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Frieze Fever and Frenzy: Too Many Galleries to Count

14 Oct

The week just gone is affectionately known by the art world as Frieze week – it is when Frieze (and this year Frieze Masters) takes over Regent’s Park and art lovers flock to London from across the world.  Frieze is accompanied by a host of other fairs (my favourite, and the most stylish, being PAD) as well as gallery openings that compete with each other on every night of the week.

Monday night saw the opening of PAD – the most chic and classy fair by far.  As I don’t ever write about fairs all I will say is that, although we were there for a considerable amount of time, I felt I needed to go back.  I also fell in love with numerous pieces including a Gerrit Rietveld Billet Chair from 1927.

Gerrit Rietveld, Billet Chair, 1927.  Image via www.pad-fairs.com

From PAD, we strolled out the square planning to go to Gagosian.  But the opening was at Britannia Street not Davies Street.  Oops!  Peering through the window we could see the Penone exhibition but not get near the works.  One black cross for me.  Next we tried Ordovas which my Frieze companion assured me was open.  One black cross for him.

Post PAD… Own photograph.

So, with very tired feet (well mine were already and it was only Monday) we went to Stephen Friedman who are exhibiting works by Tom Friedman (no relation).  Friedman’s work explores everyday objects, elevating the mundane beyond its original purpose to extraordinary new forms.  He deconstructs ideas and materials, rebuilding them into sculptural or artistic forms with a new level of genius.  What we think we see and what we actually see are very different things.

Tom Friedman at Stephen Freidman Gallery.  Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

The main gallery space holds the biggest and the best work in this exhibition – a mass of tangled wires that take over the entire room.  As we move around the installation, we can see the hidden silhouettes of human figures and faces trapped within the forms, interlocked within the wires, emerging and evaporating depending on our position.  Friedman is obsessive and, for every piece, he distils each material back to its essence and rebuilds it, presenting a new structure that crosses between the mundane and the magical.

Tom Friedman at Stephen Freidman Gallery.  Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Everyone is opening a blockbuster this week (which makes this time of year both amazing and horrendous) and the National Gallery has gone for Richard Hamilton who was still planning this exhibition days before his death last year.  The painted white walls present a very modern space in the middle of this traditional gallery.  Previewing on Tuesday, the same day as Frieze, the exhibition is a powerful statement of intent – this is Hamilton challenging the art world.  It traces several themes of Hamilton’s career from the 1980s until his death, showing how he was moving towards a more traditional iconography at the end of his life.

The exhibition allows us to study his engagement with Marcel Duchamp, particularly in his works looking at the nude descending the staircase (addressed here in two works).   The works are perfectly executed but have a sense of disquiet; they are quite hard to read, it is often very ambiguous as to what we are looking at.

Richard Hamilton exhibition at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

Hamilton was one of the great experimenters with the computer, creating images that were entirely new, clean and crisp.  This exhibition of his work shows areas of interest that had obsessed him for so long.  One series of works remained unfinished at the time of Hamilton’s death – a trio of inket prints that visualise a moment from Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, telling the story of a painter who loses his mind trying to achieve the perfect nude.   Hamilton knew he would not live to finish the work and made the decision that the exhibition would culminate in the initial presentation of these three large-scale variations.  We will never really know what Hamilton intended and this makes us sombre and reflective.  Each work features Courbet, Poussin and Titian contemplating a reclining female nude.  For me, these works would still be mysterious even if they were finished but, in this state, they just leave us to wonder.

Richard Hamilton exhibition at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

These later paintings aren’t my favourite Hamiltons – they are quite clinical in parts – but there is no denying that this is a beautiful, and surprisingly moving, exhibition.  Seemingly simple, there is so much going on; the paintings lead into one another, as the ideas progress from work to work.

Next, I headed down the road to Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly who are showing Fire by Days – paintings by the New York-based Rita Ackermann.  The idea for these resulted from an accident, a paint spillage on the floor of her studio that she was hastily forced to clean.  It was through these splurges of paint that she began to see suggestions of forms, abstracted but also figurative.  The works are very striking in this space, their strong and vibrant colours complementing the style of the room.  The pages from Ackermann’s sketchbooks, upstairs on the wood panelling of the American Room, look as if they have always been there.  There is nothing wrong with this exhibition but it failed to move me or make enough of an impact (rather like several things recently).

