Don McCullin @ Tate Britain

This is an enormous exhibition of over 250 photos by famous war photographer Don McCullin. A working class lad who left school at 15 and got interested in cameras during his national service, the show opens with the first photograph he sold (in 1958 a policeman was stabbed by members of a gang in Finsbury Park – McCullin happened to have been at school with some of these young toughs and persuaded them to be photographed posing in a bombed-out house – people in his office saw the printed photo and said why don’t you try selling it to a newspaper? A newspaper bought it, and said have you got any more like that? And so a star was born).

The Guv'nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The Guv’nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The exhibition then follows McCullin’s career as he visited one warzone, famine zone, disaster zone, after another from the early 1960s right through to the 2000s, in the process becoming one of the most famous photographers in the world. He began a long association with the Sunday Times which covered war zones and natural disasters around the world in a ground-breaking combination of photojournalism.

Each of these odysseys is accompanied by a wall label which gives you the historical background of the conflict in question, and then, separately, McCullin’s reactions and thoughts about it.

Not all of them are abroad. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, though mainland Brits often forget it, was, of course, a low-level war or civil conflict fought here in Britain. And McCullin also undertook trips with journalists to parts of Britain which were still very, very deprived in the 1960s and 70s, capturing images of the homeless and alcoholics in the East End, as well as sequences depicting the bleak late-industrial landscapes and cramped lifestyles of the North of England.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

The featured locations and subjects are:

  • Early London i.e. variations on his gangs of Finsbury shots
  • 1961 a journey to Berlin just as the wall was going up
  • Republic of Congo descent into civil war
  • Cyprus – intercommunal assassinations between Greeks and Turks
  • Biafra, war and then famine in this breakaway state of Nigeria
  • Vietnam – McCullin went to Vietnam no fewer than eighteen times and shot some of the iconic images of the war: there’s a display case showing the passports he used and the actual combat helmet he wore
Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

  • Cambodia – as the Vietnam conflict spilled over into its neighbour setting the scene for the rise of the Khmer Rouge
  • the East End i.e. the homeless, tramps and derelicts around Spitalfields
  • Northern Ireland in the early years of the conflict 1970 showing youths throwing stones at British soldiers
  • Bradford and the North – McCullin has a special fondness for Bradford with its rugged stone architecture, and shot the working class amusements of the population (bingo, the pub) with the same harsh candour he brought to his war photos
  • British Summer Time – a smaller section about the activities of the British rich i.e. the season, Ascot etc
  • Bangladesh – the war followed by floods and famine as East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971
  • Beirut – once the Paris of the Middle East descends into a three-way civil war, destabilised by neighbours Israel and Syria – there’s a famous sequence McCullin shot at a home for the mentally ill which had been abandoned by most of its carers: madness within madness
  • Iraq – among the Kurds in particular as the first Gulf War came to its tragic end (President Bush exhorted the Kurds and Marsh Arabs to rise up against Saddam Hussein but when they did, gave them no help, so that they were slaughtered in their thousands or fled to refugee camps
  • southern Ethiopia – amazingly colourful tribespeople holding kalashnikovs
  • India – one of McCullin’s favourite countries which he’s returned to again and again to capture the swirl and detail of life
  • the AIDS pandemic in Africa – pictures of the dying accompanied by McCullin’s harrowing description of the AIDS pandemic as the biggest disaster he’d covered

Finally, in the last big room, are displayed the photos from the last few decades of McCullin’s career (born in October 1935, he is now 83 years old), in which he has finally been persuaded to take it easy. These are in two big themes and a smaller one:

  • he has been undertaking trips to the ancient Roman ruins to be found in the Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean, leading up to the publication of the book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire
  • and his most recent book, The Landscape (2018), is a collection of stunning photos of the scenery near his home in the Somerset Levels
  • finally, right at the tippy-most end of this long exhausting exhibition are three or four still lifes, very deliberately composed to reference the tradition of the still life in art, featuring apples or flowers in a bowl, next to a cutting board
Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Black and white

All the 250 photos in the exhibition are in black and white. McCullin printed them himself by hand in the dark room at his Somerset home.

As I’ve remarked in reviews of umpteen other photography exhibitions, black and white photography is immediately more arty than colour, because it focuses your visual response on depth, shade, lines and composition.

A lot of the early war photography is obviously capturing the moment, often under gunfire (McCullin was himself hit by shrapnel and hospitalised in Cambodia). But many of the smokestack cityscapes of Bradford and the North, the images of swirling mist and muddy rivers in India, and then the bleak photos of the Somerset Levels, in winter, dotted by leafless trees, floodwater reflecting the huge mackerel cloudscapes – many of these also have a threatening, looming, menacing effect.

The wall labels and the quotes from McCullin himself make it explicit that he is still haunted by the horrors he has witnessed – of war and cruelty, but also of famine and death by epidemic disease. It is a fairly easy interpretation to find the trauma of war still directing the aesthetic of the later photos – whether of Roman ruins in the desert or lowering skies over bleak Somerset in winter – both looking as if some terrible cataclysm has overtaken them.

The magazine slideshow

The one exception to the black and white presentation is a big dark projection room which shows a loop of the magazine covers and articles where McCullin’s photos were first published, displays of how they actually looked when first used, covered with banner headlines, or next to pages of text, and accompanied by detailed captions, describing the scene, what had happened just before or was going to happen afterwards, quotes from the people pictured.

It is striking what a difference a) being in colour and b) being accompanied by text, makes to these images. You quite literally read them in a different way, namely that your eye is drawn first to the text, whether it be the splash headlines on the front covers, or the tiny lines of caption accompanying the images.

It makes you realise that they were almost all first intended to tell a story, to explain a situation and, in all of the rest of the rooms of the exhibition, where that story is told by, at most, a paragraph of text on the wall, the images become ‘orphaned’. They stand alone. they are more ominous, pregnant with meaning, imposing.

Here, in the magazine slideshow, pretty much the same images are contained, corralled to sizes and shapes dictated by magazine layout, and overwritten by text which immediately channels your aesthetic and emotional responses and underwritten by captions, explanations and quotes which lead you away from the image and into the world of words and information.

And because information is, at the end of the day, more entrancing than pictures, more addictive (you want to find out what happened next, who, where, what, why) in one way this was the most powerful room in the show. I stayed for the entire loop which must have lasted over ten minutes, incidentally conveying, yet again, the sheer volume of work McCullin produced.

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

One perspective

Which brings me to my concluding thought which is that, for all its breadth (some fifty countries visited) and variety (from traumatic photojournalistic immediacy of wounded soldiers or starving children, to the monumental beauty of the Roman ruin shots and the chilly vistas of Somerset in winter) there is nonetheless a kind of narrowness to the work, in at least two ways:

The louring images of Somerset could hardly be more bleak and abandoned and the commentary is not slow to make the obvious point that they can be interpreted as landscapes as portrayed by a deeply traumatised, harrowed survivor i.e. it is all the suffering he saw which makes McCullin’s photographs of Somerset so compelling.

Well, yes, but these are also landscapes which people travel a long way to go on holiday in, where people have barbecues in the summer, take their dogs for walks, cars drive across playing Radio One, which has a good cricket team and various tourist attractions.

None of that is here. None of the actual world in all its banality, traffic jams and Tesco superstores. The images have been very carefully composed, shot and printed in order to create a particular view of the world.

And this also goes for the war and disaster photos. Seeing so many brilliantly captured, framed and shot images of war and disaster and famine, as well as the images of wrecked human beings in Spitalsfield and the poverty of the North of England – all this is bleak and upsetting and creates the impression that McCullin was living, that we are all living, in a world in permanent crisis, permanent poverty, permanent devastation.

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

You would never guess from this exhibition that his career covers the heyday of the Beatles, Swinging London, hippies smoking dope in a thousand attic squats, Biba and new boutiques, that – in other words – while soldiers were torturing civilians in Congo or Bangladesh, lots of young people were partying, older people going to work, kids going to school, families going on package holidays to the Costa del Sol, trying out fondue sets and meal warmers and all the other fancy new consumer gadgets which the Sunday Times advertised in the same magazines where McCullin’s photos appeared.

In other words, that away from these warzones, and these areas of maximum deprivation, life was going on as usual, and life was actually sweet for many millions of Brits. Kids play and laugh, even in warzones, even in poor neighborhoods. No kids are playing or laughing in any of these photos.

McCullin’s photos build up into an amazing oeuvre, an incredible body of work. But it would be a mistake to use them as the basis for a history or political interpretation of the era. It is just one perspective, and a perspective paid for by editors who wanted him to seek out the most harrowing, the most gut-wrenching and the most conscience-wracking situations possible.

If the cumulative worldview which arises from all these 250 photos is violent and troubled that is because he was paid to take photos of violence and trouble. Other photographers were doing fashion and advertising and sport and pop music photos. Their work is just as valid.

None of McCullin’s work is untrue (obviously), and all of it is beautifully shot and luminously printed – but his photos need to be placed in a much wider, broader context to even begin to grasp the history and meaning of his complex and multi-faceted era.

The promotional video


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The C C Land Exhibition: Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory @ Tate Modern

This is the first major UK exhibition of Pierre Bonnard’s work in 20 years.

It brings together over 100 paintings, sketches and drawings, photos and some rare film footage of the great man, many being loans from galleries abroad so that, for fans, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revel in Bonnard’s strange, entrancing art, and for those of us who are less familiar with his work, an opportunity to educate ourselves.

Dining Room in the Country (1913) by Pierre Bonnard © Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dining Room in the Country (1913) by Pierre Bonnard © Minneapolis Institute of Art

The key facts that come over are:

  • colour although born in 1867, and a successful painter by the 1890s, it was only in 1912 that Bonnard undertook a major overhaul of his style, placing far more emphasis on colour and becoming much more relaxed about composition – hence this exhibition concentrates on the period 1912-47
  • memory although there are some very early, tiny photographs of himself and his partner naked, back around 1900, and one or two later on which he used to help him with composition – the key thing to bear in mind is that Bonnard worked from memory, recreating scenes in his mind
  • long working and this is related to the way he worked on paintings over very long periods of time, sometimes decades; the commentary picks out works which were painted, then repainted, then worked over, then reconfigured, for years and years (he started Young Woman in the Garden in 1921 but revisited it in 1946, repainting a large section of it was was working on it at his death)
  • domestic his subject matter is unremittingly low key and domestic, homely and interior: about four subjects dominate the works – looking out an open door or window into a garden; people round a dining room table; his wife in the bath or washing in a tub; a naked woman reflected in a mirror
Nude in an Interior (c. 1935) © National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

Nude in an Interior (c. 1935) © National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

Overcoming your prejudices

If writing this blog has taught me anything about myself it is that I like disegno, the art of drawing, the magical creation of shapes and forms and depth and weight on two-dimensional paper or canvas through the use of confident, incisive lines.

Therefore, I had to make a conscious effort not to judge Bonnard by what I like, but to relax and try and let him show me new ways to make painting. What I mean is, Bonnard is the opposite of my usual taste. There isn’t a straight line or regular geometric shape in sight. Instead the lines and frames are there in order to let the colour run riot.

If you look at Dining Room in the Country (1913) there are, in fact, quite a few geometric objects which ought to have straight lines – the door frame and open door, the window frame and open window. But quite obviously he is not interested in photographic accuracy – all the lines are there in order to create an illusion of three dimensional space, in which something else is going on.

I always listen to the audioguides at exhibitions. Sometimes they are bossy, sometimes briskly authoritative. I found the commentary on Bonnard’s paintings by curator Matthew Gale struck just the right note of hesitancy: something is quite clearly going on, but it regularly takes quite a lot of looking to figure out precisely what.

Gale tells us it is a characteristic of Bonnard’s paintings that the more you look, the more you begin to notice half-buried details. It’s not as if any of these provide the key, as if they were Renaissance works packed with arcane symbolism. The opposite. Nothing is arcane about them. A woman is lying in a bath. Not very difficult to parse or understand. And yet… her head is at an inconvenient angle compared to the rest of her body. Her right leg is unrealistically straight with, apparently, no knee. The tiles beside the bath display an amazing richness of colour, an embarrassment of gold and orange, and then the tiles beneath the bath have stopped being accurate representations of an actual floor and have become a pattern of turquoise squares with a pattering of gold towards the right.

Nude in the Bath (1936-8) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

Nude in the Bath (1936-8) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

Should you be put off the painting by the apparently ‘bad’ draughtsmanship of the human body? Or should you let yourself be dazzled by the gorgeousness of the colour and the entrancing half-abstract design?

