John Opie @ Tate Britain

Tate Britain is labyrinthine enough to have half a dozen side rooms and spaces where it mounts small (and sometimes not so small) ‘spotlight’ exhibitions, focusing on a particular topic or artist.

In a modest room off the main atrium, little more than a glorified corridor, Tate Britain is hosting a small but beautifully formed exhibition about the painting and cultural environment of the late-eighteenth century English painter, John Opie (1761 – 1807).

The Cornish Wonder

Opie’s success is surprising because of his background. In the late eighteenth century artists generally came from artistic families, or from educated, middle-class homes where their interest in such a risky career could be indulged.

In contrast, Opie was born at St Agnes, near Truro in Cornwall, the son of a mine carpenter. Although he did attend school, he was probably largely self-educated. A wealthy local couple later reported that he visited the library in their house and ‘read every book in it’. But Opie’s father opposed his intellectual and artistic interests, and trained him as a carpenter.

Opie’s life was transformed when he encountered the poet and art critic, Dr John Wolcot, who brought Opie to London and launched him on his career. Wolcot became the painter’s manager, taking a cut of his earnings and helped him gain fame as a sort of self-taught genius. Opie’s dramatic style and mastery of light and shade that prompted comparisons with the most admired Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and earned him the reputation of ‘the Cornish wonder’.

Portrait of the Artist by John Opie (c.1790)

The common people

When Opie first came to London, much was made of his humble origins. The Peasant’s Family is a good example of his dignified images of ordinary people. One critic wrote:

Could people in vulgar life [the working-class] afford to pay for pictures, Opie would be their man.

Little is known of the early history of this painting. There is no documentation to prove without doubt that Opie painted it, but it has always been accepted as by him.

The Peasant’s Family by John Opie (c.1783-5)

Portraits

Opie produced portraits and subject paintings of striking originality and realism. Although little-known today, his work created a sensation in exhibitions during his lifetime. Opie was working at a time when fame was becoming an increasingly important part of artistic success. Artists jostled to grab public attention, painting more flamboyant and dramatic pictures.

We do not know the identity of the woman in this painting who is depicted as the heroine of Shakespeare’s tragedy Troilus and Cressida, but she is probably a celebrity or actress who contemporary viewers would have recognised.

Portrait of a Lady in the Character of Cressida by John Opie (1800)

Radicals

Mary Wollstonecraft was a ground-breaking feminist. This portrait shows her looking directly towards us, temporarily distracted from her studies. Such a pose would more typically be used for a male sitter. Women would normally be presented as more passive, often gazing away from the viewer like Cressida above.

The painting dates to around the time she published A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). This argued against the idea that women were naturally inferior to men and emphasised the importance of education.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie ( c.1790-1)

The intellectual milieu

In fact Opie was part of the leading radical circles of the day. After the French Revolution broke out in 1789 and then Britain went to war with revolutionary France in 1793, radical beliefs of any sort became dangerous, but Opie was part of a liberal metropolitan circle which included Wollstonecraft, her philosopher husband William Godwin and the ‘sensation’ painter Henry Fuseli.

Aside from the portraits, one of the most interesting exhibits here is an elaborate anti-radical cartoon by the famous Georgian caricaturist James Gillray. It depicts sequences from a long anti-revolutionary poem by George Canning.

The caricature warns of post-apocalyptic world where evil has triumphed, where the president of the French Directory (Revelliere-Lepeaux) is being installed at St Paul’s Cathedral as the head of a new religion named ‘theophilanthropy’, and where the Leviathan arrives accompanied (and ridden) by an extensive retinue of triumphant British followers waving their revolutionary bonnets rouges.

NEW MORALITY, or, The promis’d Installment of the High Priest of the THEOPHILANTHROPES, with the Homage of Leviathan and his Suite by James Gillray (1798)

As intended, it’s fun reading the elaborate caption under the cartoon and trying to identify the contemporary political and intellectual figures who are being so thoroughly lampooned. And the wall label tells us that Opie in fact painted many of these ridiculed radicals – including Charles James Fox, John Nichols, Lord Moira and Samuel Whitbread, the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Stanhope, the scientist Joseph Priestley and the radical John Horne Tooke.

The ‘cornucopia of ignorance’ which the acolytes are emptying before the altar contains works by Mary Wollstonecroft, the playwright Thomas Holcroft, and the novelist Charlotte Smith, all of whom had sat for Opie.

Amelia Opie

And he married someone from this progressive world – the liberal novelist and poet Amelia Alderson.

