Archive | July, 2011

My Love Affair with Sir John Soane

29 Jul

After my dramas with the sat-nav earlier this week, I thought I’d better stick to my home patch.  Seeing Soane’s glorious architecture in Dulwich, it felt fitting to visit another of his buildings.

When I was 16, on first walking into 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, I fell in love.  And, notwithstanding many visits since, I still feel the same way.  Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of London’s gems.

Sir John Soane’s Museum. Image via www.flickr.com/photos/bearpitring.

Sir John Soane, son of a bricklayer, began his architectural career aged only 15 and quickly began to make a name for himself.  Enrolling at the Royal Academy in 1771, and winning a gold medal for his drawing in 1776, it was evident that this boy was destined for extraordinary things.  After a foray around Europe, Soane returned to London and set up his own architecture practice in 1781.  He undertook many prestigious appointments during his career, as well as being named Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, and was appointed architect to the Bank of England in which post he remained until his retirement at the age of 80.

Detail in the Museum.  Image via www.flickr.com/photos/lewisbush.

Over a period of years, Soane purchased Numbers 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  He demolished and rebuilt the three houses in succession as his home and a setting for his antiquities and art works.  An Act of Parliament, negotiated by Soane himself, appointed a board of Trustees to uphold Soane’s aims and objectives, maintaining the house as a museum as closely as possible to the way Soane had left it.  Recently, the Museum has been working to open more and more areas for public access. Opening up the Soane is a very ambitious restoration project, restoring eight lost Soane interiors including the reinstatement of Soane’s model room (that had previously been used as the museum director’s office).

Building work at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Own photograph. 

The house is filled with Soane’s collections which are so remarkable and diverse that there is something here for everyone – Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, bronzes, gems, medals, jewellery, furniture, clocks, silvers, ceramics, tiles, curiosities, mummified cats, models, paintings, watercolours, drawings (in particular, the most amazing collection of Robert Adam drawings)…  The list is endless.  It is impossible on paper to do the collection justice.  The Soane is a veritable treasure trove of art history and you are guaranteed to notice
something new on each visit.  Even now, when I know every nook and cranny (and my stilettos know every crooked floorboard and creaking stair), the house still amazes and delights me. The building epitomises Soane’s ‘poetry of architecture’ with coloured light, cast by concealed skylights, filling the property.

Skylights in the Museum. Image via www.flickr.com/photos/lewisbush.

The specially designed picture gallery houses Hogarth’s An Election and A Rake’s Progress giving me an opportunity to indulge my love of Hogarth on every visit.  Ingeniously designed moving walls conceal hidden paintings. Nearby, in one of the most densely hung sections of the house, Seti I’s sarcophagus sits in the centre of the Crypt under the Dome.

William Hogarth, The Orgy from A Rake’s Progress, 1733. Image via www.soane.org

Soane’s use of mirrors is one of the special features of the house providing wonderful reflections and enlarging and energising the space. As well as a wonderful collection, the Soane boasts some of the friendliest, most knowledgeable warders in London. They know everything about Soane and inspire you to know more.

Mirrors in the Museum. Image via www.flickr.com/photos/lewisbush.

The old exhibition room at the Soane is unrecognisable now due to building work although, when finished, Soane will boast a new and enlarged gallery space.  The gallery is currently in temporary lodgings on the ground floor (the room where I used to go to process PDQ payments during my time at the Soane).  On show at the moment, Wonders of the Ancient World is a unique collection of twenty plaster reproductions of great buildings and monuments of the past including Rome’s Pantheon and Athen’s Parthenon. The intricacy and accuracy of the models is sensational. They were made by Francois Fouquet who, from 1790-1830, meticulously produced these for architects and collectors in Paris.

The majority of the models remain in pristine condition and this is the first time they have been shown in this way.  (You may spot a couple of damaged works in the exhibition such as the Arch of Hadrian, Athens.  It’s thought these models were damaged in 1940 when a landmine was dropped on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, shattering cases and models.)  Fouquet learned model-making from his father but his works are distinguished by their smaller dimensions and finer details – detail which is incredible.  Father and son left no clues as to how these models were made and their technique is still a mystery.  They must have worked the plaster when wet and then hand-finished their models when dry.  It is probable they also used some stock elements conceived through moulds.

Francois Fouquet model of the Temple of Fortuna Virilis, Rome. Image via www.soane.org.

Soane purchased these 20 models in 1833 and paid the large sum of £100 for the works. In today’s currency that is £10,136.78!  I’d say Soane got good value for his money.

The Soane Fouquet models are a very rare survival and when restoration finishes in 2014, these will be back on permanent display.

The amazing domed area. Image via www.archimage.co.uk.

