Van Gogh and Britain at Tate Britain review ****

Van Gogh and Britain

Tate Modern, 30th July 2019

Took me way ages to find the time to see this. And even longer to comment on it. Really what is the point.

Especially as even late afternoon on a weekday it was a bun fight with bugger all chance to stand, look and see. So not sure what to say. It’s van Gogh so of course there are paintings which, even when they shout out their familiarity, still stop you dead in their tracks. And wall upon wall of exquisite drawings. But no real opportunity to revel given the crowds.

VvG spent three years in London from 1873 to 1876, with trips back to the continent. I always get a thrill from the idea that he pitched up in Isleworth where he worked as a Sunday school teacher and then preacher. Look at the blue plaque opposite Isleworth Rec from atop the 267. Of course his time in Brixton (bit hipper I guess) is better known, working in central London. But this was in his early 20’s, in the art gallery Goupil, before he started painting. But he did draw. And maybe he did soak up the influence of these early years. Not in the same way as he did with Impressionists in Paris or from the Japanese prints he adored. At least that’s the theory here.

Cue a string of pearls in the form of self portraits, the NG’s Sunflowers, Starry Night over the Rhone (from the D’Orsay), Shoes, Hospital at St Remy, and other maybe lesser known works not drawn from the VG Museum in Amsterdam, like the extraordinary, and chilling, Prisoners Exercising (Moscow Pushkin) from 1890 and depicting Newgate Prison. There are a few half hearted attempts to show the London influences such as a Whistler Nocturne, but most of the interest for the Tourist came from the drawings. Never been to the Kroller-Muller collection in Otterlo, from which many of these drawings were, er, drawn, as well as a few paintings, but it is now a priority (if I can trick the SO into driving me there somehow).

The influence of French engraver/printmaker Gustav Dore is also plain to see in the copious copies VvG made of his illustrations which reveal the darker side of Victorian London. And the peasant landscapes that VvG painted in his early years owe a debt to the prints that he will have seen in English magazines from the 1870s. Apparently VvG read Dickens avidly, (and, exhibiting more taste, George Eliot), and his chair paintings might just have been inspired by a memory of an English print memorial after Charlie’s death entitled An Empty Chair.

At the end of the exhibition there are even a bunch of flower and portrait paintings, some actually quite pleasing, from the likes of Harold Gilman, Spencer Gore, Ben Nicholson and even Jacob Epstein, some just awful. There is even a Bacon triptych tribute to VvG, and a Bomberg self portrait. But it is the VvG flora, trees, wheat, flowers, blossoms, and people, which leap out here, almost literally, putting everything else into the shade. You can see the paint, every brushstroke, and you can feel the light, however coloured, but you can also know the subject, animal, vegetable or mineral, which is what makes VvG’s paintings so appealing to, well, everyone. Judging by this exhibition and by the Tourist’s most recent expeditions to Amsterdam.

Which is what made this exhibition just about worthwhile. For although this grumpy, old f*cker can get wound up by all these people milling around, only concerned with the image that they capture on their phones and not what is actually in front of them, it is still an immense rush to watch the joy transfer from canvas to viewer.

Dead at 37. What a waste.

Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain review ****

Don McCullin

Tate Britain, 1st May 2019

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.”

Some quick notes on exhibitions visited so far in 2019

The Tourist has been shockingly remiss so far this year in documenting his adventures in the visual and plastic arts. Some plagiarised comments on the I Am Ashurbanipal survey of Assyrian art at the British Museum aside, I have failed to document any other exhibition visits. So, for the sake of completeness, here are some brief comments lest I forget. Sorry reader. This is for me not you.

Figure, Totem, Beast: Sculpture in Britain in the 1950s – Tate Britain – 4th January, 2019 – ****

One of my favourite periods. At the intersection of figuration and abstraction. The curators showing the anxieties that plagued society and Western art in the aftermath of the horror of WWII and with the Cold War hanging over it. New materials and processes combined to create sculpture both brutal and beautiful. Some real heavyweights here. Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, Elizabeth Frink, Eduardo Paolozzi, Reg Butler, William Turnbull. alongside lesser known names for me such as Kenneth Armitage, Bernard Meadows, FE McWilliam, Geoffrey Clarke, Louise Hutchinson and Luciano Minguzzi. And a reminder that Lynn Chadwick was a genius. And how influential this generation was across the world.

