Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites @ the National Gallery

This is a smallish (just 33 works) but really beautiful and uplifting exhibition.

It’s devoted to showing the influence of the northern Renaissance painter, Jan van Eyck, on the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters. Well, I love Northern Renaissance art and I love later Victorian art, so I was in seventh heaven.

In the mid-19th century Jan van Eyck was credited as the inventor of oil painting by the Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, author of the Lives of the Great Painters (1550). We now know this not to be strictly true; a more realistic way of putting it is that Van Eyck and his contemporaries in the mid-15th century Netherlands brought oil painting to an extraordinary level of refinement and brilliance. They were the first to use multiple ‘glazes’ (building up successive layers of partly translucent paint) and to pay astonishing attention to detail, producing works which combined amazing precision and sumptuous colour, with an intoxicating sense of depth.

Van Eyck versus del Piombo

The exhibition opens with a ten-minute film (shown in a dark room off to one side) which explains the idea succinctly. In the 1840s the National Gallery only owned one work by any of the Netherlandish masters – Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, which it acquired in 1842 when the National Gallery itself was only 18 years old.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

At that point, the Royal Academy’s School of Art was located in the same building as the small National Gallery collection. All the art students of the day had to do was walk along a few corridors to view this stunning masterpiece. Among these art students were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in 1848.

Nearby hung the very first painting acquired by the Gallery, this enormous work from the High Renaissance, The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo. The PRBs thought that works like this had become so stylised and formalised as to have become meaningless and devoid of emotion. They disliked the artificial poses, the pious sentiments, the sickly colouring, the simplified pinks and blues and greens.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The raising of Lazarus typified everything the PRBs disliked in painting, a sterile academicism. Compare and contrast the van Eyck, with its precision of detail (look at the pearls hanging on the wall, the candelabra, the fur trimming of husband and wife), the humane mood and emotion, and the realistic use of light.

The PRBs rejected Piombo, Michelangelo, Raphael, all the masters of the High Renaissance and, as a group, made a concerted effort to return to the twinkling detail and humanity of medieval painting. (A trend which was helped by the medievalising tendency in Victorian culture generally, epitomised by the poetry of Tennyson, the historical novels of Scott, and which would be carried through into the Arts and craft movement by William Morris).

The appeal of the Northern Renaissance

In total the exhibitions comprises a room or so of works by van Eyck and contemporaries (Dirk Boults, Hans Memling) before three rooms look at masterpieces by the PRBs which pay homage to the Arnolfini Wedding; and a final room looks at its influence on art at the turn of the century.

Pride of place in the first room goes to van Eyck’s stunning self-portrait. For me this epitomises the strength of northern Renaissance painting in that it is humane and realistic. Unlike Italian Renaissance paintings which tend to show idealised portraits of their sitters, this presents a genuine psychological portrait. The more you look the deeper it becomes. His wrinkles, the big nose, the lashless eyelids – you feel this is a real person. For me, this has extraordinary psychological depth and veracity.

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Near to it is a Virgin and Child by fellow northerner, Hans Memling. I love the medieval details which cling to these works, the toy sailing ship in the background such as might have been used in the Hundred Years War. Note the way there is perspective in the picture (things further away are smaller) but it is not the mathematically precise perspective which Italian Renaissance painters liked to show off. In particular the floor is set at an unrealistically sloping angle. Why? To show off the detail of the black and white tiling, and especially of the beautifully decorated carpet.

As well as the humanity of the figures and faces, it is this attachment to gorgeous detail which I love in north Renaissance art.

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The convex mirror

Next we move on to the first of the Victorian homages to van Eyck and it immediately becomes clear why the exhibition is titled Reflections. The curators have identified a thread running through major early, later and post-Pre-Raphaelite paintings – use of the CONVEX MIRROR.

If you look closely at the Arnolfini Wedding, you can see not only the backs of the married couple but a figure who is usually taken to be a self-portrait of the artist. It adds an element of mystery (nobody is completely certain it is the artist in the mirror), it expands the visual space by projecting it back behind us, so to speak, and painting an image distorted on a convex surface, along with the distorted reflection of the window, is an obvious technical tour de force.

Now look at this early Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, the Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) in which a ‘kept woman’ is suddenly stirring from the lap of the rich bourgeois who keeps her (in this instance, in a luxury apartment in St John’s Wood).

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

Note the sloping floor which gives full scope to a gorgeous depiction of the patterned carpet; the hyper-realistic detailing of every one of the cluttered elements in the room, for example the grain of the piano, the gilt clock on top of it, the crouching cat, which recalls the dog in the van Eyck. But behind the figures is an enormous mirror which adds a tremendous sense of depth to the main image.

Maybe it is a symbol in a painting packed with religious symbolism: maybe the window opening into sunlight and air is an allusion to the woman’s possible redemption from her life of shame.

The curators have selected works which demonstrate the way the mirror theme is repeated by all the pre-Raphaelites, famous and peripheral. Here’s an early Burne Jones watercolour where he’s experimenting with a complex mirror which consists of no fewer than seven convex mirrors each reflecting a different aspect of the main event (the capture of Rosamund by Queen Eleanor).

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

The exhibition explains that this type of convex mirror became highly fashionable among the PRBs and their circle. Rossetti was said to have over 20 mirrors in his house in Chelsea, including at least ten convex ones. In fact we have a painting done by his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn which shows a view of Rossetti’s own bedroom as reflected in one of his own convex mirrors.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

A generation after The Awakening Conscience Holman Hunt uses a mirror again, this time because it is part of the narrative of the influential poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott. In Tennyson’s poem the eponymous lady lives her life in a high tower, shut off from real life outside, devoting her life to creating an enormous tapestry, seeing the world outside only as it is reflected in a grand mirror. One day along comes the heroic knight Sir Lancelot, the mirror cracks and the lady rises up, leaves her ivory tower and ventures out into ‘real life’.

(A relevant fable for our times, maybe, when so many of us are addicted to computer screens and digital relationships that we have coined an acronym, IRL [in real life] to depict the stuff that goes on outside the online realm.)

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries/Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries / Bridgeman Images

Note the wooden sandals or ‘pattens’ on the floor which are a direct quote from the Arnolfini Wedding, as is the candelabra on the right.

This painting is hanging in a room devoted to the story of the Lady of Shalott since, obviously enough, the mirror plays a central part in the narrative, and so gave painters an opportunity to explore ideas of distortion, doubling and reflection, ways to convey complex psychological drama.

Nearby is hanging another masterpiece by a favourite painter of mine, John William Waterhouse.

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / Bridgeman Images

In the mirror we can see what the lady sees i.e. the window through which she can see dashing Sir Lancelot and the green fields of the real world. But we are looking at her looking at him although, in fact, she seems to be looking at us. And in her eyes is conveyed the haunting knowledge that, although her life to date may have been a sterile imprisonment – in fact, her emergence into ‘real life’ – in the poem – leads to her mysterious and tragic death.

I love Waterhouse’s faces – like Burne-Jones he hit on a distinctive look which is instantly identifiable, in Waterhouse’s case a kind of haunted sensuality.

By this stage, we are nearly 40 years after the first Pre-Raphaelite works, and Waterhouse’s art shows a distinctively different style. Among the things the PRBs admired in van Eyck was the complete absence of brushstrokes; the work was done to such a high finish you couldn’t see a single stroke: it was a smooth flat glazed surface, and they tried to replicate this in their paintings. Forty years later Waterhouse is not in thrall to that aesthetic. He has more in common with his contemporary, John Singer Sargent, in using square ended brushes and being unafraid to leave individual strokes visible (if you get up close enough), thus creating a looser, more shimmering effect.

In the final room the curators attempt to show that van Eyck’s convex mirror remained a source of inspiration for the next generation of artists, including Mark Gertler, William Orpen, and Charles Haslewood Shannon. These artists incorporated the mirror into their self-portraits and in domestic interiors well into the early 1900s, as seen in Orpen’s The Mirror (1900) and Gertler’s Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918).

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Conclusion

In the final room the curators include a massive copy of Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) on the basis that the van Eyck was for a time hung in the Spanish Royal Collection and so might have directly inspired Velázquez’s use of the mirror motif.

At moments I became confused whether this was an exhibition about van Eyck’s overall stylistic impact on the Pre-Raphaelites – or a history of ‘the mirror’ in painting. You feel the exhibition doesn’t quite do either theme thoroughly: ‘the mirror in art’ would be a vast subject; ‘van Eyck’s convex mirror’ would result in probably a smaller show than the one here, whereas ‘van Eyck’s influence on the PRBs’ would have stopped earlier, certainly not including the 20th century works and probably not the Waterhouse.

So in the end I was left slightly confused by the way the exhibition had two or three not-totally-complete threads to it. But who cares: on the upside it includes a number of absolutely beautiful masterpieces. The mirror theme is kind of interesting, but I found the alternative thread – the direct relationship between van Eyck’s meticulous realism and that of the early PRBs – much the most visually compelling theme.

It is epitomised in this wonderful masterpiece by John Everett Millais, painted when he was just 22.

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

No convex mirror in sight, but what is in evidence is a luminous attention to naturalistic detail (the needle in the embroidery on the table, the leaves on the floor, the wee mouse, bottom right, echoing van Eyck’s doggie) and the technique.

The curators explain that Millais used a resin-based paint for the stained glass and especially the blue velvet dress, comparable to van Eyck’s use of layers of ‘glaze’ — both of them seeking – and achieving – an incredible sensation of depth and colour and sensual visual pleasure which only oil painting can convey.


Videos

Here’s the one-minute promotional film, with funky three-dimensional techniques.

And the 50-minute-long presentation by the exhibition’s co-curators.

There are a few other short films the National Gallery has produced on aspects of the show, all accessible from this page.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Rhythm and Reaction @ Two Temple Place

This is a surprisingly in-depth and thorough account of the arrival of jazz in Britain and its impact not just on popular music, but on the technology behind it (recording studios, radios, gramophones), on the design of everything from fabrics to dresses to shoes to tea sets, its appearance on posters and adverts, and its depiction in the fine arts, too.

And it’s FREE.

The exhibition is curated by Catherine Tackley, Professor and Head of Music at the University of Liverpool, one of the UK’s leading authorities on jazz, and it really shows. She’s authored a book on the subject – The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880–1935 – and the two big galleries and hallway are dotted with wall panels packed with historical information.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band at The Palais de Dance, Hammersmith 1919. Photograph, Max Jones Archive © Max Jones Archive

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band at The Palais de Dance, Hammersmith 1919. Photograph, Max Jones Archive © Max Jones Archive

Minstrels and ragtime

The chronology starts before the turn of the twentieth century with photos and props showing the earliest stage performances of black minstrel music. This developed into ‘ragtime’ just about the time of the Great War. There are photos of some of the early stars of both forms as well as a wall of banjos, the signature instrument of late-19th century minstrel shows. Apparently, visiting Afro-American banjo players gave lessons to the future King Edward VII.

American banjos from the 1870s and 80s

American banjos from the 1870s and 80s

The craze for ragtime swept Britain’s cities in 1912 or so, epitomised by the hit show Hullo Ragtime. There’s a display case of contemporary cartoons and postcards showing comic situations all based on the new sound and its jagged funky dance style.

I especially liked the caricatures by W.K. Haselden, including one where the new syncopated music is presented to a board of very stiff old bishops who, in a sequence of cartoons, slowly loosen up until they are jiving round the floor in pairs. (As it happens, googling W.K. Haselden brings up some of his anti-suffragette cartoons of the day.)

Jazz arrives

It was only in 1919 that the first actual jazz bands arrived in Britain, specifically an all-white outfit called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. In fact, the majority of the jazz which Britons heard and danced to during the Jazz decade, the Roaring Twenties, was performed by white musicians who quickly adapted to the new sound.

Jazz had a huge impact on popular culture. In terms of live performances it quickly spread throughout post-war dance halls and bars. The vibrant new sound, and the revolutionary new and uninhibited dances which went with it, were captured in the new medium of film, and the exhibition features half a dozen clips of crash-bang jazz performers, or of nightclub performers putting on floor shows to jazz accompaniments. Eat your heart out, Keith Moon!

The exhibition has lined up a playlist of vintage jazz for visitors with smart phones to access via Spotify, so you can listen while you read while you look.

Impact on the fine arts

The show features a sequence of paintings by artists who responded to the new sound. These include several works by Edward Burra, who went to New York in the early 30s to seek out the music on its home turf and painted what he saw there.

I was thrilled to see several works by Vorticists, the home-grown alternative to Cubism led by Vorticist-in-chief Wyndham Lewis. The show includes an original menu designed by Lewis for the ‘Cave of the Golden Calf’ nightclub, admittedly just before the Great War (and jazz) but a forerunner of the kind of post-War dives and nightclubs which would feature the new sounds. The Vorticist theme is continued with the inclusion of several works by the painter William Patrick Rogers.

The Dance Club (The Jazz Party) 1923 by William Patrick Roberts © Estate of John David Roberts

The Dance Club (The Jazz Party) 1923 by William Patrick Roberts © Estate of John David Roberts

Next to Roberts’ energetic Vorticist caricatures, are hung a number of more staid and traditional paintings, maybe reflecting the reaction against war-time modernism and the move back towards greater figurativeness and social realism of the 20s and 30s, as in this painting by Mabel Frances Layng.

Tea Dance by Mabel Frances Layng (1920)

Tea Dance by Mabel Frances Layng (1920)

Decorative jazz

You’d expect artists to paint the new thing, just as they had painted scenes from nightclubs, theatres and the opera for decades. What was more surprising and interesting about the exhibition was the way jazz-inspired motifs appeared in the decorative arts. There are several wall-height hangings of fabrics created using jazz designs, images of jiving bodies, or even more abstract, zig-zag patterns conveying a dynamic sense of movement.

Maybe the most unexpected but striking artefacts were the jazz-inspired ceramics – including some wonderfully colourful vases and a jazz-inspired Royal Winton tea service.

Royal Winton, Grimwades Jazz Coffee Set (1930s) Ceramic Private Collection © Two Temple Place

Royal Winton Grimwades Jazz Coffee Set (1930s) Ceramic Private Collection © Two Temple Place

Jazz memorabilia

There’s a section devoted to old gramophones such as my grand-dad might have owned, along with shelves full of delicate old 45 rpm records, and 1920s covers of Melody Maker magazine giving the hot news on the latest from the jazz scene.

For a long time records could only handle 3 or 4 minutes of music, which made recording classical music problematic, but was perfect for the new punchy jazz numbers.

Similarly, as the newly founded British Broadcasting Corporation (established in 1922) began broadcasting, it encountered problems scheduling entire orchestras to play classical pieces which could be up to two hours long. On the other hand, the house bands from, say, the Savoy ballroom, could easily fit into a modest-sized studio in Broadcasting House and play precisely to a half-hour or hour-long time slot, as required. Very handy.

Thus the requirements of the new technology (the practicality of radio, the time limitations of records) and the format of the new music (short and flexible) conspired to make jazz both more popular and accessible than previous styles.

And more collectible. By the 1930s record collecting was well-established as a hobby, with networks of ‘rhythm clubs’, shops and specialist magazines.

The Melody Maker, Xmas 1929 © Time Inc. (UK) Ltd, courtesy of the National Jazz Archive

The Melody Maker, Xmas 1929 © Time Inc. (UK) Ltd, courtesy of the National Jazz Archive

Visits of the jazz greats

Meanwhile, back with the story of the music itself, a series of wall labels in the stairwell describe how the visits of leading black jazz artists in the 1930s deepened the understanding of British musicians and fans alike to the black origins of the music, and to its real expressive potential.

Louis Armstrong visited in 1932 and Duke Ellington in 1933, as shown in British press photographs of the day. It is hard to credit the photo of Fats Waller playing the Empire Theatre, Glasgow, in 1938. Talk about ‘when worlds collide’.

The section on Bronislava Nijinska the ballet dancer was unexpected. Nijinska trained and performed with Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes. In 1925 she left to set up her own company, the Théâtre Chorégraphique, where she developed a piece titled Jazz based on Stravinsky’s 1918 piece, Ragtime.

The exhibition features sketches for the dancers’ costumes as well as display cases showing two full-length outfits for Jazz. And the first venue in the world where this wonderfully cosmopolitan piece was premiered was — Margate! Before moving on to Eastbourne, Lyme Regis, Penzance and Scarborough.

Costumes for Bronislava Nijinska's production of Jazz (1925)

Costumes for Bronislava Nijinska’s production of Jazz (1925)

The jazz ban

Maybe the most interesting historical fact I learned was that the British government brought in a travel ban on American jazz bands in 1935. This was in response to calls from the British Musicians Union to retaliate for a similar American ban on British bands playing over there – but it’s hard not to think that the British public was by far the biggest loser.

Individual soloists (such as Fats or Sidney Bechet) were allowed to travel here, and play with pick-up bands – but this one single fact maybe explains why the kind of ‘Trad Jazz’ my Dad liked lingered on in this country long after American jazz had evolved through swing and bebop into cool jazz by the middle 1950s, when the ban was finally dropped.

It helps to explain the oddly reactionary image which British jazz fans acquired by the 1950s (I think of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin’s grumpy devotion to the earliest jazz styles).

Premier Swingster 'Full Dress' Console drum kit (1936) courtesy of Sticky Wicket's Classic drum Collection

Premier Swingster ‘Full Dress’ Console drum kit (1936) courtesy of Sticky Wicket’s Classic drum Collection

Two Temple Place

Two Temple Place is on the Embankment, a few hundred yards east of the Savoy Hotel. It is an extraordinary building, worth a visit in its own right.

The American William Waldorf Astor was one of the richest men in the world when he decided to move to England in 1891. He wanted a building with offices which he could use as a base to manage his impressive portfolio of properties in London and so, in 1895, he bought the small Gothic mansion on the Victoria Embankment at Two Temple Place overlooking the River Thames. He commissioned one of the foremost neo-Gothic architects of the late-nineteenth-century, John Loughborough Pearson, to carry out a $1.5 million renovation in order to turn it into the ‘crenellated Tudor stronghold’ we see today.

Two Temple Place, London WC2R 3BD

Two Temple Place, London WC2R 3BD

It is pure pleasure to wander round inside the remarkable building, marvelling at the intricate wood panelling on all the walls and, in particular, on the elaborate staircase – as well as the spectacular stained glass creations in the Long Gallery upstairs.

The staircase at Two Temple Place

The staircase at Two Temple Place

The building is now owned by the Bulldog Trust and every winter they hold a public exhibition. This is the seventh such show, a joint venture with the Arts Society, and brings together artefacts from museums and galleries around the country, not least from the venerable National Jazz Archive in Essex.

The setting is stunning, and the Rhythm and Reaction exhibition is wonderful, informative and uplifting. And it’s all free. What are you waiting for?


Related links

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will be Taken Into the Future @ Tate Modern

This is a great exhibition, genuinely original, imaginative and thought-provoking. It is a major retrospective of these two pioneering Russian artists which ranges from enormous installations, through large oil paintings, big wooden models and fanciful book illustrations, down to small and beautiful drawings.

Ilya Kabakov was born in 1933, just as Socialist Realism secured its grip on Russian artistic life. Twenty years later, he began his working career just as Stalin’s influence was at its height, society was completely stifled and the gulag labour camps were full to overflowing (N.B. Stalin died in 1953 but his baleful influence lived on for some years.)

Wisely, Kabakov chose to go into the harmless field of children’s illustration and spent thirty years making a living illustrating a range of books. In 1959, Kabakov became a ‘candidate member’ of the Union of Soviet Artists (he later became a full member in 1965). This status secured him a studio, steady work as an illustrator and a relatively healthy income by Soviet standards. In secret, he created more subversive and experimental works to be seen only by a close circle of friends.

The first thirty years or so of work are effectively solo pieces by Ilya. In 1989, as the USSR collapsed and Ilya for the first time travelled abroad, he was reunited with his distant cousin Emilia who had emigrated in 1975. They began working together and were soon married. So the second half of the show – and the title – reflects the fact that the works for which he is most famous – the large-scale installations – are collaborations devised and made by both of them.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

The smallest works on display here include a room of charming drawings and small abstract paintings from the 1960s, mildly in the style of Kandinsky, maybe. Later on Ilya developed the idea of creating portfolios of prints each dedicated to a fictional character – the Ten Characters series of albums. One whole room of the exhibition contains about twenty school desks, each with one of the portfolios on it.

Thirty years later the situation in Russia had significantly changed. It was still rundown, dirty, backward, grey and depressing. But Stalin was long dead, to be replaced first by Nikita Khrushchev, and then the long years of decline under Brezhnev (1964-82).

Conceptual works

During the 1960s and 1970s Ilya rented an attic studio on Sretensky Boulevard in Moscow where he created experimental works which were to make his reputation: conceptual installations.

This is Ilya’s first whole-room or total installation, which he created in his Moscow studio in 1985. It expands on the idea of the fictional narratives mentioned in the portfolios. Here he has imagined that a man has built a home-made space travel device from springs and rubber straps and has used it to propel himself free from life in his cramped filthy communal flat, through the roof, and up into space and freedom.

Man who flew into space From His Apartment by Ilya Kabakov (1985) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Man who flew into space From His Apartment by Ilya Kabakov (1985) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

As you can see there’s more than a little of children’s humour in this idea. It can be read as a po-faced comment on the permanent housing shortage in the USSR; or it could be seen as a light-hearted Heath Robinson device designed to make us smile.

