Tove Jansson @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Since their first appearance in the 1940s, the Moomins have grown to be a worldwide phenomenon. The books have been translated into over 50 languages, there are have been numerous TV series and movies, as well as plays and an opera, and there are currently several Moomin Worlds, all based on the slender tales of these harmless little cartoon characters who live in the remote and enchanted Moomin Valley.

Dulwich Picture Gallery is currently hosting a wonderful, beautifully staged and life-affirming exhibition which aims to set the phenomenal worldwide success of the Moomin characters in the broader context of the career of their creator, Finnish artist Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001).

The exhibition brings together 150 works to show how, as well as creating the Moomins, Jansson was also a successful painter – creating striking self-portraits as well as experimental landscapes – a caricaturist and a book illustrator.

Oil paintings

The exhibition opens with a room of Jansson’s oil paintings, portraits of lovers and of her family and some of the many self-portraits she painted of herself, striking various poses, exuding a rather unsmiling air of purpose and self-confidence.

Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait) (1942) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis © The Estate of Tove Jansson

Lynx Boa (Self-Portrait) (1942) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis © The Estate of Tove Jansson

She came from a family which understood and supported her artistic aims. Her mother was an illustrator, her father was a sculptor and her two brothers also became artists. She had a very thorough artistic training, studying at art schools in Stockholm, Helsinki, then Paris.

During this time she experimented with contemporary styles of oil painting – the portrait of Maya is an essay in Gauguin, while another self-portrait is all angles and shadows like a Vorticist work. But the core of her style is a kind of modern realism, epitomised by this group portrait of her family, featuring her two younger brothers playing chess.

Family (1942) Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

Family (1942) Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

She hoped this would be treated as a masterpiece but the critics weren’t that keen. It was a good thirty years since Picasso, Matisse and the rest had revolutionised western art. In this context, it’s a very conservative work, and also rather a mish-mash. The faces of the mother, father, older boy and Tove’s own face all seem like they’ve been done in different styles. (Also, I was slightly irritated that I couldn’t make out the position of the pieces in the chess game. What’s the point of painting a chess game if you can’t see the pieces?)

War and satire

Born in 1914, Jansson came to adulthood in the ominous atmosphere of the 1930s, and witnessed the Soviet attacks on Finland in 1939. When Hitler’s Germany invaded Soviet Russia in 1941, Finland allied with the Nazis, and Finnish troops took part in the 872-day siege of Leningrad.

As might be expected her family, and Jansson, were strongly pacifist and throughout this period she worked as a caricaturist for the Finnish satirical magazine, Garm. There is a good selection of the cover illustrations she drew for Garm in a display case. They are extremely good, well designed, well drawn, and, above all, funny. In this cover illustration from 1938, Hitler is the spoilt cry-baby being offered choice bits of Europe to try and stop his bawling.

Cover illustration of Garm No. 10 (1938) Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Jenni Nurminen

Cover illustration of Garm No. 10 (1938) Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Jenni Nurminen

It was handy that Jansson’s artist mother had herself worked for Garm since it was established in 1929. All through the exhibition we are told what a strong, independent woman Jansson was, but it certainly helps your ‘independence’ if you have well-connected, sympathetic, comfortably-off parents to get you jobs and support your career.

Still, the covers are not only hilarious, they get better, better drawn and more sophisticated, as they go on. There’s a good one from 1943: as the war turns against Germany, posh people in suits are all depicted rowing boats away from a swastika sinking in the sea. And a bitterly satirical one from after the war shows a Heath Robinson-style big industrial contraption, with black-faced evil Nazis entering at the bottom, passing through various cranks and cogs, and emerging as white-faced angels flying about the sky at the top!

The one below, published as the Germans were retreating on all fronts, shows Hitler looting Europe.

Cover illustration for Garm (1944) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis

Cover illustration for Garm (1944) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Yehia Eweis

The clarity of line, and the stylisation of Hitler, remind me of the political cartoons of David Low, who published cartoons in the British press through the 1930s and 1940s.

David Low, Evening Standard (8th July, 1936)

David Low, Evening Standard (8th July, 1936)

I like cartoons so I loved these Garm covers. Jansson’s work should definitely be included in any books or collections about political cartoons of the 1930s and 40s.

The Moomins

If you look at the bottom right of the second Garm illustration, you can see Moomintroll hiding the ‘M’. Apparently Jansson sketched him as the result of losing a bet with her brothers. Initially he as called Snork. (Maybe this explains the similarity between the Snorks and the Moomins in the books.)

The Moomin story, the characters and their adventures, are so numerous and prolific that it is impossible to summarise. Briefly: they began as little extras in the Garm illustrations. Then Jansson developed comic strips, little sets of three or four pictures telling a story. These appeared in a Finnish left-wing newspaper for a while but it was only when the London Evening News (forerunner of today’s Evening Standard) signed a contract with Jansson after the war for a daily supply of cartoon strips, that they became famous. The exhibition devotes a lot of space to explaining how the Moomin characters evolved, and the commercial roots of them, giving examples of first drafts of the strips, sketches and rough workings.

The Evening News contract ran for seven years, being Jansson’s main source of income, and by the end the strip was being seen by twenty million people daily. The exhibition includes a wall full of fascinating of examples. What’s interesting is to see the Moomins – who in the books are targeted at pretty small children – taking part in grown-up comedy: it’s quite a shock!

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

And then, alongside the newspaper comic strips, Jansson began writing and illustrating book-length adventures for her cleanly-drawn, black and white biomorphic characters. The books, in order of their original publication, are:

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

So, as you can see, there are 25 years between the first and the last book – a full generation – in which the tone and attitude of the books subtly changed, maturing and becoming more wistful.

The second half of the exhibition is predominantly about the Moomin characters (there is a display case of an early version of little figurines of the characters made by Jansson’s brother), their development, the premise and plotlines of each of the books, and wonderful evocative illustrations from each of them.

I read all the books when I was about 8 or 9 and every single book illustration is imprinted on my memory and carries me off into a lovely warm memories of childhood absorption in her wonderful fantasy land of Moomin valley, with its collection of eccentric and lovable characters.

It should be mentioned that the exhibition has been carefully designed to encourage younger visitors (there were loads of toddlers about when I visited). The walls of each room are painted vibrant primary colours (yellow, orange, green) and are dotted with large decals of Moomin characters, like Renaissance putti, watching over the visitors.

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Installation view of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery

You can read about the Moomins elsewhere, there is no shortage of sites and sources for more information:

Moomin merch

Writing the books and the strips went alongside managing the increasing range of merchandise, which began appearing even in Jansson’s lifetime. As Andy Warhol said:

Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say ‘money is bad’ and ‘working is bad’. But making money is art, and working is art – and good business is the best art.

And a lot of Jansson’s later energy was devoted to managing the growing Moomin empire, ensuring quality control for the various Moomin stage plays, operas, TV series, animations and spin-offs. This task has been taken over by her estate which keeps strict control of the Moomin images to this day.

Book illustrations

Coming off the back of this success as an illustrator of her own books, Jansson was invited to create illustrations for three children’s classics, Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1961) and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1959) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1966).

The commentary says Jansson made some effort to distinguish these works from her Moomin illustrations, but I’m not sure she succeeds. The Alice illustrations are the least convincing. The Hobbit ones are bizarre, as we see Jansson’s essentially warm comforting style deployed on dragons, orcs and giants. There are some brilliant examples, I liked the one of the three giants, but if you google it you can see scores more.

Best of the three in my opinion are the illustrations for The Hunting of the Snark.

Sea paintings, late oils

Jansson had more or less abandoned oil painting during the war for the Garm work, and then moved seamlessly on to produce the ever-growing Moomin universe. But in the 1960s she had the time and money to return to oil painting, her first love. The exhibition includes a room of later oil works, including three interesting abstract works designed to convey the sea.

Abstract Sea (1963) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

Abstract Sea (1963) by Tove Jansson. Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Hannu Aaltonen

They make heavy use of impasto or laying on the oil in thick wedges to create ridges and rifts of colour. They’re not really that great, that distinctive enough to really form a view. Three wasn’t really enough; a room of her landscapes would have been interesting and useful (the other works in this room were still lifes and portraits).

What they do convey, though, is the importance of the sea and lakes and water to Jansson. The audio guide includes a very useful 6 or 7 minute film summarising her entire life, and what this makes clear is what a happy, loving childhood she had. Every year her parents took her and her two brothers to the Finnish lakes where they played and frolicked all summer long. In adult life, Jansson rented a house on a remote island – Klovharun – among the Pellinge islands, and then built her own cabin where for the next three decades she and her partner, the graphic designer, Tuulikki Pietilä, lived and worked together. Her 1993 autobiography is titled Notes from an Island and is illustrated by Tuulikki.

This biographical film ends with a really wonderful bit of home film footage showing Jansson dancing on the top of a little ridge near the cabin, perfectly captured in silhouette. Just a normal person, not beautiful or thin and elegant, not a model or an actress, just a rather dumpy person like you or me who makes up her own Happy Dance and dances down towards the camera with a huge grin on her face.

It’s hard to imagine a more complete expression of contentedness and happiness. It’s wonderful.

For me the dominant theme of the Moomin books is tranquility and acceptance. They describe great marvels and wonders – a comet rushing towards the earth, a great flood, the spooky silence of snow-covered mid-winter – and the Moomin family keep meeting all sorts of odd and peculiar characters – but they are never really afraid. All the oddity and adventure is calmly accepted by the eccentric Moominpapa and the supremely calm and practical Moominmamma. They stories are redolent of a warm and loving family, and I think that in the books and illustrations what comes over with great force is her happy childhood and warm supportive family life.

Adult fiction

It comes as no surprise to learn, then, that after her mother died in 1970, Jansson found herself unable to write any more Moomin stories. The special closeness she shared with her mother was broken; the untroubled happiness of Moomin Valley fell into shadow. (In fact a few large-format Moomin picture books did appear later – The Dangerous Journey (1977) and An Unwanted Guest (1980) – but the five big picture books are the triumph of pictures and design over text; they don’t have the imaginative intensity of the novels.)

And that’s when she turned to writing stories for adults, short stories and short novels. These have only slowly been translated into English (not all of them are yet available) and have established yet another string to her bow, as the ‘painter’ of charming, winsome tales of girls, childhood and femininity.

Novels
1972 The Summer Book
1974 Sun City
1982 The True Deceiver
1984 The Field of Stones

Short story collections
1968  Sculptor’s Daughter
1971 The Listener
1978 Art in Nature
1987 Travelling Light
1989 Fair Play
1991 Letters from Klara and Other Stories

Comments

Bright and lovely This is a beautifully conceived and laid out exhibition, the bright colour of the walls and the Moomin decals lending it an innocence and charm entirely in tune with the subject matter.

The snug Half way along the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s six room exhibition space is an odd circular room off to one side, a dimly-lit mausoleum commemorating the gallery’s sponsors, Sir Francis Bourgeois, Noel and Margaret Desenfans. For most exhibitions you simply walk past, but for this one the curators have put rugs and beanbags into the Mausoleum along with several library book holders full of Moomin books. This is where I lay to watch the video about Jansson’s life before it began filling up with toddlers. My advice to the curators: Put many, many more beanbags and rugs into the Snug – and some kind of heater: make it really snug.

Be happy ‘As happy as Tove’ should be a new proverb. What an extraordinarily talented woman. And what a gift to be able to channel her sense of warmth and security into a series of wonderfully reassuring, imaginative and beautiful stories.

Tove Jansson swimming ©Per Olov Jansson

Tove Jansson swimming ©Per Olov Jansson

The video

Here is the show being previewed by Ian Dujardin.

For those who want more, BBC Scotland made an hour-long documentary about Jansson.

Moomin merch

There are over fifty items of Moomin merchandise for all your Christmas shopping needs.


Related links

The moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Dalí: Genius, obsession and lust by Ralf Schiebler (1996)

Sex sells. The first documented use of the phrase ‘sex appeal’ dates from 1924 in America, which just happens to be the same year the first Surrealist manifesto was published. Apparently, Dalí was among the first to use a French version of the phrase in France. He knew which way the cultural wind was blowing.

‘People are hard wired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed.’ (Magazine trends study finds increase in advertisements using sex)

Dalí the showman harnessed his own sexual obsessions and fears into his earliest fully surreal paintings. Later, this declined into a habit of including breasts as one of his random design elements in his post-war works. Nonetheless, in puritan America, the inclusion of highly realistic sexual elements guaranteed his work notice, attention and ‘controversy’, keeping his brand in the public view. And, in our time, modern curators and art critics obsessed with bodies, gender, desire and eroticism have found in Dalí’s paintings a goldmine of ‘issues’.

So a book about Dalí which focuses on his use of sexual imagery plays to everyone’s worst instincts.

Small but with photos

Like Edmund Swinglehurst’s book on Dalí, this one has about 120 pages, but is significantly smaller, at 17.8 cm x 25.4 cm. This means the colour reproductions of Dalí’s work make a lot less impact and some of the fine detail, which characterises so many of his paintings, is all-but-indecipherable. In other words, go elsewhere if you want big reproductions of the paintings.

Where this book scores is in the inclusion of lots of photographs from all periods of Dalí’s life, from childhood to senescence. Newspaper and publicity photos from the 30s, 40s and 50s really bring out what a genius Dalí had for creating sensational pictures, objects, shop windows, opera sets and publicity stunts. You can be censorious about his ‘selling out’ or relaxed, seeing him as a precursor to later artist-publicists like Warhol, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst all of whom, like their Dalí, made or are making fortunes from their ‘art’.

Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say ‘money is bad’ and ‘working is bad’. But making money is art, and working is art – and good business is the best art. (Andy Warhol)

There’s nowhere to go after that. Warhol helped modern art disappear up its own fundament. Saying a work of art challenges anything is like saying the lastest novel by x, y or z challenges language and revolutionises society. Quite obviously it doesn’t, it just adds itself to the already vast, huge, teeming overwhelming plethora of entertainments and distractions which swamp the modern world.

It’s for every individual to make their own way through this overcrowded emporium of art music videos photos movies plays books TV shows and so on.

If I am reading a book about Salvador Dalí it isn’t to find secret channels into my unconscious or to be scandalised by his sexual imagery or to have my view of rational society overthrown; it’s to be informed, entertained and amused, just like all the other comfortably-off, middle-class white people I joined at the Royal Academy’s Dalí/Duchamp exhibition a few days ago.

Key photos

As I mentioned, one of the pleasures of the book is the range of photos covering the old showman’s life and times.

Psychoanalysis

This book is translated from the German and occasionally shows it. Its weakest feature is its highly speculative use of Freudian psychoanalysis to interpret the pictures. It seems to be biographical fact that Dalí masturbated a lot, felt guilty about it, had a powerful castration complex, hated his father, specially after he a) married his mother’s sister, soon after his mother’s death in 1921 b) threw him out of the family home for consorting with Gala (still married to Paul Eluard), and that his anxiety and panic attacks ceased as a result of the immense flood of relief, gratification and comfort he found with Gala.

Thus the early paintings give themselves up fairly easily to speculative readings: there are soft sexual symbols aplenty in these earliest works: lots of boobs, but also fingers representing phalluses, men turned towards walls symbolising solitary masturbation, a bearded figure who ‘might be’ Freud in The first days of spring, the lion with a big red tongue which is a sexual symbol, and so on.

Schiebler interprets one of Dalí’s most explicitly sexual paintings (i.e. it contains an actual penis) William Tell and Gradiva (1931) in Freudian terms. Obviously a man is masturbating over the exaggerated naked female form, but the point of the William Tell legend is that Tell almost kills his son by firing an arrow at an apple on his head i.e. it is a deflected version of Freud’s Oedipus Complex (the unconscious rivalry between father and son for possession of the mother).

The man’s beard is the giveaway. This is not Dalí masturbating over Gala, it is his father. Schiebler is quick to speculate that Dalí’s aggression against his father wasn’t based just on the fact that he remarried so soon after his mother’s death (like Hamlet’s surviving parent does) and that his father banned him from the family home – but a Freudian reading that his father was angry at him for dating another man’s wife (Gala) because he – his father – wanted her, sexually.

This example shows how psychoanalytic literary and art criticism can stretch small elements of a work of art, especially if it is actual sexual in nature, into almost indefinite layers of complexity. Thus Schiebler spends three pages going into great detail about the case of Gradiva, the 1902 novella about an archaeologist who has dreams and visions which eventually turn out to conceal a hidden love, which Freud dedicated a long, pioneering work of pychoanalytic interpretation to in 1907.

Dalí immediately recognised this story and projected it onto his love for Gala, his Gradiva, a long-lasting nickname he gave her and which explains its presence in many paintings of this period.

Schiebler uses the sketch and explanation given in the book co-authored by Gala, La femme visible, to focus attention on the complex family group tucked away in the bottom right of The invisibole man, bringing out how each figure is part of Dalí’s complex family romance – the two mothers, the dead older brother – and how the entire thing seems to depict the castration of the baby Dalí.

This is the tone of the book. It is most useful when covering psychoanalytic material directly invoked or quoted by Dalí himself, and also when it ties visual motifs in the paintings to Dalí’s complex life and personal obsessions, less useful the further it veers into psychoanalytic speculation.

Money

There’s a short (three pages) chapter about Dalí’s reputation for greed, for which the leader of the Surrealists, André Breton, famously satirised him, nicknaming Dalí ‘Avida Dollars’. Schiebler’s prose, or the translation, and the fatuous nonsensicality of the underlying thought, come to the fore.

Dalí’s ways with money were certainly chaotic and unfortunate. But the claims that he lusted after money are not convincing, particularly those made by people faring less well themselves and whose socialist options hold little hope for the future either. And in view of the current value of  his works – estimated with increasing objectivity thanks to the number and expertise of those who judge these matters one would have to rate as modest the prices that Dalí charged when he created those works. (p.72)

Science

In one of his countless later interviews Dalí said the two men who influenced him most were Freud and Einstein. The two can be allotted to two halves of Dalí’s career which splits neatly down the middle with the dividing line being the detonation of the atom bomb at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. As Schiebler’s book makes abundantly clear, the works from the mid-1920s till well into the second World War are redolent of sex, sexual obsession, phobias and a range of imagery deriving from or nodding at Freud’s psychoanalytical theories.

But the advent of the nuclear age really struck Dalí to the core, and almost all his post-war works reference nuclear physics with its vision of an atomised universe, of matter broken down into multitudes of sub-atomic particles, of the stunning discovery that almost all of the observed world is in fact empty space – though, as with Freud, this vision is filtered though a peculiarly Dalí-esque vision. Hence:

Schiebler tells us that, as soon as he could really read English, Dalí took out a subscription to Scientific American and used the flood of post-war scientific discoveries as subject matter. Thus, DNA:

Ambition

Dalí was keen for approval from boyhood. He was convinced he was destined for great things. He was invincibly ambitious. No surprise that his cubist self portrait contains the word publicidad, publicity.

His first published writing (1919) was a series on the Great masters of painting. In 1944 he made a league table of painters based on criteria like originality and technique, leading to a table headed by Vermeer, Raphel, Velasquez, Leonardo da Vinci and… himself!

He was aware of his own staggering virtuosity at an early age. By 19, 20, 21 and still at art academy, he had mastered all existing styles:

What a prodigy!

He had an older brother, also named Salvador, who died aged just 21 months before he was born. His mother died in 1921 when he was 17.

His father was notary of Figueres, the head man of the town. His mother let the teenage Dalí take over the laundry ‘tower’ at the top of their house, overlooking the bay, to paint.

It is difficult to hold the world’s interest for more than half an hour at a time. I myself have done so successfully every day for twenty years.


Credit

Dalí: Genius, obsession and lust by Ralf Schiebler was published by Prestel as part of the Pegasus Art series in 1996.

Related links

Dalí-related blog posts

Surrealism-related book reviews

Surrealism-related exhibition reviews

Tracey Emin – My Bed and J.M.W. Turner @ Turner Contemporary

Down in Margate to visit Turner Contemporary, the main effort went into visiting the big retrospective of Surrealist painter and poet Jean Arp. But off to one side, in a big light exhibition room is a funny, wry and stimulating little ‘exhibition’ which consists of the famous ‘bed’ by local-girl-done-good, Tracey Emin, juxtaposed with three big oil paintings of the sea by the great 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner (Rough sea, Stormy sea with blazing wreck, Seascape).

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin

The bed was part of the show which won her the 1999 Turner Prize and helped define the era of Young British Art. I didn’t need any explanation or background notes to immediately think it was a masterpiece.

  1. It adequately, eloquently, comprehensively depicts the life and manners of millions of young people in our times.
  2. It’s by a woman, so it isn’t a show-off depiction by some young stud of how much he drinks and how many women he’s bedded, but something altogether more vulnerable and candid.

Very much like the tent onto which Emin sewed the names of everyone she’d ever slept with which, if it had been by a man, would have been disturbingly like a list of notches on a bedpost – but which was instantly disarming because it included her gran, and her baby brother, and all her teddy bears and toys, all memorialised by name.

It has the immediate impact of being just right, just the right size (room size), just the right proportions, just the right amount of mess and carnage. A classic in every way.

The visitor assistants at Turner Contemporary were all extremely helpful and, more than that, happy to chat about the gallery, Margate, house prices, Tracey’s comings and goings, the art market, and so on. They told me that, each time Emin re-exhibits the bed, she re-arranges it. It’s never the same bed twice. This is as well as the obvious signs of wear and tear, such as the unknown substance which the contents of an opened bottle of Orangina have turned into over the past 20 years.

Now, Emin is quoted as saying:

‘It is a portrait of a younger woman and how times affects us all.’

J.M.W. Turner

Turner needs no introduction. All you need to know for this exhibition is that he visited Margate quite regularly to paint vast, visionary lightscapes looking across the grey Thames Estuary, and that the gallery itself is apparently built on the very spot – overlooking the sea – where once stood the boarding house where Turner stayed. The magnificent views from the gallery’s high windows are the same views Turner saw, and painted. Poignant thought.

View from Turner Contemporary over the Thames Estuary

View from Turner Contemporary over the Thames Estuary

Emin chose the three paintings by Turner (from the vast collection held by Tate) for their stormy turbulence. They are impactful works in their own right, depicting huge, powerful, grey and stormy skies with Turner’s characteristic hazy impressionism.

Rough sea (1840-45) by J.M.W. Turner

Rough sea (1840-45) by J.M.W. Turner

Strange meeting

According to the wall labels the bed represents a turning point in Emin’s life, after the collapse of a long-term relationship. It is intended to depict emotional turmoil. That, apparently, is the link, the secret sympathy which joins and jars these two very different works of art, for Turner’s seascapes are stormy and turbulent, too. Emin chose them for their echo of her emotions.

But I mentioned how chatty and informative the visitor assistants are. One of them told me a secret about this exhibition. She leaned forward, conspiratorially, and whispered – ‘You see the blue knickers in the middle of the bed?’ I looked, yes there they are. She said, ‘Now look at the Turner painting, the one nearest the bed.’ So I did – and in the middle of Turner’s massive white clouds – is a large patch of light blue. Same colour as the knickers adrift in the turbulent dirty cream colour of Emin’s sheets and duvet.

Seascape (1835-40) by J.M.W. Turner

Seascape (1835-40) by J.M.W. Turner

Aha! What mystical correspondence is here, what unknown meanings and messages abound in the universe, what alchemical ties of earth and air and sea and fire are hinted at, once the hooded thaumaturges have cast their runes.

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

Elemental correspondences

Turner – dishevelled white clouds
Tracey – dishevelled white bedding
Turner – wild seascapes
Tracey – wild vodkascapes
Turner – waves washing over the rugged brown land
Tracey – bedding washing over the wooden bed and sturdy little table
Turner – blazing wreck (in the third of the three paintings)
Tracey – fag packet and box of matches

Now it all makes sense.

Tracey Emin My Bed/J.M.W. Turner at Turner Contemporary. Photography by Manu Palomeque

Tracey Emin My Bed/J.M.W. Turner at Turner Contemporary. Photography by Manu Palomeque

The video

There is, of course, a video.


Related links

Salvador Dalí: Exploring the irrational by Edmund Swinglehurst (1996)

This is one of those large-format art books (30 cm x 21.8 cm) which doesn’t have many pages (128) but is packed with good quality colour reproductions which you can spend all day gazing at, and also contains a surprising amount of text when you actually start to read it.

Art criticism is difficult, much harder than literary criticism (though not as impossibly difficult as music criticism). A writer can weigh up how another writer uses words, it’s not that technically complicated. But describing a painting in technical terms i.e. the precise use of oil or acrylic or gouache or watercolour and how the artist deploys them or overcomes specific technical problems relating to them, this is not only a complex subject – potentially required for every individual work – but modern artists i.e. 20th century artists, tended to work across a broad range of media and channels, making the technical knowledge required to really assess their aims and achievements very complicated.

Therefore it is always easier to fall back on the notion that the Great Creator was obsessed by a number of ideas or ‘themes’ and to relate them both to his or her times, and to their personal biography. Thus you hear infinitely more about Picasso’s love life than you do about his innovations in print, lithography, or oil painting. It is easier to tell stories than to analyse. We like stories. We especially like stories about sex. Sex sells. Thus on page one of his text Swinglehurst explains that Dalí’s subjects were ‘sex and the subconscious’ (p.4)

Dalí and Eliot

Now although there are some paintings with titles like ‘The Great Masturbator’, although he (apparently) had an obsession with masturbating – feeling guilty about it – and a consequent haunting fear of being castrated — all in good, approved Freudian fashion – in actual fact, when you look at the 100 or so Dalí paintings gathered here, I don’t really think that summary is true.

There is generally a lot going on, visually, in any individual Dalí painting, and a review of these 100 works suggests that, although bare breasts are often present, there isn’t in fact a lot of sex. In fact, you could argue the sex is the least interesting part. Take Soft construction with boiled beans: premonition of civil war (1936).

Sure there’s a sort of female body and a soft female breast being squeezed by a craggy old man’s hand. Sure Dalí liked to brag that he ‘foresaw’ the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (in July 1936) in this and a few other paintings from earlier that year. But, to put it politely, isn’t there a hell of a lot more to the painting than these overt and obvious meanings? The bodies make no anatomical sense. Why does smooth white flesh keep turning into gnarled old wrinkly hands and feet? Why is the body balanced on a chest of drawers? Who is the totally realistic figure of a man walking behind the hand at bottom left? Why are there perfectly conventional village buildings visible in the far distance? Why is there a sprinkling of beans on in the foreground and in the title?

It’s 80 years since the great Modernist poet T.S. Eliot wrote an essay on poetry in which he suggested that:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be … to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog. (The use of poetry and the use of criticism)

Eliot thought that poetry was the music of words: the music: the ‘meaning’ is just there to distract the higher, restless, journalistic parts of the mind, to keep your attention long enough so that the music can do its subtler work at a deeper level.

Something similar can be applied to Dalí. The sexual images and all the other wildly improbable melting metamorphosing imagery he concocted is the bit thrown at the busybody journalistic mind to hold its attention – while the real work of the painting is going on at a deeper level. I would argue that this real work, the real impact of Dalí’s paintings, comes from their tremendous technical facility, their finish and their completeness.

Dalí studied the Old Masters assiduously, not for their subject matter but for their technical mastery of painting with oil. He venerated the European tradition. He made a list of great artists which was topped by Vermeer, the Dutch master of exquisite finish and detail.

A biographer and critic has to deal with the ‘sex and subconscious’ stuff, the way some personal phobias seem to run through many of the works and Dalí’s overt references to Freud, in the works but especially in the essays, comments, catalogues and interviews he gave.

But having assimilated all that, you could put it all to one side and argue that Dalí’s main achievement was continuing the Old Master tradition of classical painting well into the second half of the 20th century, well after almost all other major artists had long dropped it.

Surely it’s this – his technical mastery, the sense of astonishing, overwhelming perfection given by so many of his pictures, the complete command of the medium, the dizzying use of traditional perspective, the minutely realistic details  – that is the real secret of his enduring success. This book includes plenty of examples but I was really electrified by the glasses on the table in Sun table (1936).

In one of his few comments on Dalí’s technique Swinglehurst says he used specially prepared canvases and a watchmaker’s eyeglass to paint in the finest of fine details. The tiles, the table and the three glasses are quite stunning, justifying the word the adjective super-real, not just surreal.

Similarly, the best bit of Leda Atomica for me is the set square and its shadows at the bottom right.

Gala and the 30s

Dalí’s life was transformed when in 1929 he met Gala (born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova) who was at the time married to poet Paul Éluard. She became his lover, muse, mistress, erotic subject, and – on the practical front -his business manager, home-maker, press and PR agent. In the same year he officially joined the Surrealist movement and, from 1930 to the outbreak of the Second World War (the thirties, basically) was by far Dalí’s most creative and innovative period (i.e. from age 26 to 36). The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 coincided with a highpoint of paranoia, anxiety and inspiration. These were the years when his commanding technique and weird visions of melting forms set on immaculately painted, clearly lit perspectival plains, established Surrealist visual style, all accompanied by sundry publicity stunts which got him into the public eye (like giving a lecture at the Surrealist Exhibition in London dressed in a diving suit – that would get your photo in the London papers even today).

America loved reactionary technique

Dalí and Gala fled to America at the outbreak of the second World War, basing themselves in California with frequent trips to New York. He ended up staying in the States for eight years, crystallising and congealing ‘Part Two’ of his life & career, creating the Salvador Dalí that I grew up knowing about in the 1970s, the millionaire showman and professional eccentric.

In America Dalí discovered that he was famous and popular and set about becoming more famous and more popular. And a key reason for his popularity was the conservativeness of his technique. The Abstract Expressionists and confident arrival of a new American art movement hadn’t happened yet. Instead, rich Americans were still buying up traditional European art. But whereas a lot of the modernism which had been coming out of Paris for thirty years or more was tricky and challenging, to millionaire businessmen from the mid-West, Dalí’s art – even if the subject matter was strange and unnerving – his technique, his polish and finish, spoke of the great European tradition and the valuable Old Masters. In America:

where traditional European art was sought after by the millionaire barons of commerce, Dalí was greeted with enthusiasm. (p.85)

Though their combinations may be outlandish, a lot of Dalí’s objects are themselves clear and accessible – and his pictures contain (mostly) recognisable objects placed in a (and here’s the key thing) recognisable perspective. His paintings are exactly the kind of ‘window on the world’ (albeit a deliberately weird world) which almost all other modern painters had rejected. He did perspective so well and painted the objects so immaculately, that the painted finished feel of them reassured rich Americans.

And then Dalí was a born self-publicist in a country obsessed with publicity and celebrity. Dalí threw himself into it with gusto and Swinglehurst lists an impressive range of activities, designing jewellery, high class shop windows, collaborating on movies (like Hitchcock’s Spellbound), designing sets for operas and ballets, and establishing a lucrative practice painting portraits of the American super-rich.

He stayed in America for eight years, hosting Hollywood parties, churning out works in an increasingly smooth and finished style, selling to naive Yanks who paid top dollar for anything he would produce.

Even before Europe went to war the leader of the Surrealists, André Breton, had expelled Dalí from the group for his divergence from Surrealist doctrine and his refusal to condemn Franco’s right-wing coup in Spain. Now Dalí’s long sojourn in America cut off his roots with European painters, writers, gallery owners, collectors, critics and curators. It is from his period that the divergence sets in between Dalí’s growing public popularity, becoming the king of student posters, appearing on game shows and numerous celebrity interviews – and his rejection by the ‘serious’ academic art world.

He continued painting prolifically into the 1970s and this book shows there were about four types of work:

Over-fluent surrealism Some of his most famous posters have an almost too-perfect fluency. Swinglehurst uses the expression ‘advertising graphic’ as a term of abuse for these.

Dalí’s involvement with so much commercial work in the United States did little for his imagination and affected the quality of his painting, which sometimes began to look like advertising graphics. Dalí himself referred to his work at the time as hand-made photography. (p.92)

Nazi kitsch The kind of super-realistic depictions of the human figure which are unsettlingly similar to the hyper-realism demanded by the totalitarian dictatorships of the mid-century, Hitler, Stalin. For some reason many of the later works featuring Gala have this feel of hollow perfection.

Physics The detonation of the atom bomb really traumatised Dalí and from 1945 onwards the problem of physics appears in many paintings, envisaged as the atomisation of reality, the disintegration of reality into atoms or particles. It coincided with a resurgence of his Catholic faith. The two are connected: a world blown apart by new nuclear knowledge also reveals hitherto unknown complexities, mysteries, spaces, in which maybe a subtler form of religious mysticism can take root.


Miscellaneous notes

His father was the town notary of Figueres i.e. the most important man in the town. Presumably this taught the young Dalí the workings of authority, power. His mother was a strict Catholic and brought her children up accordingly.

1904 born
1922 starts studying at  Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid
1925 holds  his first one-man show
1926 expelled from the academy for fomenting student unrest

1929
* collaborates with friend and fellow-Spaniard Luis Buñuel (b.1900) on the deliberately shocking b&w film Le Chien Andalus
* meets Gala his wife and muse-to-be
* paints some of the earliest works with the flat plane extending to the horizon, the plastic completeness

Swinglehurst points out the figures in the bottom right of invisible man denote Dalí’s lifelong guilt about masturbation and fear of castration (the benefits of a good Catholic upbringing), dealt with in numerous paintings of the time. No doubt. But isn’t the glaringly obvious thing about this picture not some aspect of his personal mythology, the staggeringly fluent use of trompe l’oeil optical illusion, which would become a massive part of his style?


Elements of Dalí’s vision

Trompe l’oeil Dalí early on developed a taste for clever and beautifully worked-out optical illusions in his paintings, cunningly constructed images which can be interpreted in either of two ways. He wrote that the use of optical illusion indicated revealed the hidden meaning latent (to use Freud’s technical term) behind everyday images, or just the dual nature of the human mind, divided – in Freud’s theory – into conscious rational perception and unconscious, hidden desire. Examples include:

Crutches Nowhere in this book does it suggest what the crutches mean but they appear in loads of his 1930s paintings as a fundamental design element.

Lions heads Why?

Ants are a symbol of bodily decay and physical corruption.

Woman with desk drawers

Technical perfection But above all the superlative, breath-taking technical achievement and finish of his oil painting at its stunning best.

Brown After reviewing all hundred paintings I realise that brown is the dominant colour in his palette, especially in the post-war period. Consider the two religious paintings, above, and his masterpiece:


Credit

Salvador Dalí: Exploring the irrational by Edmund Swinglehurst was published by Tiger Books in 1996.

Related links

Dalí-related blog posts

Surrealism-related blog posts

Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ @ the Royal Academy

‘One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.’ (Jasper Johns, 2006)

Jasper Johns was born in 1930 and is still alive and painting at the age of 87!

This enormous exhibition is a major retrospective of his entire career, the first in Britain for over 40 years, comprising over 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints from his first solo exhibition in New York in 1958 right up to works from 2016.

Accompanying the show is an audioguide dominated by the gravelly voice of American art critic and co-curator Roberta Bernstein, author of Jasper Johns’s catalogue raisonné and Professor Emeritus at the State University at Albany, New York, who worked as Johns’s assistant back in the day – alongside the show’s other, English, co-curator, Edith Devaney.

Although this exhibition is vast, ranges over nearly 60 years of work and shows an extraordinary diversity of subject, material and approach – it can be summarised fairly simply. The earliest work from the late 50s and early 60s, the sort-of Pop Art use of a handful of iconic images, is by far the most striking, inspiring and best – all the rest is sort of interesting, plays with themes and techniques, lends itself to lengthy critical explication – but none of it has the electric charge of the works from the first five years or so of his career.

Flag (1958) by Jasper Johns. Encaustic on canvas. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Flag (1958) by Jasper Johns. Encaustic on canvas. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Things the mind already knows

By the mid-1950s the previous big art movement in America – in fact what is usually taken to be the first native art movement in America – Abstract Expressionism, had been dominating the New York art world for a decade, with its huge and dramatic depictions of the Great Artist’s Existential Emotions. (Edith Devaney who co-curated this show, also curated the Royal Academy’s massive Abstract Expressionism show of last year). Big Men like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Willem de Kooning wore their intense and serious emotions on their sleeves and all across their angst-filled canvases.

Johns’s work was immediately recognised as a decisive break with all that. His work is cool, detached, unemotional, distant. In the famous early works he takes everyday images – the American flag, numbers, letters, the target – and treats them to hundreds of combinations and reworkings. The most mundane of objects and signs are transformed by being painted, cast in bronze, made into prints, blown up to enormous size, brightly coloured or greyed-out, reversioned, reworked and reimagined.

Target (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London. Photo © 2017 The Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence

Target (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London. Photo © 2017 The Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence

Interpretations

Critics often make a comparison with the fashionable ‘alienation effect’ developed by Bertolt Brecht in his avant-garde theatre productions of the 1950s theatre in which the actors stop and address the audience or the sets are deliberately hand-made and incomplete  in order to emphasise their artificiality. All designed to undermine the silly bourgeois idea that a play is a natural and authoritative expression of ‘reality’, to show how ‘reality’ is in fact entirely a man-made construct, and so could potentially be changed.

A little more out of the way, I happen to have been reading about Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology of the 1910s and 20s. Husserl developed the idea that philosophers should ‘bracket out’ or put aside the logical, cultural and traditional words associated with our everyday experiences, feelings and concepts – in order to focus on the phenomenon itself, on the appearance of the thing as you experience it, directly, without preconceptions or cultural baggage. Phenomenology was still going strong in the 1950s when Johns began his career, in fact some of the founding texts of phenomenology were only published in English in the 1950s.

And we could mention Marcel Duchamp, the founder of conceptual art, who pioneered the idea of putting everyday objects into an art gallery in order to a) subvert the idea of a work of art b) subvert the idea of reality c) make us see them anew.

What early Johns did to targets, the American flag, numbers and letters is susceptible to interpretation along all these lines and many more.

Surfaces

In fact Johns did a lot more than paint or recreate them since, right from the start, he treated the images to extensive technical transformations. Most strikingly, Johns revived the ancient method of encaustic. This involves heating beeswax, tree sap and pigment and layering it onto the canvas. The coloured wax sets very fast creating a bumped and bevelled surface.

Also, if you go up close to the American flag on display here you can see not only that the surface is made of lumpy dried wax, but that the wax has been applied over a complex collage of old newspaper fragments scattered over the canvas’s surface to build up the painting’s surface. For me this links Johns’s works back to Cubist experiments just before the Great War of attaching newsprint or fabrics to the painting.

This highly tactile element of his paintings is pretty much invisible in any photographic reproductions, including the ones in this blog. So one of the major pleasures of this exhibition is experiencing the highly textured – scraped, painted, collaged, bumped – surfaces of all these works at first hand.

0 through 9 (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016

0 through 9 (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016

Above is a painting of the numbers 0 to 9 painted over each other, to create a colourful palimpsest. This is just one of the transformations Johns submitted his early iconic images to. The numbers could be written out in individual prints (in b&w or colour), written over each other, or cast into a huge aluminium grid. Same with the alphabet, which can be done in coloured grids, black and white grids, individual prints, and so on and so on.

Printmaking

This way of submitting common symbols to systematic deformations naturally suggests the notion of series – sets of works carrying out the transformations in a thorough way – a method of working that lends itself naturally to printmaking. And so over the decades John has proved to be one of America’s leading and most innovative printmakers (he had a central place in the recent British Museum exhibition of American printmakers).