Lorenzo Lotto Portraits – National Gallery – 10th January, 2019 – ****

Lotto (1480-1556/7) may have have been lumped in with the Venetians but he got about a bit depending on who commissioned and paid him (Treviso, Marches, Rome, Bergamo, Ancona, Loreto). High Renaissance, never Mannerist but his portraiture evolved through time. Influenced by Giovanni Bellini, early portraits followed the classicism of Giorgione, then the psychological insight comparable with Antonello de Messina, later on more dramatic like Corregio. Forgotten then rediscovered at the end of the C19. Portraits are intense and self aware and often contain clues and insights into the position and status of the subjects. Not a happy chap based on his correspondence. Pointless addition of old stuff similar to items in the portraits for no discernible reason other than padding out the 30 paintings.

Anni Albers – Tate Modern – 17th January 2019 – ****

Anni Albers combined the craft of hand-weaving with minimalist abstraction. Student at Bauhaus school but discouraged from “fine art” classes so took up weaving. Influenced by Paul Klee and husband Josef Albers. Both educators. Forced out of Nazi Germany. Ended up at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Influence on Op Art and Abstract Expressionists. Small scale pictorial weavings, large wall hangings, textiles, prints drawings. Studied and inspired by ancient art and technique and folk weaving. “On Weaving” 1965. Different materials, textures, weaves, threads, colours, geometries.

John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing – Two Temple Place – 13th February 2019 – ***

Artist, art critic, educator, social thinker. (1819-1900). In conjunction with Museums of Sheffield which Ruskin created for the people. 190 paintings, drawings, daguerreotypes, metal work, and plaster casts to illustrate how Ruskin’s attitude to aesthetic beauty shaped his radical views on culture and society. Last 25 years retreated into mental illness. Medieval Gothic as inspiration for communal enterprise, makers, guilds, not capitalist production. Detailed, precise drawings and watercolours of nature. Venetian architecture. Landscapes. Collections of objects. Contrast with his religious faith. Influence on Neo-Gothic, architecture, pre-Raphaelites, Arts and Crafts.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory – Tate Modern – 14th March 2019 – ***

1867 to 1947. Bold use of colour though thin not vibrant. Member of Post-impressionist group Les Nabis. Early work influenced by Gaugin and Japanese prints. Shift into modernism. Landscapes, townscapes, portraits, domestic scenes. Popster designs, lithographs and illustrations. Odd angles, cropping and viewpoints. Martha de Meligny was model who became his wife. Always distinct use of colour, small marks, not from life, used photos and note in studio. Intimate, transient subjects. Overworked and sometimes twee or dull.

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light – National Gallery – 28th March, 2019 – ****

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923). First UK exhibition of Spain’s leading Impressionist in over a century. Known as the ‘master of light’ for his iridescent canvases. 58 works. Seascapes, garden views, beach bather scenes, portraits, landscapes and genre scenes of Spanish life. Very popular in his day, native of Valencia. Child prodigy, worked quickly, excellent draughtsman. Very striking and lovely paint but no real substance and same techniques and effects across the works. Period when he did examine social issues and contemporary cause celebres (Another Marguerite!) however but these are more moral instruction akin to Dickens in paint. Scenes of rural Spain commission for NYC Hispanic Society. Influence of Singer Sargent and back to Goya and Velasquez. The paint equivalent of a very sweet tooth. Lovely but you can have too much in one sitting. The sunlight is exquisite though. Beach scenes, Sewing the Sail and Raisin Factory stood out. Spanish Art moved up and on with Picasso and Dali but Sorolla still very popular in Spain.

Right I feel better for making those notes. A smidgen of understanding for all those poor youngsters about to take exams and revising like billy-o. Just like LD is right now.

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain review ****

Edward Burne Jones

Tate Britain, 11th November 2018

Turns out Burne-Jones isn’t quite as awful as I had previously thought. Don’t get me wrong. All that hippy-dippy, fey, dreamy. dusky-toned, doe-eyed, ginger-permed, long-bodied, nymph-y, mannequin-esque, briar-strewn, Arthurian, industrialisation-denying, fake-Medieval, cod-Renaissance daubing is still guaranteed to do my head in. But I will concede that he could draw. Really draw and there are details, even in the worst of the fairy-tale illustrations, that deserve a properly good look.

I can’t change my immediate reaction to art but I can try to explain it to myself. And, if I am honest, with Burne-Jones, and the rest of the original pre-Raphaelites, and their Arts and Crafts and Neo-Gothic mates, it is in part the context in which they produced their art (and design) that winds me up as much as the work itself. As with this exhibition there are elements that I can concede give me pleasure, the colour (when vamped up as in the stained glass for example), the line and form (notably in drawings, textile, church interiors, tapestries) and the belief in the power of the aesthetic. They started off with the right inspiration, the jewels, (and working practices), of the early Flemish and Italian Renaissance, (the clue is in the pre- moniker) and their vaguely humanist intention to eschew purely religious imagery is commendable. But that doesn’t excuse the lifelessness of their subjects and the utter irrelevance of their mythologies. At the end of the day Burne-Jones ended up churning out knights in armour and pretty ladies for the great and good in Victorian society; the fate of many an artist through history for sure, but these chaps ended up as the reactionaries they purported to abjure. 

The kindness of strangers, well friends in this case, may also have had an effect on my viewing. We were a big party, with the SO, who inclines to the hyper-real in art, (though understanding that paint on canvas in two dimensions could hardly be more artificial), KCK who is an admirer, BUD the ever-curious and the Blonde Bombshells, who know their artistic onions. Me banging on about the preposterous narratives in the paintings, creepy friends and family who are persistently featured (after raiding the dressing-up box), the cut and pastes from Renaissance masters, the pointlessness, introversion and body fascism of this obsession with “beauty”, the upper-class, biscuit tin sentimentality, the failure to move on or develop his art, the dodgy androgynous eroticism, the all-round sameyness, would clearly have been border-line patronising. 

Particularly since I could be found avidly staring at many of the works looking for all the world like some-one who might be enjoying them. And as I discovered that Burne-Jones was not the la-di-dah toff I had assumed but working-class and self-taught. And Jimmy Page has pitched in with his Holy Grail tapestries. Which seems apposite. Led Zep were often musically at their very best (Immigrant Song, Stairway, Achilles Last Stand, No Quarter) just as lyrically they were off with the fairies. 

What was most interesting then? The early drawings, Going to the Battle, Buondelmonte’s Wedding, the stained glass from the V&A (if you ignore the pretty faces), the various pencil studies, the bodycolour nymphs enhanced with metallic paints, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, The Morning of the Resurrection, Love and the Pilgrim, the Lucien Freud-like portraits, details of the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty and Perseus/Medusa series, The Fall of Lucifer and certain of the tapestries, like the Adoration above. Though I can’t say I “liked” these works, admired might better cover it. And much of the rest still annoyed me. 

So Burne-Jones. Sublime or ridiculous? You decide. For me he was both. Simultaneously. Conservative Victorian or symbolist visionary? Again a bit of both. Style over substance? Certainly but that is exactly what he and his peers set out to deliver I’ll warrant. I can see why people like Burne-Jones’s art. I just can’t quite see exactly what it is they like. It is, at least in the big, showy, famous works, very, very detached from any reality, yet seems to be prized by many for its verisimilitude. I have a feeling you could use Burne-Jones as the ultimate artist in one of those sociology attitude tests. All that useless beauty as Elvis (C not P) once said. 

Me? I would still rather spend a couple of hours with one van Eyck. More beauty. More skill. More reality. More meaning. More life. 

I can’t fault the curation though, Surprisingly this is the first full-scale survey in London of EBJ since 1975, amazing given his popularity, and the Tate has built handsomely on its own catalogue to give us the whole shebang. Downstairs in the tomb-like Manton St galleries. Which doesn’t suit every artist but sets EBJ’s sleepy melancholy and false colour palette off to a tee. There is a kind of cumulative surrender in seeing so many, large-scale, paintings hung together. 

And can anyone tell me who the bloke with the chiseled features and scary eyes is who keeps cropping up? 

Aftermath at Tate Britain review ****

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

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One

Tate Britain, 29th August 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Too Human at Tate Britain review *****

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All Too Human: Bacon. Freud and a Century of Painting Life

Tate Britain, 15th March 2018

I love paint. I love painting. I love paintings of people. I love Britain (though I appreciate that is a loaded statement). I love London. I love paintings of London. So, surprise, surprise, I loved this exhibition.

Don’t listen to the whingeing critics ….

As usual a whole bunch of critics are moaning about what was missed out, and in some cases, what was put in. Ignore them. If your only definitional constraints are a country, (of production, not, wisely, artist’s origin), a time period and “painting from life” then you are, ahem, taking a pretty broad brush approach. What the curators, led by Elena Crippa, have done is assembled a marvellous collection of powerful paintings by top drawer artists, many of which you won’t get to see in public collections, and then carefully spelled out the links between them.

