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

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2017

Took the kids to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This is the 7th or 8th Summer show I’ve been to, so I know the form: of 12,000 or so works submitted by professionals and amateurs alike, some 1,200 are selected and hung in rooms arranged by different curators, picking out or choosing different themes, often with distinct wall colours to give each room a specific character.

There’s always a room devoted to architecture (the ‘room of shame’ as I call it) and one of Big Sculptures. This year there were also two room showing videos, one showing Phantom Rhapsody by Sarah Pucill and The Invisible Voice by Julie Born Schwartz. I have myself produced and directed a number of videos, and then series edited several hundred TV programmes. It never ceases to surprise me how ‘art’ videos have such low production values and use so little of the digital technology which is available. Having watched the showreels of hundreds of directors applying for TV jobs, which consist of scores of inventive clips, impactful short films, novel combinations of music and action, I’m always struck by the way art videos are so often deeply conservative and unimaginative.

And then there’s always work by the familiar Royal Academicians like Michael Craig-Martin, the Matisse-like cut-outs by Gillian Ayres, the saucy cartoonish self-portraits of Anthony Green (e.g. The Pink Lounge), evocative etchings of the Highlands and Islands by Norman Ackroyd, or the scrawny nudes by Tracey Emin – although this year Ms Emin supplied a set of smallish neon sentences spelling out phrases like ‘I Did Not Say I Can Never Love You I Said I Could Never Love You’ and ‘Never Again!’ and ‘And I Said I Love You!’. This last one can be seen through the archway in the photo below, a pink neon sentence hanging from the wall and yours for just £84,000.

View of the Wohl Central Hall featuring Petrol Cargo by Romuald Hazoume and Very Nice Ride by Paola Pivi

View of the Wohl Central Hall featuring Petrol Cargo by Romuald Hazoume and Very Nice Ride (a rotating bicycle wheel studded with peacock feathers attached to the wall) by Paola Pivi (£13,000)

Petrol Cargo is based on the scooters laden with jugs and vessels used to smuggle petrol across borders in West Africa – possibly more a piece of ethnography than art, but hey…

View of Room II featuring Untitled (Violin) by Michael Craig-Martin

View of Room II featuring Untitled (Violin) by Michael Craig-Martin RA (£120,000)

Although you can take a few minutes to read the wall label in each room which gives the ostensible aim and guiding principles the selectors used to make their selection, these would be impossible to guess from the works alone which, in each room, present much the same kind of cluttered random feel.

View of Room II showing Volute IV by Paul de Monchaux (£36,000) and Full House by Sean Scully (NFS)

View of Room II showing Volute IV by Paul de Monchaux (The bronze sculpture on the floor – £36,000) and Full House by Sean Scully RA (the big painting – Not For Sale)

My kids quickly devised a game called Find The Most Expensive Work in The Room, though this didn’t stop us just liking things we liked, such as Aeronautics by Alexander Vorobyev, bottom left and heavily channeling Paul Klee -and Frederick Cuming’s slightly disturbing Children’s Playground, Sicily. These were in Room I which was absolutely crammed with works stacked next to each other. It’s an interesting effect. This is  how the Victorians displayed their pictures without the enormous reverent white spaces we’re used to in normal exhibitions. It tends to make you make much quicker, more sweeping judgments: Yes, No, No, Yes.

Room I featuring Aeronautics by Alexander Vorobyev (botton left - £6,000) and Children's Playground, Sicilty by Frederick Cuming (bottom right - £7,200)

Room I featuring Aeronautics by Alexander Vorobyev (botton left – £6,000) and Children’s Playground, Sicily by Frederick Cuming (bottom right – £7,200)

Sometimes works catch your eye. Or the arrangement of works. So, simply having two works by Bill Jacklin RA next to each other more than doubled their impact – though both have a hint of the Jack Vettrianos about them.

Hub I (£55,000) and Umbrella Crossing IV (£35,000) by Bill Jacklin

Hub I (£55,000) and Umbrella Crossing IV (£35,000) by Bill Jacklin

Room V is dominated by Natural Pearl, a sculpture in steel by Nigel Hall RA. On the wall, at the top, to the right of the doorway, you can see two of the bright, attractive decorative works in the style of Matisse’s cut-outs by Gillian Ayres RA. These come in signed editions of 30 at £4,700 a pop.

Room V featuring Natural Pearl by Nigel Hall (£189,600)

Room V featuring Natural Pearl by Nigel Hall (£189,600)

The woman on the right in the photo is above is holding a flute of champagne. because in the centre of the largest room is a bar serving champagne among other intoxicating drinks at Royal Ascot prices. So there were lots of white middle-class people sipping champagne and considering post-colonial works such as Inheritance by British artist Zak Ové, noted for ‘his documentation of and anthropological interest in diasporic and African history’.

Inheritance by Zak Ové (£21,600)

Inheritance by Zak Ové (£21,600)

Next to this pillar are two works by Mozambique artist Gonçalo Mabunda, both called Untitled throne and made out of decommissioned weapons used during Mozambique’s civil war in which over a million people died. They’re clearly related to the famous Throne of Weapons in the British Museum made by Cristóvão Estavão Canhavato as part of the same project titled ‘Transforming Guns into Hoes’, part funded by European charities.

One chair costs £14,400 and one costs £15,000 – the kids suggested that one costs more because some of the ammo is still live – and that the only way to find out which one is to sit on them both and see which one blows up! Nothing in Art, I explained patiently to my son, is that exciting or dangerous. When curators describe a work of art as ‘dangerous’ or ‘risky’ they don’t, in fact, mean it.

Untitled thrones by Gonçalo Mabunda (£14,400 and £15,000)

Untitled thrones by Gonçalo Mabunda (£14,400 and £15,000)

In a corner of room VI were this set of figurines a little over a foot tall, each with an individual name (Taigen, Monika etc) by Japanese artist Tomoaki Suzuki and retailing at an impressive £24,000. My son calculated you could buy 480 Action Men for that price.

Taigen, Monika, Larry, Dasha, Rosie, Kadeem and Kyrone by Tomoaki Suzuki (£24,000)

Taigen, Monika, Larry, Dasha, Rosie, Kadeem and Kyrone by Tomoaki Suzuki (£24,000)

Amid so many so-so abstract paintings, I was attracted to sculptures of the human form. This one-off mannequin, a ‘unique fibre-glass sculpture, hand-painted with Dutch wax pattern, bespoke hand-coloured globe and steel baseplate’ is by Yinka Shonibure RA and titled Venus de Medici. (Hanging on the wall to the left is Métamorphose de Papillon by Abdoulaye Konaté – £35,000)

Venus de Medici by Yinka Shonibare RA (£162,000)

Venus de Medici by Yinka Shonibare RA (£162,000)

Looking into it now, after my visit, I notice that this room, Room VI, was curated by Yinka Shonibare and was probably my favourite, with half a dozen big striking sculptures.

Mūgogo - The Crossing By Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga (£17,500)

Mūgogo – The Crossing by Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga (£17,500)

When there are lots of paintings, of wildly different styles and aims, hanging cheek by jowl, it’s difficult to sort out your responses to them, or to really pay attention to each one. You tend to be attracted at a quick glance by the colour, the design, the subject conveyed (whether it’s a figurative work), and so on.

For example, the semi-abstract works on the right are probably the better pieces, but by this stage the visitor is over 750 works into the exhibition (!) so the rather exhausted eye tends to be drawn to the easier-to-process figurative images on the left.

Corner of Room VII

Corner of Room VII

In the above photo, the image of the door open into a room is Postern by Suzanne Moxhay (£895), to its right is Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (After Piranesi) by Emily Allchurch; on the right wall are Of by Elizabeth Magill (£10,000) and Baroda – Tree Of Art by Katsutoshi Yuasa (£2,500).

Room IX is dominated by a vast work by Gilbert & George, the latest in their huge stained-glass-window style works divided into panels and generally depicting crude and vulgar subjects – I am still reeling from the similarly huge works depicting turds and piss, such as Spunk Blood Piss Shit Spit (1996) which I saw at Tate a few years ago. The example here was relatively restrained Beard Speak, made up of panels containing the text of adverts stuck up in phone boxes – from the days when there used to be phone boxes.

Beard Speak by Gilbert & George

Beard Speak by Gilbert & George

I preferred two sculptures by women artists: Amy Remixed by Sarah Gwyer (£7,500): my daughter told me how much work it must have been to colour and then sew together all these sequins, beads and so on.

Amy Remixed by Sarah Gwyer (£7,500)

Amy Remixed by Sarah Gwyer (£7,500)

And, nearby, a wonderful sculpture of an old sailing ship made from fake and real pearl necklaces, bracelets and tiaras, Wing Wo by Ann Carrington (£31,560) maybe a reference to the gold and precious stones so often transported across the seas in the high period of piracy in the 17th century.

Wing Wo by Ann Carrington (£31,560)

Wing Wo by Ann Carrington (£31,560)

I was intrigued enough by this to search the internet for an explanation of the name.

Luckily the final room, the Lecture Room felt much airier and spacious, a big room with a manageable 20 works, including Und Du Bist Maler Geworden by Anselm Kiefer (NFS), Painting For B by Secundino Hernández (NFS) and two bright abstract works by Fiona Rae RA, She Pricked Her Finger Cutting the Clouds (NFS) and Many-Coloured Messenger Seeks Her Fortune (NFS).

View of the Lecture Room including, from left to right, Und Du Bist Maler Geworden by Anselm Kiefer, Painting For B by Secundino Hernández, and She Pricked Her Finger Cutting the Clouds and Many-Coloured Messenger Seeks Her Fortune by Fiona Rae RA

View of the Lecture Room including, from left to right, Und Du Bist Maler Geworden by Anselm Kiefer, Painting For B by Secundino Hernández, and She Pricked Her Finger Cutting the Clouds and Many-Coloured Messenger Seeks Her Fortune by Fiona Rae RA. The sculpture is Bumps In The Road by Huma Bhabha

So many ways of seeing and being and expressing and depicting – quite bewildering. It is worth commenting that it is in many ways more satisfying to view works via the online search portal.

Seeing works in isolation like this helps you to:

a) notice them at all among the scrum and hubbub of the packed walls displays
b) dwell on their merits

It’s beyond the energy of most gallery visitors to pay close attention to over 1,000 art works. There are 48 just in this photo below, and it shows less than half a room. It dawns on me that it may be a good idea to spend some time scrolling through the works online, deciding what you like, and only then visit the exhibition to see them in the flesh…

Lots of pictures

An awful lot of pictures

 


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950 @ the British Museum

This is a lovely exhibition and it is FREE.

Go into the main entrance to the British Museum, walk through the Great Court round the side of the shops, on through room 24 with its colourful displays of tribal artifacts, and through to the double staircase right at the back. Walk up, or take the lift, to the 4th floor where you come to the modern glass doors and darkened spaces of rooms 90 and 90a, which are devoted to changing displays of the Museum’s vast collection of prints and drawings.

