Rembrandt’s Light @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This beautiful exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is celebrating the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 1669 by bringing together 35 of his iconic paintings, etchings and drawings, including major international loans including:

  • The Pilgrims at Emmaus, 1648 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
  • Philemon and Baucis, 1658 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)
  • Tobit and Anna with the Kid, 1645 and The Dream of Joseph, 1645 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

The theme of the exhibition is Light and each of the six exhibition rooms focuses on different ways and different media in which Rembrandt showed his mastery of light and shadow.

Philemon and Baucis (1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Before we look at any of the works in detail the curators introduce us to a couple of key ideas:

1. Theatrical

Apparently a new theatre opened in Amsterdam in the 1640s, and the curators quote its owners as pointing out that all the world’s a stage. There’s no direct link, apparently, between the new theatre and Rembrandt’s work except as a peg to bring out the theatricality of his conception. Once it’s pointed out to you, you realise how obvious it is that so many of Rembrandt’s paintings have been posed and staged and set and lit as if for a stage play or opera; that Rembrandt time after time chooses moments of great human drama to depict.

Hence the centrepiece of the first room is the enormous, square painting showing the moment the cock crows in the story of St Peter denying Christ, a moment of phenomenal psychological and religious drama.

The Denial of St Peter (1660) by Rembrandt van Rijn © The Rijksmuseum

This painting alone would repay hours of study. Suffice to point out the obvious, that most of the picture is in deep shadow or gloom, with the result that where light is portrayed it powerfully draws the eye – towards the mysterious glow behind the woman’s hand and onto Peter’s cloak. It was possible to spend quite a long time in front of it just enjoying the burnish on the soldier’s armour and elaborate helmet.

Reflections and jewels

In fact a kind of sub-theme of the exhibition, for me at any rate, was not only Rembrandt’s use of light so much as his use of reflections, especially off metallic surfaces and jewels. For me an exciting part of the Philemon and Baucis painting is not the light as such, but the way it highlights the gold filigree work on Jupiter’s chest and what looks like a band of pearls around Mercury’s head.

Philemon and Baucis (1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Detail

Similarly, the exhibition includes Rembrandt’s famous Self Portrait with a Flat Hat, but among all the visual and psychological pleasures of this wonderful painting, I was attracted by the light reflected from the pearl necklaces around Rembrandt’s chest, on his gold bracelet, and his cheeky, dangling pearl ear-ring.

Self Portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, (1642) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Detail

Light not only has a source and comes from somewhere, but also impacts, illuminates and is reflected back from its targets. What I’m struggling to express is that I didn’t just notice the cunning use of light sources in Rembrandt’s paintings, but the extremely clever, inventive and beautiful ways he uses these often obscure light sources to highlight, burnish and illuminate telling details in the compositions.

A word about reproductions

Back to The Denial of St Peter. What’s a little hard to make out in this little reproduction is that off in the background at the top right is Jesus, a shadowy figure with his hands bound behind him being led away and turning to look at the doleful scene of faithless Peter. Which brings us to a general point:

There’s a good catalogue of the exhibition but flicking through it you realise that all reproductions of Rembrandt are inadequate. No photographic reproduction can do justice to the subtlety and depth, the multiple levels of light and shade and darkness which he manages to achieve with oil painting.

One of the best paintings here is Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Rembrandt van Rijn (1647) National Gallery of Ireland

In the flesh it is a marvel, with multiple layers of paint conveying a dark and stormy night, hills in the background and up on a distant hill the silhouette of some kind of building with tiny glowing windows, while down in the foreground the tiny figures of Mary and Joseph and a servant tend a fire which shines out in a darkness which includes multiple shades of grey inflected with the orange of the fire and morphing into a strange preternatural almost purple sky of dusk. But in the catalogue reproduction almost all of this is jet black.

That’s the point of going to art galleries. The real actual art is always, in the flesh, a thousand times more sensual, rich, deep and mysterious than any colour print.

2. Rembrandt’s house

The curators go large on the biographical fact that in 1639 Rembrandt bought a big house in the Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam, where he lived and painted until he went bankrupt in 1656 (today the Museum Het Rembrandthuis). One wall of room two has an architect’s drawing of the building printed on it.

Rembrandt had his studio on the first floor with its big windows. On the floor above were the smaller studios where he supervised his students. Here, we learn, he set his students all kinds of challenges designed to broaden their technique. Draw or paint a composition with a light source above, to the side, beneath the figures. Make an image with two light sources, one outside the frame. Paint a scene at night. Paint a scene at dawn. Thus the exhibition features drawings by a number of Rembrandt’s students showing them working with light, or by the master himself.

The Artist’s Studio (c. 1658) by Rembrandt van Rijn © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Mock-ups

This brings us to another notable aspect of the exhibition, which is the way it is laid out and staged. The curators have gone to a lot of trouble to make it a dramatic experience, with each room lit and arranged in a different way. But over and above the lighting, in the room where the drawing above is on display, they have recreated the scene by building into the partition wall high, latticed windows that you can see in the drawing, and above the windows a sheet of muslin or cotton has been hung in a kind of billow, while the lower tier of windows has been blocked off, either by fabric of wooden shutters.

The point, for understanding Rembrandt, is to show how carefully he arranged windows and fabrics in order to create light effects in his studios. The point, for visitors to this exhibition, is to be impressed by the trouble the curators have gone to to recreate this aspect of Rembrandt’s studio in the gallery.

Peter Suschitzky, cinematographer

Related to the care taken over the design and layout of the exhibition, is the fact that the two curators – Jennifer Scott and Helen Hillyard – have collaborated with the award-winning cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, famed for his work on films such as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back to create ‘a unique viewing experience’.

What this means is that, having established which works they were going to display, they collaborated with the lighting guy to really think about how to group them into rooms each of which has its own special lighting design and feel.

The most dramatic example of this is room five which is stripped back to its simplest essence with just one painting hanging in it, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (1638). All kinds of things are going on with light in this painting, as you can see for yourself.

Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb by Rembrandt van Rijn (1638) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The thing, the schtick, the gimmick or the stroke of brilliance cooked up by Suschitzky, Scott and Hillyard, was the decision to have one narrow spot light focused on this painting and have it set to very slowly fade away to nothing, and then very slowly come on again till it’s bathing the painting in full light.

As it fades and then returns, something really weird happens: at certain moments in the dimming and fading process, it really as if a ray of light from heaven is falling across the scene. In particular, there’s a certain pint when the face of Mary, the light lower left half, becomes briefly luminescent. And you can simply see why this experience required a whole room to really savour.

Draughtsmanship

The middle rooms contain the etchings and drawings, including ones from his pupils. I have to be honest and say I was underwhelmed by these. His capture of light and shade in the punishingly difficult medium of drypoint etching is marvellous; but his actual draughtsmanship isn’t. In fact sometimes it feels positively wonky.

A good example of this mixed impression is Woman with an Arrow, which is important enough to have an audioguide item devoted to it. Now I can see the dramatic contrast between the whiteness of her naked body and the deep gloom of the background. But.. but if you look at her right arm, at some point I think you realise it isn’t quite in the same picture plane as the rest of her body, has a kind of deformed look. It took me a while to notice there’s a face (presumably of a student drawing her) by her left shoulder. Not very good is it? Crude.

Woman with an Arrow (c. 1661) by Rembrandt van Rijn. The Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam

This kind of rather blodgy wonkiness with the human figure runs throughout Rembrandt’s work. Sometimes he rises effortlessly above it. But other times, I found it distracting. If you scroll back up to the painting at the start of this review – the painting captures the moment from the Greek myth of Philemon and Baucis when the old peasant couple welcome in two wandering strangers and go to the trouble of slaughtering their best goose to make  meal. And at this point, the wanderers reveal themselves to be no other than king of the gods Jupiter and  his messenger Mercury.

It is a typically dramatic moment, and the lighting effect is characteristically subtle, with the natural light coming from the little fireplace on the left eclipsed by the golden light now suddenly emanating from the heads of the visiting gods.

But look closely at those godheads and you might be disappointed by their wonkiness. Jupiter’s eyes in particular look uneven, almost making him look like a cranky Cyclops rather than a figure of majesty and awe.

Heartbroken tenderness

So I’m a big fan of very precise draughtsmanship, for me one of the great thrills of art is the way a handful of pencil or brushstrokes can create a world, and so I felt myself being brought up again and again by the apparent wonkiness of many of the images, viewed as pure exercises in draughtsmanship.

BUT, and it is an enormous but, Rembrandt’s paintings (especially) have a quality which supersedes and outweighs any strict concerns about linesmanship, and this is their immense human warmth. The catalogue quotes a letter van Gogh wrote to his brother in which he describes Rembrandt’s tenderness and then goes on to be more precise, praising the heartbreaking tenderness of his images.

Rembrandt in fact made a very large number of images – paintings, drawings and etchings – and you can see why it’s possible to argue – even on the basis of just the 35 works here – that he inhabited a number of different styles.

But the ones we remember, the famous ones, the ones in the anthologies and you were shown at school all share his great and wonderful quality, a sense of almost superhuman sympathy and understanding with the poor weak vulnerable human animal. He liked painting old people because their faces convey the depth and ravages of experience and yet tremendous dignity. His own mature self portraits convey volumes about human experience which no words can match.

Which is why the sixth and final room of this exhibition is worth the price of admission by itself because it brings together half a dozen of Rembrandt’s greatest hits and the impression is overwhelming. There’s the Self Portrait in a Flat Cap, the Girl At a Window, a wonderfully sensuous and intimate portrait of a woman in bed. All of them convey that sense of immense, almost god-like tenderness which van Gogh described.

Maybe most tender of all is the famous painting of the woman wading into a stream, supposed to be a portrait of his mistress.

A Woman bathing in a Stream (1654) by Rembrandt van Rijn, © The National Gallery, London

In line with my narrow (and maybe illiterate and philistine) views about Rembrandt’s abilities as a draughtsman, I don’t think the face bears too much scrutiny. But detail like that is beside the point. By this stage (the end) of the exhibition, we have been tutored to appreciate:

The theatricality of the image – not a melodramatic moment from the Bible or classical myth, but nonetheless a very telling, precise and revealing moment of domestic intimacy and candour.

The human tenderness the tremendous feel for the beauty of the exposed, trusting human being in a moment of vulnerability and honesty.

And – to bring us back to the main theme of the exhibition – to the importance of light in creating the overall effect. In a sense, it is only because he is such a master of light that you don’t really notice the importance of the light to the impact of the image until it is specifically pointed out to you, it is so totally subsumed into the overall composition.

The cumulative effect of looking closely at, and having explained to you, Rembrandt’s various ways and techniques with light is eventually to make you realise that rather startling fact that light alone can convey emotion. Light alone can create meaning in a painting. Light alone can shape images which prompt such powerful feelings of human sympathy and compassion.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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

Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen @ the National Gallery

The National Gallery uses room 1 to focus on particular works. (To get there go into the main Trafalgar Square entrance of the gallery, then turn immediate left up the steps, and left again at the landing). These exhibitions, small and thoughtful, are always free.

At the moment they’re displaying one of the world’s best-known animal paintings, Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, alongside fourteen other paintings and drawings, to set the picture in the context of Landseer’s own technical and psychological development, showing how he developed his distinctive approach to the representation of the stag as hero.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The double doors take up most on one wall so there are in effect three walls in the room:

  • the left-hand wall indicates some of the intellectual and artistic preparation
  • straight ahead is the monarch himself, magnificent, flanked by two other Landseer oil paintings of stags
  • the right-hand wall is devoted to the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square

1. Preparation

Landseer (1802-73) was one of the most famous and successful artists of his time. Immense painterly talent, charm and good looks helped Landseer achieve early success and he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1850. I didn’t know that, even this young, he was struggling with alcoholism and mental illness.

Landseer had a deep knowledge of earlier painters, such as Rubens, and experimented with large scale complex compositions in the style of the Old Master.

The half dozen drawings and paintings here include a copy of the head of Christ on the Cross, taken from a painting by Rubens. In 1840 Landseer had had a breakdown, and, for his recovery, his doctors suggested a change of scene, so he went on the tour of Europe. He made this very evocative copy on a visit to Antwerp. We know that Rubens compositions lay behind some of Landseer’s earliest representations of horses and dogs, but the head of Christ powerfully introduces the idea of nobility and sacrifice. More, the Rubens Christ suggests a vision of a lone animal struggling against a hostile universe.

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Unexpectedly, there’s a drawing by George Stubbs, with a story behind it. Stubbs (1724-1806) was of course the great painter of horses. In the 1750s he made hundreds of detailed anatomical drawings of horses for his revolutionary book, The Anatomy of Horses, published in 1766. Amazingly, Landseer acquired the entire collection in around 1817 (i.e. still a boy) and they provided crucial inspiration for the young Landseer’s own studies of animal anatomy.

Next to it is a detailed (and rather gruesome) study by Landseer of the flayed leg of a dog. This kind of detailed study of the weaving of muscle and tendon over bone was and is still referred to as an écorché. This is just one of countless écorchés which Landseer made the better to understand the anatomy of the animals he wanted to pain.

Nearby a pencil study of a dead stag combines some of these themes, Landseer’s staggering draughtmanship, based on detailed study of anatomy, underpinned by profound pathos at the fate of a noble animal cruelly, tragically struck down.

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

2. Monarch and other stags

The Monarch of the Glen is hung on the wall facing the visitor, flanked by two other paintings featuring stags. It is by far Landseer’s most famous painting and one of the most famous paintings of an animal in the world.

It was undertaken for the Parliamentary Fine Arts Commission as one of three paintings showing ‘the chase’ i.e. hunting deer. It was originally commissioned to hang above panelling in the dining room of the House of Lords. What a grand location, a constant reminder to the Lords of their nobility and the striking scenery of one of the constituent parts of Great Britain! However, in a typically British fashion, when the time came to pay, the House of Commons refused to grant the £150 promised for the commission, and so the painting went on public sale in the National Gallery and was sold to a private owner. Since then it has passed through about ten sets of hands before the Scottish National Gallery successfully ran a public campaign to buy it for £4 million from the British multinational alcoholic beverages company, Diageo.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

It was intended to be hung above head height. In other words we are looking up, while the stag is painted serenely looking over our heads into an imagined distance.

Knowing what we now do about Landseer’s mental problems and having Rubens’ Christ fresh in our minds we at least understand Landseer’s intention, if it is in practice difficult to put into words, of conveying the idea of nobility, the idea of a kind of superior spirituality which retains its dignity even in a hostile world.

The commentary points out how Landseer gives tints of light to the tips of the stag’s antlers. This subtly conveys the idea of a band of sunlight breaking through clouds to reflect on the antlers, which we cannot see but which the stag can. It sees the view our backs to. It sees – and knows something which we cannot.

There’s a lot more to be said, about the fantastic painting of the deer’s skin and pelt and fur, the way Landseer captures its variations and shimmer – and of course about the violet colouring of the distant crags, a bringing to perfection of the romantic vision of the Scottish Highlands which was to become iconic.

It comes, then, as an amusing surprise to discover that Landseer painted the entire picture in his studio in St John’s Wood where he kept an extensive menagerie, including deer. And he had, of course, been undertaking regular trips to Scotland, sketching and painting, since 1824,

3. Lions

In 1858 Landseer accepted a presitigious commission to create four sculptures of lions to flank Nelson’s column, directly outside the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, completing William Railton’s original design for the monument. Landseer’s appointment proved controversial because he was not a sculptor, however his widespread fame as a painter of animals outweighed reservations.

Landseer prepared by, among other things, spending several years doing detailed drawings of the lions at London Zoo. This all contains four drawings and oil sketches, plus a portrait of Landseer working on the actual sculptures in his studio. This is one of two large oil sketches that Landseer made at the London Zoological Gardens which wonderfully captures the menace and power of a pacing lion.

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

There are several more sketches and the painting of him working on one of the clay sculptures which were then cast in bronze, done by John Ballantyne.

it was not immediately obvious why four pictures of lions were in an exhibition devoted to the Monarch of the Glen, except that they are further proof of Landseer’s stunning skill at painting animals and the even simpler fact that the results are there for all visitors to go and visit, after they’ve exited the gallery into the square outside.

Curators talk

I really praise the National Gallery for not only hosting extended talks or lectures or discussions about their exhibitions, but for going to the trouble of filming them and posting them on YouTube.

If you have the time, this is a really good way to enter the world of the art or exhibition being discussed.

Here are Susan Foister, curator of Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, and Daniel F. Herrmann, National Gallery curator, discussing the Landseer display.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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

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

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

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

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

Although this exhibition is vast, ranges over nearly 60 years of work and shows an extraordinary diversity of subject, material and approach – it can be summarised fairly simply. The earliest work from the late 1950s and early 60s – the sort-of Pop Art use of a handful of iconic images – is by far the most striking, inspiring and best – all the rest is sort of interesting, plays with themes and techniques, lends itself to lengthy critical explication – but none of it has the electric charge of the works from the first five years or so of his career.

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

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

Things the mind already knows

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

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

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

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

Interpretations

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

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

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

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

Surfaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

Printmaking

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

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

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

Regrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of the early

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

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

Painting as object

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

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

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

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

Cutlery in art

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

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

Words and voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Academy poster for Something resembling truth

Royal Academy poster for Something resembling truth

Sculptures

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

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

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

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

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

Gay

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

Beer cans and boodle

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

Art doesn’t subvert anything at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross hatching

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

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

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

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

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

Exhaustion

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

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

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

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

Seasons and cycles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fragments and faces

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

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

Memory traces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farley breaks down

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

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

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

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

The absence of history

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

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

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

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

Fifty shades of grey

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

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

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

Jasper Johns career recap

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

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

The works of the 1970s are dominated by the use of abstract pattern, generally variations of crosshatching.

During the 1980s and 1990s Johns introduced a variety of images addressing ‘perception, memory and the passage of time’. He used imagery taken from earlier artists like Pablo Picasso and Edvard Munch.

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

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


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The American Dream: pop to the present by Stephen Coppel and Catherine Daunt

The British Museum is currently hosting a huge exhibition of prints by American artists from the 1960s to the present. It showcases over 200 works by over 70 artists, including most of the important US artists of the period, and so manages to be a brilliant introduction to the art and artists of the period as well as shedding an oblique light on the history of America over the past 60 years.

This is the catalogue of the show, a large format, beautifully produced and lengthy book (332 pages) which includes every work from the show in lavish colour, each given a brief analysis and discussion alongside a thumbnail profile of each of the artists, all prefaced by a couple of introductory essays. It is not only a record of the show but also an introduction to the sweep of American art from the past 60 years, and well worth the exhibition price of just £15.

I have written a thorough review of The American Dream in another post. Over and above being able to review the images you’ve already seen in the show at your leisure, the book has several other features and benefits.

Introductory essays

The introductory essay by Stephen Coppel, the lead curator, reinforces the sense that the exhibition struggles to escape from the overbearing influence and success of the Pop Art of the 1960s. His essay is eight pages long and it’s only half way down page five that he finally wriggles free of Warhol and Rauschenberg and Hockney; the remaining topics of the exhibition and the book (protest, AIDS, feminism, African Americans) get relatively brief and dutiful paragraphs.

The standout contribution is the long essay by Susan Tallman – The rise of the American print workshop. This is a really interesting and detailed account of the rise of print as a technological medium across America and explains a) the huge variety of print-making techniques b) how they were explored by the post-war generation of artists c) how print-making is necessarily a collaborative enterprise with a lead role going to the actual printers and to the many technicians who have to come up with technical solutions to achieving the artists’ visions.

The essay introduces us to pioneers like Tatyana Grosman who single-handedly set up the innovatory firm Universal Limited Art Editions in 1957, more or less in her own back yard, which went on to work with some of the most important artists of the day. And describes numerous other collaborations between new or existing firms and between well-known printers and artists. It’s a big, complex story and Tallman tells it really well. And she has a handy way with words:

  • Pollock and the giants of Abstract Expressionism are engaged in a ‘visible struggle to wrest private truths from intransigent matter’.
  • An early convert to print-making was Jasper Johns, whose iterated images of flags, numbers and targets were already playing with ‘the conundrum of repetitive uniqueness which is at the heart of printmaking’.

Technical complexities

It’s only once you’ve had the technical processes explained that you can begin to understand the ways in which the different artists here tried to stretch, adapt and innovate what was possible – and this allows you to return to the images with a new and deeper appreciation of the vision, work and persistence which went into their making.

For example, it is fascinating to learn that for his lithographic series 0-9 (Black) Jasper Johns carved into a lithographic stone the numerals 0 to 9 in a grid at the top and then a big 0 below, and ran off prints; then carved a 1 over the 0, and ran off a set of prints; then carved a 2 over the 1 over the 0, and ran off a set… until he had completed a set of 0 to 9. Each consecutive number shows the scars and scraping made by the previous numbers, creating a palimpsest, a building site of numerology, or as Tallman puts it, a portfolio of prints which are:

visually intimate, epistemologically complex, and emotionally elusive.

And daunting and impressive to learn that the complete process took three years! It took Chuck Close two intensive months to carve by hand the plate for Keith, an intaglio print of one of his trademark photorealist paintings (1972). Or to learn that it took Claes Oldenburg an entire year to carve the relief mould for his innovative 3-D print in polyurethane, Profile airflow (1968) while the printer, Ken Tyler, experimented with a wide range of polyurethanes to find one which would be firm enough to stand be solid but appear fluid, be rigid but flexible enough to be fitted into a larger frame. The effort!

It makes you look anew at many of the images here once you realise quite how much work their creation involved, not just from the ‘artist’ but from a whole team of collaborators, technicians, master printers and publishers.

No tradition

Her account makes clear that the new start-up American printers benefited hugely from having no tradition, unlike the very hidebound and often masculine milieu of traditional printers in Europe, above all the home of modern art, Paris. By contrast a striking number of the pioneering founders of new printworks were women – Tatyana Grosman (Universal Limited Art Editions 1957), June Wayne (Tamarind Lithography Workshop 1960), Kathan Brown (Crown Point Press 1962) – ditto new young print publishers – Rosa Esman (Original editions, Tanglewood Press) or Marian Goodman (Multiples Inc 1965).

Escaping artistic control

She also makes a solid point when she says that the move to print-making represented an escape from the overbearing egocentrism of Abstract Expressionism. The praise of randomness in the writings of John Cage, the invention of ‘happenings’ which can involve any number of people, along with the collaborative vibe of the Black Mountain College, all these straws in the wind represented artists seeking to escape the prison house of total autonomy and total control – ‘strategies for relinquishing control’.

The collaborative aspect of printmaking, the technical limitations, the frequent accidents and mishaps, all introduced chance and randomness beyond the artist’s overt intentions. Warhol, as usual, is an easy example in the way that he a) stumbled over the impact of printed colours not lining up with the outlines, creating a whole new aesthetic and b) delegating a large amount of the work, even the selection of which colours to print his Marilyns and Maos in, to his assistants.

This is a beautifully produced book which greatly deepens your understanding and enjoyment of the vast array of images collected for this breath-taking exhibition.

Promotional video of The American Dream


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

The American Dream: pop to the present @ the British Museum

American prints

The first thing to emphasise is that this is an exhibition of American prints, so it might have been more accurate and factual to have titled the show ‘American Prints’ rather than ‘The American Dream’. The latter title leaves open the possibility that the exhibition includes oil paintings or sculptures, the whole range of artistic media. It also suggests that the selection will be somehow presenting a historical or political or cultural analysis of ‘the American Dream’- and, when it increasingly does this, in the second half of the exhibition, it introduces political and social issues which, I think a) increasingly distract from the art as art and b) are surprisingly limited.

The title, these later political galleries, and even the introduction by exhibition sponsor, the global financial services firm Morgan Stanley – for whom the show ‘charts the story of the modern Western world as seen through the lens of the United States’ – are designed to stimulate the visitor to reflect on the post-war history of America. I have expressed my views in a separate blog post; this post focuses on just the prints themselves.

The American Dream: pop to the present

The British Museum has one of the biggest collections of prints in the world, with more than two million in storage. This huge, beautifully laid out and imaginatively designed exhibition sets out to showcase:

‘the Museum’s outstanding collection of modern and contemporary American prints for the first time… shown with important works from museums and private collections around the world.’

Flags I. Colour screenprint (1973) by Jasper Johns. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

Flags I (1973). Colour screenprint by Jasper Johns. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

The American boom in prints

The exhibition covers American prints from the last 60 years. Why that particular period?

A revolutionary and enduring change in the production, marketing and consumption of prints took place in the 1960s. Inspired by the monumental, bold and eye-catching imagery of post-war America, a young generation of artists took to printmaking with enthusiasm, putting it on an equal footing with painting and sculpture and matching their size, bright colour and impact. Meanwhile, the growth of an affluent middle class in urban America also opened a booming market for prints that was seized upon by enterprising publishers, print workshops and artists. Artists were encouraged to create prints in state-of-the-art workshops newly established on both the East and West Coast. The widening audience for prints also attracted some to use the medium as a means for expressing pungent, sometimes dissenting, opinions on the great social issues of the day.

It is also relevant that this exhibition is a sequel. In 2008 the Museum held a big show titled The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, which ended at the turn of the Sixties i.e. where this one begins. Both shows were curated by Stephen Coppel, the Museum’s curator of modern prints and drawings.

This exhibition consists of twelve rooms, which take us through American prints from the early 1960s to the present day, each room focusing on a particular group of artists, periods or themes – Pop in the first few rooms, minimalism half way through, the ’80s, and then onto contemporary issues like race, AIDS and feminism in the final three.

Gumball Machine, colour linocut (1970) by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016

Gumball Machine (1970) colour linocut by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016

The process of print-making

Wall labels for separate eras (the 1990s) or groups (the Minimalists) or for individual works, shed light on the multifarious techniques of print making – etching, lithographs, working with stone, wood or silk – along with the micro-histories of the many workshops and businesses set up across the States to cater to the growing market for prints, like Universal Limited Editions in Long Island (est. 1957) and Gemini set up in Los Angeles in 1966.

Half-way through the show there are two big video installations showing artists actually creating prints, including Andy Warhol working with silk prints and Ed Ruscha creating his Dead End signs. A later video includes interview snippets with Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, Glenn Ligon and Julie Mehreti.

Interesting though these were, they were really snippets from longer films and so, for example, although I saw Warhol and an assistant running a wooden block up and down a print presumably to press paint into the paper, I still didn’t understand how a silk screen print is made and had to look it up on YouTube.

Standard Station. Colour screenprint (1966) by Edward Ruscha. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Standard Station (1966) Colour screenprint by Edward Ruscha. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist

The exhibition room-by-room

Room 1 Pop art

The early 1960s saw an explosion of artists incorporating the imagery of consumer culture, adverts, movie posters, newspaper photos and so on, adapted whole, or cut up into collages, or remodelled into huge spoof cartoons. The first room (and arguably the entire exhibition) is dominated by Andy Warhol and his genius for identifying stand-out iconic imagery. One wall is covered by ten enormous silk prints of Marilyn Monroe (1962), plus the original poster for the 1953 movie Niagara, which inspired them.

Opposite them is a set of ten prints depicting the electric chair (1964) along with the source photo.

Lining another wall is an enormous 86-foot-long print by James Rosenquist called F-111 (1964), a characteristic hymn to gleaming chrome technology and itself an epitome of America’s super-confidence: Bigger. Brighter. Shinier.

There’s a so-so print of Claes Oldenburg’s Three way plug (1970) beside which is hanging the only non-print in the show, an enormous wooden sculpture of the same object suspended from the ceiling.

It’s the 1960s, pre-feminism and awash with kitsch ads and comics from the 1950s, so American babes can be celebrated without guilt, as in Tom Wesselman’s series The Great American Nude (1963). Work on numerous iterations of  this image took up most of Wesselman’s 60s, in fact the final, hundredth, version was only published in 1973. It is odd that an exhibition which (later on) features feminist artists being very cross about the sexual objectification of women opens with such a glaring example.

Next to them is king of comic art, Roy Lichtenstein’s Reverie (1965) hanging alongside is one of his canonical action cartoon-paintings, Sweet Dreams, Baby! (1965).

Repetition 

The obvious thing about prints is not only that they can be run off in large numbers to be sold and owned by a potentially limitless audience – but, as Warhol above all else discovered – they can also be repeated with deliberate variations, in detail, design or colouring.

Warhol dominates the field with his series of iconic silk prints of Marilyn, Mao, Elvis and so on, but it is striking the way so many of the other artists shown here, right up to the present day, conceived of their prints as parts of sets or series on specific topics, themes, images, issues. This is not possible in painting; it is an artistic option only really available in print.

What is it about these repetitions and iterations, – something unnerving, subverting, and yet mythologising at the same time? All those Marilyns become shallower and shallower and yet simultaneously more and more powerful. Ditto Jasper John’s obsessive reiterations of the American flag or Jim Dine’s multiple series of household tools – Repetition equals… what? Maybe we need a perceptual psychologist to explain what they do to the brain.

Room 2 Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine

Jasper Johns comes from an earlier generation than Warhol. He began his blank-faced paintings of humdrum objects in the 1950s. He repeatedly uses motifs of numbers, letters and words, generally working in large sets or series which showcase all the types of variations which print-making produces: there are so many variations on Flags I and Flags II it’s difficult to decide which is the ‘key’ example (see first illustration, above). There are also sets devoted to: Grey alphabetNumbers, Targets.

There’s something about the blankness and the obviousness of these subjects which suggests a kind of zombieness of American culture. I like that Johns has rarely if ever commented or interpreted his work. There it is. The flag. Letters. Numbers imposed over each other (the Colour Numeral series). Make of them what you will. Johns started in the mid-50s and is represented well into the ’80s.

Robert Rauschenberg was recently given a massive and hugely enjoyable retrospective at Tate Modern. His prints are as great as everything else he did. Here he is represented by some works from his Stoned moon series, a set of 33 lithographs which he created in response to the manned Apollo flights to the moon (Rauschenberg was actually invited by NASA to be the official Moonshot artist). Make a collage of press photos and technical diagrams. Run off prints of it using different colour washes. Voila!

Sky garden at 2.2 metres tall broke the record for the largest hand-printed lithograph of the day. Bigger. Brighter. Shinier.

Sky Garden from Stoned Moon. Colour lithograph and screenprint (1969) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York

Sky Garden from the Stoned Moon series (1969) Colour lithograph and screenprint by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York

One of the Stoned moon variations is Sky rite – I like the blurred, half-obliterated image of the NASA technician pointing to the skies. The selection, the arrangement and then the partial obliteration of these bold clear photos and designs by pencil lines and colour washes say so much – about dynamism and thrusting confidence, but at the same time somehow about those things being eclipsed and washed out – so much that is difficult to put into words – as art should. Nearby was one of another large series based on X-rays of his own body, Booster (1967).

Jim Dine seems to have rejected big grandiose subjects and concentrated on the here and now, banal household objects, a kind of artistic William Carlos Williams. I liked his series about Paintbrushes (1973), showing different numbers of paintbrushes lined up neatly, but with different amounts of sketching, light and shade in each one. Here we had examples of the ‘first state’, ‘third state’ and ‘sixth state’, presumably as the image became more worked over, scarred and scratched and busy. The more you look, the more beguiling they become.

Given the same treatment are images of a saw, hammers – each becoming strangely luminous, charged with meaning – or just beautiful by virtue of the deadpan depiction of their wonderful functional design. Nearby is one of the extensive series he made of his own dressing gown (1975), for me redolent of the cocaine and rock star 1970s. Why not?

There is a kind of wonderful emptiness about so many of these images. They shoot through the retina and flood the image-recognition centres of the brain as a MacDonald’s hamburger floods the hungry palate, pushing all the big obvious buttons. Lots of fun, but taken together, somehow hinting at a huge emptiness, at the isolated unhappiness which has been the subject of so much American fiction these last 60 years.

Room 4 Made in California – the West Coast experience

The next room swaps focus to the West Coast, to the California of swimming pools and endless sunshine.

  • Claes Oldenburg Profile airflow (1969) an intriguing three-dimensional relief print made of polyurethane.
  • Ed Ruscha – an artist of the archetypal post-War west, with its highways, gas stations and huge signs – Every building on Sunset Strip (1966), Hollywood (1968), Sin (1970), Whiskers (1972) Made in California (1971)
  • Wayne Thiebaud – Careful etchings and linotypes of colourful fatty American sweets –Gumball machine (see above), Boston cremes (1962), Suckers state (1968)
  • Robert Bechtle’s quiet depictions of California suburbs, mostly empty of people with only a parked car suggesting human presence – Burbank Street – Alameda 1 (1967), 60 T-Bird (1967), Alamedo Carrera (1967) cars which make me think of the movies Bullitt (1968) or Dirty Harry (1971)
  • Bruce Naumann – a harsh negative vision obsessed with the power of words, not phrases, just potent words, arranged forwards and backwards, often in slanting italics, often in harsh black and white – Clear vision (1973), Malice (1980)

Talk on the wall label of clear blue skies and swimming pools made me think of David Hockney and, turning a corner, who do we find! Hockney is another great fan of sets and series:

Room 5 Persistence of abstraction – gestural and hard-edge 1960s-1970s

Pop was seen by many as an anecdote to the angst and bleak psychologising of 1950s Abstract Expressionism (as recently displayed at a major retrospective at the Royal Academy). This room shows how some print-makers continued, despite the shiny externalities of real life celebrated by Pop, to experiment with abstract shapes, and blurs and swirls of paint.

Walking into this room after the previous four was like walking into the screening of some European art movie after spending a couple of hours watching Star Wars and chomping on popcorn. It required quite a change of pace to calm down from the big bright, super-colourful and, above all, instantly recognisable imagery of Pop, to get back to grips with more abstract experiments in colour, texture and design.

Room 6 Minimalism and conceptualism from the 1970s

The sobering up process continued in the next room with a sample of the very black and white, minimalist aesthetic which came in in the early 1970s, as a reaction against everything bright and shiny. I very much like the sculptures of American minimalism – many of which can be seen in Tate Modern – but my palette had been so spoilt by the Mickey Mouse pleasures of the preceding rooms that I found it hard to tune in to their subtleties.

Room 7 Photorealism – Portraits and landscapes

Apparently there was a revival in the 1970s of the deeply unfashionable genre of portraiture.

Of the landscapes I liked Craig McPherson’s Yankee stadium at night (1983), a powerful and absorbing image because it is in fact so entirely figurative. Best things in the room were prints of the hyper-realistic / ‘photorealistic’ paintings done by Richard Estes, from his Urban Landscape series.

Room 8 The figure reasserted

Had the figure ever been away? Well figurative depictions of the human form were grouped together in this room, though often in a stilted or deliberately naive style – maybe a refreshing change after the blank coolness of ’70s minimalism.

The standout images were to almost life size prints wonderfully capturing a fully-clothed man and woman in the act of dancing, writhing, jiving.

  • Robert Longo – Eric (1985) from the Men in the cities series. Cindy (2002)

Room 9 – Politics and dissent

Once again Warhol trumps the room with his fabulous silk prints of Nixon and Mao (1972), alongside the more subdued print of Jackie II (1966).

Vote McGovern, Colour screenprint (1972) by Andy Warhol © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Vote McGovern (1972) Colour screenprint by Andy Warhol © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Note these dates, though. This is very old protest. Johnson? Nixon? Beautiful, striking, imaginative but – old.

The Politics and dissent room segues into a room about AIDS which was first clinically observed in the United States in 1981. The 1980s was, therefore, among other things, the decade in which medical investigation of the condition went hand in hand with growing public awareness, with attempts to overcome the stigma of illness and then lobby for more research to be done. This room features prints by gay artists responding to the crisis.

Room 10 Feminism, gender and the body

Big Daddy with Hats (1971) Colour screenprint by May Stevens © May Stevens. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

Big Daddy with Hats (1971) Colour screenprint by May Stevens © May Stevens. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

I found a lot of this work a little understated, almost amateurish. The correctness of your beliefs or vehemency of your faith don’t of themselves make for particularly interesting art.

For a palette spoiled by big shiny consumer images, the most immediate impact in this room was made by the sharp, advert-based images of the Guerrilla Girls.

If Pop in the ’60s cut up and pasted cheesy adverts, the GGs in the ’80s create what amount to striking ads in their own right. They’re still very active.

Room 11 Race and identity – Unresolved histories

The inclusion of a room of Feminist art and a room of Black art gives the visitor a strong sense of the academic background of the exhibition’s organisers. I’m not saying they’re not big issues, but the inclusion of these issues, and only these issues, at the end of the show reflects their dominance of academic life and university campuses and doesn’t necessarily reflect the major social, economic and technological upheavals of the last 30 years.

Stowage. Woodcut on Japanese paper (1997) by Willie Cole © Willie Cole. Reproduced by permission of the artist courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Publishing, New York

Stowage (1997) Woodcut on Japanese paper by Willie Cole © Willie Cole. Reproduced by permission of the artist courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Publishing, New York

In this room the standout artist for me is Kara Walker, with her stylised black and white silhouettes of slave figures. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But it is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Room 12 Signs of the times

The wall label in this last room mentions 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008 but addresses neither of them directly. Instead the 12 prints in this concluding section comment obliquely on the sense of America’s economic decline, or at least the decline of traditional industries and jobs. Commercial collapse, bankruptcy and anomie. The unwinding of America.

It is a depressing conclusion, but it follows logically from the AIDS, feminism and black rooms. Somewhere in the 1980s America began to hate itself and look for someone to blame. A lot of the AIDS images are angry at the slowness of medical research into the condition, the stigma attached to it, Reaganite persecution of gays, the slander of calling it a ‘gay plague’. The feminist room is full of anger at the Patriarchy, at the countless ways women have been suppressed, silenced, objectified and abused. And the black room is also angry at the grotesque abomination of slavery, the slave trade, the systematic abuse of millions of men, women and children bought and sold like cattle, worked to death, raped and murdered and ongoing discrimination against people of colour, police shootings of black men, the huge black prison population.

A sympathetic reading of these three rooms leaves the visitor shaken and exhausted, and this final small downbeat section matches your mood with images of an America which has somehow reached the end of the line. The breezy confidence of the 1960s has evaporated. Gays, blacks and women are just the most vocal of the groups attacking a culture which seems on its knees.

The most haunting image, deliberately and carefully chosen to end the show, is Ed Ruscha’s reprise of his 1966 brilliant iconic image of a gas station – now redone in pure white, emptied out, a ghost of itself. In fact one of the stylish ‘windows’ cut here and there into the exhibition walls, means you can look directly back into the earlier gallery where the 1966 print is hanging and compare the two.

The hollowing out, the blanking of Ghost station suggests that the chrome-plated consumer paradise depicted in thePop art of the 1960s has become a drug-addicted, derelict shell of itself.

What happened? Where did it all go wrong? And if Donald Trump is the answer, what on earth is the question?


Post script 1: The elephant in the room

This is a panoramic and exciting exhibition which brings together many of the biggest names in American art, alongside lesser-known but just as interesting artists, to give a vivid sense of the boundless experimentation and creativity of this huge country. Above all it successfully stakes a claim for print as a medium as creative, varied and beautiful as painting or sculpture. You exit the show, mind ringing with all kinds of images, ideas, issues and reflections.

For me, at the end, one big question stood out. The exhibition’s publicity encourages us to combine the art with history and politics, to experience post-war American history through these artists’ eyes. Which is why it seems to me extraordinary that there is only one throwaway mention of the single most important event in 21st century American history – 9/11.

From this traumatic attack stem the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, the war in Afghanistan and the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, official defence of waterboarding and torture at Guantanamo Bay, further acts of domestic terrorism, along with armed interventions in Libya and Syria and the ever-increasing use of drone attacks.

All these events have contributed hugely to the sense contemporary America has of being embattled and threatened by forces it doesn’t understand and can’t contain, to the tide of anxiety and xenophobia which helped Donald Trump to the White House. It seems to me extraordinary that an exhibition which at least in part claims to survey American history ‘to the present’ omits this seismic subject.

Surely there are American artists making prints on these subjects – 9/11 is burned into our minds as a set of horrible images, not to mention iconic images of Osama bin Laden’s face, Saddam’s statue being pulled down, the torture victims in Abu Ghraib, drones cruising the skies. I can’t believe that scores of American artists haven’t addressed these issues and haven’t mined these images for creative purposes.

Why aren’t they here?

Postscript 2: Native Americans

The feminist artists complain about the oppression of women in general, of women artists in particular, of the suppression of their stories and experiences by the Patriarchy, which women artists are only now bravely telling. The black artists complain about the oppression of Africans, the brutality meted out to slaves, the suppression of their narratives and stories, which black artists are only now exploring.

My son asked me, So where’s the room for Native Americans? There isn’t one. Why not? If there aren’t many Native American artists, why not? Isn’t that a bit of an issue? And if there truly aren’t many Native American artists, doesn’t that mean that any history of America told through its art will inevitably privilege European forms of expression and necessarily exclude the voice and experience of its original inhabitants?

In between the endless artworks, books, documentaries and conferences about gender and the body or slavery and the black experience – just possibly the occasional mention should be made of the original inhabitants of this huge continent who were almost exterminated and the survivors shunted to the edge of American life and for so long written out of the American story. And – in this exhibition at least – are still written out of the American story.

No Native American artists? No Native American print makers? No Native American narratives or stories? Not even one solitary mention of them? No.

Gays, blacks, women – these are the academically-approved minorities, the groups which have their own political movements and voices, novels, plays, movies, Hollywood stars lobbying for them, TV shows about them, and art and criticism and exhibitions and academic papers and dissertations and conferences and books devoted to them, which are, in other words, part of the state-approved cultural discourse.

As for the original victims of European colonisation? Silence. Absence. Invisibility…


The video

Related links

Newspaper reviews of The American Dream

Reviews of other British Museum shows

%d bloggers like this: