Franz West @ Tate Modern

Franz West (1947-2012) is best known for his unconventional objects and sculptures, installations and furniture work, which often require an involvement of the audience.

This is a big exhibition, taking up no fewer than ten rooms at Tate Modern and the overwhelming impression you get is that West relished amateurishness, the cack-handed, graceless elevation of the everyday into ambiguous and intriguing objects – like this set of sculptures made out of bottles and baths and rolls of carpet and toilet seats and plates stacked on each other in no particular order and covered in papier-mâché and painted a horrible vomit-brown.

Redundanz by Franz West (1986)

His works’ determined lack of grace and finish ought to be off-putting but I came out of the exhibition really liking them.

Deliberate amateurishness

A modern artist like Jeff Koons gets his kicks by making objects and sculptures which are manufactured to a technicolour-bright, smooth, hyper-real perfection. Their gleaming finish satirises the impossible perfection of airbrushed models, movie stars, and adverts. His sculptures are satires on, ahem, modern consumer capitalism.

West makes the same general point (i.e. isn’t capitalism, advertising and consumer culture awful?) but with the diametrically opposite strategy.

From the start of his career in the late 1960s, through to the end – as an award-winning showstopper at the Venice Biennale and numerous other international art festivals – West set out to undermine the shiny world of western consumerism with determinedly hand-made and amateurish artefacts, where you are meant to see the joins and the glue and the shabby lack of professional finish.

Big papier-mâché sculptures

Thus the most characteristic – and memorably enormous – works here are huge, hand-made, hand-built, wonky, papier-mâché sculptures which look like they could have been made by enterprising schoolchildren.

Installation view of Franz West at Tate Modern 2019. Photo by Luke Walker

The exhibition builds up to a climax in the last couple of rooms which contain vast, pastel-coloured, abstract sculptures all made out of wood and cardboard and gauze and papier-mâché. Are the bright but gentle pastel colours symbolic of something, packed with artistic meaning? No. In a typically off-hand, deliberately unpretentious way, West is quoted as saying he got the idea for the colours of these big works from children’s pajamas 🙂

Epiphanie an Stuhlen (2011) by Franz West. Photo by Luke Walker

Early drawings

The road towards these monster sculptures began in the late 1960s, when West (born in 1947) was a well-known alcoholic and trouble-maker on the periphery of the Vienna art scene. He was arrested a couple of times, and took part in friends’ ‘happenings’ and installations in those far-gone, heady days of revolution and sticking it to the bourgeoisie. Only slowly, and relatively late (around the age of 26) did he begin to make anything like ‘art’ himself, in the early 1970s.

Initially these consisted of really bad, amateurish drawings. There are several walls covered with them, sets of human figures drawn with breath-taking gawkiness. Some are funny, most are notable for a kind of confident ineptitude.

Untitled (1972) Private collection © Estate Franz West © Archiv Franz West

Many of his pictures and collages satirised contemporary pornographic magazines. Apparently, he made the images ‘absurd’ by ‘decontextualising’ them – as you can see by this one, a penetrating study of the wickedness of contemporary pornography.

West was, according to the wall labels, keen to satirise the Freudian theory that human behaviour is based on sexual drives. Hence lots of crudely drawn images of men with erect penises about to penetrate women with crudely drawn breasts.

Frohsinn (1974) by Franz West

The Passstücke

But West’s real breakthrough came when he invented the Passstücke (Adaptives), abstract papier-mâché pieces which were intended to be picked up and played with. These are as rough and amateurish as his drawings, but it was the contexts he put them in that began to make them interesting. For example, there are a handful of replicas of the early hand-pieces and visitors are encourage to mess about with them in what look like department store dressing rooms.

Passtucke mit box und video (1996) Photo Luke Walker

There are several very rough, amateurish video films and lots of photos of West’s friends in Vienna’s 1970s underground art scene putting these funny, odd papier-mâché shapes on their heads, wearing them like clothes, or – in one striking scene – there’s a topless woman using a plate-shaped piece of papier-mâché to lift and move her naked bosoms while a fully dressed man sits nearby and plays improvised jazz on a trumpet. A naked woman! With boobs! Improvised jazz!

You can still smell the wild, crazeee, avant-garde vibe of these subversive rebels 40 years later. I bet they smoked pot. I bet they stayed up all night talking about philosophy and the meaning of life. Crazeee.

Friedl Kubelka. Graf Zoken (Franz West) still, 1969. Courtesy Friedl Kubelka © DACS, London 2018

Bigger, brighter, and with added furniture

After two or three rooms acclimatising you to West’s relatively small and amateurish early art, and to the 1970s world of flairs and slacks and beards and long hair and bare boobs which it came out of – the visitor walks through a doorway into the first of a series of far larger, much more open spaces, in which Franz is suddenly making much, much larger sculptures and installations.

There’s a big one comprising four walls made of papier-mâché which create four office booths, each of which contains home-made furniture. For Franz had started to make furniture.

Wegener Räume – an installation of four gouaches, four sculptures on wooden bases, four seats, wooden walls, paper, cloth, gauze, plaster and metal by Franz West (1988)

The office furniture was, originally, meant to be sat on and used, just like the Passstücke are meant to be handled, twirled round your head, worn on your wrist or whatever.

West wanted to make art that was functional – art and furniture at the same time.

BUT – I couldn’t help smiling to read, on a whole succession of wall labels that – unfortunately, regrettably, sadly – this or that piece of furniture or hand-held sculpture was now too old and fragile to be touched. Please don’t touch the interactive art. Ne touche pas. Nicht tasten.

Some furniture by Franz West, namely: Caseuse (1989), Untitled (1989) and Untitled (Stuhl) (1989)

Furniture usable and unusable

One of the wall labels says that West was interested all his life in blurring the border between art and the useful, sculpture and the everyday, which involved interrogating the notion of the gallery as th enly place where are could be displayed, etc etc.

An intention which, you can’t help thinking, must be judged a complete failure seeing as a) you are not allowed to touch any of his interactive art b) this entire exhibition is taking place in an, er, very traditional art gallery and c) that the exhibition costs a fairly steep £13 to enter.

As long as you don’t take the po-faced wall labels too seriously, this is a very enjoyable exhibition. It’s full of silliness.

In 1987 West made Eo Ipso, for a survey of sculpture in Münster. It’s made from his mother’s old washing machine which he unravelled into a twisted approximation of a bench and then painted a dire lime green. And then photographed his artist mates sitting on it (not for very long, I imagine).

Eo Ipso by Franz West (1987)

Here are some big papier-mâché heads he made out of plaster, gauze, cardboard, iron, acrylic, foam and rubber.

Lemurenköpfe by Franz West (1992)

According to the wall label:

In Roman mythology lemurs are tortured spirits living in limbo because they were never buried or because they committed crimes during their earthly life. At the beginning of the 20th century the term Lemurenköpfe was coined by the Viennese intellectual Karl Kraus to describe the Social-Democrat political group, who did not manage to prevent the rise of extremism. When they were first presented at documenta [an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany] West invited visitors to fill the mouths of the Lemurenköpfe with garbage, creating sculptures with ‘bad breath’.

Satirising the art world

The same childish simplicity is on evidence throughout. In a darkened room there’s a projection onto a big screen of a characteristically amateurish film titled Vier Gellert Lieder. According to the guide:

West show this video with Bernhard Riff between 1992 and 1996. they recorded several meetings with artists and curators at openings and dinners, often giving artists absurd instructions to talk to camera. They then set the images to the music of Beethoven’s Six Lieder which had themselves used the texts of poems by Christian Furchtegott Gellert. When editing, they cut up and repeated clips of dialogue, slowed and speeded up the footage, and distorted colours. The video is a surreal portrait of the art world as a clique of weirdos and obsessives, rather than a place for the refined creation evoked by Beethoven.

What’s sweet about the film and the guide text is the touching belief that most of the world doesn’t already think of modern art as rubbish and modern artists as con-men and art dealers as slimy crooks.

Watching some of the leering, goonish, freakish artists and their simpering dealers and curators, and comparing them with the old-fashioned but pure and graceful music, had the – presumably – intended effect on me, which was to ponder how far, how very, very far, modern Austrian, German and, by extension, European art has fallen in the past century.

A Franz west living room

The final room features a number of bookcases holding the typically modish books Franz liked to read (Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, Benjamin, all the usual suspects), some relatively small papier-mâché sculptures, and a couple of sofas on which you’re meant to sit and watch another, really amateurish film recording West and a bunch of mates assembling ‘The Hamsterwheel’, an unofficial group show that took place during the 2007 Venice Biennale.

British artist Sarah Lucas has worked with West on a number of projects – in fact she designed the plinths and backgrounds and the design of a lot of this exhibition – and was involved in the Hamsterhweel project and features in the film. Of the Hamsterwheel she’s quoted as saying:

We all spent a couple of weeks together, knocking things up, and nobody what it was going to be, really. It all seemed a bit chaotic, but by the time it was done, it had a sublime quality – everything worked and it had this amazing elevated feel to it.

And next to the bookshelves, hanging on the wall, is the poster West made for this show. It recycles one of the deliberately crude and graceless drawings from his 1975 series, Sexuality. Has a kind of amazing, elevated feel to it, don’t you think?

The Hamsterwheel by Franz West (2007)

Post-war Austria

Walking among the many posters West has created, and amid the steadily more enormous papier-mâché sculptures, enduring the terrible videos, and reading solemn references in the wall labels to West’s use of imagery of penises and turds… you can’t help feeling you’re walking amid the ruins of a once-great civilisation.

It is as if a great holocaust, a vast devastating event, has ruined western civilisation forever, destroyed old beliefs in traditional forms and genres and ideas, and left its survivors like children scurrying amid the ruins, filming women’s boobs, drawing men with penises, creating coiled turds and melting, grungy, barbarous shapes out of papier-mâché.

And of course, it did. West was born in 1947 into an absolutely ruined Vienna, one time stronghold of Nazi sentiment and now divided between the four victorious allies, setting of the grim Graham Greene story, The Third Man. For anyone with a soul, an imagination and a conscience, it must have seemed like the old traditional values in art and life had been broken forever.

West’s posters

But then I looked up and saw another one of his overgrown baby toys and told myself to stop feeling so tragic. A lot of his work is fun and inventive and colourful and interesting. Looking back on the exhibition afterwards, I realised I had under-appreciated the long line of posters he produced, initially publicising small art events or friends’ music concerts, eventually he developed a recognisable brand or style of poster which he used to publicise his numerous exhibitions. As the curators put it:

West showed at major museums and large galleries, and would always produce collages and posters to accompany his exhibitions. He loved to combine photographic images with paint, and to use kitschy and crass typography. In this way, he refused the elegant design so often used to brand art institutions.

They’re deliberately scrappy, messy, amateurish and anti-polish… but oddly effective, strangely more-ish.

Plakatentwurf (Die Aluskulptur) 2000. Franz West Privatstiftung/Estate Franz West, Vienna © Estate Franz West © Archiv Franz West

Every rebel becomes a darling

What started out as anti-Establishment rebellion in the late 60s had turned into the art for a new kind of freewheeling post-modern Establishment by the later 1980s, certainly by the 1990s.

So that, in West’s final years, all his themes and tendencies came together in a series of large, brightly coloured and absurdist sculptures designed to adorn galleries and public spaces. In the right environment, some of these look strangely apt and appropriate. As so often, big bright modern art looks great in American cities.

Mostly West, an exhibition of Franz West’s sculpture outside the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, New York, 2004 © Estate Franz West © Archiv Franz West. Photo by Reinhard Bernsteiner / Atelier Franz West

But in other contexts – like the horrible rear entrance to the Tate Modern extension – they look a bit more spooky, like the incomprehensible relics of a ruined civilisation, or like the baubles of demented giants or – more precisely – like the grimly desperate attempts of modern architects and planners to persuade us poor victims of their heartless designs that we don’t live in a barren, loveless, windswept world of brutalist car parks and soulless shopping centres.

Some Franz West sculptures round the back of the Tate Modern extension on a grim, grey London day (photo by the author)

Do West’s big sculptural statements enliven and brighten up civic life? Or make it all too obvious that we live in a world of brightly coloured tat?

Promotional video


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Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

Before I went I’d read some disparaging reviews of this exhibition – but I found it really interesting, thought-provoking, full of wonderful paintings and prints and drawings, and making all kinds of unexpected connections. And big, much bigger than I expected.

The premise is simple: Vincent van Gogh came to live in England at the age of 20 in 1873, He lived in London for nearly three years, developing an intimate knowledge of the city and a great taste for English literature and painting. The exhibition:

  1. explores all aspects of van Gogh’s stay in London, with ample quotes from his letters to brother Theo raving about numerous aspects of English life and London – and several rooms full of the paintings and prints of contemporary urban life which he adored
  2. then it explores the development of van Gogh’s mature style and the many specific references he made back to themes and settings and motifs he had first seen in London, in London’s streets and galleries
  3. finally, the exhibition considers the impact van Gogh had on British artists
    • as a result of the inclusion of his pictures in the famous 1910 exhibition Post-Impressionist Painting
    • between the wars when van Gogh’s letters were published and fostered the legend of the tormented genius, the man who was too beautiful and sensitive for this world
    • and then how van Gogh’s reputation was further interpreted after the debacle of the Second World War

Gustave Doré

The first three rooms deal with the London that van Gogh arrived in in 1873. Among the highlights was a set of seventeen prints from Gustave Doré’s fabulous book London, a pilgrimage, which had been published only the year before, 1872. All of these are marvellous and the first wall, the wall facing you as you enter the exhibition, is covered with an enormous blow-up of Doré’s illustration of the early Underground.

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

Frankly, I could have stopped right here and admired Doré’s fabulous draughtsmanship and social history, as I could at the wall covered with seventeen of the prints from the book which we know van Gogh owned and revered. It’s the basis of the first of many links and threads which run through the show because, many years later, when van Gogh had developed his mature style but had also developed the mental illness that was to plague him, during his confinement in a mental hospital, he was to do a faithful copy of Doré’s depiction of inmates in Newgate prison to express his own feelings.

The prison courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Social realism

Van Gogh had come to London because he had got a job at the art dealer Goupil, which was part of the fast-growing market for prints and art reproductions which were informally referred to as ‘black and whites’. Van Gogh ended up with a collection of over 2,000 of these English prints, and admired them for their realistic depictions of contemporary urban scenes, especially among the poor. I was fascinated to learn that there was a set of socially-committed artists who all drew for The Graphic magazine, including Luke Fildes, Edward Dalziel, Frank Holl, and Edwin Buckman. The exhibition includes quite a few black and white social realist prints by artists from this circle and, as with the Doré, I could have studied this stuff all day long.

A London Dustyard by Edwin Buckman, from the Illustrated London News, 1873

The curators related these blunt depictions of London life back to the novels of Charles Dickens, who we know van Gogh revered (in this instance the rubbish dump motif linking to the dust yard kept by the Boffin family, the central symbol of his last, finished novel, Our Mutual Friend). As Vincent was to write during his first year as a struggling artist:

My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.

But these illustrations by numerous London artists are also here because Vincent copied them. Next to the Buckman image of a dustyard is a graphite sketch of dustmen by Vincent. Next to a Luke Filde image of the homeless and poor, is a van Gogh drawing of a public soup kitchen.

A Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh (1883) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Other images include one of surly roughs waiting for the pub to open and a hooligan being arrested. Next to them all are van Gogh’s own earliest sketches and drawing, including a series he did of a homeless single mother begging on the streets, Sien Hoornik, who he took in and fed and had model for him (fully clothed) in a variety of postures of hopelessness and forlornness. And variations on the theme of tired, poor old men.

This is the Vincent who set his heart on becoming a vicar and did actually preach sermons at London churches, as well as crafting skilled sketches of churches in the letters he sent to brother Theo, and which are displayed here.

The example of old masters

But it wasn’t just magazine and topical illustration which fired Vincent’s imagination. The curators have also included a number of big classic Victorian paintings – by John Constable and John Millais among others – to give a sense of what ‘modern’ art looked like to the young van Gogh.

He was not yet a painter, in fact he didn’t know what he wanted to be. But the curators have hung the sequence, and accompanied them by quotes from letters, to show that, even in his early 20s, he was an acute observer of other people’s art, not only Victorian but other, older, pictures he would have seen at the National Gallery.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) © The National Gallery, London

Several of these classic paintings depict an open road between a line of trees and, as the room progresses, the curators have hung next to them van Gogh’s later depictions of the same motif, showing early versions of the motif done in a fairly rudimentary approach, the oil laid on thick and heavy and dark…

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn by Vincent van Gogh (1884) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

And then next to these, suddenly, we have the first works of his mature style in which his art and mind have undergone a dazzling liberation.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The triumph of distortion

One of the things you can see evolving is his depiction of faces. Early on, he’s not very good. There’s a set of faces of what look like jurymen, as well as individual portraits of working men and women, and often they are either expressionless blocks, or a bit cack-handed, a bit lop-sided. Even the numerous sketches of Sien Hoornik are better at conveying expression through the bent posture of her body, than through facial expressions which are often blurred or ignored.

Similarly, you can’t help noticing that the early landscapes like the avenue of poplars, above, very much lack the suave painterly finish and style of his models (Constable, Millais).

But what happens as you transition into room four – which covers his move to Paris to be near his brother in 1885 – is a tremendous artistic and visual liberation, so that the very wonkiness and imperfections in his draughtmanship which were flaws in the earlier works, are somehow, magically, triumphantly, turned into strengths. The blockiness, the weakness of perspective, the lack of interest in strict visual accuracy, have suddenly been converted into a completely new way of seeing and of building up the image, which feels deeply, wonderfully emotionally expressive.

Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Room four makes fleeting reference to the community of like-minded artists he found working around Paris, and in particular to Pissarro, exponent of what was being called neo-Impressionism.

It seems quite obvious that van Gogh was very influenced by the Frenchman’s experiments with chunks and blocks, and spots and dabs and lines of pure colour. The painting above combines the strong formal outlines redolent of the black and white Victorian prints he revered so highly, with a new approach to filling in the outlines – not with a consistent smooth finish à la Millais – but a completely new idea of filling the space with disconnected lines of paint, the artist quite happy to leave blanks between them, quite happy to let us see them as isolated lines all indicating colour and texture.

The curators link this technique back to the cross-hatching used to create volume and shape by the Victorian print-makers and illustrators. So one way of thinking about what happened is that Vincent transferred a technique designed for print making to oil painting. What happens if you don’t create a smooth, finished all-over wash of colour, but deliberately use isolated lines and strokes, playing with the affect that basic, almost elemental short brushstrokes of mostly primal colours, create when placed next to each other.

It has a jazzy effect, creates a tremendous visual vibration and dynamism. the image looks like it is quivering or buzzing.

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

To be honest, by this stage my head was buzzing with the fabulous images of Doré and Fildes and the other British illustrators, and van Gogh’s similarly social realist depictions of the poor, the old, prostitutes and so on and the way the early social realist paintings had morphed into a series of paintings of outdoor landscapes. I felt full to overflowing with information and beauty. But there was a lot more to come.

Suddenly it is 1910 and room five is devoted to the epoch-making exhibition held in London and titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists by the curator Roger Fry. As with Doré’s underground image at the start, the curators have blown up a page from a popular satirical magazine of the time, depicting the dazed response of sensible Britishers to the outlandish and demented art of these foreign Johnnies and their crazed, deformed, ridiculously over-coloured paintings. A number of Vincent’s paintings were included in the show and came in for special scorn from the philistine Brits.

This amusing room signals the start of part two of the show which looks at van Gogh’s posthumous influence on a whole range of native British artists.

This second half is, I think more mixed and of more questionable value than the first half. We know which British artists and illustrators van Gogh liked and admired and collected, because he gave their names and his responses in some detail in his letters.

As to the influence he had after his death, this is perforce far more scattered and questionable. Thus room six introduces us to paintings by Walter Sickert, leader of the Camden Town school (whose work I have always cordially hated for its dingily depressing dark brown murk), to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (bright Bloomsburyites), and to Matthew Smith, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman.

The Vineyard by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

It’s impossible to place any of these artists on the same level as Vincent. Amid the sea of so-so also-rans, the scattered examples of works by van Gogh ring out, shout from the walls, proclaim the immensity of his genius, the vibrancy of design, colour and execution. Like an adult among children.

That said, there’s quite a lot of pleasure to be had from savouring these less-well-known British artists for their own sakes. I was particularly drawn to the works of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. Here is Gore’s painting of Gilman’s house. It doesn’t have a lot to do with van Gogh, does it, stylistically? Apart from being very brightly coloured.

Harold Gilman’s House at Letchworth, Hertfordshire by Spencer Gore. Courtesy of New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Similarly, I really liked Gilman’s picture of the inside of a London caff, focusing on the decorative wallpaper and bright red newel posts, and a sensitive portrait titled Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. The curators relate this latter painting back to Vincent’s vivid, warts-and-all portraits, which also contain highly decorative elements and stylised wallpaper, a garish brightness which scandalised critics of the 1910 show.

Maybe. It’s a good painting, he conveys the old woman’s character in a sober, unvarnished way and the use of decorative elements is interesting. But only a few yards away is hanging one of five or six drop-dead van Gogh masterpieces of the show, the Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), and there is absolutely no competition.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Hammer Museum collection

Good God, hardly anything you’ve ever seen before explodes with such power and vibrancy as this painting. The brown earth, the green grass, the writhing trees and the very air seem to have burst into flames, to be erupting and leaping with energy, fire, ecstasy, fear, manic force.

Although there are a number of other, milder, more discreet landscapes by Vincent, when he is in this manic mood he wipes everybody else off the table, he dominates the dancefloor, he takes over the room, while the others are playing nice tunes on their recorders, he is like a Beethoven symphony of colour and expression, full of tumult and vision.

The impact of sunflowers

Emotionally and intellectually exhausted? I was. But there’s more. A whole room devoted to sunflowers. Pride of place goes to one of his most famous paintings, the sunflowers of 1888, and I was fascinated to learn from the wall label that van Gogh’s still lifes contributed to a major revival of the art of painting flowers. There are ten or a dozen other paintings of sunflowers around this room, by a whole range of other artists (of whom I remember Winifred and William Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Frank Brangwyn and Jacob Epstein). One of the Brits is quoted as saying that the painting of flowers had been more or less dismissed by the moderns, as having come to a dead end in Victorian tweeness and sentimentality. Until Vincent’s flower paintings were exhibited in the 1920s.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) © The National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s flower works showed that flowers could be painted in an entirely new way, blazing with colour and passion, wildly undermining traditional canons of beauty, revealing the passionate secrets implicit in the shapes and patterns of nature.

In a work like this you see a pure example of his exploration of colour for its own sake, a post-Impressionists’ post-Impressionist, the sunflowers not only being a blistering depiction of the flower motif, but a highly sophisticated and daring experiment with all the different tones of yellow available to the artist in 1888. So much to do, so much to paint, so much experience implicit in every fragment of God’s beautiful world!

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

By the 1920s van Gogh’s works were being exhibited regularly in Britain and snapped up by private collectors. He became famous. The process was helped hugely by the publication in English translation of his vivid, passionate and tormented letters. The life and the works became inextricably intertwined in the myth of the tortured genius. The curators quote various writers and experts between the wars referring to Vincent’s ‘brilliant and unhappy genius’.

However, this room of his last works makes a simple point. For a long time it was thought that the painting he was working on when he shot himself on 27 July 1890 was ‘Wheatfield With Crows‘. Forests have been destroyed to provide the paper for oceans of black ink to be spilt publishing countless interpretations which read into this fierce and restless image the troubled thoughts which must have been going through the tormented genius’s mind on his last days.

Except that the display in this room says that the most recent research by Vincent scholars have conclusively proven that it was not his last painting. the painting he was working on when he shot himself was a relatively bland and peaceful landscape painting of some old farm buildings.

Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) © Tate

The point is – there’s nothing remotely tormented about this image. The aim is – to debunk the myth of the ‘tortured’ artist and replace it with the sane and clear-eyed artist who was, however, plagued by mental illness.

Phantom of the road

This point is pushed home in the final room which examines van Gogh’s reputation in Britain after the Second World War. All his works, along with all other valuable art had been hidden during the war. Now it re-emerged into public display, including a big show at Tate in 1947.

In the post-war climate, in light of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, the legend of the tormented genius took on a new, darker intensity. The curators choose to exemplify this with a raft of blotchy, intense self-portraits by the likes of David Bomberg which, they argue, reference van Gogh’s own striking self portraits.

But this final room is dominated by a series of paintings made by the young Francis Bacon in which he deliberately copies the central motif of a self-portrait Vincent had made of himself, holding his paints and easel and walking down a road in Provence.

Bacon chose to re-interpret this image in a series of enormous and, to my mind, strikingly ugly paintings, three of which dominate one wall of this final room.

Study for portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957) Tate © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They are, in fact, interesting exercises in scale and colour, and also interesting for showing how Bacon hadn’t yet found his voice or brand. And interesting, along with the Bomberg et al in showing how the legend of tormented genius was interpreted in the grim grey era of Austerity Britain.

And they show what a very long journey we have come on – from the young man’s early enthusiasm for Charles Dickens and Gustave Doré right down to his reincarnation as a poster boy for the age of the H-bomb.

A bit shattered by the sheer range of historical connections and themes and ideas and visual languages on show, I strolled back through the exhibition towards its Victorian roots, stopping at interesting distractions on the way (some of Harold Gilman’s works, the big cartoon about the Post-Impressionist show, some Pissarros, the Millais and Constable at the beginning, the wall of Dorés), but in each room transfixed by the one or two blistering masterpieces by the great man.

Even if you didn’t read any of the wall labels or make the effort to understand all the connections, links and influences which the curators argue for, it is still worth paying to see the handful of staggering masterpieces which provide the spine for this wonderful, dazzling, life-enhancing exhibition.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1888) Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grtand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

Promotional video


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AI: More than Human @ Barbican

What a fabulously enjoyable funfair of an exhibition, even if it isn’t quite the searching investigation or revealing insight into its subject which the curators hoped it would be.

Do you remember the science fiction exhibition the Barbican put on two years ago, Into The Unknown? It filled the long, narrow, curving exhibition space they call The Curve with loads of sci fi books, magazines and screens showing clips from classic sci fi movies and TV shows (Star Wars, Star Trek etc), along with models of the spaceships, and some of the actual outfits and spacesuits worn by famous sci fi characters. It was geek heaven!

Well, now that whole exhibition looks a bit like the introduction, the part one, to this exhibition’s part two. Where Into The Unknown romped through retro visions of the future, from Jules Vernes and H.G. Wells to 2001 and Blade Runner, AI: More than Human, packs out the same curving exhibition space with a jamboree of interactive gadgets which explore sci fi aspects of the present and the near future, in particular the notion of artificial intelligence or AI for short.

The exhibition space is absolutely crammed with robots large and small, classic movie clips looming down from overhead screens, videos showing the latest AI research in agriculture or undersea exploration, plus a dozen or more games and touch screen programs you can get involved in – the whole busy funfair of exhibits claiming to be an investigation of how artificial intelligence dominates our current existences and will do so more and more in the near future.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing Alter 3: Offloaded Agency (Photo by the author)

For example, there’s a photo booth just like the ones you traditionally get your passport photos from, except that in this one you have to type a word of your own choosing into the instruction pad, then pose for the photo. The booth then generates – from your one word – a unique ‘poem’ which it prints out over the photo it’s taken of you. Prints the pic out for you to show your friends. Emails it to you, if you want to share your email address. The idea is the program running it will slowly build up a database of people’s key words and this will influence the evolution of its poetry-writing skills.

Each section of the long curved exhibition space is marked off with translucent white hangings. One little section is devoted to the fact that a computer program, DeepMind recently beat the world champion at Go, the Chinese board game (it was in 2016). the space includes a big video screen showing the world champion pushing through throngs of admirers while, at waist height is a table containing several monitors showing a Go board and counters. One of these monitors showed the fatal move which stunned the Go champion and the Go world with its unexpected brilliance. On others, I think you were meant to have a go at Go against the computer, if you wanted. Personally, I’ve no idea what the rules of Go are and not much interest in finding out.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the Go section: a tense Go fan on a screen hanging above the table into which are embedded several monitors showing games of Go. Note the translucent white curtains used through the exhibition (Photo by the author)

In another little alcove I was surprised to come across a couple of two- or three-foot-wide Lego boards. In front of them were a number of ‘wells’ containing Lego pieces of different sizes and colours and behind the bases were screens showing a series of metrics. The idea is to ‘build a city’ using the Lego pieces, and the computer would then sense the design and layout you’ve created and assess its social parameters, such as Quality of Life, Employment, Percentage of Highly Educated and so on. Difficult to see how this information could be generated from a few toy bricks positioned at random. Not easy to see how this would be applied in real-world situations where, presumably, there would already be existing measurements of quality of life, employment rate etc. The whole thing was titled Kreyon City.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the Kreyon City installation  (Photo by the author)

In a self-contained alcove was an artwork by Stephanie Dinkins which consisted of a black pot with ‘Do not touch’ written on it. being human and not a robot, I immediately wanted to touch it. Behind it, on the wall, was a large video screen showing, when I strolled in, a big picture of a row of ladies’ hats in a hat shop. The visitor assistant manning this little stall apologised and said the installation was broken, so I wandered round the pot and out again, none the wiser.

Paradox 6554 by Stephanie Dinkins at AI: More than Human at the Barbican

Another stand featured a play area a few yards wide on which a cute little robot ‘puppy’ was trotting across till it bumped into one of the raised edges, turned round and trotted off in a other direction. A French TV presenter was very excitedly explaining the point of this cute little toy to his viewers and rolled a red ball towards the puppy which ignored it.

Just beyond the main exhibition space is a row of four black leather chairs set in front of immersive, split computer games screens. You put on headphones and take the console in your hands and then navigate through a computer-generated image based on the architecture of the Barbican itself. As you go downstairs you enter increasingly futuristic fictional environments. Personally, I have never seen the point of computer games and watching my son fritter away a lot of his teenage years holding just such consoles while he eviscerated vast numbers of enemy warriors in Rome Total War or League of Legends has put me off computer games for life. There didn’t appear to be any guns or swords in this game so my son wouldn’t have been interested.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Early on in the show there was a timeline on the wall showing key moments in mankind’s quest to create artificial intelligence, starting sometime around the writing of Frankenstein and carrying through early computer pioneer Ada Lovelace, the famous Alan Turing, through the women who worked at Bletchley Park during the war and on into the modern age of computer research, increasingly carried out in America and Japan, and then onto contemporary digital technology.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the timeline of computers and AI technology (Photo by the author)

Probably the most dramatic attraction came towards the end and was a life-size robot with a prosthetic head which waves its arms around in front of a large screen showing atmospheric shots of Japanese technicians interacting with it, giving the whole installation a very filmic vibe.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Throughout the exhibition there was a wealth of wall labels briefly addressing issues surrounding artificial intelligence. I give a flavour of these in the précis of the press release, below.

None of them really told me anything I didn’t already know. None of them really told me what artificial intelligence is. I didn’t read all of them, but nowhere did I come across a memorable definition. Instead we were eased into the idea by the opening section which described the medieval idea of the golem, a medieval legend of a human-shaped creature which is created from inanimate matter. its story was told through some Marvel and DC superhero comics and I was immediately distracted by a set of big video screens showing clips from classic 1920s and 30s silent sci fi and horror films.

The whole exhibition felt a bit like that. Consecutive thought was everywhere sacrificed to pop culture and flashy effects. But as I marvelled at the big rack of cogs which was part of one of the decoding machines at Bletchley, or admired the role of women who are often overlooked in official histories of computing, or watched a middle-aged man in what appeared to be a simulator of a racing car, or looked at a miniature greenhouse in which plants were growing whose temperature and humidity etc were all controlled by computer — what began to really forcefully impress itself on me was that possibility that there is no such thing as artificial intelligence.

Sure enough the digital world is now full of algorithms which can predict what you want to buy next or your personality type and so on (if you let them access enough of your personal data). Personally, I don’t have a smart phone and don’t use Facebook, twitter or any other social media, for precisely this reason.

But none of us are likely to escape the increasing use of facial recognition programs and one feature seemed to be able – if you stood in the right position – to do a full body scan of you and tell you what kind of fabric clothes you’re wearing. Right at the entrance to the Barbican was an enormous video screen and, if you stand on a circular manhole-cover-sized pad and jig around, then abstract shapes on the screen perform exactly the same movements, as if a piece of modern sculpture had come to life.

But absolutely none of these clever gadgets has a mind, has purpose or intention or agency. None of these devices can choose what they’re doing, or is in the slightest bit aware that it is a machine performing a function.

Programs which are designed to monitor the data they’re processing and change the program itself in light of that data – self-correcting or improving algorithms – can have dramatic effects, but… none of them amount to anything even remotely resembling intelligence.

They are just very thorough face recognition, or clothes recognition, or Lego recognition, or word recognition programs. In the same way that the big robot at the end which can wave its arms about is a million miles away from being human, from being a self-conscious, aware being.

I wondered if my reaction was just me being jaded and cynical but then I happened to get into conversation with a BBC science journalist and a friend of his, who both know a lot more than me about this area.

They referenced the classic 1974 paper by the philosopher Thomas Nagel titled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ which, apparently, says that even if bats have something we might call ‘intelligence’, it would be of such a completely different type, evolved to perfectly suit bats and their batty situation, that we wouldn’t recognise it anyway, hopelessly programmed as we are to think solely in terms of human values and goals.

The BBC guy’s friend then referenced the philosopher Peter Singer’s work on animal rights to argue that, even if we ever did manage to create a self-starting, self-directed form of intelligence, would we not then be guilty of slavery? If we created something that genuinely had heart and soul and emotions and yearnings – would we not be immediately duty bound to ‘set it free’?

But even thinking about it like this makes you realise how absurdly far we are from a situation like that. Programs and machines and devices which can mimic our movements and project them up onto video screens – these are fabulous as artworks, but in the end, all I saw at the exhibition was toys, glorified toys.

Mimic (concept), 2018, by Universal Everything. Image courtesy of Universal Everything

I was relieved by this little conversation which confirmed my opinion that the exhibition contains lots of fun fairground attractions, eye-catching news snippets (computer beats Go champion, Steven Hawking signs a petition warning governments against weaponising artificial intelligence), and distracting movie clips (right at the start there’s a screen showing a montage of pretty much every movie in which an android or robot turns on its human makers, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina), and lots of featurettes about self-guiding robots which can explore the bottom of the oceans, or monitor growing conditions in greenhouses — but somehow all this gallimaufrey of festival fun manages not, in the end, to be that penetrating or insightful.

I got talking to one of the curators of the exhibition and asked what one thing she’d learned from the year or more they’d been preparing it. She said, ‘Not to be afraid of AI’.

She said here in the West, there’s a long tradition of fear of robots and computers (fears not allayed, it must be said, by the numerous movie clips of robots strangling people which greet you as you walk in).

But by contrast, she said that one of the curators was Japanese and it had been a real eye-opener for her to see the completely different approach the Japanese have to new technology. Possibly it is because of their Shinto traditions, according to which the world is full of spirits, but the Japanese seem to be more open and receptive to the idea that we are on the verge of developing new types and forms of intelligence. For us in the West, this immediately prompts headlines about Frankenstein. For the Japanese, she said, these new developments are to be welcomed into a world already full of various types of technology.

That was an interesting insight into Japanese culture. But I couldn’t help noticing how she, like all the wall labels and exhibition promo material, said that we are on the verge of a brave new world where there will be trans-humans incorporating digital technology, or cities will run themselves, cars drive themselves and so on and so on.

I was a big fan of science fiction in the 1970s, I watched Tomorrow’s World every week, and they told us then that robots were about to take over all the boring chores of life, that soon cities would be run by computers and that this would usher in The Leisure Society – an age where everything was done for us by smart bots and so the biggest struggle people would have would be finding ways to fill all their leisure time. Everyone would become poets and playwrights and artists. It would be utopia. And what followed all this technological utopianism? The 1980s of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Robot technologies were introduced in some car manufacturing plants, but they were a drop in the ocean compared to the mass unemployment, social crises, to the Miners Strike and the Poll Tax riots. The failure of the technological utopianism of the 1970s innoculated me for life against believing a word of the prophets of Shiny New Societies until I actually see them.

Meanwhile what I see is the destruction of countless ecosystems, the extermination of species at an unprecedented rate, the irreversible heating of the atmosphere, the poisoning of the oceans, and the new digital technology being used by China to control its population and Russia to launch cyber-attacks on its enemies.

That is the actual existing world which we live in and no sweet little robot puppy or booth which prints rubbish poems over your passport photo or big monitor screens on which shapes dance around mimicing your movements, are going to change it.

What a Loving and Beautiful World

Just like the Into The Unkown exhibition, elements of the show are scattered beyond the Curve, in the entrance space and foyer – where a film is running of a dancer whose movements are copied by sensors and where there’s a tall pulsing sculpture called Totem. But the best thing is downstairs in the space they call The Pit.

Here, in a big square room, a Japanese art collective called teamLab have installed a wonderful thing – projected onto the four walls is a continual slow flow of colour washes, down which move large images of Chinese characters i.e. letters from Chinese script. If you reach out your hand and the shadow of your hand touches one of these characters it gently explodes releasing a plume of images. Thus I reached out and the shadow of my hand touched a Chinese character as it slowly moved down the wall and – it disappeared in a puff of smoke and a covey of brightly coloured birds appeared and started flying round the walls!

If someone else happens to have touched the character for ‘tree’, the birds you’ve released will fly round the walls and go and roost in the tree. Touching another character released a flourish of butterflies which fluttered round the wall. All this is accompanied by a soundtrack of very chilled Oriental music consisting of just a flute and maybe a cymbal or two, very soft, very mellow, very calming.

I’ve been subjected to many interactive installations in my time, but I think this might be the most genuinely interactive, and certainly the most mellow and blissful, I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t for the life of me, though, see what it had to do with ‘artificial intelligence’. Rather it is just (i say ‘just’ – it is the immensely impressive) use of advanced but still non-conscious, non-self-correcting computer programming.

Installation view of What a Loving, and Beautiful World, part of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Thoughts

I went round the exhibition twice and nothing I read on any of the wall labels and none of the interactive exhibits really explained artificial intelligence to me, or the current state of research into artificial intelligence. Instead I was distracted from distractions by more distractions. It was decades ago – 1996 – that IBM’s computer DeepBlue beat world chess master Gary Kasparov at chess. Did it rock my world? Now DeepBlue has beaten the world Go champion. Somehow I can’t get excited.

I couldn’t help thinking that if a metal robot waving its arms around and a cute little plastic puppy are the best that contemporary robotics can come up with, the rest of us have nothing to fear. And, if playing with Lego is the best that AI can offer contemporary architecture, isn’t that rather pitiful?

A major risk with creating an exhibition like this, most of which seems to consist of funky digital art works, is that the artworks hugely distract from the actual, intellectual questions we should be asking.

For example, I saw one little monitor tucked away in a corner with a short wall label describing in a superficial way China’s use of digital and social media to define and control its entire population. This is a massive issue, an absolutely enormous development, with huge ramifications for the way the same kind of system of total digital control might possibly be introduced into the West. But it wasn’t explored or followed through.

There was footage of some researchers who’ve developed some kind of deep sea fish robot which learns about its environment. That’s sweet, but news last week revealed that

A retired naval officer dove in a submarine nearly 36,000ft into the deepest place on Earth, only to find what appears to be plastic waste.

We are, in other words, destroying the planet, laying waste to entire ecosystems, burning up the atmosphere and poisoning the oceans far faster than we can develop any kind of technology to stop it.

Downstairs on the other side of the Barbican from the main show was a bar which has been set up with a robot barperson i.e. a robotic arm, which can mix any cocktail you want from a row of liquor bottles in front of it. Is… is that the best they can do? Are the pubs round where I live ever going to have robot bar staff? No.

One of the exhibits showcases the following project:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), Australian Center for Field Robotics, and NASA present pioneering research that took place in Costa Rican waters on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Research Vessel Falkor, using the deep sea as a testbed for exploration of Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons.

Do you really think we are ever going to ‘explore’ Jupiter’s moons? And why would we? We are burning up this planet. Shouldn’t absolutely every scrap of scientific research imaginable be going towards devising non-carbon ways of generating energy, storing energy, non-carbon ways to travel and transport food and goods?

I react to projects like these as I react to Elon Musk’s announcements that he is going to fund a manned expedition to Mars, which is: Why? Is he mad? Why isn’t he spending billions trying to save this planet, the one we all live on?

Another exhibit:

With the consequences of climate change growing in scale every year, MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative looks at ensuring our food security for the future with their AI-driven ‘personal computer farms’ that optimise the development of crops in tabletop-sized growing chambers. It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household, by gathering crop-growing data from a network of farms and sharing it with the wider public.