These rooms are currently hosting the first ever exhibition devoted to landscape drawings and watercolours by British artists from mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century – Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950.

The poet Laurence Binyon worked as a curator at the BM and – apparently – personally reviewed every watercolour in the BM’s collection in order to create its watercolour catalogue, work which led to his 1933 book English Water-Colours. There’s a quote from him on a wall label saying that English watercolours of the period showed ‘no neat or orderly progress… [but] an array of very diverse and individual artists.’

That is very much the impression given by the 125 works on show – they can be grouped into periods and styles up to a point, but the ultimate impression is of range and diversity. And eminence. Many of the greatest artists of the era produced notable watercolours, including Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones, Rossetti, John Singer Sargent, Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.

The exhibition’s title is borrowed from the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson’s 1949 collection of essays, Places of the Mind. The general idea is that every landscape drawing is as much a construct of the mind and imagination of its creator as a depiction of an actual ‘place’.

Given the title I was surprised that some of the works weren’t in watercolour at all, but included other techniques on paper – for example, the use of bodycolour, pastel, chalk and pen and ink.

Victorian market

There was a massive and lucrative market for watercolours during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Artists whose names are now mostly forgotten made fortunes selling exquisitely detailed depictions of the grand scenery of Scotland, Snowdonia and the Lake District to the northern barons of the Industrial Revolution. Very broadly speaking the Victorian watercolours could be divided into Sublime Landscapes, and quite often rather cheesy depictions of a fantasy version of Rural Cottage Life.

N.B. Where possible I have linked images to their pages in the British Museum Collections website. Click on the image to see a bigger version. Click on the section titled ‘Curator’s comments’ to read detailed comments on the artist and work.

The Sublime i.e. Scotland, Wales, the Lake District

John Ruskin said artists must be true to nature, walk with nature, study nature, and so on. He was one of many tributaries into the Great Victorian Idea that the landscape contained noble, spiritual, religious truths. Take the View on the River Teme, Ludlow (1873) by George Price Boyce. The depiction of dark heather or rock interspersed among the greenery behind the angler reminds me of the same effect in William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (1852). Boyce knew and was friendly with some of the PRBs.

View on the River Teme, Ludlow, Shropshire (1872–73) Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

View on the River Teme, Ludlow, Shropshire (1872–73) Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

  • A Scottish farm (1853) by William Henry Millais, brother of John Everett Millais, thus close to the Pre-Raphaelite circle.
  • Snowdon (1856) by David Cox, a prolific painter of the landscape of North Wales. The label picks out the rough manner of the paintwork, which certainly gives it a kind of virile strength. Cox gave lessons to young artists sketching in the area, such as George Price Boyce and Alfred William Hunt whose work is displayed nearby.
  • Dolwyddelan castle (1857) by Alfred William Hunt
  • Rydal Falls by Arthur Croft (1865) Croft was known for his depictions of the Alps, the classic setting of Romantic picture-making. The highly stippled effect gives a slightly blurred impression and makes it feel more dated than some of the other Victorian works. A similar affect to the kind of would-be-antique prints you get in a certain type of country pub.
  • View near Cotehele, Cornwall (1868) by William Frederick Yeames. It captures the distinctive feel of sunlight coming through thick cloud cover, the veiled light itself reflected silver in the river water. This silver light caused by dense overcast is, I think, a characteristic of the English landscape – compared to the dazzling blues of the Mediterranean.
  • Gordale Scar, Yorkshire (1877) by Arthur Severn. It’s blurrier than it first appears, because of the lack of hard outlines. Note the pattern or rhythm of shadow.
  • A sheep farm on the Duddon, Windermere (1891) by Hubert Henry Coutts. An oddly and unusually bright orange palette among so many images of green and brown.

Rural idylls

It’s easy enough to claim that the new wealthier Victorian middle class had a taste for nostalgic pretty-pretty images of idealised rural life. It’s also easy enough to dismiss them as cheesy kitsch. As I’ve got older I’ve tended to overlook the wish-fulfilment aspects of the images and grown a respect for the tremendous artistry and craftsmanship involved. Take The Old Bowling Green (1865) by John William North. This is a masterpiece of accurately rendered detail, given focus by the conversation of the lady and rural worker at right – a pair of Hardyesque star-crossed lovers, maybe? – with an added layer of sentiment given by the little child sitting forlorn in front of the game of bowls. Maybe her mother/maid has abandoned her to chat to the swain?

'The Old Bowling Green’, Halsway Court, Somerset (1865) by John William North. Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

‘The Old Bowling Green’, Halsway Court, Somerset (1865) by John William North. Watercolour with bodycolour © The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Potato Digging in the Kitchen Garden (1871) by William Small – this is another miracle of fine detail. I enjoyed the way the woman carrying the trug is having to lean her body to the right to counter-balance the weight. Hard to see are the numerous fine white strands of dessicated grass which are poking out along the borders of the vegetable patch, just as they do in my garden come high summer.
  • Cowdray cottage (1890s) by Helen Allingham. One of the many saccharine images of the cottages, gardens and people Allingham made of the area of mid-Sussex where she lived. Allingham was the first female artist to be elected to the Royal Watercolour Society. Cheesy but brilliant. I love the detail of the woman in the road hitching up her skirt a little and the detail of both women’s laced boots.
  • Washing day (1892) by Walter Langley. Langley moved to Newlyn in Cornwall where he helped establish an artists’ colony and tried to depict the harsh lives of the locals fishermen and farmers. The detail of the roof tiles and jugs is breath-taking. But overall it is the striking use of shadow covering all the human figures which is remarkable.

The exotic

The British have always been great travellers, no doubt partly to escape the grim weather of their own grey and drizzly islands. During the eighteenth century it became more or less obligatory for artists to go on the ‘Grand Tour’, which took in the sublimities of the Alps and climaxed amid the ruins of Rome.The nineteenth century saw all kinds of variation on this theme.

  • Choropiskopos, Corfu (1856) by Edward Lear. What strikes me about this beautiful work is the way it contains two completely different styles: the mid and far distance are drawn in with immaculate draughtsmanship and a multitude of lines suggesting slopes and foliage; but the foreground with its rougher splodges of golden yellow and green colour, and the dryness of the brush revealing the grain of the brushstroke at, say, bottom left, suggest a wildly different aesthetic – they could be by Minton or Sutherland a hundred years later.
  • Karnak (1868) by Henry Stanier. Note the yellow highlight stone. And the shadows.
  • Bay of Salamis and Piraeus from Xerxes’ seat (1880) by William Simpson. This is larger than the reproduction suggests, with a quite breath-taking topographical accuracy of hills and horizons, covered in the pale water blues.

Personally, as the years go by, I dislike these kinds of subjects. The artists were pretty harmless tourists but, still, they were often touring round countries held by the British Empire, and I have a slight nagging feeling of cultural imperialism about them.

Impressionism 1890s

Of course the last decades of the 19th century saw the birth of the modern concept of an ‘art movement’. The Pre-Raphaelites had evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement (1880), which paralleled the rise of the Aesthetic Movement and Art for Art’s Sake. On the continent French Impressionism came to prominence during the 1870s. As the names suggest these movements all reflected a movement away from strict linear draughtsmanship and towards vaguer softer outlines which tried to capture the effect of light and dark.

  • Amsterdam nocturne (1883) by James McNeil Whistler
  • Street scene, Venice (1890) by Hercules Brabazon Brabazon. Using the soft washes and blobs of colour available in watercolour to create a very impressionistic image.
  • Torrent in Val d’Aosta (1907) by John Singer Sargent. Sargent was one of many artists here who made their living from oil painting or illustrations, but enjoyed doing watercolours in their spare time and for their own pleasure. The handful of watercolours by him here, although using the same broad brush approach as his oil paintings, are strikingly unfinished.
View from a Window, Genoa (c.1911) by John Singer Sargent. Watercolour and oil over graphite © The Trustees of the British Museum

View from a Window, Genoa (c.1911) by John Singer Sargent. Watercolour and oil over graphite © The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Graveyard in Tyrol (1914) one of numerous watercolours Sargent made on his annual summer tour round the Continent, which lasted into August 1914 so that he found himself caught up in the mobilisation for the Great War.
  • Port Vendres (1926) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Mackintosh is famous for his wonderful Art Nouveau architecture and designs yet he left Scotland after the war, feeling he had not achieved recognition for his architectural work, and lived for five years in Port Vendres near the border with Spain.

Standing slightly to one side of any kind of linear narrative (as, in fact, many of the works here do), is a beautiful watercolour by the famous book illustrator, Arthur Rackham.

  • Landscape near Bezan (1901) by Arthur Rackham. Fascinating to see how impressionist it is and, apparently, unlike the detailed line drawings of his illustrations although, on closer examination, there is a kind of family likeness in the shape of the blobs and squadges.

War 1914-18

Although some foreign and exotic locations are included, it is surprising that, given the centrality of war in this period – the Crimean War (1853-56), the American Civil War (1861-65), the Boer War (1899-1902), the Great War (1914-18), the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Abyssinian War (1935-6), the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and the Second World War (1939-45) – there are in fact remarkably few depictions of bomb-blasted landscapes. Only the Great War features, of all the century’s wars the one which the English seemed to take most to heart. The one that damaged us most.

Paul Nash seems to be a transitional figure here. As we learned from the recent Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain, Nash was enraptured by the southern English landscape from an early age, but was then thrown into the carnage of the Great War, commissioned as an official war artist, and produced many memorable images of the devastated landscape in a linear, geometric, modernist style.

Modernism 1910-20

Out and out Modernism, self-consciously feeding off European cubism and Futurism, is not so well represented.

  • Slag heaps at Leeds (1920) by Edward Wadsworth. In fact this painting shows a significant retreat from Wadsworth’s highly abstract pre-War work. Like many contemporaries he rejected complete abstraction as somehow not conveying the urgent emotional and social truths of the time.
  • Air street by CRW Nevinson – The British Museum owns many prints directly about the Great War (in which he served) by Nevinson (e.g. Bomber, 1918), but chose to represent him with a much later work which is actually in chalk.

Nevinson, like Nash, like many other English artists, consciously retreated from the extremes of geometric modernism they’d espoused just before and during the War. Maybe they’d had a bellyful of hard unforgiving often violent images.

Back in England after the war, Nash recuperated at Dymchurch, where the Tate exhibition explained that he had a sort of slow-motion nervous breakdown, personal trauma that may – or may not – be reflected in his obsessively repeated imagery of the sea wall at Dymchurch.

In Wadsworth, Nash and Nevinson you can see the progression from the 1914 to 1924 as a retreat from pure angularity towards an angularity softened and humanised. Leading towards…

Neo-Romanticism 1930s

Victorian landscapes are easy to understand and enjoy, ditto impressionism. And of course highly skilled painters continued to work in the older tradition, for example William Russel Flint, who wrote a manual on watercolour painting.

But after the trauma of the war and the break in tradition represented by the various forms of modernism with their rejection of the figurative in favour of abstraction or surrealist juxtapositions – I find the 1930s and 40s to be the most strange and challenging period of modern art. Some artists continued to feel a deep reverence for the English landscape, but couldn’t return to the innocence of Victorian literalism. What to do?

The commentary points out the revival that took place during this period in the reputations of a group of pre-Victorian landscape artists – John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), Francis Towne (1740-1816) and Samuel Palmer (1805-1881).

Cotman and Towne’s watercolours are elegant and stylised. They don’t feel the need to produce the Grand Sublime of the mid-Victorians or the gorgeous colouring. Their classical lines and spaces of flat, pale wash seem open and retrained. They suited the chastened mood of the 1920s and 30s.

Samuel Palmer is a different thing altogether. Palmer is best known for the paintings he did at Shoreham in Kent in the 1840s, which charge the staid and gentle landscape of the south of England with a resonant mysticism. His use of stippled colouring, especially round gold and orange and red, the vagueness of the human figures, and settings at dusk or dawn, create images of the countryside deeply charged with some ineffable meaning.

  • Classical river scene (1878) by Samuel Palmer. A late work which nonetheless conveys Palmer’s love of the equivocal effects of twilight, and his fondness for red and orange and auburn. The human figures aren’t distinct but that is the point – they are part of the landscape.

These predecessors, with their more classical approach to line and colouring (Towne and Cotman, or their concern for the numinous symbolism of landscape (Palmer), provided ways forward for the post-war artists. Again this can best be seen in the work of Paul Nash who took his boyhood late-Victorian spiritualism through the battlefields of Flanders and out into a new way of conceiving landscape. In Nash’s hands landscape becomes symbolic of inner quests and impressions. It becomes much more psychological.

But the figure who emerges as central to the 1930s – in this account, anyway – is Graham Sutherland, an artist I’ve always disliked. His semi-abstract shapes have always seemed to me both ugly in design and horrible in colouring. But he appears to have been a revelation to younger artists who he taught and mentored. Sutherland is quoted as saying, ‘I felt that I could explain what I felt by paraphrasing what I saw.’ It’s a thought-provoking analogy: as a paraphrase takes the meaning of a text but casts it into new words, so paraphrasing what he saw in nature meant casting it into radically semi-surreal, abstract but still zoomorphic shapes.

One of Sutherland’s devotees, Keith Vaughan, said that Sutherland thought landscape needn’t be looked at scenically … but symbolically. This idea of converting the directly seen into another, symbolical language, opens a huge doorway into new styles of art. The Sutherland watercolours in this exhibition are small and unconvincing, but he profoundly influenced the artists who became known as the neo-Romantics who he helped liberate to recast landscape into a variety of new and stylised forms.

  • Scottish City, the Gorbals (1945) by John Minton. Leaving aside the strange shape of the heads, the colour washes over the stick-like derelict buildings recalls Sutherland.
  • Figure leaning on a garden wall (1948) by Keith Vaughan
  • Churchyard (1942) by John Craxton. Most of the other prints the BM holds are notably more Sutherland-ish. This one shows what happens when you simplify the elements of a scene, using modernist techniques to create an image which is, paradoxically, childish and reassuring. Which looks like a book illustration.

The illustrators

A million miles from the gnarly hyper-realism of Rackham’s gnomes and princesses, the retreat from experimental modernism, combined with a neo-classical backlash against the war, led somehow, mysteriously, to images which are supposedly adult but which have a definitely childish simplicity of design and execution.

Take Essex Landscape (c.1947) by Michael Rothenstein. It is doubtless a ‘serious’ work. But it could also be the cover illustration of one of those 1940s or 50s travel books.

Essex Landscape (c.1947) by Michael Rothenstein. Watercolour with pen and ink © Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate

Essex Landscape (c.1947) by Michael Rothenstein. Watercolour with pen and ink © Reproduced by permission of the artist’s estate

Other notable examples include:

  • Eric Gill’s House at Ditchling (1922) by David Jones
  • The red cottage (1927) by Eric Ravilious. What is not to absolutely love about Ravilious’s open, clear, pure-lined children’s paintings.
  • Wannock dew pond (1923) by Eric Ravilious. These early examples have something of the freshness, lack of drama, the understatement of Paul Nash. Different, but a similar sense of… restraint. And a kind of cartoon simplicity.

The 1930s modernists

During the same period and overlapping with the neo-Romantics were many other artists using the multiple currents of the time, especially the very dominant influence of surrealism, to rethink countryside, landscape and watercolour as a form. Probably the most dominant figure of the time was Henry Moore, who was as prolific in his paintings, watercolours and prints as he was in his big humanoid statues.

  • Crowd looking at a tied up object (1942) by Henry Moore. You’re supposed to find modern art disturbing but Henry Moore is maybe the only 20th century artist I find genuinely uncanny and upsetting.
  • Reclining figure and red rocks (1942) by Henry Moore. It’s hard to put into words but I find Moore’s sheer prolificness terrifying. I feel a gaping hole open at my feet. I really dislike looking at his work.
  • Two upright forms (1936) by Henry Moore

Ben Nicholson was another key figure of the time, who I find difficult to like. He also produced thousands of art works all of a kind of so-so domesticated abstraction.

Newlyn (11 April 1950) by Ben Nicholson. Graphite with watercolour © Angela Verren Taunt

Newlyn (11 April 1950) by Ben Nicholson. Graphite with watercolour © Angela Verren Taunt

  • Seashell (1936) by Cecil Collins. The transformation of landscape into something completely phantasmagorical.
  • October 2 1938 by Reuben Mednikoff who has clearly swallowed the entire Surrealist proposition whole.
Portreath (1949) by Peter Lanyon. Black chalk with grey wash © The estate of Peter Lanyon

Portreath (1949) by Peter Lanyon. Black chalk with grey wash © The estate of Peter Lanyon

Right at the end of the period, you can read works like this as the exhaustion of the tradition, and exasperation at what to do next.

Trees

Theming the exhibition by period and style makes sense. But it could have been sliced completely differently by subject e.g. wide landscape, flowers, cottages. And a central subject would have been trees. Scattered remarks by artists about trees could have been brought together and, once again, the key figure might have been Nash, who worshiped trees, whose earliest works depict a ghostly brake of trees near his house in Hertfordshire, who became obsessed with the ancient trees on Wittenham Clumps, and who was devastated by the sight of so many tens of thousands of trees blown to fragments in the horror of the Great War. He wrote:

– ‘I sincerely love and worship trees and know they are people’

and I know just what he means. For me the two standout works in this wonderful exhibition are both of trees, in different aspects:

Ravens’ Toll, Ashburnham (1883) by William Fraser Gordon, a wonderful, magical distillation of a southern English heathland, captured crystallised focused, on a clump of spectral trees.

November evening in the Welsh wood by James Thomas Watts. Born in Birmingham, Watts was deeply influenced by the writings of Ruskin and the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, as ividenced by his minute depiction of nature and the intense realism of his landscape painting. Watt was fascinated by the play of light in wooded landscapes at varying times of the year and times of the day. Watts exhibited in both oils and watercolour, but the latter was his preferred medium. His ability to capture the essence of trees and woodlands in the varying seasons is astonishing. Between the late 1870s and 1905, he confined himself nearly entirely to woodland scenes like this, becoming an absolute master of them.

 

A passing world

The population of England was 15 million in 1851; 38.6 million by 1951, and today it is about 54 million. The pressure of urban growth is, by definition, not recorded in an exhibition devoted to pure landscape. Much of England’s countryside has been lost, much despoiled, but there is still much to see and enjoy. The passing of the old rural England is suggested by this late Victorian work which was in fact produced after the Great War and the advent of a new age, but it commemorates the crepuscular feel of an older, pre-industrial world.

The Homeward Load (1921) by Frank Dicksee

The Homeward Load (1921) by Frank Dicksee


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s edited by Judith Barter (2017)

This is the book accompanying the exhibition at the Royal Academy of 45 or so oil paintings from the 1930s designed to give you an overview of the many different, competing and clashing visions of American art during that troubled decade, what the foreword, rather surprisingly describes as ‘aesthetically, perhaps the most fertile decade of the twentieth century.’

It significantly expands your knowledge and understanding of the period by including illustrations of many more paintings than are in the show, along with comparison art works from contemporary and Old Master Europe, as well as photos, sketches, architects plans and related visual information.

The book is structured around five long essays by experts in the period, each of which is fascinating and informative in equal measure (the writers being Judith A. Barter, Sarah Kelly Oehler, Annelise K. Madsen, Sarah L. Burns and Teresa A. Carbone). I picked it up for £15, a snip considering the high quality of the reproductions and the intelligence of the commentary and analysis.

Regionalism versus modernism

The squabble between the Regionalists and the New York-based modernists is only mentioned for a minute or so on the exhibition audioguide, but spills across several of the essays here. This allows you to understand its history, main participants, the arguments on either side, to weigh their merits, as well as considering the whole thing’s relevance to the present day.

Regionalism championed the depiction of realistic scenes of rural and small-town America primarily in the Midwest and Deep South. It was popular and populist. It defined itself against the modernism imported from Europe by New York-based artists, despite the fact that the trio of artists who became most associated with Regionalism – Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry – had all made at least one study visit to Europe and were well aware of developments there.

Regionalism is itself subsumed under a broader term – the American Scene – which also covers ‘Social realism’ paintings, also realistic and figurative in nature, but more committed to the world of urban work than the predominantly rural Regionalist ethos. If it’s about small town life it’s American regionalism; if it’s a realistic work about the city, about industrial workers, and especially if it emphasises class consciousness, then it’s American Social Realism.

The most famous example of Regionalism is Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which depicts in a minutely detailed style reminiscent of early Flemish painters, a romantically unromantic vision of the gaunt, upright honest Mid-Western farmer. In the same spirit, though softer edged, is his Daughters of the Revolution (1932), its unflatteringness easy to confuse with a type of realism. Others of his rural pictures shown here are more gently bucolic:

The most fervent regionalist was Thomas Hart Benton. In the exhibition he’s represented by paintings of rural, especially Southern, life depicted with a distinctive wriggly serpentine style.

  • Cradling wheat by Thomas Hart Benton (1938) Note the wriggly lines in the clouds, the clothes, the distant hill.

But the book adds hugely to our understanding by expanding on his activities as a muralist, works which, by definition, can’t be shown in travelling art exhibitions. The New Deal administration, via its huge Public Works of Art Project, helped fund and commission a vast range of public art for public spaces – city halls, post offices, railway stations – across America. Over 4,000 murals in public buildings were commissioned from a huge range of artists in 1934 and 1935. Benton was a leader in the field, producing works like America Today for New York’s New School for Social Research, The Social History of the State of Missouri and The Cultural & Industrial Progress of Indiana for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In these he combines his sinewy, sinuous way with the human body with a kind of muscular social realist style to portray a fascinating cross-section of American activity and enterprise.