Although this is a lovely exhibition, I’d implore you to visit the Soane anytime, regardless of what they have on show.  There is no entrance charge so even if you only have ten minutes to spare, pop in to explore a new part of the house and get lost in Soane’s world.

Image via www.flickr.com

Wonders of the Ancient World: Francois Fouquet’s Model Masterpieces is at Sir John Soane’s Museum until 24th September 2011, www.soane.org.

Two of a Kind? Twombly and Poussin at Dulwich

26 Jul

Driving down to Dulwich earlier today, I decided to rely on the brain power of my sat-nav to guide the way.  I thought it was a fairly safe decision to use a gadget designed for navigating to help me on my way but here I was mistaken.  Admittedly, I was treated to a delightfully scenic tour of London before happening on Dulwich but I got there in the end.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery, as always, is worth a visit for the sheer beauty of Soane’s architecture (I have a thing for Soane since one of my first ever work placements was at the Sir John Soane Museum) and its impressive permanent collection.

Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.

Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters attempts to combine the works of Cy Twombly and Nicolas Poussin.  Both artists moved to Rome aged 30 and found their lifelong subject matter in this amazing city, inspired by the worlds of Classical antiquities.

Nicolas Poussin, The Nurture of Jupiter, mid-1630s. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.  

There is no doubt that both these artists are great and that there is a link but I don’t think this bold idea quite pulls through.

Poussin’s paintings are detailed canvases which draw the viewer into his Classical narratives. Although Twombly’s works draw you in, they draw you into a space where you often feel displaced and overwhelmed. This hazy sea of paint is what we may expect from an Abstract Expressionist and it delights us as we try to understand and read these canvases.  The effects both artists achieve are very different and why shouldn’t they be.  After all, they are two very different artists.

Cy Twombly, Bacchanalia-Fall (5 Days in November), 1977. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Twombly and Poussin approach their subjects in dissimilar ways.  For Poussin, the Classical is both a motif and a form of critique.  It is his sole subject that he explored in a figurative manner.  His formal, yet dramatically powerful works are carefully planned compositions in which he removes himself, and his own feelings, from the equation.  For Twombly, Classical antiquity is baffling; it is the allure of a romantic world expressed through his abstract palette that he makes his subject.  The fluidity of his painting results in drips, splodges and near explosions of colour and expression.  His works are infused with snippets of text, almost obliterated by heavy layers of textured paint and it is this romantic notion of hidden text that has appealed to writers throughout his career.

The artists may have studied the same subject matter (which is no coincidence) and Twombly may have idolised Poussin but they are poles apart.  On paper, they may be connected but when seen side-by-side on the walls at Dulwich, I’m not sure that they really are.  Although Twombly was inspired by Poussin and wanted to be Poussin (he once said ‘I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time’), he fell in love with a different Rome to that of his hero – a modern, vibrant and frenetic city.

Nicolas Poussin, The Triumph of Pan, c. 1636. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

For me, one of the highlights was Twombly’s Hero and Leandro telling the classical legend of doomed lovers.  The painting was executed after Twombly read Marlowe’s poem on the legend. Drowning is expressed by the turbulent waves of dripping paint, expressive brushstrokes and rippling textures across the surface.  The work is entrancing; the mesmeric colours conjure up the passion and emotions of the myth.

Cy Twombly, Hero and Leandro, 1985. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

So, what do Twombly and Poussin have in common?  They both painted.  They both painted in Rome about Classical antiquity.

In the exhibition’s defence, I don’t think it is attempting to compare and contrast the two artists.  Yes, some of the pairings provoke comparisons but that is not necessarily the point.  Rather it aims to show these artists journeying through a shared ambition, albeit in different centuries and in different styles.   Actually, I think the wall labels confuse visitors here.  Although they are brilliantly informative, for once, they are too detailed and almost imposing.

The final room consists of Twombly’s Four Seasons which are always spectacular to view –  an all-encompassing journey of colour and time.  Although Dulwich hasn’t been able to loan the Poussin ‘equivalents’ from the Louvre, they have included reproductions of the works so full marks to them for common sense.  The show ends with Twombly and I think Twombly dominates the show.  Poussin comes off a dull second which is ridiculous as he is obviously one of the greats but this just doesn’t work.

Cy Twombly, Quattro Stagioni, Autunno, 1993-5. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

There is a special Poussin display in the main galleries showing the series of five Sacraments (held by the Duke of Rutland) mounted on green walls and, here, Poussin is able to shine rather than being overshadowed.   On the Farrow & Ball white walls of the joint exhibition – clean, crisp and beautiful – Poussin is lost and his work diminished by the brash confidence of modernity.

Also on show is Tacita Dean’s film portrait of Twombly which unfortunately plunges the permanent collection of room 10 into darkness.  The work offers glimpses into Twombly’s life and world. The suspension of a small screen creates a rather magical and intimate viewing experience and it is particularly poignant to see Twombly in action at the end of the show.

