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

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

As such, the third and smallest of the gallery spaces is almost always dedicated to a small display of some aspect of Blake’s work, for example the charming exhibition of his black and white pen drawings inspired by Valentine’s Day, which was on display back in the spring.

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

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

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

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

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

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

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

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

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

As Blake explains in the very illuminating video which is running in an alcove off to one side, illustrations are tied to a narrative and Blake has proved himself a master of illustrating a wide variety of stories. But in this private work, he was able to experiment with – basically the same motif, a nude woman – in countless forms and variations, in particular experimenting with scale (some of the paintings are enormous) and above all colouring. First you sketch out your human figure lying, sitting or reclining. But what happens if you paint her legs blue and her chest yellow? What happens if you use variations on one tone throughout?

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

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

What happens, as he mentions in the video, if the outline is all in one direction, and then you deliberately pain bars of colour across those lines, at odds with the flow? What kind of visual and emotional responses do you get? The answer is, in the best of them, a very strong, dynamic visual impact.

Untitled (1988) by Quentin Blake

Untitled (1988) by Quentin Blake

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

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

They are much mellower than the oil paintings, but still full of interesting experiments with colour and the emotional impact of colour. I was very taken by a sketched nude coloured entirely in yellow, and others coloured solely by variations of turquoise. What happens if..? What if you colour it so…? What effect does a wash of yellow along the back have…?

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

Two pen and watercolours by Quentin Blake

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

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

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Untitled by Quentin Blake

Summary

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

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

What a revelation!


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Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day. (Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biography, written by friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe in, published in 1963, in which he also perpetrated all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera and, maybe, of Mexico generally, and prints the whoppers alongside the – generally more mundane – truth. Thus where Rivera insists that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three respects: its turbulent and violent politics; its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, cacti and parrots; its racial heritage, the hated Spanish at the top of the hate list, and everyone sentimentalising the white-pyjama-ed peasant – though not necessarily doing very much to help him.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasque and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

It was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, seeing the importance of the Cubism which had become notorious about 1911. For the next four years he painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artist’s quarter of Montparnasse, and a friend of Picasso, a paid-up member of the avant-garde – all drinking, mistresses, models and arguments late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up to 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And for its compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door: the artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the new little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – at once – in one sitting. Whoever gave up had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the Wikipedia gallery.

Rivera did indeed return to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help Zapata hold up trains. He wanted to see his family and friends again.

Upon arrival he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910 to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

It is ironic that this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead efficiently supervising the hang of his art exhibition in Mexico City, spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War, rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso, while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, floodlit by raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later. Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, progressing from talented traditionalist and into the heart of the modern movement with his particular brand of cubism. Partly because of personal fallings out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. An argument reinforced by the Mexican Revolution and then the Bolshevik revolution which had just taken place. Art for the people. It was with this in mind that Diego finally got round to completing his Grand Tour of Europe with 9 months spent in Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, he had been in touch with Diego since 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the time Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies in Italy.

He was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

He was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was like the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives – basically they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives.

Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, Diego (1916–1918)
1918 Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, ‘Marevna’, mother of daughter named Marika in 1919, who he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 married to Guadalupe Marin, mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe, she modelled for some of the nudes in his murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– affair with Lupe’s sister?
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals, Earth enslaved, Germination, Virgin earth 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic art for the people.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

And then it was an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists. In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this he went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the SF School of Arts. His argument was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses, but there’s no doubt that it also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 he helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Communist’. Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this fame he was invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong. Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building. A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1943, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

He was ill for much of 1934, and started his affair with Frida’s sister for all kinds of possible motives. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he abandoned when he went to America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. Bad idea. Once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by Jose Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Forced out of art – more accurately forced back into painting oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals – for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 he left it in 1925, went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing and, for his tactless criticism, was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist. In January 1937, he gave his support to the exiled Trotsky and persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at his home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (for a spell along with the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise what was happening to Soviet communism and the point was rammed home, for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces instead of combating the common enemy, Franco) and then the outrageous Moscow Show Trials, 1936-38. Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger with Stalin commissioning no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House, the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, did up a house only a few hundred yards away. Here he was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom – again amazingly, missing Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run. Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the Mexican Revolution, I am now completely used to thinking that this was how political disagreements were routinely handled in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leant down to read a letter, embedded a small icepick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky, who fought back and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically San Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

With a new president of Mexico the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted and in 1940 he began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete, not finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of his life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham develops a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He suggests that Frida’s illness limited her mobility, and made her a world class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations and other physical ailments. But overlaid on them was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which tends to present her as a victim.

And yet she is an empowered victim. Biographical accounts and some paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship he became the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became her ‘baby’. She often gave him baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women like to see men as carrying on being big babies: it can be a consolation for their powerlessness. But it can also be true.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts. Marnham shows how they shared much about their early childhood – both had close siblings who died and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not their boring European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their feel for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful native dresses, and earrings and head-dresses she copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when they divorced in 1940, she cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian. So the conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress – and his murals which obsess about the native inheritance – were both central ingredients to the psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders that they created.

No wonder their mutual infidelities upset the other but — they just found they couldn’t live apart. The sex may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated, and in its complexity, prompted the core of the artworks, the endless reworking of her own image which have made her more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband. Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for clarity where the whole point was the creativity of a non-judgmental Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This after the Moscow Show Trials, his alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky told them from his unparalleled first hand experience. None of that mattered.

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal mythology, as much as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than her – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forebears,and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican – is it to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months his repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was granted. He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – he was married to his art dealer while having an affair with her principal customer. In September 1957 he had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, story-telling murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


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Edward Burne-Jones @ Tate Britain

One aspect of being a successful artist is establishing a look, a style, a brand. This exhibition, the first devoted to Burne-Jones at Tate Britain since 1933, brings together over 150 objects including some of his greatest paintings, a roomful of drawings, wall-sized tapestries, even a grand piano he decorated – which all go to prove that he established the ‘Burne-Jones look’ early on, and then stuck to it.

The Briar Wood (1874-8) by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

The Briar Wood (1874-8) Picture one in the Briar Rose series, by Edward Burne-Jones. The Faringdon Collection Trust

People sleeping and dreaming are his subjects. Even when supposedly awake, all his figures look as if they’re sleep-walking through the situations he places them in.

The figures are tall, statuesque, rather elongated. If nude, they have beautifully defined musculature, if clothed the men, in particular, are often wearing fascinatingly detailed armour, while the women wear long gowns whose convoluted folds are he captures with shimmering sensuality.

This painting, from a series depicting the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, shows these features – human figures elongated, the (admittedly delicate) musculature of the nude woman, and the fascinating style of armour Perseus is wearing, like no armour any real medieval warrior ever wore, almost cyber-punk in its fetishistic detail.

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1888). Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones (1888). Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Many exhibitions I’ve been to at Tate Britain set out to prove a thesis, but this show is a return to an older, more traditional type of curating, which sets out simply to explain and delight.

I recommend buying the audioguide. This has four voices on it – the exhibition curator Alison Smith, an art scholar who’s a long-standing fan of Burne-Jones, the novelist Tracey Chevalier ditto. But the most interesting one is the voice of Burne-Jones’s great great grand-daughter, Serena Thirkell, who shares her memories of growing up in a house where some of these famous paintings hung in the hall or dining room, and how she and the other small children were attracted, frightened and fascinated by them.

I particularly liked her take on the amazingly sumptuous painting, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. To the adult eye there are all kinds of things going on in it, from the (typically strange) armour of the king to the (typically blank) expression on the beggar maid’s face, to the heads-together pose of the two figures at the balustrade, obviously inspired by pre-Raphael Renaissance paintings, ditto the carefully delineated leaves of the olive branches poking in from the left.

But what Serena remembered was the avenues of escape from the picture, the way she and her little friends could imagine scampering up the stairs to the gallery, and then outside into the lovely Italian landscape glimpsed through the window. And how this sense of escape was balanced by the sense of threat created at the other end of the painting – caused by the narrowing, claustrophobic steps going down, past the king’s knees and feet, down, down towards… what scary darkness?

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones (1884)

Her memories remind the listener that you don’t always have to respond to art with sophisticated theories or abrasive gender politics. Sometimes you can let yourself be swept off your feet to fairyland. Few artists devoted as much energy to creating that effect as Burne-Jones.

The exhibition’s content is indicated by the titles of the seven rooms:

  1. 1856-1870 Apprentice to Master
  2. Burne-Jones as a draughtsman
  3. 1877-98 Exhibition paintings
  4. Portraits
  5. The series paintings – The Perseus series
  6. The series paintings – The Briar Rose
  7. Burne-Jones as a designer

Unusually, Burne-Jones didn’t attend art school at all. He began studying theology at university, before packing it in and essentially teaching himself art.

The iconography of Christianity i.e. the figurative depiction of key moments – the Annunciation, various saints though not, tellingly, the Crucifixion itself – stayed with him for the rest of his career.

Later in life Burne-Jones collaborated on designing stained glass windows for churches which were produced in the factory of his close friend, William Morris. It’s estimated that he produced the designs for over 650 stained glass windows, which is why many of the patterns and designs in the final room, ‘Burne-Jones as designer’, seem so familiar. Anyone who visits English parish churches has been exposed to his pervasive influence.

Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. Victoria and Albert Museum

Adoration of the Magi (1894) by Edward Burne-Jones. Victoria and Albert Museum

Room two shows how much effort Burne-Jones put into practicing drawing and sketching, especially on the four big trips he made to Italy during the 1870s, where he copied and studied extensively from the Renaissance Old Masters. Some of the sketches are breath-taking – of hands in different poses, or feet, especially elaborate depictions of the folds of dresses, not to mention a standout sketch of a flowering plant and a page of sketches of birds. What an eye, what a hand!

Desiderium (1873) by Edward Burne-Jones. Tate

Desiderium (1873) by Edward Burne-Jones. Tate

This room also contains some surprisingly comic insights into his private life. He enjoyed a long friendship with the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, and the exhibition shows some of the comic cartoons he included in his letters to her. He depicts himself in these as a skinny, long-bearded, mournful man, which creates an irresistibly comic effect, when placed next to the caricatures of his bosom buddy, the big, super-energetic, wild-haired Morris. I laughed out loud at the cartoon he drew of himself falling asleep in a chair while Morris passionately declaims one of his interminable epic poems.

Room three is amazing – full of massive ‘exhibition’ paintings, made to stun his contemporaries and sell to rich patrons. Love Amid the Ruins, The Beguiling of Merlin, The Golden Stairs, Laus Veneris, The Wheel of Fortune and half a dozen other enormous, strange, haunting, remote, dreamy images, pregnant with meaning, in which movement isn’t really movement at all.

Reminiscent, it occurred to me, of Botticelli whose Spring or Birth of Venus show supposedly dynamic images in which, in fact, nothing is really moving.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

But the real Burne-Jones’ fan will be transported to heaven by rooms five and six. These recreate in their entirety the two most important series of paintings which Burne-Jones created. Room five contains the ten paintings he created to depict the Greek myth of Perseus between 1875 and 1885. The original idea was to hang ten oil paintings, interspersed with four relief panels on oak wood, all carefully arranged and lit so as to transport you into a mythic world of the imagination.

