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

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

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

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

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

The treasure trove

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

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

And this is what the exhibition is based on.

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

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

Biography

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

The key elements for me were that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mexican roots

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

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

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

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

The dress room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sick room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Painting in bed

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

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

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

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

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

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

2. The construction of the self

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

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

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

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

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

3. Long dresses

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nickolas Muray

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

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

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

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

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

According to Wikipedia, Muray was:

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

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

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

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

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

The movie

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

The shopping

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

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

Here’s the full list of Kahlo merch:

The promotional video

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


Related links

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

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

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

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

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

Masterpieces

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

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

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

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

Layout

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

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

1. Images of the battlefield

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

2. Memorials

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

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

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

3. The disfigured

The room of disfigured servicemen is hard to stay in.

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

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

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

4. Dada and Surrealism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Prints, lithographs, woodcuts

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

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

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

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

The Survivors (1923) by Käthe Kollwitz

The Survivors (1923) by Käthe Kollwitz

6. The return to order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Deluge (1920) by Winifred Knights

The Deluge (1920) by Winifred Knights

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

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

Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton (1928) © Tate

Marguerite Kelsey by Meredith Frampton (1928) © Tate

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

7. Politics and pastimes

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

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

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

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

8. Brave new worlds

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

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

Radio Mast, Berlin (1929) by Oskar Nerlinger

Radio Mast, Berlin (1929) by Oskar Nerlinger

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

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

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

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

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

From the po-faced solemnity of:

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

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

to the compelling crankiness of:

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

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

From the earnest political commitment of:

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

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

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

Abstract Figure (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer

Abstract Figure (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer

The promotional video


Related links

Other blog posts about the Great War and its aftermath

Politics and soldiers

Art and design

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven rooms

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

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

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

The village and the picturesque

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

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

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

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

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

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

By the sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mist and snow

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

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

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

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

Impressions not precision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monet’s use of urban motifs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rouen, London, Venice

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

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

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

Rouen

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

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

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

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

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

London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

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

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

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

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

Scholarly conclusion

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

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

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

Emotional conclusion

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

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

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

Exhibition videos

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire @ the National Gallery

Room one

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

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

Ed Ruscha

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

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

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

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

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Ed Ruscha’s Course of Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tie-in with Thomas Cole

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire @ the National Gallery

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

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

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

Four rooms and seven chapters

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

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

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

Chapter 1. Industrial England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2. American Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3. London – Imperial Metropolis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4. The Grand Tour

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

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

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

Chapter 5. The Course of Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

The five paintings are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6. Cole’s Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 7. Cole’s Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand

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

Absences and contradictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rapture of beauties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Other posts about American history

Tomma Abts @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

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

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

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

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

Tomma Abts

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

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

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

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

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

The process of making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We noticed that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geometric and organic

So are they all rather rigid and geometric?

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with the canvas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larger scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Go, and give your mind a treat.


Related links

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

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

David Milne: Modern Painting @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

While other London galleries present yet another exhibition about Picasso or Francis Bacon, Dulwich Picture Gallery maintains its reputation for staging beautifully presented exhibitions of peripheral or little-known artists, who turn out to be deeply rewarding and beautiful.

Latest to receive the treatment is Canadian artist David Milne (1882 to 1953), famous in his own country, all but unknown over here.

New York

Milne was born in a small Ontario farming community in 1882 (the same year as Braque, Stravinsky, Joyce and Woolf). Aged 21 Milne went to New York (in 1903) and began training as a commercial artist but quickly became aware of the new styles and ideas coming from France. He learned about the achievements of Cézanne, Matisse and other modern French masters via exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz’s famous ‘291 gallery’.

Milne gained a reputation as an interesting modernist and was invited to take part in the famous Armory Show of 1913, which first brought a comprehensive range of modern French art to an American audience.

The first room of the exhibition showcases Milne’s work from the years just before the outbreak of the Great War, showing him experimenting with a Frenchified way of treating New York’s bustling streets, emblazoned with advertising hoardings, but emphasising the presence of light, in broad expressive brushstrokes.

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Billboards by David Milne (c. 1912) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

I really liked these brightly coloured images.

What’s most noticeable about seeing them in the flesh is the impasto, the extent to which you can see the swirls and splodges of oil paint sticking up from the surface.

Maybe the central insight or axiom of ‘modern’ art is the simple realisation that the painting is not, as had been believed for 400 years, a ‘window on the world’ – but an object in its own right.

His brushstrokes aren’t meant to be invisible as per the Northern Renaissance painters or the Pre-Raphaelites who copied them (as so brilliantly shown at the current Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the National Gallery). The highly visible strokes are themselves part of the aesthetic statement, as much a part as the supposed subject.

These first paintings display the mannerisms which will stick with Milne to the end of his career, namely a disinterest in realistic detail, a tendency to lay on paint in thick impasto swirls and blodges, and the habit of building the picture up through the accumulation of blocks or triangles of colour – like roughly sketched Lego pieces.

The tension is there which lasts the rest of his life between a basically figurative approach – painting the actually visible object – combined with a restless experimentation with form and media which saw him work with oils, pastels, watercolour, sketches and even photos.

Back to the country

Always a country boy at heart, Milne was uncomfortable in New York and from 1913 started taking vacations in the small town of West Saugerties, in upstate New York. In 1916 he moved permanently, along with his wife, Patsy Hegarty, to Boston Corners, a village in New York State, and lived a simple remote life.

The second room displays a series of works in which he is visibly experimenting with painting trees, woods and – an enduring subject – reflections in pools, rivers, lakes.

Bishop's Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Bishop’s Pond (Reflections) by David Milne (1916) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

A number of things are going on in this picture. For a start he was experimenting with the effect of leaving parts of the composition untouched, just the plain white paper. This turns out to be just right for conveying the purity of fallen snow. But it led Milne to develop the notion of what he called the ‘dazzle spot’, a blank area, devoid of colour, to which the viewer’s eye is naturally attracted. Having caught the attention, the viewer’s eye then goes on a voyage of discovery around the rest of the picture plane, exploring the subtle interplay of shapes and colours.

Speaking of colours, they’re very subdued, derived from a limited palette, but nonetheless stylised: they don’t blend or wash as in nature but appear in clusters – of umber, a kind of turquoise, a yellow-green, and a sort of purple. There is no sense of the colours shading or blending, or of the effect of light and shade which you would have in a realistic work. The line drawing of pond and trees may be entirely figurative but the colouring is completely stylised; not in the wild way of the Frenchmen he had seen, this isn’t a brash Fauvist work. He is using the discoveries of modern painting to create something gently understated and muted.

Lastly, this work shows the result of his experiments with different techniques to try and capture the effect of reflections in water. If you scroll down the exhibition web-page you can hear the commentary on this painting (given as a sample of the overall audioguide) which gives Milne’s own account of how he experimented to create this effect.

The result, the blurred greying effect of the wash in the reflected shapes, is much more striking and absorbing, much more noticeable in the flesh, than in this reproduction. It creates a shimmering, rather supernatural effect. I kept coming back to this particular painting, to look at it again and again, becoming more entranced each time.

Experiments

On the opposite wall in the same room is a selection of rather more experimental works depicting his wife, Patsy, simply sitting – but done with more intense use of blots or blobs of colour.

Sometimes the motif is almost hidden by the intensity of the blotching and blobbing – you have to stand at just the right distance to make out the actual subject – in the case of the most attractive of the set, a simple portrait of his wife reading a book with a cat on her lap. Note the use of – what shall I call them? blobs? dots? patches? – of colour, unshaded, set down pure, a kind of large-scale use of pointillism. And the very limited palette: a very particular tint of green and brown, dirty grey, with highlights of white and black.