There are links of style, substance, location, outlook and subject and there is enough for the numpty like me to learn without a load of contextual guff being rammed down your throat and getting in the way of the pictures. So by all means think about who you might have added, (and maybe taken away), but not to the exclusion of the bounteous display which has been carefully set out in front of you.

The School of London

Now the backbone of the exhibition is the so-called School of London, the term that RB Kitaj coined retrospectively, to identify a group of painters who were a) defiantly figurative, b) worked and/or taught in London and c) were bloody good. At least that’s my take. So that covers RB himself, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Euan Uglow, Michael Andrews and one or two others who don’t get as much of a look in here. This starting point gives more than enough to get going on but the curators have additionally highlighted the contributions of two significant teacher/mentors to this group of painters in the late 1940s and early 1950s; firstly William Coldstream at the Slade School and secondly David Bomberg at the Borough Polytechnic.

All that was then needed was a stab at exploring some precedent influences, which is what we see in the first room, some contemporary figurative painters, and voila, the exhibition is complete. All makes sense to me so I am not really sure why some critics are blubbing.

Spencer, Bomberg, Sickert, Soutine

So to the first room which showcases Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, Walter Richard Sickert and Chain Soutine. Let me just say that again. Spencer, Bomberg, Sickert and Soutine. You could have just stopped there and I would have been happy. All offering up subjects which the School of London generation would explore and all painters of immense confidence when it came to capturing life whether in portrait or landscape.

I reckon David Bomberg is the best British painter of the C20. If it hadn’t been for a certain Joseph Mallord William Turner that would make him the greatest British painter ever. If you don’t believe me, and you are anywhere near Newcastle, you can go see for yourself at the Laing Gallery which is now showing the 60 year anniversary retrospective that kicked off at Pallant House (Bomberg at Pallant House Gallery review *****). Here we get to see a dandyish self-portrait with echoes of van Gogh and a pair of landscapes, one of Toledo and one of Ronda, which act as the expressionist bridge into the abstract Cornish landscapes of his latter years. This is a very long way from the modernism and vorticism of his early years and the inter-war scenes of London Jewish life. It is also a step on from the more restrained Palestinian landscapes. This is Bomberg grappling towards his idea of spirit in the mass. It is easy to see the traces of Sickert, who taught him early on, and even easier to see his influence in turn on Kossoff, Auerbach and Dorothy Mead who attended his classes at Borough Polytechnic.

The two Spencer portraits date from 1933 and 1935 and are both of Patricia Preece. Now if you want the definition of a f*cked up relationship you need look no further than Stan and Pat. As is plainly portrayed in these two pictures. The paintings are here because this is the well from which Lucian Freud drank deeply. If you are going to take a cold, hard, honest and realistic look at the person you know well sat in front of you, and you have no fear of what the outcome might say about the relationship between you and the sitter, then these paintings, and those in the Freud room later on, are what you might end up with. Assuming you can draw. Really draw. Our Stanley did end up churning out a fair bit of landscape junk for money towards the end, and he was a bona-fide fruitcake, but how he ever became viewed as an artistic embarrassment is a mystery. Just shows how far the rejection of figurativism went. Anyway his reputation is restored now. I had a very fine day out in Wakefield at the Hepworth seeing the last major Spencer retrospective in 2016, Of Angels and Dirt, and if you ever need a Sir Stanley fix then head out to Cookham. Or the Tate which is loaded with Spencers. Or the Fitzwilliam ditto. BTW if any budding theatre directors are reading this please could you revive Pam Gems’s play Stanley. I would love to see it.

Now Sickert is the grandaddy of British figurative art in the C20, Another oddball, who cared deeply about how the paint was applied to the canvas, he didn’t really paint too much from life, preferring drawings and latterly photos. His imprint is all over the later artists in the exhibition. The everyday subjects, the detached gaze, the oddish angles, the materiality of the paint, (for a man who professed to hate thick paint he wasn’t shy of slapping it on). Here we get two of his disconcerting surveilled nudes and a music hall number.