0 Through 9 (1960) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo Jamie Stukenberg/Professional Graphics Inc., Rockford, IL

0 Through 9 (1960) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo Jamie Stukenberg/Professional Graphics Inc., Rockford, IL

Regrets

The exhibition is arranged by themes to bring out the consistencies of thought, approach and experimentation from right across Johns’s career. Mentioning printmaking reminds me of a wall of fifteen prints in the very last room.

In the 2012 Johns came across a photo of Lucien Freud sitting on a crummy bed in a shabby bedsit, his head in his hands. The photo itself had been crumpled up, walked on, and in fact had a large section was torn off the bottom left hand side.

Johns was captivated by the photo and subjected it to a number of his favourite techniques in order to create a series of variations. First, he doubled the size of the image by creating a left side mirroring the right side and turning the torn off bottom left into quite a big black hole in the lower centre. Then he subjected the image to various permutations and variations as a black and white print. And so the wall of prints, titled Regrets I-XV (2013).

As usual, print is just one of the media the image can be reversioned in. Johns has also made paintings of the same image, redone in a dominant field of grey, sometimes enlivened by other colours.

Regrets (2013) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo © Jerry L. Thompson

Regrets (2013) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo © Jerry L. Thompson

Summary of the early

The early flags, numbers and targets created an art which depicted ‘things which suggest the world rather than suggest the personality’ (as Johns put it in 1965). As such they signalled the end of Abstract Expressionism with its worship of the tortured artist and opened the door to many new art movements which were to follow – Pop, minimalism, conceptual art – all characterised by being funny, light, ironic, emotionally cool.

But Johns was never exactly part of any of these movements. Related to them, a godfather to some, riffing off them, maybe – but he essentially ploughed his own furrow.

Painting as object

When I came across Johns in art classes at school in the 1970s what I loved most about him was his use of words shaped like industrial stencils across his (often unfinished-looking) paintings. I can’t explain why I found the combination of bits of text written onto oil paintings so exciting then, as I still do.

But it wasn’t just text from the ‘real world’ of packing cases and warehouses which Johns used. Most if not all the paintings here have blobby wax surfaces, ridges of oil paint, drips and scoops, incorporate scraps of paper, newspaper, even a whole book in one case. His whole aesthetic draws attention to the materiality of the work – highlighting the canvas frame, paint drips, encaustic, wax, collage – showing the process. One extreme example of this materiality is called Painting bitten by a man, which is precisely what it is.

This particular piece prompts some entertaining artspeak from Art historian Christina Poggi, who writes that ‘the encaustic surface simulates human skin – now congealed and reified’. The bitten painting has a ‘stark force’, even ‘rage’, says Poggi – it has ‘enacted a form of wounding’ that ‘has overstepped the boundaries of decorum.’

I suppose this was the late 50s/early 60s when Francis Bacon’s screaming popes and eviscerated humans were fashionable. Maybe it was read in that context back then. Now it has joined the vast ranks of art jokes and stunts.

Cutlery in art

Quite a few works incorporate items of cutlery. Johns was fond of incorporating or dangling spoons in front of paintings. One, Dancers on a plane, is an example of his ‘cross-hatching’ works (see below) but, if you look carefully, you can see that the wooden picture frame is lined with knives, spoons and forks.

One of my favourite works was No, a grey painting with a metal strand dangling down from the top with a stencil of the word NO at the end of it, gently shifting in the slight breeze, casting a barely moving shadow.

Words and voices

This brings us to the role of text in Johns’s work. The words and voices room explains that – true to the minimalist ethic of the early works – Johns uses text but generally very minimal amounts, most often restricted to single (short) words. Hence the works in this room with titles like ‘the’, ‘no’, ‘liar’, ‘voice’ and so on.

These abrupt one word texts reminded me of Samuel Beckett who I’ve recently been reading, so I delighted and not that surprised to discover that Johns actually collaborated with Beckett on a luxury edition of a book, Foirades/Frizzles. On luxury paper watermarked with their names are printed some typically fragmented Beckett texts, in French and in English translation, accompanied by 33 intaglio illustrations by Johns.

Like many other artists, Johns was haunted by the brief career and dazzling poetry of Hart Crane who committed suicide in 1932 at the age of 32. Periscope, Hart Crane references a key word in the poet’s masterpiece, The Bridge,

Several things are very characteristic about this painting. First of all it is grey, or shades of drab dull grey. Second, it is deliberately scrappy, unfinished, with bare canvas showing through and plenty of paint drips. Though Johns is often presented as the antidote to Abstract Expressionism, in works like this he incorporates a lot of their approach. Periscope also clarifies just how far Johns was from the completely finished, slickly commercial imagery just beginning to be produced in fine art reproductions by Andy Warhol, as his contribution to the new movement of Pop Art.

Third is the use of text – big stencilled words – here naming the colours which, presumably, should be imagined filling the relevant spaces. Whole theses have been written about the link between colour and words, and therefore the use of colour words in art sparks a flood of interpretations and discussion.

Using Husserl’s ‘phenomenological reduction’, however – ignoring the deliberate invocation of vast verbiages of learned discourse – what we actually see is a scrappy unfinished canvas daubed with broad brushstrokes and printed with big primary words. The most interesting visual element is the half circle on the right which obviously refers to the periscope of the title, but was made by a brush describing a half circle. The gesturality of this, the hand-made quantity, is declared by the imprint of a hand on the rim of the periscope. Again this is much more Abstract Expressionism with its traces of the arduous process of production than the airbrushed sleek surfaces of Pop.

I think it’s interesting. I think it raises a number of interesting ‘issues’ and ‘questions’ and ‘ideas’ about art and language – if you’re into that sort of thing. But I don’t like it. The flags, targets and numbers I can imagine having hanging round the house. Not this. It’s grey and depressing.

In the studio

Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art when he placed a common or garden urinal in an art gallery in 1917, signed it and called it ‘art’. The art world never looked back. Johns is one of the thousands of artists since who have been fascinated by what happens if you put ordinary objects into an artistic context, by themselves or as part of larger assemblies.

This room showcases works which include the bric-a-brac of the studio in their surface – paintbrushes, rulers, colour chart, cans, even brooms.

Fool's House (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017

Fool’s House (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017

According to the commentary the inclusion of detritus from Johns’s studio demystifies the idea that the work of art appears ‘as if by magic’. But what fool anywhere believes that a work of art appears ‘by magic’? A problem with much criticism of modern art is the way it sets up idiotically simple-minded ‘straw men’, childlike myths or assumptions about art – only in order to knock them down. Nobody ever believed any of those myths or assumptions in the first place. Like everyone else, I pretty much know that paintings are made in studios, surrounded by vast piles of junk, brushes, oils, tins of turpentine, fag packets, booze bottles and so on.

Still, I enjoy writing in paintings so I quite like Fool’s House. I think having the words ‘broom’, ‘towel’ or ‘cup’, pointing to a broom, a towel and a cup, is funny in a Simpsons kind of way. But it’s very grey, isn’t it? As a composition it is lifted by the way the broom is allowed to remain brown and the brush straw-coloured, and by the implication that the broomhead has been used to sweep the paint.

In fact this aspect of the work is so strong that a close-up of the broomhead is used as the promotional image for the whole exhibition. I think it is a representative example of Johns’s strengths and weaknesses. Experimental, clever, including text and readymade objects, though-provoking, bold — but at the same time colourless, drab and grey. The way the RA has cropped Fool’s House makes it much more dynamic and interesting than the full work.

Royal Academy poster for Something resembling truth

Royal Academy poster for Something resembling truth

Sculptures

Two sculptures stand out. Johns kept his paintbrushes in an old coffee can, brand of Savarini. He made a minutely realistic bronze sculpture of the can and the paintbrushes and painted it to be as accurate and lifelike as possible. Edith Devaney on the audio guide calls it ‘completely delightful’.

I suppose it can be made to support a discussion of reality and artifice in art, but it is also just a sculpture of a can with paintbrushes in it. A little more interesting is that, when you google it, you discover that, as so often, Johns made it the basis of a series – in this case of paintings, setting the can against a background of his favourite cross-hatching pattern (we’re coming to that).

The second work is another ultra-realistic bronze sculpture of two beer cans. There’s a well-told story behind this work which is funny the first time you hear it, but less so the tenth time. Allegedly, Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning said of Johns’s highly competitive and successful gallery owner, Leo Castelli, that ‘you could give that son of a bitch two beer cans and he could sell them’.

Johns heard about this, thought it would make a jokey subject for a sculpture, and so produced this bronze sculpture which he painted:

And Castelli did sell them. We are told that the work was also a dig at the extremely macho culture surrounding the Abstract Expressionists, who hung around a New York bar called the Cedar Club, getting drunk, picking fights, and reeling back to their lofts to despoil innocent canvases with their emotionally charged, gestural spatters of paint.

Gay

I don’t think it’s quite mentioned anywhere, is certainly not made a big deal of, and  certainly doesn’t emerge from any of the works, but Johns was gay, for a while maintaining a relationship with fellow post-Abstract Expressionist artist Robert Rauschenberg, working with the gay composer John Cage and his lover the choreographer Merce Cunningham. All were very conscious of not being macho he-men (this was the era when Ernest Hemingway’s reputation was at its most bloated) and producing an art which was more detached, cool, intellectual, humorous, questioning.

Beer cans and boodle

For me, though, what this story of the ale cans really signifies is the role of galleries and money in the New York art world, and in the art world in general. A few years ago one of Johns’s many flag paintings sold for $36 million. I can never really get over the fundamental irony-paradox-absurdity that so many works of art which are meant to call into question this, challenge that or subvert the other – as breathlessly described in the endlessly self-promoting discourse of art critics and artists themselves – in actual fact – out here in the real world – have become a key element in a vast global market via which the Russian Mafia, Middle Eastern dictators, Chinese billionaires, and Colombian drug cartels can safely launder and store their blood money and criminal proceeds.

Art doesn’t subvert anything at all.

Take this colourful early work, Art with two balls. According to the audio guide the fact that Johns parted the canvas with two balls so that you can see the wall behind it, subverts a whole world of artistic conventions. It foregrounds that the painting is an object and not a window into the world (as if anybody needed this pointing out after 50 years of Modernism). Similarly, the way he wrote on the painting (at the bottom) calls into question the aesthetic ‘purity’ of the work of art. And so on.

Having explained all this the curator, in a rather embarrassed voice, quickly skipped over the other element, the one that gives it its title that the two balls in question have ‘an erotic element’.

Really? What can she be referring to? Could it be that this gay man was referring to the male human anatomy? Scandalous, eh? To anyone who has seen the enormous stained glass works of Gilbert and George’s anuses, faeces and penises, or Robert Mapplethorpe’s exquisite photographs of men with baseball bats stuck up their anuses, these two little wooden balls are not that subversive at all.

What amused me was that the sheer mention of a man’s balls quite obviously embarrassed the curator, much happier with words like ‘desire’ and ‘the erotic’ than with the thought of a penis and scrotum.

On the plus side, this is one of the relatively small number of really colourful paintings in the show.

Painting with Two Balls (1960) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Painting with Two Balls (1960) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Cross hatching

One day in the 1970s Johns saw a cross-hatching design on a car he was driving past, and was entranced. This explains an entire room made up of experiments with cross-hatching designs, loads of them, and if you search google images you’ll find hundreds more. Like the targets and numbers of the decades earlier, cross-hatching became part of his personal repertoire of imagery, likely to be found, recycled and reversioned in all his subsequent work. He worked with this motif almost exclusively from 1972 to 1983, because ‘it had all the qualities that interest me – literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of complete lack of meaning’.

Between the Clock and the Bed (1981) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Between the Clock and the Bed (1981) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

The audio guide explains that the title of this particular work is the same as one of the last works of Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch, he of The Scream fame.

See how the cross-hatching on the bedspread in the Munch picture is referenced in the cross-hatching in the Johns painting. Aha!

Exhaustion

By now, about 80 to 90 paintings and prints and sculptures into the exhibition, something began to happen – I began to get tired. As Oscar Wilde put it in The Picture of Dorian Gray, ‘When a man sets out to exhaust a subject, he invariably ends up by exhausting his listeners.’ Same here. The risk of such large exhibitions is visitor burn-out – you just cannot react freshly and openly to 150 works of such range and diversity.

In the cross-hatching room it occurred to me that maybe you should visit vast overview shows like this in several parts. I knew I was not enjoying the crosshatch paintings as much as the flags and the targets and the numbers. Maybe I was too arted-out to do so.

I think if the RA or someone held an exhibition titled ‘Later Jasper Johns’ which started in 1980, you could see these works as fresh and new. Taken on their own terms they are interesting exercises in pure design. The more I look at this one the more I enjoy the way the background colour changes across its surface.

But it’s not as good as the flags or targets. By ‘good’ I  mean, it doesn’t give you the same instantaneous hit or thrill.

Seasons and cycles

With the end of the show in sight we come to a wall displaying four immense paintings from the 1980s representing the four seasons. This seemed to me like a kind of exhaustion of subject matter: America is a big place with much going on and a vast superfluity of signs, symbols and visual imagery. Retreating to a subject from the Middle Ages seemed, well, very tame.

It’s a suspicion compounded when the audio guide informs you that a lot of the imagery which runs through these four huge works in fact derives from one work by Picasso, Minotaur moves house.

Specifically Johns lifts the ladder and rope motif from Picasso and it appears in all four paintings, alongside former motifs of Johns’s such as the stars and stripes, the Mona Lisa (which he referenced in numerous early works) and the rotating hand creating a grey circle which we saw in Periscope, Hart Crane.

