerous, though history, language and justice are common themes, specifically in his native South Africa, from his perspective as a white Jew whose parents defended the victims of apartheid.

I saw the production of Berg’s Lulu at the ENO in 2016 which he directed and which bore his distinctive visual stamp. I can’t say I was enthralled by the results but that is largely because Alban Berg’s music, and specifically this opera, are works-in-progress for me. There are a number of great artistic statements that may confound or confuse me at first but which I know I should keep working at.. Lulu is one of them. It looked amazing though thanks to WK and the video crew.

I also saw the exhibition of Kentridge’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2016 entitled Thick Time. Now, as in this exhibition, I can’t pretend I was persuaded by everything that Mr Kentridge creates. Yet even in the drawings and videos whose meanings are elusive to me, and there were a few here, there is something compelling which draws you in.

In Thick Time he created six installations the highlight of which, by far, was The Refusal of Time, a meditation on time and fate in which composer Philip Miller provided a hypnotic score to accompany WK’s videos and a “ready-made’ Leonardo-ish “breathing” machine. In Right Into Her Arms WK creates a sort of mini-theatre with a dance drama centred on the disappointment of desire I think. Seven Fragments for George Melies, Day for Night and Journey to the Moon imagined an artist embarking on a series of adventures and was the most obviously Expressionistic of the works with its allusions to early silent cinema.

Here in Smoke, Ashes, Fable the highlight undoubtedly is More Sweetly Play the Dance from 2015. First off it is set in the amazing upstairs room in the Hospital, a cathedral in wood. The works here have all been chosen to reflect the location, but this is the piece which is most evocative. It is based on a medieval Dance of Death. This is a medieval hospital. Across eight massive white panels WK’s charcoal drawing animations see a not quite monochrome processional emerge, drawn from the silhouette of his collaborators. A brass band plays a repetitive tune against this. It is both sombre and celebratory. This Dance of Death though will be more familiar to you from African funeral processions but the characters here seem very different. You literally cannot take your eyes off it and have to sit mesmerised watching at least one, (in my case three), revolutions of the procession. Most everyone there when I visited was drawn in and grinning from ear to ear. For, although this may portray the fragility of human existence, there is something immensely celebratory about the work. Marvellous.

Next door are a set of large scale tapestries which show the silhouettes of African figures, carrying day-today objects, set in maps from the C19. Lives literally carried on their shoulders, a comment on migration perhaps. Downstairs the exhibition opens with drawings and extracts from the monumental 600m long frieze Triumphs and Laments which WK created alongside the Tiber to tell the history of Rome in 2016. I really, really need to see that before it eventually fades away. The installation which titles the exhibition is a little more introspective but still intriguing.

Now I am not saying you should make a special trip to Bruges to see this exhibition, If only for the very good reason that it is now over. But if his work does find a home near you then you must find a way to see it. If you are anywhere near the Reina Sofia in Madrid right now you have just that opportunity in an exhibition centred on his excursions into opera. And later this year he has something cooking in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. There will be other stuff I am sure. Go.




Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern review ****


Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future: Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Tate Modern, 19th January 2018

I know it is not easy to make out but take a good peer at the image above. This is an installation created in 1985 by Russian conceptual artist, Ilya Kabakov. The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment. he created it in his studio and it was his first full room, “total” installation. It tells the story of a man living in a communal apartment in Russia who hatches a plan to escape from his oppressive, mundane reality. A suspended catapult chair, a hole in the roof, remnants of the construction, propaganda posters, carefully orchestrated lighting. There are workings from the imagined escape and the testimonies of neighbours. It is both very funny and very sad. Tragi-comic, absurdist biting satire. One man pursuing the Soviet dream of conquering space. Or escaping his miserable reality. Which is the well from which so much art of the C19 and C20, (and into the C21), has drawn from in Russia.

I found the installations of the Kabakovs, (Ilya was joined by wife Emilia in his 60s), absolutely compelling. I left nothing like enough time to fully absorb them, which is really bloody annoying. I blame the complementary Red Star Over Russia exhibition also on at Tate Modern, which was much more interesting than I had bargained for (Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****), as well as my own woeful lack of planning. And now this exhibition is about to end, (once again this numbnut waited until near the end of the run to see it), and I won’t have time to return. You’d think I would learn.

