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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burgundy and France

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

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

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

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

Permanent war

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

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

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

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

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

Two theories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lack of theory

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

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

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

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

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

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

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

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complexity as a defence mechanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scholasticism

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

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

The gap between theory and reality

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

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

Courtly Love

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

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

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

Anxiety and hysteria

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

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

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

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

Waning and decay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpectedly critical

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

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

For two reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

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

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

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

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

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

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

Conclusion

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


Credit

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

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Eduardo Paolozzi @ The Whitechapel Gallery

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

Bio

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

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

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

Magazine collages

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

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

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

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

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

Sculpture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Textiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1970s

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

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

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

Heads and bodies

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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


Related links

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

Reviews

Reviews of other Whitechapel shows

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Differing approaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collaborations

1. The nocturnal Pieta

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

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

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

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

2. Raising of Lazarus

There are several stories about this painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Borgherini chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic Christianity and its discontents

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

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

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

The sack of Rome

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

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

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

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

End of the friendship

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite

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

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

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

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

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

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

The video

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


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

David Hockney @ Tate Britain

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

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

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

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

Periods and styles

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change and experiment

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

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

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

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

Videos

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

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

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I also enjoyed this brief and enthusiastic critical overview.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Picasso’s Portraits @ the National Portrait Gallery

‘All portraits are caricatures.’ Picasso

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caricatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self portraits

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

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

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

Individuals

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

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

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

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

Olga Khokhlova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women as muse

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

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

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

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

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

Dora Maar and the war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dialogue with tradition

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

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

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

An embarrassment of riches

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

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

Sex and style

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

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

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

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

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

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

Videos

The National Portrait Gallery has produced some useful introductory videos:

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

Related links

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

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

Deep prehistory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary art

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

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

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

Tone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary art 2

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

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

Artists and works

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

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

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

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

South African Timeline

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

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

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

As a language student I learned:

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

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

Modern South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


The trailer

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

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

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Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans @ the Royal Academy

Ensor (1860-1949) is an oddity. He was born in Ostend, a windswept seaside ‘resort’ on the coast of Belgium in 1860 and chose to spend his whole life there. His parents kept a modest curiosity shop which made its money during the short summer tourist season, and the guide tells us that, once a year, Ostend had a colourful Mardi Gras carnival, where everyone wore masks. It is easy enough to make the connection between Ensor growing up among bizarre artefacts, experiencing this annual jamboree, and what was to become his trademark depiction of grotesquely distorted people wearing carnival masks…

The Intrigue by James Ensor (1890) Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The Intrigue by James Ensor (1890) Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The guide goes on to explain that Ostend had been the site of a lengthy siege and battle way back in the 17th century, and that all building works in the area tended to dig up piles of bones and skulls. Apparently there are photos of Ensor and friends holding mock duels on the beach using human bones (though not included in the show). All of which explains his other favourite subject of skulls and skeletons.

The exhibition could have stuck to an exploration of these themes but it is curated not by scholars but by fellow Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans (b.1958) who has always been attracted to his countryman’s work and sets out to show us that there is more to Ensor than just his best-known grotesque paintings. The show deliberately sets out to show us Ensor’s range and diversity, and so we are introduced to other major strands in his output, such as:

Early realist works

These include Bathing Hut (1876), painted when he was just 16 and showing a typical sight on the windswept beach, and Afternoon In Ostende (1881) showing his mother and sister in a grim muddy interior, indicative of the stiflingly conventional bourgeois the artist grew up in. This early naturalist style could hardly be more at odds with the style that made him famous. A good example here is the Self-portrait with a flowered hat (1883). OK he’s a bit of a dandy, but a very conventional one.

Self-portrait with Flowered Hat by James Ensor (1883) Mu.ZEE, Oostende Photo MuZee © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Self-portrait with Flowered Hat by James Ensor (1883) Mu.ZEE, Oostende
Photo MuZee © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Satirical cartoons

One of the three rooms in the show features a long case showing maybe forty examples of the satirical cartoons he produced by the score, as stand-alones or in sets, satirising Ostend bourgeois society. No wonder he became so unpopular in the town of his birth.

Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere by James Ensor (1888) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere by James Ensor (1888) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Two large examples are hung separately:

  • The Bad Doctors (1892)
  • The Dangerous Cooks (1896) Ensor’s withering opinion of critics who are serving up his and a fellow artist’s heads on plates to be scoffed by porcine critics waiting at the table.

Ensor carried out a lifelong war against critics who didn’t like or value his work. This was the era when variations on Impressionism were still being produced and new movements from France, like Symbolism, were smooth and high-toned. Ensor was deliberately crude, clumsy, garish and, above all, satirical. It’s not a particularly good work, but the approach of the man seems to be summed up in The Pisser.