Summer (1985) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Summer (1985) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

In the Fall and Winter pictures the rope snaps and the ladder breaks.

Fragments and faces

A big room contains big paintings from the 1980s which include plaster casts of parts of the body, generally arms. The audio guide explains that the three casts of arms hanging from Perilous Night were taken from the son of a friend of Johns’s over a number of years and therefore represent the process of ageing.

The use of plaster casts bolted to the surface of a painting links Perilous night back to a work of two decades earlier, Watchman.

Memory traces

In the penultimate space is a set of works which obliquely reference Johns’ childhood. This was unusual. His parents divorced when he was two. He was sent to stay with his paternal grandparents. When they died he went back to live with his mother and her new family, before being passed on to his Aunt Gladys. All this was in the Deep South in the 1930s. It must have been hard enough growing up in such a shifting environment, but one can only imagine how difficult it must have been coming to terms with his homosexuality, let alone broaching the subject with other people in that pre-war environment.

All this maybe explains the pronounced lack of the personal in all his art. He is more interested in technique (of painting making and printmaking) and objective, externally-sourced imagery. ‘I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings’ he said in 1988, and in 2007 repeated that the trait he most dislikes in others is ‘the tendency toward self-description’.

(This is probably the place to mention how one of the things which came over really powerfully from the exhibition is the almost complete absence of sex, love, eroticism, affection, partners, lovers or friends in any of the works. As far as I can recall there aren’t even any depictions of human beings – humans that he knows, I mean. Sure there are some human outlines, a few plaster casts of arms – but nothing remotely like a portrait, no faces or eyes, nothing with any expression.

(The mention of Pablo Picasso in the context of The seasons paintings made me reflect how Picasso’s work explodes with human bodies and faces, including the highly sexualised bodies and faces of his numerous lovers. The gravelly voice of the American co-curator, Roberta Bernstein, took on an amusing tone of contempt and dislike as she described the impact of Picasso’s dominating ‘masculinity’ on his art – then resumed its even tones as she returned to the reassuringly sex-free, undominating feel of Johns’s work. ‘Desire’ and ‘eroticism’? Yes please – cocks and balls and male sexuality? – Nein Danke.

(This little episode on the audio guide really brought home how much of human nature is simply not present in Johns’s art. Instead, it is a gold mine for theorists and academics excited to write about painting as object, the aesthetics of the sign, and so on etc. But blood and guts and love and glory and sex and bodies and any human emotion whatsoever? Nada. Just a kind of purely aesthetic stimulus.)

Anyway, the audio guide to this little Memory traces section of seven or eight paintings makes much of a ‘return to the personal’ and autobiographical in his later work. In actual fact, you’d be hard-pressed to identify anything personal in these typically dense and semi-abstract works.

Let’s play Where’s Wally with the painting below. After noticing the ladder motif from The Seasons and the half circle at bottom right from Periscope, can you detect the outstandingly personal element in this painting?

Untitled (1992-4) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017

Untitled (1992-4) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017

Give up? It is, of course, the inclusion of the blue rectangle on the left, which is an architect’s floor plan of his grandparent’s house. Pretty oblique, huh? Not all that revealingly personal. In fact, almost comically abstruse and detached.

This floor plan motif appears in at least three paintings, but contrary to the audio guide, I couldn’t feel it to be a wistful expression of childhood nostalgia. Instead it came over as just another design element. Renaissance artists sketched faces, details of architecture, poses of statues into commonplace books to be recycled and reused in actual commissions. Johns is doing here what artists since the Renaissance have done – generated a repertoire of icons, images, details and motifs which he can combine, remake and remodel at will to create new works. The floorplan is just one more.

Farley breaks down

I mentioned the photograph of Lucien Freud earlier, the one which generated the series of prints titled Regrets I-XV which line the final wall of the exhibition.

Opposite them is another work based on a photograph. In 1965, after a helicopter mission in Vietnam went wrong, one of the door gunners, Lance Corporal James C. Farley – safely back at base – went into a room and slumped onto a table, weeping. It was caught in a press photo of the day by the famous Vietnam photographer, Larry Burrows. Johns takes up the caption given to the photo – Farley breaks down – and does his usual thing of submitting the image to a series of visual transformations.

The result is a small set of prints – monotypes – which use the pose as a design element.

This is the last work in the show, indicating pretty much where Johns is right now. It is bleakly, blodgily haunting. In fact, coming right at the end of the show like this, I found it one of the best works here. I stood and let it soak into me. I’d buy this – a flag, the number prints and this is what I would take away.

The absence of history

And it was only at this point, right by the exit door, that I had one last thought. Prompted by mention of the Vietnam War I realised that I had spent two hours very slowly walking past these 150 works in the biggest survey of one of America’s leading artists which covers the years from 1958 to 2017 and …. there had been no reference to any of the historical, political, cultural or technological upheavals of that period whatsoever.

Compare and contrast with the exhibition of American prints at the British Museum which was stuffed to the gills with imagery derived from the Cold War, the famous 1960s assassinations, student protests, Civil Rights, rock music, drugs and street art, AIDS, LGBT protest, feminism and Afro-American art.

All that – the past 60 years of extremely turbulent times in the world’s most powerful country – is completely absent from this huge body of work. Right at the end of the exhibition the Farley works made me realise just how much Johns is an artist’s artist – interested in exploring formal avenues, opportunities and creative possibilities in paint and print – a goldmine for art critics, exegetes and scholars, but very much an elliptical, elusive, self-contained presence.

In the opening hall the curators choose three works to represent his overall achievement and it’s no accident one of them is titled Within.

Fifty shades of grey

On the basis of these 150 works, after his initial burst of inspiration in the late 50s/early 60s, although there are some dayglo-bright works periodically, later on – specially in the cross-hatching period – overall, what I took away as the strongest visual feeling from this huge exhibition was GREY.

Smears and drips and swathes and lines and patterns and shapes of grey over half-exposed canvas.

All the stencils and spoons and plaster casts stuck to their surfaces couldn’t conceal a fundamental ashen, leaden quality in many of the paintings – Fool’s House, Watchman, Periscope. In fact I revisited the exhibition this morning and took the opportunity to note down just how many of the works are dominated by or entirely grey. Here’s some highlights; there were many more.

Jasper Johns career recap

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Johns single handedly created an artistic breakthrough with his reworkings of everyday icons like the flag, numbers and letters.

Through the 1960s he added an array of household and studio objects and imprints and casts of the human figure.

The works of the 1970s are dominated by an abstract pattern, referred to as ‘crosshatchings’.

During the 1980s and 1990s Johns introduced a variety of images that dealt with perception, memory and the passage of time. He used imagery pillaged from earlier artists like Pablo Picasso and Edvard Munch.

By the early 2000s Johns had embarked on the pared-down and more conceptual Catenary series.

Later in the 2000s and into the 2010s he combined obliquely personal paintings with series based on striking images – the  Regret and Farley series.


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Matisse in the Studio @ the Royal Academy

‘What is significant is the relation of the object to the artist, to his personality, and his power to arrange his sensations and emotions.’ (Matisse, 1935)

Upstairs in the Sackler Wing of the Royal Academy, five rooms are devoted to a beautiful exploration of how Henri Matisse gathered round himself and kept in his studio a rich collection of objects and textiles which he either incorporated directly into paintings or used as inspiration for his work.

I had expected a vague exploration of ideas and themes but in fact the show is extremely practical, displaying actual objects – chairs, tables, rugs, tapestries, statuettes and masks, vases, jugs and pots, classical and non-European sculptures, which Matisse acquired over his long creative life – right next to paintings which directly represent them or are inspired by them.

What’s noticeable about this ‘group portrait’ of objects from Matisse’s studio is how many of them are pretty mundane containers – jugs and glasses and bowls and cups. An indication of the sheer number of still lifes he painted and the essentially static, tranquil nature of his art.

The Object as Actor

‘A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.’ (Henri Matisse)

Using this quote we can interpret Matisse as a director who conceives of the objects in his studio as actors to be cast in different ‘roles’, according to the requirements of different compositions. Among these object-actors the exhibition includes a chocolate pot, a striking antique Venetian chair, and a small exquisitely painted table, plus other objects Matisse owned. All of them are positioned alongside Matisse paintings which incorporate them. Here’s the table:

and here’s the painting, Yellow Odalisque, which it appears in.

Matisse was given this coffee pot, sometimes used for making chocolate, by a friend on the occasion of his marriage in 1898:

Cafetière en argent, France, début du xixe siècle, chocolatière, argent, poignée en bois teinté. Musée Matisse Nice

Cafetière en argent, France, début du xixe siècle, chocolatière, argent, poignée en bois teinté. Musée Matisse Nice

It plays a starring ‘role in numerous Matisse pictures:

The nearly 40 years which separate these two works show the enormous distance he travelled from an essentially realistic to an essentially decorative art. His marriage had broken up a few months before the 1940 work was painted. Is the inclusion of the chocolate pot a sad memento of a much earlier, happier period? And the fierce black of the table top an indication of his mood?

A glass vase:

Vase, Andalusia, Spain, early 20th century. Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernadez, Nice

Vase, Andalusia, Spain, early 20th century. Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernadez, Nice

A painting incorporating the glass vase:

Safrano Roses at the Window (1925) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

Safrano Roses at the Window (1925) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

Something not mentioned in the catalogue is the way a lot of these containers and receptacles may well be actors which are posed in different sets and compositions; but they also wear different costumes in each role – in the sense that they contain different things in different pictures. Admittedly, these are mostly flowers, but still, the objects are most brought to life when set off against or containing other, organic, flowing and brightly coloured objects (flowers). They are always co-stars.

African art

Two rooms focused on the importance of African art – first bodies, then faces. Matisse acquired his first African artefact in the autumn of 1906 and by 1908 owned some 20 African masks and figurines. (He showed them to his frenemy Pablo Picasso, who also began incorporating them into his work.)

The wall panels inform us that the African artefacts helped Matisse to escape from the traditional Western way of seeing the human figure – not just for the sake of it but because these strangely shaped objects from a far distant culture revealed a completely new reality and a wholly new route to achieving emotional authenticity.

Maybe the entire Modernist movement in art can be summarised here, in this gesture — Emotional impact entirely supersedes figurative accuracy.

I love African art. I love its strong lines, its clarity and definition and solidity. Maybe my favourite works in the entire British Museum are the wonderful Benin bronzes. So I was quite thrilled enough just to enjoy looking at, sizing and weighing in my mind, the wonderfully strange angles, the shiny black wooden surfaces, the uncanny perfectness of the dozen or so African statuettes on display.

Jomooniw male and female figures, Bamana region, Mali, 19th-early 20th century. Private collection. Photograph by Robert Monnier

Jomooniw male and female figures, Bamana region, Mali, 19th-early 20th century. Private collection. Photograph by Robert Monnier

Matisse thought they revealed some ‘truer, more essential character’ lying beneath the superficial surface of things. It was the Edwardian period, after all, when most men and women dressed and behaved with what we would now find unbearable formality. Matisse admired ‘the jutting forms’ and ‘abrupt transition between body parts’. Instead of the lulling smoothness and sensuality of Greek sculpture, these African figurines seem energised and dynamic. New jagged visual rhythms.

The show sets his African collection against the Matisse paintings and sculptures which drew inspiration from their jagged, non-European, unsmoothness. Their ungainliness, squatness, their voodoo blankness and tremendous visual power. Hence paintings like:

Or sculptures like Two women which, while not slavishly copying the African work, clearly use them as a doorway into a chunky, elemental way of handling the human form which is walking away from the Greek and Roman tradition. (To be honest, I much prefer the African originals. Matisse seems to me to be on the way somewhere, whereas the African figurines and masks seem to me beautifully finished embodiments of their traditions and cultures.)

Two Women (1908) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017.Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

Two Women (1908) by Henri Matisse © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017.Photograph by Lee Stalsworth

The portrait

The next room is about ‘the portrait’ and features more African works, specifically a selection of wonderful tribal masks. The commentary points out that Matisse was attracted to the inscrutability of these African masks – they betray no emotions or feelings. This supported Matisse’s feeling that the emotional impact of a work comes not from overt expressions on the faces of his sitters, but from the composition, from the lines and shapes, and from the use of intense colouring.

Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century.Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi

Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century. Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi

The walls of the exhibition are dotted with quotes from the great man and one stood out for me, where he describes the way these tribal masks bring out

‘the deep gravity that persists in every human being.’

We take other people (and ourselves) so much for granted. Yet we are each as deep and complex and mysterious as the universe. From the deep impassivity of the masks Matisse drew the feeling to create works like:

You can quite literally see how these numerous objects from alien cultures helped Matisse to escape from the Western tradition, to break free, to formulate a new language, using design and colour to express new moods and feelings.

It’s not all African by any means. On another wall is a fragment of a Roman statue of a body, placed next to some of the cutouts from Matisse’s classic collection, Jazz.

The studio as theatre

This little room is the only one that actually feels a bit like a studio, containing as it does a wide variety of artefacts from the Islamic world covering the walls, as well as a huge photograph of Matisse in his fabric-festooned studio with model in ‘exotic’ dress.

