Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Käthe Kollwitz @ the British Museum

This is a really brilliant exhibition. Kollwitz is a genius and this is a searing, dazzling, breath-taking exhibition of 48 of her best prints – and it is FREE! You should go see it.

Biography

Kollwitz (1867–1945) was the fifth child of Karl Schmidt, a radical Social democrat, and Katherina Schmidt, daughter of a freethinking pastor. She was born and raised in Koenigsberg in East Prussia. Two key points: her family were committed socialists who exposed her to the social realist novels of Zola et al, as well as discussing the social issues of the day – supported her through her art school studies.

The result was that her work, throughout her life, was devoted to the suffering of the poor – especially poor women – and a particular interest in moments of rebellion and uprising and social conflict.

Plate 2 Death from A Weavers Revolt (1893-97) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Berlin

After studying art in Berlin and Munich, in 1891 Kollwitz moved permanently to Berlin, when she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor. They lived near his practice in a poor working class district of the rapidly growing city. They were both politically committed special democrats, and it shows, God it shows, in a series of dark, raw and intense prints showing the harrowing poverty and squalor of working class life.

Between 1908 and 1910 she made fourteen drawings in this realist style for the satirical magazine Simplicissimus, on social realist themes such as unemployment, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy and suicide, including this one.

Unemployment (1909) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

One of the captions refers to the plasticity of her style, the superb modelling of faces and bodies. In a work like Unemployment this comes over in the dramatic contrast between the faces of the two toddlers and the baby on the bed, and the sparseness and vagueness of other areas of the composition, notably the hard troubled faces of the two adults. These key areas are soft and sensitive, while the surroundings – and the brooding figure on the left – feel harsher, darker, rebarbative.

As early as 1888, aged 21 and at the Women’s Art School in Munich, she had realized her strength was not as a painter, but a draughtswoman, and the strength and shape and depth of all the compositions here is wonderful. Thus her increasing focus on the techniques of etching, lithography and woodcuts.

Series

Paintings are often one-off affairs which can be sold at a premium (especially if commissioned by a rich patron), but the effort required in making prints, etchings and woodcuts has meant that artists often conceive of them as series, to be produced and sold in limited runs, and maybe collected into books.

The Weavers – Six prints, 1897-8

Kollwitz based her first series on a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, The Weavers, which dramatized the oppression of the Silesian weavers in Langenbielau and their failed revolt in 1844. She produced three lithographs (Poverty, Death, and Conspiracy) and three etchings with aquatint and sandpaper (March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End). See the grim image which opens this review. When they were exhibited in 1898 they made her name.

The Peasants War – Seven prints, 1902-1908

Kollwitz’s second major cycle of works was the Peasants War which occupied her from 1902 to 1908. This was another rebellion of the workers, in this case the maltreated peasants who rose up against their feudal lords in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, in 1525, and were eventually defeated in a bloodbath.

Plate 5 Outbreak from The Peasants War (1902-3) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

At first sight there is a tremendous dynamism in this image, with the figure of the woman rousing and encouraging the men dominating the foreground. Looking closer I was struck by the ape-like clumpiness of many of the peasants – look at the man on the right. This heaviness, this simian Neanderathal appearance, seems to bespeak their status as oppressed serfs, as people who are in fact, barely human, so low have they been degraded.

All the images are tremendous but I was thrilled by Arming in the vault where she uses dark and light to convey the sense of a great horde of proletarians emerging from the underworld, armed to the teeth, ready to cause havoc.

And there is a detailed and devastating print titled simply Raped which shows the foreshortened body of a woman lying amid dead leaves in an orchard or garden, wearing a skirt but her hard peasant’s feet and calves and knees towards us, while lost in the overhanging trees, her young son looks down at her ravaged body. Note how the woman’s head is set at an unnatural angle, lying back into the leaves.

Sensuality

But alongside the historical-political series, Kollwitz also produced images of startling sensuality. They date from the early 1900s after she had made several trips to Paris and been amazed at the colourfulness and vivacity of its streets and social life as well as its brilliant Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. The experience inspired experiments in sensual and also with colour. This female nude is stunning. I found the pinpoint accuracy of the draughtsmanship breathtaking.

Female nude seen from the back with green shawl (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Self portraits

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography, of which about 50 are self-portraits. The wall labels tell us that she also kept extensive diaries and wrote many letters describing and analysing her own feelings, her art and career.

One wall of the show is devoted to half a dozen or so self-portraits which showcase her tremendous draughtsmanship and accuracy, along with a deep brooding gaze, and the ability to capture mood and personality to a spooky extent. She is as harsh and unforgiving on herself as she is on her grim peasants and mourning mothers. What technique! What a godlike gift for capturing the intensity of the human soul!

Self Portrait (1924) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Great War

Then Europe went to war and her youngest son, Peter, aged 18, volunteered, marched off, and was killed in October 1914. The suffering of poor mothers had been a constant topic of her social-realist work, and – eerily enough – a decade earlier she had created this haunting image of a mother cradling a dead son, for which she had herself modelled, holding the self-same Peter as a seven-year-old boy.

Woman with dead child (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

In fact the exhibition contains three of the eight working versions of this work, which demonstrate how she created, modelled and evolved her way towards the final image, a fascinating insight into her technique.

The War series – Seven woodcuts, 1922-23

The loss of her son, and the slow strangulation of Germany caused by the Allied blockade, the loss of so many sons and husbands, as well as the gradual impoverishment of the entire nation, burned and purified her art to its essence, resulting in the scathing series of woodcuts she titled simply War.

God! How searing and blistering are her stark woodcut prints of mourning mothers and starving people, carved out of what look like blocks of coal, or ancient fossilised trees, images which reach right down into the roots of the earth, deep into the lineage of human experience.

All the light and shade, the modelling and depth and (sometimes brutal) sensuality of the earlier works has been burnt away in the fires of war. Now Anguish speaks in stark flat images dominated by lignite black, from which lined and haggard faces emerge like nightmares.

Plate 7 The People from the War series (1922) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

All seven of the War prints are here – The Sacrifice, The Volunteers, The Parents, The Widow I, The Widow II, The Mothers, and The People – ranged along the opening wall, bringing a new visual intensity to her approach.

It’s that emotional intensity and the stark black and white of the images which leads some histories to group her with the German Expressionists, except that the Expressionists were mostly a pre-war movement, and Kollwitz’s pre-war images had been much more smooth and naturalistic, as we have seen.

In fact Kollwitz went on producing work into the 1930s and indeed up till her death, in 1945. Her last great series of prints was the Death cycle of the mid-1930s.

Death Cycle, Eight prints, 1930s

Her last great cycle rotated around the figure of Death and consisted of: Woman Welcoming Death, Death with Girl in Lap, Death Reaches for a Group of Children, Death Struggles with a Woman, Death on the Highway, Death as a Friend, Death in the Water, and The Call of Death.

It marks a return to lithographs, with their ability to give depth and shade, unlike the medieval starkness of the war woodcuts. And also a return of the Neanderthal or simian quality which recurs throughout many of the harsher works, gaunt images of creatures who are barely human, with thick, knotty hands and feet. Big, clunky hands and especially feet, bony feet, huge knuckled feet, used to carrying burdens and long days of physical labour, are a trademark feature of her work, even in so ‘tender’ an image as Woman holding a dead child, the knees and feet are prominent and brutal.

Plate 8 Call of Death from the Death series (1937) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

This one, Call of Death, reminded me of Holocaust or Gulag or prisoner of war imagery. Homo redux, reduced by the crimes and the atrocities of the twentieth century to a bare minimum, barely human rump. And of the great poem, Death is a Master from Germany, written at the end of the war by Paul Celan.

death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true

Summary

All of the images in this exhibition are brilliant. I honestly can’t think of another exhibition I’ve ever been to where the quality of all the works is so uniformly high. The images of peasants pulling ploughs in muddy, wet fields, with harnesses round their necks are searing.

