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

Primitivism and Modern Art by Colin Rhodes (1994)

This is another in Thames and Hudson’s extensive ‘World of Art’ series, which means it has a serious and thorough text but that, of the 207 illustrations, only 28 are in colour, and all of them are small.

In Primitivism and Modern Art Rhodes aims ‘to give an overview of, and to highlight and clarify the often confused major issues and values at stake in the Primitivist world view through a discussion that focuses on the modern artists most closely associated with it’ – which straightaway explains the central theme and also gives you an example of the book’s rather clotted prose style.

Primitivism and political correctness

I was expecting there to be a fair amount of political correctness and I wasn’t disappointed, both in terms of sweeping generalisations and characteristic sociological jargon:

In [the late 19th century] the female body was deemed to be less specialised and women were generally typed as being essentially instinctive as opposed to rational thinkers. This conveniently situated them in a position closer to nature and so in this way the generic woman was defined, silenced and contained in male discourses of culture in precisely the same way as the savage.

‘Precisely’?

It is no coincidence that Pechstein’s image of female fecundity should be titled Early Morning (1911). The curving form of the apparently pregnant, exoticised woman is echoed in the arching sweep of the primordial landscape, suggesting that here creation can be understood simultaneously as a literal dawn, the dawn of time and as the promise of new life. (p.62)

For Rhodes, paintings are Evidence for the Prosecution, indictments of painters who are charged with being complicit in the racist, sexist, homophobic, imperialist value systems of their day (the book lingers longest on the imperial heyday at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries).

The artists’ work needs to be paraded before us so we can ridicule their absurdly antediluvian attitudes. After all, are not we in our own time, completely and perfectly enlightened? Are our times not the acme of human moral achievement? Do these old white guys from over a hundred years ago not merit our scorn and criticism?

For me it smacks too much of Hitler’s exhibitions of ‘Degenerate Art’ or Stalin’s persecution of any artist, musician, performer who failed to carry out the wishes of the Party. After all, was not the Soviet Union the Workers’ Paradise and the most morally advanced society in human history?

The art illustrated here and much of the detailed commentary is interesting, but there is too much of the intolerant commissar, permanently straining at the leash to find some aspect of every single painting and sculpture to criticise and judge to make it a very enjoyable experience.

Some of the criminals and their crimes

Here are some of the indictments on the charge sheet against white Western male art.

  • Paintings of women can only exploit their sexuality and offer the male viewer (apparently, no woman ever looked at a painting) ‘an eroticised vision of women’ resulting in ‘a sort of culturally endorsed voyeurism’ (p.82)
  • The artist (any artist) is guilty of using ‘the artist’s controlling gaze’ (p.81).
  • Gauguin, in finding Tahitian men and women rather androgynous, is guilty of ‘crude evolutionary reasoning’ (p.72).
  • Matisse’s odalisques are guilty of connotations of ‘white slavery and socially unacceptable indulgences’ (p.83).
  • Oskar Kokoschka is guilty of an ‘uncritical acceptance of a need to distinguish between different types of humanity and to classify them accordingly’ (p.83) and of ‘voyeurism’ (p.84).
  • Klee and Kokoschka are guilty of ‘conventional ideas about the Orient’ (p.84).
  • Orientalist paintings of the 19th century are, it goes without saying, guilty of voyeurism and racism (p.90).
  • The West was guilty of using ‘notions of the primitive’ as ‘mechanisms of domination and control over “outsiders”‘ (p.133)

Guilty guilty guilty. Rhodes fearlessly names and shames the guilty men, and indicts whole eras of history for their pitiful ignorance.

Cultural appropriation

The politically correct view of ‘primitivism in modern art’ is that white, Western male artists had run out of steam and inspiration by the turn of the twentieth century, and so invented modern art by ‘appropriating’ (i.e. stealing) images, motifs, ideas, designs and so on from the supposedly ‘primitive’ societies of Africa and Oceania (the Pacific).

They were able to do so because in the last years of the 19th century the European empires reached their zeniths i.e. ruthlessly exploitative imperialism was imposed over a huge part of the globe and countless artifacts were looted from the powerless inhabitants and sent back to European museums, art boutiques or junk shops.

Thus white male artists can be accused of a kind of double whammy, stealing ideas from already-stolen goods. And, being men, they are of course guilty of all kinds of sexism, conscious and unconscious.

Guilty three times over.

This idea of the criminal ‘cultural appropriation’ of non-European art was well-established in Rhodes’s day (1994), and has only grown more clamorous and strident as ‘identity politics’ have replaced effective class-based politics, especially in university humanities courses. (Thus the recent exhibition about Matisse in the studio was awash with the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ and earnest discussions of its wickedness.)

I don’t really understand the idea of cultural appropriation, in the sense that it seems to me to have been the basis of human culture since records began. Cro-Magnon man appears to have adopted aspects of Neanderthal culture. Japanese language and court ritual is based on the much older Chinese characters and etiquette. Christianity is a wholesale appropriation of the books, teachings and beliefs of Judaism. Islam incorporates elements of Jewish and Christian traditions. Notions of hellfire and damnation apparently derive from Persian Zoroastrianism. The Greeks took much of their astrological and numerical knowledge from the Egyptians. The Romans ripped off the Greeks wholesale. The Germanic tribes which overran the Roman Empire copied the laws, language, architecture and ceremonies of the Romans. And so on. Every culture we know of can be shown to have incorporated aspects of other cultures they came into contact with or defeated.

The suspicion is that white western-educated intellectuals only really apply the notion of cultural appropriation to themselves in a spasm of liberal guilt at the wickedness of western empires. In a tiresome example of reverse snobbery, is cultural appropriation something all cultures in all of recorded history have done, but is only bad when done by white people?