Photograph of Matisse painting the model Zita at 1 Place Charles-Félix, Nice, 1928

Photograph of Matisse painting the model Zita at 1 Place Charles-Félix, Nice, 1928

Matisse relocated from Paris to Nice at the end of the Great War and began collecting items from the French colonies of Algeria (which he visited in 1906) and Morocco across the sea in North Africa. This room displays a Moorish tray, table and a big screen which he owned. A haiti is a traditional perforated wall hanging. Matisse owned several.

Haiti, North Africa, late 19th-early 20th century. Private collection, on loan to Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernandez, Nice

Haiti, North Africa, late 19th-early 20th century. Private collection, on loan to Musee Matisse, Nice. Photo © Francois Fernandez, Nice

And next to it hang several examples of the innumerable odalisques he painted during the 1920s, showing how he incorporated rugs, tapestries, the tables and so on directly into the compositions.

The Moorish Screen (1921) by Henri Matisse. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950. Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

The Moorish Screen (1921) by Henri Matisse. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950. Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY.

The commentary points out that, for the previous hundred years or so, the genre of the ‘odalisque’ depicted young women in Eastern harems with an emphasis on their sensual if not sexual quality. What is noticeable in the numerous odalisques Matisse painted is the complete absence of sensuality; instead, they are opportunities for semi-abstract exercises in pattern, design and colour.

Naked they may be, and their pink nipples and black eyes stand out, sometimes – but by and large it is the soft furnishings which are the stars of these paintings. The faces, in particular, are constructed with the minimum of lines and colour, almost like abstract masks.

The Language of Signs

In 1941, Matisse was diagnosed with duodenal cancer. The surgery was successful but led to serious complications which nearly killed him. Bedridden for three months, Matisse developed a new art form using coloured paper and scissors.

This final room is full of the big bright bold abstract cutouts and designs Matisse created in his final period, which he himself described as his ‘second life’. Possibly this is the most impressive and simply beautiful room in the exhibition. Again Matisse put it well when he said:

‘There is no principal feature, only the pattern is important.’ (1935)

In this photo you can see Matisse in bed working on a late paper cutout.

Hanging above Matisse’s bed is an impressive wooden panel of Chinese calligraphy, which his wife Amélie gave him on his 60th birthday in 1929. Well — it is hanging in this exhibition! Sentimental, but this one object more than any of the others, made me feel physically close to the great genius.

Calligraphy panel, China, 19th century, Qing dynasty. Photo © François Fernandez, Nice

Calligraphy panel, China, 19th century, Qing dynasty. Photo © François Fernandez, Nice

And next to it hang a number of brightly coloured cutout works in which you can trace and guess its influence. The Eskimo from 1947, is made up of five separate panels made up of motifs painted with coloured gouache. Possibly the fourth panel depicts a human face, the Eskimo of the title, done in the style of one of the tribal masks, its rectangular frames and triangular wedge completely different from the biomorphic, seaweed design of the other four panels.

There are some more African works, but in a different key, this time fabrics with abstract designs and, again, paintings and works which use the motifs and patterns as inspiration for his own uniquely bright and happy, coloured cutouts. In this final room everything has become subsumed to the search for pattern and beauty.

Summary

This lovely exhibition brings together an unprecedented number of objects from Matisse’s studio to show how (in the catalogue’s words) ‘they offered points of departure to which he could return again and again, appearing and reappearing in his work in different guises and across spans of decades, reinvented afresh in each new setting.’ It is also an entertaining overview of the career and development of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, from the earliest work here, circa 1900, to the final, wonderful, dancing cutouts of the 1950s.

Beautiful.

Inspiring.


The video

No modern exhibition is without its promotional video. Here’s Tim Marlow introducing Matisse in 60 seconds.

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Basquiat: Boom for Real @ the Barbican

This exhibition is great!

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was cool and street in a way hardly any artists are, even today. He did graffiti, made goofy postcards, he was in bands, he DJed at clubs, he liked bebop, hung out with early rappers, painted, drew and created art constantly out of the bombardment of signs, images, words and phrases which surrounded him in the grimy, vibrant New York of the early 1980s.

King of the Zulus (1984-85) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

King of the Zulus (1984-85) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Born in 1960, the son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat grew up in the post-punk scene in Lower Manhattan. New Wave/No Wave they called it. He attended the alternative school, City-As-School High School, where he came to attention after he developed the moniker SAMO©, along with Al Diaz and other friends, to use in graffiti all across the city. They covered buildings all over the Lower East Side with witty, snappy, poetic or satirical slogans.

SAMO originated in the stoned 17-year-olds talking about smoking the ‘same old shit’ but quickly became a cult movement, with claims and counter-claims about ‘original’ SAMOs, with other artists on the scene photographing the graffitos, exhibiting them and so on. Examples include:

SAMO© AS A CONGLOMERATE OF DORMANT GENIOUS

MY MOUTH / THEREFORE AN ERROR

Not your usual graffiti – it was puzzling, elliptical, intriguing. From really early on everything Basquiat touched had a kind of magic about it. And right from the start he was ambitious, concentrating the graffiti around the SoHo art galleries, currying attention with curators. When the Village Voice magazine finally revealed the identities of the hitherto anonymous authors, Basquiat and Diaz declared SAM dead, fellow artist Keith Haring delivered a mock eulogy at the bohemian Club 57, and Basquiat painted SAMO© IS DEAD over the old graffitos. But he continued to use the identity and the celebrity it had brought. At an arty party in 1979 Basquiat agreed to be captured on film creating a one-off SAMO© graffito on the wall of the art space where the party was happening.

A wall of photos of SAMO© graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

A wall of photos of SAMO© graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

With Jennifer Stein Basquiat started producing hand-made postcards – again from the detritus of the street – newspaper headlines, polaroid selfies, cigarette butts, posters, ads, random texts. Hard to imagine, but photocopying was a new technology, and their use of a rare colour photocopier showed an innovative approach to using mundane, workaday technology. On a now famous occasion Basquiat plucked up the courage to approach his hero Andy Warhol in a bar and sold him a card for one dollar.

By the turn of the decade Basquiat scraped together the resources to make paintings in an extremely rough, crude style, incorporating lots of text, phrases, slogans, street poetry, misspelled or misspelt, scrubbed out, as well as countless faces, graffiti with ambition, the street experience on canvas.

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

The graffiti is always there as a kind of substratum in the work, but after he exhibited in the scene-defining 1981 exhibition New York/New Wave, Basquiat began to sell pieces and get access to more resources, bigger canvases to mark with acrylics, oil, crayon, pen, using not just paint but wood, scrap metal, foam rubber, all sorts.

The results are scrappy, patchy, quick and dirty, but many are also stunning, stunningly alive, colourful, vibrant, spontaneous, magnificent, in your face, spooky. Of the 1,600 works on show from artists like Warhol, Mapplethorpe, David Byrne and so on, Basquiat was singled out by nearly all the critics. Galleries approached him with contracts, magazines wanted interviews.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Numerous urban legends quickly gathered round him: a particularly entertaining one is that after his first formal introduction to Warhol at his Factory studio in October 1982, Basquiat rushed back to his gallery and knocked off a painting of himself and Warhol in just two hours and had his assistant take it round to Warhol’s studio still wet. The godfather of Pop was delighted and the two became firm friends. In fact, they went on to collaborate on some 100 works together.

Dos Cabezas (1982) by ean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Dos Cabezas (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

The exhibition includes out-takes from the episode of Warhol’s TV show in the 80s where the Bewigged One interviews Basquiat with his arm familiarly round his shoulders, joking and riffing. I see modern bloggers refer to it as a classic ‘bromance’. They collaborated, Warhol creating pop images which Basquiat defaced, rewrote, reinterpreted, remodelled. They did stylish photoshoots.

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat July 10, 1985, by Michael Halsband

Later on in the show, there’s a viewing room where you can see one of the few extended interviews Basquiat did, an amateur effort by some art world friends. Here and in almost all the images – photos, film clips, interviews, TV stuff and some rare footage of him dancing in the studio – he comes over as full of life. You rarely see artists in any medium smile so much – he has a hugely infectious boyish smile. In the scrappy New Wave vibe of Downtown New York, glamour was as important as talent and Basquiat has charisma in buckets.

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club (1979) © Nicholas Taylor © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club (1979) © Nicholas Taylor © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

But it’s not empty or baseless fame – this astonishingly young man was a fountain of creativity, graffiti turning into postcards and then overflowing into myriads of paintings, drawings, graffitied objects and readymades large and small, scrap-book montages, tell-tale silhouettes, endless self-portraits, notebooks packed full of poetry, film scripts and the bands he was in writing experimental music and lyrics, the DJing, hanging with early rap pioneers, a vortex of energy and exuberance.

Glenn (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Glenn (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

I returned to this particular pair of works again and again. In the century of Picasso, Klee, Kokoschka and hundreds of other semi-figurative modernists, I hadn’t seen anything quite like these, the intuitive use of completely different palettes of colours, the confidence, the lack of fear, the forcefulness of the images blew me away.

Untitled (1983) and Self Portrait (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Untitled (1983) and Self Portrait (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

This is a major exhibition, with both floors of the Barbican’s gallery packed with over 100 works – 14 rooms in all. The eight rooms on the top floor describe a chronological survey of Basquiat’s short life and prodigious output, while the six rooms on the ground floor investigate his influences, a dazzling kaleidoscope of material, from junk TV to the old textbook Gray’s Anatomy, from Picasso and Matisse (paid homage to with Basquiatesque portraits).

Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Basquiat had an intense involvement with the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker and the other lead boppers (he had a collection of some 3,000 jazz records), but this was just one source of references in a kaleidoscope of ideas and motifs which included anything from Western art which caught his fancy, a dizzying range of African and tribal art, fashion magazines, ad slogans, TV programmes, black sports stars, Hollywood movies, anything he saw, processed and incorporated into his quick vivid works.

Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Artwork. Collection of Jonathan Schorr © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Artwork. Collection of Jonathan Schorr © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

In the endless vortex of the self-referential New York art world, countless hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Basquiat, raving, promoting, analysing, knocking and dismissing him – but the best summary I’ve read was from his friend, Glenn O’Brien, music columnist in Warhol’s Interview magazine. This quote from him brings out the way Basquiat’s work lets everything in. I think this is much easier for us to understand now, in the age of solid, wall-to-wall social media saturation with images and junk text, than back in the pre-digital 1980s.

He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him and he processed it all into a bebop cubist pop art cartoon gospel that synthesised the whole overload we lived under into something that made an astonishing new sense.

‘The whole overload’. Exactly.

In 1980 some of the crowd Basquiat had met at the Mudd Club decided to make a movie about a day in the life of a Boho artist, with Basquiat playing the lead role. When shooting began in December 1980 he was 19 years old! Here’s a clip. God, isn’t he beautiful!

A room is devoted to Basquiat’s involvement with the relatively new music genre of hip-hop. In the late 70s Basquiat was introduced to early cassettes of the new music and found he had much in common with experimental musician-musicians like Rammellzee and graffiti artist Toxic. The painting above (Hollywood Africans) is a portrait of the trio on a trip to California for Basquiat’s exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles. Back in New York Basquiat and Rammellzee produced a single, ‘Beat Bop’, with J-M doing the cover art. Only 500 copies were pressed. If you own a copy with the original sleeve art, that’s your retirement sorted.

The ‘bop’ in Beat Bop indicates Basquiat’s unexpected devotion to the bebop of the 1940s, and to its tragic genius Charlie Parker (died in 1955, aged just 35, after years of intense drug abuse). Alas, Basquiat also died young, from a heroin overdose in 1988, aged just 27.

Themes

Race Some parts of the exhibition dwell on Basquiat’s colour. In 1985 he was the first black artist ever to appear on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. In the international art world a black face was a tremendous rarity. There are sections in the show about his references to black sporting heroes, to black jazz heroes, and to the new forms of expression developed by black rap music and hip hop.

This is a massive subject, especially in the fraught context of America’s ongoing problems with its black population (I mean by this the relative poverty of Afro-Americans, the disproportionate number of African-American males in prison, and the seemingly unstoppable cases of American cops beating up and shooting dead black men). I note its presence but I’m not expert enough to comment, apart from to notice the presence in many of the works of the recurrent image of a jet black silhouette, presumably a self-portrait, really powerful in its intensity, a mask, a memento, a magus.

Self-Portrait (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Self-Portrait (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Sex There’s less about gender and sexuality than you might expect. In fact there’s a striking absence of sexual imagery or anxiety in his paintings. I wasn’t absolutely clear whether he was gay or straight, until I read references to girlfriends in online articles. Given his punk attitude it’s surprising there isn’t more stuff, even about ‘love’, let alone the vast world of sexual imagery.

Signs Much more evident are the unstoppable flood of signs and symbols. For once a ‘semiotic’ interpretation of an artist would be justified, because Basquiat himself was quite clearly fascinated and obsessed with the strange power of signs and symbols, and the literally infinite combinations which can be made of them. In the rooms on his source materials there’s his copy of Henry Dreyfuss’s book Symbol Sourcebook.

His works are plastered with words and phrases which don’t necessarily mean anything or mean as much as they appear to, starting with SAMO’s deliberately opaque messages. For example, quite a lot of ink has been spilt trying to tease the meaning out of this phrase:

JIMMY BEST ON HIS BACK TO THE SUCKERPUNCH OF HIS CHILDHOOD FILES

which appears in graffitos and in a number of paintings and drawings. He wrote literally thousands of phrases and fragments of phrases across his works. Piecing together the puzzles, themes, meanings or avoidances of meanings strewn across this vast terrain will keep Basquiat scholars in conference invitations for the rest of their lives.

Identity Identity is one of those themes curators and art critics love to invoke but, again, it is for once justified by Basquiat’s work. From SAMO onwards he played with identities and names for himself and his work. For example, the exhibition devotes some space to his mysterious use of the name ‘Aaron’ written across numerous works – including on the redecorated American football helmet, the image which provides the iconic poster for the whole exhibition. Probably it refers to the Afro-American baseball player and all-time home run king, Hank Aaron.

Basquiat wearing his Aaron football helmet

Music Another major theme in Basquiat’s output is music – evidenced by the band he was in, Gray, whose album you can still buy, the hip hop single embedded in this review, and all the theme nights he organised at the trendy Area Club, to name just some output. Music appears in his art as reference to his hip hop friends but also as a major thread of works circling around bebop and the great jazz musicians who he worshipped.

Post-modernism I remember how back in the 1980s we all spent a lot of time discussing what post-modernism meant. I am aware of its derivation from a specific movement in architecture and then its application to literature. But another, popular, interpretation was that it meant the end of High Art as a specially privileged realm. High and low art could be combined and juxtaposed for the sheer hell of it. On this interpretation Basquiat seems a textbook case of an artist who naturally inhabited this new realm, maybe helped to create it. Warhol may have taken commercial products and po-facedly turned them into art objects – Campbell’s soup, the brillo pad box, various iconic movie posters – but these artefacts were themselves highly designed – Warhol’s genius was in recognising beautiful design in the mundane.

Basquiat takes that to the next level, finding – and creating – weird, hypnotically compelling art out of street trash, a graffiti style, spray-can spontaneity, the deliberately undesigned. The Canadian art curator Marc Mayer seems to me to put his finger on it when he notes in Basquiat’s work

a calculated incoherence

teasing, puzzling, refracting, resisting meanings, resisting a simplistic definition of him as a black artist or a musician or a provocateur or a street artist or a naive artist. It seems to me precisely Basquiat’s genius that he was all those things, plus more, much more than the critics can still really get their heads around.

Beautiful And he was beautiful. You’re just having serious sensible thoughts about his references to the Western Tradition when you turn a corner and there’s some film of him dancing in his studio with a massive smile on his face. I took my 16 year-old daughter and she fell in love with Basquiat. I’ve dragged her along to numerous art shows but she told me this is the only one which has ever made her feel that art can be exciting, fun and cool.

Video

There are quite a few video relics of Basquiat, interviews, documentaries, the full-length indie movie he appears in – Downtown 81 – and the more recent full-length biopic, Basquiat directed by Julian Schnabel.

Here’s a documentary about his life & times in which you can hear the man speak for himself.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The Bristol Museum & Art Gallery opened in 1906 with money donated by Sir William Henry Wills, scion of the extensive Wills family which had made its fortune in the tobacco trade and was also instrumental in founding Bristol University. Their contribution is commemorated in the inscription on the museum’s monumental neo-classical facade, and also in the vast, neo-Gothic Wills Memorial Building built next door. The university, art gallery and the nearby Royal Western Academy all owe their existence to tobacco money.

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Facade of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

The modern museum contains a bewildering variety of exhibitions and displays: it’s Bristol’s equivalent of the Natural History Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery all rolled into one. I walked through a display on the geology and geography of the Bristol area, past another on local dinosaur fossils, past the Chinese silver, ignoring the lure of the Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, and bypassing an exhibition about objects from the British Empire…

Because my focus was on climbing up to the second floor where a series of five rooms house a lovely collection of fine art. The gallery owns some 1,300 paintings and 200 sculptures. The selection on display is arranged chronologically in rooms covering the Renaissance to the Baroque, the 18th century to Romanticism, Victorian art, contemporary and modern art, with a room devoted to French 19th century art. Lots of beautiful pieces by a wide variety of artists over an immense period, touching on countless stories, ideas and issues. The art alone is a feast for the eyes and mind.

European Old Masters: From religious devotion to artistic discovery 1300 – 1700

There’s a vast difference between the still-cranky, half-medieval, exploratory art of the early Renaissance, and the full-bodied Titian and Rubens style from the 1600s, those artists usually referred to as the Old Masters. This one room shows the development from the early Renaissance to the full-blown European style.

Personally, I prefer the earlier period, and art from the Northern as opposed to the Italian Renaissance. I’ve explored this fully in my review of a book about Art of the Northern Renaissance. For me Northern Renaissance art still has its roots in the best of the medieval worldview: it is humane, its portraits are realistic and characterful, the North eschews mathematically correct perspective for compositions which foreground gorgeous patterns on tiling or fabrics, and in the background are sumptuously green and fertile north European landscapes, the kind of countryside I love going for walks in. All these elements are present in this work from the second half of the fifteenth century.

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child (1440-75) from the workshop of Dieric Bouts

Compare and contrast with the works, especially anything with a landscape, of the Italian Renaissance. These tend to lack the gorgeous medieval interest in fabrics or tilework; the landscapes are harsh, barren, dry and rocky; the deployment of perspective and vanishing points may be more mathematically correct (as in the tunnel in the work below) but, in my view, create an arid perfection. It is psychologically more intense (the way Christ has his back turned toward us is very dramatic, as is the figure holding his hands over his ears to block the horrific trumpeting of the devils); but visually less pleasing.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Giovanni Bellini (1475-80)

The Age of Enlightenment and the Birth of Romanticism

The 18th century is the great age of ‘civilised’ behaviour, of polite gentility in art and culture, the age of China tea sets, coffee rooms where bewigged gentlemen debated a form of politics characterised by dominant characters rather than by the political parties we have nowadays, an age of royal scandals and almost permanent war against the French for control of the world. The heyday of historic paintings depicting thousands of naval and land battles which we have completely forgotten about.

For example, the Saints are a group of islands which lie between Dominica and Guadeloupe, where the Royal Navy won a famous victory over the French in 1782. This victory put us into a better bargaining position for the peace negotiations when the American War of Independence ended two years later – and it was considered a fitting subject for a history painter like Nicholas Pocock.

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

The Close of the Battle of the Saints (1782) by Nicholas Pocock

Sensitive portraiture flourished, the two giants of the mid-century being Thomas Gainsborough and the prolific Joshua Reynolds. Here is Gainsborough setting the unrealistically smooth complexion of his sitter against the luxurious folds of her expensive blue silk dress. The pearl choker gives definition to both face and costume. In her left hand, she is keeping the pink roses fresh by holding them in what I’ve just learned was called a ‘bosom bottle’.

Ann Leyborne Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Ann Leyborne (1763) by Thomas Gainsborough

Further along the same wall is Gainsborough’s rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder and first president of the Royal Academy, with a frankly so-so portrait of Frances Courtenay (Lady Honeywood) and her daughter. White skin, rouged cheeks, big dress and – the great clichés of this kind of portrait – the hint of classical architecture in the background (here a classical balustrade, usually a classical column) and the sumptuous red curtain as if for a stage set. All the ingredients are here, but it’s not his best – the depiction of the little girl is poor, isn’t it?

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood and her daughter (1784) by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Places of desire: Victorian and Edwardian Art 1840 – 1920

I am a bit weary of modern curators and literary critics talking about ‘desire’: it’s a prissy, bourgeois, drawing room way of indicating ‘sex’ without being vulgar enough to come straight out and say so. It’s an easy term to attach to any depiction of the human body, as if you’re making an illuminating comment. It’s a dispiriting euphemism for an age which is obsessed with sex but hasn’t got the guts to confront it head on, which doesn’t want to face up to the ragged embarrassments of sex and libido, which wants to smooth messy human activities out into a polite term which is acceptable to the most prudish of academics. Whether or not you agree with my view, there’s no doubt that modern academics, scholars and curators often impose their bloodless notion of ‘desire’ onto the very different values and ideals of artists far removed in time and space from our sex-obsessed culture.

In fact, in this whistle stop overview of the Victorian room, I’d say there’s little or no actual desire in evidence – far more obvious is a lovely dreamy sensuality.

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

The Garden Court (1892) by Edward Burne-Jones

By this late stage of his career Burne-Jones had perfected the ‘look’ of his paintings which combined multiple copies of the same blank-eyed maidens with their rather triangular heads, apparelled in simple, chaste but sumptuously folded dresses, in settings usually drenched in flowers and natural imagery. Maybe there is ‘desire’ in this painting, if you’re determined to find it anywhere there’s a depiction of the human body – but, to my eye, it’s far more a depiction of the characteristically Victorian taste for simple, sensuous dreaminess.

Similarly, the most striking painting in the collection is of a knight being quite literally entranced and put into a hypnotic, dream-like state – La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1901) by Frank Dicksee

The Victorian room was quite empty so I had a go at standing with my hands in the same posture as the knight, arms outstretched, looking up. It’s a highly unnatural pose, it feels like a peculiar trance position as of a man, maybe as per the fictions of our own time, taken over by aliens or turned into a zombie.

It’s a massive painting and you can walk right up and see that his eyes seem to have become silvered over, like a man in a sci-fi story. The more you look the more you see the strange power flowing from the Lady’s eyes directly into those of the damned knight, bewitched and enslaved.

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

Close-up of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Dicksee

This was my favourite room. As I’ve grown older and soaked up more stories of the world’s empires, slaveries, holocausts, massacres and murders, of its endless wars and pogroms, of man’s escalating destruction of the planet and all the species on it – I feel less embarrassed about enjoying the good things, the beautiful things, the luxury and sensuality of life. It’s over quickly enough. Celebrate.

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

Daedalus equipping Icarus (1895) by Francis Derwent Wood

And late Victorian statuary achieved a perfection of detail which eluded even the ancient Greeks. I was in Bristol to visit my grown-up son and having a son adds layers of meaning and poignancy to this sculpture of Daedalus equipping Icarus because, of course, Daedalus is lovingly and carefully and unwittingly preparing Icarus for his death.

1895 was the year when science fiction arrived in England in the form of H.G. Wells’s masterpiece, The Time Machine. I took a Wellsian interest in the precise nature of the flying equipment Daedalus is tying to his son’s arms. Would it work? It appears to be eminently practical: the straps round Icarus’s (perfectly shaped) chest secure the majority of the wing equipment to his body, while the straps over the biceps attach the upper wings to the arms, and the hands grasp lanyards attached lower down the wing. What could possibly go wrong?

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

Detail of Daedalus equipping Icarus by Francis Derwent Wood

A shiny marble statue of a woman sleeping might be pressed into being an image of ‘desire’, but for my money is, again, much better described as an aspect of dream. Militating against the description of ‘desire’ is the simple fact that she is fully clothed. After all, much of Victorian poetry, under the influence of Tennyson, was similarly dreamy, escapist, seeking marmoreal perfection amid the filthy clatter of the Industrial Revolution.

<em>Sleeping nymph</em>(1850) by E.H Bailey

Sleeping nymph (1850) by E.H Bailey

This mood of refined and rather upper-class sensibility continued on past the death of Victoria. This late example from 1910 shows the influence of Whistler’s fin-de-siècle experiments in tone, making the palette conform to one register, depicting a soulful upper-class lady, such as drift sensitively through the pages of Henry James.

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

The Mackerel Shawl (1910) by Algernon Talmage

After all this richesse, these dreamy myths and lazing ladies, I myself was feeling rich and dreamy — but there were two rooms left to explore.

French art and impact

In the French room 23 paintings and one sculpture capture the development of French 19th century painting from salon and realist art towards the early days of impressionism, featuring less well-known works by Vuillard, Ribot, Boudin, Carriere, Daubigny and Fourain. There is a work apiece by the well-known Seurat, Corot, Sisley, Pissarro, Sickert and Monet. Having settled into a lazy late Victorian groove I warmed to A River Landscape by Karl Dabigny.

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

A River Landscape (1880) by Karl Daubigny

It reminds me of some of the haunting late landscapes set in Scotland by Millais. If you like Impressionism there are a handful of characteristic works, like The Entrance to the village by Alfred Sisley.

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

The Entrance to the village (1870s) by Alfred Sisley

I think my favourite was the pre-Impressionist work by the great realist painter Gustave Courbet, a coastal view titled Eternity. A photo doesn’t do justice to the depth of colour and the ominous sense of cloud, sky and surf.

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Eternity (1869) Gustave Courbet

Off to one side of these developments in what is, essentially, one genre – landscape painting – stand the experimental, highly symbolic paintings of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, vague and amateurish-seeming – the catalogue describes them as ‘fragmentary and intimate’ – but strange and hypnotic.

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Perseus and Andromeda (1870) by Gustave Moreau

Modern and contemporary art

Definitely feeling super-saturated with wonderful images, I stumbled into the final room, a survey of modern and contemporary art. This bright white room contains 15 paintings and five sculptures by big names such as Richard long, David Nash, Victor Pasmore, Howard Hodgkin, Spencer Gore. Barbara Hepworth was represented by a characteristic wired sculpture.

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Winged Figure I (1957) by Barbara Hepworth

Bringing us right up to date is a gee-whizz painting by Damien Hirst, aged 52 and said to be the richest artist now or who has ever lived, with an estimated worth of around £1 billion.