Rita Ackermann at Hauser & Wirth.  Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk

Continuing down Piccadilly to White Cube Mason’s Yard, I popped in to see Magnus Plessen – another artist who oscillates between abstraction and figuration.  Figurative elements cry out to us but they are juxtaposed with abstract passages that seek to disorientate the viewer.  Plessen’s techniques are the most interesting aspect of his work – he often physically turns the canvas to reposition and confound the arrangement of the piece.  It appears that he has scraped away the paint in parts using gestural washes of colour over heavier oils to muddle the picture planes.  With psychedelic acid yellows and hot pinks, there is often too much going to fully understand his intentions.  The show is well-curated and the works are afforded a lot of space – they need a white cube to shine which is exactly what has been allowed to happen here.

Magnus Plessen upstairs at White Cube.  Own photograph.

My list was looking daunting as the day hurried by and I headed up to Pace, the newly opened New York gallery which is now housed in the west wing of the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens’ space.  They have juxtaposed the paintings of Mark Rothko with the seascape photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto.  The eight Rothkos included here make use of a limited palette of predominantly black and grey while the Sugimoto’s use a similar grey-scale colour scheme.  The artists form an aesthetic and quite superficial dialogue that, at times, becomes more of a battle.  It is a stunning exhibition that prompts interesting comparisons – another simple show that achieves its aims stylishly without any fuss.  Pace claim not to have opened in London sooner as they hadn’t found the right person to run the gallery or the right space – well they certainly seem to have hit the nail on the head here and I’m sure they will prove themselves during their four-year tenure.

Pace London. Image via www.manoelabowles.com

After visiting a few shops on Regent Street (to give my brain a well-needed art break), I headed to Savile Row where Thomas Houseago has taken over both of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery spaces there.

Heading to Hauser. Own photograph.

He has chosen not just to split the works between the two galleries but also to give the two spaces different titles: I‘ll be Your Sister (in the North Gallery) comes from a very raw Motorhead song while Special Brew is a strong beer that Houseago used to drink every day before school, getting drunk and avoiding normal school-time activities.  It allowed him to step outside the box.  The North Gallery presents his monumental sculptures, intentionally big and messy, these works have the wow-factor.  His works are brutally straightforward but still manage to appear mysterious and unworldly.  Houseago spends a lot of time drawing and planning the process of his work and this is evident in the highly-textured surfaces that resemble sketching.  The scale in the North Gallery is far more impactful than that in the South and the works are actually causing passers-by to stop and gape.

Thomas Houseago’s I’ll be Your Sister. Own photograph.

By nature of the sheer overload that is Frieze week, I’m having to be brief in my descriptions.  Most of these exhibitions deserve more time and attention but this overview of my mad run around London should give you a taster.

Just over the road, Ordovas are presenting Painting from Life: Carracci Freud, a tiny exhibition that brings together a group of head studies by Annibale Carracci and Lucian Freud.  This is a beautiful juxtaposition – intimate, simple and stunning.  Ordovas knows how to get their shows right and this rare collaboration between them and a public art collection (Dulwich Picture Gallery has loaned a work) shows the esteem in which this gallery is held.  The connections between Freud and Carracci have never before been explored but comparisons reveal intriguing affinities in technique, style, viewpoint and subject.  This isn’t the gallery’s first show of this type as they previously juxtaposed Bacon and Rembrandt and attracted over 10,000 visitors in their first month alone!

Ordovas. Image via www.ordovasart.com

The second of three New York galleries to open in London is David Zwirner (I’ve still not managed to pop into Michael Werner but hope to do so next week).  The gallery has certainly chosen a statement show of Luc Tuymans’ work with which to open their 18th century Grafton Street townhouse.  What a way to inaugurate this space.  Again, the gallery knows how to keep it simple, allowing the paintings space to breathe and space to be viewed.  Tuymans has lacked a proper presence in London since his 2004 Tate Modern retrospective but things are changing.  Allo! is inspired by The Moon and Sixpence, a film loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin.  But Tuymans’ interest in this topic has to do with a general negation of modernism and Hollywood’s long-standing idealisation of the artist as a romantic savage.  This gallery adds a frisson of excitement to the already vibrant area – Dover Street and Grafton Street only continue to improve.

