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

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

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

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

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

The key facts that come over are:

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

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

Overcoming your prejudices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coffee (1915) by Pierre Bonnard © Tate

Coffee (1915) by Pierre Bonnard © Tate

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

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

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

Mysterious moments in time

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

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

Nude before a mirror by Pierre Bonnard (1923)

Nude before a mirror by Pierre Bonnard (1923)

Psychologising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gardens

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

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

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

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

Other themes

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

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

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

The Fourteenth of July 1918 by Pierre Bonnard. Private collection

The Fourteenth of July 1918 by Pierre Bonnard. Private collection

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

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

Balcony at Vernonnet by Pierre Bonnard

Balcony at Vernonnet by Pierre Bonnard

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

I was converted.

Video

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


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Preparation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Monarch and other stags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Lions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curators talk

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Mantegna and Bellini @ the National Gallery

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

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

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

Biographies

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

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

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

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

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

Two styles

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

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

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

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

In Mantegna’s version you notice:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mantegna = compositional innovation
Bellini = atmospheric, natural landscapes

Mantegna versus Bellini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future of painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bellini wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Room by room

One – Beginnings

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

Room two – Explorations

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

Room Three – Pietà

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

Room Four – Landscape

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

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

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

Room five – Devotional Paintings and Portraits

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

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

Room six – Antiquity

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

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

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

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

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

Curator’s introduction


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Gainsborough’s Family Album @ the National Portrait Gallery

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

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

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

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

The two Gainsboroughs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gainsborough’s speed

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

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

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

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

The influence of van Dyck

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

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

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

Gainsborough’s daughters

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

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

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

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

Gainsborough’s wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of the videos

NPG have commissioned an official video of the show:

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


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Ribera: Art of Violence @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

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

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

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

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

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

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

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

The exhibition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond flaying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark and gloomy layout

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

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

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

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

Eye witness to torture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkness and light

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

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Heath Robinson’s Home Life @ the Heath Robinson Museum

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

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

Social history background

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

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

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

The exhibition

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

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

The spare room by William Heath Robinson

The spare room by William Heath Robinson

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

The Gadgets

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

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

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

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

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

How to…

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday joys in modern flats by William Heath Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

Designs for China

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

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

Nursery china designed by William Heath Robinson (1927)

Nursery china designed by William Heath Robinson (1927)

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


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Anni Albers @ Tate Modern

Anni Albers combined the ancient craft of hand-weaving with the language of modern art.

This monumental, 11-room retrospective is the first major exhibition of Anni Albers’ work in the UK. It is a revelation and a fabulously calm, peaceful and enjoyable experience. The curators have somehow made all the rooms appear white and bright and open-plan. A couple of rooms are divided into sections partitioned off by translucent fabric stretched across Ikea-style pine frames.

The effect is to slow and calm you right down to a frame of mind which allows you to really soak up the beautiful and varied patterns of Anni’s fabrics and hangings, watercolours, prints and gouaches.

Installation view of Anni Albers at Tate Modern

Installation view of Anni Albers at Tate Modern

The exhibition includes more than 350 objects from exquisite small-scale ‘pictorial weavings’ (her term for weavings which were not meant to decorate or hang, weren’t intended to have an architectural purpose, but to have the same importance and impact as traditional paintings), to the large wall-hangings and textiles Anni designed for mass production, as well as a generous selection of her later prints and drawings.

It opens with a big visual statement – with a room dominated by an actual loom of the type she would have used while a student at the Bauhaus. To match or balance this, right at the end of the show, the final room includes samples of cloth and fabric which we are encouraged to touch and feel, as well as a film showing a weaving loom in use, highlighting the complex interaction of hand and eye which was required to use one of these machines.

A 12 Shaft Counter March loom of the type Albers would have used at the Bauhaus

A 12 Shaft Counter March loom of the type Albers would have used at the Bauhaus

Biography

Anni Albers (1899–1994) was born Annelise Else Frieda Fleischmann in Berlin, Germany, to a bourgeois family of furniture manufacturers. In 1922 she joined the Bauhaus, the influential art and design school established by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar, and enrolled in the school’s weaving workshop. It was at the Bauhaus that she met the artist Josef Albers, who she married in 1925. (I am going to refer to her as Anni to distinguish her from her husband.)

Wall Hanging (1926) by Anni Albers. Mercerized cotton, silk © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Wall Hanging (1926) by Anni Albers. Mercerized cotton, silk © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

The early rooms display her student work alongside work by her tutors at the Bauhaus, including Paul Klee, and colleagues such as Gunta Stölzl and Lena Meyer-Bergner.

I couldn’t help revering the only Klee here, Measured Fields, a watercolour from 1929. Albers is quoted as saying that she didn’t learn that much from Klee’s teaching, but masses from the actual practice of his watercolours which experimented with laying blocks of (generally quite washed-out) colour next to each other.

Measured Fields by Paul Klee (1929)

Measured Fields by Paul Klee (1929)

Klee and Kandinsky were just the two most famous painters experimenting with colour and abstract design at the Bauhaus. Although he doesn’t get much mention here, Anni’s husband, Josef, was also thinking about colours and how they interact. The Bauhaus was an incredibly stimulating environment.

Anni completed her diploma in weaving in 1930 and succeeded Gunta Stölzl as the head of the weaving workshop the following year. However, in 1933 the Bauhaus closed under increasing pressure from the Nazi party, and the Alberses fled to America when they were invited by the American architect Philip Johnson to teach at Black Mountain College, an experimental art school in North Carolina.

