Women in the art world

I’ve recently read a number of feminist critiques of the art world accusing it of being an all-male patriarchy which women can’t enter, of having a glass ceiling which prevents women from reaching the top, and of systematically underplaying or denying the achievement of women artists.

While not really qualified to tackle all these issues in their entirety, the books did make me start paying attention to the gender of the artists featured in the London art exhibitions I go to, to the gender of the curators, and to the gender of the people running the main London art galleries which I frequent.

Recent art exhibitions and their curators

  1. Soutine – Barnaby Wright, Karen Serres ♀
  2. Cézanne Portraits – John Elderfield, Mary Morton, Xavier Rey
  3. Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites – Susan Foister, Alison Smith ♀
  4. Burrell Degas – Julien Domercq
  5. Lake Keitele: Akseli Gallen-Kallela – Anne Robbins ♀
  6. Monochrome – Lelia Packer, Jennifer Sliwka ♀
  7. Rachel Whiteread – Ann Gallagher, Linsey Young, Helen Delaney & Hattie Spires ♀
  8. Dali/Duchamp – Dawn Ades, William Jeffett, with Sarah Lea and Desiree de Chair ♀
  9. Jasper Johns – Roberta Bernstein & Edith Devaney ♀
  10. Impressionists in London – Caroline Corbeau-Parsons & Elizabeth Jacklin ♀
  11. Matisse in the studio – Ann Dumas & Ellen McBreen ♀
  12. Jean Arp – Frances Guy & Eric Robertson ♀
  13. Tracey Emin / Turner – Tracey Emin ♀
  14. Tove Jansson – Sointu Fritze ♀
  15. Basquiat – Dieter Buchhart & Eleanor Nairne ♀

Artists by gender and race

15 shows
12 about specific artists (i.e. not general themes)
15 named artists
3 women artists (20 %)
Blacks or Asians 1 (7%)

Curators by gender and race

15 shows
31 curators
24 women (77%)
7 men (23%)
Blacks or Asians 0 (0%)

Gallery bosses by gender

Army Museum Director – Janice Murray ♀
Barbican Director of Arts –  Louise Jeffreys ♀
British Museum – Hartwig Fischer
Courtauld Gallery Director – Deborah Swallow ♀
Dulwich Picture Gallery Sackler Director –  Jennifer Scott ♀
Guildhall Art Gallery & London’s Roman Amphitheatre – Sonia Solicari ♀
Hayward Gallery Chief curator – Stephanie Rosenthal ♀
Heath Robinson Museum Manager – Lucy Smith ♀
Imperial War Museum – Diane Lees ♀
National Gallery – Gabriele Finaldi
National Portrait Gallery –  Nicholas Cullinan
Royal Academy of Arts President – Christopher Le Brun
Saatchi Gallery – Rebecca Wilson ♀
Serpentine Gallery Directors – Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Yana Peel ♀
Tate Britain Director –  Alex Farquharson
Tate Modern Director – Frances Morris ♀
Victoria and Albert Museum Director –  Tristram Hunt
Whitechapel Gallery – Iwona Blazwick ♀

Sub-total
18 galleries/museums
19 Directors/curators
12 women (63%)
7 men (37%)
Blacks or Asians 0 (0%)

Bristol & Margate

Recently I was in Bristol and visited the main art gallery and the Royal West of England Academy:

Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery Director – Laura Pye ♀
Royal West of England Academy Director – Alison Bevan ♀

And popped down to Turner Contemporary in Margate:

Turner Contemporary, Margate Director – Victoria Pomery ♀

Grand total
21 galleries/museums
22 directors/curators
15 women (68% of 22)
7 men (32%)
Blacks or Asians 0 (0%)

Conclusions

I accept that the selection of exhibitions I happen to have gone to is subjective, although it does tend to reflect the major exhibitions at the major London galleries. The gender of curators similarly reflects the smallish sample, but it has in fact remained steady at around 80% women, even as I’ve doubled the number of exhibitions visited over the past month or so. And the genders of the heads of the main public galleries are facts.

Anyway, from all this very shaky data, I provisionally conclude that:

  1. Of exhibitions devoted to named artists (not about themes or groups) about four fifths are about male artists.
  2. About two-thirds of the London & Bristol art galleries I’ve visited are headed by women.
  3. Significantly more art exhibitions are curated by women than by men.
  4. It is common to hear talk about ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ in the art world, but not a single major London gallery is run by someone of black or Asian ethnicity, and none of the major league art exhibitions I’ve visited were curated by blacks or Asians.

Also, hardly any visitors to exhibitions are black or Asian. At the Monochrome exhibition, there were no non-white visitors, but no fewer than five of the visitor assistants were black. There were no black or Asian people in the one-room Lake Keitele show. There were no black or Asian visitors at the Degas, though all the women serving in the shop were Asian. Of the 170 people I counted in the Cézanne exhibition, there was one black man, and two Chinese or Japanese.

From all of which I conclude that if there is an ‘absence’ or repression going on here, it is not – pace Whitney Chadwick and other feminist art critics – of women, who are in fact over-represented as heads of galleries and as exhibition curators: it is of people of colour, who are almost completely absent from this (admittedly very subjective) slice of the art world, whether as artists, administrators, curators or visitors.

Only the Basquiat show was about a black artist (and it attracted an unusually large number of black visitors) but even this was curated (astonishingly) by two white people.

All of which confirms my sense that art is a predominantly white bourgeois pastime.

And old. Every exhibition I go to is packed with grey-haired old ladies. It would be interesting to have some kind of objective figures for sex and age of gallery goers (I wonder if Tate, the National and so on publish annual visitor figures broken down into categories) but when I began to try and count this at the Cézanne show I very quickly gave up because it is, in practice, impossible to guess the age of every single person you look at, and the easiest visual clue – just counting grey-haired people – seemed ludicrous.

So I know that these stats are flawed in all kinds of ways but, on the other hand, some kind of attempt at establishing facts is better than none, better than relying on purely personal, subjective opinions.

Now I’ve started, I’ll update the figures with each new exhibition I visit. I might as well try to record it as accurately as I can and see what patterns or trends emerge…

Cézanne Portraits @ The National Portrait Gallery

Over a working life of some forty-five years, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) made almost 1,000 paintings, about 160 of which are portraits. This major international exhibition brings together over fifty of Cézanne’s portraits from collections across the world, including quite a few which have never been seen in the UK, allowing us to review the development of his style and technique through the prism of this one genre.

It proceeds in a straightforward chronological manner, starting with family members, especially the series of his Uncle Dominique, dating from the 1860s – some 26 self-portraits – a whole room devoted to portraits of his wife, Hortense – and ends with his portraits of working class men and women near his home in Aix-en-Provence, particularly portraits of his gardener, Vallier.

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap (1866-7) by Paul Cézanne. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap (1866-7) by Paul Cézanne. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early on we learn that Cézanne was schoolboy friends with Émile Zola who went on to become one of France’s most famous/important novelists. Zola pioneered a fictional approach he called ‘Naturalism’, according to which the work of art is a scientific experiment to investigate the impersonal forces, both genetic and social, which shape people’s lives, an attitude in which ‘the author maintains an impersonal tone and disinterested point of view’.

Throughout the exhibition the curators, as you’d expect, go to some lengths to explain who each sitter was, what their relationship to Cézanne was, with anecdotes about the number of sittings it took (115 sittings for the portrait of the art dealer Vollard), whether the sitter was happy etc, along with speculations about what the portrait tells us about Cézanne’s feelings for the sitter – respect, love and so on.

Quite quickly I began to think this was utterly the wrong approach. None of the sitters has any expression at all, certainly none of them are smiling or indicating any emotion. In fact most of the mature portraits almost deliberately reject emotional interpretation.

Victor Chocquet (1877) by Paul Cézanne. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

Victor Chocquet (1877) by Paul Cézanne. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

For me the exhibition was quite clearly the story of one man’s struggle with his art and technique. From these half dozen rooms and fifty or so portraits Cézanne comes across as a difficult, angry man, fighting with his medium, permanently dissatisfied, taking ridiculously long periods to struggle with works which he often abandoned and sometimes destroyed, like his portrait of Alfred Hauge, stitched back together and on display here.

He is off in his own world, day by day carrying on an endless battle to make the medium of oil painting fulfil his vision. Cézanne never painted portraits as commissions; he only painted who he wanted to. It struck me as being an immensely private world. If, from time to time, some of the works fit in with what the wider world thinks of as ‘beautiful’ or ‘artistic’ or ‘wonderful’, well, so be it; but he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care for traditional ideas of ‘beauty’ or ‘painting’, he doesn’t care what his family thinks or his wife thinks, he is off in his own world, following his own, often very difficult, path.

Self-Portrait by Paul Cézanne (1880-1) © The National Gallery, London

Self-Portrait (1880-1) by Paul Cézanne © The National Gallery, London

Take the 10 portraits of his wife, Hortense. If you like lots of biography to explain your art, then it’s interesting to learn that he’d had a relationship with her for 17 years before he finally married her; and that he only married her after another love affair he’d been having ended traumatically. So she does seem to have been a sort of second best.

None of that helps when you confront the actual paintings. In portrait after portrait she has the face of an emotionless mannekin and the body of a doll. In my opinion this isn’t a depiction of someone he either loves or doesn’t love, who is in either a good or a bad mood (the kind of psychological and emotional tripe the commentary speculates about). It is a purely technical challenge, a struggle with oil paint and technique.

Madame Cézanne in Blue (1886-7) by Paul Cézanne, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Madame Cézanne in Blue (1886-7) by Paul Cézanne, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The exhibition’s curator, John Elderfield, says: ‘Many of his painted likenesses of friends and family members offer little information in the way of his sitters’ individual personas, stature, or psychology.’ Exactly. My friend was scandalised by the apparently ‘heartless’ way Cézanne painted his wife: where is the love and affection and respect and blah blah? To me, completely the wrong way of thinking about Cézanne’s work.

My notion of ‘the struggle’ also explains why he did so many series – 10 of Uncle Dominique, 17 of Hortense, 26 self-portraits, repeated portraits of his gardener, and so on. And also explains why he destroyed his own canvases in frustration. It was an unending struggle. It was war.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, Art Institute of Chicago

Cézanne’s technique

So what was his technique, what was the battle all about?

From the start he made no attempt to paint in the smooth aesthetic style of the French Academy and Salon, in a style which concealed brushstrokes in order to create a flat surface designed to give the illusion of life. The exact opposite. He and his pal Zola were going to remodel French culture, to force people to see the crude realities of life, Zola in blunt realistic sentences, Cézanne in harsh, unflattering brushstrokes. The first room shows young Cézanne in the 1860s sculpting oil onto canvas with his palette knife like a brickie lays on mortar. Thick, shaped roughly and confidently, in highly visible strokes half an inch wide.

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue by Paul Cézanne (1869 - 1871) J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue by Paul Cézanne (1869 – 1871) J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

He himself described this as his manière couillarde (where couilles means ‘testicles’) which could be translated as his ‘ballsy manner’.

He remains true to this founding approach all his life but develops and explores it. Through the 1870s two things happen: the paint gets a lot thinner, and he explores a technique of building up patches of the same colour using repeated one- or two-inch long strokes. These strokes come in parallel blocks or sets of strokes, running across face or background like patches of the palette, built up systematically.

It is the use of these blocks of strokes in the same colour which give all Cézanne’s work such a distinctive feel. Arguably the technique works best with landscapes, witness the scores of versions of Mont Sainte-Victoire which he did over decades. Here in the portraits this technique of diagonal strokes gives the works a sense of monumentality – the eerie feeling that something bigger and more important is being conveyed.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-90) by Paul Cézanne, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Another way of trying to define this visual effect is in terms of geometry – luckily Cézanne himself gives us a handy quote, when he wrote to Émile Bernhard giving advice about painting and included the phrase ‘Deal with nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone’. The cyclinder, the sphere and the cone. Quite obviously, then, Cézanne was himself aware of the way his eye sought out the geometry buried in the flesh (or landscape or still life or whatever).

But even without knowledge of this quote it would be easy to see the way the technique of chunks or blocks of very visibly modelled colour can be seen as almost geometric shapes – to my eye they look like rectangular slabs, crafted and placed at angles to each other. It is a highly analytical way of seeing and painting, not at all concerned with sensuous surfaces as per the long tradition of Salon art. Its unfinishedness bespeaks its experimental nature.

The Gardener Vallier (1905-06) by Paul Cézanne © Tate, London 2017

The Gardener Vallier (1905-06) by Paul Cézanne © Tate, London 2017

From the 1870s onwards he uses much thinner applications of paint, allowing much more of the canvas to show through, all over, as the paint rasps and runs out, and the brushstroke doesn’t completely cover the space. This draws attention to the painting as a painting, as a construct of paint on a canvas, and away from a naturalistic depiction of ‘reality’.

In other pictures you can see something else quite radical going on, which is his subtle mixing up of perspective: a table or chair or arm or wall or other elements will be subtly at odds with the perspective of the central figure. It is another way of being more interested in the geometry than the strictly realistic appearance of the subject.

Director of the NPG, Nicholas Cullinan, talks about Cézanne’s mission to get at ‘the underlying structure of things by means of mass, line and shimmering colour’, which I think is correct, apart from the shimmering colour. Monet shimmers, I don’t think Cézanne shimmers.

