Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece @ the British Museum

In my spare time I simply haunt the British Museum. (Rodin, 1892)

Rodin and the British Museum

François Auguste René Rodin (1840 – 1917), known as Auguste Rodin, is widely seen as the godfather of modern sculpture. He visited London for the first time in 1841. On a trip to the British Museum, he discovered the so-called Elgin Marbles, the supersize Greek sculptures of men horses and mythical creatures which once lined the Parthenon in Athens – and was immediately captivated by their scale and power.

For this exhibition the Museum has had the strikingly simple and effective idea of borrowing a substantial number of Rodin’s classic works from the Rodin Museum in Paris, and placing them next to and among a generous selection of original Parthenon sculptures. Over 80 works by Rodin in marble, bronze and plaster, along with some 13 of Rodin’s sketches, are displayed alongside major pieces of ancient Greek art from the Museum collection.

Thus the exhibition includes a number of Rodin’s greatest hits, iconic sculptures which are part of the Western imaginarium, such as The Thinker, The Kiss, The Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais.

Years ago, when a teenager, I hitch-hiked to Paris, kipped in the Bois de Boulogne,and spent the days going on pilgrimages to all the art galleries and museums. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the Musée Rodin and that disappointment has lasted to this day. The exhibition was an opportunity to see if my largely negative image of Rodin stood up to the evidence or was just a personal prejudice.

The ancient Greeks

Between 1800 to 1812 workmen employed by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, or ‘the Sublime Porte’ as it was referred to in those days –  removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, the vast temple to Athena in Athens, as well as sculptures from the nearby buildings Propylaea and Erechtheum. These were shipped to Britain and put on display but, even at the time, contemporaries were critical enough for Parliament to hold an enquiry into his actions. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Elgin sold the marbles to the British Government who passed them along to the recently created British Museum where, despite vocal lobbying by the Greek government, they remain to this day.

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Cavalcade from the north frieze of the Parthenon, by Phidias (around 440 BC)

Throughout the nineteenth century the art of ancient Greece, and especially the statuary, was seen as the peak of human creativity and art. Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo had attempted to recreate some of their magic in painting, but the Greeks remained the source of artistic ideas of Beauty, which were built around realism – the realistic depiction of the human and animal body, with accuracy, elegance and grace.

The Parthenon figures were carved to fill the triangular pediment at the west and east of the building, as well as to fill the metopes or square alcoves roughly above each of the 46 outer columns. There was also a set of inner columns supporting an inner wall, and above these ran a continuous frieze of figures carved in relief.

There was, in other words, a huge amount of space to be filled by more than life size carvings of gods and heroes and animals (mostly horses being ridden in battle). Hence the fact that, even though the Elgin Marbles only represent a fraction of the originals, they still fill a vast gallery at the Museum.

Because all the statues we have now are worn to a kind of perfect white, people forget that Greek sculpture was originally brightly painted, and sometimes had gold leaf applied. This is a fanciful imagining of how the Parthenon would have looked when new. At this end we can see the pediment filled with freestanding statues of gods, small in the narrow ends, growing larger in size to gesture up towards the King of the Gods at the apex. And underneath you can see a set of 14 metopes above each column, each with an individual carving of an incident from Greek myth.At the Museum the curators tried to recreate the effect of the arched pediment by placing the scattered fragments in their correct positions relative to each other, with the metope carvings placed separately. This is how Rodin saw and was overwhelmed by them.

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, about 1890. Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum

What is so special about the sculptures from the Parthenon? They were thought, even by the Greeks themselves, to be the peak of their artistic achievement. The sculptor in charge of the works, Phidias, was credited with a godlike power for realism, for his ability to summon the gods from Olympus, and heroes from the Elysian Fields, and place them before the viewer.

For me the important factors are:

  1. They are larger than life. They had to be since they were embedded 30 metres high on walls.
  2. As a result their gestures are clear and distinct. The overall positioning of all the figures creates harmonies and rhythms which are perceivable even at a distance.
  3. Counter-intuitively, maybe, there is a staggering amount of detail in the sculptures. Observed down at eye level in an exhibition like this (as they were never intended to be seen), you can see the amount of effort that has gone in to depicting the muscles, ligaments and veins of, for example, this wonderful horse’s head, with its flared nostrils and bulging eyes. It’s called the Selene horse’s head because it is part of a frieze depicting the moon goddess, Selene.
Selene horse's head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

Selene horse’s head, East Pediment of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias (c. 435 BC)

There is therefore, to my mind, a kind of super realism about the figures. They are larger than life in both senses – the subjects are gods of heroes of legend, and the figures are all larger than life size – yet they include finely carved details which also work to ennoble, expand and aggrandise the figures. They are images of power, imaginative, political and cultural power.

Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910 Photo: Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

Rodin in his Museum of Antiquities at Meudon on the outskirts of Paris, about 1910
Photo by Albert Harlingue. Image © Musée Rodin

By the 1880s Rodin had made his reputation as a sculpture and was gaining public commissions. He had always been fascinated by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks, still in his day held up as the absolute peak of human artistic achievement.

He had already studied Greek sculpture from books, sketches and casts available to him in Paris (he never, in fact, went to Greece). After all the Louvre in Paris has a large collection of ancient Green sculpture. Where possible Rodin collected fragments of ancient sculpture when they became available, placing them around the garden of his property in Meudon. Apparently he moved and repositioned them among the trees and bushes to create changing artistic effects.

Eventually he amassed a collection of some 6,000 fragments and he never ceased sketching and drawing them, from all angles. The result is a vast archive of sketches, drawings, half-finished carvings and completed sculptures.

Rodin’s aesthetic

But Rodin wasn’t slavishly devoted to simply making copies of ancient Greek perfection. He had a more modern aesthetic than that. He came to believe that sculptures had a life cycle of their own, an inner artistic integrity. If many had been damaged, well, that was their fate, and their current damaged state was somehow ‘true’ to their inner destiny. Thus Rodin resisted various suggestions that ancient Greek statues be ‘repaired’. You can see what he’s getting at.

Rodin liked the way that powerful expression was conveyed through the fragmented bodies of the Greek statues. He even removed the heads and limbs from his own figures to make them closer to the broken relics of the past. By doing so, he created a new genre of contemporary art – the headless, limbless torso.

This explains the prominence of process in Rodin’s own work. Many of his pieces seem to be emerging from the stone they are carved in, often with struggle. Similarly his ‘finished’ pieces often betray the work and effort required to make them.

The exhibition displays a massive male torso from the Parthenon next to a similar sized male torso by Rodin. The Parthenon one is smooth (though with pockmarks and gouges caused over time) but the Rodin one has a deliberately knobbly bobbly surface – at its core it is a realistic depiction of the male body, muscles and all, but in Rodin’s hands the sculpture also preserves the sense of effort which went into making it. The statue is not so much an image of Perfection as a symbol of the human effort to create Perfection.

Torso by Auguste Rodin

Torso by Auguste Rodin

On reflection, it is this deliberate favouring of a muddy, impure, less than precise, deliberately knobbly, bulgy, imperfect surface, which I don’t like about Rodin.

You see it in individual works and in his larger compositions.

The gates of hell

In the same year he visited the British Museum, 1881, aged 41, Rodin received his first big public commission, to create the bronze gates for a new museum of the decorative arts in Paris. Inspired by Dante, Rodin decided to create a set of gates on the theme of hell (‘Abandon hope all ye that enter here’ being the motto carved above the gates of hell in Dante’s medieval poetic epic, The Divine Comedy).

To this day I remember the massive build-up given to this piece at the Musée Rodin in Paris, and then my massive disappointment on seeing it. Instead of clarity and order – the clarity and rhythm you see so perfectly achieved in the Parthenon friezes – what I was immediately struck by was what a mess it is.

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

The gates of hell by Auguste Rodin

I defy you to figure out what is going on here. Your eye is drawn to the three figures at the top (themselves in a demoralising, broken backed huddle) then to the figure of the Thinker beneath them and beneath him? What the devil is going on in the two panels of the doors? And what is happening on the two columns either side of the doorway? I still find it as muddy and confusing as I did forty years ago.

The exhibition has a large section devoted to the gates. Rodin worked on it for decades, even after the planned museum was abandoned and the commission rendered redundant. He continued tinkering with all the small figures, taking many of them out of the gates and blowing them up into full-scale figures.

The most famous is The Thinker and there is a huge cast of it here. For me it epitomises Rodin’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin

On the pro side it captures an archetypally human action in such a profound way that it quickly became an icon of Western art, and is probably among the half dozen most famous art images in the world (along with the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David etc).

But, up close and personal, I don’t like it. It looks lumpy and unfinished. (Alas it reminded me a bit of The Thing from the Fantastic Four comics in the way the surface, though polished and shiny, is ridged and gnarled and patched with what look like strips of clay used to build up the figure, rather than the actual lineaments of cartilage and muscle.)

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

The Thing from the Fantastic Four

It looks unfinished in exactly the way that the Gates of Hell look unfinished to me – muddy and indistinct.

This, I’m sure, is part of Rodin’s conscious aesthetic, a muscular, sculptural style which makes a virtue of flagging up its own effort, the struggle of creation.

Aesthetic of the unfinished

Among other aspects of this, Rodin encouraged the assistants and students who often helped him to carve his figures (he ran a workshop full of assistants) to leave secondary parts of the sculpture unfinished, and even to emphasise the physicality of the work by marking secondary areas with notches created by claw hammers and chisels.

This is perfectly obvious in Rodin’s other supersonically famous work, The Kiss of 1882. The exhibition curators a) are proud to have borrowed this larger-than-lifesize plaster cast of the kiss from the Rodin Museum. And b) make the ingenious suggestion that the pose of the two lovers (actually a scene from Dante’s Inferno of two adulterous lovers about to be discovered and murdered by the cuckolded husband) is based on the pose of two female goddesses, originally on the East Pediment of the Parthenon, one of which reclines luxuriously in the lap of her companion.

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, large version, after 1898. Plaster cast from first marble version of 1888–98 © Musée Rodin

But for me the really dominant motif is the deliberately rough unfinished nature of the rock they’re sitting on. On the plus side I suppose the proximity of the gouged and hacked rock emphasises and brings out the luxurious smooth polished surface of the lovers’ two young bodies. But I still don’t like it.

To clarify further, here are two works which are directly related. The first one is a scene from the fight between the lapiths and the centaurs, which takes up a large part of one of the friezes on the Parthenon and is thought to be an allegory of the struggle between reason and animality. Note the clarity, even the stylised nature of the pose, and the clarity of line of each of the figures.

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Lapith and centaur fighting from the Parthenon

Next to it the exhibition places a sculpture titled The Centauress (1904), a figure Rodin expanded from a minor position on the gates of hell.

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

The Centauress by Auguste Rodin (1901-04)

I found this object particularly ugly and clumsy. The device of having the figure emerge from heavily-notched stone really doesn’t work for me at all. The way her overlong arms are merging with the pillar strikes me as some kind of horrifying physical deformity or mutation. It is not a very good depiction of either a horse’s body or a woman’s torso, and the less said about the unformed / melting head the better.

To summarise – Rodin’s attempt to assimilate the Greek influence and go beyond it to create a new ‘modern’ aesthetic of fragments which foreground the effort of their own creation has, in my opinion, very hit and miss results. Mostly miss.

His large masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, is here – as a complete piece showing six larger-than-lifesize statues of the six men, alongside individual preparatory studies of some of the figures.

If you are a student of sculpture or a fan of Rodin this is a really thrilling opportunity to study his sketches, his inspiration, his working practices and the models which go towards creating a masterpiece. But for me, set among the light and clarity of line and design of the Greeks, they felt clumsy and hulking, their postures contrived and awkward.

Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin

Phidias

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unmounted youths preparing for the cavalcade, block from the north frieze of the Parthenon, about 438–432 BC, Marble © The Trustees of the British Museum

On the cusp of modernism

Rodin lived long enough to see the advent of full-blown Modernism. By 1905 Matisse and Picasso in their different ways were experiencing the influence of ‘primitive’ masks from Africa and the Pacific which were suggesting entire new ways of seeing and thinking about ‘art’.

Within a few years a new generation of sculptors would break decisively with the entire Western tradition and its indebtedness to the naturalism of the ancient Greeks – the ones that spring to mind being Jacob Epstein (b.1880), Eric Gill (b.1882), Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (b.1891) and Alberto Giacometti (b.1901).

I suppose it’s unfair to compare Rodin to what came after him, but for me this next generation of sculptors blow the world apart, open the doors to an infinity of possibilities, and are the true creators of modern sculpture.

For me, a piece like Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (c.1913) is worth more than everything Rodin did put together. I like clarity of line and design as against muddiness and vagueness, crisp geometry as against random lumpiness, and energy as against languid kissing, dull thinking and the hapless, demoralised postures of the Calais Burghers.

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

Red Stone Dancer (c. 1913) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska © Tate

For me the Henri Gaudier-Brzeska is sensuous but with a virile, alert, energetic sensuality, the sensuality of athletic life.

Light and airy exhibition space

By far the most striking thing about the exhibition is that the Museum has opened up the big windows at the end of the Sainsbury Gallery in order to let light flood in.

The partitions between different sections of the show do not extend to the ceiling so the effect is not of separate ‘rooms’ – rather dark and gloomy rooms as they had for, say, the Scythians exhibition – but of light flooding throughout the space, showing the Greek works, in particular, in something more like the fierce Mediterranean light of their homeland.

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

Installation view of Rodin and the art of ancient Greece at the British Museum

I’m afraid this isn’t a very good photo, but enough to show how the individual statues are staged at the window end of the exhibition, building up to the full cast of the Burghers of Calais in the middle distance of the shot.