Now including Chaim Soutine in this room might be seen as a bit of a stretch. He is usually viewed as the fulcrum between the European masters of the past, Rembrandt, Chardin and the like, and Expressionism toppling into Abstraction. But he did get involved in some London shows, and the detached eye, the desire to capture what was in front of him and the everyday subjects are all present and correct in the later rooms. Let’s face it, if you want a direct painting link to Francis Bacon,  Chaim is your man, along with Picasso, Velazquez, Goya and Titian. If you want a bit of meaty, carcasse action though, look no further than Soutine’s butchery studies, here represented by the Butcher Stall from 1919 as well as a landscape and a portrait from the period when Soutine was holed up in Ceret. And if there was ever an artist who liked to mess up his subject’s facial features then it was Soutine. So no wonder Bacon liked his work.

Francis Bacon I

So job done we can move on to room 2 and a room full of Bacons. And, curiously a Giacometti sculpture, a Woman of Venice from 1956. I can see why Giacometti is here though. His way of capturing the essence of his subjects chimed with these British artists. Working and reworking to capture his subjective interpretation of the objective reality in front of him. The horror that was unleashed by WWII. Art critic David Sylvester linked Bacon and Giacometti, and the way they captured the individual’s messy experience of the world, with the existentialist philosophies that were intellectually prominent in post war years. Bacon backed this up in his captivating interviews. Not sure you would get all that from just the one Giacometti though, and maybe a couple of Giacometti’s own ghostly portrait paintings might have better made the link with Bacon. Still musn’t grumble.

Especially when you have seven early(ish) Bacons to get to grips with, the earliest being Figure in a Landscape from 1945, the year after the revolutionary Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, (just along the corridor in the permanent Tate collection). I defy anyway not to have an immediate and extreme reaction to the work of Bacon. Raw, frightening, thrilling, they stop you dead in your tracks. I find it very difficult to tear myself away from them. There is a Study after Velaquez with screaming mouth and “trapped” in a “cage” of red blinds. The foreground seems to me to be rushing towards us, the cross-legged pose the normality behind which lies this terrible angst. You might have seen Dog before. It always brings to my mind Dill the Dog from the children’s TV series The Herbs (for those old enough to remember). Daft huh? The demented cur, running round and round in circles, against the background of, absurdly, the Monte Carlo sea front. Study of a Baboon, from the MoMA collection, is an absolutely extraordinary painting. Here Bacon shows another primate, screaming, which they do, and somehow equates this to our own existence. What is going on in this fella’s head? The Study or Portrait II is another Tate regular and is based on the life mask of William Blake, which Bacon had photographed and even cast. The pink, mauve and white marks build up to create an amalgam of flesh and wax, It might just be the best picture in the exhibition.

FN Souza

I know nothing about Francis Newton Souza who came to London from his native Goa in 1949. I gather his work has become increasingly regarded in recent years but I can’t say I was bowled over though his ideas are interesting. I can see the energy in the graphic brush strokes and the coruscating critique of religion and commerce in his subject matter, as well as the eroticism, but I had no definite aesthetic reaction. The curators make a case for linking his portraits back to the early Renaissance and to the fears and anxieties of the post war era, (though these works are a little later in vintage), and thus to Bacon, but it isn’t that convincing. I was actually more interested in the pair of smaller, Expressionistic, almost Chagall-like, landscapes. Anyway see what you think.

The influence of William Coldstream

The next room highlights the work and philosophy of William Coldstream, who taught Euan Uglow and Michael Andrews at the Slade School in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and influenced, and gave a job to, the young Lucian Freud. Coldstream was all about recording the reality of the subject through exact measurement, intense scrutiny and spending lots of time with the model. Now I am not sure that this technical obsessiveness was married with existential insight in the nudes and still-life on show here from Coldstream himself, but it leaps off the canvas with the Uglow paintings, the Still lIfe with a Delft Vase (hello Chardin) and, especially, his portrait of Georgia Georgallas from 1973. Apparently he had her hair cut, chose the exact colour of the tights she wore, chose the fabric for the sofa she reclines on and dressed her in a football shirt, (don’t know which club mind you). You can see the measurement marks on the canvas, the passage of time in creating the picture is palpable. It is still pretty disturbing though.

Lucian Freud I

As are the Lucien Freud figures in this room, Girl With a Kitten from 1947 and Girl with A White Dog from 1951, both depicting his first wide Kitty Garman. Freud would stare intently at his subject for hours, a form of “visual aggression” which created the tension visible in the paintings. He even scared the cat. These delicate, chalky,, hyper-real portraits always take me back to the Northern Renaissance and, specifically, Memling’s portraits, but with a few centuries of “progress” chucked into the mix. Freud abandoned the delicate sable brush strokes in the later, fleshier works, (in Room 7), but this also meant forfeiting the uneerie “otherness’ of these early works. Now I gather LF was a bit of a misogynist control freak and he famously came from a family unhealthily preoccupied with matters sexual . It shows.