Only four of the planned ten were worked up into finished oil paintings (including The Doom Fulfilled, shown above) and the curators have hung these four, along with cartoons (actual size preparatory works) of the other six, plus one completed oak relief, placing them all in order so you can follow Burne-Jones’s huge and powerful depiction of the story through in order.

It’s a great bit of curating, which really works. Above all it shows you how muted, dulled and misty his palette was. And makes you realise this was always his style. The Laus Veneris, which is used as a poster for the show, is in fact exceptional in its use of bright orange for Venus’s dress. Even in the first room of early works, his faces are softened and blurred, the colours are dark and misty. As the years passed he perfected the technique of using colour alright, but making all the colours submit to the same muted tonality.

A kind of silvery blue-black dominates the Perseus series and helps them to cohere, tonally. Whereas, when you step into room six, you are enveloped in the Briar Rose series, four massive paintings depicting the early parts of the Sleeping Beauty fairy story, where a kind of muddy brown dominates and unites the colours.

The Garden Court (1874-84) by Edward Burne-Jones. the Faringdon Collection Trust

The Garden Court (1874-84) by Edward Burne-Jones. the Faringdon Collection Trust

There are scores of incidental pleasures to be had along the way, noticing how the sketched birds are incorporated into later paintings, spotting the influence of Michelangelo in the more muscular figures, or of Mantegna in some of the amazingly detailed swirling gowns.

The room of portraits caters to people who like gossip and biography about artists, featuring as it does portraits of his daughter Margaret, his long-suffering wife Georgiana, several of the lady friends with whom he enjoyed passionate friendships – Amy Gaskell and Lady Windsor – his longstanding patron, William Graham, and so on, with a bit of juicy gossip behind each one.

But what interested me more was the obvious link between later Burne-Jones and the European Symbolist painters of the 1880s and 1890s. The subject matter of both is generally the figurative depictions of human beings – realistic, easy to decode and relate to. And yet stylised in a powerful way which seems charged with mysterious meaning: especially all those women with the same faces, the same large eyes, the same vacant stare, the same elongated bodies draped, folded, bent in positions of sleep and languor – compositions pregnant with a meaning just beyond the mind’s grasp.

Some of the unfinished Perseus series, especially the one about Perseus’ encounter with Atlas, could be by a European Symbolist, transmuting what ought to be the straightforward telling of a well-known myth into something altogether new and haunting. The figures inside the globe Atlas is holding are depictions of the signs of the Zodiac, and yet they are the Zodiac symbols come to life and seeming to interact in strange and unknowable ways…

Atlas Turned to Stone by Edward Burne-Jones (1872) Southampton City Art Gallery

Atlas Turned to Stone by Edward Burne-Jones (1872), a peculiarly Symbolist work. Southampton City Art Gallery

Some people don’t like Burne-Jones’s big-eyed damsels, or jewelled dreamscapes. They see his entire visions as a creative dead end which supported a kind of anti-modern British philistinism right up to the end of the 19th century and beyond, while, throughout this period, the French were busy inventing modern art just 50 miles across the Channel.

But it is 2018. We are well into post-post-modern art, into the era when the internet makes everything available to everyone, when there are no longer movements with fierce adherents and bitter opponents. The stakes are no longer so high or so intense. We can like whatever we want to. I thought this was an absolutely wonderful exhibition – the room of the Sleeping Beauty panels is worth the admission price alone.

The promotional video

This shaky handheld video gives you a good sense of what the show is like.


Related links

Newspaper reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

I’m Still Here @ Royal Festival Hall

On the ground floor (Level 1) of the Royal Festival Hall is a suite of rooms rather hidden away opposite the loos and cloakroom. It turns out to be a linear and surprisingly big exhibition space. It is currently displaying artworks from the 2018 Koestler Awards.

The Koestler Trust is the UK’s best known prison arts charity. Each year, it encourages over 3,000 people from inside the criminal justice system, as well as secure forensic and immigration removal settings, to express themselves creatively, and learn new skills by entering work to the annual Koestler Awards.

The Mental Health Hydra, a collaborative work by members of the Bluebird House secure mental health unit

The Mental Health Hydra, a collaborative work by members of the Bluebird House secure mental health unit

This year the curators asked three wives and two families who’ve supported a family member though a prison sentence to select works from the over 7,236 submitted which really spoke to them about the experience. Since the five groups each chose around 40 works, the exhibition contains some 200 pieces. Some of them are for sale.

AAAAARGH! by Michael at Bolton Probation Office

AAAAARGH! by Michael at Bolton Probation Office

There’s a really wide range of styles and types and sizes of work, including paintings and sculpture, poems and videos, animation and craft.

Left: Lift by the Spinney (secure mental health unit) Right: Circle by Gordon from HM Prison Edinburgh

Left: Life by the Spinney (secure mental health unit) Right: Circle of Life by Gordon from HM Prison Edinburgh

Many of the works are done to a very high standard indeed. Anthony Gormley curated last year’s show. This work – Night at the chippy by ‘Brian’- won the Grayson Perry Highly Commended Award for ceramics.

Night at the chippy by Brian (The State Hospital)

Night at the chippy by Brian (The State Hospital)

I don’t know why, but writing that sentence made me cry. So much talent, so many young lives, gone astray.

Disconnected by Peter at HM Prison Dovegate

Disconnected by Peter at HM Prison Dovegate

If you’re passing by the South Bank Centre, make the effort to go visit this exhibition. It’s open from 10am till 11pm, and is FREE.


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Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has a unique international appeal, as both an artist and a personality. Her image in oil paintings and photographs is instantly recognizable.

This is a beautifully curated and designed exhibition which left me with a much deeper understanding of Kahlo’s life, her work, her toughness in the face of terrible adversity, and the Mexican roots of her distinctive and powerful self-image.

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The treasure trove

The pretext or premise or prompt for the exhibition was the discovery of a treasure trove. After Frida died at the horribly early age of 47, her mourning husband, the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, ordered all her belongings in the famous ‘Blue House’ they shared together, to be locked up and sealed away.

Rather incredibly, it was only in 2004 that this room was re-opened, to reveal a treasure trove of Kahlo-iana – including her jewellery, clothes, prosthetics and corsets, along with self-portraits, diary entries, photos and letters. Together they shed a wealth of new light on her life, personality, illness and endurance, on her art and on her extraordinary achievement in fashioning herself into an iconic image and brand.

And this is what the exhibition is based on.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Biography

The show is smaller than some recent ones at the V&A. Not so much a blockbuster, as an intimate portrait. It starts with a corridor-like room divided into small recesses, each of which take us briskly through a chapter in her early life, using black and white photos, a few early paintings and some home movies.

The key elements for me were that:

  • Her father was German, emigrated to Mexico in the 1890s and set up a photographic studio. She helped him and learned photographic technique, how to compose and frame a subject. No accident, maybe, that she is best known for her painted and photographic self portraits.
  • Her full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. She always preferred Frida because it her father’s name for her. I was mulling this over when I came to the section describing her marriage to the, by then, already famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, in 1928, who was a lot older than her, 43 to her 22. I.e. a big, reassuring father figure. Daddy.
  • When Frida was 6 she contracted polio and was seriously ill. She was left with one leg shorter than the other.
  • When she was 18 she was on a bus which was in a collision with a tram, resulting in her being both crushed against the window and having a piece of metal penetrate her abdomen. This accident and her long recovery put paid to the idea of studying to become a doctor. Confined to bed for months, she began to expand the sketching, drawing and painting she’d already been toying with.

In the late 1920s she developed a kind of naive, symbolic style, drawing inspiration from Mexican folk culture. After marrying Rivera, she accompanied him on a number of trips to the United States, where he had been commissioned to paint murals, socially conscious murals being a big part of 1930s American artistic activity.

Here’s a good example, from 1932. I don’t know if I like it. I understand the fairly simple ideas: on the left are images of Mexico, Aztec ruins and figurines, flowers and agricultural produce, with their roots in the good earth: on the right is Detroit, highly industrialised ‘Motor City’ (the name FORD is spelled out on the smoking chimneys), the American flag, skyscrapers, and growing out of the soil are not beautiful flowers but lamps and fans.

And in between is a self portrait of Frieda in a formal pink dress holding the Mexican flag. Between two worlds, eh? I get it.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Her naive symbolism matches the simple-minded ‘political’ attitude of Rivera’s murals. They both thought of themselves as communists and went on marches supporting strikers etc, but, nonetheless, liked visiting the heart of capitalism, America – or ‘Gringolandia’, as Frida called it. The money was good and there were lots of opportunities for Rivera to get commissions. And it was in New York, in 1939, that Frida held her first successful one-woman show. Capitalism is an awful thing – unless you can get money, commissions, promotions and sales out of it: the attitude of many 20th century artists.

One of the most interesting biographical facts is that Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky, having been exiled from the Soviet Union, was offered refuge by the revolutionary government of Mexico and came to stay with the Riveras, not for a few weeks, but for two years.

The exhibition includes a b&w film of Comrade Trotsky explaining, in English, how badly he has been treated by comrade Stalin. He insists he is really a man of honour – as anyone whose family was murdered by the Red Army he set up, would surely have testified.

Mexican roots

These early biographical roots are interesting but they are eclipsed by the power of the later rooms.

These start with the room on Kahlo’s Mexican roots. It explains that during the 1920s and even more so the 1930s, Mexico underwent a cultural renaissance. Part of this was the exploration and promotion of the country’s pre-Colombian culture, but it also included the first real appreciation of the folk customs and costumes of peasants and the poor around the country.

Interest in the country spread abroad, with American artists, photographers and film makers attracted to its sunny, bright and passionate culture. John Huston made films here. Even the young British writer Graham Greene made a tour of the country (he hated it) and then set his most powerful early novel here, The Power and the Glory. I’ve reviewed them both.

Frida and Diego were part of this revival of interest in Mexico’s culture and history. They both sought inspiration in the folk and workers culture of their country. In particular they were attracted to the area called Tehuantepec in the Oaxaca region. People here followed traditional ways, and the exhibition includes a whole wall of traditional icons of the Virgin Mary, establishing a link between these images of saintly femininity and Kahlo’s self portraits and explorations of her identity.

The dress room

The final room in the show is the biggest and I involuntarily exclaimed ‘wow’ as I walked into it.

Centre stage is a huge central glass case displaying some 20 of Frida’s dresses. Full length, made of colourful fabrics and bright designs, each one has been carefully displayed and annotated, giving a powerful sense of Frida’s sense of colour and dress.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

There are only 10 or so paintings in the whole exhibition and six of them are in this room. They’re later works, when she had realised that she was her own best subject and that self portrait was her best medium.