Next to it is a similar room-sized space in which Ilya has suspended from thin cords about forty household objects of the most boring kind, as found in all such shabby communal blocks of flats – a lot of metal pots and pans and mugs.

Incident in the corridor near the kitchen by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Incident in the corridor near the kitchen by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

You get the idea. The clutter of pots and pans represents the endless confusion and bickering caused by cramped communal living in blocks of flats with permanently broken fixtures and inadequate living space. The large oil paintings on the wall are of natural scenery and presumably represent windows, either real or imaginary windows which some of the block’s inhabitants look through into a dream landscape.

A key element not quite visible in this photo is the music stand to one side which holds a written account of the scene. Text is important in all the Kabakovs’ works. Many of the early paintings contain big chunks of text, for example, By December 25 in Our District…

By December 25 in Our District... by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1983) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

By December 25 in Our District… by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1983) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

This hyper-realistic painting of a half-built tower block, adrift in a sea of mud and building works, has Cyrillic text all down the left-hand side. The text is a list of all the buildings which the authorities promised would be completed by 25 December 1979. Since the artwork was made in 1983, four years later, it comes across as yet another example of the shabby, failing reality and broken promises underlying so much Soviet propaganda.

That said, I loved the two dirty shovels attached to the canvas. I love text in paintings and objects attached to paintings so I also really liked the four big paintings in an earlier room, which were realistic depictions of life in some Soviet new town but which had scrunched-up sweet wrappers glued on to them in regular grids like graph paper. Why? Why not?

Beyond the flying pots and pans is a big room devoted to an installation titled Three Nights (1989). Three massive paintings, each taking up an entire wall, refer to the theme of night – there’s a starry sky, a night scene and (a little disconcertingly) a huge nocturnal insect.

What makes the room striking, though, is the way that three massive plywood walls have been erected in front of each of the paintings almost completely blocking your view of them. For each there is only one gap in the plywood wall which visitors can see the paintings through.

In front of each of these gaps is a monocular ( a single-lensed binocular) on a tripod. If you bend down and squint through these monoculars you see…  that each of the paintings has a minute set of little white men made out of white paper, cut out and stuck on the surface of the paintings. Little white men?

Aha, we had seen some of these in the previous room, room 4, which included the piece Trousers in the corner (1989).

Trousers in the corner by Ilya and Emilai Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Trousers in the corner by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (1989) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Little white men? According to Ilya the little white men are inhabitants of a parallel world who can occasionally be glimpsed by human eyes. Now they’ve been pointed out to me I go back to some of the earlier works and, yes, sure enough, inside the rims of some of the flying pots and pans are twos or threes of tiny, white, cutout silhouettes. Maybe they’re everywhere? From now on you can’t be certain.

The commentary claims the mysterious presence of the little white men is part of the artists’ strategy to create ‘subversions of perspective and scale’, and gives other examples. Yes, no doubt. But it’s also funny. It bespeaks Ilya’s long career as an illustrator of children’s books. It makes you smile.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future

Following the night room is one of the biggest installations I’ve ever seen: a big long room has two rails through the middle, a mocked-up railway platform along the opposite wall from you and, at the far end of the room, the rear section of a train which seems to be leaving the station. Above the back door of the train is a tickertape digital sign reading ‘Not everyone will be taken into the future’.

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2001) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Not Everyone Will Be Taken into The Future by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2001) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

This has a slightly complicated back story. The title derives from an essay Ilya contributed to a journal of Russian art published in Paris. It was an essay about the noted Russian avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, the man who reduced painting to one black square and so, in his own opinion, brought Western painting to a full stop.

This huge installation imagines Malevich as a charismatic visionary selecting some artists to be taken into the bright shiny Future, while others will be discarded and forgotten – as symbolised by a number of canvases abandoned across the rail lines. Who will be taken and why? Who will be left behind and who will mourn?

This work is big, but I didn’t really get it as a work of art: it didn’t seem to be saying anything important or interesting; some artists and many many works of art will be forgotten and lost. Didn’t we know this already?

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album)

The train work is quickly eclipsed by possibly the most powerful work in the show, the beguiling and entrancing Labyrinth from 1990. Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) consists of a maze of narrow corridors with an apparently endless series of abrupt turns. Like some of the earlier works, this is designed to evoke the shabby badly-lit corridors of Soviet communal housing.

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) by Ilya Kabakov (1990) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album) by Ilya Kabakov (1990) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Each stretch of corridor has hung on the wall a series of large-ish prints which comprise photos of life in mid-century Soviet Russia, set on a patterned background with a fragment of typewritten text in Cyrillic attached. Propped up above each print is a translation into English of the Cyrillic text.

It turns out that the black and white photographs were taken by Ilya’s uncle and the texts are excerpts from a memoir by his mother, Bertha Urievna Solodukhina, describing the difficulties of bringing up her son in poverty. As you progress slowly through the maze of corridors, the sound slowly gets louder of Ilya Kabakov himself singing Russian romances in a low, depressed Russian voice… until you arrive at the heart of the labyrinth, to discover it is a derelict cupboard, the kind you keep brooms and dustpans in, with wooden planks across it, the floor covered in plaster crumbled from the roof. More symbols of Soviet dilapidation and… the failure of the utopian dreams.

In fact there are no fewer than 76 of these excerpts from his mother’s memoir, too many to read unless you want to spend several hours in here… and also a little difficult to read because they are propped on the picture frames about 6 foot from the ground. The gallery does offer a booklet which includes every single excerpt but other people had it when I went round. The fragments I read were evocative and moving. It would be interesting to read the entire memoir.

Contemporary oil paintings

The final few rooms are full of the enormous oil paintings the Kabakovs have been doing in recent years. These are completely figurative i.e. realistic portrayals of people and places with the catch that they all feature the same gag or idea – in that they are paintings of collages, portraying scenes from Soviet life as if torn up from magazines and pasted together, sometimes on backdrops of ‘classic’ European painting, to make the visual ironies all the sharper. So they are integral painted surfaces but made t olook as if they’ve been cut up and pasted together.

The Appearance of the Collage #10 by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2012) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

The Appearance of the Collage #10 by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2012) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Photograph by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy Pace Gallery

According to the commentary in these modern works ‘the artists layer scenes from different art historical moments to explore ideas of collective memory and cultural heritage’. Maybe. But after the scale and imaginativeness of the apartment spaceman, the floating pots and pans, the huge train station or the spooky labyrinth – ordinary oil paintings, no matter how inventive, feel less imaginative and impactful.

How to meet an angel

The final room changes the tone yet again, with a suite of works devoted to angels. Angels? It includes a harness of feathers which you could strap on to turn into an angel, some delightful pictures which have the feel of children’s illustrations of angels, a lovely little model of a common or garden stool positioned over a tiny model landscape with a tiny, tiny model angel suspended over it by a slender thread.

But dominating the room is a huge wooden construction, a tilting scaffold built up into the sky at the end of which a little wooden man is reaching out his arms and, not far away a much bigger wooden angel is stretching out his arms to meet him. Will they ever meet? Can we ever achieve our dreams? Can we ever escape from the grubby human condition?

How to meet an Angel by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2009) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

How to meet an Angel by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov (2009) © Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

Who knows, but this huge exhibition, showcasing over 300 objects and works by these big confident conceptual artists, the first in the UK, curated and laid out with the advice of the artists themselves – suggests you can have a lot of fun trying.

The video

Tate made an extended interview with the Kabakovs at their studio.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Red Star over Russia @ Tate Modern

David King

In the 1970s British designer David King was sent to Soviet Russia by the Sunday Times to find old photos of Leon Trotsky to accompany a feature. The feature never materialised but, rummaging about in the archives, King began to uncover the vast scale of the stacks of photos, magazine and newspaper articles, posters and propaganda sheets chronicling the early years of the Russian Revolution, which had been lost or forgotten.

He bought and borrowed what he could to bring back to Blighty, and then made further visits looking for more. It turned into a lifelong project. By his death in 2016 King had accumulated a collection of over 250,000 Russian Revolution-related objects which were bequeathed to Tate.

What better way to display the highlights of this vast collection than during the centenary year of the Bolshevik revolution, and so this exhibition opened on 8 November 2017, commemorating the outbreak of the revolution, to the precise month and day.

Entrance to Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Entrance to Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Red Star Over Russia

The exhibition displays some 150 photos and posters chronicling the years 1917 to the death of Stalin in 1953, showing the changing visual and design styles of the Soviet Union, from the radical experimental days of the early 1920s through to the dead hand of Socialist Realism imposed in the early 1930s. It continues on through the nationalist propaganda of the Great Patriotic War and into the era of ‘high Stalinism’ between 1945 and 1953, which saw the start of the Cold War as the Soviet Union consolidated its grip on occupied Eastern Europe and aided the Chinese Communist Party to its successful seizure of power in 1949.

In obvious ways this exhibition echoes and complements the huge show about the Russian Revolution which the Royal Academy staged earlier this year (although that show included many contemporary paintings and works of art; this show is almost entirely about photos and posters, magazines and prints).

Photos

The old black-and-white photos are doorways into a lost world. Here are Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin looking bulky in their greatcoats, their penetrating stares, their unremitting antagonism.

One sequence chronicles the famous series of photos of Stalin surrounded by Party functionaries who, one by one, were arrested and imprisoned during the 1930s and, one by one, were airbrushed out of the official photo, until only Stalin is pictured. This famous photo is the subject of King’s book The Commissar Vanishes.

Related photos show Lenin shouting from a podium with Trotsky leaning against it. After Trotsky was exiled in 1928, he also would be airbrushed out of this photo. In an adjoining room are ancient silent movies of Trotsky haranguing the crowd and the early Bolshevik leaders milling about the stand in Red Square.

Lenin harangues the crowd while Trotsky watches

Lenin harangues the crowd while Trotsky watches

The Terror began within a year of the Bolsheviks taking power. It came to dominate the entire society, as shown by newspaper photos which have been retouched to remove politicians as they are arrested and liquidated. There are even private photos whose owners have cut out the heads of ‘former people’ in terror lest they be found and the owners themselves arrested.

There are evocative photos of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky, looking particularly stunning when he shaved his head and became a revolutionary firebrand, demanding that opera houses and all previous art be burned to the ground. The Russian Taliban.

The communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

The communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

I’m familiar with these photos but I’d never before seen the official photo of his body after he killed himself in 1930, disillusioned by the way the revolution was going. The exhibition includes a photo of him lying on a divan with a big red stain round his heart, where the bullet entered.