Problems with ‘primitivism’

What surprised me is how difficult it proves for Rhodes to sustain this idea, for a number of reasons. In fact the fundamental problem the book struggles with is that Rhodes’s definition of ‘the primitive’ is set far too wide to be effective:

1. Western history is full of the quest for the ‘primitive’

For a start Western civilisation is itself drenched in a huge number of intellectual movements which have sought to rejuvenate the present (generally seen as decadent and over-refined) by invoking some long-lost, more simple, utopia of ‘primitive’ belief or culture.

Jesus thought he was trying to restore Judaism away from the complex rules and regulations devised by the Sadducees and Pharisees back to its pure belief in the one God. 1,500 years later Martin Luther tried to throw out the vast intellectual edifice of the Roman Catholic church in order to restore Christianity to its pure founding beliefs.

On the pagan side, the ancient Greek and the Romans developed the idea that there had once been an early Golden Age, simpler, more peaceful and rural, before men fell into the corruption of the cosmopolitan cities. This fundamental dichotomy – rural innocence, urban corruption – has been a central thread of literature ever since. Part of the huge cultural movement known as the Renaissance wasn’t trying to be ‘modern’, but saw itself (as the word explicitly says) as a rebirth, a return to the ancient knowledge of the ancients, restoring their lost skills in sculpture, painting and perspective.

Politics and religion aside, just in the narrow field of art, there was a constant series of movement which all claimed to be returning to and restoring earlier, purer values and practices.

  • Rococo artists thought they were returning to a simpler, rural idyll after the extremely heavy, over-wrought emotion of the Baroque Counter-Reformation.
  • Jacques-Louis David and his neo-classical followers at the time of the French Revolution thought they were overthrowing the courtly decadence of the Rococo in order to revive the sterner, purer idealism of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  • The pre-Raphaelites did what their name suggests and tried to return to an idealised idea of medieval and early Renaissance art, before it was ‘corrupted’ by the perfectionism of Michelangelo and Raphael.

And so on.

In other words, western politics, religion and culture have repeatedly sought to restore, refresh and renovate themselves by seeking out more basic, simpler, more ‘primitive’ antecedents. The discovery and taste for African and Pacific art should surely be seen as the latest in a long line of quests for rejuvenation from idealised ‘simple’ and ‘pure’ sources.

2. Discussion of ‘primitive’ societies and artifacts belongs to anthropology not art criticism

Who exactly is Rhodes accusing and blaming? The opening pages make it clear that the main accusation is against late-Victorian biologists, anthropologists and ethnographers, figures like Ernst Haeckel the biologist, Herbert Spencer the social theorist or the French ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. Rhodes quotes them writing dismissively about ‘primitive’ cultures, ‘savage’ races, ‘inferior societies and so on, and it is not very difficult to indict them of racism, sexism, orientalism and so on.

These are the figures who took Darwin’s theory of evolution and remodelled it into Social Darwinism, the theory which applied the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to human societies (justifying the poverty of the poor by saying they just weren’t up to the struggle for life), and then applying it to the colonies of the huge European empires, whose populations, it was claimed, were savages, primitives, children who needed to be guided and nurtured until they evolved up to the level of our wonderful Western societies.

1. It’s easy to get whip up outrage against these kind of writers but:

  • It was quite a long time ago
  • Pointing out that the writings of some German sociologist of the 1880s was ‘racist’ is not exactly news. It’s the opposite, really. It is quite tediously well known.

2. Same with Imperialism. Rhodes thinks it was bad. Really? Golly. May I suggest that this is no longer news.

3. Overall, this is an argument to take up with modern anthropologists and social theorists. An art critic wading into the writings of pioneer anthropologists and ethnographers is bound to be able to find all kinds of quotes which offend modern sensibilities. His conclusion is ‘they were all sexist and racist’. This is so boring and predictable as to turn me off the whole book: is it all going to be written at this kindergarten level?

There’s something about art and literature critics who make a foray into completely different disciplines in order to froth and rage against the appalling racism and sexism of people writing 150 years ago. It’s so easy. It’s like Edward Said getting cross about the ‘orientalist’ writings of supposed ‘experts’ on the Middle East or Africa, who were writing in the 1850s.

And of course Rhodes and Said’s readers, their audiences (art students, literature students), are not experts in these fields – they are completely unqualified to comment on how the attitudes of 1880s ethnographers or orientalists have been superseded and transformed over the past 140 years – and so are liable to hoover up this sense of undifferentiated anger untroubled by detailed knowledge of how the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography have changed in the 140 years since then.

3. The assumption of influence

A second objection is that Rhodes makes the dubious assumption about these racist writings, namely that they are representative of everyone’s views at the time.

Were they? Has he carried out extensive historical researches into the attitudes of the entire colonial-administrative-government-ruling class attitudes? Or of ‘ordinary’ non-university-educated people? Because in Britain there was a broad range of Liberal and Socialist opinion which was passionately opposed to Empire and imperial discourse. The Indian National Congress party was established in 1885 on the initiative of a British official and had many British Liberal supporters.

Instead Rhodes cherry picks only the most outrageous bits of text he can find. It’s as if some art critic in 100 years’ time gives his students selected quotes from Donald Trump and then says, all Americans at this time agreed with everything Donald Trump said and wrote. We can all see that that’s a ludicrous simplification, right? Well, why apply the same kind of gross simplification to people 100 years ago?

The second dubious assumption is that the artists of the day (1880s, 1890s, 1900s) were in some way unquestioningly influenced by these imperialist, racist writings. Was Picasso a keen reader of the biology professor Haeckel? Was Matisse a devotee of Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer? I doubt it. And to claim that they somehow picked up these attitudes because they were ‘widespread’ or ‘in the air’ or ‘the spirit of the times’ is lazy and insulting.

Do you, the person reading this, share the widespread anti-democratic, right-wing populism which is without doubt ‘the mood of our times’, in the States, in Britain, and across Europe? Rhodes’s assumption is that everyone in a bygone era shares one unified set of values, the values he personally wants to assign them in order to then criticise and flay them.