Benton not only painted, he engaged in a fierce polemic with a leader of the New York modernists, Stuart Davis, decrying modernism as effeminate, chaotic, elitist and un-American. You can see why his Mid-Western sponsors and many left-wing-minded artists and writers (some influenced by the new dogma of Socialist Realism emanating from the Soviet Union) would support his easily accessible, heroic depictions of the working man and woman, as the real America.

But of course they were up against New York, with its sheer size (with a population of 7 million, by far the largest US city) and its entrenched, articulate and well-publicised intellectual and artistic sets, such as the circle around critic and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz (which included the artists Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe) or George L.K. Morris and the American Abstract Artists group.

It was the modernist painter Stuart Davis who ended up defending cosmopolitan modernism against Benton’s Regionalism, in a series of lectures, pamphlets, articles and a few bad-tempered personal encounters – attacking Regionalism as populist, demagogic, conservative even reactionary in form, naive, simple-minded and so on. He was even involved in a petition drawn up by New York art students to have one of Benton’s murals destroyed, because of its alleged stereotyping of African Americans. They hated each other.

Above all, the New York modernists thought Regionalism was holding America back, restraining and imprisoning American art and thought in a utopian fantasy of the past. It was provincial in the worst sense of the word, because it limited American culture to fantasies of a fast-disappearing rural reality while the entire world was urbanising and the great capitals – Paris, London, Rome, Berlin – were developing dazzling new techniques, styles and methods which it would be fatal to ignore.

Why go backwards when the rest of the world was hurtling into the new, they argued. America, above all other countries, should throw off the past and embrace the future.

There are several ways to think about this:

1. On purely personal terms, which do you enjoy most – now? To be honest, I like Grant Wood’s cartoony works and am impressed by Benton’s murals, idealised and muscular representatives of the spirit of the age. Whereas I like the overall impact of Davis’s work – extraordinarily bright and jazzy – but don’t respond to any individual work of his as strongly.

2. In terms of the debate, who do you think was right, at the time? Again, I’m inclined to think the American Scene artists depicted the country and its cultural and political moment better than Davis and the other wannabe modernists. They were right for their time. The Public Works of Art Project wanted art for the broadest mass of the public, which would reflect their local area, their local history, which would provide a unifying focus for thousands of communities across the States. Over 4,000 murals in public buildings were commissioned from a huge range of artists in 1934 and 1935. It seems unlikely that a thousand variations on Davis’s watered-down Paris abstractions could have done that.

3. Who won? With the benefit of hindsight we know that Regionalism had nowhere to go: as America became more fully industrialised during the Second World War, it became more urbanised and rural life became more and more remote from most Americans. The Regionalist artists proved incapable of developing their style: even at the time it was acknowledged to be a romanticised, idealised vision which was actually far removed from the brutal reality of the Dustbowl droughts which were afflicting the southern states. (Captured in one bleak and almost science fiction painting here, Our American Farms (1936) by Joe Jones.) Regionalism proved to be in every way a dead end.

4. Also, in the new atmosphere of the Cold War, the Social Realism of much American Scene art came to look suspiciously like the same kind of thing being churned out by the Soviet Union and her satellites. When the House Un-American Activities Committee got round to investigating artists in the 1950s, it was the Social Realists they accused of being dangerous subversives: in total some 350 artists were accused by the committee of being communists or harbouring unhealthy left-wing tendencies. In the event, the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock et al was to take the art world by storm at the end of the 1940s and, with government help, transform American aesthetics. Regionalism became an isolated backwater in the history of art.

5. However, studying the debate in some detail throws up surprising insights into our present situation, where a demagogic president has been elected on a platform of appealing to ordinary folk, especially the working class disenfranchised by globalisation, and railing against Big City corruption and cosmopolitanism. There is unemployment – 4.7% (though nothing approaching Depression-era figures, which at their worst had 30% of the workforce without jobs). There’s disillusion with the conventional parties and a rise in racism and xenophobia. Powerful reminders that so many of a country’s political or social issues never really go away but are reborn in each generation in new disguises.

The above is a partial summary of the first of the five essays in the volume. The other four:

  • Transatlantic Expressions
  • 1930s Modernism and the use of history
  • Painting the American wasteland
  • Bodies for the 1930s

are just as in-depth and illuminating, adding to our understanding of a host of other artists of the time.

These include lesser known figures like Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dover, Charles Green Shaw, Millard Sheets, Doris Lee, Helen Lundeberg, Walt Kuhn, Ivan Albright, Peter Blume, Alice Neel, Paul Cadmus, Archibald Motley, Philip Evergood, Reginald Marsh, Paul Sample – as well as, for me, the standout artist of the era – the great Georgia O’Keeffe, with her triumphant marriage of the distinctive New Mexico landscape with an unsettling modernist sensibility.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

New names

Presumably familiar to any student of American art, the following were artists who I first learned about at the exhibition and who then especially benefited from the longer treatment and further illustrations provided in this book:

Charles Sheeler

Represented in the show by his wonderful linear depiction of the River Rouge Ford Motor factory – American landscape (1930) – Sheeler is explored in further detail in the book. Not only did he produce these wonderful linear, monumental evocations of pure architecture, but also took many modernist photographs of industrial buildings, interiors and machines. Just my kind of thing.

But Sheeler is also one of the beneficiaries of the well-known phenomenon that some art works which are easy to overlook in the flesh, look much better in reproduction, in book form. Thus the exhibition – divided into 8 or 9 themes – has one devoted to interiors, generally depicting old-fashioned styles and furnishings, and it would be easy to overlook Sheeler’s item in the set, Home Sweet Home. But the book reproduces it in big and lovely colour detail and highlights the continuity between the fascination with geometry and lines evinced in his well-known industrial photos and paintings, and his more recherche interest in traditional fabrics, Shaker furniture and so on, which combine in this quiet but mesmeric interior.

Aaron Douglas

Represented by one work in the show, the impressive mural Aspiration, in the show, the book gives a lot more about his life and work – and searching the internet reveals a brilliantly dazzling talent. Douglas uses a kind of Art Deco silhouette-based style, flooded by geometric washes of pastel colours, to depict an amazingly bold, explicit overview of the African American story, from Africans in Africa dancing and celebrating, their capture into slavery, transport across the seas, to African Americans throwing off their shackles and then Ayn Rand-style monuments of them contributing to the building of the modern (1930s) city with its outline of soaring skyscrapers.

Conclusion

This is a genuinely interesting book, not just about American art but about a pivotal moment in American history. By the end you are ready to believe the claim made at the start (several times) that the 1930s was ‘the most artistically creative and important period of the twentieth century’ (p.24).


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions

Reviews of books about America

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

Related links

Eduardo Paolozzi @ The Whitechapel Gallery

This exhibition is great fun, as close to pure visual pleasure as I’ve had in a gallery for years.

Bio

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) was born the son of Italian immigrants in Leith, outside Edinburgh, making him two times over an outsider to the posh world of English art. Young Ed served in his parents’ ice cream shop as a lad, surrounded by glossy advertising and packaging for the new consumer products which were sweeping into ‘Austerity Britain’ from the States, along with a tidal wave of comics and magazines and new colour movies.

Eduardo Paolozzi at the Shipbreakers’ Yard, Hamburg (c. 1962) Photo: Ulrich Mack © Ulrich Mack

Eduardo Paolozzi at the Shipbreakers’ Yard, Hamburg (c. 1962) Photo: Ulrich Mack © Ulrich Mack

Magazine collages

No surprise, then, that, after he’d gone to art school and got Picasso out of his system, he first made a real impact with a lecture given at the Institute for Contemporary Arts titled Bunk! and which consisted of a slide show of 40 or so collages featuring images cut out from pulp science fiction magazines, girly magazines, science and engineering books, newspapers and so on. It is, apparently, referred to as ‘the opening salvo of Pop Art’.

In the 1960s Paolozzi got interested in print making, the major result of which is the sequence of colourful large collage prints titled As is when (1965).

Wittgenstein in New York (1965) Courtesy Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Wittgenstein in New York (1965) Courtesy Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

There are eight or so examples here and I could happily live with any of them on my wall – happy, bright, fun, with an intrinsic and immediately understandable sense of design.

Sculpture

After art school he’d spent some time in Paris, soaking up the still lingering vibe of Surrealism, exemplified in metal sculptures of strange zoomorphic shapes like:

What links the collages and sculptures is Paolozzi’s interest in the spare change of engineering, nuts and bolts and screws and cogs and wheels and jets and wings and so on. These came more to the fore in his sculptures of the 1950s and won him his first real fame when displayed at the Venice Biennale.

Many of them look like robots or strange bits of machinery which have been melted in an atomic explosion or maybe found thousands of years after their lost civilisation collapsed. Either way, they played heavily to the fast-moving technical innovations of the 1950s (the jet engine) combined with the political paranoia and nihilism of the Cold War. (The first full scale thermonuclear test was carried out by the United States in 1952.)

The 1960s saw a major shift in his sculptures towards happy shiny pieces made of the funky new material of aluminium or even out of polished chrome e.g. Silk.

There’s a display case of these shiny objects, strange combinations of geometric shapes which have somehow melted. But his heart is still with knobbly would-be machinery, albeit with a Summer of Love psychedelic style. One of the most famous works from this period could be straight out of the Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine (1968).

Diana as an Engine I (1963–6) Courtesy the British Council Collection © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Diana as an Engine I (1963–6) Courtesy the British Council Collection © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Textiles

As early as 1954 Paolozzi set up a design company to create home furnishings from wallpaper and fabrics to ceramics. Examples of these, in particular a set of dresses he designed in different decades, is included in the exhibition, but didn’t have the same dynamic effect on me as either the sculptures or prints.

Cocktail Dress for Horrockses Fashions (1953) Photography by Norwyn Ltd. Courtesy the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Cocktail Dress for Horrockses Fashions (1953) Photography by Norwyn Ltd. Courtesy the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

Revolutionary at the time was the incorporation of his brand of abstract designs into the very traditional medium of tapestry. The most famous work in this area is the four-metre wide Whitworth Tapestry (1967).

The Whitworth Tapestry (1967) Courtesy The Whitworth, University of Manchester © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

The Whitworth Tapestry (1967) Courtesy The Whitworth, University of Manchester © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, licensed by DACS

The 1970s

Apparently Paolozzi disliked the creeping engulfment of art by theory and curator-speak, and a room here is devoted to works which take the mickey out of the art world. These include a block of fake gold ingots made of aluminium and printed with the phrase ‘100% F*ART’.

