Clovelly is not an easy village to reach – the steep cobbled streets do not accommodate cars and the inhabitants have decided they prefer the infrastructure as it, supported by donkeys. It is therefore approached by walking down a curving hill which slowly reveals the buildings clinging like barnacles to the sea facing clifftops.
The central path in the village directs straight towards the harbour, although there are many intriguing side passages which might tempt the curious bypasser.
If at the harbour towards evening there may be a lone fisherman still hard at work whilst the others enjoy a reward at a brightly lit pub nearby. The twilight falls from sea to beach and then to land and Clovelly hunkers down for the night.
Sometimes exhibitions don’t particularly take your breath away but there are still pieces which stand out. I have realised that, while I was not overwhelmed by the recent exhibition of Goya’s portrait paintings at the National Gallery, there was one painting which I have continued to think about. Therefore, I thought I would share it here although the exhibition ended last month.
This is one of the few self-portraits which was included in the exhibition and depicts Goya wearing his candle-holder hat, of his own design. This allowed him to paint in a greater variety of lights and not be so dependent on natural light for his sittings. I was intrigued by the mechanics (and dangers!) of such a hat and wished that they had a copy of it for reference. Would the candle wax have dripped on to his clothes or face? Was there ever the possibility that the painting could be damage by smoke or fire if Goya leant too close to his work? He looks out of the painting with great confidence and is clearly dressing to impress the viewer, with a flamboyant jacket with red and gold trimming and therefore holds his hat to the same expectations. Some of the other portraits were overwhelmed by the finery of their dress or had very guarded expressions so their eyes stared blankly from the canvases. This portrait gave one of the best senses of the character and personality of its subject, with the background of the studio portrayed in very minimal detail.
From now on when I see a Goya portrait I will always have this image of him in my head, the inventive and showman artist, which is probably exactly what he intended as he painted this portrait.
I am currently in the midst of a crash course on the whole of art (which may or may not continue indefinitely as there is a lot to learn…) and at times I have wished for a book which could provide a clear and concise overview of everything. While I was aware this was unrealistic, I hadn’t realised how close I could come to my goal with a pocket edition of The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich. I expect that this book is already very familiar to those who have studied art in the past but I was amazed with how accessible but informative the writing was, especially since the book was written over 50 years ago. Gombrich opens with an explanation of his aims, such as only discussing books which can be included as illustrations and not avoiding paintings which have suffered from overexposure, as well as acknowledging the inevitable failings which the book must create, due to omission, oversight or new discoveries. Nevertheless, the next chapter immediately ambitiously dives into the beginnings of art, discussing cave painting and how contemporaries might have related to it, and the chapters roll on until the present is reached, several times with additional postscripts as the book was updated. The different styles, techniques and forms of art are woven into an overwhelmingly rich tapestry of stories and observations, aided at every turn by luminous illustrations.
A criticism which is often levelled at Gombrich is the lack of female artists in his depiction of the history of art. The ‘artist’ that he depicts is consistent in gender throughout the centuries despite changes in style, ambition and medium but this is suggested to be more related to the opportunities given to men, just as other circumstances also affect them, rather than an innate skill which women lack. Moreover, Gombrich admits early on that he neither expects nor wishes The Story of Art to become the definitive guide to art but instead should encourage readers to explore further on their own. I also wished for greater coverage of Eastern and African art, which are only covered briefly as they touch on the Western narrative of art, but will settle for hopefully discovering similarly comprehensive books for each area. (Any suggestions just let me know!)
I was particularly fascinated by the comparison of how art was expected to represent reality across the millennia. Although Ancient Egyptian and Cubist art appears very different, they both aimed to imitate the most representative facet of each object rather than a ‘realistic’ portrayal of the whole. Therefore, feet are seen from the side in Ancient Egyptian paintings but torsos face the viewer and the face is a similar mismatch of angles from the side and the front. This piecemeal approach is again experienced thousands of years later when Picasso began painting in a Cubist style, motivated by a desire to move away from the technical perfection of the Old Masters and solve the conundrum of representing life through art using (what appeared to be) new interpretations.
I thought I would close The Story of Art with a great certainty as to which my favourite ‘period’ of art is so that I could then turn and research it in greater detail. Instead I was left impatient to learn more about each period and also to see many of the paintings in person which I have so far only had the chance to see in reproduction. However, I now feel I am turning back to my continuous gallery visiting with a firmer understanding to learn and grow my knowledge further.
Portraiture is a sly medium, always suggesting it depicts a simple truth, particularly in photography, but it is as much about what it conceals or obscures as it is about the character it claims to reveal. The Taylor Wessing prize each year at the National Portrait Gallery emphasises this as it highlights how much a winning portrait is down to craft rather than subject or story. On each wall of this small exhibition hang the faces of actors, butchers, children, officials, friends or family without an order of precedence, Instead, it is the startling background colours, the framing of the subject’s face and the photograph’s composition which always catches my eye.
I have found that although I am interested to see who is judged a winner or highly commended I do not always agree. My particular favourite of the exhibition was Yngvild by Tereza Červeňová (shown above) which appears to make the dreams of the Pre-Raphaelites a reality and actually won the John Kobal New Work prize. I was amazed by how much a photograph could echo such a fantastical genre of painting and yet also be a likeness of someone the Červeňová has met at a wedding. It would be interesting to compare this photograph with others of the same person to tell whether the overwhelming Pre-Raphaelite feel is related to the angle and light or whether it could only have been created with that particular sitter.
The exhibition continues until the 21st of February and creates a delightful pause in a London afternoon. You’ll then be able to see the other winners and let me know what you think!