Similarly, there’s a powerful little set of photos showing Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the man responsible for radically reforming the Red Army, before himself falling foul of Stalin’s paranoia. Here he is looking proud in his military uniform. Here he is with his wife and little daughter. And then he was gone – arrested, tried and executed by a shot to the back of the head on 12 June 1937. The confession to treason wrung from him by torture still survives. It is spattered with his dried blood. Thus the Workers’ Paradise.

Tukhachevsky was not the only one. I was stunned to learn from a wall label that no fewer than 25,000 officers in the Red Army were arrested, executed and sent to labour camps between 1937 and 1941! What a paranoid idiot Stalin was.

When Nazi Germany invaded Russia on 22 June 1941 a headless, leaderless Red Army found itself forced right back to the walls of Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad. If they’d only launched the invasion six weeks earlier – as initially planned – the Nazis might have captured all three cities and the history of the world would have been very different. But ‘General Winter’ came to the aid of the Communist leadership, just as it had against Napoleon.

The exhibition shows how, when war broke out, official Soviet propaganda quietly dropped a lot of Bolshevik motifs and refocused attention on patriotic feelings for the Motherland. Now Stalin was rebranded ‘Leader of the Great Russian People’ and the war was christened ‘The Great Patriotic War’.

One of the six rooms in the exhibition deals solely with wartime propaganda, including posters warning people to be discreet and not give away secrets. It’s immediately noticeable how earnest and serious these were, compared with our own stylish and often humorous wartime posters on the same subject.

Don't Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason by Nina Vatolina (1941) The David King Collection at Tate

Don’t Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason by Nina Vatolina (1941) (The David King Collection at Tate)

Not unwise or foolish – Treason. And every Soviet citizen knew what would happen to them if they were suspected of Treason. The midnight arrest, the five-minute trial and then transport to some labour camp in Siberia. Russian authorities had to terrify their population to get anything done. By contrast, British authorities had to coax and laugh the population into better behaviour.

 

Posters

All this about the war is looking ahead. In fact the exhibition opens with a couple of rooms showcasing the fantastic explosion of creative talent which accompanied the early years of the revolution.

Progressive artists, writers, designers, journalists and so on threw themselves into the task of building a new, perfect, workers’ society. The very first room houses a big wall, painted communist red, and covered with vivid and inspiring revolutionary posters. Down with the bourgeoisie, Up the workers, Freedom for emancipated women, Strangle international capitalism, and so on.

Installation view of Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Installation view of Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Early photos show the workshops of idealistic artists creating poster art for a population which was, of course, largely illiterate and so benefited from big, bold images.

The sheer size of this illiterate working population also explains the development of ‘agitprop’ propaganda, conveyed through really simple-minded posters, books and comics, plays, pamphlets, the radically new medium of film and even – as photos here show – via steam trains festooned with Red propaganda pictures and bedecked with red flags.

These revolutionary trains were equipped with cinemas, exhibition carriages, mobile theatres and classrooms, and spread the message of Revolution and Freedom to remote regions all around the vast Russian landmass.

Above all, these young artists, fired by revolutionary idealism, found a new way to create extremely dynamic images, using exciting new approaches to photography and graphic design.

Photo-montage

The Cubists had experimented with collage as early as 1910, and members of the Dada movement (notably Max Ernst in Zurich and John Heartfield in Berlin) had also cut up and pasted together incongruous images from newspapers and magazines. But these had been semi-private experiments in the name of avant-garde fine art.

By contrast the immediate post-revolutionary years in Russia saw an explosive exploration of the potential ways photos can be composed, cut up and montaged together with new styles of design, layout, fonts and wording, to create dynamic and exciting images designed for a mass public.

A set of photos by the genius Alexander Rodchenko shows how vibrant and exciting black and white photos can be when they follow a handful of simple rules. They must be:

  • of extreme clarity
  • taken from above or below the subject
  • of subjects themselves dynamically geometrical in nature
  • use diagonals to cut right across the picture plane.
Tashkent 1933 (The David King Collection at Tate)

Tashkent 1933 (The David King Collection at Tate)

But how much more powerful these already dynamic images become if you cut and paste them into a montage, designed to be read from left to right and convey a raft of patriotic, revolutionary and inspiring subjects.

Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928 by El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin (The David King Collection at Tate)

Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928 by El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin (The David King Collection at Tate)

In fact a montage of just the ‘Great Leaders’ alone turns out to be tremendously powerful, helping to change their images into timeless icons (in a country with a 1,000 year-long history of revering timeless icons). But important to the composition is the presence of the masses, smiling, marching, teeming, liberated, which are cut and pasted into the spare spaces of the composition.

Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933) by Gustav Klutsis. The David King Collection at Tate

Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933) by Gustav Klutsis (The David King Collection at Tate)

(By the way, Klutsis, who made this banner and many other inspiring works like it, was executed in 1938.)

The exhibition includes a wonderful set of prints of purely abstract designs by the great Constructivist artist El Lissitzky – if I could, these would be the one item I’d want to take home from the exhibition. I love the energy of lines and angles and abstraction, and I’m a sucker for the use of text in pictures – so I love El Lissitzky.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) by El Lissitzy. The David King Collection at Tate

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) by El Lissitzy (The David King Collection at Tate)

When you combine all these elements – striking photos and text montaged onto apparently abstract backgrounds made up of vivid colours broken by lines radiating energy – you come up with one of the really great design and visual breakthroughs of this period – the balanced and creative use of abstract design and photomontage to create images which are still inspirational today.

Take Alexander Rodchenko’s most famous work:

'Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge' (1924) by Rodchenko

Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge (1924) by Alexander Rodchenko

Or this 1928 poster by Gustav Klutsis: photos montaged onto an abstract pattern of dynamic diagonal lines.

Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) (1928) by Gustav Klutsis. The David King Collection at Tate

Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) (1928) by Gustav Klutsis (The David King Collection at Tate)

This is why the decade or so of artistic production in Russia after 1917 is the subject of so many exhibitions and books, and returned to again and again – because it saw such an explosion of experimentation in the visual arts, in theatre and cinema and literature, as extremely creative minds in all these spheres completely rejected the aristocratic and bourgeois, self-centred art of the past and tried to devise new forms and styles and genres to convey their exciting news that a New World was at hand.

Although their particular revolution deteriorated into repression and Terror, nonetheless their experiments captured general truths about the twentieth century as a whole, inventing completely new ways to harness the mass media of cinema and photography, popular magazines and consumer products, which could be equally well applied to the mass societies of the capitalist world.

Which is why, although they were created in a communist climate, Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Klutsis and scores of others invented visual styles and techniques which film-makers, playwrights and directors, fine artists and graphic designers in the decadent West and right around the world have mined and plundered for ideas and innovations ever since.

Deinekin and the 1937 Paris Exposition

Of course it didn’t last, as we all know. By 1928, the Soviet government felt strong enough to put a decisive end to all private enterprise (which had been grudgingly reintroduced under Lenin’s New Economic Plan in 1922). This ended the possibility of any kind of independent funding for the arts, which now came under the iron grip of the state. Although the term Socialist Realism wasn’t officially used until 1932, its ideas were beginning to triumph.

Any experimentalism in the arts was increasingly criticised by the party for being ‘formalist’, which meant too avant-garde and experimental to be understood by the masses. By 1934 it was decided that ALL art must be Socialist Realist in nature, meaning:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of the everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

One room of the exhibition is devoted to the triumph of Socialist Realist art in the form of the USSR’s pavilion at the 1937 ‘International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life’ held in Paris.

The pavilion was designed by Boris Iofan and dominated by a vast stainless steel sculpture by Vera Mukhina titled Worker and Collective Farm Woman

(There is a model of this building and the statue at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s current exhibition about opera; it appears in the section about Shostakovitch and music in Soviet Russia.)

These were to be the kind of heroic, larger-than-life, super-realistic, happy proletarian figures striding forward which were to become commonplace all over the Communist world, not only in Russia but in the conquered nations of Eastern Europe and in Communist China after 1949.

Inside, the pavilion was decorated with a vast mural by the painter Aleksandr Deineka, Stakhanovites, a tribute to Soviet workers (from all the Soviet republics) who had exceeded their work quotas and thus were Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Stakhanovites: A Study for the Esteemed People of the Soviets' Mural for the USSR Pavilion, 1937 International Exposition Paris by Aleksandr Deineka (1937) Perm State Art Gallery, Russia

Stakhanovites: A Study for the Esteemed People of the Soviets’ Mural for the USSR Pavilion, 1937 International Exposition Paris by Aleksandr Deineka (1937) Perm State Art Gallery, Russia

Eerily bad, isn’t it?

Comparing this with the thrillingly avant-garde photo-montages of a decade earlier, I realised how the earlier work really does use diagonal lines to create a sense of striving, reaching, stretching movement and dynamism – Lenin is always leaning out from the podium, in Klutsis’ poster the red flags behind Marx et al are always slanting, anything by El Lissitzky or Rodchenko is at an angle.

Compare and contrast with the Socialist Realist painting above, which is totally square, flat, straight-on and consists of vertical lines at 90 degrees to the horizontal. I think this goes some way to explaining why – although it is intended to be a dynamic image of ideal, smiling communist people striding towards us – it in fact feels remote and unreal, more like a spooky dream than an inspiration.

When the Great Patriotic War broke out, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of 1941, there was something of a return to earlier, rousing propaganda, reviving dynamic diagonals to convey strife, effort, heroism.

Fascism - The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism (1941) by Nina Vatolina. The David King Collection at Tate

Fascism – The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism (1941) by Nina Vatolina (The David King Collection at Tate)

The Great Patriotic War

The last room contains a number of works dating from the Great Patriotic War, including the ‘Treason’ poster (above). The wall label explains how the communist state deliberately changed the focus from Revolution to Patriotism. And, after all, we have evidence from the time that plenty of people fought bravely for the Motherland who wouldn’t have lifted a finger for Stalin or the Communist Party.

The best work in this last room is the immensely historic photo of Red Army soldiers raising their flag over Hitler’s ruined Reichstag in conquered Berlin.

It is interesting to learn that this photo – beamed around the world – was carefully staged by the Soviet photographer Yevgeny Khaldei. Makes sense when you really look at it.

Also (since this is one of the main things I’ve taken from the exhibition, visually) that part of the secret of its appeal is that it is yet another dynamic diagonal.

Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 (Printed 1955) by Yevgeny Khaldei. The David King Collection at Tate

Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 (Printed 1955) by Yevgeny Khaldei (The David King Collection at Tate)

As interesting as the knowledge that the famous photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on the summit of Iwo Jima was a more complicated affair than it at first appears – as brought out in the Clint Eastwood movie, Flags of Our Fathers.

I wonder if any Russians have made a film about this ‘historic’ moment?


The promotional video

Russian revolution-related merchandise

Tate offers some 55 items of Russian Revolution merchandise to satisfy all your needs for decorative Bolshevikiana. I particularly liked the Death to World Imperialism posters and prints, a snip at £25.