The experimental portfolio General Dynamic F.U.N. consists of printed sheets of random text, abstract patterns and images designed to be rearranged and read by readers in infinite combinations. Maybe. But as hung on the walls of a gallery, the individual sheets look very much like more collages of comic and consumer magazine images from the 1950s.

More striking was a set of large prints of his characteristic engineer/machine imagery titled Calcium Light Nights (1974-6) presumably because they all have a more washed out, pastel colouring than earlier prints.

Heads and bodies

The last rooms feature two very distinct but stylistically related types of output.

1. He found a new way of configuring the human body and head, basically taking a salami slicer to the human figure and sliding disconcerting sections of it forwards or back to create a strange angular vision of the human body, perfectly in keeping with his lifelong interest in science fiction and technology.

(Disconcertingly the show also features a couple of completely smooth, lifelike bronze busts, although even these have the sci-fi perfection of the automaton from the classic movie Metropolis.)

2. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s Paolozzi took on a number of commissions for large sculptures in public places. Some of these incorporate the salami sliced heads and bodies like the figure of Isaac Newton in the British Library or the Vulcan in Docklands; others are large castings of the kinds of intricate faux-mechanical friezes he liked throughout his career, like the cooling tower at Pimlico; others are purely abstract like the recently restored mosaics which cover the entrance hall, walls and walkways of Tottenham Court Tube station.

Conclusion

Bringing together an astonishing 250 works from collections around the world and spanning Paolozzi’s five decades of dynamic and varied work, this is a lovely, happy, creative and inspiring exhibition.


Related links

For once it is entirely appropriate that the gallery shop has lots of merchandise carrying Paolozzi imagery – I particularly liked the tea-towel with one of the As is when print designs on it. But also that it’s selling fabulous Robbie the Robot toys. What fun!

Reviews

Reviews of other Whitechapel shows

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo and Sebastiano @ the National Gallery

Introduction

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born near Arezzo, in Tuscany, in 1475. At age 13 he was sent to study art in Florence, the greatest centre of art and learning in Italy, where he was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio, a master in fresco painting, perspective, figure drawing and portraiture. Here he imbibed the Florentine principles of meticulous figure drawing and careful planning of a composition.

Sebastiano Luciani, later nicknamed del Piombo, was born ten years later in 1485 in Venice. He became a pupil of Giovanni Bellini and then of Giorgione. From the latter, especially, he absorbed a more improvisatory approach to composition, combined with a soft almost misty use of light, along with the traditional Venetian emphasis on gorgeous colour. (The greatest colourist of all, Titian, was born in Venice just 5 years later.)

In 1511 Sebastiano arrived in Rome whose art world he found riven with rivalries, especially that between the established genius, Michelangelo, who was hard at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a commission which took from 1508 to 1512) and his main rival, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino – otherwise known as Raphael – born in 1483, who was soon to be commissioned to paint the walls of the nearby Vatican library.

Michelangelo never liked oil painting; he was more a sculpture or a creator of frescos. He quickly realised that Sebastiano was the only oil painter in town who could take on Raphael, so there was a strong element of calculation in  his befriending of the younger man. Sebastian, for his part, was able to work with the greatest genius of the age.

It was the start of a 25-year-long friendship, which included a long correspondence, and collaboration on a number of major commissions. This exhibition features seventy or so works – paintings, drawings, sculptures and letters – which are masterpieces in their own right, shed light on the working practices of both men, and chronicle a unique friendship at the height of the Renaissance.

Differing approaches

Their differing approaches are epitomised in the first of the show’s six rooms by two unfinished works. Michelangelo is represented by a painting of The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’). Note the careful composition, the adult figures and child figures in neat rows, and the high finish of the human skin, almost like sculpted stone.

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels ('The Manchester Madonna') by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

Compare and contrast with Sebastiano’s Judgement of Solomon. It’s possible to see, on the unfinished legs of the figure at right, various other postures which have been tried out and superseded. Also the faces are much softer and misty, something which is especially clear on the face of the mother on the right.

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

Collaborations

1. The nocturnal Pieta

Lamentation over the dead Christ, also known as the Viterbo Pietà (about 1512-1516) was Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s first collaboration. Michelangelo did the design and detailed sketches of the figures (sketches which can be seen here, next to the finished work) while Sebastiano actually painted it, adding the background landscape characteristic of Venetian art. (Compare and contrast with the softness of the figures and the mysterious background in the famous Tempest of Sebastiano’s teacher, Giorgione). In fact, this is, apparently, one of the first nocturnal landscapes in European art.

For my money, by far the best thing about it is the body of Christ. It has the best of both artists – Michelangelo’s sense of structure and musculature, softened by Sebastiano’s smooth oil technique.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

2. Raising of Lazarus

There are several stories about this painting.

1. It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici in Rome, who simultaneously commissioned a ‘Transfiguration’ from Raphael. The Lazarus was taken to Cathedral of Narbonne, where Giulio was cardinal.

2. Raphael’s Transfiguration is arguably the better painting, in terms of the drama of its structure and composition. The Sebastiano comes over as more cluttered and cramped. In fact the reproduction below makes it look better – more dramatic – than it is in real life, where it feels immense and overpowering.

3. X-ray photography has shown that Sebastiano changed the posture of some of the figures. The audioguide suggests that Michelangelo dropped by after the initial outline was created, and suggested changes to make it more dramatic e.g. the arm of Lazarus (bottom right) originally stretched out towards Christ and his head was further back. Changing the arm and head positions makes his figure more dynamic.

4. Lastly, the painting came into the ownership of the British collector Sir George Beaumont who, in turn, left it to the nation in 1824, in the collection which was to become the foundation of the National Gallery. All the NG’s works are numbered and this painting is actually the very first in the catalogue – NG1.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

3. The Borgherini chapel

The Borgherini Chapel was commissioned by Michelangelo’s friend and broker, the Florentine banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini (1488–1558) and was created inside the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome.

The frescoes showing The Flagellation of Christ and The Transfiguration were painted by Sebastiano. Michelangelo was slated to provide the designs, but left Rome for Florence after only providing drawings for the central Flagellation and possibly a layout for the Transfiguration. The entire wall and alcove of the chapel has been recreated using state-of-the-art digital technology by Spanish workshop, Factum Arte.

The composition is in three levels: centre bottom is Christ being flagellated; above in the ceiling is Christ rising to heaven; above that is the coat of arms of Pierfrancesco Borgherini. He is flanked by three sets of ‘authorities’: on the lowest level, by Saint Peter (left) and Saint Francis of Assisi (right) (the namesakes of the sponsor); to either side of the transfigured Christ are Moses (left) and Aaron (right); above, on the flat wall, are St Matthew (left) and Isaiah (right). It is these last two figures which are most reminiscent of Michelangelo; they could both have come straight from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The exhibition's digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of An Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

The exhibition’s digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

It’s only mentioned a few times, mainly in reference to the stunning over-life-size sculpture of Jesus by Michelangelo which is displayed here in two versions, but I was fascinated to learn how the image of the resurrected Christ was an object not only of anatomical beauty but of philosophical and theological inspiration for these artists and contemporary humanist reformers. The perfection of the naked body, as first created by Greek sculptors 2,000 years earlier, embodied a perfection of moral and theological being to which all humans could aspire. Hence there is a kind of luminous perfection of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

Catholic Christianity and its discontents

It’s sort of obvious, but all these works celebrate Roman Catholic Christianity, at its headquarters in Rome, working for its chief officer on earth, the Pope. As a Protestant I am always aware that these exquisite art works were produced with money mulcted from the peasants and poorest people of Europe by huge numbers of roaming tax collectors, penance providers, summoners and pardoners of the kind satirised by Chaucer over a hundred years earlier, and whose cynicism and corruption so disgusted the monk Martin Luther that he undertook a sweeping condemnation of the entire structure of the church and its underlying theology.

These years of glorious artistic achievement also saw the start of what came to be known as ‘the Reformation’, triggered when Luther nailed his 95 theses against the church to the door of his local church in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther’s theology was diametrically opposed to the optimistic humanism of Michelangelo and many of the other artists of the High Renaissance. While they thought humans could aspire to an almost supernatural perfection – bodied forth in their immaculate statues – Luther emphasised the irredeemably fallen state of degraded sinful humanity – incapable of anything, any action, any moral behaviour, any thoughts of beauty, without the all-powerful grace of God to lift us.

The sack of Rome

The Reformation itself doesn’t impinge on any of these works, but the chronic instability of central Europe certainly does. For the cardinal who commissioned Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus went on to become Pope Clement VII, ruling from 1523 to his death in 1534. In the interminable conflict between the Holy Roman Emperors (in this case, Charles V), the Papacy and the rising power of France, Clement made the mistake of allying with France. This led a large mercenary army of Charles V to lay siege to Rome and, on 6 May 1527, to breach the city walls and go on a week-long rampage of looting, raping, killing and burning.

Clement retreated to the enormous Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was accompanied (presumably among many others) by Sebastiano who forged a close friendship with him. Before and after the siege Sebastiano painted several portraits of Clement. As a result, in 1531 Clement appointed him piombatore, or keeper of the lead seal which was used to seal papal messages. It was a lucrative sinecure paying a stipend of some eight hundred scudi and explains why in later life he was nicknamed ‘del Piombo’, which translates literally as ‘of the lead’ and, more figuratively, as ‘of the seal’.

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

End of the friendship

Raphael had died suddenly, very young (aged 37) in 1520, at which point Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome. During the 1520s he gradually lost his Venetian style, adopting more monumental forms and a cooler range of colour. According to Michelangelo’s friend, the painter and great historian of Renaissance art, Giorgio Vasari, Sebastiano grew increasingly lazy, addicted to gaming and drinking.

His friendship with Michelangelo seems to have ended in the mid-1530s. Michelangelo had spent much of the 1520s in Florence, carrying out various commissions for the Medici family. In 1534 he returned to Rome and to a major commission to paint the end wall of the Sistine Chapel with the scene of the Last Judgement. The story goes that Michelangelo asked his old collaborator to prepare the wall for him, but that Sebastiano prepared it to be painted in oil – using a technique he had developed in Michelangelo’s absence. Apparently, Michelangelo was furious, had Sebastiano’s preparatory work torn down and insisted on doing the fresco his way.

Maybe. But Michelangelo was notoriously touchy. As the historian who is interviewed on the audioguide put it, Sebastiano had a longer run than most friends of the irascible genius, possibly because through most of the 1520s they’d lived in different cities. Maybe it was simply living in the same city again, that led to an inevitable break.

The works of art in this exhibition are stunning. But it can also be enjoyed as the story of a remarkable friendship; as giving fascinating insight into the compositional and painting techniques of the High renaissance; and as shedding an oblique light on the seismic contemporary events of the reformation and the Sack of Rome.