That is the question I found myself asking again and again as I faced paintings with almost deliberately poor drawing and composition – and yet dazzling displays of gorgeous colour.

Possibly it could be put as an equation: where colour triumphs you are prepared to overlook dodgy elements in the design; but in other compositions the poor draughtsmanship predominates and so, on balance, I didn’t like.

Here’s an example which hangs in the balance, Coffee from 1915. Various elements are – judged purely by their accuracy, their verisimilitude, their anatomical or perspectival correctness – less than good, for example the right arm of the person putting something on the table, let alone his or her hand. Yuk. Clumsy. Gauche. The dog is sweet but not that well done. What’s happened to the woman in yellow’s left hand?

Coffee (1915) by Pierre Bonnard © Tate

Coffee (1915) by Pierre Bonnard © Tate

And yet… clearly this is a strong and powerful painting. it makes a big impression, for maybe two reasons: dominant is the red and white pattern of the tablecloth which sets slightly slapdash tone, in which colour and vividness is more important than accuracy; and then it is obviously catching a mood, the dog and the woman – although badly drawn – nonetheless conveying a calming, homely, domestic mood. These are the kind of paintings which led to him being called an ‘Intimist’.

So I think Coffee supports my thesis that, in Bonnard’s best paintings, colour and mood overcome weaknesses in depiction. And then there is that other element, which I quoted Matthew Gale referring to, the way that. The more you look at it, the more you become aware of odd details, the more drawn in you find yourself. Thus in the commentary for this painting, Gale candidly tells us that ‘no-one knows’ what the band of design down the right hand side of the canvas is: it doesn’t look like it represents anything ‘in’ the picture space; is it purely decorative?

Many of the paintings are cut off at edges like this, clipped at the edges and sides, creating the sense of something overheard and accidentally seen, helping to shape that sense of closeness and intimacy.

Mysterious moments in time

The dominance of colour and visual impact over strict, literal accuracy, brings us to the notion that Bonnard was interested in capturing moments in time, moments like (to describe the four paintings above) a woman looking in at an open window, a woman glimpsed fixing up her hair, lying in a leisurely cooling bath, or sipping a cup of coffee while the dog sits up at the table.

Certainly this notion, of intimate moments captured and then meditated on, turned over in the painter’s memory and converted, over a long period of time, into essays in colour and composition, fits the many, many paintings of naked women, and the recurring themes of – naked woman in front of mirror, naked woman in bath, dressed woman at table.

Nude before a mirror by Pierre Bonnard (1923)

Nude before a mirror by Pierre Bonnard (1923)

Psychologising

And it’s about here that you need to know that Bonnard had a small but turbulent love life. For most of his life his partner was Marthe de Méligny. They lived together for thirty or so years before marrying in 1925. So far, so idyllic. But for the two years before the marriage Bonnard had been having an affair with Renée Monchaty, who sometimes modelled for him. They visited Rome together in 1921, an experience memorialised in several paintings. He even proposed to her in 1923, but then broke off the engagement. When Renée learned that Bonnard had married de Méligny, she killed herself. Hmm. Not quite so idyllic as it all first seemed.

And then we learn that de Méligny herself suffered from a number of psychological illnesses, some biographers interpreting it as a form of paranoia. Certainly she was reclusive and disliked company. Bonnard wrote to a friend in 1930:

For quite some time now I have been living a very secluded life as Marthe has become completely anti-social and I am obliged to avoid all contact with other people.

So the theme of domestic intimacy, of just the one figure in so many of the paintings, takes on a slightly more troubled tone.

Moreover, as part of the treatment for her complaints, or maybe a symptom of her compulsions, Marthe took baths and washed herself several times a day.

Ah. Now the countless paintings of a woman in a bath or a woman naked in front of a mirror fiddling with her hair take on a new and maybe troubling significance. Without much effort you can to interpret the mirrors as symbolic of a divided self, of a mind split into unhappy fragments, all the more so because of Bonnard’s habit of cropping the mirrors themselves (so you rarely see the entire mirror) and of showing the reflected image as itself cropped and ‘mutilated’.

So the scope is there, if you like psychological interpretations, to make quite a lot out of the ‘cramped’ interiors’, the woman divided against herself, the woman as passive object of the male gaze in the bath tub, and so on. (You might even notice, as I did, that more often than not the nude woman is wearing white high-heeled shoes. Everyone to their own fetish.)

But, in the painting above, Nude before a mirror, seeing it in the flesh, much more vibrant and garish than in this flattened reproduction, what grabbed my attention was the black circles drawn on the curtains at the top right. And it took me a while to realise that the green rectangle half way up the right of the picture is the end of a bed, and that the other colourful patches must be clothes placed on the bed.

In other words, once I had gotten over a) my standard heterosexual response to seeing a naked woman with a slender shapely bare legs and bum, and b) once I’d got over the unhappy squat shape of her head, and stopped worrying about the stumpy depiction of her left arm and hand (i.e. Bonnard’s shortcomings as a draughtsman) – then I was ready c) to take in the whole image as an exercise in colour, laid out in strange and beguiling composition (the picture is, once you start looking, really cluttered with angles and objects and stuff, which become slowly more puzzling and beguiling the longer you look at it.)

In other words, if you make the effort to overlook some shortcomings, if you suspend judgement, if you slow your mind right down, you find yourself becoming absorbed in the play of colour and composition, drawn in, absorbed and, if you really let go… entranced.

Gardens

But it wasn’t all baths and mirrors; Bonnard also painted gardens, of his home in the village of Vernonnet in Normandy and at his mother’s home at le Grand-Lemps in the Daupiné in south-east France then, from 1926, at the house he bought in the village of Le Cannet. From this date onwards he spent more and more time in the south, depicting the explosive impact of the Mediterranean light.

Take this work from late in his life, The Garden 1936.  It is a dazzling explosion of colour and, once again, as Matthew Gale suggested, repays prolonged looking. As to trivial details, can you see the two pairs of pigeons, two brown at the back of the path, two white at the front? But it’s really the purely painterly elements, like the vertical tree trunk on the right contrasted with the green diagonal plant stem, or the strange almost square chunk of sand at the top right decorated with orange blobs. Words (as you can tell) can’t really convey the richness of the visual impact.

The Garden (1936) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

The Garden (1936) by Pierre Bonnard © Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris/ Roger-Viollet

Other themes

Because it is so comprehensive the exhibition has space to explore other themes (i.e. show a number of paintings of other subjects in other styles).

Self portraits These include three or more of his later self-portraits which are sombre and grim, very unlike the blazing colour of the domestic interiors and gardens.

War and crowd scenes There’s also a roomful of works from the Great War, showing a ruined village and some crowd scenes from Paris, which I thought were complete fails – where the drabness of the colours (brown and black) failed to compensate for his bad or ugly draughtsmanship. They have a room to themselves designed to show that he was more than just bathrooms and gardens: but they don’t really convince. When Bonnard goes wrong he really goes wrong.

The Fourteenth of July 1918 by Pierre Bonnard. Private collection

The Fourteenth of July 1918 by Pierre Bonnard. Private collection

Bonnard isn’t consistently brilliant. Each painting needs to be looked at and absorbed on its ow merit, and since there’s over 100 pictures and sketches and photos, that’s a lot of time and a lot of attention required.

Half a dozen of them really made me stop, sit down, and just stare… and the more I looked, the more entranced I became. It is easy to criticise Bonnard’s weak points, but it’s harder to put into words the really powerful, strong, sucking impact the best of his paintings have.

Balcony at Vernonnet by Pierre Bonnard

Balcony at Vernonnet by Pierre Bonnard

I found that Bonnard’s paintings did something which virtually all curators claim for their artists but which few ever really do: they made me see in a whole new way; see, think and feel about paintings in a more open, receptive and joyful way than I’m used to. The best of them – the gardens, baths, open windows and women at mirrors – made me feel like I was seeing, experiencing colour and the world around me – an a completely new way.

I was converted.

Video

I’m getting into the habit of seeking out the video reviews made by Visiting London Guide. They are always longer (two and a half minutes) than the galleries’ official promotional videos (generally thirty seconds) and, with their hand-held style, they give you a better idea of not just what the pictures look like, but of the overall hang and the arrangement of the rooms.


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I am Ashurbanipal king of the world, king of Assyria @ the British Museum

Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal was ruler of the Assyrian Empire from 669 to about 630 BC. From his capital at Nineveh on the edge of present-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Ashurbanipal ruled a vast and diverse empire, reaching from upper Egypt, via the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (modern Cyprus, Israel Lebanon and Syria) and along a corridor either side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers down to the Persian Gulf. During his reign he was probably the most powerful person on earth.

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

This blockbuster exhibition examines the life and times and cultural achievements and social context of Ashurbanipal’s rule alongside detailed profiles of the different kingdoms and cultures which he ruled over and exhaustive accounts of his numerous military campaigns.

Topics

The quickest way to give you a sense of the scope might be to list some of the headings which introduce different areas of the exhibition and displays:

  • Nineveh, a city without rival
  • The royal family
  • Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh
  • Aqueducts and canals (agriculture and pleasure gardens)
  • Training to be a king (featuring numerous lions hunts in which the king displays his mastery of the natural world)
  • The scholar king (in inscriptions he boasts of being able to read numerous languages)
  • Knowledge is power (his surprisingly large library)
  • Coronation
  • Assyria’s world domination (introducing the various kingdoms and people the empire ruled over)
    • The southern Levant
    • Babylonia
    • Elam
    • The kingdoms of Cyprus
    • The kingdom of Urartu
    • Western Iran
    • Aramaean kingdoms
    • Ashurbanipal at war
    • Ashurbanipal conquers Egypt
    • Trouble in the East (Urtak, king of Elam, invades Babylonia)
    • Sibling rivalry (with his older brother Shamash-shumu-ukin)
  • Retaliation (against Elam for its rebellion)
  • Order restored
  • The empire falls apart (after Ashurbanipal’s death)
  • Ashurbanipal’s fate (a mystery to this day)
  • Legend, discovery and revival (Victorian archaeologists uncover the key sites and ship statues and carvings back to the British Museum in London)
Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights

This is the first ever major exhibition to explore the life of Ashurbanipal in such depth and a dream come true for anyone interested in this period. Anyone familiar with the Assyrians knows that they were a strongly militaristic culture characterised, above all, by the immense statues of lions with the heads of bearded men. These tend to covered in cuneiform inscriptions which, when deciphered, amount to world class bragging about the emperor’s might and strength, king of kings, and then go on to give a long list of the emperor’s achievements.

Maybe even more famous are the numerous enormous friezes we have depicting the emperor on one of his countless lion hunts. Elsewhere in the British Museum (rooms 6, 7 and 8) you can walk along a corridor entirely lined by stone friezes depicting the lion hunt which was a central icon and symbol of Assyrian kingship. Why? Because the emperor’s role was to impose order on the world. The lion was the fiercest beast in the world. By beating it, by killing lions single handed (although surrounded by scores of courtiers and warriors) the emperor showed his fitness to rule and, symbolically, enacted the ordering of the world.

Both these types of imagery are familiar to anyone who knows a bit about the ancient Middle East.

Social history What is new and striking about the exhibition was a lot of the non-military social history. For example, the section on the immense library which Ashurbanipal assembled, and which led him to boast about his learning.  His library at Nineveh may have contained as many as 10,000 texts and the exhibition powerfully conveys this by displaying them in a massive glass wall divided into grids, each containing a cuneiform text, carved into a clay tablet, covering a wide range of subjects – astrology, medicine, legends and so on. Ashurbanipal claimed to be unlike his predecessors in that he could read, write and debate with expert scholars.

The canals of Nineveh Nearby is a section devoted to the orderly agriculture and watering of the capital city, conveyed via a big carving showing canals, tilled fields and a path leading to a gazebo with a happy looking emperor standing in it. Apparently it was Asurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib (mentioned in the Bible) who built the canals which watered Nineveh.

Clever lighting What brings this all alive is the clever use of lighting which animates bands of blue slowly colouring the canals, and of green, slowly colouring in the fields, and white indicating the path. The information panel tells us that all of these carvings and sculptures would have been brightly coloured. But the use of son et lumiere to animate the colouring was inspired.

Battle scenes The same goes for several of the battle panels. One of them is maybe 30 feet wide and depicts the Battle of Til-Tuba in 653 BC, as Ashurbanipal led an invasion of the kingdom of Elam. As with many of these battle panels, the figures are carved in horizontal bands, each of which tells a story, in this case the Elamites retreating in panic down a hill before triumphant Assyrians who drive them into a river.

There are information panels along the bottom of the long frieze picking out scenes, but there was also another display of lighting effects for a sequence of spotlights picked out a particular scene – not only picked it out but highlighted the silhouettes of the relevant figures – and then text was projected onto a blank part of the frieze explaining what was going on.

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition contains a number of maps and, in the main area you realise that the entire floor you are walking on is a schematic map of the Assyrian Empire.

There are several timelines, twenty of more large information panels and, of course, hundreds of smaller information panels relating to each of the 200 or so artefacts on display.

Partitions The exhibition is divided into different ‘rooms’ or areas by immense partitions on which are printed patterns and designs found on the tiled rooms of the emperor’s palace, abstract geometric patterns.

In fact these vast decorated partitions dominate the exhibition visually, much bigger than any one object on display, and encourage you to pay attention to the section of the show which focuses on Assyrian tiles and glazed bricks, explaining the evolution of their decorative patterns and styles.

If the central section focuses on Ashurbanipal’s military campaigns, with cases explaining the history and culture of each of the dozen or so areas which made up the empire, and then a series of displays about each of his major campaigns (against Egypt and Elam in particular), there are also plenty of more modest cases highlighting what we know about Assyrian religion, culture, design, even cookery – displaying ‘delicately carved ivories, extravagant metalwork, cosmetic vessels and gold ornaments’ – one case showing an enormous bronze cauldron decorated around the lip with what seem to be dragon heads.

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Criticism

Overall the exhibition layout is imaginative and over-awing, and the use of the light animations to bring old stone friezes to life is really inspiring.

However the curators make the same mistake they made with the Viking exhibition. A good number of the information labels are at waist height. When I went the exhibition was absolutely crammed. Imagine the crowd at a football stadium. It was impossible to process through it in sequential order because some display cases were simply unapproachable. Early on, there is a display of a characteristic battle relief, maybe 20 feet long by 7 or eight feet high. As usual it shows a series of incidents during a battle and it was accompanied by about ten informative and interesting panels picking out and explaining specific incidents.

But because they were at waist height, they were completely hidden by the crowd of twenty of more people in front of them. Whereas, there was plenty of space above the relief. Why not put the information panels above the objects where anybody can read them, instead of at waist height, where they are inevitably hidden?

The end

The final sections of the show peter out a bit, after the dense concentration of information and huge reliefs depicting his famous victories which dominate the centre.

I was fascinated to learn that we don’t know when Ashurbanipal died. Nobody knows whether he died of natural causes, was murdered or abdicated. The last public inscription about him dates from 638. His kingship may have ended as early as 631 or as late as 627 – there is no written record in the sources of Assyria or its neighbours.

We do know that Ashurbanipal was briefly succeeded by a son, then another one. The significant event was that in 626 a former general, Nabopolassar, claimed the throne of Babylon and started a war of independence which led to the entire empire unravelling. The Iranian Medes led by Cyaxares, joined Nabopolassar and their forces sacked the city of Ashur, home to Assyria’s chief deity. This alliance then marched on Nineveh, the beautiful city of canals and decorated palaces built up by Ashurbanipal’s forebears and himself – and sacked it, burning it to the ground.

The Victorian rediscovery

It was only in the 1840s that Victorian archaeologists began systematically to uncover the site of Nineveh, discovering the massive lions statues, thousands of clay tables covered in writing, and other treasures. Some of these treasures were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and sparked a short-lived enthusiasm for Assyrian motifs on such things as tankards and dishes, and their use in jewellery and necklaces, a handful of which are on display here.

Until these discoveries, the reputation of the Assyrians and of Nineveh was taken from the Bible, where its rulers are depicted as gross, corrupt, Sybarites, who fully deserved their destruction by the Israelites’ jealous God.

The archaeological discoveries began to overthrow that old view and restore the more rounded view of Assyrian civilisation which, we like to think, we enjoy today.

War and destruction

The final section of the exhibition is staged in a long narrow corridor. It contains a timeline of modern archaeology (i.e. since the 1840s) and two short films.

One uses computer technology to match together aerial photos of the site of Nineveh as it appeared from the 1930s up to the present day, a rough square in a bend of the River Tigris. The camera, or point of view, slowly circles down from the high vantage point of early 20th century photos, spiralling down to show us how the site has changed and developed over the past eighty years or so, until we are at ground level looking up at the rather pitiful remains.

The second film features the head of the British Museum’s Iraq section explaining the scheme whereby archaeologists from Iraq are being brought to London and trained in various techniques, and then supported as they return to Iraq in the task of ongoing digging and preservation of that country’s heritage – the ‘Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme’.

(This isn’t exactly the same one, but covers the same scheme)

I couldn’t help noticing the world class irony here.

For the previous half hour I had been reading numerous inscriptions in which Ashurbanipal had his sculptors inscribe words describing how he not only defeated his enemies in Egypt or Elam, but annihilated them and their cities, leaving not a blade of grass standing, how he ransacked the tombs of their royal families, destroyed their monuments, killed their sheep and goats and left not an animal stirring in the barren wastelands he created.

This is the man who is being held up, not exactly for our admiration but for our awe, a man who destroyed and killed wantonly in pursuit of his worldview, namely that the known world should be ruled by a man like him, with his beliefs.

The irony being that two and a half thousand years later, another cohort of warriors seized control of this region, also convinced that they had a God-given right to rule, to impose their beliefs on all the inhabitants, and to destroy anything, any relics or remains of civilisations which they saw as infidel and blasphemous.

Difficult not to see a certain continuity of culture reaching across two and a half millennia.

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a second final thought. Many bien-pensant liberals, as well as hard core identity politicians and virtue warriors, think the British Museum is a guilt-filled testimony to the wholesale looting carried out by the British Empire, and that all of its artefacts, starting with the Elgin Marbles, should be returned to their countries of origin.

But if all of these objects had been in the Baghdad Museum in 2003 or the Mosul Museum in 2015, they would all have been looted or simply destroyed.

That doesn’t settle the debate about the Marbles or thousands of other objects, but these are the thoughts which the final section, all about the Iraq War and ISIS, leave you pondering.

Video

Here’s an excellent visual overview of the show from Visiting London Guide.


Related links

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Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 @ the Army Museum

The story

During the First World War, Canadian multi-millionaire press baron Max Aitken (b.1879) made it his mission to document the war effort of his compatriots. He set up the Canadian War Records Office in London, and made certain that news of Canada’s contribution to the war was printed in Canadian and British newspapers.

Aitken also commissioned artists, photographers, and film makers to record life on the Western Front. In 1916 he established the Canadian War Memorials Fund, a charity that commissioned artists to record the war. The Fund ended up employing some 100 artists, resulting in over 800 paintings, prints and sculptures.

One of these was Alfred Munnings. Born in Suffolk in 1878, Munnings had progressed through apprenticeship to a Norwich printer, to Norwich Art School, and then had some of his works selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (1899). Throughout the Edwardian era he made a minor name for himself as a painter of landscapes and horses, especially in Cornwall, where he became associated with the Newlyn School of painters.

When the First World War broke out Munnings volunteered for the army but was rejected due to the (amazing) fact that he was blind in one eye, having managed to damage it in a bramble bush aged 20.

In 1917, his participation in the war was limited to a civilian job outside Reading processing tens of thousands of Canadian horses en route to France. Later that year he was assigned to one of the horse remount depots on the Western Front.

It was at this point that he was contacted by the Canadian War Memorials Fund and commissioned to record the activities of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. He made numerous paintings of officers and men on horseback, marching, training, resting, watering the horses. All of this was well behind the lines for Munnings never saw any kind of action. Only one of the paintings in this exhibition shows the cavalry in combat, mounting a charge, and this was an imaginative reconstruction of a charge he didn’t witness.

On the basis of his popularity with the cavalry, Munnings was then invited by the Canadian Forestry Corps to tour their work camps, and he produced drawings, watercolors and paintings showing draft horses and men involved in the arduous work of chopping down trees, shaping and hewing them and piling them on horse-drawn carts to be transported to lumber mill and the finished planks sent, again by horse-drawn carts, to the front.

These paintings shed light on an under-reported aspect of the war – not only the use, by both sides, of millions of horses as draft animals, but the use of lumber as a material which needed to be felled, drawn to lumber mills (themselves constructed behind the lines) with the planking then also taken to the front by horse.

Thus by the end of the war he had produced a large number of drawings, sketches and some 44 oil paintings depicting

  1. the Canadian cavalry
  2. the Canadian Forestry Corps
  3. landscapes, rather idyllic landscapes of the scenery well behind the front

In January and February 1919 the Royal Academy held an exhibition displaying 355 art works produced through the Canadian War Memorials Fund, including forty-five paintings by Munnings. His paintings received praise from critics and visitors alike.

This body of work, and publicity from the RA exhibition, laid the foundation for Munnings’ post-war career. He spent the next thirty years painting old-fashioned equestrian portraits for an impressive number of aristocratic and upper class clients, as well as producing a large number of paintings of race horses.

In 1919 Munnings was admitted to the RA, and 25 years later, for his unbending commitment to utterly conventional political and artistic tastes, Munnings was elected president of the Royal Academy (1944) and then knighted. In recent decades his racehorse paintings have become very collectible and one was auctioned for nearly $8 million in 2007.

The exhibition

This exhibition is the first time Munnings’s forty-five paintings made for the Canadian War Memorials Fund have been reunited and shown together since that Royal Academy exhibition 100 years ago.

(Almost all of the paintings have been loaned from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and, once it closes here in the Army Museum, the exhibition will move on to the Munnings Art Museum in Munnings’s old house at Dedham in Suffolk.

The paintings

Once you’ve seen the first few, you immediately get Munnings’s style, which doesn’t change much.

It is Newlyn School-style plein air realism, without the wonderful luminousness of, say, Henry Scott Tuke or the charm of Stanhope Forbes. He uses wide thick semi-impressionist brushstrokes but for a solidly realistic goal.

I was put off by the gloss finish of much of the oil which reflects the gallery lights. You have to find the right angle not to be distracted by reflections. Then again, the further back you stand, the more effective this kind of semi-impressionistic style becomes.

Idyllic landscape

You can see the influence or the similarity with similar idyllic sunlit landscapes of the Newly School painters. And the two fancy-free Edwardian children at left, little girl with straw boater.

A Stream Bed at Labergement, Jura Forest by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

A Stream Bed at Labergement, Jura Forest by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

The Canadian Cavalry

There are a dozen or so paintings like this showing the Canadian cavalry marching along a straight French road, along another straight French road, stopping by a stream, bivouacking among tents, marching along another straight French road, punctuated by the one imagined depiction of a charge. They all have a sort of muddy realism.

Fort Garry's on the march by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Fort Garry’s on the march by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Timber work

I think the subject of work, real work, hard work, physical labour, is often absent from both literature and art, and I welcome its depiction.

Did you know that the Canadian Forestry Corps was established in 1916 to supply wood for the war? Some 22,000 soldiers served in Scotland, France and England, ‘wielding axes and saws instead of rifles and machine guns’. These forestry units produced 70% of the lumber used by the Allied armies on the Western front. They look used to it. These paintings could have been done in Canada, they capture so well the lumberjack spirit. They were, according to Munnings, ‘grand fellows’.

Felling a tree in the Vosges by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Felling a tree in the Vosges by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Equestrian portraits

This is the kind of utterly conventional equestrian portrait which inspired hundreds of aristocrats to commission Munnings to do their portraits in the 1920s and 30s and which made him a rich man. To my eye, it’s an adequate enough depiction of the subject but surprisingly rough and loose. It lacks precision and vim. The commentary several times remarked on the accuracy of Munnings’s portraits but they look like generic posh chaps to me. I kept being reminded of the ineffable tedium of Siegfried Sassoon’s book, Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man.

Captain Prince Antoine of Orleans and Braganza by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Captain Prince Antoine of Orleans and Braganza by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Display cases

There were three or so display cases showing a range of authentic memorabilia from the period and from the cavalry Munnings depicted – bridle, stirrups, brushes and grooming equipment, a rifle and bullets, some medals – each with an interesting, sometimes poignant, story behind it.

Installation view of Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 at the Army Museum (photo by the author)

Installation view of Alfred Munnings: War Artist, 1918 at the Army Museum (photo by the author)

Anecdotes not art

When you consider what had been going on in Continental art for several generations before this – the Impressionists, van Gogh, Gauguin, then Matisse and the Fauves, Picasso and Cubism, German Expressionism, Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter, Italian Futurism – you realise that Munnings’s whole approach could hardly have been more conservative and old fashioned.

