Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

America after the Fall @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition brings together 45 big oil paintings (no prints or sculptures) to provide an overview of American painting from the 1930s (with a handful spilling into the early 1940s).

After the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties – the Jazz Decade – the 1930s were of course marked by the Great Depression, triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Broadly speaking many (but not all) artists’ interests moved away from European-inspired Modernism or from images of the glamorous high life, to the use of figurative approaches to depict a more realistic, not to say downbeat, world.

Industrial America

In 1927 the Ford Motor Company opened the biggest factory in the world at River Rouge, Detroit. Artist Charles Sheeler spent weeks taking photos of the plant and the landscape around it before beginning work on a series of paintings. I’m a sucker for straight lines, diagrams and strong draughtsmanship and also the romanticism of industrialisation and big machines, so I think this painting is marvellous. No people. ‘Surreally silent’, to quote the catalogue.

American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler. Photo (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler. Photo (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Next to it hangs Suspended power (1939). The commentary for the exhibition is relaxed and chatty, devoid of the usual curatorspeak, instead giving interesting background to the works. For example, after Sheeler’s visit, the Depression hit the plant hard and a wave of redundancies led to serious unemployment and a spike in suicides in Detroit. Unemployed workers marched on the plant in what became known as the Ford Hunger March, or the Ford Massacre, because four of the marchers were shot dead by the Dearborn Police Department and Ford security guards, and another 60 were injured. Shortly afterwards the famous Mexican mural artist Diego Rivera arrived, commissioned by Ford to produce some murals of the plant and its workers.

Many of the artists were committed to the new socially conscious political movements, the social idealism of the New Deal under President Roosevelt, or more left-wing Popular Front and even Communist ideas imported from abroad. This theme is epitomised by Alice Neel’s portrait of communist Trade Unionist and agitator Pat Whalen (1935). Joe Jones was a communist who painted scenes of everyday proletarian life, like Roustabouts (1934).

Street life

The 30s were the first great period of talking pictures, which some critics look back to as the Golden Age of Hollywood. As well as glamorous portrayals of high life in the musicals of Fred Astaire and so on, the decade also saw the emergence of violent crime movies about Prohibition gangsters and, as the 30s turned into the 40s, the development of what a French critic later called films noirs, gritty crime thrillers depicting a tough, dog-eat-dog world of crime and underworld in the big cities. This too is caught in contemporary art.

An oblique light was shed on this world (as on everything) by the famous artist Edward Hopper, a couple of whose works are here including New York Movie (1939). As in so many Hopper paintings the focus is on one person, looking down or detached, contemplative, detached from the realistically depicted scene around them. Up close it’s interesting to note the thick, rather ragged gestural use of paint: prints always smooth this out, flatten and simplify (and beautify) images which are, in the flesh, a little more roughly finished and, somehow, hesitant.

Gas (1940) by Edward Hopper. Photo (c) 2016 Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Gas (1940) by Edward Hopper. Photo (c) 2016 Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

African American artists and subjects

I recently visited the British Museum’s exhibition of American prints which features a whole room devoted to African American printmakers and artists, with the commentary emphasising that many feel their story has not been told and the black experience written out of American art and culture. So it was a surprise to see the number of works here about black Americans or by them. These later accounts seem to forget about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when the Harlem neighbourhood of New York was home to the ‘New Negro Movement’ and a cultural centre for black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars.

Far from being ignored by white authorities etc, black artists were supported. Aaron Douglas’s enormous mural , Attraction, was commissioned by the Federal Government to hang in the Hall of Negro Life at the Texan Centennial of 1936. It shows black Americans rising above the shackles of the past and aspiring to a bright new future. There is William H Johnson’s piece, Street Life, Harlem (1940), which does what it says on the tin, showing an African American couple on a street corner.

Far away from the buzz of city life was the harsh life of sharecroppers in the South, tied to land they didn’t own and forced to work punishing hours to grow cotton which was owned and sold by the rich landowner, who allowed his workers a pittance to survive on.

Cotton Pickers (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton (c) Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2016

Cotton Pickers (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton (c) Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2016

And, of course, there was the out-and-out racism of the Ku Klux Klan and the terrible lynchings and murders dealt out to blacks by murderous thugs.

Country life

The poster, book and exhibition itself are dominated by probably the most famous American painting, Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic (1930). It’s never left North American shores before. As a big fan of late medieval art I was delighted to learn that so was Wood and this double portrait contains subtle references to the late medieval/Northern Renaissance tradition: in the ugliness of the faces, the tremendous attention to detail of the clothes. It even refers to Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini portrait a little in the way the man is looking at the viewer while the woman is looking away.

I hadn’t realised the word Gothic refers to the Gothic lancet window in the farmhouse behind the couple. The commentary draws attention to the bombardment of vertical lines, on the face of the building, the thin supports to the porch, the upright planks in the red barn, the upright lines in the man’s shirt and denim dungarees, and the shiny prongs of the fork, as well as the vertically elongated stretching of their faces. Even the spire peeking out over the trees to the left. All this is growing up, tall and strong, from the good solid American earth.

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

It was a haunting image even at the time, because so many nativists felt that the white settler pioneer and farmer spirit was being lost a) in the flood of urbanisation and city culture b) by the devastation inflicted by the great Dustbowl environmental disaster and the catastrophic collapse in prices for farm goods. But anyone expecting harsh realism of something like Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo, Migrant Mother (1936) is in for a surprise. Nothing here has anything like that intensity. In fact, although the audiocommentary includes an intense description of the destructiveness of a Dustbowl sandstorm, the actual paintings on display are lush and green.

And Grant Wood, with half a dozen works in the show, emerges as by far the most fun and entertaining artist, some of his works skidding good humouredly over the border between art and cartoon-style entertainment. Thus:

The last two could be illustrations for a children’s book. The Daughters hover somewhere between fine art and satire, but it’s an impressively conceived and beautifully painted work, just like American Gothic, it rewards close attention to the fine brushlines and strokes.

International politics

What Auden called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s was intensely politicised, not only by the apparent failure of capitalism in many Western countries, and the rising power of communist parties, but by the fraughtness of the international scene, where the League of Nations proved powerless to stop the aggression of Germany, Italy and Japan. This is referenced in several internationalist works including this depiction of the Fascist bombing of Guernica, done in the style of a Renaissance roundel by, say, Titian or Raphael.

Bombardment (1937) by Philip Guston. Philadelphia Museum of Art (c) The Estate of Philip Guston

Bombardment (1937) by Philip Guston. Philadelphia Museum of Art (c) The Estate of Philip Guston

European modernists

There’s a section on American artists striving to be avant-garde who are in fact pretty obvious clones of their European originals.

There’s a section on American surrealists i.e. American artists adapting European visions of collapsed buildings, melting structures or faces, to the American scene. OK, but not convincing.

Davis versus Benton, Modernism versus Regionalism

The commentary explains that Stuart Davis and Thomas Hart Benton had a famous row about the future of American art, Benton declaring himself an ‘enemy of Modernism’ and asserting the future lay in manly depictions of real working lives (as per his Cotton pickers), Davis championing his variation on sophisticated European Modernism, which Benton found effeminate. Benton quit New York and moved to the mid-West, where he painted successful murals and was associated with the art movement known as Regionalism, which flourished in the 1930s and petered out during the war.

Looked at from 2017 the squabble seems funny and futile, symptomatic of so much political bickering which was to be swept away by the titanic upheaval of World War Two, and then the hardening of lines during the Cold War. In artistic terms, the bitter feud between American Modernists and American Nativists was eclipsed by the advent of Abstract Expressionism, heavily supported by both the New York intelligentsia and (surprisingly) the Federal government, which used it as a weapon against the deadening cult of Social Realism in the Soviet bloc. Then it was the 60s and Pop and then – whoosh – the floodgates to all kind of conceptual and post-modern art.

Georgia O’Keeffe

And then, as in every period, there are artists who stand apart from social and economic trends. Georgia O’Keefee, wife of New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz and heavily involved in the New York artistic scene, first visited New Mexico in 1929 and thereafter spent part of every year on ranches in the desert. Here she developed a unique style combining found objects with stylised depictions of the sun-baked landscape.

I found this work by O’Keeffe to be almost the only really grown-up, fully-formed, distinctive work in the exhibition. For my money, although lots of the others are good and interesting – in their different ways I really enjoyed the cartoon Grant Wood and the moody Edward Hopper – nonetheless, O’Keeffe struck me as the standout artist of the period.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

The future

There’s a striking early work by Jackson Pollock, from the period when he was still pursuing his own demons in the not-very-well-disguised style of Picasso. But already present are the torment, the swirling composition and the very wide landscape format which will form the basis of the drip paintings he began to paint in about 1947.

Untitled (c. 1938-41) by Jackson Pollock. The Art Institute of Chicago (c) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Untitled (c. 1938-41) by Jackson Pollock. The Art Institute of Chicago (c) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

At a stroke (a drip and a splat) Pollock would invent the first authentic American art movement – Abstract Expressionism – the first artistic idea which owed nothing at all to European tradition and would itself open numerous doors to the explosion in American art in the 1960s and beyond.

This show acts as a kind of retrospective hors d’oeuvre to the massive exhibition of Abstract Expressionism the RA hosted last year. And the current exhibition of American Prints at the British Museum is a dazzling survey of new ways of seeing and making which opened up in the post-Pollock era. Together they form a kind of American trilogy.

From the vantage point of posterity – looking back past Minimalism and conceptualism and Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, this American art from the 1930s bespeaks a country of huge geographical and cultural contrasts but all wedded to an essentially realistic tradition, or which has borrowed its modern art lock, stock and barrel from Paris. It is immensely enjoyable but all of it is dated, music from a lost world – with the one exception of O’Keeffe whose work, in my opinion, still stands tall today.

The videos

Promotional videos describing American Gothic.

60-second commentary on Ed Hopper.


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

In the Age of Giorgione @ the Royal Academy

At the very start of the 16th century Giovanni Bellini was still the leading artist in rich, imperial Venice. But a younger generation was emerging in his wake, including Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian, and another newcomer, later referred to as ‘Giorgione’.

Little is known about Giorgione and there is little agreement on which works can be firmly attributed to him. According to the National Gallery website, he came from Castelfranco in the Veneto, and is referred to as ‘maistro Zorzi da Castelfranco’ in an inscription dated to 1506, Zorzi being Venetian dialect for Giorgi. Giorgione means ‘Big George’.

Giorgione in his time

This exhibition brings together 39 oil paintings, 6 drawings and one carved relief to set Giriogione in the context of the Venice of the day, among his eminent peers, Bellini and Titian, as well as other contemporaries such as Sebastiano del Piombo and Lorenzo Lotto and the largely neglected Giovanni Cariani, with mention of notable visitors to the city at around this time, namely Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci (there are several portraits and drawings by Dürer, to show his influence, nothing actually by Leonardo).

Attribution

Giorgione was only active from around 1500 to 1510 when he died, probably in his 30s, probably from the plague. During that time he developed a style notable for its intimacy, sensuality and mystery. But study of Giorgione is plagued by problems of attribution. Numerous paintings here have had contested attributions: Is it Titian? Bellini? Big George? Listening to the audio commentary became quite confusing after a while because so many of the paintings have been attributed first to one, then to the other.

You think you’ve got the hang of Giorgione’s style from the second work in the exhibition, and maybe the best, the Terris portrait.

This is one of the few really brilliant works in an otherwise disappointing show and well worth the admission just to see it in the flesh. The use of shadow on the right side of the face, by the nose, the stubble, the darkness of the chin and jowls, create a tremendous sense of personality and depth. The commentary says the work appears to use or have been influenced by Leonardo’s technique of sfumato, or smokiness.

But having established this as Giorgione’s signature style, surprisingly few of the subsequent works attributed to him show this degree of subtlety and mastery.

Compare and contrast with the Giustiniani Portrait, below. The gaze is striking as is the pose with the hand on the lintel in the foreground, but it is not a complete masterpiece like the Terris portrait, it lacks the amazing modelling of the features, the softness and depth. And there’s something childish, almost naive, about the overall image, unlike the tremendous maturity of the Terris portrait.

Portrait of a Young Man ('Giustiniani Portrait') by Giorgione. Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preubischer Kulturbesitz. Photo (c) Jorg P. Anders

Portrait of a Young Man (‘Giustiniani Portrait’) by Giorgione. Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preubischer Kulturbesitz. Photo (c) Jorg P. Anders

The exhibition is divided into sections: Portraits; Landscape; Devotional works; Allegorical portraits. The room on landscapes includes a lot of bad paintings by contemporaries, and some so-so drawings by Domenico Campagnola and Titian. Look at the musician’s face and his post-Michelangelo weightlifter’s legs in this Arcadian idyll, attributed to Titian.

Titian, Two Arcadian Musicians in a Landscape. Pen and brown ink over black chalk on paper. On loan from the British Museum, London (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Two Arcadian Musicians in a Landscape by Titian. Pen and brown ink over black chalk on paper. On loan from the British Museum, London (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Maybe Giorgione’s most famous painting is The Tempest, a puzzling and haunting work, the hazily realistic depiction of an unexplained and strangely symbolic scene, pregnant with meaning. Who is the woman suckling the baby? Who is the man watching (or guarding) them? What city lies (half ruined?) in the background? Why is it set during a storm?

This work isn’t in the exhibition. The nearest thing is the large and nearly as strange work, The Sunset.

Il Tramonto (The Sunset) by Giorgione. The National Gallery, London. Photo (c) The National Gallery, London

Il Tramonto (The Sunset) by Giorgione. The National Gallery, London. Photo (c) The National Gallery, London

Only in the flesh can you appreciate its strange details: a tiny big-beaked bird in the centre right at the bottom, a strange beast emerging from a cave in the bottom right, another weird creature lying on the surface of the pond at the bottom right. The commentary complicates matters by saying the painting was only discovered in the 1930s in a badly degraded condition and was sent off to Rome to be restored. When it reappeared much improved it did so with the completely new figures of St George on horseback lancing the dragon in the centre right! Why? Did the restorer think it needed improving? Did the dealer who went on to sell it think it would sell better if it had a bit of narrative excitement?

And to the amateur eye, although the subject matter is obscure, the overall visual feel of this painting is very different from the Tempest, in at least two striking ways: in The Tempest the focus is very much on the human figures, especially the suckling woman looking at us; here the human figures are an afterthought in what is basically a strange landscape; and the Tempest is green, very green, green grass, green trees, even the river is green; this whole painting is a muddy brown.

This is just one of the most striking examples of the problems of attribution and authenticity which afflict Giorgione’s works.

Devotional works

The biggest room focuses on devotional and religious works by Giorgione and his peers. All of these struck me as ugly and clumsy. At one end is the big work, Jacopo Pesaro being presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter which is attributed to Titian.

Close up, I didn’t like it at all: the clumsiness of the composition eg the dais St Peter is sitting on is wonky, the way it cuts into the floor tiles is not convincing. Worse still is the way the floor ends and the sea just begins, as if about to pour over the floor at any moment: something is badly wrong with the perspective.

Then there’s the subject matter: this painting glorifies the Pope presenting to St Peter, one Jacopo Pesaro, bishop of Paphos who led the Venetian navy to victory over the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Santa Maura on 28 June 1502. I think it’s a hilariously unsuitable subject for an oil painting: a portrait of the victorious admiral would be one thing: the Pope blessing the victorious admiral would work; but the badly drawn Pope presenting the victorious admiral to St Peter, depicted as sitting on a wonky dais decorated with scenes from Greek mythology, seems tackily ill conceived.

The paintings in this room glorify a Roman Catholic Papacy which was already a byword for rapacity and corruption. Only ten years or so after this painting was made, Martin Luther would rebel against the systematic theological and financial corruption of the Italian church, leading to the wholesale rejection of its organisation, theology and practice by the north of Europe – the Reformation; an upheaval which would then lead to the shambolic attempts to reform the Catholic church known as the Counter-Reformation.

Thus the religious paintings of Giorgione and his peers celebrate the Catholic church at the most corrupt period of its long history. Maybe we could overlook this fact if the paintings were of a ravishing and transcendent perfection. But they aren’t. Here’s Bellini (1430-1516) at his best – Virgin and Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor. Not a very appealing painting, I think; the faces of the Madonna and baby Jesus are, in my opinion, actively unpleasant to look at, like looking at photos of deformed people. The commentary points out that the donor’s hand isn’t quite touching the baby Jesus’s feet, but is everso slightly overlapping them, as if this is clever, or as if it it redeems the unattractiveness of the painting. I know it was traditional in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and beyond for rich people to pay for themselves to be included in paintings of the Madonna, of the Crucifixion and other key moments in Jesus life (less so the Sermon on the Mount or when Jesus attacked the moneylenders in the Temple) but to the liberal mind it always looks phenomenally crude, arrogant and blasphemous.

It is included in the exhibition to demonstrate Bellini’s clarity and crispness of image, the sharp outlines of the figures against the bright blue background, the detailing of the stone plinth behind the Madonna, a clarity which Giorgione and Titian were replacing with their more shady, smoky visions.

Virgin and Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor by Giovanni Bellini. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Photo (c) Birmingham Museums

Virgin and Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor by Giovanni Bellini. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Photo (c) Birmingham Museums

The Bellini and Titian are hung alongside 10 or so other religious paintings, but directly contrasted with the big painting at the other end of the room, Christ and the Adulteress, which is also attributed to Titian.

Christ and the Adulteress by Titian. Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Archibald McLellan Collection, purchased 1856 Photo (c) CSG CIC Glasgow Museum Collections

Christ and the Adulteress by Titian. Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Archibald McLellan Collection, purchased 1856 Photo (c) CSG CIC Glasgow Museum Collections

There is something appealing about the frank posture of the man with the red pantaloons but I am not much moved by the fainting adulteress, let alone the head of the old man in the middle or the dead-looking person at the far left. The audio commentary tells us that for a long time this painting wasn’t attributed to Titian, and even an amateur can see why, because it does seem completely different from the crisp sharp outlines of The Presentation of Jacopo Pesaro. (I was gratified to see the mismatch between these two paintings highlighted in the London Review of Books review of the show by Charles Hope, link below.)

It’s yet another contested attribution which undermines your confidence in a lot of the works here. As if that weren’t enough, the commentary then continues with the stunning revelation that we’re not even sure the painting is depicting the scene of Christ and the adulteress; just possibly it’s depicting the Old Testament scene of Daniel judging Susannah. We’re not sure who painted this painting and we’re not even sure what it depicts!

Mystery, intimacy and sensuality

Nonetheless, through the slightly confusing fog of problematic attribution and doubtful naming, I had just about got the general message that Giorgione’s works are notable for their use of shade and shadow to create a special closeness, a sense of ‘mystery, intimacy and sensuality’, when I came to almost the last painting in the show, an unsparing portrait of an old lady (maybe the artist’s mother, maybe not).

Probably, as so often in an exhibition about a specific artist, we are meant to approach the final works with a hushed feeling of sympathy and pathos, as if last works carry a special message from a genius who has plumbed the depths of wisdom to us, his earthly followers (cf the final work in the big National Gallery Goya exhibition which showed the artist and his doctor in a would-be moving scene).

Certainly La Vecchia is an appealingly vivid picture, a poignant depiction of old age – but surely it’s completely at odds with the smoky use of shadow, with the mystery and sensuality which we first saw in the Terris portrait and have been hearing about ever since. The clarity of the wrinkles, the lined flesh, the detailing of the sparse hair, the quality of the even, unshadowed light, these all look like the work of a completely different artist. Another case of mistaken attribution? Time will tell…

Conclusions

I thought hardly any of the paintings on show here were beautiful: none of them took the breath away for their masterful depiction of the human face, or evocation of the sights and smells of landscape, or pleasing composition or ravishing use of colour. Rather, this exhibition is quite a demanding lesson in art history; it sets out to illustrate the birth of a new, more smooth, sensual and mysterious style in the Venice in the early 1500s, but turns out to be as much or more about quite knotty problems of attribution and authentication.

Related links

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse @ the Royal Academy

‘Using the work of Monet as a starting point, this landmark exhibition examines the role gardens played in the evolution of art from the early 1860s through to the 1920s’ and features ‘masterpieces by Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet, Sargent, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Matisse, Klimt and Klee.’

Gardens! Monet! As might be expected there was a massive queue to get into this huge Royal Academy blockbuster exhibition, and it was very busy inside, making it quite hard to see the paintings in some rooms.

The exhibition is in ten or so rooms, and its skeleton or backbone is a chronological survey of the flower and garden paintings of Claude Monet.

In the first room are early ‘realist’ works like Lady in the garden (below) from the 1870s, set among similar works by numerous contemporaries. Half-way through the show is a room explaining how in 1883 Monet started renting a large house at Giverny, 50 miles north-west of Paris, and began laying out his famous garden, going on to buy some adjoining land to create the famous water lily pond, complete with Japanese bridge, which he was to paint for the rest of his life.

Then the exhibition climaxes in two rooms devoted solely to Monet – the first showing 15 or so late works, before the final space which is devoted to bringing together three huge paintings of the waterlilies. These enormous works were always intended to form one massive super-painting but were separated and sold off at his death, and are brought together here for the first time in nearly a century.

Lady in the Garden (1867) by Claude Monet. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

Lady in the Garden (1867) by Claude Monet. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

The rise of gardening

At the Guildhall Art Gallery recently, I was interested to read how the nineteenth century saw the rise of the ‘home’. For many people in the 1800s the house they lived in was also the site of their work, where they performed all sorts of labouring, spinning, the manufacture of small artefacts etc. By 1900 the separation of home and workplace was complete for most people, who went to offices or factories to work, with ‘the home’ now a place which increasing numbers of people prided themselves on decorating and adorning according to the latest fashions, a place to express their personality or flaunt their status, a book market catered to by an ever-growing range of books and magazines dedicated to suggesting the best fabrics and wallpapers and furniture and ‘look’. (The Ideal Home Show was founded in 1908.)

Something similar happened with gardening. In 1800 ‘gardens’ were what aristocrats in grand houses had or where peasants in cottages grew vegetables. By 1900 ‘gardening’ had become a popular middle-class activity, complete with handbooks, guides and magazines to advise on which plants and flowers to grow where, how to lay out a garden, what to sow to achieve ‘year-round colour’, and an ever-growing range of exotic plants and hybrids imported from abroad to provide intense and novel colours. (The Chelsea Flower Show was established in 1912).

Auguste Renoir - Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell. Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Auguste Renoir – Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873) Bequest of Anne Parrish Titzell. Photo (c) Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Impressionism, insofar as it was ever a coherent movement, was about using the convenience of a broader range of oil paints newly available in easily portable tubes, and the newly-built railways lines around Paris, to take a day trip out to the suburbs and paint scenes of ‘real life’ in their actual setting. Naturally, part of this interest in the real life of the 1860s and 70s was the growing fashion for gardens, and this exhibition shows that many painters not only painted gardens – many, many paintings of gardens – but were often themselves enthusiastic gardeners.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla. On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911) by Joaquin Sorolla. On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY. Photo (c) Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Average garden paintings

Thus, alongside the early Monets, the first rooms we walk through feature works by numerous other artists in the same plein air style –  Pierre Bonnard, Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There are three big rooms showing scores of paintings of gardens, garden paths, flowery borders, ladies with bonnets in chairs, and profusions of flowers, all in a hazy summery impressionist style. To be honest, not many really stood out. Lots were as bland or sketchy as, for example:

I liked:

Bad garden paintings

Among the many very average paintings here – it’s a massive show – some stood out as being actively bad, amateurish and shapeless, lacking life, definition, colour. Some of the real stinkers included:

  • Garden of le Relais and Seated Woman Reading by Jean-Édouard Vuillard
  • Weeping Willow by Monet Even the sainted Claude painted some horrible paintings, their palettes garish and pukey. There’s a lot of Monets here and not all of them are good.

This Bonnard is one of the images the RA has selected for reviewers to use, but I find it bland and lifeless. Does it convey the fierce heat of the south of France or the play of sunlight on leaves in a breeze? No.

Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin) (1914) by Pierre Bonnard. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo (c) Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Resting in the Garden (Sieste au jardin) (1914) by Pierre Bonnard. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo (c) Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design / (c) ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Monet at Giverny

After wading through lots of so-so pictures, it’s a change of mood to enter the room devoted to Monet’s famous garden at Giverny. Several hundred books, thousands of articles, posters, mugs and posters and badges and tea towels have made these images of water lilies among the most famous in art. But to see them in the flesh is to be converted all over again to their strange magic.

By not depicting the edges of the pond, the surrounding trees, let alone the sky – by concentrating purely on the surface of the water, with its mysterious reflections punctuated by the clumps of free-floating lilies – Monet creates a hauntingly free space into which you feel yourself being ineluctably drawn. I was struck by how much purple and mauve and violet he used in his depictions of water which, in my experience, is rarely purple or mauve. By 1900 his pond paintings are more about composition and palette ie about the interaction between colours on the canvas, than the so-called ‘real world’. Images which are obviously about the ‘real world’, but just as clearly about pattern, shape, composition and colour. They are genuinely bewitching, and in a different league from everything else in the show.

Nympheas (Waterlilies) (1914-15) by Claude Monet. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Nympheas (Waterlilies) (1914-15) by Claude Monet. Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16. Photo (c) Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Monet garden dates

  • 1883 Monet rents the house at Giverny
  • 1890 Monet buys the house and starts designing the gardens
  • 1889 Monet admires the water-lily garden at the Paris Universal Exhibition
  • 1893 Monet buys a property next to the garden and diverts a stream to create a lily pond
  • He builds a bridge modelled on the Japanese prints he likes
  • 1899 Monet paints 12 paintings of the the bridge and water lilies beneath
  • 1909 Monet exhibits 48 water lily paintings

The greenhouse room

I was surprised to walk into a room dominated by glasshouse-, greenhouse- and hothouse-shaped display cases showing a selection of books, articles and magazines about gardening from across Europe in the late 19th century. This is a room for the true horticulturalists among the visitors. There were also photos of Monet in his garden, accounts of the instructions he gave the six (6!) gardeners he employed, notes on seeds to buy, species and varieties to select, planting dates and so on.

Interesting if you’re a real Monet-maniac, but for me the standout items in this room were the five or so Japanese prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige.

It was a shock to be transported for a moment to a completely different tradition. The clear, fine, black outlines and delicacy of colour and detail of these Japanese prints are as opposite as can be from the smudgy western impressionism and post-impressionism which this exhibition is foregrounding. They crystallised for me what I didn’t enjoy about many of the paintings earlier in the show – their vague mistiness, the depiction of flowers as great woolly expanses of undifferentiated colour – and helped explain the paintings I was drawn to – ones which showed some kind of clarity of line, like Caillebotte’s Nasturtiums, or:

I worked at Kew Gardens and occasionally write my own, very amateur flower blog (just a diary of wild flowers I try to identify when out and about). Years of looking at flowers and trying to distinguish, say, lesser burdock from greater burdock, or broad-leaved willowherb from short-fruited willowherb, have made me look very closely at the structure of plants, at the stems and leaf shapes and edges, at stamens and anthers; and have also given me a taste for the small, the shy and retiring native wild flowers of England (eg the tiny scarlet pimpernel).

Thus, as I wandered past scores and scores of soft-focus portrayals of great swathes of blossoms set vaguely amid stippled, sunny gardens, I found myself preferring the paintings where you could actually identify the species of flower being depicted, or alternatively where the blossoms were subtle and understated – and tending not to like the ones where the flora consisted of undifferentiated washes of colour or great sprawls of acid yellow and vivid red commercial hybrids, impossible to identify and difficult for a wildflower lover like me, to like.

Mention of Tissot made me think of other contemporary British artists and the show includes at least two works by John Singer Sergeant who, in between painting his lucrative society portraits, spent summers at the village of Broadway in the Cotswolds, painting flowers and gardens. The two samples here are not his best – eg Garden Study of the Vicker’s Children (1884) – and they don’t, for some reason, include his super-famous garden masterpiece, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886).

Modernist garden paintings

The exhibition puts the efforts of Monet and the other impressionists into the widest possible context, featuring generous selections of European contemporaries – those we know, like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Edvard Munch – and those we’d never heard of, like Santiago Rusiñol, Joaquin Mir y Trinxet, Henri Le Sidanier, Henri Martin and the German impressionist, Max Liebermann.

  • Green Wall by Santiago Rusiñol – The four or five paintings by Rusiñol really stood out in this room, unusually ‘realist’ in detail but also for the orange dusk light which dominates them, very unlike the summery green of many of the other chocolate box images.
  • Glorieta de cipreses, Jardines de Aranjuez (1919) by Santiago Rusiñol
  • Steps, Gerberoy by Henri Le Sidanier

There were quite a few Libermanns and, although the wall labels point out how prolific he was, how famous in his day, and how devoted to the garden he created on the shore of Lake Wannsee in Berlin, I found them unfinished, undetailed, unsatisfying.

One room was devoted to the Fauves and other experimental, turn-of-the century art movements. I didn’t like the two Matisses on display: Rose-table (below) seemed to me just ugly, in composition and colour, and Palm Leaf, Tangier (1912) just looked unfinished but not in a good way.

The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer (1917) by Henri Matisse. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956 Photo (c) 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer (1917) by Henri Matisse.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956
Photo (c) 2015. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / (c) Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

But like the other rooms, it’s a fascinating selection of the good, the bad and the indifferent. Also in the category of ‘little known garden paintings by super-famous twentieth century artists’ were:

I liked the three little Klee paintings (he may be my favourite 20th century artist), and the way he turns everything into his own quirky type of linear composition. But, contrary to everything I had just told myself about liking understated and clearly defined flowers, I also really liked Kandinsky’s Murnau The Garden II (below). It was completely unlike almost everything else in the show, not trying to be gentle and sensitive, or an attempt at plein air painting, or particularly figurative, but a violent, vibrant exercise in primary colours and tones. I liked its virile confidence.

Murnau The Garden II (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky. Merzbacher Kunststiftung Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung

Murnau The Garden II (1910) by Wassily Kandinsky. Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Photo (c) Merzbacher Kunststiftung

The photo room

The biggest surprise of the show was entering a room which is full of garden tables and benches. It’s a rare opportunity in an exhibition of this size to be able to sit down and have a rest. There were four big wooden garden tables, each with a set of chairs, and bearing two or three copies of the exhibition catalogue to flip through.

The walls of this room were lined by extra-large (really large) black-and-white photos of many of the artists featured (Klee, Kandinsky, Bonnard etc), snapped in their respective gardens, the whole thing dominated by a big screen on the far wall showing three short clips from films of a) Monet at work, French fag hanging from his mouth, dressed in a white jacket, palette in hand and standing next to the famous lily pond b) Max Lieberman painting in his garden c) le Sidanier ditto.

Monet’s later years at Giverny

Immediately following the photo and film room you move into Monet’s final years.

He had been devastated by his wife’s death in 1911 and was also suffering from eye trouble, and so stopped painting for three years. Then, on the eve of the Great War, he took up his palette again and, when war came, bravely refused to leave even as the Germans advanced towards his house and garden and studio.

This penultimate room contains about a dozen paintings of the pond, lilies and trees from around the time of the War. What came over for me is how, by this stage, Monet had stopped really being an impressionist. Many of the paintings were painted from memory, inside the large studio he had built. Purple and violet tones predominate in the lily paintings, making the clumps of lilies float in a neutral non-space, an increasingly abstract arrangement of colours which have a genuinely hypnotic effect.

That’s not to say there aren’t some very poor works on offer, some crude heavy depictions of the Japanese bridge in a completely different palette from the gentle violets of the other paintings, hard to believe they’re by the same man.

But among half a dozen breath-taking works on show here, my favourite was the large weeping willow – probably because it is unfinished and I always love the idea of a work of art emerging from the raw canvas, of beauty struggling to free itself from chaos or banality – and because I like strong black marks and outlines, even if only sketchy, of the kind that can be seen here. The commentary points out that he did a series of weeping willow paintings date around 1918 which might express his feelings about the terrible catastrophe which had destroyed European civilisation. All the more poignant.

The agapanthus tryptich

The final room (in fact the Academy’s Wohl Central Hall) is devoted to the Agapanthus triptych, three enormous (7 feet by 14 feet) canvases Monet worked on from around 1915 to his death in 1926. The three separate pieces were sold off to different galleries and are rarely brought together, so this is a rare opportunity to see them reunited and to immerse yourself in Monet’s unique floating world.

Monet spoke and wrote a lot about his work, words which have been recombined into a thousand books, articles and t-shirt mottos: of all the words written about them, I liked the idea that these last works, enormous in scale and floating free of tradition, restraint, of all his previous work and from previous art, are Monet’s attempt to create harmony, balance, poise and beauty after the devastation of the Great War.

No matter how stupid and destructive humanity is, in the waterponds of the world the lilies will always blossom again.

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Ai Weiwei @ the Royal Academy

I like contemporary art at least in part because I find it light and frivolous, an airy alternative to the world which, as Wordsworth pointed out, is too much with us – more than ever in the brave new matrix of 24/7 social media and unstoppable information overload.

Thus Agnes Martin‘s variations on the grid format are open to any number of interpretations – the exhibition of her work at Tate Modern is full of pattern, space and light. Barbara Hepworth‘s sculptures at Tate Britain inspire new ways of seeing shapes and being aware of space.

By contrast I felt this blockbuster exhibition of work by world-famous Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is too heavily overshadowed by the glare of his own fame, his personal trials and ongoing tribulations with the Chinese authorities, too weighed down with ‘real world’ issues, to be enjoyable – unless you buy into the ‘artist as hero’ story.

Ai Weiwei bio and politics

Ai’s biography is long and eventful. He comes from an artistic family which suffered internal exile under Mao. He spent 12 formative years in New York soaking up the mood of modern conceptual and pop art, its interest in ready-mades, ‘found art’, junk etc, before moving back to China to establish his practice.

Through the 1990s and 2000s he was a consistent critic of the Chinese government, but this came to a head with his video and documentary exposure of the cheap, shoddy building materials which led to the collapse of numerous schools when the Sichuan earthquake hit in 2008, causing the deaths of some 5,000 schoolchildren. Ai took to social media and dedicated his prolific blogs and tweets to scathing criticism of the authorities who he – along with many others – blamed for the appalling death toll.

As a result of this and other fierce criticism of the government, in 2010 the studio he’d been building in Shanghai was declared illegal by the authorities and demolished. Ai organised a ‘crab feast’ party – a traditional festival of the riverside city – to ironically celebrate its demolition, but was himself arrested and unable to attend the party.

On 3 April 2011 Ai was arrested and spent three months in close confinement on what the government claimed were tax evasion and economic crimes. He was imprisoned in two small rooms and accompanied at all times by two guards, obviously subjected to intense psychological pressure, stress, harm. He has several medical conditions, including diabetes, which were exacerbated by the imprisonment.

As I write he is in the news again because Lego have refused to supply him the bricks he needs to make another ‘controversial’ installation, prompting a typical ‘crowd-sourcing’ flood of support from fans around the world who are being encouraged to donate him their Lego – Australia gallery collects Lego for Ai Weiwei.

Prison art

Thus, to a disconcerting extent, Ai Weiwei’s art is about himself, and this exhibition reflects that, big time. One huge room is full of skip-sized steel boxes with small windows cut into them. If you peer through the windows you can see a scale model of the cell Ai was imprisoned in, bed, lamp, chairs and the connecting toilet, complete with lifelike mannequins of him and the two guards posted to watch him at all times, even on the toilet.

The walls of this big room are covered with vibrant gold wallpaper bearing a pattern made up of handcuffs and CCTV cameras (bad) and the twitter logo of a chirruping bird symbolising – you understand – the power of social media to spread his message, despite the worst the authorities can do (good). On close examination the round chest of the twitter logo includes an image of Ai’s face curved and burnished, which I found more sly and cheeky than much of his other stuff.

Souvenirs of Shanghai

After the authorities demolished Ai’s workshop in Shanghai, he recovered a lot of the rubble and constructed this work, a room-sized cube of masonry with samples of traditional wood carvings embedded into the brickwork. The irony, you see: the rubble of contemporary life, wreckage of a repressive regime, juxtaposed with exquisite artefacts from a more elegant age.

No fewer than 800 supporters attended the memorial feast to ‘celebrate’ the demolition and this is marked by a pile of realistic life-size model river crabs stacked up in the corner of the same room. Apparently river crabs are a symbol of dictatorial government but also sound like the Chinese word for ‘harmony’. I wondered what would happen if I was ‘subversive’ enough to reach out and touch one. Or nick one.

The way so many of these works directly refer back to these ‘political’ events, for me, drains them of the ambiguity and lightness of fancy which I value in ‘art’. But they are also not all that impressive in themselves. A pile of model crabs. Yes.

Self congratulation

Ai Weiwei’s career, art, his self presentation and the promotional machinery of the western countries where he is an art superstar, allow us to feel good about the part we’re playing in the ‘struggle for free expression in China’ – namely, wandering round a big art exhibition in central London, then doing a spot of shopping.

Many of the works are striking but the whole show is dominated by his story, his biography, the account of his suffering and his heroism standing up to power – then flying out to London to do media interviews and arrange this show. I am not minimising the unpleasantness of his experiences. I am just saying such a weight of art so heavily reliant on his experiences makes me feel uneasy, and exposes – in its western audience – a raft of ironies, mismatches of meaning and hypocrisies.

Irony of technology

I couldn’t help noticing many people taking photos of the art works on their smart phones. Surely everyone knows by now that many of our shiny digital devices are produced in Chinese factories where conditions are little better than slavery, labour camps, the suicide factories. Ie by buying these products we prop up the economic miracle which keeps the repressive Chinese authorities in power. But the exhibition goes nowhere near this.

Nor does it tackle the glaring irony that for Ai, social media, facebook and twitter are all unalloyed goods whereas many of us in the fabulous free West are deeply sceptical and/or anxious about the extent to which these digital devices have penetrated every interstice of our lives, relaying our every move, thought, word and action back to vast databases which are ploughed by immensely powerful algorithms creating digital profiles which can then be used to sell us products wherever we go and whatever we do and are routinely, as Snowden showed us, harvested by security services and police forces who know more about their national populations than ever before in human history.

Irony of the Royal Academy

The guides, introduction, audio guide, wall labels and Ai’s quotes all emphasise what a rebel he is, always exploring and pushing the barriers, a subversive to his fingertips… It felt odd reading all this rock and roll subversion in the hallowed rooms of the Royal Academy.

Looking up at his chandelier made of strings of crystals hanging in a cunningly constructed lattice of bicycle frames and wheels, your eye also takes in the rich gilding of the RA’s covings and ceiling. If you’re an optimist maybe you see this exhibition in the RA as the art establishment’s ‘acceptance’ of Ai and his politics. If you’re like me, you see it as paradoxical that a man who prides himself on being such a subversive shows his works in such a sterile, formal, carefully patrolled setting, complete with close circuit cameras and security guards in every room. Does no one see the irony? Around every exhibit was a grey tape line which you mustn’t step over. If you stepped over the line a guard was quick to ask you to step back. It felt about as subversive as progressing around a cathedral from one Holy Relic to another.

Irony of the bourgeoisie

An enormous room is dedicated to the Sichuan earthquake and Ai’s response to it. The long walls are covered with an enormous grid or table recording the name of every one of the students who died in the disaster. I am a liberal, I think almost anything can be ‘art’, but the literalism of this made me think this is actually a memorial like, say, the Vietnam memorial in Washington. Because it doesn’t say anything more than it says: a list of the names of the Chinese students who died in the earthquake.

In a corner of the room is a video of a Chinese factory where steel cables for buildings are being made. The video screen was surrounded by a crowd of middle-class, white English people who have never been inside a factory, staring intently at the screen and empathising with the Chinese workers doing this demanding manual labour in a noisy dirty environment – before moving on to the shop and wondering whether to buy an Ai Weiwei poster or mug or apron or coffee table book, made by the same or similar Chinese factory workers.

Irony of the Great Thinker

On sale in the shop is a Penguin paperback of a series of interviews conducted with Ai Weiwei by curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist – Ai Weiwei speaks. The blurb says it is a marvellous insight into the thought of this Great Artist. That use of the word ‘thought’, the Great Man’s Thought, reminded me that this was the kind of adulation and even phraseology which surrounded the insights and writings of another great Chinaman, Mao Zedong – Mao Zedong Thought – who hypnotised the western liberals of an earlier generation. 50 years ago pretty much the same art-going classes would have been forming the same sort of respectful queues to enjoy the insights and thoughts of another Great Chinese subversive, radical and deep thinker. Uneasy.

Irony of Indifference

British Chancellor George Osborne spent last week in China drumming up trade with one of the strongest economies in the world. Maybe he did say a few words about China’s human rights record, about the Dalai Lama, Tibet, the imprisonment of numerous political protestors – and maybe he didn’t. Either way it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. China’s economy is vital to the West and we want a slice of their economic pie, we want closer trade and industrial ties with this superpower. Us citizens can donate all the Lego we like to the latest Ai Appeal, but in the tough-minded negotiations of the powerful we aren’t even dust on their shoes…

George Osborne’s epic kowtow to China

Ai Weiwei’s stance is obviously brave, there’s no doubting he went to prison and may go again, but still bravely refuses to stop exposing government corruption and repression where he sees it, there’s no doubting the authorities (foolishly) block his name and websites from the internet, demolish his workshops, harass his assistants and associates, but:

  • Despite this he was still here in London supervising this blockbuster show. In my boyhood dissident writers disappeared into mental institutes or died in the gulag – this one is jetting round the world saying whatever he wants in interviews with the world’s media, featuring in glitzy magazines, and collecting awards – it’s a genuinely bizarre situation.
  • And anyway, it doesn’t appear to make the slightest bit of difference.

Samples of the art

In the courtyard of the RA are installed a sort of avenue of ‘trees’ made out of lumber and spare wood. I should like this kind of thing, but… I didn’t. I go for regular walks in the countryside: I prefer real trees.

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Inside, one of the RAs’ rooms contains a vast assembly of rusting metal cables. I think the labels said the cables are arranged so that, from above, they form the shape of China as seen on the map – and then unravelled to lay on the floor. So far so, well, familiar from New York minimalists from the 1960s. Of course, when you learn that the cables are salvaged from some of the schools which so disastrously collapsed in the earthquake, then your reaction to them changes. They are no longer ‘art’, they are a memorial. It is impious, it insults the dead, to be anything other than respectful.

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts (2015)
Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

These three photos of Ai dropping a Han dynasty vase have become pretty widespread. The black and whiteness, the deliberate naivety of the images, the crude vandalism, bespeak experimental art of the 1960s or 70s. Or even Dada from the 1910s… The only novelty is that this is a Chinaman indulging in western art-vandalism…

In fact, a whole room of the show is dedicated to Ai’s ‘engagement’ with the Chinese ceramic tradition: which involves him taking genuine antique vases and painting them modern primary colours (as the Guardian puts it: ‘Ai dips ancient pottery into paint’) or with provocative slogans: one had Coca Cola emblazoned on it. Coca Cola. You see, it’s because Coke is an icon of American consumerism. It’s like it’s a comment on the contemporary world. Wow. — In fact they looked very like the kind of thing my kids used to get up to at their half-term art club.

Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

The metal cables referred to earlier, seen from above.

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars Lisson Gallery, London Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars. Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Ceramic tiles forming the outline of China, each with a Chinese text about ‘freedom’. China. Freedom. It’s almost like there’s a message here somewhere.

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle (2014) Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style, Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle (2014) Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style,
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

A lovingly-crafted copy of a video camera carved out of marble. State surveillance is bad, apparently – though the technology itself has a clumsy/spooky/slickly designed outline and shape.

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) Marble Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) Marble. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Irony of the dissident superstar

Art is now a global business, and deals in brands, assets and products. The international art market this year topped €50 billion. After a certain level of success a modern ‘artist’ establishes workshops and employs significant numbers of ‘assistants’, as well as the retinue of PAs, organisers, accountants, and probably brand managers, social media consultants and so on, some to create the ‘work’ but other, more importantly, to manage the brand in the global marketplace, to plan and curate the never-ending schedule of ‘major’ exhibitions, to co-ordinate sales at the major sales houses.

Eventually Ai reminded me of Damien Hirst, another ‘rebel’ become international superstar whose art has ended up about money. Like Hirst, Ai stumbles on a new concept and then milks it. So one room in the show includes samples of his ‘cube’ art. At some point he ‘discovered’ the attractiveness of the metre-cube and began to think of variations on the theme: a glass cube, a polished steel cube, a granite cube, a rusted metal cube, a cube made of traditional Chinese wooden panels which can be moved in and out and re-arranged like a Rubik’s cube. (Except that you cannot touch it, of course. God forbid the rebel’s artworks got fingerprints on them.)

This reminded me of Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde: initially it was a liberating, original idea but, at some point, after the first 4 or 5 years, became a formula, and then a production line turned out by ‘assistants’ in the Ai or Hirst factories. As with Hirst’s vitrines or spot paintings or butterflies, so with Ai’s painted vases or metre cubes or big wooden sculptures – what once had the shock of the new now has the feel of a showroom for Russian billionaires or Arab princes looking for sound investments to add to their portfolios.

Summary

The final irony is that someone who is undoubtedly a dissident in his own country, a threat to the authorities who are in turn a permanent threat to his freedom and practice, can at the same time be such an unparalleled success in the west, an art superstar, a mover and shaker, curator of international exhibitions, winner of countless prizes and awards, sitter on numerous panels of judges.

But for me his art is so heavily overwritten by the newspaper-type stories of his dissident activities, and then overwritten again by his bestselling super-artist status, as to lose the freshness, the space for idle interpretation and the free play of the imagination which, for me, is the main value of ‘art’.

Related links

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2015

The 247th Royal Academy Summer show and about the sixth one I’ve visited. Maybe familiarity is dulling the impact but nothing here really set me alight, as I’m sure it has in the past. The reverse: I am getting used to seeing the same names, styles and approaches cropping up year after year, which gives it rather the feel of a local school fete, with all the usual stalls, manned by the usual enthusiastic volunteers.

Still, with 1,131 items on display, in almost every conceivable medium, in every size and covering a vast range of subject matter, most of them for sale at prices from bargain basement to outrageous, there is plenty to like, dislike or say ‘My God, how much?’ to.


In the courtyard, an enormous metal assemblage of rusting metal girders arranged in Vorticist rectangles, cubes and geometrical shapes – The Dappled Light of The Sun by Conrad Shawcross RA (b.1977). The sun came out and did, in fact, dapple us as we walked under it.

Inside, the steps leading up from the foyer to the main galleries had been painted with crazy day-glo stripes by Jim Lambie (b.1964). Looks good from above.

Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA unveiling a new site-specific artwork by Jim Lambie for the Summer Exhibition 2015  © David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA unveiling a new site-specific artwork by Jim Lambie for the Summer Exhibition 2015 © David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Part of the hang is, apparently, to have painted the rooms in bold colours – turquoise, magenta – which I thought were simply the kind of Farrow & Ball pastel backdrops you get at any exhibition until I read about them. Each of the rooms is allotted to a different curator to make a personal selection and all have a wall panel explaining the thinking behind the selection and layout. Though some of the rooms have a distinct feel – a few felt empty apart from a small number of large works, the sculpture room felt cluttered with objects on racks, plinths and the floor, the architecture room was filled with tables supporting utopian cityscapes – for the most part the wall panel explanations bore little relationship to the actual sensory experience.

I liked, or at least noticed, the following:

In the first room, the hexagonal Wohl Central Hall, centrally placed on a plinth is a life-size replica of a Greek statue made out of slices of coloured plastic – Captcha No.11 (Doryphoros) by Matthew Darbyshire (b.1977). Above it hung Liam Gillick’s Applied Projection Rig, the use of bright colour and plastic, in this, the statue and the painted stairs, all feeling a bit 1960s.

The Central Hall of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The Central Hall of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The second room was painted a shocking pink. Above the door were hung half a dozen fluorescent tubes shaped into circles with writing, as pioneered above American diners in the 1950s – Homo Bulla (Man Is A Bubble) by Michael Landy RA (b.1963). The writing was in a cursive script so neither of us could read what they said, but they were pretty.

On the left, in the photo below, you can see Untitled (Watch) by Michael Craig-Martin CBE RA (b.1941). Craig-Martin specialises in turning ordinary objects into highly stylised square-on line drawings, slightly like the precise technical drawing style of the later Tintin cartoons, filled in with bright unshaded primary colours. Later rooms featured Fragment Coffee Cup (screenprint £3,000), Fragment Briefcase (£3,000) and so on.

Gallery III of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Gallery III of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

A small panel of arrow shapes in a rigid geometric lines and bright colours created an optical illusion. Thorns 11 (£6,000) was one of a series of related works by Tessa Jaray RA (b.1937), which also included Borromini’s Balustrade (£12,000) and Light 2 (Diptych) (£18,000). Jagged, entrancing.

My son liked a big painting of a red tree, Tree No.7 by Tony Bevan RA (b.1951), visible on the right in the pink photo above. In a later room I liked Cork Dome by David Nash OBE RA (b.1945). A few years ago an exhibition of his large wood sculptures was hosted at Kew Gardens, where they fitted right in. This one would have sat better in a large room full of similar works.

I liked A Fall of Ordinariness and Light by Jessie Brennan (b.1982) which looked like a charcoal sketch of a 1960s Brutalist council block but is in fact a treated digital print, but had then been rumpled and creased. I’m a sucker for any painting or image which has been degraded, has fraying edges, bits of newspaper, card or wood or real-world detritus stuck on it, a key characteristic of Modern Art since Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Picasso and Braque pasted newspaper fragments onto canvas, but which always excites me. As if the work is reaching out of its frame into the real world. Or is infected by the universal crappiness of the dusty, diesel-fume, swirling-litter-and-peeling-posters-on-broken-hoardings reality of the cityscapes which imprison us.

I write a blog about walks in the country on which I take photos of landscapes and buildings, generally adopting the same square-on approach, carefully framing the subject so it has equal space above and below and to either side. Which explains why I warmed to Red Roof (£345) a photo by Rachel Mallalieu. You can hear the sea and feel the cracking of the shingle as you walk across it.

Waiting for Spring (£525) a linocut by Louise Stebbing, charming prints following in the footsteps of Ravilious and a thousand others hymning the English countryside. Follow Louise Stebbing on twitter.

My son particularly liked this atmospheric oil painting of what you see in the car headlights alone at night in the middle of nowhere – the kind of scene you see in movies hundreds of times but rarely see depicted in ‘art’ – Luther Road by Donna McLeanwho was also represented by Sarah Lund.

Round the corner, in the relatively small Gallery I, hung an enormous tapestry by everyone’s favourite cross-dresser, Grayson Perry CBE RA (b.1960). Julie and Rob is a large cartoon, is it not, a deliberate reduction of line and colour to an almost Simpsons-like level of simplicity. A snip at £69,600, but then – it is enormous!

Julie and Rob (2013) Grayson Perry CBE RA Courtesy the artist, Paragon/Contemporary Editions and Victoria Miro, London

Julie and Rob (2013)
Grayson Perry CBE RA
Courtesy the artist, Paragon/Contemporary Editions and Victoria Miro, London

Hanging on the wall next to the tapestry, my son really liked Window With Screen No.2 (£10,000) by David Tindle RA (b.1932). He thought it was nice and relaxing. Near it was a watercolour of the small figure of a man walking across burning fields, Fire Burnt The Land Like A Language (£5,000) by David Firmstone MBE. I like Modernist angularity in paintings and sculptures, and a certain amount of dirty realism ie showing the world as it actually is, and I liked the poignancy of the smallness of the human figure.

In the same spirit I liked Forsaken in acrylic and pen (£1,000) by Deborah Batt. It has the squareness I like and the realism of a graffiti-covered world but transmuted into something clearer and simpler, on the way towards the style of a graphic comic, maybe.

Liking objets trouvés and applied to the surface of a work, I liked Periscope Dazzle (£450) by Stuart Newman, a round hollow metal cog used to frame the image of a battleship as seen from a U-boat periscope. I liked the tarnished rust effect round the outside of the cog.


The Architecture room

There’s always a room devoted to architecture which I humorously think of as the Room of Shame, where high-minded fantasists create utopian cityscapes made of perfect loops and shapes, completely ignoring the reality of the dirty, polluted, congested cityscapes they have so far managed to create for us lowly proles to actually inhabit.

For example, Silicon Roundabout is the title of a shiny photograph by Grant Smith of the Old Street roundabout in London, centre of a lot of hype about London becoming a hub of digital/internet technology as important as Silicon Valley in California. I commute via this tube station twice a day and walk along the side of the hoarding in the centre of the photo which has the words ‘White Collar Factory’ printed on it, and the experience is one of jostling overcrowding, diesel pollution from the endless buses, and grit, sand and dust filling eyes, nose and hair from the permanent building sites surrounding the roundabout. This photo makes it look stylish and modern but it is a horrible, anti-human space. How many of the other shiny photos, architects designs and ‘artists’ sketches’ in this room conceal similarly degraded realities.

On the walls and liberally displayed on angular tables were the usual science fiction fantasies of vast air terminals or futuristic cities (some of which have actually been built in China or some such far-off places). In addition, this year, the walls were lined with the wise sayings of various architects and critics. Far more than artists, architects fancy themselves as gurus, as designers of life, as creators of whole ideal environments for people to live in (strangely heedless of the traffic-dominated, windswept, plastic-shopping-centre nightmares most English towns have become under their guidance).

‘Where people meet, ideas collide and inventions begin,’ was the contribution from Richard George Rogers, Baron Rogers of Riverside, CH, Kt, FRIBA, FCSD, HonFREng (b.1933). Next to it these words from Piers Gough (b.1946): ‘Of course, architecture is really inventive land escape.’ The ‘of course’ says everything, everything you need to know about the lofty, de haut en bas, guru-to-his-disciples spirit in which World Architecture and its superstars operate. The play on words in ‘land escape’, well…

The funniest thing about the Room of Shame was the way these engineers of the human soul, these people who claim to understand human nature intimately and deeply enough to create entire city and townscapes catering to our every need, had designed tables holding their fantastical designs which featured gaps between the models at about bum height…

Since this was the fifth or six room in the show, quite obviously a number of visitors had done the entirely natural thing and leant or even perched on these empty bits of table. With the result that big signs had had to be fixed to the tables in every possible perching space shouting DO NOT SIT – beautifully epitomising the failure of groovy modern design to understand the most basic of human needs, the need for a bit of a sit-down and a rest. Reminding me of the NO BALL GAMES, NO PLAYING signs on the green spaces of a thousand council blocks I’ve seen over the decades. ‘We have designed these masterpieces of philosophical architecture,’ the signs say: ‘Now don’t you dare mess them up by actually living in them’.

My son – who is studying biology – really liked the Urban Flora Propagation Field Box (£4,000) by Laurence Pinn, Ben Kirk and Andrew Diggle, and was genuinely upset by the strident DO NOT TOUCH sign next to it. God forbid children should get interested in science or try out, test and play with a bit of scientific equipment. Our work is to admire, not to use.

In the same spirit we both liked the chess set where the pieces were miniature versions of famous buildings and – we realised – black represented modern buildings (the Shard, the Gherkin, the Mobile Phone) and white represented old (Tower Bridge, St Paul’s). Franklin’s Morals of Chess (Jade) (£1,960) by Karl Singporewala, a nifty reworking of the perennial theme of the Battle of Ancient and Moderns. But which, inevitably, had a big sign next to it saying DO NOT TOUCH. God forbid people should actually play a game with it…

Explore more images from the architecture room


Back to art

Oddly for a room of architecture designs, on one wall hung 40 etchings of the Galapagos islands in the distinctive black-and-white and easily enjoyable style of Norman Ackroyd CBE RA (b.1938). Birds wheeling, guano-covered cliffs, crashing waves. His etchings appear every year but are usually seascapes of the Orkney and Shetland islands and, sure enough, in another room are works with titles like Whitby, Gannets on Flannen, Thirsk Hall in winter, Morning Sunlight Bempton. Priced from £500 to £1,000 these would be lovely objects to own.

In the next room was an example of the instantly recognisable style of Cathy de Monchaux  (b.1960) – Asylum (£28,000) – a kind of shallow vitrine containing a miniature scene constructed from copper wire, medical plasters, pigment, feathers and silk, the delicacy and medieval fantasy subject matter – apparently some unicorns in a wood – contrasting vividly? poignantly? strikingly? with the metallic modern-ness of the materials.

My son liked what looked like two big boards or sides of wooden crates, onto whose visible grain small images had been painted – Noon Fishing and Dawn Fishing by Mick Moon RA (b.1937). So did I for the reasons outlined above about enjoying the involvement of rough or raw materials in art.

Michael Craig-Martin (b.1941) who I mentioned earlier, has always seemed to me the artistic father of cool Young British Artist Julian Opie (b.1958); whereas C-M applies a hard-outlined brightly-coloured approach to objects, Opie creates large bright cartoon-style images of people, most famously in his cover art for the Best of Blur album back in 2000. This year he is represented by Tourist with Beard (screenprint with hand painting) (£8,600) and Walking in the Rain, Seoul (£23,500).

Julian Opie  Walking in the rain, Seoul  From Walking in the rain (2015)

Julian Opie – Walking in the rain, Seoul
From Walking in the rain (2015)

Allen Jones RA (b.1937), recently the beneficiary of a major retrospective at the RA, featured with some of the yellow, cartoon-like, soft porn paintings he does nowadays – Second Thoughts and Salome. Writing ‘cartoon’ reminds me of the Craig-Martin and Opie and, indeed, the Grayson Perry. Is it a trend to treat objects and the human figure as if they were idealised shop window mannekins?

Anthony Green RA always appears in the show, with six of his quirky, cartoony (that word again) portrayals of domestic life (often his own) – a kind of ruder, hairier, male version of Beryl Cook. The Birds: A Second Marriage and The Bureau: Afternoon Sun give you the flavour of his comic realism, often with the canvas or surface itself cut out around the shape of an object in the image, like the artist’s face or glasses. Maybe there is no trend. Maybe I’m just realising that I like cartoons. Cartoons and photographs.

Professor David Mach RA (b.1956)’s enormous sculpture of a gorilla made from coathangers was the outstanding work of the 2010 show. This year he was represented by six works of which I only noticed Sunimi and a golden Buddha, both a tad pricey at £29,500. (Article about Mach)

Because I like novelty, sculpture and harsh subject matter, I immediately liked Margaret Proudfoot’s War Work (Ypres), a three-yard-square map of the field boundaries of a patch of the Ypres battlefield made entirely of barbed wire (£3,500), striking, original, entirely fitting, horrible to contemplate (or touch) yet totally fragile, the photo doesn’t do its scale or its delicacy justice.

In front of it was an over-lifesize dominating sculpture by Michael Sandle RA (b.1936) – As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap: An Allegory (Acknowledgements to Holman Hunt) – a parody or spoof of Holman Hunt’s famous 1853 pre-Raphaelite painting, The Light of The Worldin which the figure of Jesus has been dressed in modern fighter pilot outfit and helmet, clutching the decapitated heads of the innocent children he’s bombed to death, and with Hunt’s illuminating lantern converted into some kind of death ray machine. It’s almost as if the artist is telling us that War is Bad.

On the wall, to the left of the pilot’s head, you can see I Just Want To Be Held, a c-type print by Deborah Brown (£700) a photo of the torso of a (lean shapely) young woman with what appeared to be the hairs or shoots of cactus buds emerging from her smooth skin. My son liked the title, I liked the smooth contours, we both liked the ‘conceit’ or ‘concept’ or ‘gag’. In the past I’ve complained to my companions about the prevalence of boring old painted nudes at the show: mention of this example prompts me to comment there were surprisingly few, if any, full female nudes this year.

My son liked two photos of ruined buildings with incongruous objects in them – Chaise in Morning Room (£495) by Sara Qualter & Bill Baillie, and Thicket by Susanne Moxhay (£795). I know what he meant, but they were a little too stagey for me. Room IX might have been my favourite, with the barbed wire, the cactus nude, and a whole load of striking photos, including two by Robin Friend – Gaewern Slate Mine (Abandoned 1970) (£8,500) and Exit Test (£5,500).

Back in room II, the guide highlighted (among many other works all hung close together) three portraits – of Simon Cowell, Damian Hirst and Grayson Perry (see below). I thought they were all dire, and indicative of the very wide range of ability, success and failure, which is always on display here. You pays your money and you really does take your choice.

Works on display in Gallery II of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

Works on display in Gallery II of the Summer Exhibition 2015 (c) David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

The final gallery (X) is entirely dedicated to a work by Tom Phillips titled A Humument: he has spent thirty years systematically decorating, defacing and redesigning the pages of an obscure second-hand book, A Human Document by W.H. Mallock. We are invited a) to understand this, and then b) to examine 40 or 50 of the the fairly small (6 inches by 4 inches?) pages thus artified. According to the website linked to above, he has completed some 367 pages so far, and still hasn’t finished. This is how they were hung.

And after this, the Exit and the brightly-lit Shop, full of all sorts of attractive merchandise.


The Summer Exhibition Explorer

For the first time the RA has made all 1,131 items available to view via the Summer Exhibition Online Explorer, which you can explore by gallery or by artist, where you can take tours or sample selections. This allows a completely new relationship with the art because you could, for example, surf every single piece before you go, and seek out ‘in real life’ what you fancied as a 2-inch-square photo. Or, after visiting, you can check back on something you thought you liked to see if you still do. You could just surf the images and decide you’d ‘done’ the show but this would be a mistake, as works of art a) are (obviously) all much bigger than depicted on a little computer screen b) have an impact in real life, to do with size and texture and presence and feel, which can only be felt in their presence.

What surfing it did for me, after returning from the show, was made me realise just how many pieces I hadn’t really seen or engaged with because, in any one visit, you can only notice so much, be engaged with so many works. Made me realise I should probably go back, in a different mood, at a different time of day, and I would probably enjoy a completely different selection of the vast array of art on show.


 

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Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2014

The Royal Academy Summer exhibition is always a joy because there are so many exhibits (this year 1,262) and so many artists (200?) that you are not having to focus on some eminent artist’s life and career (eg Matisse or Malevich) but are liberated to stroll around and look at what you fancy in any order you fancy and to like or dislike whatever you fancy.

That said, this year’s selection seemed less interesting than the last few years’, maybe because I’m becoming familiar with the same old faces (or styles), maybe because contemporary art really is surprisingly limited in scope and invention. For me a couple of themes emerged:

Copies

At some period in the past (18th, 19th centuries?) Art was responsible for making iconic images. Admittedly, most people’s everyday lives were dominated, image-wise, by the kind of folk art shown in the current Tate Britain exhibition. But ‘high art’ routinely created great and iconic images which were copied, parodied, set the tone.

By contrast, many of the best images in this exhibition were copies of artefacts in the real world which owe their greatness to the original designers. Examples include the striking painting of a Lego figure by Belinda Jane Channer (£4,000), a painting of a raptor made striking by Jurassic Park, Martin Craig-Smith’s characteristic outlines of a violin, a spotlight, a takeaway coffee cup, David Mach’s pin sculpture of a Snow Leopard or playing card collage of a dollar bill – The paper it’s printed on – which both owe their power to the beauty of the object and which prompt only momentary impressment at the ingenuity of the media before you blink and forget them.

My point being that, an aspect of contemporary art is its overshadowedness by the dense jungle of images and artefacts we see, consume and interact with all day every day.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Pride of place in the entrance vestibule was given to Cake Man (above, centre), a life-size mannikin made of Dutch wax, African printed cotton, globe head, steel baseplate, leather, gold, polyester and plaster by Yinka Shonibare RA and costing £162,000

Clichés

I saw a lot of the same thing: Anthony Green’s cutout Beryl-Cook-like paintings of domestic settings, often with a naked lady, often with the artist’s comically intrusive eye present; Norman Ackroyd‘s wonderful watercolours of the Shetland scenery; a big black painting that reminded me of Rothko, lots of slant-eyed naive art that reminded me of Picasso, lots of nudes – always nude women – photos where contemporary people act out classical paintings, satirical versions of Edwardian children’s illustration except the figures are taking drugs or giving the viewer the finger, big splurge paintings, colourful ones incorporating stylished images or photos from pop culture, a cloak made from wine bottle labels, foot-tall statuettes of human-satyr figures with big penises, small prints of a robin and kingfisher etc.

Paula Rego, Prince Pig's Courtship  Lithograph, 95 x 70 x 4 cm © Paula Rego. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

Paula Rego, Prince Pig’s Courtship
Lithograph, 95 x 70 x 4 cm
© Paula Rego. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art, London

My overall impression was how very, very hard it is to establish a voice, to do something new, to  make yourself heard above the jungle hubbub of thousands and thousands of other artists all working old themes and ideas and styles and media.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Writing

In the surrealists and especially in Jasper Johns, when I discovered him at school, I was immensely excited at the use of text in paintings, random phrases from packing boxes or flags etc seemed to me to lift painting out of its classical limitations and make its interaction with the actual world I live in seem limitless. However, even this has become dull. Incorporating text in an artwork has gone from explosively subversive to stiflingly, Victorianly preachy.

Thus works which told us ‘We work in the dark’, ‘Waste not the remains o the day’, all schools should be art schools’, ‘More poetry is needed’, ‘A splash of red paint is needed’, along with two big whiteboards onto which were painted, respectively, a radio 4 interview by Eddie Mair with David Nott, a doctor who served in Bosnia (on the left in the first photo, above) (price £100,000), and an open letter to Michael Gove pleading for more art education in schools (on the right in the photo below) by Bob and Roberta Smith (£36,000). What seemed to me ‘subversive’ and exciting in the 1970s has become a series of committee meeting memos and action points.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Architecture

There’s always an architecture room which I think of as the Room of Shame. In my humble opinion architecture has completely failed the people of Britain, creating inhuman and soul-destroying blocks of flats and windswept shopping precincts the length and breadth of the land, like the horrible town centres I recently visited of Ashford and King’s Lynn. This room always strikes me as darkly satirical because it is full of fantastical science-fiction fantasies of outlandish buildings, a handful of which will be built by international superstar architects like Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid, while each year hundreds of thousands of little brick boxes are created in soul-less estates and plastic cul de sacs in the Thames Gateway or outside ruined horrible cities.

It is for this reason that I very much liked the big (5 foot square?) photo by Jooney Woodward of Rhoose Point, a new estate on the Welsh coast, a characterless alien set of plain suburban brick houses plonked down next to the coast with no thought for context or setting, with one desolated-looking kid walking through its dead drives. That is the architecture which is created year in, year out to make Britain the dull and boring country it is.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

In this room I quite like the hoopy metal sculptures. a hanging sculpture of numerous profiles of human faces which you can’t make out against the wood doorframe, and the two photographs to the right of the central door, which are views of the same rural scene in spring and winter. But too much of the rest seemed undistinguished and samey.

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Installation view of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2014 © Benedict Johnson

Funny

Two pieces made me laugh out loud: Martin Creed’s work number 398 which is a shaped fluorescent tube. As far as I know American minimalists were displaying fluorescent tubes in the 1960s, so this is an antique idea, but he had shaped it to read ASSHOLES and the bluntness and simplicity made me laugh. And in the same room was a microphone with a hairbrush instead of a microphone. A quick simple chuckle but hardly going to set the world on fire.

Ceal Floyer, Solo (Edition of 3 plus 2 artist's proofs), 2006  Microphone stand, hairbrush, 150 x 50 x 50 cm  Photo © Nick Ash. Courtesy by the Artist and Esther Schipper

Ceal Floyer, Solo (Edition of 3 plus 2 artist’s proofs), 2006
Microphone stand, hairbrush, 150 x 50 x 50 cm
Photo © Nick Ash. Courtesy by the Artist and Esther Schipper

What I liked

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Bronze @ the Royal Academy

9 December 2012

‘Bronze’ is a major exhibition at the Royal Academy which sets out to show how bronze has been used to make religious and cultural artefacts in cultures all over the world for nearly 5,000 years. The show brings together some 150 of the finest bronze works from Africa, Asia and Europe in a really massive, overwhelming exhibition.

From the exhibition we learn that bronze has been employed as an artistic medium for over five millennia. It’s an alloy made by blending copper with small amounts of tin, zinc or lead. Due to its strength and resistance, copper has been subjected to an extraordinary variety of uses over the centuries.

The exhibits range from the ancient to the modern, from the large to the tiny. If the exhibition was just about European bronze it would be impressive enough with ancient works such as the severed head of King Seuthes III dating from the early Hellenistic period, through loads of medieval saints, to masterpieces of the Renaissance from Florence made by Bellini, Cellini and Donatello. There’s a sequence of pompous kings from the 17th to 19th centuries, and then ‘modern’ works from Rodin, Brancusi, Matisse, Giacommetti.

But interspersed with the familiar European works are bronze pieces from Asia and Africa, from India, China, Cambodia and many from Nigeria.

This intermingling is because the exhibition isn’t sorted by area but by them, each room focusing on a topic such as the Human Figure, Animals, Groups, Objects, Reliefs, Gods, Heads and Busts. In any one room there’ll be work from all areas and all ages. Plus one whole room dedicated to explaining the manufacturing process. Here you learn about the methods for casting bronze, how models are made, cast and finished – with models, videos, and – the end result – a foot-high slender statue which you can handle. It is heavy. Shiny and heavy. You can see why even small statuettes are used as murder weapons in some thrillers.

One of the earliest exhibits is the wonderful Trundholm sun chariot, one of Denmark’s biggest national treasures. It was found in one of Denmark’s many peat bogs in 1902. It’s thought to date from 1800 to 1600 BCE. A large bronze disk is being pulled by a bronze horse on wheels. One side of the disk is gilded and the common interpretation is that the ensemble represents the sun being drawn across the heavens from East to West during the day, presenting its bright side to the Earth and then returning from West to East during the night, when the dark side is being presented to the Earth.

Images of the Trundholm sun chariot

The Chimera of Arezzo is one of the best known examples of Etruscan art. The Etruscans inhabited the area of Italy now known as Tuscany before the rise of the Romans. This bronze was found in 1553 and was one of a hoard of bronzes that had been carefully buried for safety some time in antiquity. In Greek mythology the monstrous Chimera ravaged its homeland, Lycia, until it was slain by Bellerophon. This statue may have been part of a set including Bellorophon. The present bronze tail is an 18th-century restoration. An inscription on the right foreleg is agreed to be TINSCVIL indicating that the bronze was a votive object dedicated to the supreme Etruscan god of day, Tin or Tinia.

The Chimera of Arezzo

One evening in March 1998 fishermen off the southwestern coast of Sicily caught in their nets one of the most spectacular ancient finds of recent times, a more than life size bronze statue of a dancing satyr. Dating varies widely from the 4th century BCE by scholars who say it might be the handiwork of the legendary ancient sculptor Praxiteles, to others who date it to the Hellenistic period of the 3rd or the 2nd centuries BCE. It’s dancing writhing body is a masterpiece of action and movement captured in hard cold metal.

Dancing satyr , 4th century BCE

There’s an amazingly detailed and characterful head of King Seuthes III, a Thracian king contemporary with Alexander the Great, which was only discovered in a tomb in central Bulgaria eight years ago.

Head of King Seuthes III

The wealth, the variety of traditions, of religions and histories and cultures o display is quite overwhelming and exhausting but I found myself consistently liking the non-European works. Although obviously ‘masterpieces’ I found the famous and often huge works of the European tradition – like Bellini’s Perseus and Medusa – too familiar, to easily assimilated. It was the works from Asia and Africa which struck me, excited me, haunted me and above all the pieces form Africa, from Nigeria. For example this wonderful masterful ‘Head with crown’ from 15th century Ife in Nigeria. In terms of composition, finish, realism and yet something haunting and transcendental, this piece is head and shoulders above sculpture produced in England in the 15th century, all those slender wooden Marys and bleeding christs.

Head with crown, 15th century, Ife, Nigeria

‘Perseus and Medusa’ by Benvenuto Cellini was unveiled in 1545 on a square base with bronze relief panels and still stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy. Its heroic super-realistic depiction of the human body in wonderful anatomical precision is hailed as a peak of Renaissance knowledge and craftmanship.

‘Perseus and Medusa’ by Benvenuto Cellini

Another very striking Renaissance piece is this ‘Damned soul’ by Gianlorenzo Bernini made around 1619. The original is in marble but a bronze copy was made in the early 1700s by Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi. He looks pretty unhappy at being consigned to an eternity of torment. A very European idea which we successfully exported to countless more peaceful and relaxed cultures around the globe.

‘Damned soul’ by Gianlorenzo Bernini

The Benin Bronzes are a collection of more than 3000 brass plaques from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin (located in present day Nigeria). They seem to have been cast in Benin between the thirteenth and 16th century. They were seized by a British force in a “punitive (ie plundering) expedition” in 1897 and passed along that great lumberhouse of loot, the British Museum. It’s worth visiting the Museum to go to the underground gallery where several hundred are displayed. They make an overwhelming impression.

Benin bronze

The early 20th century is well-represented by some massive slabs by Matisse, spindly figures by Giacommetti, figures by Rodin. But surely the most striking is this wonderful piece from 1918, ‘Danaïde’ by Constantin Brancusi, apparently based on a famous flapper from the era. It reminds me of art deco and the round caps worn by flappers in the Jazz Age.

‘Danaïde’ by Constantin Brancusi

Post-war there are some jokey beer cans cast in bronze by Jasper Johns, a bronze basketball by Jeff Koons, a blodgy swamp monster by Willem de Kooning, a praying mantis by Germaine Richier, a big spooky spider by Louise Bourgeois and a typically bric-a-brac Baboon and Young by Picasso.

Amid bronze Indian votive bulls and Chinese treasure chests and medieval altars, I was struck by this modern Arte Povera-style work by Richard Deacon, titled simply ‘Nails’.

‘Nails’ by Richard Deacon

Not a great photo, but it was one of the few pieces which struck me as ‘artistic’ in the sense of wonderfully capturing the world, the materials and artefacts of the world we live in, as opposed to religious offerings, Renaissance supermen or African cult figures. Industrial length nails. Stark, evocative beauty of the observed, the chosen-from-detritus, the taken-from-here and made-to-last-forever.

Guardian review of Bronze

London Review of Books review of Bronze

Telegraph review of Bronze

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture @ the Royal Academy

11 March 2012

I was out in woods and fields all day yesterday which set me up nicely to go this morning to the Royal Academy for ‘David Hockney: A Bigger Picture’, an enormous exhibition of recent landscapes of the Yorkshire Wolds where he now lives.

Over the years I’ve been to various Hockney exhibitions and never felt a thing. Blank. Here I chatted to a curator who gave some reasons:

  1.  The paintings are immediately there with little or no friction, quick and easy to swallow.
  2. The tonal range is limited – lots of violent reds and purples and greens which get very samey.
  3. They’re soulless: big, slick, there are hundreds and hundreds of them, but no one image struck me, shook me.

That said, we all liked the roomful of ipad art best, images he drew on an ipad, then printed blown-up. There was more attention to the detail of flowers and leaf shapes, trees and puddles, than in the huge oil paintings. Paradoxically, though, the biggest painting of all, ‘The arrival of spring in Woldgate’, was wonderful and, along with a handful in the last, cramped room in the same style, had much more balance and abstraction, like a book illustration or an opera set.

Regardless of my petty preferences, for a man approaching his 75th birthday, the exhibition is an amazing, inspiring achievement.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935

To the Royal Academy to see Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935, a small but powerful exhibition of constructivist and suprematist paintings, and photos of avant-garde architecture from the heroic era following the Russian revolution. What makes the exhibition special is that all the original architectural diagrams and photos are accompanied by contemporary photos taken over the past 15 years by Richard Pare, which show these astonishingly innovative buildings now crumbling and decaying, neglected, empty and unloved, like the forgotten Soviet ideology which moulded Russia – and the world – for 70 years.

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