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

Beautiful hours spin painting IX (2008) by Damien Hirst

And everyone’s favourite Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei, who is represented by A ton of tea shaped into a cube. Having visited Ai’s big retrospective at the Royal Academy, I know that Ai, like Hirst, works in sets or series, and so this cube of tea is just one of countless other cubes made from numerous other materials.

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

A ton of tea (2007) by Ai Weiwei

Summary

This is a really fabulous collection of West European art from the last five hundred years, including and referencing numerous periods and schools, traditions and histories. It is well worth travelling to Bristol to see, especially considering the fact that admission is totally free!

Beyond the rooms, the corridors and landings are also dotted with striking paintings and more sculptures. Probably the most popular is this work by Banksy, the street artist born and bred in Bristol. It is a Victorian stone statue of an angel with a pot of red paint thrown over its head.

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

Paint Pot Angel (2009) by Banksy

According to the wall label:

The intention is to challenge what people expect to see in a museum like this and question the value we place on art. Banksy displayed this work amongst the museum collections during the 2009 exhibition ‘Banksy versus Bristol Museum’, after which he donated it to Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives.

Much more ‘challenging’ would be to explain to visitors the completely different worldviews, the cultural, social, technological, moral and religious values of historic periods remote from ours like the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 18th century or the Victorian period – their anxieties, their moral panics, the values they admired and looked up to – but that would take time, a lot of time, a lot of study and reading, and sensitive sympathetic imagination.


Related links

Other Bristol reviews

Metamorphoses by PJ Crook @ The Royal West of England Academy

PJ (no full stops) lives and works in the West Country, is a member of the Royal West of England Academy and, over a long career, has not only created works across a wide range of media, but also been active in supporting numerous art organisations and initiatives, resulting in the recent award of an MBE for services to art.

PJ Crook at work

PJ Crook at work

This exhibition of recent work, titled Metamorphoses, fills one downstairs room at the RWA’s Bristol gallery with 20 or so (generally quite small) paintings and six or so (quite large) assemblages.

Soundscape by Robert Fripp

The exhibition is accompanied by a ‘soundscape’ created by PJ’s long-standing friend, the guitarist and composer Robert Fripp. From hidden speakers Fripp’s ambient waves of sound wash slowly over the visitor. Since the entire show is housed in one, bare, white room, the overall affect is soothing and relaxing, slowing you down enough to soak up PJ’s dream-like fantasias.

Paintings and assemblages

There’s a big visual difference between the paintings and the assemblages. The paintings are small, the size of a large format book – whereas the assemblages consist of stools or mannekins or tables, thrusting out of the wall which they’re often attached to, intruding into the visitor space, festooned with stuffed birds, shoes and other objects.

The day I visited the artist was there herself and I was lucky enough to be able to ask her a few questions. PJ explained that an initial thought had been to display just the assemblages, but that by themselves they created a rather craggy, pointy, threatening experience. So the small and smooth paintings were put in between them to create rhythm, light and shade, a contrast between the assemblages, which you have to step back to really take in, and the paintings, which you have to lean into to enjoy the detail.

A wood near Athens by PJ Crook

A wood near Athens by PJ Crook

The paintings

The wall labels and catalogue quote from the opening of Ovid’s long poem Metamorphoses, a wonderful collection of all the ancient Greek myths in which people turn into trees or animals or clouds, and so on, which has been translated and quoted by English poets from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes.

Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme my spirit impels me now to recite.
Inspire me, O gods (it is you who have even transformed my art), and spin me a thread
from the world’s beginning down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.

And PJ herself explained, some of the paintings were directly inspired by a recent visit to Greece, such as the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus.

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by PJ Crook

Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by PJ Crook

But, to this visitor, what came over much more powerfully was the sequence of dark and mysterious images which seem to emanate from a northern imagination of forests and fairy tales.

Grandma by PJ Crook

Grandma by PJ Crook

Even the sequence obviously taken from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (originally set in Greece) and showing Bottom with his ass’s head, have more the feel of a dreamy northern night – it is a world of sensible shirt and ties (as below) or waistcoat, trousers and laced shoes (in A wood near Athens, above) rather than the bare rock and bare bodies of hot Greece. Part of the dreamlike state is that the animal has been tamed.

Enchanted by PJ Crook

Enchanted by PJ Crook

These could be illustrations to Angela Carter’s feminist retellings of fairy tales, a night-time world of dream women somehow in control of mannekin men, leading the dance, seeing the world in their own terms, all floating beneath the mysterious, female power of the moon (traditionally associated with the female principle, as opposed to the harsh male sun).

Style

As you can see from these examples, the paintings are in a sort of ‘naively’ realistic style, an impression of innocent artlessness which is emphasised by the way all of the paintings overflow to include the heavy wooden frames.

PJ told me she’s been called a surrealist artist, a naive artist and so on. Certainly there are juxtapositions of incongruous objects, as in the early Surrealist manifestos, and these odd visions are painted in a very finished, figurative style. But their powerful dreamlike vibe is entirely her own.

One consistent element I noticed is the blankness of the faces. Strange things are happening – a woman dances with a donkey-headed man or sees herself as a bear in a mirror – and make no comment. The girls’ or women’s faces remain placid and accepting. ‘Yes, of course, why not,’ they seem to be saying. Or thinking.

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor by PJ Crook

Ursa Major and Ursa Minor by PJ Crook

Then I realised that, although there are a few naked people, you don’t see any nipples or other private parts. They would make the pictures too… too real, give too much of an edge to pictures which are intended to be edgeless, to take us away from the harsh world of the sexualised body and into a desexualised world of dreamy imagination.

On the contrary, the lack of naked bodies or, to be precise, the way the bodies are often so chastely dressed – adds to the incongruity, to the surrealism, of the images. Bottom may well be an ancient Greek workman with a donkey’s head – but he is wearing the waistcoat, shirt, tie and bell-bottomed trousers that remind me of the roll-your-own folk singers of the 1970s; the girl turning into a stag is wearing a sensible summer dress buttoned to the throat and a carefully tied ribbon, as of a 1950s children’s book illustration.

Metamorphses by PJ Crook

Metamorphoses by PJ Crook

The decorum and the chasteness of the figures is part of their lack of affect, their lack of emotional response, to the strange things happening to them, which help to create the all-prevading dream-like mood.

(I recently came across the idea of sticking butterflies to the picture frame in a 1926 work by Francis Picabia, Machaon, where it is explained that the butterfly was a Christian symbol for rebirth i.e. a form of metamorphosis).

Solitary

Continuing along the same line of thought, PJ’s Wikipedia and RWA profiles emphasise that she often paints crowds. Once it was pointed out to me I realised that I’ve seen her artwork on the cover of a lot of the later album covers of King Crimson, the 1970s prog rock group founded by Robert Fripp, which still records and tours. In fact, PJ has provided artwork for no fewer than 13 KC albums:

List of King Crimson albums with cover art by PJ Crook

Most of these feature multiple figures, and some have large crowds, marching in the street or making up the audience at theatres or the circus. Whereas all of the works in this show do not show crowds: two is generally as many ‘people’ who feature, and a number only show one isolated figure. In other words, this appears to be a selection of works deliberately distinct from the crowd pictures.

This solitariness, the relative isolation and singleness of the figures in these Metamorphoses paintings is another element which adds to their sense of dreamy drifting. Instead of being packed into a crowd reading newspapers or cheering at the theatre, individuals are isolated, looking into mirrors, or dancing with donkeys under the moon, or calmly turning into a stag – unattached, unattended, profoundly untroubled.

The assemblages

The assemblages are wildly different in presence and impact from the paintings. Only on closer examination do you see how they bear the imprint of PJ’s style. Several things are notable about them, first of all, their sheer variety. There are:

  • enormous antique shelf units designed to hold curios and trinkets
  • a tailor’s dummy painted with a cloudy blue sky
  • an antique, 18th century-looking corner table
  • a stool with a guitar placed on it and a cockerel sitting on the guitar
  • a picture frame around a painting of shoes, with shoes stuck on the canvas and around the frame

 

Stepping Out (in my shows) by PJ Crook

Stepping Out (in my shoes) by PJ Crook

What unifies them is:

  • the stuffed birds
  • the colourful decoration of the objects
  • text painted onto the objects
  • the humorously factual titles

The stuffed birds

PJ told me she didn’t have the birds stuffed specially but rescued them from curio shops around the area. I counted 21 stuffed birds, perching not only on the assemblages but poking out from some of the paintings, as well as birds in the paintings.

The ubiquity of the birds is as much of a theme as classical metamorphoses. They it link together apparently disparate works across the exhibition and give the show a visual and avian uniformity.

Bird by PJ Crook

Bird by PJ Crook

The most avian work is Bird Table (below) which neatly illustrates some of the other characteristics, namely the humorous titles and the use of text. It is titled Bird table because it is a table with birds on. I really liked that. As to text, I could see that she’d painted the words ‘one x bird 4 sorrow, 2 x bird for joy’ etc onto the table, and this matched the fact that the two dominant stuffed birds are magpies. But PJ also explained the meaning of the images on the table legs which – being slow – I initially took for pop culture references. The Blue bird logo, Bird’s instant custard, the twitter bird logo, Daffy duck, Robin from Batman and Robin – all birds :).

Bird Table by PJ Crook

Bird Table by PJ Crook

So: an antique shop ready-made object, festooned with stuffed birds (and a bird book and a globe indicating the migratory flights of birds), with painted text relevant to the birds (the magpies) across the table drawers, and visual puns (‘4’ on the left hand leg, ‘& 20’ on the next leg, the image of a blackbird on the third leg).

Having learned to ‘read’ this example I was ready to enjoy deciphering Cock a doodle, but it needed PJ herself to tell me that this stool was sat on by Robert Fripp when he came and did a performance at a hall near her. This explains the guitar (and the mannekin hand – maybe it’s in the position of making a guitar chord?) but it was only when I looked closely that I saw that the titles of various King Crimson tracks are painted along the legs and frame of the stool.

The cockerel itself? The black gloved hands reaching up from the floor? I don’t know, but I don’t care. It’s fun, bright and confident, colourful and jokey.

Cock a doodle doo by PJ Crook

Cock a doodle by PJ Crook

Sea urchin is a great title for a shop mannekin of a child which has miraculously grown silver scales and has a big fish stuck on its head. And a bird on its hand, one of the many birds which thematically bind the exhibits together. Is it a curlew, I wonder, the solitary bird of seaside strands?

Sea urchin by PJ Crook

Sea urchin by PJ Crook

Buy your own

The pieces are all for sale (though many have already been bought). The paintings cost from around £2,500 to £4,000, while the assemblages cost significantly more; for example Bird table costs £18,850.

I went to the exhibition with my son. His favourite work was this small painting of a sad-looking Minotaur at the centre of his maze, a snip at £1,125.

Minotaur by PJ Crook

Minotaur by PJ Crook

This is a very enjoyable, intriguing, other-worldly exhibition – with the Frippscape in the background, a spell of pure pleasure.

Related links

BP Portrait Award 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

The exhibition

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

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

Undiverse

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

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

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

So 1. The show feels overwhelmingly white and English.

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

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

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

The prize winners

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

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

Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, 2017 © Benjamin Sullivan

Breech! by Benjamin Sullivan, 2017 © Benjamin Sullivan

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

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

Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann, 2016 © Thomas Ehretsmann

Double Portrait by Thomas Ehretsmann, 2016 © Thomas Ehretsmann

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

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

Emma by Antony Williams, 2016 © Antony Williams

Emma by Antony Williams, 2016 © Antony Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ones I liked

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

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

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

1. Men

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

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson, 2017 © Alan Coulson

Honest Thomas by Alan Coulson, 2017 © Alan Coulson

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

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

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

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

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon, 2016 © Martyn Burdon

Matt Berry by Martyn Burdon, 2016 © Martyn Burdon

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

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford, 2016 © Lucy Stopford

Dr Tim Moreton by Lucy Stopford, 2016 © Lucy Stopford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Women

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

Simona by Lukáš Betinský, 2017 © Lukáš Betinský

Simona by Lukáš Betinský, 2017 © Lukáš Betinský

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

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

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

Pen Vogler by John Burke, 2016 © John Burke

Pen Vogler by John Burke, 2016 © John Burke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ania by Ania Hobson, 2016 © Ania Hobson

Ania by Ania Hobson, 2016 © Ania Hobson

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

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

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

3. Children

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

Cecilia by Madeline Fenton, 2016 © Madeline Fenton

Cecilia by Madeline Fenton, 2016 © Madeline Fenton

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

Jack by Casper White, 2017 © Casper White

Jack by Casper White, 2017 © Casper White

4. Group portraits

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

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

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

Society by Khushna, 2016 © Khushna

Society by Khushna, 2016 © Khushna

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

The Levinsons by Rupert Alexander, 2016 © Rupert Alexander

The Levinsons by Rupert Alexander, 2016 © Rupert Alexander

5. My favourites

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

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

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

Corinne by Anastasia Pollard, 2016 © Anastasia Pollard

Corinne by Anastasia Pollard, 2016 © Anastasia Pollard

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

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

Nikki by John Borowicz, 2016 © John Borowicz

Nikki by John Borowicz, 2016 © John Borowicz

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

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

Jessica by Laura Quinn Harris, 2017 © Laura Quinn Harris

Jessica by Laura Quinn Harris, 2017 © Laura Quinn Harris

Photographs

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

It felt overwhelmingly white.

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

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

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

Not one is here.

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

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

None.

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

Nada. Nichts.

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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