This is an insultingly simplistic view of history or of society.

4. ‘Primitivism’ is just too vague a term for such an enormous cultural movement

Rhodes shows how the idea of the ‘primitive’ was much much bigger than just African masks and fetishes. The leading post-Impressionists in the 1880s (Gauguin and van Gogh, in his own way Cézanne) were already moving away from the Impressionist aim of giving a more accurate account of what the artist saw, towards emphasising what the artist saw made him feel.

And then the decade of 1900 to 1910 saw the decisive breaks with figuration of Matisse and the Fauves, of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism. Meanwhile, in Germany, in Scandinavia, in Russia, other artists were experimenting with rejecting traditional academic painting in favour of styles which emphasised feeling, seeking out more basic, simpler, starker effects.

In other words a whole generation of artists was rejecting the 450-year-old tradition which began with the Renaissance, the tradition of striving for a super-realistic depiction of reality, complete with realistic perspective, naturalistic colours and so on – the window on the world idea – and which had been brought to a peak of perfection in the academic Salon painters of the mid- and late-19th century.

In their different ways the post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, the Expressionists, Munch, Kandinsky, all across Europe leading artists sought ways to escape from this tradition, to free painting up so it could express a more modern variety of feeling and sensibility.

Rhodes shows that this is what spurred the Turn to the Primitive, in the broadest sense and that most of  this art had nothing whatever to do with African or Oceanic artefacts.

4. ‘Primitive’ is a crude umbrella term for all kinds of art

Because, in this broadest sense, ‘the primitive’ could refer to almost any type of art – any source of styles and images and metaphors and traditions and ways of seeing – which was simply not the sophisticated Western academic one. Thus Rhodes admits that the term can include:

  • medieval and very early – or ‘primitive’ – Renaissance art
  • children’s art – the artists of the German Blue Rider group were particularly interested in children’s art and published it untouched in their magazines around 1911-13
  • peasant art – simple motifs in textiles, cloth, curtains, ceramics and glass
  • folk art – just as the classical composers of the period went out into the field to collect folk songs and melodies
  • the art of the insane – a key work is Artistry of the Mentally Ill by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, published in 1922 which influenced Paul Klee’s exercises in mad drawing
  • the art of the self-taught, like Henri Rousseau
  • outsider art, such as the backdrops, masks, costumes, sets and designs for circuses, cabaret, vaudeville, puppet theatres and so on

The interest in African and Pacific art which came in around 1905 has to take its place in a far, far wider cultural movement, and among a whole range of ‘primitive’ sources, which the book goes on to describe.

To give just one example, Neo-primitivism was a specific Russian art movement which took its name from the 31-page pamphlet Neo-primitivizm by Aleksandr Shevchenko (1913). Shevchenko proposed a new style of modern painting which fused elements of Cézanne, Cubism and Futurism with traditional Russian ‘folk art’ conventions and motifs, notably the Russian icon and the lubok. ‘Primitive’ is in the very name but it has nothing to do with the art of Africa or the Pacific.

The best definition of this very broad ‘cultural primitivism’ Rhodes can find comes from a book written as long ago as 1935, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, whose authors Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas define it as:

The discontent of the civilised with civilisation, or with some conspicuous and characteristic feature of it. It is the belief of men living in a highly evolved and complex cultural condition that a life far simpler and less sophisticated in some or all respects is a more desirable life. (quoted on page 20)

Reading this I think, ‘but when was this impulse not present in Western culture (or indeed others, such as Chinese and Japanese culture)?’ I think of Spenser’s Fairie Queene which ends with the desire to escape the corruption of courtly life. Or back to the Roman poets of the early Empire, all fondly imagining a life among pie-tooting peasants.

Maybe the period at the end of the 19th century was distinguished by the fact that a lot of artists and writers really did leave the big cities to seek out a simpler life, among peasants or abroad? But not really – Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists and, later, the Surrealists stayed resolutely in the city.

Primitivism and modern art

So, I had all kinds of questions about the relatively short introduction to the book. I think Rhodes is trying to cover a subject which is too vast and stretches over a bewildering range of modern disciplines. The book is much more confident and interesting once it starts looking at specific artists in detail.

Gauguin is routinely criticised for ‘appropriating’ the style, motifs, myths and stories of the South Sea Islanders he went to live among in the 1890s. In fact Gauguin emerges as possibly the number one criminal cultural appropriator for ‘stealing’ South Sea motifs, styles, people (depicted ‘patronisingly’ in his paintings) and their language (which he used liberally written across his works).

But as Rhodes points out, Gauguin had already spent some time living among Breton peasants in the village of Pont-Aven, which is where he really developed his ‘primitive’ style, with its strong black outlines defining garish expressive areas of colour, the figures drawn in a deliberately naive, angular way.

In other words, Gauguin had established a powerfully ‘primitive’ art way before he went looking for ‘tribal’ art.

And he wasn’t the only one: Wassily Kandinsky went to stay in the Bavarian town of Murnau where he decorated the house he stayed in with folk crafts done in naive styles, as well as actually dressing like the local peasantry. Die Brücke painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner went to live among the peasants of Frauenkirch in Switzerland. Nothing African involved anywhere.

Rhodes mentions the Omega Workshop set up by English critic Roger Fry in 1915, including Duncan Grant and continued an Arts and Crafts vision of working with ‘primitive or peasant’ motifs and patterns in the making to textiles and furniture. They withdrew to a country house Sussex in 1916 and formed a kind of posh commune. Maybe they used tribal art as inspiration for some of their angular designs, but any account of their lives demonstrates their wish to rediscover simpler, rural patterns.

A similar ‘back to nature’ impulse lay behind the founding of the schools of art in Newlyn as early as 1882 (and would lead to the St Ives school of painting being set up in the 1940s). In fact Rhodes says it was a sign of the times, with ‘artistic colonies’ being set up all across the Western world, from America to Russia. Some 30 artists’ colonies existed in Germany alone.