The Red Star over Russia 2018 calendar was tempting, inciting you to smash international capitalism and strangle the worldwide bourgeoisie while you sip a frappuccino and work on your next powerpoint presentation.

Death to World Imperialism (1920) by Dmitrii Moor (1883 1946) The David King Collection at Tate

Death to World Imperialism (1920) by Dmitrii Moor (1883 1946) (The David King Collection at Tate)

And I was particularly delighted to see that Tate has arranged a Red Star over Russia wine-tasting evening so that you can:

‘Discover how the Russian Revolution in 1917 changed the wine world, and how the influential figures of this time redefined the styles and quality of wines in other regions of the world.’

Merchandising like this really rams home the message that ‘the revolution’ is as dead as the Dodo. It has been bottled and sold to the super-rich as a fashionable perfume.


Related links

David King’s books on Amazon

Russia-related reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Every year the National Portrait Gallery holds an exhibition displaying the 60 or so photographs which made the shortlist for the international Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, a leading international photographic portrait competition.

5,717 photos were entered for the 2017 competition, from a total of 2,423 photographers, based in 66 countries. The exhibition of this top 60 opened in mid-November and continues until 8 February.

A first, second and third prize are awarded, along with the John Kobel prize for best work by a photographer aged under 35.

This is the third year when they’ve also had an ‘In Focus’ feature, profiling a specific photographer. This year it is Todd Hido, an American photographer represented by four big studio shots of women.

I guess there are several ways to approach an exhibition like this. Since it happens every year, you could compare it with last year’s and the year before’s exhibitions with a view to spotting changing trends and developments. Alas, I don’t have a firm enough grasp of previous years to do that.

If you’re a photography buff you will be interested in technique or device, for example the use of digital versus film photography, or the use of new lenses, maybe new ways of using light and shadow, of composition etc. Alas, I know next to nothing about cameras. But also, the information panels next to each photo, often four or five paragraphs long, give little or no technical information but instead focus on the psychology, the mood and feel of the photos, and often discuss the ‘issues’ they raise or ‘investigate’.

You can just saunter round seeing what takes your fancy – which plenty of people were doing on the day I visited, including a gaggle of junior school children who were having a great time being asked by their teachers what they liked and why.

Or you could regard it as what Roland Barthes called a corpus, a body of work to be analysed, a set of 60 photographs to be analysed as a group or cohort, finding themes and patterns in it, maybe hazarding a guess at how it indicates ‘signs of the times’ and the ‘Zeitgeist’.

In this respect, it was notable that two of the three prizewinning photos addressed the issue of refugees and war.

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

First prize went to César Dezfuli for his portrait of a migrant rescued in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. His photo is of Amadou Sumaila, a sixteen-year-old from Mali, who’s just been plucked from a refugee boat by an Italian rescue vessel and is looking understandably troubled. César received £15,000 for his photograph, I wonder how much Amadou got.

Second prize (£3,000) went to Abbie Trayler-Smith for her photograph of a girl fleeing ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. Abbie, a former BBC producer, was working for Oxfam at the Hasan Sham displaced persons camp in Iraq, documenting the charity’s work helping people fleeing ISIS. A bus was bringing in people who had, only hours earlier, been in a battle zone. For me this was probably the best photo in the show, in the sense of the deepest and most haunting image, the streaks of sand left by rainwater trickling down the bus window contrasting with the detached beauty of the woman’s face.

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

But these two were the exceptions – there weren’t many other photos from combat zones, trouble spots or areas of distress e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen or Bangladesh. Periodically I flick through the couple of books I have by war photographer Don McCullin. There was nothing that intense or first hand here. Surfing through the websites of the featured photographers I came across some tough images by Adam Hinton of street gangs in El Salvador and the ruins of Kiev. There was nothing that gritty on display here.

Also, I happen to have recently visited the Tate Modern exhibition about Russian revolutionary art, a lot of which – films, photos and posters – depicts the proletariat and peasants at work, in fields, in factories, driving combine harvesters or sweating near blast furnaces. In this whole exhibition I think there was only one photograph of a person actually working, a black guy in South Africa holding a garden strimmer.

And despite two shots of boys in football strip, there were no shots of sports actually taking place, or in fact of any activities at all. A guy washing his feet in a sink. A mother in a natural pool with her baby and son. Four ladies holding floats in a swimming pool. That’s about as energetic as it got.

Maybe portraits have to be static. But can’t you have portraits of people doing something? Most of the photos here seemed posed and passive, exuding calm and poise. Take the third prize, which went to Maija Tammi from Finland for her portrait of a Japanese android called Erica. Android!? Yes, Erica is a robot made by Japanese scientists. Tammi had half an hour in the lab with Erica and one of her designers to take photos of the (disturbingly lifelike) android. The curators claim the photo ‘addresses issues’ of human versus robot etc, but for me, as an image, its main quality is its supreme calm and placidness.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

Static

Quite a few of the photos just showed people in static positions, posed face-on to the camera or only slightly turned and positioned. Take, for example, the two photos from Owen Harvey’s series of Skins and Suedes. This one combines teenage surliness (‘Who you lookin’ at?’) with vulnerability, a kind of tough helplessness. Fine – except that quite a few of the other photos in the exhibition use exactly the same pose and approach.

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London, from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Some of them were very static indeed, posed with a kind of deliberately geometric sterility.

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

The overwhelming vibe of the show was of this placid, sterile, posed, numb effect. Maybe this is a ‘sign of the times’.

American dominance

This latter photo brings us to the issue of America’s representation in the show.

Since the introduction makes much of numbers –  5,717 photos submitted etc – I did a little counting of my own. Of the 60 or so photos on display, no fewer than 22 are from or about America – starting with Todd Hido’s four studio portraits.

There’s a whole wall of six or so American political photos, including ones of Trump, Obama and Hillary Clinton – the latter a worryingly big close-up of the lady in full campaign mode, reminding us of her hawkish foreign policy record, and that she is 70 years old (albeit younger than Trump, 71, or Bernie Saunders, 76: America the Gerontocracy).

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

These figures of power were placed next to a pair of photos of poor women taken against, or rather through, the metal grilles of part of the wall between the US and Mexico, as well as shots of blue collar Trump supporters, a teenage American gun fan, and so on.

The very first photo in the exhibition is by an American of a classic American subject – two drum majorettes caught in a casual moment. There’s a shot of a young black guy posed on a horse, a stylishly dressed black girl on Venice beach, the naked mum in a pool in Idaho. There, in other words, are lots of Yanks in this show.

This latter photo (below) is striking because it is, for this show, an unusually dynamic composition, the outstretched arm and leg making striking diagonal lines and the swimming boy nearly making three sides of an X shape. It is a rare example of a relatively unposed photo, the woman reaching for her glasses (are they glasses) giving it an air of precariousness and risk missing from almost all the other works here.

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water's Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water’s Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Having brought up two children since they were babies, I wasn’t charmed by this image of primal innocence (if that’s the intention): I was mainly worried about the safety of the baby!

Anyway, health and safety aside, my point is: how come so many Americans?

The US population is 323 million, just 4.25% of the global population of 7.6 billion. Why, then, were over 30% of the photos in this international competition by or about Americans?

Maybe because we in Britain are so drenched in Americana, through movies, TV shows, pop and rock and country music and so on, through the voices of academics and journalists on radio and TV, that we half believe these images and icons are ours. We somehow believe that we have a special claim on, or connection with, American culture. Maybe this is why British intellectuals get so very cross about Donald Trump almost as if he’s president of our country, and we hear so much about American domestic policy, about its race relations, or its abortion clinics, or the endless coverage of every new scandal from Hollywood, as if it directly affects us in Clapham and Cleethorpes and Clovelly.

Or maybe America is just so big and rich that it has a disproportionately large number of well-educated graduates of art and photography courses, plus an enormous network of magazines of all shapes and sizes and styles, and competitions and prizes and money – an entire ecosystem which can sustain tens of thousands of photographers. And so the quality of the best American photographers just is among the best in the world, and so they just deserve to dominate every international photography competition.

George S. Texas 2016 from the series "Age of Innocence" Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

George S. Texas 2016 from the series Age of Innocence: Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

Having counted the number of photos with American subject matter, I then turned to examine the list of photographers. I counted 51 photographers, responsible for 62 photographs (see below for a complete list of photographers and how many photos they have in the show). Of those 51 photographers, 31 are British and 9 are American. I.e. 40 out of the 51 photographers in the exhibition (78%) are British or American.

This is a bit disappointing. What about China (pop. 1.4 billion), India (pop. 1.3 billion), Indonesia or Brazil? And although it’s less populous (144 million), I always wish there was more coverage of Russia in shows like this, Russia being the largest country in the world, with its vast Siberian hinterland occupied by all sorts of interesting tribes and ethnic groups.

Considering that China will become the economic powerhouse of the world, and Putin’s Russia presents a distinct threat to the West, in both military and digital terms, I think the more we see and understand about these countries and their people the better; and so – fairly or unfairly – I can’t help thinking that supposedly ‘global’ competitions which don’t adequately represent them are missing a trick.

Maybe the disproportionately high number of British and American entrants is for the simple reason that the competition is well publicised in these countries, which after all have a large cultural overlap. Maybe the competition is just not very well promoted in other countries (even in other Anglo countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which didn’t have any representatives here). Maybe the Anglo bias of the show reflects the difficulty of publicising it elsewhere.

All I know for sure is that, against this Anglocentric backdrop, the handful of colourfully non-Anglo subjects really stood out.

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Cool photo. By an American, though.

Humour

Not many people in these photos are smiling let alone laughing. Just like in last year’s BP Portrait Award show (for painted portraits), happiness seems to be verboten. Maybe it’s a function of the highly posed nature of most of the photos: the subjects obviously felt they had to be on their best behaviour.

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Having recently read a few books about Surrealism my head is also full of bizarre images created by yoking together unexpected juxtapositions, as in the numerous cutouts and collages of Max Ernst.

Only one photo of the 60 or so here really played at all with these possibilities of photography as a medium. Typically, it was not only a) American but b) very earnest.

It represents the experience of Swedish photographer Alice Schoolcraft who visited her American relatives only to discover that they were Bible-thumping, gun-toting Republicans, and particularly fond of their German Shepherd dog. Hence this photomontage which, I felt, was neither as weird or as convincingly photoshopped as it ought to be.

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Women’s bodies

Women appear to be much more interested in their bodies than men are in theirs, as facts and figures from GPs, hospitals, pharmacies, the fashion and beauty industries, and anecdotal evidence suggest. Probably because women’s bodies are so much more interesting than men’s bodies, dominated as they are by the great central Fact of childbirth, which overshadows their lives – from the advent of menstruation to the onset of the menopause, via a lifetime worrying about contraception, with maybe one or more pregnancies to live through, babies to deliver in agony, and then the long, wearing years of child rearing.

All this to cope with before you even consider the non-stop pestering and objectifying by boys and men, and the great weight of social pressure to conform, be polite and submissive, dress well and look good at all times. What a nightmare!

These thoughts were prompted by the fact that buried in the show is an unobtrusive strand about girlhood, womanhood, motherhood and old age. I wonder if the organisers knew it was there – it would be nice to think it was a very subtle piece of thematic planning. But deliberate or not, ten or so of the pictures could be arranged to form a kind of ‘life cycle of a woman’. They kick off with this graphic photo of childbirth.

Sophie's first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

Sophie’s first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

I’ve referred to the photo of the mum swimming with a baby, above, which stands for babies and toddlers. Next in this ‘life cycle’ would come photos showing:

  • a pre-pubescent girl in a swimsuit in a poolside shower
  • a clutch of sulky punk girls from London’s streets (the third photo in this review)
  • the stylish young black woman in torn jeans posing on Venice beach

Then there’s another medical shot, focusing on a specifically female condition – a photo of a woman’s stomach indicating operations resulting from her endemetriosis. In fact it’s the photographer’s own body, Georgie Wileman having suffered from this horrible condition and turned her plight into a photographic project.

Early in my career I produced and directed a dozen medical videos which involved researching some pretty horrible conditions, looking at hundreds of photos of disfigured bodies, and filming a number of surgical procedures (the operation to treat piles was probably the most gruesome). This disabused me of any naive innocence about the human body. All of us, no matter how young and beautiful, are medical patients in waiting.

2014 - 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

2014 – 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

In terms of thinking about themes and trends, this photo made me realise that there is probably a whole modern genre here, the ‘Woman’s body as a medical battlefield’ genre. In the past people wrote books about ‘The Nude’. Nowadays you could fill a book with art photos of women’s bodies after mastectomies, caesarian sections and so on.

Further on in the exhibition, a photo of a family picnic on Southwold beach can be taken as symbolising motherhood and middle age, all making sandwiches and the school run.

And, to complete the cycle, tucked away among other, brasher photos, is an unobtrusive but moving picture of an old woman dying.

I found this hard to look at since it reminded me too much of holding my own mother’s hand as she passed away in a cold, white hospital room. The lifeless white hair. The skin like parchment.

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Once I’d noticed this women’s life cycle – almost like one of Hogarth’s moral tales – the many photos of lads and men alongside them seemed callow and trite by comparison. Maybe these reflect the way many boy’s and men’s lives are indeed a succession of shallow thrill-seeking, dares and accidents. Fast cars, football and fags.

A number of the photographers here seemed to have had the idea of focusing on teenage boys, hanging out, smoking tabs, wondering how much that camera’s worth. I grew up among lads like this, so I liked this strand. ‘Oi mate, want some blow?’ Is he a nice boy who loves his Mum – or is he about to stab you? ‘Teenagers’ was another noticeable theme of the exhibition.

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Artists

And smoking brings us neatly to a little suite of photos of creative types. To be precise, there are photos of two artists and a writer in the show:

The Sunday Times columnist A.A. Gill is photographed in his Chelsea garden in the advanced stages of the cancer that was shortly to kill him. He was a recovering alcoholic who, at one point, smoked 60 tabs a day. He died of lung cancer.

The popular but critically slated painter Jack Vettriano is photographed looking grey-haired and gaunt in his home in Battersea having only recently, the wall label tells us, recovered from his chronic alcoholism. Also a heavy smoker.

But my favourite was a cracking photo of artist Maggi Hambling CBE, aged 72 and still smoking like a trooper. Here she is in the garden of her home in Suffolk. She insisted on smoking throughout the shoot and, apparently, got through a pack and a half of fags before the photographer had the bright idea of setting up a smoke machine to give the surreal impression that her ciggies are blotting out the entire landscape. Maybe I liked it because it’s virtually the only humorous photo in the show.

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

I was mildly interested to read who the judges were:

  • Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Chair (Director, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Dr David Campany (Writer, Curator and Artist)
  • Tim Eyles, Managing Partner, Taylor Wessing LLP
  • Dr Sabina Jaskot-Gill (Associate Curator, Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Fiona Shields (Head of Photography, The Guardian)
  • Gillian Wearing (Artist)

50% women – but no black or Asian judges. Blackness is seen via white photographers selected by white judges. But then that does seem to be par for the course for London galleries (see my blog post on Women and ethnic minorities in the art world).

Conclusion

If you’re interested in photography this is an excellent snapshot of work from around the world (well, by Americans and Brits who travel round the world).

All of the photos are technically very finished, well lit, focused, clear and crisp.

A handful (the winners) are really stunning.

I found the American presence oppressive, maybe other people will like it.

I detected a hidden theme of womanhood; maybe other visitors will find other themes. (The winning photo of César Dezfuli suggests the theme of migrants, emigrants and refugees, with quite a few shots of British or American blacks and Asians finding their place in the predominantly white culture and – on the anti-immigrant side – photos of Trump and his supporters – there’s enough material here to write an essay just on this very timely theme – but this review is long enough already).

If my review comes over as dismissive, I don’t intend it to be: I found the show fascinating in all kinds of ways and, more tellingly, I’ve found its effects lingering on. Following up the three prize winners and some of the others via the internet has opened my eyes to the dazzling world of contemporary photography. In this respect the exhibition can be used as a valuable gateway, as an introduction and incitement to explore further.

Having looked, read and thought carefully about all 61 photos, maybe the biggest take-home message is:

Smoking is really, really bad for you 🙂


List of photographers

  • Abbie Trayler-Smith, UK (1 photo)
  • Adam Hinton, UK (2)
  • Alan Mozes, USA (2)
  • Alejandro Cartagena, Mexico (2)
  • Alice Schoolcraft, Sweden/USA (1)
  • Alva White, UK (1)
  • Alys Tomlinson, UK (1)
  • Anna Boyiazis, USA (1)
  • Baud Postma, UK (1)
  • Benjamin Rasmussen, USA (1)
  • Camille Mack, UK (1)
  • Catherine Hyland, UK (2)
  • César Dezfuli, Spain (1)
  • Charlie Bibby, UK (1)
  • Charlie Clift, UK (1)
  • Cian Oba-Smith, UK (1)
  • Cig Harvey, UK (1)
  • Craig Bernard, UK (1)
  • Craig Easton, UK (2)
  • Danny North, UK (2)
  • Davey James Clarke, UK (1)
  • David Vintiner, UK (1)
  • Debbie Naylor, UK (1)
  • Georgie Wileman, UK (1)
  • Hania Farrell, Lebanon/UK (1)
  • Harry Cory Wright, UK (1)
  • Ian McIlgorm, UK (1)
  • Joel Redman, UK (1)
  • Jon Tonks, UK (1)
  • Keith Bernstein, South Africa (1)
  • Kurt Hörbst, Germany (2)
  • Laurence Cartwright, UK (1)
  • Laurent Elie Badessi, France (1)
  • Mahtab Hussain, UK (1)
  • Maija Tammi, Finland (1)
  • Matthew Finn, UK (1)
  • Matthew Hamon, USA (1)
  • Mitchell Moreno, UK (2)
  • Monika Merva, USA (1)
  • Nancy Newberry, USA (1)
  • Natasta Alipour-Faridani, UK (1)
  • Owen Harvey, UK (2)
  • Paola Serino, Italy (1)
  • R. J. Kern, USA (1)
  • Richard Beaven, USA (1)
  • Sean Smith, UK (1)
  • Simon Urwin, UK (1)
  • Thom Pierce, UK (1)
  • Todd Hido, USA (4)
  • Tom Craig, UK (1)
  • Tommy Hatwell, UK (1)

Caveats

1. This list is taken from promotional material given out by the NPG press office; it may not be 100% complete. 2. Nationalities are as per the photographers’ entries on the internet; some of these, again, may not be 100% accurate (i.e. someone might have been born in one country and changed nationality). I apologise for any errors and will correct any, if pointed out to me.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys @ The Courtauld galley

Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) was one of the leading painters in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a Russian Jew who fled to Paris in 1913, soon settling into bohemian Montparnasse where he befriended, among others, the young Amedeo Modigliani.

His paintings are garish, heavily distorted and reveal a strong sympathy for working people. Because of this some contemporary critics considered him the successor of van Gogh, but Soutine’s works are really painted in a quite different way.

Among his themes or subjects Soutine developed the notion of painting portraits of the service staff from the fashionable hotels and restaurants of 1920s Paris. After ten years of penury, in 1923 the American collector Albert C. Barnes saw one of the hotel staff paintings and bought it and everything else Soutine had to sell (50 paintings in all), giving Soutine financial security and art world credibility at a stroke.

Nowadays the hotel staff portraits are considered among Soutine’s greatest achievements and this exhibition – the first devoted to Soutine in the UK for 35 years – is the first ever to focus on the hotel portraits, bringing together an unprecedented number for us to compare and contrast.

Bellboy (c.1925) Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou

Bellboy (c.1925) Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Centre Georges Pompidou

As with all the Courtauld Gallery exhibitions, it is small (two rooms) but thoughtfully and beautifully presented. In total there are 21 paintings, brought in from a variety of collections, public and private, hung and spaced in just the right way, with wall labels which give you just the right amount of information.

The Roaring Twenties

It was the Roaring Twenties and Paris was a cheap tourist destination, especially for Americans. The grand hotels boomed and seethed with an elaborate hierarchy of staff – waiters and maitres d’, cooks and chefs, bellboys and chambermaids.

Although all was luxury up above, in the lobby and dining room and luxury suites, the staff making it all happen and jumping at rich people’s beck and call, worked very long hours, under constant pressure, for minimum wages. George Orwell describes the hellish world of the kitchens of such a hotel in Down and Out in Paris and London.

The Chambermaid (c.1930) by Chaim Soutine, Courtesy Kunstmuseum Lucerne

The Chambermaid (c.1930) by Chaim Soutine, Courtesy Kunstmuseum Lucerne

Twisted and distorted

Quite obviously these are figurative works in that they depict real objects, real people. Just as obviously, they are all hideously, perhaps nightmarishly, twisted and distorted. As with the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery I found the commentary a touch sentimental in that it dwelt on the supposed characters, personality or feelings of the sitters. The one above, The Chambermaid, is one of the few which seem to have any facial expression and is ‘realistic’ enough to perhaps warrant a psychological interpretation. (Which is, unsurprisingly, that she looks pretty unhappy.)

But the great majority of the portraits are, in my view, too elaborately bent and deformed to really lend themselves to psychological interpretations, certainly of individuals – not least because they are unnervingly similar, the faces deliberately asymmetrical, the eyes on different levels, the skulls elongated or unnaturally thin.