Luc Tuymans’ exhibition at David Zwirner’s new gallery.  Image via www.davidzwirner.com

After a very late lunch, I headed to Gagosian Gallery on Davies Street to see the Giuseppe Penone exhibition I’d planned to see on Monday night.  I seem to have seen a lot of Penone recently.  Here, he has engaged with the long narrow space of the Davies Street gallery, filling it with Pelle di foglie—sguardo incrociato, a large-scale standing sculpture comprised of delicately arranged tree branches and leaves defined in bronze.  Positioned to conceal a human face, two long branches jut outwards in place of the eyes in a projective act of looking, recalling Penone’s long-held fascination with the process of seeing.  It’s only a small show but, if you like Penone, then it’s worth popping in.

Gisueppe Penone, detail of Pelle di foglie—sguardo incrociato.  Image via www.arttribune.com

Further along the road at Gimpel Fils is Shana Moulton’s Preventation, a series of news videos in the on-going saga of Cynthia, her alter-ego.  The films are accompanied by a number of the artworks that feature in her films.

I was nearly all art-ed out for the day but had a final stop for the opening of Tess Jaray’s Mapping the Unseeable at The Piper Gallery.  This exhibition is definitely worth a visit partly to see how paintings need to be appreciated first-hand for the full experience.  Jaray has always maintained a fascination with geometry, pattern, colour and repetition culminating in her distinctive, subtle yet penetrating works.  As with many of the works I saw on Tuesday, Jaray plays with a carefully wrought tension between opposites: serenity and intensity, silence and sound, stasis and motion and two and three dimensions.  The exhibition includes over twenty identically-sized works from Jaray’s recent series, After Malevich; inspired by Malevich’s Red Square, they have an energy and intensity that grabs you as soon as you enter.  Despite the vast number of openings on Tuesday night, the gallery was packed!

Peaking into Tess Jaray’s Mapping the Unseeable.  Image via www.thepipergallery.com

Wednesday was my fairs day and, as well as a return trip to PAD, I spent time at Frieze and Frieze Masters which took up most of the day and evening.  But, I did make a small window to pop to The Courtauld for a private tour of their Peter Lely exhibition.  Lely is an important artist in British history but I don’t actually think very many people are familiar with, or excited by, his work so this is a brave choice of exhibition from The Courtauld.  Lely was appointed Principal Painter to Charles II in 1661 and his paintings define the glamour and debauchery of the period.  The works in this exhibition, however, concentrate on the period in the 1640s and 1650s when he was working in England, painting pastoral landscapes and large-scale narratives.  The exhibition is organised around The Courtauld’s own unfinished The Concert – originally thought to depict Lely and his family, it seems to be a highly personal and allegorical interpretation of Music in the service of Beauty.  This particular piece hasn’t been on display for a while and it’s nice to have the opportunity to view it in the context of other similar works.

Peter Lely, detail of The Concert. Own photograph.

The Courtauld is making the most of this exhibition with a Lely-fest; two other Lely’s are on show downstairs and room 12 boasts a display of drawings from Lely’s own celebrated and rare collection.

What this week has proved is how effective simple exhibitions can be.  Exhibited on putty-coloured walls with beautifully focused lighting, this exhibition gets it right.  Lely is a confusing artist with a mixture of styles that often betray his Flemish origins.  The paintings on show here are far more powerful than his Court portraiture of later years and this is another winner from The Courtauld.

Lely exhibition at The Courtauld. Own photograph.

Thursday was my final day of rushing round fairs and exhibitions and the evening saw two conveniently close openings on Riding House Street.  You may remember that I wrote about visiting Nick Goss’s studio a while ago.  I popped back a couple of weeks ago to see his new works and, as a result, was ridiculously excited by the prospect this exhibition.  The works here concentrate on portrayals of two different kinds of space – rehearsal spaces and the artist’s studio – where Goss seeks to investigate the detritus associated with the spaces used when playing in a band.  Cheap and simple, the limitations of these rooms allow creativity to flourish which promulgates the development of musical ideas.  Yet, devoid of players and instruments, the spaces have an uncharacteristic, melancholic atmosphere.  Goss has developed the theme of the shabby rehearsal space in a study of fakery and idealisation, filled with a sense of nostalgia and an elusive sensibility.  His are beautiful works, subtle paintings that pull you into his unique world.

Nick Goss’s new works at Josh Lilley. Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Over the road at TJ Boulting is an exhibition by Juliana Leite; her new work stems from consistent investigations into the physical action of her own body in space.  The centrepiece is a large sculpture, of two separate latex forms joined in the centre; describing the artist’s movement up and down a staircase, the piece strikes a resonance with Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending a staircase (a common theme this week).  The two parts were cast from a large mould composed of a set of stairs covered with a wooden tunnel, slowly lined with clay.  The work is immense and we are drawn to walk around it, exploring its textures and crevices several times before we feel we have understood its form.

Juliana Leite’s impressive new sculpture.  Image via www.tjboulting.com

Even thinking about the week just gone slightly exhausts me.  I have seen such a wealth of incredible art (some not so incredible too) and I have the sorest feet to show for it.  I still have 12 exhibitions to cover that I didn’t manage to have the time for, I’d have loved to get to the other art fairs and I would have relished more time at the fairs I did explore.  But, there are only a set number of hours in the week and I think I didn’t do badly!

Tom Friedman is at Stephen Friedman Gallery until 10th November 2012, www.stephenfriedman.comRichard Hamilton: The Late Works is at the National Gallery until 13th January 2013, www.nationalgallery,org.ukRita Ackermann: Fire by Days is at Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly until 3rd November 2012, www.hauserwirth.comMagnus Plessen: Riding the Image is at White Cube Mason’s Yard until 10th November 2012, www.whitecube.comRothko/Suginoto: Dark Paintings and Secrets is at Pace London until 17th November 2012, www.pacegallery.comThomas Houseago: I’ll be Your Sister and Special Brew are at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row until 27th October 2012, www.hauserwirth.comPainting from Life: Carracci Freud is at Odovas until 15th December 2012, www.ordovasart.comLuc Tuymans: Allo! Is at David Zwirner until 17th November, www.davidzwirner.comGiuseppe Penone: Intersecting Gaze / Sguardo Incrociato is at Gagosian Davies Street until 24th November 2012, www.gagosian.comShana Moulton: Prevention is at Gimpel Fils until 17th November 2012, www.gimpelfils.comTess Jaray – Mapping the Unseeable is at The Piper Gallery until Friday 9th November 2012, www.thepipergallery.comPeter Lely: A Lyrical Vision is at The Courtauld Gallery until 13th January 2012, www.courtauld.ac.ukNick Goss – Tin Drum is at Josh Lilley Gallery until Friday 23rd November 2012, www.joshlilleygallery.comJuliana Cerqueira Leite: Portmanteau is at TJ Boulting until 10th November 2012, www.tjboulting.com.

One for the kids… Andy Warhol and Philip Haas

20 Jun

The popularity of Andy Warhol will probably mean that many people will flock to Dulwich to see their latest exhibition.  And this is exactly what I did on Tuesday morning.  Sean, my trusty sat nav, took me round the North Circular and through the Rotherhithe Tunnel and soon as I was outside the gallery ready to have a coffee and a quick sunbathing session in the gardens of the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Warhol is renowned for turning himself into a brand and he is one of the most recognisable and important figures in recent art history.  His iconic prints of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup in particular will never leave our visual vocabulary.  Andy Warhol: The Portfolios focuses on the period from 1962-84 when he worked almost exclusively with silkscreen printing.  Using a method more commonly practised in commercial reproduction, Warhol transformed famous faces and still lives into fine art using multiple colour combinations (that required separate screens).  Warhol was a master at this technique and although he set up a factory-like system where he was rarely present to pull the screens himself, he selected the colours, the design and the form, and chose which prints were to be published.  The quality of these prints is of the highest standard, the colours are dazzling and the finish is exemplary.

Andy Warhol, Grapes D. D., 1979. Own photograph.

I don’t think the exhibition fully shows off the impact of all of Warhol’s work.  It’s nice but it’s a bit of a gentle show that doesn’t do enough to draw people in beyond the fact that the works are Warhol’s.

Warhol prints at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.

The gallery is naturally long and narrow, providing a kind of viewing experience that is different from the norm.  The prints are densely hung, recalling an 18th century salon print room, as opposed to the usual white box hang customary for Warhol’s.  I often find the Dulwich space quite difficult and it certainly doesn’t work for all exhibitions.  Here, there are no wall panels or captions, instead the works are allowed to speak for themselves.  To be fair, we already know a lot about these works and many of them don’t require much explanation.

Andy Warhol: The Portfolios in situ at Dulwich. Own photograph.

Dulwich has chosen not to produce an exhibition catalogue to accompany the show as they’ve rightly said that there are so many books already in existence.  In general though, there seems to be something missing here.  Not just a catalogue but that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that would give this show more of a spark.

Running concurrently is an exhibition of Philip Haas works, a set of four 15-foot high fibreglass sculptures (found outdoors) and their maquettes.  The works are huge recreations of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 16th century paintings that Haas aims to bring into a physical reality.  The small maquettes are actually more effective than the finished pieces although, placed in the Gallery, they distract from Dulwich’s amazing permanent collection.  The setting of the gardens is more appropriate with Winter now a three-dimensional gnarled tree trunk emerging from the Gallery grounds but at this scale the pieces become too garish.

Philip Haas works in the Dulwich gardens. Own photograph.

A warden actually told me that ‘the kids love it’; although it’s great to attract all age groups into the Gallery I’m not sure that this should be the selling point of an exhibition at a gallery of such calibre.  In my opinion, although striking, these works make a mockery of the Arcimboldo paintings on which they are modelled.  The faces lose the profound sensitivity that Arcimboldo managed to create through assembled fruit.  It seems strange to have these comic playful pieces juxtaposed with the iconic imagery of Warhol.

For obvious reasons the Warhol exhibition is being given far more prominence in the literature produced but the Haas can’t help but make an immediate visual statement when you walk in.

Philip Haas works in the Dulwich gardens. Own photograph.

I did enjoy the Warhol but I left feeling a bit unsure.  Dulwich is always a treat but I think I expected a little more.  My lack of excitement wasn’t helped when Sean let me down on the homeward journey and decided that I should go home via Clapham and Chelsea.  I had no idea I’d set off in the wrong direction and so my cunning plan to avoid central London was foiled.

Andy Warhol: The Portfolios is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 16th September 2012, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

Pestilence in Palermo – Van Dyck in Sicily

15 Feb

As many of you will know, I’m somewhat geographically challenged.  When I was studying, I found a quick and easy way from home to the Strand.  As a result, when I drive around London (and I mean anywhere in London), I operate rather like a homing pigeon.  I can get to pretty much anywhere as long as I plan my route around the Strand.  So you can imagine my delight when the online route planner advised me to go exactly that way to get to the Dulwich Picture Gallery on Tuesday morning.  And better than that, the route then continued past VAULT.  I couldn’t stay away even for a day.

I got to Dulwich without any real mishaps and managed to park outside the Picture Gallery.  What a relaxing way to travel – well, apart from the traffic, speed cameras and red lights but that’s all par for the course.  At least I had heating the whole way!

Anyway, the reason for my visit to the other side of London was the opening of Dulwich’s new Van Dyck exhibition which focuses on the year and a half he spent in Sicily.  The exhibition brings together all 16 of the works believed to have been executed during his stay in Palermo.  Normally, when we think of Van Dyck we think of Charles I or the Swagger portraits and, until now, very little study has been devoted to this earlier period.

Van Dyck exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.