Here Anni and Josef they initiated and led the art programme until 1949. That year, Anni Albers held her first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first solo exhibition to be dedicated to a textile artist at the institution.

In 1950 she moved for the final time in her life to New Haven, Connecticut, when Josef Albers was appointed to teach in the Department of Design at Yale University.

Pasture (1958) by Anni Albers. Cotton © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Pasture (1958) by Anni Albers. Cotton © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Printmaking

Anni Albers continued to hand-weave until the late 1960s when she began to focus on printmaking. On display here is a fabulous sequence of white prints on white paper. The effect is of embossed zigzag patterns on a plain white background which itself contrasts with the slightly stippled surface of the surround outside the main square. It sounds simple but they are tremendously evocative, in one way they were the most attractive thing in the show.

 Mountainous I by Anni Albers (1978)

Mountainous I by Anni Albers (1978)

Six Prayers

In the mid-1960s Anni was invited to design an ark covering for a Jewish temple in Dallas, Texas. The result was Six Prayers which are given a room to themselves.  Into the cotton and linen of the tapestries is woven silver thread, giving them a scintillating effect in the carefully gauged darkness of the room.

The pattern, when you look up close, invokes but doesn’t quite use, the Hebrew script, an effect which can be interpreted as a fragmenting of language and meaning or, more hopefully, a sense of the numinous, of silver threads of meaning, struggling to pierce through the weight of the everyday.

Six Prayers by Anni Albers (1966-7)

Six Prayers by Anni Albers (1966-7)

The event of a thread

Room eight – titled ‘The event of a thread’ – explores how, in the mid-1940s, Anni began to explore knots. She was probably influenced by the German mathematician and knot theorist Max Wilhelm Dehn, who joined Black Mountain College in 1945 and became a friend of the Alberses.

Although not a painter, in 1947 Anni Albers began to sketch and paint entangled, linear structures. Later, in the 1950s, she produced a number of scroll-like works with celtic-style knots, and then the Line Involvements print series in the 1960s.

To be honest, I think I respond to painting and drawing more immediately than I do to fabric, and so I found some of these knot paintings absolutely mesmeric. They are as if someone has taken the beautifully taut and compact interlocking lines of classic Celtic patterns and… unlocked them, loosened them, shaken them up, set them free. My photo of them is awful but the real things are entrancing.

Drawings for a rug by Anni Albers (1959)

Drawings for a rug by Anni Albers (1959)

On Weaving

Next to this section was the space which most epitomised the tasteful design and layout of the exhibition – a room created of see-through partitions, devoted to Anni’s writings. She published two influential books: in 1959, a short anthology of essays titled On Designing, and in 1965 the seminal book On Weaving.

The extensive display cases in this space convey the tremendous breadth and range of this latter work, which took as its subject the entire 4,000 year long history of the practice, from right round the world.

While still a student in Berlin, Anni had become a regular visitor to the Museum of Ethnology and become fascinated by its collection of Peruvian textile art. Apparently, the ancient Peruvians never developed a written language, in the way we think of it. Instead their art, and most of all their textiles, served a sort of communicative purpose.

Anni’s ‘pictorial weaving’, Ancient Writing, from 1936, was the first in an occasional series of works whose titles explicitly refer to language and texts, such as Haiku (1961), Code (1962) and Epitaph (1968).

Ancient Writing by Anni Albers (1936) Cotton and rayon © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Ancient Writing by Anni Albers (1936) Cotton and rayon © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

The Peruvian tradition was only one among hundreds of ancient techniques and traditions which Anni taught could be used to revitalise contemporary practice. The cases display the source material Anni gathered for the book, from images of works by contemporary artists such as Jean Arp, to fragments of woven pieces from Africa and Asia, Europe and the Americas.

These are accompanied by technical diagrams of various knotting techniques, as well as ‘draft notation’ diagrams which show the weaver how to create the different weave structures and patterns.

Although I didn’t follow the details, I did get a sense of how universal this art has been, practiced by all human cultures across a huge span of time. How there is something almost primeval about weaving and binding fabrics for human use.

Installation view of room 9, On Weaving, of Anni Albers at Tate Modern

Installation view of room 9, On Weaving, of Anni Albers at Tate Modern

In the 1970s Anni finally gave up the physically arduous task of weaving and switched her interest to printing techniques such as lithography, screen-printing, photo-offset, embossing and etching.

Printing allowed Anni to pursue her interest in colour, texture, pattern, surface qualities and other aspects of ‘textile language’, translating these concerns onto paper. She used simple grids and rows of triangles to create a wide variety of effects that reveal the influence of the pre-Columbian textiles and artefacts she collected and studied.

I’ve shown one of the white patterns which she came to title Mountainous earlier, but there are plenty more examples of her wonderful eye for geometric design and colour, an endless play of design and pattern.

TR II (1970) by Anni Albers. Lithograph © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

TR II (1970) by Anni Albers. Lithograph © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

This is an eye-opening exhibition in every sense. A lifetime’s output of beautiful objects, fabrics, rugs, hangings, paintings and prints by a consistently inspired and inspiring artist.