Bomberg and the Borough Polytechnic

The next room, which tracks the influence of David Bomberg during his time teaching at the Borough Polytechnic, (the antithesis of the art establishment represented by the Slade), explores a very different way of looking at the world. Bomberg was critical of traditional observational methods in painting, the “hand and eye disease”, preferring to highlight the visual experience of objects and their mass, so as to get to the structure underpinning the observed; “the spirit of the mass” as he termed it. Drawing from life was fundamental to his process. The influence on students Auerbach and Kossoff is unmistakeable. Neither were members of the Borough Group which was formed in Bomberg’s wake but both were inspired, like Dorothy Mead, by his methods as they went on to more formal training. Bomberg had painted London cityscapes, notably St Paul’s Cathedral, during the war, (we see one here) but his prime interest in his later years, alongside portraiture, was elemental landscape. The near abstract renderings of Cornwall painted in his last years, whilst not represented here, seem to me to bear the most similarity to the dense, detailed London cityscapes that Auerbach and Kossoff went on to paint, although they both use a lot more paint (!).

Auerbach and Kossoff’s London

The cityscapes from both which appear in the following room, with a couple of portraits, are easier to read that their earlier works in the prior room, as is evident from the image of Kossoff;s near monochrome Christ Church, Spitalfields above. Yet, in some ways, the thrill of all that thick impasto on the canvas, Kossoff Early Morning Willesden or Auerbach’s Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, is hard to beat. This is where the over-painting which characterises many of the paintings on show across the exhibition reaches its apogee. Whilst the geographic range of, particularly Auerbach, may be narrow, the expressive sweep is endless. Forgive the aside but there is a song by Madness off the much under-rated The Liberty of Norton Folgate album, We Are London, which popped into my head. Same emotional territory. Camden boys as well.

Lucien Freud II

Back to the body with a bang in Room 7 with wall-to-wall “classic” Freuds. There is a lot of painted flesh on show, rendered in the style LF first adopted in the early 1960’s and which he carried through to his death in 2011. He had picked up a hog-brush and moved back from the sitter by now, painting standing up, leading to a higher viewpoint and more elongated foregrounding. These portraits are set predominately in the familiarity of his studio. There are more full figures and more full nudes. There is real weight to the bodies, and more psychological depth, and less intimidation than in his earlier works. The call back to Sickert’s nudes struck me. The room is a bit overwhelming at first so I opted to focus on a handful of paintings: the Baby on a Green Sofa from 1961, (his daughter Bella), the portrait of Frank Auerbach from 1976 and the portraits of Leigh Bowery from 1991 an Sue Tilley from 1996. (The latter two are asleep: no great surprise given how slowly LF painted). These paintings emphasise how LF used lead white paint to build the contours of the flesh and create that astounding impression of sculpted volume on the canvas. Of course it only works with pale, white people, as it did for Stanley Spencer, but it is, even if you know these paintings, jarring to see unflattering depictions of naked bodies in the context of an art canon that does the exact opposite and a culture that only permits airbrushed “perfection”. Like them or not, this is what paint can do.

Francis Bacon II

Room 8 shows how Francis Bacon used the photographs of buddy John Deakin, notably those with unnatural poses and double-exposed, as the starting point for a number of his paintings. And the paintings here need to be savoured as you won’t see some of them every day of the week, in particular the Study for Portrait of Lucien Freud, with its sickly mint green sofa, incandescent light bulb and stuff coming out of LF’s head, and the Triptych completed in 1977, showing three images of FB’s lover George Dyer who committed suicide in 1971, on a beach referencing Degas and Picasso, the very definition of alienation. The former hasn’t been seen in public since 1965, the latter sits in a private collection since it last sale in 2008.

By the 1970s FB had given up on painting from life and the motifs, popes, besuited captains of industry, screams, cages and screens, had been replaced by the grotesque, but inordinately powerful, portraits of his mates, at least those that could keep up with him. These violently distorted chunks of people may look like they bear no resemblance to their subjects but see Deakin’s photos and you get exactly what FB was driving at. The way in which FB showed the life of his subject bursting out beyond the confines of the body reaches a peak in the Three Figures and Portrait from 1975. A death-mask like portrait is pinned to the back wall, a memory seeming to watch over the the two dynamic human figures and a bird like creature, with snarling human mouth, on a cube twisting and writhing in the foreground. The head on the left hand figure is George Dyer once again, his spine pushing out of his back. Scary stuff.