The effect of this natural light, and the clean lines and clarity of the modern floor-to-ceiling windows, are wonderfully uplifting. It was relaxing to just sit on the benches conveniently placed next to them, and to enjoy the precise, geometrical architecture of the Georgian houses opposite, and the bright patio space with its carefully tended shrubs and small trees.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a charity that works internationally in photography and film, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. ABP stands for the Association of Black Photographers.

Originally based in Brixton, ABP moved to a new, purpose-built gallery and offices at Rivington Place in Shoreditch in 2007. It is here that the ABP gallery is currently hosting two FREE exhibitions of photography by black photographers.

Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers

For some years photographer Franklyn Rodgers has been taking large-scale portrait photos of the most important person in his life, his mother, Loretta. More recently he has branched out into taking portraits of Loretta’s circle of friends and family. To quote the man himself:

Devotion – A Portrait of Loretta represents the connectivity between faith, family and friends, echoed in the wider social experience assigned to them in their time and location. It is a meditation on strength, resilience, fortitude and the ability to endure. It is an idea through which the connectivity it brokers opens up the reconfiguring of survival, rooted firmly in the legacy of a cultural matriarch. To pay homage, both as Loretta’s son and as an artist, in recognition of a way of thinking that represents a coping mechanism to collectively overcome, forgive and conversely transform: a process of creation through a different lens. Evidenced over time in the cultural landscape that now defines our nation.

The photos are enormous and capture a staggering amount of detail.

Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006 by Franklyn Rodgers

Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006 by Franklyn Rodgers

Friendships

As the director of ABP, Dr Mark Sealy MBE, puts it:

Loretta and the devoted network of relationships that are presented in the exhibition could, if we so choose, unlock the face of our own humanity. ‘Identity is not only a departure from self; it is a return to self’ (French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas) This unlocking process, however, only becomes possible at the point in which we fully recognise the civil responsibility we have for both Loretta and her friends. The underlying theoretical question with which Rodgers’ photography works presents us fundamentally concerns our understanding of what it means to actually look into the human face.

Installation of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Installation view of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Confrontations

It is certainly true that the size of the portraits, and the way they are cropped very closely so as to be, literally, in your face, is almost forcing a response, coercing you to engage somehow, forcing us ‘to unlock the face of our own humanity’ maybe.

Mrs Iris Simms (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Mrs Iris Simms (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Care

Probably the portraits are a mirror and you project onto them your own concerns. Because I cared for both my parents as they died, and have been the main carer for my children, these enormous portraits trigger emotions of care and concern in me. These women look as if they have lived. They look as if they have suffered. I found myself uncomfortably moved by them. Unsettled by their unrelenting gaze.

Sealy again:

Through his photographs of his mother Rodgers invites us to enter the sacred realm of human recognition. In his hands the camera is repurposed as a device that aids the case for greater safekeeping and care across the human condition.

Installation of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Installation view of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Technical fluency

But maybe that’s just me, my life experiences, which I’m projecting onto them.

On the technical front, I am astonished at the pin-prick clarity of such enormous prints. Having recently seen the vast photographic prints by Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery, and the massive photos by Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery, I realise that we are living in an age when photos can now be blown-up and printed on an enormous scale without losing – in fact, enhancing – a tremendous, an almost intimidating, clarity of detail.

But whereas Prager’s and Gursky’s photos are almost entirely staged to capture large groups of people or (in Prager’s case) bizarre scenes, Rodgers’ photos obviously have a completely different feel. I wouldn’t call it ‘intimate’, they’re too big for that. But about as close up as you can get to a human face. And determined to capture every pore and blemish of the skin.

Looking again, I realise that all the faces are completely expressionless. I think it was at the National Portrait Gallery’s 2017 exhibition that I noticed that not a single one of the 70 or so portraits on display showed a single person smiling, let alone laughing i.e. it’s a common trope or convention of 21st century portraiture, to remain completely expressionless..

Maybe smiling or laughing immediately limits a portrait, because the viewer knows what mood the sitter is in. Smiling or laughter defuse the tension between viewer and portrait.  Whereas depicting blank unsmiling portraits makes the face so much more powerful, inscrutable and mysterious.

What, you find yourself asking, is this array of senior citizens thinking? About their experiences of being black in Britain? About the nature of identity in a society mediated by images? About what’s for dinner? Who knows.

Time

As T.S. Eliot wrote a hundred years ago, ‘Time is time and runs away.’

Sealy again:

The act of photographing his mother’s face also marks Rodgers’s awareness of time moving uncontrollably fast. This sense of temporal dis-ease creates the conditions of having to act in the present and take responsibility for the now. Rodgers’ photographs of his mother and her circle of friends are therefore an invitation to look into their faces as part of a self-reflective journey to one’s own humanity, because, ultimately, it is only when we can recognise all the Lorettas of the world that we can then recognise ourselves.

Loretta Rodgers, Crown (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Loretta Rodgers, Crown (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

It’s a room full of intense, brilliant and powerfully questioning portraits.


Related links

Other blog posts about photography

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture @ the National Gallery

This is a staggeringly brilliant exhibition for a number of reasons.

1. It is about an aspect of Monet’s work – the importance of all kinds of buildings to his art throughout his career – which has never been explored before but turns out to shed fascinating light on his art.

2. It brings together 78 works loaned from an astonishing variety of galleries across America and Europe to create a unique opportunity to see so many, and so varied, Monets together in one place. Sometimes big exhibitions are based largely on a gallery’s own collection, but not here: I counted over forty galleries and collections that works have been borrowed from. And not only that; almost a quarter are loaned from private collections. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works – from all round the Western world – all in one place.

3. Monet really was a genius. The first three or so rooms are interesting and contain good things, but the last two rooms, full of the works of his maturity, are quite stunning – spaces in which you feel you should be on your knees praying to the more-than-human brilliance of this complete master of oil painting.

4. They’ve really gone to town on the extras for the exhibition, with not only a fascinating audioguide but in the cinema room off to one side, a long film explaining the importance of architecture in Monet. The free printed guide contains not only a detailed timeline of Monet’s life but maps of France, Italy, London and Venice showing the precise locations where many of the paintings were made.

And the gallery has co-operated with Google Arts to produce a dedicated website / online experience which allows you to see the paintings in digital clarity, alongside text explaining their creation, all playfully titled Monet Was Here.

Seven rooms

There are seven rooms. The first three look at different ways Monet used rural and village buildings, buildings set in landscapes, to point and focus the composition. The next two look at his depictions of Paris and the Paris suburbs, from the smoky railway station of the Gare St Lazare, to the new bridge being built at Argenteuil, to busy scenes at seaside resorts, to some wonderful street scenes in Paris.

Then the last two, the Temples of Monet – the penultimate room has a wall of paintings depicting the facade of Rouen cathedral in changing light with, opposite them, a wall of wonderfully atmospheric paintings of London, Waterloo bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

And the final room is devoted to ten shimmering, magical paintings of the queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

The village and the picturesque

At the start of his career Monet used strong designs, powerfully constructed. In this example, bright colours (green grass, aquamarine sea) boats and distant smoke, but all crystallised by the hut in the foreground.

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

In the 1870s Monet visited Holland where he played with the influence of the great 17th century Dutch painters of landscapes and interiors. This is a rare example of a Monet where the viewer is entirely enclosed by buildings.

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Thus the first few rooms explore numerous aspects and experiments with buildings, in townscapes, by the sea, amid fields, from close up, seen on a shimmering horizon, playing with the impact and focus they bring to a composition.

By the sea

All through his life Monet painted sequences showing the same view, or different views of the same subject, like a chemist repeating the same experiment, trying to get at the core of a reaction.

Monet spent a lot of 1882 on the Normandy coast and painted a number of works which feature a modest custom officer’s cottage on the cliffs. Sometimes centre stage, sometimes tucked away or almost hidden, the exhibition includes three of these works to show how Monet took a building as the central focus around which he could experiment. In two of them it dominates the composition but – can you see it in this picture?

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

In 1888 Monet travelled to the south of France, staying at Antibes which he painted from the spit or ‘cap’ across the bay. This vantage point allowed endless experimentation with the effect of the shimmering sunlight on the blue Mediterranean.

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

These Antibes paintings include recognisable landmarks – the tower of the cathedral and the medieval castle of the Grimaldi family – but the commentary points out how, in many of his paintings, Monet very deliberately chose not to include more modern elements. For example, there’s a cluster of paintings he made of the picturesque Italian town of Bodighera, which he visited and painted in 1884, and from which he quietly excised newly built holiday homes or the new railway line.

Mist and snow

But Monet isn’t all Mediterranean sunlight. One very vivid painting is a depiction of his home village of Giverny, a few miles west of Paris, in the snow.

Monet is always conscious of the effet, the effects of changing light and weather and even of the clarity or mistiness of the air. In this snowscape it is the dimly visible buildings of Giverny, the architectural elements, which give the painting a sense of depth and volume, and the composition a focus for the eye, while the paint does the work of creating a mood.

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Impressions not precision

At about this point I should mention that Monet isn’t a particularly accurate painter of architecture. His buildings are not mathematically precise renditions of the squares and angles which modern buildings and bridges must necessarily consist of.

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Edward Bawden and I very much enjoyed the way that, whether he’s doing a watercolour of his back garden or a linocut print of Covent Garden market, Bawden’s lines are all clearly defined and mathematically precise.

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Monet’s buildings are never this precise, even when he is painting bridges or railways stations or other highly engineered structures.

Monet’s buildings, like his trees and other elements, are created by shimmering and often vague daubs of paint, overlaid and juxtaposed to create an atmosphere, a mood, an impression, rather than efforts at precise delineation.

Because I, personally, tend to like clear defined lines, I felt ambivalent about the series of big paintings Monet did of the new Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1877, a cluster of which hang here.

The commentary makes the clever point that they are a subtle subversion of the landscape genre, with a metal and glass roof replacing the sky and the shimmers of steam replacing the foliage of trees.

Maybe so. But after looking for some time I realised that I actively dislike the inaccurate draughtsmanship of the engineered roof, lamps and above all of the beautiful and ornate steam engines. All this is a kind of lost opportunity to show gleaming metal, precisely engineered structures, rivets, pistons and coupling rods. They seem to me a kind of acknowledgement of modernity which somehow misses the point of modernity.

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

Monet’s use of urban motifs

Monet’s use of contemporary urban subjects in a manner more appropriate to his style is demonstrated in The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris painted in 1873.

The commentary makes the interesting point that the painting captures the view from the first floor of the building where the first ever Impressionist Exhibition was to be held the following year, and where this very painting would be exhibited. Always interesting to learn snippets of art trivia.

And I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a large amount of L.S. Lowry in the way Monet paints his people, or at least his crowds of tottering nine-pin-like figures.

But the real visual interest is obviously in the shadow which casts a great diagonal line across the composition. It is the contrast between light and shade which really pulls Monet’s daisy, the drama it gives to the composition, the way your eye is pulled in by the great diagonal and then wants to explore the different effets of shade and direct sunlight.

So much so that if you look closely at the big buildings on the opposite side of the boulevard, you notice that they are leaning backwards – they are not accurately and strictly vertical. Architectural accuracy is not what he’s about.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

This slight wonkiness is a feature of many of the paintings. It was apparent in one of the earlier seaside paintings where an enormous white cliff seemed to be bulging out and threatening to collapse onto the beach below. The walls of the rural buildings in a number of the early village scenes seemed to meet at odd angles as if about to topple over. There’s a striking early painting of rural houses with Dutch gables reflected in the river (Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam) where the wall of the left is leaning outwards at a perilous angle. In all of them the lines are wonky and unvertical, hazy, not ‘true’ in the engineering sense.

The point is – who cares, when he paints like this?

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

In this, as in several other seaside paintings shown side by side, the point is not the mathematical precision of the booth on the left, or the hotels on the right, of the steps down to the beach or of the planking of the boardwalk – these are all elements which go to create the overall effet.

In both boardwalk paintings the important thing is not the precision but the tremendous dynamism given by the plunging perspective of the boardwalk itself, which draws you quickly right into the heart of the painting which is all about vibrant colour, space and life.

Rouen, London, Venice

The previous five rooms have contained 50 or so good and sometimes outstanding paintings – for me the Trouville paintings and Giverny in the snow stood out, and there’s a painting of the Japanese bridge over Monet’s world-famous lily pond for fans of his garden paintings – all accompanied by fascinating and insightful commentary.

But walking into the last two rooms is like walking into a different world. Here you are brought face to face with half a dozen examples each of his famous series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral, opposite a selection of the series of paintings he made of the Thames in London, before you enter the final room devoted entirely to his late paintings of Venice – and it is as if you have died and gone to art heaven.

I have rarely felt so overwhelmed and awed by such an array of astonishingly beautiful artworks.

Rouen

By the 1890s Monet had perfected his technique of having multiple canvases of the same view on the go at once, and painting each of them at a specific time of the day, switching to the next one at the clock moved on, the sun rose, and the play of light and shadows changed.

Cities were easier to do this in since he needed the space to house quite a few wet canvases and all his equipment, somewhere he could leave it all overnight. The three cities represented here – Rouen, London, Venice, were all tourist resorts famous for their great architecture.

Monet painted some 30 canvases in Rouen, between February and April 1892 and the same months of 1893. He rented various rooms from shop owners opposite the cathedral which explains why there are two distinct points of view. The five massive paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral show that slight difference in vantage point but above all Monet’s godlike ability to capture the changes in light and colour on this elaborate and detailed architectural facade, with quite stunning results.