Religious art

Disappointingly for a man who considered himself a rebel and non-conformist, there’s a strong Christian thread through his work, represented here by a huge horrible painting of Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden of Eden. It is enormous and dominates one whole wall.

Apparently, his most famous work is Christ’s entry into Brussels, which is not on show here, combining his interests in the grotesque, social satire and religion into a ragbag which I’m afraid I don’t like at all.

The fantastic

Ensor produced hundreds of engravings, etchings and lithographs of very variable quality, many of them depicting scenes of fantasy and the grotesque. There is a series devoted to the seven deadly sins, which anticipate the deliberate ugliness of post-Great War satirists like George Grosz.

Both my children are at secondary school. In order to choose which secondary schools to send them to we went to open days of maybe a dozen schools in all. In every one, among other areas, you tour round the art rooms. Deliberately cack-handed, garish and obvious depictions of the seamy side of life – of ugly people, skeletons, skulls, alongside satire on religion or political leaders – depicted with the earnestness of 5th and 6th form teenagers is what these rooms are packed with. After looking at the 20th etching of a deadly sin or crowds mocking Christ or the troops at Waterloo it’s hard not to think of Ensor as a kind of patron saint of tens of thousands of clumsy, over-earnest adolescent imaginations.

Drawings

The show includes a lot of prints and drawings. What struck me is how powerfully naturalistic some of the early ones are before he discovered his talent for the macabre and grotesque. I much preferred these which have a depth and maturity which, paradoxically, his later deliberately sketchy satires wholly lack.

Still life 

In the room of grotesques one painting stood apart – a dazzling still life. This photographic reproduction completely fails to bring out the unnervingly oiliness and spookiness of the painting in the flesh. It is a far more intense and disturbing image than some of the overtly grotesque paintings. More subtly unnerving.

The Skate by James Ensor (1892) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns - Ro scan © DACS 2016

The Skate by James Ensor (1892) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels/photo: J. Geleyns – Ro scan © DACS 2016

Over by 40

Although Ensor lived to an advanced age, not dying until 1949, the excellent handout for the exhibition crisply points out that by the age of 40 (1900) his best work was done. He spent the next 40 years repeating the same motifs and, in his last years, developing a much lighter more gaseous style. The expert on the audio-commentary tries to claim these later works match the earlier ones, but they don’t.

Luc Tuymans

Because this is not a ‘scholarly’ exhibition but a personal selection of one artist’s works by another (Luc Tuymans) Tuymans mixes it up a little, adding other elements. Most notable are a couple of works by Tuymans himself, chiefly an enormous white carnival hat with billowing feathers, as worn at the Carnival de Binche in 2001, as well as five – to be honest, rather bland – carnival masks.

A bit more relevant is the self-portrait by Ensor’s Ostend contemporary, Léon Spilliart. Apparently it was seeing Ensor’s work that persuaded Spilliart to pack in being a lawyer and become a painter instead. Interesting story and I very much liked the intensity of this image, with the subject’s eyes in deep black shadow, and his reflection repeated in parallel mirrors to infinity. In fact googling this image shows that Spilliart did multiple self-portraits and comes over as an intense spin-off of the Edvard Munch school of northern depression.

But this one image, by itself, doesn’t really tell me much about Ensor or shed much light on the contemporary Belgian ‘scene’.

Conclusion

I knew next to nothing about Ensor before visiting, and so this exhibition is a useful overview of his life and achievement but, having got a grasp of his career, I would have liked to see more of his trademark weird mask and skull paintings, and/or more of the striking naturalistic paintings he did right at the start of his career.

There are only three rooms in this small exhibition and the majority of the space is devoted to drawings, prints and cartoons most of which just aren’t of the same quality as the grotesques/realist works. Imagine if the space had been full to overflowing with his paintings of garish masks and leering skeletons and green-faced women and men with pig noses – what a powerful experience it would have been!

While searching Ensor images on the internet I came across The Dejected Woman, was very impressed by it, and couldn’t help wondering whether a lot of the satirical drawings, sketches and cartoons which Ensor devoted so much effort to (e.g. Christ tormented by demons) and which are given so much wall space here, were, in fact, a waste of a breath-taking talent.


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Paul Nash @ Tate Britain

The nine rooms in this show comprise a major exhibition of the life’s work of the painter, illustrator, sculptor, photographer and art critic, Paul Nash. The show proceeds in simple chronological order and, as well as oil paintings and watercolours, includes display cases containing letters, photographs, magazine articles, book illustrations, collages and sculptures, as well as two rooms putting his work into the context of contemporaries and collaborators. It is a comprehensive overview of a much-loved English artist.

Mysterious landscapes

Nash was born in 1889. He spent his early life in Iver Heath in what was then rural Buckinghamshire and early on developed a special feel for the modest highlights of the Home Counties landscape. He felt trees so powerfully that he thought they had almost human personalities – he depicted a particular stand of three trees near his home again and again, in different lights – and he was much taken with nightscapes and the moon and mysterious winged figures. He wrote poems and illustrated them in the manner of William Blake or Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Room 1 is dedicated to these, many of which felt childish and immature to me.