All this coincided with the advent of nudism or naturism as a popular movement. The first serious book advocating naturism’s social and psychological advantages was published in 1902 (Nacktkultur by Dr. Heinrich Pudor).

Though Rhodes doesn’t mention him, the grand-daddy of this ‘back to the country’ spiritual cleansing was Count Leo Tolstoy who rejected his urban youth and successful middle age, to go live among the peasants on his country estate, progressively renouncing his earthly goods (such as the copyrights in all his books), and writing scores of essays promoting the simple good life.

Tolstoy’s powerfully-phrased arguments affected – among millions of others – young Mohandas Gandhi, who entered into correspondence with Tolstoy in 1909 and went on to preach a) non-violent revolt and b) a return to the ‘primitive’ culture and trade of rural India (in opposition to its sophisticated cities).

Graffiti Another way of rejecting the academic was to incorporate writing into pictures. Artists as varied as Mikhail Larionov, Picasso, George Grosz did just that. Jean Dubuffet’s work from after the Second World War is particularly brutal and primitive. I can see how it anticipates the interest of someone like Basquiat in graffiti.

To put it another way, it’s interesting to learn that graffiti as a ‘strategy’ for primitive art existed long before Basquiat reignited it in the 1980s.

Conclusions

The book goes on, pushing familiar buttons, repeating Edward Said’s criticisms of ‘orientalist’ artists of the 19th century and sniffing out ‘orientalist’ tendencies in early modern artists (stay behind for detention, Matisse), using key post-modern terms like ‘the other’, ‘difference’, ‘discourse’, ‘situate’, negotiate’, ‘subvert’ and so on, in the approved style, and making frequent mention of the ‘bourgeoisie’ (the people all these radical artists were endlessly trying to shock).

This limited vocabulary and stereotyped litany of ‘isshoos’ is mind-numbingly boring.

Some conclusions:

The primitive is too big As mentioned above, the idea of ‘the primitive’ is much, much more complex than it first appears, and its impingement on modern art is so complex, manifests itself so differently in every one of the major and minor artists from the 1880s until, say, the 1940s, that an overview like this may, in the end, be impossible to write. Just telling the story of the impact of ‘primitive’ art on Gauguin or Picasso or Matisse would take an entire book.

Tribal art Thus, the way Rhodes defines ‘the primitive’ and ‘Primitivism’ makes the African and Pacific art which I thought the book would be all about, only a part, only a sub-set of this much larger and in the end, very unwieldy idea of back to nature, outsider art, the art of children, the art of the mad and so on.

No definition of tribal art When we do get to the part of the book devoted to African and Pacific art, Rhodes appears to distinguish it from the very broad category of ‘the primitive’ by calling it ‘tribal art’. I was very disappointed that he nowhere gives a working definition of ‘tribal art’ which I thought itself sounded a bit simple-minded. Do all African and pacific peoples live in ‘tribes’? I doubt it. Is there no more nuanced and refined term for this kind of art?

Along with no working definition of ‘tribal art’, Rhodes nowhere gives any sense of its history and development in Africa, or the Pacific (or in north-western America, which also gets referenced).

He nowhere attempts an overview of its main features or aspects. It’s a shame and also surprising.

Among my most favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes in the British Museum, which I find riveting, dazzling, awesome, and I was hoping to read something which put into words their impact and power. But there is no mention of them.

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Contemporary writers on tribal art In fact by far the best writing about ‘tribal art’ comes from the artists and critics of the time. The people Rhodes accuses of patronisingly racist views, ironically, have much more sophisticated and interesting responses to this art than he does.

Take the German writer on modern and primitive art, Carl Einstein, who wrote an essay African Sculpture (1915) written after a stay in Paris where he’d met Picasso’s circle. His key insight is that African sculptures are self-contained. They are:

‘oriented not toward the viewer, but in terms of themselves’. They function, he continues, not so much as representations, but as things in themselves: ‘the art object is real because it is a closed form. Since it is self-contained and extremely powerful, the sense of distance between it and the viewer will necessarily produce an art of enormous intensity.’ (Quoted page 117)

When I myself have tried to put into words the impact of the African art I like, I’ve always ended up saying that these works feel somehow complete, utterly finished. They totally achieve what they set out to do. They have complete mastery of form and technique, so I was delighted to come across Einstein’s similar formulation of their self-containment.

Picasso on tribal art Probably the single most famous statement about the impact of ‘tribal art’ on a Western painter is Picasso’s own, a description he gave of his first visit to the Museum of Ethnography in Paris in 1905.

Picasso was no intellectual; he was one of the most instinctual artists who ever lived. He doesn’t even react to them as ‘works of art’, but far more profoundly reacts to their imaginative, spiritual force.

Men had made these masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realised that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as mediation between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desire. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way. (p.116)

A passage of prose as vivid and expressive as his art. Many artists did directly copy motifs and patterns from ‘tribal art’ into their own works. But in this passage you can see that, for many others, it wasn’t a one-for-one transcription of individual pieces, it was the realisation that there was a whole other way of conceiving of the visual and of crafted objects, completely outside the Western academic tradition.

The general thrust of the book is that artists of this generation were looking for ways to escape the dead hand of the academic tradition and that they tried all kinds of routes – going off to the country, living among peasants, stripping naked, copying the art of children, peasants, the insane, anything.

And that ‘tribal art’ was just one among many means of escape, but one which opened a particularly powerful and massive door.

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

A narrowly politically correct reading claims that Western artists ‘stole’ the worldview, designs and motifs of tribal peoples. A more relaxed view suggests that the art of tribal peoples helped to crystallise alternative visions and ideas which artists and sculptures right across Europe were already looking for.

