Albert Oehlen @ the Serpentine Gallery

Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954) is a German painter based in Switzerland. He has been a key figure in contemporary art since the 1980s.

“By bringing together abstract, figurative, collaged and computer-generated elements on the canvas, he continues to explore an inventive diversity of artistic approaches. Through Expressionist brushwork, Surrealist gestures and deliberate amateurism, Oehlen engages with the history of painting, pushing the components of colour, gesture, motion and time to new extremes.”

John Graham

The absolutely vital piece of information you need to know in order to understand this FREE exhibition of Oehlen’s work at the Serpentine Gallery is that ALL the pieces reference a much older painting by American artist John Graham, titled Tramonto Spaventoso (‘Terrifying Sunset’) (1940-49).

Tramonto Spaventoso by John Graham (1940 – 49)

Graham is a fascinating figure, having been born Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky in Kiev, fighting in Russian cavalry during the Great War, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution to Warsaw and then emigrating to America, where he took a new name, found a job and developed an experimental interest in art, trying out various forms of modernism and abstraction, and serving as a mentor to the young Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky.

As you can see from Tramonto Spaventoso there was also a lot of Surrealism mixed up in his style, along with a refusal of being afraid to look amateurish and cack-handed. The terrifying sunset consists of a roughly drawn portrait of a man with eyeglasses and caricature moustache, the picture behind him divided into four quadrants showing (from top left) four golden circles which might be suns but also have lions’ faces drawn in them; two black classical pillars between which you can see a ploughed field leading off to the horizon and a sky with clouds; a mermaid with a curlicue tail whose breasts appear to be spurting milk at the central figure, and with blood pouring from a wound in her side; and at the bottom left another yellow lion face, this one with three legs appearing around its mane.

The John Graham remix

Oehlen has taken this obscure work by a now-largely-forgotten artist and subjected it to a whole series of remixes, mash-ups and distortions. He’s been doing this for at least ten years and this exhibition brings together about twenty of the results, small, medium-sized, large, and absolutely enormous in scale.

Sohn von Hundescheisse by Albert Oehlen (1999) Private Collection, Photo: Archive Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris © Albert Oehlen

So in each of the twenty or so mashups you are looking for those elements: face in the middle with a huge moustache; suns with faces; columns in the upper-right corner, with a series of lines going to the horizon, a mermaid at bottom right.

These figures or symbols are submitted to all kinds of distortions of shape and colour and position. The pain is applied in violent haphazard way, using extremely bright and vibrant colours with no regard for creating a consistent palette or tone (in real life the pink line along the top of this one looks almost fluorescent).

Oehlen’s aim is obviously to reference and recreate the original in the most random, attacked and disrespectful way possible, chucking out all guidelines of taste and decorum to see what happens. This makes it difficult to like. My initial reaction was visceral repulsion and anthropological amusement at what, nowadays, in the 2010s, comprises successful contemporary art.

However, once you have grasped that every single one of the works is referencing the Graham painting, it introduces a childish Where’s Wally aspect to trying to identify in each work the deeply buried mermaid and moustaches etc. And this activity ends up drawing you into his visual world, wild and deliberately scrappy, garish and amateurish though it is.

Vorfahrt für immer by Alber Oehlen (1998) Private Collection. Photo by the author

The Mark Rothko chapel

This is most obvious in the big central room of the Serpentine Gallery which has a circular cupola to let light in. Here Oehlen has created a new work especially for the Serpentine, a site-specific work which takes the remix approach to the Graham original to new heights and absurdities.

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo: readsreads.info

This space is now the location of two overlapping re-interpretations of other artists’ work, because the layout, the size and hang of these enormous Oehlen works is deliberately based on the layout and hang of the paintings which American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko made for what became known as ‘the Rothko Chapel’ in Houston, Texas.

The Rothko Chapel, Texas

But whereas Rothko’s paintings are carefully composed and co-ordinated to create a shimmering meditative effect, and promote a spirit of serious meditation, Oehlen’s works rip up any idea of respect and decorum, consisting of wild hand-drawn cartoons, massive sketches, garish washes and caricature figures and faces.

It’s almost as if he’s doing everything he can think of to undermine the idea of ‘art’ as a serious activity worthy of respect. He has apparently given interviews throughout his career discussing the influence on him of Surrealism, but I think you have to go a step further back to DADA, with men on stage shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones while someone attacks a piano with a hammer to find artistic cognates of Oehlen’s works.

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

This resolutely iconoclastic approach explains a lot about what you’re actually seeing, but there’s a bit more going on as well. It was an excellent Serpentine visitor assistant who explained the importance of the John Graham original to me. But he then went on to explain other things Oehlen has done with these huge works.

  1. Charcoal is usually used by artists to do sketches and drawings. But some of these works are done in charcoal on canvas primed and painted white i.e. given the status of paintings. (See image on the left, above)
  2. By contrast, watercolour is usually employed in lightly figurative work to create delicate washes and effects, but here Oehlen uses it (or a very watery acrylic) to create huge and very rough lines or areas of pure colour (see image above, right)
  3. In other, smaller works you can also see that Oehlen has got a spraycan and simply sprayed reasonably crafted works with spatters of cheap, dayglo, spraycan colours, such as ginger.

Above and beyond these technical mashups, there are also two obvious visual references. One is to the notorious moustaches of Salvador Dalí, exaggerated into schoolboy cartoons (see above).

The other is the references to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which features heavily in the current Dora Maar exhibition at Tate Modern. Here’s Guernica: look at the heads at the far left and far right. In both instances the head is depicted side-on, face-up, at an unrealistic angle from the ‘neck’ supporting it.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Compare and contrast with this, one of the enormous panels in the Oehlen show. Clearly he is channeling the Guernica neck and head (along with the Dalí moustaches and the Graham composition).

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Conclusion

So, it is good to be informed: having been told that the Graham painting underpins everything in this exhibition is crucial to understanding the show.

Knowing that the Graham painting itself showed heavy Surrealist influences, feeds through into feeling the Surrealist undertones of the Oehlen works, and you can have a laugh at the Dali moustaches, you can congratulate yourself at spotting the Picasso reference.

Knowing that the big central room is a parody or pastiche or riff on the Rothko Chapel also helps to explain its layout and the sheer scale of the paintings Oehlen has filled it with.

And I did like some of the images he’s come up with – like the one I opened this review with, whose sheer bloody-minded, cack-handed, over-coloured exuberance achieves a kind of Gestalt, a totality of awfulness which is sort of impressive.

But no, at the end of the day, despite all the extenuating circumstances, and the intellectual interest of all this background information, no, I found them horrible.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Fairies in Vision @ the Heath Robinson Museum

It always amazes me how much factual information and how many beautiful pictures the Heath Robinson Museum manages to pack into such a relatively small space.

This exhibition manages to cover how the depiction of fairies, elves, sprites and goblins has changed and evolved over the past 200 years through some fifty drawings and illustrations hung on the walls and 17 or so antique illustrated books open in display cases. Over twenty illustrators are represented, from Sir Joseph Noel Paton RSA (1821-1902) to the contemporary illustrator and designed Brian Froud (b.1947).

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1849)

Here were some of my highlights.

William Heath Robinson (1872-1944)

The great man is represented by seven drawings. In the first, Edwardian, part of his career, HR produced beautiful illustrations for luxury editions of classics. The most obvious source of fairies is his illustrated edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which has of course provided a pretext for artists down the ages to depict sprites and fairies) and five or so of the pictures here are from it.

I love Heath Robinson but I felt these black and white illustrations were just that – you needed to know what was going on in the story to really ‘get’ or understand them. Unlike the obvious highlight of his pictures here, and of the whole show, the wonderful Fairy’s Birthday, which just happens to be one of the most popular pictures in the permanent collection.

The Fairy’s Birthday (detail) by William Heath Robinson (1925)

The Fairy’s Birthday was one of a series of large, coloured ‘goblin’ pictures that Heath Robinson made for the Christmas editions of upmarket magazines such as The Graphic between 1919 and 1925. As the wall label suggests, the goblins and fairies have been given a ‘homely, bumbling’ appearance – look at the French pâtissier carrying the heavy cake, at the top.

Helen Jacobs (1888-1970)

Jacobs grew up in East London and studied at the West Ham School of Art. The four fairy pictures by her here are absolutely wonderful. What characterises them is the combination of extremely detailed depictions of the subject – with a very firm use of line and shade to create volume and drama – against wonderfully bright washes of background colour.

Look at the definition of the right arm and armpit of this fairy, but also revel in the midnight blue background. And note also the sprays of pearl-like baubles radiating out from the fairy’s diaphanous clothes. I like strong, defined outlines, so I loved all four of her pieces here for their clarity and dynamism.

A fairy on a bat by Helen Jacobs

Charles Robinson (1870-1937)

Robinson trained in lithography but began illustrating books from the mid-1890s and illustrated a trio of books with the collective title of The Annals of Fairyland (1900-1902). In 1911 Heinemann published an edition of Shelley’s poem The Sensitive Plant with 18 coloured plates and numerous vignettes.

Just one of these is included in the exhibition, and I found it one of the most haunting. In the centre is a baby with wings, more of a chubby Renaissance putto maybe, than a slender sprite. What I kept returning to enjoy was the way the delicate wash which created a fog, a mist, through which you can see the ghostly outlines of the autumn trees in the background. And the craggy, Gormenghast quality of the black branches, especially the one at the bottom. And then the wonderful spray of autumn leaves falling in a spray around the centre, behind the putto. I’m not sure how strictly fairylike this picture is, but I found it wonderfully wistful and evocative.

Illustration for The Sensitive Plant by Charles Robinson (1911)

Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973)

The exhibition closes with a set of eight of the original watercolours for the Flower Fairy books by Cicely Mary Barker. Barker was born in Croydon and although she later attended the Croydon School of Art, she was largely self-taught. In 1922 she sent some of her flower fairy illustrations to Blackie and Son the publishers who published them as Flower Fairies of the Spring. She received just £25 for the 24 pictures in the book, but it sold well and she was able to secure a royalty for all its sequels.

The Hawthorn Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker (1926) © The Estate of Cicely Mary Barker

Eventually there were eight flower fairy books, containing 170 illustrations. The striking thing about them is their hyper-realism grounded in Barker’s immensely careful depictions of the flora each fairy is linked to. Her sketchbooks have survived and show what immense trouble she took to draw extremely accurate depictions of yew, sloe berries, horse chestnuts, elderberries and many, many more.

As someone who takes photos of English wild flowers, I was riveted by the accuracy of her botanical drawings. But she also used real children to model for each of the fairies. Hence the sense of super-reality.

And yet… There is something rather… cloying about her fairy paintings. Many of the previous fairy drawings and illustrations were notable for their whimsy and fantasy and lightness. There’s something in the very solidity and botanical accuracy of Cicely Mary Barker’s pictures which is a little… overwhelming, stifling almost. What do you think?

Brian Froud (b.1947)

In a display case there’s a copy of modern fantasy artist Brian Froud’s brilliantly inventive and funny book Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book, with a couple of framed original drawings hanging on the wall above it.

This is a very modern, disenchanted, cynical but hilarious view of fairies and, indeed, of human nature, purporting to be the book in which the fictional Lady Cottington has heartlessly captured and pressed to death a wide variety of fairies. The fairies are slender naked females with long dragonfly wings, each caught in a posture of terror and horror as the pages of the collecting book bang shut on them.

A pressed fairy from Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book by Brian Froud (1994)

A frolic of fairies

Those are just five of my personal highlights, but there are lots of other images, by lots of other artists.

Some of them are well known (Rackham, Richard Doyle), many of them far less well-known – and it is fascinating to see just what a variety of imagery and mood can be sparked by ostensibly the same subject, some enchanting, some – frankly – grotesque:

  • from the stately Romantic paintings of Sir Joseph Paton (see above)
  • to the disturbing images of Charles Altamont Doyle who was hospitalised for alcoholism and depression
  • from the very Aubrey Beardsley-influenced, Decadent style of Harry Clarke
  • through to the big baby surrounded by little sprites and goblins painted by Mabel Lucie Attwell (Olive’s Night Time Vigil with the Fairies).

Get in touch with your inner child. Be transported back to all the fairy stories and fairy books of your earliest memories. Go and see this lovely exhibition.

Full list of illustrators and artists

  • Florence Mary Anderson
  • Mabel Lucy Attwell
  • Cicely Mary Barker
  • Harry Clarke
  • Walter Crane
  • Charles Altamont Doyle
  • Richard Doyle
  • Brian Froud
  • Florence Susan Harrison
  • Lawrence Housman
  • Reginald Knowles
  • Celia Levitus
  • Hilda T. Miller
  • William Heath Robinson
  • Helen Jacobs
  • Jessie King
  • Barrington MacGregor
  • Carton Moore Park
  • Sir Joseph Noel Paton
  • Arthur Rackham
  • Charles Robinson
  • Reginald Savage
  • Margaret Tarrant
  • Alice B. Woodward

Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits @ the Royal Academy

‘By the turn of the millennium, Freud was widely acknowledged to be Britain’s greatest living painter.’
(Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art for Sotheby’s Europe)

Contrary to the implications of the title, this exhibition does not include all of Lucian Freud’s self-portraits, nowhere near. Given that Freud was interested in self portraiture throughout his long career, the selection here is a only relatively small percentage. Also, contrary to the title, the exhibition also includes a number of portraits not of himself, in fact arguably the best room is the one devoted to portraits of other people.

Lucian and me

I don’t like Lucian Freud. I associate him with Frank Auerbach and the other dreary, depressing post-war British artists, a kind of visual equivalent of Harold Pinter, who I was force-fed at school. Their dreary, depressed, rainy English miserabilism nearly put me off contemporary art and literature for life.

But this exhibition made me change my mind (a bit) for two reasons:

1. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, which allows us to see the quite remarkable evolution of his style over 60 years of painting. Stories are always interesting and, by stopping to investigate each stage along his journey, the exhibition does a good job of making his development interesting.

2. By luck I got into conversation with another visitor who happened to be an amateur painter and she, for the first time, made me understand how his journey had been one of technique. It dawned on me that, to use a cliché, he may be a painter’s painter. Certainly the last couple of rooms make you think that his paintings may well depict men or women, naked or clothed, including himself, as subjects – but the real subject is the adventure of painting itself.

And this made me go back and really examine the technique of the paintings in the last few rooms and come to respect, in fact to marvel, at the complex painterly effects of his mature style.

A brief outline

Freud was born in Berlin in 1922 and fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1933, coming to London. He held his first solo show as early as 1944. In the late 1940s he chose to make portraiture the focus of his practice.

Drawing

Drawing was central to Freud’s style from the late 30s through to the early 1950s. His drawings from this era are strikingly different from the later work. This is a rare opportunity to see a whole roomful of them together and they come from a different world. They have a graphic sharpness, an economy of line which makes them very like cartoons. Look at the careful shading in the ears and on the cheek, and the extraordinary attention he’s devoted to each individual hair. Critic Herbert Read called him ‘the Ingres of Existentialism’.