The great exception is a watercolour of Wittenham Clumps, in Oxfordshire, one of the oldest planted stands of beech trees in England, set atop an Iron Age fort. It is, in fact, only a very gently sloping hill, but in these pictures you can see his interest in pattern and linear shapes emerging from his not particularly accurate landscape technique.

The Great War

Nash was 24 when the Great War broke out. He was called up but not actually sent to France until 1917, when he saw the devastated landscape left after the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. For such a sensitive man, so in tune with the special meaning of natural landscape, the war was a terrible blasphemy. He wrote blistering attacks on the war leaders in letters to his wife (on display here).

‘I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back
word from men who are fighting to those who want the war to go forever. Feeble,
inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their
lousy souls.’

In terms of technique, the war inspired him to start using oil (as opposed to his previous light watercolours) and speeded his tendency to find simplified geometric shapes in landscape.

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917 by Paul Nash (1917) Imperial War Museum, London © Tate

Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917 by Paul Nash (1917) Imperial War Museum, London © Tate

He was always poor at depicting the human figure. Not many appear in the early watercolours, and the few soldiers in the war paintings are weak compared to the soldiers of C.R.W. Nevinson or Wyndham Lewis or John Singer Sargent or William Orpen. His most famous war painting contains no humans – the shattered tree stumps represent the countless blighted lives – and highlights the new more abstract vision.

Vying with it is Menin Road 1917, in which the soldier figures have successfully blended with the design, appearing as just another set of angled lines in a composition dominated by verticals and diagonals.

Nash began his career as an illustrator and a display case here shows the pen-and-ink illustrations he did for a book of poetry by war novelist Richard Aldington. These are cleaner and sparer than the big oil paintings. I’m a sucker for strong outlines and silhouettes, so I really like them.

The 1920s

Nash emerged unharmed from the war and came back to live in a succession of rural locations. His paintings reflect pastoral views at Whiteleaf in Buckinghamshire or Dymchurch in Kent, but now done in an unapologetically modernist style.

I’ve always liked the Dymchurch paintings. They have a peculiar understated ominousness about them. Now I learn from the audio-commentary that shortly after moving there in 1924 Nash had a nervous breakdown, probably a delayed reaction to the war.

He has converted the ungainliness which characterises all his work into Unease. They are English landscapes, southern English landscapes, with the flatness and homeyness and boredom that implies but with… edge, disquiet, pregnant with some unspoken meaning…

Discovering de Chirico

In 1928 Nash visited an exhibition of works by Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian artist more or less his contemporary. De Chirico’s empty piazzas and abstract architecture had, by  his own admission, a dramatic impact on him. Nash wrote a lot about his own practice and phrases like ‘the power of abandoned objects’, ‘dreamlike ominousness’ and ‘isolated architectural elements’ begin to enter his prose.

Some of these paintings look Mediterranean, as if Nash has swallowed de Chirico whole. Others are still set in the English landscape but now seen in a completely new way, where isolated objects somehow bring out meanings which were always latent but not expressed in ‘reality’.

Nash trained as an illustrator, was at one time art critic for the Listener and became an avid photographer, as well as designing fabrics and china, so he had many strings to his bow. He was also involved in set design for contemporary theatre and some of the post-de Chirico works take his existing interest in the geometric aspect of landscape and add a new element, imposing frames within the frame to create angles and perspectives and plonking down abstract features in landscape as if they’re stage sets incongruously abandoned in a field or wood.

Unit One

In 1933 he joined forces with a host of other modern British artists to create ‘Unit One’, a movement he helped publicise. They held an exhibition which went on tour round the country in 1934 and 35. The exhibition devotes a room to Unit One and it is very useful to see works by other artists alongside Nash, very illuminating, clarifying what visual elements he shared with his contemporaries and what made him different. Works on display include:

I realised what all his peers have in common is that their works are very finished, with sharp lines, smooth paint surfaces or – in sculpture – the smoothly modelled shapes of Moore and Hepworth. By contrast, most of the half dozen or so works in this room by Nash seemed rough and scrappy, on canvas where you can often see the fabric of the canvas showing through the oil, where colours deliberately don’t go up to the edge of others colours, leaving canvas showing through, and where the oil is applied with thick strokes which are visible from even a few yards away. This scrappiness and lack of finish is really obvious in a work like Pillar and moon (1932) but it’s present in all his work, something photographic reproductions smooth out but which seeing them in real life makes really apparent.

This patchiness extends to entire compositions, which are clearly not interested in either crispness of outline or really pure, mathematical geometry. Although they make an impact, I don’t really like them, they make me feel uneasy.

