BP Portrait Award 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

The exhibition

The BP portrait competition is in its 38th year. This year it received 2,580 entries by artists from 87 countries around the world. The judges selected a short list of 53 portraits and these are on display at the National Portrait in London. (Entry is FREE so there’s no excuse for not popping in, even for ten minutes.)

From this short list the judges then selected a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize, along with a Young artist and Travel award. There are wall panels next to each painting giving some background to the artist and the sitter. The prize winners have an extra panel explaining what the judges liked about these particular works enough to award them prizes.

Undiverse

Even though there are exactly the same number of works as last year, this year’s exhibition felt somehow smaller to me. The overall standard is still immensely impressive – anybody would be proud to have painted any one of these works – but, taken together, there seemed a bit less variety than I remember from previous years.

For example, having gone round several times, I realised that in the 53 works there were only four black people and one Asian person depicted, plus one painting which showed a Syrian refugee mother and child. That appeared to be ‘it’ in terms of diversity – odd because art galleries are, by and large, hotbeds of political correctness.

The exhibition publicity emphasises that entries come from 87 countries, but you couldn’t really have told just by looking at them. The Syrian refugees were the only people who looked remotely ‘foreign’. And maybe a portrait of an old black guy who looks like he’s from the American Deep South.

So 1. The show feels overwhelmingly white and English.

Reading the wall labels about the artist and the sitter, I quickly got bored of reading that the sitter was a ‘friend’ of the artist and, more often than not, themselves a fellow artist, or writer, or poet, or musician.

2. The subjects were not only predominantly white, but overwhelmingly members of the white, liberal, creative & artistic community.

I began to find this white, middle-class, bien-pensant milieu a bit stifling. Where are the foreigners, the Africans and Asians and Latinos, the manual labourers, the working class, the immigrants – or the rich and arrogant bankers, the oligarchs, their helicopter pilots and security guards, the teeming multicultural masses of the modern United Kingdom and the other 86 countries who sent in entries? Not in this final selection.

The prize winners

This narrowness was confirmed by a look at the prize winners. Four out of the five are portraits of women (the fifth is of a boy). No men. And the judges’ comments on the winners were, I thought revealing. First prize was Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, a portrait of the artist’s wife.

‘The judges appreciated the tenderness and intimacy of Sullivan’s composition, evoking Madonna and Child paintings through the ages and the depth of the maternal bond.’

Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, 2017 © Benjamin Sullivan

Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, 2017 © Benjamin Sullivan

Second prize went to Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann (November 2016), another portrait of the artist’s wife.

‘The judges appreciated the artist’s refined and detailed technique, which adds to the subject’s sense of stillness, strength and serenity.’

Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann, 2016 © Thomas Ehretsmann

Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann, 2016 © Thomas Ehretsmann

Third prize went to Emma by Antony Williams (March 2016), a long-term sitter for the artist.

‘The judges felt that the artist’s intimate and distinctive technique lends the sitter’s form an almost sculptural density and solidity.’

Emma by Antony Williams, 2016 © Antony Williams

Emma by Antony Williams, 2016 © Antony Williams

The Young Artist award went to Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane (2017), another portrait of the artist’s partner.

‘The judges felt that this sensitive painting captures a moment in time and a casual, fleeting expression, rather than the ‘held’ pose more usual in formal portrait painting.’

Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane, 2017 © Henry Christian-Slane

Gabi by Henry Christian-Slane, 2017 © Henry Christian-Slane

So: the winners were four completely realistic oil portraits of white women painted by their husbands or partners, which demonstrate tenderness, intimacy, stillness, serenity, more intimacy and sensitivity. Pretty narrow set of subjects. Pretty narrow set of aesthetic values.

Even in terms of age the subjects all come from the same narrow range – white women in their thirties.

Very samey, don’t you think? Not really any of the ‘diversity’, a quality which London galleries normally bend over backwards to demonstrate.

Ones I liked

By contrast let me share some of the paintings I liked. (They were all paintings. I was disappointed not to see any sculptures or videos until I looked up the prize rules:

  • The work entered must be predominantly painted in oil, tempera or acrylic and must be on a stretcher or board, preferably framed and unglazed. No watercolours, works on paper or pastels will be considered.
  • The work entered should be a painting based on a sitting or study from life and the human figure must predominate.
  • Self-portraits and group portraits are permitted.)

Looking carefully again and again, trying to identify favourites and figure out why, made me really notice how very many of the entries are not just realistic but have a photographic realism.

1. Men

Tough though Honest Thomas looks, he is in fact not only a friend of the artist but an artist in his own right, who makes hand-crafted leather objects.

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson, 2017 © Alan Coulson

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson, 2017 © Alan Coulson

Delfin is a portrait of the artist’s father. This might be the only time I’ve ever seen those myriad little shaving cuts which are so common in real life, and which older men are particularly liable to, depicted in a ‘work of art’.

Delfin (1936) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2016 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa

Delfin (1936) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2016 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa

This is another portrait which could be a photograph and is immensely flavoursome. Matt is, as usual, a friend of the artist, and, as usual, is himself an artist, musician and actor.

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon, 2016 © Martyn Burdon

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon, 2016 © Martyn Burdon

Lucy Stopford’s portrait of Dr Tim Moreton is a rare exception to the photographic realism of most of the works. It is the only one which gestures to any of the twentieth century’s non-realistic artistic styles or inventions. I liked it for that alone. As to the subject, Tim was registrar at the National Portrait Gallery, arranged for Lucy to see a portrait which was not on display, and they became friends. In other words, another white art world insider.

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford, 2016 © Lucy Stopford

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford, 2016 © Lucy Stopford

There is a thread in post-war British art which depicts the human subject with a kind of unforgiving ‘honesty’, which focuses on the helpless humanity of the sitter and dwells on their pasty unattractiveness. Ideally the sitter is part undressed but not in the slightest degree sexual. Their state of undress emphasises the ‘candour’ and ‘honesty’ of the image. The image bravely captures their slack muscles, sallow skin, their pasty complexion and flaccid legs with an unflinching ‘honesty’. Generally, we are meant to be moved by the honesty and lack of glamorising of the subject. Oh, cries the painter – the humanity!