A moment’s reflection on just the English painters who served as war artists – like Stanley Spencer or Paul Nash or the fabulous C.R.W. Nevinson – makes you realise how heroically fuddy-duddy Munnings’ paintings are.

Let alone memories of Tate Britain’s recent Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One exhibition. That tried to capture the incredible explosion of creativity which took place all across the continent, during and immediately after the war. Next to any of it, Munnings is a Sunday afternoon crossword in Country Life.

On the positive side, if you ignored its failings as art and remember that he saw no actual fighting, then it’s possible to that Munnings did a good and responsible job of reporting what he did see, life and work behind the lines.

His paintings have a lot of anecdotal and historical value, and the exhibition is larded with all kinds of interesting information about a) the role of horses b) the role of the Canadians and c) the role of lumber and wood, in the war on the western Front, all of which are rather neglected subjects.

For example, did you know that horse fodder was the single largest commodity shipped to the front by some countries? Did you know that the charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron at the Battle of Moreuil Wood, in 1918, was ‘the last great cavalry charge’ of the British Army?

Did you know that the Canadian lumberjacks were so productive that British imports of lumber fell from 11.6 million tonnes in 1913 to 2 million tonnes in 1918? No, neither did I. Initially much of this lumber had had to be carried on ships crossing the Atlantic. Since German submarines sank a high percentage of these, it was vitally important that the space given to wood declined so drastically, making way for food and munitions. So much so that a contemporary wrote that the Canadian Forestry Corps ‘helped to defeat the submarine… more surely than a fleet of ships.’

There are a number of paintings of working lumbermills which are very atmospheric. They cut tens of thousands of planks a day. One forestry company in the Jura mountains cut more than 156,000 feet of board in a record-breaking ten hours!

Lumbermen among the pines by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Lumbermen among the pines by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

‘Galloping Jack’ Seely and Warrior

There is a little section devoted to one particular fellow, Brigadier-General J.E.B.’Galloping Jack’ Seely, head of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade. Seely’s horse, Warrior, became a legend and has had several books devoted to him. After an hour of posing for the artist, the Brigadier-General was called away and replaced, for artistic purposes, by his batman wearing one of his beribboned uniforms. The commentary tells us that Munnings and the batman were most amused that many of the cavalry trooping by at a distance sternly saluted the chortling batman. Munnings thought the Canadians ‘the finest fellows I ever met’. If you like that kind of anecdote, and you like this kind of semi-modern painting of horses – then this exhibition is for you!

Major-General the Right Honourable J.E.B.Seely by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Major-General the Right Honourable J.E.B. Seely by Alfred Munnings (1918) © Canadian War Museum

Summary

From a purely technical, oil painting point of view, it is interesting to study Munnings’s technique, and see up close how he large and roughly applied brushstrokes which are impressionist technique in order to achieve essentially conservative, old fashioned realist effects.

It’s interesting to see what a scion of the Establishment actually looks like, the kind of crusty old buffer which the younger generation at Slade or Bloomsbury were reacting against. Fox-hunting men. It makes you realise the depth and breadth of philistinism which dominated early 20th century Britain.

It reminds me of the Courtauld exhibition, which is still on at the National Gallery, in which we learned of the struggles Samuel Courtauld had to persuade the National Gallery, or any British gallery, to buy works by van Gogh or Gauguin or Monet or Toulouse-Lautrec when they came on the market. Foreign rubbish, said the powers that be. They preferred Munnings.

Which is why American galleries ended up with all the best modern art and both the Tate and National have a very limited collection. Throughout the crucial decades, the philistines were in charge.

All that said, if you like paintings of horses you’ll love these. Personally, I preferred the ones of horses at work in the forests and lumberyards rather than the rather repetitive ones of cavalry trotting along French roads. Working horses of the First World War struck me as being a unique subject which no-one else had painted.

And the exhibition is packed with facts and figures – about horses and about the Canadian war effort – which are genuinely interesting, and shed light on your understanding of the war.

So, for me then, this exhibition – handsomely staged and full of informative wall labels – is more interesting as history and anecdote than as art.


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Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen @ the National Gallery

The National Gallery uses room 1 to focus on particular works. (To get there go into the main Trafalgar Square entrance of the gallery, then turn immediate left up the steps, and left again at the landing). These exhibitions, small and thoughtful, are always free.

At the moment they’re displaying one of the world’s best-known animal paintings, Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, alongside fourteen other paintings and drawings, to set the picture in the context of Landseer’s own technical and psychological development, showing how he developed his distinctive approach to the representation of the stag as hero.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The double doors take up most on one wall so there are in effect three walls in the room:

  • the left-hand wall indicates some of the intellectual and artistic preparation
  • straight ahead is the monarch himself, magnificent, flanked by two other Landseer oil paintings of stags
  • the right-hand wall is devoted to the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square

1. Preparation

Landseer (1802-73) was one of the most famous and successful artists of his time. Immense painterly talent, charm and good looks helped Landseer achieve early success and he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1850. I didn’t know that, even this young, he was struggling with alcoholism and mental illness.

Landseer had a deep knowledge of earlier painters, such as Rubens, and experimented with large scale complex compositions in the style of the Old Master.

The half dozen drawings and paintings here include a copy of the head of Christ on the Cross, taken from a painting by Rubens. In 1840 Landseer had had a breakdown, and, for his recovery, his doctors suggested a change of scene, so he went on the tour of Europe. He made this very evocative copy on a visit to Antwerp. We know that Rubens compositions lay behind some of Landseer’s earliest representations of horses and dogs, but the head of Christ powerfully introduces the idea of nobility and sacrifice. More, the Rubens Christ suggests a vision of a lone animal struggling against a hostile universe.

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Unexpectedly, there’s a drawing by George Stubbs, with a story behind it. Stubbs (1724-1806) was of course the great painter of horses. In the 1750s he made hundreds of detailed anatomical drawings of horses for his revolutionary book, The Anatomy of Horses, published in 1766. Amazingly, Landseer acquired the entire collection in around 1817 (i.e. still a boy) and they provided crucial inspiration for the young Landseer’s own studies of animal anatomy.

Next to it is a detailed (and rather gruesome) study by Landseer of the flayed leg of a dog. This kind of detailed study of the weaving of muscle and tendon over bone was and is still referred to as an écorché. This is just one of countless écorchés which Landseer made the better to understand the anatomy of the animals he wanted to pain.

Nearby a pencil study of a dead stag combines some of these themes, Landseer’s staggering draughtmanship, based on detailed study of anatomy, underpinned by profound pathos at the fate of a noble animal cruelly, tragically struck down.

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

2. Monarch and other stags

The Monarch of the Glen is hung on the wall facing the visitor, flanked by two other paintings featuring stags. It is by far Landseer’s most famous painting and one of the most famous paintings of an animal in the world.

It was undertaken for the Parliamentary Fine Arts Commission as one of three paintings showing ‘the chase’ i.e. hunting deer. It was originally commissioned to hang above panelling in the dining room of the House of Lords. What a grand location, a constant reminder to the Lords of their nobility and the striking scenery of one of the constituent parts of Great Britain! However, in a typically British fashion, when the time came to pay, the House of Commons refused to grant the £150 promised for the commission, and so the painting went on public sale in the National Gallery and was sold to a private owner. Since then it has passed through about ten sets of hands before the Scottish National Gallery successfully ran a public campaign to buy it for £4 million from the British multinational alcoholic beverages company, Diageo.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

It was intended to be hung above head height. In other words we are looking up, while the stag is painted serenely looking over our heads into an imagined distance.

Knowing what we now do about Landseer’s mental problems and having Rubens’ Christ fresh in our minds we at least understand Landseer’s intention, if it is in practice difficult to put into words, of conveying the idea of nobility, the idea of a kind of superior spirituality which retains its dignity even in a hostile world.

The commentary points out how Landseer gives tints of light to the tips of the stag’s antlers. This subtly conveys the idea of a band of sunlight breaking through clouds to reflect on the antlers, which we cannot see but which the stag can. It sees the view our backs to. It sees – and knows something which we cannot.

There’s a lot more to be said, about the fantastic painting of the deer’s skin and pelt and fur, the way Landseer captures its variations and shimmer – and of course about the violet colouring of the distant crags, a bringing to perfection of the romantic vision of the Scottish Highlands which was to become iconic.

It comes, then, as an amusing surprise to discover that Landseer painted the entire picture in his studio in St John’s Wood where he kept an extensive menagerie, including deer. And he had, of course, been undertaking regular trips to Scotland, sketching and painting, since 1824,

3. Lions

In 1858 Landseer accepted a presitigious commission to create four sculptures of lions to flank Nelson’s column, directly outside the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, completing William Railton’s original design for the monument. Landseer’s appointment proved controversial because he was not a sculptor, however his widespread fame as a painter of animals outweighed reservations.

Landseer prepared by, among other things, spending several years doing detailed drawings of the lions at London Zoo. This all contains four drawings and oil sketches, plus a portrait of Landseer working on the actual sculptures in his studio. This is one of two large oil sketches that Landseer made at the London Zoological Gardens which wonderfully captures the menace and power of a pacing lion.

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

There are several more sketches and the painting of him working on one of the clay sculptures which were then cast in bronze, done by John Ballantyne.

it was not immediately obvious why four pictures of lions were in an exhibition devoted to the Monarch of the Glen, except that they are further proof of Landseer’s stunning skill at painting animals and the even simpler fact that the results are there for all visitors to go and visit, after they’ve exited the gallery into the square outside.

Curators talk

I really praise the National Gallery for not only hosting extended talks or lectures or discussions about their exhibitions, but for going to the trouble of filming them and posting them on YouTube.

If you have the time, this is a really good way to enter the world of the art or exhibition being discussed.

Here are Susan Foister, curator of Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, and Daniel F. Herrmann, National Gallery curator, discussing the Landseer display.


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Mantegna and Bellini @ the National Gallery

This is a rich, complex and demanding exhibition in all kinds of ways. For a start it was packed out. I took the ticket lady’s advice to go see the 18-minute long film introduction to the show, off in the auditorium to one side of the Sainsbury Gallery, but this meant I didn’t enter the exhibition proper till 10.30, by which time it was so packed that it was difficult to move around and you had to queue to see many of the paintings.

Secondly, it requires you to listen to a daunting amount of art history and scholarship. The art history is central for this is an exhibition which traces the development of the two painters, pointing out with minute attention to detail their differing interests, styles, areas of expertise and actual careers i.e. the cities they lived in, the courtly patrons they worked for, and so on.

In addition there are quite a few paintings and drawings whose accreditation has until recently, or is still, disputed i.e. you are looking at works which may or may not be by either Mantegna or Bellini, and find yourself listening to learned arguments about who, when and why this or that drawing or painting was made.

Biographies

Giovanni Bellini (1435?–1516) and Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) were two of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance.

In the 1440s the Bellini family ran the most established and successful artistic workshop in Venice. It was overseen by Giovanni’s father, Jacopo Bellini, one of the greatest artistic inventors of his day, pioneering new visual and intellectual ideas in his influential drawing books.

So Giovanni Bellini was born into what was in effect artistic royalty, and given every possibly chance of a good start in his career. By contrast, Andrea Mantegna was born the son of a humble carpenter, and was an entirely self-made man. Born near Padua his prodigious talent brought him into the workshop of Francesco Squarcione – who in fact adopted him as his own son – and inspired in him a lifelong love of the art and architecture of the antique world.

News of the up-and-coming prodigy reached Jacopo Bellini, who made the entirely practical business move of marrying his daughter Nicolosia to the budding genius in 1453. Bellini and Mantegna were now brothers-in-law, and spent the rest of their lives in contact, in artistic rivalry, borrowing ideas, themes and details from each other’s works right to the end of their lives.

For a decade or so they worked in close physical proximity and the exhibition pairs their paintings on the same subjects, showing how they exchanged motifs and techniques – ways of handling figures, animals, elements of landscape – until, in 1460, Mantegna left to spend the rest of his life working for the Gonzaga family which ruled Mantua.

Two styles

Throughout its six rooms the exhibition brings together major works by both artists, from Britain and abroad, paintings as well as rare sketches and drawings and sculptures and friezes – which allow you to trace a) their similarities and differences b) their individual evolutions c) their lasting influence on later art.

You can get a quick understanding of the two approaches by comparing two depictions of Christ’s agony in the garden. Apparently the notion of depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane waiting, while the apostles slept, for Judas to come and betray him, probably derived from the inventive drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, but it is fascinating to have the two artists’ treatments of the identical subject hanging side by side and the audio-commentary gives a detailed comparison.