Although they’re obviously landscapes and presumably come out of Nash’s lifelong numinous sense of place and nature, they actually remind me of early Francis Bacon in the sense of lumpish unhappiness they convey.

Alongside these blotchy works, Nash had another style which was much more precise and seems to stem from his training in graphic illustration. From his flat in St Pancras he looked out onto an advertising hoarding kept in place by multiple struts. Combine this with the strong de Chirico influence and you get images which are interested in line and intersection (like the window frames used in ‘Month of March’):

The background is pure de Chirico, no?

Swanage

In 1934 Nash moved to Swanage in Dorset. His wife gave him a camera. And he met the artist Eileen Agar. The result was an explosion of activity recorded in a fascinating room containing scores of works by both artists. As surrealism took hold of his imagination he became fascinated by the juxtaposition of objects found along the seashore and then, by extension, anywhere.

As the audio-commentary points out, the sea, in itself, is a surrealist work – an improbable realisation of our weirdest dreams, and the evocative driftwood, stones, fossils and human detritus it washes up are ready-made objects which only need to be placed on pedestals to become works of art.

He and Agar photographed incongruous objects placed together, experimented with photo-collage, made reliefs and sculptures and assemblages – boxes containing mixed media, seashells, driftwood, stones, eggs, fabric. In fact, as with the Unit One room, I was more taken by the non-Nash – in this case Agar’s – work than by Nash’s. For me her stuff has a crispness and sharpness which contrasts with his vaguer, unfinished feel.

Eileen Agar in Swanage

It amused me that, like so many women artists, Agar was interested in depicting her own naked body. But – like so many woman artists – only when she was young and nubile.

Nash got some of Agar’s pieces into the landmark 1936 exhibition of Surrealist art in London, making her the only woman artist represented.

Nash in Swanage

One of the many display cases has a magazine open at an article by Nash entitled ‘Swanage or Seaside Surrealism’. This title somehow captures the slightly amateurish modernism of these suburban surrealists, a slightly shamefaced English provincialism which has more in common with Philip Larkin’s down-at-heel Hull than Louis Aragon’s glamorous Paris.

The surreal landscape

The Swanage experiments helped crystallise the Surrealist message that one or two carefully placed objects somehow bring out features of a landscape, which are otherwise left implicit and unobserved.

As usual I felt there was a big difference between the deliberately unfinished feel of most of these works and his other style, which is much more rectilinear and complete and – to me, as a fan of clean lines and sharp draughtsmanship – more immediately enjoyable. Such as:

Equivalents for the Megaliths by Paul Nash (1935) © Tate

Equivalents for the Megaliths by Paul Nash (1935) © Tate

The Surrealist exhibition 1936

Nash was one of the curators of the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, which caused a sensation and aligned him in the public mind with the movement. All his influences came together in a series of works in which mysterious objects, sometimes with stage set framings, appear in otherwise placid landscapes. What do they mean? The most famous is Landscape from a dream.

Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash (1936-8) © Tate

Landscape from a Dream by Paul Nash (1936-8) © Tate

The Second World War

And then – war again. Nash was invited to be a war artist. The Ministry wanted him to depict our heroic pilots in their gleaming Spitfires – but Nash found himself attracted to the wrecks of airplanes – German fighters and bombers, so cruelly yanked out of their element, their mangled metal wreckage looking like so many of the found objects he had been studying and creating over the previous decade.

The war was Surrealism come true. Many of the works here are watercolours again, showing the same lightness as the early Wittenham Clumps watercolour back in 1912.

Near his home in Oxford was a vast dump of wrecked German planes, the Cowley Dump. The exhibition features many b&w photos Nash took of the wrecked masters of the sky, and includes b&w film footage of our hero looking out over the vista of twisted metal. The result was what is often regarded as one of his masterpieces, Totes Meer (German for ‘dead sea’).

By this stage, after looking closely at 50 or 60 paintings by Nash I had developed a feel for what I liked and what I didn’t, and to my surprise I’d come to dislike paintings like this and prefer the more geometric works. Thus I find the arrangement of elements in the equally famous Battle of Britain (not included in the exhibition, for some reason) much more pleasing.

Last works

Nash only lived a year after the war, dying in 1946 at the early age of 56 from the complications of the asthma which had dogged him with ill health for much of his life. In these final years he returned to landscapes but now pregnant with obscure symbolism. The final room includes several of the series of works he painted which feature enormous sunflowers – a symbol of life when in its prime or, when dead and dessicated, of mortality.

Artists’ last works often reveal new knowledge; they have achieved everything and feel liberated to say what they want. According to the audio-commentary, the Queen Mother liked Landscape of the vernal equinox enough to buy it. She is quoted as saying you can almost imagine an animal or spirit emerging from the woods.