Lucien Freud was maybe the most famous exponent of this style, where the skin of white people is in fact a sour yellow interspersed with unhealthy green, the cruelly-exposed body is a thing of pallor and varicose veins. It amounts to a ‘corpse look’.

This portrait of Antonio Lopez seems to me slap bang in the middle of this tradition.

Antonio López by Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba, 2017 © Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba

Antonio López by Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba, 2017 © Jorge Abbad-Jaime de Aragón Córdoba

(And reminds me of the half-nakedness and deliberate green & yellow-coloured flesh tones of the prize winner, Breech! It’s a popular look.)

In fact this is a characteristic work in a number of ways:

  • the corpse look
  • photographic realism
  • close personal relationship with the artist – Lopez is one of Spain’s most renowned realist painters and the artist, de Aragon, was for some time his assistant.

And there’s one other aspect – see how grim the sitter looks. Not only does his body look dead, but so does his facial expression. The human face is capable of hundreds of facial expressions which we are quick to read and interpret. It was looking at grim Antonio which made me realise that none of the people in any of these paintings has any facial expression at all. It is an exhibition of zombies.

Here’s a portrait of Lemn Sissay who is, by now I was not surprised to learn, a writer and poet. It stands out in this exhibition simply for not being a portrait of a middle-class white person. The orange polo neck jumper and big necklace come from a different zone, a different tradition, as does his hair. The ensemble makes for a striking image.

Lemn Sissay by Fiona Graham-Mackay, 2016 © Fiona Graham-Mackay

Lemn Sissay by Fiona Graham-Mackay, 2016 © Fiona Graham-Mackay

2. Women

Simona is a friend of the artist’s. The painting of her has that deliberately frail, vulnerable vibe found in many of these portraits. Lots of women, across social media and the press, nowadays seem to regard wearing no make-up as a revolutionary and subversive strategy. #nomakeup. Which means my mother was a revolutionary subversive most of her life. The lack of make-up certainly contributes to the sense of vulnerability, to an air of plaintive helplessness.

Simona by Lukáš Betinský, 2017 © Lukáš Betinský

Simona by Lukáš Betinský, 2017 © Lukáš Betinský

This plaintiveness is there in the four award-winning portraits all of which show women au naturel. Maybe I’m making it up but there’s a kind of begging quality to this kind of unvarnished, vulnerable, un-made-up image of women – ‘Look at me, how fragile, helpless and vulnerable I am – but also how honest, how uncompromising’.

But mostly what I notice is how unsmiling this image is. I double checked to see if it’s against the rules to depict someone smiling but no, it’s not mentioned there. It must just be a very widespread convention, a feeling among all these artists, that a serious painting must look serious. That an artistic portrait must be unsmiling, unfrowning, un-doing anything. We live in an era of blank faces.

The subject of this one, Pen Vogier, is, as usual, a friend of the artist’s and, somewhat inevitably, herself a writer, a food historian and a bibliophile. The most obvious feature of the image is the sheeny, shiny yellow dress, rendered with the kind of bright, harsh, metallic finish which reminded me a bit of Tamara de Lempicka. Note the stern expression. Being a bibliophile is obviously a serious business. No laughs in these books.

Pen Vogler by John Burke, 2016 © John Burke

Pen Vogler by John Burke, 2016 © John Burke

According to the wall label the subject of this next portrait, Tabitha, is herself an artist (natch) who struggled with infertility. Tabitha won the Liverpool Art Prize in 2013 ‘for her work documenting her infertility and the eventual birth of Gilda.’ The painter, Hero, is a friend of hers who has also been working on ‘an ongoing artwork’ documenting the process of Tabitha’s pregnancy and the birth of Gilda.

So this is a portrait of an artist who has already won a prize for her portrayal of herself and her struggles, by her artist friend who has been short-listed for a national prize for this portrayal of the award-winning artist.

I am well aware that I am meant to be feeling moved by the sensitivity and candour of the expression on Tabitha’s face, and moved by the story of her battle against infertility, and moved by her eventual triumph, and moved by the figure of sweet little Gilda, nestled asleep against her chest. I have nestled my own little girl against my chest countless times. I know the feeling.

But I have a strong sense of being manipulated. The portrait’s ‘honesty’ and ‘candour’ are utterly conventional. This is the standard stereotyped modern look – stripped down, no make-up, quotidien female humanity in its tough pathos and unflinching vulnerability.

This ‘look’ is to our age what winsome maidens were to Victorian sentimental art – the standard identikit mood.

Tabitha Moses with Gilda, Liverpool by Hero Johnson, 2017 © Hero Johnson

Tabitha Moses with Gilda, Liverpool by Hero Johnson, 2017 © Hero Johnson

The ultimate way for an artist to paint someone close to the artist is to do a self-portrait. Ania is a self portrait of the artist. It records a period of artistic block. I like lines and abstracts so I ought to like the 45 degree orange floor, but for me any vibrancy is eclipsed by the moody misery-guts of the human figure, morosely pushing away the bowl of fruit. ‘I’m so depressed.’

Ania by Ania Hobson, 2016 © Ania Hobson

Ania by Ania Hobson, 2016 © Ania Hobson

Here’s a painting of a sulky teenager. As the owner of two sulky teenagers I recognise the pose and the vibe. It’s yet another stunningly realistic painting which could easily be mistaken for a photograph. The (anonymous) sitter is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

86 (Rhyming Slang for Worth Nix) by Janne Kearney, 2016 © Janne Kearney

86 (Rhyming Slang for Worth Nix) by Janne Kearney, 2016 © Janne Kearney

3. Children

Cecilia is a stunning portrait of the artist’s grand-daughter. Presumably she was told not to smile.

Cecilia by Madeline Fenton, 2016 © Madeline Fenton

Cecilia by Madeline Fenton, 2016 © Madeline Fenton

This is the winner of the BP Travel Award – Jack by Caspar White. Jack is the artist’s nephew. God forbid he should smile. ‘Look serious, boy. This is art!’ It’s very visible brushstrokes are a welcome change to the immaculately photographic surfaces of so many of the works.