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

Reader with cat by David Milne (1916)

A nearby work reflects the development of camouflage during the war. Milne was fascinated by the idea of abstract patterns of muted colours which blend in with natural scenery and, once the notion has been mentioned, it’s possible to see the idea of ‘camouflage’, of the concealment of pattern in natural forms, as an underlying motif of many of his landscapes.

War artist

Milne enlisted in the Army in 1918 but, what with training and delays, missed the actual fighting. Nonetheless, he lobbied hard and wangled his way across the Atlantic soon after the Armistice in the capacity of War Artist. He painted Canadian troops in their camps in Britain, and then went on to paint a series of haunting watercolours and sketches of the devastated landscape of North-East France for the Canadian War Records, only months after the fighting had finished.

In complete contrast to the paint-covered landscapes of the previous room, in all these war zone works Milne reverts to a) leaving extensive parts of the surface pure untouched white and b) using much more flighty, impressionistic flurries of pen or brushstrokes to convey shape and colour.

In terms of style it is clearly related to the use of blocks of colour in the New York works or blots of colour in the upstate landscapes, but here the blocks are disintegrated into feathery flurries as if the painter’s technique has been as splintered and dismantled as the villages, the buildings and the minds of the people who fought and suffered.

The result is, as ever, entirely figurative but at the same time somehow abstract and spare. I actively didn’t like the effect when he used it on buildings such as Amiens cathedral, but could see the appeal in a work like Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge (1919), one of Milne’s most famous war paintings. It shows the enormous hole created when the Allies detonated 24 tonnes of explosives underground, deep behind German enemy lines. Note the tiny figures on the horizon.

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge by David Milne (1919) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

It is interesting to learn that picture postcards of the ruined towns and buildings of the war zone were swiftly produced and sold to the first ‘war tourists’, who were quick to arrive and be taken on tours of the still smouldering battlefields. Milne made a collection of these postcards ,which he kept for the rest of his life, and a selection of them is on display here.

David Milne, Self - portrait in military uniform, Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

David Milne pioneering the art of the selfie at Black Lake, Quebec (1918)

Rural retreat

Back in North America, Milne withdrew to the deep countryside and spent the winter of 1920-1 alone on the side of Alander Mountain, behind Boston Corners, partly inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the great exponent of living simply and communing with nature.

He lived in a cabin he built himself and devoted himself to formal experiments in how to depict nature. The paintings in this room are among the best, showing an intense observation of unspoilt landscape combined with the contrary urge, a highly sophisticated quest to seek out the form buried beneath the subject.

You begin to see how, in a very understated way, Milne never ceased experimenting.

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

White, the Waterfall by David Milne (1921) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

There are some really atmospheric paintings here. The commentary goes heavy on one called White, the Waterfall (1921), apparently one of Milne’s personal favourites, and a much treasured centrepiece in the National Canadian collection.

Personally, I liked the story around two other paintings, versions he painted of the big tree stump which stood just outside the front door of the cabin and which he paints covered in snow and then in thaw. I wonder if he gave it a name.

The audioguide

The audioguides to exhibitions can be variable, but I thought the one for this show was excellent. My friend didn’t bother with one and so walked through gaining only a generalised impression of the work, but I did buy one (for £3) and it forced me to stop and really focus on the 22 specific works it comments on. This pays real dividends with Milne’s art.

His use of dense and often dark ‘blocks’ of paint and colour can get a bit much if taken en masse. However, being forced to stop in front of specific works and study them closely made me, in almost every instance, come to appreciate and like them more.

So White, the Waterfall may be famous but I found myself warming more to a nearby painting of the forest, Trees in spring, done in lime green and – as the commentary explained – riffing off the abstract design of palm leaves to be found in Egyptian friezes in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A good example of the way abstract interests lurk behind almost every one of Milne’s apparently figurative works. But not aggressively or stridently. Subtly. Quietly.

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Trees in spring by David Milne (1917) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Still lifes

Subtlety and quietness are the hallmarks of the still lifes Milne painted in the later 1930s.

In this period he made himself another cabin to live in, this time at the remote Six Mile Lake. Half the paintings from this period are of the lake, displaying his lifelong interest in the shimmering of reflections in water.

But there is also a selection of wonderful, understated still lifes he did inside the cabin; specifically, a series showing water lilies in simple jugs or vases. If you compare them to the same subject as done by the French painters he venerated, such as Monet or Matisse, you immediately realise how he has pared his palette right down to basic browns and greys with only occasional highlights of green or violet or orange. It is as if the colour has been bleached out of the painting to reveal the secrets of shapes and lines. More visually dominant is the lacework of drawn lines repeatedly sketching the outlines and shapes; the colours merely highlight and define the objects.

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Sparkle of Glass by David Milne (1926 or 1927) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © The Estate of David Milne

Last works

The final room showcases a final selection of still lifes and landscapes from the 1930s. The still lifes are recognisable as vases and flowers, but many of the landscapes have moved strongly in the direction of abstraction. There are the merest horizontal lines indicating the meeting of lake and land, or land and sky, and there are variations on the interplay of stars or moon reflected in the water which tremble on the brink of becoming pure abstract shapes.

It was only in the 1930s, as he hit 50, that Milne began to receive any recognition in his native country, through contacts with curators and artists in Ottawa and Toronto, foe example it was only in 1934 that he finally began showing his work commercially in Toronto.

The exhibition finishes with one of my favourite works, Summer Colours (1936), a final landscape which walks the line between figurative and abstraction.

It’s unlike most of the previous work in not featuring the blocky, faceted approach to building up an image. It’s much plainer, with wedges of colour representing sea, land and sky, but it is recognisably the same mind and eye that produced the New York boulevard paintings. He is unafraid of showing – in fact he deliberately highlights – big brushstrokes, crudely deployed in swathes across the surface, bringing out the textured surface of the canvas. And yet, through the strange alchemy of art and despite the fact that you can see that this object simply consists of oil paint rather bluntly smeared over a rough flat canvas surface – somehow it is also a haunting image of a faraway landscape, at once a place of your dreams, and an abstract interplay of elementary colour and design.

Magical.

Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne

Summer Colours by David Milne (1936) © The Estate of David Milne

Conclusion

This is another triumph for Dulwich Picture Gallery. The only thing I’d comment on is their choice of image for the posters promoting the show. They’ve chosen one of the darker, more clotted works – Reflected Forms – which initially a little put me off the exhibition. It’s a shame, because many of the other works here are lighter, more airy and poetic – and all of them reward close attention by revealing their beguiling experiments with technique, and their quiet depths…

David Milne: Modern Painting is an unexpectedly lovely, life-enhancing exhibition.

Videos

One-minute introduction by co-curator Ian Dejardin.

4’37” report on the show by Belle Donati.


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites @ the National Gallery

This is a smallish (just 33 works) but really beautiful and uplifting exhibition.

It’s devoted to showing the influence of the northern Renaissance painter, Jan van Eyck, on the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters. Well, I love Northern Renaissance art and I love later Victorian art, so I was in seventh heaven.

In the mid-19th century Jan van Eyck was credited as the inventor of oil painting by the Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, author of the Lives of the Great Painters (1550). We now know this not to be strictly true; a more realistic way of putting it is that Van Eyck and his contemporaries in the mid-15th century Netherlands brought oil painting to an extraordinary level of refinement and brilliance. They were the first to use multiple ‘glazes’ (building up successive layers of partly translucent paint) and to pay astonishing attention to detail, producing works which combined amazing precision and sumptuous colour, with an intoxicating sense of depth.

Van Eyck versus del Piombo

The exhibition opens with a ten-minute film (shown in a dark room off to one side) which explains the idea succinctly. In the 1840s the National Gallery only owned one work by any of the Netherlandish masters – Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, which it acquired in 1842 when the National Gallery itself was only 18 years old.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

At that point, the Royal Academy’s School of Art was located in the same building as the small National Gallery collection. All the art students of the day had to do was walk along a few corridors to view this stunning masterpiece. Among these art students were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in 1848.