Anyway what I have learnt about is a pair of brilliantly inventive artists to add to the list, and yet more perspectives on the relationship between art and society in Russia, and indeed beyond. Ilya Kabakov was an unofficial artist which meant his work was not exhibited, was made largely in secret, and often required him to create pseudonyms. He made money from being a children’s book illustrator. Only close friends saw his early work.

A lot of installation art suffers from what I term the “I can’t be bothered” trope. The concept or idea is all, the making subsidiary. A few “found” objects, a bit of cardboard, some wire and some gaffer tape, and, hey presto, an installation, accompanied by some pretentious guff that make no sense even after three or for readings. I am fully aware how Daily Mail, philistine twat this makes me sound. Trust me that isn’t true. The more conceptual and contemporary art installations I see the more I think I understand and the more I am drawn in. But I still want to see that some thought and effort has been put in. The Kabakovs could never be accused of slapdashery. The ideas are clearly expressed, the detail is rich, the craft breathtaking. They tell intricate stories that pull you up, make you smirk and make you think.

The exhibition kicks off with Ilya’s early conceptual works, across an array of artistic styles and, given his status, utilising whatever materials he could lay his hands on. The ideas are sharp from the off and, using fictional characters, parody Soviet achievement. I was particularly struck by Holiday, where banal images have been revisited by their purported artist, and covered with flowers which are in reality sweet wrappers.  Room 2 shows the way in which Illya Kabakov mocked the cliches of Socialist Realism, most effectively in Tested! which purports to be a work by a forgotten artist from the 1930s showing a “celebration” of a woman having her Party membership card returned. It took me a bit of time to realise the blindingly obvious that this, obviously, would never have happened.

Following on from the early installations, including Incident in the Corridor Near the Kitchen with its flying  pans, are works that play with perspective and scale and incorporate tiny, cardboard cut out figures, which, to me, again suggest the struggle of individuals to find meaning and recognition in a social world. The next room has a rather less satisfactory installation where we are invited to look at “nocturnal” paintings through monoculars trained on apertures. The little white figures pop up again. For Ilya this work contrasts the contrast between the experienced and learnt knowledge which is the subject of epistemology, and the mystical revelations which cannot be explained. Hmmm.

The large installation which doubles up as the title of the exhibition, Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future, from 2001, imagines a train leaving a platform, carrying art and artists selected to be part of the future, and leaving behind discarded canvases that represent the work of the forgotten, unpalatable or banned. So a meditation on the history of art, but again, with a distinctive swipe at the Soviet Union. This investigation continues in Room 7 which contains a collection of paintings showing seems from Russian and Soviet history conjoined or layered over each other, or with areas whited out. Interesting but not as memorable as the installations. The model which pretends that apartments have been created out of public toilets was especially cutting however.

Next door is a fascinating installation, Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), from 1990, which documents the everyday struggle of his mother, Bertha Urievna Solodukhina, to survive and to raise Ilya. A dimly lit, grubby, winding corridor is lined with photographs taken by his uncle alongside disturbing memoirs from his clearly remarkable mother. Revolution, famine, repression, hate, homelessness, all are revealed. At its centre is a recording of Ilya singing songs from his childhood. Whilst this clearly explores the questions raised elsewhere in the work of the Kabanovs the impact is greater because it is so personal and devastating. I didn’t have enough time to read much of the testimony which was a great shame.

Room 9 takes us back to the intimate and hidden, with Ten Characters, a series of narrative drawings, displayed in a room reminiscent of classroom, which documents the lives of solitary, lonely artists in a totalitarian state. It was first exhibited in 1988 after the Kabakovs had themselves emigrated to New York where they now work. Finally there are a series of works which explore the idea of flight or escape with angels as the recurring motif. Angels, obviously, are about as commonplace as it comes in the history of art but here represent a life free from the grind of bureaucracy and routine. As with everything on display here the narratives are enthralling, the ideas provocative and the commentary acerbic.

These works take the personal and specific, artists working in secret under the Soviet regime, and turn them into something universal. And that despite missing, as I am sure I did, the majority of the meaning displayed her.

Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****


Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-55

Tate Modern, 19th January 2018

I have always coveted a collection. I mean a proper collection. I have a fair few CDs, (I have bought maybe 6 or 7 download only albums in my life – not having a physical copy brings me out in a cold sweat), a bit of vinyl, rather too many books, (the SO and I no longer know where to put them), programmes and exhibition catalogues and some 1960s pottery. But none of this counts. What I really want is a full-on, take over your life, obsessive, world’s leading authority, type of collection.

Mind you I have no idea where the people that do end up doing this find the time, money or space. But I am very glad this people exist. An entirely digital, thingless world where punters consume  everything on screen unsettles me. Aa it happens one such collector was graphic designer David King, and his chosen subject were prints, posters, journals and photos which document the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the first half of the C20. Unfortunately Mr King did not live to see this remarkable exhibition largely drawn from his collection, but we should thank him for his legacy/.

Now 2017 was the centenary of the Russian Revolution and one of the first posts on this blog recorded my visit to the excellent Royal Academy survey of Soviet Art at the beginning of the year (Russian Art at the Royal Academy review ****). Since then I have been immersed in Chekhov, (a couple more Cherry Orchards, and the early plays), more Shostakovich than is good for my nerves, sundry reading and exhibitions, the Death of Stalin film and, most recently, a play from current Russian dramatist Mikhail Durnenkov. So the way in which art has explored the relationship between people and State in Russia pre and post Revolution and beyond has been a particular source of interest this last year.

What is most striking about this exhibition, at first glance, is the ubiquity of many of the images. In the early years of the USSR many avant-garde, modernist artists saw art and architecture as tools for social change. This vision was propelled by the Constructivists/Productivists, (though there are signs that Suprematism, Futurism and Neo-Primitivism also had a hand in shaping poster art). Room 2 draws together work by artist couples El Lissitzky and Sophie Lissitzky-Kippers, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova and Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina, who embodied these ideals. Forms are simplified, colours are bold and abstraction applied to human endeavour.

Red and black predominate, sharp angles, exhortations to embrace the future and beware the enemy in sans serif type, heroic poses. Even as Stalin’s regime became suspicious, or worse, of modernist art, and the visual language drifted towards the cliches of Soviet Realism, the messages remained unchanged.

Even if you don’t actually know any of these images you will think you do. But even as you marvel at the terrific wall of posters in the first room proper, and before you get to the rooms of smaller images and objects, notably rare photographs, it becomes clear that something else is going on here. For the overriding impression beyond the familiar vocabulary, is of the manipulation and avoidance of truth. Reconstructions of significant events, caricatures of Party enemies, early “photoshopping”. This is most acute in the fascinating photographs where the faces of individuals executed and murdered by the regime are cut or crossed out, or cropped in official publications, notably Trotsky. The vitrine display of photographs of victims of Stalin’s Great Purge is very moving. The execution of military leader Mikhail Tukhachevsky and suicides of renowned poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and Stalin’s own wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva are explored in detail.

Yet even in the early years, after the Revolution, the scale of the effort by the Bolsheviks to win hearts and minds across this vast. largely illiterate, population is laid bare. Many of the messages are multilingual to reflect the diversity of the Soviet Union. Agitprop trains took the message of proletariat emancipation across the land. Monuments were erected. In the 1930’s the imagery of Socialist Realism was exported, as the room devoted to the utopian murals of  Aleksandr Deinaka which were exhibited in Paris in 1937, graphically illustrates.

So we have some absolutely fascinating and striking material, very directly and compactly curated without gimmickry, which maps out the way in which hope turned to despair over the space of a few decades. It gets you thinking long and hard about the way in which art and visual media are used to create and record history, both in the Soviet Union, and dare I say, today.


Bomberg at Pallant House Gallery review *****



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 *****


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 ***



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.