Amelia Opie by John Opie (1798)

Amelia was the daughter of a successful physician. She was already gaining notice as a writer with strong liberal and radical sympathies when she met John around 1796. He probably painted this wonderfully feeling portrait in 1798, the year of their marriage. As Amelia Opie she went on to achieve success as a novelist, poet and political activist, especially against the slave trade.

Early death

Despite his unconventional manners and his resolutely working class origins (his father in law was revolted by his table manners; even his wife admitted his studio was like a ‘pigsty’), John carved a career for himself in London’s fast-moving and competitive art market. He had just been made Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy when he died suddenly, at the early age of 45. For the rest of her life, Amelia did much to promote his memory and achievement.

Thoughts

This is a charming, funny and interesting little display. There must be hundreds of similarly obscure and forgotten British painters who would benefit from the same care and attention.


Related links

  • John Opie continues at Tate Britain until 23 February 2020 and it is FREE

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Anno’s Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa @ Japan House

Anno Mitsumasa was born in 1926, meaning he turned 93 this year. For over fifty years he has been drawing and painting book illustrations, for hundreds of books, many of them for children, with the result that generations of Japanese have grown up familiar with his images from an early age, which is the reason he has become ‘one of Japan’s most beloved and prolific artists’.

The Japan House in High Street Kensington is a pleasure to visit at any time, to enjoy the minimalist layout and carefully chosen artifacts in the ground floor boutique. It’s currently hosting a small but beautifully curated exhibition of works by Anno Mitsumasa, the first ever display of Anno’s work in the UK.

The exhibition includes 87 artworks by Anno in a variety of media from watercolours and Japanese-style paintings (Nihonga), to powder pigment (ganryō) on silk, and black papercuts. Althoughhe’s illustrated hundreds, and himself written scores, of books, for the purpose of the exhibition the works have been gathered into six or seven categories.

Learning letters

The show includes examples from the early learning alphabet books Anno created, in which he illustrated the Japanese hiragana syllabary, books such as Anna’s Alphabet (1974) and The A-E-I-O-U Book (1976).

J from Anno’s Alphabet, An Adventure in Imagination by Mitsumasa Anno (1974)

Mysterious World

His first picture book was Mysterious Pictures published in 1968. It is hugely indebted to the work of optical illusionist M.C. Escher, whose work Anno came across on a trip to Europe. It prompted Anno to create his own impossible ascending staircases and upside-down scenes, Escher subject matter, but in Anno’s characteristic stick-men style. He continued this thread with teasing optical illusion pictures printed between 1969 and 1980 in the Japanese magazine Mathematical Science. Thus, if you look closely at the J in the illustration above, you’ll see it has an Escher twist.

Fushigi na E © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

Anno’s Journey

Anno broke through to the big time with his 1977 book, in Japanese A Picture Book of Travels, translated into English as Anno’s Journey.

Unlike the books mentioned so far, Anno’s Journey consists of immensely detailed pictures of natural scenes which are not simplified for children or laughs. Each picture shows a small figure journeying through the cultural and literary landscapes of a country in Europe, based on Anno’s own extensive journeys through Europe, noting the folklore, history and art of each country. He had been a Europhile since boyhood and in 1964 undertook a 40-day journey across the continent, which provided him with the imagery for the books.

The original was so successful that it sparked eight sequels, each focusing on a specific country – Anno’s Britain, Anno’s USA, Anno’s Italy and so on. The exhibition goes heavy on Anno’s Britain (1981) with as many as twenty prints from this one book. What they have in common is:

  • the image is thronged with minutely rendered detail
  • the subjects are an odd, uncanny mixture of actual places – famous landmarks such as the White Cliffs of Dover, Stonehenge, Big Ben – but reimagined among much older, non-existent historical buildings e.g. St Paul’s cathedral not surrounded by modern developments but by thatched cottages and Tudor beam houses

St. Paul’s Cathedral from Anno’s Britain © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

You could make much of this anachronistic reimagining (note the horse-drawn omnibus at the top right of this picture, and all the pictures of rural England are full of thatched cottages and half the inhabitants are wearing the kinds of frocks and bonnets which go back to the Civil War era), but what is perhaps most obvious is the simple imaginative freedom Anno feels. He is a tourist in what, to him, is a strange land, full of unreadable images and symbols, on a journey of discovery: why should anything make sense? Why should he make sense?

Papercuts

During the 1970s Anno produced a series of works using Japanese papercutting techniques. These are as different from the Journey books as can be imagined because they work with large and bold images, as opposed to the many tiny figures which pack out the Journey pictures.

He used the technique to illustrate a suite of Japanese folk tales, made designs for a pack of card games, and adapted the Hans Christian Andersen story The Little Match Girl in 1976.

The papercut technique brings out the basic elements of storytelling without words, reminiscent of the kami-shibai or ‘paper theatre’ format which would have been familiar to Anno from street entertainments before the war.

Scene 12 from The Old Man Who Made Trees Blossom by Anno Mitsumasa © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

The monochrome effect of black and white, and the starkness of the angular outlines, are all hugely at odds with the joyfully coloured, and minutely detailed, and often rather sensual curves and flourishes of his other work – reminding the viewer just how varied and imaginative his output has been.

The Tale of the Heike Picture Book

For me the highlight of the exhibition was a series of illustrations Anno made to the classic Japanese literary masterpiece, The Tale of the Heike. This is an epic account of the struggle between the Taira clan and Minamoto clan for control of Japan in the Genpei War (1180–1185). The text was compiled sometime prior to 1330, and is huge: it runs to over 700 pages in the Penguin classic translation, and is packed with conspiracies and battles, interspersed with diplomacy and – my favourite scenes – nights of wine and love.

The Exiling of the Ministers of State from ‘The Tale of the Heike Picture Book’ © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

Several things set these wonderful images apart from the rest of the work here. One is the medium: they are made from powder paint painted onto fine silk, an incredibly difficult medium to master.

And possibly related to this is the use of washes of colour. In the image above, notice all the tones of grey and greyish brown which he has used to create the atmosphere of dusk and moonrise, and also to convey the sandy quality of dried summer grass at the bottom left.

Anno’s illustrations originally appeared one at a time in the monthly magazine named Books, and there is a grand total of 79 of them, produced over seven years. The ten or so examples on display here are, for me, head and shoulders above everything else.

Partly because they are for adults, unlike almost everything else.

Partly because they deal with war, and so have highly dramatic scenes of ranks of samurai warriors on horseback charging each other, as well as tumbling over cliffs or (apparently) charging into rivers. Much action and movement!

But mostly for their sheer beauty. They are beautiful. The composition, the colouring, and the immense subtlety of the colour washes, make them by turns exciting, dramatic, or mysterious and evocative.

In and Around the Capital

There’s a selection from a series of watercolours Anno did depicting scenes from Kyoto, capital of Japan until the mid-19th century. These are bright watercolours which he produced for the Sankei Shimbun newspaper between 2011 and 2016, skilful and bright and featuring some wonderful landscapes all done in a very loose and relaxed style but, for me, paling in comparison with the works on silk.

Hōrin-ji, Arashiyama from Views In and Around The Capital © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Mori no naka no ie, Anno Mitsumasa Art Museum, Wakuden

Children of the Past

Most recently Anno has reverted to memories of his childhood with a series depicting idyllic memories of his childhood growing up in the small rural town of Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture. There are scenes of children learning at school or playing in the countryside, all done in a deliberately naive, child-like style, and accompanied by text written as if a diary entry by his boyhood self.

Memories of Tsuwano by Anno Mitsumasa (2001) © Anno Mitsumasa. Courtesy of Anno Art Museum

These were sweet and lovely if you warm to the children’s book thread in Anno’s work. But I’m afraid my heart was totally lost to The Tale of the Heike Picture Book, and, having seen those pictures, nothing else here matched their intense and adult beauty.

Reading cove

The exhibition space at Japan House is one big white room downstairs. For this show they’ve had the simple but effective idea of converting the central part of the room into a reading area, carpeting it with soft black carpet, separating it off with black partitions, and strewing it with surprisingly comfortable white cushions. And placing racks of thirty or so of Anno’s books across the floor, a profusion of books and titles and images which, more than the wall labels, confirm how prodigiously prolific he has been.

I took full advantage of this comfy area to nab the only copy of The Tale of the Heike Picture Book and work very slowly through it, savouring all the illustrations. A couple of families were there with very small children and a baby. This reading nook provided a safe space to sit down with toddlers and show them the pictures, or encourage them to make up stories linking the often textless illustrations.

The reading space at the centre of Anno’s Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa at Japan House

The film

Downstairs at Japan House, opposite the gallery space, is a lecture hall-cum-small movie theatre. Alongside the exhibition, they’re showing an extended documentary film about Anno, with sub-titles chronicling his career, with lots of wonderful rostrum shots of his illustrations, and with interview snippets with the great man himself.

The merch

As you might expect, the shop upstairs is stocking a selection of Anno’s books (though not, I was disappointed to see, The Tale of the Heike Picture Book – the copy I looked at downstairs had a Japanese text: I wonder if it’s available in an English translation) – along with some funky Anno Mitsumasa stationery, playing cards and other merch.

This is a delightful way to spend a couple of peaceful, meditative and civilised hours. And it’s completely FREE.


Related links

Other exhibitions at Japan House

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