Nearby hung the very first painting acquired by the Gallery, this enormous work from the High Renaissance, The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo. The PRBs thought that works like this had become so stylised and formalised as to have become meaningless and devoid of emotion. They disliked the artificial poses, the pious sentiments, the sickly colouring, the simplified pinks and blues and greens.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The raising of Lazarus typified everything the PRBs disliked in painting, a sterile academicism. Compare and contrast the van Eyck, with its precision of detail (look at the pearls hanging on the wall, the candelabra, the fur trimming of husband and wife), the humane mood and emotion, and the realistic use of light.

The PRBs rejected Piombo, Michelangelo, Raphael, all the masters of the High Renaissance and, as a group, made a concerted effort to return to the twinkling detail and humanity of medieval painting. (A trend which was helped by the medievalising tendency in Victorian culture generally, epitomised by the poetry of Tennyson, the historical novels of Scott, and which would be carried through into the Arts and craft movement by William Morris).

The appeal of the Northern Renaissance

In total the exhibitions comprises a room or so of works by van Eyck and contemporaries (Dirk Boults, Hans Memling) before three rooms look at masterpieces by the PRBs which pay homage to the Arnolfini Wedding; and a final room looks at its influence on art at the turn of the century.

Pride of place in the first room goes to van Eyck’s stunning self-portrait. For me this epitomises the strength of northern Renaissance painting in that it is humane and realistic. Unlike Italian Renaissance paintings which tend to show idealised portraits of their sitters, this presents a genuine psychological portrait. The more you look the deeper it becomes. His wrinkles, the big nose, the lashless eyelids – you feel this is a real person. For me, this has extraordinary psychological depth and veracity.

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Near to it is a Virgin and Child by fellow northerner, Hans Memling. I love the medieval details which cling to these works, the toy sailing ship in the background such as might have been used in the Hundred Years War. Note the way there is perspective in the picture (things further away are smaller) but it is not the mathematically precise perspective which Italian Renaissance painters liked to show off. In particular the floor is set at an unrealistically sloping angle. Why? To show off the detail of the black and white tiling, and especially of the beautifully decorated carpet.

As well as the humanity of the figures and faces, it is this attachment to gorgeous detail which I love in north Renaissance art.

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The convex mirror

Next we move on to the first of the Victorian homages to van Eyck and it immediately becomes clear why the exhibition is titled Reflections. The curators have identified a thread running through major early, later and post-Pre-Raphaelite paintings – use of the CONVEX MIRROR.

If you look closely at the Arnolfini Wedding, you can see not only the backs of the married couple but a figure who is usually taken to be a self-portrait of the artist. It adds an element of mystery (nobody is completely certain it is the artist in the mirror), it expands the visual space by projecting it back behind us, so to speak, and painting an image distorted on a convex surface, along with the distorted reflection of the window, is an obvious technical tour de force.

Now look at this early Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, the Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) in which a ‘kept woman’ is suddenly stirring from the lap of the rich bourgeois who keeps her (in this instance, in a luxury apartment in St John’s Wood).

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

Note the sloping floor which gives full scope to a gorgeous depiction of the patterned carpet; the hyper-realistic detailing of every one of the cluttered elements in the room, for example the grain of the piano, the gilt clock on top of it, the crouching cat, which recalls the dog in the van Eyck. But behind the figures is an enormous mirror which adds a tremendous sense of depth to the main image.

Maybe it is a symbol in a painting packed with religious symbolism: maybe the window opening into sunlight and air is an allusion to the woman’s possible redemption from her life of shame.

The curators have selected works which demonstrate the way the mirror theme is repeated by all the pre-Raphaelites, famous and peripheral. Here’s an early Burne Jones watercolour where he’s experimenting with a complex mirror which consists of no fewer than seven convex mirrors each reflecting a different aspect of the main event (the capture of Rosamund by Queen Eleanor).

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

The exhibition explains that this type of convex mirror became highly fashionable among the PRBs and their circle. Rossetti was said to have over 20 mirrors in his house in Chelsea, including at least ten convex ones. In fact we have a painting done by his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn which shows a view of Rossetti’s own bedroom as reflected in one of his own convex mirrors.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

A generation after The Awakening Conscience Holman Hunt uses a mirror again, this time because it is part of the narrative of the influential poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott. In Tennyson’s poem the eponymous lady lives her life in a high tower, shut off from real life outside, devoting her life to creating an enormous tapestry, seeing the world outside only as it is reflected in a grand mirror. One day along comes the heroic knight Sir Lancelot, the mirror cracks and the lady rises up, leaves her ivory tower and ventures out into ‘real life’.

(A relevant fable for our times, maybe, when so many of us are addicted to computer screens and digital relationships that we have coined an acronym, IRL [in real life] to depict the stuff that goes on outside the online realm.)

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries/Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries / Bridgeman Images

Note the wooden sandals or ‘pattens’ on the floor which are a direct quote from the Arnolfini Wedding, as is the candelabra on the right.

This painting is hanging in a room devoted to the story of the Lady of Shalott since, obviously enough, the mirror plays a central part in the narrative, and so gave painters an opportunity to explore ideas of distortion, doubling and reflection, ways to convey complex psychological drama.

Nearby is hanging another masterpiece by a favourite painter of mine, John William Waterhouse.

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / Bridgeman Images

In the mirror we can see what the lady sees i.e. the window through which she can see dashing Sir Lancelot and the green fields of the real world. But we are looking at her looking at him although, in fact, she seems to be looking at us. And in her eyes is conveyed the haunting knowledge that, although her life to date may have been a sterile imprisonment – in fact, her emergence into ‘real life’ – in the poem – leads to her mysterious and tragic death.

I love Waterhouse’s faces – like Burne-Jones he hit on a distinctive look which is instantly identifiable, in Waterhouse’s case a kind of haunted sensuality.

By this stage, we are nearly 40 years after the first Pre-Raphaelite works, and Waterhouse’s art shows a distinctively different style. Among the things the PRBs admired in van Eyck was the complete absence of brushstrokes; the work was done to such a high finish you couldn’t see a single stroke: it was a smooth flat glazed surface, and they tried to replicate this in their paintings. Forty years later Waterhouse is not in thrall to that aesthetic. He has more in common with his contemporary, John Singer Sargent, in using square ended brushes and being unafraid to leave individual strokes visible (if you get up close enough), thus creating a looser, more shimmering effect.

In the final room the curators attempt to show that van Eyck’s convex mirror remained a source of inspiration for the next generation of artists, including Mark Gertler, William Orpen, and Charles Haslewood Shannon. These artists incorporated the mirror into their self-portraits and in domestic interiors well into the early 1900s, as seen in Orpen’s The Mirror (1900) and Gertler’s Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918).

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Conclusion

In the final room the curators include a massive copy of Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) on the basis that the van Eyck was for a time hung in the Spanish Royal Collection and so might have directly inspired Velázquez’s use of the mirror motif.

At moments I became confused whether this was an exhibition about van Eyck’s overall stylistic impact on the Pre-Raphaelites – or a history of ‘the mirror’ in painting. You feel the exhibition doesn’t quite do either theme thoroughly: ‘the mirror in art’ would be a vast subject; ‘van Eyck’s convex mirror’ would result in probably a smaller show than the one here, whereas ‘van Eyck’s influence on the PRBs’ would have stopped earlier, certainly not including the 20th century works and probably not the Waterhouse.

So in the end I was left slightly confused by the way the exhibition had two or three not-totally-complete threads to it. But who cares: on the upside it includes a number of absolutely beautiful masterpieces. The mirror theme is kind of interesting, but I found the alternative thread – the direct relationship between van Eyck’s meticulous realism and that of the early PRBs – much the most visually compelling theme.