Jack by Casper White, 2017 © Casper White

Jack by Casper White, 2017 © Casper White

4. Group portraits

I think there are only two group portraits in the show. Why so few? Group composition is, self evidently, more complex than just plonking one person down in front of you – where are they sitting/standing, what should they be doing, if something is going on what are their responses, their expressions?

In this case (Society, below), as in every single other portrait in the exhibition, nothing is happening and none of them are smiling or showing any flicker of expression.

And, as usual, it is a portrait of some of the artist’s friends, in this case from the Ruskin School of Art. It is also notable for including a rare depiction of a non-white person.

Society by Khushna, 2016 © Khushna

Society by Khushna, 2016 © Khushna

The Levinsons is (I think) the only other group portrait. It stood out visually because you don’t see this kind of chiaroscuro light anywhere any more, in our electrically-lit world. A 21st century family done in the style of Rembrandt.

The Levinsons by Rupert Alexander, 2016 © Rupert Alexander

The Levinsons by Rupert Alexander, 2016 © Rupert Alexander

5. My favourites

I had three distinct favourites. In this kind of show (like the Royal Academy Summer exhibition) I define a ‘favourite’ as a painting I’d actually like to own and can imagine hanging on my wall.

Corinne was one of my three favourite images, not because she’s black (a rare exception in the show) but simply because her face and hair create a different shape from the scores of other very samey, white people with white person hairdos. It’s no surprise that this is one of the exhibition posters and on the cover of the book of the exhibition – it is an exceptional and exceptionally vivid likeness. The combination of the round nose and forehead with the straight black quiff create a bit of tension and visual dynamic which is generally absent from most of the other paintings.

That said, Corinne is a musician and songwriter in her own right and, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Corinne by Anastasia Pollard, 2016 © Anastasia Pollard

Corinne by Anastasia Pollard, 2016 © Anastasia Pollard

Nikki was probably my favourite painting in the whole show – a stunningly realistic depiction of a woman I feel I know or have met and who is just about to start talking, who has a wonderfully appealing air of maturity and experience. I kept returning to this one. The pink top helps. The scraggly hair is a realistic detail. But it is the light glistening on her eyes and the just-parted lips which seduced me.

Nikki is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Nikki by John Borowicz, 2016 © John Borowicz

Nikki by John Borowicz, 2016 © John Borowicz

Jessica is another stunningly realistic image. I just found it overwhelmingly there. The light falling from the left, the shadow created on the wall and across her face. Also, on examination, the way her mild green top brings out the same green in the floral wallpaper behind her and the blue strands of the wallpaper bring out her blue eyes. The fineness of the little silver chain and locket. And when you look up close, the way the inside of her arms is pale while the outside is brown and freckled, like so many light-skinned English people. I found this really hauntingly beautiful. Absorbing.

Jessica is, of course, a friend of the artist’s.

Jessica by Laura Quinn Harris, 2017 © Laura Quinn Harris

Jessica by Laura Quinn Harris, 2017 © Laura Quinn Harris

Photographs

All the portraits are in oil and acrylic; none of them are actually photographs. But a surprising number of them looked like photographs. Apart from the one ‘modernist’ portrait of Tim Moreton, none of the works really acknowledged that there had been a twentieth century in art – Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Warhol, Klee, Schiele, the Expressionists or Surrealists, it was as if none of them had ever lived or left their mark on the art of the portrait. The only artist whose influence I could see was the livid flesh tones of Lucien Freud’s corpse-people. Other than that the strongest influence seemed to be the photograph.

I wonder if the super-powerful cameras everyone now possesses in their mobile phones are killing art. People will carry on painting till the cows come home. But Picasso wandered round Paris with Picasso images in his head. Paul Klee’s imagination was left relatively untouched to fantasise about his scratchy cartoon people. Whereas a modern person is bombarded not only by advertising hoardings, movies and TV, but by friends ‘sharing’ photos of themselves and the kids on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and a hundred other digital programs.

It’s not that we’re being bombarded with images – that’s obvious. And it’s not just that these tend to be images of the human face. My point is that we are being bombarded by photographically realistic images of the human face, and that this is having a corrosive effect on the human imagination.

As if the space to conceive of the human face and body in alternative ways, in unorthodox geometries or garish colours, is being systematically closed down. I don’t own a smart phone because I dislike their creeping invasion of people’s time and minds. They seem to me to be enforcing an insidious, creeping conformity of vision.

It’s just a personal speculation, but I wonder if smart phones are destroying the artistic imagination. I wonder if the ubiquity of their extraordinarily high resolution cameras is killing off any non-naturalistic ways of seeing the world and – in particular and as this exhibition has promoted me to wonder – of seeing the human face.

Conclusion

The National Portrait Gallery’s BP 2017 Portrait exhibition felt less varied than last year.

It felt overwhelmingly white.

With only one exception I can remember, the portraits are all highly traditional and realistic, many of them almost photographic in their accuracy.

Almost all the sitters seemed to be friends or family of the artist – and most of them were artists or musicians or poets in their own right.

What about the designers, engineers, doctors and nurses, electricians, builders, chefs, policemen, soldiers, sailors and candlestick makers which make up our society, the postmen and plumbers, the lorry drivers and checkout girls, the bankers and insurance brokers, the mortgage brokers and estate agents, the PR and press and communications and engagement officers, the school inspectors and bus drivers, the journalists and cameramen, the beauticians and masseurs, the personal trainers, the footballers and cricketers and rugby players and pentathletes, the carers and nursery nurses, the oil rig workers and tour operators, the civil servants and solicitors, the security officers and prison warders and social workers who live and work among us?

Not one is here.

Let alone the more obvious, politically correct categories like immigrants, people of all sorts of colour (Asian, Chinese, South American), the mentally ill, the disabled, the injured or disfigured, the flamboyantly gay or lesbian or trans…

Or just the flamboyant and theatrical and made-up and snazzily dressed, period – models and actors and Essex girls and lads on the pull and people who’ve had cosmetic surgery and ended up looking like fish – any one of the thousands of types and categories of weird and wonderful people who populate this wacky planet?