‘It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household’! In my household we can’t even grow cacti on the windowsill. This is never going to be affordable or practical. Those who are interested already grow vegetables in windowboxes or garden beds or their local allotment.

If this is the best contemporary technology has to offer us, we’re doomed.


A précis of the press release

There is so much to see, and the exhibition itself is just part of a wider Barbican season about life in modern technology, that, in the name of spreading information and enlightenment – and also to give the full, official explanation of some of the exhibits I’ve mentioned above –  I here give a summary of the press release. I’ve highlighted in bold the exhibits I’ve referred to in my review.

AI: More than Human is part of Life Rewired, the Barbican’s 2019 season exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

It tells the rapidly developing story of AI, from its ancient roots in Japanese Shintoism through Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage’s early experiments in computing, to AI’s major developmental leaps from the 1940s to the present day.

The exhibition features some of the most cutting-edge research projects in the field from DeepMind, Jigsaw, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (MIT CSAIL), IBM, Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Google Arts and Culture, Google PAIR, Affectiva, Lichtman Lab at Harvard, Eyewire, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Wyss Institute and Emulate Inc.

The exhibition also features commissions by artists, researchers and scientists Memo Akten, Joy Buolamwini, Certain Measures (Andrew Witt & Tobias Nolte), Es Devlin, Stephanie Dinkins, Justine Emard, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Stefan Hurtig & Detlef Weitz, Hiroshi Ishiguro & Takashi Ikegami, Mario Klingemann, Kode 9, Lawrence Lek, Daito Manabe & Yukiyasu Kamitani, Massive Attack & Mick Grierson, Lauren McCarthy, Yoichi Ochiai, Neri Oxman, Qosmo, Anna Ridler, Chris Salter in collaboration with Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spier , Sam Twidale and Marija Avramovic, Yuri Suzuki, teamLab and Universal Everything.

The exhibition includes digital media, immersive art installations and a chance for visitors to interact directly with exhibits to experience AI’s capabilities first-hand, to examine the subject from multiple, global perspectives and give visitors the tools to decide for themselves how to navigate our evolving world.

The exhibition asks the big questions: What does it mean to be human? What is consciousness? Will machines ever outsmart a human? And how can humans and machines work collaboratively?

Section 1. The Dream of AI

The exhibition charts the human desire to bring the inanimate to life right back to ancient times, from the religious traditions of Shintoism and Judaism to the mystical science of alchemy.

Artist and electronic musician Kode9 presents a newly commissioned sound installation on the golem. A mythical creature from Jewish folklore, the golem has influenced art, literature and film for centuries from Frankenstein to Blade Runner. Kode9’s audio essay adapts and samples from many of these stories of unruly artificial entities to create an eerie starting point to the exhibition. Stefan Hurtig & Detlef Weitz also look at the golem as well as other artificial life forms and how they are imagined in film and television.

This section explores Japanese animism philosophy, including Shinto food ceremonies and a selection of ancient anthropomorphic Japanese cooking tools, shown for the first time outside Japan. Sam Twidale and Marija Avramovic also look at AI through the lens of Japanese Shinto beliefs to explore notions of animism and techno-animism in Sunshowers.

Doraemon – one of the best known Japanese manga animations – will also be on display, exploring its influence on the philosophy of robotics and technology development.

Section 2. Mind Machines

This section explains how AI has developed through history from the early innovators who tried to convert rational thought into code, to the creation of the first neural network in the 1940s, which copied the brain’s own processes, going on to show how this has developed into machine learning – when an AI is able to learn, respond and improve by itself.

It includes some of the most important moments and figures in AI’s history:

  • computing pioneers Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage
  • Claude Shannon’s experimental games
  • Alan Turing’s groundbreaking efforts to decipher code in World War II
  • Deep Blue vs chess champion Garry Kasparov
  • IBM’s Watson, who beat a human on US gameshow, Jeopardy! in 2011
  • DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which became the first computer to defeat a professional in the complex Chinese strategy game Go in 2016, including an in-depth explanation of the surprising Move 37 – a turning point in the history of AI, that shocked the world

This section also looks at how AI sees images, understands language and moves, as artificial intelligence developed beyond the brain to the body. Projects on display include MIT CSAIL’s SoFi – a robotic fish that can independently swim alongside real fish in the sea and Sony’s 2018 robot puppy, aibo, who uses its database of memories and experiences to develop its own personality.

Google PAIR’s project Waterfall of Meaning is a poetic glimpse into the interior of an AI, showing how a machine absorbs human associations between words.

Artist Mario Klingemann’s piece Circuit Training invites visitors to take part in teaching a neural network to create a piece of art. Visitors will first help create the data set by allowing the AI to capture their image, then select from the visuals produced by the network, to teach it what they find interesting. The machine is constantly learning from this human interaction to create an evolving piece of live art.

In Myriad (Tulips), artist Anna Ridler looks at the politics and process of using large datasets to produce a piece of art. Inspired by ‘tulip-mania’ – the financial craze for tulip bulbs that swept across the Netherlands in the 1630s, she took 10,000 photographs of tulips and categorised them by hand, revealing the human aspect that sits behind machine learning. Her second piece Mosaic Virus uses this data set to create a video work generated by an AI, which shows a tulip blooming, an updated version of a Dutch still life for the 21st Century.

Myriad (Tulips) by Anna Ridler atAI: More Than Human. Image credit: Emily Grundon, 2019

Section 3. Data Worlds

At the heart of the main exhibition in The Curve is Data Worlds. This section examines AI’s capability to improve commerce, change society and enhance our personal lives. It looks at AI’s real-life application in fields such as healthcare, journalism and retail.

Affectiva, the leader in Human Perception AI, will demonstrate how AI can improve road safety and the transportation experience, through a driving arcade game during which Affectiva’s AI will track drivers’ emotions and reactions as they encounter different situations.

In Sony CSL’s Kreyon City, visitors plan and build their own city out of LEGO and learn how the combination of human creativity and AI could represent a promising tool in major architecture and infrastructure decisions.

Lauren McCarthy’s experiment to become a human version of a smart home intelligence system explores the tensions between intimacy vs privacy, convenience vs the agency they present, and the role of human labour in the future of automation.

Qosmo’s sound artwork creates a dialogue between human and machine by inviting visitors to make music together with AI.

Nexus Studios have produced a series of interactive works that demonstrate how AI works. Visitors can opt to be classified by an AI, revealing how the computer interprets their image. Nexus Studios have collaborated with artist Memo Akten to present Learning to See, which allows visitors to manipulate everyday objects to illustrate how a neural network trained on a specific data set can be fooled into seeing the world as a painting. It can see only what it already knows, just like us.

Data Worlds also addresses important ethical issues such as bias, control, truth and privacy.

Scientist, activist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, Joy Buolamwini, examines racial and gender bias in facial analysis software. As a graduate student, Joy found an AI system detected her better when she was wearing a white mask, prompting her research project Gender Shades. This project uncovered the bias built in to commercial AI in gender classification showing that facial analysis technology AI has a heavy bias towards white males. In parallel to this, Joy wrote AI, Ain’t I A Woman – a spoken word piece that highlights the ways in which artificial intelligence can misinterpret the images of iconic black women.

Joy Buolamwini /The Algorithmic Justice League at MIT Media Lab, part of AI: More Than Human. Image credit: Jimmy Day/MIT Media Lab

Section 4. Endless Evolution

The final section of the exhibition looks at the future of our species and envisions the creation of new species, reflecting on the laws of ‘nature’ and how artificial forms of life fit into this. A newly commissioned set of interviews will discuss themes of the future through the eyes of visionary thinkers.

Massive Attack mark the 20th anniversary of their landmark album Mezzanine by encoding the album in strands of synthetic DNA in a spraypaint can – a nod towards founding member and visual artist Robert del Naja’s roots as the pioneer of the Bristol Graffiti scene. Each spray can contains around one million copies of Mezzanine-encoded ink. The project highlights the need to find alternative storage solutions in a data-driven world, with DNA as a real possibility to store large quantities of data in the future.

Mezzanine will also be at the centre of a new sound composition – a co-production between Massive Attack and machine. Robert Del Naja is working with Mick Grierson at the Creative Computing Institute at University of the Arts London (UAL), students from UAL and Goldsmith’s College, and Andrew Melchior of the Third Space Agency to create a unique piece of art that highlights the remarkable possibilities when music and technology collide. The album will be fed into a neural network and visitors will be able to affect its sound by their actions and movements, with the output returned in high definition.

This section includes Alter 3, created by roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro and Kohei Ogawa with artificial life researcher Takashi Ikegami and Itsuki Doi. With a body of a bare machine and a genderless, ageless face, Alter learns and matures through an interplay with the surrounding world.

Justine Emard’s piece Co(AI)xistence explores a communication between different forms of intelligences: human and machine. Through signals, body movements and spoken language, she created the interaction between Alter and Mirai Moriyama, a Japanese performer. Using a deep learning system, Alter learns from his experiences and the two try to define new perspectives of co-existence in the world. (So this explains the film running on the big screen behind the robot waving its arms around.)

Stephanie Dinkins’s new work Not The Only One is the multigenerational memoir of one black American family with which visitors can have conversations and ask questions, continuing her ongoing dialogue around AI and race, gender and aging. As society becomes more reliant on artificial intelligence, many voices are left out of the creation of these systems and bias and discrimination can be encoded in AI systems. In Not The Only One, the AI is trained with the needs and ideals of races which are under-represented in the tech sector.

Architect, designer and MIT Professor Neri Oxman presents ongoing projects from her research lab, The Mediated Matter Group at MIT.

The Synthetic Apiary explores the possibility of a controlled space in which seasonal honeybees can produce honey all year round. A large scale investigation into the cultivation of bees and their behaviour has huge implications for the future of the human race, due to the massive decline in bees worldwide over recent years.

Mediated Matter Synthetic Apairy Honeybee Hive in the Synthetic Apiary environment, part of AI: More Than Human at Barbican © The Mediated Matter Group

In an era when we can engineer genomes and design life, Vespers, explores what it means to design (with) life. From the relic of the ancient death mask to the design and digital fabrication of an adaptive and responsive living mask, the project points towards an imminent future where wearable interfaces and building skins are customised not only to fit a particular shape, but also a specific material, chemical and even genetic make-up, tailoring the wearable to both the body and the environment which it inhabits.

For the first time in the UK, Japanese media artist Yoichi Ochiai presents projects from his research lab, Digital Nature, including an artificial butterfly.

Resurrecting The Sublime by Christina Agapakis of Ginkgo Bioworks, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, and Sissel Tolaas, brings back the smell of flowers made extinct through human activity. The creation of these smells asks questions about our relationship with nature and the decisions we make as a species.

Japanese art and technology specialist Daito Manabe from Rhizomatiks and neuroscientist Yukiyasu Kamitani present Dissonant Imaginary, a research art project that investigates the relationship between sound and images. Using brain decoding technology facilitated by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to generate imagery visualised from brain activity data that changes according to sound, the project seeks to recreate the vivid emotional imagery that can be conjured when listening to a film soundtrack or nostalgic music and foresees a future in which music and visuals may directly interact with the brain as a new medium.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), Australian Center for Field Robotics, and NASA present pioneering research that took place in Costa Rican waters on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Research Vessel Falkor, using the deep sea as a testbed for exploration of Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons.

With the consequences of climate change growing in scale every year, MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative looks at ensuring our food security for the future with their AI-driven ‘personal computer farms’ that optimise the development of crops in tabletop-sized growing chambers. It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household, by gathering crop-growing data from a network of farms and sharing it with the wider public. Strategic design firm Method display their own take on the concept by using upcycled materials and a modular design to build a durable DIY Food Computer.

This section also looks at the research labs using AI to revolutionise healthcare. Lichtman Lab at Harvard and Eyewire both look at mapping the brain in their research projects and the implications this could have for our health. Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is engineering tissues and organs made from human cells in the lab. Wyss Institute and Emulate, Inc. present their human Organs-on-Chips technology that contain tiny hollow channels lined with living human cells and tissues, opening up new understanding of how different diseases, medicines, chemicals, and foods affect human health and potentially changing the way drugs are developed forever.

The exhibition ends with a short film produced by Mark Gorton, Visionaries, which lets thinkers and experts Danielle George, Amy Robinson Sterling, Kanta Dihal, Yoichi Ochiai, Francesca Rossi and Andrew Hessel speak about their vision of singularity and the future.

Installation view of AI: More Than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Level G

A series of new commissions run across the Barbican’s Level G spaces throughout the exhibition.

Digital art and design collective Universal Everything take over the Barbican’s main Silk Street entrance hall to create a new installation, Future You, where visitors can interact with an AI version of themselves. Large digital avatars mimic visitors’ movements onscreen. When the exhibition opens, the character begins in primitive, childlike form and evolves throughout the exhibition’s run, as it learns new ergonomic abilities.

Chris Salter’s piece Totem, in collaboration with Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spier, is a large-scale, dynamic installation that uses sensing and machine learning to inform its patterns, rhythm and behaviour that will give the installation a feeling of a living, breathing entity.

Lawrence Lek’s open-world video game 2065 is set in a speculative future, when advanced automation means that people no longer have to work and can spend all day playing video games and art is indistinguishable from gaming. Integrating the architecture of the Barbican Curve into the virtual world, players are invited to play the role of an AI to imagine what life might be like in future years.

Artist and designer Es Devlin’s PoemPortraits is a social sculpture that brings together art, design, poetry and machine learning; it has been created in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture and Ross Goodwin. Each visitor will be invited to donate a single word to the piece. This word will be instantly incorporated into a two-line poem generated by an algorithm trained on 20 million words of poetry. This poem will form the photographic flash that illuminates each unique PoemPortrait. The work is cumulative; each poem will also include a word donated by another visitor. At the end of the exhibition, a collective PoemPortrait will be generated from everyone’s contributions: a trace of this transient social sculpture.