Although housed in just six rooms, it feels very, very full – of ideas, insights and breath-taking works of art.

Favourite

It’s easy to be over-awed by the brilliance, or certainly the size, of many of the works on display here. For me (the copy of) Michelangelo’s sculpted Pietà was head and shoulders better than anything else on display. It is an astonishing work and mind-boggling to realise that he made it when he was only 25!

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo's Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter's, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter’s, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

But it would be easy to overlook the maybe thirty sketches and cartoons by both artists – the Michelangelo generally more forceful and energetic than the Sebastiano. My favourite work in the whole exhibition was Michelangelo’s Seated nude and two studies of an arm. I love sketches and drawings which emphasise structure and draughtsmanship. And I like unfinished works, which are full of mystery and suggestion. So this really pulls my daisy.

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

The video

No self-respecting exhibition these days is without at least one promotional video.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

David Hockney @ Tate Britain

This is a comprehensive and awe-inspiring 13-room overview of David Hockney’s 60-year-long career, starting with works created while he was still an art student at the Royal College of Art in 1960 and concluding with depictions of his California home which he was still working on as the exhibition was being finalised.

Hockney – arguably England’s greatest living artist, certainly its most popular, and recognised by the Establishment as a member of the Order of Merit, a Companion of Honour, a Royal Academician – will be 80 this July (he was born 9 July 1937), and he still hasn’t finished – both creating and commenting insightfully and humorously on his own work.

Sometimes curators can arrange an artist’s work by theme, but in Hockney’s case it makes more sense to arrange it in bog standard chronological order, because the different experiments and ways of making occur very much at certain times and are best understood a) when taken together, so you can savour his experiments with a new look b) when viewed in sequence since you can see the underlying continuities and the ways ongoing interests and ideas recur in new ways, new investigations.

There are hundreds of books and essays about the man, including the many he’s written himself, several biographies, numerous documentaries and countless charming interviews; there is no shortage of comment and analysis on Hockney’s career, so I’ll try to keep my summary of his oeuvre as displayed by this exhibition, brief.

Periods and styles

  • Art school scrappy – very early 1960s – deliberately scratchy, dark and cranky like the English weather. Right from the start his works are BIG but I find the early stuff unappealing and very art school studenty.
    • Play within a play (1963) The commentary goes on about playing with perspective so the tassles at the bottom of the screen, along with the chair and the floorboards are meant to indicate perspective and vanishing point i.e. artifice, while the handprint is of a real hand pressed against the glass Hockney wanted to cover the whole painting with. Fair enough, but it’s not nice to look at.
    • Flight into Italy (1962) Note the combination of Pop-style use of a geological diagram for the silhouette Alps, with the blurred semi-skull heads in the manner of Francis Bacon. Bacon’s horror smears are a big and unpleasant presence in the first few rooms.
  • 1962 Hockney’s work appeared in the Young Contemporaries exhibition – and you can see in it all the influences of the time – Abstract Expressionism with hints of Pop Art, suggestions of Francis Bacon. It was followed by a 1963 show, named with deliberate fake naivety, Paintings with people in:
    • Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961) In Hockney’s own words, this is the closest he got to Pop, an object-shaped canvas portrayal of a commercial product (a box of Typhoo tea) – but note the insertion of the blurred humanoid into it, like a Francis Bacon figure trapped in a cage, as if he feels the product itself wouldn’t be enough, that it needs some kind of extra layer of meaning – unlike Warhol’s sublime confidence.
    • The First Marriage, (A Marriage of Styles I) (1962) This is a mysterious image which the commentary deflates by explaining that Hockney was in a museum looking at the Egyptian objects when his friend came and stood by an ancient statue wearing a modern suit. the main features are the big sandy hessian canvas, and the deliberately scrappy badly drawn figures. Image the possibilities for sensuous play here, imagine the look of actual Egyptian statues, their smoothness and infinite depth. Here everything is scratchy and cack-handed, the amateurishness is the ethos.
  • 1964 Hockney moves to Santa Monica, Los Angeles, inaugurating the era of the classic swimming pool paintings and depictions of lots of fit young naked men. The commentary, rather banally, says that to young David, Hollywood represented ‘the land of dreams’ and, well, it turned out to be ‘the land of dreams’. More importantly, the move signifies a transition in his work to a more conventional use of perspective and more traditional compositions of actual scenes.
    • Medical Building (1966) This reproduction doesn’t do justice to the size of the image, and its cartoon simplicity. He liked the clean lines of the buildings against the clear Californian sky, as thousands had before him.
    • Man in Shower in Beverly Hills (1964) The scrappiness of the human figure – a consistent approach or vision, is contrasted with the almost mathematical precision of the tiles and the brightness of the curtain, the pink carpet, the shiny chairs in the background. Note the shower curtain. The commentary makes much of the frequent inclusion of curtains in many of these early paintings to indicate ‘the artifice of theatre’.
    • A Bigger Splash (1967) Bright colours, geometrically straight lines, subverted or complimented by a spurt of curves or sudden scratchiness. Hockney’s many images of Los Angeles swimming pools are maybe his signature image.
    • Sunbather (1966) Pop colours, simple human figure, wiggly lines capturing the play of water.
    • Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool (1966)
  • From the mid-60s Hockney began using photography to help composition. In the later 1960s Hockney used his new figurative style to create some massive double portraits and the guide shows many of the still photos he took first to help him create these enormous compositions.
  • The exhibition then shows a room of Hockney’s generally very persuasive drawings from the late 60s and 70s. I liked these ones:
  • The commentary very usefully explains that by the end of the 1970s Hockney felt a little trapped by the restrictions of conventional perspective and figuration. It came as a great liberation when he stumbled on the idea of creating works composed of multiple Polaroid photos of the same scene, but often capturing the same detail numerous times and even in different states, assembled in what could loosely be called a cubist style. He first arranged many of these in mathematical grids, but then went one step further to arrange the Polaroids in shapes which themselves captured the action, the subject. He called this second series the ‘Joiners’. Both capture in a static flat image what are both multiple points of view, and multiple moments of time. Quite a huge amount of discourse can be woven out of this experiment by skilled curators and art critics and the images themselves are very effective, imaginative and well made but somehow, I didn’t find compelling.
    • Kasmin (1982) Example of a grid.
    • Pearlblossom Highway (1986) A more overlapping affect.
    • The Scrabble Game (1983) Maybe the best example of capturing multiple perspective and events in one static image. I found it clever, well-made, interesting, thought provoking, but… but… lacking the oomph, the shattering radicalness the commentary claims for it.
  • In the 1980s Hockney moved to a house up the windy road of Mulholland Drive overlooking Los Angeles, and was commissioned to design sets for a series of opera productions. He found the size and boldness required by theatre design to be another liberation. The scale and high colour of the sets fed back into his paintings, which now display a newly bold, thick and saturated palette, completely different from the deliberate airiness of his 1970s paintings.
    • Large interior, Los Angeles (1988) How different from the flat geometry of the pool paintings, this picture explodes in multiple perspectives, as well as a new much richer palette, and the transformation of so many previously realistically depicted objects into semi-abstract decorative elements. Compare the mad cartoon chairs with what now look like the very restrained chairs in the backdrop of Man in a shower.
    • Small Santa Monica – The Bay From The Mountains (1990) It is as if he’s been introduced to a whole new set of colours.
    • Nichols Canyon (1990) The airless geometry and very tight flat finish of the 1970s has been completely abandoned in favour of a super-bright, deliberately slapdash, and curved, organic shapes of these works.
  • From 1992 onwards Hockney took the new colours and the curves and lines he’d been playing with to a new level in a set of works which are entirely abstract, or in which only the ghost of a possible landscape remains underpinning images of a surreal, neo-Romantic, almost science fiction world. With characteristic understatement he titled these the Very New Paintings:
  • A room is devoted to works from the late 1990s, mixing depictions of Yorkshire and with big paintings of the Grand Canyon. These works are often made from an assemblage of separate canvases, in the words of the commentary to ’emphasise the articifiality of art’ (in case you were at risk of thinking you had stepped through a space-time portal from rainy Pimlico onto the brink of the actual Grand Canyon). What comes over is the super intense brightness of the colours and the almost deliberately childish simplicity of the detail. Looked at one way, some aspects of them could be illustrations from children’s books. Elsewhere in Tate Britain, the big retrospective of Paul Nash is still on, and for me there seem to be obvious similarities in the way a love of landscape has met the will to abstraction.
  • In 2006 Hockney returned from the States to live in Yorkshire full time, in order to be near a close friend who was dying in York. Now he bedded down to apply the super-bright and naive style he’d been developing over the previous decade, to an extended series of works depicting his native Yorkshire landscape. Many of these paintings are enormous and up close, have a very unfinished, childlike quality to them. Some people love them because they capture the often bleak English countryside in an immensely happy brightly coloured way; some critics think they’re appallingly simple-minded. Whatever your opinion, there are masses of them.
  • In 2010 Hockney fixed nine video cameras all facing forward to his Land Rover and drove slowly along a road at Woldgate near Bridlington. The resulting videos were projected onto nine screens arranged in a grid (reminiscent of the more gridlike Polaroids or the grids of canvases to make, for example, the larger Grand Canyon paintings). He made one film for each of the four seasons. The exhibition screens them onto the four walls of one darkened room, producing ‘an immersive environment’, ‘an exploration of the way a subject is seen over time’ and ‘a celebration of the miracle of the seasons’.

  • In the penultimate room is a sequence of 25 lovely charcoal drawings celebrating the arrival of spring at five locations along a single-track road running between Bridlington and Kilham, the kind of thing you might find in a provincial art shop, accurate but simple, lacking depth or resonance.
  • In 2010 Hockney began drawing in colour on the new iPad device. The beauty, the uniqueness of this medium is that the iPad records the process, and so we can watch what are in effect films following each work line by line as it proceeds from outline to sketch, watching every detail being added in, all the way through to completion. The exhibition includes a dozen or so screens showing quite a few of the colour drawings he made this way (as he tells us, often from the comfort of his bed in the family home in Yorkshire). According to the commentary, Hockney ‘collapses time and space by emailing images to friends and family, removing distance between the pictures, its means of creation and its distribution.’
    • Sample iPad paintings Bright and skilful, the main thing about these is their sheer number. They seem to take five minutes or so to make and so there are hundreds, possibly thousands of them.

Thoughts

There’s no doubting Hockney is a major artist: to maintain such a turnover of inventiveness, and be so prolific of so many striking images, over such a long period, is an amazing achievement. Each of the periods and styles (London Pop, LA swimming, portraits, Polaroids, opera sets, new paintings, Yorkshire landscapes, videos, iPad art) could well be analysed in terms of its own distinct origins and performance. It is immensely useful and interesting to be able to review such an extraordinary oeuvre and come to understand the continuities but also the enormous breaks in style and approach.