The artists who are blamed for exploiting tribal art are the ones who popularised it The avant-garde artists who Rhodes so casually criticises for ‘appropriating’ tribal and ‘primitive’ art, are in fact the means by which tribal and ‘primitive’ art itself became visually acceptable, stylish, fashionable and, in time, valued and judged in its own right.

The politically correct can (and do) slate off all those dead white men for stealing non-European ideas, motifs and designs, but there is a mirror image way of thinking about this: that all those dead white men placed tribal and ‘primitive’ art smack bang in the centre of modern art and so forced their viewers, buyers, collectors and curators, to take tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously.

Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists, the Surrealists – they made us see tribal and ‘primitive’ art as more than the relics of ‘savage’ or ‘degenerate’ or ‘backward’ cultures, but as the sophisticated products of cultures every bit as worthy of respect and serious study as any aspect of Western culture.

They created the attitude of taking tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously from which the very critics like Rhodes, who criticise them so fiercely, have personally and morally benefited – and then use this late-coming sense of moral superiority to lambast the very people who helped to develop it.

Gauguin Writing about art – writing about what you actually see, how it is made and how you respond to it – is difficult. It is far easier to give in to the easy temptation of criticising everything you see for not living up to your own impeccable moral standards. Being politically correct. The easy choice.

The forty or so illustrations of tribal artifacts which the book includes are infinitely more powerful than anything Rhodes can write about them. In fact nowhere does he attempt any kind of description of individual pieces of tribal or ‘primitive’ art; by and large they are used as evidence for the prosecution against the wicked, white, male artists who appropriated them.

One of the few really insightful bits of writing about art is a quote from (that wicked cultural appropriator) Gauguin, who wrote in 1888:

I love Brittany; here I find the savage, primitive quality. When my clogs echo on this granite ground, I hear the dull muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting. (quoted on page 26)

‘The dull muted, powerful sound…’ Wow. That’s a really brilliant description of the hard outlines and slabs of colour you get in Gauguin’s works.

So by the end of this ambitious but unsatisfactory book I came to the conclusion that the African and Pacific art itself, the art of the Western painters who copied or were inspired by it, and the writings of those artists and their contemporary critics – are all more illuminating, exciting and inspiring than the clunky prose and lame politics of modern art critics and scholars.


Related links

Related exhibition reviews

Related book reviews

50 Women Artists You Should Know (2008)

This is a much better book than the Taschen volume which I’ve just read – Women artists in the 20th and 21st century edited by Uta Grosenick (2003) – for several reasons:

1. Although, like the Taschen book, this was also originally a German publication, it has been translated into much better English. It reads far more fluently and easily.

2. It is much bigger at 24cm by 19cm, so the illustrations are much bigger, clearer and more impactful. There is more art and less text and that, somehow, irrationally, but visually, makes women’s art seem a lot more significant and big and important.

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Judith beheading Holofernes (1602) by Artemisia Gentileschi

3. It is a chronological overview of the last 500 years of women’s art. As I explained in my review of the Taschen book, because so many female artists have come to prominence since the 1960s and 70s when traditional art more or less collapsed into a welter of performance art, body art, conceptual art, video, photography, digital art and so on, that book gave an overall impression that 20th century women’s art was chaotic, messy and sex-obsessed, with only occasional oases of old-style painting to cling on to.

By contrast, this book gives a straightforward chronological list of important women artists starting with Catharina Van Hemessen born in 1528 and moving systematically forwards through all the major movements of Western art – Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Victorian Realist, Impressionist, Fauvist and so on. It kind of establishes and beds you in to the long line of successful women artists who worked in all the Western styles, long before it arrives at the chaotic 60s and beyond.

4. The Taschen book – again because of its modern focus – invoked a lot of critical theory to analyse and explicate its artists. Here, in stark contrast, the entries are overwhelming factual and biographical, focusing on family background, cultural and historical context, the careers and achievements of these women artists. Although this is, in principle, a more traditional and conservative way of writing about art, the net result is the opposite. Whereas you can dismiss great swathes of the Taschen book for being written in barely-comprehensible artspeak, this book states clearly and objectively the facts about a long succession of tremendously successful and influential women artists. It’s all the more effective for telling it straight.

To sum up, 50 Women Artists You Should Know makes a really powerful argument for asserting that there have been major women artists at every stage of Western art, holding important positions, forging successful careers, creating really great works, influencing others, contributing and shaping the whole tradition.

It is the History of Western Art, but done through women, and women only.

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Self-Portrait (1790) by Elizabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Quite simply it destroys forever the idea that there haven’t been any significant women artists until the modern era. There were loads.

Ironically, this goes a long way to undermining the common feminist argument that women have been banned, held back, suppressed and prevented from engaging in art for most of history. This book proves the opposite is the case: again and again we read of women artists in the 17th and 18th centuries being encouraged by their fathers and families, supported through art school, securing important official positions (many becoming court painters), being given full membership of art academies, awarded prestigious prizes, and making lots of money. It’s quite a revelation. I never knew so many women artists were so very successful, rich and famous in their times.

Take some examples:

Surprisingly successful woman artists

1. Old Mistresses

Catharina Van Hemessen (1528-1587) Trained in the Netherlands by her father Jan van Hemessen, Catharina specialised in portraits which fetched a good price. She was invited to the court of Spain by the art-loving Mary of Hungary.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) her art studies paid for by her father who networked with rulers and artists to promote her career, Sofonisba was invited to Spain by King Philip II to become art teacher to 14-year-old Queen Isabella of Valois. By the time Isabella died, young Sofonisba had painted portraits of the entire Spanish court. She went to Italy where she taught pupils and was sought out by Rubens and Van Dyck.