The key point to be aware of here is that Van Dyck only spent a short amount of time in Sicily and his paintings were quite time-consuming enterprises.  I warn you of this because I was initially surprised by the size of the show – half the normal amount of rooms used for Dulwich’s temporary exhibitions.  Admittedly, the three rooms used here are beautifully curated with deep purple and dark grey walls.  Although compact, it’s full of personality –the exuberance of Van Dyck, Dulwich and the curator, Xavier Salomon.  It’s a dramatic exhibition.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, Prince of Oneglia, 1624.  Courtesy of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Hearing Xavier give his exhibition tour took me back to my days at The Courtauld when he taught a survey course in my 1st year.  Until 1999 it had been thought that Van Dyck only spent four months in Palermo but recent discoveries, made possible by the Sicilian state archives, have been able to prove the full time frame using legal documents, invoices and papers regarding commissions.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, St Rosalie in Glory, 1624. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Here, we are told the story of how Van Dyck arrived in Palermo in 1624 expecting to complete a commission to paint Viceroy Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy and head home.  But, things didn’t go quite to plan.  In May 1624, a ship from Tunis arrived at the busy port of Palermo carrying with it bubonic plague which, by December that year, had killed off most of the population.  Surrounded by death, catastrophe and disaster, Van Dyck had little choice but to prolong his stay and, amidst this panic, he set up studio, establishing a practice and producing a variety of works for local clients – many of which are thought to remain undiscovered.  Towards the end of summer, the bones of Saint Rosalia were discovered in a nearby cave and carried in procession through the city; after which the plague ceased and Saint Rosalia was declared Palermo’s protector.  In the final room, the exhibition brings together Van Dyck’s images of the patron saint.

The painting loaned from the Prado is the smallest of all his images of her and is particularly moving.  Although this is compositionally similar to the others, Van Dyck painted Rosalia in many different guises.  In this devotional image, she looks up to heaven while an angel offers her a crown of roses.  In her left hand she holds a skull, referencing the recent mortalities of the plague and the iconography of hermit saints, while her right clutches her breast and heart.  These paintings were made as forms of prayer and to give thanks to God and Rosalia for their benevolence which ended the city’s suffering (better late than never – Van Dyck himself must have been grateful for his survival).

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Saint Rosalia, c. 1625. Courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

The painting of the Viceroy is one of the highlights of the permanent collection here.  It is incredibly rare for the armour seen in the painting to have survived in such good condition and it is an interesting juxtaposition and point of comparison to see them side-by-side.  Armour was a very valuable possession (described by Xavier as the Porsche or Ferrari of the day) and, ironically, at the time, would have been worth more than any of the paintings now on show here.  But this image is a definitive one showing the viceroy majestically armoured and prepared against his enemies.  Sadly, shortly after the painting was finished and by July of that year, he too had been lost to the plague after leaving the confines of his palace to access the situation and inspect the city.

Maestro del Castello de Tre Torri, Armour of Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, c. 1606. Courtesy of Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Room two focuses on two large devotional works, that were most probably painted for the aristocracy of the island, as well as two highly emotive portraits of Sofonisba Anguissola.  A fragment of a larger portrait that has been cut down on all sides, Sofonisba Anguissola (1624) is touching evidence of the young artist’s encounter with an aged celebrity painter.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1624.  Courtesy of the Sackville Collection, Knole and Matthew Hollow Photography and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

This is a historical exhibition, using a limited number of paintings to elucidate a period of history.  The self-portrait of Van Dyck seen at the start is not actually from the period in Palermo (but through x-rays we actually know that he did paint a self-portrait under one of the paintings of Rosalia).  He’s dressed as an aristocrat – a young Flemish dandy arriving in Palermo.  He was dressed in rich attire and used to the company of noblemen.  He knew he was something special – a point that we see emphatically by looking at this exhibition.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Self-Portrait, 1620-21. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

In contrast to the Picasso exhibition, I wish this show had been bigger.  But, no more works remain so that is hardly the fault of Dulwich or the curators and, in a way, it is refreshing to see such dedicated focus and concentration.  They haven’t tried to pad it out. This is a tight-knit, story-board exhibition.

Alongside this, the Picture Gallery are showing Ragamala Painting from India to highlight the work of Tilly Kettle, a relatively unknown artist from their permanent collections.  This is not so much a curated exhibition but a collection of 24 rarely seen objects.  A ragmala is a set of miniature paintings depicting various musical modes of Indian music.  Each painting is accompanied by a brief caption or poem, most frequently focused around love.  These were tactile objects for private consumption and were never intended to be seen on display.  Magnifying glasses have been provided to allow you to get up close and personal with the miniatures.  I didn’t really have the time to inspect these properly as I had spent a considerable time in the Van Dyck exhibition and I needed to head back to meetings, over Waterloo Bridge of course – where else?

Bhairava Raga, Pahari, Nurpur, c.1690. Courtesy of the Claudio Moscatelli Collection and Matthew Hollow Photography and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Ragmala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song and Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague are both at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 27th May 2012, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

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.

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