Dalí / Duchamp @ the Royal Academy

‘To systematise confusion and thereby contribute to a total discrediting of the world of reality’ (Dalí’s aim, stated in his book The Putrefied Donkey, 1930)

This exhibition of around 80 works by ‘father of conceptual art’ Marcel Duchamp, and ‘larger-than-life Surrealist’ Salvador Dalí aims to ‘throw light on their surprising relationship and its influence on the work of both artists.’ It also brings together in one place a number of their classic works; you can either read the story of their friendship in minute detail, or step back and marvel at a handful of works which changed the face of 20th century art (or both).

Lobster Telephone (1938) by Salvador Dali and Edward James. Photo by West Dean College, part of Edward James Foundation/© Salvador Dali, Fundacia Gala-Salvador Dali, DACS 2017

Lobster Telephone (1938) by Salvador Dali and Edward James. Photo by West Dean College, part of Edward James Foundation/© Salvador Dali, Fundacia Gala-Salvador Dali, DACS 2017

What have they got in common? Well, their surnames both start with D. But they come from different generations (Duchamp born 1887, Dalí born 1904), Duchamp was cerebral, ironic, thoughtful, retiring; Dalí was garish, gregarious, turning himself into a preposterous showman. On the face of it, Tweedleduchamp and Tweedledalí.

But after a meeting some time in 1930 they evidently got on. In 1933 Duchamp visited Dalí in Spain, they worked closely together on the ‘sceneography’ of the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition, wrote essays and comments on each other’s work and after the war, every summer Duchamp rented rooms in near Dalí’s house at Cadaqués in north-east Spain.

The show displays a number of photos of Duchamp on the beach, along with Dalí and his devoted wife, Gala, as well as chatty postcards the artists exchanged.

Early works

One of the interests of the show is the handful of really early works by both artists, showing what conventional beginnings they had. They both did conventional-looking portraits of their fathers, Duchamp’s adopting the flavour of the post-impressionists, Dalí’s showing the impact of post-war neo-classicising Modernism.

And there’s an interesting cubist work by Dalí.

Notice the discrepancy of dates, though. Duchamp was already a practicing artist when the Great War broke out, Dalí still a child. By 1913 Duchamp was fed up of painting. Even as the cubists were inventing new perspectives, Duchamp had concluded the tradition of Western painting was exhausted. In his studio in New York he experimented with alternative ways of making art.

Retinal versus Modern painting

Looking back from 1954, Duchamp wrote that after Impressionism the visual perception required by all art movements stopped at the retina: Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Abstraction they are all kinds of retinal art, meaning that they are concerned only with visual perception. He was impatient with this. A cerebral man, he wanted art with a bit more thought.

Later, in 1966, he recalled that just before the Great War the great thing was what the French call patte, meaning the hand, meaning the direct involvement of the hand in painting, the handiness, the imprint of the artist’s brushstrokes, a testament to the directness of artistic creation.

Again, Duchamp felt he was reacting against this peasant primitivism. He thought there should be a role for mind and reason and intellect in art. This is the context for his experiments with objects picked up in shops and the street, the so-called ‘readymades’. They and his other experiments were attempts to overthrow or go beyond the hand and retina in art, in fact to go beyond the entire Western tradition of the artist as a ‘maker’ or craftsman.

The earliest readymade was Bicycle wheel (1913), assembled from two parts, a bike wheel mounted on a stool. In time he came to call these ‘assisted readymades’ because they did require some intervention, as opposed to pure ‘readymades’ which are presented exactly as  found.

Bicycle Wheel (1913, 6th version 1964) by Marcel Duchamp. Photo © Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada/© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

Bicycle Wheel (1913, 6th version 1964) by Marcel Duchamp. Photo © Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada/© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

The first pure readymade i.e. an unchanged found object, was Bottle Rack (1914), an example of a mass-produced artefact owned by millions of French people. But this one had been selected and purchased by Duchamp, who indicated his intervention with a small inscription.

There’s a big display case in this exhibition which includes Bicycle wheel and Bottle rack and the most famous readymade of all, Fountain.

Fountain (1917 - replica 1964) by Marcel Duchamp. Rome, National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. Photograph © Schiavinotto Giuseppe/© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

Fountain (1917 – replica 1964) by Marcel Duchamp. Rome, National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. Photograph © Schiavinotto Giuseppe/© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

Fountain (1917) is one of the icons of 20th century art, a mass manufactured urinal, placed untouched in a gallery except for the hand-written signature (in fact not Duchamp’s name, but one of his jokey, Dada alter egos, R. Mutt).

This begged the question, ‘What is a work of art?’ which people are still merrily asking to this day and will, forever. The practical answer is, ‘Anything a curator decides is a work of art and is worth buying and installing in a gallery’. Plenty of people think they’re artists and think they’re creating works of art and they and their friends and family might all agree – but only when a curator agrees, buys it, writes about it, displays it – does it enter the canon. Is it validated.

The commentary points out that the basic condition for choosing a readymade object was that Duchamp should remain aesthetically indifferent to it. He didn’t choose them because they’re beautiful. They’re not. The opposite: bicycle wheel, bottle rack, urinal.

The whole idea of the readymade was to get rid of taste, to dispense with the cult of the patte, the Artist’s Holy Hand.

The great irony is that it didn’t, did it? The Abstract Expressionists made a fetish of the visibility of the artist’s every gesture and stroke, and Jasper Johns – subject of a massive retrospective right next door to this exhibition – included hand prints in numerous paintings.

Duchamp’s readymades invented a place where artists (and viewers) can go, and gave rise to vast oceans of Conceptual Art. But it didn’t overthrow conventional art in the slightest. It just added a new wing to the old building.

The curators claim that these readymades ‘operate in a no man’s land between art and life’, which I thought was amusing.

a) Note the grandiose rhetoric – ‘operate’ making them sound like secret agents, ‘no man’s land’ makes the whole thing sound like a World War One battlefield instead of a genteel, upper-class gallery.
b) They emphatically don’t. They are unmistakably works of art. I can tell because they are hanging in an expensive art gallery and, if I touched any of them, I would be warned, if I tried to take a photograph (banned) I would be told off, and if I walked off with one of them I would be arrested.
c) I.e. there can be no doubt whatsoever that they are extremely rare, precious and valuable works of art.

L.H.O.O.Q.

Less imposing is his 1919 work, L.H.O.O.Q. It’s a cheap postcard of the Mona Lisa on which Duchamp drew a moustache and beard.

L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp (1919)

L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp (1919)

It’s not exactly difficult to copy or reproduce, which is part of the point. Duchamp went on to produce numerous variations and version, including one with no beard or moustache and wittily titled L.H.O.O.Q. shaved.

I didn’t realise that the apparently obscure title has a simple explanation. When you say the French letters out loud they sound like ‘Elle a chaud au cul’, a slang expression literally meaning ‘She is hot in the arse’, or ‘she’s on heat’. The Mona Lisa was one of the jewels in the collection of Western art in the Louvre, venerated by the French bourgeoisie as embodying everything noble about French civilisation. So this wasn’t a small insult but a calculated subversion of an entire set of values.

This kind of shocking the bourgeoisie is what attracted both Dada and Surrealist artists to Duchamp. Dalí later wrote that L.H.O.O.Q was a fitting end-point to Western art. Except it wasn’t. The curators – with a kind of thumping inevitability – claim it is a work which questions ‘ideas of originality and authenticity and gender’.

Rrose Sélavy

This habit of schoolboy punning also explains the name he gave to his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. At various points Duchamp dressed in women’s clothes, put on make-up, attended functions or had himself photographed as this severe Parisian lady.

Again, if you pronounce the name slowly in French it has another meaning –  ‘Eros, c’est la vie’, which translates as ‘Eros, that is life’, or more simply, Love is life, the love in question having a strong sexual overtone.

Duchamp’s distance

Although Duchamp spent the First World War in New York, news of his work spread among the Dada movement in Europe. He never joined the group but was admired for his anti-art stance – an admiration carried on into the Surrealist movement, founded by many of the former Dadaists.

However, Duchamp never joined the Surrealists either, though he became friends with many of them, as the photos by Man Ray suggest. He was probably too rational and controlled to join a movement which is all about the irrational and automatic. Nonetheless, the leader of the Surrealists Andre Breton saw Duchamp’s readymades as the first Surrealist objects and included them in an exhibition with that title.

Surrealism didn’t get properly going until the Surrealist manifestos were published in 1924. By that time Duchamp had cultivated the idea that he had abandoned art altogether in order to play chess professionally. This was far from the truth, as he continued making works of art well into the 1960s – but for most of this period Duchamp was the hidden man and when he was tracked down and interviewed, was very quiet, modest and sane.

The opposite of Salvador Dalí. Dalí enthusiastically entered into the spirit of Surrealism and in 1931 came up with the idea of the ‘Object of Symbolic Function’, an object which supposedly epitomises Surrealist ambitions of bringing unconscious dreams, desires, fantasies into the real world. A good example was his Aphrodisiac Jacket (1936), an ordinary dinner jacket with liqueur glasses sown into it.

Dalí’s discovers the inclined plane

Dalí was young. He came to all this late. He was 10 when the Great War broke out, 12 when Dada was formed, 14 when Duchamp made Fountain, and just turning 20 when the first Surrealist manifesto was written and published by the leader of the group, poet André Breton.

After the early experiments – the father portrait, messing about with Cubism – it was news to me that at the tender age of 24 Dalí considered abandoning painting altogether, declaring that the future lay in photography and film.

He wasn’t wrong but film and photography didn’t work out, so he returned to painting in 1929 with a work which broke with his previous pieces. It introduced an unrealistically smooth, deep, perspective on which he could sit all kinds of incongruous objects.

The First Days of Spring (1929) by Salvador Dali. Collection of the Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. © Salvador Dali, Fundacia Gala-Salvador Dali, DACS 2017

The First Days of Spring (1929) by Salvador Dali. Collection of the Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida. © Salvador Dali, Fundacia Gala-Salvador Dali, DACS 2017

Apparently, this painting also contains elements of collage and textures included in it. But the blindingly obvious components are the huge, empty, sweeping plain conceived as a stage for realistically depicted figures and objects undergoing strange transformations or caught in peculiar alienated poses.