The barely human, half-apes sharpening their scythes from the Peasants War series are terrifying.

The woodcut she made commemorating the funeral of Communist agitator Karl Liebknecht is a great piece of popular art, albeit in a dubious cause (Liebknecht wanted to bring Leninist rule to Germany, but was murdered by right-wing militias in 1919 during the chaotic street fighting which followed the collapse of the German Empire. Same year Kollwitz was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. In letters she is recorded as explaining she had no sympathy for his cause, but was moved by the huge crowds of working class mourners who attended his funeral, the class she had been depicting for decades.)

Even before the Great War she was a well-established artist in her genre, which was acknowledged by her receiving the position at the Prussian Academy immediately it ended. But between the wars she developed a reputation not only in America (land of the rich collector) but, amazingly, in inter-war China, riven by civil war and Japanese invasions, where her blistering images of the poorest of the poor peasants working the land influenced the Woodcut Movement among socially conscious artists in that vast, peasant-based country. Her Peasants War work was seen by, and directly influenced, the Chinese artist Li Hua, who founded the Modern Woodcut Society at the Guangzhou Art School in 1934.

Struggle (1947) by Li Hua © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Campbell Dodgson collection

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography. This exhibition features 48. Why these 48 and no others? Because these prints were collected by Campbell Dodgson, former Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings (1893–1932) who then bequeathed them to the British Museum in 1948. Dodgson was influenced by his colleague Max Lehrs of the Dresden and Berlin Print Rooms – Kollwitz’s first and greatest champion – and acquired as many of her works as he could.

And then donated them to the museum. And now all 48 are on display here, along with generous picture captions and labels which give full explanations of her life and work and the motivation and process behind each one of these wonderful works. She is a really great, great artist. This exhibition is FREE. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Death and woman (1910) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum


Related links

Germany between the wars

Art and culture

History

Victorian poverty and violence

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light @ the National Gallery

This is the first UK exhibition in over a century of the painter who came to be known as ‘Spain’s Impressionist’, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida.

The 58 works on show have been loaned from Spanish and private collections to present the most complete exhibition of his paintings outside Spain so this is a unique opportunity to see, enjoy and judge for yourself. (A third of the works are on loan from the Museo Sorolla, ‘one of Madrid’s most dazzling small museums, which occupies the house and garden Sorolla designed and built for his family’. So next time you’re in Madrid…)

Sewing the Sail (Cosiendo la vela), 1896

Almost immediately you can see why Sorolla is known as ‘the master of light’. Room two contains what is surely the most impressive painting here, Sewing the Sail, which is a miracle of evocation. You can feel the harsh Mediterranean sun, you can hear the distant susurration of the sea and the laughing chatter of the women as they work, you can smell the scents from the profusion of flowers in baskets and jars.

It is also a big painting, an enormous painting, which takes up most of one wall. You are immersed in the visual experience. Of all the paintings here this was the hardest to tear yourself away from.

But the exhibition brings together works in an impressive variety of genres, large and small. Sorolla was prolific, leaving at his death over a thousand paintings and several thousand drawings and sketches. The exhibition displays a selection of works including vivid seascapes and bather scenes, studies of architecture and formal gardens, many of the portraits from which he made a lucrative living, a whole room of social conscience paintings, and some of the images he prepared for a vast mural depicting Spanish regional customs and dress.

The Return from Fishing (La vuelta de la pesca), 1894

Room one – early works and wife

The first room includes an arresting self-portrait of a man determined to make his way in the world. There are portraits of Sorolla’s wife, Clotilde, as well as his daughters María and Elena, and son Joaquín, who became the Museo Sorolla’s first director.

Sorolla married Clotilde, the daughter of his first major patron, in 1888. She remained his favourite model and, in his many portraits, barely appears to age over the decades. The strong family connection resonates with the painting of a rose bush from Sorolla’s house which, legend has it, withered when the artist passed away and wilted away entirely when Clotilde died.

But the room is dominated by this expressive nude of his wife.

Female Nude (1902) by Joaquín Sorolla. Private Collection. Photo Joaquín Cortés

Three things. 1. He is showing off his skill with oil paint. Look at the shimmer and the shadows and the numerous different shades of pink of the presumably silk sheet she is lying on. 2. He was consciously chanelling the Rokeby Venus, a masterpiece by probably the most eminent Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Sorolla set himself up as Velázquez’s modern heir and incarnation and, like Velázquez, cultivated a wide circle of rich aristocratic patrons until he reached the social pinnacle of being commissioned to paint a portrait of the Spanish king..

3. How very, very traditional it is. By 1902 the Impressionists had been at it for 30 years, and we had had a decade or more of post-Impressionism, Gauguin, van Gogh and so on and were teetering on the brink of the Fauves with their mad garish daubs of vibrant colour. Not in Sorolla’s world. One of the features of the early rooms is the number of international exhibitions Sorolla sent his work to, and the number of prizes he won, in Madrid, Paris, all over Europe. This is the height of late-Victorian Salon art. Sorolla represents everything modern painting set out to overthrow.

Room two – social conscience

Sorolla trained in Valencia and studied in Madrid and Rome. He first won an international reputation for major works tackling social subjects. The second room focuses on the 1890s, when Spain witnessed a period of social unrest as well as the final collapse of its overseas empire.

During this period Sorolla launched his career with a series of monumental canvases depicting the realities and hardships of Spanish life. His first great success was Another Marguerite! which depicted a woman arrested for murdering her child and won great acclaim when it was exhibited in Madrid in 1892.

From there, Sorolla set about gaining an international reputation by sending his pictures to exhibitions across Europe. While Sorolla largely moved away from socially engaged subjects after 1900, the pictures had a lasting impact on the next generation of Spanish painter.

And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! (¡Y aún dicen que el pescado es caro!), 1894

Many of them are wonderful but they feel very old. A painting like this reminds me of the British artist Sir Luke Fildes who was painting grittily realistic depictions of working class life in the 1870s.

Room three – portraits

The third room shows how Sorolla positioned himself as the heir to the tradition of Spanish artists such as Velázquez and Goya, whose works he closely studied at the Prado in Madrid.

In his portraits, Sorolla often adopted their distinctive palette of blacks, greys and creams. He also sought to achieve the same psychological penetration and sense of human presence for which both painters were famous.

Lucrecia Arana and Her Son (Lucrecia Arana y su hijo), 1906

I wasn’t convinced. Like all his works I began to realise that they make a better effect the further back you stand. But I still found the three faces in this double portrait unsatisfactory. The boy’s face looks like the black eyed boys you seen in the countless kitsch paintings you can buy in sunny markets and harbours around the Mediterranean. The woman just looks flat and ugly, and the image of the painter at work in the mirror isn’t exactly inspiring.

Many of the portraits are large, portrait-shaped depictions of the grand and rich and naturally invite comparison with one of the most successful portrait painters in Europe at the time, the American John Singer Sargent who based himself in London. Here’s a characteristic Sargent joint portrait from the period.

Lady Adele Meyer and her children (1896) by John Singer Sargent

In my opinion the Sargent is better. It captures the expressions on all three faces with a kind of dainty realism, and the fabric of the woman’s dress, the son’s velvet suit and, above all, of the antique sofa she’s sitting on – all of these seem to me to be caught with a kind of shimmering accuracy which Sorolla can’t match.

Room four – the beach and sunlight

Room Four celebrates Sorolla’s love of sunlight and the sea. Having grown up by the coast in Valencia, Sorolla began after 1900 to create a substantial body of work, painted out of doors, documenting the mixture of leisure and work he witnessed on beaches close to Valencia and further down the coast at Jávea. These scenes proved hugely popular especially in the United States.

Running along the Beach, Valencia (1908) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias. Col. Pedro Masaveu

The audioguide is very thorough and comprehensive and includes several photos showing Sorolla at work on the beach, a) wearing an amazingly thick, heavy, conventional set of clothes (waistcoat, hat) in what must have been sweltering conditions b) with his canvas protected by a windbreak and the easel held down with an elaborate system of ropes and heavy stones.