The guide tells me it was designed by PLAID Designs, so major respect to them for having laid all these treasures out in light and airy spaces. In her 1957 article, The Pliable Plane, Anni had imagined a museum where

textile panels instead of rigid ones … provide for the many subdivisions and backgrounds it needs. Such fabric walls could have varying degrees of transparency or be opaque, even light-reflecting…

Well, the curators and designers of this exhibition have come as close to realising Anni’s vision as is possible. There is much more I haven’t mentioned, about her involvement with specific architectural projects, about her innovatory use of hangings as room dividers or sound-proofing music auditoria, and an enormous amount about her wide-ranging experiments with fabrics ancient and modern, and with techniques from ancient Peru to modern America.

But it’s the light and space of the show, in which countless examples of beautiful fabrics and prints hang suspended in their beauty and weightlessness, which make you leave the exhibition walking on air.

The promotional video

And this is one of Simon Barker’s videos showing how a handloom is used.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War @ the British Library

According to the lady on the door, this has turned out to be one of the most popular exhibitions ever held at the British Library. I got there when it opened at 10 and within fifteen minutes it was so packed it began to be difficult to see some of the exhibits.

Why? Because it is the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, with many manuscripts and objects brought from overseas, some for the first time in centuries, and many others on loan from museums all around England.

Which makes it an unprecedented opportunity to see treasures and texts, manuscripts and swords, carved crosses and coins, which paint the completest ever picture of the mysterious and evocative centuries between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the conquest of the Normans in 1066 – 650 years which saw the formation of the English language, geography (the founding of towns and cities and roads), politics and religion.

A brief recap of Anglo-Saxon history

According to the Venerable Bede, within a generation of the last Roman soldiers leaving Britain, raiders from north Europe came pillaging. They came from tribes Bede names as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, based in north Germany and Denmark.

From bases in south England these tribes spread out and established kingdoms the length and breadth of the country. By the sixth century the land had stabilised into seven kingdoms, traditionally known as the Heptarchy, consisting of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex.

Alongside the main entities was a fluctuating set of smaller kingdoms which included, at one time or another, the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira within Northumbria, Lindsey in present-day Lincolnshire, the Hwicce in the southwest Midlands, the Magonsæte or Magonset, a sub-kingdom of Mercia in what is now Herefordshire, the Wihtwara, a Jutish kingdom on the Isle of Wight, the Middle Angles, a group of tribes based around modern Leicestershire, and the Hæstingas (around the town of Hastings in Sussex.

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

By 660 Northumbria was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and its contacts with both Ireland and Rome produced a golden age of culture.

Mercia began to displace Northumbria as most powerful kingdom in the early 8th century, a process which reached its climax in the long reign of King Offa, from 757 until his death in July 796. Offa controlled London, built the famous dyke along the border with Wales, and conquered Kent, East Anglia, Essex and Sussex.

In 793 Vikings attacked Lindisfarne monastery way up towards the Scottish border, and for the next two hundred years Danish invaders were a constant threat, eventually controlling the east of the country from the Thames to the border with the Scots. This area became known as the Danelaw, with its capital city at Viking-founded York.

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

Alfred the Great (849-899) is remembered because he fought the Danes out of Wessex, recaptured London, and unified all the tribes of England against the foreigner, signing a peace treaty with the Danish leader, Guthrum, in about 880.

But he didn’t manage to expel them. It was only under his grandson, King Æthelstan that, in the 930s, the Danes were completely expelled.

And even this unity was lost when the Danes under Sweyn Forkbeard reinvaded in 1013, leading the throne of England to be seized by his son, Cnut the Great, a Dane who ruled England from 1016 to 1035.

One last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, ruled again, from 1042 to 1066, but it was a dispute over the succession following his death, which led to the invasion of the county by William and the Conqueror and his Normans, and the death of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, at Hastings.

The period from 450 to 1066 was, in other words, one of almost constant warfare, in which kingdoms depended for their existence and stability on the military might and strategic canniness of strong rulers. The sophisticated economic systems of the Romans, their agricultural organisation, their towns laid out logically with strong defensive walls – all this was lost within a few generations of the Roman departure in 410.

For most of the next 600 years small communities of peasants eked out a subsistence living, and their surplus was skimmed off by violent kings to fund their high lifestyle and elaborate jewellery and weapons.

The Anglo-Saxon church

But alongside the history of kings and conquest, there is a parallel history, deeply intertwined with it – the history of the Christian Church in England.

There were Christians among the Roman community but their version disappeared when they left. Some missionaries came from Ireland which had a Christian tradition before England. But the main story begins with the mission to Britain of St. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo, the great 4th century theologian).

Augustine arrived in 597, converted the king of Kent, Æthelberht a, established an episcopal seat at the Kentish capital, Canterbury (which is why we still have archbishops of Canterbury to this day), and established a monastery and seat of learning which could train and educate the monks who would then, themselves, be sent out to convert the various rival warlords to the true faith, throughout the 600s.

We know a lot about the process of conversion because it is described in detail by the monk known as the Venerable Bede, in his masterpiece, A History of the English Church and People, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

Bede was a product of Northumbrian culture, a Benedictine monk who spent his entire life at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul near Jarrow. He wrote some 40 books but his masterpiece, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or The History of the English Church and People.

The point is that, although the Anglo-Saxon kings and their people were all pagans they were also illiterate and so all we know about them is filtered through the writings of the literate Christian monks, who all wrote in Latin.