Towards the art of the future

By now you can see how these are the elements which endeared Cézanne to the next generation of artists:

  • painting as painting rather than window on the world
  • deploying paint in blocks or cubes to build up a sense of space, to bring out the inner geometry of a figure
  • indifference as to whether the paint covers the canvas or not, in fact developing an aesthetic of leaving many bits of the canvas untouched
  • faces as a mask, like the blank masks of African art Picasso and Matisse were fascinated by, expressionless

And so you can see why both Picasso (b.1881) and Matisse (b.1869) are credited with the quote that Cézanne ‘was the father to us all’, paving the way for the completely new ways of seeing developed by the Cubists, the Fauvists and successive generations of avant-garde artists. Doesn’t this mask-like depiction of his son anticipate Picasso’s mask faces of a generation years later?

The Artist's Son (1881-2) by Paul Cézanne. Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l'Orangerie)/Franck Raux

The Artist’s Son (1881-2) by Paul Cézanne. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de l’Orangerie)/Franck Raux

In 1895 Cézanne had a successful one-man show which finally gave him success and entry into artistic Paris. The exhibition shows some of the more formal portraits he attempted of Paris’s intellectual class, critics and writers set against thronged bookshelves. But he wasn’t happy and the preceding works in the show help you understand why: these were clever people who expected a measure of human character in their portraits, whereas Cézanne was much more at home with simple and above all psychologically blank subjects.

This – along with any lingering radical sentiment from the Zola years – goes to explain why he abandoned Paris altogether, retiring to his estate near his birthplace of Aix-en-Provence, and painting the unpretentious local workers, peasants, blokes in cafés smoking pipes or playing cards, old ladies. Here he was under no pressure to conform to artist as psychologist and instead could indulge his interest in form to the full.

With the paradoxical result that these images of relative strangers end up being somehow more successful, somehow more complete because he can relax into his technique, and so manage to convey more through their purely artistic coherence, than any of the portraits of his wife ever did.

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Art in the flesh

This reproduction makes Man with a pipe look a lot more smooth and finished than it is in the flesh. The reason for going to art galleries rather than looking at paintings on a computer screen is to see up close the craft and artistry of the painter. In the flesh, the diagonal strokes of brown and grey (and green and white) which make up this painting are genuinely thrilling. But what you can’t see at all from the reproduction is the amazing way the wavy black line of the shirt is so confidently drawn, or the way the lighter brown patches around it are in fact the bare canvas untouched by paint, or the half-slapdash way he’s dabbed in the black of the buttons. It really is thrilling to see the confidence and exuberance with which it’s painted. I stood and stared at just this line for minutes, marvelling.

A lot of the portraits in this exhibition are plain ugly or plain bad, and the overall effect of the show is, I found, quite repelling. But in the handful or so of portraits which really come off, the combination of sombre subject and highly stylised brushwork, seen really close up and in the flesh, is electric.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland @ The National Gallery

In 1999 the National Gallery bought a painting of Lake Keitele by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. To their surprise the painting has gone on to become one of the most popular in the Gallery’s immense collection of European art. In fact, this is the only painting by Gallen-Kallela in a British public collection.

Now, to celebrate the centenary of Finland’s independence as a nation (Finland’s Independence Day is December 6, today!), the National Gallery has created a one-room exhibition devoted to Lake Keitele and a dozen or so other works by one of Finland’s iconic artists, and it is FREE.

Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © The National Gallery, London

Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © The National Gallery, London

All the other works in the room are from abroad, from Finland or Sweden, several from private collections, so this is a very rare, probably unique opportunity to see most of these paintings. And indeed this is the first exhibition in the UK ever devoted to Gallen-Kallela.

Lake Keitele

Gallen-Kallela was obsessed with this view and painted it at least four times. All four variations are here, hanging next to each other, allowing a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast them and to see how his vision evolved.

It’s odd the way that, if you stand close up, the grey bars across the lake look utterly abstract, as if part of some modernist painting. But the further back you step, the more it looks like the effect you sometimes really see on water, of great stretches which for some reason (zephyrs of wind? air pressure?) lie completely flat and calm, thus having a different tint from the choppy wavy stretches around them.

Seeing all four in a row also draws attention to the frames of the four versions: they are strikingly different and it’s instructive to realise how much of a difference the frames make to how you perceive the paintings. Version one has a jet black frame and feels austere and cold; whereas the final version is surrounded by a lush and embellished gilt frame, which makes it seem much more open, expansive and sweepingly panoramic.

Landscapes and illustrations

Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) appears to have been mostly a painter of rural scenes in a semi-realistic style. Other paintings in the room have titles like ‘Boats on the shore’, ‘Lake view’, ‘Clouds’, ‘Clouds above a lake’, ‘Lakeside landscape’.

So: he conceived of the Finnish landscape as an expression of Finnish nationalism.

There are three exceptions to this general rule, two of them depictions of women on a lake.

I liked the scene depicted below, it’s from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. The old man on the left is a seer or prophet, being rowed by naked maidens. (Nice work if you can get it.) I like it because

a) it’s a bit more complex than just clouds over a lake, however well done
b) I really like the shape of the young woman foreground centre which, on reflection, is because of the clarity of her outline, done in a strong black which itself sets off the immensely skilful deployment of a whole range of skin tones to give light and presence to her torso
c) I have a taste for sketchy unfinished work (cf Degas) and so am also drawn to the way the boat and the women at bottom right are left unfinished.

The whole thing may have been a preparatory sketch but that makes it all the more powerful, for me.

Väinämöinen with Maidens (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Photo courtesy of the owner

Väinämöinen with Maidens (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Photo courtesy of the owner

Modern art

Gallen-Kallela travelled widely and was well aware of contemporary movements in north European art. He was, according to a wall label, briefly a member of the German Expressionist movement, Die Brücke. This flavour in his work, heading towards a really garish expressionism, is epitomised by Oceanides, the human figures deliberately stylised and ungainly and with a purely decorative colour scheme. Isn’t the idea of vertical orange and brown stripes to describe sea water wonderfully bonkers / visionary / beautiful?

Oceanides (1909) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland © Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Janne Mäkinen

Oceanides (1909) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland © Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Janne Mäkinen

A range of styles

Most of the other works in the room are much more realistic than these two. In fact a glance at the works on Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Wikipedia page show that the mostly landscape images here are only one strand among quite a number of different styles or ‘voices’ which he was equally competent in.

Some of these look like excellent late-Victorian book illustrations (Kullervo cursing), reminding us this is the era of Arthur Rackham in England, and the golden age of fairy tale / nationalist folk collections, all across Europe. The commentary at the exhibition describes this kind of style as ‘vigorous and archaic’ which strikes me as conveying the way this strand in his work seems ultra-modern and yet ancient, at the same time.

Some are rural scenes in the style of George Clausen (Boy and Crow; Old woman with a cat). Others have brutally clear, hard black outlines almost of stained glass (Lemminkäinen’s Mother). Some are Nordic kitsch (Shepherd Boy from Paanajärvi). Only a few convey any sense of being in urban settings in the 20th century (Symposium, Démasquée).

Anyway, back in room 1 at the National Gallery, the overall sense of this small selection is of acutely perceived nature paintings teetering on the edge of abstraction, the silver bars across the lake in the central work, and the clouds in many others ceasing to be cloud-shaped and turning into zoomorphic forms. Evidence that right across Europe, from Italy to the Arctic Circle, artists were feeling a modernist impulse to progress beyond realism into new realms of abstract shapes and vibrant, non-naturalistic colour.

With all this in mind, if you look closely, you can read this movement – the gradual shift from a directly observed, naturalistic landscape to a more stylised and abstracted image – in the four versions of Lake Keitale hanging here side by side.

Finlandia

Since everyone else will be doing it, I might as well join in by including the most famous piece of music by Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius, Finlandia, written during the heyday of Gallen-Kallela’s career (1899). This YouTube version features some awesome footage of Finland’s landscape and wildlife.

Gallen-Kallela’s own fiercely patriotic intent is exemplified by a stained glass window on display here, with the stirring title, Rouse Thyself Finland! It’s a decorative schema of Rackhamesque fir trees flanking a classic view of a tree-lined lake which also features a great bar of reflected light across it – presumably to echo the theme of the show, and to demonstrate use of the ‘bar of light’ motif in a different medium.

Rouse Thyself Finland! ( 1896) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Gallen-Kallela Museum / photo Hannu Aaltonen

Rouse Thyself Finland! ( 1896) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela © Gallen-Kallela Museum / photo Hannu Aaltonen

Somewhere like the Dulwich Picture Gallery should organise an entire exhibition about Gallen-Kallela. I’d go just to see more of the fabulous book illustrations.

YouTube gallery

On YouTube there’s a gallery of 207 works by Gallen-Kallela accompanied by a relaxing soundtrack. This montage gives a sense of his rather unnervingly wide range of styles.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell @ The National Gallery

A loan from the Burrell Collection

The Burrell Collection Glasgow is currently closed for a major refurbishment until 2020. Among other things it houses a spectacular collection of works by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas who, as it happens, passed away a hundred years ago this September (1834–1917). So what better way to celebrate this centenary – and display works which would otherwise be gathering dust in a warehouse somewhere – than by loaning this priceless collection to the National Gallery in London, where it nicely complements the National Gallery’s own collection of Degas pastels?

Thus, in the Ground Floor galleries (conveniently close to the café and restaurant) you can visit this fabulous FREE exhibition of 13 pastels, three drawings, and four oil paintings by Degas, the first time that most of them have been seen outside Glasgow since they were acquired in the early 1900s.

At the Jewellers(1887) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

At the Jewellers (1887) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The show is downstairs in the fairly newish exhibition space of the Annenberg Wing. The light is deliberately dimmed to preserve works which, we are told, have already faded significantly in their 130 years of existence. It’s like entering a cathedral and oh, what entrancing, ravishing objects are here to worship!

There are some oil paintings, a few rough sketches and one statue – but this show is mostly about Degas’s supernatural gift with pastels – and what a gift it was!

The wall panels (and the book in the shop outside) liberally describe Degas as the most gifted draughtsman of the 19th century and his skill at creating outlines and shapes is breath-taking. Look at the horse on the far right of Jockeys in the rain. The closer you look the more perfect it becomes.

Jockeys in the Rain (1883-6) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Jockeys in the Rain (1883-6) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

His early training was academic, trained to draw in studios with a spell in Rome to sketch and draw from classical masters. But he wasn’t satisfied and embarked on a lifelong course of technical experimentation with materials, and particularly with the supremely flexible medium of pastel that he came to prefer over painting in oil.

Degas had a deep interest in Japanese prints and helped bring them to public attention in 1870s Paris. He used photographs as models for his subjects. And he studied classical friezes for their posing of the human subject and of horses.

Pastel became increasingly important to Degas in his later years at a time when, coincidentally, brilliant colour began to play an essential role in the contemporary art he admired, and his own eyesight started to fail. The tactile immediacy and luminous colours of pastel, as well as its ephemeral and fragile quality, allowed him to create astonishingly bold and dynamic works of art, distinct from those of his fellow Impressionists.

Degas and pastels

  1. Smooth In his early works (1870s) Degas uses pastels ‘unfixed’ by oil or fixative; they are flat, and highly smudged and blended in order to create an oil painting effect.
  2. Rough and lined As he became more proficient (1880s) Degas came to use a ‘fixative’ between successive layers of pastel to build up layers, to create what experts call a ‘crust’. In tandem he dropped the technique of blurring and adopted strong, visible, directional strokes, strikingly virile lines which seem gouged across the paper as you look closely. The harshness of this cross-hatching is evident in the two works above which are to a large extent made up out of lines.
  3. Colour As the 19th century progressed industrial scientists developed new ranges of vivid and vibrant colours. These became available as readymade oil paints in tubes – which greatly helped the Impressionists aim of painting out of doors, far from the studio. But they also became available as pastel sticks, sticks made from chalk, binding agents and dyes.
  4. Water Degas developed a technique of dipping the tips of the pastel sticks into water in order to dab thick and bright highlights on top of finished works, for example the decorative highlights on the dresses of the Three dancers

Innovations

Degas was one of the greatest artistic innovators of his age.

1. Subject matter

He turned from the traditional subjects and technical conventions of his training to find new ways to depict modern, urban life. In Degas’s work, both the highs and lows of Parisian life are depicted: from scenes of elegant spectators and jockeys at the racecourse, to tired young women ironing in subterranean workshops.

His most famous subjects were ballet dancers, generally caught in informal, behind-the-scenes moments; and women at their toilette, bathing or combing their hair. If we didn’t know it before, we learn that Degas lived close to the Paris Opera where ballet was performed and gained regular entrance to the rehearsal studios, and even to the wings of the theatre itself.

2. Private moments

With his intimate depictions of women bathing or combing their hair Degas knew he was subverting artistic tradition. Until his time women had mostly been posed in a way that presupposed an audience (for example, the great odalisques of Ingres). Degas’ women aren’t posing for anyone.

Woman in a Tub (1896-1901) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Woman in a Tub (1896-1901) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The apparent crudity and the unashamed frankness of these works shocked and repelled contemporary audiences. Obviously we in 2017 have seen and read everything, nothing shocks us. But these works momentarily begged the question: are they more ‘natural’ than the Ingres/Salon tradition of perfectly portrayed naked women? Or are they more creepily ‘voyeuristic’? Is there something suspect about viewing naked women at such vulnerable and exposed moments?

The wall labels raise this question without resolving it: I think the answer is that the subject matter is mostly eclipsed by the technique. Sure, they’re scantily clad women; but quite obviously there is nothing salacious or pornographic about them – there are hardly any bare boobs whereas there are lots of backs bent or stretching. The real interest of the pictures is in their unusual composition, and especially in their vibrant use of colour.

3. Unconscious movements

Having studied the human figure as it is carefully posed in art school, in statues and in all previous art, Degas was restless to capture fleeting movements and impressions of modern life. His private women, the famous ballet dancers, and the jockeys, are all caught in off-guard poses.