In my opinion these paintings are wonderfully evocative but tread a fine line just this side of kitsch. On the one hand the use of colours in a painting like Boys on the beach is masterful – the commentary highlighted how he creates shadow out of colours, not using black, but looking at the composition as a whole I was struck by how he captures the many colours of sand, caused by the changing depths of sea water and light refracted through it.

Boys on the Beach (Chicos en la playa), 1909

But some of them topple into kitsch and once I’d though of Jack Vettriano’s immensely popular paintings of people on beaches, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I found it hard not to see the Athena Posters aspect of many of these beach works.

Mad Dogs by Jack Vettriano

Mad Dogs by Jack Vettriano

Compared to the threatening new style of the Fauves or the Cubism which was just being invented by Picasso and Braques, yes, I can well imagine that American millionaires bought this kind of thing by the yard.

Room five – studies for the mural

In 1911 Sorolla was commissioned by the Hispanic Society of America in New York to create a vast mural-like series of paintings entitled Vision of Spain.

As preparation Sorolla travelled extensively through Spain, documenting the country’s regional dress, occupations, and traditions. Local people, often provided by Sorolla with costumes and props, were depicted in situ in works which were painted between 1911 and 1919.

The exhibition includes four large-scale preparatory studies for Vision of Spain demonstrating the intensity with which the artist engaged in Spanish folk tradition. Sorolla also painted the landscapes in these regions which he then incorporated in the Hispanic Society paintings.

Bride from Lagartera (1912) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Three things:

1. The audioguide explains that, because the subjects were not professional models, they had to be painted quickly. The audioguide emphasises a) the terrific skill this required b) the way the paint was applied very quickly, often direct from the tube, in squiggles across the surface, and it’s true, if you get up close the pictures become almost abstract and, the guide suggests, exercises in pure painterliness.

2. They’re not very good, though, are they? They are not a patch on the huge realist works from the start of the exhibition, from the 1890s and, even allowing for the fact that they were rushed and are only preparatory works, still, the overall effect is negative.

3. Shame there weren’t more big colour photos of the finished mural. This does look very impressive but was only available as tiny black and white photos on the screen of the ipod-sized audioguide. Shame.

Room six – landscape and gardens

The sixth room of the exhibition is devoted to Sorolla’s views of landscapes and gardens. From a panoramic vista of the barren mountains of the Sierra Nevada glowing in evening light to the medieval towers of Burgos Cathedral under snow, Sorolla had a gift for finding the viewpoint to best communicate the atmosphere and character of a setting.

On several visits to the south, he recorded the country’s heritage in views of the gardens of the Alcázar in Seville and the Alhambra in Granada. None of these paintings pulled my daisy as much as the big realist works in room two or some of the sunlight beach scenes.

Reflections in a Fountain (Reflejos de una fuente), 1908

Room seven – family

The final room highlights Sorolla’s fascination with depicting his family in large canvases painted out of doors such as Strolling along the Seashore (1909) and The Siesta (1911).

These works are twenty years on from Another Marguerite! and And They Still Say Fish is Expensive! and Sewing the Sail, and in The Siesta in particular you can see him really exploring the possibilities of oil painting, but in a landscape saturated with light. The Impressionists often painted fog or snow, for the German Expressionists it was always stormy night-time, but for Sorolla – even when he is at his most experimental, verging on abstraction – it is always bright and dazzlingly sunny.

The Siesta (1911) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

The Siesta (1911) by Joaquín Sorolla © Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Conclusion

In June 1920 Sorolla suffered a stroke in the middle of painting a portrait which paralysed him down one side, effectively ending his career, and died on the 10th August 1923.

The downstairs exhibition space at the National Gallery includes a comfy little cinema where they were showing a fifteen-minute documentary about Sorolla, complete with extensive explanations from the show’s curator, Christopher Riopelle.

From this we learn that he was given a state funeral, as befitted the official portraitist of the king and the royal family, and one of the last public painters working in the great European tradition, before Modernism swept all that way forever.

Having walked around it a couple of times and listened to the audioguide, I couldn’t help making continual comparisons to the social realist paintings of a Luke Fildes or the much finer portraits of Singer Sargent and, on the couple of occasions Sorolla does statuesque women in bathing suits, I was immediately reminded of the much more precise and lustrous paintings of the late-Victorian Olympians like Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

But… some of the large scale paintings, notably Sewing the Sail, are really stunning, eye-opening exercise in the overwhelming power of painting, and many of the details of the beach and sunlight paintings are wonderful – there’s a way he has of capturing the fading sunlight as it’s thrown across rocks which reminds you of all the Mediterranean holidays you’ve ever had.

And his use of colour, his juxtaposition of shades and hues to create subtle visual effects, is often dazzling. The more you look, the more absorbed you become. The curator claims that ‘No one before or since has painted Mediterranean sunlight like Sorolla’ and this may well be true.

Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904) by Joaquín Sorolla. Private Collection © Photo Laura Cohen

Videos

Review by Visiting London Guide

Curator’s introduction by Christopher Riopelle.


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Klimt / Schiele @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is much more varied and interesting than the Royal Academy’s promotional material suggests. The main poster shows two female nudes with prominent nipples and, of the eight images further down the page, all but one are nudes, leading you to expect a festival of bottoms and boobs.

There certainly are plenty of nudes in the show, but there’s considerably more to it than that, and it’s the fuller, broader context which makes it so interesting and rewarding.

The pretext

Both Gustav Klimt (born July 1862) and Egon Schiele (born June 1890) died in 1918, Klimt 27 years older and much the more famous and successful figure, having developed a style which combined beautiful draughtsmanship with a fin-de-siecle and semi-symbolist fondness for placing his human figures within two-dimensional sheaths of glittering colours, most famously in 1908’s The Kiss. (Be warned: there is nothing this finished and this glamorous in this exhibition.)

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908)

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908)

Schiele was much under the older man’s influence throughout the 1900s (they first met in 1907) until around May 1910, when he himself realised he had broken through to find his own voice and style – basically Klimt unplugged, the same addiction to the human figure, to sensuous depictions of nudes, but with a ferociously modern, twisted, angular, abrasive sensuality.

To some extent, as the gallery notes make clear, this was the sensuality of poverty. Whereas Klimt ran a successful studio which won public commissions – painting complex ceiling schemes for grand buildings of Vienna’s Ringstraße, did a series of commissions for Vienna’s high society ladies and was married to Austrian fashion designer Emilie Louise Flöge who ran a successful fashion business, and so had access to all manner of sumptuous fabrics, in the latest designs, for his drawings and paintings – Schiele was barely 20 when he hit his stride, and lived in poorly furnished flats with a succession of ‘companions’, most of them even poorer than him, which is why so many of his women are wearing basic kit, stockings, a blouse, and not much else.

To mark the coincidental centenary of their deaths the Royal Academy has arranged to borrow 100 or so portraits, allegories, landscapes and erotic nudes by Klimt and Schiele from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, allowing visitors an amazing opportunity to see these powerful, skilled and stimulating works.

Six rooms

The exhibition is upstairs in the Sackler Wing of the Academy, and is divided into six rooms.

Room 1 Photos, early sketches and the Secession

Photos of Klimt as a middle aged man, in his trademark blue smock, early and very Victorian realist drawings. Next to early photos of Schiele adopting one of his art school poses.

Egon Schiele in Front of the painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’ (1915) by Johannes Fischer

Egon Schiele in Front of the painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’ (1915) by Johannes Fischer

This rooms explains Klimt’s rise to dominance of the Vienna art scene and his leadership of the ‘Secession’ of new young artists set up in 1897. There’s a Secession poster which Klimt designed, with a graceful image of Athena in 1903, next to the bitingly Expressionist picture of the selection board around a table which Schiele created for the 1918 Secession exhibition, after Klimt’s death.