None.

What about depicting some of the 21 facial indications which scientists have recently tabulated and defined? Smiling, smirking, frowning, laughing, shouting, burping – expressing anger, surprise, happiness, fear, hate, disbelief, awe, respect, astonishment? Or actions involving the face like putting your hand over your mouth, over your eyes, picking your nose, cupping a hand to your ear, sticking out your tongue, closing your eyes, winking, staring, eating, drinking…?

Nada. Nichts.

From this exhibition you would deduce that the world is a white world populated entirely by artists, artists’s wives, artists’ friends, musicians, poets, actors and yet more artists, none of whom ever wear anything interesting or have any facial expressions. A world of unsmiling white zombies.

Beautifully depicted, many stunning works – but of such a narrow world. Minuscule. Microscopic.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

An Artistic Affair @ the Stanley Spencer Gallery

Stanley Spencer

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was a highly original, not to say quirky, English artist who, after his student days at London’s Slade School of Art, returned to his childhood village of Cookham and spent the rest of his life there painting powerfully ‘naive’ and vivid depictions of his life and surroundings.

Spencer’s sometimes distorted, sometimes cartoonish paintings mingle everyday village life with visionary Christian belief in a peculiar and haunting way: thus his famous painting of Christ preaching to a flock of modern day Cookhamites on the towpath of the River Thames, or his vision of the dead in Cookham churchyard rising from their graves.

Spencer had a number of distinct styles. In one mode he painted unflinching images of himself and the women in his life bare-naked.

In more cartoon mode, Spencer painted a host of images in which the (dressed) human characters are sometimes humorously, sometimes hauntingly distorted.

Stanley was unlucky in love. His first marriage, to Hilda Carline, fell apart when he became infatuated with neighbour Patricia Pearse. Hilda, forced to move out of their Cookham house, began divorce proceedings in 1937. Spencer married Pearse but their relationship quickly faltered. In 1938 Spencer retreated to live by himself live in Southwold, painting The Beatitudes of Live, a series about mis-matched couples. The emotional subject matter – the mismatch of feelings, the challenge of love – is reflected in the gruesome distortion of the figures.

One of the best paintings in the exhibition is a study of Hilda and daughter, Unity, who he went to see around the time she divorced him. Hilda’s face captures an expression of real hurt and upset, and the black eyes of the dolls make a terrifying contrast with the innocence of young Unity’s face.

Daphne Charlton

It was at this rocky period in his emotional life that he encountered Daphne Charlton. Born in 1909 and thus 18 years younger than Stanley, Daphne was already married to George Charlton, who had been her tutor at the Slade School of Art. Stanley went to stay at the Charltons’ home in Hampstead, London, and they began an affair. This wonderful exhibition – An Artistic Affair – at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, depicts and explores their affair, which lasted from 1939 to 1941.

Daphne (1940) by Stanley Spencer

Daphne (1940) by Stanley Spencer

(The exhibition features a display case housing the decorative blouse, jaunty black hat and Chinese bowl depicted in his striking 1940 portrait of Daphne.)

The exhibition brings together some 40 paintings, along with important examples of Stanley’s sketchbook. There’s a catalogue, a short guide to the exhibition and a 20-minute video featuring reminiscences of people who knew Stanley and Daphne. It’s worth visiting the show just to see this video which captures the homely innocence of Stanley’s art and the essentially comic aspect of his tangled love life. Daphne emerges as a big woman in every sense, who talked all the time, disagreed with everyone, and had, as she herself explained, ‘absolutely no inhibitions’.

Poor George Charlton had to put up with the fact his wife was having an affair, but it doesn’t seem to have been that unusual for her, and doesn’t seem to have affected his friendship with Stanley. Somehow, more civilised times.

Anyway, the real point of the affair is the works it inspired both Stanley and Daphne herself to produce. The Stanley Spencer Gallery is a converted Methodist chapel consisting of one room with steps up to a balcony level. This is a wonderfully light airy space in which to enjoy the artistic output of their affair.

As you’d expect there are a number of striking portraits of Daphne by Stanley, some portraits of Stanley by Daphne, and a winning self-portrait by poor George.

In July 1939, the trio of artists left for a painting holiday in the rural village of Leonard Stanley, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. Here they stayed at the ‘White Hart Inn’, which now has a plaque in honour of Spencer. There are a number of paintings from the Leonard Stanley period, including a characteristically distorted vision of the two lovers lying on a tiger skin.

While in Leonard Stanley, Stanley bought some blank notebooks and began to make sketches of figures from his complex love life – Hilda, Daphne, Patricia and himself – in a variety of settings, domestic and in public e.g. in shops or village high streets. Daphne features largely throughout and we can see her going about everyday tasks from dressmaking to cutting Stanley’s nails and fitting his shoes on. By setting sketches next to finished works, the show allows us to see how these preliminary sketches were often worked up into paintings.

Fetching Shoes, sketch by Stanley Spencer

Fetching Shoes, sketch by Stanley Spencer

For example the wool shop, was the first painting to be derived from a Scrapbook drawing. In the picture, the high-spirited, curvaceous Daphne, with a mane of fair hair, is buying wool, assisted by a diminutive Stanley. Spencer’s love of pattern and repeated motifs is seen in the bales of cloth on the shelves, and the convoluted skeins of wool that appear to take on a life of their own.

The Woolshop (1939)

The Woolshop (1939)

One painting, Village Life, depicts Stanley, Daphne and Stanley’s first wife Hilda, in  the same setting. This is a) purely imaginary, the two women never met b) worked up from a notebook sketch which we can compare and contrast with the final painting c) exemplifies Stanley’s timidity – he is smaller than both the female figures.