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

London

Monet first stayed in London in 1870-71 to escape from the violence of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war in Paris which followed (a historical moment documented by the recent Tate Britain exhibition Impressionists in London).

In September-October 1899 he returned and stayed on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment, returning for another visit in January to April 1902. In total Monet made an impressive 100 canvases of London.

He painted the view from the Savoy he painted the view west towards Waterloo Bridge. Later he got permission to paint the houses of Parliament from the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite bank of the Thames. In both views what interested him was the play of light.

This was made much more interesting but sometimes frustrating, by the high level of pollution in London’s air not to mention the erraticness of the English weather which made capturing exactly the same light at the same hour on successive days a challenge.

This section about London included one of the many half-finished canvases Monet made, a strikingly vague sketch of the Embankment including Cleopatra’s Needle. The commentary points out that with his London paintings, as with those of Rouen cathedral and Venice, Monet developed the paintings up to a certain point, alongside extensive sketches and notes, and then finished the paintings back home at Giverny.

Two of the Parliament paintings really stood out for me, one where the sun is flaming red and the Thames is on fire. Right next to it the exact same view at night with the moon a divided into fragments by cloud and reflecting shivers of silver all over the river surface.

But the one I really couldn’t tear myself away from was this stunning painting of an orange sun struggling through the London smog to glimmer and fleck red-gold highlights on the Thames. The painting is all about light and colour, it is a masterpiece of what oil painting can do to fill the visual cortex with pleasure – and yet the vague architectural structure of London Bridge with its neat arches, just barely visible through the smog, is a vital part of the composition in the way it enables the light to exist, to function, to perform.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

Monet visited Venice in 1908, staying for two months in apartments on the Grand Canal. The floating city under a Mediterranean sun was crying out to be depicted by the greatest impressionist of all. He produced 37 canvases, of which nine are on show here.

No people. No human activity is portrayed. Just the play of unearthly pink and eggshell blue in this watery paradise. (On a practical note, observe how the buildings on the right have the characteristic Monet lean; to my eye all of them look out of ‘true’, bulging out slightly over the water – but, as mentioned before, who cares.) they are quite staggeringly, luminescently transcendent works of art.

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Scholarly conclusion

The rational, historical, art scholarly conclusion is that Monet used a very wide range of buildings, more than has previously been recognised, as motifs in his paintings:

  • as the basis of designs and patterns and compositions
  • as symbols of modernity and the bustling city
  • or to emphasise rural tranquility or isolation

In all cases using buildings to create, point and highlight his subtle emotional and psychological effects. Then, later in his career, he uses buildings as the subjects of some of his most dazzling, experimental and awe-inspiring works, the London, Rouen, Venice paintings.

Emotional conclusion

Often by the end of an exhibition I’m full to overflowing with facts and impressions and a little relieved to walk back out onto the street, but I found it genuinely difficult to leave this one, in particular to leave the room full of Monet’s London paintings.

I spent a good ten minutes looking from one to another and back again, walking out the room then finding myself drawn back in, to marvel all over again at Monet’s unprecedented handling of paint and the breathtaking creation of gorgeous, transcendent, shimmering works of art.

I’ve rarely encountered such a feeling of pure, unalloyed beauty and wonder in an art exhibition.

Exhibition videos

This is an introduction to the role of architecture in Monet’s life by Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery in London.

And here is Richard Thomson, exhibition curator and Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, introducing The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Print! Tearing It Up @ Somerset House

This is a funky, fascinating and sometimes very funny exhibition celebrating the longstanding tradition of independent British magazine publishing over the past fifty years or so. And it is FREE!

Past

There’s a nod to older, historical magazines at the start of the show, where the curators display a couple of copies of Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist magazine, Blast!, from 1915 – a quite extraordinary typographical and editorial irruption into the sedate world of Edwardian gentlemen’s magazines – and a copy of Peace News from the 1930s — but overall this isn’t a historical exhibition, its focus is very much on the modern (post-1960s) tradition of alternative and right-on magazines, with a special interest in the reflowering of indie magazines in the last decade or so.

Things really get going in the late 1960s with the birth of counter-cultural and the founding of critical magazines like Spare Rib (1972-93), Black Dwarf (1968-72), Oz (1967-73) and Private Eye (1961 to the present). The exhibition then traces the evolution of small, independent, counter-cultural, as well as fashion and music and art and architecture magazines, from then to the present day.

Spare Rib 1972 © Angela Phillips

Spare Rib 1972 © Angela Phillips

Several gallery walls are covered with a massive wire grille on which have been hung scores and scores of magazines, with a dazzling variety of photographic, typographical and design styles, to admire and enjoy, with titles like international times, Beaver, Mole, Frendz, Shrew (‘the suppressed power of female sexuality’), Pink, Gay Left, Squatters and so on. The funniest title was Prada Meinhof (bright green, in the centre right of the photo below) which bears the text ‘Only way to change things – is to shoot the men who arrange things’. Right on, sister.

Installation view of Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House, photo by Doug Peters

Installation view of Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House, photo by Doug Peters

Alongside these wall displays are a number of glass cases focusing on the stories of particular magazines or themes.

For example, on Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex in the King’s Road which received coverage around 1976 in sex-related mags like Forum and Gallery International as well as the giveaway magazine West One, edited by a young Janet Street-Porter.

Another case focuses on Gandalf’s Garden, the official publication for the collectively run ‘head shop’ for hippies also in the King’s Road, which issued six copies from 1968 to 1969.

Contemporary art and graphics have been publicised in a tradition of small magazines like ApolloArt Line in Newcastle, Modern PaintersFrieze, Arty, Garageland and Pavement Licker.

Satirical artworld writing could more recently be found in titles like Sleazenation (1996-2004), Vice, and the attractively titled Shoreditch Twat.

In one case the show draws links between the 1935 art magazine Axis launched by writer Myfanwy Jones, and the art and politics magazine Mute, founded in 1994 and still going strong.

Private Eye Issue 815, 12 March 1993 © Private Eye

Private Eye Issue 815, 12 March 1993 © Private Eye

In 1977 Peter York wrote a defining article for Harpers magazine about the independent magazines of the day, mentioning such obscure productions as Emma Tennant’s literary quarterly Bananas, lifestyle mag The New Style and Nick Kimberley’s reggae pamphlet, Pressure Drop.

And a whole display case is devoted to the worldwide publishing and digital success which is Time Out, launched in 1968 and overseen for most of the time since then by publisher Tony Elliott.

Alternative music mags have included Freakbeat, Zigzag, Echoes, Rough Trade, Flexipop!, SFX with more modern publications emerging from grime and dub-step like Woofah, Push and Trench.

And so on and so on.

The mindmap

Confused? You should be – the last fifty years have witnessed wave after wave of new, small, independent, radical magazines catering to an ever-expanding list of issues and constituencies.

One entire wall of the exhibition is devoted to a vast mind-map which shows the links and interconnections  between all these independent magazines. If you buy the exhibition booklet (£4.50) you get a free fold-out version of it (though not quite this big!).

Mind map of British magazines

Mind map of British magazines

… and present

Only a little way into the show does its origin and motivation become a bit clearer, specifically the motivation of exhibition curator Paul Gorman.

In 2011 Gorman finished writing a history of The Face, the cultural magazine published from 1980 to 2004. In doing so, in comparing the Face to its current equivalents and looking for its lasting legacy, Gorman had become aware of the raft of indie mags emerging from the wreckage of the economic crash of 2008. In an interview with The Drum (see second video, below) Gorman says:

Around 2011, 2012 I noticed these magazines emerging – like The Gentlewoman and Mushpit – and I was quite encouraged by the fact they were being published mainly by young women. They were anti-corporate, and they had all those values that appealed to me.

It inspired Gorman to take stock of the magazine culture of our times and he realised that, although some high-profile magazines had recently gone to the wall (Glamour, Look), sparking an outbreak of gloom among high-end publishers, we are actually living amid a resurgence of cheaply produced, anti-establishment, freethinking publications.

A little like the revival of vinyl records and just as counter-intuitively, print magazines are going from strength to strength in the digital era.

Garageland Issue 19 2015 SELF © Paul Gorman Archive/ Photography: Milly Spooner

Garageland Issue 19 2015 SELF © Paul Gorman Archive/ Photo by Milly Spooner

So mixed in among the older examples from the 60s, 70s and 80s in the exhibition, is a rich selection of mags from just the past decade or so, which address 21st century issues.

As I walked round, admiring all this visual energy and creativity, I reflected that although Gorman and the other curators might find it inspiring and exciting that there are so many mags celebrating ‘alternative views’ on lifestyle, leisure and architecture or addressing topical issues including diversity, gender, sexuality and media manipulation… us older visitors might instead notice the surprising continuities between the concerns of 1968 and those of 2018 and draw different conclusions.

My take would be that, although gender, sex and race continue to be as reliable money-spinners as ever they were – expressing black anger, women’s anger, the newer range of LGBT+ anger, Asian anger and so on – and are enthusiastically snapped up by guilty young white students, meanwhile the ideas which seemed dominant in my youth – socialism, communism, Marxism, and working class politics – seem to have largely disappeared.

The white working class communities that I thought I was helping when I joined the Young Socialists in 1977 have been redefined into union jack-waving, Tommy Robinson-supporting, Brexit-voting chavs, recategorised as patriarchal racists. Now all the liberal press tells us we should be supporting female BBC presenters, Hollywood actresses and illegal immigrants everywhere.

The lads who empty my bins every week? No one writes about them or gives a damn about their lives. I suppose they just don’t live at the intersection of style, fashion, gender and race.

Thiiird Issue 1 COMMUNITY © Thiiird/Photography: Turkina Faso

Thiiird Issue 1 COMMUNITY © Thiiird / Photo by Turkina Faso

To quote the exhibition text:

The debate surrounding gender and sexuality has been reflected in the success of hugely popular magazines launched in the past decade, from The Gentlewoman, which can chart its evolution from Spare Rib, the seminal feminist magazine founded in the 1970s, to Ladybeard, Ablaze! and D.I.Y zines created by teenage feminist collectives in 1990s-2000s, among many more showcased.

Similarly, the exhibition celebrates the rise in titles dedicated to ethnic minority communities and concerns, with examples including gal-dem, Thiiird and Burnt Roti, which showcases South Asian creativity.

Positive News Issue 90 Third Quarter 2017 NEW MASCULINITY © Positive News Magazine/ Paul Gorman Archive/Photography: Theo Jemison

Positive News Issue 90 Third Quarter 2017 NEW MASCULINITY © Positive News Magazine / Paul Gorman Archive / Photo by Theo Jemison

If it ain’t black, queer or about women it doesn’t seem to have any purchase, any traction, any validity.

That said, there are plenty of other contemporary magazines which are not directly political, all manner of magazines out there which I’d never heard of, such as Real Review and Eyesore which promote new writing on architecture and the urban environment, Little White Lies focusing on film, and The Gourmand on food.

Read, listen, watch

The last room in the exhibition is devoted to this very pink pop-up newstand bearing a variety of bang up-to-date mags which you are invited to browse through.

The pink pop-up newstand at Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House. Photo by Doug Peters

The pink pop-up newstand at Print! Tearing it Up at Somerset House. Photo by Doug Peters

Could have done with some chairs or a couple of sofas to really kick back in.

Podcasts

The pop-up newstand is next to a row of equally pink booths each with a set of headphones for you to slip on and listen to podcasts i.e. brief interviews or monologues by key figures from the recent history of independent magazines.

It would have been interesting to find out more about the impact of digital technology on magazine and news culture:

How much has digital supplanted print magazines? Are there particular reasons why some magazines have gone out of print and out of business, while others are successfully making the move to an online-only existence? Is it luck, or something to do with the subject matter, or the audiences?

And what does it take to succeed in setting up an alternative mag in the current climate? A good business plan? A clear proposition for your advertising department to promote?To what extent does the need to sell adverts undermine or negate any claim to ‘radical’ thought?

The exhibition prompted all these thoughts and more, but didn’t really address any of them. Where should I go to understand a) the current state of play among radical mags b) the direction of travel?

Activities

The exhibition is accompanied by a rash of activities including all-female activist lines-ups, explorations of self-education, acknowledgment of architectural anarchy, plus a PROCESS! Festival co-curated by Somerset House Studios artists OOMK (One of My Kind).

The PROCESS! Festival will run from Saturday 21 to Sunday 22 July and will celebrate independent media and making, bringing together established and emerging designers, artists, activists and publishers to explore, interrogate and share approaches to creative and collaborative processes.

Videos

There is, of course, a promotional video.

And this useful video report on the show by The Drum.


Related links

Reviews of other Somerset House exhibitions

ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies @ the Whitechapel Gallery

The ISelf collection is a UK-based collection of contemporary art which focuses on ‘issues of identity and the human condition’. In other words – bodies.

It was established in 2009 and includes paintings, sculptures and photographs mainly of the human body with a deliberate emphasis towards collecting female artists.

In other words – women’s bodies.

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

This exhibition is the final one in a series of four selections from the collection which the Whitechapel has held over the past twelve months, each one showcasing works by different artists in the collection. This one displays the work of 23 international artists.

To quote the blurb, the exhibition:

invites us to reflect on the notion of self by questioning the physical and material cohesion of bodies and sculptures… Works on show offer fragmented, deconstructed and visceral perspectives where bodies intersect with inanimate objects… In this final display drawn from the ISelf collection artists open up the possibility of thinking beyond selfhood.

The exhibition as a whole takes its name from one particular work, a vivid depiction of pregnancy being undergone by what looks like a transhuman cyborg from the future – Bumped Body by Paloma Varga Weisz’s (b. 1966, Germany).