You never (so far as I know) see the horses racing. You see them jostling nervously before, or calming down exhaustedly after, the race.

Similarly, the hundreds of sketches, pastels, oils and sculptures he made of ballet dancers are very rarely of performances – overwhelmingly, they’re of ballerinas backstage, or from the wings, in rehearsal, resting, stretching. The show includes an example of a ballerina adjusting a shoulder strap. Moments like that. Or these three ballerinas. What are they doing? Where are they? In a rehearsal studio? In the wings during a performance?

Unofficial locations, off-guard moments, unconscious gestures. (Look at the hand of the ballerina on the right. The other two ballerinas pressing against the wall or theatre ‘flat’.)

The Red Ballet Skirts (1900) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

The Red Ballet Skirts (1900) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

And yet these fleeting moments are given an extraordinary permanence. The stunning contrast between vibrant orange of the tutus and the lurid green of the flat create an incredibly visual dynamic. But is is the very strong outlines  in black (look at the confidence of the black strokes over the tutus to indicate folds of fabric) and the fact that the figures are lit from above, which combine to give the image a monumental, sculpted feel.

4. Composition

Several points about the compositions:

Ungainly He is interested in the ungainly in human posture. In no way is the woman bending over in her bathtub gracious. In fact, the more you look at her the more her posture begins to dissolve into a purely formal arrangement of colours. (Degas was affected by the later, semi-abstract work of Gauguin.) What do his two most famous subjects, ballerinas and horse, have in in common? They are both in constant motion, an endless supply of odd, awkward, spontaneous, fleeting poses.

Cropped Degas had the habit of cropping images in mid-person or subject. Many of the horse pictures crop horses half way through. None of the examples I’ve included really show this brutal cropping, but some in the exhibition do. It’s related, in some of them, to the way he often began a composition on one sheet, and then added other sheets around it, as the composition grew. Sounds odd, but you can see the joins in several of these works (which you are allowed to view from gloriously close-up, really feeling every stroke of the pastel stick).

Cramped Degas’ routine cropping of subjects is accompanied by his often experimental construction of pictorial space. The people depicted are frequently cramped right into the frame of the picture. Take the vertiginous perspective of the two women crammed together in the work at the top of this post, At the Jewellers or the way the two women in a theatre box are cropped at the edges to make us feel as if we’re thrust right into the scene in the final picture below, Women in a Theatre Box.

Empty Conversely, there can be oddly empty space, as in Woman in a Tub. Come to think of it, where is this tubbing taking place? Where are the details of the room which would give it perspective and context, window, door, carpet, mirror, cupboards? Is the white patch on the left a rug? You realise the tub and woman are floating in an abstract orange space.

A little more intelligible, more readable, is the great gap on the left of Jockeys in the Rain. Combined with the unusually realistic depiction of the horizon, very high in the picture, the composition creates a great sense of space, itself indicating… what? The restlessness of horses, and riders, jostling and shuffling, ready for the race to begin? And why on earth is it in the rain? The scattered blue slashes of pastel from top right are also on a (mild) diagonal and, once you notice them, add to the sense of unease and restlessness.

Empty or cramped or oddly cropped, Degas is always experimenting with compositional space.

Unfinished Degas had a lifelong habit of leaving works unfinished, whether it’s because he was a perfectionist, or restless to move on, or on aesthetic principles, is difficult to gauge. Different models and colleagues have left different accounts of his feverish impatience.

Look at At the jewellers (above). Not only are the two ‘finished’ figures awkward and cramped but (and I have to admit I didn’t notice this at first, maybe because I was standing too close to it) but there’s an entire third figure on the right, barely sketched in and left completely abandoned. Why? Lots of the ballet dancer works reveal big patches of unprepared canvas left exposed.

You can see how this could be part of the aesthetic of catching life on the fly, on the move, the brief unconscious gestures of his subjects, patting their hair or adjusting a strap – just those quick fleeting glimpses of entirely modern life which – as Degas knew from his impeccably classical training – nobody in the history of art had tried to capture before.

So maybe their incompleteness is part of the fleetingness.

5. Colour

Some of the sketches are more or less monochrome and the oil paintings are fairly conventional in colouring – but the pastel works – wow! They are an explosion of the most vivid reds and greens and blues, mauves and oranges.

Three Dancers (1900-5) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Three Dancers (1900-5) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on tracing paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

It’s striking to see green used so routinely to convey flesh colour (see the haunch of the woman in the tub) but in fact this technique goes back to the Renaissance.

But the real shock is the red and oranges. The background to the woman in a tub or the women in a box and the ballerinas’ dresses. Wow. It is a shocking and intense colour which dominates the exhibition rooms and has, appropriately enough, been chosen as the exhibition poster. Incredibly, conservationists have shown that the colours were all originally much more intense but that exposure to light has faded them. Dayglo Degas!

In these works you can really see why he came to love pastel: not only were a) new industrially-developed and astonishingly vivid colours available, but b) you can build up a real depth of colour by repeated hatching and ‘fixing’ and colouring again but c) but without having to paint right up to the lines, as you’re obliged to in oil, able to leave large amounts of the surface rough and patchy – the hatching style gives you visual permission to do this – and so d) fulfilling the contemporary, fleeting, impressionist aesthetic.

The commentary uses words like iridescent, fluorescent, vibrant, but words can’t really do justice to quite how astonishingly, violently loud these colours are. They leap off the surface. And yet this vibrancy is always mediated, compromised, somehow made all-the-more dynamic, by the very obvious hatching, the rough bare lines of blue or orange or black which create a tremendous sense of dynamism and excitement.

It’s small, it’s free, but this is one of the most visually exciting exhibitions I’ve been to in ages.

Women in a Theatre Box (1885-90) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Women in a Theatre Box (1885-90) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Pastel on paper © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

P.S.

Nowhere in the exhibition information did it mention that the National Gallery does have other Degas works on display, upstairs in room 42. Worth walking up a flight of stairs and through a few rooms to make your Degas experience complete!

Video

Most galleries nowadays produce short highlights videos to promote their exhibitions. But the National Gallery is now making available recordings of the fifty-minute-long lectures or introductions to their main exhibitions, given by the exhibition curators.

This is an excellent idea, as it helps you get a real sense of what the curators are trying to do, of the practical problems of arranging exhibitions by theme or chronology or medium and so on, plus snippets and insights not available at the show itself.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Monochrome: Painting in black and white @ the National Gallery

A delightful and thoughtful idea: 60 or so works from the entire history of Western art, painted on glass, vellum, ceramic, silk, wood, and canvas, which are devoid of colour, and styled solely in black and white and shades of grey.

As with any themed exhibition, the assembled works help you do several things:

  1. ‘explore’ the theme and its subsidiary ideas, as laid out and guided by the curators
  2. just enjoy rare or otherwise unavailable paintings or objects for themselves, in their own right.

Thus alongside some pretty rare and recondite works, demonstrating the range of ways artists have used black and white – for technical or competitive reasons – there’s also a large number of knockout pieces by super-famous names such as van Eyck, Van Dyck, Titian, Ingres, Picasso, Malevich, Giacometti, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns and more.

Academic

I’ve read criticisms that the show is a bit academic with some pretty obscure academic bypaths, but I’m quite academic so I liked it a lot. What I mean is that the curators have used some out-of-the-way – and not premier league – works to illustrate different ways artists through history have used black and white imagery, or to explain the development of artistic techniques.

Some critics have said they should have dropped the dodgy works and stuffed the rooms with masterpieces. But that’s what I like about it. The curators have made a list of ways and techniques artists used black and white and then looked for the best ways to illustrate these ideas, techniques and media (the show includes sculpture, prints and photos as well as paintings).

In doing so they have also managed to secure the loan of some masterpieces rarely seen in the UK, for example from the Met in New York and the Hermitage in Petersburg. So the 61 pieces on display are an entertaining combination of the super-famous, the arcane and obscure and ‘rare opportunities to see’.

And it’s small. 61 pieces. At least two of these are in little sets of two or three (a painting and a print of it, a painting and a statue of it) so the actual number is closer to 50 original works.

And small is beautiful because a lot of the pieces have quite a story behind them or represent an entire historical epoch’s use of black and white. They require quite a bit of reading (or listening on the audio guide) to understand. So 50 pieces turns out to be quite enough to fill the average brain with a wealth of historical facts, and to take in quite a few stunning masterpieces.

Less is more. Quite quickly you can identify the pieces you really like and really concentrate on them. I returned at the end to look long and deep at the van Eyck diptych and the Boucher sketch, feasting my eyes, admiring every wonderful detail.

The effect of black and white

Put simply, art in black and white omits the ‘distraction’ of colour and brings out the essential shape and form of the objects depicted. It highlights the use of light and shade. And it brings out the objects’ spatial relationships. Pose and posture, light and shade, shape and impact – these are all foregrounded when colour is switched off.

It would be neat to say what art in black and white does, but this very historical, chronological approach shows that in fact art in black and white has performed a whole range of functions, in different times and places and societies.

N.B. grisaille is the French term given to works done entirely in shades of gris i.e. grey.

A history of black and white

But the history of black and white is vastly more complex than that.

The colour of Christian penitence and mortification

In medieval times Christian religion was dominant across all aspects of life and culture in a way we can’t really imagine nowadays. The first room gives three distinct and fascinating examples.

In France, on order of monks banned colour illustrations. It was decreed that stained glass and manuscript illustrations must be in monochrome, to avoid inflaming and distracting the senses from the word of God. The show includes an example of a b&w stained glass from 1320, and a contemporaneous manuscript. This severe ‘look’ became popular in the French court and inspired a fashion for secular subjects drawn without colour. And this insight, that omitting colour from a visual work makes viewers focus on the subject and/or form, rather than on distracting and colourful details, echoes down to our own day.

In a separate genre, many altarpieces, particularly smaller diptychs designed to be moved from place to place (to accompany the king or a senior churchman) were made up of outer panels which opened on hinges to reveal the scene within. The tradition grew up of doing the outer panel in black and white to suggest the world before the revelation of Jesus, before it was suffused with Christian meaning – and then you opened the diptych to reveal the Birth of Jesus in glorious colour. In a world bereft of artificially coloured objects this must have had a dazzling impact.

There are several examples, one by Hans Memling, the other The Annunciation Diptych by Jan van Eyck. God, I love the art of the Northern Renaissance. Looking closely you can see that the figures of the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are reflected in the black background, making the images appear strongly three-dimensional. And note the way the angel’s right wing stretches out over the picture frame, moving into three dimensional space. What a god!

The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary), about 1433–5 by Jan van Eyck © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary) (1433–5) by Jan van Eyck © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Yet another use for black and white is demonstrated by the biggest and most spectacular exhibit. Some churches used enormous black and white coverings to hang over their walls to hide the colour paintings during sober seasons of the year, most obviously Lent. The curators have secured an enormous wall-sized hanging from Genoa. In actual fact it isn’t strictly speaking black and white; it has a strong blue tinge and the commentary explains that this kind of fabric, made in the Italian city of Genoa, was referred to by French artists as Gênes, the French name for Genoa, from which we get our modern word ‘jeans’. But that’s not really the point – the point is the way black and white was used as a mournful, penitent colour in Christian iconography.

Preparatory sketches

Centuries later, once Europe had struggled free of the religious wars sparked by the Reformation, cultural epochs later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, we have many examples of artists using black and white oil paintings as preparatory sketches. These could be used:

  • for an artist to make sure he was happy with his composition, with the disposition of forms in space, and to clarify where and how light should fall – especially important when the commission was for a fresco or ceiling on which light would naturally fall
  • to show a patron on a small scale what they would be getting for their money
  • as a teaching aid to pupils in the Master’s workshop

After all these years I know my own taste, and know that I love sketches with a strong sense of line. Thus I returned again and again to this wonderful black and white oil sketch by François Boucher. It brings out the weight of the composition (weighted towards the bottom right, growing emptier as you head top left), flecks of white highlight the direction of the light source, burnishing details (like the rim of the shield in the bottom right).  Nothing to do with black and white, a survey of the 50 works here shows that faces are difficult. The faces in the Rembrandt painting later in the show are, well, not great, and I don’t like the Titian portrait. Here, Boucher’s sketchy suggestion of the faces seem to me spot on, as much as you need and let the creating brain complete the image.

Vulcan's Forge (Vulcan presenting Venus with Arms for Aeneas) (1756) by François Boucher © Paris, Les Arts Décoratifs / Jean Tholance

Vulcan’s Forge (Vulcan presenting Venus with Arms for Aeneas) (1756) by François Boucher © Paris, Les Arts Décoratifs / Jean Tholance

There were so many black and white oil sketches that they created a separate market, especially among artists themselves, to study the compositional style and technique of their rivals.

This thought brings us to the centrepiece of room two and maybe the most impressive work of grisaille in the exhibition – a reworking by Ingres of his famous Odalisque, but entirely in black and white.

(This is one of the precious loan works, a rare opportunity to see a painting which is normally resident in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Ingres was obsessed by this image. He made several full colour paintings of it but we know that he kept this black and white version by his side for over a decade. Important features include:

  • the way lots of the decorative elements of the finished colour painting have been stripped away, to reveal not only the shape of the woman’s body but the other key elements of the composition, namely the floor tiles and the curtains
  • the way some of it is not even finished, namely the goldeny strip beneath her flank and bottom.

Both these facts suggest that Ingres used it as a teaching aid in his studio, for his large number of pupils. And, on a purely subjective view, the more you look at her body the more you realise it is strangely out of proportion: her flank and bottom look more like a horse’s.

It is the quintessential grisaille, the work which stands as the summit of previous black and white and influences successive generations of artists.

