Favourite Piece from ‘Goya: The Portraits’

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.

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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.

Richard Diebenkorn

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.

Giovanni Battista Moroni

The great painters of the Italian Renaissance; Botticelli, Da Vinci and Michelangelo, have cast a long and large shadow over what we expect from Renaissance art and the paintings which we associate with it. We often fail to appreciate the skill involved with each piece due to the endless reproductions that make an image seem familiar even without reference to the original. The current exhibition at the RA on Giovanni Battista Moroni was therefore a new experience as it presents works of the highest quality which are free from the weight of several centuries’ opinions and associations. Moroni painted portraits for the great and good of Bergamo as well as providing them with images for religious devotion and meditation. However, due to his decision to stay in a provincial town in Bergamo rather than move to a more influential city Moroni remained on the edges of the Italian cultural consciousness until he was rediscovered and reassessed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The exhibition opens with a display of some of Moroni’s earlier work alongside those of his teachers to demonstrate how his career began. However, it is only once you reach the room containing his first large portraits that the exhibition really begins to reveal the technical skills that Moroni had in abundance. The walls are crowded with proud Italians in flamboyant clothing staring down at their audience and demanding to be admired. Moroni records everything from the curl of a lip to the toss of a head in the elite which employed him. It is tempting to believe that he had greater opportunity to record the exact likenesses of those he painted, rather than resorting to flattery, because he remained in a smaller city whose inhabitants did not demand such obeisance.

The vitality of each portrait is definitely reinforced by the fashions of the time. Men were not afraid to wear bright colours and the women wear intricately patterned dresses that cascade around them. They stand against backgrounds of classical pillars and luxurious plants. This dramatically changed within Moroni’s career as his later portraits are a much more sober affair, with all the men dressed in black against simple background. Nevertheless, in all the portraits there is a sense of natural movement, slashed breeches appear to rustle in a light breeze, a tailor’s scissors are half lifted towards a bolt of material and pages fall down a desk. Moroni also favoured a three quarters profile for his sitters, which often suggests that he has caught them accidentally as they turn around or look up from reading. This increased the sense of intimacy for the viewer as I felt as if I had chanced upon them rather than solely being impressed with their finery. The exhibition also included information about the lives of those they had been able to identify, some were married to each other while others were caught up in bloodthirsty family feuds. It was strange to imagine that one of the arrogant young men depicted would later to go on to die by falling down a well while drunk as he seems caught forever in the moment that Moroni painted him in.

I noticed throughout the exhibition that although Moroni was able to portray faces with such realism that I felt I recognised Italian aristocrats as mutual acquaintances this precision only extended to those who he could clearly examine from life. In comparison, his religious paintings of the Apostles and a nursing Mary felt flat with each Biblical character appeared slightly too smooth and unnatural. This became particularly apparent in paintings which included both a religious scene and portraits of the patron. In the corner of a Crucifixion tableau a man prays, his hands almost reaching out of the painting, while a stony Jesus hangs upon on the cross, difficult to distinguish if he is a marble statue or a dying man.

A portrait which particular amused me was this female face, frozen in a slightly annoyed and suspicious expression. Despite the fact that she has clearly prepared for the portrait since she is immaculately dressed in her best finery there is still a suggestion that she would rather the painting was not taking place, just as people now grimace for the camera. It seems strange that such a facial expression can still be understood and experienced today even though the medium and the subject’s experience is vastly different to those of ours today. I like to think that if I’d ever had the chance to sit for a portrait by Moroni I would have treated him with less disdain, although I would not mind wearing the same jewellery.

I can remember each face clearly that Moroni depicted and it was impossible to pick a complete favourite, I continued to be amazed with how moods appeared to shift across the faces silently watching from the wall. This is the last week you can see the exhibition and I’d recommend making a diversion to go as it not only provides an insight into the lives of provincial Renaissance Italy but also is a breathtaking display of portraiture.

Constable: The Making of a Master

Through out the V&A’s most recent exhibition on John Constable the artist’s attention to detail is apparent. His progress is charted from initial copied etching to the large projects which required confidence and careful skill. Although he is famed for his paintings of ethereal clouds I was also impressed by overall feeling of movement present through out his paintings.

Constable painted the scenes which surrounded him. His paintings capture both scenes which appear to only exist in that moment and views which will remain eternal. I went to the exhibition with a friend who knows the areas of Suffolk and Essex which Constable lived in well. She could recognise bends in a river of his landscapes and church steeples which poked through trees. This familiarity allowed the views to seem fresh even when they included hay wains and working mills.

There were several instances where multiple versions of a painting were exhibited side by side. This was fascinating as it uncovered the development of Constable’s vision for each creation. The Hay Wain slowly included a playful dog, a boy drinking from the river in a red waistcoat and a rainbow as Constable neatened up the picture and assessed what was still visually needed. The addition of the dash of red balances the picture and draws the viewer to the boy’s playful face. In another picture a white horse which is introduced into a stormy landscape provides a contrast to the dark clouds overhead.

At times the exhibition felt repetitive as it hung such similar paintings side by side. This feeling was particularly strong during the rooms which included comparisons of etchings and Constable’s attempts to copy them. Sadly, the main difference at this point which could be noticed were to Constable’s detriment as he is still learning his strengths and the techniques necessary.
However, my frustration with the repetition of images was softened at the end of the exhibition when three paintings of similar tree trunks were hung side by side. One was an original image by a Dutch master which had inspired Constable’s own work. This painting in turn led Lucien Freud’s study on a tree trunk, entitled ‘After Constable’s Elm’, which was the third painting hanging. This thread drawing together centuries of artists through such a simple theme demonstrated that sometimes imitation can be more than just the height of flattery.

With such variety provided by paintings of ominous dark clouds, cheerful rustic scenes and vibrant city scenes I very much enjoyed this exhibition, although I feel as if I learnt more about the process of training to be an artist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than about Constable himself. However, I am now planning to see the exhibition on his rival Turner at the Tate!

The exhibition continues until 11 January 2015.
http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-constable-the-making-of-a-master/