And the little we have of actual Anglo-Saxon, the language these people spoke and recited their histories and legends in, was also recorded by Christian monks.

We have some pagan jewellery, most notably the content of the fantastic burial hoard found at Sutton Hoo, attributed to King Raedwald who lived in the 7th century.

But even carved crosses, much of the remaining jewellery, and all of the remaining texts, are Christian in content, the crosses’ inscriptions in Latin, the jewellery including the cross motif, and even the handful of Anglo-Saxon texts we have – even the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf – contain Christian imagery, or subject matter, and were written down by Christian monks.

Beowulf © British Library Board

Beowulf © British Library Board

Alfred the Great’s renaissance

By the 850s most of the kingdoms were thoroughly Christianised. Alfred the Great (d.899) acquired his reputation not only for his military victories against the Danes, but because he saw the need to raise the cultural level of the people he now ruled in the area known as Wessex. He realised he needed educated literate civil servants to administer his kingdom, and – being a good Christian king – he realised the gospels needed to be spread.

Alfred commissioned monks to begin writing a yearly chronicle of events, thus founding the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which ended up existing in various versions, kept by monks in monasteries around the kingdom. These are an invaluable source of historical information, and for the grammatical structure of the various regional dialects of Anglo-Saxon. Some of which continued for a generation after the Conquest.

Alfred also commissioned the translation of important texts into Anglo-Saxon. These included a translation and copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s book Pastoral Care. He distributed these along with ‘æstels’ or wooden pointer sticks, which were used for following words when reading a book.

Attached to the end of each pointer was a valuable example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery which featured a portrait of the king and, around the sides, the words ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The one and only surviving copy of this is usually in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but has been brought here for this exhibition. It is wonderful, the quaintness of the likeness of the king contrasting vividly with the sophistication of the dragon (snake?)’s head beneath it, from whose mouth pokes the nozzle which is where the wooden pointing stick came out.

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Anglo-Saxon treasures on display

This exhibition is so blockbusting because just about every single book, every Bible, psalter, breviary, every manuscript letter, poem, deed and legal document which tells and illustrates these tumultuous 650 years has been brought together and assembled in one place.

The Alfred jewel is just one of the inestimable treasures on display at this massive, comprehensive and dazzling exhibition. Other highlights include:

  • the stunningly ornate gold buckle from Sutton Hoo
  • treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard
  • the River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s on loan from National Museums Ireland
  • displayed alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing similar instruments
  • archaeological objects including:
    • the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk
    • the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003
    • key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found
  • the Sutton Hoo gold buckle
  • the Fuller Brooch on loan from the British Museum

Layout

The exhibition is beautifully laid out, in mysterious low lighting (obviously, to protect these priceless manuscripts), the walls hung with long, narrow photographs of unspoilt countryside, vividly conveying a sense of what must have been the largely untamed landscape of the times. It is organised into rooms which take us carefully through the period, with rooms and areas devoted to:

  • Kingdoms and Conversion
  • The Rise of the West Saxons
  • Mercia and its Neighbours
  • Language, Learning and literature
  • Kingdom and Church
  • Music making
  • Conquests and Landscape
  • The Empire of Cnut
  • The Cnut Gospels
  • Domesday Book

There are three or four videos scattered throughout, interviewing scholars who explain key moments or ideas in Anglo-Saxon culture, namely curator, Dr Claire Breay, and well-known TV historian Michael Wood.

The video on the Domesday book is simple and interesting. And there’s a longer one showing the process of preparing vellum parchment and then how the ink and pain for the illuminations were prepared.

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Mostly manuscripts

But the exhibition, as you would expect from its location, focuses mostly on books, on a huge selection of early medieval manuscripts, alongside, letters and other written matter, including:

  • the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels
  • the one and only surviving copy of Beowulf
  • a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • the St Augustine Gospels on loan from Corpus Christi College Cambridge
  • the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin
  • the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • the Utrecht, Harley and Eadwine Psalters from Utrecht University Library, the British Library and Trinity College Cambridge respectively
  • the four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry on display together for the first time, with the British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf displayed alongside:
    • the Vercelli Book returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli
    • the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library
    • the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library
  • Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and the earliest surviving public record, on loan from The National Archives
  • the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver;
  • the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century
  • the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral
  • the earliest surviving will of an English woman, Wynflæd
  • St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century
  • and the enormous Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It will be returning to England for the first time in more than 1,300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence
Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Cnut and Emma

I’d expected it to end sometime after the loosely titled Kingdom and Church section, so I was surprised that the exhibition devotes not one but several sections to reign of King Cnut, the Dane who united England with his home territory to form a short-lived North Sea Empire. He was king of England from 1016 to 1035 and the exhibition shows how manuscripts and books, gospels and psalters of great quality continued to be produced.

There is a section devoted just to Cnut’s strong-minded queen Emma, bringing together references in documents and even illustrations which appear to be of the queen.

The Norman Conquest

And then a final section devoted to a massive copy of the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror to list in fine detail every scrap of land in his new domain. The exhibition includes not only a hefty copy of the book, but a rare example of one of the preliminary rolls on which data was initially gathered by William’s army of census takers,before being collated and copied into the Big Book.