Odalisque in Grisaille (1824-34) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Odalisque in Grisaille (1824-34) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Trompe l’oeil

‘Fooling the eye’. As it reached maturity Western art became interested (among thousands of other things) in the ability of flat oil paintings to fool the eye, create optical illusions, give a sense of three dimensions. You really had to look close up to be sure this wasn’t a relief, naturally shedding shadows onto incised forms. But it isn’t. It’s a two dimensional painting.

Jupiter and Ganymede (1739) by Jacob de Wit © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

Jupiter and Ganymede (1739) by Jacob de Wit © Ferens Art Gallery, Hull Museums

There’s an extraordinary little cluster of three works based on a genre painting by Chardin of a woman just back from the market with her shopping, painted in 1742. A printmaker named Bernard Lépicié made a black and white print of it – so far, so standard.

But then a painter named Etienne Moulinneuf made a black and white painting of the identical subject, based on the Lépicié print, but painted as if it had a glass cover to it, which has been smashed. It’s an extraordinary piece of trompe l’oeil, which is why it’s in this room, but also a bizarre thing to do. More like something Marcel Duchamp would have done than an eighteenth century painter.

Back from the Market (La Pourvoyeuse), about 1770 by Etienne Moulinneuf after Jean-Siméon Chardin. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California © Museum Associates / LACMA

Back from the Market (La Pourvoyeuse), about 1770 by Etienne Moulinneuf after Jean-Siméon Chardin. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California © Museum Associates / LACMA

Nearby is a little grouping based round a statue the great sculptor was commissioned to make of Christ being taken down from the cross. In the end it was never taken forward, but a pupil of Canova’s painted an awesomely realistic painting of what the sculpture would look like, complete with incredibly persuasive sense of light and shade; and next to it the curators have placed a miniature statue made by a later sculptor based on the painting, which is incredibly identical even down to the highlights and shadows.

It’s not a great work but, as explained above, it is a convincing example of an interesting historical development or issue. Because this section explains that in the 18th century there blew up quite a debate between painters and sculptors about who was best. In Italian the debate was called il paragone and this small room also includes masterpieces by Titian and Mantegna in which they strive to prove that painting was better because

  1. it could render size and weight and form and light and shadow just as well as sculpture
  2. it could render shades of colour infinitely better

Prints

A whole section is devoted to prints and print-making. A detailed oil sketch by Rembrandt is juxtaposed with a black and white print of the same subject, along with amusing gossip about how he couldn’t stop interfering with the printer’s work. There is an enormous print of Hercules by Hendrik Goltzius, and a vast pen and ink work by him depicting Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1599).

The curators were telling us something important about how artists, and Goltzius in particular, used the techniques of etching and print-making to rival oil painting for detail, but my mind’s eye glazed over a little. I noted details, such as the way the artist has included himself, lurking among the bushes to the left of Ceres (goddess of the earth). And also the mundane fact that this is an enormous image and is on rare loan from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. But you can’t get worked up about everything in an exhibition. Finding out what you do and don’t like is part of the fun.

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1606) Hendrick Goltzius © The State Hermitage Museum, 2017 / Photo: Vladimir Terebenin

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1606) Hendrick Goltzius © The State Hermitage Museum, 2017 / Photo: Vladimir Terebenin

The impact of photography

The impact of photography on traditional art is a subject which could fill hundreds of rooms in a gallery, it is so immense.

In line with the curators’ tasteful minimalism there were only a handful of works here – a pioneering photo of the sea juxtaposed with a black and white painting of the sea, to make the point about how photography began to encroach on figurative art right from its invention in the 1930s.

Nearby is a wondrous black and white oil painting of a young girl, included to indicate that it was the lucrative career of portrait painter which was the first to be undermined and then superseded by photography. The idea is that photography compelled some artists to try and capture photographic realism in their own works (before they realised it was impossible to compete and turned to other strategies).

But, like many other works in this lovely exhibition, it is not only making an art historical point, it is a quite stunning work of art in its own right.

Head of a Girl (1867) by Célestin Joseph Blanc © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Head of a Girl (1867) by Célestin Joseph Blanc © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Modern art

And then – boom! – we are in the modern epoch. The most powerful images from ‘the Modernist imperative’ include a characteristically intense grisaille portrait by Giacometti (familiar to anyone who attended the National Portrait Gallery’s recent Giacometti portrait exhibition).

And this work by Picasso. Late in life (in the 1950s when he was in his 70s) Picasso undertook an immense project to repainting his interpretations of Las Meninas, painted by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez in 1656.

As it happens I saw the world’s biggest collection of these obsessive reworkings in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona a few months ago. The more you look the more intensely powerful they seem, the more you share Picasso’s penetrating vision and ability to rework and remodel a subject.

And so this exhibition includes just one from the 44 variations, an intense close-up of the little girl at the front of the Velázquez picture, as an example of how immensely powerful a purely black and white painting can be in the modern idiom.

Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita María) 1957 by Pablo Picasso © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2017 / Photo: Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Photograph: Gasull Fotografia

Las Meninas (Infanta Margarita María) 1957 by Pablo Picasso © Succession Picasso / DACS, London 2017 / Photo: Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Photograph: Gasull Fotografia

The Picasso is in a different room but chronologically sits just before other modern works by:

  • Gerhard Richter (big black and white painting based on a press photo of a murdered prostitute)
  • Vija Celmins (the night sky – black with white stars)
  • Chuck Close ( a big portrait of art dealer Joel Shapiro)

New monsters / Abstraction

And then the final room of paintings is devoted to abstract works in black and white. Completely abstract painting is often said to stem from Kazimir Malevich’s iconic black square.

Black Square (1929) by Kazimir Malevich © The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Black Square (1929) by Kazimir Malevich © The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

He made several versions. One is hanging here and the curators explain how Malevich considered himself to have arrived at a kind of reduction ad absurdum of Western painting, a kind of ‘ground zero’, reducing all painting to this one primal image – black on white. At its first exhibition in 1915, Malevich hung the square high up in the corner of the gallery, where the coloured icon should be in a Russian Orthodox home, indicating that it was a new kind of modernist icon, replacing all previous attempts at figuration. As news of it spread, it had an immense influence on the rest of 20th century art.

(A story comprehensively told in the Whitechapel gallery’s 2015 exhibition, Adventures of the Black Square)

The other works in the room were more intriguing because I didn’t know them. These included a late (untitled) work by Jasper Johns, made of two panels folded closed and painted with his trademark grey flagstone surface (the closed panels referencing the diptychs from way back in the 15th century). We also learn that Johns was at least part inspired to paint so many grey works by repeated visits to study the Ingres Odalisque earlier in the show. Also:

  • Grey Mirror by Gerhard Richter (1992)
  • an example of Cy Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ paintings from the 1970s
  • Tomlinson Court Park I by Frank Stella (1959)

 

And this work of Op Art by the great Bridget Riley:

Horizontal Vibration (1961) by Bridget Riley © Bridget Riley 2017. All rights reserved

Horizontal Vibration (1961) by Bridget Riley © Bridget Riley 2017. All rights reserved

A room devoted to proving that works in black and white can be just as powerful as coloured paintings and, in fact, have a mystique and an atmosphere all their won.

Room for one colour

The final room is a startling surprise. It is an installation by Olafur Eliasson. The ceiling of an empty room  is hung with orange sodium lights, like street lights. That’s it. But the result is dramatic: orange light drains all the colour from everyone seen in it – all the fixtures of the room and all the visitors, forcing the eye to focus on just shapes and shades of grey. There weren’t too many people in the room when I was there and they didn’t like being studied as intensely as I’d have liked to – but I take the point.

It’s a dazzling and completely unexpected climax to a show which has included all kinds of strange and wonderful works and shed light on a range of issues and ideas in art which I’d never heard of.

Some general points

Colour, actually

Actually, the exhibition wasn’t all in monochrome. Quite a few of the works here did include colour of one sort or another. The early religious grisaille glass panel included lines of yellow. The vast church wall covering was done on a blue background which came through. The Titian Mantegna are full of colour. The van Eyck diptych had a colour painting inside, and the Rembrandt – supposedly a monochrome sketch – was mostly made of shades of brown.

Now I just happen to have visited Royal West of England Academy’s annual exhibition a month or so ago, and this show has got into the habit of featuring one room containing only black and white art – paintings, drawing, photos, sculptures and so on. The walls were white and it was actually quite atmospheric to enter a room decorated intensely, but only with black or white or shades of grey.

Installation view of RWA 165

Installation view of RWA 165

Compared to that really purist experience, most of the rooms here included some elements of colour, except for the very final room, composed solely of slick, clean, modern monochromes. And this consistency (of size actually) and of black and white, made it in a way the most persuasive room, viewed solely as art – as opposed to interesting examples from art history.

Women

Having recently read Whitney Chadwick’s enormous book about women artists and feminist art theory – Women, Art and Society – I am now highly sensitised to feminist issues in art. The obvious ones are: Are there any women artists in the show? How are women portrayed in the show?

Well, I counted 61 art works in total (though some of them were ‘repeats’ as explained above). Of these only three were by women – Marlene Dumas, Bridget Riley, Vija Celmins.

As to women portrayed in the exhibition, quite a few in various formats, but as to women portrayed semi-naked and so potentially victims of the male gaze I counted eight. After a bit of thought I decided ‘semi-naked’ means you can see their boobs.

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1599) by Hendrik Goltzius © The Trustees of The British Museum

Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Would Freeze (1599) by Hendrik Goltzius © The Trustees of The British Museum

There were two naked men: a big powerful sketch by Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau of naked Diomedes fighting with wild horses; and Hendrik Goltzius’s engraving of the Great Hercules (1589). Apparently Goltzius was the leading Dutch engraver of the early Baroque period, although I didn’t warm at all to this image except as an example of the kind of clumpy figure illustration you get for a lot of literary classics from the 16th or 17th centuries. A contemporary criticised Goltzius’s figures for looking like a bag of walnuts. Hard to disagree. I was particularly worried by his walnutty penis (it’s a big image and his shrivelled pecker is at eye-level).

The Great Hercules (1589) by Hendrik Goltzius © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photographer: Studio Buitenhof, The Hague

The Great Hercules (1589) by Hendrik Goltzius © Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photographer: Studio Buitenhof, The Hague

The video

The National Gallery has made a brief introductory video to the show, but here’s a recording of a 50-minute lecture given by the co-curators, which gives you a flavour of the art, the ideas and of them, and also an interesting insight into the world of curating, at the effort it takes to secure loans, the trials and tribulations of getting works sent to you, and the way an exhibition like this is conceived, planned and executed.

And here’s a video by the band The Monochrome Set simply because their name has ‘monochrome’ in it 🙂


Related links

Press reviews

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Rachel Whiteread @ Tate Britain

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an art exhibition in such a huge space.

Tate Britain has cleared all the walls out of the north wing exhibition rooms to create one enormous open space, 1,500 square metres, which is filled with casts in concrete, resin, papier mache and so on by Rachel Whiteread.

In fact the main impact of the show is being in such an enormous open space, walking round and savouring it. The size and lightness and openness brilliantly suit Whiteread’s mostly big and sometimes enormous casts of manufactured objects and internal spaces (houses, rooms, stairs).

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain, featuring Untitled (Staircase) (2001)

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain, featuring Untitled (Staircase) (2001)

It is really, really relaxing to wander round and eye up the exhibits and take in their scale and dimensions and angles and attributes. At most of the exhibitions I go to you have to put in quite a lot of effort reading the wall labels introducing each of the rooms and then read the label for every individual work.

Here there was no text at all on the walls. There is a foldout guide which every visitor is given, with 18 paragraphs (just counted them) dividing the works into themes or subjects (tables and bookshelves, public works, boxes, floors and stairs etc). But you don’t have to read it. And although there is a wall label for every work, most of these have very basic titles (Stair space, Room 101, Stairs, Light I), no explanatory text, and plenty of works are untitled.

Quite quickly this encourages you simply to enjoy the works as presences in their own right, unmediated by text or interpretation. The result is a wonderful sense of release and freedom, encouraging you just to wander round and – enjoy!

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Whiteread came to prominence when she won the Turner Prize in 1993, being – as every scrap of publicity about her emphasises – the first woman to do so. She hit the wider headlines when she cast the inside of a house in East London in concrete. The house was then demolished leaving only the cast in situ. In fact it only existed for a few months before angry locals got the work itself knocked down. There’s a video of the process of creation (shown here for those who want to sit and watch it) as well as documentary photos.

`House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition showcases her ability to cast objects in a variety of materials such as plaster, concrete, resin, rubber and metal. For example, a display case of hot water bottles (and enema bags!) demonstrating her use of different materials. These were made at different dates but all have the title Torso. The key thing is that the casts record the inside of the bottles and bags: they record the internal and empty space concealed within these everyday objects.

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain, featuring Torsos

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain, featuring Torsos

At the small end of the scale there are casts of the insides of individual cans, a row of toilet rolls in different colours (Line-up), the insides of circular cardboard cylinders you keep architects’ diagrams in and the insides of filing cabinets.

Getting a bit bigger in scale, there are casts of the insides of mattresses in various colours, some propped against the wall, although they are solid not soft and bendy.

Untitled (Amber Bed) (1991) © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

Untitled (Amber Bed) (1991) © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

But it’s the really monumental casts of architectural space which catch the eye. The stairs (in figure one, above) or the internal cast of the room at Broadcasting House which George Orwell supposedly used as the basis for Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Her work makes space visible. Emptiness becomes solid. Tangible. Walk aboutable. Think aboutable.

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain featuring Room 101 (2003) and Staircase (2001)

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain featuring Room 101 (2003) and Staircase (2001)

Away in one corner was a wall of sketches and 2-D works (in the background of this photo).