Inspired by Raymond Scott’s Electronium machine, Yuri Suzuki’s Digital Electronium gives visitors the chance to input sounds to create a changing soundscape through AI and algorithms.

A Machine View of London, a video work by Certain Measures (Andrew Witt and Tobias Nolte), presents an AI categorising and mapping the shapes of the one million buildings in London. This project is one of their series of FormMaps, an ongoing architectural research project that aims to compare and create a complete catalogue of building patterns from cities around the world.

The exhibition chatbot

To support the exhibition and widen the conversations around artificial intelligence, the Barbican worked with marketing technology agency, Byte, to create a chatbot aimed at stimulating conversations around the role of AI within society. Appearing on the Barbican’s website and Facebook page, the chatbot gives people the chance to engage further with the role of AI tech within different cultural arenas. Opening with a definition of AI, the chatbot develops the conversation around four themes reflected in the exhibition – Why are you afraid of AI? Does data discriminate? Who’s driving the car? And What makes us human?

Curators

The exhibition was created and produced by Barbican International Enterprises, with guest curators Dr Suzanne Livingston and Maholo Uchida.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Could it be possible to be more posh? Norwich died  last year. He had written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

Byzantium: The Early Centuries is divided into 18 action-packed chapters, which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) i.e. up to about the time of Charlemagne whose coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 marks a watershed in European history.

The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople, basing it on the existing small Greek town of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Roman Empire was under pressure from barbarians pushing at all its borders, leading to a complex series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to the town of Ravenna, thought to be more defensible because it was situated behind a network of marshes which could only be crossed by a couple of narrow causeways.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and, during the reign of Theodosius (379-395), the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes had settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can, however, be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically, as regards the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was also in the end so self-defeating.

Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed Italy to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack.

The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and its rapacious administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople.

Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion against Phocas in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and then, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of the latter’s great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious theological nonsense. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’ i.e. the human who died but the godhead which remained eternal. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

For the East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ creed, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’.

And this is why, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘There is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – territory reclaimed from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands of his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric to be cut off) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (i.e. allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc).

But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast were lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break had been made with the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

This is a beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining account but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which gives a thrilling sense of the changing political and social background of the period.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – e.g. in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians, who wanted to declare Constantine a saint, found tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in the trees who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone eminent met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. A clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many modern schoolboys have even heard of them.

The sack of Rome

The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on.

Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths as mercenaries within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. But disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces and so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was a form of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then did something even more stupid and caved in to many Romans’ pent-up frustration with the way their country was held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes. Honorius ordered a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally the Senate granted him a substantial subsidy of (i.e. bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy. These were generous terms but Honorius like an idiot refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed, opened the gates to Alaric and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric his magister militum.

The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the control of North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But Attalus insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to Heraclian who was promptly murdered. Alaric badgered Attalus who refused to give a Goth army permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to be given official control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened, Honorius announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn, Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West)

The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet ’emperors’ in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy.

In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474, Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus i.e. ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus as Western Emperor – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was himself engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ i.e. did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defenses and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, Orestes captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus.

More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asking to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining.

As it happens, I do – but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West.

By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Art of Persuasion: Wartime Posters by Abram Games @ the National Army Museum

Maximum meaning, minimum means

This is a cracking exhibition, beautifully designed and laid out, packed with information about not only the artist (wartime poster designer Abram Games), and including a hundred or so dazzling examples of his ground-breaking graphic designs, but also providing a fascinating insight into the social history of the wartime years and after.

Abram Games

Abraham Gamse (later anglicised to Abram Games) was born in the East End of London to Russian Jewish immigrants in 1914. His dad ran a photographic studio and introduced the young artist to the airbrush which he used to retouch photos, and which was to play a major role in Games’s mature style.

Games left school at 16 and attended Saint Martin’s School of Art in London but left after just two terms, disillusioned by the teaching and worried about the expense. Nonetheless, he was determined to establish himself as a poster artist and so got a job as a ‘studio boy’ for the commercial design firm Askew-Young, from 1932 to 1936, while also attending night classes in life drawing. From 1936 to 1940, he worked on his own as a freelance poster artist.

Games was always a man of the Left and the exhibition opens with some posters he made to support the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil war (1936-39) for free, on his own time. He was well aware that he was most inspired when trying to convey a message than sell a product.

Soon after the Second World War broke out, Games  was conscripted into the army, joining the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

The exhibition includes several big display cases showing all sorts of personal belongings and documentation, photos and sketchbooks, easels and paintbrushes and pencils and crayons which once belonged to Games, and these include early photos of him with his dad, a school report, and then photos of the budding young artist in military uniform. Games contributed to regimental and army magazines and was quickly head-hunted into the War Office Public Relations Directorate.

He was classified as an ‘Official War Poster Artist’, given a desk in the Public Relations Department of the War Office, and went on to create some 100 posters for the Army. Probably his most famous work is the iconic recruitment poster for the Auxiliary Territorial Service – ‘Join the ATS’ – made 1941, which was subsequently nicknamed, for obvious reasons, the ‘blonde bombshell’.

‘Join the ATS’ (1941) by Abram Games

This poster immediately conveys the characteristic Games look, with its simple central image of a heroically stylised human head, its strikingly stark and simple use of colour, the crisp clarity of its graphic ideas, and the beautifully integrated typography (in the three colours of the Union Jack).

The airbrushing of the shadow across the face is obvious enough and was a characteristic touch. Less obvious is the way he has sketched in the background quite roughly, creating areas of light and shade, giving a sense of texture without perspective reminiscent of many of the neo-Georgian illustrators of the era.

The exhibition is divided into seven ‘rooms’ or areas titled thus:

  1. A good name is better than good oil
  2. Curiosity, ignorance, bravado
  3. Take a pride in being fighting fit
  4. I am not an artist – I am a graphic thinker
  5. Save more, lend more
  6. Your Britain – Fight for it now
  7. The way ahead

But after I’d worked my way carefully around the exhibition, I felt it fell into the following easy-to-remember categories:

Join the army

Games made numerous posters encouraging civilians to join the army or navy or ATS. They tend to be done in his classic style, featuring the big, stylised, Art Deco head of a man or woman in uniform, given his characteristic Deco burnish with stylish use of the airbrush.

‘Army, the worthwhile job’ (1946) by Abram Games

Training inside the army

A whole section is devoted to the training of soldiers once they were inside the army. These include a suite of posters on the topic of keeping fit and looking after yourself, including some slightly bizarre ones on the importance of cleaning your teeth regularly.

According to his daughter, Naomi Games, the author of a book about her father’s wartime art, among Games’s favourite works was this poster warning against careless talk. The way the sound waves emanating from the loose talker’s mouth morph into a red hot blade which transfixes three soldiers is startling and shocking. The six words of the text are secondary in size and positioning to the shocking imagery.

‘Your talk may kill your comrades’ (1942)

This section features another series, warning against slackness and indiscipline around live weapons and ammunition. Apparently one of them, showing a little girl in a coffin because she had touched a hand grenade which had been left carelessly lying around by thoughtless soldiers, was so disturbing that it was regularly taken down in army barracks by upset fathers.

This series about live ammunition highlights a major feature of the exhibition which is Games’s variety. If he had a classic style (burnished heroic heads), as described above, he was also capable of making something like this, which is wildly different.

It is a form of montage with photos of shells and mortars arranged on a graphically drawn coffin lid, one of them being tampered with by a pair of skeleton hands, and the whole thing floating at an angle in a black and white cloudy sky.

This style clearly owes a massive debt to 1930s Surrealism and, well aware of how they broke away from his normal style, Games apparently labelled the series his ‘Symphony Macabre’.

‘He wanted to see inside’ (1943)

By now we can generalise a bit about Games’s palette which he uses across all his styles – the way he restricted himself to a limited range of earth-based colours, often reserving bright red to make the strongest visual points.

The exhibition walls are covered with pithy quotes and apothegms from Games, which mostly boil down to the same thing: less is more. The message must be immediate. He said a good idea can be conveyed in any size. If poster designs ‘don’t work an inch high, they will never work.’ The image must unlock one central thought in the viewer’s mind.

He disliked the lettering part of the process, and so came up with designs which conveyed the entire idea visually, and needed only the minimal amount of text to ram home the message. As he put it:

I am not an artist, I am a graphic thinker

(Although the exhibition includes sketchbooks and quite a few drawings he made of soldiers which, although not perfect, are still impressive and atmospheric.)

The simplification (and occasional bizarreness) of Games’s imagery can be contrasted with the studied railway realism of a poster-maker like Frank Newbould, below.

‘Save for defence’ by Frank Newbould

You can see how the Newbould is much more realistic in conception style. It depicts an actual scene. The contrast brings out how much more abstract Games’s designs are, how he felt completely liberated from ‘realism’ to bring together all kinds of disparate elements (in the Surreal designs) or focus on highly stylised figures (in his Art Deco style). Just compare and contrast the Newbould with the skeleton hands on a floating coffin lid to see the world of difference between Games and his peers.

Support the army / advice for civilians

Another section is devoted to posters with advice for civilians, including quite a few on the familiar subject of being careful what you say about any aspect of the war effort in public.

There is also a series of posters warning against waste, with the idea that every piece of food or clothing or equipment or oil that is wasted, requires replacing by ship from abroad, and puts more pressure on the wartime Atlantic convoys leading, ultimately, to more deaths at sea.

‘Wasted Petrol is Another Ship Lost’ (1944)

Note, again, the totally schematic or diagrammatic conception. This is nowhere near a realistic scene, but uses real photographs as in a photomontage within a larger abstract design.

Support displaced person and refugees, especially Jewish refugees

The exhibition wall labels (and his daughter, Naomi Games, in one of the short videos you can watch on a screen at the end of the exhibition) emphasise that Games was proud of his Jewish heritage.

Games had been among the first in Britain to see evidence of the atrocities committed at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, when photographs taken there by British troops arrived at the War Office in 1945. The same year he produced a poster, Give Clothing for Liberated Jewry, and often worked to support Jewish and Israeli organisations.

‘Give Clothing For Liberated Jewry’ (1946)

Looking ahead to post-war Britain

Set up in 1941 the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) aimed to raise the morale of British soldiers through education. It was soon considered an integral part of Army training. From 1942 ABCA published fortnightly wall maps showing progress in the various theatres of war, designed to be stuck up in Army barracks, canteens and classrooms, and Games was involved in designing many of these.

They show another side of his work, since they tended to be heavy with text, which required headings and then explanatory text, not his natural medium.

In the same section is a display case showing the covers of books and pamphlets which he designed, especially for a series called ‘Target For Tomorrow’. Each of these pamphlets discussed political issues which everyone knew would have to be addressed once the war was won, such as ‘The Nation’s Health’, ‘Remobilisation for Peace’, and ‘the Future of the Colonies’.

(It must be said that most of these book covers don’t look like book covers at all – they have the extreme visual simplicity of the posters and his habit of trying to avoid all unnecessary text is a drawback in format where the reader needs to know, straightaway, both the title of the book and its author, facts which sometimes take a bit of puzzling out in Games’s book covers.)

I was fascinated by a series with the title ‘Your Britain – Fight For It NOW’. This series was commissioned by ABCA to show soldiers what they were fighting for. In the three examples on display here Games contrasts the bombed-out ruins and slums of the present with the shiny, modernist architecture which he, like so many other progressives, thought held the key to the future. The three posters here contrast the bleak grey and white ruins of the present with a shiny example of a school, a health clinic, and a sparkling new block of flats which we will build in the New Jerusalem.

‘Your Britain – Fight for it NOW’ (1944)

Political motivation aside, these also draw very heavily on the Surrealist painters of the 1930s – if you look at the way the damaged walls are painted, the combination of a kind of hyper-realism with perfect oil paint finish is very reminiscent of Salvador Dali.

As throughout the exhibition, the wall labels for these posters are first-rate, giving you fascinating insight into the images, the process of their commissioning and creating, and the social history behind them. The Your Britain series is a kind of poster equivalent of the famous Beveridge Report, published in 1942 and laying out the basis for a welfare state for all.

Post-war work

The war ended and Games was demobbed in 1946, resuming his freelance practice designing film posters, book covers, postage stamps and posters. Clients included London Transport, the Financial Times, Guinness and British European Airways.

In 1951 he won the public competition to design the emblem for the Festival of Britain. The brief asked for a design reflecting ‘a summer of gaiety’. Games’s winning design used the colours of the Union Jack, and the head (yet another stylised, Art Deco style head) of Britannia in her helmet, astride a compass bringing together people from north, south, east and west and linked by a gay string of bunting. Note the monochrome but subtly shaded background, just like in the ATS poster of exactly ten years earlier.

The emblem went on to decorate all the posters, commemorative memorabilia and merchandising surrounding the festival.

Festival of Britain emblem – the Festival Star (1951)

The exhibition concludes that, with his simple but highly impactful use of colour, shape and typography, Games revolutionised poster design, so much so that his effects can still be seen in some modern posters today.

Summary

If you’re at all interested in Games the poster designer, this is a must-see show, displaying not only 100 key works, each carefully and thoroughly explained, but also the display cases showing all sorts of ephemera such as the smock he worked in, his easel and brushes and pencils and crayons and much more. They’ve even got his pipe and ashtray!

If you’re interested in the history of 20th century graphic design, then this is a fascinating account of the contribution of one of its leading practitioners.

If you’re interested in the Second World War, Games’s posters shed fascinating light on not only the recruitment but the training of the Army, and many of the little details of Army life (how to keep your teeth clean, how to avoid VD, how not to shoot your mates by accident).

