The main event first. The astonishing work of Don McCullin, the renowned “war” photographer, though this epithet doesn’t get close to covering the depth of the work revealed in this retrospective at the Tate, (now finished, sorry). McCullin, now 83, left art college at 15, worked on the railways and then did his National Service, where he worked as a photographer’s assistant having failed the theory paper which would have let him take pictures. In 1959, back in Britain, his mates persuaded him to submit his portrait of gang members, The Guvnors, to the Observer. It was printed and the rest is history.
His work in Berlin, as the Wall went up, and in Cyprus on partition, catapulted him to the top of his profession, he has been lauded with awards throughout his career. From 1966 to 1984 he was a photo-journalist for the Sunday Times Magazine producing iconic work in Vietnam, Biafra, Northern Ireland, the Congo, Bangladesh, Palestine, Beirut, Uganda, Chad, Cambodia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He also documented the plight of the poor, homeless and marginalised across Britain. His later work includes landscapes, ancient architectural treasures, notably Palmyra, and even some still lifes.
The exhibition includes work from across his career, as well as original examples of his work for newspapers and magazines and some helpful biographical details. He cites Alfred Stieglitz, the father of art photography in the US and husband of Georgia O’Keefe, as an influence despite their different genre focus. McCullin’s sharp, monochrome images are remarkable, even to this numpty, for their composition and mastery of light, though DM only staged one image in the exhibition, and for their visceral emotional power. Unusually he has printed very image in the exhibition himself which means he has to constantly return to these powerful images.
He clearly had to be very brave to take these pictures. He was wounded in Cambodia, imprisoned in Uganda and kicked out of Vietnam. His camera got in the way of a bullet intended for him. That camera is here in this exhibition. His has been hospitalised on numerous occasions. The UK Government pretended the ship was full and refused him a pass to cover the Falklands War. He hasn’t let up, travelling in 2015 to Kurdistan to document the struggle between Kurds, ISIS, Syria and Turkey.
Given the often appalling suffering, war, starvation and disease, which his photos captured it isn’t a great surprise that DM wrestled with the ethics of what he was doing. There are a couple of quotes below from Wiki which get to the heart of his dilemmas. Ultimately the urge to show the world the horrifying stories behind what he saw rightly trumped any sense of voyeurism. The most affecting works are the close up portraits especially those where the subject is often staring direct into camera. Even in a crowded Tate exhibition these are impossible to pass by. We live in a world saturated with images. It is hard therefore to understand just how much impact DM’s photos and the stories that accompanied them had on our society and discourse, especially in the pre-digital 1960s and 1970s. You will probably already know some of these images such is their importance.
An excellent exhibition if somewhat overwhelming. There is some relief in the early, nostalgic, photos of the British working class but, when it gets difficult, the Tourist opted to focus on a few works to try to take in the documented subjects and events. Not entirely successful. With this many people milling around and with so much history and suffering to contemplate it was hard to avoid being numbed or simply failing to see. Just occasionally though I think I saw the truth which DM wanted to captured. It was pretty scary.
“I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practise religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
I Am Ashurbanipal King of the World, King of Assyria
British Museum, 15th February 2019
Crikey. Those Assyrians had a way with reliefs carved in gypsum/alabaster. Even if it was primarily all in the service of terrifying aggrandisement. The King hunting, the King and his soldiers slaying his enemies, the King relaxing with the ladies. It is all about the big man. Seeing these panels adorning the main rooms of the Empire’s palaces, painted in bright pigments, you certainly would have known who was the boss.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire took in most of modern day Iraq, Syria and Iran from 911 BCE to 612 BCE and Ashurbanipal was in the hot seat at its zenith from 668 BCE to 627 BCE. One way or another the Assyrians had been a big noise in the region for the previous 1500 years or so but it is only when the factions came together, and decisively defeated their neighbours, that the Empire was able to take in Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean, Eastern Turkey, Egypt and the Persian Gulf. The Neo-Assyrian Empire kicked off with Adad-nirari II but it was Ashburanipal’s daddy, Esarhaddon, the son of a “palace-woman” not the Queen, who did the blood-thirsty groundwork for his favourite son. Even so little Ashurbanipal had to initially share with big brother Shamash-shum-ukin who ruled the rebuilt Babylon.