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Installation view of Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Many are preparatory sketches for castings and show the same interest in interiors and architectural features. They range in media from pencil, varnish, correction fluid, watercolour and collage.

But some are not directly tied to the casting projects and are interesting free-standing works in their own right. I was taken by a small piece, which is a postcard of birds taking off (pigeons?) against the silhouette of buildings (Trafalgar Square?) which she has covered with white paint and then punched holes in. I liked it.

Untitled by Rachel Whiteread

Untitled by Rachel Whiteread

One of my favourite pieces was a set of bookshelves filled with books which seem to have been cast from the inside, so what is facing you is the pages-end of all the books, not (as you usually see in a library) the spines – Untitled (Book Corridors) 1997-8. In fact – it dawns on you as you wander round it – what you’re seeing is not bookshelves at all – but the space between bookshelves. The emptiness into which the books give.

The book theme looms large in the enormous Holocaust Memorial erected in Vienna in 2000, a memorial to the 65,000 Viennese Jews transported and exterminated by the Nazis, which consists of a room-sized cast, whose faces are made of the page-end sides of lined-up books i.e. not the spines. I find this absence or inaccessibility of the spines which usually carry the name and title of books i.e. their identity and meaning, especially powerful and disturbing.

This is just one of Whiteread’s numerous large and public sculptures. In the entrance hall there’s a display of photos of these public artworks.

A less earnest and more playful example was the work she made to top the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – a cast of the plinth itself, upside down, in resin. Being transparent, the work changed character with the changing light quality of the daylight. Genius.

The public, overt aspect of her work comes out in other ways. At some point she had the idea to cast the space underneath a chair. This sounds of quite limited interest or impact. But it turns out that if you cast this space underneath a whole range of different sizes and shapes of chairs, in different coloured resins, and then arrange them in neat rows – then they have a really massive impact. Hence Untitled (One Hundred Spaces, casts of chairs with all their imperfections and marks of wear and tear, lined up in five neat rows of 20, and filling Tate Modern’s long narrow atrium space (technically known as the Duveen Galleries).

Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) (1995) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate (Seraphina Neville and Andrew Dunkley)

Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) (1995) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate (Seraphina Neville and Andrew Dunkley)

(It’s worth mentioning that around the rest of the huge atrium space are key works from Tate’s collection selected by Whiteread herself as important for her practice and view of art.)

Whitereadiana

In the shop are posters, postcards, half a dozen books about Whiteread, as well as a number of videos and a Rachel Whiteread scarf, handkerchief and notebook, as well as a selection of paperbacks chosen by the woman herself (High Rise by J.G. Ballard, Depths and Quicksand by Henning Mankell, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson etc).

Outside the gallery, on the south lawn, is a new piece, the inside of a chicken shed cast in concrete.

Chicken Shed (2017) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate

Chicken Shed (2017) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: © Tate

The visitor handout, once I came to look at it, discusses the types of works (Early work, Works on paper, Public Commissions and so on) and raises various themes and issues which can be found in her work.

The most obvious ones are that:

  • It is a lot of hard work to make these apparently effortless sculptures.
  • And that all of the pieces are, in some sense, memorials: memorials of spaces which are transitory because the objects which frame them are transitory: the houses will be torn down, the mattresses will be thrown away, the water bottles will be junked. The rates of decay vary but she does what all artists do – captures some of the beauty and wonder of the world while it lasts.

The entire exhibition is blessedly free of the usual rhetoric about gender and identity although the fact that the artist is a woman might give some critics the opportunity to speak about these being mostly domestic spaces and domestic articles and taking it from there.

But, unlike so many recent shows I’ve been to, above all this one felt light and airy and uncluttered. It really is an amazing space and an amazing collocation of objects to fill it with. For some reason, T.S. Eliot’s lines come into my mind. You could ask what the works are about, or what they’re for or what they are saying. Or you could just enjoy them directly, engaging with them face to face without the intervention of curators or critics.

Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.

Treat yourself to a total immersion in Rachel-Whiteread-World.

Visitor demographics

 

I go to lots of exhibitions and am always alert to the popularity and the types of visitors they attract.

From a demographics point of view, what was really unusual about the visitors to this exhibition was the number of young people and, in particular, the large number of young women in evidence – singletons, pairs and groups of women in their 20s. It was really noticeable enough to be worth commenting on.

And this was another rather uplifting aspect to this exhibition – it felt younger than almost all the exhibitions I attend. Prompting the thought that it might be inspiring the next generation of women artists, students, writers and so on to create works as varied, as individual and as powerful as Whiteread’s.

The video

Every exhibition has at least one promotional video.

//players.brightcove.net/1854890877/4811b2e3-75b4-4489-b1a5-21a18a61075e_default/index.html


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Tove Jansson @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Since their first appearance in the 1940s, the Moomins have grown to be a worldwide phenomenon. The books have been translated into over 50 languages, there are have been numerous TV series and movies, as well as plays and an opera, and there are currently several Moomin Worlds, all based on the slender tales of these harmless little cartoon characters who live in the remote and enchanted Moomin Valley.

Dulwich Picture Gallery is currently hosting a wonderful, beautifully staged and life-affirming exhibition which aims to set the phenomenal worldwide success of the Moomin characters in the broader context of the career of their creator, Finnish artist Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001).

The exhibition brings together 150 works to show how, as well as creating the Moomins, Jansson was also a successful painter – creating striking self-portraits as well as experimental landscapes – a caricaturist and a book illustrator.

Oil paintings

The exhibition opens with a room of Jansson’s oil paintings, portraits of lovers and of her family and some of the many self-portraits she painted of herself, striking various poses, exuding a rather unsmiling air of purpose and self-confidence.

Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait) (1942) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis © The Estate of Tove Jansson

Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait) (1942) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis © The Estate of Tove Jansson

She came from a family which understood and supported her artistic aims. Her mother was an illustrator, her father was a sculptor and her two brothers also became artists. She had a very thorough artistic training, studying at art schools in Stockholm, Helsinki, then Paris.

During this time she experimented with contemporary styles of oil painting – the portrait of Maya is an essay in Gauguin, while another self-portrait is all angles and shadows like a Vorticist work. But the core of her style is a kind of modern realism, epitomised by this group portrait of her family, featuring her two younger brothers playing chess.

Family (1942) Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

Family (1942) Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

She hoped this would be treated as a masterpiece but the critics weren’t that keen. It was a good thirty years since Picasso, Matisse and the rest had revolutionised western art. In this context, it’s a very conservative work, and also rather a mish-mash. The faces of the mother, father, older boy and Tove’s own face all seem like they’ve been done in different styles. (Also, I was slightly irritated that I couldn’t make out the position of the pieces in the chess game. What’s the point of painting a chess game if you can’t see the pieces?)

War and satire

Born in 1914, Jansson came to adulthood in the ominous atmosphere of the 1930s, and witnessed the Soviet attacks on Finland in 1939. When Hitler’s Germany invaded Soviet Russia in 1941, Finland allied with the Nazis, and Finnish troops took part in the 872-day siege of Leningrad.

As might be expected her family, and Jansson, were strongly pacifist and throughout this period she worked as a caricaturist for the Finnish satirical magazine, Garm. There is a good selection of the cover illustrations she drew for Garm in a display case. They are extremely good, well designed, well drawn, and, above all, funny. In this cover illustration from 1938, Hitler is the spoilt cry-baby being offered choice bits of Europe to try and stop his bawling.

Cover illustration of Garm No. 10 (1938) Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Jenni Nurminen

Cover illustration of Garm No. 10 (1938) Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Jenni Nurminen

It was handy that Jansson’s artist mother had herself worked for Garm since it was established in 1929. All through the exhibition we are told what a strong, independent woman Jansson was, but it certainly helps your ‘independence’ if you have well-connected, sympathetic, comfortably-off parents to get you jobs and support your career.

Still, the covers are not only hilarious, they get better – better drawn and more sophisticated – as they go on. There’s a good one from 1943: as the war turns against Germany, posh people in suits are depicted rowing boats away from a swastika sinking in the sea. There’s a bitterly satirical one from the end of the war showing a Heath Robinson-style big industrial contraption, with black-faced evil Nazis entering at the bottom, passing through various cranks and cogs, and emerging as white-faced angels flying about the sky at the top! Yes, it’s time to forgive and forget 🙂

The one below, published as the Germans were retreating on all fronts in 1944, shows cartoon Hitlers looting Europe.

Cover illustration for Garm (1944) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis

Cover illustration for Garm (1944) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis

The clarity of line, and the stylisation of Hitler, remind me of the political cartoons of David Low, who published cartoons in the British press through the 1930s and 1940s.

David Low, Evening Standard (8th July, 1936)

David Low, Evening Standard (8th July, 1936)

I like cartoons so I loved these Garm covers. Jansson’s work should definitely be included in any books or collections about political cartoons of the 1930s and 40s.

The Moomins

If you look at the bottom right of the second Garm illustration, you can see Moomintroll hiding behind the ‘M’. Apparently Jansson sketched him as the result of losing a bet with her brothers. Initially he was called Snork. (Maybe this explains the similarity between the Snorks and the Moomins in the books.)

The Moomin story, the characters and their adventures, are so numerous and prolific that it is impossible to summarise. Briefly: they began as little extras in the Garm illustrations. Then Jansson developed comic strips, little sets of three or four pictures telling a story. These appeared in a Finnish left-wing newspaper for a while but it was only when the London Evening News (forerunner of today’s Evening Standard) signed a contract with Jansson after the war for a daily supply of cartoon strips, that they became famous. The exhibition devotes a lot of space to explaining how the Moomin characters evolved, and the commercial roots of them, giving examples of first drafts of the strips, sketches and rough workings.

The Evening News contract ran for seven years, being Jansson’s main source of income, and by the end the strip was being seen by twenty million people daily. The exhibition includes a wall full of fascinating of examples. What’s interesting is to see the Moomins – who in the books are targeted at pretty small children – taking part in grown-up comedy: it’s quite a shock!

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

And then, alongside the newspaper comic strips, Jansson began writing and illustrating book-length adventures for her cleanly-drawn, black and white biomorphic characters. The books, in order of their original publication, are:

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

So, as you can see, there are 25 years between the first and the last book – a full generation – in which the tone and attitude of the books subtly changed, maturing and becoming more wistful.

The second half of the exhibition is predominantly about the Moomin characters (there is a display case of an early version of little figurines of the characters made by Jansson’s brother), their development, the premise and plotlines of each of the books, and wonderful evocative illustrations from each of them.

I read all the books when I was about 8 or 9 and every single book illustration is imprinted on my memory and carries me off into a lovely warm memories of childhood absorption in her wonderful fantasy land of Moomin valley, with its collection of eccentric and lovable characters.

It should be mentioned that the exhibition has been carefully designed to encourage younger visitors (there were loads of toddlers about when I visited). The walls of each room are painted vibrant primary colours (yellow, orange, green) and are dotted with large decals of Moomin characters, like Renaissance putti, watching over the visitors.

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

You can read about the Moomins elsewhere, there is no shortage of sites and sources for more information:

Moomin merch

Writing the books and the strips went alongside managing the increasing range of merchandise, which began appearing even in Jansson’s lifetime. As Andy Warhol said:

Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say ‘money is bad’ and ‘working is bad’. But making money is art, and working is art – and good business is the best art.

And a lot of Jansson’s later energy was devoted to managing the growing Moomin empire, ensuring quality control for the various Moomin stage plays, operas, TV series, animations and spin-offs. This task has been taken over by her estate which keeps strict control of the Moomin images to this day.

Book illustrations

Coming off the back of this success as an illustrator of her own books, Jansson was invited to create illustrations for three children’s classics, Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1961) and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1959) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1966).

The commentary says Jansson made some effort to distinguish these works from her Moomin illustrations, but I’m not sure she succeeds. The Alice illustrations are the least convincing. The Hobbit ones are bizarre, as we see Jansson’s essentially warm comforting style deployed on dragons, orcs and giants. There are some brilliant examples, I liked the one of the three giants, but if you google it you can see scores more.

Best of the three in my opinion are the illustrations for The Hunting of the Snark.

Sea paintings, late oils

Jansson had more or less abandoned oil painting during the war for the Garm work, and then moved seamlessly on to produce the ever-growing Moomin universe. But in the 1960s she had the time and money to return to oil painting, her first love. The exhibition includes a room of later oil works, including three interesting abstract works designed to convey the sea.

Abstract Sea (1963) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

Abstract Sea (1963) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

They make heavy use of impasto or laying on the oil in thick wedges to create ridges and rifts of colour. They’re not really that distinctive enough to form a view. Three examples wasn’t enough; a room-full of her landscapes would have been interesting and useful (the other works in this room were still lifes and portraits), especially since the sea plays such a large part in the imaginative life of the Moomin books.

What they do convey, though, is the importance of the sea and lakes and water to Jansson. The audio guide includes a very useful 6 or 7 minute film summarising her entire life, and what this makes clear is what a happy, loving childhood she had. Every year her parents took her and her two brothers to the Finnish lakes where they played and frolicked all summer long. In adult life, Jansson rented a house on a remote island – Klovharun – among the Pellinge islands, and then built her own cabin where for the next three decades she and her partner, the graphic designer, Tuulikki Pietilä, lived and worked together. Her 1993 autobiography is titled Notes from an Island and is illustrated by Tuulikki.

This biographical film ends with a really wonderful bit of home film footage showing Jansson dancing on the top of a little ridge near the cabin, perfectly captured in silhouette. Just a normal person, not beautiful or thin and elegant, not a model or an actress, just a rather dumpy person like you or me who makes up her own Happy Dance and dances down towards the camera with a huge grin on her face.