Domesday © The National Archives

Domesday Book © The National Archives

Thoughts

Several points emerged for me:

  • The distinction between the Northumbrian Golden Age of the 660s onwards, which is all about Iona, Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop and Bede — and the rise of Mercia under Offa about a century later – there are illuminated books from both periods which, to the really scholarly eye, show the difference in date, origin and cultural links.
  • The idea that the rise of Wessex (which led, eventually, to the unification of England) was a product of the Viking invasions: pushed back into the South-West and West Midlands, the remaining Saxon kingdoms were forced to co-operate and coalesce, and Alfred is the symptom of this newfound focus
  • The sense that, once you get to Alfred, the difficulty of trying to remember the kings and rulers of all the scattered other kingdoms disappears; Alfred is succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder (899-924), who is himself succeeded by his son, Æthelstan, who, from 927 to 939 has the right to claim himself to be the first king of all the English. From this point onwards it becomes easier to follow the kingship, and there is a kind of cultural and legal as well as military unification.

Slaves

I was surprised to come across a record of Athelstan freeing a slave. The earliest will made by an Englishwoman, Wynflæd, from the tenth century, records her wish to free her slaves. And the section about Domesday Book, while running through some of the staggering stats included in the book, mentions that it records that there were some 28,325 slaves in England in 1086 (compared with some 288,000 peasants). I.e. around 10% of the work-force was slaves.

A little-known fact about the Norman Conquest is that it was William who formally abolished the (thriving) slave trade in Anglo-Saxon England.

Slight criticism

I had one big caveat. I counted 125 books and manuscripts in the exhibition – books carefully propped open so we could see illuminations and text, manuscripts carefully flattened. These were all, of course, accompanied by information panels explaining what they were, what to look for in the illumination or style of writing, and so on.

BUT – none of them contained a translation of the actual words on show.

Most of the books are in Latin, Latin versions of various books of the Bible, breviaries and psalters, texts of Christian advice, letters from bishops to kings or vice versa, deeds to properties, adjudications in land disputes, and so on, with just a handful of texts in Anglo-Saxon, such as Beowulf, the Exeter Riddles, the Dream of the Rood, wills, charters and so on.

But early medieval writing was highly stylised. Although I studied Latin for GCSE and Anglo-Saxon at university, I always find it next to impossible to read Latin or Anglo-Saxon manuscripts because of the cramped and stylised nature of the handwriting.

So it would have been a very good idea, next to the panel telling you the history of the book, to have had a panel simply laying out the actual words on display, in modern orthography.

And then, logically enough – it would have been a good idea to have translated the words into modern English.

We are presented with a page of Beowulf, or of the Domesday Book. It looks great – but I can’t read a word of it. Not only can I not read it, but even if I could, I wouldn’t understand it.

I think this was a big flaw with the exhibition. The overwhelming majority of objects on display are texts. And although the exhibition gives plenty of help with the manuscripts’ provenance and style and general content – visitors are given no help at all with actually reading or understanding them.

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Introduction by the exhibition curator


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Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (2001)

This is the large format, shiny, floppy paperback catalogue of an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001. The exhibition featured a few photos but mainly paintings by 20th century Mexican artists collected (and sometimes commissioned by) wealthy collectors Jacques and Natasha Gelman. The book contains:

  • Director’s Foreward – Brian Kennedy
  • Curator’s preface – Robert R.Littman, exhibition curator
  • Frida and Diego – Gregory O’Brien, curator
  • ‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ – Anthony White, curator
  • ‘A pact of alliance with the revolution’: art and politics in Modern Mexico – Barry Carr, Institute of Latin American studies
  • Jacques and Natasha – Anthony White
  • ‘My mother, myself and the universe…’ – Anthony White
  • Catalogue of the works
  • Artist biographies

Modernism

For a start, I’m surprised they call it Modernism. I thought that’s exactly what it wasn’t. I thought Modernism was cubism, futurism, suprematism, constructivism, vorticism and so on. I thought Rivera’s art was part of the international reaction against the abstraction of the 1910s, and back towards various forms of realism, neo-classical realism in France or the Neue Sachlichkeit of Germany or the narrative realism of the Mexican muralists. In fact, once you flick through the paintings and see Surrealism next to abstract expressionism, caricature next to Frida’s self-portraits, you realise maybe it’s the only label which holds it all together.

The Gelmans

Jacques Gelman was born into a rich Russian Jewish family in 1909. His family fled the Russian Revolution to Germany. Twenty years later, Gelman fled Nazi Germany on the eve of the Second World War, making his way to Mexico which was more open to European refugees than America.

Here Gelman became a successful film producer and, along with his wife Natasha, also a keen collector of contemporary Mexican art, building up an impressive collection and commissioning portraits. Upon Mrs. Gelman’s death in 1998, their collection was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Highlights were loaned to the National Gallery of Australia for this exhibition in 2001. And hence the book.

Saint Frida

Frida Kahlo dominates the title and the exhibition and this catalogue.

Even in 2001 the curators write about Frida as having achieved cult status. As the recent exhibition at the V&A showed, it wasn’t just her paintings, but her entire self-presentation, the dresses, and costumes and jewellery and hair and look, which make Kahlo so visually attractive, so iconic.

To a historical materialist like me, what would be interesting would be an analysis of Frida Kahlo’s rise and rise – asking why she has become such a superstar icon – in terms of cultural history and political change.

During their lifetime her husband, Diego Rivera, was much the more famous of the two, up there with Picasso as an internationally recognised synonym for modern art. And Rivera pioneered a uniquely public form of art – his educative murals – public and extremely politically committed.