Tacita Dean, Edwin Parker, 2011. Image via www.artvehicle.com. 

An In Memorian sign has been placed at the start as a mark of respect to Twombly who sadly passed away on 5th July this year, just after the exhibition had opened.  This exhibition is a great testimony to his works and it is a suitable tribute that he is shown alongside his idol.

The exhibition is brave and, for that, I think Dulwich deserve credit but I’d have preferred to see the works apart and admire the two artists separately, giving them the individual attention they deserve.  It does, however, give pause for thought and provoke us to reconsider our opinions on these two artists.  You’ll never again be able to look at a Poussin without thinking of Twombly and you’ll never again be able to look at a Twombly without thinking of his idol.

Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 25th September 2011, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

Snap – Hungary’s genius, Eyewitness at the RA

18 Jul

Robert Capa famously said ‘It’s not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian’.  Even though most of Hungary’s famous photographers decided to leave their home country and make their names in Germany, France and the US, having visited this exhibition, I see his point.

Centring around five major photographers – Robert Capa,  Brassaï, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi -this exhibition presents a chronological journey of Hungary’s conflicted history (all Jewish-born these men were forced to change their names due to the frequent anti-Semitism they encountered), looking at the lives of these artists and revealing their achievements and genius.  With around 200 photographs, by over 50 photographers, ranging in date from 1914-1989, I think everyone was ready to expect a mess but the Royal Academy has produced a beautiful show with striking, provocative images arranged in a coherent and concise manner.

Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Soldier, 1936.  Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk.

In many ways, these five photographers gained recognition as a result of leaving Hungary.  Yet, their technique and style was much influenced by the photographic traditions of their homeland.  It was in Budapest, for example, that some of the first photography stories were printed in the 1920s.  Many others, such as Károly Escher, Rudolf Balogh and Jószef Pécsi, did remain in Hungary and the exhibition includes a good spectrum of such work.

László Fejes, Wedding, Budapest, 1965. Image via www.independent.co.uk.

I think this exhibition was a big gamble.  Although Hungarian photography is getting more popular, I wouldn’t have thought it is popular enough for an RA summer show.  Maybe they have enough people already coming through the doors that they’re happy to take the risk or maybe they just felt these amazing artists deserved some more attention.  Whichever you believe, their gamble has paid off – when I was there, it was packed.

As you know, I’m normally the first to criticise grey walls but here they work.  The black and white photographs have a serene and calming quality.  There’s no problem with reflections.  The exhibition is uniform and well-conceived.  My one small niggle was that queues built up while people stuck in the dead-end sections of the exhibition were looking into the cabinets.  Oh, one other thing…  The wall labels now include the catalogue numbers which I thought slightly weird.  If you see people walking around catalogue in hand, this is why.

The personalities of the photographers are evident in their works.  Kertész, for example, was shy and never felt fully comfortable outside Hungary, while Brassaï was a confident socialite who had spent four years working in Berlin before moving to Paris in 1924.  His new home became the focus of his work and the centre of his life.  Fascinated by the cultures and sub-cultures of the city, his works delve into Paris at night and the restless wandering souls who occupied the city.   Bijou of Montparnasse stares out at the viewer. Expensively attired and heavily made-up, her face reveals the tire and strain of years of work.

Brassaï, Bijou of Montparnasse, 1932.  Image via http://thingsbecomethings.blogspot.com.

Munkácsi’s works inspired many American fashion photographers, including Herb Ritts.  Perhaps the most accomplished photojournalist here, he began working in the medium aged only 18.

His work Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika is carefree and inspiring, the perfect social commentary of a young family playing on the beach.   Their raw nakedness against the white foam is poignant and striking.  The sharpness of the image, created by use of a high shutter speed, results in an image filled with dynamism and vitality.  Henri Cartier Bresson said “it is only that one photograph which influenced me.”

Martin Munkácsi, Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika, c. 1930.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

The exhibition also includes Munkácsi’s photograph of the Nazi superstar Leni Riefenstahl (I won’t go into Riefenstahl’s life story and her claims for that is not what is relevant here).  Wearing hotpants and a vest, her dark hair, chiseled features and smooth skin appear more pronounced by the snow.  This photo appeared on the front cover of Time in 1936 to mark the Fourth Winter Olympics that Hitler had inaugurated earlier that month.  Munkácsi was fascinated by bodies in movement; innovative for his time, he was making history with every shot he captured.

Martin Munkácsi, Leni Riefenstahl, 1931.  Image www.artvalue.com.

I studied Kertész at school and his works still have a special resonance for me.  With little formal training, Kertész began taking photographs of rural scenes and everyday moments in Budapest.  He was then known for his trench photography while he served from 1914-15.  A shy character, his work expresses an overriding interest in the daily routines of people.