Several themes emerged for me from the show as a whole:

Size Most of the works here are big, very big, many are enormous, whether it’s the early Typhoo work which is 6 or 7 feet tall, to the vast double portraits like Isherwood and Bachardy, from the imposing swimming pools of the 60s to the huge video screens of The Four Seasons.

Emptiness A lot of this space is empty. This is most obvious in the room of double portraits – static figures with big, often heavily pregnant spaces between them. But it’s also there in the room of smaller-scale, curiously vacant portrait drawings – none of them have any expression or are doing anything. And in the paintings of the Grand Canyon or the Yorkshire Wolds. Space. Emptiness. Blank.

a) As I noticed it, it crossed my mind that this absence of passion or even feeling, maybe explains the calming, restful quality of much of Hockney’s work and why it translates so well into posters. (In the exhibition shop you can buy one of the Los Angeles swimming pool images turned into a print, a poster, a mug, a towel, a t-shirt, a tray, a fridge magnet, and every other format devised by marketeers.) There’s a curiously static, undynamic quality to many of his images. All the portraits, the big landscapes, the empty Grand Canyon and – really brought to the fore in the slow-motion Four Seasons videos – are very calm, still, empty.

b) Into this space curators and art critics are tempted to insert hefty doses of critical discourse. All the way through we are told that Hockney likes to play with ideas of reality and illusion, that the motif of the curtain found in so many works indicates the theatricality of a composition, that he ‘interrogates’ how a two dimensional object can convey a three dimensional scene, that his principal obsession is ‘with the challenge of representation’, that the works are ‘playing with representation and artifice’ or highlight how:

‘all art depends on artificial devices, illusionary tools and conventions that the viewer and artist conspire to accept as descriptive of something real’.

‘Conspire’ is a typical piece of art critical bombast. When you look at a photo in a newspaper, are you aware that you and the newspaper editors are ‘conspiring’ to accept the convention that something not there is being read as if it was there? Or ‘conspiring’ to see a 3-D image on what is in fact a 2-D surface? When you watch TV or a movie, did you realise you are part of an exciting ‘conspiracy’ to accept a 2-D surface as portraying 3-D events? No. Acceptance of flat images is universal, it’s hardly something Hockney has invented or is the first to play with.

Banality What struck me about many of these critical comments is how simple-minded they are. The ‘artificiality of art’ has been the subject of conversations about art ever since we’ve had art: Plato was upset by figurative art and so is the Koran; the Renaissance is an explosion of self-conscious tricks and experiments with the 2-D/3-D game.

But there is also something unnervingly banal about the art itself. This is brought out by the disarmingly homely nature of many of Hockney’s own comments in the (excellent) audio-commentary.

  • For the portrait of his parents, he tells us that his mum sat very dignified but his dad got fidgety very quickly, which is why he ended up depicting him bending over a book. On the bookshelf between them, Hockney thought he needed something to add a bit of detail and there was something he liked about the word ‘Chardin’ so he painted that on the spine of one of the books. Fair enough but it’s so… prosaic.
  • Commenting on the early Typhoo painting he explains that he’s always drunk a lot of tea and there were lots of old Typhoo packs lying around the studio in among all the paint. So he decided to paint one. OK. But it’s crushingly banal and inconsequential.
  • You might expect the early painting The Hypnotist to have some kind of recondite or hidden meaning but no: it is based on a scene from a Vincent Price movie, The Raven, which Hockney liked. That’s it.
  • As explanation for the explosion of super-colourful paintings of Mulholland Drive in the 1980s Hockney explains that his house was at the top of the Drive while his studio was down in the valley and so every day he had drove the windy road between the two, sometimes several times a day. It was a very ‘wiggly’ road and so the daily commute got him interested in ‘wiggly lines’. Up to that point his LA paintings had had very straight lines, reflecting the gridlike layout of the city and its rectangular office blocks, not to mention the beautifully rectangular swimming pools and rectilinear architecture of the poolside houses. But this new commute made him think again about ‘wiggly lines’ and so he started to put more ‘wiggly lines’ into his paintings. That simple.
  • In 1992 Hockney made a deliberate decision to paint in a new very brightly coloured and much more abstract style than previously and he called the resulting series ‘Very New Paintings’. The titles of  his work have generally been very flat and deliberately unimaginative. The 1963 exhibition, Paintings with people in them kind of sets the low expectations.
  • Hockney read somewhere that the Grand Canyon was ‘impossible to paint’, took that as a challenge and so set out to paint it. Which he did in a number of oil paintings composed of separated canvases placed in grids. It’s almost like doing it for a bet. Maybe this explains the effective, big bright but curiously disengaged impact of the result.
  • One critic commented that the Four Seasons videos shot from the point of view of a car rumbling very slowly along a country lane in Yorkshire created an art work benefiting from a ‘hi-def post-cubist’ vision of the world. Maybe. But the room showing them has a nice comfy bench to sit on which, when I was there, was packed grey-haired old-age-pensioners watching in effect a really relaxing, slow motion travelogue through beautiful English countryside. It felt about as radical or challenging as BBC’s Springwatch programme.
  • Talking about his experiments with iPad art from 2010, Hockney explained that it was easy to create the works, especially the depictions of dawn, while lying in bed at his mother’s house. (The comments about the bed-bound nature of composition explain the number of window frames, curtains and vases of flowers which occur in these iPad works). It so happened that the sun came up on his bedroom’s side of the house first, which leads him to the insight that sunrise is ‘a rather beautiful thing’.
  • At the very end of the audioguide, the curators asked Hockney what he hoped visitors would get out of the exhibition and – admittedly put on the spot about defining a lifetime of work – Hockney says he hopes his art will bring visitors ‘some joy’… because ‘I do enjoy looking’.

I’m not intending to criticise. I’m just pointing out that the more we heard from the man himself the more mundane, domestic, homely and banal the inspiration, creation and naming of so many of the works were revealed to be.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1971) by David Hockney © David Hockney

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1971) by David Hockney © David Hockney

Change and experiment

The exhibition blurb makes much of Hockney’s ‘restless experimentalism’ and enthusiastic ’embracing of new technologies’. Well, yes and no. I remember the press coverage when he exhibited the works made from collages of Polaroid photos back in the 1980s. Then the revelation of his iPad works at the 2012 Royal Academy exhibition, along with the stunningly high quality Four Seasons video.

But this keeping up-to-date seems, to me, always done in the name of a very conservative vision, a very tame and simplified view of the world. Thus the huge paintings of the Yorkshire landscape which dominated the 2012 Royal Academy show are stunning and striking, bold and simplified and colourful but – in their way – profoundly conservative and reassuring. It’s Britain with everything 21st century taken out – refugee crisis, Islamic terrorism, urban blight, housing crisis – all politics – even other art or cultural movements – all are weirdly absent from these big, confident, colourful and yet somehow strangely blank works.

Art doesn’t have to have anything to do with politics or anything the artist doesn’t want it to, and most of the work here is of a very high order of imaginativeness and execution, and the consistent reinvention over such a long period is impressive, awesome even. But for me much of Hockney’s work seems homely and decorative – depictions of his family and friends, his house, his drive to work, his boyhood landscape – lots of memorable, confident and stylish images – but it almost all lacks the urgency, excitement and dynamism which is what I most value and enjoy in art.

In the room devoted to drawings, in a corner, was my favourite image from the show. It is a typically relaxed and nicely executed detail from Hockney’s world, a very peaceful, modest world of friends and family, homes and pools and woods and fields, a very sedate, unthreatening essentially picturesque world. But how he captures it! With what a casually brilliant eye!

Videos

There are, of course, several videos promoting the show.

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In their way as affable, well-mannered, reasonable and breezy as the work itself.

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I also enjoyed this brief and enthusiastic critical overview.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Picasso’s Portraits @ the National Portrait Gallery

‘All portraits are caricatures.’ Picasso

Somewhere in the Royal Academy’s massive show of American Abstract Expressionism, there’s a quote from Jackson Pollock sometime in the 1950s yelling, ‘That **** bastard Picasso, he’s done everything.’

Picasso’s longevity (1881-1973) and prolific output (50,000 works – comprising 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 2,880 ceramics, roughly 12,000 drawings, many thousands of prints, and numerous tapestries and rugs) and feverish changes of style and vision from early Fauvism through cubism to postwar neo-classicism and on and on – presented a massive challenge to his contemporaries, to up-and-comers in the 50s and 60s, and even to modern-day artists. He did so much, he tried so many things, he invented so many styles.

This exhibition presents a rich cross-section of Picasso’s styles and approaches by bringing together an impressive 80 portraits by the artist in all media. It is the largest exhibition of Picasso’s portraits in a generation, and it is full of riches, treasures and insights.

Self-portrait by Pablo Picasso ( 1896) Museu Picasso, Barcelona © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Self-portrait by Pablo Picasso ( 1896) Museu Picasso, Barcelona © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

The works are arranged in chronological order but are grouped into themes. Thus there is a room devoted to depictions of his first wife, the Ballets Russes dancer, Olga Khokhlova – a room of photographs he had taken of himself in his Paris studio – or of his earliest caricatures of the gang of Bohemians, artists and poets who assembled at the El Quatre Gats café in Barcelona.

Caricatures

This early emphasis on the cartoons and caricatures he drew of fellow artists in the cafe at first seems a bit eccentric or of historical interest only – but in fact as the exhibition proceeds you come to realise that there was something of caricature – the quick, impressionistic throwing off of outlines, the exaggeration of features – which in fact endures throughout his entire career. Compare the early caricature of art critic Maurice Utrillo with the caricatures he knocked off of poets and composers in Paris after the war, and then again in another wave of line drawing caricatures in the 1950s.

The famous peace doves are just the most famous of the hundreds of later prints, etchings and lithographs he did, many of which use the lightest of lines, for example the famous Vollard Suite of images produced from 1930 to 1937.

Much later, in the 1950s, Picasso knocked off a series of ‘humorous compositions’ where he took pinups of glamour girl movie stars and quickly sketched onto them the figure of his friend, the poet and writer Jaime Sabartés – in reality, apparently, a fairly chaste and happily married man – as a short, tubby, bespectacled buffoon, hopelessly making up to these impossibly burnished screen idols.

Humorous Composition: Jaumes Sabartes and Esther Williams by Pablo Picasso (1957) Museu Picasso, Barcelona © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Humorous Composition: Jaimes Sabartes and Esther Williams by Pablo Picasso (1957) Museu Picasso, Barcelona © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Note the schoolboy crudity of the hair drawn under her arms and crotch. There are three or four of these ‘humorous compositions’ in the show, a selection of the scores Picasso apparently knocked off. They bring together several features of his approach: 1. Humour – obviously they’re for fun. 2. Caricature – exaggerating the serious bespectacled intellectual Sabartes into a ludicrous parody. 3. It’s a close friend, one of the gang, a member of his circle. 4. It’s rude i.e. sexual in broad outline and in pubic detail. 5. It’s subversive of an ‘official’ image. 6. It’s quick quick quick, a hastily knocked-off jeu d’esprit.