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Three Sisters playing chess (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) Trained by her artist father, Fontana became a sought-after portraitist, even being commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to paint his portrait. She married a fellow artist who recognised her superior talent and became her manager, helping her paint a number of altar paintings. – Venus and Cupid (1592)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1598-1652) Taught by her father who was a successful baroque painter, Artemisia moved to Florence and was the only woman admitted to the Accademia del Disegno. She painted dynamic and strikingly realistic Bible scenes. In her 40s she was invited to paint at the court of King Charles I of England. – Susanna and the Elders (1610)

Judith Leyster (1609-1660) Unusually, Judith wasn’t the daughter of an artist but made her way independently, studying with the master of the Haarlem school, Frans Hals, before at the age of 24 applying to join the Guild of St Luke. – Boy playing the flute (1635)

Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) forged a lucrative career as a portraitist in pastels in her native Venice with a clientele which included the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria, the Danish King Frederick IV. In 1739 the Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony bought her entire output of paintings which is why Dresden Art Gallery has 150 of her pastels. In 1720 she was invited to Paris by an eminent banker who gave her a large suite of rooms and introduced her to the court. – The Air (1746)

Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-1782) Seventh child of the Prussian court painter Georg Lisiewski, Anna received a thorough training and went on to a successful career painting portraits around the courts of Europe, being admitted to the Stuttgart Academy of Arts, the Academy in Bologna, the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture in Paris, the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, working at the end of  her life for Tsarina Catherine II of Russia. – Self-portrait (1776)

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) Kauffman was encouraged from an early age by her father, himself a portrait and fresco painter, who helped his child prodigy daughter go on to become one of the leading painters of her day, known across Europe as a painter of feminine subjects, of sensibility and feeling, praised by Goethe and all who met her. – Self-portrait torn between music and Painting (1792)

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was taught by her father the painter Louis Vigée, soon attracted the attention of aristocratic French society and was invited to Versailles by Marie-Antoinette to paint her portrait, eventually doing no fewer than 20. Forced into exile by the French revolution, she eventually returned to France, continuing to paint, in total some 800 works in the new classical, unadorned style and published three volumes of memoirs. – Portrait of Countess Golovine (1800)

Rosa Bonheur‘s father was a drawing master who encouraged her artistic tendencies. She sketched and then painted the animals of her native Bordeaux and struck it rich with a work called The Horse Market which made a sensation at the Salon of 1853. An enterprising dealer had it displayed all round the country, then sent to England where Queen Victoria gave it her endorsement, and then on to America. It toured for three years made her a name and rich. She bought a farmhouse with the proceeds and carried on working in it with her partner Nathalie Micas.

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

Horse Fair (1835) by Rosa Bonheur

2. Modern women painters

Somewhere in the later 19th century in France, Modern Art starts and carries on for 50 or so years, till the end of the Great War.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was the female Impressionist, her family being close to that of Manet, so that she got to meet his circle which included Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Sisley, Monet and Renoir. She had nine paintings in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874 and exhibited in each of the subsequent Impressionist shows until 1886. – Reading with green umbrella (1873).

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Lady at her Toilette (1875) by Berthe Morisot

Mary Cassatt (1845-1926) studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia before moving to Paris where she was taken up by Degas and exhibited in the 1879 Impressionist exhibition. Later in life she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts Gold Medal. – Woman in a loge (1879)

By the time Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942) was 30 she was one of the leading portrait painters in America. I love Reverie or the Dreamer (1894).

Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912) was Canadian, moved to New York, Venice, Munich, to Pont Aven where she experimented with the new plein air technique, but it was only when she moved on from London to Newlyn in Cornwall and married the artist Stanhope Alexander Forbes, that Elizabeth found a permanent home. The couple went ton to establish the Newlyn School of open air painting in Cornwall. – A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885)

Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) progressed through the Munich Art Academy and is famous for the affair she had with Russian avant-garde painter Wassily Kandinsky. They bought a house in 1909 which became a focal point for the painters of the Blue Rider movement, Franz Marc, August Macke and so on. Her clear bold draughtsmanship and forceful colours are well suited to reproduction. – Self-portrait (1909), Jawlensky and Werefkin (1909).

3. Twentieth century great women artists

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Summer Days (1937) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was the first woman to be the subject of a major retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art (1946). Her paintings are super-real, occasionally sur-real, images of desert landscapes and flowers.

Hannah Höch (1889-1978) famous for the photomontages she produced as part of the Dada movement. – Cut with Kitchen Knife DADA through Germany’s Last Weimar Beer Belly Culture Era (1920)

Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) fabulously stylish images of 1920s women caught in a kind of shiny metallic blend of Art Deco and Futurism. What is not to worship? – The telephone (1930) Auto-portrait (1929)

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) politically active Mexican artist who painted herself obsessively, often in surreal settings although she denied being a Surrealist. – The Broken Column (1944).

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) American abstract expressionist, worked as a mural painting assistant for socially conscious works commissioned by the Federal Art Project before developing an interest in abstract art and exhibiting in the 1941 show by the Association of American Abstract Artists. In that year she met the king of the abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock, and married him four years later leading to an intense period where they influenced each other. After his death in 1956 she developed a new style taking the natural world as subject. – Abstract number 2 (1948)

Louise Bourgeois (1911-1993)

Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985) was only 23 when she created the work she’s known for, Object – a cup, saucer and spoon covered in the furry skin of a gazelle. – Object (1936)

Eva Hesse (1936-1970) died tragically young but not before making a range of stimulating abstract sculptures. – Accession II (1967)

4. Contemporary women artists

With Hesse’s work (maybe with Louise Bourgeois’s) the book swings decisively away from traditional art, from oil painting and recognisable sculptures, into the world of installations, happenings, performances, body art, conceptual art, the style of art we still live among. This means, in practice, fewer reproductions of 2-D works and a lot of photographs.

Rebecca Horn (b.1944) German. Rooms filled with objects, photographs, films, video, mechanical works made from everyday objects. – River of the moon (1992)

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

The Feathered Prison Fan ( 1978) by Rebecca Horn

Barbara Kruger (b.1945) American leading conceptual artist noted for large-format collages of images and texts. – Your body is a battleground (1989), We don’t need another hero (1987).