Strict regulations were imposed on Hungarian photography in the latter half of the 20th century.  No Hungarian photographs of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 were allowed to be published and photography began to lose some of its earlier vigour as the political climate trampled freedom of artistic expression once again.  Experimentation continued on the fringes and during the 1980s the art form began to re-emerge and flourish.  The Hungarian contribution to photography is still felt today and, as this exhibition shows, many modern-day artists and photo-journalists alike are indebted to these figures.

Károly Escher, Bank Manager at the Baths, 1938.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

These photographs present the glamour, truth and terrifying realities of the time.  The strength of this material, and the incredible range of photographic media here, has influenced generations of photographers and much of what we see in newspapers, magazines and art galleries can be referenced to these works.

Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century is in the Sackler Wing at the Royal Academy until 2nd October 2011, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Another Shocker? Jake or Dinos at White Cube

15 Jul

Thursday evening. PV night. Heels at the ready. Boys to direct me.

Beginning on Cork Street with Alon Zakaim’s wonderful summer show including works by David Breuer-Weil, Will Thorburn, Lorenzo Agius, Terry O’Neill and Lynn Chadwick, I then popped into Flowers.  Flowers have devoted both their gallery spaces to the artist Patrick Hughes.  Kingsland Road presents a retrospective, whilst Cork Street, which opened last night, shows his new works – a range of exciting three-dimensional Reverspective images which appear to be moving, confounding the viewer and drawing us in for a closer look.  As we move, so do his works – his optical illusions have enticed viewers for 50 years and show no sign of stopping.  Patrick, now aged 71, who was wandering around the private view, was a delight to chat to – you can’t help but be charmed by him and his works.

Patrick Hughes, Corner Stores, 2011. Image via www.flowersgalleries.com

Maybe I chose the wrong heels for last night as my feet were already a tad sore when we crossed Piccadilly, which didn’t bode well with another two galleries to go.  Jake and Dinos Chapman have supposedly not collaborated for a year and this exhibition presents the results of them breaking free from the shackles of their partnership. For two brothers who have always prided themselves on being one artist, the cynic in me doubts the complete truth in this claim.

But that’s by the by…

Boldly spread over both White Cubes, ‘Jake or Dinos Chapman’ (originally entitled ‘F*** you Jake’ and ‘F*** you Dinos’) presents a mixture of work by both artists as individuals.  We are not meant to know whose work is whose but the secret seems to have been badly kept and, apparently, Jake’s work appears at Mason’s Yard while Dinos is at Hoxton Square.  Some still claim the works are muddled (who knows?) but all the pieces distinctly bare the Chapman Brothers’ trademark style returning to their previous themes that we love and hate – themes that once shocked us but that we have come to expect.  They haven’t managed to depart from their norm enough.  Either that, or their individual styles are not strong enough to triumph. But is this the point?  Let’s see…

Jake and Dinos installing the Nazi mannequins.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

These are a pair of remarkable exhibitions. The PVs were cleverly timed so that when Mason’s Yard closed at 7.30pm, those with enough stamina (of which I was, of course, one) headed over to Hoxton Square. The Great City Road Race caused London to grind to a halt and a queue of taxis approached Hoxton in near-stately procession (the lengthy taxi ride gave my feet a chance to rest). The paparazzi were out in force capturing the celebs and art world elite who attended both exhibitions.  And, what a crowd!  White Cube had certainly worked their magic and both galleries were chock-a-block.

Hoxton Square.  Own photograph.

Now this may be a wonderful coincidence but Jake and Dinos, who were both at both PVs, chatting jovially to guests, were never seen together.  Whenever I saw Jake, Dinos had vanished.  Whenever I saw Dinos, Jake was nowhere to be seen.  Is this me projecting a continued performance of their separation or was this the case?  Who can say!

Downstairs at Mason’s Yard a mass of large scale mannequins are surrounded by typically-defaced Goyas.  The often sexually explicit black-fleshed Nazi-like characters (their swastikas have ironically been replaced by smiley faces) were perversely fascinating; they became art connoisseurs, gazing at the works.   The mannequins were the audience and we joined them.

A Jake or Dinos Nazi up close.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

For me, upstairs disappointed with the corrugated cardboard works attempting to depart from the Chapmans’ norm and not quite making it.  Admittedly, these are some of the most shocking pieces in the exhibition – shocking in the sense that we did not expect to see them and they are not trying to shock.

Upstairs at Mason’s Yard.  Own photograph.

Hoxton Square, in my opinion, is the more impressive of the two exhibitions.  If it wasn’t for the absurd number of people pushing their way through, I could have gazed at the sculptures for ages. As much as I loved it, I did, however, know what to expect – on the ground floor, a group of seemingly-identical, brown-hooded mannequins sport disturbing animal faces.  They, like the Nazis in Mayfair, are looking at the paintings on the walls.