Startled Man: Self-portrait (1948) by Lucian Freud © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This clear style lent itself to illustration so it’s no surprise to learn that he illustrated a number of books, several of which are in a display case here, Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis (1955) and Two Plays and a Preface by Nigel Dennis (1958) and that Startled Man was one of five illustrations for a novella by William Sansmon titled The Equilibriad (1948).

Apart from the strikingly clean graphic style, what’s obvious is how performative these pictures are – the male head in them is always striking a pose, adopting an attitude, sometimes with props like a feather, in one dramatic case posing as Actaeon for a book on Greek myths.

Back to painting

Around the mid-1950s Freud turned his attention from drawing to painting and for a period of seven years or so stopped drawing altogether. Initially he painted sitting down using fine brushes. This enabled a smooth finished graphic style, very much in line with the clean defined outlines of his drawings, and the people in them share the same slightly distorted, rather frog-like faces as many of the drawings, more like caricatures than paintings.

Hotel Bedroom by Lucian Freud (1954) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The wall label tells us that Freud associated with fellow painters Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon. Like him they were figurative painters working against the grain of Abstract Expressionism and, later on, ignoring experimental and conceptual art. That, in a sentence, explains precisely why I don’t like them.

Bigger brushes

Anyway, Bacon inspired Freud to switch from soft sable-hair brushes to hog’s hair brushes which are capable of carrying more paint. This, it seems, was the physical, technical spur for the decisive change in his style. Between the late 1950s and mid-1960s his painting left behind the draughtsmanlike precision, so close to drawing, of paintings like Hotel Bedroom, and became far looser, a matter of large looser brushstrokes, which create more angular images, images made out of clashing planes and angles with an almost modernist feel about them.

Man’s Head (Self-portrait III) by Lucian Freud (1963) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

This is the third of three self-portraits which the exhibition reunites for the first time since they were shown together in 1963. You can see how the interest is now in structure more than likeness. There is no attempt to create a realistic background (his studio or a bedroom) which is now a plain matt surface. Similarly, his face has its familiar long, rather hawkish look, but here transformed into a semi-abstract mask.

Watercolours

Surprisingly, in 1961 he took up watercolours alongside paint. Both were ways of escaping from the linearity of pen-and-ink drawing. The exhibition includes a number of watercolours where he is obviously exploring the effect of broad washes, and the dynamic contrast that creates with more sharply defined faces.

In both types of work he drops the symbols and props which had abounded in the drawings. The subject matter is simpler and in a way starker. The paintings still feel pregnant with meaning but their force or charge is achieved by different means, purely by the arrangement of brushstrokes.

Mirrors

Mirrors have been used by artists since time immemorial to paint accurate self-portraits, and countless artists have gone one step further to include mirrors in their paintings to highlight the artifice and paradox or making images which, on one level, claim to be true, claim to be reality, but on another, are patent artifice.

Quite a few Freud self portraits include mirrors or depict himself from angles clearly designed to bring out the mirrorly artifice. When you learn that he did this increasingly from the mid-1960s it makes a kind of sense; you can see the echo of similar experiments going on in in contemporary film posters and album covers. This instance using a mirror on or near the floor is striking enough, but made disturbing by the inclusion of small portraits of two of his children perched ‘outside’ the main frame.

Reflection with Two Children (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1965) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

In the studio

The penultimate room is the best and it’s the one which has no self portraits. Instead there’s two massive portraits of naked women on sofas, a huge standing male nude (his son, Freddy), and an eerie portrait of two fully clothed Irish gentlemen.

The wall label emphasises that by the 1970s Freud had established a definite approach. He painted people he had some kind of connection with, himself, some members of his family and friends, and sometimes people he met through chance encounters but who held a special visual importance for him.

They are all painted indoors, in his studios, not outside, not at their houses or in a neutral space. They are always in the familiar space of his studio, whose props and space and dimensions he knows inside out. This allowed him to focus on what he stated in interviews was his aim, which was to recreate in paint a physical presence.

So the obvious things about the paintings you see as you walk into this room of late works is that:

  • they’re huge, compared to what came before
  • they’re of other people
  • they’re full length instead of face portraits
  • they’re (mostly) naked

But, among this surfeit of impressions, maybe the most striking is the extraordinary poses and postures he has put his naked subjects in. In his mature works, this became his trademark – the rather tortured and certainly uncomfortable poses of naked women, which creates an uncomfortable, unsettling psychological affect on the viewer.

Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

What is going on? Is he torturing and exploiting these naked women, demonstrating his male power, as feminist critics have it? Or is he twisting their bodies round to create symbols of his personal unhappiness or anguish, as psychological critics might have it? Or had he stumbled across a new kind of motif, which he realised he could make uniquely his own, a ‘look’ which he could use to consolidate his ‘brand’ in the highly competitive London art market, as a Marxist critic might have it? (It is rather staggering to learn that this painting fetched over £11 million at auction in 2008. God knows what it’s worth now.)

Cremnitz white

But the wall label draws attention another, more technical feature of his painting from this period.

In 1975 he began using Cremnitz white, a heavy paint which, when mixed with other paints, creates a thick granular affect. Armed with this information, look again at the sprawling nude above. Look at the white highlights on her body. Two things:

1. Identifying the area of pure white prompts you to look closely at how they relate to the other colours around them. Obviously there’s a lot of pink but, when you look closely, there’s a lot of yellow and, looking more closely, brown and grey and even green. In fact, the more you look, the more entranced you become by the interplay of colours which make up her flesh, a panoply of creams and ochres and bistre tones.

It dawns on you that maybe Freud posed his naked women (and men, he painted a lot of naked men, too) in this contorted sprawling style and lying down rather than sitting up, because this way he exposes the maximum amount of flesh. Maybe these distorted poses have nothing to do with misogynist exploitation or twisted sexuality or psychological symbolism. Maybe they simply create the largest possible expanse of human flesh for him to paint.

2. Go up close, right up to the painting, and what becomes strikingly obvious is the immensely contoured, nubbly, grainy nature of the surface of the work. It is as if someone has thrown small gravel or stones onto the surface which have got embedded in the paint. It is immensely grainy and rubbly and tactile.

Here’s a close-up of the shadow along the right-hand side of the model’s body. You can see:

1. the lumps and bobbles of solid matter in the paint of the darker shadow near the middle of the image

2. the grooves of the thick brushstrokes moving up out of that dark patch to form her tummy or, at the bottom left, the long smooth but very visible and ridged strokes which create her thigh

3. the tremendous variety of colours and tints: granted, they’re all from the same tonal range of brown: but when you look closely you can see the extraordinary dynamism and interplay of shades. There’s barely a square inch of the same colour, but a continual variety, and a tremendous interest and even excitement created by the plastic, three-dimensional, raised and very tactile way different areas of colours stroke and swadge and brush, and daub and paste and are modelled and placed over and against each other.

Detail from Naked Portrait with Reflection by Lucian Freud (1980)

As I mentioned above, this was partly the result of chatting to the painter I met at the show. It was her enthusiastic description of Freud as a painter as a handler of paint, as the creator of such drama on the canvas, which made me go back and look at these last paintings in more detail.

Same thing can be seen in the other big nude in the room, Flora with Blue Toenails. Armed with this new way of seeing, what I noticed about this painting were 1. that the surface is so granular and lumpy you can see it even in a reproduction 2. the striking difference in timbre between her light torso and her much darker, more shaded legs. The keynote seemed to me to be grey. Follow the lines of grey. A solid line of grey goes from her cleavage, down her sternum and snakes around the top of her tummy almost creating a circle, where it almost joins to another long serpent of the same grey which snakes across her left thigh and curls round at her knee before reappearing across her right shin.

Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

My point is that, by this stage I was seeing these compositions as adventures in paint, as incredibly complex interplays of an astonishing range of colours, applied in a thick dense impasto, with heavy brushstrokes and entire regions raised and nubbled with grains and lumps of solid matter.

Here’s a close-up of Flora’s elbow, as transformed by Freud’s painterly prestidigitation. I found it quite thrilling to step right up to the painting and examine small areas in great detail, revelling in the adventures of the tones and surfaces – look at the myriad colours intermingling in the broad horizontal strokes at the top of her forearm, it’s almost like a rainbow, the multi-levelled mixing of colours is so advanced. And all this combined with the gnarly gritty, deliberately granular surface.

Detail of Flora with Blue Toe Nails by Lucian Freud (2000-1)

Which meant that by the time I entered the final room, a collection of self-portraits from his final years, I wasn’t at all interested in either the biographical or supposedly psychological elements to them (‘ruthlessly honest, apparently) but instead was riveted by the extraordinarily vibrant, confident, sweeping, dashing painterliness of the things.

Here’s a medium close-up of the 1985 work, Reflection (Self portrait) which is a prime example of his thickly-painted and complex technique. Note the green – green blodges either side of his nose and the pouches under his eyes.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

I became irrationally fascinated by the patterned edge to the image, to his shoulders which is presumably created by a spatula of some kind to model the border between the figure and the background, and which created the kind of crimping effect you see around the edge of pies.

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

But everywhere you look in the painting you see the same supremely confident use of paint, applied in apparently slapdash thick strokes and in a blather and combo of colours which seems almost chaotic when seen from really close up…

Detail of Reflection (Self portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985)

… but you only have to step back a few paces to see how these thick, spattered applications meld, at the ideal viewing distance, into extremely powerful, and even haunting, images.

Reflection (Self-portrait) by Lucian Freud (1985) © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

So I’m still not sure that I particularly like Lucian Freud’s paintings, but now, thanks to this handy exhibition, I have a much better grasp of the shape of his career, and a completely different way of seeing and conceptualising his paintings – not as the grim and dreary products of a troubled claustrophobe with dubious psychosexual issues, but as thrilling and masterly exercises in painterly technique.

I am not very interested in him as a painter of portraits per se – I couldn’t care less about the various marriages or children which the wall labels tell us about. But this exhibition did help me see how Freud really was one of the greatest painters of human flesh who ever put brush to canvas.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Gauguin Portraits @ the National Gallery

This is a spectacular exhibition, bringing together a range of masterpieces by Gauguin from collections around the world to give you a really deep, rich sense of his boundary-breaking artistic attitude and achievement.

The exhibition is beautifully staged and arranged, with a generous free booklet giving a paragraph or two of informative explanation about each of the show’s 55 exhibits, many of which are mind-blowingly beautiful – the whole thing only slightly spoiled by the nagging political correctness of the audioguide.

Portraits and self portraits

For a start there are two categories: self portraits and portraits of others, which can themselves further be divided into paintings and sculptures.

Gauguin painted a lot of self portraits and it is clear that right from the start he dramatised himself, creating and embroidering various strands of self-mythology. This took several forms. He played on the fact that, as a child, he had been taken to live in South America, and thereafter claimed to have Incan or Peruvian blood, being especially proud of his strong hook nose. In the later 1880s, he also took to deliberately comparing himself to Christ, as a victim, martyr and outsider – as in the extraordinarily strange and vivid Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889).

What appeals to me in all these paintings is his use of paint, the heavy visibly brushstrokes reminiscent of Cézanne, the strong black outlines a bit reminiscent of Degas, and the counter-intuitive use of stark colours (blue trees, red hair) which anticipates the Fauves.

Christ in the Garden of Olives by Paul Gauguin (1889) © Norton Museum of Art

Gauguin’s careful nurturing of the image of himself as outsider, primitive and ‘savage’ went into overdrive as a result of his two trips to French Polynesia (1891-1893, and 1895 till his death in 1903). Reporting back by letter, or arriving back in Paris 1893-5 he justifiably presented himself as a man with a unique knowledge of, and identification with, the more backward ‘primitive’ natives, and yet…

It’s a striking fact that during both his South Sea stays it seems that Gauguin stopped painting self portraits, striking evidence that the numerous self-portraits he made in Europe were made for social reasons:

  • as gifts to other artists
  • as calling cards to dealers and potential buyers
  • and to fashion an image of himself, to create a brand with which to position himself within the Paris art market

Props

And what vivid and effective branding he created. Haunting images of the hook-nosed outsider, an image we see again and again in this exhibition.

Self Portrait with Yellow Christ by Paul Gauguin (1890-1891) © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

But this time, look at the background.  Once you look, you see the backdrop isn’t just a room or wallpaper, but is entirely filled with two artifacts. On our left as we look, is the yellow Christ, itself bizarrely coloured. And on our right what looks to be a version of the primitive-style ceramic pot in the shape of a face which is also included in the exhibition.

The point is that, above and beyond the image of himself, Gauguin is using props – and not casual props, but extremely significant and meaningful props. Here is the artist caught between Europe and Christianity and the savage and primitive. Even more simply, between light on the left, and dark on the right.

You or I are free to interpret their precise meaning at our leisure, but there is no doubting the intention that the chosen objects charge the painting.

Symbolism

Gauguin’s habit or tendency or aim in placing and positioning props and (quite often) text into his paintings, is part of the reason he’s sometimes seen as a forebear of Symbolism, the movement in art and poetry and prose which aimed to hint or suggest at deeper and, generally, hidden meanings.

It’s at work in even his earliest paintings. Take this apparently innocent painting of his son, Clovis, asleep. Innocent until you really start looking at it — at which point you notice three things.

Clovis Asleep by Paul Gauguin (1884) Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

One: the post-impressionist use of very broad, highly visible brushstrokes, laid on in rows, and using vivid colours.

Two: the tankard. The longer you look at it the more you realise how grotesquely over-large it is, as if it is growing, looming, almost threatening.

Three: the swirling patterns on the vivid blue wallpaper. What are they, birds, fish? Or… are they creatures emerging from Clovis’s dreams? Are they dream animals playing on the wall?

Tahitian meanings

This brings us to the numerous paintings he made on his two stays in the Pacific, where this technique of symbolic props and writing come into their own.

Every aspect of this painting is eerie with meaning. For a start it is surreal to see a Tahitian woman dressed in the ankle to neck dresses forced on them by the French Christian missionaries. Especially when you connect the covered woman with the painting of the naked woman apparently on some kind of frieze in the background – the women in the foreground is not only totally covered but unnaturally still, sitting in a missionary-approved polite posture; while the woman in the frieze is not only mostly naked but has her arms raised as if in some meaningful gesture, and appears to be interacting with at least two other figures we can glimpse. And all of that is going on before you begin to interpret what look like golden letters on the upper wall, and smaller black letters written at the bottom left.

The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents (Merahi metua no Tehamana) by Paul Gauguin (1893) © The Art Institute of Chicago

In other words, like many of his self portraits, this painting is brimful of meanings, overflowing with significant poses, prose and props.

So one of the immense pleasures of the exhibition is being able to walk between the paintings and see how Gauguin develops this visual language of symbolic props.

The commentary goes heavy on how his travels to the South Seas were in pursuit of ‘authenticity’, in quest of a more simple, pure and unsullied form of life. Unfortunately, as any cynic might have told him, by the time he arrived the early ‘unspoilt’ life of the natives was destroyed by Christian missionaries, by European laws and trade and money and capital.

But I suggest we see his travels to Tahiti and then on to the Marquesa Islands as a quest in search of more props and meanings. It’s as if he had created a vivid, unnaturalistic post-impressionist style, a style of vivid powerful primary colours and people drawn in blocky outlines but now… he needed to find a society which suited his style more than boring, commercial Paris.