What has changed in our culture to lead to the fact that this politically committed, socialist visionary is now almost entirely overlooked in favour of his preening, self-obsessed, young wife?

For you can’t deny that Frida’s work is entirely, obsessively, unrelentingly about herself – hundreds of self-portraits, in various costumes, in bed, in barbaric medical equipment, crying, bleeding, suffering miscarriages.

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo (1932)

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo (1932)

When I was growing up in the 1970s it was axiomatic that there would soon be a socialist revolution which would sweep away American imperialist capitalism. ‘Up the workers.’ ‘Come the revolution.’ ‘The workers. United. Will never be divided.’ ‘One out, all out’ and so on. (I’m not saying I agreed with it, but that was the widespread assumption among lefties in universities, the media, film, theatre and so on).

Over the last forty years that hope has, it seems to me, evaporated, and been replaced by the notion of separate and specific ‘liberations’ to be achieved, in different ways, by distinct sections of the population. Gay liberation. Women’s liberation. Black power. And each of these sectors or groups have developed their own discourses, narratives, lists of grievances and injustices. Each of them insists on being heard.

Women need to talk about women’s issues and explore the condition of femininity. Gays need to talk about the gay experience. Lesbians need to find their voice. Transgender people need to be listened to. Mental illness needs to be addressed. Black people need to be heard. Refugees need to be heard. Muslim women need to be heard. We must break taboos. We need to talk about…. you name it.

The idea of social solidarity, of a unified mass working class movement to effect a fundamental transformation of society, has disappeared. It has been replaced by thousands, millions of voices, all clamouring to be heard, all desperate to tell their stories of suffering and victimhood and exclusion.

In this completely different cultural and political climate, Rivera’s big bullying chauvinist sexist old-fashioned toxically masculine working class politics seems quaint, redundant, or disgusting. (The art scholars in this book queue up to accuse Rivera of philandering and unfaithfulness and betraying poor Frida, on pages 10, 14, 25, 26 and 27.)

Whereas Frida has become an emblem of our modern concerns, primarily about the eternal victimhood of women, about the pity and the pain and the pathos of being a woman. (The story of the bus accident in which she was injured by a handrail is told on page 9, repeated on page 25, and then told again on page 27. Poor Frida. Beastly Diego.)

Injured as a girl (by a male bus driver), subject to endless medical operations (by male surgeons), forced to wear painful corsets and prosthetics (by male specialists), betrayed by her philandering husband (philandering, betraying, cheating, false and unfaithful Diego), ignored by the (male) art establishment during her lifetime, refusing to conform to (male) canons of female beauty – Frida ticks pretty much every box on the feminist checklist.

My point is that: the definition of what a ‘progressive’ or a ‘radical’ is has changed out of all recognition. Once it was someone who tried to unite the working classes, the poor and dispossessed, in order to seize power and transform the economic basis of society. Now it is someone who has suffered greatly because of their gender or race. Once it was the semi-pagan idea of the active hero. Now it is the more Christian idea of the suffering martyr, the victim, the permanently injured, offended or abused.

And Saint Frida – along with Saint Sylvia and Saint Emmeline and Saint Rosa – is one of the patron saints of the new religion.

I had thought and written as much because it is so oppressively repeated in the preface and introduction, before I came to the fourth essay in the book which turns out to be… on precisely this subject. The cult of Frida is the focus of the second essay in this collection, ‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ by Anthony White, which tries to examine the ‘cult of Frida’ and account for its rise and rise, over the period when traditional class-based politics has declined and special-interest-group, identity politics has arisen. Thus he makes the points that:

Kahlo has become the exemplary modern cult figure, in the tradition of Christian saints and teenage pop stars…

Her legacy has grown into a multi-million dollar industry that crosses national and cultural boundaries….

One of the recent sources of Kahlo’s recent celebrity has been a narrative of suffering which feeds into a well-established, popular fascination with personal struggles with pain…

Her work connects to a pervasive tradition in western art that depicts the tribulations of saints…

The figure of Frida Kahlo appeals especially to women… Kahlo’s rising popularity in the 1970s was paralleled by the growth in feminism… (Anthony White, p.13)

Martyr to pain, menstrual cramps, periods, pregnancy, miscarriages, abortion, unfaithful men, misogyny, the patriarchy. What woman hasn’t experienced one, many or all of these grievances?

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944) (or a portrait of the artist as a martyr)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944) (or a portrait of the artist as a martyred woman in a man’s world)

Mexican Modernism

Having discussed Frida and her many martyrdoms (physical, psychological, artistic, social) at length, Anthony White then moves on to discuss the rest of the artists featured in the show. He distinguishes three branches of Mexican Modernism, as found in the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection:

  • Murals The politically motivated, accessible, mass murals by Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.
  • Surrealism The Englishwoman Leonora Carrington, one-time lover of Max Ernst, is credited with spurring Mexican Surrealism after her arrival in 1942: André Breton had already visited Diego and Frida and declared Frida’s paintings masterpieces of Surrealism in 1938; another Mexican woman surrealist featured in the collection is María Izquierdo.
  • Abstraction – Carlos Mérida and Gunther Gerzso.