A disturbing mannequin at Hoxton Square.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Upstairs, the works move to a more profound, possibly more harrowing, level with installation sculptures based on traditional altarpieces, transforming the gallery into a chapel.

Hoxton’s new chapel.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

So who did which work? Is it Jake at Mason’s Yard?  Is it Dinos in Hoxton?  You can’t help but ask yourself as you go round and it’s very difficult not to engage in a guessing game.  Apparently, they both viewed each other’s pieces two weeks ago and were startled by the profound familiarities and differences.  So is it a coincidence that they both use corrugated cardboard or is this the work of one brother?!

Their work is about teasing and manipulating their audience.  Here, this is taken to a new extreme.  It is important to remember that whoever produced the works, or whether they are indeed still working together and this is a clever White Cube PR hoax, Jake and Dinos have produced some remarkable and thought-provoking new works that will, no doubt, generate mirth, criticism and praise in abundance.  Fine, they aren’t nearly as shocking as they once were and we do now know what to expect but I don’t think this is a problem.  In fact, I think we’d be disappointed if they didn’t produce these sex-crazed, disturbing figurines.

Whether you love them or hate them, and I think I’m still firmly in the camp of the former, this exhibition deserves praise and attention.  Years on, two of the most talked about YBAs are still shocking, startling and delighting us.

Summer Contemporary Exhibition is at Alon Zakaim Fine Art until 12th August 2011, www.alonzakaim.com.

Patrick Hughes: Fifty Years of Show Business is at Flowers (Cork Street and Kingsland Road) until 3rd September 2011, www.flowersgalleries.com.

Jake or Dinos Chapman is at White Cube (Mason’s Yard and Hoxton Square) until 17th September 2011, www.whitecube.com.

Motorways, Mexicans and Cathedrals – Pallant House Gallery

13 Jul

Pallant House’s new exhibition of works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera called for a trip down to Chichester, so early yesterday morning I set off on another Mini adventure.  Sean the satnav (I just love his Irish accent) seemed to think I was on a tour of English motorways and I went on more than I care to count to get to Sussex and back.

For many, Kahlo and Diego are inseparable but this is the first UK exhibition that brings their works together.

Kahlo is such a feminist icon and her self-portraits became familiar to many during the Tate retrospective in 2005 (so enduring that it seems like only yesterday).  Presenting a challenging view of the female role, her works address issues of pain, betrayal, loneliness, love and heartbreak, throughout the emotional turmoil of her life.  Rivera’s most famous works are his large-scale political murals – less familiar as, by their very nature, they remain in situ in Mexico.  During their lives, Rivera was recognised as the greater artist, his commissions adorning public buildings, but, in death, Kahlo has far outshone her husband and it is she who has become a cult figure whilst many have never heard of him.

Diego Rivera, Landscape with Cactus, 1931. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

This is a rare opportunity to see Rivera’s works: striking beautiful pieces with strong use of line.

Their relationship has attracted much attention – Kahlo was half Rivera’s age when they met, a delicate cripple attracted to this philandering beast.  The two could not have been more different and Kahlo’s parents even described their union as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove”.  This exhibition lacks biographical information (in fact, the wall labels consistently present inaccurate information), assuming we already know the horrific tale of how Kahlo was involved in a trolley-car collision which caused her spinal column and right leg to smash, her ribs, collarbone and pelvis to break and her foot to dislocate and then be crushed.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Bed, 1937. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

There are two arguments as to whether or not this exhibition works at all.  Judy Chicago, renowned artist and author of a terrific new Kahlo book, argues that it is appalling to exhibit both Kahlo and Rivera together, saying this parallel showing continues to place Kahlo in the shadow of her husband.  Chicago wants us to see Kahlo as central rather than peripheral.  While viewing her in relation to Rivera we are somehow diminishing her excellence.

On the flip side is the curator’s argument that it is nearly impossible to view one without the other because they were so united.  Rivera was important to Kahlo, featuring in many of her paintings.  She once said “Diego was everything … my child, my lover, my universe.”  Well, considering this, then, of course, the two should be shown together.

Frida Kahlo, Diego in My Thoughts, 1943. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

Both Diego and Kahlo were inspired by each other.  For Kahlo painting was a form of catharsis, a motivation to rise above her pain.  Rivera encouraged her to continue working in spite of the misery it sometimes caused her; he was essential in the success of her endeavours.  In turn, Rivera was motivated by Kahlo’s courage.  They both thought the other to be the greater artist.  They were both spurred on by each other’s love and devotion.