It is epitomised in this wonderful masterpiece by John Everett Millais, painted when he was just 22.

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

No convex mirror in sight, but what is in evidence is a luminous attention to naturalistic detail (the needle in the embroidery on the table, the leaves on the floor, the wee mouse, bottom right, echoing van Eyck’s doggie) and the technique.

The curators explain that Millais used a resin-based paint for the stained glass and especially the blue velvet dress, comparable to van Eyck’s use of layers of ‘glaze’ — both of them seeking – and achieving – an incredible sensation of depth and colour and sensual visual pleasure which only oil painting can convey.


Videos

Here’s the one-minute promotional film, with funky three-dimensional techniques.

And the 50-minute-long presentation by the exhibition’s co-curators.

There are a few other short films the National Gallery has produced on aspects of the show, all accessible from this page.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33 edited by Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (2015)

This awesomely big, heavy hardback book is the catalogue published to accompany a major exhibition of Weimar Art held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2015.

It contains some 150 glossy, mostly colour reproductions of a huge variety of works (mostly paintings and drawings, but also quite a few stunning art photos from the period) by nearly 50 artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity movement. The main text is followed by 28 pages of potted biographies of all the main artists and photographers of the time. All very useful.

Die Begegnung by Anton Räderscheidt

Die Begegnung by Anton Räderscheidt

I had only gleaned hints and guesses about many of these artists from the two books on the Weimar Culture by John Willetts which I read recently, and this book is exactly what I wanted – it goes to town with a really comprehensive overview of the different types of Neue Sachlichkeit and then – crucially – gives you plenty of examples so you can understand their common themes but diverse styles for yourself.

As I’d begun to figure out for myself in my post about New Objectivity, the phrase Neue Sachlichkeit was never a movement in the way Impressionism, Fauvism, Futurism or Dada were, never a self-conscious tag used by a cohort of allied artists. As so often, it was an attempt by critics to make sense of what was going on, in this case in post-war German art.

Weimar art came in a lot of varieties but what they all had in common was a rejection of the strident emotionalism and deliberately expressive style of German Expressionism, and a return to figurative painting, generally done to a meticulous and painterly finish. A rejection of utopian spiritualism, or apocalyptic fantasies, or the deep existential angst of the artist – and a sober, matter-of-fact depiction of the actual modern world in front of them.

Self-portrait with Ophthalmological Models by Herbert Ploberger 91928)

Self-portrait with Ophthalmological Models by Herbert Ploberger (1928)

The term Neue Sachlichkeit (as we are told in virtually every one of the book’s 14 essays, pp.6, 17-18, 105, 126, 203) was coined by Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, the director of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim. He used it as the title for a 1925 exhibition which for the first time brought many of the new artists working in the Weimar Republic bringing together in the same exhibition space. (The introduction explains that the new trend had already been spotted by, among others, critic Paul Westheim who labelled it Verism in 1919 and tried again with New Naturalism in 1922, by Paul Schmidt who suggested Sachlichkeit in 1920, and by the critic Franz Roh whose 1925 book, Post-Expressionism: Magic Realism (which was sold to accompany Hartlaub’s exhibition when it went on tour of German galleries) presented two possible terms.)

Roh included in his book a table with two columns, in one an Expressionist characteristic, next to it its post-Expressionist equivalent. There were 22 qualities in all. According to Roh Magical Realist paintings were notable for their: accurate detail, smooth photographic clarity, painterly finish, and portrayal of the ‘magical’ nature of the rational world. They reflect the uncanniness of people and our modern technological environment. In all these ways Roh’s phrase is arguably a better descriptor for the majority of the hyper-accurate but subtly distorted and unnerving paintings of the period. But Neue Sachlichkeit stuck.

Self-portrait by Christian Schad (1927)

Self-portrait by Christian Schad (1927)

In fact this book makes clear that the terminology has gone on being debated, refined, rejected and refreshed right down to the present day. Maybe a word cloud or, more precisely, a phrase cloud summarise some of the ways various writers have sought to characterise it. According to various writers, New Objective paintings display:

an alienated relationship to the real… a disenchanted experiential world…detached alienated people…anti-human… treating humans like objects… lack of empathy…. excessively German objectification… a cold passion for the exactness of clichés… an aesthetics of the ugly… [according to Roh] abstraction instead of empathy… [according to critic Wilhelm Michel] the rediscovery of the ‘thing’ after the crisis of the ‘I’…

The nine essays

Of the book’s 14 essays, nine on specific academic subjects, while the last five are about the five themes which the exhibition was divided into. The nine essays are:

1. New Objectivity – by Stephanie Barron introducing us to the timeframe, the basic ideas, the origins of the term and so on.

2. A Lack of Empathy by Sabine Eckmann – looking back at 19th century Realism to conclude that the New Realism turned it inside out, concentrating on surfaces but deliberately lacking old-style empathy for the subjects.

3. Hartlaub and Roh by Christian Fuhrmeister – a dry, scholarly examination of the working relationship between the museum director Hartlaub who organised the famous 1925 show and the art critic Roh, who wrote the book which introduced Magical Realism.

4. New Women, New Men, New Objectivity by Maria Makela – Makela describes the prominence of gay and lesbian people in many Weimar portrait

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

I enjoyed this article hugely for the sheer unimaginative repetitiveness of its ‘ideas’. Here are choice snippets:

a mannish lesbian who cares little for the traditional codes of femininity… images of women who blurred clear-cut gender boundaries…women’s participation in sport undermined traditional gender roles… the 1920s independent young woman who undermined traditional gender roles… the prevalence of caricatures about New Women in the illustrated mass media considerable anxiety about the breakdown of traditional gender roles… the transgression of traditional gender codes was more threatening in Germany than elsewhere… clear-cut gender boundaries were being eroded in all industrialised countries… the horrible physical and psychic maladies [caused by the war] were intolerable for many German men whose gender identity was in tatters… sex, sexual alterity and gender ambiguity… an era of gender confusion… multiple and mobile gender positionalities…

5. The Politics of New Objectivity by James A. van Dyke. Van Dyke examines this potentially huge subject via the rather small example of the 1927 exhibition of 140 New Objective art works put on by the Berlin art dealer Karl Nierendorf for which the ubiquitous art critic, Franz Roh, wrote the programme. What comes over is that as early as 1927 both left-wing and right-wing critics had begun to turn against the style, accusing it of shallowness, fashionableness and petit-bourgeois crowd-pleasing.

6. New Objectivity and ‘Totalitarianism’ by Olaf Peters – A look at how the artists and idioms of New Objectivity lived on into Hitler’s Reich and then into the East German communist dictatorship. The left-wing artists fled Hitler immediately – Grosz most famously of all, managing to flee the country only weeks before the Leader’s accession. But plenty stayed behind and Peters shows how some of the blander ‘classicists’ managed to sustain careers, some even garnering commissions from powerful Nazi figures. Politicians and some artists for a while cooked up a new movement called New German Romanticism…

The situation in post-war East Germany was even more complex, as artists attempted either to deny their Objectivist pasts or to rehabilitate Objectivism as a precursor of the state-favoured style of Socialist Realism. Peters shows artists, critics, historians and scholars bending over backwards to try and rehabilitate some of the more extreme Objectivist works with the narrow Party line. In practice this seems to have been done by examining the artists’ origins: if he was the son of working class parents his art must be proletariat, and so on. It occurred to me that one reason why Weimar is such a popular period to write about is because it was the last time German writers and artists didn’t have to lie and feel compromised about their political beliefs. It was (briefly) a vibrantly open society. Post-war both East and West Germany were more crippled and constrained by their historical legacies.

7. Painting abroad and its nationalist baggage by Keith Holz looks at the way New Objective art was perceived abroad, by the neighbouring Czechs, by the French, but mostly by the Americans.

8. Middle-class montage by Matthew S. Wittkovsky – Wittowksy suggests that montage, among many other things, can be a way of allowing the real world back into a medium torn up by modernist experiments. In other words, a cubist effect is created but with elements which are hyper-realistic (photographs).

Metropolis by Paul Citroen (1923)

Metropolis by Paul Citroen (1923)

Wittowksy points out that both Christian Schad and Otto Dix made collages during their Dada years and tries to show that the collage mentality – conceiving the painting as an assemblage of disparate elements – underpins their oil paintings. He uses Schad’s self portrait (shown above) to suggest that 1. the two human figures are disconnected. 2. They are separated from the Paris skyline by some kind of gauze. 3. Even the body of the main figure is distanced by the odd translucent chemise he’s wearing. He pushes the idea of layers into history, suggesting that  there is a collage-like superimposition between Schad’s painterly finish, derived from Northern Renaissance painters, and the 20th century subject matter.

9. Writing photography by Andreas Huyssen – This essay is not at all about Weimar photography but about the conflicted opinions about photography of a couple of Weimar-era writers and critics, namely the super-famous (if you’ve studied critical theory) Walter Benjamin, his colleague Siegfried Kracauer, the right-wing warrior and writer Ernst Jünger, and the Austrian philosophical novelist, Robert Musil. It’s always good to be reminded how culturally right-wing even Marxist sociologists and theorists are: thus both Kracauer and Benjamin thought that photography was just one of the mass media, or instruments of distraction, which were undermining older human skills and values. Huyssen is concerned with the fact that all these writers wrote collection of short pieces, short feuilletons, prose pieces and fragments, which they published in various collections, to try to convey the Modernist notion of the fragmented quality of life in the ‘modern’ city. (Wonder what any of them would make of life in Tokyo 2018.)

Like Benjamin’s buddy, Theodor Adorno, their brand of Marxism amounted to a continual lament for the good old values which were being overthrown by the triviality and vulgarity of the ‘entertainment industry’ promulgated by the hated capitalist system.

And yet…. when Hitler rose to power they all emigrated to the heart of capitalism, America, where they spent the war in exile happily slagging off the vulgarity of American culture while 300,000 American boys died in combat to liberate their culturally superior Europe.

Once Europe had been made safe again for Marxist philosophers they went back to Germany and set up the Frankfurt School for Social research where they spent the rest of their careers criticising the economic and legal system which made their cushy, professorial lives possible.

Criticisms

1. I have tried to make these essays sound interesting, and they certainly address interesting topics, but in every case the authors are more interested in the work of curators, critics, gallery owners, art dealers and so on than in the art. This means you have to wade through quite a lot of stuff about particular critics and how their views changed and evolved. Thus the art scholar Keith Holz gives us his interpretation of the German curator Fritz Schmalenbach’s essay on the changing ways in which the German curator Gustav Hartlaub used the expression Neueu Sachlichkeit. Which is of, well, pretty specialist interest shall we say.

The essay on how New Objectivism was perceived abroad, maybe inevitably, is more about galleries and curators and critics than about the work or ideas or style of particular artists.

The essay about New Objectivity in Eastern Germany is mainly about the efforts of various critics and theorists to incorporate it into narratives of German art which would be acceptable in a communist regime.

After a while you begin to wish you could read something about the artworks themselves.

The Dreamer by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen ( 1919)

The Dreamer by Heinrich Maria Davringhausen ( 1919)

2. You get the strong sense most of the essays are not written for a general public, for us who know little or nothing about the twists and turns of abstruse debates among art historians for the past forty years. They are not written in a spirit of introducing and explicating the art or the artists, or of giving a history of the reception of Weimar paintings abroad to the likes of you or me. No, the dominant feeling is that the essays are overwhelmingly written by art historians and scholars for other art historians and scholars.

3. Therefore all of the essays are written in the kind of semi-sociological jargon which is uniform among art scholars and historians these days, a prose style which rejoices in ‘projects’ and ‘negotiations’ and ‘situating’ debates and ‘transgressing gender norms’, the tired critical theory style which makes them not exactly incomprehensible, but simply boring.

The prose often sounds like the annual reports of company accountants, like the kind of corporate brochures I helped to write and distribute when I worked in the civil service. Here’s a sliver from Olaf Peters describing how difficult East German art historians found it to include New Objectivity in their orthodox Marxist narratives of German art.

The fear of the so-called bourgeois formalist tradition in art history indeed made it impossible for art historians in East Germany to appropriately analyse the artistic potential of New Objectivity. The GDR was hardly prepared aesthetically or theoretically to reflect adequately on the phenomenon of New Objectivity as an all-encompassing presence in the interwar period. (p.86)

Maybe that’s not long enough to give you the taste of crumbling concrete which so many of these essays leave behind on the palate. Here’s a slice of Keith Holz.

The comparative manoeuvres that art historians are enticed to make between New Objectivity and its apparent variations (or influences) outside Germany are not new, nor are they likely to subside. A more comprehensive approach might ask what is at stake in such comparisons by noting similarities between, say, American, Czech, French or Italian paintings of the 1920s and early 1930s and paintings associated with German New Objectivity. On the German-American front, this ground is well traversed, nowhere more critically or richly than in recent work by Andrew Hemingway. Based on substantial original research, Hemingway has recently reconstructed the careers of Stefan Hirsch, George Ault, and Louis Lozowick in relation to German art of the 1920s. Relating the German-born Hirsch to the public face of Precisionism, Hemingway stations the artist’s incipient career within a history of the promotion and reception of New Objectivity in the United States. For Hemingway, the link between these Precisionist-allied artists and German New Objectivity is the representational function of their artworks within international capitalism, particularly the reification of people and objects within this system. (p.93)

You will be thrilled to learn that Hemingway’s ‘trenchant interventions’ represent a ‘methodological paradigm shift’ in historical research. Phew.

My point is – I can read and understand the words, and I understand that these essays are (disappointingly) snippets and excerpts from long and specialised scholarly conversations about the historical interpretation of Weimar art among scholars and historians, living and dead, but — hardly any of it takes me one millimetre closer to the actual works of art.

Quite the opposite, fairly often as I waded through this prose I had to remind myself that the authors were talking about art at all, and not production figures for concrete pipes.

The Parents by Otto Dix (1921)

The Parents by Otto Dix (1921)

4. Repetition. Lots of short essays means lots of generalising introductions and lots of vapid conclusions. This helps to explain why they feel very repetitive. For example, the passage here the curator Hartlaub distinguished between left or verist painters (who use harsh satire, fierce colours and ugly caricature to make a political point) and right or classical artists (who take a more cool and detached view of the world) is explained in detail at least five times (pp.17, 29, 42, 126, 263). The idea that the Weimar era was one of political and economic turmoil is repeated in some form in most of the essays. The idea that capitalism is nasty and exploitative is repeated in almost all of them. The following quote from Walter Benjamin, about Albert Renger-Patzsch’s photo album, The World is Beautiful, is repeated three times:

In it is unmasked the posture of a photography that can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists. (p.213)

In one long text like Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture (which reads like a masterpiece of calm authority next to many of these works) basic ideas and events need only be mentioned once. In these dozen or more essays you find the same basic ideas (1920s city life was faster and more disorientating than ever before, women had more rights than before the war) being stated again and again and again.

In the wake of the war and in light of the rapid modernisation of working life, increased gender equality and sexual emancipation, and ongoing political uncertainty, artists sought to redefine their role in society. (p.260)

I wonder which decade from the last hundred and fifty years that hasn’t been true of.

Conclusions are hard enough to write at the best of times: it’s difficult to sum up the content of an essay without repeating it. It’s bad enough reading the conclusion of a single book, but reading 15 essays means reading 15 conclusions which, by their nature, tend to be very generalised: again and again they say that ‘more work’ needs to be done to properly understand or fully explore or adequately decode the multiple streams of art of the time. Just like any other time, then.

5. The fourth really irritating aspect about the essays is how many of these scholars appear to live in the 1970s as far as ‘capitalism’ is concerned. They all breezily refer to the evil affects of ‘capitalism’ as if we’re all a bit silly for not choosing one of the countless other economic systems we could be using, like… like, er… And quite a few deploy the word ‘bourgeois’ as if it still means anything. Witkovsky in particular is lavish with the expression:

  • The new realism could continue the avant-garde attack on bourgeois subjectivity while simultaneously addressing the incipient subjugation of all subjectivity by the seductions of capital and by political dictatorship. (p.106)
  • [Schad’s subjects] belong to a decadent social space removed from the normative bourgois economy of labour and domestic comforts. (p.106)
  • [Schad’s paintings] are montages of different social spaces. They mask the materiality of that conflict [between the different social spaces] which the photograms laid bare, but they also suggest its social dimension more directly, through the illusions of figuration. This scrambling of the separations effected by bourgeois society makes the paintings discomfiting. (p.108)
  • Sander, like the artists of the New Objectivity, fully inhabited the bourgeoisie. His chosen portrait locations likewise emanate a degree of comfort and intimacy typically associated with the private home, the single most vaunted bourgeois setting. (p.112)
  • [The photographer August Sander embarked on a project to photograph all possible job types in 1920s Germany, a project he never completed.] In the necessary incompleteness of Sander’s project lies, perversely, its greatest promise of enlightenment – a realisation that modern society is grounded in accumulation without end. Infinitude may be implicit in the foundational bourgeois idea of capital accumulation, but to put such an idea on display – and to depict it, moreover, through portraiture of the citizenry – forces a rupture with the equally bourgeois ideals of closure, separation and control. (p.113)

In short, if you like your Marxism shorn of any connection with an actual political party or programme i.e. any risk of ever being put into practice, but you still want to enjoy feeling smugly superior to ‘bourgeois’ society with its vulgar ideas of ‘capital accumulation’ and its ghastly ‘gender stereotyping’, then being a white, middle-class art historian in a state-funded university is the job for you. Your sense of irony or self-awareness will be surgically removed upon entry.

It’s not just that this anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist view seems so rife among these art scholars now, in 2018, thirty years after the collapse of communism – it’s that they’re all based in America. America. The centre of global capitalism for the past century. Do they not own private property, cars and houses and mobile phones? Are the art galleries and colleges they work for not funded and supported by big banks and finance houses (as most exhibitions are). If they’re so disgusted by capitalism and the revolting bourgeoisie why don’t they go to a country where neither exist. North Korea is lovely this time of year. The people there are wonderfully free of the reification and alienation and objectification which make life in Southern California so unbearable.


The five thematic essays

The second part of the book consists of five thematic essays, each of which is nine or ten pages long and followed by 40 or so full colour, full page reproductions. This, then, is the visual core of the book. I hoped the essays would be a bit more general and informative. Alas no.

1. Life in the Democracy and the Aftermath of War by Graham Bader. Bader invokes the usual suspects among contemporary Marxist thinkers (György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer) to declare that the art of the period reflected a new level of capitalism (‘this process of capitalist rationalisation appeared to have triumphed in the interwar period’ it was ‘rationalisation run amok’, p.125). Capitalism depersonalised people, reducing them to objects with no centre, to collections of surfaces. Bodies were ‘colonised and deformed’. Lukács lamented:

capitalist rationalisation’s penetration and capture of the human body, its dismissal of the ‘qualitative essences’ of the individual subject in the process of transforming human beings into abstractions, mere numbers for a general’s war plans or a pimp’s balance sheet. (p.131, 182, 228)

Like Lukács, Kracauer:

understood industrial capitalism’s ‘murky reason’ – its faith in a totalising abstractness that has ‘abandoned the truth in which it participates… and does not encompass man‘ – as having come to colonise rather than liberate the subjects it ostensibly served.

Among all this regurgitation of 100-year-old communist rhetoric Bader makes a simple point. The war and the crushing post-war poverty left highly visible marks on people’s bodies. The streets were full of maimed soldiers and the impoverished unemployed, and also a flood of women driven by poverty to prostitution. Hence the huge number of sketches, drawings and paintings of prostitutes and war cripples among Neue Sachlichkeit artists.

Two victims of capitalism by Otto Dix (1923)

Two victims of capitalism by Otto Dix (1923) According to Bader, ‘the paradigmatic couple of the age’ (p.130)

It doesn’t occur to Bader, any more than it occurred to any of the Weimar artists, that this situation wasn’t brought about by capitalism; it was the result of Germany losing the war. Their idiotic military leaders decided to take advantage of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to implement their long-cherished plan to knock out France in a few weeks and then grab loads of lebensraum off Russia. That resulted in a social and economic cataclysm. If lots of men were war cripples it was because they fought in a stupid war. If lots of women became prostitutes that is because Germany’s economy was brought to its knees by its leaders’ stupidity, by the fact that they were undergoing a military blockade because they lost the war.

If capitalism was always and everywhere so utterly exploitative and destructive how do you account for the experience of the 1920s in the world’s most capitalist country, America – the decade they called ‘the Roaring Twenties’, a decade of unparalleled economic growth and a huge expansion in consumer products and liberated lifestyles?

In fact the Weimar Republic experienced its golden years (1924 to 1929) precisely when it was at its most capitalistic, when it received huge loans from capitalist America and its capitalist factory owners were able to employ millions of people.

Art historians cherry pick the evidence (using a handful of paintings to represent a nation of 60 million people), quote only from a self-reinforcing clique of Marxist writers (Benjamin, Kracauer, Lukács, over and over again) and ignore the wider historical context in way which would get any decent historian sacked.

2. The City and the Nature of Landscape by Daniela Fabricius. Fabricius quotes the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch who pointed out the fairly obvious idea that different groups of people live in different ‘nows’ i.e. city dwellers live in a more technologically and culturally advanced ‘now’ than isolated country dwellers. This leads her into a consideration of different types of ‘space’, inparticular the new suburbs which sprang up outside German cities, generally of modernist architecture, which lent themselves to stylish modern photography by the likes of Arthur Köster, Werner Mantz and Albert Renger-Patzsch.

St Georgs-Garten Housing Settlement 1926 by Arthur Köster

St Georgs-Garten Housing Settlement, 1926 by Arthur Köster

Albert Renger-Patzsch published a photo album called the World is Beautiful which the egregious Walter Benjamin disliked for showing the world as beautiful and therefore not ‘problematising’ it, not subjecting it to the kind of dialectical analysis which would have shown that in fact the World Needs a Communist Revolution. Renger-Patzsch stayed in Germany during the Nazi years and was commissioned to do idealised studies of the German regions by the Nazis.

Fabricius ends her essay with a rare piece of useful information about a specific artist rather than an analysis of other art historians – by telling us a little about George Schrimpf, a self-taught painter who spent his early years bumming round south Germany, eventually getting involved with artistic and anarchist circles in Munich. All this is completely absent from his naive paintings of women in interiors with views of perfect landscapes or outside among the perfect landscapes.

On the Balcony by Georg Schrimpf (1929)

On the Balcony by Georg Schrimpf (1929)

3. Man and Machine by Pepper Stetler. Stetler explores the way the word Sachlichkeit was used as early as 1902 (by architect Hermann Muthesius) to describe a no-frills, functionalist aesthetic derived from the way machines are designed, built and work. The architecture critic Adolf Behne in the 1920s tried to shift the term to refer not to a visual style but to a way of working with machines, a way for humans to interact via machines. These were just some of the people debating this word when Hartlaub used it as the title for his famous 1925 exhibition. As well as Muthesius, Hartlaub and Behne, we are also introduced to the art historian Carl Georg Heise, the art critic Wilhelm Lot, the art critic Kurt Wilhelm-Kästner, the art critic Justus Bier, the critic Walter Benjamin and the Marxist philosopher, György Lukács. Again. Maybe the editors stipulated that Benjamin, Kracauer and Lukacs had to be referenced in every essay.

Stetler doesn’t mention it but the Dadaists had already conceived all kinds of man-machine combinations, and Dix and Grosz produced some grotesque caricatures of maimed war veterans who were more false limbs, artificial eyes, springs and contraptions, than men.

But the main thrust of this piece is to introduce a selection of wonderful paintings and photos of machinery. They demonstrate the way the machinery is 1. painted in punctiliously accurate engineering detail. 2. Is often depicted isolated, clean, often seen from below, as if it is an art work placed on a plinth for aesthetic enjoyment. 3. No people, no workers, no mess. Frozen in time. The star of the machine artists is Carl Grossberg, who trained as an architect and draftsman.

The paper machine by Carl Grossberg (1934)

The paper machine by Carl Grossberg (1934)

It is interesting to  learn how systematic and methodical these German artists were: Albert Renger-Patzsch’s project was to take 100 photographs of the modern germany for The World Is Beautiful. August Sandler’s Face of our Time (1929) contains a selection of 60 portraits from the larger project, People of the 20th Century which he intended to include 600 portrait photographs. Grossberg set out to do a series of twenty-five monster paintings which would provide a survey of Germany’s most important industries (p.209). Grosz published his drawings in themed portfolios.

4. Still Lifes and Commodities by Megan R. Luke. Luke scores full marks for mentioning Walter Benjamin early on in her essay about the New Objectivity’s use of still lives, and for slipping in a steady stream of Marxist terminology: in Weimar ‘the commodity reigned supreme’; there was a ‘general cultural anxiety’. She quotes the historian Herbert Molderings who, if not a Marxist, is happy to use Marxist terminology, on the still life photos of Neue Sachlichkeit:

‘They are the modern still lifes of the twentieth century: the expression of exchange value incarnate, the detached form of the fetish character of commodities.’ (quoted p.231)

She also takes the time to explain that photographs in adverts are designed to make us want to buy the products.

Advertising seeks not to show products of our labour or need but rather to excite and choreograph a desire that has the power to overwhelm us. (p.231)

Where would we be without art scholars to guide us through the confusing modern world?

This is the third essay in a row to tell us that the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch’s produced a photo album titled The World is Beautiful (p.236).

The only useful idea I found was that objects were somehow cleansed of all significance, hollowed out, and subjected to ‘suffocating scrutiny’. Now wonder the Walter Benjamins of this world were so deeply ambivalent about photography: it revealed the complexity of the world in a way the human eye isn’t designed to (something pointed out by Moholy-Nagy in his book on photography) and yet this new type of image runs the risk of claiming to capture or depict reality and thus – as Benjamin and Brecht emphasised – completely erasing the web of human relationships it appears amid.

If Expressionist paintings screamingly overflowed with the artist’s distraught emotions, Sachlichkeit still lives seem to have been magically drained of all passion or emotion. It is this erasure of human presence, of human touch and context, which makes so much of the photography and painting of buildings and machinery both powerfully evocative, charged with mystery and yet bereft: all at the same time.

Insulated High Tension Wires from Die Welt Ist Schon by Albert Renger-Patzsch (1928)

Insulated High Tension Wires from Die Welt Ist Schon by Albert Renger-Patzsch (1928)

5. New Identities: Type and Portraiture by Lynette Roth. Amid the politically correct commonplaces (Dix’s portrait of Sylvia von Harden ’embodies the masculinised woman whose appearance challenged norms of sexual difference’), Roth brings out how a notable aspect of Neue Sachlichkeit was the interest in types. August Sander’s project to photograph 600 ‘types’ of profession and trade is the locus classicus, but the painters Grosz or Dix also offered combinations of the same ‘types’ over and again (war cripples and prostitutes throng their works).

She suggests the use of types and sterotypes was a way of addressing, sorting out, the post-war chaos. Thin ice, because the Nazis also were keen on types, notably the good Aryan and the bad Jew. And Roth definitely doesn’t mention this, but one of the easiest stereotypes in the world is the bad capitalist and the poor innocent proletarian ‘alienated’ from his work.

I am astonished how from start to finish all the art historians and scholars in this book make extensive and unquestioning use of Marxist terminology based on a fundamentally anti-capitalist worldview. On the last page she is quoting a fellow ‘scholar’ who suggests that some of Sanders’s photographs ‘challenge hegemonic bourgeois structures’.

Quite breath-taking.


Painterly finish

In 1921 Max Doerner published a popular handbook The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting which provided information and guidance for artists wishing to use the techniques of the Old Masters, info about oil, tempera, fresco and other methods of artists like Jan van Eyck, Holbein, Rembrandt and Rubens.

Doerner’s book helped artists who were committed to painting works with hyper-realistic attention to detail and smooth invisible finish (compared to the deliberately obvious brush strokes of the impassioned Expressionists). The emphasis on portraiture of so many works of this era recall the portraits of Northern Renaissance painting.

It can be summed up in one word – painterliness – what Roth lists as ‘careful finish, attention to detail and smooth finish’ (p.263).

The current Van Eyck show at the National Gallery is focused round his wondrous use of a concave mirror, showing how this motif was picked up by later painters. I wonder if Herbert Ploberger is deliberately referencing it in the convex reflection in the powder case, middle left, in this painting.

Dressing Table by Herbert Ploberger (1926)

Dressing Table by Herbert Ploberger (1926)

Kanoldt and O’Keeffe

Doesn’t Alexander Kanoldt’s Olveano II from 1925…

… look like Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Mesa Landscape (1930)?

The spirit of the age. A parallel tendency towards cartoon simplification, of both landscape and colour.

Last words

While both an aesthetics of the ugly and modernist innovation dovetail with nineteenth-century Realism, interestingly enough it is the specific German mentality and political context that is seen as necessitating a new form of realism characterised by unconditional attack, excessive exposure, and radical critique transgressing the paradigm of empathy. (Sabine Eckmann, p.35)


Related link

Related reviews

Art Deco by Alastair Duncan (1988)

Perhaps most significant to the development of a twentieth century aesthetic was the birth in the interwar period of the professional industrial designer… (p.118) In the 1920s commercial art became a bona fide profession which, in turn, gave birth to the graphic artist. (p.150)

This is one of the older volumes from Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series, famous for its thorough texts but also, alas, for the way most of the illustrations are in black and white (this book has 194 illustrations, but only 44 of them in colour, most of them quite small).

Duncan also wrote the WoA volume on Art Nouveau, which I read recently, and has gone on to write many more books on both these topics, including a huge Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 30s. He knows his onions.

Main points from the introduction

  • Art Deco was the last really luxurious style – people look back to Art Deco and Art Nouveau with nostalgia because they were florid, indulgent and luxurious – since the Second World War all styles have been variations on plain functionalism.
  • Art Deco is not a reaction against Art Nouveau but a continuation of it, in terms of ‘lavish ornamentation, superlative craftsmanship and fine materials’.
  • Received opinion has it that Art Deco started after the war, but Duncan asserts that it had begun earlier, with some indisputable Art Deco pieces made before 1914 or during the war. In fact he boldly suggests that, had there been no war, Art Deco might have flourished, peaked and been over by 1920.
  • Art Deco is hard to define because designers and craftsmen had so many disparate sources to draw on by 1920 – Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism, but also high fashion, motifs from the Orient, tribal Africa, the Ballets Russes, or Egypt, especially after the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered in 1922.
  • Duncan distinguishes between the decorative styles of the 1920s which were luxurious and ornamented, and of the 1930s, when machine chic became more dominant, lines sleeker, more mechanical. The chapter on metalwork makes this clear with the 1920s work alive with gazelles, flowers and sunbursts, while the 1930s work copies the sleek straight lines of airplanes and steamships. In the architecture chapter he distinguishes between zigzag’ Moderne of the 1920s and the ‘streamline’ Moderne of the 1930s (p.195).
  • There’s also a distinction between the French style (the French continued to lead the field in almost all the decorative art) exuberant and playful, and the style of the rest of Europe and, a little later, America, which was cooler, more functional and intellectual. Throughout the book Duncan refers to the former as Art Deco and the latter as Modernism.
  • To my surprise Duncan asserts that Modernism was born at the moment of Art Deco’s greatest triumph i.e. the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. The severe modernist Le Corbusier wrote an article criticising almost all the exhibits for their luxury and foppishness and arguing that true design should be functional, and mass produced so as to be affordable.
  • Duncan contrasts the attenuated flowers and fairy maidens of Art Nouveau with the more severe functionalism of the Munich Werkbund, set up as early as 1907, which sought to integrate design with the reality of machine production. This spartan approach, insistence on modern materials, and mass production to make its objects affordable, underpinned the Bauhaus, established in 1919, whose influence spread slowly, but affected particularly American design during the 1930s, as many Bauhaus teachers fled the Nazis.

So the entire period between the wars can be simplified down to a tension between a French tradition of luxury, embellished and ornamented objects made for rich clients, and a much more severe, modern, functionalist, Bauhaus style intended for mass consumption, with the Bauhaus concern for sleek lines and modern materials gaining ground in the streamlined 1930s.

In reality, the hundreds of designers Duncan mentions hovered between these two poles.

Structure

The book is laid out very logically, indeed with the rather dry logic of an encyclopedia. There are ten chapters:

  1. Furniture
  2. textiles
  3. Ironwork and lighting
  4. Silver, Lacquer and Metalware
  5. Glass
  6. Ceramics
  7. Sculpture
  8. Paintings, Graphics, Posters and Bookbinding
  9. Jewelry
  10. Architecture

Each of the chapters tends to be broken down into a handful of trends or topics. Each of these is then broken down into area or country, so that successive paragraphs begin ‘In America’ or ‘In Belgium’ or ‘In Britain’. And then each of these sections is broken down into a paragraph or so about leading designers or manufacturers. So, for example, the chapter on ceramics is divided into sections on: artist-potters, traditional manufactories, and industrial ceramics; each of these is then sub-divided into countries – France, Germany, America, England; each of these sub-sections then has a paragraph or so about the leading practitioners in each style.

On the up side, the book is encyclopedic in its coverage. On the down side it sometimes feels like reading a glorified list and, particularly when entire paragraphs are made up of lists of the designers who worked for this or that ceramics firm or glass manufacturer, you frequently find your mind going blank and your eye skipping entire paragraphs (one paragraph, on page 51, lists 34 designers of Art Deco rugs).

It’s a shame because whenever Duncan does break out of this encyclopedia structure, whenever he stops to explain something – for example, the background to a particular technique or medium – he is invariably fascinating and authoritative. For example, take his explanation of pâte-de-verre, something I’d never heard of before:

Pâte-de-verre is made of finely crushed pieces of glass ground into a powder mixed with a fluxing agent that facilitates melting. Colouring is achieved by using coloured glass or by adding metallic oxides after the ground glass has been melted into a paste. In paste form, pâte-de-verre is as malleable as clay, and it is modelled by being packed into a mould where it is fused by firing. It can likewise be moulded in several layers or refined by carving after firing. (p.93)

Having myself spent quite a few years being paid to turn a wide variety of information (about medicine, or botany, or VAT) into clear English, I am full of admiration for Duncan’s simple, clear prose. There’s a similar paragraph about silver which, in a short space, brings an entire craft to life.

By virtue of its colour, silver is a ‘dry’ material. To give it life without the use of surface ornament, the 1920s Modernist silversmith had to rely on interplay of light, shadow, and reflection created by contrasting planes and curves. Another way to enrich its monotone colour was by incorporating semiprecious stones, rare woods, ivory and glass. Towards the 1930s, vermeil or gold panels were applied to the surface as an additional means of embellishment. (p.71)

He tells us that the pinnacle of commercial Art Deco sculpture was work done in chryselephantine, combining bronze and ivory, and that the acknowledged master of this genre was Demêtre Chiparus, who made works depicting French ballet and theatre.

Duncan makes the simple but profound point that, in architecture, Art Deco tended to be applied to buildings which had no tradition behind them, to new types of building for the machine age – this explains the prevalence of the Art Deco look in so many power stations, airport buildings, cinemas and swimming pools. Think (in London) Battersea power station (1935), Croydon airport (1928), the Golden Mile of Art Deco factories along the Great West Road at Brentford, Brixton Lido (1937), Charles Holden’s Art Deco Tube stations, and scores of Odeon cinemas across the country.

I liked his wonderfully crisp explanation of costume jewelry.

Costume jewelry differs from fine jewelry in that it is made out of base metals or silver set with marcasite, paste or imitation stones. (p.167)

Now you know. When he’s explaining, he’s wonderful.

Likes and dislikes

To my great surprise I actively disliked most of the objects and art shown in this book. I thought I liked Art Deco, but I didn’t like a lot of this stuff.

Maybe I’m a Bauhaus baby at heart. I consistently preferred the more linear work from the 1930s.

Then it dawned on me that maybe it’s because Duncan doesn’t include much about Art Deco posters (despite having authored a whole book about them). Indeed the section on posters here was remarkably short and with hardly any illustrations (7 pages, 6 pictures).

Similarly, the section on the scores of fashionable magazines and graphic illustrations from the era (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and countless others) is barely 3 pages long.

There’s nothing at all about movies or photography, either. Maybe this is fair enough since Duncan is an expert in the decorative and applied arts and that’s the focus of the book. Still, Gary Cooper is a masterpiece of Art Deco, with his strong lines ending in beautiful machine-tooled curves (nose and chin), his powerful symmetries – as beautiful as any skyscraper.

Gary Cooper, super duper

Gary Cooper, super duper

French terms

  • animalier – an artist who specializes in the realistic portrayal of animals
  • cabochon –  a gemstone which has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted
  • éditeur d’art – publisher of art works
  • nécessaire – vanity case for ladies
  • objet d’art – used in English to describe works of art that are not paintings, large or medium-sized sculptures, prints or drawings. It therefore covers a wide range of works, usually small and three-dimensional, of high quality and finish in areas of the decorative arts, such as metalwork items, with or without enamel, small carvings, statuettes and plaquettes in any material, including engraved gems, hardstone carvings, ivory carvings and similar items, non-utilitarian porcelain and glass, and a vast range of objects that would also be classed as antiques (or indeed antiquities), such as small clocks, watches, gold boxes, and sometimes textiles, especially tapestries. Might include books with fine bookbindings.
  • pâte-de-verre – a kiln casting method that literally means ‘paste of glass’
  • pieces uniques – one-off works for rich buyers

Conclusion

In summary, this is an encyclopedic overview of the period with some very useful insights, not least the fundamental distinction between the French ‘high’ Art Deco of the 1920s and the ‘Modernist’ Art Deco of the 1930s (which flourished more in America than Europe). But it is also a rather dry and colourless book, only occasionally coming to life when Duncan gives one of his beautifully lucid technical explanations.

Probably better to invest in a coffee-table volume which has plenty of large illustrations (particularly of the great posters and magazine illustrations) to get a more accessible and exciting feel for the period.


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