Many of Spencer’s paintings are an acquired taste. The realistic ones – such as Hilda and Unity or some of his nudes or his brilliant early self portrait (1914) – are readily likable. But at the opposite extreme the more distorted ones, like the Beatitudes of Love, are a stronger flavour and maybe harder to admire. Somewhere in the middle are the numerous works depicting people as stylised tube-like, sloping figures, including the ones which feature in Christ preaching or the Resurrection or countless other earlier depictions of Christ in Cookham.

Standing quite to one side of all these depictions of people, are Stanley’s landscapes. By and large these are much simpler and easier to like. There are several lovely examples in the exhibition, painted during the trio’s stay in Leonard Stanley.

They’re reminiscent of Paul Nash’s country paintings, in their stylised beauty, and maybe distant cousins of Eric Ravilious’s pastoral vision of 1930s England. This was the least expected part of the exhibition and made me wish for a show devoted entirely to Spencer’s landscapes and country paintings, if such a thing were possible.

As the affair with Daphne came to an end in 1941, Stanley found her ebullience and energy increasingly smothering. ‘I can’t work when she’s here,’ he complained.

The exhibition video includes a reminiscence from a lady who, as a young girl, remembers Stanley bursting through the front door and crying to her mother, ‘Hide me, hide me, Daphne’s coming,’ and watching her mother take Stanley through to a back room where they stored apples, hide him, lock the door and be back in the parlour by the time the imperious Daphne arrived. ‘Have you seen Stanley?’ the Amazon demanded. ‘Yes, I saw him going towards the common,’ came the lying reply.

It all feels like an episode of Dad’s Army and bespeaks a fundamental simplicity and innocence. This is a hilarious and beautiful and inspiring exhibition.


Video of the Stanley Spencer Gallery

Related links

Other Stanley Spencer-related reviews

Giacometti @ Tate Modern

Giacometti was born in 1901 in an Alpine village in Switzerland, the son of a post-impressionist painter.

His subject was always and only the human face and body. This massive exhibition of some 250 sculptures, sketches, paintings and a video of the great man at work, is the largest retrospective of Giacometti for a generation. And in it there was only one object I could see which wasn’t a human body or face – one solitary non-human entity – a dog.

The first room is full of naturalistic busts of friends and family he made as a precocious teenager and continued to make throughout his life.

The second room shows his turn from naturalism to incorporate the interest in non-European sculpture, of Oceanic and African art which arrived in Paris in the 1900s, filtered through modernist sensibilities like Brancusi.

This was my favourite room because, for good or ill, one of my favourite styles is the Vorticist, the angular, the virile and energetic clash of abstract forms and volumes in sculptors like Gaudier-Brzeska or Jacob Epstein.

Like everyone else in the 1930s he got caught up in the Surrealist movement, joining the group in 1932 and participating in exhibitions, group photographs, contributing to their magazines. A display case shows numerous art and literature magazines from the period.

The sudden German attack on France in May 1940 caught Giacometti in Switzerland and he spent most of the war in a hotel room in Geneva. In 1943 he met his wife-to-be, Annette Arm, working for the Red Cross. She became his most important female model. Partly due to the lack of material, Giacometti’s war sculptures are often small. He himself said he was transfixed by seeing a friend of his quite a distance down the Boulevard Saint-Michel and realising how small she looked. He was trying to capture that sense of distance, of dwindling, which brings with it an enormous poignancy. He is quoted as saying:

By doing something half a centimetre high, you are more likely to get a sense of the universe than if you try to do the whole sky.

Certainly, one of my favourite pieces in the whole show was ‘Very small figurine’, a spindly human figure about a centimetre tall. It does give a sense of tremendous distance, like a figure lost in a science fiction fantasy.

In 1945 he returned to set up a studio in Paris and began to produce the elongated, emaciated, human stick figures for which he quickly became well-known and then world famous. Bereft of individuality, their surfaces the opposite of smooth, gouged and hand-shaped, roughly finished, helpless spindly shades, they instantly struck a chord. Contemporary commentators interpreted them as:

  • survivors of the Holocaust
  • survivors of the atom bomb – certainly the jet black colour of the metal casts gives the impression of humans who have been incinerated and reduced to something less than skeletons
  • survivors of the complete collapse of values in western civilisation

An exhibition in New York in 1948 had an introductory essay written by Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher-superstar of the era, which clinched Giacometti’s reputation as the artist who summed up the turmoil and collapse of the post-war world. Sartre used key words from his existentialist philosophy like ‘anguish’ and ‘alienation’, but you didn’t have to read the essay to feel how Giacometti’s figurines represented humanity reduced to degree zero.

Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the 1956 Venice Biennale (Archives of the Giacometti Foundation)

Alberto Giacometti and his sculptures at the 1956 Venice Biennale (Archives of the Giacometti Foundation)

Giacometti had found his look, his voice, his brand, and he stuck to it for the twenty years up to his death in 1966, producing figurines large and small, some in bronze, some in the raw plaster, some in clay, some striding or bent in movement but most of them tall and straight, mute witnesses to some awful catastrophe.

He was as representative of that time and place and era in European culture as his friends Sartre and Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett. Humanity redux, homo minimus, man and woman stripped not only bare, but stripped of their flesh and fat and bones, burnt away to their irreducible elemental structure.

Alongside the figurines went his portrait paintings. Giacometti produced hundreds of these, obsessive variations on the same full frontal facial pose, many of his close friends and family, but most of  his wife, Annette, and then during the 1960s of his new young mistress, Caroline.

Not so long ago I went to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of scores of these Giacometti portraits. I hate to be a philistine but once you’ve seen a few of them, it does feel like you’ve seen them all. Once you’ve got the image, received its parameters, its technique, its aim and its impact – seeing another 5, 10, 20 or 30 doesn’t add much.

In fact, after a while the interest, in the portraits as of the figurines, is their obsessive repetitiveness. Giacometti lived on into the era of radio and then TV documentaries and so there are quite a few films of him at work and being interviewed. He routinely admits that he is never satisfied with a work – he has to start again, try again, keep on.

Reading several expressions of this dissatisfaction reminded me of the famous quote from Samuel Beckett’s play Worstward Ho:

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Of course, the exhibition is followed by the shop where you can buy not only books, postcards, posters and fridge magnets, but mugs, t-shirts, carry bags and pillows bearing Giacometti images. Not so harrowing now, his imagery has been totally assimilated into the great shopping mall of art history, the vast continuum of images among which we move and live.