He had invented an entire aesthetic which he would mine for the next 50 years or so, which led to the production of hundreds of variations, including some later masterpieces included here.

Nonetheless, in a revealing comment his friend Man Ray said that Dalí didn’t really like painting and would have much preferred to be a photographer. Although his paintings are dominated by soft-edged, often melting, forms, it’s worth bearing in mind this comment, and rethinking his paintings as settings of objects which have been arranged and staged as if for a photograph.

Sex

Both men were heterosexual men and had lifelong obsessions with sex and the female body, Duchamp in a generally discreet way, Dalí in an unembarrassed, flaunting way.

Here is Duchamp, just before he packed in painting, doing nudes. As you can see he is far more interested in the idea of movement, trying to capture movement in art, than in tits and bums (this phrase is taken from the title of the 1973 Monty Python book, Tits n’ Bums: A Weekly Look at Church Architecture, featuring articles such as ‘Are you still a verger?’)

The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912) by Marcel Duchamp. Philadelphia Museum of Art © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912) by Marcel Duchamp. Philadelphia Museum of Art © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

The curators call this section of the show ‘The Body as Object’, which is a typically curatorspeak way of pussyfooting around the subject. It includes pretty silly works by Duchamp, such as a plaster cast of a woman’s labia, and another sculpture which appears to be a jockstrap. Allegedly, Duchamp was interested in the erotic, but you wouldn’t really have guessed.

On display are sketches and preparatory work for his last great piece, Étant donnés (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas, French: Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau / 2° le gaz d’éclairage) which he worked on from 1946 till 1966 and wasn’t finally displayed until after his death, in 1969. It consists of a tableau, visible only through a pair of peep holes (one for each eye) in a wooden door, of a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden and legs spread holding a gas lamp in the air in one hand against a landscape backdrop.

Not very erotic is it? More of a disturbing image. I’ve read the suggestion that the body is a corpse and the whole thing is a crime scene, but then how is it holding a lamp up? Certainly the body has a cold, lumpen appearance more like a corpse than a sex object.

Meanwhile, in sunny Spain, Dalí luxuriated in the erotic. He was often at the beach with his smiling wife, Gala. Photos of them at the beach show a handsome couple: she was good looking, but he was gorgeous.

Dalí had no inhibitions when it came to showing the erotic, or the pornographic, in art. Thus the show includes several versions of a sketch of Dalí ‘eating’ a figure of Gala while masturbating – which come to a head in a vivid painting titled William Tell and Gradiva. Near to it is a lovely ink-and-pencil drawing of two full length women in billowing gowns titled Gradiva, one among numerous examples here of what a bewitching draughtsman Dalí could be.

The name Gradiva rang a bell. I knew that Gradiva is a novella by the German writer Wilhelm Jensen which was made the subject of a 1908 essay by Sigmund Freud. Freud used it to give a detailed example of how his theory of psychoanalysis could be applied to unearth buried themes and ideas in literature, beginning the process whereby Freudian psychoanalysis would go on to become a major thread of literary criticism.

But I didn’t know that Gradiva was a nickname Dalí gave his wife, Gala – so these Gradiva paintings and sketches are very autobiographical. Nor that other Surrealists featured Gradiva in their paintings and that she became so much of a muse to various Surrealists that, when the Surrealist writer André Breton opened an art gallery on the Rive Gauche, 31 rue de Seine in 1937, he gave it the name the Gradiva Gallery. Nor that the iconic door into the gallery was designed by Duchamp.

That’s a lot of context to take in and appreciate for one painting and a few sketches.

The importance of context

Which leads into one of the biggest conclusions I drew from the exhibition, which is the importance of the intellectual and historical context of these works.

Alongside the paintings and sculptures and readymades are quite a few display cases showing magazine articles, newspaper pieces, manifestos, books, essays, catalogues, letters, notes and sketches and diagrams and post cards relating to them. Dalí wrote essays about Duchamp. Duchamp wrote manifestos and essays about his own work. Dalí wrote lengthy books of theory. That’s jungle enough.

But both of them were also surrounded by complex networks of other artists all clamouring about their own work, jostling for position, launching volleys of provocations and reams of interpretations.

As the hand-out makes clear, Surrealism was to begin with a movement of artists and poets – of writers. It was only later that visual artists got involved, which explains the time lag between the first Surrealist manifesto of 1924 and the dating of many Surrealist art classics to the 1930s.

My point is that all these works were conceived and created amid a tremendous tangle of texts, articles and manifestos, declarations of principles and aims and goals all of which have fallen away like flesh from a carcass, leaving the works stranded in the antiseptic space of these display cases, hanging from the white walls of the gallery like the bare bones of a whale on the beach.

These works have then been reconstituted, rehung, reintroduced and retold to fit contemporary concerns, interests and rhetorics, to reflect the interests, language and rhetoric of the modern world and contemporary academic discourse – the all-too-familiar ‘issues’ of gender, identity and desire, which almost all art – no matter what it looks like – turns out to be addressing in the view of modern curators.

The manifestos and other paperwork, which made sense of the works in their time, are certainly on display here, but you can’t really read them and you certainly can’t turn over the pages. In effect, unintentionally, they are censored. Only the snippets which support curatorial aims are cut and pasted into the curatorial discourse in which the works are embedded.

I think this partly accounts for the tremendous sense of loss which hangs round the works, especially Duchamp’s.

There’s another level of loss or absence, prompted by the obvious thought that all these texts are in French, and all this creative thought and activity took place in French, in France, embedded in the density of French culture and history – all of which are very different from our Anglo-Saxon tradition.

1. Take boobs. The French are not as hung up about women’s breasts as we are (something I realised when my parents took me on holiday to the South of France and I couldn’t believe the number of French women walking about topless as if they couldn’t care less).

Compare and contrast the stress and neurosis surrounding women’s breasts in the Anglo-Saxon world, from the endless arguments about Page Three of the Sun to the contemporary ‘Free the Nipple’ movement to the fuss made about Janet Jackson’s top falling open to reveal her nipple during the 2004 Superbowl interval show.

Despite all efforts to the contrary, there continues to be something prudish, narrow-minded and uptight about the Anglo-Saxon attitude towards the naked human body.

2. France is a Catholic country. From local curés to archbishops its official religious culture is more aggressively conservative and reactionary than our own ineffectual Church of England. This meant that desecration of religious imagery was hugely more significant in the French tradition. It also explains why the reaction to French Catholic culture and politics was that much more radical and extreme. The bitter opposition between Catholics and radicals has run through French politics and culture since the Revolution, through the Commune, the immensely bitter Dreyfus Affair, on into the tremendous power wielded by the French Communist Party during the 1930s and then in the decades after the second World War.

British politics and culture have just never been so polarised: we have an upper-class toff party or the party of timid trade unions to choose between. There have never been significant numbers of fascists or communists in Britain.

To summarise – these works have been subject to at least two translations:

  • They have been surgically cleansed of all reference to the intellectual support system which gave rise to them
  • And they have been translated from the intensely intellectual and more openly sexual atmosphere of France into the less reflective and more buttoned-up world of les Anglos

Texts

Anyway, back to texts. Duchamp was far the more cerebral of the two. He worked on the obscure and puzzling work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, for eight years, from 1915 to 1923. The original was lost long ago but was reconstructed from photos and diagrams by Pop artist Richard Hamilton, and his reconstruction can be seen in Tate.

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915, 1965-6 and 1985) by Marcel Duchamp (reconstruction By Richard Hamilton) Photo © Tate, London, 2017/© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915, 1965-6 and 1985) by Marcel Duchamp (reconstruction By Richard Hamilton) Photo © Tate, London, 2017/© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

It is symptomatic, though, that Duchamp intended this big sheet of glass to be accompanied by The Green Box, a collection of texts, diagrams and explanatory notes. These are here, in a display case, but they aren’t really readable, or very much explained.

I experienced a profound sense of missing the point, as with several other Duchamp pieces in this room. Clearly something intense, carefully planned and important is going on. It took long enough to make, after all. But what and why? I’m guessing that some kind of pamphlet-length explanation is required, hence Duchamp’s wish for accompanying texts and explanations. In the absence of really detailed text or guide these odd works sit abandoned and inscrutable.

This is the exact opposite of Dalí’s paintings. The examples of  his mature work in the final room as dazzling in their fluency, inventiveness and power. They were so widely reproduced and available in my boyhood, so much of the poster-world of art’s greatest hits, that it’s easy to take them for granted – but a work like St John is absolutely stunning, a huge towering presence, surely a masterpiece.

Christ of Saint John of the Cross (c. 1951) by Salvador Dali. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Christ of Saint John of the Cross (c. 1951) by Salvador Dali. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Optical illusions

The exhibition suggests they shared an interest in optical illusions. Hence the nude-in-motion paintings right at the start of Duchamp’s career. Hence the clever use of contradictory or paradoxical perspective schemes in the upper and lower part of Dalí’s St John crucifixion.

The exhibition also includes a number of very hand-made, amateurish panopticons or look-through-the-little-slots-at-a-fantasy-landscape pieces which Duchamp constructed, all of which can be seen as preparation for the puzzling final work, Étant donnés which has to be observed through a peephole.

Dalí’s experiments with perspective and other optical illusions are a key element in his paintings, as in another masterpiece in the show.

Chess

Duchamp loved chess. He spread the rumour in the mid-1920s that he had abandoned art altogether in order to concentrate on playing chess professionally (could you really make a living from just playing chess in the 1925?). A display case lingers on his love of the game, and features both the early chess set that Duchamp himself used and a later, surreal one, made by Dalí, in which the pieces are mouldings of fingers, fingertips for the pawns, the whole finger wearing crowns for the king and queen but, unexpectedly, salt cellars for the rooks.

Chess set for Marcel Duchamp by Salvador Dalí

Chess set for Marcel Duchamp by Salvador Dalí

Chess boards and pieces appear in numerous surrealist paintings. Chess is to European art what poker is to American culture, a kind of central reference point which epitomises the culture, thoughtful European intellectuals on the one hand, Wild Western rednecks ready to pull out a gun at the drop of a hat in the violent States.

Apart from all its other elements, chess is a study of time and movement. On reflection you can see that its highly stylised moves continue Duchamp’s abiding interest in movement and motion. In the small room devoted to the chess pieces, as well as related artefacts, there’s a video playing in which Duchamp explains the aesthetic interest of chess.

He declares that a shot of the chess board at any one moment isn’t particularly interesting. What is interesting is that the pieces are locked into moving in a limited number of technically restricted ways. Thus something about the idea of a game, the idea of the movement of a finite number of pieces according to strict rules of movement but through a potentially infinite number of moves – that is beautiful, that can be a work of art.

It’s very winning to see the same anti-art, elliptical, sideways sensibility alive and well in the 70 year-old man as it was in the thirty year-old who created Fountain.

Films and TV

The commentary suggests that Dalí was the first celebrity artist of the TV age. His early interventions may have been in arthouse movies with Luis Bunuel but by the 1950s he was appearing on U.S. gameshows (‘What’s my Line?’) on TV specials, starring in documentaries and news reports made about him, generally milking the apparatus of celebrity for all it was worth. Thus the show includes a very entertaining selection of moving pictures featuring the old shyster, for example in this 1941 newsreel of a party Dalí designed and held in the Bali Room of the Hotel Del Monte, Monterey, California as a benefit for European artists.

The older Dalí appears in a clip titled ‘The Honorary Bullfight’, which appears to be a bullfight held in his honour in his native Spain, for which he had constructed a life-size model bull covered in gold plates. At the climax of the festivities it exploded in fizzing fireworks. Dalí bows grandly to the applauding crowd.

The most dramatic clip is the 90-second dream sequence which Dalí designed for the Alfred Hitchcock thriller about a possibly deranged psychiatrist, Spellbound.

Presence and prescience

The fifth and final room is more like a corridor back out into the main landing of the Royal Academy building. At the 1938 International Surrealism exhibition Dalí and Duchamp collaborated on the design and ‘scenography’. One room featured 1,200 coal sacks suspended from the ceiling over a stove. In this shortish corridor the curators have recreated the effect with 60 or more grubby full-seeming coal sacks bearing down from the ceiling and a row of small stoves lined up along the wall. It is intense and a bit suffocating.

Now, as it happens, last week I was at the Curve, the free exhibition space at the Barbican, to see an installation titled Purple by British artist John Akomfrah. Part of it was a narrow stretch of the gallery where he had suspended several hundred white plastic water cans from the ceiling, with white light beaming down through them. The effect was high, white and light like a sort of cathedral – as compared to the low, dark and oppressive effect of the coal sack ceiling.

The coincidence of a contemporary British artist doing something very very similar to – maybe deliberately referencing – a work created just about 80 years earlier made me reconsider a phrase from the wall label introducing the exhibition. Here are the curators:

What fuelled this seemingly unlikely friendship was deeper than their shared artistic interests – amongst them eroticism, language, optics and games. More fundamentally, the two men were united by a combination of humour and scepticism which led both, in different ways, to challenge conventional views of art and life in ways that seem startlingly prescient today.

‘Startlingly prescient today’ suggests that they anticipated where we are, that their work is good because it anticipates our own wonderful achievements in art and culture, that the real place, the real achievement is here and they were lucky enough to anticipate it.

But there is a completely different way to read that phrase, to the effect that we are still living in the world they created; we have progressed no further in our art and imaginations than the ‘imaginarium’ which these dead artists conceived all those years ago.

Bizarre objects, visionary paintings, experimental films, overt erotica, naked women and masturbating men, objects hanging from ceilings, the unashamed use of celebrity (Warhol, Jeff Koons), blatant commercialism (Damien Hirst), performance art, installations, non-conformist, anti-bourgeois, anti-repressive ‘provocations’ – by pushing their imaginations to the limit, these guys invented all the apparatus of contemporary art nearly a century ago – and it is where we still live, imaginatively.

We are still inhabiting the territory they opened up and repeating the works, ideas and antics they got up to all that time ago.

Installation view of Dalí / Duchamp

Installation view of Dalí / Duchamp

In the coal sack ceiling room I chatted to another visitor. She really liked a photo of Duchamp playing chess with a young woman. When I mentioned this to my wife she said, ‘Let me guess – the young woman is naked’. Yes. It is as entirely predictable as that. An old man, fully-clothed, is sitting opposite an attractive young woman, completely naked.

What my fellow visitor liked was the sense that the photo represented the 1960s with its exciting new world of happenings and love-ins and non-conformity and rebelliousness, and that the quietly spoken, chastely dressed, old man, Duchamp, had lived to see it happen. She thought it was strangely moving that his (artistic) grandchildren were flourishing and developing all kinds of ideas which he had invented. As they still are, today.


Video

There are several videos supporting the exhibition, including this quick snapshot from the RA’s artistic director, Tim Marlow.

Related links

  • Dalí/Duchamp continues at the Royal Academy until 3 January 2018

Newspaper reviews

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Surrealism-related

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 @ the Royal Academy

1. The historical context

The best book about the Russian Revolution I know of is Orlando Figes’ epic history, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. There is no end to the poverty, misery and bloodshed it recounts. Russia was an astonishingly backward, primitive country in 1917. On top of the vast population of serfs living in their primitive wood huts in a hundred thousand muddy villages, sat the class of landowners in their country estates, serviced by local doctors and lawyers. These bourgeois aspired to the fine things enjoyed by the upper classes in the handful of notable cities – Kiev, Petersburg, Moscow. They are the class portrayed in the plays of Anton Chekov (1860-1904).

In these big cities the fabulously wealthy aristocracy mingled with a small class of intellectuals – Russians called them the intelligentsia – who congratulated themselves on the flourishing of the arts which transformed Russian cultural life in the late 19th century, and was evolving quickly as the new century dawned. (Many of these artists, writers and impresarios were depicted in the wonderful ‘Russia and the Arts’ held last spring at the National Portrait Gallery.)

But when the weak Czar Nicholas II took Russia into the Great War in 1914, the weakness of Russia’s economy and industrial ability was painfully highlighted. Troops with few modern weapons, uniforms or equipment were quickly defeated by the German army. Among his many mistakes, the Czar took personal responsibility for the running of the war. There were soon food shortages and other privations on top of national humiliation at the many defeats. The surprise is that it took until spring 1917 for the Czar’s government to be overthrown and the Czar was forced to abdicate.

The provisional government which came to power in February 1917 was competing from the start against workers councils, or soviets, which claimed genuine authority, and were dominated by communists. The provisional government made the mistake of continuing the war and this, along with worsening privations and its own internal squabbles, led to its overthrow in October 1917, in a revolution spearheaded by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks made good on their popular promise to bring the war to an end, immediately began negotiating with the Germans and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. But it was only the end of one kind of violence, for a massive civil war broke out in Russia, with so-called ‘White Armies’ led by Russian generals, fighting against what became known as the ‘Red Army’, manned and staffed by everyone who wanted to overthrow the rotten old regime.

After initial setbacks, the Red Army became better organised and slowly crushed their opponents. In 1920 Lenin ordered part of it to advance westwards through Poland with the aim of linking up with communist forces in the post-war chaos of Germany, and spreading the Bolshevik revolution right across Europe.

The heroic Poles fought the Soviets to a standstill at the Battle of Warsaw (described in Adam Zamoyski’s excellent book, Warsaw 1920), forcing the Red Army back onto Russian soil and, for the time being, curtailing the Bolsheviks’ messianic dream of leading a World Revolution.

During these years of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, the liberal or left-leaning intelligentsia experienced a wave of euphoria and optimism. There was a tremendous sense of throwing off the shackles and restrictions of nineteenth-century, personal, subjective, ‘bourgeois’ art. Artists and theoreticians rejected all its aesthetic and cultural and moral values in the name of creating a completely new art which would be for the people, the masses, communal art, popular and accessible art which would depict the exciting possibilities of the New Society everyone would build together. This led to radical new ways of seeing and creating, the cross-fertilisation of traditional artistic media with new forms, an explosion of avant-garde painting, music, architecture, film, agitop theatre for workers in factories and so on.

It is perfectly possible to be amazed, stunned and overwhelmed at the outburst of experimentation and exuberance and optimism expressed by artists across all media in the decade after the revolution – but still to be uncomfortably aware of the sub-stratum of revolutionary violence which it was based on and, in some cases, glorified.

And also to be bleakly aware that the death of Lenin in 1924 set the scene for the inexorable rise of the tyrant Josef Stalin. In fact the revolution was characterised from the start by the criminal stupidity of Soviet economics and social policy, which almost immediately resulted in worsening shortages of food and all other essentials. But laid on top of this was Lenin’s deliberate use of ‘revolutionary violence’ to intimidate and often, to simply arrest and execute anyone opposing the regime – violence which was taken up and deployed on an increasingly mass scale by Stalin later in the 1920s.

It was the combination of incompetence and slavish obedience to party diktat which led to the horrors of the Ukraine famine in the early 1930s (graphically described by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin) and crystallised into Stalin’s mass purges of the 1930s and the creation of a huge network of labour camps across frozen Siberia, the infamous gulag archipelago. This economically incompetent tyranny was forcibly imposed onto the nations of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and was then exported to China (which fell to Mao’s communists in 1949) and on into other developing countries (Korea, Vietnam) with catastrophic results.

It was the historical tragedy of countless colonised countries in the so-called developing world,  that when they sought their independence after the Second World War, it was in a world bitterly divided between a brutal communist bloc and an unscrupulous capitalist West, thus forcing them to choose sides and turning so many of the liberation struggles into unnecessarily protracted civil wars, covertly funded by both sides in the Cold War.

And then, after one final, brutal fling in Afghanistan (comprehensively described in Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite), the entire Soviet Union collapsed, communism ceased to be a world power, and Russia emerged from the wreckage as an authoritarian, nationalist bandit-state.

2. Atrocity and accountability

This long, sorry saga started 100 years ago this year and we can’t un-know what we all know about its grim legacy – i.e the mass slaughter of the mid-twentieth century, followed by decades of repression and decline. And this exhibition is frank about that.