And if you’re interested in the post-war period, the heroic era of the Labour government which founded the welfare state and the National Health Service, then the exhibition also tells you a great deal about the hopes and expectations of the ordinary fighting men, and the work of the ABCA in preparing them for a better future.

(And, for younger readers, there’s a bit of snazzy interactivity with some touch screens where you can select Games-style background, colours and move around images and lettering to create your very own Games poster.)

This is really a beautifully presented, painstakingly explained and deeply rewarding exhibition.

The promotional video

Related links

Reviews of other NAM exhibitions

Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919 – 1933 @ Tate Modern

This exhibition opened last summer and was timed to coincide with the centenary of the end of the Great War (November 1918) and to complement the Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One exhibition at Tate Britain.

It consists of five rooms at Tate Modern which are hung with a glorious selection of the grotesque, horrifying, deformed and satirical images created by German artists during the hectic years of the Weimar Republic, which rose from the ashes of Germany’s defeat in the Great War, staggered through a series of crises (including when the French reoccupied the Rhineland industrial region in 1923 in response to Germany falling behind in its reparations, leading to complete economic collapse and the famous hyper-inflation when people carried vast piles of banknotes around in wheelbarrows), was stabilised by American loans in 1924, and then enjoyed five years of relative prosperity until the Wall Street crash of 1929 ushered in three years of mounting unemployment and street violence, which eventually helped bring Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party to power in January 1933, and fifteen years of hectic experimentation in all the arts ground to a halt.

The exhibition consists of around seventy paintings, drawings and prints, plus some books of contemporary photography. The core of the exhibition consists of pieces on loan from the George Economou Collection, a weird and wonderful cross-section of art from the period, some of which have never been seen in the UK before.

Moon Women (1930) by Otto Rudolf Schatz © Tate

The exhibition has many surprises. For sure there are the images of crippled beggars in the street and pig-faced rich people in restaurants – images made familiar by the savage satire of Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959). And there are paintings of cabaret clubs and performers, including the obligatory transexuals, cross-dressers, lesbians and other ‘transgressive’ types so beloved of art curators (a display case features a photo of ‘the Chinese female impersonator Mei Lanfang dressed as a Chinese goddess… alongside American Barbette.’)

But a lot less expected was the room devoted to religious painting in the Weimar Republic, which showed half a dozen big paintings by artists who struggled to express Christian iconography for a modern, dislocated age.

And the biggest room of all contains quite a few utterly ‘straight’ portraits of respectable looking people with all their clothes on done in a modern realistic style, alongside equally realistic depictions of houses and streetscapes.

The Great War

The First World War changed everything. In Germany, the intense spirituality of pre-war Expressionism no longer seem relevant and painting moved towards realism of various types. This tendency towards realism, sometimes tinged with other elements – namely the grotesque and the satirical – prompted the art critic Franz Roh (1890-1965) to coin the expression ‘Magical Realism’ in 1925.

Magical Realism

Roh identified two distinct approaches in contemporary German art. On the one hand were ‘classical’ artists inclined towards recording everyday life through precise observation. An example is the painting of the acrobat Schulz by Albert Birkle (1900-1986). It epitomises several elements of magical realism, namely the almost caricature-like focus on clarity of line and definition, the realist interest in surface details, but also the underlying sense of the weird or strange (apparently, Schulz was famous for being able to pull all kinds of funny faces).

The Acrobat Schulz V (1921) by Albert Birkle. The George Economou Collection © DACS London, 2018

Roh distinguished the ‘classicists’ from another group he called the ‘verists’, who employed distorted and sometimes grotesque versions of representational art to address all kinds of social inequality and injustice.

Other critics were later to use the phrase New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) to refer to the same broad trend towards an underlying figurativeness.

Classicists and Verists

The exhibition gives plenty of examples of the striking contrast between the smooth, finished realism of the ‘classicists’ and the scratchy, harsh caricatures of the ‘verists’.

The first room is dominated by a series of drawings by the arch-satirists George Grosz and Otto Dix, the most vivid of which is the hectic red of Suicide, featuring the obligatory half-dressed prostitute and her despicable bourgeois client looking out onto a twisted, angular street where the eye is drawn to the figure sprawled in the centre (is it a blind person who has tripped over, or been run over?) so that it’s easy to miss the body hanging from a street lamp on the left which, presumably, gives the work its title.

You can, perhaps, detect from the painting that Grosz had had a complete nervous breakdown as a result of his experiences on the Western Front.

Suicide (1916) by George Grosz © Tate

Room one – The Circus

For some reason the circus attracted a variety of artists, maybe because it was an arena of fantasy and imagination, maybe because the performers were, by their nature, physically fit specimens (compared to the streets full of blind, halt, lame beggars maimed by the war), maybe because of its innocent fun.

Not that there’s anything innocent or fun about the ten or so Otto Dix prints on the subject on show here, with their rich array of distortions, contortion, crudeness and people who are half-performer, half-beast.

Lion-Tamer (1922) by Otto Dix © Victoria and Albert Museum

Room two – From the visible to the invisible

This phrase, ‘from the visible to the invisible’, is taken from a letter in which the artist Max Beckmann (1884-1950) expressed his wish to depict the ‘idea’ which is hiding behind ‘reality’.

This sounds surprisingly like the kind of wishy-washy thing the Expressionists wrote about in 1905 or 1910, and the room contains some enormous garish oil paintings, one by Harry Heinrich Deierling which caught my eye. This is not at all what you associate with Weimar, cabaret and decadence. This work seemed to me to hark back more to Franz Marc and the bold, bright simplifications of Der Blaue Reiter school. And its rural setting brings out, by contrast, just how urban nearly all the other works on display are.

The Gardener (1920) by Harry Heinrich Deierling © Tate

A bit more like the Weimar culture satire and suicide which we’re familiar with was a work like The Artist with Two Hanged Women by Rudolf Schlichter (1890-1955), a half-finished drawing in watercolour and graphite depicting, well, two hanged women. Note how the most care and attention has been lavished on the dead women’s lace-up boots. Ah, leather – fetishism – death.

The Artist with Two Hanged Women (1924) by Rudolf Schlichter © Tate

Indeed dead women, and killing women, was a major theme of Weimar artists, so much so that it acquired a name of its own, Lustmord or sex murder.

The wall label points out that anti-hero of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz has just been released from prison after murdering a prostitute. The heroine of G. W. Pabst’s black-and-white silent movie Pandora’s Box ends up being murdered (by Jack the Ripper). But you don’t need to go to other media to find stories of femicide. The art of the verists – the brutal satirists – is full of it.

Lustmord (1922) by Otto Dix © Tate

The label suggests that all these images of women raped, stabbed and eviscerated were a reaction to ‘the emancipation of women’ which took place after the war.

This seems to me an altogether too shallow interpretation, as if these images were polite petitions or editorials in a conservative newspaper. Whereas they seem to me more like the most violent, disgusting images the artists could find to express their despair at the complete and utter collapse of all humane and civilised values brought about by the war.

The way women are bought, fucked and then brutally stabbed to death, their bodies ripped open in image after image, seems to me a deliberate spitting in the face of everything genteel, restrained and civilised about the Victorian and Edwardian society which had led an entire generation of young men into the holocaust of the trenches. Above all these images are angry, burning with anger, and I don’t think it’s at women getting the vote, I think it’s at the entire fabric of so-called civilised society which had been exposed as a brutal sham.

Room three – On the street and in the studio

The hyper-inflation crisis of 1923 was stabilised by the implementation of the Dawes Plan in 1924, under which America lent Germany the money which it then paid to France as reparations for the cost of the war. For the next five years Germany enjoyed a golden period of relative prosperity, becoming widely known for its liberal (sexual) values and artistic creativity, not only in art but also photography, design and architecture (the Bauhaus).

The exhibition features a couple of display cases which show picture annuals from the time, such as Das Deutsches Lichtbild. The photo album was a popular format which collected together wonderful examples of the new, avant-garde, constructivist-style b&w photos of the time into a lavish and collectible book format.

And – despite pictures Deierling’s Gardener – it was an overwhelmingly urban culture. Berlin’s population doubled between 1910 and 1920, the bustling streets of four million people juxtaposing well-heeled bourgeoisie and legless beggars, perfumed aristocrats and raddled whores.

But alongside the famously scabrous images of satirists like Grosz and Dix, plenty of artists were attracted by the new look and feel of densely populated streets, and this room contains quite a few depictions of towns and cities, in a range of styles, from visionary to strictly realistic.

And of course there was always money to be made supplying the comfortably off with flattering portraits, and this room contains a selection of surprisingly staid and traditional portraits.

Portrait of a Lady on the Pont des Arts (1935) by Werner Schramm © Tate

This is the kind of thing Roh had in mind when he wrote about the ‘classicists’, highlighting the tendency among many painters of the time towards minute attention to detail, and the complete, smooth finishing of the oil.

Room four – the cabaret

Early 20th century cabaret was quite unlike the music halls which had dominated popular entertainment at the end of the 19th. Music hall catered to a large working class audience, emphasising spectacle and massed ranks of dancers or loud popular comedians. Cabaret, by contrast, took place in much smaller venues, often catering to expensive or elite audiences, providing knowingly ‘sophisticated’ performers designed to tickle the taste buds of their well-heeled clientele. The entertainment was more intimate, direct and often intellectual, mixing smart cocktail songs with deliberately ‘decadent’ displays of semi-naked women or cross-dressing men.

In fact there are, ironically, no paintings of an actual cabaret in the cabaret room, which seems a bit odd. The nearest thing we get is a big painting of the recently deceased Eric Satie (d.1925) in what might be a nightclub.

Erik Satie – The Prelude (1925) by Prosper de Troyer © Tate

There are the picture books I mentioned above, featuring some famous cross-dressers of the time. And – what caught my eye most – a series of large cartoony illustrations of 1. two painted ladies 2. a woman at a shooting stall of a fair offering a gun to a customer 3. and a group of bored women standing in the doorway of a brothel.

These latter are the best things in the room and one of the highlights of the entire exhibition. Even though I recently read several books about Weimar art, I had never heard of Jeanne Mammen. Born in 1890, ‘her work is associated with the New Objectivity and Symbolism movements. She is best known for her depictions of strong, sensual women and Berlin city life.’ (Wikipedia) During the 1920s she contributed to fashion magazines and satirical journals and the wall label claims that:

Her observations of Berlin and its female inhabitants differ significantly from her male contemporaries. Her images give visual expression to female desire and to women’s experiences of city life.

Maybe. What I immediately responded to was the crispness and clarity of her cartoon style, closely related to George Grosz in its expressive use of line but nonetheless immediately distinctive. A quick surf of the internet shows that the three works on display here don’t really convey the distinctiveness of her feminine perspective as much as the wall label claims. I’m going to have to find out much more about her. She’s great.

At the Shooting Gallery (1929) by Jeanne Mammen. The George Economou Collection © DACS London, 2018

Room five – faith and magic

In some ways it’s surprising that Christianity survived the First World War at all, until you grasp that its main purpose is to help people make sense of and survive tragedies and disasters. Once, years ago, I made a television programme about belief and atheism. One of the main themes which emerged was that all the atheists who poured scorn on religious belief had led charmed, middle-class lives which gave them the unconscious confidence that they could abolish the monarchy, have a revolution and ban Christianity because they knew that nothing much would change in their confident, affluent, well-educated lives.

Whereas the Christians I spoke to had almost all undergone real suffering – one whose mother had been raped by her step-father, another who had lost a brother to cancer – one way or anoyther they had had to cope with real pain in their lives. And their Christian faith wasn’t destroyed by these experiences; it was made stronger. Or (to be cynical) their need for faith had been made stronger.

The highlights of this final room were two sets of large religious paintings by Albert Birkle and Herbert Gurschener.

From 1918 to 1919 there was an exhibition of Matthias Grunwald’s Isenheim altarpiece (1512) in Munich and this inspired Albert Birkle to tackle this most-traditional of Western subjects, but filtered through the harsh, cartoon-like grotesqueness of a Weimar sensibility. He was only 21 when he painted his version of the crucifixion and still fresh from the horrors of the Western Front. Is there actually any redemption at all going on in this picture, or is it just a scene of grotesque torture? You decide.

The Crucifixion (1921) by Albert Birkle © Tate

Herbert Gurschener (1901-75) took his inspiration from the Italian Renaissance in paintings like the Triumph of Death, Lazarus (The Workers) and Annuciation. His Annunciation contains all the traditional traditional religious symbolism, down to the stalk of white lilies, along with a form of post-Renaissance perspective. And yet is very obviously refracted through an entirely 20th century sensibility.

The Annunciation (1930) by Herbert Gurschner © Tate

Thoughts

There is more variety in this exhibition than I’ve indicated. There are many more ‘traditional’ portraits in all of the rooms, plus a variety of townscapes which vary from grim depictions of urban slums brooding beneath factory chimneys to genuinely magical, fantasy-like depictions of brightly coloured fairy streets.

There is more strangeness and quirkiness than I’d expected, more little gems which are not easy to categorise but which hold the eye. It’s worth registering the loud, crude angry satire of Grosz and Dix, but then going back round to appreciate the subtler virtues of many of the quieter pictures, as well as the inclusions of works by ‘outriders’ like Chagall and de Chirico who were neither German nor painting during the post-war period. Little gems and surprises.

And the whole thing is FREE. Go see it before it closes in July.

Full list of paintings

This is a list of most of the paintings in the exhibition, though I don’t think it’s quite complete. Anyway, I give it here in case you want to look up more examples of each artist’s works.