Now, I don’t like sitting on the fence but I genuinely think each of these arguments raises good points and both are correct.  There are huge contrasts in their artistic styles yet there are many overlaps between their works.  It is an inescapable relationship and, one that, in many ways, does necessitate them being shown side by side.

For me, this is where the exhibition fails.  The works are not shown side by side.  The exhibition opens with a small, single room of Rivera’s works (on blue/grey walls for a boy) and is followed by two Kahlo rooms (pink/red for a girl).  For me, the point of the exhibition is for comparison.  These works were painted side by side so let them be seen together.  In particular, the exhibition includes both artists’ portraits of Natasha Gelman – an obvious and simple pairing that doesn’t happen.

Frida Kahlo, Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.

The exhibition is supplemented by an interesting selection of photography including Nicholas Murray’s emblematic images of Kahlo with her monobrow and moustache – iconic and beautiful in her own unique way.  Also exhibited are the rarely-seen photographs by Kahlo’s father showing the area around Mexico City and Tepotzlan.

Nicholas Murray. Image via http://yercle.wordpress.com.  

The exhibition offers a glimpse at Kahlo and Rivera’s fascinating relationship but doesn’t quite delve deep enough.  One more room may have sufficed but the size of the current show is slightly disappointing – only 40 works in all.  For a small show, it’s strong with well-chosen works.  Would I recommend a two hour drive from London and an entrance fee?  If you’re a Frida fan then yes.  If not, you may not see enough to whet your appetite.

The Pallant House Collection includes such greats as Francis Bacon, Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Richard Hamilton, Jann Haworth, Antony Gormley, Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Walter Sickert and Barbara Hepworth.  There’s even a nice (if slightly random) room of 18th century portraits upstairs.  Contemporary has successfully been mixed with this traditional 1712 Queen Anne townhouse.  Pallant seems to have a strong history of commissioning artists with Spencer Finch’s light installation, The Evening Star, currently hanging in the main stairwell.

Spencer Finch, The Evening Star. Image via www.pallant.org.uk

Elsewhere in Pallant House there are some wonderful temporary shows including Mervyn Peake’s exhibition of drawings and illustrations and Anna Fox’s newly-commissioned series photographing the Bognor Regis Butlins to celebrate their 75th anniversary.  These oversaturated large-scale photos provide an insight into today’s Butlins.  The holiday camps first opened in 1936 becoming a much-loved part of British culture and a popular holiday destination for working-class families – only three now survive.

Anna Fox, Ocean Hotel Restaurant, Butlin’s, Summer 2010. Image via www.pallant.org.uk

This trip afforded me an opportunity to once again indulge my love of Cathedrals.  Work commenced on Chichester Cathedral in 1076 – it isn’t one of Britain’s finest but does boast a beautiful Chagall stained glass window.  Reaping the benefits of natural light, Chagall worked with intense colours that inspire and stimulate.  The Cathedral is significant – the detached bell-tower is the only one of its kind remaining in England and the spire has been much admired.  Unfortunately, as with so many of our great churches, the Reformation brought much destruction and some of the Cathedral’s former glory was diminished.

Marc Chagall stained glass window at Chichester Cathedral. Own photograph.

Moving out of Chichester we headed to Pagham Harbour for the night and stayed at the wonderful Crab & Lobster.  I can’t sing the praises of this pub-hotel enough.  I had planned a walk across the marshes but luckily the barman pre-warned me that the nature reserve of marsh and swampy mudflats is mostly smelly quicksand.  I stuck to the footpath!

Marshes and mud. Own photograph.

Before heading home this morning, there was time to fit in another Cathedral.  With Winchester being so close, I couldn’t resist.

Winchester Cathedral. Own photograph.

A stunning Perpendicular Gothic building, Winchester Cathedral is an overwhelming space, thanks, in part, to William Walker, a heroic diver, who worked for years underwater to strengthen the submerged foundations.  The building has a fascinating history: the West Window was destroyed by parliamentary troops during the English Civil War and rebuilt using the shattered glass found around the Cathedral.  As well as being architecturally wonderful, Winchester has two big draws – Jane Austen’s grave and, surprise surprise, a Gormley sculpture in the crypt.  Sound II is a mysterious lead and fibreglass life-sized man who contemplates the water that he holds in his cupped hands.  But, the crypt only floods in winter so sadly the water element of this piece is missing for six months of the year.  It does, however, work beautifully in this space.  Gormley and Cathedrals – tried, tested and triumphant!

Antony Gormley, Sound II. Own photograph.

And all in 24 hours.  I made it back for a trip to the RA in the afternoon but more of that in my next post…

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Masterpieces from the Gelman Collection is at the Pallant House Gallery until 2nd October 2011, www.pallant.org.uk.

Double Exposure: National Portrait Gallery and Hamiltons

7 Jul

Glamour of the Gods at the National Portrait Gallery is a celebration of Hollywood stars from 1920-1960.  Over 70 vintage photographs are on display here, many of which have never been shown before, from the amazing archives of the John Kobal Foundation.