The works

The book includes reproductions of 60 paintings and seven photos. It opens with the wonderful photos by Manuel Álvarez Bravo who was, apparently, ‘Mexico’s first principal artistic photographer and the most important figure in 20th-century Latin American photography’. Bravo took portraits of Diego and Frida (of course) but also a huge range of subjects, from modernist architecture, street life, and women in various states of undress. Tut tut. Objectifying misogynist sexist pig. Great photos, though.

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

There is just one photo by his wife, Lola Alvarez Bravo, an interesting collage of black and white photos of ballet dancers stuck into  Mexican desert, which my daughter liked.

And then paintings by:

  • Leonora Carrington
  • Rafael Cidoncha
  • Miguel Covarrubias
  • Jesús Reyes Ferreira
  • Gunther Gerzso
  • 10 by Frida
  • Agustín Lazo
  • Carlos Mérida
  • Roberto Montenegro
  • José Clemente Orozco
  • Carlos Orozco Romero
  • David Alfaro Siqueiros
  • Juan Soriano
  • Rufino Tamayo
  • Emilio Baz Viaud
  • Angel Zárraga

Apparently, the Gelman collection contained more works by Gunther Gerzso than any other painter, about 40 of them.  I can see why. They’re big, bold, colourful abstracts (although Gerzso himself said they had their source or inspiration in the dry, sun-baked landscape of Mexico). Their existence also makes the simple point that the Gelmans continued collecting long after Frida and Diego had passed away (1954 and 1957, respectively), well into the 1960s and 70s, into a completely different cultural and visual world.

This example of Gerzso reminds me a bit of the kind of abstract prints my parents and their friends bought in Habitat and Heals and had on their walls in the 1970s.

Figure in red and blue by Gunther Gerzso (1964)

Figure in red and blue by Gunther Gerzso (1964)

Summary

It’s an interesting book because it a) contains a handful of masterpieces by Diego and Frida but more because b) it introduces you to a dozen Mexican artists I’d never heard of before. On the one hand, Rivera and Frida emerge as head and shoulders the best and most distinctive of the bunch, with Diego’s Calla lilly vendor and any of Frida’s amazing self-portraits leaping off the page – the ones with monkeys, in a red and gold dress, with braids.

But it was good to learn about Manuel Álvarez Bravo and, as well as Gerzso, I took a shine to the crisp abstract works of Carlos Mérida, with their late-1950s, rather Festival of Britain vibe.

Festival of the Birds by Carlos Mérida (1959)

Festival of the Birds by Carlos Mérida (1959)


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Rivera by Andrea Kettenmann (1997)

The German art publishers Taschen recently repackaged their Basic Art range into a standardised, large, hardback format, retailing at £10. Each volume in the series focuses on one famous painter or art movement.

The attraction of Taschen editions is that the text is factual, accurate and sensible, and the books have lots of good quality colour reproductions. Even if you don’t bother to read the text, you will be able to skim though plenty of paintings, alongside photos where relevant, of the artist or movement being discussed. The text of this one was written (as usual) in Germany, back in 1997, then translated into English.

Rivera’s life story is brilliantly told in the imaginative, sardonic and whimsical Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by journalist Patrick Marnham, published in 1998, so not much in the text surprised me, although, being much shorter, it had the effect of making the sequence of government buildings which Rivera created murals for a lot clearer, and it also explained the last decade or so of Rivera’s life (he died in 1957) a bit better.

What I wanted was a record of Rivera’s paintings. I’ve read and seen a lot about the murals, but they generally overshadow his easel paintings. I wanted to see more of the latter.

Rivera was immensely gifted, started drawing early (the earliest work here is a very good goat’s head, drawn when he was 9) and enrolled at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico when he was just ten, quickly hoovering his way through late academic styles. He went to Spain in 1907, aged 21, and studied Velasquez and El Greco. And then onto Paris in 1910, where he quickly discovered the avant-garde and was an early adopter of cubism.

For the first 20 years of his life, he was an omnivore, a chameleon, and I am impressed by the ability,and variety, of these early works.

French impressionism

The House on the Bridge by Diego Rivera (1909)

The House on the Bridge by Diego Rivera (1909)

Psychological realism

Head of a Breton Woman by Diego Rivera (1910)

Head of a Breton Woman by Diego Rivera (1910)

Cubism

Adopting the cubist style wasn’t just a fad. From 1913 to 1917 Rivera painted solely in the cubist style, completing some 200 works, took part in impassioned debates about various types of cubism, was friends with Picasso and Juan Gris. When he exhibited some of the works in Madrid in 1915, they were the first cubist paintings ever seen in Spain.

Zapatista Landscape by Diego Rivera (1915)

Zapatista Landscape by Diego Rivera (1915)

Futurism

Futurism is different from cubism because whereas the latter started out as a new way of seeing very passive objects – landscapes, but particularly Parisian still lifes, wine bottles and newspapers on café tables – Futurism uses a similar visual language of dissociated angles and fractured planes, but in order to depict movement. Also, if this makes sense, its angular shapes are often more rounded, a bit more sensuous (it was, after all, an Italian movement).

Woman at a Well by Diego Rivera (1913)

Woman at a Well by Diego Rivera (1913)

Russian modernism

Rivera experimented with a brighter, more highly coloured, more nakedly geometric types of modernism, a style that reminds me of Malevich. Maybe influenced by conversations with Russians in Paris, including Voloshin and Ilya Ehrenburg. And the fact that Rivera’s mistress, Angelina Beloff, was Russian. This is her suckling their baby.