Thoughts:

1. Right to the end he keeps the scrappiness I noticed in room 2 or 3, in fact it is exaggerated, with white gaps between areas of paint forming holes in thickly covered paint through which something – what? – might emerge…

2. No people: early on he realised people weren’t his thing and so hardly any of his paintings, after a few war ones, feature them – the humans are implied by the objects, in the collocations of objects and landscapes from the 1930s, in increasingly subtle, complex and mystifying ways.

3. Pink-peach-apricot: a lot of these last works feature variations on apricot or peach colours, applied to skies, sometimes to other objects, even to shadows. As I strolled back through the show I realised this unreal peach-apricot crops up throughout the work from the beginning – for example, it’s there (improbably enough) in the wartime setting of Spring in the trenches, or in the 1930s surrealism of Landscape from a dream. 

In some way I can’t quite define I think that if you like Landscape of the vernal equinox, its patchy design, blotchy paintwork and apricot coloration – I think you will have penetrated Paul Nash’s mystery.

In these last works I can sort of see it, but I don’t quite get it. Why did he paint giant magnolias in the sky in his final paintings? I think it takes time to feel your way into Nash’s world, and this big thorough exhibition is an excellent place to begin…


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Adriaen van de Velde @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first ever exhibition devoted to the Dutch Golden Age painter and draughtsman, Adriaen van de Velde (1636 – 1672). His reputation was high during his own short lifetime, and he was highly collectible through to the end of the Victorian era, but in the 20th century his reputation went into decline. In the twentieth century Dutch painting of the period came to be divided into a) really Dutch painting, featuring for example townscapes of Amsterdam or Delft, or b) Italianate Dutch – featuring Roman ruins and classical motifs among the cows and meadows. Van de Velde’s work didn’t easily fit into either category and so went into eclipse.

Adrian came from a family of painters, with both his father and brother – Willem van de Velde the Elder and Willem van de Velde the Younger – specialising in seascapes. Adrian broke with family tradition by concentrating on landscapes and also on human figures: in his short life he became well-known for his figure drawings and paintings – the catalogue claims he had ‘the greatest gift for drawing figures of any 17th century Dutch artist’. Thus he wasoften asked to paint the figures in other artists’ landscape paintings.

The exhibition features about 20 of the 170 paintings credited to van de Velde, alongside some 40 drawings, brought together from over 20 lending institutions and private collections. As usual it is spread across the Dulwich Gallery’s six exhibition rooms.

Room one features a selection of van der Velde’s landscapes to introduce you to themes and feel – most notably a series of paintings of the beach at Scheveningen, made when he was in his early twenties.

Figures on the beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660) Oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660) Oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Surveying the room as a whole you get a sense of big blue skies, happy cumulus clouds, and then begin to enjoy the details. In The beach at Scheveningen I was taken with the birds silhouetted against the cloud centre-left, and a clutter of starfishes at the feet of the figure bottom-right. The curator made a point of emphasising the proto-romantic aspect of the figure with his hands behind his back, as if he’s looking out at a boundless expanse. Other beach paintings include:

Figures on the beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660). Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Figures on the beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660). Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

I liked the dog centre foreground, mooching at some bones. And the way the whole foreground is in shadow. Light, daylight, the play of light, light on clouds, shadows, the sunset shades of evening light – these were abiding interests of his short career. Other landscapes in room one include:

Restful. Peaceful. Tranquil. Although there are animals, and sometimes depicted bounding and leaping, nothing disturbs the tranquil light playing on almost static figures, frozen in time. They are like paintings to meditate to.

Room two is devoted to a painting of a rural hut, with a woman working outside and some sheep sitting placidly – an image of  man in peaceful harmony with animals and the surrounding landscape.

The Hut by Adriaen van de Velde (1671) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Hut by Adriaen van de Velde (1671) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This painting was chosen for a room of its own because, by a chance of history, quite a few preparatory sketches survive for it, giving us a rare insight into the working practice of a 17th century artist. There are two or three sketches of the hut itself, probably drawn on the spot, based on a real building, and done with considerable detail – the final painting keeps all the architectural detail and even the shadows exactly as per the sketches. Separate are sketches of the people and of the sheep and cattle.

There are several studies of this woman working at a basket.

<em>Seated woman with basket</em> by Adriaen van de Velde. Red chalk, 28.3 x 20 cm, Private Collection

Seated woman with basket by Adriaen van de Velde. Red chalk. Private Collection

It’s striking to learn that van der Velde used the pose and clothes of this figure in more than one painting: the room contains another painting, of a completely different location and setting, but featuring the same woman in the same pose. Striking to learn that the painters worked up ‘stock figures’ for use in different compositions.

Room three is devoted to more sketches. Here and in some other rooms I found myself strongly attracted to the preparatory sketches in red chalk, black chalk, or pen and ink. The final version of The Hut (above) is kind of finished, dark and saturated – whereas the sketches for it have a lightness and airiness more like the famous beach paintings. Thus I liked the combination of amazing detail and draughtsmanship, with a sense of openness and freedom and opportunity, given by a sketch like Herdsman and herdswoman with livestock by a stream.