Michael Andrews and RB Kitaj

The next room, luckily, offers a bit of respite from FB’s assault on the senses. Michael Andrews and RB Kitaj aped Bacon by drawing on photographs as sources for their portraits, as well as their own imaginations. Andrews shared the existentialist outlook of some of his peers but was more interested in the interaction between people, friends, families, groups, than with the individual. Here we see one of MA’s oils depicting the Colony Room, Soho haunt of Bacon, Freud, Deakin and assorted bohemian hangers-on, and the Deer Park which impossibly brings together a intellectuals and celebs. But the most wonderful painting here is the much later Melanie and Me Swimming showing him tenderly teaching his 6 year old daughter to swim in a rock-pool. By this time MA had switched to quick drying acrylic paint sprayed on to the canvas. This gives a smooth, unbroken fluidity to the paint, and, as here, creates some captivating effects, the splashing, the refraction of the water, the contrast between skin colour in face and body. If you like this picture, and I am sure you will, then you need to search out more of Michael’s Andrew’s works in acrylic, especially the landscapes, the “hot air balloon series” and the fish paintings. You are in for a treat. The extensive retrospective at the Gagosian a couple of years ago was one of the finest I have seen (Michael Andrews and Richard Serra at the Gagosian Galleries London review *****). Unfortunately the Tate collection only holds one depiction of Uluru (Ayers Rock) which rarely gets an outing.

RB Kitaj, born in America but working in London from the early 1960s after studying at Oxford,  also examines relationships but his was a more critical eye with a discernible message. His subjects were friends, especially artistic, as in The Wedding here, and family, especially the history of his family as part of the Jewish diaspora. Now he may have been the architect of the exhibition, The Human Clay in 1976, which proposed The School of London, but, for me, he is the least interesting painter.

Paula Rego

That cannot be said of Paula Rego whose works using live models dominate Room 10. Now you might legitimately ask yourself what Portugal’s greatest living, scrub that, greatest ever, artist is doing in this company. Well she studied under William Coldstream at the Slade School, alongside Michael Andrews, Euan Uglow and her future husband Victor Willing, in the mid 1950s. With that link established we are permitted to see some of her finest, and most intriguing paintings, from the 1990s. There is no better story teller, specifically women’s stories, in paint. These are no simple stories though, presenting multiple viewpoints and multiple insights. Take a look at The Family from 1988. At first glance it might appear a disturbing scenario . Take a closer look. This is a family undressing the helpless invalided father, a very personal exploration of Paula Rego’s own life, and that of their daughters, caring for Vic Willing.

Contemporary women figurative artists

On the day I went this room and the following room, the last room in the exhibition, got a bit piled up with punters so I wasn’t able to devote enough time to really looking at these works. No matter. I’ll be back and will cunningly start at the end. I got a bit beaten up by all that male existential angst in the preceding rooms. Whilst the artists in this final room, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown, Jenny Saville and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are concerned with the human form, they do not, (with the exception of Celia Paul), necessarily paint directly from life and the identities they explore are a long way from the ferocity of, say, Francis Bacon. Celia Paul may have been a contemporary, (and lover), of Lucian Freud but her portraits of women, in supportive groups or individually, seem more concerned with internal vitality than external authority. Jenny Saville’s striking and frank close-up self portrait Reverse harks back to the meaty flesh of Soutine, as well as Freud. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye paints black characters from her imagination, with enigmatic titles, who seem caught up in their thoughts.

Off you trot

So a marvellous exhibition bringing together some of the best figurative artists who have worked in this country over the last few decades. Forget about agonising over what might have been included, or what should have been excluded. There is more than enough here to savour and the connections the curators have made are both valid and interesting. Above all the exhibition shows that painting in Britain never went away and that there is nothing quite as thrilling as looking at ourselves in paint.

All Too Human runs until 27th August 2018 so there is absolutely no reason at all not to see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

and ===Bacon rarities – Lucien Freud study – Peter Lacy = beach trip

Impressionists in London at Tate Britain review ***

impressionism-at-tate-britain-review-october-2017

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

Tate Modern, 30th November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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