Motherhood by Diego Rivera (1916)

Motherhood by Diego Rivera (1916)

Mural style

In 1917 Rivera definitively broke with cubism. He studied Cézanne, and the earlier Impressionists. Deprived of the sense of belonging to a communal avant-garde he was at a loss, stylistically.

Toying with returning to Mexico after 13 years in Europe, in 1920 Rivera gained funding to go on a long tour of the frescos of Italy.

In 1921 he finally arrived back in Mexico, and was one of several leading artists taken by the new Minister of Education and Culture, José Vasconcelos, on a tour of pre-Columbian ruins, studying the carvings of men and gods.

At last Rivera felt he had come ‘home’. The Italian frescos, but especially the pre-Colombian art, and the encouragement of the left wing populist minister all crystallised his new approach. He would completely reject all the stylistic avant-gardes of Europe, and melding everything he had learned into a new simple and accessible art for the public. He wanted to:

‘reproduce the pure basic images of my land. I wanted my painting to reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it, and through my vision of the truth to show the masses the outline of the future.’

The Mexican revolutionary government wanted to commission public murals to educate a largely illiterate population. Rivera received a commission to create murals depicting Mexican art and culture and history and festivals at the Mexico City Ministry of Education, and thus began his long career as a public muralist, and as one of the leaders of what was soon a Mexican school of mural painting.

Mural of exploitation of Mexico by Spanish conquistadors in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City by Diego Rivera

Part of the mural titled Exploitation of Mexico by Spanish conquistadors, in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City by Diego Rivera

But he was surprisingly badly paid ($2 per day) and so had to continue selling sketches, drawings and paintings to tourists and collectors. Often they were sketches or trials for individual subjects which would then appear in murals.

Bather of Tehuantepec is well known because it marks such a radical break with the immense sophistication of his earlier work. It is highly stylised but not so as to make it almost unreadable (as in cubism). The opposite. It is stylised to make it simple, ‘naive’, peasant, and accessible. Note the child-like simplicity, the primal colours. And the child-like use of space, the plants at the bottom simply giving structure and space to the bending body. It points to the mural style which incorporate elements not for any ‘realism’ but subordinated to narrative and message. Here the message is the primal simplicity, the utter lack of pretension, of the Mexican Indian washing.

Bather of Tehuantepec by Diego Rivera (1923)

Bather of Tehuantepec by Diego Rivera (1923)

Lilies

Rivera liked flowers. Calla lilies are, in a way, highly schematic plants. Big, tall and simple, with simple bold flowerheads, Rivera featured them in a whole series of paintings. This picture uses an immensely sophisticated grasp of perspective, colour and volume to create a strikingly ‘simple’ picture.

Flower Day by Diego Rivera (1925)

Flower Day by Diego Rivera (1925)

After looking at it for a while I noticed the compact, squarely arranged feet of the peasants at the bottom of the picture. Showing the way Rivera’s interest in cubes and angles and blocs of paint, was transmuted into the semi-cartoon simplification of the mural style.

Mexican realism

Rivera was expelled from the Mexican Communist Party after a difficult trip to the Soviet Union in 1927. In the early 1930s he went to America and painted murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York, but these commissions came to a grinding halt when he fell out with the Rockefellers in New York after painting the face of Lenin into a mural in the new RCA skyscraper in 1933. He was fired and the mural was pulled down.

Back in Mexico in the 1930s, Rivera found government commissions hard to come by and developed a profitable sideline in a kind of Mexican peasant realism. He painted hundreds of pictures of Mexican-Indian children, sometimes with their mothers – selling them by the sackful to sentimental American tourists. They kept the wolf from the door while he tried to get more mural commission but… it’s hard to like most of them.

Modesta and Inesita by Diego Rivera (1939)

Modesta and Inesita by Diego Rivera (1939)

Surrealism

I know from the Marnham book that André Breton, godfather of the Surrealists, came to stay with Rivera and Frida in 1938. I didn’t know that Rivera made an excursion into the Surrealist style and exhibited works in a major 1940 exhibition of Surrealist art.

The Hands of Dr Moore by Diego Rivera (1940)

The Hands of Dr Moore by Diego Rivera (1940)

Society portraits

Right to the end he made important and striking murals, such as the striking Water, The Origin of Life of 1951, an extraordinary design for the curved floor and walls of a new waterworks for Mexico City.

But at the same time – the late 1940s and into the 1950s – Rivera also produced commissions, usually portraits, for rich people, especially society women, which are surprisingly at odds with his commitment to the violent rhetoric of the Stalinist Communist Party.

Portrait of Natasha Gelman by Diego Rivera (1943)

Portrait of Natasha Gelman by Diego Rivera (1943)

Obviously, the striking calla lilies a) echo the slender elegant shape of the svelte millionaire’s wife b) echo their use in quite a few earlier paintings. But there’s no getting round the contradiction between this kind of rich society portrait and the intense engagement with the poor, with landless Indians, with the conquered Aztecs, of so many of his murals.

Having slowly trawled through his entire career, I admire the murals, and am often snagged and attracted by this or that detail in the immense teeming panoramas he created – the Where’s Wally pleasure of detecting all the narratives tucked away in a panoramic work like the Exploitation of Mexico, above.

But, given a choice, it’s the early cubo-futurist, or futuro-cubist works, which give me the purest visual pleasure.

Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard (1913) by Diego Rivera

Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard (1913) by Diego Rivera


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