Whilst Ashurbanipal’s geographical inheritance was vast it needed looking after. First he had to take on the various Empires in Egypt including the Nubians. Then he had to decisively crush the Assyrians’ arch-enemies, the Elamites, and finally he had to take on his own older brother when Babylon rebelled. There is plenty of pictorial and written evidence to show just how cruel Ashurbanipal could be when it came to waging war but, as all you students of ancient history know, you can’t build an empire on brain-dashing alone. You needs brains that stay in heads as well. And this is where the exhibition steps in showing just how learned the great king was, (he had been trained to rule, and to spy and intrigue, from an early age), as he amassed his great Library, oversaw an unrivalled system of communication across the Empire, negotiated treaties and vassalships too hold together his various, proud peoples and turned Nineveh into the greatest city on Earth. He wasn’t troubled by modesty mind as the translations show. It all went to sh*te when he died, isn’t that always the way, but what is on show graphically reveals just how magnificent, (assuming you were on the right side, and ideally you weren’t a lion), it all was at its peak.
Now the British Museum has the lion’s share (haha) of the world’s Assyrian artefacts so curating this exhibition wasn’t too much of a struggle, I imagine. Even so much of this material is not on permanent display, there are plenty of astonishing loans on show and the way the story is told, as is usual at the BM, is superb. Most Assyrian art was lifted in the mid C19, (the Victorians went mad for it), having previous been ignored by scholars in Europe and the US. You can argue about the ethics of such an enterprise, but then again you might also want to consider the centuries before when the exquisite calcite alabaster palace reliefs, lamassu and large scale statuary went walkabout, and you also need to think about the wholesale destruction of what remained in situ by ISIS especially around Mosul. At the end of the exhibition this part of the story is highlighted including the work of the BM in supporting and training local archaeologists to examine and conserve what is left.
Highlights? The small-scale lion hunts, (though I reckon, based on the casual manner in which Ashurbanipal is despatching the beasts, that these reliefs may incorporate a little poetic licence even if they are anatomically perfect) . The Garden Party in the palace of Nimrud. (Let us hope Queen Liz doesn’t take up the custom of decorating the Buck Palace gardens with enemy heads). The wall of cuneiform on clay tablets, a summation of the Knowledge of the day, (a word to the wise – if you want your library to resist a fire, use clay). The copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first ever work of literature. The battle scenes illuminated with modern technology. The “painted” relief similarly enhanced. The lamassu, the human headed bull/lions with wings that stand guard. (How do you move these things? With great care I should imagine and without enlisting the services of the congenitally weak and clumsy like the Tourist). The sphinx of his arch-enemy. Taharqa. The imported Nimrud ivories. The decorated bronze helmet.The tiles. The obelisks. The statue of the big fella himself, alongside his bro. The Elamite art, pedestrian when compared to its Assyrian overlords.
The thing with the reliefs is that not only are they historically and aesthetically pleasing and interesting but they also tell an immediate story. It is this clear, (well, with a bit of help from the curators comments), narrative which makes this art and this exhibition special even if you aren’t normally one for the “dusty” as LD terms most History. Obviously some of the content, the pre-flaying, tongue-ripping, the bone-grinding, the beheading, appeals to our voyeuristic cravings, (don’t worry it isn’t TOO realistic), but it is the muscle, the movement, the energy, the vivid impression of something happening (even if the perspectives are that odd mix of profile and frontal/three-quarter that characterised pre-Grecian art), that makes it special.
And a lesson to all would-be tyrannical despots. If you are going balls-out to subjugate your people, do show an interest in reflecting your “glory” in art. Otherwise no-one will remember you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?