Room 2 Klimt’s drawing process

This room is devoted to several sets or series of drawings Klimt made for grand allegorical projects. In 1894 he was commissioned to create three paintings to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna and chose the subject of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. On display are a series of preparatory drawings for ‘Medicine’ which he conceived as a naked woman floating in space, feet towards us.

In 1902, Klimt finished the Beethoven Frieze for the Fourteenth Vienna Secessionist exhibition, and there are a number of sketches here for female figures. And several preparatory sketches for his 1905 oil painting, Three Ages of Woman, including a strikingly drawn naked middle-aged woman.

Standing older woman in profile (study for three Ages of Woman) by Gustav Klimt (1905)

Standing older woman in profile (study for three Ages of Woman) by Gustav Klimt (1905)

The most obvious thing about all the pieces in this room is none of them are coloured: they are literally just pencil drawings on paper. They allow you to examine and admire Klimt’s technique, and to understand better his interest in the surfaces and folds of the dresses his figures (almost all women) are wearing. But they lack all the exquisite finish and colour and golden luxuriance of his paintings.

It is, therefore, quite a shock and a pleasure to walk into the next room, which is packed with Egon Schiele’s vibrant colourful paintings.

Room 3 Schiele’s drawing process

You immediately notice that all the drawings in this room are coloured, very carefully and fully coloured. And I noticed that the strong angular outlines of Schiele’s figures are emphasised by often being drawn in black crayon as opposed to weak pencil. As if this wasn’t enough some of the most striking figures are outlined with a rough swathe of white gouache, which really makes them leap off the page. Exemplified in this nude.

Female Nude (1910) by Egon Schiele

Female Nude (1910) by Egon Schiele

Female nude also epitomises other Schiele traits:

  • the angularity of the anatomy – look at the painfully pointed hip and shoulderbone
  • the uncomfortableness of the pose – what’s happened to her right arm?
  • the attention to the hand which is long and heavily jointed, looking like a four-legged spider crawling up her side
  • the unashamed bluntness of the loins with their pubic hair
  • and the use of colour not so much to describe as to highlight and bring out the composition

The guide makes a central point:

Schiele frequently used watercolour and gouache in his works on paper, but rarely to create three dimensional modelling. Colour is employed expressively or as a graphic compositional device, similar to Klimt’s division of decorative surface pattern in his paintings.

Not all, but a number of the Klimt sketches in the previous room sketched in the face and body shape merely in order to allow him to create the characteristic series of whorls and geometric shapes across the fabric of women’s skirts and dress which obviously fascinated him. By contrast Schiele’s colours don’t even and smooth out, but create dramatic highlights which leap out of the image.

Not only is the shock of walking into this room like watching colour TV after black and white – it is also by far the most varied in subject matter.

Thus Schiele was arrested in April 1912 when a thirteen-year-old girl who had sought protection in the house he shared with his unmarried partner and model Wally Neuzil, was tracked down by her irate father. He was arrested on charges of seduction and abduction and ended up spending 24 days in Neulenbach prison before the case was dismissed. The exhibition displays five of the drawings and paintings he made during this brief incarceration, one is a full-body self-portrait, but four are of the interior of the prison and his cell. I liked the one of a chair with some handkerchiefs and a green scarf (?) draped over it.

Beside these were two striking and dynamic architectural studies of houses, showing how well Schiele’s strong black lines bring out the architectonics of anything, be it body or building. Alongside these a set of landscapes. I never knew Schiele painted landscapes, they tend to be eclipsed by the explicit nudes.

Field landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) 1910 by Egon Schiele

Field landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) 1910 by Egon Schiele

This reproduction doesn’t bring out how bright and vivid the greens of the field are. And next to these landscapes was a set of three drawings of chrysanthemums. Again, I had forgotten that Schiele made many flower studies.

White chrysanthemum by Egon Schiele (1910)

White chrysanthemum by Egon Schiele (1910)

Klimt may, for all I know, be the finer artist of the two, but in this exhibition, in this selection of their works hanging side by side, Schiele comes over as vastly more colourful, inventive, varied and dynamic.

Room 4 Klimt portraits

By the 1890s Klimt was a sought-after portrait painter for society ladies. He made his rich women appear tall, statuesque, elegant, often with fashionable dresses buttoned right up to the chin, and a carefully styled bouffant haircut. In the ten or so pencil drawings and sketches for portraits presented here, Klimt is obviously interested in the overall shape and, in some of them, the potential of the dresses to be turned into his trademark fantasias of geometric shapes and mosaics. This approach is exemplified in this study for the sumptuous portrait he eventually painted of Frau Fritza Riedler. Note the absence of eyes. it is the patterns and shapes of the dress which take up most of the space, with just enough outline of face to make it human.

Study for a painting of Fritza Riedler by Gustav Klimt (1904)

Study for a painting of Fritza Riedler by Gustav Klimt (1904)

The curators have artfully hung this eyeless sketch next to a penetrating study by Schiele of his younger sister, Gerti Schiele. You immediately see the difference: the brim of the hat and the ruff around her chest are confidently sketched in, but the rest of the body, for example her right arm, just tapers away. Schiele’s real interest is obviously in the intense black eyes of the sitter, which are staring right out at you.

They are hung right next to each other and looking from one to the other you realise that The Klimt is a design, whereas the Schiele is an intensely felt portrait.

Gerti Schiele by Egon Schiele (1911)

Gerti Schiele by Egon Schiele (1911)

Maybe the difference can be explained in terms of tradecraft – the Klimt sketches were never to be intended to be anything more than preparations, try-outs for what would be the very labour-intensive process of creating finished luxury paintings. By contrast, the Schieles are what they are, not many of them are preparations for paintings, they are pencil, crayon, gouache and watercolour works in their own right.

Maybe there’s a sociological explanation: Klimt could afford to make numerous preparations of expensive works for rich clients; Schiele never became that financially successful, so most of his portraits are of people he knew, models, lovers, friends and family, so they come out of more intimate and close relationships. Maybe that explains why almost all the Schiele knock you for six.

Room 5 Schiele portraits

This is really rammed home in the room devoted to Schiele portraits which, once again, demonstrates his versatility. There are one or two nudes but the emphasis is on his ability to capture the features and character of perfectly respectable, fully dressed citizens of Vienna. There’s a little set of portraits of middle-class men like Heinrich Benesch, the railway inspector who became an important collector of Schiele’s work.

One wall displays a set of portraits of his family, including touching portraits of his sister, his mother and his father-in-law. Set amid these is a staggeringly evocative face of his wife, Edith Harms, who he married in 1914. The guide tells us a bit of gossip about their marriage, namely that nice, middle-class Edith insisted Schiele cut off all contact with his working class mistress and muse, Wally Neuzil. Seems cruel. Needs must. But what remains of Edith is Schiele’s staggeringly evocative portraits of her, like the one featured here. A face, hair, a hand – and an entire personality is before us. It is a staggering testimony to what art can do.

Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)

Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)

Yet another aspect of Schiele’s vision is displayed across two walls of this room – his numerous, inventive and varied self-portraits. Klimt never did a self portrait in his life, Schiele did hundreds. Maybe, again, partly out of poverty. But mostly because, whereas the Symbolist, fin-de-siecle art of the 1890s reached beyond itself to some secret realm trembling on the brink of revelation, the Expressionist art of the 1910s explored the self, and the fracturing of the self, into anguished fragments.

It’s an oddity or irony of the German Expressionists that so many of them considered themselves spiritual leaders, heralding a great spiritual awakening of humanity – and yet, to us, so many of their paintings look hard, heavy and anguished. Same here, with Schiele – the commentary tells us that he identified with Francis of Assissi, wrote about the artist being a spiritual leader, gave his self-portraits titles like ‘redemption’ – and yet to us they seem to anticipate the acute and anguished self-consciousness of the twentieth century, which didn’t decline after Schiele’s death, but achieved new heights of neurotic panic after the Holocaust, the atom bombs and the spread of nihilism and existentialism across mid-century Europe.