It’s hard to imagine a more complete expression of contentedness and happiness. It’s wonderful.

For me the dominant theme of the Moomin books is tranquillity and acceptance. They describe great marvels and wonders – a comet rushing towards the earth, a great flood, the spooky silence of snow-covered mid-winter – and the Moomin family keep meeting all sorts of odd and peculiar characters – but they are never really afraid. All the oddity and adventure is calmly accepted by the eccentric Moominpapa and the supremely calm and practical Moominmamma. They stories are redolent of a warm and loving family, and I think that in the books and illustrations what comes over with great force is her happy childhood and warm supportive family life.

Adult fiction

It comes as no surprise to learn, then, that after her mother died in 1970, Jansson found herself unable to write any more Moomin stories. The special closeness she shared with her mother was broken; the untroubled happiness of Moomin Valley fell into shadow. (In fact a few large-format Moomin picture books did appear later – The Dangerous Journey (1977) and An Unwanted Guest (1980) – but the five big picture books are the triumph of pictures and design over text; they don’t have the imaginative intensity of the novels.)

And that’s when she turned to writing stories for adults, short stories and short novels. These have only slowly been translated into English (not all of them are yet available) and have established yet another string to her bow, as the ‘painter’ of charming, winsome tales of girls, childhood and femininity.

Novels
1972 The Summer Book
1974 Sun City
1982 The True Deceiver
1984 The Field of Stones

Short story collections
1968  Sculptor’s Daughter
1971 The Listener
1978 Art in Nature
1987 Travelling Light
1989 Fair Play
1991 Letters from Klara and Other Stories

Comments

Bright and lovely This is a beautifully conceived and laid out exhibition, the bright colour of the walls and the Moomin decals lending it an innocence and charm entirely in tune with the subject matter.

The snug Half way along the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s six room exhibition space is an odd circular room off to one side, a dimly-lit mausoleum commemorating the gallery’s sponsors, Sir Francis Bourgeois, Noel and Margaret Desenfans. For most exhibitions you simply walk past, but for this one the curators have put rugs and beanbags into the Mausoleum along with several library book holders full of Moomin books. This is where I lay to watch the video about Jansson’s life before it began filling up with toddlers. My advice to the curators: Put many, many more beanbags and rugs into the Snug – and some kind of heater: make it really snug.

Be happy ‘As happy as Tove’ should be a new proverb. What an extraordinarily talented woman. And what a gift to be able to channel her sense of warmth and security into a series of wonderfully reassuring, imaginative and beautiful stories.

Tove Jansson swimming ©Per Olov Jansson

Tove Jansson swimming ©Per Olov Jansson

The video

Here is the show being previewed by Ian Dujardin.

For those who want more, BBC Scotland made an hour-long documentary about Jansson.

Moomin merch

There are over fifty items of Moomin merchandise for all your Christmas shopping needs.


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

The extreme unsubversiveness of modern art

(Thoughts arising from visiting the Dali/Duchamp exhibition at the Royal Academy, then reading books about Surrealism, Dali and Duchamp.)

Straw men

I helped my son study for his philosophy A-level and one of the many interesting aspects was a handout his teachers gave him detailing 20 or so common fallacious arguments. The straw man fallacy is where you attribute to your opponent simplistic arguments which they don’t actually hold, in order to look good by easily demolishing them. You dodge their difficult questions by claiming they’ve asked easy ones which you can just blow over. You erect a straw man which is all-too-easy to demolish.

I have that straw man feeling when I read almost any critical book or exhibition guide about modern art. So many of them start from the premise that modern art ‘challenges’, ‘questions’, ‘subverts’ or ‘interrogates’ all our assumptions about art, the role of art, the future of art, the role of the artist and so on and so on.

But modern art doesn’t subvert anything, and no intelligent person thinks it does. Any educated person should know that Marcel Duchamp took a common-or-garden public urinal, signed it and put it in a Dada art exhibition in 1917. It was, in fact, ignored for a long time, but interest revived after the Second World War, and Duchamp’s select array of ‘anti-art’ activities and ‘provocations’ was widely copied in the let-it-all-hang-out 1960s – so much so that he found himself being hailed, right at the end of his life, as the godfather of conceptual art, arguably the leading art movement of our times.

So daring, darling

But every time I read another guide beginning to talk about the subversiveness, the revolutionariness and so on of the art under discussion, I am oppressed by how old so much of this art is and how old the entire idea of art being ‘subversive’ is.

It was 56 years ago that Piero Manzoni made cans of his own faeces and declared them art. Not just that, but sold them to Tate, which now proudly displays them with a po-faced explanatory label.

At the time Manzoni pointed out that by canning and arting it, he had made his shit worth more than its weight in gold. Of course it has shot up in value in the past decades, so a tin of Italian shit would nowadays buy you a swanky London house. Is this still ‘shocking’ and ‘subversive’? Maybe, to people who hadn’t heard about it before, but nowadays you quickly assimilate it and file it under ‘one more shocking piece of modern art’, along with thousands of other examples.

So: Are we shocked any longer by Duchamp putting a toilet, a bottle rack or a bicycle wheel on a stool into an art gallery? God, of course not! The 1960s took all his ideas, and the Surrealists’ and avant-garde 1920s composers, and took them much much further.

Yves Klein got naked women to cover themselves in blue paint and roll on canvases and called it art, Richard Long took photos of circles of rocks he’d built in the desert and called it art, Christo wrapped the Bundestag in foil and called it art, Carl André sold Tate a bunch of bricks and called it art. Countless ‘happenings’ where everyone got naked and danced to avant-garde music was art. Andy Warhol mass produced posters and called them art, Dali signed blank paper and called it art, Jasper Johns painted the American flag and called it art, Jackson POllock spattered oil paint over enormous canvases and called it art.

All this happened 40, 50, 60 years ago. The Duchamp urinal was 100 years ago this year. It is an antique. It is old news and the ‘issues’ it raised are dead and buried, too.

This kind of conceptual art is:

1. Potentially limitless. New examples of ‘schocking’ and ‘subversive’ conceptual art can go on being devised forever, vide Tracey Emin’s unmade bed (1998) or Martin Creed’s empty room with a light switching on and off every five seconds (2000). But just how ‘subversive’ are they? Both of these examples won the Turner Prize and were bought by Tate. Tracey’s bed is now a modern ‘classic’.

2. Completely assimilated in all histories of art, taught to Junior school kids, and covered in GCSE and A-level art courses as routinely as Rembrandt and Michelangelo. My daughter was taught about the urinal. There’s a BBC Bitesize web page about it. There are countless t-shirts, cartoons and merchandise showing its entire assimilation into contemporary culture.

Something taught to a country’s school children is not subversive; it is the opposite of subversive. In fact it is the working definition of a society’s current, fully accepted and State-sanctioned values.

Tate modern killed subversive art

You only have to visit London’s Tate Modern to see how thoroughly assimilated the entire tradition of ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ art has become.

This huge building is is stuffed with works in this lineage, with galleries devoted to Arte Povera (off-cuts of felt hanging from the wall), minimalism (Robert Morris’s cubes of reflecting glass), with Joseph Beuys’s sledges carrying rolls of felt and flashlamps, and the enormously popular annual display they have in the main atrium: a huge crack in the floor of the entrance hall, the floor covered with porcelain sunflower seeds, enormous helter skelters, a massive ‘sun’ illuminating the space with yellow light. Etc.

Here is a photo of Ai Weiwei smashing a vase, there are some fluorescent tubes modelled into various shapes by Dan Flavin, and on the wall a video of Gilbert and George getting pissed.

All this is not only not subverting or undermining anything, it has not only been totally assimilated, but it is actively celebrated and promoted. Nearly 6 million visitors went to Tate Modern in 2016, making it the third most popular visitor attraction in London. Nobody is ‘troubled’, ‘challenged’, ‘subverted’, ‘shocked’ or ‘horrified’ by modern art; it is taught to school trips of children, marketed in every form you can imagine, and the subject of coach parties of pensioners. The members restaurant is a prime location for ladies who lunch.

Modern art is the most opposite entity to ‘subversion’ that I can imagine, as I reflect for the umpteenth time, as I push past the coach party of retired ladies from Burnley who have come down to see the exhibition of that famous ‘subversive’ and ‘revolutionary’, Marcel Duchamp at the Royal Academy.

(I got into quite a long chat with a retired lady from Nottingham who’d come all the way to London, with her husband, just to see it. She didn’t look shocked or subverted; the opposite; she was thrilled to see so many famous and classic ‘works of art’ in the flesh.)

The exhibition shop as death of subversion, birth of merchandise

By far the most ‘subversive’ part of any art exhibition is the exhibition shop, which is always placed at the exit of the show so you can’t avoid it.

These gallery shops comprehensively destroy any claims modern art could possibly have to be subversive and shocking. Here, the most ‘shocking’ examples of ‘revolutionary’ art have been adapted into fridge magnets, luxury books and catalogues, t-shirts, hats and handbags, jewellery, plates and mugs, table mats and coasters, shortbread tins, glasses cases, oyster card holders, posters, prints and postcards, shopping bags, lamp shades, wraps, rings and ear-rings, cushions and throws – all to buy and own and give as gifts, to prop on the mantlepiece, place on the coffee table, hang on the wall.

The sheer breadth of merchandise available at modern art exhibitions often makes me feel like I’m in John Lewis or Heal’s interior furnishing departments, browsing among bijou objects to brighten up the landing or hang in the loo next to the Vermeer print and the Dufy poster.

Why do art curators continue to deceive themselves and us?

So why do critics and curators keep on insisting, in show after show, in book after book, in dissertation after dissertation, that the art they’re discussing is ‘subversive’, ‘challenging’, ‘revolutionary’ and all the rest of it?

1. The need for academics to write

Well, they have to live. They have to have careers. They have to write something. They have to justify their jobs. They have to justify their profession as something which contributes to society, moves things forward, changes things. I began an English Literature PhD and was informed that in America about 100,000 PhDs on English Literature are published every year. PhD candidates and their supervisors are really scrabbling around to find new subjects, or new light to shed on old subjects, any subjects.

And casting your subject as forceful, vital, subversive and revolutionary adds significance and vitality to any writing.

2. It is the rhetoric of the age

Ironically and paradoxically, as society has become more right-wing, reactionary, and less meritocratic; as wealth has been redirected away from the squeezed lower and middle classes towards a global elite of the mega-rich, the tone of cultural rhetoric has become more universally revolutionary. Any of the twentieth century greats – Matisse, Picasso, Pollock, you name them – all of them have been presented as ‘revolutionaries’ subverting this, that or the other in recent art exhibitions of their work I’ve attended.

And the entire history of modern art is presented as a succession of revolutionary movements – as you can see from the huge timeline of modern art movements painted along the entire wall on the second floor of Tate Modern.

Possibly – probably – in their day, this was true. Cubism shocked the traditional art world. Pollock puzzled American art connoisseurs until he had been explained, mediated and assimilated. The Young British Artists exhibition ‘shocked’ and ‘scandalised’ philistine idiots as recently as 1997.

But now Tracey Emin is a national treasure and you can’t move for the cross-dressing ceramicist Grayson Perry winning prizes, delivering lectures, fronting BBC documentaries. Am I shocked by Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings? Or Picasso putting both eyes on the same side of the nose? No.

3. Feeling like a revolutionary

I can imagine there is quite a lot of psychological pleasure to be gained by thinking that you are riding on the coat-tails of revolutionaries. Golly. That makes you a little bit of a revolutionary too. There must be quite a lot of psychological gratification to be derived from thinking you are working in the company of radicals and subversives — instead of being a civil servant-style functionary who goes into work every day like the rest of us and stares at a computer screen. It makes you stand out. It makes you special.

I recently read Czesław Miłosz’s classic The Captive Mind which goes into great detail about the psychological rewards to be gained from joining the Communist party in Eastern Europe – specifically Poland – after the Second World War. There were lots of motivations, but one of them was feeling that you were on the right side of history, on the side of the angels and against the stuffy, boring bourgeoisie.

That psychological appeal – of being on the side of the ‘radical’ and the ‘subversive’ and ‘challenging’ social norms – hasn’t gone away. Each new generation of art curators and critics discovers it all over again at art school.

4. Triumph of the rich

But this is 2017. The rich have won. The notion of a really coherent anti-capitalist ideology died with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Since then all political parties throughout the industrialised world have been various shades of liberalism masking the triumph of unfettered capitalism.

And this isn’t the result of some evil scheme by a cabal of wicked men. Global consumer capitalism has triumphed because it is what everyone wants. Everyone wants a car, a TV and a fridge, and if you’ve got a fridge, you need fridge magnets. If you’ve got walls you need something to hang on them. Which is where modern art comes in. To decorate, entertain, distract, inform and amuse our modern consumer lifestyles.

5. Modern art as fashion item for the super-rich

Some time ago (a generation ago? or right back to the post-war period?) modern art became fashionable for the rich to collect, specially rich Americans (it is no coincidence that Duchamp based himself in New York and that his key works are in a museum in Philadelphia).

That in itself undermines modern art’s claims to subvert anything – the fact that more often than not it was sponsored and only came into existence because of the active support of the rich: Duchamp was supported by the millionaire collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg who acquired 85 per cent of his output.

This alone shows that any ‘subverting’ that was going on in modern art didn’t in the least threaten the economic or cultural world in which these multi-millionaires moved; it was just ‘the latest thing, darling’, the latest fashion item from France, ‘soooooooooooo daring and chic, darling!’

Here is Marcel Duchamp’s major puzzling and ‘subversive’ work of art – The Bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even – on the front cover of Vogue magazine back in 1945.

Cover of Vogue (1945) Model posing with Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass, photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld

Cover of Vogue (1945) Model posing with Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld

6. The grotesque over-valuations of modern art

This trend – the intimate relationship between modern ‘subversive’ art and people with more money that we can imagine – has gone into hyper-drive over the past 25 years (since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in fact) as a new super-rich global elite has emerged which likes to invest in modern art alongside oil wells, property in London and the rest of its portfolio.

Hence the really remarkable prices which ‘classic’ modern art sells for nowadays. Here’s a list of the top ten most valuable paintings sold on the open market.

  1. Interchange Willem de Kooning (1955) – $300 million
  2. The Card Players by Paul Cézanne (1892) – $266 million
  3. Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) (1892) by Paul Gauguin $210 million
  4. Number 17A by Jackson Pollock (1948) – $200 million
  5. No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red) by Mark Rothko (1951) – $188 million
  6. Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit by Rembrandt (1634) – $180 million
  7. Les Femmes d’Alger (‘Version O’) by Pablo Picasso (1955) – $181.2 million
  8. Nu Couché by Modigliani (1917/18) – $172.2 million
  9. No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock (1948) – $166.3 million
  10. Masterpiece by Roy Lichtenstein (1962) $165 million

(Source: Wikipedia)

Surely the ‘shocking’ thing about these works is not at all ‘the revolutionary refusal of the figurative tradition’ or ‘the exploration of the picture plane as an object in itself’ – it is the amount of money paid for them.

Note the artists and dates. Rembrandt is the only Old Master on the list; all the rest are ‘modern’ works and half of them are the work of post-war Abstract Expressionists – Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning – once ridiculed and scorned for their meaningless splats, now commanding the highest prices in art history.

You can invoke art theorists from Plato to Ruskin declaring that Art is the gateway to transcendent value of the soul or imagination; you can invoke all those ‘revolutionary’ manifestos declaring that Art is going to transform society – and, certainly all these theories and ideas help to understand how and why the art of their day was produced…

But to understand what Art means today, in 2017, you must fully take into account that Art is now a commodity traded by Russian billionaires and Arab investment funds (numbers 2 and 3 were sold to Qatar; numbers 1 and 4 to an American hedge fund manager; number 5 to a Russian oligarch; number 8 to a Chinese billionaire).

The taboo sub-text of modern Art isn’t Freudian secrets or anti-patriarchal subversion or post-colonial ‘interrogation of the imperial narrative’ – it is that Art has been bought lock, stock and two smoking barrels by the rich.

Feminist and black art

The effective defeat of modern art as a ‘radical’ political activity goes some way to explaining why art criticism – like progressive politics generally – has retreated into ‘identity politics’. Here it is on safer ground (sort of).

If it can’t change or subvert a society which has completely bought into consumer capitalism, which is in thrall to neo-liberal economic theory and which is run by vast, uncontrollable financial force fields working between America, the Gulf, Russia and China – well, it is on firmer ground when it addresses the historic wrongs done to black people and women.

If curators and critics are on a hiding to nothing describing as ‘world changing’ art which has, in our time, become a glorified investment vehicle for Yankee hedge fund managers and Chinese billionaires, they can still let rip with all the revolutionary rhetoric they want when it comes to exhibitions about women or black artists.

Here, the universal curatorial nostalgie pour le revolution is, for once, partly justified.

You can almost feel the relief in the curator catalogues, prose and wall labels about exhibitions of women or black artists or empire, because they are dealing with ideas which are still live issues. If all calls for a socialist revolution, for the overthrow of capitalism, are dead in the water (and look it and feel it and sound it), feminist artists can still be presented as genuine ‘revolutionaries’ in an ongoing struggle. And black artists, like the excellent Kara Walker, invoke social issues which really are still live, problematic and troubling.

So black and feminist criticism is where the revolutionary spirit – completely crushed and obliterated in wider industrial societies – has gone to hide and recuperate. This explains the its prevalence in the safe and privileged space of the academy and art gallery – and its vehemence. White male artists have given up even pretending they are ‘revolutionary’ (Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormley), but black and women artists (and their critics and curators) can still recite the old formulas, the old catch-phrases, about ‘subverting the patriarchy’ and ‘challenging institutional racism’, in the naive and optimistic belief that Art is still capable of changing anything.

The very social and political visibility of issues around racism and feminism means that artists working in these areas can still invoke the rhetoric of challenge and subversion which long ago gave up the ghost in the wider art world – and are certainly dead and buried when it comes to any discussion of the ‘revolutionariness’ of ‘mainstream’ 20th century art.

The curricularisation of radical feminist and black art

That said, is there the risk that ‘radical’ feminist art and ‘challenging’ black art is itself being assimilated – it’s just that nobody’s told the artists (or their curators)?

Every year Black History Month comes around and we have modern artists creating ‘challenging’ works around slavery, shackles, manacles, horrible pictures of lynching and torture. And this race-based or post-colonial attitude has broadened out into extended critiques of the British Empire.

Thus at Bristol Art Gallery recently I saw an exhibition about Empire Through the Lens. A year or so ago Tate Britain hosted a big exhibition about the British Empire. You will not be surprised that in both these shows, and countless others across the land, the message was and is rammed home that the British Empire was a cruel, ruthless and barbaric institution based on centuries of inhuman slavery.

Every exhibition about women artists nowadays has to include as many references as possible to the way they had to struggle against institutional sexism, against being banned from art school, excluded from the life drawing classes, forbidden from exhibiting, shunned by male artists and gallerists and collectors, and so on. Almost all women artists turn out to be strong, independent minded, arguing for equality in works which ‘challenge the patriarchy’ and ‘question heteronormative assumptions’, and raise ‘issues of gender, identity and sexuality’.

These have become the art critical clichés of our time. Walk into any art gallery in London, Bristol, Barcelona and New York (the extent of my travels in recent years) and read exactly the same opinions about exactly the same issues.

Both my kids were taught about slavery at school. It is pretty much all they know about the British Empire (when tested, neither of them knew who Nelson was or why there’s a statue to him in Trafalgar Square, but they both knew all about the Atlantic Slave Trade and why slavery was so wicked).

My daughter was taught feminism as part of her Sociology, Geography (population control), Biology (contraception), English Literature and Religious Studies GCSEs, and is continuing to learn about feminist theory in her Sociology and Psychology A-Levels.

Among the university educated (50% of the population) and the young, among bien-pensant Liberals of all ages, these ‘radical’, ‘challenging’ views are the intellectual truisms, clichés, stock opinions and banalities of our time. There is nothing ‘challenging’ or ‘subversive’ about them.

Imagine you get a promotional email from an art gallery announcing that:

A female artist is exhibiting her recent works about feminism and the patriarchy.

A black artist is exhibiting his recent works protesting against slavery.

Do you react with amazement? Do you spit your coffee out with astonishment? Or do you think, ‘Yeah, more of the same?’ The formal technique may be interesting and arresting (like Kara Walker’s black silhouettes), but the content… the ‘ideas’…?

The meaning of real ‘subversion’ and ‘challenge’

What would be subversive and genuinely shocking in this context, would be works that questioned or denied feminism and black rights. Imagine if an artist set out to make works of art which claimed that women really are second class citizens or blacks really are inferior to whites. Can you imagine the worldwide outcry. Twitter would explode. They would never work again or be able to leave the house. Even writing it here, as a purely hypothetical idea, makes me nervous.

Ideas like that really would shock and scandalise the art world. But it would be so genuinely dangerous to the artist – it would end their career to be branded misogynist or racist – that no one dare do it, even as a joke. I’m not saying they should. I’m just highlighting the fact that the supposedly ‘subversive’ and ‘revolutionary’ and ‘challenging’ mindset of the current art world has hardened and fossilised into a self-policing ideology which itself cannot be questioned or challenged or subverted.

Back on planet earth

Meanwhile, despite the outpourings of revolutionary art and radical rhetoric from a thousand art curators and scholars, the rich just carry on getting obscenely richer, and the poor getting screwed by the policies of Donald Trump and Theresa May. Nothing changes.

In fact – contrary to all the rhetoric about the radical empowering and subversive impact etc etc of contemporary Art – things outside the studio and the gallery have demonstrably got worse, a lot worse, in recent years.

If subversive political cartoons, challenging journalism, confrontational art, disruptive art installations, innovative art videos, radical paintings, petitions or outcries changed anything – don’t you think Donald Trump would have melted by now?

Instead of which, I am starting to read articles about his chances of winning a second term.

Impressionists in London @ Tate Britain

Mention ‘impressionism’ and the ears of a million grey-haired ladies across the Home Counties prick up. Coach parties are organised, lunch dates diarised and crowds descend. I got there ten minutes after opening time and this EY Exhibition of ‘Impressionists in London’ was already so packed you couldn’t see some of the exhibits.

Still, it’s a hugely enjoyable show, a chocolate box full of old favourites and new wonders, many loaned from private collections and so only available to view this once.

Disparate themes

The most striking thing is the way the curators have managed to pack into the eight and a bit rooms of the downstairs exhibition space at Tate Britain about four different themes or ideas, a good deal of which – maybe half – has nothing at all to do with impressionism.

First there’s a room entirely about the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), linking on to one about the early experiences of the French painters who fled to England.

Then there are three rooms about artists who are in no way impressionists: James Tissot, Alphonse Legros and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.

It’s only in room five that we finally get to see impressionists paintings in significant numbers, with depictions of London and surrounding suburbs by the likes of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley.

Room six is a small space devoted to Whistler, poet of London fogs.

Room seven is, from the impressionist addict’s point of view, the highlight, with eight big canvases by Monet at the height of his powers depicting the Thames and Houses of Parliament, through London fogs, with the shimmering orange sun at various heights and angles. Most of them appear to be on loan from private collections i.e. this is a unique opportunity to see them. This is the Room of Rooms.

The show could easily have ended there, but in an odd postscript, or ‘coda’ as the curators call it, they have hung three super-vibrant works by the Fauvist painter André Derain, who was commissioned in 1906 to paint London scenes.

Acknowledging his debt to Monet, Derain painted many of the same scenes as the master had in  his London series, but in a completely different style, using the wild vibrant colours of the Fauves.

The curators’ idea is to demonstrate how certain views in London – specifically the House of Parliament from the river – became a recurring motif in French art, and almost a kind of manifesto in which succeeding generations of artists declared their colours (literally) by doing their version of London.

Nice idea, maybe, but the small white room and wild colours were quite a change of gear after the mushroom-coloured walls and muted lighting of the Monet room.

So, let’s start at the beginning:

The Franco-Prussian War and the Commune

The Emperor Napoleon III of France was fool enough to let himself be goaded by Chancellor Bismarck of Prussia into declaring war in July 1870. All Europe thought the vast and gaily coloured French army would stomp the Germans, but the reverse happened. The Prussians slaughtered the French at a series of lightning strikes into France, demolishing their main army at the Battle of Sedan and eventually marching all the way to Paris. The Emperor abdicated and fled to England. The government fled to Versailles. The Second Empire was over. The Germans besieged Paris for three terrible months at the end of which the government (in exile in Versailles) surrendered. The Germans marched up and down the Champs Elysees then retired to positions surrounding the city. At which point a bloody uprising took place within Paris, led by proto-communists who set up a Commune. First they went on the warpath, trying and executing their political opponents. Then the French army set about recapturing Paris from the revolutionaries, a battle which descended into fierce street-to-street fighting, followed by summary reprisals and executions. In just one week some 20,000 civilians died. Nightmare.

The Rue de Rivoli in Paris after the suppression of the Commune in May 1871

The Rue de Rivoli in Paris after the suppression of the Commune in May 1871

I’ve described the events at length in reviews of two classic books on the subject.

The first room of the exhibition collects together illustrations of the war and of the Bloody Week at the end of the Commune during which some 3,000 Parisians were massacred. They include a haunting symbolic painting by Corot, a set of early photographs of the ruins (apparently, a book was published titled A Guide Through The Ruins of Paris). There are some excellent prints by James Tissot, who served as a stretcher bearer, of injured soldiers and makeshift hospitals.

The wounded soldier (1870) by James Tissot

The wounded soldier (1870) by James Tissot

There are some vivid sketches done in charcoal on paper by Manet who witnessed shooting squads at first hand. Apparently, he had a nervous breakdown.

Civil war by Édouard Manet

Civil war by Édouard Manet

Emigres and exiles in England

Thousands of French nationals fled to England, then, as later, a sanctuary from violent mayhem on the Continent. Among their number were many of the painters who would go on to form the core of the Impressionist movement.

(N.B. The impressionists got their name in 1874 when the satirical Parisian magazine Charivari singled out qualities of Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise, to form the basis of a witheringly satirical view of the first joint exhibition which Degas, Monet et al, held in 1874. The name ‘impressionist’ stuck and spread to all the painters involved. I.e. at the time they fled to England and painted London, none of these painters were known as or thought of themselves as ‘impressionists’ and there was no such movement as ‘impressionism’).

The room explaining this includes the fairly well-known paintings Camille Pissarro did of Sydenham and Dulwich, familiar because they are owned by the National Gallery and are routinely trotted out for this kind of show. Poor Pissarro lost his entire life’s work in the war when his house was taken over by the Prussian army and ransacked, paintings used as kindling for fires or to wipe soldiers’ bottoms.

The exhibition is heavy on biography and anecdote. Besides the usual room introduction and wall labels for each painting, each room also includes biographical panels about specific artists, often very interesting.

Monet also moved to London, fleeing conscription with Mrs Monet, who he had only just married. He didn’t paint much because apparently he didn’t have enough money to buy materials.

