Monet and Architecture at the National Gallery review *****

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Monet and Architecture

National Gallery, 14th June 2018

I am not the biggest fan of Monet’s later, post-Giverny work. Loved the actual garden, the white suits, the pipe, the spectacular beard, the repetition and the joy. But the colours make me queasy and the smudginess is disorientating. I know that is what his eye could see but it still unsettles me. And then there is that general “pretty-pretty” thing about Impressionism, and the way it is has been confiscated by the cultural imagination, that puts my back up.

The earlier stuff though does the business and pop a building in, or some other expression of the built environment, and I am a buyer. It offered up another set of shapes, beyond the natural, for our Claude to explore, and provided anchors for the eye. And later on, in Rouen, or London, or Venice, new textures. And when you see room upon room of paintings of such beauty it is, cliche-alert, breath-taking. This exhibition is an aesthetic delight. No need to think about context, concept, history, method, material, technique, message, or anything else for that matter. Let there be light as some other important old fella with a big white beard might have said.

That’s it. Just go. And be happy. I’ve nothing else to say.

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

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Monochrome: Painting in Black and White

National Gallery, 22nd November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some ideas for the culturally inclined in London

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

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

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

Theatre

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

  • Hamlet – Harold Pinter Theatre – June to September 2017

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

Hamlet at the Almeida review *****

  • The Ferryman – Gielgud Theatre – June to October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Tempest – Barbican Theatre – July and August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

  • Ink – Almeida Theatre – June to August 2017

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

  • Against – Almeida Theatre – August and September 2017

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

  • Prism – Hampstead Theatre – September and October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Retreat – Park Theatre – November 2017

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

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

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

Exhibitions

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

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