Man Pointing (1947) by Alberto Giacometti © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Man Pointing (1947) by Alberto Giacometti © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

The Tate Modern shop had a section devoted to David Hockney, with lots of blue swimming pools, bright green foliage etc, and it occurred to me that the shift from Giacometti to Hockney – roughly from the 1950s to the 1960s – was like the move from black-and-white to colour television. It reflected the shift from austerity to a mass consumer society, to a world where growing numbers of people could not only afford televisions, but washing machines, fridge freezers, but could go on the new ‘package holidays’ to the sun, buy cheap reproductions of famous art, and so on.

One minute everyone wanted to look like Albert Camus with his collar turned up against the Paris fog, smoking a Gitane, intensely pondering the futility of existence – the next everyone wanted to be on the West Coast soaking up rays by the pool and partying every night.

The world went Pop and, overnight, Giacometti, Camus, Sartre became vivid, powerful but utterly dated figures from the black-and-white post-war moment of European history. A moment vividly and viscerally revived in this massive and evocative exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

The Fundació Joan Miró (the Joan Miró Foundation) is a museum of modern art celebrating the life and work of Spanish artist Joan Miró. It is located on the side of the Montjuïc hill south of central Barcelona in Catalonia, eastern Spain. The Foundation is part of the Barcelona Museum Pass or Articket scheme which gives you free entrance to six museums around Barcelona and, importantly, the ability to skip the long queues and walk straight in to any of them, for just 30 Euros (about £30).

Brief history of the Joan Miró Foundation

Miró was a native Barcelonan, born there in 1893. He was world famous by the time he had the idea in the late 1960s to establish a foundation to house a good cross-section of his life’s work as well as act as a research and study centre. With the help of old friends he was able to get the funding and buy some land on the side of the big hill, Montjuïc, a 20-minute walk south of the city’s famous central avenue, the Ramblas – and just round the corner from the ornately Victorian and massive Museum of Catalan Art (which is also in the Articket scheme; the well-organised art buff would make a day of doing both).

The cool white Modernist building which houses the Foundation was designed by Josep Lluís Sert (who also designed Miró’s purpose-built studio at his post-war home in Palma, Majorca). Sert’s large airy whitewashed rooms are the perfect setting for Miró’s light and colourful fantasies.

The Foundation owns some 217 of Miró’s paintings, 178 sculptures, 9 textiles, 4 ceramics, some 8,000 drawings and almost all of his prints. It’s a major venue.

Exterior of the Fundació Joan Miró

Exterior of the Fundació Joan Miró

Five euros buys you a handy audioguide which takes you through the fifteen or so rooms of the permanent collection, and includes photos contemporary with various works as well as thoughtful music to listen to while you contemplate the photos, ranging from Mozart to Stockhausen.

The rooms are in simple chronological order and give a much more complete overview of Miró’s work than the Picasso Museum (which I visited the day before) does of their subject.

Here the early rooms establish that Miró deployed a surprisingly figurative approach well into the post-war period, with many landscapes of the village of Mont-roig (Village and church of Mont-roig, 1919) and portraits, albeit done with a distinctively primitive or naive air.

Portrait of a young girl, 1919

Portrait of a young girl (1919)

Mont-roig was very important to Miro as a talisman of Catalonian peasant life, landscape and authenticity. The village is about 120 kilometers west of Barcelona, along the coast. Miro made hundreds of paintings of the landscape, people and architecture of the village which provided him with a visual vocabulary of shapes, forms and colours and a primitive approach which helped him escape from 19th century academic tradition. Today the village hosts a Miró Centre which the Miró completist should visit.

In the early 1920s Miró moved to Paris and, like so many artists before him, found in the city of light a heady air of invention and intellectual liberation. In 1924 André Breton published the first of many manifestos promoting the new movement of Surrealism. Miró found something particularly liberating about Surrealism’s combination of art and poetry. The works here suggest how extraordinarily quickly he abandoned traditional perspective and realistic depiction of figurative elements and began to experiment with a more abstract approach to line and colour.

The biggest single discovery seems to have been that a modern painting need have no perspective. It doesn’t have to be a window or a box containing things from ‘the real world’ in a ‘realistic’ relationship. There are roughly two steps in his development: In the earlier Surreal works Miró explores how objects from ‘the real world’ can be portrayed out of any context or perspective – very much the kind of random combinations which Surrealism favoured (though always in French, obviously). The wine bottle and fly are still identifiable in this transitional work.

The bottle of wine (1924)

The bottle of wine (1924)

The next stage was to realise that any shapes or marks or patterns can be presented against this undifferentiated background. Playing with any size or shape of line and experimenting with the effect produced by filling these abstract shapes with primary colours opens up a completely new world.

With one bound, his imagination was set free!

Painting (1933)

Painting (1933)

Are these people? Bodies? Moving or still? Full of anger or harmony?

What are the key elements of a Miró painting?

  • a flat wash background
  • black lines creating shapes and patterns
  • some of which are filled with blocks of unshaded primary colour, very often yellow, red or blue
  • Some of the shapes have individual lines or tufts of lines which look like hairs
  • Some of the shapes have what look like eyes which turn them into faces; probably
  • there are often star or moon-shaped figures.

It’s amazing that elements which can be described so simply turn out to be capable of generating such a vast array of combinations and variations. One room in fact contains a suite of variations, 27 drawings which play with these basic elements in a bewildering profusion of possibilities.

Also, you wouldn’t have thought such a basic approach would be capable of development, but it really is. The early Surreal works have a feel of their own, with their semi-cubist use of cafe paraphernalia (wine bottles). Some of the works from the 1930s lean towards the smooth melting surfaces of Salvador Dali. Some of the more mature works are blocky, like Painting, above. But by the 1940s and 50s he has settled on using a much thinner line, frail spindly black lines against a solid wash of primary colour, either creating closed shapes which are filled with primary red, yellow or blue, or dangle by themselves to create a kind of trailing fishing-line effect, or are self-contained objects forming child-like stars or crescent moons – as below.

The single most distinctive element is the hand-held, imperfect, spindly wavering quality of the lines. Compare and contrast with the mathematically precise shapes of contemporary Modernists like Kandinsky or Mondrian. There are hardly any dead straight lines to be seen – instead there is always a hand-drawn, child-like air to almost all of Miró’s work.

The museum nods towards Miró’s work in other formats. He experimented with fabrics and commissioned this monster tapestry, which is displayed alongside photos detailing its creation by a team of weavers.

Tapestry of the Fundació, 1979

Tapestry of the Fundació (1979)

The building is also dotted, inside and outside (in the attractive gardens and around the terraces of the building) with sculptures. Miró’s sculptures stand out from most modern sculpture because of their gaudy colours – most modern sculpture rejoices in the coarse heaviness of steel or bronze or stone; our man likes the bright primary colours of his paintings. It is odd but striking that none of the sculptures, entertaining though they are, have the same visceral impact as the shapes on a flat surface of the paintings.

Pair of lovers playing with almond blossoms (model for the sculptural group at La Défense, Paris) 1975

Pair of lovers playing with almond blossoms (model for the sculptural group at La Défense, Paris) 1975

Miró finally managed to take a long-dreamed-of trip to Japan in the 1960s where he met Japanese artists who gave him a feel for the Japanese art of calligraphy (and also the use of long, narrow canvases echoing the shape of traditional Japanese scrolls).

Calligraphy uses traditional wide brushes to paint rather thick black lines whose imperfections – where you can see the flaws and rasps in the stroke – testify to their authenticity. His later work can be seen as experiments with different sizes (and shapes) of hand-drawn lines in a generally much-pared-back approach, which has moved a long way on from the hectic, shape-filled works of the 1930s.

Two thick calligraphic brushstrokes in effect create this work, although set off by one of his trademark stars and a few blots and rasps.

Drop of water on pink snow (1968)

Drop of water on pink snow (1968)

The ‘thick brush’ approach contrasts vividly with experiments in the opposite – seeing just how much you can say with one simple slender line.

The climax of this approach can be seen in several rooms (which are in fact more like alcoves of just three walls, the fourth being open so you can walk in and out) in which are hung several of Miró’s modern triptychs. These consist of sets of three massive canvases which display experimental variations on really pared-down patterns or designs, and which date from the 1960s.

The simplest set consists of three massive white canvases each of which bears just one thin line. It’s difficult to convey how powerful, how just right, these seem. The audioguide mentions the influence of Japanese Zen philosophy – Less is more. Simplicity. Silence.

Painting on white background for the cell of a recluse (II) (1968)

Painting on white background for the cell of a recluse (II) (1968)

The next alcove along contains another triptych which plays with rather more elements than just a line, exploring the idea of a coloured blotch set off against a curved but open line, with a field of paint splatters along the bottom forming a sort of ‘shore’ or fringe.

The hope of a condemned man II (1974)

The hope of a condemned man II (1974)

Why do they work? What is it that feels not only restful and calming about them, but so right. I would pay good money to read an analysis of his art by whichever type of scientist it is that researches the science of perception, the psychology of vision, why it is that some colours, arrangements, shapes and patterns are pleasing to the eye, feel ‘right’, go deep into our pleasure centres.

Obviously there’s a lot to be written about Miró’s biography and career, his love-hate relationship with the Surrealists who never quite accepted this quiet Spanish bourgeois, about his take on their use and abuse of Freudian theories, and then on the disruptive and demoralising impact of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, as well as considerations of Miró’s personal psychological profile. (He was striving for an art which brought calm and peace and contentment to a mind which was often, by his own account, anxious and depressed – ‘Surrealism opened up a universe that soothed and justified my torment’.) But I am concentrating on the impact his works have on the viewer.

Also I was a little dismayed to be told by the audioguide just how many of the apparently abstract figures in the paintings were actually depictions of men and women and moon and stars and ladders and oceans, along with a fairly obvious analysis of what these symbols mean (the ladder motif appears in lots of works and represents escape from the violent or mundane world into a higher sphere of art and poetry etc).

I preferred to close my mind and drift among the shapes and colours in much the same way as you can lie on your back and float for hours in the warm, lulling Mediterranean Sea.

The gold of the azure (1967)

The gold of the azure (1967)

If you only have time for one museum in Barcelona, this one is much better, gives a much more comprehensive overview of its subject and contains many more wonderful paintings, than the more popular but patchy Picasso Museum.

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Picasso Museum @ Barcelona

There are Picasso Museums all over the place – Paris (where he worked), Malaga (where he was born), Antibes (where he went on holiday) – reflecting the man’s enormous fecundity and iconic fame.

There’s a Museo Picasso in Barcelona because this is where the young Picasso (born in 1881) came to study and make a name as a student and young artist before his first trip to Paris in 1900. The publicity makes much of the fact that this is the first and oldest Picasso Museum (founded in 1963), the only one set up during his lifetime (he died in 1973), and has one of the largest collections with some 4,251 works.

(It was the only cultural venue my teenage kids absolutely insisted on visiting on our recent trip to Barcelona. There was a queue though, to be honest, not as long as the ones at the London Royal Academy, let alone the monster queues at the National gallery. Nonetheless, you can skip past the queue if you buy an Articket or Barcelona Museum Pass, a collective ticket which costs 30 Euros and gets you into six Barcelona museums – Picasso, the Fundació Joan Miró, the National Museum of Catalan Art, the Centre of Contemporary Culture, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Fundació Antoni Tàpies. Not only is this good value if you can manage to visit all 6, but the Articket also lets you jump the queues at all these places, making for a much smoother experience.)

The Picasso Museum has been beautifully crafted out of several adjoining buildings in the historic Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, not far from the cathedral. The buildings are from the 13th or 14th centuries and each one has a small atrium or central open space with an external staircase going up and around the walls to a first floor arcaded balcony and so into the gallery rooms. These balconies were packed with tourists getting shots of themselves against the ancient stone backgrounds.