Le Valet de Chambre (c.1927) by Chaim Soutine. Private Collection, Courtesy of Ordovas

Le Valet de Chambre (c.1927) by Chaim Soutine. Private Collection, Courtesy of Ordovas

The commentary invokes one of the great cultural themes of our times, identity, to suggest that the figures are straining against the constraints of their uniforms which categorise, pigeonhole and limit them. It’s a plausible idea. But its rather undermined by the fact that Soutine nowhere, anywhere, gives his sitters names. The reverse, they are titled solely by their job description – chambermaid, cook, maitre d’.

Maybe the no-name thing was part of the general aim, to create a kind of pathos. Maybe we are meant to think: ‘Poor people, stripped of their personality, stripped even of their names, and reduced to slavish flunkeys’.

Page Boy at Maxims (c. 1927) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Edmund Hayes Fund, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Page Boy at Maxims (c. 1927) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Edmund Hayes Fund, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Rather like in Cézanne, the sitters are placed in straightforward, point-blank frontal poses, a posture which tends to emphasise a kind of forlorn helplessness. Maybe all of this does contribute to a triste vibe.

So much for the psychology. But what I haven’t mentioned yet is the colour.

Colour

These paintings are intensely colourful. The visitor’s first impression as you enter the gallery, before you’ve even got to grips with the hotel staff idea, is of flaring reds, intense midnight blues and big whites.

There may be some kind of pathos of poverty in the pictures, but what is beyond doubt is their intense colourfulness. In particular I was bowled over in the first room on the first wall by Soutine’s use of an intense midnight blue as the abstract background to two portraits of a page-boy.

The Page Boy (c.1928) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Private Collection

The Page Boy (c.1928) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, Private Collection

A blue deep enough to swim in, to merge into, to walk into and be lost forever.

In other portraits the dominant colour is white, the colour of the uniforms of the cooks and kitchen staff. But when you look closer you see it is a white made up of all kinds of shades of white, and laced with lines of blue and dabs of pink to create an intense and ravishing visual experience.

Up close you can see how the paint has been laid on thickly in confident strokes and sweeps to create a very dynamic experience. The pastry cook of Cagnes is one of the works where the commentary thinks we’re meant to feel moved by the pathos of his character etc, but I didn’t get any of that. What I saw was a brilliantly confident exercise in colour, an experiment in whites, and a dashing confidence in the sheer technique of painting with oils – the browns of the distorted chair, the shadowed whites of his buttons, the sudden flare of his red handkerchief.

Pastry Cook of Cagnes (1922) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery / Museum of Avaunt-Guard Mastery of Europe (MAGMA)

Pastry Cook of Cagnes (1922) by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery / Museum of Avaunt-Guard Mastery of Europe (MAGMA)

The humanist interpretation focuses on the standardised uniforms of maitre d’, waiter, chef and so on as constraining straitjackets. But I think it’s quite obvious that – whatever effect their uniforms had on the staff – Soutine himself was, on the contrary, inspired and liberated by the extremes of colour which they offered.

Here was a God-given excuse to create really forceful effects of colour from the bold whites, reds and blues of the different liveries, all emphasised by the full-on frontal poses, to create an almost physically jarring effect.

In this respect, maybe my favourite was Le petit patissier – not for her expression (which, quite frankly, looks much the same as the expressions of all the other sitters i.e. unreadable) – but for the extreme contrast between the midnight blue of the background and the stark white of her uniform. And for the way the two interact, so that the theoretically white smock is invaded by squiggly lines and dabs of not only blue but green and red and flesh colour – to create a strikingly bold and declarative statement.

The Little Pastry Cook (Le Petit Pâtissier) 1927 by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, The Lewis Collection.

The Little Pastry Cook (Le Petit Pâtissier) 1927 by Chaim Soutine © Courtauld Gallery, The Lewis Collection.

The bold brushstrokes and really fierce colour contrasts look forward to Abstract Expressionism, a thought which had occurred before I read in the commentary that the Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning singled Soutine out as his favourite artist.

And you can also see why British artists like Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, and especially Lucian Freud, cited Soutine as a key influence. The thick impasto paint. The distorted figures. Soutine got there first.

Reading around the subject, I discover that Soutine was also well known at the time for painting a series of still lives of sides of beef. Not much sentimental pathos in these portraits! although they share the same visual language, of a distorted subject depicted in extreme reds and blues.

In 2015 one of them was sold for $28 million.

The video

Every modern exhibition has a promotional video. The Courtauld had the bright idea of getting Fred Sirieix, a French maître d’hôtel best known for appearing on Channel 4’s First Dates programme, to give his professional view. Oddly for something so bang up to date, all the colours are very bleached out in this film, so that Soutine’s virulent reds look misleadingly cosy and orange.

This short montage gives you a better idea of the paintings’ vibrant colouring, but still doesn’t capture the intensity of the dark blues, bright red and wild whites which Soutine uses. To experience that fully, you have to visit this exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Courtauld Gallery

Modigliani @ Tate Modern

His name is pronounced Mod-ill-ee-arn-ee – the ‘g’ is silent.

This is the most comprehensive Modigliani exhibition ever held in the UK, bringing together a really comprehensive range of portraits, sculptures and the largest ever group of nudes (12) to be shown in this country.

Modigliani

Modigliani

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Amedeo Modigliani died very young, on January 1920, aged just 35. By that time he had developed a look, a brand, a style, which was instantly recognisable and has made him one of the most valued of ‘modern’ painters, with two entries in the top twenty-five most expensive paintings of all time:

No. 9 – Nu Couché $170 million
No. 21 – Reclining Nude With Blue Cushion $118 million

Art capital of the world

In the 1900s Paris was the acknowledged capital of the art world, full of artists who’d flocked there from all over Europe (e.g. the Spaniard Picasso, the Romanian Brancusi). Modigliani moved from his native Italy to Paris in 1906, when he was 21.

The second room in this big exhibition shows an excellent five minute video montage of black and white photos and very basic movie footage of the Paris of the day, starting with grand scenes of the Eiffel Tower and the buildings left over from the Great Exhibition of 1900, then moving to the ramshackle buildings up the side of the hill of Montmartre, the white Sacre Coeur church still being completed, cabarets and theatres, the back alleys and tenements where the artists rented apartments and studios, and then shots of key figures of the time, Picasso, Brancusi, Gertrude Stein from the family of art collectors, Modigliani himself and some moving footage of workers manhandling lumps of the limestone he carved into sculptures.

Experiments in styles

With a good feel for the life and times of 1900s Paris we move on into a room which shows Modigliani experimenting with the variety of looks and styles on offer. Loose brushwork and abstracted figures testify to the pervading influence of Cézanne on everyone at the time. This is apparent in the very visible diagonal brushstrokes which draw attention to themselves of this early nude, or of his study of Brancusi, who soon became a good friend.

Sculpting

Between 1909 and 1911, heavily influenced by Brancusi, Modigliani went through an intense phase of sculpting. Like many others he was caught up in the fashion for exotic, non-European art, supposedly ‘primitive’ sculptures from ancient Egypt or from France’s colonial possession like Cambodia or the Ivory Coast. It had only been in 1906/7 that Matisse and Picasso both began to incorporate non-European masks and body shapes in their work. Two rooms are devoted to this phase, one showing the lovely preparatory sketches he made, showing Modigliani’s wonderful way with elegant curved but geometric lines, the other showing a dozen or so sculptures which are, without exception, faces, some squat square ones, but most a highly characteristic elongated, narrow face with a long pendulous nose ending in a little round pouting mouth.

The commentary tells the story that sometimes visitors to his studio at night found that Modigliani had placed lighted candles atop each of the sculptures. He told friends he planned to create a kind of pagan temple decorated with them. On a few occasions, at hashish parties, he was seen to embrace them.

In all, Modigliani made about 25 of these highly characteristic heads. A handful were included in the 1912 Salon d’Automne, the only time they were displayed in his lifetime. There are several theories why he abandoned sculpture in 1913 – possibly the constant dust of a sculptor’s studio exacerbated the childhood tuberculosis which he was always holding at bay. Possibly it was just too expensive compared to painting.

The Modigliani look

But the extensive sketches, and the really physical engagement with sculpture, had set in stone (as it were) what was now established as the Modigliani ‘look’ – elongated faces with swan-like necks and blank almond-shaped eyes were to characterise all his paintings from now to the end of his life.

This is already apparent in the many portraits he painted of fellow artists, mistresses, and the collectors and art dealers who were important in launching his career. The commentary gives a good deal of background information about each of them, for example about the several portraits of his dealer, Paul Alexandre, a leading promoter of African art. I particularly liked the ‘naive’ way Modigliani writes on the paintings: he writes the name of the subject (Picasso, Paul), his own signature, and then often writes a comment, for example writing ‘Novo Pilota’ – meaning ‘guiding star’ – onto his portrait of Paul Guillaume.

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

The elongated, cylinder-like neck, the perfectly almond-shaped face especially the pointed chin, the simple one-line depiction of the nose and eyes and eyebrows and especially the slate grey or blacking out of the eyes to emphasise the impassive mask-like effect – all these are apparent in his several portraits of his mistress-lover Beatrice Hastings who, the commentary tells us, was a British-born writer and editor who covered the Paris art scene for British magazines.

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

There are three rooms devoted to his artistic peers, to colleagues, collectors and dealers, friends and lovers and patrons, featuring his portraits of such luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. By the time war broke out in 1914 Modigliani was very well-connected, an ‘insider’ in the Paris art world, friends with the leaders of the avant-garde, beneficiary of regular commissions from the cognoscenti.

A people person

What these three rooms really crystallise is the fairly obvious point that he only painted portraits – heads or busts or full bodies, but only individual people. Landscapes such as had obsessed the godfather of modernism, Cézanne? None. Still lives such as absorbed the Cubists, Picasso and Braque? None. Cityscapes such as dominated the Futurists from his own native land, Italy (the first Futurist manifesto was published in 1909)? None. On the strength of this exhibition it seems that he never sketched, drew, painted or sculpted anything but the human form and face. And although highly stylised, they are always recognisable, with recognisable clothes (or not), in chairs or leaning on tables in a recognisable space.

Compared to the wild experiments going on around him (Fauves, Cubism, Futurism) Modigliani’s art seems – well ‘conservative’ is the wrong word, a genuinely die-hard conservative style continued to be produced by academic painters – but understandable, assimilable, acceptable.

Modigliani’s nudes

It was with this in mind that I walked into the big room displaying ‘the largest ever group of Modigliani nudes to be shown in this country’, 12 of them, to be precise.

The commentary would have us believe that these are ‘shocking’ and ‘provocative’ works and tells the story that the one and only exhibition of them – held at Berthe Weill’s gallery in 1917 – was closed down by the police on the grounds of indecency. Apparently, this was specifically because Modigliani showed his models having pubic hair and underarm hair.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

To be honest, I found this a little hard to credit (not that the show was closed down, but that the works were particularly shocking or provocative). I’ve just read a book about the Fauves which included plenty of Fauvist nudes which a) are really wild pictures, sometimes difficult to make out amid the riot of colour; and b) where you can, quite routinely show depict pubic hair.

Compared with any of these works from at least ten years earlier, Modigliani’s nudes seem very tame – in terms of colour (which is very restrained and ‘realistic’ – the flesh is generally flesh-coloured), in terms of line (Modigliani’s nudes are all clearly defined by wonderfully crisp, curving outlines), in terms of facial features (which are stylised but not, actually, that much), even in terms of crudity, none of the Modiglianis are as in-your-face as that final nude by Camoin.

On the contrary – they all share a similar warm orange body, lovely curves, ample bosoms, pink nipples, all depicted with super-clear, well-defined black outlines. If they so show women’s pubes, they are as neat and geometric as their oval faces. Actual women’s pubic hair is a lot more unkempt and varied than Modigliani’s tasteful version.

No, what struck me about all of Modigliani’s nudes was their restraint, their tastefulness, and several of them really did strike me as deeply conservative, particularly the nudes where he is consciously referencing the European tradition, like this one which is based on Ingres’ famous Odalisque.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

All four curators of this exhibition are women and so you have a strong feeling in the audio commentary that they feel duty bound to discuss how women’s bodies were a battlefield in the 1910s (prompting the thought, When have women’s bodies not been battlefields, according to feminist history?), but, at the same time, want to assert that the women Modigliani depicts are not helpless victims of ‘the male gaze’ – these women are strong independent women, as evidenced by their wearing lipstick, make-up and – in some of them – necklaces or ear rings.

The commentary compares the lot of the average model to the really grim lives of working class women slaving away in factories or as laundresses etc (Modigliani’s models earned about double the daily working wage for spending a day lying on a couch).

But none of this semi-political feminist interpretation really changes the fact that these are cartoons. The simple black outline, the stylised and fairly flat colouring – they could almost come from a Tintin cartoon, or from any number of subsequent comic strips. Compare and contrast with the genuinely experimental way nudes had been portrayed for at least a decade.

If the Berthe Weill show was raided and closed down it was, if anything, because the nudes were – in artistic terms – so conservative, so realistic, so figurative and so traditional in style – that they really did teeter on the brink of pornography.

No one could mistake the Matisse, Derain or Picasso nudes for soft porn, they are all very obviously far more interested in experimenting with new ways of seeing and new ways of painting than with titillation. You can’t really confidently say that about the Modigliani nudes. They are all pretty sexy and sexiness is their subject, although the curators prefer the more polite word ‘seductive’.

By this, room 8 of the 11-room exhibition, it seemed to me that Modigliani had progressed far beyond his earlier experiments, incorporated all the stylisation he’d learned from studying ‘primitive’ art and sculpting, and had emerged to produce a really consistent brand of very quaffable female nudes. Their naive simplicity makes them extremely enjoyable and explains, I think, the extraordinary prices they fetch at modern auction, tasteful, soft-porn works which any self-respecting billionaire would be proud to hang in his luxury apartment in New York, Paris, Moscow or Beijing. (Nu Couché was bought by the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian for $170 million, Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion was bought by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $118 million.)

The curators can use feminist tropes all they like to try and defend these nudes but there seems no doubt that they are now, as they were then, designed for the visual pleasure of rich men.

The warm South

Towards the end of the war Modigliani was sent to the Mediterranean coast by his new art dealer, Léopold Zborowski, as a precaution against increasing Zeppelin raids on Paris and also because of his worsening health. Modigliani was worried about leaving behind his well-developed network of friends and artistic accomplices, but in fact soon settled in to a new life, not least because he was accompanied by his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne.

Again he painted nothing but portraits and, deprived of the network of professional models in Paris, took to painting local adults and then a series of children. He seems to have reacted to the far brighter light of the south by using warmed Mediterranean colours and also applying the paint much more thinly, both of which make these portraits seem light and airy.

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

Children and peasants. Is there not something a little, well, twee about some of these works? (Looking it up I see that ‘twee’ is defined as ‘excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental’.)

Again compare and contrast with his contemporaries or, in this case, with the Master, Cézanne. With the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in mind, we can see how Modigliani has learned the lessons of the old Frenchman – the patches of colour, the visible brush-strokes, the steep foreshortening of the subject and backdrop, the confrontational -full-on pose, but made it somehow, well babyish. Toy-like. Here’s a Cézanne.

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

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

Comparing the two it seems to me the main difference is in the face. Not only does Modigliani use his simplified mask design, but, by this stage, he’s often painting his faces in a unified flesh tone (true of almost all the nudes) which gives them quite literally a baby-faced freshness. Again compare and contrast with the complex brushwork Cézanne has applied to the face of his old bloke with a pipe, let alone the wild blues and greens which the Fauves used in their portraits. Compared to all of them, surely Modigliania is tame.

In fact it’s only really the use of the mask motif which prevents his works toppling over into kitsch. In particular I felt it was only the blacking out of the eyes of the portraits (which gives them a weird voodoo science fiction vibe) which prevents them from turning into the kind of Modernism light paintings you see being hawked on the streets of any tourist trap European city.

Last works

The final room shows his last works, painted back in Paris after the war, depictions of more rich patrons and commissions, alongside a suite of portraits of his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, who was pregnant with their second child.

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It’s notable that the flesh tones have moved away from the warm pinks of the nudes, back towards a more ‘experimental’ colouring. But the most striking thing about these last paintings is that the almond-shaped face and swan neck are taken to new extremes. Some of the people look like giraffes.

The colouring is richer and denser than in the South of France paintings. But each work, no matter how varied the subject, is now totally identifiable as a Modigliani. Who knows how his work would have continued to evolve and develop; he was half-way towards the kind of crisp neo-classical feel which so many French artists would adopt after the war.

But we’ll never know. Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis on 24 January in 1920. In a grim note we learn that just a few days later, his mistress Jeanne, nine-months pregnant, committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of an apartment building.

This is a really enjoyable, carefully and thoughtfully curated overview of a wonderful artist, whose draughtsmanship is a joy to look at, from his earliest works, and whose mature geometric style produced painting after painting which fills the eye with pleasure.

Modigliani Virtual Reality

Towards the end of the exhibition is an ambitious innovation – a room where about ten visitors at a time can sit and have a visitor assistant clamp onto their head a kind of helmet with built-in 3-D goggles. These give you a virtual reality tour of a computer-generated recreation of Modigliani’s studio. It’s a bld new idea and a first for Tate.

Inevitably, there was a fairly long queue for this brave new digital experience, with an estimated waiting time of 25 minutes so I’m afraid I decided not to. Some of the content can be seen on the video screen outside the exhibition which is running a film about the making of the VR experience (which I’ve embedded, below).

So my advice would be to go the exhibition soon after opening (at 10am) and go straight to the queue for the VR, do it, and then go back to do the exhibition in order.

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Videos

Introduction to the exhibition by curator Simonetta Fraquelli.

Video showing how the virtual reality experience was made.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Merchandise and art

Exhibition shops are great for at least three reasons:

1. The books, posters, prints, postcards, ear rings, scarves, bags and so on are always beautifully made and genuinely tempting. I almost always buy a postcard of a favourite work to blu-tack up somewhere unexpected round the house, and always have to fight hard not to buy every book on display.

2. Exhibition shops very often shed new light on what you’ve just seen. Posters and prints in particular often make you see paintings anew. In the shop of the 2015 Inventing Impressionism exhibition, I was stunned by how brilliant the Monet posters looked. I’d just been looking at the same works a few moments earlier and, in the flesh, six feet tall, they’d seemed scrappy and unfinished. Reproduced into smooth flat prints and reduced to a foot or so in size, the images had been condensed and made consistent, all the scrappy brushstrokes and exposed canvas were elided out of it, they looked wonderfully bright and lively and fresh and airy.

Claude Monet, Poplars in the Sun (1891) The National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo P.1959-0152 © National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Poplars in the Sun (1891) by Claude Monet © National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Next to them was a reproduction of a painting of the Thames by a Victorian realist painter which I’d really liked in the show. But once it was condensed and reduced down to print size, it was so dark that you could hardly make out any of the details which had added such mystery and atmosphere to the original.

St Paul's from the Surrey Side (1871-3) by Charles-François Daubigny © The National Gallery, London

St Paul’s from the Surrey Side (1871-3) by Charles-François Daubigny © The National Gallery, London

It was then that I had the simple insight that maybe one reason the Impressionists continue to be so all-conqueringly popular with gallery-going audiences and in middle-brow culture is because their light and bright and colourful works reproduce so well to a household scale – looking great as posters, prints, on biscuit tins, fridge magnets, jigsaws, cups and saucers and tea towels and oven gloves and so on – accommodating perfectly to our comfortable consumer society.

Popularity = reproducibility

3. Exhibition shops refute at a stroke all the utopian rhetoric from the curators of modern art shows claiming that such and such works are ‘revolutionary’, ‘subversive’ or undermine governing narratives of this or that.

Whatever the artists’ original intentions may have been and however revolutionary the works may have been in their day, even the most literally ‘revolutionary’ art, even icons of Lenin and Marx themselves, devoted to the violent overthrow of capitalism, are nowadays reproduced as posters and prints, lovingly listed in lavish coffee table books, adorn cushions, pillows, scarves and handbags, their original intent utterly assimilated into a world of bourgeois fashion and comfort.

That is where we are, that is who we are, that is what we are – denizens of the most advanced consumer capitalist culture in the world.

Whatever you throw at it, whatever you say about it, however much you despise and revile it – consumer capitalism eats it up and sells it back as t-shirts.

And this is the lesson of the exhibition shop.

Art show merch

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

A loan from the Burrell Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Degas and pastels

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

Innovations

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

1. Subject matter

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

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

2. Private moments

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

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

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

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

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

3. Unconscious movements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Composition

Several points about the compositions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So maybe their incompleteness is part of the fleetingness.

5. Colour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S.

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

Video

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Monochrome: Painting in black and white @ the National Gallery

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

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

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

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

Academic

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

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

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

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

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

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

The effect of black and white

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

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

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

A history of black and white

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

The colour of Christian penitence and mortification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparatory sketches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trompe l’oeil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prints

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

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

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

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

The impact of photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New monsters / Abstraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Room for one colour

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

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

Some general points

Colour, actually

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

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

Installation view of RWA 165

Installation view of RWA 165

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

Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The video

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

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


Related links

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Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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