Meditation, Madame Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1870 - 1871) Claude Monet

Meditation, Madame Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1870 – 1871) Claude Monet

The commentary picks up on the Japanese vase on the mantlepiece, hinting at the massive influence of Japanese decoration and design on this generation. I was more impressed by the rucked-up folds of the chintz sofa. God, you can smell the dust and mustiness.

James Tissot

To my immense surprise, room three is devoted to lots of wonderful works by James Tissot (with a Millais (The Huguenot) thrown in, because Millais was among the English artists who helped James) and several paintings by Giusseppe de Nittis, who I’d never heard of before. De Nittis was a friend of Tissot’s, like him, became a member of the select Arts Club in Hanover Square and, like him, painted large, super-realistic pictures of modern English life and urban landscapes, though Tissot tended to focus on River Thames-based scenes whereas de Nittis liked the grimy streets.

St Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery (1846 – 1884) by Giuseppe De Nittis

St Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery (1846 – 1884) by Giuseppe De Nittis

When I was a teenager I was mad about the Impressionists and rejected everything else – but over the years I’ve come to appreciate late-Victorian art, whether its anecdotal realism or pre-Raphaelite visions or the strain of high aestheticism which mutated into the Roman fantasies of the so-called ‘Olympian’ painters (Leighton, Alma-Tadema et al). And, despite being French, Tissot and de Nittis fit right into that world.

Tissot covered a range of subjects:

Tissot may well have been French, and he was certainly a refugee from the war, and I really enjoyed getting to see a dozen or so of his wonderfully naturalistic paintings, as well as some intriguing prints of the East End of the Thames – but he is no impressionist, almost the opposite. He was painting nin the highly naturalistic style of the Salon painters of his day, albeit of everyday folk, not heroes and historical figures.

And the same is even more true of the subjects of the next two rooms. They are not impressionists at all.

Alphonse Legros had settled in London in 1863 where he became friends with luminaries of the art world such as Whistler, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts. He was appointed Slade Professor of Art in 1876 and so, as a well-established and well-connected artist he was a port of call for the impoverished young painters fleeing Paris. He was especially supportive of the Communard sculptor Jules Dalou and so this is a pretext for the room to feature a number of big sculptures by Dalou.

Thus every piece in this big room tells a story about Legros’ network of friends and connections in the London art world, which are all interesting, biographical snippets and anecdotes (the portrait Laurence Alma-Tadema did of Dalou, his wife and daughter which was reciprocated by a bust Dalou did of Alma-Tadema’s wife, Laura). Legros and Dalou were instrumental in introducing the work of the young Rodin to the British, and this justifies the presence of a rather wonderful portrait of Rodin.

Portrait of Rodin (1882) by Alphonse Legros

Portrait of Rodin (1882) by Alphonse Legros

All very interesting, but almost the opposite of impressionism – extremely realistic, figurative Salon art.

Which is even more true of the room about the most famous sculptor of the Second Empire (1853-1870), Jean-Baptiste Carpaux who arrived in England in March 1871, shortly before the defeated and overthrown French emperor Napoleon III.

Once again, we are given a lot of detail about the social networks he brought with him from France and the patrons and collectors he soon found in London. The biggest thing in this room is his sculpture of Flora.

Flora by Jean-Baptiste Carpaux (1873)

Flora by Jean-Baptiste Carpaux (1873)

When I saw that this statue is owned by Tate I had a strong sense of déjà vu, remembering the long line of exhibitions at Tate Britain (Ruin Lust, Folk Art) which have often seemed like excuses to dust off some of the more obscure and unfashionable items in their vast collection and find a pretext to put them on display.

Fair enough, in a way, since they do have a remit to show and display the collection. And it would explain what Carpeaux, Legros and Tissot are doing in an exhibition ostensibly about impressionism. The exhibitions sub-title, French Artists in Exile, is a far more accurate description of the central half of this show.

British society through outsiders’ eyes

After all this polite and decorous Salon art it is quite a shock to walk into the next room, which genuinely is filled with impressionist art, with painters like Monet, Sisley and Pissarro depicting scenes like Kew Gardens, Westminster bridge, Hampton Court and so on.

Pissarro rented a flat at Kew Green (I used to walk past the blue plaque on the wall on the way to work) which he used as a base to paint Kew Green, St Anne’s church and the environs.

Saint Anne’s Church at Kew (1892) by Camille Pissarro

Saint Anne’s Church at Kew (1892) by Camille Pissarro

Sisley painted rowers at Hampton Court bridge (the label points out that he avoided painting the historic Court whatsoever, but instead used the relatively new cast-iron bridge as a key element in the design. Despite their dreamy reputation today, it’s always worth remembering that the impressionists painted the contemporary world.)

Monet painted Hyde Park and the rhododendron walk at Kew Gardens.

But still mixed in among these authentic impressionist works, were a number of further hyper-realistic scenes by Tissot and de Nittis. We learn in this room that de Nittis, in particular, was commissioned to paint twelve large street scenes of London by his patron Kaye Knowles. They are highly evocative and totally naturalistic.

Piccadilly: Wintry Walk in London (1875) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Piccadilly: Wintry Walk in London (1875) by Giuseppe De Nittis

I doubt if it was the intention but putting the hyper-realism of de Nittis and Tissot in the same room as the soft impressionism of Sisley, Pissarro and Monet sort of prompts the visitor to choose: which vision of the world do you prefer?

Which do you prefer?

The fog master

Oscar Wilde asserted the primacy of art over life in his 1891 essay, The Decay of Lying:

At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say they were. But no one saw them. They did not exist until Art had invented them.

I laughed out loud when the audio guide claimed that the American expatriate artist in London, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, was the master of fogs, or the Fog Master. Thus this room shows a trio of Whistler’s nocturnes, the Thames through evening fogs.

Three Thames views by the Fog Master, James Whistler

Three Thames views by the Fog Master, James Whistler

I know they’re famous but I’ve never really liked them. I prefer Whistler’s women, like the Symphony in white, or his etchings of ramshackle London slums, which I saw in an exhibition some years ago. Again, the exhibition contrasted hard core impressionist works with the realist Tissot (surely there’s more Tissot here than any other painter).

I feel like I’m failing some kind of aesthetic test, but it was the realists I preferred.

Westminster (1878) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Westminster (1878) by Giuseppe De Nittis

Monet’s Thames series

Around his 60th birthday (1900) Monet expressed an interest in exploring earlier motifs ‘to sum up impressions and sensations of the past’. For three consecutive winters (1899, 1890, 1901) he took rooms in the Savoy Hotel and painted the River Thames. At one point he had some 100 canvases on the go at the same time. Imagine the visual sensation of walking into those rooms!

Eight of them are gathered here, many from private collections, hung in a room with dimmed lighting on mushroom-coloured walls and the effect is completely magical. What a genius. From the envelop of London fog the orange sun appears, in some paintings high and dominant, in others remote and wintry, in some not in vision but casting a refulgent light over the foggy silhouette of the House of Parliament.

It’s worth the admission price just to be able to walk round this room inspecting each painting carefully, and then sitting quietly, letting the achievement of the Impression Master, the luxe, calme et volupté, really sink in.

Derain

The show could easily have stopped at this climax, letting the dazed visitor stumble out into the cold light of day with visions of Monet swirling round their minds. Instead there is this odd ‘coda’, a white room displaying three vibrant, bright paintings by the Fauvist painter André Derain designed to make the point that London landscapes remained a kind of litmus test of the vision and style of French artists. Derain explicitly mentioned the Monet London series in correspondence about his set, but then goes on to defend his own very different style.

It’s a vivid if slightly odd end to an exhibition which feels like it has only intermittently been about the impressionists.

Again, I failed the impressionist test, by preferring the Derain to most of the Sisley and Pissarro, which I nowadays find a little washed-out and pallid.

Conclusion

Looking back, it’s an odd, uneven exhibition but:

  • it contains a whole load of sumptuous wonderful paintings, many many works of really stunning beauty
  • it does give a strong sense of the artistic networks among French exiles and emigres in England, before during and after the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War
  • and it allows you to compare and contrast a range of artistic styles and visions available around the 1870s, prompting you to decide which ones you like, and why
Installation view of the Tissot room

Installation view of the Tissot room (with Millais’s The Huguenot in the middle)

Impressionist merchandise

My daughter is 16. When she goes to gigs she and her friends always buy a few pieces of merchandise, or ‘merch’. As usual, I was staggered by the amount of merch you can get at art exhibitions these days. Just for Derain, one of his vibrant London scenes was available on a scarf, a bag, a glasses case, a jigsaw, you could buy a Derain coaster, table mat, fridge magnet, mug, print, shortbread tin, tea towel, key ring, book mark, oyster card holder, tea tray, post card or set of postcards. Same for Monet and Whistler, whose foggy bridge image was available as all the above plus lavender soap, a ring, a pair of ear rings, a pocket mirror, a diary and calendar.

I do find it funny that there is also a special Impressionist lunch available to accompany your visit, as well as a cheese and wine pop-up, and a one-off ‘Taste of France’ experience.

Desire

The audio guide by curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons is admirably informative, clear and sensible. I thought I’d got right to the end of a contemporary exhibition without anyone mentioning sex, eroticism, bodies, gender or desire, but I see that, among all the talks and events to accompany the show, there is one on ‘Buildings and Bodies in France and London’: a ‘discussion on how gender and sexuality have shaped experiences of London and Paris’. Phew. They managed to squeeze it in.

Video

Here’s a BBC report on the show, featuring co-curator Caroline Corbeau-Parsons.


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Tracey Emin – My Bed and J.M.W. Turner @ Turner Contemporary

Down in Margate to visit Turner Contemporary, the main effort went into visiting the big retrospective of Surrealist painter and poet Jean Arp. But off to one side, in a big light exhibition room is a funny, wry and stimulating little ‘exhibition’ which consists of the famous ‘bed’ by local-girl-done-good, Tracey Emin, juxtaposed with three big oil paintings of the sea by the great 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner (Rough sea, Stormy sea with blazing wreck, Seascape).

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin

The bed was part of the show which won her the 1999 Turner Prize and helped define the era of Young British Art. I didn’t need any explanation or background notes to immediately think it was a masterpiece.

  1. It adequately, eloquently, comprehensively depicts the life and manners of millions of young people in our times.
  2. It’s by a woman, so it isn’t a show-off depiction by some young stud of how much he drinks and how many women he’s bedded, but something altogether more vulnerable and candid.

Very much like the tent onto which Emin sewed the names of everyone she’d ever slept with which, if it had been by a man, would have been disturbingly like a list of notches on a bedpost – but which was instantly disarming because it included her gran, and her baby brother, and all her teddy bears and toys, all memorialised by name.

It has the immediate impact of being just right, just the right size (room size), just the right proportions, just the right amount of mess and carnage. A classic in every way.

The visitor assistants at Turner Contemporary were all extremely helpful and, more than that, happy to chat about the gallery, Margate, house prices, Tracey’s comings and goings, the art market, and so on. They told me that, each time Emin re-exhibits the bed, she re-arranges it. It’s never the same bed twice. This is as well as the obvious signs of wear and tear, such as the unknown substance which the contents of an opened bottle of Orangina have turned into over the past 20 years.

Now, Emin is quoted as saying:

‘It is a portrait of a younger woman and how times affects us all.’

J.M.W. Turner

Turner needs no introduction. All you need to know for this exhibition is that he visited Margate quite regularly to paint vast, visionary lightscapes looking across the grey Thames Estuary, and that the gallery itself is apparently built on the very spot – overlooking the sea – where once stood the boarding house where Turner stayed. The magnificent views from the gallery’s high windows are the same views Turner saw, and painted. Poignant thought.

View from Turner Contemporary over the Thames Estuary

View from Turner Contemporary over the Thames Estuary

Emin chose the three paintings by Turner (from the vast collection held by Tate) for their stormy turbulence. They are impactful works in their own right, depicting huge, powerful, grey and stormy skies with Turner’s characteristic hazy impressionism.

Rough sea (1840-45) by J.M.W. Turner

Rough sea (1840-45) by J.M.W. Turner

Strange meeting

According to the wall labels the bed represents a turning point in Emin’s life, after the collapse of a long-term relationship. It is intended to depict emotional turmoil. That, apparently, is the link, the secret sympathy which joins and jars these two very different works of art, for Turner’s seascapes are stormy and turbulent, too. Emin chose them for their echo of her emotions.

But I mentioned how chatty and informative the visitor assistants are. One of them told me a secret about this exhibition. She leaned forward, conspiratorially, and whispered – ‘You see the blue knickers in the middle of the bed?’ I looked, yes there they are. She said, ‘Now look at the Turner painting, the one nearest the bed.’ So I did – and in the middle of Turner’s massive white clouds – is a large patch of light blue. Same colour as the knickers adrift in the turbulent dirty cream colour of Emin’s sheets and duvet.

Seascape (1835-40) by J.M.W. Turner

Seascape (1835-40) by J.M.W. Turner

Aha! What mystical correspondence is here, what unknown meanings and messages abound in the universe, what alchemical ties of earth and air and sea and fire are hinted at, once the hooded thaumaturges have cast their runes.

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

Elemental correspondences

Turner – dishevelled white clouds
Tracey – dishevelled white bedding
Turner – wild seascapes
Tracey – wild vodkascapes
Turner – waves washing over the rugged brown land
Tracey – bedding washing over the wooden bed and sturdy little table
Turner – blazing wreck (in the third of the three paintings)
Tracey – fag packet and box of matches

Now it all makes sense.

Tracey Emin My Bed/J.M.W. Turner at Turner Contemporary. Photography by Manu Palomeque

Tracey Emin My Bed/J.M.W. Turner at Turner Contemporary. Photography by Manu Palomeque

The video

There is, of course, a video.


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