Arcaded balcony and steps inside the medieval Picasso Museum, Barcelona

In the cool ground floor rooms are not one but two art bookshops, which were well stocked and fascinating. Surprisingly for such a major attraction, and despite numerous street signs, such is the maze-like nature of the Gothic Quarter that the museum took a bit of finding.

The museum

So after all the effort to find it, figure out the Articket system, and the general build-up, it was a big surprise to discover that the collection is so patchy. There is a great deal of work from PP’s earliest years – very realistic academic studies of nudes, portraits and sentimental Victorian scenes from the 1890s.

It’s tempting to think how conventional and so-so these are, until you realise that Picasso was 14 and 15 years old when he painted them! The museum divides this juvenile period into:

  • the early years (Málaga, Corunna and Barcelona, 1890–97)
  • the training period (Barcelona, Horta de San Juan and Madrid, 1897–1901)

By the turn of the century Picasso is hanging round with bohemian types at the Els Quatre Gats cafe in Barcelona, and amusing them by knocking off sketches and caricatures of his friends, music hall performers, writers and notables in Bohemia.

He makes his first visit to Paris in 1900 and you can immediately feel the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec or Degas in his paintings. In fact, the museum lets you see Picasso motoring through all the available influences, trying them on for size.

There are several rooms focusing on the famous Blue Period, of sentimental, stylised, blue-coloured people and landscapes from 1901 to 1904.

So these first 4 or 5 rooms have been very thoroughly about his earliest years as pupil, student and young Bohemian, just tinkering with the influences of the day, when you step through to the next room… Then you walk into the next room and — it’s 1917 and Picasso is suddenly in Paris with the Ballets Russes collaborating on the scenery for their production of Parade.

Whaaat? The entire period from about 1905 to 1917 is absent i.e. the invention of cubism, the basis of modern art, is not here. His combination of Cezanne and discovery of African and Oceanic masks resulting in weird masterpieces like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), the entire adventure of collaborating with Braques in the invention of the different types of cubism – nada, nichts, niente, a blank. Instead we leap over the crucial decade to find ourselves among Picasso’s post-cubist work with absolutely no visual explanation of how we got here.

There’s much to like here but then we walk into the next room and… it is suddenly 1923, the war is over and across Europe the arts are undergoing a return to the clarity of neo-classical art in art and music. Here is a room of light, playful lithographs of classical ladies, bearded gods, pillars etc – and some of the later, darker but still mythological lithographs in the style of the Vollard Suite. Again, it feels like we’ve taken a massive leap forward in time, skipping over various key milestones in Picasso’s career.

In an even bigger leap, we then enter a room containing 30 or so of the 58 odd variations Picasso made on Velázquez’s classic painting Las Meninas in 1957. The bitter style of Guernica, the war years, the early Cold War years – invisible. Admittedly the Meninas variations are, apparently, the only series of Picasso variations which is still together and can be viewed in its entirety. But it feels like another massive leap.

In another room there is a similar suite of variations on the dovecot Picasso owned in the south of France, in much the same style as the Meninas variations, and from the same year.

Off to the side are several rooms of Picasso’s ceramics, donated by his last wife Jacqueline Roque – quirky, inventive, humorous plates featuring a basic smiling face or an embossed Picasso fish.

And that’s it. So the Picasso Museum, Barcelona does very much not present a comprehensive overview of Picasso’s whole career. It is a hefty collection of the early student and young-man work in Barcelona – and in this respect it is certainly a place to visit to really study his earliest realistic style and the origins of his art – and after that, there are sudden bursts from what appear to be almost random moments in the rest of his long, creative career.

Likes

My kids liked the blue period and harlequin style paintings best. My daughter liked:

I didn’t disagree, and there were were quite a few other good early works on show – but I ended up liking the room of Las Meninas variations most of all.

By this stage in Picasso’s life, the late 1950s, he really had conquered the world of art and the variations bespeak a superb confidence: he can do anything and he is not afraid. If the images look slapdash, the colours don’t go to the edge of the spaces, if daubs create an effect, lines clash here or there – it doesn’t matter. The variations demonstrate am almost boastfully virile knowledge of the inner workings of oil and art.

The kids and I walked round the room identifying motifs, listing the visual elements which appear in each of the version, re-envisioned in successive variations – some dark and intense, some light and colourful, some detailed and cluttered, some simple and clear.

For example, almost all the variations feature

  • a vertical grid of squares which reappears in different colours and severity
  • two figures at the back which appear as smiley faces atop columns with black-and-white minstrel-type hands sticking out
  • cartoon faces with dots for eyes and ticks for noses as, after all, the original is a portrait of half a dozen or so people.

Most compelling of all is the figure of the man opening the door into the room which appears in all the variations against different coloured backgrounds. My daughter quickly took to thinking of this figure as the centre of a psychedelic title sequence to a science fiction TV series, opening the same door and each time finding a madly different scene before him. He’s in the top in the middle of the first image below.

It became a fun game to identify the elements in each version and see what he’d done with them. This Where’s Wally approach to looking closely at each variation put me in the mood to also enjoy the room of variations Picasso painted on the dovecote and the strutting doves he owned at his home in the South of France (the Museum handily includes black and white photos of the great man among his doves).

Again the same basic theme is remodelled multiple times with varying colours, designs, with an intensity of black lines or a lighter touch. It was fascinating to experience the way different treatments of essentially the same semi-abstract scene evoked widely different emotional and visual responses.

Summary

In summary, you should definitely visit the Picasso Museum (next time you’re in Barcelona) but you should be prepared for the fact that it isn’t at all an overview of his career – it is a thorough look at Picasso’s very earliest work, something which may be mainly for scholars and real devotees – and then snapshots of half a dozen other moments or sets of work of which the Las Meninas variations, as I’ve made clear, would in my opinion be the best reason for going.


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Sargent: The Watercolours @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

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

Sargent biography

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

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

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

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

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

The exhibition

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

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

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

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

Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Landscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

The video


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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

 


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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.

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