  • A whole section is devoted to the collapse of pure communism in the very early 1920s and the way Lenin was forced to reintroduce some elements of market capitalism in his New Economic Plan of 1922.
  • Later, a room is dedicated to the forced collectivisation of agriculture – and the discrepancy between the heroic posters and silent movies showing happy, smiling peasants swimming in lakes of milk and climbing mountains of grain – while the actual peasants were, of course, in many places starving, killing their livestock and eating their seed grain rather than have it ‘stolen’ by the state and its often corrupt agents.
  • And at the very end of the exhibition there is a gruesome conjunction of state propaganda films of healthy young men and women putting on acrobatic displays in Red Square – contrasted with a slide show of mugshots of some of the millions and millions of Russian citizens who were arrested, interrogated, tortured, dragged off to labour camps for decades or simply executed, mostly on trivial or invented charges. All overseen by the man who, by the end of the period covered by this exhibition, was emerging as the Soviet Union’s brutal lord and master, Stalin.

Russian revolutionary art, the exhibition

This is an epic exhibition about an epic subject, a huge and seismic historical and social event, the creation of the ideology which disfigured and scarred the 20th century, leading directly to countless millions of avoidable deaths. But nobody at the time knew that. The exhibition makes a heroic attempt to reflect the contradictions, capturing the huge wave of euphoric invention which swept through all the arts, alongside the doubts many artists and creators had from quite early on, reflecting the revolution’s early economic failures, and then the looming growth of Stalin’s influence.

For example, an entirely new form of typography was developed with new fonts laid in bands across the page, often at angles, with photographs which were similarly taken from new and exciting angles, especially of new modernist buildings and the paraphernalia of the second industrial revolution – steelworks, electricity pylons, steam trains.

Some of the most appealing exhibits are the clips from heroic black-and-white propaganda films from the period, depicting smiling workers engaged in bracing physical labour, in shipyards and coalmines and construction sites, on farms and factories. Propaganda it obviously is, but they still have a wonderful virile energy.

Films, lots of photographs, paintings, magazines and pamphlets, along with revolutionary textiles, fabrics and ceramics, architectural and interior design, it is all here in overwhelming profusion, and all are introduced with excellent historical background and explanation.

1. Avant-garde versus traditional naturalism

I knew that by the mid-1930s the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ had triumphed as the official state-sanctioned form of Soviet art. But the exhibition for the first time explained to me how forms of realistic, figurative painting depicting heroic moments and the heroic leaders of the revolution existed right from the start – it wasn’t artificially created by Stalin and his henchmen, it was always there. Thus there were two main groups debating the fate of Soviet art throughout the period – futurists and traditionalists – and they co-existed at the same time.

The Futurists, many of whom had in fact been experimenting with abstract ‘formalist’ art since before the revolution, believed that the revolution required a complete break with the past, the deliberate abandonment of traditional aesthetic values and modes. ‘Death to art!’ wrote Alexei Gan in his 1922 book on constructivism. At the 1921 exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 Alexander Rodchenko presented three canvases, each of a single colour (red, yellow and blue), which he declared to be ‘the end of painting’. He abandoned painting in favour of photography and, even here, pioneered new forms of photojournalism, photomontage and book and poster design.

Not only was painting rejected on aesthetic grounds, but on moral and political ones, too. Old fashioned painting carried the connotation of subjectivity and individual genius, both of which were rejected in the name of capturing the new spirit of the people. Moreover, oil painting was also inextricably linked with the world of the ‘fine’ arts, wealth, power, patrons and exploiters.

By contrast, traditionalists believed in the ongoing importance of realistic representations of everyday life in a highly traditional figurative style, perhaps cranked up with a kind of heroic tone.

What’s fascinating is the way both traditions flourished side by side. Thus the exhibition opens with some big paintings depicting the unquestioned hero of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, as well as key historical moments such as the storming of the Czar’s Winter Palace and so on.

V.I.Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

V.I. Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

By 1928 the Soviet government was strong enough to repeal the New Economic Plan (a kind of state capitalism which they’d been forced to introduce in the early 1920s to stop the economy collapsing). The NEP was ended and 1928 was the year which saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. The resulting clampdown on market enterprises ended support for avant-garde fringe groups who found it harder to get sponsors or exhibit their works. Meanwhile, the realist artists found themselves enjoying greater official recognition and support.

This exhibition ends in 1932, the year the term ‘socialist realism’ was first officially used. The proletarian writer Maxim Gorky published a famous article titled ‘Socialist Realism’ in 1933 and by 1934 Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar in charge of art, had laid down a set of guidelines for socialist realist art. Henceforward all Soviet art works must be:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

It was the death knell of the entire innovative field of futurist, constructivist, supermatist and all other forms of avant-garde experimental art. It was the triumph of the philistines.

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

In fact, this exhibition is itself based on one that was actually held in 1932 in the Soviet Union. Titled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, it contained works from all the disparate traditions which had flourished between 1917 and 1932. Many of the works which appeared in that 1932 exhibition are being shown here. However, the Royal Academy show isn’t nearly as big as the original (some 200 works compared with the original’s 2,640 by 423 artists!) – and it also includes photos, posters, films, ceramics and so on – a far wider range of media – which weren’t in the original.

The 1932 exhibition marked the defeat of the entire futurist-modernist tradition in Russia. The same year saw the incorporation of all independent artistic groups and movements into the state-controlled Union of Artists. Private galleries were all closed down, replaced by State-sponsored exhibitions. From now on it was impossible to be an artist or make any money unless it was working on state-commissioned, state-approved projects. Many of the avant-garde saw their work banned, were thrown out of work or, at worst, were arrested, imprisoned or even executed.

One of the great poets of the time, Alexander Blok, had died in 1921, already disillusioned by the direction the revolution was taking. ‘Blok’s death signified the beginning of the end of artistic freedom in Russia.’ The hugely influential Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovksy, who had devoted so much energy not only to revolutionary poems but to a new type of agitprop poster (many included here) committed suicide in 1930. The curator of the 1932 exhibition on which this one is based, Nikolay Punin, was arrested and sent to a labour camp. Later the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1938, where he died. The innovative theatre designer Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and shot by firing squad in February 1940.

The modernist poet Anna Akhmatova – her first husband killed by the security services as early as 1921, her second husband and son imprisoned in the gulag – went into her long period of internal dissidence, during which she produced some of the great poems which captured the atmosphere of mourning and loss under the Stalin dictatorship.

2. Famous artists

The exhibition includes some marvellous works by painters we are familiar with in the West: there are several examples of the fabulous zoomorphic abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky (who had the good sense to leave Soviet Russia in 1920, moving to Germany to become a leading light of the famous Bauhaus of art and design).

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

There are also a few of the wonderful dreamy fantasies of Marc Chagall, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of the Steppe (he hailed from the provincial town of Vitebsk in modern Belarus). Chagall was doubly fortunate – as both a Jew and an experimental artist – to survive Soviet Russia (he left for Paris in 1923) and the Holocaust (he fled France in 1941, one step ahead of the Nazis) and to live to the ripe old age of 97. A rare happy ending, which suits his gay and colourful paintings.

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

3. Kazimir Malevich

In the 1932 exhibition which this show is based on, Russian avant-garde painter had an entire room devoted to him. The RA exhibition recreates it.

Malevich (as we learned from the fabulous Tate Modern exhibition in 2014, and the Black Square exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in spring 2015) thought intensively about representation and art. He wanted to ‘free art from the dead weight of the real world’, and boiled all art down to a kind of ground zero – his famous black square, painted in 1915. A painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work.

From this reductio ad absurdum he then built up a particular version of modernism which he called Suprematism, embodied in a series of works which use geometric shapes criss-crossing on the picture plane to generate purely visual feelings of dynamism and excitement. The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all.

I liked the Kandinskys in the previous room, but for me they were eclipsed by the power and beauty of Malevich’s abstracts. These have a tremendous force and impact. For some reason to do with human psychology and perception, they just seem right.

However, as the doctrine of Socialist Realism took hold, Malevich found it expedient in the 1930s to retreat from pure Suprematism and to return to a kind of figurative painting. Figurative but with a very abstract flavour, not least in his use of blank eggs for heads, or very simplified heads painted in bright colour stripes. Socialist realism, Jim, but not as we know it.

The Malevich room here uses photographs of the 1932 hang to recreate it as nearly as possible, with the famous Black Square and its partner Red Square in the middle, flanked by suprematist works, with an outer circle of the strange 1930s automaton paintings, and then a set of display cases showing the white models, the skyscraper-like maquettes of abstract forms, which Malevich called ‘architektons’. It’s almost worth visiting the exhibition for this one room alone.

Here is one of Malevich’s later, semi-figurative works.

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

4. Constructivism

But there are many, many more works here – exciting modernist newspaper, magazine and book designs; clips from quite a few black-and-white propaganda and fiction movies (there are several split screen projectors showing scenes from the epic films of Sergei Eisenstein); agitprop posters and pamphlets, including the revolutionary graphic design of El Lissitzky.

‘The Constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object.’ (Tate website).

This aesthetic, based on industrial designs and materials and workers, underpinned much of the work of the period and spread beyond Russia, into Germany and France and some extent the USA, because an explosion of new industrial techniques, with new products and designs was part of the spirit of the age.

There are even fabrics and ceramics which carried revolutionary slogans and images; huge paintings; photos of leading artists, directors, theatre designers and poets from the era.

5. Photography

Photography was perhaps the medium best suited to capturing revolutionary conditions.

  • Obviously enough, it was faster than painting – a photo could be published in newspapers, posters or pamphlets the same day it was taken.
  • Also, photos are, on the face of it, more truthful and ‘realistic’ than painting, capturing a likeness or a situation with an honesty and immediacy which painting can’t match. As Alexander Rodchenko put it, ‘It seems that only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life’.
  • In the hands of constructivist or futurist photographers, photographs also turn out to be the perfect medium for conveying the geometric or abstract quality of industrial machinery, and the bold new architecture of soaring factories, apartment blocks, electricity pylons and all the other paraphernalia of a peasant society forced to industrialise at breakneck speed.

Thus swathes of propaganda photography showing men and machinery in dynamic semi-abstract images of tremendous power.

A little more traditional is the photographic portrait. There is a sequence of works by Moisei Nappelbaum, a fabulously brilliant portrait photographer, who was working before the revolution and managed to survive the new circumstances, eventually becoming Head of the State Photographic Studio.

But at the same time as it could convey a ‘realist’ vision of the world, photography during  this period turned out to be capable of all kinds of technical innovations and experiments. A leading figure in both constructivist design and experimental photography was Alexander Rodchenko.

6. Movies

The most famous Soviet director was Sergei Eisenstein so there are inevitably clips from his epic films about key moments in the revolution – Battleship PotemkinThe Strike.

But there are plenty of other examples of propaganda films. One of the most striking is Man with a Movie Camera, an experimental 1929 silent documentary film with no story and no actors, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. Man with a Movie Camera shows city life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. The ‘characters’, if there are any, are the cameramen, the film editor, and the modern Soviet Union they present in the film.

The film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov uses, including double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and self-reflexive visuals.

The film was publicised with a suitably constructivist poster.

7. Less well-known artists

So far, so well-known. But completely new to me were the works of the artists working more in the Socialist Realist tradition, a whole area which is usually ignored in 20th century art history. Many, it must be said, are very so-so.

Probably the most impressive is Isaak Brodsky, who established himself as a kind of court painter to the Bolsheviks, and produced works which are both wonderfully accurate masterpieces of draughtsmanship, combined with great technical finish with the medium of oil – a kind of communist John Singer Sargent. I like Victorian realism and so I responded to the warmth and figurative accuracy of these works.

Brodsky flourished under the new regime and would go on to become Director of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in 1934.

Another figure who we get to know throughout the exhibition, is Alexander Deineka, according to Wikipedia ‘one of the most important Russian modernist figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century’. His paintings are big and are a unique and distinctive combination of figurative depiction of the human body in attractively abstract settings.

Deineka’s paintings aren’t exactly pleasing, but are very striking. This one, supposedly of workers in a textile factory, doesn’t look remotely like any real factory and the people are hardly the big muscular men of Soviet propaganda, but rather fey elfin figures (bare footed!). The whole looks more like a science fiction fantasy than a work of ‘socialist realism’.

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Later in the exhibition there are more Deinekas, some depicting heroic war situations, others depicting sportsmen and women.

An entire room is devoted to 15 or so paintings by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who is little known in the West. Petrov-Vodkin managed to combine a formalist interest in geometry with a recognisably figurative approach, a bit like the later Wyndham Lewis. He is included by the curators precisely to redress the balance away from the avant-garde artists we in the West tend to know about, and to present a better sense of the Russian culture of the time. His paintings are wonderfully attractive.

And towards the end there was a flurry of realist works by another big name of the day, Alexander Somokhvalov:

Somokhvalov is in the final room, which represents the triumph of Socialist Realism: Is it kitsch? Is it rubbish? Possibly. Is it valuable in its own right, or because it sheds light on the ideology of the time?

Taken together, these relatively unknown Socialist Realist painters certainly provide a different vision, a way of looking at the world aslant from the usual Western heroes of modernism we’re used to. Giving them space and attention is one of this fabulous exhibition’s main achievements.

8. Tatlin’s glider

The Royal Academy is a big building and they’ve really gone to town here, filling the space with some monster exhibits. One entire room is devoted to a lifesize recreation of one of the glider-cum-flying machines developed by futurist designer, Vladimir Tatlin, between 1929 and 1932. Tatlin dreamed of building a machine which would genuinely allow humans – all humans – cheaply and easily to – fly! Hard to conceive a more utopian dream than this.

The glider is suspended from the ceiling and imaginatively lit so that, as it slowly rotates in the breeze, a continually changing matrix of shadows is cast by its elaborate wooden struts onto the walls and ceiling, forming ever-changing shapes and patterns. It’s a darkened, quiet and calming room. Small children came into the room and looked up at this strange flying machine with amazement. It reminds you that quite a few of these artists’ output may look radical and revolutionary, urban and atheist, but that they themselves often came from a deeply spiritual place: Tatlin, Kandinsky, Malevich.

9. Revolutionary fabrics

Vast amounts of fabrics and textiles were produced which contained and distributed revolutionary logos and imagery, incorporating wonderfully powerful constructivist motifs.

10. Soviet women

There are lots of strong women in Soviet art (as in Soviet life). They often feature or star in movies like Women of Ryazan (1927) as well as in countless posters and paintings hymning the gender equality which was an important component of Soviet life.

My favourite, and a standout work in the whole exhibition, was this stunning piece, a huge painting of a woman tram ticket collector titled Tram Ticket Lady, by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894–1971). It is enormous and enormously compelling – a wonderful picture of female pagan power.

Conclusion

This is a huge, wide-ranging and awe-inspiring exhibition, which does a good job of capturing the excitement and terror of one of the most important periods in human history and one of the most innovative eras in Western art.

Artists to remember


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Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans @ the Royal Academy

Ensor (1860-1949) is an oddity. He was born in Ostend, a windswept seaside ‘resort’ on the coast of Belgium in 1860 and chose to spend his whole life there. His parents kept a modest curiosity shop which made its money during the short summer tourist season, and the guide tells us that, once a year, Ostend had a colourful Mardi Gras carnival, where everyone wore masks. It is easy enough to make the connection between Ensor growing up among bizarre artefacts, experiencing this annual jamboree, and what was to become his trademark depiction of grotesquely distorted people wearing carnival masks…

The Intrigue by James Ensor (1890) Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The Intrigue by James Ensor (1890) Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

The guide goes on to explain that Ostend had been the site of a lengthy siege and battle way back in the 17th century, and that all building works in the area tended to dig up piles of bones and skulls. Apparently there are photos of Ensor and friends holding mock duels on the beach using human bones (though not included in the show). All of which explains his other favourite subject of skulls and skeletons.

The exhibition could have stuck to an exploration of these themes but it is curated not by scholars but by fellow Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans (b.1958) who has always been attracted to his countryman’s work and sets out to show us that there is more to Ensor than just his best-known grotesque paintings. The show deliberately sets out to show us Ensor’s range and diversity, and so we are introduced to other major strands in his output, such as:

Early realist works

These include Bathing Hut (1876), painted when he was just 16 and showing a typical sight on the windswept beach, and Afternoon In Ostende (1881) showing his mother and sister in a grim muddy interior, indicative of the stiflingly conventional bourgeois the artist grew up in. This early naturalist style could hardly be more at odds with the style that made him famous. A good example here is the Self-portrait with a flowered hat (1883). OK he’s a bit of a dandy, but a very conventional one.

Self-portrait with Flowered Hat by James Ensor (1883) Mu.ZEE, Oostende Photo MuZee © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Self-portrait with Flowered Hat by James Ensor (1883) Mu.ZEE, Oostende
Photo MuZee © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photography: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Satirical cartoons

One of the three rooms in the show features a long case showing maybe forty examples of the satirical cartoons he produced by the score, as stand-alones or in sets, satirising Ostend bourgeois society. No wonder he became so unpopular in the town of his birth.

Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere by James Ensor (1888) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Photo KMSKA © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Plague here, Plague there, Plague Everywhere by James Ensor (1888) Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Photo KMSKA © http://www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw. Photograph: Hugo Maertens / © DACS 2016

Two large examples are hung separately:

  • The Bad Doctors (1892)
  • The Dangerous Cooks (1896) Ensor’s withering opinion of critics who are serving up his and a fellow artist’s heads on plates to be scoffed by porcine critics waiting at the table.

Ensor carried out a lifelong war against critics who didn’t like or value his work. This was the era when variations on Impressionism were still being produced and new movements from France, like Symbolism, were smooth and high-toned. Ensor was deliberately crude, clumsy, garish and, above all, satirical. It’s not a particularly good work, but the approach of the man seems to be summed up in The Pisser.

Religious art

Disappointingly for a man who considered himself a rebel and non-conformist, there’s a strong Christian thread through his work, represented here by a huge horrible painting of Adam and Eve being expelled from the garden of Eden. It is enormous and dominates one whole wall.

Apparently, his most famous work is Christ’s entry into Brussels, which is not on show here, combining his interests in the grotesque, social satire and religion into a ragbag which I’m afraid I don’t like at all.

The fantastic

Ensor produced hundreds of engravings, etchings and lithographs of very variable quality, many of them depicting scenes of fantasy and the grotesque. There is a series devoted to the seven deadly sins, which anticipate the deliberate ugliness of post-Great War satirists like George Grosz.

Both my children are at secondary school. In order to choose which secondary schools to send them to we went to open days of maybe a dozen schools in all. In every one, among other areas, you tour round the art rooms. Deliberately cack-handed, garish and obvious depictions of the seamy side of life – of ugly people, skeletons, skulls, alongside satire on religion or political leaders – depicted with the earnestness of 5th and 6th form teenagers is what these rooms are packed with. After looking at the 20th etching of a deadly sin or crowds mocking Christ or the troops at Waterloo it’s hard not to think of Ensor as a kind of patron saint of tens of thousands of clumsy, over-earnest adolescent imaginations.

Drawings

The show includes a lot of prints and drawings. What struck me is how powerfully naturalistic some of the early ones are before he discovered his talent for the macabre and grotesque. I much preferred these which have a depth and maturity which, paradoxically, his later deliberately sketchy satires wholly lack.

Still life 

In the room of grotesques one painting stood apart – a dazzling still life. This photographic reproduction completely fails to bring out the unnervingly oiliness and spookiness of the painting in the flesh. It is a far more intense and disturbing image than some of the overtly grotesque paintings. More subtly unnerving.

The Skate by James Ensor (1892) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns - Ro scan © DACS 2016

The Skate by James Ensor (1892) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels/photo: J. Geleyns – Ro scan © DACS 2016

Over by 40

Although Ensor lived to an advanced age, not dying until 1949, the excellent handout for the exhibition crisply points out that by the age of 40 (1900) his best work was done. He spent the next 40 years repeating the same motifs and, in his last years, developing a much lighter more gaseous style. The expert on the audio-commentary tries to claim these later works match the earlier ones, but they don’t.

Luc Tuymans

Because this is not a ‘scholarly’ exhibition but a personal selection of one artist’s works by another (Luc Tuymans) Tuymans mixes it up a little, adding other elements. Most notable are a couple of works by Tuymans himself, chiefly an enormous white carnival hat with billowing feathers, as worn at the Carnival de Binche in 2001, as well as five – to be honest, rather bland – carnival masks.

A bit more relevant is the self-portrait by Ensor’s Ostend contemporary, Léon Spilliart. Apparently it was seeing Ensor’s work that persuaded Spilliart to pack in being a lawyer and become a painter instead. Interesting story and I very much liked the intensity of this image, with the subject’s eyes in deep black shadow, and his reflection repeated in parallel mirrors to infinity. In fact googling this image shows that Spilliart did multiple self-portraits and comes over as an intense spin-off of the Edvard Munch school of northern depression.

But this one image, by itself, doesn’t really tell me much about Ensor or shed much light on the contemporary Belgian ‘scene’.

Conclusion

I knew next to nothing about Ensor before visiting, and so this exhibition is a useful overview of his life and achievement but, having got a grasp of his career, I would have liked to see more of his trademark weird mask and skull paintings, and/or more of the striking naturalistic paintings he did right at the start of his career.

There are only three rooms in this small exhibition and the majority of the space is devoted to drawings, prints and cartoons most of which just aren’t of the same quality as the grotesques/realist works. Imagine if the space had been full to overflowing with his paintings of garish masks and leering skeletons and green-faced women and men with pig noses – what a powerful experience it would have been!

While searching Ensor images on the internet I came across The Dejected Woman, was very impressed by it, and couldn’t help wondering whether a lot of the satirical drawings, sketches and cartoons which Ensor devoted so much effort to (e.g. Christ tormented by demons) and which are given so much wall space here, were, in fact, a waste of a breath-taking talent.


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Abstract Expressionism @ The Royal Academy

Abstract Expressionism

The term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was coined by the art critic Robert Coates in 1946 to describe a large group of American artists who came to maturity just after the Second World War, mostly based in New York City. In 1958 New York’s Museum of Modern Art organised a big show of ‘the New American Painting’ which featured a lot of these artists, and the show travelled to Europe, appearing at the Tate Gallery in 1959.

This is the first large scale overview exhibition of the Abstract Expressionists since then, and it is an epic, awesome experience. As the commentary points out early on, the Royal Academy not has the space in terms of number of rooms to cope with this many artists, but also the size of rooms to accommodate works which are often very, very big.

The Eye is the First Circle by Lee Krasner (1960) Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016.

The Eye is the First Circle by Lee Krasner (1960) Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016.

The century of catastrophe

Born in the first decade of the century, these artists grew to maturity during the Great Depression and lived through the rise of Fascism, the Second World War, the revelation of the Holocaust, the detonation of the first atomic bombs and the beginning of the Cold War.

They almost all held a very intense tragic view of life, indeed the forerunner Ashile Gorky hanged himself in 1948 and the superstar of the movement, Jackson Pollock, died aged 44 in a car crash which many thought a form of suicide. The often stark, huge, bleak images address what one of the movement’s stars, Mark Rothko, summed up as the proper subject of Art – ‘ecstasy, tragedy, doom’. This was what the poet Auden christened ‘The Age of Anxiety’, life in the shadow of a rapid arms race and deepening Cold War.

Improvised or composed?

The commentary brings out the new freedom and expressiveness the painters felt and revelled in, and the emphasis on the artist’s gestures and physical actions, epitomised by Jackson Pollock twisting and splatting paint on the canvas, a necessarily big canvas. All this is a world away from the fine gestures at the wrist or fingertips which characterised traditional paintwork.

Some critics compared this big-gesture, expressive freedom with contemporary developments in modern jazz, the new style of be-bop or post-bop which provided a backdrop for flamboyant soloists like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane to fly off in ever-giddier flights of fancy. And, of course, like Abstract Expressionism, jazz was an entirely American form. To demonstrate, the audio-guide plays a clip from John Coltrane’s 1960 track Giant Steps.

Maybe. But:

1. Most jazz is in fact strongly bound by rules of harmony, rhythm, counterpoint etc which are all entirely European in origin. If you need a musical comparison, I’d compare these paintings to the stark,violent, unpredictable musical gestures of the post-war serialists, led by the two iconoclasts, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

Figures-Doubles-Prismes by Pierre Boulez (1964/68)

2. If anything, the detailed analysis which the audio-commentary applies to about 14 key paintings tends to contradict this idea of wild improvisation. The reverse: the commentary spends some time detailing the care with which Pollock composed his late masterpieces – and when you get close to a huge work like Blue Poles you can in fact see the way successive layers of composition have been applied: first the grey background; then a maze of yellows and whites; then the poles, made by applying a plank lined with dark blue paint to create the work’s eight lines, poles which create an eerie, primitive, tribal sense of rhythm; and then a further layer of paint, particularly white paint, which laces and binds the poles into the composition. The more you look, the more complex it appears, and one of the joys of this exhibition is that you can get very close to the works and really appreciate the intricacy of detail.

Blue poles by Jackson Pollock (1952 ) Oil, enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Blue poles by Jackson Pollock (1952 ) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Same goes for the half dozen Franz Kline works. These look at first glance like instant if graceful, daubs, epitomising the phrase ‘Action Painting’, which was also applied to these artists. But once again the commentary helps you see that Klein made the big black gestures on white but then went back and carefully painted white over some of the black, to make the gesture sharper, and then repainted more black over some of the white, each time intensifying the image.

Vawdavitch by Franz Kline (1955) Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016. Photo: Joe Ziolkowski

Vawdavitch by Franz Kline (1955) Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016. Photo: Joe Ziolkowski

All-American art

Abstract Expressionism was the first wholly American art movement and there was no shortage at the time, and since, of art critics prepared to champion it and write at great length about it. America had emerged from the war the new world power and the deep anxiety of the intellectuals was accompanied, paradoxically, by an extraordinary boom in the economy, the birth of a consumer society which brought security, wealth and a host of life-enhancing appliances (fridge, hoover, TV) to this vast thrusting nation. The art market boomed, critics rose to prominence, the artists made big names and careers for themselves.

The Big Four

Early on the audioguide points out that although around 30 mostly New York-based artists are associated with Abstract Expressionism, there are four who stand head and shoulders above the others: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Willem de Kooning. Accordingly, each one has a room devoted to themselves, while most of the other painters have to share hanging space.

Among the ‘sharers’, I liked Ad Reinhardt’s black squares. The commentary explained how a) they are in fact built up from other colours, which Reinhardt b) then used a technique on to drain the gloss or shine from, thus creating his very distinctively light-absorbing works, matt beyond matt. Reinhardt was an intensely earnest German, convinced that painting needed to be ‘purified of all other-than-art meanings’ and his quest led him to this logical conclusion.

Women artists

All this emphasis on ‘Action Painting’ and ‘Tragic Suffering’ went hand-in-hand with a Hemingwayesque tough guy pose among many of the painters, and certainly among their critical devotees. But the commentary emphasised that the movement not only included a number of women but that the male artists themselves respected their female peers, and many of them featured as complete equals in contemporary exhibitions. These included:

  • Lee Krasner, Pollock’s partner (see The Eye is the First Circle, above)
  • Janet Sobel, known for her ‘calligraphic fields’, much more controlled and interlaced (and smaller) works than many of the others
  • Joan Mitchell, who moved to France – her massive late painting Salut Tom, was a welcome splash of light yellow airy colour among a generally dark palette
  • Louise Nevelson was represented by a striking wall-sized installation made up of a kind of cabinet of curiosities with all sorts of odd-shaped shelves and objects inserted, displayed and hanging from it, all sprayed the quintessential colour of the movement, matt black – Sky Cathedral

Anti-Europe

Size mattered. A lot of these Yanks disliked the prissiness and fussiness and bourgeois finish of European painting. For example Pollock made a point of using normal household paint, as did Kline – real men didn’t use those prissy little tubes you have to buy in ‘art’ shops, Hell no. And why paint small, when you can paint BIG? Or MASSIVE? Room after room features enormous canvases. They had to be big to bear the Sweeping Gestures and Archetypal Forms and Primitivist Impulses of a generation determined to stamp their Tragic Worldview on an uncaring world, to make the Great American Painting, bigger and better than anything effete and devastated post-war Europe could manage.

Although a lot of the artists seem to have been depressive and liberal with statements about Tragedy and Despair, in fact the physical impact of room after room is of the sheer SIZE and brashness and confidence of the movement as a whole.

Mark Rothko

The anti-European feeling took many forms. The room devoted to Mark Rothko is wonderful, a shrine, a chapel to sit in and be filled with wonder, and admire the numerous ways Rothko reworked his trademark image, big canvases (naturally) with rectangles of colour fizzing and shimmering against a one-colour backdrop.

But it is also fascinating to learn that Rothko insisted that his paintings of must a) have no frames b) have no glass over them c) be hung low – the aim being to make them more enterable.

No. 15 Mark Rothko (1957) Private collection, New York © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.

No. 15 Mark Rothko (1957) Private collection, New York © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.

Clyfford Still

The big revelation of the show for me was the work of Clyfford Still, who I’m not conscious of having seen before. The commentary explained that Still resisted the New York art scene and stayed far away, based in Colorado and the West, and – crucially – only sold a handful of paintings in his lifetime, gifting 95% of his output to a purpose-built gallery in Denver where they are to this day. Hence we haven’t seen much of it.

The Still room, along with the Rothko room, made the biggest impact on me: the paintings are enormous, wall-size, and – liberated from all figurativeness – explore the effect of great jagged slabs of colour, often divided into two main tones but with flashes and flickers of other primary colours flaring at unexpected but somehow, totally appropriate locations. Almost all the ten or so huge paintings in his room felt, despite their deliberate rough edges and unfinished appearance, somehow marvellously composed and just right. Like Rothko and Pollock, he seems to have found a completely new visual language.

PH-950 by Clyfford Still (1950) Clyfford Still Museum, Denver © City and County of Denver / DACS 2016. Photo courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO.

PH-950 by Clyfford Still (1950) Clyfford Still Museum, Denver © City and County of Denver / DACS 2016. Photo courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO.

de Kooning

It’s not all fabulous. A fair proportion of the works here are pretty horrible. If the show highlights geniuses like Pollock, Rothko, Still and features attractive work by many others, it also shows how yukky, dismal and depressing a lot of the art of this period and of this movement could be.

I reacted very badly to the de Kooning room, which featured among others several of his ‘Women’ paintings’, to which phrases like ‘horror of the feminine’ were attached in the commentary. De Kooning was born in Holland, only moving to America when he was 23, and I think you can see in the horrible women paintings the strong influence of early 20th century European Expressionism, all those angst-ridden Germans sensing the advent of the Great War. De Kooning’s canvases are big alright, and very free with their paint strokes – but for me he doesn’t achieve the genuine breakthrough into an entirely new confident, achieved visual language which Pollock, Rothko and Still so obviously do.

Woman II by Willem De Kooning (1952) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, 1995 © 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016 Digital image © 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

Woman II by Willem De Kooning (1952) The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016
Digital image © 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.

David Smith

David Smith seems to have been the only major sculptor associated with the movement and the curators have very cannily placed one of his sculptures in almost every room or at turning points between rooms, with four big pieces dominating the Academy courtyard outside.

They are too diverse to effectively sum up, but the example below gives a feel for the way they make no attempt at figurative depiction, but use different tricks and approaches to explore the space which they create around themselves.

Star Cage by David Smith (1950) Painted and brushed steel. Lent by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The John Rood Sculpture Collection. © Estate of David Smith/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016.

Star Cage by David Smith (1950) Painted and brushed steel. Lent by the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The John Rood Sculpture Collection. © Estate of David Smith/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016.

This is a massive, awe-inspiring exhibition, which allows you to wander around encountering masterpiece after masterpiece, working out for yourself how new avenues in painting were opened up, new visual possibilities explored, and deciding what works for you and why. Liberating and exciting.

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Other Royal Academy reviews

Rubens and his Legacy @ The Royal Academy

This is a large exhibition in terms of number of items, but a vast one in terms of scope. It sets out to track the legacy of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), one of the most influential of all western artists, and makes large claims for his impact on a wide range of genres and painters in every European country.

As it is setting out to demonstrate his impact and legacy, the majority of the pictures (and sketches and engravings) in the exhibition are not by Rubens; in some of the rooms it feels like only 3 or 4 out of 20 items are by Peter Paul (PP). Most of them are by the contemporaries or later artists who followed in his footsteps. It might be possible to misread the posters and publicity and feel a bit cheated…

Nonetheless, as the exhibition proceeds, its curators’ intentions are to some extent fulfilled, insofar as you do start to genuinely see Rubens’s influence – in composition and colour and treatment – in a growing number of the paintings by other artists. You begin to have an intimidating sense of the breadth and depth of his legacy. (And, from the enjoyment point of view, many of the works by other artists are masterpieces in their own right, a pleasure to see whatever the context.)

The audioguide (26 items, 50 minutes) claims that without Rubens, no rococo, no romanticism, no impressionism. Bold claim: is it justified?

Poetry

The exhibition is divided into six themes. By ‘poetry’, the curators mean landscape. Early on the commentary makes an amusing statement of national stereotypes. Apparently, English painters took from Rubens his techniques in landscape, the French were interested in his treatment of love and eroticism, the Spanish copied his Counter-Reformation religious drama, and Germans liked the virility and pathos of his paintings. Each conforming to type, then.

The exhibition starts with ‘the English theme’, Rubens’s treatment of landscape. We are shown a Rubens landscape with carters and are told that the left side of the picture is in moonlight, the right side in sunlight, impossible in reality, but adding drama to an otherwise mundane scene. Near it the curators hang similar subjects by the English landscapists Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, among others – notably Constable’s full-size oil sketch for The Haywain. Rubens dramatised landscape, the moonlight-sunlight being an example. Another popular one was showing a landscape just after a rainstorm has ended, leaving a brilliant rainbow behind. There’s a Rubens showing just such a post-storm rainbow – and then a number of examples showing how English artists copied him. Constable, in particular, explicitly praised Rubens composition and colour in his notebooks. (Apparently Constable is famous for his use of red and the commentary says he copied this from Rubens). The section on Constable reinforced the impression gained from the recent Constable exhibition of how artful and calculating an artist he was.

Rubens to one side, I enjoyed many of the works by other artists on show in this room, including a wonderful sketch by Gainsborough, The Harvest Wagon, notable for its handling of the human figures, a cartoon, Daumier-like precision of shape and line and action. Also – very English – for its modesty.

The Garden of Love

Like many of Rubens’ larger paintings, the hugely influential Garden of Love is drenched in allegory and classical models: the elaborate architecture, the flying putti, the statue of Jove, queen of the gods, squeezing water from her ample breasts. Beneath them, in their shade and protection, these flirting mortals are featuring in one of the first ever scenes of contemporary people enjoying leisure time outdoors. Previously it was gods or military heroes or landscapes with peasants. Here are real people – albeit well-off people – but still real contemporaries, wearing contemporary costume, flirting and partying in the open air.

Peter Paul Rubens  The Garden of Love, c. 1633  Oil on canvas, 199 x 286 cm  Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid  Photo c. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love, c. 1633
Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid

This painting bewitched the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who went on to develop his own style of light-hearted love scenes set outdoors. The argument goes: Rubens invented Watteau who invented the fetes galantes, inaugurating the age of rococo art in France.

More examples of Rubens, such as Chateau In A Park, are set against numerous sketches and oil paintings by Watteau, including the wonderful La Surprise, as well as works by other 18th century rococo painters such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Jean-Antoine Watteau  La Surprise: A Couple Embracing While a Figure Dressed as mezzetin Tunes a Guitar, 1718-19  Oil on panel, 36.3 x 28.2 cm  Private Collection  Photo: Private Collection

Jean-Antoine Watteau
La Surprise: A Couple Embracing While a Figure Dressed as mezzetin Tunes a Guitar, (1718-19)
Private Collection

Elegance

By which the curators mean portraiture. Rubens spent four years in Genoa (then a city made rich by trade in silks and fabrics) painting the wives of the richest bankers and merchants. The largest example of this period is the portrait of Marchesa Maria Grimaldi, and Her Dwarf – an ugly painting but, wow, the detailing of the gold cloth of her dress is amazing and lustrous in reality (reproductions completely fail to capture it). Note the classical columns (aren’t I classy) and the rich velvet curtain (aren’t I rich) and the bounding little dog (aren’t I sensitive).

The most direct influence of Rubens’s portrait style was on Anthony van Dyck, child prodigy and Rubens’s pupil, working directly under him in Antwerp before himself travelling to Genoa to make money. Van Dyck toned Rubens down, his portraits are cooler, more detached. In the Genoese Noblewoman and her Son, we have the classical architecture in the background and the luxury curtain (aren’t I cultured and rich) but the sitter is side on to the viewer, that much more self-contained, less revealing (aren’t I aloof). The boy is staring at us with the look of command and authority he is destined to grow into, and the dog is looking up at his future master. The thing is dripping with multiple layers of power and authority.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck  A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626  Oil on canvas, 191.5 x 139.5 cm  National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.91  Photo Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Sir Anthony Van Dyck
A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection

Van Dyck came to the court of Charles I (generally thought to have been the most genuinely cultivated of all British monarchs and who was rewarded for it by having his head cut off) and was knighted for his services to the crown and aristocracy. Van Dyck forged an image of Charles as the tall (he was short), wise (he was stupid), and authoritative (he alienated everyone who ever served him) ruler that he wasn’t.

The commentary made the striking claim that van Dyck invented the English gentleman which, if you’re familiar with his portraits of the English aristocracy, is at least plausible.

Back with PP, the exhibition is making the claim that Rubens is the father of the grand British portrait, and sets off to prove it by placing his huge portrait with dwarf opposite a selection of equally imposing portraits of rich people by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence, portraitists to the British upper classes from the 1770s to the 1830s. The examples here – say, Elizabeth Lamb Viscountess Melbourne with her son – are very large like the Rubens originals, they keep an architectural frame and a drape, but they are less sumptuous and rich, the colour is drabber, and the background is, in line with the English fondness for landscape, a realistic slice of countryside, presumably the estate of this rich woman.

Or take Thomas Lawrence’s Portrait of Mrs Arthur Annesley, a big slab of classical architecture, but with quite an extensive view over the estate on the right, and the painting dominated by sweet little darling children, appropriate to the Age of Sentiment.

Power

The previous rooms feel like they’ve been warming us up for the heart of the exhibition, two rooms dedicated to Rubens’s work as a propagandist of genius. It is staggering to be reminded all over again of his achievements completely outside the realm of art, for Rubens was also a diplomat, a spy and an antiquarian – a figure famous across Europe. Rather as with The Garden of Love, mentioned above, his achievement in political painting was to integrate classical mythology with everday reality, in this case with accurate depictions of living contemporary rulers, and to set both in a convincing space and tableau.

His masterpiece is the series of massive 24 paintings showing the career of Marie de Medicis and her husband, King Henri IV of France. A room is dedicated to a small selection of the numerous preparatory sketches Rubens made, and to an enormous screen projecting a video compilation of the finished paintings which currently hang in the Louvre. They are overwhelming, brilliant, vast, powerful in conception and in their myriad of details

Peter Paul Rubens  The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630  Oil on panel, 49.5 x 83.5 cm  Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942 (42.187) Photo c. 2013. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Peter Paul Rubens
The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942 (42.187)

Also in the same room and given the same treatment is the immense roof of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, London, which can still be seen today. It is covered in its entirety by scenes painted by Rubens and commissioned by Charles I to depict the power and glory of his father, King James I of Britain. It, also, is a commanding series of images, though less overwhelming than the Medici ones – and its impact slightly spoiled for anyone who knows that the paintings were still not complete when Charles I was led from that very room onto a scaffold built along the first floor of the building, to be beheaded. Absolute Monarchy, English style.

Hundreds of painters copied the example Rubens set of lending mythological force and dramatic mises-en-scenes to the depiction of contemporary rulers, from the Sun King to Hitler. The results are splendid but may be the most antipathetic to English taste…

Compassion

Or at least that’s what I thought till I entered the 5th room, which is about religion. Rubens was a devout Catholic and painter to the Counter-Reformation authorities. Ah. The largest Rubens in the room is the altarpiece Christ On the Straw, in which I found all the faults I dislike about most Christian art (and which I loathed in the recent Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery) – sentimental, lachrymose, stagey, inauthentic and banal.

There were lots of copies of this image, or something like it, by numerous subsequent artists, from David Wilkie doing the Grand Tour to Vincent van Gogh (!). Maybe the only one I liked was another sketch by Gainsborough, Descent from the Cross (after Sir Peter Paul Rubens). Seems to me Gainsborough expresses compassion in the shape and flow of the composition – the agony is implied, unlike the Rubens original where the white operatic faces are white with extreme emotion, the eyes drenched with tears and turned imploringly up to an angel-infested heaven.

Violence

Hell Along with the sentimentalism it evokes around the story of the crucifixion, Christianity is also famous for the extreme violence of much of its imagery of revenge, and the weakest room in the exhibition is devoted to these images which take their cue from Rubens’ large and vividly imagined Fall of The Damned. Shame we couldn’t see the original, which is in a church in Germany to terrify the faithful. The engravings and copies here show the delight in a multitude of grisly physical tortures which always tickle the Christian imagination (Dante’s Inferno) but not the sense of falling into the picture and joining the devilish throng which the original was presumably designed to make you feel.

Rape The violence of the religious imagination is set by the curators next to the popular of myths and legends about the rape or abduction of women in classical mythology, which Rubens depicted repeatedly, along with his copiers and devotees – The Rape of Proserpina, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. These compositions are stagey, operatic, full of carefully arranged violence, at the centre of which are plump women with their clothes falling off. Various reviews mention how uncomfortable the British have been with elements of Rubens’s legacy, and I personally dislike this and the religious iconography, both, for shamelessly exploiting the viewer. With a landscape I feel my aesthetic sense is being appealed to. With a painting of Mary bursting into tears or scantily clad women being abducted by musclemen in armour I feel much baser emotions are being aimed at.

The Hunt Another room was dominated by Rubens’s very big painting of a Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (1617) and around it hung works showing the way this scene – the full drama of the capture of a large, exotic, wild animal – was repeated with variations by painters like Eugène Delacroix and the Englishman Sir Edwin Landseer. It was Delacroix, apparently, who said: ‘Be inspired by Rubens, copy Rubens, look at Rubens.’

Lust

We arrive, exhausted with sensual overload, at the final room which has numerous paintings of scantily clad women being leered at, or just about to be seized by, a satyr. The women are notable for their large thighs, buttocks and bellies and relatively small breasts, as in the Pan and Syrinx of 1617.

Peter Paul Rubens  Pan and Syrinx, 1617  Oil on panel, 40 x 61 cm  Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel  Photo: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister/Ute Brunzel

Peter Paul Rubens
Pan and Syrinx, 1617
Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel

The women are always painted as pink and light-skinned, symbolising their purity and innocence. The pans or satyrs are super-muscular figures, their sunburnt skins darkening towards their crotch, wherein lies the source of lust and the hellish pleasures which will buy their owners a one-way ticket to the Fall of Damned, mentioned above.

It was interesting to learn how Rubens used a variety of tints to create the appearance of flesh, including the use of blue or green tints to imply shadowed skin, next to unshadowed pink or white.

And it was interesting to see a roomful of works depicting the same subject by Watteau, Boucher, Renoir and Picasso – but whether this is due to Rubens’ influence or to the abiding interest in revealing the naked female body to the male artist’s male patrons and buyers, to the male gaze generally – is open to debate.

Certainly a room full of predatory, half-bestial men caught in the act of preying on exaggeratedly innocent, wide-eyed maidens left me feeling queasy and was maybe not the best final image to have of Rubens.

But this exhibition, exhaustive and exhausting, succeeds, and then some, in convincing you that Rubens was one of the most important and influential painters in western art.

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Allen Jones @ the Royal Academy

Allen Jones was born in 1937. He attended the Royal College of Art alongside David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield, just after the generation of Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake ie in the heart of what was quickly labelled Pop Art, casting off the existentialist angst of Abstract Expressionism and rejoicing in the bright shiny surfaces or a new world of household appliances and in the flashy sexy images of TV and advertising.

This exhibition in the Burlington Galleries (round the back) of the Royal Academy is a retrospective of a career spanning over 50 years.

Sexy sculptures

The show features sketches and drawings from as early as 1959, but his breakthrough came in 1969 when he exhibited Table, Chair and Hat Stand. These caused a furore at the time and columnists who are paid to fill newspapers with anything they can dredge up were still pretending to be scandalised at the opening of this exhibition a few months ago. Really? In the era when 50 Shades of Grey is the fastest-selling paperback of all time, 20 years after Madonna wore her conical bra, 30 years after Robert Mapplethorpe‘s cock photos.

Another group which set out to subvert suburban society, its pinstripe trousers and bowler hats, its Mary Whitehouse repressiveness, made their debut in 1969 – Monty Python. Python also used references to sex and a rather tame vision of kinkiness to ‘shock’ and subvert. In the small first room of the show there were bits and bobs from Jones’s studio and I was struck to see this included some Eric Gill seaside postcards. Looking back, both Jones and Python seem provincial and tame compared with Mapplethorpe’s sophistication and with any of the bondage pornography which is only a click away on the internet.

Googling for images I’ve also come across some striking outfits worn by Diana Rigg playing Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers, which anybody could watch on TV from 1965 onwards.

There were a few variations on the Table in the show, but not as many as you’d expect. The trilogy seem to have been almost one-offs – but Jones’s long career ever since has been overshadowed by their stunning impact. It’s less their sexiness (they are not very sexy in a cold clinical gallery) but the clarity of their design, combining the super-perfection of a shop window mannekin with the banality of their functionality – table, chair, hat stand – and the sleek lines of the leather boots and panties, which make them such design classics.

Painting

Moving swiftly on the show’s biggest room is dedicated to thirty or so paintings, showing how Jones’ style developed. The 1960s paintings have a few of the motifs of the era, arrows and decals, and details from the magazine world, but overall are rather drab, the muted greens and browns of camouflage.

It’s the paintings from the 1990s and 2000s which make an impact. They’re generally enormous and very simple in design – clearly drawn silhouettes of (mostly women’s) legs, sometimes upper bodies, and some men, set in big patches of bright colours, representing what appear to be night clubs, cinemas, a tryptych based round a piano with a man playing it and women in various stages of undress lying over it.

They are all stylised in the same way – there is no attempt to be realistic – the figures are drawn with cartoon-like strong outlines, the faces of men or women often left blank or not appearing. It is the silhouette, the outline of the human figure, particularly the lower half, the legs, and particularly women’s legs, which fascinate him.

Some of the paintings have an erotic element, some appear to be in sex clubs, or involve men and women in apparently sexual positions. But others are of fully clothed people dancing or in other fairly unerotic poses. What they all have in common is the cartoon-like draughtsmanship, the use of bright primary colours, and the way they left this viewer completely cold.

Steel sculpture

There is a room dedicated to Jones’s steel sculptures: they are slightly over life-size, two-dimensional ribbons of steel curved and cut and painted to have just enough likeness to human beings to be recognisable. Many of them are of dancing individuals or couples and, by this stage one is realising that dance – the human body he’s so fascinated by in lovely movement – is a major subject for Jones.

My wife liked some of the thin steel sculptures of men best in the show.

Mannekins

The final room has a set of a dozen or so mannekins, from the over-famous Hat Stand through a series of mannekins with the same small head and slim body, standing tiptoe in a variety of leather outfits. It includes paintings and photographs, including the stunning photo of Kate Moss wearing a metallic body suit. This adorned the cover of the RA magazine as well as GQ magazine and many others. It demonstrates the crossover in Jones’s work between fine art and fashion, glamour, photography etc, one he’s perfectly at home with but gives Daily Mail commentators and feminists such fits.

I didn’t like the stylised small head and expression of these mannekins. they were all minor variations on the same model, though wearing different style shoes and covered in different bright paints (as in the huge recent paintings) or with figure-hugging leather outfits.

In the same room were paintings with similar poses ie a single female. By far the standout piece and one of the best things in the exhibition is the painting of ballet dancer Darcy Bussell (1994). A reproduction doesn’t do justice to the painting’s size, its lightness and elegance, and the likeness of the face – one of the few faces anywhere in his work which shows genuine individuality. I also liked the small scurfs of paint in the yellow section and the bottom, brown section – I like paintings which leave some paint unfinished, which indicate their hand-madeness in a world saturated with perfect images.

Dégas

Looking at the Darcey Bussell painting made me think of Dégas. There was a painter and sculptor obsessed with the female form and its movement, who painted and sculpted the slender figures of ballet dancers over and over again. Realised there is a direct link between him and Jones – and how, because Dégas’s svelte female figures are dressed in tutus and pumps they are acceptable as Art, whereas, because Jones’s equally stylised and repeated female forms sometimes are wearing kinky boots, or elbow-length gloves or leather body stockings – they are dismissed as sexist exploitation.

Sketches

Easy to stroll through the small final room and exit without stopping to look at the pencil and charcoal sketches. These were there to demonstrate the care and thoroughness Jones brings to his large-scale paintings and sculptures. But in among the preparatory works were a couple of gems, showing the brilliancy of his draughtsmanship, and also that he was interested in individuality before the interest in homogenous or generic or blank mannekin faces came to predominate.

Head of Judy, 1959, had an angularity and rigour and individuality which reminded me of 1930s Wyndham Lewis, hinting at the lines and blocks and angles hidden beneath the skin.

Skull, 1978, was a drawing of a skull with a Dürer-like intensity of detail – but what lifted it was a swatch of light brown paint, just one broad brushstroke to the right of the skull, which perfectly counterpoised it. this was the best piece in the show, for me.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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