It is that tormented self-consciousness which Schiele’s countless experimental self-portraits seem to communicate to us today, not songs about birds.

Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting (1916) by Egon Schiele. Pencil and gouache on packing paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting (1916) by Egon Schiele. Pencil and gouache on packing paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

By no means all of these self-portraits are nude; the one above is the most naked and explicit. In many others he’s wearing clothes but posing in one of his characteristically agonised, ungainly stylised positions. This angularity prepares us for the last room.

Room 6 Erotic nudes

Bang! the room explodes with some of the most erotic paintings and drawings ever made. They are erotic because they are so candid. You feel like you are in the room, with a good-looking young woman who is happy to share her body with you, no shame, no false modesty, no recriminations. For me, at any rate, it’s this spirit of complete, unashamed, naked complicity which makes them emotionally or psychologically powerful.

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee (1914) by Egon Schiele. Graphite and gouache on Japan paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee (1914) by Egon Schiele. Graphite and gouache on Japan paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

But having looked carefully at all the works which precede them it is also possible to set aside their erotic charge altogether and consider them as compositions. In this respect the most successful of them vividly bring together features we’ve already noted:

  • the stylised pose, deliberately not classical, not a nude woman carefully standing so as to conceal her loins, but a real woman squatting, lying back with her legs open, gazing at the viewer, completely unembarrassed
  • the angularity of the anatomy – note the weirdly pointed hips, the visible ribs, the jagged angles around the shoulder, the accurate depiction of the lines made by the tendons of the inner thigh just next to the pubic hair, the pointed chin – the human figure as sharp angles
  • the use of colour not to describe naturalistically, but as expressive highlighting – much earlier Klimt had coloured the nipples of his nude paintings, but they were set amid an entire composition of gleaming rich colours: Schiele repeatedly uses the trick of painting the labia, nipples and lips a bright orange colour, on one level highlighting the erogenous zones, but on another making the figures almost into painted puppets, marionettes, an unsettling ambiguity

Note, also, the use of the colour green. By her breast, and armpit, and under her eyes and, the more you look at it, the more you see that Schiele has used that very unhuman colour, green, just touches and flecks of it, which… which do what, exactly? They make this woman’s body look a bit more emaciated than it already is: but the sparingness with which it’s used also makes you look closer, lean in, get drawn in.

Once I started looking, I noticed a very fleeting use of green in many of the nudes, creating just a hint of a kind of heightened, floodlit, hyper-vividness. There’s even green in the self-portrait wearing a yellow waistcoat. I’ve read scores of articles about Schiele and nudes and pornography and the male gaze and so on. It would be interesting to read just one good article about his very sophisticated use of colour.

Schiele’s nudes, hundreds of them, were notorious in his day and now are widely known and admired. I had no idea that Klimt did quite so many nudes and that, in their way, they are more sexually explicit. The wall opposite Schiele’s green-flecked nudes is covered with the detailed pencil drawings Klimt made of nubile young women naked and very blatantly masturbating.

In 1907 Klimt provided fifteen avowedly erotic drawings for a luxury edition of the Roman classic, Lucian’s dialogue of the courtesans. The title of one drawing – shown in the original pencil version and then as an illustration in a copy of the book which is on display here – says it all: Woman reclining with leg raised. She is lying on her back on a bed with one leg pulled up and back by her left arm while she is masturbating with her right hand. Art doesn’t come much more explicit than this. Although even when he’s being as rude as an artist possibly can be, it’s amusing that Klimt can’t stop himself drifting off to think about the decorative spots and patterns on the fabric she’s lying on (her dress? a blanket?)

Reclining nude with leg raised by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Reclining nude with leg raised by Gustav Klimt (1907)

The commentary suggests that, because Klimt’s nude women have their eyes closed they are somehow passive victims of the male gaze, whereas Schiele’s explicit female nudes generally have their eyes open and are often looking straight at the viewer – and so are therefore empowered, have agency etc – an issue of vital concern to female art curators.

I don’t think it’s quite that simple: it’s certainly not that a consistent rule, because some Klimt women have their eyes open and some Schiele women have theirs closed.

In my opinion the scholars are over-explaining something which is more obvious: not only Schiele’s female nudes but the male nudes and most of the fully-dressed portraits as well, are simply more powerfully drawn and more vividly coloured than any of the Klimt drawings on show here.

Klimt’s masturbating women may have their eyes closed, but more importantly (for me, anyway) – although they are just as explicit, in fact in the way they are actively masturbating, they are more explicit than the Schiele – nonetheless, they are drawn with much finer and paler lines, lines which almost fade away into nothingness, as the left leg of the model, above, dwindles from the heft of her buttock and hip down to a small foot which is merely an outline.

In other words, in my opinion, it is not the model, the human being depicted – it is Klimt’s technique or style which is passive and mute. As pencil drawings, the Klimt nudes in this final room are probably better, more accurate draughtsmanship, than the Schiele. But the Schiele erotic nudes, with their strong black outlines, weird angularities, piercing black eyes, and coloured highlights, are incomparably the more powerful and bracing works of art.

Video introduction to Schiele

By Tim Marlow, Artistic Director of the Royal Academy.

//player.vimeo.com/video/298238498


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100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake @ the House of Illustration

Quentin Blake was the moving force behind the campaign to create a gallery dedicated solely to the art of illustration, which resulted in the House of Illustration being opened in 2014.

For this reason the third and smallest of the gallery spaces in the House of Illustration is always dedicated to a small, rotating display of some aspect of Blake’s work – for example the charming exhibition of his black-and-white pen drawings inspired by Valentine’s Day, which was on display back in the spring.

However, for this exhibition Blake takes over the main gallery as well, for a major retrospective of his large, non-illustrative art in oil paints, pastels and watercolour spanning 50 years. Because – it turns out – alongside the book and other illustrations which have made his name and career, Blake never stopped being fascinated by, and painting, the human figure, mainly for his own pleasure, as this show makes abundantly clear.

Most of the works have never been seen before and I found them stunning. It’s a small, intimate space, the House of Illustration, and I felt it perfectly proportioned to bring out the intimate and often sensuous nature of these paintings.

The exhibition is hung in chronological order and the wall labels give copious insights into Blake’s working life, from his earliest years as a student in the 1950s through to the 1990s.

Room one

Room 1 explains that after finishing university Blake went back to live with his parents in Kent, commuting up to London for life studies classes once or twice a week. He tells us that he made great efforts to use shading to record the volume, balance and stance of the figures. But he also got into the habit of completing the life study and then, turning away from the model, drawing what he could remember – the essential features, as it were.

The twenty or so early pen, ink and wash drawings from the early 1960s are all of nude women in various poses, in arty studios, accompanied by potted plants, easels, chairs and sofas and, in quite a few, by birds. Uncanny to see many of Blake’s later visual motifs appearing so early.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

What comes over is the slightly scrappy or scratchy sensuousness of many of them. Naked women lying back, leaning forward, themselves painting or sketching, thinking, posing – their full creamy thighs often the most physically realised part of the image, the quickly-drawn, pointy faces a kind of counterpoint to the smoothness of the thighs – and the little pouting breasts a sort of scratchy afterthought.

Main room

When you move along to the main gallery, you are suddenly confronted by works from the 1960s. Blake had moved into his own flat in London, and now had hardboard and canvas to work on.

The change is astonishing. While the subject is still female nudes, the treatment is wild and splotchy. He now worked with commercial house painters’ brushes and you can see it in these large paintings, covered with thick sprawls and daubs of industrial paint. They are vivid and powerful but remind me a bit too much of Frank Auerbach and the other School of Mud artists, one of the few groups of artists I actively dislike.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Also in this room are smaller scale drawings of female nudes, done in with thick charcoal, with more blurring and heavy shading, than in the room of earlier work. Giving a much more full-bodied and rich visual impression.

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

The long gallery

It’s the next room, the long room in the main gallery, which really took my breath away. On all four walls and then on both sides of a central stand, are forty or so oil paints (and some pencil and wash works) from the 1970s and 80s.