They tell us he went in search of Paradise. But I think he also went in search of a society and culture which was somehow answerable to, adequate to, appropriate to, the visual style he had forged for himself.

Portraits without people

The curators pick up on the tremendous meaning Gauguin was able to pack into his paintings through the use of props, and in particular the use of other works of art, or his own works of art, in the background — by devoting an entire room to portraits without people.

For if a person’s personality or character can be indicated by the props you place around them (and around yourself) then why couldn’t you indicate a person via props alone? Have nothing but props in a picture to convey the person you’re depicting?

This is the rationale for the exhibition having a roomful of still lives of flowers which, in greater or lesser measure, portray people, people who just happen to be absent from the picture. My favourite among these was a wonderfully vivid vase of colourful flowers behind which, if you looked hard enough, you can see a vague grey portrait of Gauguin’s lifelong friend Meyer de Haan. Once you’ve noticed it you realise its presence suffuses the image.

Even more comprehensive is the still lifes Gauguin painted of sunflowers. In 1888 Gauguin spent a famously intense and tumultuous nine weeks staying with Vincent van Gogh at the latter’s Yellow House in Arles in the South of France. It ended badly with Gauguin storming out but the working, painterly and psychological relationship went so deep that years after van Gogh’s death, in 1890, Gauguin sent a letter from Tahiti asking a friend to send him packets of French flower seeds, including sunflowers, for him to grow in his garden And as late as 1901 and 1902 Gauguin painted a series of still lifes with sunflowers which can be taken as a very moving tribute to his wonderful friend. But note the use of props – the painting in the top left is Hope by Puvis de Chavannes, and the bowl the flowers are in appears to be a hand-carved Tahitian bowl with two carved figures. Vincent is here by default, but so are various other threads and themes in a tangle of meanings.

Still Life with ‘Hope’ by Paul Gauguin (1901) Private collection – Milano, Italy © Photo courtesy of the owner

Carvings and ceramics

There’s a lot more to be said about the paintings, about how he did portraits of useful and important people in the Paris artworld, or what the portraits he did alongside van Gogh show about their respective approaches, or how the images of good friends changed over the years, let alone the world of ideas and issues, from comparative religion to under-age sex which are thrown up by the brilliant South Sea paintings.

but the revelation of the exhibition for me was what an absolute genius sculptor Gauguin was. I was shattered by this massive and chunkily carved portrait of his friend, the Dutch painter Jacob Meyer de Haan. Apparently Gauguin carved it out of a piece of waste wood he found lying around, part of which still shows burn marks, which makes it ten times more attractive to me, as I love art made from waste or industrial products. But, for me, it is quite simply one of the most electrifying and brilliant sculptures I have ever seen.

Bust of Meyer de Haan by Paul Gauguin (1889) © National Gallery of Canada

The exhibition includes several ceramics, including a terrific ‘portrait vase’ of the wife of Gauguin’s friend, Émile Schuffnecker, as well as bronze casts of plaster faces he made of Tahitian friends or lovers which show Gauguin’s restless and experimental side.

But it was the carvings which came as a complete surprise to me and blew my mind. Here’s a carving in a different style, on a polished wood, using a ‘primitive’ style to portray the characters from the the poem by Stephane Mallarmé, Symbolist poet and supporter of Gauguin, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which the artist brought back from the Pacific in 1893 and gave to the poet in person.

L’Apres-midi d’un faune by Paul Gauguin (1892)

There were half a dozen other wood carvings, including a haunting portrait of his young ‘wife’, the fourteen-year-old Teha’amana, and several casts of ‘savage’ masks. But it was my first real introduction to the fact that wood carving, woodcuts and ceramics took at least as much of his energy in his last decade as painting, and it made me want to see a lot, lot more of all of them.

Conclusion

A wonderful bringing-together of rare works of art from collections around the world, which really bring out what an innovator, and what a restless creative force Gauguin was. Huge and enormous pleasure from all parts of his career, in a surprising range of media, including not only oil paintings, but drawings, prints, ceramics and wood carvings, which also allow really penetrating and interesting discussions of what a portrait is, what a portrait is for, and how Gauguin deliberately burst open all kinds of traditional constraints on the genre, to create something utterly new and thrilling.

Tehura (Teha’amana) by Paul Gauguin (1891-1893) Coloured wooden mask © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Gérard Blot


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Pre-Raphaelite Sisters @ the National Portrait Gallery

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was an art movement set up initially by three idealistic young art students (John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt) in 1848 and lasted in its first form until 1853.

However, the initial founders were joined by followers, including the young disciples William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who evolved a style of medievalising, idealising and spiritualising art which endured till the end of the nineteenth century. In the latters’ hands many of the PRB values evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement which went on to influence craftspeople across the country and abroad.

Possibly the most memorable style associated with the original Pre-Raphaelites is the depiction of long-gowned, long-necked beautiful women with cupid lips and frizzy hair, brought to perfection in the later paintings of one of the founders and central figures, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877) The model is Jane Burden, daughter of a stableman, who married William Morris, became the iconic beauty of the movement, and for whom Rossetti developed an unhealthy obsession during the 1870s

The Pre-Raphaelite World

Reading about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood often reminds me of the the Bloomsbury Group, the group of writers, artists, critics, historians and economists which loosely associated before, during and after the Great War. The two groupings were:

  • a complex matrices of artists, writers, critics, friends and extended families, and wives and lovers, who all bring with them the complicated stories of their intertwined adulteries and affairs
  • many of the wives or children or grandchildren or greatgrandchildren capitalised on their connection to write biographies or memoirs, which helped to add to the ‘legend’ of the group as a whole

Both are characterised by the very pukka English trait of everyone in the group thinking that everyone else – their friends and partners and lovers – was a genius.

Of course this was partly because they all suffered from attacks by the brutal English critics and, quite naturally, sprang to the defence of the paintings / designs / poems / novels or whatever else, produced by their close friends, or bothers, or sisters, or lovers.

The result is that entering the PRB world, like entering the Bloomsbury world, is to quickly become aware of the legends and well-told stories surrounding each of them, of the way the commented on and supported each other’s work, and of a small industry of secondary and tertiary artworks and criticism and writing devoted to them, with a number of descendants working alongside devoted scholars, to pour out a never-ending stream of PRB-related material.

When you go into the shop (which you have to walk through on the way out, just as you have to walk through the shop on the way out of V&A or British Museum exhibitions) you realise that, in any case, this or that new book about the PRBs – in fact all scholarly or biographical writing about the PRBs – forms only a small subset of the wider merchandising surrounding the movement. Alongside the many biographies and memoirs are the posters and prints, reproductions, cards and label pins, fridge magnets, tote bags, scarves, pillowslips and duvet covers, and much more, much more, extending out to the huge range of William Morris-inspired designs you can buy at Liberty’s for wallpapers and carpets and tapestries and so on.

And that’s before you get to the talismanic geographical locations you can visit connected with the group, such as William Morris’s house in Hammersmith, the William Morris museum in Walthamstow, the Red House (now a National Trust property) in Bexleyheath, the remnants of the Morris and Co fabric factory at Merton Abbey Mills, the restaurant at the Victoria & Albert Museum decorated by Arts & Crafts designers, and so on.

So to engage with one or other of the Pre-Raphaelites is not just to go and see a bunch of paintings, it is to enter a large and complex and multifaceted imaginative world. I think this is part of what draws the PRB devotees: the fact that the PRB world is so large, so complex, there were so many of them, who produced so many works, that once you’re in, you can forget all about the actual world we live in and never come out again.

Georgiana Burne -Jones, long-suffering wife of adulterous Edward Burne-Jones, with her children Philip and Margaret in the background, painted by Edward Burne-Jones (1883)

The Pre-Raphaelite Women

As you might expect, many of the women connected to the Pre-Raphaelites – their wives and lovers and models and muses – have been extensively written about, and even had films made about them (for example, a quick search on Amazon shows that the first woman in this exhibition, the model Effie Gray, has had two books written about her, plus a 2015 movie based on her life).

But, rather surprisingly, this big show at the National Portrait Gallery appears to be the first exhibition ever devoted to putting the female point of view of all the women connected with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, as a whole, as a group.

Specifically, the exhibition showcases the lives and works of twelve Pre-Raphaelite woman, bringing out the extent to which many of them were not passive models or wives-in-the-background, but were studio managers, businesswomen, promoters, mothers, sisters, lovers and muses, as well as – and this is the key revelation of the exhibition – often being notable artists in their own right.

Having pondered how to convey this information, I’ve fallen back on the actual layout of the exhibition as being the most objective, least subjective way of presenting it. The main NPG exhibition space is divided into 12 rooms or parts of rooms, each devoted to one of the twelve women they are showcasing. These are thumbnail portraits of the women’s biographies and achievements:

1. Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, wife and businesswoman

Euphemia (‘Effie’) Gray married the art critic John Ruskin in 1848. She was very beautiful and John Everett Millais used her as the model for the woman in The Order of Release painted during the movement’s first period, in 1852. This hangs as the centrepiece of the first room and we are drawn to the unusual realism of Effie’s face.

The Order of Release 1746 (1852-3) by John Everett Millais

Millais went on a trip to Scotland with the Ruskins, during which Effie’s profound unhappiness became clear. The exhibition includes sketches made of the couple by other guests on the holiday. While Ruskin was totally absorbed in writing up the notes to his masterpiece about architecture. The Stones of Venice, Millais and Effie fell in love. In 1854, supported by her family, she brought a case to annul her marriage, and the following year married Millais. She became his business partner, helping with research, production and marketing of his artworks, researching locations, sourcing costumes, cultivating clients etc. She became Lady Ruskin in 1885 when her husband was made a baronet and there is a painting of her looking very haughty indeed.

2. Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet

Christina was sister to the leading Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and another brother, the critic Michael Rossetti. They were all brought up in an intensely religious atmosphere which is conveyed, here, by the painting of the Annunciation which Dante made in 1850. In 1858 she started working in a home for girls thought to be sexually at risk, an experience which (apparently) inspired her most famous poem, Goblin Market, with its ripe sublimated sexual imagery.

Christina went on to publish three volumes of adult poetry, verse for children and devotional works, was recognised and admired in her time. Fans who gave her good reviews and promoted her works included Tennyson and Browning. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ – Here is an example where that is simply not true.)

Beside portraits of her by others, the exhibition includes some of her own drawings and illustrations, her notebook containing a sonnet on Elizabeth Siddal – In an Artist’s Studio – plus a funny cartoon by her brother of Christina having one of her famous ‘rages’, in the cartoon she is smashing up a Victorian living room with an axe.

There appear to be at least six biographies of Christina, plus umpteen editions of her verse and critical studies

3. Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model and muse

The daughter of a soldier, Annie grew up in poverty in the backstreets of Chelsea, close to the studio of William Holman Hunt, one of the three founders of the RB movement and, arguably, the most conventionally Christian. He was introduced to her and used her as a model for the woman in his astonishing painting, The Awakening Conscience.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853)

Hunt paid for her to be taught to read and write and good manners and deportment, with a view to marrying her. But then he went off to Palestine for two years (1854-6) to paint meticulously realistic Biblical paintings in the actual scenery of the Holy Land, and while he was away Annie also modelled for Millais, Rossetti, Arthur Hughes and others. On his return Hunt was disillusioned by her character which had become, he thought, lazy and addicted to luxury. He broke off the engagement and offered to send her overseas, but she preferred to stay in London and pursue a career in modelling.

By the early 1860s she had found herself an eligible husband, Thomas Thompson, a cousin of Lord Ranelagh, who she married. They moved to Richmond, had children, and in later life Annie was at pains to play down her association with disreputable bohemian artists.

There appear to be no books specifically about Annie.

4. Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) Model, artist and poet

The working class daughter of a cutler whose shop was in Southwark, Lizzie Siddal was plucked from the street to model for another Victorian painter, before gravitating into the circle of the PRBs and especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti to whom she became a passionate muse. Her most famous commission was as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s awesome painting of her floating in full dress amid flowers.

But Lizzie was also an artist. She was the only woman exhibitor in an 1857 PRB exhibition which was held in America, the producer of a series of watercolours taking Tennyson and medieval legends as her subject. She also wrote poetry and the exhibition includes a manuscript of her poem, At Last.

After a long and stormy courtship Siddal finally married Rossetti in 1860, but the next year she had a stillborn son, and was lunged into such a deep depression that she committed suicide by poison. Distraught, Rossetti placed the manuscript of his poems in her coffin. A year later he was reluctantly persuaded to re-excavate the coffin, open it, and retrieve the poems, a taboo actions which oppressed him for the rest of his life.

5. Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model and lover

Born plain Sarah Cox into a blacksmiths family in Sussex Fanny took her name from her sister who died in infancy. She encountered Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown and Millais in the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London and quickly began posing as a model for various paintings.

In 1860 when Rossetti married Siddal, Fanny married Timothy Cornforth, but it appears to have been a holding operation because, when Lizzie killed herself, Fanny moved in with the distraught Rossetti.

For over a decade she sat for many of Rossetti’s mature paintings of the classic pre-Raphaelite look – willowy dresses, long neck, strong jawline, cupid lips, billowing tressed hair, such as one included in the exhibition, The Blue Bower.

The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1865) The model is Fanny Cornforth, famed not only for her strong pre-Raphaelite jawline, but her sumptuous, tressed, blonde hair

Half-time thoughts

The obvious point about the exhibition so far is that, with the outstanding exception of Christina Rossetti, a notable poet in her own right, and maybe Effie Millais for her efforts as a businesswoman on her husband’s behalf, the women covered so far

  1. mostly do conform to the limited stereotype of model and ‘muse’
  2. are extremely well-known, having been on the receiving end of one or more biographies and even films, and featured in at least two BBC TV dramatisations of the lives of the PRBs

So that you begin to wonder a bit in what way this exhibition is overturning any preconceptions.

It’s in the second half that the show – or its polemical purpose – lifts off, with a raft of women who were clearly notable artists in their own right, and/or had much more to them than

6. Joanna Boyce Wells (1831-61) Artist

Joanna was encouraged to paint by her businessman father, artist brother and sister. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ here is another example where that is simply not true.)

Her father paid for her to study art and her first exhibited piece was shown at the Royal Academy in 1855.

Elgiva by Joanna Boyce Wells (1855)

There are half a dozen other paintings and drawing by Joanna in her section, including The Boys Crusade and Head of a Mulatto Woman. Some of them are marvellous, some of them a bit more run of the mill. Difficult to get worked up about this head of an angle. It’s the kind of rather second-rate image you get on umpteen Christmas cards.

Thou Bird of God by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

Joanna married Henry Wells during a visit to Italy in 1857-8, and set up a joint a artistic partnership when they returned to England, Lizzie Siddal being quoted approvingly commenting that Joanna was very much the head of the firm’. It was a tragedy when she died aged just 30 from complications of childbirth.

Up till now the exhibition had featured little more than paintings and drawings. Here for the first time was an object, the exact dress which Joanna wore for a portrait of her done by her husband, Henry. This was a fascinating object in itself, with asymmetrical patterns and the jet black Victorian exterior fitted inside with bright scarlet trim.

The presence of objects in the second half of the exhibition made it feel much more interested and rounded – with a dress, a pair of shoes, a handbag, medallions and so on giving a much fuller sense of the times, and of the range of artistic channels which were available.

7. Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

Possibly the most striking revelation of the whole exhibition was the life of Fanny Eaton. She was black, born in Jamaica, came to England with her mother in the 1850s and married working class carter and cabman James Eaton.

By 1859 she had been discovered as a model and sat for Rebecca and Simeon Solomon and Albert Moore. She had a thin face and frizzy hair and one of the best things about this exhibition is the way it’s pulled together half a dozen paintings by different artists which use her as a model, along with her biography and a simply stunning pencil drawing of her by Simeon Solomon.

Fanny Eaton by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

8. Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Wife and model

Georgiana is one of the core figures of the PRB myth. She was one of five MacDonald sisters who all went on to achieve fame and eminence, one of her sister’s sons, for example, going on to become the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Her main role in the mythology is a) long-suffering wife who b) suppressed her own talent in devotion to her husband. At the age of fifteen she was engaged to Edward Burne-Jones, who gave her craft and engraving lessons, and then was apprenticed to Ford Madox Brown.

She married Burne-Jones and moved into the core of the movement, getting to know Jane Morris and Lizzie Siddel, between them they discussed plans to publish a volume of illustrated fairy tales.

But the birth of her daughter Margaret put a temporary end to her own artistic aspirations. She was then dismayed by her husband’s very public infatuation with the artist Maria Zambaco. While he painted ever more torrid and sensual pictures featuring Maria as model, Georgiana found herself sidelined into the fate of motherhood, managing her husband’s studios and business, and Being There to comfort him when he returned from a series of infatuations and affairs.

A classic example of the wife as Mother and Martyr.

9. Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, muse and sculptor

Maria Cassavetti was born to a wealthy Anglo-Greek businessman based in London, with patron connections with the PRBs. In 1861 she married a Paris-based doctor but the marriage failed and she returned to London with their children. Here she began modelling for Burne-Jones, an activity which quickly developed into ‘an intense love affair’.

Burne-Jones described her as ‘primeval’ and the siting of Maria’s section right next to Georgiana’s beings out Georgiana’s dowdy, proper Victorian demeanour and helps you understand why the uninhibited Greek beauty must have swept Burne-Jones into a new realm.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, née MacDonald (c.1882) photographed by Frederick Hollyer

Now compare and contrast the naked body of Maria, modelling for B-J’s astonishing painting The Tree of Forgiveness.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones (1882)

This is one of three massive paintings which fill the end wall of the exhibition, the other two being Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin, which also features Maria as model, and Proserpine by Rossetti. If you love PRB painting this is one wall with its trio of massive paintings are worth kneeling and praying to. They make you realise that at their peak, the works of Millais, Burne-Jones and Rossetti were of an other-worldly brillance in the sense that they are consummate exampes of the art of painting, but also that they successfully create an Otherworld of the imagination, vastly more rich and sumptuous and perfect and wonderful than the actual fallen world, in which Burne-Jones looked like a kindlier version of Rasputin and his wife looks like a tired childminder.

The world they all aimed to create utterly transcended this one to take us into a world of perfect bodies, perfect colours and shades, and uplifting stories of noble figures from the Bible, the Middle Ages of Greek legend.

Anyway, after the affair with Burne-Jones ended, Maria became a sculptor, studying with Alphonse Legros in London and Rodin in Paris. She produced figurines (none of which, alas, are in the exhibition) and also became an expert at portrait medallions and there are four spirited examples of portraits set in circular medallions. Apparently, most of them have been lost, these four survive because Maria presented them to the British Museum soon after they were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy? I thought the nineteenth century was the age of the patriarchy when all women were forbidden from practising art or writing… apparently not.

10. Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, muse and craftsperson

Jane Burden grew up in poverty and was destined for domestic service until she met the young Pre-Raphaelites who were undertaking a commission to paint a mural at the Oxford Union. Rossetti painted her as a tall elegant noble Queen Guinevere and Morris married her in 1859. She became his partner in what became Morris and Co., managing the embroidery commissions, and a close friend of the Burne-Jones family, whose children called her Auntie Janey. Henry James called her a ‘grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings ever made’ and photographs of her as a young woman confirm that she had the super-strong features, the strong jaw, cupid lips and tressed hair beloved by the male painters.

Jane Morris at Tudor House (1865) photographed by John Robert Parsons

In 1868 she resumed modelling for Rossetti and they began an affair which lasted until his nervous breakdown in 1876, and inspired a series of his major mature works like Proserpine, above.

Jane was a renowned needlewoman, who also experimented with bookbinding and calligraphy and the exhibition features an evening bag sweetly designed and stitched by her.

11. Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model and artist

Born, like Maria Zambaco, into the Anglo-Green community in London, Marie’s sister was painted by James Whistler and Marie herself was then asked to pose for the note Victorian woman photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.  The famous Victorian woman photographer. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is an example of that simply not being true.)

Spartali decided to become a painter and studied with Ford Madox Brown, who became a lifelong mentor and her first paintings were exhibited in 1867. (So she’s supported by her male father, by her male mentor, given an exhibition by a male gallery owner, and taken up by a male dealer.)

She married an American and went with him to Italy and Greece on business, painting all the while, for her male husband supported her career. She developed a particular style, ‘notable for colour harmony and evocative atmosphere’, depicting late medieval scenes from Chaucer, Dante or Petrarch.

The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman (1889) Note: this work has never been public displayed before so this is a rare opportunity to see it in the flesh

If this painting is anything to go by, her paintings are detailed, colourful and take colourful historical subjects. But they feel weak and underpowered. All the characters are limp-wristed and so are their poses, and the colouring, which is vague and wishy-washy on outline.

Sorry to be predictable, but compare and contrast with The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones, which has a tremendous dynamism, and a pictorial excitement, by which I mean he has total command over the medium of oil paints to create a wonderfully dynamic and involving image.

Back in the Jane Burden section there’d been a painting of Kelmscott Manor, the Oxfordshire home of William Morris, painted by Marie and which, it seemed to me, suited her style more than human compositions – a landscape as if on a rather misty morning, the house and garden a little foggy and unclear, making it all the more poignant and expressive.

Kelmscott Manor by Marie Spartali Stillman

Apparently her landscapes like this sold well, particularly in America, where you can imagine them providing exactly the kind of idealised view of a picture postcard Cotswold England which rich American collectors warmed to.

Objects: The exhibition includes a pair of evening shoes designed and stitched by Spartali, who was an accomplished seamstress.

12. Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

Evelyn was born into an aristocratic family, the great-grand-daughter of the Earl of Leicester, her uncle was the Pre-Raphaelite artist J.R. Spencer Stanhope. She was a prize-winning student at the Slade School of Art. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is another example of that simply not being true.)

She exhibited alongside Marie Spartali and others at the Grosvenor Gallery (hang on, I thought the Victorian patriarchy prevented women from expressing themselves, becoming artists or selling their work) before in 1887 marrying the noted ceramicist William de Morgan. Together they built a close professional and personal relationship, her art sales subsidising his pottery production.

She came a generation after the first PRBs and her style shows a kind of off-shoot of the style. There are several large paintings by her here and their obvious quality is a kind of cartoon simplification of the PRB style.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan (1878)

This huge painting, Night and Sleep, is done with consummate skill, the figures, the faces and the drapery all extremely good. And yet, overall, the composition lacks a certain… vigour? Life? I can’t quite put it into words, but – placed amid so many other masterpieces – it didn’t quite do it for me.

Conclusion

1. The art

None of the women artists shown here are as good as the best of the male artists.

Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali, Evelyn de Morgan and Maria Boyce Wells are often good, sometimes very good – but nothing they made matches the tip-top best of Rossetti, Burne-Jones or Millais. We could argue about this for a long time, but for me, walking from the pallid rather lifeless pictures of de Morgan back to the big works by Rossetti and Burne-Jones was to move from the alright, quite nice, so-so, to supersonic masterpieces.

The exhibition allows you to size up de Morgan’s painting of a dryad:

The Dryad by Evelyn de Morgan (1885)

And then stroll 20 yards back through the gallery to Burne-Jone’s Tree of Forgiveness, above, in order ot make a direct comparison of their treatments of a nearly identical subject.

It was obviously her artistic choice to treat the subject like this, but de Morgan’s painting seems to me thin and cartoony. Good, but… empty and undemanding. Almost naive art. Whereas the Burne-Jones painting has tremendous, muscular energy which lifts you up into the action, like a movie, like a good book.

BUT – all that said – the exhibition DOES work in showing us that these women were not just ciphers and sidekicks. Many of them really were good and notable artists in their own rights and, as new overviews and histories are written, hopefully their achievements will receive a more coverage and understanding.

AND it brings together into one place works that have either never been seen before like The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman or have not been seen in public for 25 years like Thou Bird of God by Wells, and the cumulative effect – especially in the more artist-focused second part of the exhibition – is to create a kind of communal critical mass where you realise that there were a lot of them, they were very talented, and they did have a lot to say.

2. The lives

In a different direction, the exhibition fleshes out the lives and achievements of the women it is easy to dismiss or overlook as ‘simply’ wives or models. Thus, even though they were only, in the end, quite small sections about each of them, I nonetheless got a much better feel for the lives, hopes, aspirations, achievements and frustrations of figures who had often been only names to me (not being a PRB or Arts & Craft completist) such as:

  • Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth
  • Jane Burden and Lizzie Siddel
  • and a sad feel for the quiet mournful figure of Giorgiana MacDonald.

And the complete revelation of the character and importance of the black model, Fanny Eaton, whose life story is presented here for the first time.

The exhibition curator Dr Jan Marsh, writes:

When people think of Pre-Raphaelitism they think of beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours. Far from passive mannequins, as members of an immensely creative social circle, these women actively helped form the Pre-Raphaelite movement as we know it. It is time to acknowledge their agency and explore their contributions.

I suspect people will continue for a long time to associate Pre-Raphaelitism with ‘beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours’ – simply because that’s what the best of their paintings depict and are famous for depicting and nothing is going to change that any time soon.

If you’re already a fan of the PRB and the later Arts & Crafts movement this will already be a must-see exhibition. But even if you’re not, it turns into quite an eye-opening revelation as to the roles and work and achievements of many of the women who have only hovered on the periphery of the stories up till now. I don’t think it will turn the average person’s view of the movement upside down… but this exhibition marks a distinct shift of the dial.


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The Bauhaus and Britain @ Tate Britain

This one-room FREE display at Tate Britain celebrated the centenary of the opening of the Bauhaus School of Art and Design in Germany in 1919 with a display showing the interaction between Bauhaus ideas and exponents, and their followers and collaborators in Britain.

The Bauhaus aimed to promote modern art for a modern world and to demonstrate the practical use of all the arts to improve society. As part of this goal it set out to integrate disciplines including the fine arts, architecture, craft, graphic design and photography.

During its 14 year existence an astonishing array of some of the most creative 20th century artists, sculptors, designers, architects and photographers lived and taught and made wonderful things at the school’s Weimar campus.

K VII (1922) by László Moholy-Nagy. Tate

As soon as they came to power in 1933 the Nazis, who not incorrectly saw the Bauhaus as a hotbed of radicalism, shut it down. Many artists associated with the school came to Britain in search of safety and work and British artists with similar interests to those of the Bauhaus welcomed their émigré colleagues. Many key Bauhaus figures went on to the United States, opening the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937, but some remained in Britain, and this exhibition focuses on a) those who stayed b) the British periods of those who stayed for a year or two before moving on.

Ball, Plane and Hole (1936) by Dame Barbara Hepworth

So it is that the exhibition interleaved works produced by both Bauhaus and British artists and designers across a characteristically wide range of media. I counted:

  • paintings by Ben Nicholson, László Moholy-Nagy, John Stephenson, Alastair Morton artistic director of Edinburgh Weavers who commissioned work from Nicholson
  • watercolours by Grete Marks
  • sculptures by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, who settled permanently in London and became a leading figure in the development of abstract art in Britain
  • a tea service by Grete Marks and a teapot by Naum Slutzky
  • ceramics such as the vase by Grete Marks
  • carpets by Ben Nicholson
  • fabrics by Ben Nicholson
  • furniture i.e. streamlined modern chairs by Marcel Breuer
  • a bakelite radio set designed by Wells Coates
  • photos of modernist blocks of flats (Kensal House, Kensal Rise) by Edith Tudor-Hart, and portraits by Lucia Moholy-Nagy
  • architecture – Kensal House designed by Elizabeth Denby with architect Maxwell Fry, who had been English partner to Bauhaus director Walter Gropius during his sojourn in England 1934-37
  • a selection of jewellery, namely brooches, necklaces and rings – by goldsmith, industrial designer and master craftsman Naum Slutzky

Dove brooch by Naum Slutzky

And books. There are several display cases showing old magazines from the 1930s by such earnest advocates of modernism as Sir Herbert Read, the dustjacket of whose 1934 book Art and Industry was designed by Bauhaus-trained Herbert Bayer. Read went on to try and create an inter-disciplinary art & design college in Edinburgh.

There’s a rare copy of The New Architecture and The Bauhaus by the Bauhaus’s founding director, Walter Gropius, published in 1937, one of the first books about the school in English. And of the 1939 Pelican Special A Hundred Years of Photography by Lucia Moholy-Nagy, László’s photographer wife.

Another display case shows magazine articles written by some of these artists, alongside personal photos of, for example, the Nicholsons at home, and postcards from Moholy-Nagy to the Nicholsons.

Ben Nicholson always features prominently in these exhibitions as one of the 1930s British artists who experimented most extensively with abstract and geometric shapes, in both painting and small sculptures and (as here) a carpet and fabrics.

I don’t quite know why, but he’s never lit my candle at all – I’ve always thought of him as a poor British cousin of the far more exciting and innovative Europeans. Here’s a typical piece of Nicholsonia. Its heart’s in the right place but… for some reason it leaves me cold…

Sculpture (c.1936) by Ben Nicholson. Tate

Nicholson lived in North London with his partner Barbara Hepworth (whose work I’ve always found much more interesting). They befriended their art historian neighbour Read among other arty types, and a number of the Bauhaus exiles settled in North London near them, forming quite an artistic colony, including exiles like Bauhaus-trained Marcel Breuer who designed book covers, tables and chairs, some of which are in the exhibition.

B9 table by Marcel Breuer (1927)

The exhibition even includes an entertaining film – Lobsters! It was co-directed by Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy, who was commissioned to work on the film with English director John Mathias. While in Britain Moholy-Nagy took on short-term roles in photography, film and commercial design. He designed ads for London Transport and collaborated on this short film depicting fishermen on the Sussex coast. The surprising angles and close-ups are attributed to Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus sensibility but I personally was more struck by the plummy tones of the commentary and the jolly score by Arthur Benjamin.

After a while I noticed that almost all the objects on display are owned by Tate, and it occurred to the cynic in me that the Bauhaus centenary was probably an opportunity for the gallery to dust off some of these rather dowdy antiques and given them an airing.

I’m not criticising. The insight just helped to explain why most of the exhibits were only so-so, or included sort-of interesting postcards and magazines, but lacked any real killer exhibits.

That said, not choosing to go to town on the centenary but limiting the celebration to a modest and FREE display made it in some ways feel much more relaxed and casual and accessible than it might have been.


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Helene Schjerfbeck @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition takes you on a strange and mysterious journey through the career of one of Finland’s most eminent artists, Helene Schjerfbeck, from entirely conventional late-Victorian naturalism like this:

Self-portrait by Helene Schjerfbeck (1884-85) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Hannu Aaltonen

Via a kind of haughty modernism like this:

Self-portrait with a black background by Helene Schjerfbeck (1915) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Yehia Eweis

To the incredibly bleak, post-Holocaust self-portraits of her last few years.

Self-portrait with Red Spot by Helene Schjerfbeck (1944) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Hannu Aaltonen

Synopsis

Helene Schjerfbeck lived from 1862 to 1945. She is one of Finland’s most eminent artists. This is the first ever UK exhibition ever devoted to her work. It contains some 65 portraits, landscapes and still lifes, selected from the estimated 1,000 works that she produced in a career spanning nearly seventy years.

Early career and studies

Helene was the third child of an office manager in the Finnish state railway’s workshop. The family were lower-middle-class Swedish-speaking Finns. At the age of 11 some of her drawings were shown to a successful painter who arranged a free place for her at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society. Aged 11! She won a prize every year for the four years she was there.

In 1877 she moved to a private academy in Helsinki, learning to handle oil paints. In 1880 her painting Wounded Soldier in the Snow won a prize from the Finnish Senate which allowed her to go and study in Paris. She made friends and visited Pont-Aven the emerging art colony where Gauguin was later to work.

In 1887 she travelled to St Ives in Cornwall at the invitation of a fellow art student who had married an Englishman. She returned again a year later and made many paintings, enjoying the English coastal light.

The first picture in the show is Two Profiles from 1881, when she was just 18. It took my breath away. The oil paint is laid on in swatches and clearly visible strokes which give a bracing energy and dynamism to what is, on the face of it, a passive image. This reproduction is terrible. In the flesh it is much more bright and airy.

Two Profiles by Helene Schjerfbeck (1881)

All the other early paintings have a tremendous confidence with oil paint, she handles it in the loose expressive way I associate with John Singer Sargent. They all deal with light and sunny Cornish landscapes or healthy looking peasants and workers and family and friends. Chocolate box. The rural settings and confident if (when you look closely) roughly applied paint remind me a bit of the farm paintings of George Clausen.

View of St Ives by Helene Schjerfbeck (1887)

The largest painting from this early phase is The Convalescent from 1888. It is a rich slice of late-Victorian tweeness, complete with a blue-eyed little girl. It was exhibited at the Paris Salon of that year and bought by the Finnish Art Society. It is tremendously proficient. Look at the glass jar on the right of the table. What immense talent she had for this kind of naturalism.

The Convalescent by Helene Schjerfbeck (1888)

Travelling and teaching

There is then a hiatus in the exhibition. The next painting is from 1905. What happened in between? She travelled and got a job as a teacher.

Travel In 1892 the Finnish Art Society commissioned her to travel to St Petersburg and make copies in the Hermitage Museum of Frans Hals, Diego Velasquez and other Old Masters for the Finnish Collection. In 1894 she visited the Austrian national museum to make more copies, then travelled on to Italy to make copies of Renaissance masters.

Teaching Schjerfbeck got a job as a teacher in the Finish Art Society’s drawing school. She was, by all accounts, extremely exacting. Complete silence in the classroom.

Ill Schjerfbeck was always unwell. As a child she had fallen and broken her hip leading to a permanent limp. She fell ill in 1895, took sick leave till 1896, and was again on extended sick leave in 1900. In 1902 she resigned her teaching job and went to live with her mother in the small town of Hyvinkää north of Helsinki. There is a series of portraits of her mother which hint at the psychological tensions between them. Nonetheless her mother’s small state pension meant she didn’t have to work.

Schjerfbeck ended up living in Hyvinkää for fifteen years, corresponding with friends and asking for copies of newspapers and magazines. During this time she used local girls and boys and men and women as models for her painting.

The mature style

All of this goes some way to explaining the radical change which came about in her art. Compare the two women and the little girl in the paintings above with the next one in the exhibition, from 1911.

Schoolgirl by Helene Schjerfbeck (1911)

The idea is that Schjerfbeck no longer needed to compete – to bow to current taste in order to sell things to the Salon or to compete for prizes or sales. Now she could experiment with her vision – and it is completely unlike anything from the 1880s and 90s.

Now the outlines of figures becomes misty and vague. The faces lose the precise features they formerly had. Detailed description disappears in favour of blocks of abstract colour. And the palette becomes deliberately more narrow, so that the compositions seem more aligned, more focused, creating a sense of luminosity.

Many of the paintings are deliberately unfinished, leaving patches of canvas showing through. And in many of them, she either scores the surface of the paint, or lets it dry then scrapes away at it, repaints a new layer, dry, and scrapes it back again – the idea being to mimic the aged and worn affect of the many frescos she had seen on her trip to Italy.

Flappers

The Great War came but didn’t greatly effect her art. Instead this rather misty style continues unabated into the between the wars period. Surprisingly, many of them reflect the fashions of the era. She subscribed to fashion magazines such as Marie Claire and was interested in the slender gender-neutral look of the ‘flapper’, and she also created fictional characters or types. Almost all her models were local working class people but she used them as the basis for novelistic ‘types’ such as The Skiier or The Motorist or, one of the most vivid images, the Circus Girl.

The Circus Girl by Helene Schjerfbeck (1916)

Note the vague unfinishedness of the whole image; the sketchiness of the outline; the sense that it has been scored or marked by charcoal lines; the tonal unity of the yellow background and yellow skin, the pastel top and golden choker. And note the unexpected surprise of the big red lips with their cartoon-style catchlight.

There are 20 or more paintings which are all variations on this theme, and in which the face is more or less stylised. In some it becomes a shield-shaped mask, verging on the abstract and obviously indebted to the experiments the great modernists had made earlier in the century, copying actual tribal masks held in museums of Ethnography.

A handful of other works deliberately reference El Greco who she particularly liked, he was, I suppose, another eccentric or outside-the-mainstream artist.

I love drawing, I love clear defined outlines, but I also love it when they’re not finished, incomplete and hint at a perfection they don’t try to achieve. I love the suggestion of struggle in a work of art. Hence I love lots of sketches and drawings by Degas. And hence I loved lots of Schjerfbeck’s misty, unfinished, gestural works. Is there some Picasso’s harlequin period in this one?

Girl from Eydtkuhne II by Helene Schjerfbeck (1927) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Hannu Aaltonen

The self portraits

Schjerfbeck painted her first self-portrait at age 22 and her last at 83. The exhibition has a room devoted to them, with seventeen examples placed in simple chronological order, and they create quite a harrowing effect, as shown at the top of this review, progressing from sweet and gentle young woman, in her naturalistic phase, to the haughty modernist of between the wars and then, in the 1930s and 40s, to an awesomely bleak and unforgiving vision. During the 1930s the familiar lineaments of her face are subjected to distortions, her cheekbones melting, her mouth becoming a dark wound. The only colour is grey, shades of grey, grisaille, the only tones left when all the colours of life have drained away.

Self-portrait with Palette by Helene Schjerfbeck (1937)

But these turn out to be only the build-up for the final half dozen self portraits painted during the Second World War as Schjerfbeck, by now an old woman and ill with the cancer which would kill her, morphs into a gaunt, grey, death-haunted skull-face which foreshadows the era of the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and the harrowed writings of Samuel Becket.

Green Self-Portrait – Light and Shadows by Helene Schjerfbeck (1945)

What an extraordinary pilgrimage. And what a distinctive, individual, strange and troubling journey she takes us on. This is a remarkable exhibition.

Promotional video

Curators

Rebecca Bray, Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, Sarah Lea


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Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera (1972)

Kundera’s third novel feels shorter and more streamlined than the first two. At 184 pages (cf The Joke pp.267 and Life Is Elsewhere pp.306) it is a slim, quick, funny, if sometimes shocking read. The first two novels, though comic in tone and often in content, contained big wodges of serious, sometimes tragic material about politics and repression under the Czech communist state. In The Farewell Waltz some of this content intrudes, in the character of Jakub the embittered political dissident. But apart from him, the rest of the story feels much closer to a farce, a sex comedy. According to the internet, a farce is:

a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations

That doesn’t really describe this book, but it does gesture towards the way The Farewell Party begins with a predicament and then goes on to wring as many comic situations and variations out of it as possible, placing its characters in improbable and unlikely situations in order to extract as much comedy, and plain absurdity, as possible.

The plot

First Day (Monday)

Klima is a famous Czech jazz trumpeter. He is happily married. Two months before the action starts he had played a gig at a health spa in the country. He and the band were treated to an after-gig party by a rich American staying at the spa (Bartleff), and Klima ended up having sex with one of the spa nurses, Ruzena. Now she’s pregnant, and on the second page of the book she rings him up at his Prague apartment to let him know it. Thus the ball is set rolling. The book is divided into five sections titled simply First Day, Second day etc. and it all happens over this tight, compressed timespan.

Klima is a coward, a timid man, who takes advantage of his fame to seduce women, but always feels nervous about it beforehand, guilty about it afterwards. Deep down, he is deeply, sincerely in love with his wife.

He tells the band he’s rehearsing with about the call, and his bandmates are sanguine, suggesting a variety of tactics to fob her off. The young guitarist (18) even suggests bumping her off in a supposed ‘road accident’. The reader is a little startled.

Klima thanks them all, then phones Ruzena and says he’ll come and visit her tomorrow. Then goes home and cobbles together a cock-and-bull story to tell his wife, Kamila, about having to play some socialist party youth conference or other. She doesn’t believe a word. She is well-attuned to his infidelities and lies. He knows he doesn’t believe her.

Second Day (Tuesday)

Klima motors to the spa and looks up Bartleff, the American patient with the bad heart, who hosted the party where Klima met the fateful nurse. He shares his problem (he’s gotten a nurse at the spa pregnant) with this bluff man of the world, who offers various suggestions.

Klima is surprised to learn that Bartleff paints religious pictures. There’s a new one, of Saint Lazarus, on the wall of his apartment. Bartleff explains it is blue because real saints’ halos really are blue. Klima is only paying half attention.

Klima phones Ruzena at the bath where she’s working and arranges to meet her after work, at 4pm. Then Bartleff takes him across the way, to the clinic, to meet Dr Skreta, the leading specialist at the spa.

IRONY The spa exists to treat infertile women. The place is packed with well-off, middle-aged women who can’t get pregnant. It is therefore a primal, structural irony that the entire plot rotates around a young woman who has gotten pregnant, after just one act of hurried coitus, but the father wants to terminate it.

Throughout the conversations with his band, and then with Bartleff, and now with Dr Skreta, the men discuss women as a problematic category, in an objectifying way, which I imagine most modern readers would find horrifying. I couldn’t tell whether the guitarist’s casual suggestion that they murder the nurse, and Klima’s casual acceptance of it, was meant to be ironic or straightfaced. The book is stuffed with men casually discussing the trouble with women and the problem with women and how to handle women and the differences between blondes and brunettes – dismissive and gross generalisations, which would give a feminist a heart attack.

Anyway, when Klima and Bartleff explain Klima’s problem, Skreta is immediately sympathetic. He tells them the next abortion committee meeting is on Friday and he can slot Klima and Nurse Ruzena straight in. And he shares a private passion of his which is that he is himself a keen jazz drummer. Could Klima maybe see his way to playing a gig with him and a bassist who also works at the spa?

So anxious is he to secure the decision for an abortion that Klima would agree to anything. Good, yes, whatever. They set the concert date for this Thursday, the day after tomorrow. Galvanised, Dr Skreta vows to set about creating the posters and printing up tickets.

Klima meets Ruzena at 4pm outside the baths and takes her to the spa dining rooms. Here he commences his strategy: he tells Ruzena that he loves her so much that’s why he didn’t phone her at all for two months after their liaison; it was because he was afraid of the intensity of his emotions. He carries on despite her sceptical protestations, to assert that of course he will leave his wife, and wants to marry Ruzena – she begins to soften and swoon – BUT: the first few years of any marriage are the most blissful and he wants to spend them with her, unobstructed, unencumbered with a new baby. And that’s why he thinks she should terminate the pregnancy.

He suggests they get out of the dining rooms – where he is uncomfortably aware that everyone in the place can see him. Ruzena is impressed that he has a car, and so is easily persuaded to go for a drive in the country. Klima puts his arm round her as he drives and presses home his advantage, spinning fantasies about where they’ll go once he’s divorced his wife and married her.

He stops the car at a scenic spot and they walk into the country. He kisses her, a long lingering passionate kiss. He is in the middle of describing how Italy will be the first stop and he’s in the middle of painting the beauties of Italy when she surprises him by giving in. Yes. OK. Alright. She’ll place herself in his hands. She’ll agree to go to the abortion committee on Friday. (p.44)

Klima can’t believe his luck. In the end it was so easy. They walk back to the car, her head on his shoulder, but as they get there realise a motorbike is parked next to it and the motorcyclist looms threateningly up to Klima and starts telling him that, just because he’s famous, he thinks he can get away with anything; well, not this time, buddy! Klima hasn’t a clue what’s going on, Ruzena tells the man to shut up and go away and scrambles into the car, as the man turns towards her side, Klima jumps in his side and accelerates off. She explains he’s a maniac who stalks her. We will, in fact, come to learn that this is Ruzena’s boyfriend, a local rough named Franta, who has had sex with her and who may, indeed, actually be the father of her baby…

Arriving back at the spa, Klima escorts Ruzena to her nurse accommodation in the stylishly named Karl Marx house, before walking thoughtfully to Bartleff’s flat. He knocks and when there’s no answer, tentatively opens the door. For a moment he is awed. The room is lit by a soft blue glow. Remember the dialogue when Bartleff explained that he liked painting religious pictures? And that he had painted St Lazarus’s halo blue because that is actually the colour of saints’ halos? Well… Klima backs out and quietly closes the door, but next minute it is opened by Bartleff looking fresh and wearing the same clothes he had on that morning, who welcomes him inside, rejoices when he hears that Ruzena has given in and agreed to an abortion, and plies him with food (crackers and tinned ham). Then waves him off as Klima leaves, belatedly, to drive back to the capital and explain why his day took so long to his long-suffering wife.

Third Day (Wednesday)

A friend of Dr Skreta’s arrives. This is Jakub, who was in trouble with the authorities in the grim years after the 1948 coup, and for whom Dr Skreta knocked up a blue pill of concentrated poison, so that if Jakub was arrested, before he was tortured, he could control his own destiny and end it all. Now he announces he is leaving the country, he has official permission and is going to a teaching position abroad. He wants to return the pill. Dr Skreta won’t hear of it and pushes it back into Jakub’s hand when it is profferred.

(There is some very casual comedy, when Skreta forces his friend to accompany him into the examination room where a woman is lying on her back, naked, with her legs wide open so Skreta can examine her. It is a feature of Skreta’s character that he takes all this in his stride and tells the nurse to fetch his fellow doctor a white coat, and then confidently asks for his second opinion. So that the lady on the table is not discombobulated by the presence of another man looking at her privates, but quite flattered to have two specialists examining her case. Dr Skreta’s boundless self-confidence will recur at important moments later in the story.)

Jakub is here because he’s come to say goodbye to his ‘ward’, Olga. This young woman is the daughter of a friend of Jakub’s who was arrested and executed by the communists in the purges of the early 1950s when Olga was just seven. Jakub vowed to look after her, became her legal guardian, and when she left school got her a job here at the spa, via his old friend Dr Skreta.

Skreta says Olga is fine and tells Jakub which accommodation block to find her in. He also tells him about a) the famous jazz trumpeter Klima, his problem with the pregnant nurse, and how Skreta is going to play in a concert with him this Thursday. And b) about his latest money-making scheme. You know the rich American, Bartleff? He paints oil pictures. Skreta is trying to persuade Bartleff to let him become his agent and sell the paintings to gullible ladies at the spa, and take a commission.

Jakub shakes his head. He’s known Skreta since school, and he is continually coming up with hare-brained schemes.

We are introduced to Olga. She is bright but not excessively so. She fusses and frets about her appearance and figure. She is called out of the pool by Nurse Ruzena who she cordially dislikes. She makes a fuss about what to wear for Jakub, makes a decision then goes to meet him for lunch in the spa dining room. He tells her he’s leaving the country.

She is sad but, as usual, they end up discussing her father. Recently she’s been receiving letters claiming he wasn’t the political innocent Jakub’s brought her up to believe, but himself a hardline communist and arrester of others, till he himself was consumed.

Jakub’s thread introduces the serious themes of History or, to be precise, the tragic history of Czechoslovakia’s early years under communist rule, when some 100,000 opponents of the regime were imprisoned or sent to camps, and there were successive waves of executions of enemies of the state, traitors and saboteurs. Olga’s questions prompt several basic reflections from Jakub:

1. It was all a long time ago. The Farewell Party was published in 1972, 24 years after the 1948 communist coup, and that’s been long enough for Jakub to reflect that the younger generation can have no idea what it was like and, indeed, even people like himself who lived through it, are starting to forget what it was really like.

‘Time flies so fast, and the past is becoming harder and harder to understand.’ (p.60)

2. And, cynically, he remarks that if he’s learned anything from the experience of living through those times, it’s that, most people spend most of their lives living in a small bubble of family and work, but if History intervenes, and if the situation becomes stressed and difficult, then people will do anything to survive. Now the dust has settled, he thinks there was no ultimate difference between the communist authorities who locked up all those innocent people, and the victims. People are people.

There isn’t a person on this planet who is not capable of sending a fellow human being to death without any great pangs of conscience. At least I have never found anyone like that. (p.61)

Cut to Ruzena’s morning at work, where her fellow nurses flock round her and ask how her meeting with the famous trumpeter went. They are disappointed when she says he’s persuaded her to terminate the pregnancy. One of them gets a tube of pills out of a drawer and gives it to Ruzena, tranquilisers to calm her nerves.

Exiting the building she is again confronted by her young man, Franta, who begs her to be more friendly and loving to him. But Ruzena has set her sights high, on a national celebrity, o Klima, and tells Franta to bugger off. She tells him he’s driving her frantic, he’ll drive her to suicide if he keeps on harassing her like this! (p.66)

Back in Olga’s room, Olga and Jakub continue their conversation. He tells her about his friend Dr Skreta and his eccentric ideas. On an impulse he pulls out the blue pill, the suicide pill, and explains how Dr Skreta made it for him with no questions asked, just before Jakub was hauled off to prison. (He was lucky; he only served one year.)

Blue symbolism The colour blue recurs in key symbols. The sky is blue above this rather fairy tale spa. The mysterious halo in Bartleff’s room is blue. And the pill of death is blue.

The dog squad

As well as an irritating young boyfriend, Ruzena also has an embarrassing old dad, who has joined some cockamamy squad of old codgers who have formed a ‘squad’ to round up all the stray dogs running wild in the town who are pooing and peeing everywhere, or so they claim.

The importance of this for the plot is that it triggers the deep dislike between Jakub and Ruzena. For Ruzena has just finished her shift and is walking between buildings, her head full of thoughts about the two worlds she inhabits: the stifling provincial one of the spa, characterised by hordes of fat middle-aged women and hardly any eligible men, only biker losers like Franta – and the big wide glamorous world of Prague and beyond, with which she associates Klima. Throughout the book she vacillates between going along with his request for an abortion, and then in a panic realising having his baby is her only hope for escaping her sad little destiny.

She is in just such a wavering state when she sees her dad and a few of the other dog squad emerging from bushes where they’ve been hunting dogs with long poles with wire nooses at the end. They’ve captured a dachshund. Suddenly Ruzena sees Jakub walking along the pavement towards her. He was sitting with Olga earlier, Olga who she hates for her superior manner. Now Jakub calls to her ‘Come here, don’t be afraid, come to me’ and is startled until, a second later, she realises he is talking to a dog, to a squat ugly bulldog which was behind her. He has completely blanked her in preference for some ugly mutt! The humiliation!

As Jakub picks it up to protect it from the dog hunters, Ruzena steps forward and grabs its collar, telling Jakub she’ll report him to the authorities.

They engage in an absurd tug of war which is also, Kundera points out, no less than a battle between two worldviews: she, driven by resentment and humiliation and anger at her cramped small-town life, burns to take revenge on this smarmy, self-confident, big city intellectual. He, for his part, sees in her exactly the petty-minded, bureaucratic, vengeful, small-minded party zealot who, in their thousands, supervised the arrest, stage trials and imprisonment of him and a hundred thousand like him, epitome of all those ‘prison guards, inquisitors and informers.’ (p.75)

In fact it’s even worse: Ruzena is the type of the bystander who rushes to help the executioner, rushes to pin the victim down so his throat can be cut, and full of pious self-justifying high-minded rhetoric about society and morals – a type who came to prominence in the century of calamity.

In this moment History returns in the form of a man and a woman absurdly tugging at the collar of a mutty old bulldog. Jakub wins, and yanks her hand away, turning and quickly entering the building where Olga lives. For a moment their eyes meet in a look of pure hatred.

Jakub takes the dog up to Olga’s apartment where Dr Skreta arrives and, with his usual confidence, announces the dog is well known, named Bobis, and belongs to a couple a little way out of town. Now he takes Jakub with him to Bartleff’s apartment, explaining on the way his latest hare-brained scheme, which is to ask the American Bartleff to adopt him, Dr Skreta, so that Skreta immediately becomes an American citizen and can travel freely outside Czechoslovakia!

The three men gather for a convivial chat on many subjects. It is now that we explicitly learn that Bartleff believes halos are a consequence of experiencing oneness with the Godhead, divine delight and are, indeed, blue. Doesn’t think this – he knows it (p.78).

Moving on from this eccentric view, they go on to discuss Klima’s predicament, and then the conversation turns to the topic of fertility in general. Jakub, clearly established now as the Cynic, gives a suite of reasons why he thinks human beings should not procreate, climaxing with the Big One, that procreating implies an absolute affirmation of human life which he, personally, after his life experiences, feels unable to give. After all, as even the usually bullish Dr Skreta is forced to admit:

‘Humanity produces an incredible number of idiots.’ (p.92)

Olga leaves her water treatment and finds a note on her door telling her they’re all at Bartleff’s. There she joins Bartleff, Skreta and Jakub for a convivial private diner, brought to them by a waiter (Bartleff is a rich American, remember) during which he holds forth with a pet theory about the religion of the saints, namely that is was built on a thirst for admiration rather than holiness, as such.

Then the meal is interrupted by a beautiful little girl of 12, in a white dress tied with huge bow behind which looks like angel wings, appears to tell Bartleff he has another appointment. About this stage – what with his knowledge of halos and religion and the arrival of this little angel – I began to wonder whether Bartleff would be a redeeming saving angel in the story: whether it would have a truly supernatural element, as all these little symbols and moments suggest…

Bartleff leaves and Olga, with the callousness of youth, dismisses him as a posing self-dramatist. Skreta and Jakub walk her back to room and then go for a stroll under the big August moon. And it is now that Skreta lets Jakub in on a profound secret: all the women he treats for infertility and who get magically pregnant (including Bartleff’s own wife) – he, Skreta, has created a frozen store of his own sperm, and he is inseminating them all with his own seed. He is creating a world of brothers. No end of communist rhetoric craps on about a world of equality, where brothers and sisters share a common interest, and common values. Well, he, Skreta, is taking steps to really bring it about!

But, as so often in Kundera, his interlocutor, Jakub, is miles away, thinking about his conflicted feelings for Olga, and whether to leave tomorrow or not. He only half hears what Skreta tells him, and thinks it’s another one of his hare-brained schemes.

Fourth Day (Thursday – 47 pages)

Mrs Klima knows all about her husband’s infidelities and they drive her wild with jealousy. As soon as he said some communist committee obliged him to play a benefit gig at some spa resort with a pickup band including a doctor, she knew he was lying. Now, Thursday morning finds them in bed and he lies all over again and can see in her face she doesn’t believe a word. She goes to work. She works in a theatre. She used to be a famous actress but fell ill and her stage career ended. Now she asks if she can have the afternoon off. She’s going to take the train to this bloody spa and confront Klima with his lies!

Olga is having her morning dip in the spa pool among all the naked fat middle-aged women when a young dude in jeans walks in, then a few more follow him. They’re a film crew down from Prague, they’re filming a documentary about the spa. Olga is outraged, gets out and flings a towel round her, before storming off to her cubicle, leaving the woman supervising the pool, nurse Ruzena, fuming.

Jakub has been persuaded to stay on at the spa for an extra day. Dr Skreta has told him that the bulldog which he saved from the dog squad belongs to a young couple who live out in a village. So he drives the dog back to their owners, a young couple with a baby. They’re grateful and give him lunch and present their squawling new baby. What a big nose it’s got, rather like Dr Skreta’s comic banana nose. Hang on! Jakub asks if they were treated by Dr Skreta? ‘Yes! How did he know.’ So maybe Skreta’s hare-brained scheme about breeding a little generation of brothers isn’t mad after all. Maybe he really has been treating all the women’s fertility problems by impregnating them with  his own semen.

For Franta, Ruzena is the only girl he’s ever slept with, she made him a man, she is his world. To watch her swanning off with this big city musician makes him furious. He finishes a fridge repair job (that’s his work) and motorbikes into the spa, heading for the concert hall to watch Klima practice for that night’s gig. For the rest of the day he will be Klima’s shadow.

Jakub drives back to the roadside restaurant where he’s arranged to meet Olga. He doesn’t notice Klima’s car there or Franta’s motorbike. Klima is waiting impatiently for Ruzena and when she arrives he guides her impatiently to a table by the window. She’s been realising Klima is lying to her and begun to be full of righteous indignation. Klima grasps her hand and is half way through telling her how much she loves him when she announces that she’s changed her mind: she’s going to have the baby after all. Klima’s world collapses around him. Glancing out the window she sees Franta peeking out at them from behind some bushes. God, he’s following her everywhere. Feeling harassed she remembers the tube of pills her nurse friend gave her, pulls it out and opens it and pops one of the blue tranquilisers. Klima takes both her hands in his and begins some long speech and then it crosses his mind to take her for a cruise, maybe being in the car will bring back the mood of yesterday.

So up they get and leave. Jakub has been watching all this from across the restaurant and now goes over to the vacated table (the one with the best view in the place). He notices the vial of blue pills Ruzena has left on the table and picks it up and idly plays with it before opening it and being struck how the pills inside are the identical colour as the famous suicide pill Dr Skreta made for him. He gets the suicide pill out. He toys with it in his hand. Playfully he slips it inside Ruzena’s glass vial.

And just at the exact moment Ruzena appears at the table asking for her pills back. She’d got all the way to Klima’s car then realised she’d forgotten them. Jakub hesitates. Ruzena insists. They both recognise each other as the antagonists over the lost dog. Their hatred revives. She reaches out for the vial and he moves his hand up out of reach while he blusteringly tries to think of an excuse not to give them up. But Ruzena screams at him to hand them over, and suddenly something snaps in him. Coldly and ceremoniously, Jakub hands over the vial with the poison pill in it.

For the next seventy or so pages of the book, whenever we come back to Jakub, he will be agonising that he has just condemned the young nurse to death and that – given his political history – this makes him no better at all than the inquisitors and executioners who murdered his friends.

Mrs Klima gets a train to the spa to spy on her friends and is pleasantly surprised to come across the film crew who so upset Olga. They are old friends, they persuade her to come for a lunchtime drink.

On the drive it occurs to Klima that what might persuade Nurse Ruzena that he loves her would be if he made love to her again, if they reconnected on a primal level. Come and see me after the concert, he says, and drops her off.

Ruzena is walking through town at a loss what to do when he hears a voice calling. It’s the three-man camera crew who she let into the pool this morning and so upset Olga. They call her to join them and the pretty woman with them (Klima’s wife).

Jakub hurries his meal with Olga to an end and then rushes to the concert hall where he finds Skreta and Klima rehearsing. He asks if either of them have seen Ruzena, which they haven’t. Suddenly it dawns on him that this is the fulfilment of a deep unconscious wish. He is now proving his most cynical tenet true: there is no difference between the persecutors and the victims. He is thrilled to be murdering one of the petty-minded little bullies. And at the same time he is horrified by himself.

In the nook at the outside pub the three-man film crew are chatting up the two women, the director rubbing Mrs Klima’s thigh with his, while the cameraman puts his arm round Ruzena and accidentally-on-purpose touches her breast. Things are heading towards a drunken orgy when Ruzena suddenly sits bolt upright. She has recognised Kamila as being Klima’s husband. Suddenly it feels like the whole universe is mocking her. The men laugh at her sudden outburst of propriety, and she is longing, longing to tell them she carries the fruit of the loins of oh-so-high-and-mighty Kamila the famous actress. She reaches into her handbag to get the vial of tranquilisers, when she feels a strong hand grip her wrist.

It is Bartleff. His intervention just as Ruzena was about to pop the suicide pill feels a little supernatural, and emphasises even more his magic and mysterious powers. A big, confident man, Bartleff sits down with the crew – who make the resentment they feel at this intrusion prety obvious – and takes charge of proceedings, asking the boy waiter for the best wine in the house, insisting the owner comes to join in a toast, and toasting Ruzena’s beauty. Suddenly she feels transformed from a squalid small town girl to an angel.

Bartleff gets up and accompanies Ruzena off. The party atmosphere of the others collapses. Kamila feels suddenly revolted by the film crew, gets up and leaves.

The concert Jakub takes Olga to the concert. As they settle in, he sees Bartleff and Ruzena sitting not far away and believes more than ever that things have been arranged by a malicious God to torment him. The concert starts and, after a few numbers, Jakub begins to stand up, so he can go and talk to them and warn them about the pill, but at that moment a) Olga grabs his hand and tells him to sit down b) Bartleff and Ruzena themselves get up and swiftly exit the hall. The moment has gone.

Klima had noticed Bartleff and Ruzena coming in and felt confident she was there and he could see her after the show. But when he notices Bartleff and Ruzena exiting, his energy slips, he feels deflated: he just wants the concert to be over. But Dr Skreta is drumming like crazy behind him and won’t let him stop.

Bartleff takes Ruzena back to his apartment and tells her he loves her, he has always loved her. His words are like honey, like magic, she warms and stirs and for the first time for as long as she can remember is not full of self-hatred and doubt. As Bartleff describes how beautiful she is, Ruzena begins to believe it. As he begins to strip her, her body turns to him like a sunflower towards the sun.

As the concert ends Jakub takes Olga back to her room. His mind is obsessed with Ruzena and the pill and he goes round and round in circles trying to decide whether he is a murderer or a hypocrite or an angel of death or the instrument of some higher purpose. He hardly notices when Olga leans forward and kisses him.

Mrs Klima elbows her way through to the dressing room after the concert. She is convinced her husband is having an affair, and expects the arrival of some dollybird any moment, and so is watching him like a hawk. But Klima just seems to be tired, and tells Dr Skreta and the bassist the same. Tired and just wants to go to his room.

Olga kisses Jakub again and leads the absent-minded older man over to the couch where she starts loosening his shirt.

Franta was at the entire concert and now tails the trumpeter to the dressing room, hangs around, and then follows him towards his temporary flat, but… where the devil is Ruzena? Franta just knows she was going to meet the trumpeter after the show, so where’s she got to?

Three acts of love

Kamila and Klima walk to the building and apartment Dr Skreta has arranged for them to stay in overnight. It’s in the same corridor as Olga’s and Bartleff’s. In one room Bartleff is showing Ruzena the most wonderful night of her life; not because of his sexual technique as such, but because he has a magical way of really making her feel beautiful and loved.

Next door Olga has stripped and laid on the couch and Jakub is quietly appalled to find himself in the position of having to make love to her lest he embarrass and humiliate her on the last time they’ll ever spend together. Reluctantly he tries to rise to the occasion, despite a world of details reminding him that she is his ward and charge.

And in the third bedroom, Kamila slowly strips for Klima but he knows she is only doing it, provocatively, because she is convinced he had some erotic escapade lined up. He hates her jealousy and, in his bitterness, his penis shrinks away from her ministrations, convincing Kamila even more that it is not she her husband had been planning to make love to that night.

Meanwhile, Ruzena has never known love like it. She realises she has her whole life ahead of her. There is no need to rush into anything. She falls asleep snuggled in Bartleff’s arms and, when she wakes in the middle of the night, notices the dark room lit by a strange blueish glow. Is he a saint?

Fifth Day (Friday – 34 pages)

Next morning Klima gets up early to go and find Ruzena but she isn’t at her work, or in her dormitory. Unknown to him he is tailed everywhere by Franta, who’s been waiting outside Ruzena’s dormitory all night, frantic with jealousy. Eventually, Ruzena exits from Bartleff’s apartment and is confronted in quick succession by both men, Klima desperate that she is going to come with him to the abortion committee at 9am as they agreed yesterday.

Jakub wakes and immediately calls the bathhouse asking for Ruzena. They say she’s busy right now. An enormous weight lifts from his shoulders, and he thinks: what if the pill Dr Skreta made him was harmless? Yes, that would be the act of a true friend. And he spends a page expanding on this idea that Skreta, the true friend, would never have given him poison. Phew! What a relief!

Klima waits in the waiting room outside the spa pools where Ruzena works till 9. She emerges and he escorts her in silence to the abortion clinic.

Jakub dresses and tiptoes out of the room without waking Olga. He bumps into Mrs Klima who is just leaving their room. They introduce each other and walk downstairs, cross the road into the park. Jakub is absolutely staggered by Kamila’s beauty. Now, on the verge of leaving his homeland forever, he is overcome by a sense that he has never understood the world of art beauty and culture. Suddenly, on impulse, he tells her he is going away, he is leaving the country, he is never coming back, and that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Then he turns and walks away leaving her standing, watching him, till he disappears from view.

The abortion clinic is grim. Abortion is frowned on in the communist state. The country needs more patriotic citizens. The waiting room is plastered with posters encouraging procreation and praising motherhood.

Jakub returns to Olga’s room. She’s awake now, and inordinately pleased with herself. She is no longer a passive creation of men, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s ward. She has asserted her personhood. Jakub sadly says he really is leaving. He offers to walk her to the pool. On the way she comes over as so gushingly girly, so sweetly indifferent to the fact that he’s leaving his homeland forever, that he realises he has, once again, misjudged the situation. The only thing he knows, is that he knows nothing.

The meeting of the little abortion committee should be grim but is comical. Dr Skreta chairs the session, flanked by two chunky communist party matrons, and he has their measure to perfection. He puts on a tone of aggrieved sternness, and reads the unhappy couple a lecture about the joys of procreation and the needs of the socialist state etc. The matrons nod heavily. But then, with a sigh, he turns to the psychiatric report saying Mrs Klima is in a delicate state, a divorce might kill her. And we don’t want young nurse Ruzena to suffer the indignity of single motherhood. And so, with a heavy heart, Skreta declares that, alas and alack, he is going to sign the form for the abortion to go ahead. The matrons sternly lecture Klima and the nurse and then in turn sign the form. He goes to get up but they say, ‘Not so fast’. They dismiss Ruzena but announce that Klima has to remain behind to ‘volunteer’ to give blood. Cheap at half the price.

Finally, they allow Ruzena to leave, but she finds an angry Franta waiting outside, who blasts her with accusations and follows her down the stairs despite seeing she is distraught.

Having made all his goodbyes, Jakub crosses the spa, and comes across a group of schoolchildren being taken on a nature trail. Looking closely he sees that more than one of them looks like a little Dr Skreta and feels giddy, feels a sense of unreality. All his life he has been close to the centre of things, to the heart of the action, to politics and weighty affairs. What if all that was nonsense? What if the real beating heart of a country, a nation, of the thing we call reality, is miles away and other than we can possibly imagine?

Furious Franta follows Ruzena across the spa and into the hall where she works, up the stairs and along the corridor and into the hall lined with beds where women patients rest in cotton dressing gowns after their dip, shouting all the way that it is his baby and how dare she seek to terminate it. (Franta is under the misapprehension that Ruzena is pregnant with his baby and has somehow paid or blackmailed the trumpeter to pose as its father in order to secure a termination. The much worse reality hasn’t dawned on him.)

At the climax of their argument Ruzena reaches into her handbag, pulls out the vial of tranquilisers, fetches out the one at the top and pops it into her mouth, moments later feels a stab of pain in her tummy, bends double, and falls to the floor, dead!

The aftermath of nurse Ruzena’s mystery death

Franta gets even more hysterical and starts shouting that he killed her, it was him, he drove her to it. Another nurse runs to investigate then goes off to get a doctor. A dozen semi-naked women patients cluster round the figure on the floor. Everyone is pricked with curiosity to see death.

At the very same moment, Jakub is making his goodbyes to his old friend Dr Skreta. He decides to come clean about Olga’s father. He was not the persecuted hero everyone believes him to have been, on the contrary. It was Olga’s father who sent him, Jakub, his best friend, to prison. In fact Olga’s father thought he was sending Jakub to his execution. Olga’s dad felt very heroic about it, because it showed that he could put the principles of the revolution above personal concerns.

Six months later he himself was arrested, tried and executed, and Jakub was eventually released. This revelation leads Skreta to make a complicated analysis of Jakub’s mixed motives in looking after the girl, but Jakub disagrees with it, and then they’re both getting into a big argument when the phone rings, Skreta picks it up and learns there’s an emergency over at the baths, he is needed.

Crucially, they don’t tell him that nurse Ruzena has dropped dead, and so he doesn’t tell Jakub. Instead they do a big handshake and part for ever, walk down the corridor and out of the building, Jakub makes for his car, and Dr Skreta hurries to the halls.

A police inspector has arrived at the scene. He is standing over the prostrate body interviewing witnesses and trying to keep the frantic Franta at bay, who keeps on yelling that he did it, he drove her to suicide. (And indeed, for the rest of his life, he will carry this conviction like the mark of Cain on his forehead.

There is now some sharp comedy for Dr Skreta demonstrates his superhuman ability to grasp a situation and say the best thing. Since Franta is so loudly claiming the baby was his, Skreta immediately falls in with this lie, and then explains to the inspector that Klima had accompanied her to the abortion clinic because he was doing a kindly deed and volunteering to appear to be the father, so that Ruzena wouldn’t be forced to marry Franta.

Jakub drives off in blissful ignorance of how his chance gesture with the poison pill played out. He spends three densely argued and highly intellectual pages worrying about the meaning of his act, and comparing it unfavourably with Raskolnikov’s famous murder in Crime and Punishment. Here, as elsewhere throughout his works, a Kundera character reflects that whereas in the old days life was heavy and tragic, now it seems almost unbearably light, as if it can blow away in a puff of wind. (p.171)

Klima has finally finished giving blood and walks briskly over to Dr Skreta’s office to find the doctor out. When the doctor finally walks in looking a bit ruffled, Klima grabs his hand and thanks him profusely, for playing such a great set on the drums, but for stage-managing the abortion committee so smoothly. Well, it turns out not to matter since Ruzena is dead.

Klima continues shaking the doctor’s hand, his mouth agape, his brain trying to process this news, which lifts the nightmare burden he’s been labouring under for so long. Quickly, Skreta fills him in. It looked like suicide, and her boyfriend has been telling everyone that a) he’s the father and b) she threatened to kill herself if he didn’t leave her alone. So – Skreta explains to Klima – on the spot he devised the story that Klima had done the chivalrous thing in accompanying Ruzena to the clinic, but was in no other way involved.

He’s in the clear! They shake hands a bit more then Klima leaves the office and staggers back to the room to meet his wife. He kisses her face and neck and shoulders and then sinks to the floor and kisses the hem of her skirt, God he is so grateful, more grateful than words can express. They carry the bags down into the car, and he asks her to drive back to Prague and all the way there her beauty fills the car like a fine fragrance.

But then we go over to her mind, and we see her slowly realising, for the first time, that maybe the only thing that holds her to Klima is her jealousy. But that strange man who stopped her in the park and simply told her she was beautiful before walking off… he made her think. She is beautiful, and strong and independent. If she overcame her obsessive jealousy of Klima what would be left? Precious little. For the first time she can envision a future without him. And she smiles.

And Klima, completely misinterpreting her smile, looks over at her smiling and is filled with love and relief.

The inspector

The last ten pages are taken up with a mixture of broad comedy, clever paradoxes and cunning reversals. Olga arrives in Bartleff’s apartment to find him, the inspector and Dr Skreta discussing the death. Bartleff is absolutely firm that the night before nurse Ruzena had undergone a spiritual experience unlike any other in her life, and had seen a world full of new possibilities, and that suicide is absolutely the last thing she would have done.

Several of his remarks irk the inspector who decides to put the American in his place by devoting a page to demonstrating how all the existing evidence could in fact be stacked up to prove in a court of law that Bartleff was the murderer, the motive being to shut the nurse up before Bartleff’s wife arrives later that day. A tense silence. Then the inspector laughs. He was just showing how evidence in such an ambiguous case can be twisted anyway you want (which makes a distant link with Jakub’s remarks at several places about ‘revolutionary justice’ which incarcerated him and thousands like him).

The inspector shakes hands and leaves and Bartleff goes to his room to change. Alone with Dr Skreta, suddenly Olga remembers the blue pill, the suicide pill, which Jakub showed her, could… might it… was that… She asks him straight out: Did he ever prepare a poison pill for Jakub?

‘That’s absolute nonsense. I never gave him anything of the kind,’ Dr Skreta replied with great firmness. Then Bartleff returned from the other room, wearing a different necktie, and Olga took her leave of both men. (p.182)

I love Dr Skreta.

And the end belongs to him. On the penultimate page, as he and Bartleff are strolling to the railway station to meet their wives, Skreta hesitantly asks if Bartleff can adopt him. Initially surprised, Bartleff lets himself be talked into it and announces it will be great fun.

And then, as the two wives get off the train and walk with their husbands, Mrs Bartleff shows them all her new baby. And they all comment on how very like Dr Skreta he looks, ha ha ha. But of course the reader knows this must be because Mrs Bartleff is yet another of his patients who he inseminated with his sperm. The baby really is his son! But also his brother, since Bartleff has just adopted him. And so the two happy couples walk from the train station towards the resort, laughing and joking about the brotherhood of man under a big autumn moon.

Thoughts

Clever, isn’t it? Very clever. Very beautifully assembled. Like a Swiss clock, with all the parts fitting together just so.

The Farewell Party is funny and a little mysterious (the blue halo and the saint) and thought provoking (Jakub’s political musings about human nature and betrayal), but in the end, there’s no getting around the fact that the central premise is how to shut up and repress a difficult woman, so all concerned can go back to their philandering ways – and that the only solution turns out to be killing her.

I came to really like Dr Skreta’s combination of eccentricity with his whip-smart ability to manage situations (the abortion committee, his immediate exculpation of Klima when he is called to the dead nurse). He was the purest comic creation, not least in his plan to create a real brotherhood of man by inseminating all his patients.

Jakub is a more complex creation, like a bitter ghost overthinking everything but, as always, I warmed to his accounts of the political repression of the country, and of the grim logic of revolutions i.e. people betray their best friends in order to show their revolutionary zeal.

I hoped right to the bitter end that the mystique surrounding Bartleff (blue halo, painter of saints, big hearty ability to put people at ease, the angelic little girl who appears at his dinner party…) would mean that he would somehow, magically, be able to revive Ruzena. After all, the point is made at the start of the novel that he has just painted a portrait of a saint named Lazarus, named after the man Jesus raised from the dead. I can’t overcome a deep sense of disappointment that this didn’t happen, that he didn’t somehow raise Ruzena from the dead… Maybe, on reflection, that is the point.

Klima is a cipher – the harassed philanderer. It’s often the minor characters which intrigue and linger in your mind. Mrs Klima – Kamila – doesn’t appear much but when she does her jealousy, her own status as once-famous actress, and her dawning realisation that she might be able to go it alone, these make for a potent character. And Olga is a minor character but has a lingering effect: Jakub is appalled that she takes their act of love so lightly; but in this she represents precisely the lightness and inconsequentiality of the young generation.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Natalia Goncharova @ Tate Modern

Major retrospective

This is the UK’s first ever retrospective of the Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. It’s huge, bringing together over 160 international loans which rarely travel, including works from Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery which houses the largest collection of Goncharova’s work.

The exhibition is imaginatively laid out with some lovely rooms, and it certainly gives you a good sense of her range of styles, not only in painting, but in lithographs, fashion and costume design, especially for modern ballet, posters, pamphlets and much more. But it also leaves you with a few nagging questions…

Peasants Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1911) State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Fabric design

Goncharova was born in Russia in 1881. She grew up on her family’s country estates in Tula province, 200 miles from Moscow. Her family were impoverished aristocrats who made their fortune through textiles, in fact the name of Goncharova’s family estate, Polotnianyi Zavod, means ‘cloth factory’. From early childhood, Goncharova witnessed the rhythms the farmers’ lives – working the land, planting and harvesting – and also became deeply familiar with all the stages of textile production, from shearing sheep to weaving, washing and decorating the fabric.

Hence two threads to her artistic practice:

  1. fabric design, which ran through the 1910s and led to her wonderful designs for the Ballets Russes in the 1920s and 30s, as well as commissions from fashion houses
  2. a profound feel for the rhythms of agricultural labour, which she depicted in a number of early paintings (like Peasants picking apples, above)

The first room epitomises both threads with several paintings showing agricultural labourers, in a highly modernist style, alongside a display case containing an example of the kind of traditional costume worn by the peasant women on Goncharova’s estate.

Installation view of Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern

Cubo-futurism

What comes over is Goncharova’s very quick artistic development from about 1908, when she was doing stylised but essentially traditional paintings of peasant subjects, to 1911 when she had transformed herself into one of the leading lights of the Moscow avant-garde.

Her swift development was helped by two Moscow industrialists – Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin – who had built up extensive art collections of leading European artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso and Derain, and made their collections accessible to the public. These French works had an electrifying effect on young Russian avant-garde artists, which was accentuated by news of the new movement of Italian Futurism, which they could read about in international art magazines.

Goncharova swallowed both influences whole and became the leader of what contemporaries came to call Russian ‘cubo-futurism’. Various contemporaries are quoted commenting that she was the leader of the younger generation, not only in painting, but in self-presentation, creating an avant-garde ‘look’, as well as happenings, given walking through Moscow’s streets wearing stylised tribal markings on her face, or involved in volumes of avant-garde poetry published just before the Great War.

A work like Linen from 1913 seems to be a straight copy of Picasso-style cubism, cutting up an everyday domestic scene into fragments and pasting in some text, as if from a newspaper or advertising hoarding. The main differences from a cubist work by Picasso or Braques is that the text is in Russian, and the bright blue is completely unlike the cubist palette of browns and greys.

Linen (1913) by Natalia Goncharova. Tate © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The 1913 exhibition and ‘everythingism’

This exhibition feels logical and well designed, and features at least two particularly striking rooms. The first one is dedicated to recreating the landmark retrospective Goncharova was given in September 1913 at the Mikhailova Art Salon in Moscow. The 19193 show included more than 800 works (!) and was the most ambitious exhibition given to any Russian avant-garde artist up to that date. Goncharova was thirty-two years old.

The curators have brought together thirty big paintings which featured in the 1913 show and created a central column in the style of those circular bulletin boards you get in Paris, on which they have plastered copies of some of the posters and reviews of the original exhibition.

Here we learn that Goncharova’s fellow artist and long-time partner, Mikhail Larionov, invented the term ‘everythingism’ to describe her openness to diverse styles and sources, the way her paintings invoke all kinds of sources from the folk designs of her family farm, through to the latest ideas from Paris and Rome.

Thus the thing which comes over from the 30 or so works in this room is their tremendous diversity. There’s a striking female nude which reminded me of something similar by Matisse, there’s a pipe smoker at a table, a motif familiar from Cézanne, there’s a surprising work which looks like a dappled impressionist painting. It really is a little bit of everything and so ‘everythingism’ seems an accurate label.

You could claim this is as a positive achievement, indeed one of the wall labels praised the lack of ‘hierarchy’ in Goncharova’s diverse styles and I understood what they were getting at. There was the implication that it is somehow masculine to want to be the leader of the avant-garde, at the cutting edge, always one step ahead: and somehow a slave of capitalist or consumer culture to need to create a unique brand or style.

By contrast, Goncharova is praised for her more easygoing, unmasculine and uncapitalist stance – allowing herself to be open and receptive to all kinds of visual approaches, mixing Cézanne with Russian icons, or cubism with peasant designs, or futurism as applied to distinctly Russian cityscapes. She was presented as ‘a universal artist’.

You can see how, at the time, she seemed to contemporaries to be a one-woman explosion of all the latest visual breakthroughs and trends because she was covering so much territory.

The drawback of this approach is that Goncharova risks, in retrospect, appearing to be a Jill of all trades but a mistress of none. Lots of the works in this room were interesting but you found yourself thinking, ah, that’s the cubist influence, that’s the futurism, that’s a touch of Cézanne, and so on. They all had her mark, but not so many seemed entirely her, if that makes sense.

For me the most distinctive work in the room was the series of paintings she called Harvest, which was originally made up of nine large works which were designed to be hung together. Two have gone missing but Tate have hung the other seven together on one wall and the effect is stunning.

Harvest: Angels Throwing Stones on the City (1911) by Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The palette of red, orange and tan runs across all seven paintings and gives them a tremendous visual unity. Also note the highly stylised, almost child-like depiction of the human figure, with simplified arms and legs and big simple eyes. The same big wide white eyes with huge jet black irises which appear in Peasants picking apples. This is maybe her core visual style.

Harvest uses Christian motifs. It was inspired by popular prints and the frescoes in Russian cathedrals and takes its images from the Book of Revelation in which the end of the world is presented as a symbolic harvest with the grapes of human souls being gathered and thrown into the winepress of God’s anger.

All in all, surprisingly religious, unironically religious, for an avant-garde artist. It comes as no surprise to discover that room six of the exhibition is devoted to just her religious paintings, featuring half a dozen enormous works she did on Christian subjects, notably four tall narrow full-length portraits of the four evangelists. I can see the way she has applied her distinctive cubo-futurist style to a very traditional Russian subject – I note her characteristic way with big white eyes – but I didn’t really warm to them.

The Four Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

Fashion and design

Room four picks up the theme of Goncharova the fashion designer, showing work commissioned from her by the couturier to the Imperial court, Nadezhda Lamanova, in 1911-12. This room also includes work commissioned from Goncharova after the war by Marie Cuttoli, whose design house Myrbor showcased carpets and fashion designs by famous contemporary artists.

There’s a series of sketches from the 1920s, haute couture-style sketches which make the women subjects look as tubular as a Fairy Liquid bottle, with no hips or waist or bust, which were utterly unlike her modernist paintings, and looked more or less like any other fashion sketches for stick-thin flappers from the Jazz Age.

But on the opposite wall was a piece which I thought might be my favourite from the whole show, a study Goncharova did for a textile design in the later 1920s. I loved the vibrancy of the colours and the primitiveness of the design. In fact it’s only one of a series she did using bird motifs but, to me, it was a standout piece.

Design with birds and flowers – Study for textile design for House of Myrbor 1925-1928 by Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The Great War

In April 1914, Goncharova and Larionov were invited to Paris by the famous ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev to work on designs for his opera-ballet The Golden Cockerel. This was presented in Paris to great acclaim and the pair followed it up with an exhibition. But then the Great War broke out, and both were forced to return to Moscow. Larionov was called up for military service and sent to the front line, was wounded within weeks and invalided out of the army.

Goncharova responded to the crisis by creating a series of prints titled Mystical Images of War which brought together symbols Britain, France and Russia together with images from the Book of Revelation and Russian medieval verse. They use her trademark stylisation of the human face and eyes, and throw in the religious iconography which we’ve by now realised was a big part of her psyche.

The fourteen or so prints on display in room five are a really interesting mix of modern warfare and traditional Orthodox iconography, featuring angels wrestling biplanes, the Virgin Mary mourning fallen soldiers, and the Pale Horse from the Apocalypse. She chose to create prints in order to reach a broad popular audience with what are, essentially, patriotic rallying cries, which also feature patriotic heroes who defended Mother Russia against invaders.

‘Angels and Aeroplanes’ from Mystical Images of War by Natalia Goncharova (1914) © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Books and photos

Room seven is a narrow corridor between the conventionally-shaped rooms six and eight. As in other exhibitions, this corridor makes a good space not to hang works of art, but to place books, pamphlets, photos, prints and posters related to the artist under review, in the long rack of display cases lining the wall.

For this exhibition the curators have displayed artist manifestos, exhibition catalogues and a number of books of poetry which Goncharova was involved in writing or designing or illustrating. The later part of the case displays the ephemera she produced for a series of artists’ balls in Paris, including posters, tickets and programmes. There’s a speaker on the wall from which comes a Russian voice reciting some of the avant-garde poetry included in the pamphlets on display. (It is, apparently zaum or ‘transrational’ poetry, from ‘World Backwards’ by Alexey Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vzorval or ‘Explodity’ also by Kruchenykh.)

Cubo-futurism

Room eight is devoted to another series of cubo-futurist works, highlighting classic Modernist-style depictions of factories and machines and cars and bicycles, all those implements of power and speed which were fetishised by the Italian founder of Futurism, Marinetti.

There are some great pieces here, classic Futurist depictions of machines and factories, a big painting of a bicyclist, another titled Aeroplane over a Train, and a vivid depiction of rowers on the river (which reminded me of the similar treatment given the same subject by Cyril Powers, the British printmaker, twenty years later, as featured in the current exhibition of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art at Dulwich Picture Gallery).

Cyclist (1913) by Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962) State Russian Museum © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Admirable though many of these paintings were, I began to be nagged or puzzled by something. Usually in a major retrospective, you are shown samples of the artist’s work throughout their career. Goncharova was established as a leader of the Russian avant-garde by the time of her huge exhibition in 1913, and lived on until 1962, producing works well into the 1950s.

So where are they? Where are all the later works? Here we are in room eight of ten and we are still… only at 1913?

The first eight rooms of this ten-room survey have all hovered around the years 1910 to 1914. Nowhere does the exhibition say so explicitly, but are we to conclude from this lack of later content that her golden years were a brilliant but brief period, from 1911 to 1914 or 1915?

Goncharova in Paris

Only in this, the ninth and penultimate room, do we learn what happened to Goncharova as a result of the Russian Revolution, namely that she and Larionov were on a tour with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes through Switzerland, Italy and Spain when the October Revolution broke out. The revolution, and then the civil war, prevented them from returning home, and in 1919 Goncharova moved into a flat in Paris that would remain her home for the rest of her life.

This penultimate room contains half a dozen works from the 1920s during which Goncharova received more commissions for ballet costume, some from fashion houses (as mentioned earlier) and a few funky commissions for interior design, including an impressive painted screen made in 1928 for the American patron Rue Winterbotham Carpenter. She did the interior designs for the Paris house of Serge Koussevitsky, exploring the motif of the Spanish Lady on a monumental scale.

When she had accompanied the Ballet Russe in Spain, Goncharova had become fascinated by the clothes of the Spanish women she saw, and ‘the Spanish woman’ became a recurring motif in her inter-war years, maybe because the vividness and ethnic distinctiveness of the outfits reminded her of the Russian peasant look she knew so well.

By far the most impressive work was a huge abstract work titled Bathers from 1922. It is immense, at least fifteen feet across, and reminded me of all kinds of other modernist abstract painters though I couldn’t quite put my fingers on who. First time it’s ever been exhibited in the UK and a coup for the exhibition organisers.

Bathers by Natalia Goncharova (1922)

Ballet designs

Anyway, the point remains – why isn’t there more of her work from the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s? You might have expected the last room in the show to cover the later part of her career but, instead, the exhibition takes an unexpected detour to make this final room, arguably the best in the exhibition.

It is a big space which has been specially darkened to create an atmospheric setting in which to review Goncharova’s work for the ballet and the theatre. Lining the walls are drawings and sketches for costumes Goncharova designed for productions of The Golden Cockerel (Rimsky-Korsakoff) and Les Noces (Stravinsky). There are some videos of her costumes and backdrops being used in revivals of the ballets, The Golden Cockerel footage is a silent but colour film of a production dressed in Goncharova’s costumes which toured Australia in the late 1930s.

But the highlights of the room are four or five of the actual costumes themselves, the costumes Goncharova designed for these classic ballet productions, which are featured in display cases around the room. They are all wonderfully bright and imaginative, drawing on the (to us) exotic and fanciful traditions of Russian legend and folklore.

Theatre costume for Sadko (1916) by Natalia Goncharova. Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

And, last but not least, the room is filled with music, with clips from the famous ballet scores in question, wonderful Russian melodies filling the air as you stroll from wonderful costume to fascinating set designs, or stop to watch footage of actual performances using Goncharova’s colourful and vivid costumes.

The music, the darkened atmosphere, the videos of performances, and the glass cases of costumes – all make this room completely unlike the previous nine and a very evocative space to be in.

Summary

This is a major exhibition by a leading Russian artist who, for a period before the Great War, epitomised the avant-garde for her compatriots. She produced a lot of striking paintings, as well as pioneering designs for ballet costumes and sets, and a wealth of prints and posters and pamphlets and poetry books.

And yet I was left with two nagging questions: first, from such a profusion of images and designs, not that much really rang my bell. A lot of it was striking and thought-provoking and interesting – but possibly only the design with birds and flowers really set me alight.

The stylised human figures with those big eyes is the nearest Goncharova comes to having a recognisable ‘look’ and I liked it, but only up to a point. I actively disliked its application to the icons and evangelists and wasn’t, at the end of the day, that taken with the Great War prints, either.

Comparison with Käthe Kollwitz

Great War prints by a woman artist made me think of the epic prints created by the German woman artist Käthe Kollwitz. These are infinitely more powerful. Comparing the two made me think that maybe Goncharova was held back by her attachment to the Russian Orthodox tradition and its Christian iconography. Kollwitz, by contrast, has broken free of all traditional or religious straitjackets in order to create spartan images of humanity under stress which still speak to us today with horrifying force.

The Survivors by Käthe Kollwitz (1923)

Then again, maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges. Goncharova’s works were created at the very start of the war, when it was thought of as a religious crusade, and everyone thought it would be over by Christmas. Whereas Kollwitz’s haunting images were made nearly ten years later after not only bitter defeat, but collapse of the German state and descent into semi-civil war. So it’s not a fair comparison at all. But you can see why, if you set the two side by side – as we latecomers a hundred years later are able to – Kollwitz’s images are vital, a necessary record of a horrifying period; whereas Goncharova’s are an interesting and nice inclusion in a retrospective of her work, but have nowhere near the same importance or force.

Where is the later work?

And second, where was the work from the later years? Are we to deduce from its almost complete absence from this exhibition, that the curators consider Goncharova’s work from the 1930s, 40s and 50s to be poor or sub-standard? Or is it for some reason hard to borrow and assemble for an exhibition like this?

As far as I could see, the only work dating from either the 1940s or 1950s was one medium-size set design for Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, which Goncharova drew in 1954.

Set design for the final scene of The Firebird by Natalia Goncharova (1954) Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

I thought this was brilliant, vivid and fun, in a completely different style from everything which preceded it, like a highly stylised illustration for a children’s book. So is this what Goncharova’s work from the 1950s looked like?

Having devoted eight or so rooms to going over with a fine tooth comb the intricacies of her output from 1911 to 1915 or so, it’s a shame we didn’t get at least one room telling us what happened to her style in the entire last thirty years of her career.

Video

‘Visiting London Guide’ produce handy two-minute video surveys of all London’s major exhibitions. I include them in my blog because they give you an immediate sense of what the exhibition looks like.

Curators

Natalia Goncharova is curated by Natalia Sidlina, Curator of International Art, and Matthew Gale, Head of Displays, with Katy Wan, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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