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

In Mantegna’s version you notice:

  • the architectural feel of the composition, with very detailed rocks creating a claustrophobic, full feel to the composition and tightly framing the sleeping apostles
  • the foreshortening of the body of the sleeping apostle – Mantegna was one of the first artists in the West to systematically experiment with painting foreshortened figures in perspective: he was so proud of this that he signed the painting in the rocks directly above the sleepers
  • the tightness of the way the road curves from the sleepers round the rocks to the crowd of soldiers and citizens being led by Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus
  • the architectural details of the city of Jerusalem in the background which, when you look closely, has been done with great precision, including a campanile and a copy of the Roman Colosseum
  • there are some rabbits in the road next to one of the apostle’s feet; there are lots of rabbits in Mantegna’s works

No contrast with Bellini’s treatment of the same subject.

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

Whereas Mantegna’s is packed and stacked with lines and planes – of the busy terraces of rocks and road and distant buildings – Bellini’s composition is much more open, and the central slope Christ is praying on is surprisingly bland and smooth. The audio-commentary points out that Bellini had a go at a Mantegna-style foreshortened figure in the centre, but hasn’t brought it off as well as the Paduan.

Instead, the audio-commentary points to the clouds. They are a surprisingly realistic depiction of the pinkness of dawn, drawing on contemporary Flemish landscape painting. The clouds are not just part of the background as in the Mantegna, but carefully crafted in order to create an atmosphere. Same with the city on the hill to the left. If you look closely (and the joy of visiting exhibitions is that you can look really closely at all these wonderful paintings) you see that the buildings lack detail (windows or doors) and are soft and hazy – much as you would actually see buildings in the far distance in sunny Italy.

This comparison brings out the way that Mantegna is interested in architectural detail and framing, of not only buildings but of people. His works have great clarity and are often full of learned details – he is an intellectual painter – but can also feel harsh and forbidding.

By comparison all Bellini’s works have a softness about them. Whereas Mantegna is interested in line and content, Bellini is interested in tone and atmosphere.

Mantegna = compositional innovation
Bellini = atmospheric, natural landscapes

Mantegna versus Bellini

By and large, whenever I saw a painting from a distance, before I could read the label, I could tell the two artists apart: Bellini’s always have soft outlines, Mantegna’s always have much more defined, sometimes almost cartoon-clear outlines.

By and large I much preferred the Mantegna. Wherever possible the exhibition places paintings on similar subjects by the pair together, so you can compare and contrast, for example their contemporaneous depictions of Saint Jerome in the Desert. Mantegna’s Jerome is set among characteristically lined, striated, and precise rock and is packed with detail – Bellini’s image is much sparer and softer and the composition is emptier, less busy, more atmospheric.

Really looking at these, again, I think I prefer the Mantegna because it is more medieval: he is interested in the saint’s flat-brimmed red hat, in his wooden sandals, in the wooden rack hanging from nails in his cave, in the owl – presumably signifying wisdom – perching at the top of the cave, and so on. I find these details interesting, diverting, charming – and so find the Bellini empty and bland and so you are left solely to concentrate on the bad draughtsmanship of both man and lion.

Similarly, there are direct comparisons between their treatments of Christ’s descent into hell, and the presentation of the infant Christ at the Temple.

Here’s an early Mantegna which shows his love of classical architecture and the way he uses it to frame his compositions. You can look at this painting for quite a long time, enjoying the use of the pillar and broken arch to support the punctured saint. The detailing of the frieze on the stonework is exquisite, as it is in the rubble at his feet or the faces in the broken frieze behind him. The more you look, the more breath-taking the detail becomes. And that’s before you begin to investigate the background, where you can see the three archers who have just done Sebastian to death, strolling casually along the road to the left on their way back to the city across the river, which is itself painted in tiny finicky detail. But it’s the architectural solidity of the composition which is dominant.

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The future of painting

I preferred Mantegna all the way through until we came to the last few rooms. Here, suddenly, Bellini metamorphosed into the Future of Painting and Mantegna suddenly looked old and wooden. Suddenly Bellini was making paintings of Greek mythical subjects which had a softness and haziness, a kind of sweetness about them, which looks like Titian, which looks forward to the next hundred years.

In my ignorance, when I saw this across a crowded room, I thought the bucolic setting and very bright colours meant it was by Poussin. It is in fact still a Bellini, but worlds away from the stilted drawing of Jerome. That was 1460. Now it is nearly fifty years later and Bellini has made extraordinary strides in the art of composition and colouring. Instead of an empty desert he gives us a lazy relaxed pagan landscape in which a whole host of Greek mythical characters are lounging and flirting.

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The commentary tells us that Titian (1488-1576) was much influenced by Bellini whose workshop he trained in from 1507, and that Titian almost certainly ‘refined’ and ‘improved’ this work by Bellini. You can feel one master handing on the baton to Titian, who will have a transformative effect on Western art. Suddenly, in late Bellini, you feel like you are confronting the future of Western art.

On the opposite wall of this, the fourth and largest room in the exhibition, are hanging three enormous, absolutely huge (2.66 x 2.78 m) paintings depicting the Triumph of Caesar. Mantegna originally created nine of these monster paintings between 1484 and 1492 for the Gonzaga Ducal Palace in Mantua. Acknowledged from the time of Mantegna as his greatest masterpiece, they remain the most complete pictorial representation of a Roman triumph ever attempted.

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on canvas.  Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The structured nature of the composition is awesome. You can feel the intelligence and care which has gone into positioning every element, and Mantegna’s unparalleled knowledge of every element of classical life, which he had spent a lifetime studying.

Still, placed next to the Bellini gods, it feels stagey, and it feels dated. In them Mantegan reaches a kind of peak of magnificence of the architectural composition which he pioneered, and this kind of grand historical painting will go on to be perfected by artists like Veronese. But a glance at the softer, subtler shapes of the Bellini feast tells you that it is his style which will go on to dominate future art.

To see what I mean compare these portraits from the final room of the exhibition. Here is Mantegna demonstrating, as throughout his career, an interest in line and composition. Note the amazing detail on the fabric of the Madonna, and the gauntly ‘realistic’ expressions of the faces of her parents.

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

Now compare with a Virgin and child (with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene thrown in for good measure) by Bellini.

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo, Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia

This reproduction doesn’t do it any justice. In the flesh this is a quite hauntingly, atmospheric painting. The way the softly painted women emerge from the Stygian background is quite magical.

The commentary emphasises that Mantegna’s portraits were often painted with egg tempera or using glue, a technique which resulted in an often dull matt finish, a finish which brought out the line and composition he considered so important.

By sharp contrast, by his later years, Bellini has mastered the use of oil paint to create works of tremendous atmosphere and depth. Although the figures in this painting are not exactly naturalistic, the use of oil joins them together with a real psychological power. Plus Bellini has become a real master of painting details in oil. I marvelled at the exquisite detailing of the pearls and jewels lining the cloaks of Catherine and the Magdalene. This reproduction doesn’t begin to convey what an intense and powerful painting this is in the flesh.

Bellini wins

If this was a football match I’d have said Mantegna was leading 1-0 until the 89th minute and then Bellini stole up and won it with a late equaliser and a winning goal in extra time.

All the way through I had preferred Mantegna’s statuesque line figures and his use of classical architecture and symbolism to adorn paintings historical and mythological. Then, in the last couple of rooms, in  his full maturity, Bellini seems to soar to an entirely new place in terms of technique.

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

This reproduction also doesn’t do justice to the original. You could stand for hours just marvelling in Bellini’s use of oil paint in this large portrait, especially in the unbelievable detailing of the Doge’s gown.

The commentary makes the subtle point that the left side of his mouth, in sunlight, is firm and set, whereas the right side, in relative shade, bears the hint of a smile. This can be taken as an allegory of the character required to be leader of a city, a mixture of light (justice) with shade (forgiveness and humour).

In these last few works you can see why the curators claims that without these works imbued with their creativity and innovation, Renaissance art by the likes of Titian, Correggio, and Veronese, would not exist as it does today.

There is much, much more to see at this terrific exhibition, much which repays really intense historical, scholarly, intellectual and aesthetic engagement. It’s an effort, but the rewards are tremendous.

Room by room

One – Beginnings

Introduces the cultural environments of the two cities that shaped Mantegna and Bellini – Padua and Venice. Shows how the tastes of dominant patrons and their working environments (including the family-run workshop) played a role in the development of the artists. Highlight: ‘The Jacopo Bellini album’ on loan from the British Museum (which has lent 18 works to the exhibition). Jacopo’s sketchbook is a key starting point for ‘Mantegna and Bellini.’

Room two – Explorations

Examines the mutual impact of each artist on the other during the years of their closest creative exchange, around the time of the marriage that made them brothers-in-law. A number of juxtapositions compare and contrast their approach to near identical compositions e.g. ‘The Descent into Limbo’ and ‘The Crucifixion’.

Room Three – Pietà

Focuses on the origins and development of a distinctive new type of image in Christian art, the Dead Christ supported by Angels. Works include sculptural reliefs (such as Mantegna’s ‘Grablegung Christ’) as well as works on paper (Mantegna’s Pietà, 1456–9) and Bellini’s tempera on panel ‘Pietà’ from the Uffizi Gallery.

Room Four – Landscape

Explores the enormous importance of Bellini’s particular contribution to the history of art – the depiction of beautifully observed landscape, natural light, and atmosphere as a key element of the composition and meaning of religious works, including Bellini’s ‘Resurrection of Christ’

Highlight: first chance to see the newly restored National Gallery work, ‘The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr’ (about 1507).

A number of pairings will reveal the differences in approach to landscape between the two artists – and also reveal the ways in which Bellini’s exceptional talent had a lasting effect on Mantegna (such as in his astonishingly accurate view of Mantua in his ‘Death of the Virgin’, 1462).

Room five – Devotional Paintings and Portraits

A focused insight into a particular contribution to Italian Renaissance art – the development of the ‘sacra conversazione’ in which the seated Virgin and Child appear in the company of saints (‘in conversation’) as if occupying the same space and breathing the same air.

Mantegna’s ‘Holy Family’ (1495-1500) and ‘Madonna and Child’ (1455–60) will be placed next to Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with two Saints’ and ‘The Virgin and Child’ (about 1475).

Room six – Antiquity

Features some of the largest and most spectacular loans, which showcase Mantegna’s particular brilliance in the use of antique models and subjects to drive innovation in his art.

Highlight: three of his great ‘Triumphs of Caesar’ (The Bearers of Standards and ‘Siege Equipment’, ‘The Vase-Bearers’, and ‘The Elephants’, c.1484–92) , monumental tempera on canvas works measuring almost three metres square, lent by Her Majesty The Queen.

Contrasted with these will be sculptural monochromes by Bellini, including ‘An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio’ (about 1506) and ‘Two men in antique dress’, along with one of his final paintings, ‘The Drunkenness of Noah’ (about 1515).

In case you need any more persuading, Dr Caroline Campbell, Director of Collections and Research at the National Gallery and curator of ‘Mantegna and Bellini’, says:

Exhibitions focusing on 15th-century art are rare as the works involved are often fragile and so cannot travel very often – therefore ‘Mantegna and Bellini’ really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore the relationship and work of these two artists who played such a pivotal role in the history of art.

Curator’s introduction


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Gainsborough’s Family Album @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition is pure visual, intellectual and emotional pleasure. It is beautifully hung and really informatively labelled and guided. In particular the American scholar who curated it, David Solkin, is pitch perfect in his audioguide commentary, telling you exactly what you need to know about each key painting, and about Gainsborough’s wider family background.

It’s a simple enough idea: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was one of the 18th century’s most successful portrait painters, rising from modest beginnings in Sudbury Suffolk, to owning a mansion on Pall Mall and being painter to Britain’s aristocracy, rivalled only by the towering figure of his contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

But alongside his formal commissions he painted an unusual number of portraits of his immediate and extended family. This exhibition brings together some 50 of these paintings and a few drawings, some familiar from national collections, some never before publicly displayed, to tell the story of his changing and evolving painterly style, as well as the biographies of himself, his wife and daughters, parents, brothers and sisters, and other members of the extended family.

It’s not quite a portrait of the age but it’s certainly a portrait of a charming, sometimes tragic, often comic and endearing family, told via sketches, drawings and paintings which are sometimes breath-takingly beautiful.