Marina Abramovic (b. 1946) Yugoslav performance artist often directly using her body, sometimes going to extremes and inflicting pain. In The Lovers: walk on the great wall of China her boyfriend started walking in the Gobi desert while she started from the Yellow Sea and they walked towards each other, meeting on the Great Wall whereupon they split up. In Balkan Baroque she spent four days surrounded by video installations and copper basins cleaning with a handbrush 5,500 pounds of cattle bones. – Balkan Baroque (1997)

Isa Genzken (b.1948) German artist producing abstract sculptures and large-scale installations. – Schauspieler II (2014)

Jenny Holzer (b.1950) American ‘neo-conceptualist’ famous for her projection of texts, often pretty trite, in large public spaces. – Jenny Holzer webpage. In her hands art really does become as trite and meaningless as T-shirt slogans.

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017)

Abuse of power comes as no surprise (2017) by Jenny Holzer

Mona Hatoum (b.1952) Palestinian video and installation artist, producing dramatic performances, videos and unnerving installations. – Undercurrent (2008). In 1982 she did a performance, standing naked in a plastic box half full of mud struggling to stand up and ‘escape’ for fours hours. – Under siege (1982) I love the look of the crowd, the sense of complete disengagement as a pack of blokes watch a naked woman covered in mud.

Kiki Smith (b.1954) German-born American who, like so many modern women artists, is obsessed with the female body, in this version stripped and flayed as per Gray’s Anatomy. – Untitled (1990)

Cindy Sherman (b.1954) American photographer and art film director. Lots of photos of herself dressed as historical characters or as stereotypical ‘types’ from Hollywood movies, ‘questioning stereotypical depictions of “the feminine”‘. As she’s gotten older her the subjects have changed to spoofing Old Master paintings, and she increasingly uses dummies and models in her mock-ups. – Untitled film still #206 (1989)

Shirin Neshat (b.1957) Iranian visual artist producing black and white photos of women in Iran e.g. her series Women of Allah. Her videos emphasise the distinction between West and East, men and women.

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Still from Rapture (2000) by Shirin Neshat

Pipilotti Rist (b.1962) Video artist who works with video, film and moving images, generally of herself. – Selfless in the bath of lava (1994)

Tracey Emin CBE (b.1963) English artist making provocations, interventions, installations which are often powerfully autobiographical, like the tent, the unmade bed. Also hundreds of scratchy prints. – Everyone I have ever slept with (1995), My bed (1999).

Tacita Dean OBE (b.1965) English visual artist working in film and photography. – Bubble House (1999), The Green Ray (2001).

End thought

I’m not sure – it may be because I’m simply exhausted at the end of this thorough survey – but it does feel to me as if the contemporary art of women born in the 40s, 50s and 60s, with its interventions, installations, film and video and photos and happenings and performances – is somehow much the most unhappy, most neurotic, self-punishing and self-flagellating body of work, than that of any previous era.

Maybe their work simply reflects Western society as a whole, which has got richer and richer and somehow, as in a children’s fable, more and more miserable.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists I’ve been to

Every room in the National Gallery

A friend’s son is over from Spain. He’s studying art and so we spent one full day, from 10am till closing time at 6pm, on a mission to visit all 66 rooms in the National Gallery. We did it, and with 20 minutes left over to slip into the Goya exhibition as well.

The four sections

The Gallery holds some 2,300 works. They’re divided into four periods or themes, all of which are found in the 66 or so rooms spread over the gallery’s second floor:

  • 13th- to 15th-century paintings (rooms 51-60, west or Sainsbury wing) Duccio, Uccello, van Eyck, Lippi, Mantegna, Botticelli, Dürer, Memling, Bellini
  • 16th-century paintings (west wing, rooms 2-14) Leonardo, Cranach, Michelangelo, Raphael, Holbein, Bruegel, Bronzino, Titian, Veronese
  • 17th-century paintings (north wing, rooms 15-37) Caravaggio, Rubens, Poussin, Van Dyck, Velázquez, Claude, Rembrandt, Cuyp, Vermeer
  • 18th- to early 20th-century paintings (east wing, rooms 33-46) Canaletto, Goya, Turner, Constable, Ingres, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh

Floor plan of level 2 Hover your mouse over a room to see its title and click through to a detailed listing.

NB Rooms 41 and 42 are closed, some of the paintings have been moved to rooms C, D and E on level 0. Floor plan of level 0

Audioguide

There’s an audioguide: it costs £4, covers almost every painting in the collection and takes 5 hours to listen to non-stop. Obviously, if you pause it to wander from picture to picture, have lunch or take a comfort break, it will take longer. Maybe reckon on doing one of the four themes or periods on each visit.

Personal highlights

As with my recent trip to the British Museum, these are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note:

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Burlington House Cartoon') (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 - 1519. The National Gallery, London.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (‘The Burlington House Cartoon’) (about 1499-1500) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1452 – 1519. The National Gallery, London.