Looking out at the viewer, flat and unemotional, her iconic features by now well established – the monobrow, the faint moustache on her top lip, her strong brown eyes, the sideways pose – she is flatly, unashamedly, blankly herself.

In the painting below even the tears don’t really affect the expressionless face. Or they appear as surreally detached embellishments of the fundamental design. Much weirder is the ‘ruff’ dominating the image. The exhibition explains that this is a huipil de tapar, a traditional Mexican item popular in Tehuantepec, designed to frame the face and extend over the neck and shoulders. There is another larger painting of her wearing the same outfit and a full scale example of a huipil de tapar on a display mannequin for us to compare and contrast reality with painted depiction.

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Kahlo is, you realise, a perfect subject for the V&A because she was not only an artist, but someone with a fascination for clothes and costumes – in her case, of her native Mexico. The exhibition is less about the ar per se and more about how she drew heavily on these costume traditions and elaborated them into a highly colourful style of her own.

Hence there are more than twice as many dresses as there are Kahlo artworks. Hence, also, the display cases devoted to the heavy and ornate jewelry she wore, the elaborate ear-rings and thick heavy necklaces, set off against the bright and colourful hair ribbons.

In this respect it is fascinating to watch the 9-minute tourist film from the Tehuantepec region which is on view just next to the dresses and necklaces. Look at the colours and designs of the dresses, the heavy gold jewellery, and the brightly coloured ribbons in the women’s hair. In a flash you understand. Kahlo was a conduit for these traditional dresses, colours, fabrics and jewellery, into the international art world.

She gave it her own style. She combined it in her own way and, above all, gave it the imprimatur of her own face, of her very distinctive features (eyes, monobrow, moustache) and her unsmiling, detached, dream-like appearance.

But a great deal of her ‘look’ quite obviously stems directly from the traditions of the women of Tehuantepec.

Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo on a bench (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The sick room

The big dress room is the climax of the exhibition, in terms of dresses, design, jewellery, paintings and photos.

But arguably the biographical core of the exhibition is the room before it, entitled ‘Endurance’. In an imaginative but spooky display, the curators have commissioned the creation of six small four-poster beds and made each into a display case which, along with photos and text along the walls, give a quite harrowing account of Kahlo’s many illnesses, ailments, treatments, and lifelong suffering.

The polio left her with a limp. The bus accident left her with serious internal injuries. In the 1930s she began to experience back problems and underwent a series of treatments and operations to fix them. At the end of her life one foot became infected and then gangrenous, requiring the whole leg to be amputated. It’s gruesome stuff.

This room includes examples of the medical equipment she was forced to wear or endure. There are platform shoes for the shorter leg, a prosthetic leg made for her to wear after the amputation but, most evocative of all, a series of corsets, plaster casts and back braces to help support her failing spine.

Kahlo decorated, painted and embellished as many of these as she could. The plaster casts, in particular, are painted with abstract patterns. The most elaborate one carries a painted hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and, underneath, an image of the foetus she was carrying before she had a miscarriage in 1932.

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

The record of her illnesses and, in her later years, the almost constant pain she endured, make for harrowing reading, but there are also two really powerful insights in this room.

1. Painting in bed

One is that she was, at various periods, confined to her bed, it being too painful for her to walk or even stand. (Imagine!) So she had a mirror rigged up in the canopy above her and an easel on the side of the bed. From here she could paint, but paint what?

The answer is dreams – surreal images based on dreamlike symbolism, repeated images of her or a body in a bed – and her face. Over and over again the face of someone in discomfort or pain, staring, blankly, inscrutably, down from the ceiling.

Photos show the actual set-up, with Frida lying in bed, beneath a big mirror, the easel right next to her, on which she is painting.

This sheds quite a lot of light on her subject matter, and lends a depth and dignity to the pictures. Modern critics, obsessed with feminism and identity, may well write about the paintings ‘transgressing’ this or that convention and ‘subverting’ ‘gender stereotypes’.

But they are also the image of someone in tremendous pain. Knowing this, getting the really deep feel for her physical suffering which the ‘Endurance’ room gives you – lends tremendous depth of character and meaning to the detached, slightly dream-like expression you encounter again and again in her paintings.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

2. The construction of the self

The other insight is easy to miss. Off to one side is a set of three black and white photos taken of Frida topless. They were taken by Julien Levy, the owner of the New York art gallery where she had her first solo show in 1939 and with whom she had an affair.

The insight comes in the text underneath, where Levy is quoted describing Frida doing and undoing her braids. First she undid the braids, carefully removing all the objects which were in them and held them in place, arranging them all carefully and in order on the dressing table. Later, she remade the braids, carefully and meticulously taking the ribbons and clips and other elements from their place on the dressing table, and putting them back in just the right places to create just the right effect.

In the context of the ‘Endurance’ room, next to so much physical pain and discomfort and demoralising bad luck – this ritual takes on a whole new significance.

You realise it was a way of controlling and ordering her life, a life of illness and pain which might so easily slip into indiscipline, depression or addiction. Instead she maintained control by paying minute attention to every element of her self-presentation. There are several cases showing the lipstick, and makeup, and nail polishes and eye liner and other accoutrements she used to create her image. To make herself up. To control, create and bolster herself.

Might sound stupid, but this knowledge makes the dazzling inventiveness of her self-creation seem genuinely heroic.

3. Long dresses

That’s why she liked to wear long dresses – because they hid her polio limp. This explains why all twenty dresses in the dress room are full length, reaching right down to and covering the feet. It’s a very Victorian effect, in some of the photos every inch of her body is covered save for her hands and face. But a Victorian outfit on acid, blitzed with brilliantly coloured fabrics and designs.

Conclusion

If you like Frida Kahlo this exhibition is a dream come true. There was a long queue to get in and the rooms were quickly packed out.

That said, there is remarkably little about her art, as art. A few mentions of the influence of Rivera’s socialist murals, a bit about Mexican symbolism, mention that the Godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, heavily promoted her, writing at length about the more surreal and dreamlike of her fantasy paintings (none of which are on display here).

But all in all, surprisingly little commentary or analysis of the paintings as paintings, except for comments about the dresses she’s wearing in them, the hair, the jewellery, the way she presents herself in them.

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

A moment’s googling shows that Frida Kahlo painted hundreds of paintings. Only ten are on show here. This exhibition is much more about the creation of her image, all the exhibits inhabit concentric circles spreading out from that premise.

I found it hard to get very worked up about 70 or 80 year-old makeup sets (in the outer circle). Her dresses and fabrics are colourful and interesting but, at the end of the day, not really my thing – though I could see plenty of women visitors being riveted by their designs and fabrics. Kahlo’s mural-style, political or symbolic art is sort-of interesting – although murals aren’t a format I warm to – and I found them less compelling than comparable murals by Stanley Spencer or Thomas Hart Benton.

No, it’s only when I came to her paintings of herself that I felt a real power and forcefulness in the image, the way they bring out her stern, unsmiling expression.

But even more central than her self portraits, and – in my opinion – at the absolute heart of the exhibition are the contemporary photos of Frida. It is the photos which bring together all the elements mentioned above, her great taste for colourful fabrics, bright designs, adventurous headgear, stunning jewelry and vivid lipstick to match, her deep sense of Mexican folk art and culture – all this funneled, channeled and focused in a series of stunning and powerful photos.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray

Thus it was often the photos which impressed me most in any given room. And looking closely, it quickly became clear that the photos we know, the ones we’re familiar with, and by far the best ones, were taken by Nickolas Muray.

There is almost no information about Muray in the exhibition, which is a shame because his images are iconic. According to Wikipedia, Muray had a ten-year-long affair with Frida, from 1931 to 1941. (During this period she divorced, then remarried Rivera. And sometime in there, she also managed to have the affair with Levy, which led to the nude photos. Those bohemian artists, eh?)

The only flicker of recognition of Muray’s role in helping to crystallise the Kahlo brand is a wall label next to one of the portraits. Here Muray is quoted as saying

colour calls for new ways of looking at things, at people

This struck me as pointing towards something very profound. Most of Kahlo’s paintings are striking in composition (and for their generally ‘naive’ style) but are surprisingly drab, especially the earlier, political ones. the later paintings are marvellously colourful and inventive. But in a way it is these photos alone which do justice to the tremendous colourfulness of her self-presentation.

According to Wikipedia, Muray was:

famous for his creation of many of the conventions of color advertising. He was considered the master of the three-color carbro process. (Nikolas Muray Wikipedia article)

In other words, Muray wasn’t just quite a good colour photographer – he was one of the inventors of colour photography for the modern age.

This knowledge goes a long way to understanding why Muray’s photos of Kahlo stand out from the other contemporary photos of her, done at the same time, by other photographers. The coming together of Muray and Kahlo’s bodies in their long affair is trivial compared to the coming together of their shared understanding of colour and design – with phenomenal results.

The (admittedly black and white) photo of her by Florence Arquin makes her look like a person, an ordinary human being, squinting in the sun. But the three photos I’ve included by Muray give Kahlo a feeling of power, self-control, majesty, an almost goddess-like calm. In Muray’s hands Kahlo becomes an icon to be worshiped.

You can imagine these images of Frida Kahlo carrying on being iconic for a very long time. Iconic of what, exactly? Whatever you want: our current cultural obsessions are with gender, sexuality, race, identity and so on. But I think her image transcends any one set of ‘issues’ and lends itself to infinite reformulation. Which is one of the characteristics of great art.

The movie

A film of her life was released in 2002. According to the trailer, Frida was ‘one of the most seductive, and intriguing women, of ours or any time’, and it features numerous clips of her jumping into bed with men and women, with little of no mention of the physical disabilities and ailments.

The shopping

Kahlo was an ardent communist. Today she is marketed as a fashion icon, feminist saint, and, more to the point, the inspirer of a whole world of merchandise.

In the shop you can buy some 134 items of merchandise including at least 20 books about her, notebooks, greeting cards, pencils, lapel badges, earrings, necklaces, brooches, jewellery, sunglasses, scarves and shawls, t-shirts, handbags, tote bags ( I counted 20 different design of bag), a Mexican cookbook and ingredients, pillows and socks – yes, socks.

Here’s the full list of Kahlo merch:

The promotional video

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


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Aftermath: Art in the wake of World War One @ Tate Britain

The First World War ended on 11 November 1918. To mark the end of the conflict Tate Britain has been hosting an extensive exhibition devoted to the aftermath of the war as it affected the art of the three main nations of Western Europe – Britain, France and Germany.

Thus there is nothing by artists from, say, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Bulgaria, nor from the white colonies, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, nor from America which entered the war in 1917. It is a Western European show of Western European art.

Paths of Glory (1917) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson © IWM

Paths of Glory (1917) by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson © IWM

Masterpieces

The show includes a staggering number of masterpieces from the era, interspersed with fascinating works by much less-well-known artists.

For example, room one contains the Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein, possibly my favourite work of art anywhere, by anyone. For me this hard brooding metallic figure contains the secret of the 20th century, and of our technological age.

Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill” (1913-14) by Jacob Epstein. Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein

Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill (1913-14) by Jacob Epstein. Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein

Layout

The exhibition is in eight rooms which take you in broad chronological order:

  1. Images of battlefields and ruins, early movies, and memorabilia (helmets, medals, cigarette cases)
  2. The official War memorials of the three featured nations (statues, designs and paintings by conventional artists such as William Orpen and the sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger)
  3. A room devoted to images of disfigured and maimed soldiers
  4. Dada and Surrealism i.e. the extreme irrationalist response to the war of Swiss, German and French artists – including signature works by George Grosz, Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters
  5. A room of black and white prints showcasing series of lithographs and woodcuts made by Max Beckman, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and Georges Rouault
  6. The ‘return to order’ in a revival of nostalgic landscapes in works by Paul Nash and George Clausen, sculptures of sleek femininity by Eric Gill and Aristide Maillol, neo-classical portraiture by Meredith Frampton, and the revival of a strange post-war type of Christian faith in the work of Stanley Spencer and Winifred Knights
  7. Politics and pass-times – divided between gritty depictions of a newly politicised working class by socialist and communist artists, such as The International by Otto Griebel, and a rare opportunity to see an original ‘portfolio’ or pamphlet of lithographs by George Grosz – and on the other hand, depictions of the newly fashionable night-life, the craze for jazz dancing depicted in The Dance Club 1923 by William Patrick Roberts, cabaret clubs of the Weimar Republic, or the Folies Bergère as painted by English artist, Edward Burra
  8. The exhibition ends with brave new world visions of technology, machinery, skyscrapers, Russian constructivist images by El Lissitsky, the geometric paintings of Fernand Leger, and the sleek new design and architecture of the German Bauhaus school

1. Images of the battlefield

First impressionistic indications of the appalling nature of the war. A display case contains an original infantry helmet from each of the three featured nations, one French, one German and one British. Oil paintings of corpses in trenches or hanging on barbed wire. A rare black-and-white-film shot from an airship shows the devastation

2. Memorials

In terms of memorials I don’t think you can do better than Edwin Lutyens’s Cenotaph in Whitehall, arresting in its monolithic abstraction. But the show includes three large memorial sculptures by Charles Sergeant Jagger.

No Man's Land (1919-20) by Charles Sargeant Jagger

No Man’s Land (1919-20) by Charles Sargeant Jagger

3. The disfigured

The room of disfigured servicemen is hard to stay in.

The grotesques of Otto Dix and Gorge Grosz are bearable because they have a cartoon savagery and exaggeration which defuses the horror. But the realistic depictions of men with their jaws shot away, half their faces missing, skin folding over where their eyes should be, and so on by artists like Heinrich Hoerle and Conrad Felixmuller, are almost impossible to look at.

Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran, Two Victims of Capitalism by Otto Dix (1923) © Estate of Otto Dix

Prostitute and Disabled War Veteran, Two Victims of Capitalism by Otto Dix (1923) © Estate of Otto Dix

4. Dada and Surrealism

The exhibition takes on a completely different tone when you enter the room of works by Dada and Surrealist artists – although the grotesques of the previous room make you realise how so much of Dada’s strategy of cutting up and collage, of rearranging anodyne images (especially from glossy optimistic magazines and adverts), to create incongruous and grotesque new images, is actually a very reasonable response to the grotesqueness of war and its dismemberments.

Here there are works by Kurt Schwitters, pioneer of cut up and paste art, as well as the stunning painting Celebes by early Surrealist Max Ernst.

Seeing a number of examples of post-war collage – works by Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters, the English Surrealist Edward Burra and their peers like Hannah Hoch and Rudolf Schlichter all together – brings out the superiority of George Grosz.

It’s probably because I’m a longstanding fan but he seems to me to combine the best eye for design and caricature, with the best feel for how to create a collage of elements cut out from newspapers and magazines.

As well as a good selection of his biting political satires, there is an opportunity to see a reconstruction of the Dada-mannequin he created for the 1920 Berlin Dada exhibition.

Why be sensible? How could you be sensible and take any of the standards and values of the old order seriously? After what they had seen in the trenches? After that old order had brought about Armageddon?

The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

The Petit-Bourgeois Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. Electro-Mechanical Tatlin Sculpture (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

5. Prints, lithographs, woodcuts

In the print portfolio room it is interesting to compare the style of the four featured artists: Max Beckman was too scratchy and scrappy and cluttered for my taste. The Georges Rouault images are harsh but use shading to create an eerie, gloomy depth, as if done with charcoal.

'Arise, you dead!' (War, plate 54) (1922-27) by Georges Rouault. Fondation Georges Rouault © ADAGCP, Paris and DACS, London

‘Arise, you dead!’ (War, plate 54) (1922-27) by Georges Rouault. Fondation Georges Rouault © ADAGCP, Paris and DACS, London

By contrast Käthe Kollwitz’s series War is made from harsh, stark, pagan woodcuts, which exude a really primeval force. This set is a masterpiece. You can see the continuity from the harsh emotional extremism of pre-war German Expressionism, but here a widely used technique has found its perfect subject. Kollwitz is a great artist. Her images may be the most profound in the show.

The Survivors (1923) by Käthe Kollwitz

The Survivors (1923) by Käthe Kollwitz

6. The return to order

After the physical and metaphysical gloom of the print room, room six is large, well lit and full of images of sweetness and delight. In all kinds of ways the European art world experience a post-war ‘return to order’, a revival of neo-classical technique, in music as much as in painting. It had quite a few distinct strands.

Landscape One strand was a return to painting idyllic landscapes, represented here by a haycart trundling down a lane by the pre-war artist George Clausen, and a similarly idyllic but more modern treatments of landscape by the brothers Paul and John Nash.

Woman After the disfigurements of the war and the parade of grotesques in the previous galleries, this one contains a number of images of complete, undisfigured bodies, particularly female bodies, used as celebrations of beauty, fertility, of life. These include the big, primeval statue Humanity by Eric Gill, alongside a more realistic depiction of a naked woman, Venus with a Necklace by Aristide Maillol. After such horror, why not? Why not unashamed celebrations of peace, whole-bodiedness, beauty, youth, fertility – a new hope?

Venus with a Necklace by Aristide Maillol (cast 1930) © Tate

Venus with a Necklace by Aristide Maillol (cast 1930) © Tate

Interestingly, this room contains three or four works by Picasso, portraits of women or a family on a beach, done in a kind of revival of his rose period, with the figures now more full and rounded.

Neue Sachlichkeit Another strand was the particularly German style known as ‘New Objectivity’ which I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, not least because it was itself sub-divided into a number of strands and styles.

It’s represented here by a signature work from the era, Christian Schad’s half-realistic, half-cartoonish, and wholly haunting self-portrait of 1927.

Self-Portrait (1927) by Christian Schad © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London

Self-Portrait (1927) by Christian Schad © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London

Christianity Amazingly, after such a cataclysmic disaster, many artists retained their Christian faith, although it emerged in sometimes strange and eccentric new visions.

These are exemplified by the English artists Stanley Spencer, who is represented by one of the many paintings he made setting Christian stories in his native home town of Cookham. And also by the strange and eerie vision of Winifred Knights, here represented by her unsettling vision of the Flood.

The Deluge (1920) by Winifred Knights

The Deluge (1920) by Winifred Knights

Not so long ago I saw a whole load of Knights’ paintings at a retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Seeing it here makes you realise the link to the stark geometric modernism of someone like Paul Nash. But also to the deliberately naive style of Spencer. It is a kind of Christianity by floodlights.

Portraiture Separate from these varieties of self-conscious modernism was an entire strand of neo-classical portraiture. A style which had observed and absorbed the entire Modernist revolution from Cezanne onwards, and then reverted to painting exquisitely demure neo-classical portraits, generally of demure and self-contained young women. Exemplified here by Meredith Frampton’s still, posed portrait of Margaret Kelsey.

Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton (1928) © Tate

Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton (1928) © Tate

Is this a portrait of refinement and sensibility? Or is there an eerie absence in it, a sense of vacuum? Does it have all the careful self-control of someone recovering from a nervous breakdown?

7. Politics and pastimes

Room seven juxtaposes images of The People, The International and the proletariat – with images of jazz bands and people getting drunk in nightclubs. Which is the real world? The International by the German communist painter Otto Griebel faces off against William Roberts modernist depiction of a jazz nightclub (heavily influenced, I’d have thought, by Wyndham Lewis’s pre-war Vorticism).

The Dance Club (1923) by William Roberts. Leeds Museums and Galleries © Estate of John David Roberts

The Dance Club (1923) by William Roberts. Leeds Museums and Galleries © Estate of John David Roberts

By now it felt as if the exhibition was turning into an overview of artistic trends of the 1920s. A number of the works were painted 10 or 12 years after the end of the war. When does an aftermath stop being an aftermath?

8. Brave new worlds

The last room is devoted to technocratic visions of the machine age. Russian constructivists, French futurists, some of the old Vorticists, all the Bauhaus artists, looked to a future of skyscrapers, chucking out Victorian ideas of design and taste and creating a new, fully twentieth century art, architecture and design.

Fernand Leger perfected a post-cubist style based on brightly coloured geometric shapes suggesting a new machine civilisation, and the exhibition includes footage from the experimental film he made, Ballet Mechanique with music by the fashionably machine-age composer George Antheil. The Russian constructivist El Lissitsky devised an entirely new visual language based on lines and fractured circles. Bauhaus teacher Oskar Schlemmer is represented by an abstract figurine. Oskar Nerlinger evolved from pencil sketches of the war to developing a distinctive style of constructivist illustration featuring stylised views of up to the minute architecture.

Radio Mast, Berlin (1929) by Oskar Nerlinger

Radio Mast, Berlin (1929) by Oskar Nerlinger

Now I like this kind of thing very much indeed but I feel we had wandered quite a long way from the First World War. Much of this last room struck me as having next to nothing to do with the war, or any war, instead being the confident new visual language of the hyper-modern 20s and 30s.

Wandering back through the rooms I realised the exhibition splits into two parts: rooms one to five are unambiguously about war, the horrors of war, trenches and barbed wire and corpses, moving onto war memorials and horrible images of mutilated soldiers, how those disfigurements were taken up into the distortions and fantasies of Dada and Surrealism and then extracted into a kind of quintessence of bleakness in the woodcuts of Kollwitz.

And then part two of the show, rooms 6, 7 and 8 show the extraordinary diversity of forms and style and approaches of post-war art, from nostalgic or semi-modernist landscape, through neo-classical if unnerving portraiture, Christianity by floodlight, from bitterly angry socialist realism to the frivolities of jazz bands and strip clubs, and then onto the Bauhaus and Constructivist embrace of new technologies (radio, fast cars, cruise liners) and new design and photographic languages.

Whether these latter rooms and their contents can be strictly speaking described as the ‘aftermath’ of the Great War is something you can happily spend the rest of the day debating with friends and family.