Introduction

  • Marc Chagall, The Green Donkey, 1911
  • Giorgio de Chirico, The Duo, 1914
  • Otto Dix, Portrait of Bruno Alexander Roscher, 1915
  • George Grosz, Suicide, 1916
  • Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, The Poet Däubler, 1917
  • Carlo Mense, Self Portrait, 1918
  • Heinrich Campendonk, The Rider II, 1919
  • Henry Heinrich Dierling, The Gardner, 1920
  • Max Beckman, Frau Ullstein (Portrait of a Woman), 1920
  • Otto Dix Beautiful Mally! 1920
  • Otto Dix Circus Scene (Riding Act) 1920
  • Otto Dix Zirkus, 1922
  • Otto Dix Performers 1922
  • Paul Klee They’re Biting 1920, Comedy 1921
  • Albert Birkle The Acrobat Schulz V, 1921
  • George Grosz Drawing for ‘The Mirror of the Bourgeoisie’ 1925
  • George Grosz Self-Portrait with Model in the Studio 1930-7
  • George Grosz A Married Couple 1930

From the visible to the invisible

  • Otto Dix Butcher Shop 1920
  • Otto Dix Billiard Players 1920
  • Otto Dix Sailor and Girl 1920
  • Otto Dix Lust Murderer 1920
  • Otto Dix Lust Murderer 1922
  • Rudolf Schlichter The Artist with Two Hanged Women 1924
  • Christian Schad Prof Holzmeister 1926

The Street and the Studio

  • Richard Biringer, Krupp Works, Engers am Rheim, 1925
  • Albert Birkle, Passou, 1925
  • Rudolf Dischinger, Backyard Balcony, 1935
  • Conrad Felix Műller, Portrait of Ernst Buchholz, 1921
  • Conrad Felix Műller, The Beggar of Prachatice, 1924
  • Carl Grossberg, Rokin Street, Amsterdam, 1925
  • Hans Grundig, Girl with Pink Hat, 1925
  • Herbert Gurschner, Japanese Lady, 1932
  • Herbert Gurschner, Bean Ingram, 1928
  • Karl Otto Hy, Anna, 1932
  • August Heitmüller, Self-Portrait, 1926
  • Alexander Kanoldt, Monstery Chapel of Säben, 1920
  • Josef Mangold, Flower Still Life with Playing Card, undated
  • Nicolai Wassilief, Interior, 1923
  • Carlo Mense, Portrait of Don Domenico, 1924
  • Richard Müller, At the Studio, 1926
  • Franz Radziwill, Conversation about a Paragraph, 1929
  • Otto Rudolf Schatz, Moon Women, 1930
  • Rudolf Schlichter, Lady with Red Scarf, 1933
  • Marie-Louise von Motesicky, Portrait of a Russian Student, 1927
  • Josef Scharl, Conference/The Group, 1927
  • Werner Schramm, Portrait of a Lady in front of the Pont des Artes, 1930

The Cabaret

  • Josef Ebertz, Dancer (Beatrice Mariagraete), 1923
  • Otto Griebel, Two Women, 1924
  • Prosper de Troyer, Eric Satie (The Prelude), 1925
  • Sergius Pauser, Self-Portrait with Mask, 1926
  • Jeanne Mammen, Boring Dolls, 1927
  • Jeanne Mammen, At the Shooting Gallery, 1929
  • Jeanne Mammen, Brüderstrasse (Free Room), 1930
  • Max Beckmann, Anni (Girl with Fan), 1942

Faith

  • Albert Birkle, Crucifixion, 1921
  • Albert Birkle, The Hermit, 1921
  • Herbert Gurschener, the Triumph of Death, 1927
  • Herbert Gurschener, Lazarus (The Workers), 1928
  • Herbert Gurschener, Annuciation, 1929-30

Curators

  • Matthew Gale, Head of Displays
  • Katy Wan, Assistant Curator

Related links

Reviews relating to Germany

Art and culture

History

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Boilly: Scenes of Parisian Life @ the National Gallery

Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761 – 1845) was 28 and an established painter when the French Revolution broke out. He managed not to get his head cut off by the apostles of freedom and equality, going on to survive the rise and fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and enjoying a long and successful career – 84 was quite a ripe old age, especially back then.

Sheet of studies with five self-portrait drawings of the artist, about 1810 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Sheet of studies with five self-portrait drawings of the artist, about 1810 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

The National Gallery owns just one Boilly painting, the small but intriguing A Girl at a Window. For this exhibition they’ve borrowed 20 works from a British private collection which have never previously been displayed or published and hung them all in Room One of the gallery (up the stairs and immediately to your left, if you come in the main entrance).

So this really is an unparalleled opportunity to find out more about an artist who is little known in Britain.

The twenty paintings and drawings on display show that Boilly was a lot of fun. He comes from an era when people used paintings for amusement and entertainment and information and titillation.

The latter motive is to the fore in two or three of his paintings from the 1790s. In these boudoir scenes or ‘seductive interiors’ Boilly combines two or three of key concerns. One is human interest. This is an anecdotal scene of two nubile young women comparing feet (and stockings). For the time this was quite a ‘saucy’ picture in that you can see a lot of the ladies’ stockinged feet and (as the wall label points out) a titillating amount of bosom on the verge of falling out of both women’s dresses. Boilly was certainly not highbrow. He wanted to please and entertain.

Comparing Little Feet, about 1791 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Comparing Little Feet (about 1791) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

But the second feature of this painting is the phenomenal attention to detail. When you lean in you can see how much fun he’s had capturing the difference textures and surfaces and the play of light on the wooden table, the pink sash, the silver tankard and the sheets of paper behind them. A tremendous eye for detail and a concern that the image is completely finished. The looseness of brush we are used to in the Impressionists and everyone who followed is inconceivable here. Every millimetre of the canvas is covered in paint which depicts the scene in loving detail.

But it was scenes of Parisian street life that made Boilly famous. the exhibition includes half a dozen paintings of street scenes – working men gambling at a tavern, a beggar importuning a smartly dressed couple couple, a small crowd of gawpers gathered round a punch and judy booth.

The Poor Cat (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

The Poor Cat (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

This is narrative or anecdote painting. You’re meant to admire the overall composition, but then are encouraged to look out for all the humorous touches and details the painter has included – the boy at far right trying to look inside the booth, the soldiers at far left commenting, the old lady nursing a baby under the tree, the dog on the left has he seen or smelt something? And of course the central event they’re all looking at which is the hand puppet of Mr Punch trying to fit a hoop over the neck of a cat.

Note the twee little girl in a bonnet with her face turned towards us. Boilly’s crowd scenes nearly always include someone looking out directly at the viewer, including us in the scene. And then, stepping back, note that by far the brightest, best illuminated part of the painting is the bright pink and white dresses of the two young ladies with their backs to us.  Once you’ve noticed how dazzlingly bright they are, you can read the painting again, purely in terms of the play of light and shade. When you do that, you come to appreciate how cannily Boilly has used various levels of lighting to create a dynamic interplay between different parts of the composition.

The French Revolution brought a new class to power, very loosely definable as the bourgeoisie, the educated middle classes who supplanted the French aristocracy in positions of power. Boilly’s naughty but nice interiors, and his observant depictions of street scenes were aimed at this new market. Instead of lofty allegories about Greek gods – the kind of thing which made aristocrats feel clever and godlike – Boilly’s pictures depict Parisian life as it actually was, naughty young ladies, beggars, the homeless, street entertainers, fine looking bourgeoisie, workers in rags.

The teemingness of it, the panoramic effect reminds me of the huge series of novels written by Honoré de Balzac which commenced in the same year as the Poor Cat and as what is arguably Boilly’s masterpiece, A Carnival Scene.

A Carnival Scene (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

A Carnival Scene (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

It is a winter’s afternoon and characters from the Italian commedial dell’arte are roaming the streets of Paris alongside men dressed as monkeys and aristocratic spectres from the pre-revolutionary era. Down at the front is a dog leaping with a theatrical mask over its tail, a boy is blowing a horn, a fat lady is climbing into the coach in the middle and her skirts have blown up to reveal her bare buttocks. This is the largest panorama of Paris life Boilly attempted, and I think you can detect its influence in later panoramic anecdotal paintings.

There’s a (slightly spooky) figure at the front a third of the way across the painting which is holding out its arms to the scampering dog. This gesture reminded me of William Powell Frith’s classic panorama, Derby Day, painted about 25 years later in 1858, where, in the centre at the front an acrobat entertainer dressed in white with yellow shorts is holding out his arms to his son who is completely distracted by the lavish meal being laid out on a picnic to his left (our right).

The Derby Day by William Powell Frith (1856 - 1858)

The Derby Day by William Powell Frith (1856 – 1858)

Comparing the two paintings brings out how totally Frith has assimilated all the lessons of painting and applied them directly to depicting his day with complete realism, fastidiously capturing costume, human types, and the chaotic teeming of the crowd.

By contrast Boilly seems very dated. The pink sky and the overall brown hue refers back to the countless landscapes of the Dutch school of the 17th century. Although his crowd is teeming, too, a look at any individual in it indicates that they are either caricatures (all the masked and costumed characters) or sentimentalised (the young ladies) and Boilly uses bright white light to lead the eye towards the centre of the composition and the fine lady in an expensive yellow dress, which acts as a sort of visual and psychological anchor. The well-heeled bourgeoisie are still at the heart of, still in control of things.

Portraits

Boilly’s depictions of modern urban life made his reputation at the Salon, but it was his vast output of portraits which made him his income. Over the course of  his career he painted over 5,000 small portraits for a huge range of patrons, soldiers, lawyers, members of the Napoleonic nobility and the bourgeoisie.

Most of these were smallish oil portraits measuring about 22cm by 17cm. It is recorded that they took him about two hours to complete. He was nothing if not a pro. But I’ve chosen to represent his skill at depicting the human face with this set of charcoal and chalk drawings of Jean Darcet and six members of his family. It’s a funny mix of the conventional and the truly realistic. The two young ladies on either side of the venerable patriarch have rather simpering expressions and the chap at bottom left looks like a certain stock type of 18th century portrait. It was the row of sons along the bottom that caught my attention, specially the chap with the porky cheeks second from left. I really like the way they all have very loose and scruffy haircuts.

Portrait of Jean Darcet and Six Members of his Family (about 1801) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Black and white chalk on paper. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Portrait of Jean Darcet and Six Members of his Family (about 1801) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Black and white chalk on paper. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Sentimentality

Connected to the portraits are Boilly’s rather sickly sweet treatment of small children. Boilly was married twice (both wives predeceased him) and fathered ten children, of whom four died young. This picture depicts three of Boilly’s young sons, Julien adjusting the position of Alphonse’s head, while Édouard (left) looks on. It’s one of several which focus on small children and mothers.

My Little Soldiers (1804) Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

My Little Soldiers (1804) Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

If you look on the left you can see the boys’ pet dog is sitting to attention, with a stick over one soldier like a soldier. Yes, this is sickeningly sentimental tripe for a sensitive bourgeois audience, but Boilly knew his market very well. Pictures like this sold very well, particularly to mothers, which is why many of them feature a mother amid her oh-so-lovely brood.

Trompe l’oeil

I had no idea that Boilly coined the expression trompe l’oeil, which is French for ‘deceives the eye’ and has come to be the term used to refer to tricks with paint which create visual illusions. The final little section of the display shows three or so paintings which use trompe l’oeil effects including this, the only Boilly painting the National Gallery possesses, A Girl at a Window.

It dates from 1799, the decade when Boilly was painting his saucy interiors, and it is an interior with a young woman but there’s nothing hugely saucy about it. As in so many of the paintings the figure is looking directly out at us, inviting us into the scene and at first we are – as we’ve seen in some of his other works – mainly taken with her face and dress because this is so very highlighted, so bright, the best lit part of the composition.

A Girl at a Window (after 1799) by Louis-Léopold Boilly © The National Gallery, London

A Girl at a Window (after 1799) by Louis-Léopold Boilly © The National Gallery, London

Only slowly do our eyes adjust to the relative gloom of the rest of the scene and slowly come to realise how absolutely packed it is with anecdote and detail. To the right not just a vase but a bowl with a fish swimming in it, echoed by the smaller vial in front of it and then some kind of stick (or flute). And when you really look you realise there is a bird cage hanging on the wall above the goldfish bowl.

And to the left is an attractive young boy peering through a telescope trained off to the left. Look at the catchlight on the rim of the telescope and then on the frame and tripod supporting it. The depiction of light and reflection is wonderful.

And then you notice the frieze carved into the stone beneath the window ledge. Half a dozen characters are depicted in that, caught in some mythological travails.

It qualifies as a trompe l’oeil, as a humorous attempt to trick the viewer because although it is painted, every aspect of it is designed to make it look like a print, namely the fact that it is monochrome, painted only in shades of black, white and grey. This illusion is accentuated by the grey mount or surround for the picture which is itself painted, and by the artist’s ‘printed’ signature at bottom left.

Coming to A Girl at a Window hanging on its own in the National Gallery, you might have been intrigued for a few minutes and then passed on. The achievement of this small but beautifully formed little exhibition is to place it in the context of a life and career which was artful, clever, stylish and fun.

This is a FREE exhibition and you leave it with a smile on your face.


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Messengers by Bridget Riley @ the National Gallery

At the moment the National Gallery is forcing visitors to enter through the small Getty entrance to the right of the main portico. You trot up some stairs and go through an airport-style metal detector security, walk past the enormous shop (there are three main shops in the gallery) into the long narrow space called the Annenberg Court, and then have to mount quite a big flight of stairs to reach the main entrance hall.

The stairs are black and are attached to one wall of a large white space. Usually it is painted pure white to create a sense of light and emptiness. Now, however, it has been decorated by leading British artist, Bridget Riley, with a series of large green, beige and grey dots.

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Riley (born in 1931 and a Companion of Honour and a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire aka CBE) made her reputation in the 1960s as a leading proponent of Op Art i.e. art interested in exploring all kinds of optical illusions.