  • Leonardo da Vinci The Burlington House Cartoon (1500) This is kept in a small darkened room by the entrance to the Sainsbury wing where you can sit and admire genius. It is worth visiting the National Gallery to see this one image. Has any artist ever made any image more perfect, more mysterious and profound than this one? Leonardo is in a class of one. If you had to explain Western art to a Martian this painting would do it.
  • The Wilton Diptych (1395-9) This was a portable altarpiece made for the use of King Richard II (1377-99). I like the sideways posture of the young king and the generally static, hieratic posture of the figures. A gallery attendant explained Richard has ginger hair and therefore so do the angels. I really liked the image of the white hart on the reverse, with a crown round its neck and a golden chain. It was Richard’s personal emblem and therefore it is stamped onto the chests of the angels’ astonishingly blue tunics, like the logo of a football team.
  • Jan van Eyck Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) Next to the famous Arnolfini Portrait is this work. Like so many works of the northern Renaissance it is of a real person. No Christ child, Mary, angels, Magi, disciples or attendant saints. A real person commemorated for all time in their hereness, nowness, personhood.
  • Robert Campin A man and woman (1435) Real people.
  • Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family (about 1470) Swabian. A real person painted with great delicacy and sensitivity.
  • Sandro Botticelli Venus and Mars (1485) Not really looking like any human beings ever seen, this is like a high class cartoon, complete with lines around the figures, and the stylised neck, jaw and hair of the woman.
  • Giovanni Battista Moroni – Portrait of a Gentleman (‘Il Gentile Cavaliere’) (1564) Not a beautiful man but the rendition is perfect in every detail, including the gold lining and buttons up the front, and the loose binding of the leather-bound books under his left hand.
  • Titian emerges as one of the great geniuses of painting. He seems to have introduced a new much brighter palette. His portraits of 16th century notables are striking and individualistic. But I was struck by the handful of outdoors paintings which seem to have created a new way of conveying the human figure in outdoor settings, complete with realistic trees and earth and streams, old ruined buildings, in a brown palette. Before him there was nothing like this and after him everything looked like this for centuries: the effect on Gainsborough, for example, seems obvious:
  • Paolo Veronese The Dream of Helena (1570) The posture of the dreaming woman is perfect and the light on the dress, shimmers impressionistically.
  • Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) A whole room is devoted to Poussin (room 19) and I thought it significant that it was almost empty (three people). I’ve read that Poussin is a very intellectual painter and appreciating him is a developed taste. But I find his paintings empty of all passion or feeling, the characters positioned in stylised gestures, the overall composition draining the mythical events depicted of all energy or meaning. They are like a kind of abstract idea of painting, specimens of what painting would be if drained of all passion or feeling:
  • Peter Paul Rubens (room 29) is famous for his plump women. Out of his big compositions I noticed his subjects’ black eyes, white breasts and shiny armour, all three exemplified in Minerva protects Pax from Mars (1630). In The Judgement of Paris (1632-5) the black eyes and white boobs are obvious, but the shiny armour is there in the bottom left, in the shield with an image of the Gorgon and a discarded helmet on the ground.
  • Rembrandt van Rijn Portrait of Aechje Claesdr (1634) I like north European art because its humanism trumps the Mediterranean’s emphasis on Christian ideology. The compassion doesn’t come from choruses of angels or saints turning up their tearful eyes to heaven, but from the honest depiction of real people in all their frailty and humanity, deserving our empathy and compassion.
  • Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (1654-6) by Rembrandt. His mistress, apparently, young, fresh faced, innocent, her open chemise hinting at her warm body, the whole image exudes intimacy, trust and love.
  • The solid, thick-waisted, small-breasted Rubens women make the Rokeby Venus (1647-51) by Diego Velázquez in the next room (30) all the more striking, her very slender waist, narrow back and defined shoulder blades looking anorexic by contrast.
  • Frans Hal Portrait of a Young Woman (1650s) A real person, looking innocent and vulnerable. You expect her to start talking to you
  • The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy (about 1760) by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, only a sketch but the more powerful for that.
  • Thomas Gainsborough The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1760) What could be lovelier, more charming, more innocent. After all the friars, monks, weeping saints and tortured Jesuses of the Spanish and Italian Baroque, coming into the Gainsborough gallery was like being able to breathe again. Generally, arriving in the English gallery with its trees, open country and educated landowners was a great relief: sun and air, trees and rivers and not a tortured, bleeding Christ in sight.
  • La Coiffure (about 1896) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. In last year’s Impressionism exhibition I was surprised not to like more Degas. But this painting seems to me a masterpiece: the combination of reds; the unfinished parts on the left; the heavy black lines giving a cartoon quality; the ordinary everyday subject matter; the two quiet women, not kings or gods or angels; the intimacy. A ragged modern perfection.

I learned…

Ugly babies There are a lot, a really huge number, of terribly painted babies masquerading as the little baby Jesus. I don’t think we saw one believable image of an actual baby, and so many horrid ones we started a competition to find the ugliest baby Jesus. From a strong field (eg Virgin and Child (1475) by Hans Memling) the winner was The Virgin and Child in a Garden (late 15th century) in the style of Martin Schongauer. Enlarge the image to savour the full horror of the old man baby.

Geniuses who died young

  • Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael (1483-1520) aged 37.
  • Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) aged 36.

Carlos’s Law All the Dutch winter landscapes under snow (room 26), of villages or towns with people ice skating on frozen rivers and so on, are immediately appealing:

My friend’s son is called Carlos and after he pointed this out we developed a hypothesis – maybe one day it will become Carlos’s Law – which is that: No painting of a winter scene can be bad. Or, Every painting of a winter scene is automatically good. This held pretty much true from the 17th century Dutch painters where it began to dawn on us, through the intervening centuries to the wintry Impressionist works at the end of the gallery eg:

Personal taste

Turns out I like medieval and Gothic art and don’t like the Renaissance. I like medieval art’s emphasis on the humane, on gorgeous or quirky detail, the prevalence of design and pattern over the clear and (to me) often empty or sterile backdrops which Italian Renaissance art uses to show off its mastery of perspective. Thus I prefer the tight composition, the symmetry, the packed and slightly claustrophobic feel, the sumptuous fabric and cracked floor tiles and the dense foliage climbing over the cloisters of The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor (1510) by Gerard David to, say, The Nativity (1470-5) by Piero della Francesca, with its – to me – sense of abandonment in a sterile, rocky, Beckettian landscape.

And so I preferred almost any northern Renaissance painter – van Eyck and the fabulous Hans Holbein and Rogier van de Weyden – to the more famous Italians, because they seem to me to be more humane; to value the truly human, often ungainly, individual over the more religious types of the Italian Renaissance. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars are smoothly executed cartoons: Robert Campin’s man and woman are people.

Related links

Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

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