As Blake explains in the very illuminating video which is shown in an alcove off to one side, illustrations are tied to a narrative and Blake has proved himself a master of illustrating a wide variety of stories.

But in this, his private work, he was able to experiment with – basically the same motif, a nude woman – in countless forms and variations, in particular experimenting with scale (some of the paintings are enormous) and, above all, experimenting with colour.

First you sketch out your human figure lying, sitting or reclining. But what happens if you paint her legs blue and her chest yellow? What happens if you use variations on one tone throughout?

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration

Installation view of 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

What happens, as he mentions in the video, if the outline all flows in one direction but then you deliberately paint bars of colour across those lines, at odds with the flow? What kind of visual and emotional responses do you get?

The answer is, in the best of them, a very strong, dynamic visual impact.

Untitled (1988) by Quentin Blake

Untitled (1988) by Quentin Blake

The results of this restless experimentation are stunning. Not all of them are great, but I found it genuinely difficult to tear myself away from a handful of what I thought were masterpieces. I wandered round the exhibition and then came back to stand in front of them again.

There are yellow figures, and orange figures (thoughtfully arranged together along the south wall, as per two illustrations above), deep mud-brown figures (in the first, Auerbach, room) – but it was in this big gallery that I was blown away by a handful of enormous nudes done in deep, dark midnight blue.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Reproduction can’t convey how huge and powerful this painting is in the flesh. Looming over the viewer, I thought it depicts a naked human figure turning and running, though the friend I went with thought it was a woman sitting in one of those groovy 1970s hanging chairs.

What do you think?

In my reading I am blown away by the a) dynamism of the pose and b) the incredible use of colour, the deep blacks and blues of the background and figure, strangely highlighted by fleeting splotches of white and green and red. What a fantastically powerful, intuitive use of raw primal colours.

Third room

The third and final room of the main gallery contains a display of work from the 1980s and 90s in which Blake brings together his different approaches to painting and to drawing. The works in this room combine line drawing with colour washes in watercolour and pastel.

They are much mellower than the oil paintings, but still full of interesting experiments with colour and the emotional impact of colour. I was very taken by a sketched nude coloured entirely in yellow, and others coloured solely by variations of turquoise.

What happens if..? What if you colour it so…? What effect does a wash of yellow along the back have…?

It’s humorous and piquant to see him handle and experiment with colour so confidently, so blithely, these watercolours are light and airy..

Two pen and watercolours by Quentin Blake

Two pen and watercolours by Quentin Blake. Photo by the author

Big blues

But it was the Big Blue Oils that had taken possession of my soul. I strolled round the small space again – sat and watched the video again, admired the early sketches again… but found myself being pulled back into the big room to stand in front of the handful of huge, midnight blue paintings – which just took me to a completely different place.

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Summary

Starting gently with early drawings which remind you of his lovely illustrations, 100 Figures: The Unseen Art of Quentin Blake then takes you on a thrilling journey into the possibilities of painting – via the thick impasto sludge of the early 60s, on towards the light yellow watercolours of the 1990s, with side dishes of thick charcoal drawings – but it is the middle years and the middle room which seemed to me to have struck a perfect balance — heavy blue oils, but handled with a lightness and vibrancy and confidence with colour which dazzle.

And which take you to a place of almost visionary intensity – wholly unexpected from the master of the airy, humorous children’s drawings which we all know and love.

What a revelation!


Related links

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Modigliani by Doris Krystof (1996)

Taschen Publishing specialise in medium-sized art books (23 cm tall x 18.5 cm wide). They’re all originally written in German, this one was translated into English by Christina Rathgeber. I picked it up for a fiver in some art shop years ago, and dusted it off and reread it to coincide with visiting the big Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern.

The text is eminently readable and it has 88 good quality colour reproductions, not just of paintings and sculptures by the man himself but of works by contemporaries like Picasso, Kirchner and Brancusi, as well as classic nudes by Titian and Giorgione, quoted to compare and contrast with Modigliani’s famous nude paintings.

It is a real visual treat just slowly flipping through the pictures and soaking them up.

Biography

The outline of Modigliani’s life is clear enough. Born in 1884 to an arty Jewish family in northern Italy (his mother translated poetry, wrote essays and book reviews), his creative tendencies were encouraged so that by age 14 he was studying at the art academy in Livorno. He studied from books and attended a life drawing class; he visited Rome and Florence and Venice where he revelled in the Old Masters. He attended the Venice Biennale of 1903 and stayed there two years.

By which point it was time to move on and he headed for the Mecca of modern artists, Paris, arriving in 1906. Quite quickly he made important friends, not least the Spaniard Picasso and the Romanian sculptor Brancusi. For the next few years he experimented with a number of styles, from Cézanne (who had died in 1906 and quickly had several exhibitions devoted to his late work) to Edvard Munch, who impressed everyone with the work displayed at the Salon d’Automne of 1908 – although he avoided the main new movement of the day, Fauvism (given its name in 1905 and which flourished for the next few years).

Similarly, Modigliani was well aware of, but avoided, the arrival of Cubism in 1908, pioneered by Picasso and Braque, which swept up many lesser talents. Instead, he pursued his core interest of depicting the human form using outlines of graceful arabesques.

From about 1909 to 1912 Modigliani devoted himself entirely to sculpture, heavily influenced by the new taste for ‘primitive’ art from Africa and Oceania which became modish from around 1905, and by his friendship with the modernist sculptor, Brancusi.

Although some of his sculptures are obviously influenced by (copies) of African fetish masks which were becoming popular in artistic circles, Modigliani was just as obsessed by the idea of the caryatid, the statue of a woman bearing the weight of a building which had been developed in ancient Greece. He produced scores of sketches and variations on this crouching, hunched-up, female shape.

Eventually Modigliani gave up sculpting, maybe because the dust was bad for his chronic tuberculosis, but his painting style was now purified of the earlier variety and experimentalism – the faces in particular from now on were all variations on the elongated, oval shape with schematic, one-line features (eyes, eyelids and mouth all drawn with a crisp elegant line) which he had perfected in the sculptures and in the numerous preparatory sketches he made for them.

He continued to paint a wide variety of portraits of friends, lovers, fellow artists, collectors and patrons, and in the middle of the Great War began to paint a series of nudes. These differ from the portraits in being really simplified – the skin tone is generally a consistent warm orange colour, and the facial features are purified down to a handful of lines. They sold well – what’s not to like?

Towards the end of the War, Modigliani was advised to head south by his dealer and set up shop in Nice, along with his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, mother of his daughter. Here he painted lots more portraits, but in a noticeably lighter style, and of ordinary people – instead of the rich and famous of Paris’s art world – of peasants, hotel cleaners, and even of children. These, along with the nudes, became his most popular images.

By 1919 he was back in Paris, and the final portraits of his mistress and patrons show a further tendency to elongate both the neck and the face even more, making each person even more of an abstract collection of lines and colours.

Modigliani died after a long decline in his health on 24 June 1920. Soon afterwards friends and acquaintances, lovers and patrons began writing their memoirs, and quite quickly the myth grew up of the handsome, charming Wunderkind artist, who endured great poverty in his undying devotion to his art. And his paintings began to sell.

The works

Early paintings

Having seen a lot of the ‘greatest hits’ at the Tate Modern exhibition, I was taken by the more out-of-the-way works included in this book, especially of the early works before he’d perfected the Modigliani ‘look’.

Sketches

From early on he developed a hyper-simplified line, which comes over in nude sketches and then very much in the sketches he made from African artefacts in the Louvre and the Museum of Ethnography.

Sculptures

He took up sculpture in 1909, nobody knows why. Perhaps because he had always revered the sculptural legacy of his native Italy, perhaps because his paintings weren’t selling, perhaps because he moved to a bigger workspace in Montparnasse, perhaps because he met Constantin Brancusi in 19090 and was hugely influenced by him. Or all of the above.