Bumped Body (2007) by Paloma Varga Weisz. Courtesy of Paloma Varga Weisz © DACS 2018. Photo by Stefan Hostettler, Düsseldorf

Bumped Body (2007) by Paloma Varga Weisz. Courtesy of Paloma Varga Weisz © DACS 2018. Photo by Stefan Hostettler, Düsseldorf

According to the guide, the work:

reflects on the idea of pregnancy as an extreme form of selfhood, examining the tension between the expectant body as a subject and an object.

Pregnancy is one of the most extreme states of the human condition, according to art theorist Amelia Jones, as it reveals the ‘tension between self as subject and self as object’. The entire exhibition is a reflection on ‘shifting concepts of selfhood’.

The intersection between bodies and inanimate objects is probably most vividly dramatised in Quan (2009-10) by Berlinde De Bruyckere, where a wax cast of a bony-assed white person is burrowing into a dirty mattress, for all the world like a character from a Samuel Beckett monologue. We’ve all had mornings like this.

Quan (2009-10) by Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Photo by Mirjam Devriendt

Quan (2009-10) by Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Photo by Mirjam Devriendt

Nearby are some elegant if distorted thighs and calves cast in slabby bronze stepping out atop a pair of chunky platform shoes, As yet untitled (Croccioni bronze) by Rebecca Warren (UK b.1965). According to the catalogue, these

striding high-heeled legs fuse high Modernism with the lowly comic book in an expression of pure Eros.

As yet untitled (Croccioni bronze), 2009 by Rebecca Warren. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London © Rebecca Warren

As yet untitled (Croccioni bronze), 2009 by Rebecca Warren. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London © Rebecca Warren

Talking of the erotic, nearby is a striking silk print showing multiple iterations of a photo of a pneumatic naked woman slightly bending forward, much in the style of Andy Warhol. Deprived of a face, and so of much identity, and in its dumb repetition, surely pretty much a straightforward objectification of the female body – or so I would have thought.

Untitled (5 Nudes) circa 1980 by John Stezaker. Courtesy of John Stezaker and Friedrich Petzel, New York

Untitled (5 Nudes) circa 1980 by John Stezaker. Courtesy of John Stezaker and Friedrich Petzel, New York

Taking the mickey out of all such po-faced, soft-porn images of naked women is Sarah Lucas, sticking her tongue out at men, male artists, and office furniture.

Oral Gratification by Sarah Lucas (2000) Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas

Oral Gratification by Sarah Lucas (2000) Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London © Sarah Lucas

Here she’s taken a rugby ball, covered it in glue and then carefully encrusted it with cigarettes moulded to its conical shape. She’s then sawn the result in half and stuck each half to the back-rest of a modern office chair, to create a crude caricature of a female torso. Lucas’s work is:

characterised by witty verbal and visual puns and a satirical look at sexual politics and the representation of women in the media.

Ever since I saw her stuff in the Sensation exhibition 21 years ago, I’ve loved it and wanted to see more of her bovver boy approach to sculpture and popular culture. It’s a shame she doesn’t seem to be about much any more.

An entirely different and far more earnest approach to sculpture is taken by Tony Cragg CBE (b.1949 Liverpool) represented here by a cast of a head which has been distorted or winnowed by extreme wind and pressure into an apparently melting, futuristic form.

Big Head Green (2009) by Tony Cragg © DACS 2017

Big Head Green (2009) by Tony Cragg © DACS 2017

So far I’ve picked out six of the biggest, most obvious works, but there were some 16 others, often more subtle and oblique than these examples – like the simple twig with human hair attached made by Bojan Šarcevic, or the set of little puppets made by Wael Shawky which represent the story of the Crusades from the Arab point of view, or the series of postcards of Tudor kings and queens who’ve had their faces defaced by Ruth Claxton.

The whole show is contained in only one room but there’s really a quite startling variety of shapes, sizes and types of art on display. Strange, unnerving, unsettling – I liked it a lot. And it is FREE.

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

Installation view of ISelf Collection: Bumped Bodies at the Whitechapel Gallery. Photo by Steven White

The artists are:

  • Maria Bartuszovà
  • Huma Bhabha
  • Alexandra Bircken
  • Tian Doan na Champassak
  • Ruth Claxton
  • Tony Cragg
  • Enrico David
  • Berlinde De Bruyckere
  • Geoffrey Farmer
  • Georg Herold
  • Kati Horna
  • Sarah Lucas
  • Seb Patane
  • Pippilotti Rist
  • Bojan Šarčević
  • Wael Shawky
  • Daniel Silver
  • John Stezaker
  • Nicola Tyson
  • Cathy Wilkes

Related links

Other exhibitions currently on at the Whitechapel Gallery

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

The London Open 2018 @ the Whitechapel Gallery

Every three years the Whitechapel Gallery just next to Aldgate East Tube station holds an art competition. It’s open to artists of any nationality so long as they are aged 26 or over, and live in one of London’s 32 boroughs.

The triannual event fell due this year and attracted over 2,600 submissions. The judges whittled these down to a selection of works by 22 artists. The London Open thus amounts to a fascinating snapshot of what young(ish) contemporary London-based artists are up to, what they’re thinking about, how they’re expressing themselves, and what media they’re choosing to do it in.

Or, as the press release puts it:

The exhibition features a diverse selection of 22 artists working in London and engaging with topical concerns; from the rapidly changing urban context, the environment, technology, gender to race representation, human relations, activism and post-colonial histories. Many artists work in unprecedented ways and across different artistic forms, ranging from painting, video and sound to installation, sculpture, performance and work online.

Downstairs

The first thing you see when you walk into the main gallery downstairs is a large frame from which hangs a kind of collage of fabrics, shreds and patches of all shapes, all rather drab in colour, with holes and gaps. It is The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin, born in California in 1976.

The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

This screen is in fact the ‘set’ against which three actors, wearing similarly styled clothes made from shreds and patches of fabric, perform a sort of play.

Costumes for The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

Costumes for The Politics of Fragmentation (2016) by Alexis Teplin

According to the exhibition guide, this

large-scale installation deconstructs the limits of painting, sculpture and performance. The piece will be activated by actors and dancers as part of a series of live events accompanying the exhibition, The London Open Live.

Walking past it you encounter probably the most striking piece in the show, New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion, born in New York in 1982. From a small sea of building site rubble dotted with weeds emerge three large sculptures which echo the shapes of new high-rise buildings which are being built on the New Spring Gardens site at Vauxhall.

New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion

New Spring Gardens (2016) by Rachel Champion

I was intrigued by what appeared to be live weeds growing from the rubble. How are they going to be fed during the exhibition, or are they very realistic plastic models?

On the left of the gallery I was taken by a set of three smallish sculptures by Renee So, born in Hong Kong in 1974. They are, from left to right, Cross-Legged Man (2018), Boot (2016), Woman (2018).

Three sculptures by Renee So

Three sculptures by Renee So

According to the guide, So:

bestows both monumental grandeur but also caricatural qualities to the figures in her works, which weave together a pattern of cross-cultural references.

Yes, I liked the humour implicit in the compositions and their squat, just-so, presence.

Beyond these was a complex installation by Rachel Pimm, born in Harare in 1984. The most prominent elements are a set of blue metal shelves containing various fragments of rock and numerous photos, next to a big screen showing a series of films. All of them concern the process of mining materials and minerals from the ground. To be precise:

Her installation tracks the fabrication of high-end architectural ceramic tiles, from initial mineral extraction to the fine finishing or rejection at the end of the production line.

Diagenetic Sequence Shelf (2017) by Rachel Pimm

Diagenetic Sequence Shelf (2017) by Rachel Pimm

On the opposite wall I warmed to a sequence of paintings by Des Lawrence, born in Wiltshire in 1970. Des takes inspiration from the obituary columns in newspapers, and then paints highly finished (as you can see) portraits relating to the subject’s career or achievements, painting with oil onto aluminium. In their photographic accuracy all four of his works here had an immediately strong visual impact.

Alexandr Serberov (2017) by Des Lawrence. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Todd White

Alexandr Serberov (2017) by Des Lawrence. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Todd White

Hanging from a nearby pillar was a clutch of headphones next to some chairs. You are invited to sit down, make yourself comfortable, slip on the headphones and listen to Grey Granular Fist, by the duo French and Mottershead – consisting of Rebecca French born in 1973 in London. and Andrew Mottershead born 1968 in Manchester.

Grey Granular Fist is from a series of audioworks with the overall title of Afterlife. It’s a 21-minute-long audiowork consisting of a soothing male voice reading out a quiet, methodical and spooky imagining of your own dead body sitting in a chair in a museum, slowly decomposing, and becoming incorporated into the other exhibits, with conservators competing with the natural process of physical decomposition to make your corpse into a sculpture, slowly ageing over time.

Grey Granular Fist is related to another work of theirs, Homebody, a 27-minute-long audio work in which the actress Lily Lowe Myers reads out a script inviting you to imagine yourself lying in your own bed, in your own home, surrounded by familiar objects except that, once again, you are dead. The voice proceeds to describe in loving detail how your body decomposes over days, years and centuries, alongside the disintegration of all your personal and social connections. Homebody can be enjoyed in its entirety online.

Placed in several locations around the ground floor gallery were sculptures by Jonathan Trayte, born in 1980 in Huddersfield. Trayte’s work:

reinterprets modern consumer behaviour and explores the psychology of desire through surface, material and light.

In fact, they are bizarrely shaped but working lights or lamps, made from a variety of materials of which plastic foam and soft fabrics are the most noticeable elements.

Lamps by Jonathan Trayte

Lamps by Jonathan Trayte

As noticeable as the lamps themselves was the way each one stands on a box covered with a kind of green carpet and the way this carpeting extends down across the floor to create a kind of ‘island’ for each set of his works, a carpet you must be careful not to tread on…

Pride of place at the end of the main gallery is an enormous red neon sign displaying a sequence of numbers.

This Much I'm Worth (The Self-Evaluating Art Work) by Rachel Ara (2017)

This Much I’m Worth (The Self-Evaluating Art Work) by Rachel Ara (2017)

The aim of the piece was to use a variety of algorithms to calculate the changing value of a piece of art like this. I wasn’t much impressed because this idea – that almost before it’s been created, a work of modern art is categorised and valued – strikes me as being very old: it is the modern cynic’s view of art going back from Damian Hirst via Jeff Koons to Andy Warhol who said, ‘Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’

Indeed, one of the most famous things about modern art, to the outsider, is the ridiculous amounts of money nowadays being paid for it. The art market is a fascinating area of study in itself, related to, for example, the disposable income of Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern Wealth Funds, as well as to the assessment of wealth managers as to whether this or that piece represents a good investment, related to whether the artist has managed to create a successful ‘look’ and style, has made themselves into a brand, has got a good contract with dealers in London, New York, Beijing and so on.

If any of this – the existence and value of art out there in the real world of buyers and sellers, in the international marketplace of art –  was present in the piece it really didn’t come across. What was more evident and visible was the extraordinary array of computers required along the bottom of the display, as well as the extremely messy tangle of wires and cables.

It seemed to me that the piece was much more about its own construction than about any particular meaning.

But, to quote the guide:

Rachel Ara’s monumental neon sculpture continually displays its own value, calculated from a series of algorithms that reflect criteria such as age, gender, sexuality, race and provenance. The value of the artwork, displayed in brightly lit numbers, will change continually over the course of the exhibition. Ara’s practice draws on her former career as a computer system designer and is concerned with feminism and queer theory.

It seems to me symptomatic of the art world as a whole to obsess about gender and sexuality, race and post-colonialism, and simply ignore the world of economics – the real world which, at all levels (personal, national, international), determines our day to day activity (do I have a job? how much money am I getting? can I afford my rent?), the state of our societies (the impact of the age of Austerity and government cuts which we all live in), and the climate of international affairs (poverty and austerity driving xenophobia and populism in nations from America to Hungary). As usual, it seems to me a deliberately small, self-referencing world, a world obsessed with bodies, usually the artist’s own body, and skin colour, as if that is enough.

Upstairs – gallery 9

These kinds of thoughts were encouraged by the exhibition itself because politics is very much the theme of the first of the two upstairs galleries.

As far as I could make out, this big room is entirely devoted to works by film-maker and political activist, Andrea Luka Zimmerman, born in 1969 in Munich. Walking up the stairs the tone is set by a couple of uncompromising fabrics hanging from the walls.

Liars

Liars

And

Sex work is work

Sex work is work

The gallery is lined with an impressive collection of left-wing activist posters, some dating back decades – there’s an invitation to take part in a Women’s Day march in 1975, for women to meet at Greenham Common in 1983, posters showing the revolutionary poster-boy Che Guevara, and much more.

Wall of left wing posters

Wall of left-wing posters in the Andrea Luka Zimmerman room

On a table in the middle of the room is a board game based on snakes and ladders which Zimmerman has adapted so that the players advance up ladders or slide down snakes according to whether various activist causes thrive or hit setbacks. You’re encouraged to sit down and play, which is quite fun.

The whole room is in semi-darkness because one end is dominated by a big screen on which is projected a 28 minute long film, Civil Rites set in Newcastle.

Zimmerman spent months in the city, researching a really deep historical review of all the moments of civil protest and resistance which had taken place in the city going right back to the Civil War, taking in riots at the time of the French Revolution or during the depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Chartist agitation, protests for shorter hours and better pay, to extend the suffrage, for women’s rights and the vote for women, through the Suffragettes, and on into the era of contemporary political activism from the late 1960s onwards.

As far as possible she has tracked down locations in the modern city where these events happened and films them in a classic square-on style, the camera completely static facing, say, an old Methodist chapel or a modern office block, behind railings, next to a busy street, while the English rain falls and unhappy looking people slouch by, a dog stops for a wee, and so on.

Comfy sofa in front of Civil Rites by Andrea Luka Zimmerman (2017)

The comfy sofa in front of Civil Rites by Andrea Luka Zimmerman (2017)

During the weeks of filming she asked passersby for their views on three issues raised by Martin Luther King Jnr in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. He had called, back in 1968, for the abolition of three big evils – Poverty, Racism and War. What did people walking the streets of rainy Newcastle make of his call fifty years later?

And so, while the screen shows hypnotically static shots of Newcastle buildings, with a slow procession of captions commemorating all the moments of protest and civil resistance in the city’s long history, we hear on the soundtrack – but never see – all sorts of voices, rough working class voices, black voices, heavily accented Geordie voices, at least one American tourist or passerby – all giving their views on the current state of society and its ills.

It sounds pretentious but I found it completely absorbing. Not many other people were about so I was able to plonk myself on the comfy sofa, itself placed on the homely carpet, which is set in front of the screen, and watch the entire 28 minute film through once, and I began to watch it a second time before duty called and I had to move on.

The classic, square-on framing of the shots and the fact that each one lingers for quite a long time, so that there’s no frenetic cutting, fades or dissolves, no shaky hand-held shots – meant that visually the film was slow and secure and very calming.

What a relief, what a welcome change, to be watching an art film which is not about New York or blacks in the Deep South or transvestites in Mexico, but about ordinary English people in a very ordinary English city, Newcastle, a place which rarely features in ‘art’ exhibitions of any kind.

Your response to the politics, to the walls of old posters, will vary according to temperament and beliefs. But I thought the film was one of the best ‘art’ videos I’ve seen for a long time.

Upstairs – gallery 8

You walk through double doors out of the darkened politics room into gallery 8, which is light and spacious and long, with room for displays by another eight or so artists.

To be honest, I was feeling quite full by this stage, especially filled by the host of memories and thoughts about English history and English politics triggered by the Zimmerman room – so I didn’t have enough capacity left to really pay full attention to the artists here.

Uriel Orlow was represented by a big slide projection showing still from a 1963 documentary about the South African Botanical Gardens which featured white scientists and tourists celebrating the 50th anniversary of the garden, while African people only appear in the film as workers. Orlow invited actor Lindiwe Matshikiza to pose in front of blow-ups of these photos and ‘physically confront this archival material from the Apartheid era’.

The Fairest Heritage by Uriel Orlow (2016-17) Digital film still. Courtesy of the artist

The Fairest Heritage by Uriel Orlow (2016-17) Digital film still. Courtesy of the artist

Also ‘investigating the effects of colonialism’ is Larry Achiampong. The artist himself was in attendance to explain the idea behind his film Relic 1 (2017) which was showing in a purpose-built alcove. Relic 1 shows a black woman wearing a space helmet and bearing a pan-African flag exploring the ruins and wreckage of a white Europe which has collapsed and decayed, leaving only scattered objects and concrete ruins. According to the guide, Achiampong’s work reflects on:

the impact of colonial histories, exploring notions around race, class and culture in the digital age.

It reminded me of the experimental film I saw at Into the Unknown, the Barbican’s excellent exhibition of science fiction, Pumzi by Wanuri Kahiu.

As a plot, arrival from somewhere else arrives to investigate the ruins of Western society / human civilisation, strikes me as being one of the oldest storylines in science fiction, although it is shot in a very slow, beautiful style. Here’s a flavour:

I came in towards the end and so caught the list of credits at the end of the film. Right at the end the film is dedicated to two named individuals (friends/colleagues of Achiampong?) and ‘to Grenfell’.

It made me reflect how quickly and totally the Grenfell Tower disaster has been assimilated into the canon of left-wing, post-colonial, right-on grievances, as swiftly and efficiently as medieval saints were assimilated, canonised and venerated by the medieval church, and for much the same reason – because it provides one more building block for a self-reinforcing framework of belief, for a rhetoric of opposition, for a discourse of radical anger.

Further along the gallery was a suite of paintings by Hannah Brown, born 1977 in Salisbury, who does surprisingly ‘conventional’ paintings of rural scenes, although sometimes with a contemporary kick in the title. As a keen walker in the countryside around London, and author of a walking blog, I appreciated these bucolic paintings for their composition and technical proficiency.

The field next to Tesco that is soon to be built on, 1 (2016-17) Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Anna Arca

The field next to Tesco that is soon to be built on, 1 (2016-17) Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Anna Arca

The exhibition closes with a video and sound installation by Tom Lock titled Within (2017). This is shown in a large darkened space around which are hung four big screens showing what amounts to a sequence of animations of zoomorphic patterns and shapes. There are no chairs or benches, but a couple of beanbags to slump in. All quite psychedelic and trippy.

Within by Tom Lock (2017)

Within by Tom Lock (2017)

Over the gently moving and evolving shapes is a voiceover speaking a narrative based on science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s 1987 novel, Lilith’s Brood. The narrative appears to be about the human race dying out and its only future being to cross-breed with an alien life form, thus creating a new hybrid species, the animations somehow depicting the new shapes and patterns this hybrid would take. Or see. Or think – it wasn’t very clear.

Either way, Within was a very soothing, restful end to the show, and an interesting counterpoint to the very human political concerns of the Zimmerman film earlier on.

Now I think about it, the leading feature of the three art films I’ve mentioned is how restful, slow and peaceful all of them are.

Conclusion

The London Open is FREE. Go along and see what cutting-edge, right up-to-the-minute artists are doing.

Although I am routinely amused and sometimes dismayed by the art world’s tiny-minded concerns with a very limited set of ‘issues’ – to quote the exhibition guide, various artists are ‘concerned with…’

  • notions around race, class and culture
  • the psychology of desire
  • relationships between gender, technology and systems of power
  • the politics of racial identity
  • an intimate female perspective on desire

– nonetheless, I am grateful to institutes like the Whitechapel for their commitment to select, showcase and explain contemporary and cutting-edge art from around the world.

22 artists

I’ve only mentioned the work of about half the artists in the exhibition, generally the larger-scale more eye-catching ones. The full list of London Open 2018 artists is:

  • Larry Achiampong
  • Rachel Ara
  • Gabriella Boyd
  • Hannah Brown
  • Rachael Champion
  • Gary Colclough
  • George Eksts
  • Ayan Farah
  • French & Mottershead
  • Vikesh Govind
  • Richard Healy
  • Des Lawrence
  • Tom Lock
  • Céline Manz
  • Uriel Orlow
  • Rachel Pimm
  • Renee So
  • Alexis Teplin
  • Elisabeth Tomlinson
  • Jonathan Trayte
  • Tom Varley
  • Andrea Luka Zimmerman

The curators

The London Open 2018 is curated by Emily Butler, Mahera and Mohammad Abu Ghazaleh Curator, Whitechapel Gallery with Cameron Foote, Assistant Curator, Whitechapel Gallery. As to the selection criteria, Butler is quoted as saying:

With recent debates about political, religious, gender and racial representation, we were drawn to artists whose work genuinely engages with the subjects explored in it.


Related links

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire @ the National Gallery

Room one

Room 1 of the National Gallery is just that, a normal-sized room, not a massive gallery. They use it to host smallish displays of work brought together on a common theme or by a niche artist, and the exhibitions or displays on here are generally FREE. The most recent one was a compact survey of lake paintings by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

This summer, room one is hosting a display of ten big paintings by the American artist Ed Ruscha.

Ed Ruscha

For a start you pronounce his name ROO-SHAY. He was born in 1937.

Since the 1960s Ruscha has been producing paintings and prints depicting the American urban landscape in a highly simplified and stylised way. His subject is the modern American landscape of petrol stations, highways and industrial units, all depicted in a semi-abstract manner which emphasises cool lines, streamlined design, and dispenses with human beings altogether.

Initially associated with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, Ruscha often incorporates commercial art elements into his paintings, prints and photography – from the 1980s onwards they have included typography, graffiti and billboards.

All this can be grasped in a glance at what is probably his most famous work, Standard Station from 1966.

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Ed Ruscha’s Course of Empire

In 1992 Ruscha created a number of black and white urban landscapes of Los Angeles, focusing on highly simplified views of purely architectural structures, reduced to almost cartoon simplicity, taken from below looking up, in order to remove any evidence whatsoever of street life, traffic or people.

The look like simple, box-like, utilitarian structures with no pretension to beauty, although their stark simplicity itself bespeaks a kind of urban economic power.

In 2005, Ruscha was asked to represent the United States at the 51st Venice Biennale. Ruscha had long been a fan of Thomas Cole’s great cycle of five big oil paintings depicting the rise and fall of an imaginary empire, Course of Empire, on view in a gallery in New York.

Inspired by this idea of a rise and fall, a before and after, Ruscha decided to take five of his 1992 black and white paintings and revisit their locations, painting how they looked after the passage of 13 years.

And so Ruscha presented at the Biennale five of the black and white urban landscapes made in 1992, hung next to five new colour versions of these same sites, and gave the series the same title Cole had used, Course of Empire.

And this is what’s hung here in room one at the National Gallery – five massive black and white paintings of industrial units in urban L.A., each one hung above the colour view of the same location 13 years later.

Top row - Blue Collar Tool & Die (1992) and Blue Collar Trade School (1992), bottom row The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) and The Old Trade School Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Top row – Blue Collar Tool & Die (1992) and Blue Collar Trade School (1992), bottom row – The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) and The Old Trade School Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

The tool and die shop has been taken over by what looks from the signage to be a Korean business. The trade school has been closed down, its windows filled with plywood, locked behind a barbed wire fence which is itself showing signs of wear. The tyre shop has now become what looks like a storage facility.

You can see how simplistic the depiction of the buildings is. The complete absence of human warmth or emotion. The lack of detail. The looming presence of the sky in the top left picture, in particular.

Blue Collar Tires (1992) and Expansion of the Old Tires Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Tires (1992) and Expansion of the Old Tires Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Ed and the curators made the fairly obvious decision to hang the paintings in two rows, the older ones directly above their respective partners from the later series, for the simple reason that this is a small room – the paintings are so enormous they simply wouldn’t all have fit if placed in one row.

The most puzzling thing – which wasn’t explained anywhere in the notes – is why the old paintings are black and white and the new in colour. Does it mimic the change from black and white to colour photography which took place in the 1960s? Was the blue collar world which they seem to lament a world of black and white, contrasted with the funky digital colours of our new, smart phone culture?

Blue Collar Telephone (1992) and Site of a Former Telephone Booth (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Telephone (1992) and Site of a Former Telephone Booth (2005) by Ed Ruscha

It’s impossible to say that the passage of time has somehow dehumanised the landscape because there were never any humans in the landscape to start with.

And the paradox is that, although the contrast between working buildings and now empty buildings is presumably meant to convey a sense of loss or abandonment, the use of colour in the 2005 pictures actually makes them feel much more warm and welcoming.

In fact, the before and after of the telephone booth is pretty much a ‘sight gag’. Where there used to be phone booths there is now nothing at all because everyone has mobile phones. no need for the expensive-to-maintain old booths. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

I was also puzzled the way the old phone booth had been replaced by a tree because trees are good, aren’t they? That sort of suggests a positive change, which goes against the gloomy declinism of most of the others.

Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992) and The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992) and The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) by Ed Ruscha

So is it all a tale of woe, a snapshot of American economic decline? Or a little more complicated than that?

Certainly, all five of the 1992 paintings have the words ‘blue collar’ in the title which are absent from the 2003/4/5 titles. Is the series a lament for the passing of the traditional working class world?

Who knows. The paintings offer no more information than their straightforward content and their blankly factual titles. It’s for us to respond and interpret.

The tie-in with Thomas Cole

Why are they here in the National Gallery, now? To coincide with the big exhibition downstairs covering the career of the American landscape painter, Thomas Cole, which includes the epic five-painting cycle The Course of Empire (1834–6) which Ruscha has acknowledged as a major inspiration for his series.

It is the first time that Cole’s source set of paintings, and Ruscha’s response to them, have ever been exhibited at the same time, in the same institution.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire @ the National Gallery

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition on numerous levels. It contains 58 works, the majority on loan from North American collections, focusing on a score of masterpieces by American landscape painter Thomas Cole – making this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of his works together in one place.

It also brings together some enormous paintings by Claude, Constable, Turner and John Martin to show how Cole studied and learned from them.

And, quite apart from the visually stunning impact of many of these huge works, it is rich in thought-provoking issues and ideas.

Four rooms and seven chapters

Thomas Cole is famous in the U.S. as the greatest American landscape artist of his generation, more or less founding the young republic’s tradition of landscape painting.

In fact he was British, born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801 to a middle class family in reduced circumstances. So reduced that young Thomas was sent out to work while still school age, among other jobs working as an assistant to an engraver.

The story of his life, achievement and influence is told in the four rooms of the National Gallery’s ground Floor Galleries, which have been divided into seven sections or ‘chapters’. There’s also a handy timeline of his life on one wall, to give a sense of the flow and development of his career before he was struck down tragically young, dying aged 47 in 1848.

Chapter 1. Industrial England

Cole was born in Bolton near Manchester as the industrial revolution reached its first flood of development.

The first section includes a vivid depiction of the impact of this new coal and iron technology in Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s painting Coalbrookdale by Night, painted in 1801 the year of Cole’s birth. Note the enormous abandoned cogs and crankshafts at the bottom left and their resemblance to the ruined columns in paintings of Roman and Greek ruins i.e. the way older aesthetic forms lingered on in the new world.

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Not only was the physical landscape being devastated, but so were the people too, the old cottage-based artisan economy eroded by mass production in the new manufactories where people were reduced to ‘hands’, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to serve the machines.

This prompted a backlash. Nearby hangs a contemporary lampoon of a Luddite, one of the gangs of workers who smashed up the machinery in a bid to halt ‘progress’ and to keep work human.

When his father’s business failed, Cole, a sensitive well-educated teenager, was forced to take work engraving printing blocks in a local cotton mill. He had, quite literally, hands-on experience of the way industrial ‘progress’ was making work mechanical and alienating.

In 1817 the family moved to Liverpool where Cole got a job working in an engraver’s shop where he would have seen prints by the leading artists of the day.

Chapter 2. American Wilderness

When he was 17 Cole’s parents decided to emigrate. His family sailed to America and settled in Philadelphia. Cole was now determined to become a painter, borrowing all the textbooks he could find and taking lessons from an itinerant artist. In 1825 he moved to New York City and that summer took a steamboat trip up the Hudson river into the Catskill Mountains.

He made numerous sketches of this picturesque landscape, rich in hills, valleys, small rivers, abundant wildlife and forests stretching as far as the eye could see. Already it was a tourist destination for New Yorkers but Cole removed all human traces from his sketches and especially from the finished paintings he worked up from them, depicting the landscape as a virgin wilderness.

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although there are a few tiny sailboats on the river in the far distance of this painting you’d be forgiven for not seeing them. What you are meant to see is the wild and storm-battered trees and the outcrop of rock, highlighted in the foreground and set against the ominous dark shape of the mountain (Round Top) rising behind it.

In these paintings Cole was seeking, in his own words, ‘a higher style of landscape’. He was influenced by the prints he’d seen of the magnificent sprawling light effects achieved by J.M.W. Turner and the grandiose melodramatic effects of ‘end of the world’ John Martin. What makes this exhibition even more visually stunning than it would have been is the inclusion of some wildly dramatic works by Turner and Martin of the sort which inspired young Cole.

A classic example of Cole’s literary or melodramatic embellishment of landscape is this fantastical scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel of the wilderness north of New York, Last of the Mohicans, published just the year before, in 1826.

The humans are obviously dwarfed by the setting, an improbably fantastical circular ledge of rock on the right of the picture, allowing the left half to reveal a ‘sublime’ receding vista of successive rugged mountains, lakes, and more mountains. The very human passions of Cooper’s novel have been translated into an image of almost cosmic significance.

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

These paintings attracted buyers, and word of mouth led Cole to be taken up by some very wealthy patrons. It was one of these patrons, Luman Reed, who paid for Cole to return to Europe and undertake a tour of Italy in order to improve his technique and his life drawing.

Chapter 3. London – Imperial Metropolis

So at the age of 28 Cole returned to Europe, stopping in London, where he visited the newly opened ‘National Gallery’ to study Old Masters. Here he actually met Constable and Turner. He was invited for a personal tour of the latter’s studio, where he admired the remarkable painting, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

You can see how this kind of thing played to Cole’s interest in depicting absolutely massive natural landscapes, enormous cosmic or geographical motifs which dwarf their puny human characters.

But like everyone else who met him, Cole was disappointed by the contradiction between the sublimity of Turner’s paintings and the man himself, who was dirty, smelly, abrupt and inarticulate, having the appearance and manners, as Cole put it, of ‘the mate of a coasting vessel’.

At the Royal Academy Cole exhibited some of his own landscapes, such as the striking Distant View of Niagara Falls, which he actually completed in London from sketches taken at the scene, and which he deliberately painted with a view to wowing the London public. He was disappointed when they didn’t make much impact.

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Chapter 4. The Grand Tour

Cole travelled quickly through Paris, which held no interest for him, and on to Florence, where he spent eight months getting to know the town’s close-knit artistic community, painting the city and going out into the surrounding countryside to paint landscapes and especially all and any remains of the once-great Roman Empire.

In 1832 he moved on to Rome itself, studying and sketching all the famous sites and also venturing out into the surrounding countryside, much loved by the French painted Claude Lorraine whose work he had admired in London.

This part of the exhibition displays figure studies Cole did in Italy, as well as oil paintings of Florence and of picturesque Roman ruins embedded in the tranquil Italian countryside.

Chapter 5. The Course of Empire

Cole returned to the States in 1832 and became a citizen in 1834. It was now, after all this training and preparation, that he began work on the ambitious cycle of five massive paintings designed to portray the rise and fall of an imaginary civilisation which he was to call The Course of Empire.

Visually, the ‘civilisation’ – i.e. the buildings, clothes and trappings of all the inhabitants – are based on ancient Rome, with its vast classical buildings, all pillars, porticoes and domes. But the landscape, the natural setting of the rise and fall, are recognisably the America of Cole’s Catskill paintings.

In this, the first of the sequence, a ‘savage’ dressed in a loincloth in the middle foreground on the left is chasing a deer he has wounded with an arrow, at the bottom and slightly to the right of middle. In the distance on the right is a circle of Indian teepees with a fire burning. Looming up out of the John Martin-style, over-arching clouds, is a sloping mountain topped by a distinctive boulder, which appears in all five paintings.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The sequence as a whole can be quickly taken in on Wikipedia.

The five paintings are:

  • The Savage State
  • The Arcadian or Pastoral State
  • The Consummation of Empire
  • Destruction
  • Desolation

As you can see, the paintings combine epic scale and deep perspective with a beguiling attention to minute detail. For example, in the second painting, look for the old man tracing geometric shapes in the sand with a stick, the first tremors of the ‘science’ which will give rise to ‘industry’.

The Consummation of Empire is in some ways the most visually pleasing. It’s physically the biggest of the five, but I think a lot of its success is due to the importance of light in bringing an unexpected sense of air and spaciousness to what ought to be a ridiculously crowded and crammed composition.

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

It adds to your appreciation to learn that the five paintings are conceived of taking place at different times of day: Savage at dawn, Arcadia in mid-morning, Consummation in the full light of a Mediterranean noon, Destruction in the late afternoon, and Desolation at moonrise.

A whole room is devoted to these five enormous paintings (with a handful of works from Italy on other walls so you can see where ideas of perspective, and especially of classical buildings and plant-covered ruins came from). It is a dazzling array of visionary genius.

Chapter 6. Cole’s Manifesto

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829 to 1837, that’s to say at exactly the period when Cole came into his own as a professional artist, travelled to Europe and painted his epic Course of Empire series.

Jackson is controversial nowadays for the politically correct reasons that he was a slave-owner who also took a tough line with native Americans, leading the US Army in the First Seminole War (1814-19), and in 1830 signing an Indian Relocation Act which expelled native Americans from the South to the mid-West of America, causing an immensely destructive uprooting of peoples and cultures in which many died.

But contemporaries like Cole disliked Jackson not for these reasons, but because he was a demagogic populist who appealed over the heads of the Washington establishment to the broader electorate, claiming to speak up for ‘the common man’.

Several art scholars were on hand at the press view I attended and one of them said that Jackson was ‘the Donald Trump of his day’, claiming to stand up for the common man, but in reality paving the way for the spread of industrial capitalism into the West.

He said that if the figure in a red cloak riding in triumph across the viaduct in The Consummation of Empire can be seen as Jackson/Trump, then his empress, seated on a throne at the extreme right and bottom of the picture, must be Melania!

Why did Cole dislike Jackson so much? Because he objected to Jackson forcefully encouraging the opening up of the West for settlement and exploitation.

For Cole is seen by many as not only the first serious painter of landscapes in America, and founder of the Hudson River School of art, but also as one of the first American environmentalists.

Cole was deeply fearful that the Americans were about to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed at first hand in Britain, and were about to destroy their natural landscape in a misguided quest for industrialisation and ‘progress’.

This wasn’t just an opinion he expressed in painting. In 1836, while he was working on the Course of Empire paintings, Cole felt strongly enough about it to write an ‘Essay on American Scenery’ pleading for the preservation of the American wilderness.

Coincidentally and ironically, the same year saw construction begin on the Hudson Valley railway. In the final room, among other works, there’s a pairing of paintings Cole did before and after the railway was built through his beloved Catskill landscape.

View on the Catskill - Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

View on the Catskill – Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

The commentary very usefully pointed out the way Cole uses techniques borrowed from Claude Lorraine, namely the elegant trees framing the view, at the right, and the big eggshell blue sky, to convey a tremendous sense of openness and tranquility, against which his characteristically tiny people are framed.

The ‘after’ painting, made six years later in 1843, hardly depicts the end of the world; the changes are more subtle.

A moment’s attention shows that the trees have gone. The framing pair at the right of the earlier work, and the smaller one on the left, have disappeared, replaced by hacked-down stumps. Worse, where the entire lake was previously lined by an elegant sweep of trees, now these have all gone, replaced by low-growing bushes. Removing the trees eliminates the sense of depth and mystery from the view.

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The railway itself cuts across the middle distance and this also, once you focus on it, has a subtly undermining effect. Previously the view unfolded with a sense of limitless depths, a sense of mystery succeeding wooded mystery. Now, denuded of trees and bisected by this subtle but decisive line, the entire landscape now appears somehow more constrained and controlled.

The highlight of the last room is arguably Cole’s most famous painting into which he poured everything – his management of sheer scale and size, his sense for landscape, everything he had learned from Turner and Constable about clouds – all expressed in yet another realistic painting which lends itself to allegorical interpretation – View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, generally known as The Oxbow.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a huge and hugely enjoyable painting, with much to note and savour. Moving from left to right, up in the sky, we pass from a violent thunderstorm (with forked lightning at the extreme left), to the storm petering out, whiter clouds and then a clear blue sky appearing.

This movement is paralleled on the earth by a movement from violently broken trees in the left foreground and dense virgin brush in the middle-left, suddenly giving way with a great sense of release to a huge vista down over the river valley to the mountains beyond.

And down in the river valley – in striking contrast to the dark, dark green of the wild brush in the left foreground, is the honey yellow of wheatfields in which stand tiny stooks of wheat. Scattered among the orderly yellow and light green fields are occasional settlements of good, honest, horny-handed farmers. Down at the bottom right is a ford with a few horses coming down to it and a raft crossing the river.

This is Cole’s vision of what America should be like, a land of free-living independent yeoman-farmers – the polar opposite of the urbanisation, the galloping desecration of the wilderness, and the encouragement of rapid industrialisation, all of which were taking place under Jackson’s presidency.

It was staring me in the face but I didn’t notice until one of the art historians pointed it out, that the river doesn’t just form a sharp loop – it is in the shape of a question mark. Which future will America choose, a federation of independent farmers, or go down the ruinous path of the Britain which Cole had himself escaped, towards industrialisation, environmental ruination and the transformation of free agricultural workers into a wretched proletariat?

More light-heartedly, Cole has painted himself into his work. At the bottom, just to the right of centre, you can see his head and hat emerging from behind a log. Here I am. I’m painting this beauty. What are you going to make of it?

Detail of the Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

Detail of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

The Oxbow has never been seen in the UK before. It is just one of about 20 paintings which are normally based in America, are rarely displayed together, and are well worth paying the admission price to see and savour.

Chapter 7. Cole’s Legacy

The final wall in the exhibition shows us the works of some of the painters who inherited Cole’s mantle. He died suddenly aged only 47, but not before he had taught the talented Asher Brown Durand and the exceptional Frederic Edwin Church. They both absorbed Cole’s practice of direct observation of nature, sketching and painting on site in the open air. There are several works by Durand and Church to assess them by.

Ironically, although Cole’s style and approach expanded into an entire ‘school’, almost all of his followers dropped his environmental concerns and adopted the new spirit of the times, the infectious optimism that America’s expansion West, its development and industrialisation, all represented a Manifest Destiny to become God’s Own Country.

Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) was painted in 1853, just five years after Cole’s death, yet it celebrates the nascent taming of the wilderness.

At bottom right some cattle are being rounded up while a wagon is being driven up the road. To its left we can see a canal with a lock in it, over which, a bit further down, what looks like a railway bridge crosses over.

On a spur of land sticking out into the lake, in the distance, is some kind of town with a cluster of chimneys emitting the kind of smoke we saw in the first room of the gallery, denoting the British Industrial revolution. Meanwhile, half hidden among the broken trees to the left, is a group of three native Americans looking on – with awe, with regret, who knows? – but in effect characters made to pose and gaze in wonder at the unstoppable Progress of the White Man.

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand (1853)

Absences and contradictions

There’s no slavery in Cole’s paintings. There are few native Americans. Politically correct curators can point out what – to our enlightened times – are these notable absences.

But then again there are no working poor of any kind. Farms we see, from a great distance, in The Oxbow, but none of the early starts and long days and hard manual labour involved in farming.

In fact people in general are conspicuous by their absence from Cole’s painting. Having never had a formal training, he was self-conscious about his ability to draw bodies and faces and so limited his depictions of people to distant puppets.

In any case, all this was part of his overall strategy, which was to cleanse the landscape of its human inhabitants (white or black or red) in order to present it as a bountiful and idyllic wildscape.

For example, the wall label tells us that there were already tourists at Niagara Falls, roads to bring them there and accommodation for them to stay in. But all of this was omitted from Cole’s primitivising vision of Niagara Falls (above).

The great irony of his career and art is, Who did he produce these visions of a pristine nature for, who did he sell them to?

The answer: to rich patrons in New York and Connecticut who had become rich precisely by laying roads across the wilderness, by selling dry goods to new settlements and, in the case of the New York bankers who patronised Cole, by funding the new railroads and industrial enterprises which were despoiling the very landscapes they paid him to paint.

Cole is praised as a founding environmentalist – but he is just as much a forerunner of that familiar figure, the modern artist who uses art to rail against capitalism, the West, exploitation, poverty and so on but – makes a career by selling their work to rich bankers or to art institutions founded and endowed by rich bankers, the lynchpins of the very system they purport to criticise.

A rapture of beauties

This exhibition would be worth visiting for the Cole alone, but the National Gallery has given us a real embarras de richesses by including masterpieces by the four European painters who most influenced him –

  • the enormous Snowstorm by Turner (Tate)
  • the ludicrously melodramatic Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin (Yale, USA)
  • as well as five works by John Constable including Hadleigh Castle (Yale, USA) the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate) and three beautiful sketches all usually kept at Yale University in the States, including some wonderful sketches of clouds

Cole developed a friendship with Constable and they exchanged letters and sketches. In fact there are a number of studies by Constable and Turner of skies, cloudscapes and so on, to compare and contrast with Cole’s own sketches. Some of the Constable ones are stunningly skilful uses of paint.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

In fact one of the most fascinating snippets or sidelights of the exhibition was being shown the relationship between Cole’s anti-industrialising ethos and Constable’s similar sentiments. I hadn’t noticed before that the south bank of the Thames in the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (at the far right of the painting) is thronged with factory chimneys spewing out toxic smoke. Apparently, in his final years, Constable was depressed at the arrival of industrial blight in the landscape of the south of England.

I last saw The Opening in a large exhibition of Constable and powerfully disliked it. The curator pointed out that so does everyone else, but that was part of its point. It is an English version of Cole’s The Consummation of Empire, showing foolhardy pomp and circumstance while in the background industrialism is beginning to corrupt and destroy the culture.

Last but not least in the room showing enormous paintings which influenced Cole is Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula by Claude Lorraine. You can immediately see how his light-filled combination of water with classical buildings was absorbed and repurposed by Cole for the Course of Empire series, but there are plenty of pleasures to linger and enjoy just in this one painting.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

The point is, this exhibition isn’t just about Cole. If you add in the couple of paintings each by Durand and Church to the Claude, Turner, Constable and Martin, the feeling is of encountering masterpiece after masterpiece in an exhibition which expands your mind and gladdens the heart.

While the rational mind is processing a raft of issues and ideas, the eyes are surfeited with quite rapturous beauty.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Tomma Abts @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

There are two Serpentine Galleries, located just north and south of the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park. The earlier one was opened in 1970 in a one-time tea-room pavilion built in 1933, and has been putting on exhibitions by cutting-edge contemporary artists for nearly 50 years.

In 2013 a second site was opened – the Serpentine Sackler Gallery being the conversion into gallery space of a Grade II-listed, former gunpowder store, originally built in 1805. Whereas the original gallery is just south of the lake, the Sackler gallery is over the bridge on the north side of the Serpentine.

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery consists of four display corridors set in a square around two large brick rooms which once held gunpowder, and hence are named the Powder Rooms. Artists and curators are free to utilise these rather dark mysterious spaces or not, as required.

From a practical point of view, maybe the most important thing about the two galleries is that, while they host a steady stream of exhibitions by leading contemporary artists, they are both COMPLETELY FREE.

Tomma Abts

Just opened at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is the first ever solo exhibition by leading German woman artist, Tomma Abts. It is one of the largest collections of her work shown anywhere, bringing together 25 works from the last decade.

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Abts is best known for her acrylic and oil paintings which ring an extraordinary variety of changes on a limited number of motifs and colours, all contained within a uniform canvas size of precisely 48cm by 38cm.

Why this size? Because it allows freedom and flexibility. A little larger and you have to begin to plan and compose the work. At this size, works can be reworked, reversioned and remodelled.

The process of making

Starting with her standard-sized canvas, Abst lays down a bed of acrylic paint, lets it dry, and then begins experimenting with shapes, hand drawing in patterns, beginning to colour them with oil paint,getting a sense of their play and interaction.

There is no subject, nothing being depicted. It is a completely open process. Guided only by intuition and a feeling for design, for what works and what doesn’t, Abts slowly builds towards a final version, painting over earlier patterns and designs, and shapes and colours crystallise into a new work.

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

The results are surprisingly varied and visually interesting. They also have a genuinely hypnotic quality.

For a start, you can get far more up-close-and-personal to Abt’s work than you can to most paintings.

  • None of them have a frame – which makes them subtly more approachable.
  • They are not covered with a glass sheet, like so many paintings in so many galleries – thus you don’t get horrible reflections to put you off.
  • There is no marker on the floor a yard from the works and no officious security dude telling you to keep your distance. You can go up as close as you like. You could easily touch the surface if you wanted to, and you can certainly the canvas from just inches away.
  • There are no wall labels to distract you with information about the title, date, materials or anything else. Each work stands alone on the blank white wall in its own zone of attraction.
  • And the hang has been done deliberately so all the works are about five feet off the ground, at exactly head, and eye, height.

All done to encourage you to really ‘engage’ with the works. To look closely and then look again. I got chatting to one of the gallery assistants (an Italian guy) and we spent a good five minutes looking closely at Unno.

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

We noticed that:

  • The oil paint is deep. The canvas has been painted over, and then over again. This gives the surface of the canvas – seen up close – a noticeable grain and texture, and the image as a whole – seen from a little further back – a kind of richness and depth.
  • Looking close, you can see the traces of where previous designs have been painted over but left their marks. Each painting is thus a palimpsest (‘something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form’). The closer you look, the more residues and traces of earlier compositions you see – in the case of Unno you can make out wavy lines which had once existed but have been painted over to create a completely geometric image – but which nonetheless have left a ghostly residue.
  • Next, the light source. Only after really looking for a while did I realise that some of the patterns are given the illusion of depth by being painted with ‘shadows’ – namely the two diagonal sticks. But only two of them. The third one doesn’t have a shadow. I presume the use of some shadow creates the illusion of depth and so the traditional painterly notion of looking into a three-dimensional space, while the unshadowed elements (the third stick and the ring) do not have shadow but sit purely on the surface. The result doesn’t clash, but adds complexity to your perception.
  • Also playing with conventions of light and depth is the way the brown circle which dominates the image is much lighter on the right, as if it is a metal ring and is being burnished by sunshine or some other light source coming from that direction. And yet, unlike the sticks, it doesn’t have a shadow.
  • Taken together, these are deliberately trompe l’oeil effects, aspects of oil painting which can be played with to deceive the mind. Having observed all these elements, if you put them back together you realise that, although they’re there, they don’t seriously disrupt or undermine the composition: they enhance and deepen it.

And all of this is before you come to consider the palette, the particular combination of colours being used – obviously dominated by the brown background, with a darker brown (though deceptively burnished metallic aspect) for the ring. And against this the three ‘sticks’ which combine pink and beige and light blue punctuated with their own brown blips to create… to create what?

Well, a distinct and powerful colour world. Just for this work. Other works have completely different palettes, for example, the acid yellow of Feke pictured at the top of this review, or the limited use of acid yellow against a much more sombre backdrop in Fiebe.

Each of these one-off colour schemes creates a specific ‘mood’, just as the patterns and shapes create a different action or motif. At one point I thought of ballet, of evenings of ballet I’ve been to where they put on three or four short works by completely different composers.

In a way Abt’s paintings are ballets, each with a unique set, and dancers dressed in weird, abstract or geomorphic costumes, and each has its own peculiar music.

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Geometric and organic

So are they all rather rigid and geometric? No. A number of them, admittedly a minority of the works on show here, make a point of being ‘looser’ and more organic.

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Almost all of them use the same devices of shadow to create illusory ‘space’, and the ‘burnishing’ of some lines or surfaces as if they are metallic and closer to a light source – all the tactics I noticed in Unno – but each cast in their own strongly unified colour schemes. Each with its own music of colour and composition.

In some of them the shadowing gave the elements a bit more of a physical and tactile quality. I wanted to reach into this one and tug the ribbon or wool or paper or string, and dangle and twirl it for my cat to play with.

Playing with the canvas

Having got to grips with Abt’s core or base style, you then come across works where she plays with it, evolves it, varies it.

Specifically, there are a number of works which take the painting-as-object idea further by experimenting with the shape of the canvas. Some have one corner gently rounded off. Others have a corner sharply cut off. And some of the canvases have been cut entirely in two.

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

The most radical experiment with form was the couple of works which she had designed and then had cast in aluminium – quite a big step away from the organic process of painting and repainting which the other works make such a virtue out of.

For me the ‘whole’ works, with their integrated colour schemes and subtle trompe l’oeil effects, with their textured surfaces and the just-visible traces of previous designs – maintain a subtle and pleasing balance between being objects you look into, absorbed by colour and composition, and objects you look at, beguiled by their obvious presence as objects-in-the-world.

I can see why Abts was drawn to experiment with her basic format – after all, why not? – and I was intrigued and pleased with some of them. But somehow I felt that the fundamental idea of a kind of never-ending sequence of 48cm by 38cm canvases itself had a kind of formal beauty. I felt a little let down by the ‘altered’ canvases.

Larger scale

And the same went for the three larger canvases which the show includes. These are all 86.5 x 63.5 cm, so nearly twice the dimensions of the ‘standard’ Abts work.

It was interesting to learn from the artist herself that this significant increase in scale required an entirely different working procedure, namely that the design had to be completely finished and composed before the work began. 86.5 x 63.5 cm turns out to be too big a scale to experiment, revise and repaint on.

Stylistically, they are recognisably the same kind of geometric patterns incorporating trompe l’oeil shadow effects as their smaller cousins – indeed the need for formal composition meant that Abts was able to select very precisely where lines would intersect or hit the canvas edge, and so all three seem a bit more vividly, even abrasively, mathematical in design.

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

But I didn’t feel they necessarily added anything to the fundamental concept which the 48cm canvases so powerfully convey. She’s interspersed the three bigs ones in among the regular 48cm works but, to my mind, they required seeing in a noticeably different way. I’d have preferred to see them hung next to each other, maybe with 2 or 3 others, to have made a separate section of the show, so that you could soak up all the implications of the difference in scale more thoroughly.

Conclusion

These paintings by Tomma Abts are really beautiful, absorbing, mesmeric works which offer up more and more rewards, the closer you look.

Many paintings are just paintings, but Abt’s works are like a kind of Zen training in How to Look, to look closely, and then to look again.

And the exhibition is FREE. It’s in a lovely, light, air-conditioned gallery right next to the picturesque Serpentine, with its deckchairs and its ice cream vendors.

Go, and give your mind a treat.


Related links

  • Tomma Abts continues at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 September 2018

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Edward Bawden @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery is hosting a fabulous retrospective of work by the British artist and designer, Edward Bawden (1903-89), displaying more than 170 works, half of them from private collections i.e. a rare opportunity to see them.

It’s the most wide-ranging exhibition since Bawden’s death nearly thirty years ago and takes a comprehensive overview of his 60-year career. As often with these kinds of shows, extra work has gone into digging rarities, which include previously unseen works from the Bawden family private collection as well as bringing together 18 rarely-seen works which Bawden did as a war artist during the Second World War, on display together here for the first time.

Kew Gardens London Transport poster (1939) by Edward Bawden © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection © Estate of Edward Bawden

Kew Gardens London Transport poster (1939) by Edward Bawden © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection © Estate of Edward Bawden

Bawden was a commercial artist – an innovative graphic designer, book illustrator and printmaker, who turned his hand to a bewildering variety of formats. The exhibition includes examples of:

  • posters (including ones for Ealing Comedies, several for Kew Gardens, as well as a number for London Transport)
  • adverts and commercial designs for – among many others – Fortnum & Mason, Shell and Twinings
  • maps (a huge map of the seaside resort of Scarborough, the cover for an early edition of the London A to Z, a wonderful cartoon-style guide to the layout of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition)
  • murals (which he made for the Festival of Britain and for Morley College’s cafeteria, in central London)
  • promotional brochures and leaflets
  • menus
  • tiles and beer mats, including a set based on signs of the horoscope
  • book covers for a huge variety of genres, from Edith Sitwell’s poetry, translations of classics (Herodotus), jaunty travel books round Britain (East Coasting by Dell Leigh), and cookbooks (The Magic of Herbs by Mrs C.F. Leyel, Good Food and Good Drinks by Ambrose Heath)
  • postcards and booklets
  • calendars and Christmas cards
  • and wallpaper – three of the exhibition’s six rooms have walls covered with Bawden designs, namely ‘Tree and Cow’ and ‘Pigeon and Clocktower’ and a blown-up version of Covent Garden market

The wallpaper is still commercially available:

You name it, Bawden had a go at designing or decorating or illustrating it.

Friends and mentors

Bawden was born the only son of a Methodist ironmonger in Braintree, Essex, and grew up into a boy much given to solitary wandering and drawing. He went to a Quaker school, where his talent was encouraged. He went on to study at Cambridge School of Art before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art School of Design in London, where he studied from 1922 to 1925. On his first day there he met and befriended fellow student Eric Ravilious who would become a lifelong friend.

At the Royal College, Bawden was taught by Paul Nash, the great and strange painter of English landscape (as recently seen at Tate Britain’s Paul Nash retrospective).

The Showboat at Baghdad (1944) by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden.

The Showboat at Baghdad (1944) by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden

In the first room of the exhibition is this large picture of a wartime scene in Baghdad, Iraq (a British ship had been sent to win Iraqi hearts and minds by holding a pop-up cinema and fireworks displays; Bawden, as a war artist, was instructed to paint this rather bizarre sight, as much else during the war).

If you look at the moon in the top left of the Baghdad painting, the way it appears in an area which seems almost to have been torn out of the rest of the fabric, in the way it is almost totally eclipsed, and then at the wash of colours around the fireworks on the right – all these seem to me to be completely in the unsettling watercolour wash style, the rather ragged finishing, and the hallucinatory oddness of Paul Nash.

Landscape of the Vernal Equinox( 1943) by Paul Nash

Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1943) by Paul Nash

As for Eric Ravilious, the exhibition informs us that he and Bawden remained lifelong friends until Ravilious’s tragic death during the war, in 1942. We’ll come back to Ravilious.

Six rooms

As usual, the show is housed in the six exhibition rooms of Dulwich Picture Gallery, each with a specific theme.

The World Off Duty

Bawden was not a fine artist, devoting himself to exploring himself or the human condition via laborious oil painting. The reverse. He was fascinated by people and all their multifarious activities and, insofar as he became a highly successful commercial artist, he was always on the lookout for novel, imaginative and quirky channels for his humorous vision of people at play.

This first room is designed to introduce you to his prolificness and variety. One wall is lined with the striking pigeon and clocktower, on another hangs the Baghdad watercolour shown above. There’s a watercolour of the English relaxing on a beach which is very reminiscent of Stanley Spencer. There’s a huge and eccentric map of the seaside resort of Scarborough which he made for a hotel there.

Gardening

In 1932 Bawden married Charlotte Epton, who had been a fellow-student at the Royal College and was a professional potter. After a few years in London they bought a house in the Essex village of Great Bardfield and lived there for the rest of their lives. It had a garden and Bawden took to gardening like a duck to water, buying up loads of seed catalogues, experimenting with planting schemes and enthusiastically illustrating gardening books.

This is a watercolour Bawden painted of the view from his room. Note the architectural accuracy of the brickwork on the right and the roof on the left, and the line of the fences. The trees, bare in winter, are obviously more organic in shape but still partake of the generally geometric cast of mind which characterises the whole.

February 2pm, 1936 by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden

February 2pm, 1936 by Edward Bawden © Estate of Edward Bawden

Spirit of Place

Through the 1930s, into the 1940s and 50s Great Bardfield became home to an impressive array of English artists who began a tradition of holding ‘open houses’ to showcase their latest work. The Great Bardfield Artists eventually included John Aldridge, Edward Bawden, George Chapman, Stanley Clifford-Smith, Audrey Cruddas, Walter Hoyle, Michael Rothenstein, Eric Ravilious (who lodged with Bawden at Brick House), Sheila Robinson and Marianne Straub. Other artists linked to the art community include Joan Glass, Duffy Ayers, Laurence Scarfe and the political cartoonist David Low.

Back in the 1930s when Ravilious came to stay, the two friends discussed ways to revive the great English tradition of watercolour painting. They set about trying to adapt the Great Tradition to the discoveries of the Modernists and the shocks of the Great War and post-war period, to update the great English pastoral tradition to the ‘age of the motorcar and the wireless’.

From Cubism onwards the tendency in continental art had all been about discovering the geometric buried in organic forms, as well as reacting to the odd brittle staginess of much 1920s culture, the peculiar artificiality of the poetry of Edith Sitwell, the fragility of Noel Coward’s witty plays about neurotics – a cultural tone which was associated with the so-called ‘Bright Young Things’.

March: Noon, 1936 by Edward Bawden. Pencil on paper © The University of Manchester © Estate of Edward Bawden. Photo courtesy of the Whitworth, Manchester

March: Noon, 1936 by Edward Bawden. Pencil on paper © The University of Manchester © Estate of Edward Bawden. Photo courtesy of the Whitworth, Manchester

I kept finding myself comparing the odd, geometric stylisation of the trees, and the way they seem to have been plonked onto an almost abstract stage set, with the work of Paul Nash. Nash is more haunted and disconcerting but both share the same mood of alienated figuration (even though Nash was mostly working in oils and Bawden in watercolours).

Wood on the Downs by Paul Nash (1930)

Wood on the Downs by Paul Nash (1930)

And you can also compare and contrast Bawden’s landscapes with the style of his good friend Eric Ravilious. Many of the pair’s depictions of rural scenes are almost interchangeable. But Ravilious nearly always has a somehow softer and more rounded tone. His objects are somehow more complete and gentler.

This Ravilious watercolour is both more overtly geometrical than the Bawden (in the hatching of the immediate foreground or the cross-hatching of the grass on the right of the ‘island’) yet something is softening the impression. Maybe it’s the cartoon image of the geese waddling, or maybe it’s the palette, in particular the warm orange-brown colour of the spokes of the waterwheel. Ravilious’s images always feel more humanised somehow.

The Waterwheel by Eric Ravilious (1938)

The Waterwheel by Eric Ravilious (1938)

By contrast with the warm bath effect of Ravilious, Bawden always seems a bit more scratchy. But both produced scores and scores of immediately evocative and beautiful depictions of that strange homely but disconcerted England between the wars, where the pretty southern landscape remains the same and yet you can sense that something in the culture has been irrecoverably shattered.

Different works for different moods. Having looked at the Nash, Ravilious and Bawden for some time, I wonder if the Bawden isn’t the deepest: the cross-hatching of the sky in particular, of the central muddy groove in the road, and of the way he creates the sense of different leaf shapes on the different species of trees without actually drawing any leaves – just by using different types of hatching and shading – creating a vivid, modern, compelling image.

Wartime portraits

This room is a story in itself. When the Second World War broke out Bawden was recruited as an official war artist. He was sent to depict the British army in France and then, following the army’s evacuation from there, in the Middle East. There followed five years of widespread travels all around the British Empire and its numerous theatres of war. There’s a handy world map on the wall to help you locate all the various places where he went to paint British and Commonwealth troops.

Bawden had had it drummed into him at art school that he was no good at figure painting and so they are largely absent from his watercolours, and he rarely if ever did portraits before the war. This also explains why, although he created designs for book covers, he rarely if ever did illustrations of the actual text, being shy of trying to depict human beings let alone fictional characters.

But part of being a war artist was being under direct orders to portray British and Commonwealth soldiers, nurses and so on wherever he went. And so this room brings together over 20 examples of wartime: portraits, scenes with a few people in; and larger scenes with crowds. A characteristic example of crowds is the Showboat in Baghdad, above. There’s also a powerful depiction of refugees at Udine in Italy.

Refugees at Udine by Edward Bawden (1944) © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

Refugees at Udine by Edward Bawden (1944) © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

To me the sketchiness of the figures reminds me a little of the contemporary work of Edward Ardizzone, just two years older than Bawden, a successful book illustrator (and, later, author) who was also commissioned as a war artist and did some wonderfully vivid war paintings and sketches.

Note:

  • the way details all over the Bawden are more abstract and stylised, for example the trees at the top
  • the way Ardizzone’s people are surprisingly anonymous mop-heads, whereas there is a lot of individual portraiture in the Bawden, for example the Italian priest dressed in black in the centre
  • and the way Bawden’s buildings are more strictly defined – and their windows more bleak and haunting in a de Chirico kind of way.

You can’t see it very well in this reproduction but down at the front of the Bawden are the figures of a mother holding the hand of a child and looking through the wire into the camp, presumably the wife and child of one of the prisoners. Now I come to study it like this I can see that, although the Ardizzone is more pleasurable to look at, the Bawden is much more composed and arranged and artful than the Ardizzone. Deeper. There is much more to see.

Scout Cars of a Regiment of Hussars Liberating a Stalag by Edward Ardizzone (1945)

Scout Cars of a Regiment of Hussars Liberating a Stalag by Edward Ardizzone (1945)

Anyway, compelled to do portraits, Bawden turned out not to be as bad at them as he expected. All the examples here don’t exactly have photographic accuracy, but they are powerful in that between-the-wars, watered-down, English modernist way. Verging on a kind of quiet surrealism.

The more I look at this portrait of the sergeant – once I’ve got over the blue face – the more important and unsettling I realise the extremely accurate depiction of the staircase behind him is. It could have been far more sketchy but the accuracy with which Bawden captures every single step with its slight overhang and shadow adds not only realism but a kind of threatening sur-realism to the image.

A Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians by Edward Bawden. Watercolour, chalk and ink on paper © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

A Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians by Edward Bawden. Watercolour, chalk and ink on paper © IWM © Estate of Edward Bawden

His five-year odyssey took Bawden from Dunkirk to Libya, Sudan, Cairo, Eritrea and Ethiopia (where he met and liked the Emperor Haile Selassie), Palestine, Lebanon, southern Iraq, Casablanca, Baghdad and Kurdistan, and to Jeddah, back to Iraq and into Iran. He had a spell back in Blighty in 1944, painting in Southampton docks before setting off for Yugoslavia, by way of Rome, taking in Ravenna, then Greece, Austria and Florence. What an exotic five years!

To quote the exhibition:

He successfully battled his own feelings of inadequacy as an artist to produce some of the most compelling artworks of the conflict such as A Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians, 1940-1944. Portraits of Iraqi Jews, Kurds and Marsh Arabs are displayed alongside servicemen of different African nations, revealing the range of people Bawden encountered and his warm treatment of all.

Once I started looking at the credits for each picture, I realised that all 20 of them (and a couple more which spill over into the next room) are owned by the Imperial War Museum, presumably because it inherited the archive of war artists’ work. A reminder of the vast troves of art held by IWM, and the frustration that there isn’t a big gallery to put them on permanent display.

Architecture

Albert Bridge by Edward Bawden (1966) Linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge by Edward Bawden (1966) Linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

The war had interrupted Bawden’s experiments with the technique of linocutting. After the war he found himself well known. He was profiled in in the series of Penguin Modern Painters, received a CBE and was elected Associate Member of the Royal Academy.

But tastes had changed. The 1930s fondness for landscape had been swept away to be replaced by an urge to modernise. Amid ongoing work in murals (the 1951 Festival of Britain), designing book covers and other commercial activities, Bawden began to really explore the technique of print-making from linocuts.

We have noted the ‘geometric’ aspect of some of Bawden’s prints and the architectural accuracy of the watercolour of his back garden. Well, something about that action of cutting into the lino in order to make the print played very heavily to Bawden’s tendency to strong lines and architectural definition, strengths which really came to fruition when he applied the technique not to people or landscapes, but to the built urban environment.

The results are consistently vivid and powerful. Not all of his watercolours, of his landscapes and even the frivolous book covers and so on are convincing. By contrast, almost everything in this room full of linocut prints is powerful and impactful.

Bawden’s fondness for the humorous and fantastical led him to a series of prints of Brighton, from the gaudy Brighton pier to the absurd fantasia of the Brighton Pavilion. But it is the series of linocuts about London which I found most powerful. He did a set of London Monuments which included an arresting image of St Paul’s, along with depictions of Horse Guards Parade, the Tower of London and so on.

But I particularly loved two prints from the series about London markets, one of Covent Garden and one of Borough Market. For two years I worked in an office near London Bridge and walked under the railway arches and past the market stalls of Borough Market twice a day, besides all the times I’ve come this way to visit Tate Modern and sometimes to visit the church in the background, Southwark Cathedral, with its monuments to Shakespeare and John Gower.

Borough Market (1967) by Edward Bawden

Borough Market (1967) by Edward Bawden

The exhibition, naturally enough, pays attention and respect to all phases of his career, but I get the impression reading around the subject that it was the clarity and monumentality of these linocut prints which really made him a household name.

Fable and fantasy

Old Crab and Young by Edward Bawden (c.1956) Letter press with line-drawn illustration with added colours. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

Old Crab and Young by Edward Bawden (c.1956) Letter press with line-drawn illustration with added colours. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

The final room aims to bring out the thread of humour and the fantastical in Bawden’s work. He’s not a great inventor of fantastical beasts or landscapes; he is not John Tenniel of Alice in Wonderland fame or Arthur Rackham or E.H. Shepherd or Ardizzone.

There’s something a little more staid and reassuring about his illustrations, something very 1950s. Although the huge map of Scarborough at the start of the show features animals and a few fantastical creatures on it, they are somehow tamed to the scale of the English imagination. Clear brightly defined lines. Humorous stylisations. Nothing too unexpected or strange, thank you.

Aesop’s Fables, The Gnat and Lion (1970) Colour linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

Aesop’s Fables, The Gnat and Lion (1970) Colour linocut on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford) © Estate of Edward Bawden

If you like Bawden this is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity not only to see a wide selection of his work, but to read a number of private letters in which he discusses his approach as well as examining preliminary studies, preparatory drawings and unfinished designs he made, especially for the murals – a really thorough exploration of his achievement.

It’s all a must for the Bawden completist, and the comprehensive exhibition catalogue fleshes out many of the themes and ideas here with additional biographical facts and illustrations.

And comparing and contrasting Bawden with Nash, Ravilious and Ardizzone as I’ve done, brings out for me a greater understanding of his strengths – less soft and rounded than Ravilious, maybe more penetrating in his landscapes; and more incisive and architectural in his war work that Ardizzone; less immediately appealing and yet, when you look closely, much more composed, detailed and sometimes disturbing.

This exhibition is an enormous pleasure.

P.S.

Bawden was commissioned to design a series of eleven murals for the First Class lounge of the P&O liner Oronsay, which was launched in 1951. The theme was ‘the English pub’ and Bawden depicted traditional pub names, such as the Rose & Crown. One of these murals is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, until 17 June.

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)

The English Pub Mural for the SS Oronsay by Edward Bawden (1949-51)


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: