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.
Next reading: Modern Times, Modern Places: Life and Art in the Twentieth Century
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.
I recently had the chance to go to one of the Tate’s regional outposts in Liverpool. I had not been to Liverpool before but I had high expectations since it was crowned the European Capital of Culture in 2007. The museum is neatly tucked into the carefully renovated Albert Docks and so is surrounded by views of the Merseyside and the boats that fill it. Albert Docks is an area I would definitely recommend visiting if you are in Liverpool even if you are not planning on visiting the Tate Liverpool. However, if you do have time the museum is one of Liverpool’s highlights which should not be missed.
Unfortunately I did not have an unlimited amount of time to spend in the Tate Liverpool and so had to be selective about the exhibitions that I choose. My first choice was a little unlucky as it was a black and white photogram exhibition by György Kepes which did not strike me as particularly unusual or interesting. The limitations of the photogram medium meant that the images remained fairly simple and abstract. However, once I left this room and took the stairs to the next floor I experienced a much more thought-provoking exhibition. The DLA Piper Series: Constellations explores how different types of art can relate to each other across movements and periods. A ‘constellation’ of pieces is drawn on the wall with a central piece, such as Matisse or Pollock, serving as a stimulus and an anchor for the surrounding artworks. Artists have always undeniably been influences by work that has come before them and those that they work with or react against but I still found it fascinating to trace how a particular idea or philosophy was explored and tested. The challenges of representation which the Cubists tackled were juxtaposed with alternative attempts to reinterpret the trope of still life. Although artists have painted still life scenes for centuries the inventiveness of the images on show demonstrated that art can continue to refer to itself while creating something completely new.
A painting which made a particular impression on me was Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s painting of his lover Sophie Brzeska. It felt so modern and fresh although it was painted over 100 years ago in 1913. The careful detail contrasts with the unusual colouring of the face and simple background to ensure the viewer is left wondering more about the woman in the picture. It is not a typical portrait but I felt that it clearly conveys the strong personality which Sophie Brzeska must have had even as she looks away from the painter. This simply reassessment of how to paint a portrait felt much more understated than the overtly experimental Cubist paintings surrounding it but quietly incorporated the influence of the modern which still acknowledging the strengths of the traditional style.
Although some might argue that the constellations create a simplified and linear narrative of how artistic styles have developed I found the contextual placement of the paintings made me question the idea of a progression in art. Artwork which was finished only years apart from one another could look as alien as possible when compared with its contemporary. However, this did not create an impression of ‘right’ art and ‘wrong’ art but merely interpretations on themes which will continue to develop and expand. I plan to go back to the Tate Liverpool so that I can explore the constellations further and question the connections made in other parts of the gallery – I’m looking forward to it!
The peculiarity of John Singer Sargent’s upbringing, as an American born in Florence, allowed him to present a unique insight on both American and European culture during the 19th century. The current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery demonstrates not only this insight but also the skill and position in society that Sargent used to depict it. He quickly rose to fame due to the controversial painting of Madame X, which was sadly not included in the exhibition, and despite the notoriety swiftly became the portraitist of choice for high society. This allowed him to paint the great and the good with relatively security as his reputation would no longer be destroyed with a brush stroke. Nevertheless he still took great pride in his work, once repainting an entire head when he heard the sitter was disappointed with the original result.
Famous faces crowd the walls and each suggests a personality bubbling beneath the oil paint surface. I was fascinated to learn of Sargent’s friendship with Monet, who he painted with his wife over several years and kept one of these paintings in his studio throughout his life. When painting friends Sargent could be more experimental and this often shows through in the simplicity of his palette and the more unusual composition or setting of his subjects. This is especially evident in his paintings of Robert Louis Stevenson, which catch the writer as he strides across a room or sprawls in a chair. He is not treated with reverence as a writer but more interestingly is shown as a man who is married and part of a household. Apparently Stevenson’s wife thought when only the hand in one of the paintings was finished that it was already the best portrait that had been done of her husband.
I particularly enjoyed the paintings of Ellen Terry as I felt they captured her formidable character better than any photographs I have seen of her before. They also portrayed her as an actor of great skill, terrifying all around her as Lady Macbeth, which was unusual for a time which often saw actresses as aberrations or amateurs. I almost felt that I could see Terry mid speech as she claws her way to Scottish power. The detail on this particular painting was very intricate, with gold twisted into her long hair and the feathers glistening on her dress so it was also interesting as a depiction of Victorian stagecraft as well as Terry’s personality.
Unfortunately this exhibition is almost over and is only open until the 25th of May but I would still recommend it if you do get the chance to go!
Art is often divided into the supposedly diametrically opposed styles of abstract and figurative, each with a group of supporters who extol the superiorities of each approach. However, the current exhibition at the RA of Richard Diebenkorn’s work demonstrates how arbitrary this opposition is. Although Diebenkorn is less well known in the UK he is revered in America and this success allowed him to experiment and bounce between abstractive and figurative painting throughout his career. Therefore, while the first room in the exhibition contains abstract, colourful paintings from the his work in the 1950s, the next room is full of careful portraits and detailed landscapes which Diebenkorn painted for over a decade. This complete shift shocked the audience which the abstract paintings had initially attracted, especially since figurative painting was particularly unpopular when Diebenkorn made this change. Nevertheless it soon became clear that his new style of painting created pieces just as skilled as those which he had produced before. During the late 1960s Diebenkorn returned again to painting abstraction, although the work he created then was of a much more considered and restrained nature than of those which made him famous.
As the exhibition only consisted of three rooms, it was easy to go round again and I was surprised by how consistent the works suddenly appeared despite the dramatic changes in style. The two styles complimented each other and it was easy to understand how Diebenkorn could switch between them without a feeling of rebellion. He did not commit himself to the ideals of either the abstract of the figurative movement completely which prevented any feeling of contradiction developing when comparing pieces from across his career. Instead he had his own set of ten rules which transcended fashions and contemporary opinion and Diebenkorn followed them aiming to achieve ‘rightness’ in each painting. Diebenkorn’s figurative work would include panels of colour which created an unworldly street scene while his abstract paintings celebrated the variety of colour involved. I also particularly liked his use of less traditional media, such as a ball point pen portrait or cigar box lids as miniature versions of his huge ‘Ocean Park’ series. They suggested the personality of a man who did not take himself too seriously and who was always willing to adapt his surroundings to an artistic purpose.
The exhibition is open at the Royal Academy until 7th of June and is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.