But there is no doubting that the exhibition brings together a ravishing selection of masterpieces, well-known and less well-known, to create a fascinating overview of the art of the Great War, of the immediate post-war period, and then the explosion of diverse visual styles which took place in the 1920s.

From the po-faced solemnity of:

To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921-8) by William Orpen © IWM

To the Unknown British Soldier in France (1921-8) by William Orpen © IWM

to the compelling crankiness of:

'Daum' Marries her Pedantic Automaton 'George' in May 1920, John Heartfield is Very Glad of It (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

‘Daum’ Marries her Pedantic Automaton ‘George’ in May 1920, John Heartfield is Very Glad of It (1920) by George Grosz © Estate of George Grosz, Princeton, N.J.

From the earnest political commitment of:

Demonstration (1930) by Curt Querner. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie © DACS

Demonstration (1930) by Curt Querner. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie © DACS

to the vision of an all-metal brave new technocratic future:

Abstract Figure (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer

Abstract Figure (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer

The promotional video


Related links

Other blog posts about the Great War and its aftermath

Politics and soldiers

Art and design

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture @ the National Gallery

This is a staggeringly brilliant exhibition for a number of reasons.

1. It is about an aspect of Monet’s work – the importance of all kinds of buildings to his art throughout his career – which has never been explored before but turns out to shed fascinating light on his art.

2. It brings together 78 works loaned from an astonishing variety of galleries across America and Europe to create a unique opportunity to see so many, and so varied, Monets together in one place. Sometimes big exhibitions are based largely on a gallery’s own collection, but not here: I counted over forty galleries and collections that works have been borrowed from. And not only that; almost a quarter are loaned from private collections. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works – from all round the Western world – all in one place.

3. Monet really was a genius. The first three or so rooms are interesting and contain good things, but the last two rooms, full of the works of his maturity, are quite stunning – spaces in which you feel you should be on your knees praying to the more-than-human brilliance of this complete master of oil painting.

4. They’ve really gone to town on the extras for the exhibition, with not only a fascinating audioguide but in the cinema room off to one side, a long film explaining the importance of architecture in Monet. The free printed guide contains not only a detailed timeline of Monet’s life but maps of France, Italy, London and Venice showing the precise locations where many of the paintings were made.

And the gallery has co-operated with Google Arts to produce a dedicated website / online experience which allows you to see the paintings in digital clarity, alongside text explaining their creation, all playfully titled Monet Was Here.

Seven rooms

There are seven rooms. The first three look at different ways Monet used rural and village buildings, buildings set in landscapes, to point and focus the composition. The next two look at his depictions of Paris and the Paris suburbs, from the smoky railway station of the Gare St Lazare, to the new bridge being built at Argenteuil, to busy scenes at seaside resorts, to some wonderful street scenes in Paris.

Then the last two, the Temples of Monet – the penultimate room has a wall of paintings depicting the facade of Rouen cathedral in changing light with, opposite them, a wall of wonderfully atmospheric paintings of London, Waterloo bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

And the final room is devoted to ten shimmering, magical paintings of the queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

The village and the picturesque

At the start of his career Monet used strong designs, powerfully constructed. In this example, bright colours (green grass, aquamarine sea) boats and distant smoke, but all crystallised by the hut in the foreground.

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

In the 1870s Monet visited Holland where he played with the influence of the great 17th century Dutch painters of landscapes and interiors. This is a rare example of a Monet where the viewer is entirely enclosed by buildings.

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Thus the first few rooms explore numerous aspects and experiments with buildings, in townscapes, by the sea, amid fields, from close up, seen on a shimmering horizon, playing with the impact and focus they bring to a composition.

By the sea

All through his life Monet painted sequences showing the same view, or different views of the same subject, like a chemist repeating the same experiment, trying to get at the core of a reaction.

Monet spent a lot of 1882 on the Normandy coast and painted a number of works which feature a modest custom officer’s cottage on the cliffs. Sometimes centre stage, sometimes tucked away or almost hidden, the exhibition includes three of these works to show how Monet took a building as the central focus around which he could experiment. In two of them it dominates the composition but – can you see it in this picture?

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

In 1888 Monet travelled to the south of France, staying at Antibes which he painted from the spit or ‘cap’ across the bay. This vantage point allowed endless experimentation with the effect of the shimmering sunlight on the blue Mediterranean.

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

These Antibes paintings include recognisable landmarks – the tower of the cathedral and the medieval castle of the Grimaldi family – but the commentary points out how, in many of his paintings, Monet very deliberately chose not to include more modern elements. For example, there’s a cluster of paintings he made of the picturesque Italian town of Bodighera, which he visited and painted in 1884, and from which he quietly excised newly built holiday homes or the new railway line.

Mist and snow

But Monet isn’t all Mediterranean sunlight. One very vivid painting is a depiction of his home village of Giverny, a few miles west of Paris, in the snow.

Monet is always conscious of the effet, the effects of changing light and weather and even of the clarity or mistiness of the air. In this snowscape it is the dimly visible buildings of Giverny, the architectural elements, which give the painting a sense of depth and volume, and the composition a focus for the eye, while the paint does the work of creating a mood.

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Impressions not precision

At about this point I should mention that Monet isn’t a particularly accurate painter of architecture. His buildings are not mathematically precise renditions of the squares and angles which modern buildings and bridges must necessarily consist of.

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Edward Bawden and I very much enjoyed the way that, whether he’s doing a watercolour of his back garden or a linocut print of Covent Garden market, Bawden’s lines are all clearly defined and mathematically precise.

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Monet’s buildings are never this precise, even when he is painting bridges or railways stations or other highly engineered structures.

Monet’s buildings, like his trees and other elements, are created by shimmering and often vague daubs of paint, overlaid and juxtaposed to create an atmosphere, a mood, an impression, rather than efforts at precise delineation.

Because I, personally, tend to like clear defined lines, I felt ambivalent about the series of big paintings Monet did of the new Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1877, a cluster of which hang here.

The commentary makes the clever point that they are a subtle subversion of the landscape genre, with a metal and glass roof replacing the sky and the shimmers of steam replacing the foliage of trees.

Maybe so. But after looking for some time I realised that I actively dislike the inaccurate draughtsmanship of the engineered roof, lamps and above all of the beautiful and ornate steam engines. All this is a kind of lost opportunity to show gleaming metal, precisely engineered structures, rivets, pistons and coupling rods. They seem to me a kind of acknowledgement of modernity which somehow misses the point of modernity.

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

Monet’s use of urban motifs

Monet’s use of contemporary urban subjects in a manner more appropriate to his style is demonstrated in The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris painted in 1873.

The commentary makes the interesting point that the painting captures the view from the first floor of the building where the first ever Impressionist Exhibition was to be held the following year, and where this very painting would be exhibited. Always interesting to learn snippets of art trivia.

And I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a large amount of L.S. Lowry in the way Monet paints his people, or at least his crowds of tottering nine-pin-like figures.

But the real visual interest is obviously in the shadow which casts a great diagonal line across the composition. It is the contrast between light and shade which really pulls Monet’s daisy, the drama it gives to the composition, the way your eye is pulled in by the great diagonal and then wants to explore the different effets of shade and direct sunlight.

So much so that if you look closely at the big buildings on the opposite side of the boulevard, you notice that they are leaning backwards – they are not accurately and strictly vertical. Architectural accuracy is not what he’s about.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

This slight wonkiness is a feature of many of the paintings. It was apparent in one of the earlier seaside paintings where an enormous white cliff seemed to be bulging out and threatening to collapse onto the beach below. The walls of the rural buildings in a number of the early village scenes seemed to meet at odd angles as if about to topple over. There’s a striking early painting of rural houses with Dutch gables reflected in the river (Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam) where the wall of the left is leaning outwards at a perilous angle. In all of them the lines are wonky and unvertical, hazy, not ‘true’ in the engineering sense.

The point is – who cares, when he paints like this?

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

In this, as in several other seaside paintings shown side by side, the point is not the mathematical precision of the booth on the left, or the hotels on the right, of the steps down to the beach or of the planking of the boardwalk – these are all elements which go to create the overall effet.

In both boardwalk paintings the important thing is not the precision but the tremendous dynamism given by the plunging perspective of the boardwalk itself, which draws you quickly right into the heart of the painting which is all about vibrant colour, space and life.

Rouen, London, Venice

The previous five rooms have contained 50 or so good and sometimes outstanding paintings – for me the Trouville paintings and Giverny in the snow stood out, and there’s a painting of the Japanese bridge over Monet’s world-famous lily pond for fans of his garden paintings – all accompanied by fascinating and insightful commentary.

But walking into the last two rooms is like walking into a different world. Here you are brought face to face with half a dozen examples each of his famous series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral, opposite a selection of the series of paintings he made of the Thames in London, before you enter the final room devoted entirely to his late paintings of Venice – and it is as if you have died and gone to art heaven.

I have rarely felt so overwhelmed and awed by such an array of astonishingly beautiful artworks.

Rouen

By the 1890s Monet had perfected his technique of having multiple canvases of the same view on the go at once, and painting each of them at a specific time of the day, switching to the next one at the clock moved on, the sun rose, and the play of light and shadows changed.

Cities were easier to do this in since he needed the space to house quite a few wet canvases and all his equipment, somewhere he could leave it all overnight. The three cities represented here – Rouen, London, Venice, were all tourist resorts famous for their great architecture.

Monet painted some 30 canvases in Rouen, between February and April 1892 and the same months of 1893. He rented various rooms from shop owners opposite the cathedral which explains why there are two distinct points of view. The five massive paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral show that slight difference in vantage point but above all Monet’s godlike ability to capture the changes in light and colour on this elaborate and detailed architectural facade, with quite stunning results.

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

London

Monet first stayed in London in 1870-71 to escape from the violence of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war in Paris which followed (a historical moment documented by the recent Tate Britain exhibition Impressionists in London).

In September-October 1899 he returned and stayed on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment, returning for another visit in January to April 1902. In total Monet made an impressive 100 canvases of London.

He painted the view from the Savoy he painted the view west towards Waterloo Bridge. Later he got permission to paint the houses of Parliament from the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite bank of the Thames. In both views what interested him was the play of light.

This was made much more interesting but sometimes frustrating, by the high level of pollution in London’s air not to mention the erraticness of the English weather which made capturing exactly the same light at the same hour on successive days a challenge.

This section about London included one of the many half-finished canvases Monet made, a strikingly vague sketch of the Embankment including Cleopatra’s Needle. The commentary points out that with his London paintings, as with those of Rouen cathedral and Venice, Monet developed the paintings up to a certain point, alongside extensive sketches and notes, and then finished the paintings back home at Giverny.

Two of the Parliament paintings really stood out for me, one where the sun is flaming red and the Thames is on fire. Right next to it the exact same view at night with the moon a divided into fragments by cloud and reflecting shivers of silver all over the river surface.