The two Gainsboroughs

It’s always seemed to me there are two Gainsboroughs: the early paintings from the 1740s feature beanpole figures with Woodentop faces which I personally find difficult to take seriously.

the artist with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary by Thomas gainsborough (1748)© The National Gallery, London

The artist with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary by Thomas Gainsborough (1748)© The National Gallery, London

Then something seismic happened to his technique during the 1750s, so that within a decade his handling of the human face had become marvellously expressive, and his handling of the volume and shape of the human body, masterful.

The following is one of my all-time favourite paintings, one of the best depictions of love and affection and innocence I know of. it looks and feels as if by a completely different artist from the painting above.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

It demonstrates several of Gainsborough’s qualities. One is the characteristic ‘feathering’ of the trees and clouds in the background. Another is that it is unfinished – a lot of the paintings in this exhibition are unfinished. They demonstrate his sprezzatura, his ability to rough out an image at astonishing speed.

And for me, personally, I love the way you can see the artist at work. I almost like the rough sketching of the arms and hands as much as the smooth finish of the seraphic faces. They remind me of the quick evocative charcoal sketches by Degas which were exhibited next door at the National Gallery earlier this year. I love draughtsmanship, outlines, the miraculous way a few lines on a flat surface can conjure up the look and feel of warm human bodies, and many of even the most mature paintings on display here have an unfinished quality, which allows you to enjoy Gainsborough’s terrific verve and confidence.

Gainsborough’s speed

In fact Gainsborough’s legendary speed often caused him problems. One was that, even once he was famous, his clients regularly complained that he’d left his paintings unfinished. There’s an example here of his wife, done in sumptuous silks but, when you look closer, lacking hands, as if he was in too much of a hurry to bother.

As to sheer speed the commentary tells us that he made this painting of his nephew and protégé, Gainsborough Dupont, in one hour. One hour. It is riveting to be able to examine this painting really closely and observe the nerveless precision of his draughtsmanship and the dash and confidence of his brushstrokes. The eyes and eyebrows in particular dazzled me. Note the ‘feathering’ effect of the background and the quick, dashed-off impression of the boy’s ‘cavalier’ costume.

Gainsborough Dupont, the artist's nephew by Thomas Gainsborough (1773) Waddesdon (the Rothschild family)

Gainsborough Dupont, the artist’s nephew by Thomas Gainsborough (1773) Waddesdon (the Rothschild family)

The influence of van Dyck

As he became more successful the young painter moved from his Suffolk home to the fashionable spa resort of Bath. Here he made important contacts with rich clients and also got the opportunity, when visiting the aristocracy, to see their collections of Old Masters.

Of all the past masters, the one that struck him most was Sir Anthony van Dyck, the Flemish painter who came over to work at the court of Charles I in the 1630s. I’d love to know whether it was the deliberate attempt to copy van Dyck which led to the revolution in his work which I indicated above. Certainly Gainsborough revered van Dyck till his dying day. In fact the exhibition tells us that, as his death from terminal cancer approached, he told those around him he wanted to be measured against van Dyck, and apparently his very last words were ‘Van Dyck is right’.

The commentary on the Gainsborough Dupont portrait mentions that van Dyck used flicks of red to create depth of colouring of human skin and then points out just such red flecks which you can see if look closely above the figure’s left eye. It’s the type of opportunity to lean right into the real paintings, and to really appreciate their subtle technique – to see at first hand exactly how paint is laid onto the canvas – which makes visiting exhibitions like this so worthwhile.

Gainsborough’s daughters

The exhibition brings together all twelve surviving portraits Gainsborough made of his beloved daughters. The ones of them as children are wonderful (see above) but the portraits follow them through into young womanhood and then maturity. We learn at one point that he taught them both how to paint landscapes so that they would have a trade to fall back on in case he should be struck down. Later on we learn that the younger sister married but the marriage broke down after just two years. She suffered mental illness and moved in with her older sister who never married and cared for her for the rest of her life.

In this painting I was drawn to the peripheral details, to Gainsborough’s ‘feathery’ treatment of the trees’ foliage, and to the shaggy dog, a symbol, we are told, of fidelity, to the extraordinary finish on the shimmering silk of the daughter on the left. But keep returning to the faces, especially of the daughter on the right, which seems to frank and open and candid.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughters by Thomas Gainsborough (1770-74) Private collection

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughters by Thomas Gainsborough (1770-74) Private collection

Gainsborough’s wife

Family tradition had it that Gainsborough painted a portrait of his wife every year and gave it to her as a present on their wedding anniversary.

The commentary doesn’t make a meal of it but strongly hints that Gainsborough was serially unfaithful to his wife who was well known for having a fierce temper. Maybe the paintings were a form of atonement.

Rather beautifully, their relationship is discussed in terms of their dogs because Thomas owned a brisk alert collie which he called Fox (maybe because it looked a bit fox-like but also in humorous reference to the fat radical politician of the day, Charles James Fox). His wife owned a spaniel, which she named Tristram after the hero of the wildly popular contemporary novel, Tristram Shandy. Moreover:

‘Whenever [Gainsborough] spoke crossly to his wife …he would write a note of repentance, sign it with the name of his favourite dog, ‘Fox’, and address it to his Margaret’s pet spaniel, ‘Tristram’. Fox would take the note in his mouth and duly deliver it…’

In 1746, aged just 19, Gainsborough had married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who settled a £200 annuity on the couple. The commentary points out that at various tight moments in the 1750s and before he became successful, the couple had to borrow extensively against the promise of this annuity.

Apparently, Margaret was the tough-minded, business-minded person in the relationship, with Gainsborough being the more slothful and phlegmatic. He casually had affairs. She went mad with anger.

None of this is present in the later portraits of her, quite a few of which are gathered here, which really beautifully capture the flavour of mature married love, of mutual forgiveness and affection. Next to the daughters with the invisible cat, this painting of Margaret Gainsborough was my favourite work in the show. It is marvellous how he has captured (or invented or created) the impression of deep and affectionate character in her face, in the deep calm accepting maturity of her gaze.

Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's wife by Thomas Gainsborough (1777) The Courtauld Gallery, London

Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s wife by Thomas Gainsborough (1777) The Courtauld Gallery, London

Other points

The exhibition has other themes. Although he made his living as a Society portrait painter, throughout his life Gainsborough’s first love was landscape painting, and the exhibition contains a massive unfinished landscape, included on the pretext that two of the figures in its central incident of a farm cart pulled by unruly horses are based on his two daughters (the white-chested figure looking up, and the woman being pulled up into the cart).

The Harvest Wagon by Thomas Gainsborough. (1767) the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Harvest Wagon by Thomas Gainsborough. (1767) The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

We learn an awful lot about Gainsborough’s extended family and there is a big family tree at the start of the show showing just how extensive it was. The wall labels give us interesting anecdotes about his father and mother (he went bankrupt) about his sisters (one was a milliner which gave him a lifelong interest in fabrics and women’s dresses) about one brother, Humphrey, who became a non-conformist minister and was also a noted inventor, while the other one, John, became known in the family as ‘Scheming Jack’ because of his endless moneymaking plans and schemes all of which came to nothing with the result that Scheming Jack and his family lived on handouts from his siblings.

In other words, there’s a lot of fascinating gossip-cum-social history mixed in with the art appreciation.

And then there is the steady sequence of self-portraits, not quite as profound and searching as, say, Rembrandt’s, but stretching from his earliest works in the 1740s right to the end of his life in 1788, which take you on a fascinating journey from ambitious neophyte, to proud father, to accomplished craftsman, to ageing husband.

The exhibition tells us that he wanted this self-portrait to be the approved one, with (as the commentary points out) its rather quizzical raised eyebrow, and the air of a calm mature man, confident in his powers and conscious of a life well lived (and note the jazzy, unfinished squiggles which depict his neckerchief. Dazzling sprezzatura and confidence right to the end!)

Self Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1787) Royal Academy of Arts, London

Self Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1787) Royal Academy of Arts, London

This is a wonderful, gossipy, beautiful and life-affirming exhibition.

Battle of the videos

NPG have commissioned an official video of the show:

But there’s also an informal review by Visiting London Guide which shows more pictures and gives more information.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Ribera: Art of Violence @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first painting in this exhibition of the Spanish Baroque painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), is the best, and epitomises Ribera’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

It is the loving and exquisite depiction of a scene of gruesome violence. St Bartholomew the Apostle is being tied down in preparation for being flayed alive. The figures at left and right stare out at us with leering, evil grins. The saint was condemned, back in Roman times, for refusing to worship a pagan statue, and knocking it down – the head of the smashed Greek statue is beneath his bottom.

On the plus side, this is an enormous and spectacularly dramatic painting, which totally dominates the dark room it hangs in. In this painting more than any of the others on show, you can see the influence of Caravaggio, in the dramatic use of deep jet black over large areas of the canvas, from which the saint’s chest and thighs and right arm emerge with stark clarity, and from which the leering faces of his torturers also loom grotesquely.

Not only that, but the anatomic realism of the saint’s body is stunning, his long left thigh, bony hips, wrinkled belly and detailed shoulder bone, muscle and ligature. Then there is the superbly realistic dark folds of the cloth at bottom right, and the astonishingly realistic Greek statue head. Taken together, all these elements make for a gripping and thrilling visual experience.

And it is an experience, a staging, an enactment. There is no doubting the way that the leering faces pull the viewer in, giving us a sort of central role in the scene, not as passive onlookers but as active participants – and that the whole thing amounts to an artfully staged scene from the great theatre of Christian suffering and redemption.

On the down side, of course, it is also the precise and loving portrayal of an act of unspeakable violence which, if you really focus on the excruciating agony of what is to come, revolts the mind. That is the catch-22 which any fan of Ribera is caught in.

The exhibition

This is the first UK exhibition of works by Ribera, routinely described as a master of the Spanish Baroque. In several places the promotional material and press release they say the aim of the show is to question and reassess the conventional view of Ribera as a portrayer of violent and gruesome scenes of torture.

In which case it pretty much fails, since almost all the material here shows scenes of violence and torture. If, like me, you knew nothing about Ribera before you visited, images of tormented, tortured, tied up and screaming men is definitely the impression you take away.

The exhibition consists of eight paintings and 30 or so drawings and sketches. The paintings show the flaying of St Bartholomew (twice), the flaying of Marsyas by Apollo, women treating St Narcissus after he’s been shot dead with arrows, big portrait of a  skin flayer standing holding a flensing knife and the skin of a man he has just detached from his body. Violence against men, in other words, depicted with astonishing realism and gripping drama.

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

This depiction of Apollo calmly starting to flay the satyr Marsyas is incredibly disturbing. As with Bartholomew, we note the amazing details – the musculature and anatomy of the old satyr is shown in staggering detail, while the pink cloak and seraphic expression of Apollo are as perfect as Titian. Over on the right Marsyas’s wailing fellow satyrs look like characters from Goya.

But then you notice the big red gash at the upper right of the painting, a red wound, into which the calm, expressionless Apollo is inserting his right hand. This appears to be the opening in Marsyas’s flesh which the god will now calmly extend over his whole body, slowly calmly unpeeling the man while he screams and screams.

Beyond flaying

The exhibition includes a section about the importance of skin – both as an organ to all of us, and as a symbolic theme for artists. It contains an anatomical textbook from Ribera’s day, showing a completely flayed man in order to illustrate and explain the complexity of human musculature. Next to this is what I thought was a parchment but turns out to be human skin with emblems tattooed on it, and next to this, some wall labels explaining the cultural significance of tattooing.

This is an example of the way the exhibition attempts to take us beyond the obvious subject of flaying, crucifixion and torture, in order to persuade us that Ribera described these subjects as part of a wider intellectual framework.

This is epitomised by the one painting of the eight, which isn’t about torture. This shows a shabby tramp holding an onion, with an orange blossom and garlic on the table in front of him. It was one of a series Ribera painted about the senses, showing the attributes of the five bodily senses in a manner derived from medieval science and philosophy.

Also non-flaying is the series of drawings Ribera made for students to study from, academic studies of faces, noses, mouths, ears and eyes. These are all done with great skill if, admittedly, a noticeable taste for the grotesque which remind the viewer of similar studies by earlier Old Masters, such as Leonardo.

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © the trustees of the British Museum

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © The trustees of the British Museum

But the effort to dilute the horror of the main images by persuading us that they are part of

  1. Ribera’s broader artistic activity
  2. 17th century Italy’s wider cultural concerns about the power of the senses and the importance of the skin

is undermined when we move on to the next room, which is devoted to images of men – generally old helpless men, like Bartholomew – tied to trees.