The wall labels explain that this work is entitled ‘Messengers’ because Constable referred to clouds as ‘messengers’ in one of his letters. It is deliberately ambiguous so it can also be taken as an allusion to the numerous angels, messengers and bearers of news, that we see in the skies of so many National Gallery pictures.

A more direct influence is the pointillist technique of the French painter George Seurat, famous for large scale pointillist masterpieces such as Bathers at Asnières.

It’s easiest to think of Riley’s dots as a sampling of Seurat’s little dots which have been blown up to huge proportions. When this happens you learn that most of a Seurat painting is made up of the spaces between the coloured dots – just as the ‘solid’ atoms which make up us and everything around us are actually mostly empty space.

Because, in my opinion, what the dots do is emphasise the size and whiteness of the space, bring it out. Previously this was a big white empty space. Now, it has become much more problematic for the eye and mind. The wall label which explains the work suggests that, if you pause (on the landing at the top of the stairs or half way down the stairs) to look at the dotted wall, they will leave after-images on the viewer’s retina that suggest volume and movement.

Maybe. To the number-minded like myself they suggest some kind of pattern. In fact I quickly realised they are painted in broken diagonal lines. If there were a few more of them they’d begin to crystallise into Xs. As it is there are diagonal ‘paths’ between the lines. Can you see any other patterns?

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Anyway, after reading the label and pondering Messengers for a few minutes, I passed on to the Boilly exhibition in Room One of the gallery, across the central hall (and next to another, huge, shop).

When I came back the same way, walking across the old, dark-wood-panelled central hall, I suddenly realised that, approached from this side, the big atrium and Riley’s dots are framed by a characteristically Victorian, huge, dark, oak-framed doorway.

Framed. Just like one of the thousands of Old Master paintings in the rest of the gallery.

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

Messengers by Bridget Riley. Photo by the author

My photo doesn’t really convey it, but to me this framing effect gave the image a lot more bite.

Standing on the stairs beneath the big white open space of the court felt a bit like being on the escalator at any number of modern shopping centres, with a vague sense of a big light space looming over you.

But framed like this, the image had more definition and power.

Also, God knows how many art videos I’ve seen which make a virtue of showing nothing very much happening, and so I found the framing effect almost transformed it into an art video experience.

In a sort of way, for a few minutes, I enjoyed standing there, in line with the centre of the doorway, watching people walk in and out of it, almost all of them busy and purposeful, but a few pausing to lean against the balcony and look out at the dots.

I liked the contrast between the black oak doors, the black outline of the balcony and the (mostly) black clothes that everyone was wearing and the ringing white walls of the Annenberg Court.

I liked the contrast between the complete stasis of the dots, caught/trapped/arranged in their punctured latticework – and the busy, chaotic strutting, strolling, ambling, chatting, pausing and hesitating of the people moving in front of it.


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Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light @ the National Gallery

This is the first UK exhibition in over a century of the painter who came to be known as ‘Spain’s Impressionist’, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida.

The 58 works on show have been loaned from Spanish and private collections to present the most complete exhibition of his paintings outside Spain so this is a unique opportunity to see, enjoy and judge for yourself. (A third of the works are on loan from the Museo Sorolla, ‘one of Madrid’s most dazzling small museums, which occupies the house and garden Sorolla designed and built for his family’. So next time you’re in Madrid…)

Sewing the Sail (Cosiendo la vela), 1896

Almost immediately you can see why Sorolla is known as ‘the master of light’. Room two contains what is surely the most impressive painting here, Sewing the Sail, which is a miracle of evocation. You can feel the harsh Mediterranean sun, you can hear the distant susurration of the sea and the laughing chatter of the women as they work, you can smell the scents from the profusion of flowers in baskets and jars.

It is also a big painting, an enormous painting, which takes up most of one wall. You are immersed in the visual experience. Of all the paintings here this was the hardest to tear yourself away from.

But the exhibition brings together works in an impressive variety of genres, large and small. Sorolla was prolific, leaving at his death over a thousand paintings and several thousand drawings and sketches. The exhibition displays a selection of works including vivid seascapes and bather scenes, studies of architecture and formal gardens, many of the portraits from which he made a lucrative living, a whole room of social conscience paintings, and some of the images he prepared for a vast mural depicting Spanish regional customs and dress.

The Return from Fishing (La vuelta de la pesca), 1894

Room one – early works and wife

The first room includes an arresting self-portrait of a man determined to make his way in the world. There are portraits of Sorolla’s wife, Clotilde, as well as his daughters María and Elena, and son Joaquín, who became the Museo Sorolla’s first director.

Sorolla married Clotilde, the daughter of his first major patron, in 1888. She remained his favourite model and, in his many portraits, barely appears to age over the decades. The strong family connection resonates with the painting of a rose bush from Sorolla’s house which, legend has it, withered when the artist passed away and wilted away entirely when Clotilde died.

But the room is dominated by this expressive nude of his wife.

Female Nude (1902) by Joaquín Sorolla. Private Collection. Photo Joaquín Cortés

Three things. 1. He is showing off his skill with oil paint. Look at the shimmer and the shadows and the numerous different shades of pink of the presumably silk sheet she is lying on. 2. He was consciously chanelling the Rokeby Venus, a masterpiece by probably the most eminent Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Sorolla set himself up as Velázquez’s modern heir and incarnation and, like Velázquez, cultivated a wide circle of rich aristocratic patrons until he reached the social pinnacle of being commissioned to paint a portrait of the Spanish king..

3. How very, very traditional it is. By 1902 the Impressionists had been at it for 30 years, and we had had a decade or more of post-Impressionism, Gauguin, van Gogh and so on and were teetering on the brink of the Fauves with their mad garish daubs of vibrant colour. Not in Sorolla’s world. One of the features of the early rooms is the number of international exhibitions Sorolla sent his work to, and the number of prizes he won, in Madrid, Paris, all over Europe. This is the height of late-Victorian Salon art. Sorolla represents everything modern painting set out to overthrow.

Room two – social conscience

Sorolla trained in Valencia and studied in Madrid and Rome. He first won an international reputation for major works tackling social subjects. The second room focuses on the 1890s, when Spain witnessed a period of social unrest as well as the final collapse of its overseas empire.

During this period Sorolla launched his career with a series of monumental canvases depicting the realities and hardships of Spanish life. His first great success was Another Marguerite! which depicted a woman arrested for murdering her child and won great acclaim when it was exhibited in Madrid in 1892.

From there, Sorolla set about gaining an international reputation by sending his pictures to exhibitions across Europe. While Sorolla largely moved away from socially engaged subjects after 1900, the pictures had a lasting impact on the next generation of Spanish painter.

And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! (¡Y aún dicen que el pescado es caro!), 1894

Many of them are wonderful but they feel very old. A painting like this reminds me of the British artist Sir Luke Fildes who was painting grittily realistic depictions of working class life in the 1870s.

Room three – portraits

The third room shows how Sorolla positioned himself as the heir to the tradition of Spanish artists such as Velázquez and Goya, whose works he closely studied at the Prado in Madrid.

In his portraits, Sorolla often adopted their distinctive palette of blacks, greys and creams. He also sought to achieve the same psychological penetration and sense of human presence for which both painters were famous.

Lucrecia Arana and Her Son (Lucrecia Arana y su hijo), 1906

I wasn’t convinced. Like all his works I began to realise that they make a better effect the further back you stand. But I still found the three faces in this double portrait unsatisfactory. The boy’s face looks like the black eyed boys you seen in the countless kitsch paintings you can buy in sunny markets and harbours around the Mediterranean. The woman just looks flat and ugly, and the image of the painter at work in the mirror isn’t exactly inspiring.

Many of the portraits are large, portrait-shaped depictions of the grand and rich and naturally invite comparison with one of the most successful portrait painters in Europe at the time, the American John Singer Sargent who based himself in London. Here’s a characteristic Sargent joint portrait from the period.

Lady Adele Meyer and her children (1896) by John Singer Sargent

In my opinion the Sargent is better. It captures the expressions on all three faces with a kind of dainty realism, and the fabric of the woman’s dress, the son’s velvet suit and, above all, of the antique sofa she’s sitting on – all of these seem to me to be caught with a kind of shimmering accuracy which Sorolla can’t match.

Room four – the beach and sunlight

Room Four celebrates Sorolla’s love of sunlight and the sea. Having grown up by the coast in Valencia, Sorolla began after 1900 to create a substantial body of work, painted out of doors, documenting the mixture of leisure and work he witnessed on beaches close to Valencia and further down the coast at Jávea. These scenes proved hugely popular especially in the United States.

Running along the Beach, Valencia (1908) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias. Col. Pedro Masaveu

The audioguide is very thorough and comprehensive and includes several photos showing Sorolla at work on the beach, a) wearing an amazingly thick, heavy, conventional set of clothes (waistcoat, hat) in what must have been sweltering conditions b) with his canvas protected by a windbreak and the easel held down with an elaborate system of ropes and heavy stones.

In my opinion these paintings are wonderfully evocative but tread a fine line just this side of kitsch. On the one hand the use of colours in a painting like Boys on the beach is masterful – the commentary highlighted how he creates shadow out of colours, not using black, but looking at the composition as a whole I was struck by how he captures the many colours of sand, caused by the changing depths of sea water and light refracted through it.

Boys on the Beach (Chicos en la playa), 1909

But some of them topple into kitsch and once I’d though of Jack Vettriano’s immensely popular paintings of people on beaches, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I found it hard not to see the Athena Posters aspect of many of these beach works.

Mad Dogs by Jack Vettriano

Mad Dogs by Jack Vettriano

Compared to the threatening new style of the Fauves or the Cubism which was just being invented by Picasso and Braques, yes, I can well imagine that American millionaires bought this kind of thing by the yard.

Room five – studies for the mural

In 1911 Sorolla was commissioned by the Hispanic Society of America in New York to create a vast mural-like series of paintings entitled Vision of Spain.

As preparation Sorolla travelled extensively through Spain, documenting the country’s regional dress, occupations, and traditions. Local people, often provided by Sorolla with costumes and props, were depicted in situ in works which were painted between 1911 and 1919.

The exhibition includes four large-scale preparatory studies for Vision of Spain demonstrating the intensity with which the artist engaged in Spanish folk tradition. Sorolla also painted the landscapes in these regions which he then incorporated in the Hispanic Society paintings.

Bride from Lagartera (1912) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Three things:

1. The audioguide explains that, because the subjects were not professional models, they had to be painted quickly. The audioguide emphasises a) the terrific skill this required b) the way the paint was applied very quickly, often direct from the tube, in squiggles across the surface, and it’s true, if you get up close the pictures become almost abstract and, the guide suggests, exercises in pure painterliness.

2. They’re not very good, though, are they? They are not a patch on the huge realist works from the start of the exhibition, from the 1890s and, even allowing for the fact that they were rushed and are only preparatory works, still, the overall effect is negative.

3. Shame there weren’t more big colour photos of the finished mural. This does look very impressive but was only available as tiny black and white photos on the screen of the ipod-sized audioguide. Shame.

Room six – landscape and gardens

The sixth room of the exhibition is devoted to Sorolla’s views of landscapes and gardens. From a panoramic vista of the barren mountains of the Sierra Nevada glowing in evening light to the medieval towers of Burgos Cathedral under snow, Sorolla had a gift for finding the viewpoint to best communicate the atmosphere and character of a setting.

On several visits to the south, he recorded the country’s heritage in views of the gardens of the Alcázar in Seville and the Alhambra in Granada. None of these paintings pulled my daisy as much as the big realist works in room two or some of the sunlight beach scenes.

Reflections in a Fountain (Reflejos de una fuente), 1908

Room seven – family

The final room highlights Sorolla’s fascination with depicting his family in large canvases painted out of doors such as Strolling along the Seashore (1909) and The Siesta (1911).

These works are twenty years on from Another Marguerite! and And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! and Sewing the Sail, and in The Siesta in particular you can see him really exploring the possibilities of oil painting, but in a landscape saturated with light. The Impressionists often painted fog or snow, for the German Expressionists it was always stormy night-time, but for Sorolla – even when he is at his most experimental, verging on abstraction – it is always bright and dazzlingly sunny.

The Siesta (1911) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

The Siesta (1911) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Conclusion

In June 1920 Sorolla suffered a stroke in the middle of painting a portrait which paralysed him down one side, effectively ending his career, and died on the 10th August 1923.

The downstairs exhibition space at the National Gallery includes a comfy little cinema where they were showing a fifteen-minute documentary about Sorolla, complete with extensive explanations from the show’s curator, Christopher Riopelle.

From this we learn that he was given a state funeral, as befitted the official portraitist of the king and the royal family, and one of the last public painters working in the great European tradition, before Modernism swept all that way forever.

Having walked around it a couple of times and listened to the audioguide, I couldn’t help making continual comparisons to the social realist paintings of a Luke Fildes or the much finer portraits of Singer Sargent and, on the couple of occasions Sorolla does statuesque women in bathing suits, I was immediately reminded of the much more precise and lustrous paintings of the late-Victorian Olympians like Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

But… some of the large scale paintings, notably Sewing the Sail, are really stunning, eye-opening exercise in the overwhelming power of painting, and many of the details of the beach and sunlight paintings are wonderful – there’s a way he has of capturing the fading sunlight as it’s thrown across rocks which reminds you of all the Mediterranean holidays you’ve ever had.

And his use of colour, his juxtaposition of shades and hues to create subtle visual effects, is often dazzling. The more you look, the more absorbed you become. The curator claims that ‘No one before or since has painted Mediterranean sunlight like Sorolla’ and this may well be true.

Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904) by Joaquín Sorolla. Private Collection © Photo Laura Cohen

Videos

Review by Visiting London Guide

Curator’s introduction by Christopher Riopelle.


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