But the one I really couldn’t tear myself away from was this stunning painting of an orange sun struggling through the London smog to glimmer and fleck red-gold highlights on the Thames. The painting is all about light and colour, it is a masterpiece of what oil painting can do to fill the visual cortex with pleasure – and yet the vague architectural structure of London Bridge with its neat arches, just barely visible through the smog, is a vital part of the composition in the way it enables the light to exist, to function, to perform.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

Monet visited Venice in 1908, staying for two months in apartments on the Grand Canal. The floating city under a Mediterranean sun was crying out to be depicted by the greatest impressionist of all. He produced 37 canvases, of which nine are on show here.

No people. No human activity is portrayed. Just the play of unearthly pink and eggshell blue in this watery paradise. (On a practical note, observe how the buildings on the right have the characteristic Monet lean; to my eye all of them look out of ‘true’, bulging out slightly over the water – but, as mentioned before, who cares.) they are quite staggeringly, luminescently transcendent works of art.

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Scholarly conclusion

The rational, historical, art scholarly conclusion is that Monet used a very wide range of buildings, more than has previously been recognised, as motifs in his paintings:

  • as the basis of designs and patterns and compositions
  • as symbols of modernity and the bustling city
  • or to emphasise rural tranquility or isolation

In all cases using buildings to create, point and highlight his subtle emotional and psychological effects. Then, later in his career, he uses buildings as the subjects of some of his most dazzling, experimental and awe-inspiring works, the London, Rouen, Venice paintings.

Emotional conclusion

Often by the end of an exhibition I’m full to overflowing with facts and impressions and a little relieved to walk back out onto the street, but I found it genuinely difficult to leave this one, in particular to leave the room full of Monet’s London paintings.

I spent a good ten minutes looking from one to another and back again, walking out the room then finding myself drawn back in, to marvel all over again at Monet’s unprecedented handling of paint and the breathtaking creation of gorgeous, transcendent, shimmering works of art.

I’ve rarely encountered such a feeling of pure, unalloyed beauty and wonder in an art exhibition.

Exhibition videos

This is an introduction to the role of architecture in Monet’s life by Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery in London.

And here is Richard Thomson, exhibition curator and Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, introducing The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire @ the National Gallery

Room one

Room 1 of the National Gallery is just that, a normal-sized room, not a massive gallery. They use it to host smallish displays of work brought together on a common theme or by a niche artist, and the exhibitions or displays on here are generally FREE. The most recent one was a compact survey of lake paintings by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

This summer, room one is hosting a display of ten big paintings by the American artist Ed Ruscha.

Ed Ruscha

For a start you pronounce his name ROO-SHAY. He was born in 1937.

Since the 1960s Ruscha has been producing paintings and prints depicting the American urban landscape in a highly simplified and stylised way. His subject is the modern American landscape of petrol stations, highways and industrial units, all depicted in a semi-abstract manner which emphasises cool lines, streamlined design, and dispenses with human beings altogether.

Initially associated with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, Ruscha often incorporates commercial art elements into his paintings, prints and photography – from the 1980s onwards they have included typography, graffiti and billboards.

All this can be grasped in a glance at what is probably his most famous work, Standard Station from 1966.

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Ed Ruscha’s Course of Empire

In 1992 Ruscha created a number of black and white urban landscapes of Los Angeles, focusing on highly simplified views of purely architectural structures, reduced to almost cartoon simplicity, taken from below looking up, in order to remove any evidence whatsoever of street life, traffic or people.

The look like simple, box-like, utilitarian structures with no pretension to beauty, although their stark simplicity itself bespeaks a kind of urban economic power.

In 2005, Ruscha was asked to represent the United States at the 51st Venice Biennale. Ruscha had long been a fan of Thomas Cole’s great cycle of five big oil paintings depicting the rise and fall of an imaginary empire, Course of Empire, on view in a gallery in New York.

Inspired by this idea of a rise and fall, a before and after, Ruscha decided to take five of his 1992 black and white paintings and revisit their locations, painting how they looked after the passage of 13 years.

And so Ruscha presented at the Biennale five of the black and white urban landscapes made in 1992, hung next to five new colour versions of these same sites, and gave the series the same title Cole had used, Course of Empire.

And this is what’s hung here in room one at the National Gallery – five massive black and white paintings of industrial units in urban L.A., each one hung above the colour view of the same location 13 years later.

Top row - Blue Collar Tool & Die (1992) and Blue Collar Trade School (1992), bottom row The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) and The Old Trade School Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Top row – Blue Collar Tool & Die (1992) and Blue Collar Trade School (1992), bottom row – The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) and The Old Trade School Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

The tool and die shop has been taken over by what looks from the signage to be a Korean business. The trade school has been closed down, its windows filled with plywood, locked behind a barbed wire fence which is itself showing signs of wear. The tyre shop has now become what looks like a storage facility.

You can see how simplistic the depiction of the buildings is. The complete absence of human warmth or emotion. The lack of detail. The looming presence of the sky in the top left picture, in particular.

Blue Collar Tires (1992) and Expansion of the Old Tires Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Tires (1992) and Expansion of the Old Tires Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Ed and the curators made the fairly obvious decision to hang the paintings in two rows, the older ones directly above their respective partners from the later series, for the simple reason that this is a small room – the paintings are so enormous they simply wouldn’t all have fit if placed in one row.

The most puzzling thing – which wasn’t explained anywhere in the notes – is why the old paintings are black and white and the new in colour. Does it mimic the change from black and white to colour photography which took place in the 1960s? Was the blue collar world which they seem to lament a world of black and white, contrasted with the funky digital colours of our new, smart phone culture?

Blue Collar Telephone (1992) and Site of a Former Telephone Booth (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Telephone (1992) and Site of a Former Telephone Booth (2005) by Ed Ruscha

It’s impossible to say that the passage of time has somehow dehumanised the landscape because there were never any humans in the landscape to start with.

And the paradox is that, although the contrast between working buildings and now empty buildings is presumably meant to convey a sense of loss or abandonment, the use of colour in the 2005 pictures actually makes them feel much more warm and welcoming.

In fact, the before and after of the telephone booth is pretty much a ‘sight gag’. Where there used to be phone booths there is now nothing at all because everyone has mobile phones. no need for the expensive-to-maintain old booths. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

I was also puzzled the way the old phone booth had been replaced by a tree because trees are good, aren’t they? That sort of suggests a positive change, which goes against the gloomy declinism of most of the others.

Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992) and The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992) and The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) by Ed Ruscha

So is it all a tale of woe, a snapshot of American economic decline? Or a little more complicated than that?

Certainly, all five of the 1992 paintings have the words ‘blue collar’ in the title which are absent from the 2003/4/5 titles. Is the series a lament for the passing of the traditional working class world?

Who knows. The paintings offer no more information than their straightforward content and their blankly factual titles. It’s for us to respond and interpret.

The tie-in with Thomas Cole

Why are they here in the National Gallery, now? To coincide with the big exhibition downstairs covering the career of the American landscape painter, Thomas Cole, which includes the epic five-painting cycle The Course of Empire (1834–6) which Ruscha has acknowledged as a major inspiration for his series.

It is the first time that Cole’s source set of paintings, and Ruscha’s response to them, have ever been exhibited at the same time, in the same institution.


Related links

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Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire @ the National Gallery

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition on numerous levels. It contains 58 works, the majority on loan from North American collections, focusing on a score of masterpieces by American landscape painter Thomas Cole – making this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of his works together in one place.

It also brings together some enormous paintings by Claude, Constable, Turner and John Martin to show how Cole studied and learned from them.

And, quite apart from the visually stunning impact of many of these huge works, it is rich in thought-provoking issues and ideas.

Four rooms and seven chapters

Thomas Cole is famous in the U.S. as the greatest American landscape artist of his generation, more or less founding the young republic’s tradition of landscape painting.

In fact he was British, born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801 to a middle class family in reduced circumstances. So reduced that young Thomas was sent out to work while still school age, among other jobs working as an assistant to an engraver.

The story of his life, achievement and influence is told in the four rooms of the National Gallery’s ground Floor Galleries, which have been divided into seven sections or ‘chapters’. There’s also a handy timeline of his life on one wall, to give a sense of the flow and development of his career before he was struck down tragically young, dying aged 47 in 1848.

Chapter 1. Industrial England

Cole was born in Bolton near Manchester as the industrial revolution reached its first flood of development.

The first section includes a vivid depiction of the impact of this new coal and iron technology in Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s painting Coalbrookdale by Night, painted in 1801 the year of Cole’s birth. Note the enormous abandoned cogs and crankshafts at the bottom left and their resemblance to the ruined columns in paintings of Roman and Greek ruins i.e. the way older aesthetic forms lingered on in the new world.

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Not only was the physical landscape being devastated, but so were the people too, the old cottage-based artisan economy eroded by mass production in the new manufactories where people were reduced to ‘hands’, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to serve the machines.

This prompted a backlash. Nearby hangs a contemporary lampoon of a Luddite, one of the gangs of workers who smashed up the machinery in a bid to halt ‘progress’ and to keep work human.

When his father’s business failed, Cole, a sensitive well-educated teenager, was forced to take work engraving printing blocks in a local cotton mill. He had, quite literally, hands-on experience of the way industrial ‘progress’ was making work mechanical and alienating.

In 1817 the family moved to Liverpool where Cole got a job working in an engraver’s shop where he would have seen prints by the leading artists of the day.

Chapter 2. American Wilderness

When he was 17 Cole’s parents decided to emigrate. His family sailed to America and settled in Philadelphia. Cole was now determined to become a painter, borrowing all the textbooks he could find and taking lessons from an itinerant artist. In 1825 he moved to New York City and that summer took a steamboat trip up the Hudson river into the Catskill Mountains.

He made numerous sketches of this picturesque landscape, rich in hills, valleys, small rivers, abundant wildlife and forests stretching as far as the eye could see. Already it was a tourist destination for New Yorkers but Cole removed all human traces from his sketches and especially from the finished paintings he worked up from them, depicting the landscape as a virgin wilderness.

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although there are a few tiny sailboats on the river in the far distance of this painting you’d be forgiven for not seeing them. What you are meant to see is the wild and storm-battered trees and the outcrop of rock, highlighted in the foreground and set against the ominous dark shape of the mountain (Round Top) rising behind it.

In these paintings Cole was seeking, in his own words, ‘a higher style of landscape’. He was influenced by the prints he’d seen of the magnificent sprawling light effects achieved by J.M.W. Turner and the grandiose melodramatic effects of ‘end of the world’ John Martin. What makes this exhibition even more visually stunning than it would have been is the inclusion of some wildly dramatic works by Turner and Martin of the sort which inspired young Cole.

A classic example of Cole’s literary or melodramatic embellishment of landscape is this fantastical scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel of the wilderness north of New York, Last of the Mohicans, published just the year before, in 1826.

The humans are obviously dwarfed by the setting, an improbably fantastical circular ledge of rock on the right of the picture, allowing the left half to reveal a ‘sublime’ receding vista of successive rugged mountains, lakes, and more mountains. The very human passions of Cooper’s novel have been translated into an image of almost cosmic significance.

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

These paintings attracted buyers, and word of mouth led Cole to be taken up by some very wealthy patrons. It was one of these patrons, Luman Reed, who paid for Cole to return to Europe and undertake a tour of Italy in order to improve his technique and his life drawing.

Chapter 3. London – Imperial Metropolis

So at the age of 28 Cole returned to Europe, stopping in London, where he visited the newly opened ‘National Gallery’ to study Old Masters. Here he actually met Constable and Turner. He was invited for a personal tour of the latter’s studio, where he admired the remarkable painting, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

You can see how this kind of thing played to Cole’s interest in depicting absolutely massive natural landscapes, enormous cosmic or geographical motifs which dwarf their puny human characters.

But like everyone else who met him, Cole was disappointed by the contradiction between the sublimity of Turner’s paintings and the man himself, who was dirty, smelly, abrupt and inarticulate, having the appearance and manners, as Cole put it, of ‘the mate of a coasting vessel’.

At the Royal Academy Cole exhibited some of his own landscapes, such as the striking Distant View of Niagara Falls, which he actually completed in London from sketches taken at the scene, and which he deliberately painted with a view to wowing the London public. He was disappointed when they didn’t make much impact.

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Chapter 4. The Grand Tour

Cole travelled quickly through Paris, which held no interest for him, and on to Florence, where he spent eight months getting to know the town’s close-knit artistic community, painting the city and going out into the surrounding countryside to paint landscapes and especially all and any remains of the once-great Roman Empire.

In 1832 he moved on to Rome itself, studying and sketching all the famous sites and also venturing out into the surrounding countryside, much loved by the French painted Claude Lorraine whose work he had admired in London.

This part of the exhibition displays figure studies Cole did in Italy, as well as oil paintings of Florence and of picturesque Roman ruins embedded in the tranquil Italian countryside.

Chapter 5. The Course of Empire

Cole returned to the States in 1832 and became a citizen in 1834. It was now, after all this training and preparation, that he began work on the ambitious cycle of five massive paintings designed to portray the rise and fall of an imaginary civilisation which he was to call The Course of Empire.

Visually, the ‘civilisation’ – i.e. the buildings, clothes and trappings of all the inhabitants – are based on ancient Rome, with its vast classical buildings, all pillars, porticoes and domes. But the landscape, the natural setting of the rise and fall, are recognisably the America of Cole’s Catskill paintings.

In this, the first of the sequence, a ‘savage’ dressed in a loincloth in the middle foreground on the left is chasing a deer he has wounded with an arrow, at the bottom and slightly to the right of middle. In the distance on the right is a circle of Indian teepees with a fire burning. Looming up out of the John Martin-style, over-arching clouds, is a sloping mountain topped by a distinctive boulder, which appears in all five paintings.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The sequence as a whole can be quickly taken in on Wikipedia.

The five paintings are:

  • The Savage State
  • The Arcadian or Pastoral State
  • The Consummation of Empire
  • Destruction
  • Desolation

As you can see, the paintings combine epic scale and deep perspective with a beguiling attention to minute detail. For example, in the second painting, look for the old man tracing geometric shapes in the sand with a stick, the first tremors of the ‘science’ which will give rise to ‘industry’.

The Consummation of Empire is in some ways the most visually pleasing. It’s physically the biggest of the five, but I think a lot of its success is due to the importance of light in bringing an unexpected sense of air and spaciousness to what ought to be a ridiculously crowded and crammed composition.

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

It adds to your appreciation to learn that the five paintings are conceived of taking place at different times of day: Savage at dawn, Arcadia in mid-morning, Consummation in the full light of a Mediterranean noon, Destruction in the late afternoon, and Desolation at moonrise.

A whole room is devoted to these five enormous paintings (with a handful of works from Italy on other walls so you can see where ideas of perspective, and especially of classical buildings and plant-covered ruins came from). It is a dazzling array of visionary genius.

Chapter 6. Cole’s Manifesto

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829 to 1837, that’s to say at exactly the period when Cole came into his own as a professional artist, travelled to Europe and painted his epic Course of Empire series.

Jackson is controversial nowadays for the politically correct reasons that he was a slave-owner who also took a tough line with native Americans, leading the US Army in the First Seminole War (1814-19), and in 1830 signing an Indian Relocation Act which expelled native Americans from the South to the mid-West of America, causing an immensely destructive uprooting of peoples and cultures in which many died.

But contemporaries like Cole disliked Jackson not for these reasons, but because he was a demagogic populist who appealed over the heads of the Washington establishment to the broader electorate, claiming to speak up for ‘the common man’.

Several art scholars were on hand at the press view I attended and one of them said that Jackson was ‘the Donald Trump of his day’, claiming to stand up for the common man, but in reality paving the way for the spread of industrial capitalism into the West.

He said that if the figure in a red cloak riding in triumph across the viaduct in The Consummation of Empire can be seen as Jackson/Trump, then his empress, seated on a throne at the extreme right and bottom of the picture, must be Melania!

Why did Cole dislike Jackson so much? Because he objected to Jackson forcefully encouraging the opening up of the West for settlement and exploitation.

For Cole is seen by many as not only the first serious painter of landscapes in America, and founder of the Hudson River School of art, but also as one of the first American environmentalists.

Cole was deeply fearful that the Americans were about to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed at first hand in Britain, and were about to destroy their natural landscape in a misguided quest for industrialisation and ‘progress’.

This wasn’t just an opinion he expressed in painting. In 1836, while he was working on the Course of Empire paintings, Cole felt strongly enough about it to write an ‘Essay on American Scenery’ pleading for the preservation of the American wilderness.

Coincidentally and ironically, the same year saw construction begin on the Hudson Valley railway. In the final room, among other works, there’s a pairing of paintings Cole did before and after the railway was built through his beloved Catskill landscape.

View on the Catskill - Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

View on the Catskill – Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

The commentary very usefully pointed out the way Cole uses techniques borrowed from Claude Lorraine, namely the elegant trees framing the view, at the right, and the big eggshell blue sky, to convey a tremendous sense of openness and tranquility, against which his characteristically tiny people are framed.

The ‘after’ painting, made six years later in 1843, hardly depicts the end of the world; the changes are more subtle.

A moment’s attention shows that the trees have gone. The framing pair at the right of the earlier work, and the smaller one on the left, have disappeared, replaced by hacked-down stumps. Worse, where the entire lake was previously lined by an elegant sweep of trees, now these have all gone, replaced by low-growing bushes. Removing the trees eliminates the sense of depth and mystery from the view.

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The railway itself cuts across the middle distance and this also, once you focus on it, has a subtly undermining effect. Previously the view unfolded with a sense of limitless depths, a sense of mystery succeeding wooded mystery. Now, denuded of trees and bisected by this subtle but decisive line, the entire landscape now appears somehow more constrained and controlled.

The highlight of the last room is arguably Cole’s most famous painting into which he poured everything – his management of sheer scale and size, his sense for landscape, everything he had learned from Turner and Constable about clouds – all expressed in yet another realistic painting which lends itself to allegorical interpretation – View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, generally known as The Oxbow.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a huge and hugely enjoyable painting, with much to note and savour. Moving from left to right, up in the sky, we pass from a violent thunderstorm (with forked lightning at the extreme left), to the storm petering out, whiter clouds and then a clear blue sky appearing.

This movement is paralleled on the earth by a movement from violently broken trees in the left foreground and dense virgin brush in the middle-left, suddenly giving way with a great sense of release to a huge vista down over the river valley to the mountains beyond.

And down in the river valley – in striking contrast to the dark, dark green of the wild brush in the left foreground, is the honey yellow of wheatfields in which stand tiny stooks of wheat. Scattered among the orderly yellow and light green fields are occasional settlements of good, honest, horny-handed farmers. Down at the bottom right is a ford with a few horses coming down to it and a raft crossing the river.

This is Cole’s vision of what America should be like, a land of free-living independent yeoman-farmers – the polar opposite of the urbanisation, the galloping desecration of the wilderness, and the encouragement of rapid industrialisation, all of which were taking place under Jackson’s presidency.

It was staring me in the face but I didn’t notice until one of the art historians pointed it out, that the river doesn’t just form a sharp loop – it is in the shape of a question mark. Which future will America choose, a federation of independent farmers, or go down the ruinous path of the Britain which Cole had himself escaped, towards industrialisation, environmental ruination and the transformation of free agricultural workers into a wretched proletariat?

More light-heartedly, Cole has painted himself into his work. At the bottom, just to the right of centre, you can see his head and hat emerging from behind a log. Here I am. I’m painting this beauty. What are you going to make of it?

Detail of the Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

Detail of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

The Oxbow has never been seen in the UK before. It is just one of about 20 paintings which are normally based in America, are rarely displayed together, and are well worth paying the admission price to see and savour.

Chapter 7. Cole’s Legacy

The final wall in the exhibition shows us the works of some of the painters who inherited Cole’s mantle. He died suddenly aged only 47, but not before he had taught the talented Asher Brown Durand and the exceptional Frederic Edwin Church. They both absorbed Cole’s practice of direct observation of nature, sketching and painting on site in the open air. There are several works by Durand and Church to assess them by.

Ironically, although Cole’s style and approach expanded into an entire ‘school’, almost all of his followers dropped his environmental concerns and adopted the new spirit of the times, the infectious optimism that America’s expansion West, its development and industrialisation, all represented a Manifest Destiny to become God’s Own Country.

Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) was painted in 1853, just five years after Cole’s death, yet it celebrates the nascent taming of the wilderness.

At bottom right some cattle are being rounded up while a wagon is being driven up the road. To its left we can see a canal with a lock in it, over which, a bit further down, what looks like a railway bridge crosses over.

On a spur of land sticking out into the lake, in the distance, is some kind of town with a cluster of chimneys emitting the kind of smoke we saw in the first room of the gallery, denoting the British Industrial revolution. Meanwhile, half hidden among the broken trees to the left, is a group of three native Americans looking on – with awe, with regret, who knows? – but in effect characters made to pose and gaze in wonder at the unstoppable Progress of the White Man.

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand (1853)

Absences and contradictions

There’s no slavery in Cole’s paintings. There are few native Americans. Politically correct curators can point out what – to our enlightened times – are these notable absences.

But then again there are no working poor of any kind. Farms we see, from a great distance, in The Oxbow, but none of the early starts and long days and hard manual labour involved in farming.

In fact people in general are conspicuous by their absence from Cole’s painting. Having never had a formal training, he was self-conscious about his ability to draw bodies and faces and so limited his depictions of people to distant puppets.

In any case, all this was part of his overall strategy, which was to cleanse the landscape of its human inhabitants (white or black or red) in order to present it as a bountiful and idyllic wildscape.

For example, the wall label tells us that there were already tourists at Niagara Falls, roads to bring them there and accommodation for them to stay in. But all of this was omitted from Cole’s primitivising vision of Niagara Falls (above).

The great irony of his career and art is, Who did he produce these visions of a pristine nature for, who did he sell them to?

The answer: to rich patrons in New York and Connecticut who had become rich precisely by laying roads across the wilderness, by selling dry goods to new settlements and, in the case of the New York bankers who patronised Cole, by funding the new railroads and industrial enterprises which were despoiling the very landscapes they paid him to paint.

Cole is praised as a founding environmentalist – but he is just as much a forerunner of that familiar figure, the modern artist who uses art to rail against capitalism, the West, exploitation, poverty and so on but – makes a career by selling their work to rich bankers or to art institutions founded and endowed by rich bankers, the lynchpins of the very system they purport to criticise.

A rapture of beauties

This exhibition would be worth visiting for the Cole alone, but the National Gallery has given us a real embarras de richesses by including masterpieces by the four European painters who most influenced him –

  • the enormous Snowstorm by Turner (Tate)
  • the ludicrously melodramatic Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin (Yale, USA)
  • as well as five works by John Constable including Hadleigh Castle (Yale, USA) the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate) and three beautiful sketches all usually kept at Yale University in the States, including some wonderful sketches of clouds

Cole developed a friendship with Constable and they exchanged letters and sketches. In fact there are a number of studies by Constable and Turner of skies, cloudscapes and so on, to compare and contrast with Cole’s own sketches. Some of the Constable ones are stunningly skilful uses of paint.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

In fact one of the most fascinating snippets or sidelights of the exhibition was being shown the relationship between Cole’s anti-industrialising ethos and Constable’s similar sentiments. I hadn’t noticed before that the south bank of the Thames in the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (at the far right of the painting) is thronged with factory chimneys spewing out toxic smoke. Apparently, in his final years, Constable was depressed at the arrival of industrial blight in the landscape of the south of England.

I last saw The Opening in a large exhibition of Constable and powerfully disliked it. The curator pointed out that so does everyone else, but that was part of its point. It is an English version of Cole’s The Consummation of Empire, showing foolhardy pomp and circumstance while in the background industrialism is beginning to corrupt and destroy the culture.

Last but not least in the room showing enormous paintings which influenced Cole is Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula by Claude Lorraine. You can immediately see how his light-filled combination of water with classical buildings was absorbed and repurposed by Cole for the Course of Empire series, but there are plenty of pleasures to linger and enjoy just in this one painting.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

The point is, this exhibition isn’t just about Cole. If you add in the couple of paintings each by Durand and Church to the Claude, Turner, Constable and Martin, the feeling is of encountering masterpiece after masterpiece in an exhibition which expands your mind and gladdens the heart.

While the rational mind is processing a raft of issues and ideas, the eyes are surfeited with quite rapturous beauty.

The promotional video


Related links

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Tomma Abts @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

There are two Serpentine Galleries. The original one was opened in 1970 in a one-time tea-room pavilion built in 1933, and has been putting on exhibitions by cutting-edge contemporary artists for nearly 50 years.

In 2013 a second site was opened – the Serpentine Sackler Gallery being the conversion into gallery space of a Grade II-listed, former gunpowder store, originally built in 1805. Whereas the original gallery is just south of the lake, the Sackler Gallery is over the bridge on the north side of the Serpentine.

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery consists of four display corridors set in a square around two large brick rooms which once held gunpowder, and hence are named the Powder Rooms. Artists and curators are free to utilise these rather dark mysterious spaces or not, as required.

From a practical point of view, maybe the most important thing about the two galleries is that, while they host a steady stream of exhibitions by leading contemporary artists, they are both COMPLETELY FREE.

Tomma Abts

Just opened at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is the first ever solo exhibition by leading German woman artist, Tomma Abts. It is one of the largest collections of her work shown anywhere, bringing together 25 works from the last decade.

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Abts is best known for her acrylic and oil paintings which ring an extraordinary variety of changes on a limited number of motifs and colours, all contained within a uniform canvas size of precisely 48cm by 38cm.

Why this size? Because, she explained at the press launch I attended, it allows freedom and flexibility. A little larger and you have to begin to plan and compose the work. At this size, works can be reworked, reversioned and remodelled.

The process of making

Starting with her standard-sized canvas, Abst lays down a bed of acrylic paint, lets it dry, and then begins experimenting with shapes, hand drawing in patterns, beginning to colour them with oil paint, getting a sense of their play and interaction.

There is no subject, nothing is being depicted. It is a completely open process. Guided only by intuition and a feeling for design, for what works and what doesn’t, Abts slowly builds towards a final version, painting over earlier patterns and designs, until shapes and colours crystallise into a new work.

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

The results are surprisingly varied and visually interesting. They also have a genuinely hypnotic quality.

For a start, you can get far more up-close-and-personal to Abt’s work than you can to most paintings.

  • None of them have a frame – which makes them more approachable in an obvious physical sense, but also in a more subtle aesthetic way.
  • They are not covered with a glass sheet, unlike so many paintings in so many galleries – thus you don’t get horrible reflections to put you off an immediate and full cognition of the image.
  • There is no marker on the floor a yard from the works and no officious security dude telling you to keep your distance. You can go up as close as you like. You could easily touch the surface if you wanted to, and you can certainly examine the canvas from just inches away.
  • There are no wall labels to distract you with information about the title, date, materials or anything else. Each work stands alone on the blank white wall in its own zone of attraction.
  • And the hang has been done deliberately so all the works are about five feet off the ground, at exactly head, and eye, height.

All of this has been done to encourage you to really ‘engage’ with the works. To look closely and then look again. I got chatting to one of the gallery assistants (an Italian guy) and we spent a good five minutes looking closely at Unno.

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

We noticed that:

  • The oil paint is deep. The canvas has been painted over, and then over again. This gives the surface of the canvas – seen up close – a noticeable grain and texture, and the image as a whole – seen from a little further back – a kind of richness and depth.
  • Looking close, you can see the traces of where previous designs have been painted over but left their marks. Each painting is thus a palimpsest (‘something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form’). The closer you look, the more residues and traces of earlier compositions you see – in the case of Unno you can make out wavy lines which had once existed but have been painted over to create a completely geometric image – but which nonetheless have left a ghostly residue.
  • Next, the light source. Only after really looking for a while did I realise that some of the patterns are given the illusion of depth by being painted as if casting ‘shadows’ – namely the two diagonal sticks. But only two of them. The third one doesn’t have a shadow. I presume the use of some shadow creates the illusion of depth and so the traditional painterly notion of looking into a three-dimensional space, while the unshadowed elements (the third stick and the ring) do not have shadow but sit purely on the surface. The result doesn’t clash, but adds complexity to your perception.
  • Also playing with conventions of light and depth is the way the brown circle which dominates the image is much lighter on the right, as if it is a metal ring and is being burnished by sunshine or some other light source coming from that direction. And yet, unlike the sticks, it doesn’t have a shadow.
  • Taken together, these are deliberately trompe l’oeil effects, aspects of oil painting which can be played with to deceive the mind. Having observed all these elements, if you put them back together you realise that, although they’re there, they don’t seriously disrupt or undermine the composition: they enhance and deepen it.

And all of this is before you come to consider the palette, the particular combination of colours being used – obviously dominated by the brown background, with a darker brown (though deceptively burnished metallic aspect) for the ring. And against this the three ‘sticks’ which combine pink and beige and light blue punctuated with their own brown blips to create… to create what?

Well, a distinct and powerful colour world. Just for this work. Other works have completely different palettes, for example, the acid yellow of Feke pictured at the top of this review, or the limited use of acid yellow against a much more sombre backdrop in Fiebe.

Each of these one-off colour schemes creates a specific ‘mood’, just as the patterns and shapes create a different action or motif. At one point I thought of ballet, of evenings of ballet I’ve been to where they put on three or four short works by completely different composers, each one creating its own mood, colour, music and imagine-world.

In a way Abt’s paintings are like ballets, each with a unique set, with dancers dressed in weird, abstract or geomorphic costumes, and each has its own peculiar ‘music’.

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Geometric and organic

So are they all rather rigid and geometric?

No. A number of them, admittedly a minority of the works on show here, make a point of being ‘looser’ and more organic.

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Almost all of them use the same devices of shadow to create illusory ‘space’, and the ‘burnishing’ of some lines or surfaces as if they are metallic and closer to a light source – all the tactics I noticed in Unno – but each cast in their own strongly unified colour schemes. Each with its own music of colour and composition.

In some of them the shadowing gave the elements a bit more of a physical and tactile quality. I wanted to reach into this one and tug the ribbon or wool or paper or string, and dangle and twirl it for my cat to play with.

Playing with the canvas

Having got to grips with Abt’s core or base style, you then come across works where she plays with it, evolves it, varies it.

Specifically, there are a number of works which take the painting-as-object idea further by experimenting with the shape of the canvas. Some have one corner gently rounded off. Others have a corner sharply cut off. And some of the canvases have been cut entirely in two.

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

The most radical experiment with form was the couple of works which she had designed and then had cast in aluminium – quite a big step away from the organic process of painting and repainting which the other works make such a virtue out of.

For me the ‘whole’ works, with their integrated colour schemes and subtle trompe l’oeil effects, with their textured surfaces and the just-visible traces of previous designs – maintain a subtle and pleasing balance between being objects you look into, absorbed by colour and composition, and objects you look at, beguiled by their obvious presence as objects-in-the-world.

I can see why Abts was drawn to experiment with her basic format – after all, why not? – and I was intrigued and pleased with some of them. But somehow I felt that the fundamental idea of a kind of never-ending sequence of 48cm by 38cm canvases itself had a kind of formal beauty. I felt a little let down by the ‘altered’ canvases.

Larger scale

And the same went for the three larger canvases which the show includes. These are all 86.5 x 63.5 cm, so nearly twice the dimensions of the ‘standard’ Abts work.

It was interesting to learn from the artist herself that this significant increase in scale required an entirely different working procedure, namely that the design had to be completely finished and composed before the work began. 86.5 x 63.5 cm turns out to be too big a scale to experiment, revise and repaint on.

Stylistically, they are recognisably the same kind of geometric patterns incorporating trompe l’oeil shadow effects as their smaller cousins – indeed the need for formal composition meant that Abts was able to select very precisely where lines would intersect or hit the canvas edge, and so all three seem a bit more vividly, even abrasively, mathematical in design.

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

But I didn’t feel they necessarily added anything to the fundamental concept which the 48cm canvases so powerfully convey. She’s interspersed the three big ones in among the regular 48cm works but, to my mind, they required seeing in a noticeably different way. I’d have preferred to see them hung next to each other, maybe with 2 or 3 others, to have made a separate section of the show, so that you could soak up all the implications of the difference in scale more thoroughly.

Conclusion

These paintings by Tomma Abts are really beautiful, absorbing, mesmeric works which offer up more and more rewards, the closer you look.

Many paintings are just paintings, but Abt’s works are like a kind of Zen training in How to Look, to look closely, and then to look again.

And the exhibition is FREE. It’s in a lovely, light, air-conditioned gallery right next to the picturesque Serpentine, with its deckchairs and its ice cream vendors.

Go, and give your mind a treat.


Related links

  • Tomma Abts continues at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 September 2018

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

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