By starting with a selection of Picasso’s caricatures, and showing their recurrence throughout his career, the exhibition suggests that speed, and exaggeration, are a kind of fundamental approach which underlay many works which superficially appear so very different in style.

Self portraits

The exhibition tells us that his first ten years or so featured the most self portraits, as Picasso used himself as subject matter, restlessly trying out styles. The one above was done when he was just 16. 10 years later comes the amazing Self-portrait with a palette, with its use of a primitive mask-like face, its emphasis on the image of the artist as working man, with brawny bulging muscles. But it is the tan-and-grey colour palette which also impresses. The commentary points out the debt to Cezanne, who died when Picasso was 25, and of whom he later said, ‘We are all his children’.

Self-Portrait with Palette by Pablo Picasso (1906) Philadelphia Museum of Art: A. E. Gallatin Collection 1950 © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016

Self-Portrait with Palette by Pablo Picasso (1906) Philadelphia Museum of Art: A. E. Gallatin Collection 1950 © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016

Individuals

Unlike most painters in history, Picasso didn’t paint from commissions. He painted who he wanted to, generally friends, fellow artists or patrons. In a sense he created ‘circles’ like that original circle in the cafe in Barcelona, wherever he went, and then subjected them to intense investigations through the style of the moment.

Thus, only four years after the primitivism of the Self-portrait with a palette, comes this high point of analytical cubism, a portrait of the German art historian and collector, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Apparently the poor man sat for it on over 20 occasions. On reflection, this suggests the effort Picasso put into his cubist compositions. Later works don’t often match this amount of labour.

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, autumn 1910 by Pablo Picasso (1910) Art Institute of Chicago © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, autumn 1910 by Pablo Picasso (1910) Art Institute of Chicago © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Olga Khokhlova

It’s a very good idea to have grouped the works into themes; it brings structure to what sometimes threatens to become an overwhelming inundation of images. Even in the final, very big room, containing maybe thirty-plus works, they have been carefully arranged into pairs or trios which the (excellently informative) audioguide compares and contrasts, to bring out Picasso’s use of different approaches for different subjects. I think the show has been excellently curated, arranged and displayed.

An obvious place where this grouping pays dividends is in the room devoted to Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s first wife. She was a dancer with the Ballets Russes when Picasso met her in Rome in 1917, on a commission to create the set and designs for a production of Eric Satie’s ballet, Parade. (It is fascinating to learn that dwelling among Italian architecture for a few months had a classicising effect on Picasso’s style and that this was well-suited to Olga’s own classical, symmetrical good looks and her litheness and elegance as a trained dancer.)

The room contains several busts of her, as well as photos. In a darkened side room 4 minutes of silent black and white home movies of Pablo, Olga and their dogs play on a loop. But it is three major paintings which dominate.

My favourite is Olga in an Armchair, painted in 1917. In fact it was based on a photo (in the show). I like the way it is realistic but unfinished. I like her doll-like expression. Five years later, this portrait of Olga in a brown dress is recognisably the same person, but with something of the blankness of the eyes from the 1906 self-portrait.

Portrait of Olga Picasso by Pablo Picasso (1923) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Portrait of Olga Picasso by Pablo Picasso (1923) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

None of these pretty traditional depictions prepare you for the leap to this 1935 portrait. The commentary goes heavy on a biographical interpretation, pointing out that by this stage the marriage was on the rocks and Olga had become withdrawn and depressed, anxious not only about her philandering husband, but about her family who were suffering badly in Stalin’s Russia.

Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso (1935) Musée national d’art moderne Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d'art moderne / Centre de création industrielle © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso (1935) Musée national d’art moderne Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Just as interesting or valid, is to see it through the prism of Picasso’s attempts to find a semi-abstract style adequate to the troubled times, with Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin in power. The following year the Spanish Civil war would break out and the strangely childish, half-abstract depiction of the human (and animal) figures would reach its apotheosis in the famous political painting, Guernica.

The very first wall label explains that Picasso’s main subject for most of his career was the human figure and that the majority of portraits are of single figures, not groups.

Women as muse

The big room at the end of the exhibition contains works from the 1930s to the 1970s and is a bit overwhelming. the grouping methodology works well to introduce and compare works on a similar theme or of the same person.

Most if not all the portraits in this final room are of women. The internet supplies a handy list of the main women in his colourful love life, and the dates of their involvement:

  • Fernande Olivier (1904 to 1911)
  • Eva Gouel (1912 to her death in 1915)
  • Olga Khokhlova (married 1918, to her death in 1955, mother of Paulo)
  • Marie-Thérèse Walter (1927 to 1935, mother of Maya)
  • Dora Maar (1936 to 1944)
  • Françoise Gilot (1944 to 1953, mother of Claude and Paloma)
  • Geneviève Laporte (during the 1950s)

Marie-Thérèse was ‘the first blonde’ he’d had an affair with and his works of her are full of a golden yellow. This last room opens with

Having closely inspected a dozen or more caricatures, cartoons and comic sketches tends to bring out the cartoonish elements in this painting: the cartoon eye and face, the half-hearted attempt at the hands (more like cats paws), the two breasts thrown in, just in case. As the commentary says this is one of countless brightly coloured works which draw comparison for its emphasis in colour and design with his great contemporary and rival, Matisse.

Dora Maar and the war

But, in this selection at any rate, it’s Dora Maar who makes more of an impression. She was his inspiration from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936) to the Liberation of France (1944) and the images of her accentuate nerviness, worry and anguish. She is represented in many works of the time which show a woman weeping.

I assume there’s a word for this style – the style of weeping woman and Guernica, but I don’t know what it is. Here is Dora with her face contorted into a corkscrew of anguish, and the brilliant detail of her blood red nails gripping the chair rests like a harpy.

Woman in a Hat, 9 June 1941 by Pablo Picasso (1941) Musée Picasso, Paris. © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016 © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée Picasso de Paris) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Woman in a Hat, 9 June 1941 by Pablo Picasso (1941) Musée Picasso, Paris. © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016 © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée Picasso de Paris) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

In the creative and thought-provoking manner of this exhibition, this painting is hung next to a contemporaneous one of Nusch Éluard, performer, model and wife of the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard.

Apparently she was thin and lithe to begin with – she had at one time been a street performer. But the commentary emphasises that the grey palette and flat chest are emphasising the grim atmosphere and privations of wartime Paris under the Nazis, a time of collaboration, fear and torture. The commentary compares the expressionist angst of the first image with the more romantic pathos of the second; but neither word really seems adequate to describe the mood of each painting.

Again, the ideas of caricature and simplification, so firmly established at the start of the exhibition, seem more useful reference points.

Dialogue with tradition

Towards the end the exhibition focuses on works in which the ageing Picasso consciously engaged with the tradition of Western art. There’s a series of painting based on the Las meninas of Spain’s greatest artist, Velasquez, and etchings which evoke or depict Raphael, and Rembrandt.

Raphael is referenced in cartoonish spoofs of Ingres’ painting Raphael and La Fornarina (1814). This shows the great Renaissance painter Raphael (well known, apparently, for his love affairs) with his mistress on his lap. In 1968, at the age of 87, Pablo Picasso created a series of twenty five pornographic etchings inspired by the legend of Raphael and La Fornarina.

We know from his biography that Picasso was a virile, highly sexed man, with a string of wives and mistresses, strongly inspired, in fact almost exclusively devoted to depictions of the human body in countless styles and ways. But only in his old age did he either feel confident enough, or was society finally ‘liberated’ enough, for him to create images of the penis, and they abound in these etchings.

An embarrassment of riches

This is a brilliant, well organised, informative and beautiful exhibition. Everywhere you turn there is something new to laugh at or marvel at. What a giant! With a subject as rich as this there are numerous ways to slice through it, to analyse it, countless threads to follow:

  • to go chronologically and watch him evolve through his styles
  • to take each piece in its own right and judge them on their use of colour, composition, lines and angles
  • to dwell on the biographical context – on the soap opera of his numerous lovers and muses
  • to catch references to earlier painters who Picasso revered such as Velázquez and Rembrandt, and enjoy the jokes and variations on themes
  • to focus on the self-portrait as a distinct genre, with reference to the traditions’ great masters and how Picasso twisted it out of recognition – Picasso self portraits aged 18, 25 and 90

Sex and style

At several moments the commentary mentioned the ‘mystery’ of a work and its impact. Although I appreciated the breath-taking brilliance of many of the works here, I wasn’t moved by many. In fact I think the mystery of Picasso’s art is the way there is no mystery about it. Because it is so rooted on the human figure and on private individuals there is little or nothing to say about the depiction of history or politics in them, there are no landscapes and little or no wildlife or plants or flowers. All these really is is his biography, which often boils down to an account of the women in his life, pretty logically, since so many of his works are portraits of the current woman in his life.

And sex. One of the earliest private caricatures is a pretty explicit depiction of one of his Barcelona friends and a courtesan, and the notion of virility and masculinity runs beneath all these depictions of women until it emerges in the pornographic etchings late in life. It’s not difficult to associate the sexual act with the creative act, or the sexual urge with the creative urge.

Since the post-structuralist turn in critical theory around 1970 (in the work of French writers like Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault) sex – and especially its academically respectable form, ‘desire’ – have invaded large parts of critical and aesthetic thought. And feminist theory’s focus on the wrongs of men and the injustices suffered by women have given rise to plenty of ‘revisionist’ accounts of Picasso’s often brutal and manipulative relationships with women. Fine.

These are just some of the ways critics attempt to give a meaning to Picasso’s work, to kind of ground or root it in something apart from itself. But although I think this is a major and very successful exhibition, and confirms the extraordinary breadth and range of Picasso’s styles and visions, for me, ultimately, it confirmed the sense that there is no ‘mystery’ about Picasso’s art because there is no depth.

It is pure art in the sense that it is about the style itself. The restless moving from one style to another, the countless variations and iterations of new methods and approaches – and the hurried lack of completion of so many of the works, particularly the slapdash late works – these all bespeak a lack of concern about ‘truth’, or ‘finish’ or ‘completeness’ or ‘depth’ or ‘meaning’.

The art works may well be, at a superficial level, ‘about’ this or that man or woman in this or that mood or setting – and scholars can flesh out each piece with background information, biographical context and so on. But these works seem to me to be much more ‘about’ the act of creation, about being an artist, about ‘arting’. More than any other artist I know Picasso’s art is ‘about’ the act of creating art, it rejoices in the endless fecundity of its own creativity.

Videos

The National Portrait Gallery has produced some useful introductory videos:

In this one critic Sarfraz Manzoor picks his five highlights from the show.

Related links

South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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