The lucky ones are just tied in painful positions. The less lucky ones have been bound to trees and are being whipped. The really unlucky ones have been tied to trees and are being… flayed alive. The audio commentary astonished me by saying that no less than a quarter of Ribera’s entire surviving output consists of images of men tied to trees.

Mostly these are drawings and sketches, often done in red chalk and, as a fan of draughtsmanship, there is much to admire about the often hurried sketchlike appearance of the drawings which, nonetheless, vividly convey the sense of tied and suffering humanity.

An exception which proves the rule is this rare engraving, showing much more detail than the drawings do.  It depicts, of course, Ribera’s favourite subject, an old man tied to a tree and being tortured. I think the man on the right is using scissors or a knife and has already flayed the skin off Bartholomew’s entire forearm. The man on the left is holding two sticks linked by a fine chain, no doubt some implement of further torture, and is leering knowingly out at us, the same device Ribera uses in the paintings, to implicate the worldly viewer in this appalling scene.

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Note the hand emerging from the clouds and holding a martyr’s crown for the old man. All the consolation a believer needs, though scant consolation for those of us without faith.

Imagine the fuss if an artist of this era had devoted his life’s work to depicting the binding, tying, flaying and torturing of women. Imagine the controversy if a gallery devoted an entire exhibition to the depiction of women being bound, flayed and tortured!

But an artist who devoted his time to the loving depiction of torturing old men, to obsessive reiteration of images of the male body being bound and flayed and hanged and speared? Meh. No problem. Taken for granted.

Dark and gloomy layout

I’ve been visiting Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions for over ten years. The exhibition space consists of a straight line of three smallish rooms, interrupted by a kind of small corridor into the museum’s mausoleum, then three more rooms. And the rooms are generally well lit so you can enjoy the works of E.H. Shepherd or Tove Jansson or Ravilious or David Hockney in a light and airy space.

For this show they have made what I think is the most drastic alteration to the layout I’ve seen. First of all they’ve created partitions with entrances on alternating sides, so that walking through feels like more of a slalom or zigzag between than a stately progress through individual rooms.

Second, all the walls have been painted a very dark grey bordering on black. Third, the lighting has been turned way, way down. It is dark and gloomy throughout. Entering the first room is more like entering a church than a gallery, a Baroque Catholic church in Italy packed with images of torture and suffering.

This layout and design give the big pictures, with their eerie combination of artistically exquisite detail and stomach-turning subject matter, a tremendous impact.

Eye witness to torture

Ribera was born in Spain but moved to Naples (which was under the control of the Spanish crown in the 17th century) where he picked up commissions from church and secular authorities. The Catholic Counter-Reformation (from the 1620s onwards) as a cultural movement, placed great emphasis on the depiction of physical suffering. It coincided with the rise of opera as an art form in Italy. These all tended to a great theatricality of presentation. Caravaggio from the generation before him (1571-1610) was a startling innovator in the art of the dramatic use of light and dark dark black shadow, and it is easy to detect his influence on the best of Ribera’s work.

Given the complex political, religious and cultural background of the times, it is striking that the commentary and wall labels spend less time on his biography than I’m used to, and a lot more time trying to situate his obsession with torture in the wider context of the culture of the day – not only the Counter-Reformation interest in the depiction of suffering and martyrdom, but – as mentioned – an intellectual interest in the workings of the body, of anatomy, the senses and so on. Hence the tramp epitomising the sense of smell, the training sketches of eyes and ears.

But this aim was, for me, once again trumped in the penultimate room by a section about Ribera’s work as an eyewitness to the numerous public hangings and tortures of his day. A huge painting, Tribunale della Vicaria, by an unknown contemporary artist shows the square in front of the law courts of Naples. Initially all you notice is the busy throng of 17th century folk going about their everyday business, from  lords and ladies to beggars via various street sellers and performers. It takes a while before you notice, at the centre of the busy scene, a man dangling from a rope in front of the hall.

Public hangings, executions, burnings and torture were commonplace, and the exhibition devotes this room to a) explaining this fact and b) displaying a series of pen and ink sketches which Ribera obviously made, sometimes in a rush, of these scenes.

He seems to have been particularly attracted to the use of the strappado, whereby a man’s hands were bound behind his back and then strung up from a scaffold. This had the effect of slowly wrenching the arms out of their sockets, causing immense pain. Here is just such a man being interrogated by officials from the Inquisition, apparently drawn from life. Imagine being there. Imagine watching this take place. Imagine hearing the screams.

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Apparently, earlier critics have accused Ribera of himself being a sadist, with an unhealthy interest in these scenes and an unrelenting focus on sadism. This is the slur which the curators are keen to refute.

I’m happy to go along with their ‘reassessment’, and I read and understood their attempt to put Ribera’s paintings and drawings in a broader artistic, cultural and social context, where scenes of torture were everyday occurrences and scenes of Biblical martyrdom were part of the state and church-approved culture. In other words, it wasn’t just him.

Indeed, the curators include half a dozen prints by Ribera’s almost exact contemporary, the Frenchman, Jacques Callot (1592-1635), from his series, Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, which display comparable scenes of public hangings and torture.

In many ways I preferred the Callot prints because they are more journalistic, detached and show a larger public context. They look, if it’s an appropriate word, sane. Comparison with all the Riberas you’ve seen immediately makes you realise the intensely close-up nature of Ribera’s images. He focuses right in on the guts of a scene, as if you are on stage during a gruesome play, or on the set of a violent movie.

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

So I think I understood the layout and intention of the exhibition, a contextualisation and reassessment of Ribera’s art. And I found the technique of the best two oil paintings, the Bartholomew and the Flaying of Marsyas, absolutely breath-taking.

But, as a normal, liberal human being from the year 2018, I also found much of the exhibition completely disgusting.

Darkness and light

At the very end of the exhibition you emerge through heavy curtains, from the dark rooms full of tortured men, into the sunlit openness of the main Dulwich Picture Gallery and the first thing you see is Thomas Gainsborough’s full length portrait of Elizabeth and Mary Linley. It is quite literally walking out of darkness into light and it feels like walking out of madness into sanity, out of hell and into heaven, from barbarism into civilisation.

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Heath Robinson’s Home Life @ the Heath Robinson Museum

This is another fabulous exhibition from my favourite small London museum, the Heath Robinson Museum up in sunny Pinner. The shiny new museum building is divided into just two galleries: one has a permanent display of Heath Robinson’s life and work, of which I found the most interesting aspect to be his ‘serious’ illustrations for classic literature, including some Shakespeare plays, and figurative watercolours which have a dreamy, innocent beauty.

The other gallery is devoted to temporary exhibitions, not all of which are directly about Heath Robinson himself. The current one, Heath Robinson’s Home Life, which runs until 24 February 2019, is about the great man, and focuses on the theme of domestic life which was the subject of much of his work in the second part of his career.

Social history background

Even before the First World War broke out HR had begun supplying comic cartoons to popular magazines, and humorous illustrations for advertising campaigns (as described in the excellent exhibition Heath Robinson’s World of Advertising which the Museum hosted earlier this year).

After the war most of the luxury book illustration work dried up and HR became more reliant on his humorous work. The collapse of the luxury book market was just a small element in major social upheavals. Few people could now afford domestic servants at pre-war levels. Improved public transport meant people could live in suburbs which were built further and further from old city centres. The new post-war suburban houses were generally small, and it became fashionable for the middle classes to live in flats.

Small flats in new apartment blocks, smaller, more constricted suburban households, the absence of servants to perform all those little chores – all these presented a wealth of comic opportunities because they all suggested crazy, new-fangled, and over-complex machines to replace the servants or make the most of cramped living quarters.

The exhibition

The 60 or so prints, illustrations, cartoons, books and magazine spreads in this exhibition all focus on this theme, gently satirising the new style of living, new fashionable flats, new architecture and new popular fads.

Working chronologically, the exhibition kicks off with a set of four illustrations HR did for the The Sketch magazine in 1921 generically titled ‘Heath Robinson does away with servants’, showing a range of contraptions to replace the now missing servants.

The spare room by William Heath Robinson

The spare room by William Heath Robinson

In 1929 Heath Robinson contributed a series to The Sunday Graphic featuring moveable walls and other gadgets to make the best use of cramped living space. In 1932 he produced a further six coloured drawings for The Sketch collectively titled ‘An Ideal Home’. All these are on display here.

The Gadgets

It is interesting that by this time The Sketch can talk about HR’s ‘worldwide reputation for inventing gadgets’. In fact in the following year, 1934, he was invited to design ‘an ideal home’ for the Ideal Home Exhibition. He first made designs of a tumbledown house – actually named ‘The Gadgets’ – with the walls cut away so you can see various ingenious devices. Then the drawings were turned into a large-scale model which was actually displayed at the exhibition.

This exhibition displays the early series of ‘Ideal Home’ cartoons published in 1933 and rare photographs of the construction of Heath Robinson’s house at the Ideal Home Exhibition. The model measured 50 foot by 30 foot and was 20 feet high. It was peopled with more than thirty life-like moving figures, all about half life-size, and engaged in daily tasks, assisted by numerous complex contraptions.

Contemporary postcard of William Heath Robinson's 'Ideal Home' - "The Gadgets" displayed at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at London Olympia in 1934

Contemporary postcard of William Heath Robinson’s ‘Ideal Home’ – “The Gadgets” displayed at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at London Olympia in 1934

The Gadgets provided the inspiration for the opening scenes of the Wallace and Gromit film The Wrong Trousers which you can watch on a video display at the show. The HR Museum also displays a scale model of The Gadgets next door, in the permanent gallery, built in 2016 by Estera Badelita. If you insert a pound in the slot, the house comes to life and the people move around performing their ridiculous activities.

How to…

In 1936 HR got together with his neighbour K.R.G. Browne to produce the classic humorous book, How to Live in a Flat, Browne’s drily satirical prose illustrated by 100 or so beautifully crisp and clear comical drawings satirising modernism in architecture and design.

Earlier drawings in the exhibition demonstrated quite a use of shading and shadow to create depth to the illustrations. Take a classic like How to take advantage of the Savoy Orphean dance music broadcast by the BBC without disturbing your neighbour in the flat below.

How to take advantage of the Savoy Orphean dance music broadcast by the BBC without disturbing your neighbour in the flat below by William Heath Robinson

‘How to take advantage of the Savoy Orphean dance music broadcast by the BBC without disturbing your neighbour in the flat below’ by William Heath Robinson

Compare that with any of the illustrations from How to Live in a Flat. It seems to me that HR made these later illustrations deliberately crisp and clear, with little or no shading, in order to mimic the bright lines of modernist architecture, a clean, trim style which adds tremendously to the book’s appeal.

Holiday joys in modern flats by William Heath Robinson

‘Holiday joys in modern flats’ from How To Live in a Flat by William Heath Robinson

The book proved a surprise bestseller and the publishers asked the pair to produce more, leading, over the next few years, to a whole series: How To Make A Garden Grow, How To Be a Motorist and – a crucial book of timeless relevance – How To be A Perfect Husband. The motorist book contains, as you might expect, innumerable pictures of complex car-based contraptions. But the husband book is, arguably, more drily humorous.

How to go to bed without disturbing the household from How to be A Perfect Husband by William Heath Robinson

‘How to go to bed without disturbing the household’ from How To Be A Perfect Husband by William Heath Robinson

The death of Browne in 1940 brought the original series to an end, but HR then teamed up with another neighbour, the journalist Cecil Hunt, to continue the series, now with a war-time theme. This resulted in How To Make The Best of Things (1940), How To Build a New World (1940) and How to Run A Communal Home. I particularly liked the cartoon showing a harassed music teacher giving piano lessons to about a dozen children all playing pianos organised in a circle at the same time!

Designs for China

The exhibition also features an unexpected side venture of Heath Robinson’s. In 1927 he was asked to design a range of nursery ware for Soane and Smith, a Knightsbridge store. He produced sixteen designs based on nursery rhymes which ended up being applied to cups, saucers, plates, cereal bowls, teapots, sugar bowls, mugs, porringers, egg cups and even a soup tureen!

A distinctive feature of the designs was a delightful frieze made up of cartoon children’s faces running round the rims of all these receptacles, as you can see in the examples below.

Nursery china designed by William Heath Robinson (1927)

Nursery china designed by William Heath Robinson (1927)

This is another charming, funny and uplifting exhibition from the Heath Robinson Museum.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Turner prize 2018 @ Tate Britain

The Turner Prize has been running since 1984. It is awarded annually to an artist born or based in Britain. Each year four artists are shortlisted by a jury for an outstanding exhibition or public presentation of their work in the previous year. This year, for the first time since its inception, all four finalists are video film-makers, namely the organisation Forensic Architecture, and three individual artists: Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson.

You go through the exhibition glass doors into a big light lounge-type space dominated by a big square table ringed by grey sofas. On the table are books for visitors to read on the exhibition’s themes. These are gender and identity, race and sexuality, politics, repression and resistance. Pretty standard, down the line, mainstream art school stuff ideology, then.

Turner Prize lounge, sofas, table and books

Turner Prize lounge, sofas, table and books

From this comfortable if antiseptic space four black doorways lead off. Beside each is a set of wall panels explaining the work and biography of each artist. You read about them, then walk into the black space which, in each case is in fact a short corridor which leads to a corner, turning into a pitch-black projection space, the corridor and turn being to ensure the projection space is as dark as a cinema.

Naeem Mohaiemen

Mohaiemen was born in 1969 in London and grew up in Bangladesh. Now, inevitably, he lives and works in New York. In the opinion of the jury his works ‘explore post-colonial identity, migration, exile and refuge’. He presents three works

Tripoli Cancelled is a fictional film which follows the daily routine of a man who has lived alone in an abandoned airport for a decade. It is 93 minutes long.

Two Meetings and a Funeral recreates key meetings from 1973 and 1974 during which the Non-Aligned Movement, set up after the Second World War to represent newly independent former colonial countries, began to reject socialism and move towards religion as a uniting force. It is 89 minutes long.

Still from Two Meetings and a Funeral by Naeem Mohaiemen

Still from Two Meetings and a Funeral by Naeem Mohaiemen

Volume eleven (flaw in the algorithm of cosmopolitanism) is a pamphlet.

Luke Willis Thompson

Thompson lives and works in London. He makes silent 35mm films which are projected by an enormous and noisy film projector onto a huge wall, rather than a screen. In the words of the jury, he ‘investigates the treatment of minority communities and the way objects, places and people can be imbued with violence.’

He presents a trilogy of films which ‘reframe histories of violence enacted against certain bodies, and offers counter-images to the media spectacle of our digital age.’

Cemetery of uniforms and liveries (2016) is 9 minutes 10 seconds long and features doleful portraits of the descendants of two women hurt in London by the police. Brandon is the grandson of Dorothy ‘Cherry’ Groce, who was shot by Metropolitan Police in 1985 when they raided her home looking for her son Michael. The shooting, which left Dorothy Groce paralysed, led to the 1985 Brixton riot. Graeme is the son of Joy Gardner, a 40-year-old Jamaican mature student living who died as the result of being bound and gagged by police who had raided her home intending to deport her in 1983. None of the officers involved in these women’s deaths were convicted. Brandon and Graeme face the camera in stark black and white, unmoving, unspeaking, with serious, grim, maybe mournful expressions.

Still from Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) by Luke Willis Thompson

Still from Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016) by Luke Willis Thompson

autoportrait (2017, 8’50”) I saw this at the Photographers’ Gallery where it had won the Deutsche Börse photography prize in May of this year. In July 2016 Diamond Reynolds filmed and live-streamed the moments after the fatal shooting of her partner Philandro Castile by American police, the footage of her then and subsequently distributed round the world being of a hysterical crying woman. Thompson approached her with the idea of recording her image as she chose to present it, in clothes of her choosing, expressionless, aloof, in control.

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

_Human (2018, 9’30”) There is a long essay about this film on the Frieze website:

It examines the small sculpture the late British artist Donald Rodney made, using scraps of his own shed skin, and held together with dressmaking pins, as he lay ill with sickle cell anaemia.

Forensic Architecture

Unlike the other three entries, Forensic Architecture is not an individual: it is an international research agency that uses innovative technological and architectural processes to investigate allegations of state violence. It’s a well-funded and organised body, with members including architects, archaeologists, artists, filmmakers, journalists, lawyers, scientists, software developers and theorists.

They work with internationally reputable charities such as Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and Amnesty International. You might well ask yourself what they are doing in an art exhibition.

Well, their typical working method is to be called in when deaths have occurred, often caused by state actors, and to investigate the events using state of the art techniques they have pioneered.

The big example here relates to an incident which took place on 18 January 2017, when Israeli police attempted to clear an unrecognised Bedouin village so the area could have an Israeli settlement built on it. During the confused armed confrontation between the villagers and the police, local Yakub Musa Abu al-Qi’an and a Israeli policeman Erez Levi were killed.

The Israeli police at first claimed he was a terrorist, amid a set of evidence which presented a narrative justifying the police behaviour. But pro-Bedouin Israeli activists were present and filmed some of the events and took photos.

Drone footage incorporated in The long duration of a split second by Forensic Architecture

Drone footage incorporated in The long duration of a split second by Forensic Architecture

Bringing to bear the full panoply of modern forensic reconstructive technology, the agency’s experts were able to assemble a detailed timeline into which the scrambled footage, scattered audio, stills taken by the activists and the police themselves could be used to reconstruct what really happened. The Forensic Architecture website gives a detailed breakdown of the series of events as they eventually established and proved them.

As a visitor what you experience is: 1. in a dark room the hectic hand held footage captured by a reporter who, at the sound of shots falls to the ground, and you get a lot of scrabbled shots of the rocky ground. 2. But you can walk through the projection room and into a normal white gallery space: along one wall is the timeline of events I’ve just linked to, and then a separate, related work, Traces of Bedouin Inhabitation, which is a really characteristic piece of Forensic Architecture. The Israeli government claims it has the right to move Bedouin off the land since they are only temporary settlements. However Forensic Architecture experts have gone back and found the original aerial maps of the area produced by the British in 1945, and been able to prove that Bedouin settlements existed then, i.e. are older than the state of Israel.

Installation view of Traces of Bedouin habitation 1945-present showing headphones which give commentary and explanation

Installation view of Traces of Bedouin habitation 1945-present showing headphones which give commentary and explanation

This is fascinating, worthwhile and cutting edge forensic, legal, scientific and image manipulation work being done by an international team of experts. The installation also includes details of workshops the organisation held where people could go along and find out more about aspects of their work (and maybe get involved).

I’ve left till last the fourth installation which, on 4 December, was announced as the winner of the 2018 Turner Prize.

Charlotte Prodger’s Bridgit

Prodger is a Scottish lesbian. She has been working with the moving image for over 20 years during which time she has experimented with the changing technologies we use to capture images. In the words of the jury, she ‘deals with identity politics, particularly from a queer perspective. Using a range of technologies from old camcorders to iPhones, Prodger’s films build a complex narrative exploring relationships between queer bodies, landscape, language, technology and time.’

Bridgit is her most autobiographical work to date. It was shot on her iphone over the course of a year, capturing scenes around her including (the ones I saw) her cat lying on her bed, some impressive standing stones in a field with a mountain in the background, and the back of a ferry recording the white wake continually unfurling across the sea behind.

Over this are ‘found’ sounds like the radio on in the background, cars, planes, the rain. But also Prodger reading out excerpts from her journal in which she talks about coming out, working in a care home, and the experience of going under anaesthetic.

The work’s title comes from the neolithic goddess, Bridgit, whose name and associations have altered across time and location. She is not only a sort of presiding spirit over some of the Scottish locations Prodger films, but an example of the way ‘identity’ is unstable and fissiparous.

Still from Bridgit by Charlotte Prodger

Still from Bridgit by Charlotte Prodger

I walked in just as Prodger was reading part of her journal:

Names themselves weren’t codified as personal descriptors until the Domesday book. The idea behind taking a name appropriate to one’s current circumstance was that identity isn’t static. The concept of one’s public and private self, separately or together, changes with age or experience (as do the definitions of public and private); and the name or label or the identity package is an expression of that concept.

Now, 1. I’m not sure that’s true about Domesday. I just happen to have been looking at the Domesday book a few weeks ago in the British Library’s fabulous exhibitions about the Anglo-Saxons and whereas Anglo-Saxon churls may not have recorded names, I’m pretty sure the Norman aristocracy had very clearly defined names, and names, and nicknames, which often defined their roles. William the Conqueror.

And 2. It was just like being back at school with a teacher at the front of the room lecturing me. Or in a lecture hall back at college, and being lectured about the ideology of queerness and identity politics.

It always amuses me how the more PC art curators and artists will accuse the Victorians of heavy-handed moralising – but then praise to the skies the kind of art included in this show as radical and subversive when, quite clearly, it is equally committed as the Victorians to promoting, sustaining and forwarding the values of the day, the ideologies of our era – jam packed with ‘important’ and urgent social and moral messages.

The content may change but the Urge To Preach is an enduring feature of a certain kind of art, and is lapped up by a certain type of critic.

Thoughts

The most obvious conclusion from the show is that ‘art’ is being swallowed by ‘news’.

What was once the specialist field of news and current affairs journalism is now slap bang centre stage in three of the four works shortlisted for Britain’s biggest art prize.

The judges and some critics I’ve read called this ‘a political show’, maybe ‘the most political selection the Turner has ever made’.

I think that flatters both artists and jury. They can attend their gala champagne prize-winning dinner, funded by Banque National Paris (the eighth largest bank in the world), hand out the cheques for twenty-five grand, and still be under the flattering delusion that they are ‘radicals’ who are ‘changing the world’.

But there is a very big difference indeed between politics and news. News flashes onto our TV screens, laptop and mobile phone screens in a blizzard of outrage and anger. Twitter storms. Social media hurricanes. Trump says something stupid. Corbyn says something sexist. Black man shot in Los Angeles. Riots in Paris. Brexit latest. Ukraine latest. Jose Mourinho latest.

News is about making a big splash with sensational or tricksy coverage of essentially ephemeral incidents. News is here in a great flurry of excitement and then… gone, forgotten, yesterday’s tittle-tattle, only good for wrapping up chips.

Politics, on the other hand, is defined as:

the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties seeking or trying to maintain power

Politics requires long-term planning to organise large bodies of people behind mass movements working for well defined social and economic ends, usually laid out in a manifesto or campaign pledges. It takes a lot of planning and involves mobilising millions of people.

If there is a spectrum with news at one end and serious, mass movement politics at the other, all the exhibits in this show are at the news end.

Moreover, when it comes to the use of video as a medium, the movement of news reporting away from newspapers and magazines, and its dominance by television coverage, has been one of the notable aspects of the past fifty years (with much lamentation from old-school journalists). Flashy footage of missiles taking off or people rioting has, during my lifetime, replaced the more sober analysis of events which you used to get in newspapers and news magazines. (They still exist, obviously, but their readerships have steadily declined.)

In this respect too – by virtue of the simple fact that all four entries consisted almost entirely of video footage – the Turner Prize hasn’t become more political – it has become more like the news.

Therefore, for what it’s worth, in my opinion this year was not particularly political. It was intensely newsy. It made big headlines with tricksy and inventive ways of covering essentially ephemeral stories.

In fact, even as news, the stories fall short.

The subjects tackled in these videos may epitomise long-running political issues – American police are racist, refugees have a hard time, the Israeli security forces can get away with killing unarmed Arabs – but none of these stories actually is news. They are the opposite of news. They are in fact very old stories. They were well-established tropes when I was growing up in the 1970s.

Given all this, you could sum up the Turner Prize exhibition as a selection of yesterday’s news.

Even though there are good moments in all the presentations, even though Thompson’s hauntingly silent black victims, or Forensic Architecture’s amazingly detailed and techno-savvy reconstructions, or Naeem Mohaiemen’s airport man or Charlotte Prodger’s standing stones all have their moments – there’s something about the medium of video itself which feels insubstantial, cheap, and unrewarding.

It may be all-consuming while you watch it — but then is almost immediately forgotten. Just like the TV news. Watch it, be horrified by this, scandalised by that, chuckle at the final comedy item, go to bed – forget all about it.

Prodger’s very personal film was the exception, so maybe that’s why she won. Footage of beautiful Scottish scenery. Footage of her cat. Footage of a sea ferry. All shot very badly with her fingers over the lens half the time. Edited deliberately clumsily. And with a voiceover telling us identity is flexible and fluid and that people have to be free to express themselves.

Maybe it was the very familiarity of these tropes which made the piece seem so already-seen, like a hundred other home-made art-school efforts lecturing us about queer identity – which gave the judges such a reassuring sense of familiarity. The stretches of it which I watched were certainly very restful.

Videos of the four finalists

There are short videos devoted to each of the four finalists.

Naeem Mohaiemen

Forensic Architecture

Luke Willis Thompson

Charlotte Prodger

A brief promo video for the whole show.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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