Herdsman and herdswoman with livestock by a stream by Adriaen van de Velde. Pen in brown and black grey wash. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands

Herdsman and herdswoman with livestock by a stream by Adriaen van de Velde. Pen in brown and black grey wash. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands

In fifteen years he experimented and tried numerous genres, never departing far from landscape but trying out figures and ideas.

The commentary points out that the reclining shepherd, ‘in its elegance and exquisite use of red chalk prefigures the work of eighteenth-century French artists such as Antoine Watteau and François Boucher’.

But some of these sketches highlighted for me his most noticeable weakness, which is his inability to do faces – the heads are often too small for the bodies, and if they’re in any other pose than full frontal, they often look contorted. This is another reason why the sketches like Herdsman (above) have an edge over the paintings – they don’t even try to do features, they are happy to be indicative of faces, and so they work better.

Room four brings together religious works and finished drawings. Van de Velde married a Roman Catholic, which wasn’t illegal, but they didn’t publicise the fact – and there is a small religious strand in his work. Which I didn’t like.

  • St John the Baptist
  • The angel appearing to shepherds
The Angel appearing to the Shepherds by Adriaen van de Velde. Brush and brown ink over black chalk © The Trustees of The British Museum

The Angel appearing to the Shepherds by Adriaen van de Velde. Brush and brown ink over black chalk © The Trustees of The British Museum

Melodrama – the Baroque – was not, I think, his thing. I was happier with more secular, humanistic works like:

(In this room the curator who showed us round was keen to single out Summer landscape with wheatfield (1662) as a very experimental work – done entirely in watercolour without a trace of pen, obviously on location in the open air, centuries ahead of the Impressionists.)

Room five focused on pastoral works. The curator explained that in the 1660s van der Velde focused almost exclusively on this type of painting, probably because there was good money in it. What documentation we have for van der Velde includes lots of correspondence about debts and loans. He seems to have been harassed by money troubles. Hence lots of saleable landscapes.

Figures in a deer park by Adriaen van de Velde (c. 1665) Oil on panel. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Edward and Sally Speelman Collection

Figures in a deer park by Adriaen van de Velde (c. 1665) Oil on panel. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Edward and Sally Speelman Collection

Apart from the interest in human figures, which is what brings the scenes alive – what struck me is how many of them are painted at sunset, with the sunny blue skies and white clouds tinged with crepuscular pink. This was particularly obvious in the only two van der Velde paintings which featured winter scenes and the kind of ice-bound festivities we are so used to from scores of Dutch Golden Age painters.

Room six is labelled ‘Dutch Arcadia’ and brings together a handful of really massive paintings.

Landscape with cattle and figures by Adriaen van de Velde (1664) © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Landscape with cattle and figures by Adriaen van de Velde (1664) © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

At 125 by 167 centimetres, this is a big painting, but not as big as the monster of the show, Portrait of a Family in a Landscape (178 x 148 cm).

These monsters fetched big money in subsequent centuries but The portrait of a couple, in particular, to me, shows the weakness of his face painting, a weakness less exposed in the fabulous beach paintings and not called into question in his lovely pen or chalk sketches.

The whole show radiates an atmosphere of deep calm, tranquility, peace and harmony. This is a wonderful exhibition which is difficult to tear yourself away from…

The movie

As is customary, the Gallery has produced a short promotional video.

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Winifred Knights @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is a fabulous opportunity to soak yourself in the life and achievement of a strange and haunting woman artist, Winifred Knights, born in 1899, active in the 1920s and 30s, but who had stopped painting well before her sudden, tragically young, death from a brain tumour in 1947.

Knights was in many ways a pioneer, being an award-winning student at Slade School of Art and then the first woman to win the prestigious Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting. Knights was born into a liberal circle of Fabian socialists and female emancipationists and her artistic style and biography bespeak her lifelong self-possession and determination.

Childhood and the Slade

Knights was born in the south London suburb of Streatham and attended the very posh James Allens School for Girls, where she first showed her gifts as a draughtsperson. The show opens with pencil drawings of figures and nudes done when she was 17, 18, 19, all of which are very impressive. She won a place at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, in the Bloomsbury district of central London, at the alarmingly young age of 16 and studied there from 1915 to 1917. Among the drawings the standout piece is this breath-taking female nude.

Full-length Seated Female Nude, three-quarter view by Winifred Knights (1917) University College London © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Full-length Seated Female Nude, three-quarter view by Winifred Knights (1917) University College London © The Estate of Winifred Knights

At the Slade she was taught by Henry Tonks, a stickler for accurate depiction of the human body and so perfect for Knights, who he came to regard as one of his finest students. (The tall strict Tonks had taught the generation just before Knights, who featured in a previous Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, A Crisis of Brilliance.) Throughout her life Knights did beautiful depictions of figures clothed and unclothed. Even in the 1930s, when her style had evolved far from naturalism, she was still capable of producing sketches like this stunning –

Appearance and self-portraits

From the start of her career through to the end she turned these talents on herself, producing scores of self-portraits and featuring images of herself in many of her paintings, sometime more than one image.

Self-portrait by Winifred Knights (1920) Pencil on tracing paper © Trustees of the British Museum. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Self-portrait by Winifred Knights (1920) Pencil on tracing paper © Trustees of the British Museum. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

These self-portraits are all the more striking because Knights herself had very striking features -possessed of a long oval face which she accentuated with an austere hair-style, her long black hair parted in the middle and drawn tightly over her ears, revealing only the imaginative ear-rings she favoured.

The air of self-possession which comes over strongly in the photographs was emphasised or brought out by her long sweeping dresses, swathing her from throat to toes and covering the arms up to the wrists, which she made herself to her own designs from a variety of fabrics. She affected a big black broad-brimmed hat which features in many of the sketches and paintings.

Photo of Winifred Knights

Photo of Winifred Knights

Her own self-presentation was so distinct and striking that the final room in the show has a wall dedicated just to photos and portraits of her by other artists. These include:

  • Photo portrait by Paul Laib
  • Allegory by Colin Ginn, where Winifred is the tall figure in the characteristic high-necked blouse and her signature black Spanish hat, standing left

All this emphasis on her portraits and photos isn’t a peripheral matter, because Knights not only used herself in many of her compositions but based her increasingly stylised depiction of the human body on her own body shape – elongated, symmetrical, posed in geometric and formal attitudes.

Rural life and art

This move away from the sensuous curve of the life studies towards something more hieratic is apparent even in the first room.

Knight’s studies at the Slade were interrupted when she suffered a nervous breakdown after witnessing the vast explosion in the East End area of London’s docklands caused by a German zeppelin dropping bombs on a dynamite factory during the Great War in 1917.

She was sent to stay with her father’s cousin on the family farm in Worcestershire and this opened her eyes to a whole new world of rural life and work. The effect on her output was immediate, resulting in a piece like her Design for a Wall Decoration (1918). (She didn’t call her works ‘paintings’, she called them ‘decorations’ and had a lifelong interest in creating art which was decorative, more often than not commissioned to be placed in specific locations within specific buildings.) She meant the design for a wall decoration to be just that, a sketch for a much larger work to be painted onto a wall.

A work like Potato Harvest is surprisingly unlike the supple sensuousness of the pencil portraits. It is deliberately flat and angular, the figures almost deliberately amateurish and set against a backdrop which emphasises simple lines and shapes.

The Potato Harvest by Winifred Knights (1918) Watercolour over pen and ink on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Potato Harvest by Winifred Knights (1918) Watercolour over pen and ink on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The show includes some very early book illustrations Knights did – specifically, this arresting illustration of Little Miss Muffet (note the use of her own self-portrait with the characteristic sharply parted hair and high-cut blouse) After returning to the Slade after the War she produced works like Leaving the Munitions Works.

Leaving the Munition Works by Winifred Knights (1919) Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Leaving the Munition Works by Winifred Knights (1919) Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

It has the lightness of a book illustration, with the geometric sharpness of the walls and pavement and houses and the washed-out water colours. This little part of the show makes you wonder whether Knights couldn’t have had a very effective career as a book illustrator, or pursued it as a sideline; but it was not to be.

The exhibition never fully explained to me what ‘Decorative Painting’ is, but it clearly is more interested in lines and shapes and patterns for their own sake rather than the depiction of any ‘reality’. In her final year Knights won the Slade Summer Composition Prize for Mill Hands on Strike, the stylised fields in the background reminding me of the landscapes of John Nash.

The Deluge

In 1920 Knights won the coveted Rome Scholarship with her huge and most famous work, The Deluge. The competitors for the prize all had eight weeks to paint a work on the same subject. Despite losing time when she was ill for a week, Knights won the prize with this stunning huge work. A whole room in the exhibition is devoted to it, and also contains the full-size cartoon of the work and the many preparatory studies she did for it. Every detail was very carefully planned and worked over.

The Deluge by Winifred Knights (1920) Oil on canvas © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Deluge by Winifred Knights (1920) Oil on canvas © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Only a few years after the slight amateurishness of The Mill Hands, her style here is astonishingly finished and achieved. Note the way all the women wear long robes of the kind Knight herself wore – in fact the figure in the front is a self-portrait of the artist, while some of the other faces are based on friends and families. (The central figure carrying a baby is Knight’s mother and Knight’s then partner Arnold Mason modelled for the male figure beside her and also the man scrambling up the hill).

But it isn’t the faces you look at, it’s the extreme stylisation of the landscape and the geometric posture of the figures. It is a kind of naive Modernism, a variation on the Futurism or Vorticism of the pre-war years, except far more open and clear and simple. Maybe it is the post-war return to classicism, which took place across all the arts, as applied to cubism-futurism-vorticism, and so bringing a kind of clarity and order to the more chaotic pre-war modernism. Whatever it is, the longer you look at it, the weirder – and more compelling and powerful – it becomes.

The Rome scholarship and Italy

The scholarship paid for Knights to go and study in Rome from 1920 to 1925. Here she married fellow Rome Scholar Thomas Monnington (1924) and toured the Italian countryside, soaking herself in her beloved Early Renaissance frescoes. The way the frescoes were designed for specific locations, particular buildings, their decorative element is what she took and applied to a series of large-scale works over the coming decade.

The second half of the exhibition dedicates an room to each of these works. After The Deluge comes The Marriage at Cana (1923).

The Marriage at Cana by Winifred Knights (1923) Oil on canvas. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Gift of the British School at Rome, London, 1957. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Marriage at Cana by Winifred Knights (1923) Oil on canvas. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Gift of the British School at Rome, London, 1957. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Here again design and decoration are everything, the starkly geometric lines of buildings and doorways and benches and even hedges, emphasising the static postures of the bodies, lined up in rows. Eerily, the faces – once again – are of friends and family and the painting of course features at least two self-portraits. But the faces, although more realistic than in The Deluge, are eerily blank. The picture doesn’t contain a shred of religious feeling – instead conveys a peculiar and unsettling sense of stasis. The figures are almost like zombies.

Each of the rooms dedicated to these big works contains some of the many preparatory sketches, drawings, cartoons and paintings Knights made for them and I found myself warming to the sketches far more than to the finished works. The initial pencil depictions of the figures have the supple humanity of her earliest portraits, but the way they’re hung lets you see all the life being slowly drained out of them as they become part of a larger, more abstract, schematic design.

Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours

I found this especially true of her last big work, a series of Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours commissioned for the Milner Memorial Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral. She worked on these for five long years, from 1928 to 1933, demoralised at one stage by disagreements with Sir Herbert Baker who commissioned it, almost abandoning the scheme, but eventually returning.

Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours by Winifred Knights (c.1928-33) Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours by Winifred Knights (c.1928-33) Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

More than ever the composition is flat and stylised like an early Renaissance fresco, and yet the flatness of the composition contrasts oddly, jarringly, with the highly realistic depictions of the faces – Knights herself is the woman standing to the left of the kneeling saint (who himself has the face of Baker, who commissioned it, just as Renaissance works included the image of the work’s patron). The faces are realistic but oddly blank. It is like a science fiction disaster has come over all the people in the picture, draining them of all expression and warmth.

By this stage (this is the last room in the exhibition) I was used to being much more attracted to the sketches and preparatory works than to the finished products, which I find cold, flat and distanced. Her works hold you at arm’s length – just as the precise clothes, the formal hat and the emotionless gaze in most of her portraits do; whereas many of the sketches are warm and wonderfully evocative; take for example:

There are three small rectangular oil paintings in the final room, which are very rough preparations for the St Martin work, in which the faces are just greyish-brown ovals, but which somehow – in their unfinished and rough state – have more energy and emotion than the highly cleansed and clinical final product.

Conclusions

There is a huge gap in Winifred Knight’s work between the warmth and sensuous immediacy of the pencil drawings, some of her preparatory sketches, and the landscapes dotted throughout the show (I particularly liked the landscapes done around Roydon in Essex and at Cuckmere Haven in Sussex) – and the deliberately static, arrested and detached feeling of the really big compositions – her large ‘decorations’.

For me The Deluge is the most successful of these because it is the closest to the dynamism of the Futurist-Vorticist tradition, whereas the later master-works – The Marriage at Cana (1923), The Santissima Trinita (1924-30), Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours (1928-33) – have become too ‘decorative’ for my taste, too like the cold detachment of her beloved Renaissance fresco work.

Last years

Knights struggled over long periods with these later works and then, after the birth of her son in 1934, found herself bogged down with the duties of motherhood. By the time was broke out in 1939 she had virtually stopped painting and the war itself was a further demoralising period of frustration and privation. Thus the final room in the exhibition has the patchy feel of covering a long period (1928 to 1947) during which not a lot was produced.

Because it contains a wall of photos and portraits of her the last room prompts the thought that in one way, Knights was her own most striking work of art – the austere, intense and ascetic image she recorded in her many self-portraits and which others were also moved to record in photos and paintings, leaving a more lasting and somehow more intimate impression than many of her strange and unsettling decorations.

Self-portrait sketching at a table by Winifred Knights (1916). Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Self-portrait sketching at a table by Winifred Knights (1916). Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The video

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