The studios used these photographs to transform their actors and actresses into style icons and heartthrobs.  These iconic images helped to shape incredible personalities, acting as powerful ‘posters’ to publicise new films and draw in audiences.  Not only is the range of stars overwhelming (James Dean, Joan Collins, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and many others) but the range of photographers is also impressive including George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Bob Coburn and Ruth Harriet Louise.

Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire (1950) by John Engstead. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition records decades of film history.  John Kobal began collecting film photographs in the 1950s. Over time, his passion burgeoned and he tracked down many of the photographers behind the portraits, arranging exhibitions, publishing books, and seeking to give them the recognition they deserved.  Luckily for us, Kobal was an obsessive, realising the importance of these artists when no one else did and bringing them to the forefront, together with the stars they were photographing.

Whereas today we like our ‘celebs’ to be real people, the Hollywood film studios of this era chose to depict the actors as glamorous, mysterious and inaccessible.  With no paparazzi, these were the photographs seen and admired by the fans.   Appallingly, to enable the photographs to be reproduced as widely as possible, they were stamped ‘copyright free’ meaning many of these important photographers remained uncredited for their timeless works.

Rita Hayworth (1939) by Gene Kornman. Own photograph. 

I know I always commend or criticise slightly strange things – here, I have heaps of praise for the wall labels; they are brilliantly concise with information about both the works and the stars who appear in them.  They are informative and interesting – just right.  It was fascinating to be able to read the real names of these Hollywood icons – Joan Crawford, for example, was born Lucille Fay Le Sueur.

The exhibition is two-tone with walls of light cyan and deep purple – a bold and unusual choice.  Whilst the cyan walls bring out the tonal qualities of the monochrome photos, the purple doesn’t work as well.  These sections are a confusing mass of colour – purple walls with an injection of black (as described by the curator), black wall labels and brown flecked frames.

Own photograph.

There’s no denying that these works are beautiful but, in a way, there are slightly too many here.  The reflections in the glass from the opposite wall are awful and it would be better without these distractions.  A bulk order of non-reflective glass would have been useful.

Alfred Hitchcock with MGM lion (1958) by Clarence Sinclair Bull. Own photograph.

The gorgeous James Dean photo near the entrance/exit is spoiled by the reflection of Rock Hudson vying for your attention.

Own photograph.

It’s a very easy exhibition to walk around – look at the gorgeous photos and admire the beauty of the stars who appear in them.

The works themselves are exciting but the exhibition itself isn’t, other than for bringing these great works together.  Maybe that’s enough though and maybe it doesn’t need to do anything more than this.

I struggled across Trafalgar Square, where people were camping in their thousands to see today’s world premiere of the last Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, to the National Gallery.   Ever since I was taken on my first-ever school trip, aged 3, I can’t go past without popping in to visit my favourite paintings.  As I continued across the square towards Yinka’s Fourth Plinth, I came across the National’s incredible living wall.  Over 8,000 plants have been used to recreate Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield with Cypresses mimicking the strong bands of colour in the painting.  It’s gorgeous and such a great idea.  This is the sort of innovative thinking that we should see more of.

Own photograph.

Although I had planned to go to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, with time being tight, I decided to have a photography day instead and tottered over to Hamiltons for their Herb Ritts’ exhibition.  The gallery is dangerously close to a certain shop that sells certain special shoes with red soles but I managed to resist walking down Mount Street for a peek.

As well as working for Vogue and Vanity Fair, Ritts created hugely successful advertising campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein, Chanel and Gap.  Many of these photographs, coming directly from Ritts’ private archive, have never been exhibited before.  They are images that Ritts particularly liked and saved for his own personal collection.

Own photograph.

This is a beautiful exhibition with clean-cut, striking works displayed in a crisp uniform fashion.  When I came home and looked back at my notes, I saw I had written an endless list of superlatives.  What else can you say about them but wow?  Aesthetically pleasing with perfectly executed compositions, these are a photographic delight.

Own photograph.

Also included are Ritts’ more well-known works such as Fred with Tires ­– this is the biggest ‘wow’ of them all.  It’s now very well-known and very gorgeous.  Girls, go and swoon to your hearts’ content.

Herb Ritts, Fred with Tires II, Hollywood, 1984. Own photograph.

Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd October 2011, www.npg.org.uk.

The National Gallery’s Living Wall can be seen in Trafalgar Square until the end of October 2011, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Herb Ritts is at Hamiltons Gallery until 12th August 2011, www.hamiltonsgallery.com.