Right up at the top of the British Museum there is currently a delightful exhibition on the Renaissance technique of metalpoint drawing. It draws on a huge selection from the British Museum (and Her Majesty’s) archives to demonstrate how the medium has evolved and adapted since it was first used by devotees Leonardo da Vinci and Hans Holbein the Elder. Some of the older pieces involved are clearly preparatory sketches for larger works and reference tools to show either prospective clients or to use within the studio. Metalpoint allowed for great detail, such as in Leonardo’s famous helmeted soldier, whilst also being portable and easily stored. However, as the technique becomes less well known and rarely taught it is treated as an individual method which is an end in itself, often resulting in intimate or personalised works. I was particularly interested to read about one recent commissioned silverpoint work which had been created by melting down a client’s gold watch to form the stylus to draw with.
The technique involves using a metal stylus, usually of silver or gold, which transfers onto a specially prepared abrasive paper to create the delicate lines. The paper itself requires great skill to prepare as it involves a mixture of animal bones, or other gritty substances, combined with an adhesive and a coloured wash before painting the paper itself. This initial preparation must be consistent as it is difficult to erase marks after the metal stylus is applied to the paper. Although the main colour used for the paper was a light reddish colour there was also a variety of blues and greys depending on the metal used in the stylus.
The exhibition provides an interesting overview of how metalpoint has been used and valued over the years and one of my favourite pieces demonstrating this was that of a metalpoint book. This was a small journal-type volume which was created using the specially prepared paper and had a metal stylus in its fastening. Its portability allowed its owner to sketch using metal point outside and draw landscapes or spontaneous scenes, and therefore these journals were often used by artists during the 17th and 18th centuries. This simple adaptation of the technique’s tools illustrated its move out of the studios and into the everyday, intimate life of an artist.
The exhibition continues until the 6th of December so there is still just over a month to visit this intriguing selection of pieces and enjoy the fruits of the British Museum’s archives as well as learning about this unusual artistic technique.
It’s been a busy summer for me and unfortunately this blog has had an enforced hiatus following the sudden demise of my laptop, lots of fun travel and moving house rendering me temporarily without internet connection. However, these disruptions have not stopped me from visiting interesting exhibitions, seeing great films and theatre and reading a mountain of books! I therefore thought I’d do a quick round up of highlights from the last few months so that I still got to talk about them.
This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is one that I love to return to year after year as I am continually surprised by the variety of how representation of the human form can be approached. I may not always agree with the judges’ decision, this year some of my favourites were not even placed or commended, but this exhibition really does force the viewer to keep reassessing portraiture’s position in modern society. Descriptions accompanying the paintings highlight how different artists view the medium, with some attempting to provide a new interpretation on an age old tradition while others aim to show previously neglected subjects who might not have been treated to the same level of detail by previous painters. We no longer need it to record a likeness since photography is instant and accurate and often painted portraits do not even try to depict reality, featuring impossible shadows or proportions. This exhibition is sadly over but you can view all the portraits here so don’t worry about missing out!
Shoes are an essential part of any outfit, no matter how fashion conscious one might be, to protect the feet and ensure that any journey by foot is without hazards. However, the V&A’s current exhibition (open until the 31st of January 2016) illustrates how little this practicality can matter when aesthetics and style are brought into consideration. It demonstrated that shoes have never been solely practical items, with absurd pointed shoes from medieval courts, tiny slippers for the bound feet of Chinese women and delicately embroidered Regency mules. The shoes only became yet more intricate as the centuries progress and I particularly enjoyed the video sequence towards the end which interviewed modern cobbler greats, such as Manolo Blahnik and Sandra Choi. They suggested some of the reasons that might lead someone to choose a glittering set of heels over the latest trainers despite the practicalities of life. It made me reassess my current footwear choices and perhaps my next shoebox will contain something suitably daring…
This is a film that I have been looking forward to for a long time, especially since I watched Frances Ha in April. I am pleased to report that I was not disappointed in the slightest although it turned out to be a very different film to what I originally expected to see. The trailer suggests that the film, directed by Noah Baumbach, will focus on how Tracy (Lola Kirke) and Brooke’s (Greta Gerwig) relationship as new found sisters develops with New York as a background. Instead the plot quickly sweeps Tracy and the viewer up into the whirlwind of Brooke’s life as she bubbles over with ideas of how she will make her name, fortune or both. As a shy freshman in college, Tracy admires Brooke’s enthusiasm and willingness to try anything and tries to emulate her by creating a more assertive and carefree demeanour. However, this all ends in a denouement which is both comic and dramatic and is worth the price of the film (whether cinema ticket or DVD) alone.
Two involuntarily impoverished gentlemen have settled on a scheme to trick a rich provincial heiress to marry one of them by posing as a rich man travelling with his manservant before splitting the resulting dowry. However, this quickly descended into chaos as it is revealed they are not the only characters with hidden motives and they also soon learn that sometimes the head might be ruled by the heart, even when faced with mountains of gold. I thought Samuel Barnett as Mr Aimwell and Geoffrey Streatfeild as Mr Archer created a believable and dynamic partnership as they tried to stay ahead of those around them. I also felt that the play really came alive with the addition of the songs, which I hadn’t initially expected. A particular favourite was the ‘It’s a Trifle’ song which I’m sure nearly every audience member left the theatre humming. Although the run of this particular play has now finished it is scheduled to be shown in cinemas shortly as part of the National Theatre’s national programme so if you can get tickets I would definitely recommend it!
This autumn I already have plans for reading lists, exhibitions, theatre visits and many more so expect to hear from me again soon!