Brancusi (b.1876) had perfected a smooth highly stylised way of working in stone which anticipates Art Deco.

Modigliani’s sculptures are of two types, a squat square type, which could fit at the top of a column –

And the much-better known, highly elongated, ‘primitive’ mask like heads. Although the politically correct like to raise the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’ and the way so many of the avant-garde artists of the 1900s looked to sculptures from Africa or Oceania, the book points out that there are also strong European origins for this look, in the stunningly abstract heads carved in the Cycladic islands of Greece thousands of years BC.

Apparently he conceived of the sculptures, these stone heads, as all being together in one place, creating a kind of temple of beauty. This may partly explain their thematic unity, that they were designed to be displayed and seen as an ensemble.

Nudes

Krystof makes a simple but effective point that it’s not so much in the sculptures but in the sketches for the sculptures, and especially in the sketches of caryatids, that we see Modigliani really simplifying his technique, perfecting a way of depicting the human body entirely made up of simple, one-line, shallow curves – no sketching, and repeated lines or cross-hatching – just one pure line to create the body’s outline, another to distinguish to the two legs, meeting another curve which creates the loins, two simple curves, maybe a bit pointed, to indicate the breasts, a curve for the mouth, a long narrow triangle for the nose, two almonds for eyes – in many ways a child’s eye view of the human body.

She also makes the good point that these curves are consciously not like the focus on blocks and squares and diagonals and geometric shapes of the suddenly fashionable Cubists. It is in pursuit of shallow curves that Modigliani is at odds with the art of his own times, a one-off.

And so to the female nudes which make up about 10% of his output – about 30 nudes in total – and in their simple outlines, as well as their very simple orange flesh colouring, present a kind of cartoon simplicity and pleasingness.

He began painting them in 1916, helped by the important patronage of dealer and friend Léopold Zborowski, who lent the artist use of his apartment, supplied models and painting materials, and paid him between fifteen and twenty francs each day for his work.

The simple graceful outlines, the soft orange skin and pink nipples, the simplified facial features, and the tonal unity of the paintings (compare and contrast with the violent garish colouring of the Fauves) makes Modigliani’s nudes understandably popular even among opponents of modern art.

Krystof also takes some time to explain another reason for their sense of familiarity, the reason they seem so assimilable. It’s because the poses are often based on established classics of Western art.

Quite systematic copying or borrowing or pastiching, isn’t it?

Krystof makes another, subtler, point. In all the classic paintings above you can see the entire body – you, the viewer, are standing some way away. By contrast, all of the Modigliani nudes are cropped, at least part of the arms or legs are out of the frame – as if you were really close up to the model, not so much contemplating them as about to fall over them. Immediacy.

Portraits

But the 20 or so nudes mark a sort of apricot-coloured interlude in Modigiliani’s core activity during his final years, which was the obsessive painting of hundreds of portraits.

Krystof divides them into two categories – one of friends, lovers, patrons, fellow artists and named individuals – the other category of scores of anonymous models, peasants and children.

They are all rougher and harsher, in design and finish, than the nudes.

To get at the essence of the Modigliani approach, Krystof compares his portrait of Jean Cocteau with a portrait done at exactly the same time and place by Moise Kisling.

The immediate and obvious conclusion is the huge amount of clutter Modigliani has chucked out – the window, shutters, table, vase, stove, chair, dog and rug are all not there – and the way he has zoomed in to focus on the top half of the body to create an image which is much simpler, sparer and more intense.

Hence Krystof’s suggestion that Modigliani developed in his portraits ‘the art of omission’ (p.53)

The same technique – cropping sitters at the bust and showing no interest in the details of the backdrop – characterises many of the portraits, which are more varied and interesting than the nudes.

Flight south

In the spring of 1918 the Germans began a final offensive. Planes and Zeppelins bombed Paris and many feared the city would fall. Up to a million people fled the capital, including Modigliani and his mistress / common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, who gave birth to their daughter in 1918. The young family spent over a year in Nice and Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Modigliani painted more feverishly and intensely than ever before.

The light of the South of France lightened his palette and the texture of the paint he used, the paint is thinner. Also the local people he got to model for him lack the specificity of the Paris portraits, becoming more generic – which may account for their later popularity.

Jeanne Hébuterne

Modigliani painted at least 25 portraits of the mother of his children. Photographs of her make her look absolutely stunning, in fact she has something of the long-tressed, full-lipped beauty beloved of the pre-Raphaelites.

In his last paintings of her, the neck and face are more elongated than ever, the background painted in with lighter sketchier colours than previously.

Conclusion

This is a really handy book, containing not only nearly 90 beautiful full-colour illustrations which give you an immediate and comprehensive feel for Modigliani’s unique style, but also a more thoughtful and insightful text by Doris Krystof, than is usual for Taschen books.

Possibly my favourite portrait comes right at the end of the book, one of the few Modigliani portraits which has even a hint of feeling and emotion, in this case a self-contained, winsome sadness.


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Sargent: The Watercolours @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first UK show in nearly 100 years devoted to the watercolours of the Anglo-American artist, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

Sargent biography

Sargent was American, born to a successful Philadelphia eye surgeon, who quit his trade to live a peripatetic life travelling round the beauty spots of Europe, with wife and a growing brood of children. Sargent’s parents encouraged his artistic tendencies and supported his decision to train as an artist in Paris in the 1870s. Here he learned precise draughtsmanship and a sumptuous way with oils, though he was also attracted to the new fashion for painting in the open air which came to be called Impressionism.

In Paris Sargent painted a number of successful portraits before moving to London in the mid-1880s where he quickly established a lucrative practice as a portrait painter to the upper classes. Sargent produced some 900 oil paintings, many of them masterpieces of style and grace, as demonstrated by the recent awe-inspiring exhibition of John Singer Sargent portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.

But throughout his life he continued to paint watercolours for his own pleasure and, once his London practice was secure, from the 1890s onwards, took a regular extended summer holiday, travelling all over the most picturesque parts of Europe and painting painting painting wherever he went.

The Lady with the Umbrella (1911) by John Singer Sargent. Museu de Montserrat. Image © Dani Rovira

The Lady with the Umbrella (1911) by John Singer Sargent. Museu de Montserrat. Image © Dani Rovira

The exhibition

This beautiful exhibition brings together a selection of some 80 of the estimated 2,000 watercolours which Sargent produced. Away from the pressurised world of his London studio and expensive commissions, the watercolours depict a relaxed and sunny world of picturesque locations – Venice, the Alps – a world of colourful locals in Italy or Spain, and of leisure ladies lounging with parasols.

It is the world of wealthy, confident Yankee ex-pats depicted in the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton, a gracious world untroubled by rumours of war, where the moneyed could travel easily and stylishly from hotel to hotel in Venice, Rome, Bologna, Corfu, maybe down into Spain, and, after a good breakfast, set out one’s easel, pin up the cartridge paper, moisten the brushes, adjust one’s straw hat, fix the brollies in place, and then start sketching with light confident pencil strokes before moving on to start building up washes of colour.

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass (c. 1910-11) Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sargent painting a watercolour in the Simplon Pass (c. 1910-11) Sargent Archive, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Architecture

Many of the watercolours give the impression of being deliberately unfinished, accentuating their light and airy effect. In fact one of the four headings into which the exhibition is divided is ‘Fragments’, although it is intended to have a different meaning. The curators use it to draw attention to the way Sargent is deliberately experimental in the way he frames and focuses many of the watercolours, cropping the subject, viewing it from unusual angles. Sargent’s oil portraits had to be pretty conventional, showing the key parts of the body of the sitter in a well-defined and well-decorated space – take one of my favourites, the staggering Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer in Tate Britain.

By contrast, in many of the watercolours Sargent deliberately focuses on details, cropping and cutting off, zooming in on unexpected aspects. This is particularly true of the depiction of buildings which dominate the first few rooms. He is interested not in the whole thing but of significant details and aspects, which he renders luminous with his amazing technique.

Rome: An Architectural Study (c. 1906-7) by John Singer Sargent. Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC

Rome: An Architectural Study (c. 1906-7) by John Singer Sargent. Museums & Galleries, City of Bradford MDC

The curators point out the influence of photography which by the turn of the century had pioneered all kinds of ways of cropping and focusing. I love draughtsmanship and all lines, firm clear lines, so something in me warmed to all of the architectural paintings. Venice is the prime location for these, many of them ‘taken’ from low on the waterline, providing a gondola’s-eye view of the famous crumbling palazzos and churches. a) It’s a question of angle but b) also of the play of light on water.

Light on water is a perpetual challenge to a painter and water is a secret thread which connects many of the works here of ostensibly different subjects – portraits, landscapes, cityscapes and so on. There are lots of boats in harbours. Or streams in the mountains. Or lakes. His depiction of Palma harbour is an amazing attempt to capture the really dazzling, blinding white light of the Mediterranean midsummer noon, shimmering on the blue water.

Palma, Majorca (1908) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Palma, Majorca (1908) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Of the six rooms here one is devoted to the subject of ‘Cities’, but in fact of the 13 paintings in the room, 11 are of Venice. Venice Venice Venice. Light on water, on aging stone, the detail of columns and porticos, friezes and balustrades. There are several rather touristy paintings of gondoliers punting their boats along canals, the spume of the waves highlighted with white impasto.

But there are plenty more of buildings, stone catching the reflections of water, and a moment’s reflection suggests that Venice combined the two great subjects, very classical monumental architecture, and shimmering surfaces of water.

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1904-9) by John Singer Sargent © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (c. 1904-9) by John Singer Sargent © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. Photo: Catarina Gomes Ferreira

One of my favourites was this dazzling depiction of a grand baroque statue in Bologna: it demonstrates several characteristics – it is cropped (you can’t see either the top of the statue which apparently is a huge statue of Neptune, or the sides of the bowl) – it shows fascination with light on different surfaces, specifically the aged stone walling, the bronze statues and a slender line of acquamarine water – it is somehow both monumental and light and airy – and the casual pink washes give the sense of the background architecture with a wonderful casualness. It is often the bravura confidence of the backgrounds as much as anything which fills you with a sense of respect and awe at his ability.

The Fountain, Bologna (c. 1906) by John Singer Sargent. Private Collection

The Fountain, Bologna (c. 1906) by John Singer Sargent. Private Collection

Boats

Not everything is genius, however. I found the exhibition a mixed bag, with several startlingly brilliant images in each room, but also a fair amount of average or so-so works. Maybe this is because the standard of all of them is so high that you just accept it and quickly take it for granted.

In the earlier rooms I surprised myself by not liking so much his depictions of boats. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I think I want my lines to be firmer and straighter, to bring out the toughness of lines to be found in rigging, the geometric complexity and angularity. There were several showing ships in a dry dock and one of some mill machinery (The Mill, Arras), but, for me, they lacked the rigour of the modernism which was to take the world by storm a generation later, when art found a language for machinery in modernist painting and social realist photography. Sargent’s ships are too soft for me.

Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor (c. 1904-07) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Italian sailing Vessels at Anchor (c. 1904-07) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Some of the scenes of classic tourist destinations had a touristy tweeness; they are the kind of painting you actually find on sale in the streets of Venice, being hawked by street vendors. Depicting sweet peaceful scenes but lacking any oomph.

Loggia, View at the Generalife (c. 1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Loggia, View at the Generalife (c. 1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Landscapes

I thought the landscapes were his weakest works. Sargent developed a routine summer itinerary from the late 1890s through to the start of the Great War: each vacation began with a spell in the Alps, then on to Venice, Rome, Bologna, maybe to Corfu. He visited Spain several times and even went on a Middle Eastern tour, as research for a historical mural he was painting back in the States. Everywhere he went, painting painting painting.

A Glacier Stream in the Alps (c. 1909-11) by John Singer Sargent. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

A Glacier Stream in the Alps (c. 1909-11) by John Singer Sargent. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

If you Google ‘John Singer Sargent landscape‘ you can surf through hundreds of images, many of them stunning. But some of the ones on display here were, I thought, weak. The Glacier stream (above) highlights some of those weaknesses – the perspective seems out, none of the details, of rock or water, are very convincing, and the human figure is worse. It was just as well the show included some of the weaker works: it made you realise Sargent wasn’t a god, he had his off days like other people.

That said, one of the best works in the show was a quiet but absorbing study of stones by a stream. It may not look much reproduced on a screen, but the closer you looked the more uncannily brilliant it became, you could touch each individual rock, feel the soggy sand bordering the stream. The brown blotches of heather in the background seemed perfectly judged. If I had a million pounds, I’d buy this one.

Bed of a Torrent (c. 1904) by John Singer Sargent. Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger

Bed of a Torrent (c. 1904) by John Singer Sargent. Royal Watercolour Society, London. Image © Justin Piperger

People

The final room is devoted to watercolours with people in them and there is a wide variety of settings. There are Bedouins in Arabia, gondoliers in Venice, Spanish street singers (this latter I find rather disturbing).

Blind Musicians (1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Blind Musicians (1912) by John Singer Sargent. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

There are ladies in billowing skirts lounging by streams, a kind of quintessence of ease and relaxation.

A Turkish Woman by a Stream (c. 1907) by John Singer Sargent © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A Turkish Woman by a Stream (c. 1907) by John Singer Sargent © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There’s a number of so-so studies of male nudes, smudgy faces and black loins. Again, if you Google ‘John Singer Sargent nudes‘ you can see scores of marvelous charcoal and pencil studies of males nudes online. The male nude watercolours on display here aren’t so good.

What did stand out for me was a trio of genius watercolours. One was of his sister, Emily. She was a painter in her own right. There’s a small display case of photos of the man himself, with friends, and of Emily and she looks a very starchy character, dressed in dense Victorian black. She travelled everywhere with a ‘companion’, a Miss Eliza Wedgwood, and there is a stunningly good watercolour depicting Emily painting, paintbrush in mouth, while spinsterish Miss Wedgwood looks off to the side. The character in Eliza’s face is wonderful; and the calm companionableness of the pair is like a novel in paint.

There are several depictions of soldiers. Sargent spent the early years of the Great War back in the States, but was recruited to become an official British war artist at the request of the Prime Minister himself. In the landscape room there are so-so depictions of ammunition dumps which don’t really have much to them, certainly none of the sketches compares to his studied masterpiece, Gassed (1919), they’re not meant to. But there are a couple of studies of soldiers from a Highland regiment, wearing kilts, at rest.

Highlanders Resting at the Front (1918) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Highlanders Resting at the Front (1918) by John Singer Sargent © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

But the one I would like to own is this fantastic study of two soldiers pinching apples in an orchard. The light on the main figure’s helmet, and on the back of his jacket and top of his kilt, is to die for.

Last of this trio was a ravishing study of a man lying naked on a bed.

This is a stunningly relaxed and liberated, redolent of holidays anywhere hot, the big wooden bedsteads, the sharp tan lines on the body, the rumpled white sheets, the cigarette casually held. And, after I’d looked at it for a while, I came to admire the nose – the use of pink and cream to model the sheeny shiny nose of someone who’s been out in the sun, it’s just one of thousands of stunning details throughout the exhibition which Sargent’s amazing eye and staggering technique capture and record forever.

Conclusion

80 out of 2,000, that’s 4% of his total output of watercolours. A surf of the internet indicates the riches among the other 96%, but these are here, now, and available to view in the flesh in Dulwich.

Close up, you can see the texture of the cartridge paper, see the skimming pencil lines he sketched out first, capturing the essence of shapes, buildings, people, rocks – and then marvel at the confidence with which he applied colour washes and highlights to create, at their best, almost magical effects, stunningly evocative and atmospheric works.

A Street in Spain (c. 1880) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

A Street in Spain (c. 1880) by John Singer Sargent © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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