Ooops, I love it again! Peacock Trousers at Josh Lilley

1 Jul

There is an exception to every rule.  My rule is not to write about each show a commercial gallery puts on but the Josh Lilley Gallery is my exception.  This is now my third Artista post on their exhibitions and I’m still smitten.   As long as they keep curating shows of this calibre, I feel I have to keep sharing.

Peacock Trousers is a joint show of works by the artists Gabriel Hartley and Appau Junior  Boakye-Yiadom.

The exhibition opens in the upstairs gallery with a solitary sculpture by Hartley, a 2005 graduate from the Royal Academy Schools who is already developing an international reputation.  Instead of being tempted to overcrowd the room by displaying more works, this beautiful piece has cleverly been given the space it deserves.

Gabriel Hartley, Split Piece, 2011. Own photograph.

More of Hartley’s works are to be seen downstairs – delicate  sculptures with fascinating texture and colour; the works appear momentarily frozen in the act of collapse -they are so light that an attendant was hovering nearby to prevent people from walking into them.  They look very tactile but don’t get any clever ideas about touching them while you’re down there.  Hartley builds and abstracts the works; an inherent contradiction is present in each sculpture as the subject seems in flux – is this raw form a figure or what does the abstract mass represent?   These aesthetically simple works have a powerful emotional resonance.  The sprayed and tarnished surfaces of the works tease, confuse and intrigue the viewer, presenting a mysterious conundrum.

Own photograph.

Hartley’s sculptures look heavy, as though carved from marble whereas, in fact, they are sheets of crumbled and folded paper, covered in fibreglass and resin and then carved away or smoothed over.  The resulting effect resembles metal or stone.  Coloured wallpaper, made of collaged A1 drawings (the same paper used to construct the sculptures), forms a backdrop for the sculptures.  The basic elements evoke the wall paintings made by Paleolithic cave-dwellers to protect themselves from supernatural forces and to act as a magical guard – the mystery of Hartley’s sculpture is almost magical in form.  It is possible that the aesthetic value of cave painting was unintended, but became evident as tool working moved beyond the strictly utilitarian into something more aesthetically pleasing.  Although Hartley’s drawings are aesthetically pleasing, as a backdrop, they become purely decorative, enhancing and dramatising the sculpture.

Gabriel Hartley, Heel, 2010. Own photograph.

The Josh Lilley Gallery magically transforms itself for every exhibition.  Although my stilettoes have grown accustomed to tottering down the steep staircase, I never know what will await me.  They’ve done it again; it couldn’t be more different than the set-up for the Fabian Seiz show.  There is a feeling of a wonderful and exciting contrast, creating a distinct divide, as the exhibition passes onto Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom, an artist who uses the readymade, or everyday object, as his starting point to instigate a performance.  He enjoys transforming objects into absurd sculptures, filled with humour.

Own photograph. 

These works aren’t so much ‘my thing’ but they are very successful.  Peacock is a series of eight rainbow-coloured photographs, each showing a low-lying lampshade (perhaps the reason why the works themselves are hung so low) with an increasing number of lightbulbs underneath.

Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom, Peacock, 2011. Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com.

These works recall historic still life where the light source is external to the composition.  Here, the whole subject is the light source, as Boakye-Yiadom breaks with tradition and moulds convention into his own stylistic motif.  For me, Peacock lacks the excitement of some of the artist’s earlier works.

Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom, Peacock, 2011.  Own photograph.

Boakye-Yiadom’s video installation, Golden Underground, is, however, superb; it shows him playing a piano with a paintbrush.  The film stops and starts, leaving the viewer in pitch darkness listening to a rendition of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag.  The video exposes the vulnerability and banality within the artist’s practice, focusing our awareness on the role of the artist and also on the artist’s self-awareness.  It is very easy to become immersed in this piece and love it.  Whether for its more complex undertones or for its jovial styling, it made me smile.

Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom, Golden Underground, 2011. Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com.

One of the things that makes these two bodies of work successfully alongside one another is their contrast and, somewhat different but equally experimental, use of practice – Hartley’s use of paper as a medium for sculpture and Boakye-Yiadom’s playful treatment of the everyday.

I don’t know what made me fall for this gallery. It’s not just me as other visitors I spoke to at the exhibition seemed equally enamoured.  Regular readers will know I’m not generally slow to criticise but I haven’t yet seen anything here I would want to criticise. Josh Lilley’s exhibitions hit the nail right on the head.

After the exhibition, we headed for dinner at Elysée on Percy Street, a wonderful little Greek restaurant, only 5 minutes away, where we were treated like gods and fed delicious food until we were ready to explode.  All in all, a great evening.

If you haven’t been to the Josh Lilley Gallery yet then shame on you – you’re missing some excellent exhibitions.  Hurry along!

Peacock Trousers: Gabriel Hartley and Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom is at the Josh Lilley Gallery until 13th August 2011, http://www.joshlilleygallery.com.

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