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From Ben-Day to Man Ray

1 Mar

As soon as the escalator emerged at level 2 of Tate Modern, I knew I had made a mistake. Why oh why would I have thought a Friday morning in half term was a good time to visit an exhibition of one of the most popular and recognisable artists in the world who was one of the central figures of American Pop Art? A momentary oversight I think. But, I was there and, as I’d been looking forward to seeing the Lichtenstein exhibition for quite some time, in I went.

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Queues to get into Tate’s latest exhibition. Own photograph.

Tate say that this is the first major Lichtenstein retrospective in over 25 years – I’m not sure why everyone is forgetting the Hayward’s 2004 retrospective which was then billed as the first major retrospective in 35 years. It’s obviously a catchy marketing line. Tate’s show brings together one hell of a lot of works, just over 125 to be precise, including some of Lichtenstein’s most well-known paintings and some less-known sculptures in steel and brass alongside early works, monochrome images of everyday objects, unseen drawings, collages and works on paper.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Wham!, 1963. Image via www.theweek.co.uk.

Everyone knows Lichtenstein for his work based on comic strips with Ben-Day dots but this exhibition seeks to show that there is so much more to him than this. Inspired by the commercial imagery of advertising, Lichtenstein transformed this aesthetic, painting everything by hand in a strangely depersonalised way.

Lichtenstein’s most well-known pieces are displayed in room four which, ironically, is easy to miss as it juts off to one side and does not provide a link to the end of the exhibition as you would expect. These comic book scenes are certainly not as simple as they initially appear; they capture the zeitgeist of their era, funny but with a poignant and often desolate overtone. They are often a reflection of Lichtenstein’s own life – in his Masterpiece a blonde tells the artist ‘…this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamouring for your work.’ Of course, it wasn’t just New York clamouring for a slice of Lichtenstein. His work has now been the subject of over 240 solo exhibitions and there can be no doubt that he defines the enduring legacy of Pop. It seems the blonde was on the money.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece, 1962. Image via www.londonist.com.

The first few rooms are engaging and momentous and then we sit on a downward slide (sadly, the more exciting slide of Carsten Höller are long gone). This exhibition isn’t doing Lichtenstein any favours. It certainly isn’t fair to say he was a one-trick pony but he knew what he was good at and some of his experiments should really not be hanging on Tate’s walls. The lack of soul in his pieces (a self-conscious decision of his style that dictated success) means his landscape works and, indeed, his self-portrait give very little away and so don’t require very long to view. Maybe the less-known works are diminished by the strength of his more recognisable pieces. Maybe they just aren’t as good. Room seven looks at works where he plays with pieces by other artists – his rip off works – and here I saw how he had ruined works by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and many others. I began to groan.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Non-Objective I, 1964. Image via www.independent.co.uk

Yet, it’s hard not to like his art and the simplicity of the subjects often makes us smile. The works aren’t as simply executed as they appear and required careful calculation and meticulous planning, bringing together his thoughtful techniques with the exact reproduction of found images. He may have repeated the system but he worked continuously to ensure he was exploring new subjects and themes. He was an avid producer.

The show offers a fabulous overview and exploration of Lichtenstein’s career and progression, something we are rarely allowed to see by galleries showing the popular pieces that pull in the punters. My worry at the beginning had been the huge numbers of visitors but actually it was lovely to see so many people engaging with the works. If the crowds weren’t enough of an indication that this show will do well, the shop says it all. It won’t be long before we start to spot tourists wearing Tate’s dotty t-shirts and carrying Lichtenstein canvas bags.

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The Lichtenstein shop. Own photograph.

I, of course, couldn’t resist the catalogue – another beautiful Tate publication – and had to lug it around for the rest of the day. No wonder I have a sore back, it’s carrying all these irresistible books in stilettos.

i5VhtnWvSoHQRoy Lichtenstein, Step-on Can with Leg, 1961. Image via www.bloomberg.com.

A couple of days later I found myself at the National Portrait Gallery for their Man Ray exhibition. We think of Man Ray and we think of dazzling photographs of fashionable people. This exhibition doesn’t disappoint, following him around Paris, New York, Hollywood and London, watching his style transform but never diminish.

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Man Ray, Catherine Deneuve, 1968. Image via www.ultravie.co.uk.

His portraits often reference great painters and known works of art. While he made his living as a commercial photographer for fashion magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar, he was first and foremost an artist, a Surrealist and a Dadist who pushed boundaries to create exciting and exemplary portraits. He was a visual innovator who often stripped scenes or poses right back, the bare bones providing all the beauty he required – narrative wasn’t necessary. Not of all of his works do this however and some just capture a prescribed pose.

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Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924. Image via www.londonist.com.

There can be no doubt that Man Ray’s photographs are beautiful; his photographs of Lee Miller, his lover and muse, are stunning. But she’s certainly not the only lover we see here – before her was Kiki and after her Ady Fidelin, then Juliet Browner who he married and remained with until his death. These women guide us through his life. It’s not just women though – Man Ray’s photographs show us his friends and colleagues; there’s Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Stravinsky, le Corbusier, Hemmingway, Peggy Guggenheim, James Joyce and many more.

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Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, 1933. Image via http://arthistory.about.com.

Man Ray was a photographer who had the gift of being able to capture the life and soul of his subjects. He manages to immortalise these people in the way they wanted to be seen whilst retaining their natural beauty and truth.

Man Ray’s images are so familiar to us that it seems hard to believe that this is the first show of his work at a British gallery. The NPG have included over 150 prints dating from 1916 to 1968, tracing his career. It is well-arranged curatorially in sections that focus on different periods of Man Ray’s life, finishing off back in Paris.

Many of these images are small-scale and it’s hard to appreciate them fully when seen, black and white, en masse. I’ve probably spent longer pouring over the catalogue (yes I bought another one) than I did in the exhibition. Their energy gets somewhat lost in the gallery but the creativity of Man Ray still shines through.

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Lichtenstein: A Retrospective is at Tate Modern until 27th May 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk. Man Ray Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 27th May 2013, http://www.npg.org.uk.

Finding a Lost Prince at The National Portrait Gallery

28 Oct

The first thing that anyone will read about Prince Henry will concern his unexpected death from typhoid fever, two weeks before his 19th birthday.  Although The Lost Prince at the National Portrait Gallery does indeed look at that, it seeks to focus on his life, his achievements and give a suggestion as to what would have happened had Henry survived.  Henry is portrayed as a figure of hope, which is how he was seen by the people of the day.

Isaac Oliver, Henry, Prince of Wales, c. 1610-12.  Image courtesy of The Royal Collection and via www.npg.org.uk

The Lost Prince marks the 400th anniversary of Henry’s death and is the first ever exhibition to focus on his short life.  His death precipitated widespread national grief and mourning and led to the ascension to the throne of his younger brother who as King Charles I, of course, led England into Civil War.

Prince Henry’s Armour, c. 1608.  Image courtesy of the Royal Armouries and via www.npg.org.uk

The exhibition focuses on how amazing Henry was; you can feel the heavy expectation that sat upon his shoulders as a brave and talented youth, the hope of Protestant Europe.  Had Henry survived to become King Henry IX, his court was expected to be the centre of the arts.  He was the first British Prince to collect works of art that were not solely portraits – specifically European Renaissance paintings, Italian Renaissance bronzes, antique coins and medals.  He also accumulated a magnificent library.

Pietro Tacca after Giambologna, Pacing Horse, c. 1600. Image courtesy of The Royal Collection and via www.npg.org.uk

The exhibition includes a range of paintings, miniatures, manuscripts, books, armour and various other artefacts to illustrate the creative community that developed under his patronage; there’s a letter from father to son congratulating him on the completion of his homework and offering some constructive criticism, letters to his parents, images of his teachers, a doctor’s autopsy and elegies by the leading poets of the day.  One page of his copy-book shows him practising his handwriting under the supervision of his writing master.  On the left, he practises flourishes, letters, Latin phrases and his own signature while, on the right, he repeatedly copies out a passage of Latin adapted from Cicero.

Prince Henry’s Copy Book, c. 1604-6.  Image courtesy of The Master and Fellows, Trinity College, Cambridge and via www.npg.org.uk

Robert Peake, not a particularly well-known artist, is credited with some of the best portraits of Henry.  Peake created an entirely new kind of portraiture for the Prince showing him as a man of action rather than in the static, conventional poses to which everyone had become accustomed.  Prince Henry on Horseback is the first full-sized equestrian portrait of an English Royal and the third of Peake’s portraits of Henry.  It is fun and extravagant although there is now a sad irony that the Prince is followed by the figure of Father Time.  This figure was painted over with a wooded landscape in the early eighteenth century, transforming it into a work more akin to Van Dyck’s equestrian portraits but this overpaint was removed in 1985-6.

Robert Peake, Prince Henry on horseback, c. 1606-8. Image courtesy of The Collection at Parham House, Pulborough and via www.npg.org.uk

The last room of the exhibition is dedicated to the Prince’s death; he had a larger funeral procession than Queen Elizabeth I with over 2,000 official mourners.  Here, we find his effigy; this was the first occasion that an effigy was made in England for the son of a reigning monarch and its creation showed the exceptional circumstances of his life and death.  The robes and head no longer remain and what is left is infested with woodworm but, as the curator astutely points out, the effigy symbolises both his significance in life and the obscurity into which he has faded since his death.

Funeral Effigy of Henry, Prince of Wales, 1612.  Image courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey and via www.npg.org.uk

This room has a series of recordings of contemporaneous mourning music and requiems.  Some might feel this was moving but I found it a distraction, verging on creepy.  The other objects act as a better illustration of the heartfelt grief experienced by the nation.  The effigy is seen alongside an engraving that shows it lying on Henry’s hearse dressed in his clothes; the engraving also records the appearance of the hearse, which may have been designed by Inigo Jones.

William Hole, The Hearse of Henry, Prince of Wales, 1612.  Image courtesy of The British Museum and via www.npg.org.uk

The objects all connect and flow from one into the next.  It does not seem to be a mish-mash and yet it sort of is.  But, it is beautifully put together and curator, Catherine MacLeod, is to be praised.  I do foresee dreadful bottlenecks though as the exhibition grows in popularity; with six small rooms, you often find yourself looking at an object with no way out as people close in on you.  It is hard to get the distance required at some points and, with this in mind, the quotes are placed too high on the walls unless you want to leave with neckache or are in real killer heels (mine were relatively low for this visit).

Hans Holbein the Younger, Elizabeth, Lady Vaux, c. 1536.  Image courtesy of The Royal Collection and via www.npg.org.uk

It is a great show which you leave feeling saddened by Henry’s death.  It is riveting and educational, bringing this Lost Prince to the forefront of our historical awareness and transforming our knowledge.  The exhibition takes us through Henry’s short life, from baby to teenager, looking at his upbringing and education, his court and patronage, his collecting and his illness, death and legacy.  I imagine many people had not even been aware of the Prince’s existence before this show and now people leave in mourning.

The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart is at the National Portrait Gallery until 13th January 2013, www.npg.org.uk.

Slipping to Galleries on a Rainy Day in London

13 Jul

I was reticent to return to the BP Portrait Award this year as it’s become so predictable.  But, having attended a lunchtime talk downstairs it seemed churlish not to have a quick whizz round.  Now in its 33rd year at the National Portrait Gallery, the BP Portrait Award once again presents us with a selection of great portraits – great in the sense that these artists are obviously technically advanced and can paint well but the works don’t blow you away.  Portraiture does not have to resemble photography though and this is an important issue that the prize should remember – on this note, there’s slightly less photorealist work than usual which is refreshing.  This exhibition proves the age-old mantra that size isn’t everything and some of the smaller works capture remarkable intimacy and should be afforded more attention that their larger rivals.

BP Portrait Award at the NPG. Own photograph.

Painting portraits of unknown figures is a challenge; we demand an insight into the lives of complete strangers.   This year’s winner is American artist Aleah Chapin for her large-scale nude of a family friend – Auntie.  Chapin views the figure’s body as a map of Auntie’s life journey, she sees this woman as a strong role model, accepting and unguarded.   No doubt she is a talented artist but I’m not quite sure what Chapin was trying to invoke.  The stretched skin becomes almost repulsive while she smiles out at us.  This is not a sympathetic image.  Is she really content?  We don’t know what she’s doing, who she’s addressing.  It is, however, a great painting – one filled with empathy and emotion but the message seems diluted and somewhat confused.

Aleah Chapin, Auntie, 2012. Image via www.huffingtonpost.co.uk

Having missed Tuesday night’s PVs I had some catching up to do and so I headed over to Edgware Road for the Lisson Gallery’s latest double whammy.

My next comment may be a bit controversial as I know not everybody feels this way but I love Julian Opie.  I vividly remember seeing some Opie works during sixth form at school and devoting a section of my sketchbook to them and his practice.  Ignoring the rest of my beautifully executed sketchbook and all the work I’d done, my art teacher asked if I was taking the piss.  The Opie stayed in the sketchbook.  I most certainly wasn’t!

Julian Opie at the Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

Famous for his portraits of Blur that now reside in the NPG, Opie’s work is easily recognised, looking at ideas of representation through the reinterpretation of the vocabulary of everyday life.  For this exhibition, Opie has returned to walking figures, working unusually to capture passers-by rather than using subjects he knows personally.  The apparent visual simplicity of the pieces is always striking and these new works are particularly effective looking at the idiosyncrasies of individual figures.

Julian Opie at the Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

The exhibition also includes two major new bodies of work; first, a group of mosaic portraits bringing his portraits more into the realms of sculpture.  I have to say I don’t like these works and the idea is further extended with a series of painted busts.  For me, the exhibition would have been stronger without these.  I think Opie should have stuck with his bread and butter.  However, I still adored the show.  Also exhibited are six digitally animated landscapes on LCD screens that reminded me of Hockney’s recent iPad drawings at the RA.  Still using his trademark simplified vocabulary, the works offer an idyllic picture, enhanced by the calming soundtrack.

Julian Opie, Summer, 2012. Own photograph.

Outside in the courtyard are two more LED works; mounted on a plinth is a galloping horse so high that it can be seen from the street, referencing other equine monuments around London.  Next to it and on a vastly different scale is Peeing boy – the works couldn’t be more different in subject; the horse powerful and dominant while the boy quietly urinates alongside him, oblivious to anything else.  It is this juxtaposition that shows off how well Opie’s distinctive style can translate to different subjects.  You can’t help but smile.

Julian Opie, Galloping horse, 2012 and Peeing boy, 2012. Own photograph.

In Lisson’s other space is an exhibition of works by Ryan Gander.  My advice would be to read the press release before you go round.  Without knowing what this exhibition stands for, it comes across as rather bland but the concepts behind the work move the pieces to a whole new level.  The exhibition is about visibility and invisibility, Gander is the ultimate magician and joker, only revealing what he wants us to see, when he wants us to see it.  The Fallout of Living recalls the moment in an artist’s life when, having become so fluent in visual language, life and practice becomes indistinguishable.

The main gallery of Ryan Gander’s The Fallout of Living at Lisson Gallery. Own photograph.

One room is filled with a giant ball of discarded pieces of stainless steel but the work blocks the door and we can’t get into the room.  We have to leave the gallery to see it properly.  Equally, a sculpture of Gander’s nose in a glass cabinet turns opaque if we approach.  Gander holds all the control.  Upstairs, The Best Club encourages us to pull back the curtain but, of course, there’s nothing there.   The exhibition subtly explores the relationship between spectacle and spectator and, as ever, Gander knows how to make us think through layered systems of meaning that elude and obstruct the viewer.

Ryan Gander, More really shiny things that don’t mean anything, 2011. Own photograph.

Leaving the gallery and knowing I had a bit of walking to do, I changed into flipflops which seemed to trigger the heavens to open.  As I walked into Edgware Road station, I had to grab a post to stop myself going flying (I reckon the bruise will get more colourful today). This should have been my cue to change back into my far more reliable heels but for some reason, partly due to a lack of seats on the tube, common sense temporarily abandoned me.  I was in Oxford Street when I slipped for a second time. Thank heavens a kindly tourist caught me (I kid you not) or I’d have been on the floor in a giant puddle.  I changed back into my stilettos and feeling shaken but not deterred I continued on my gallery adventure.

I wanted to pop to Blain|Southern to see a work by Amelia Whitelaw.  I first met Whitelaw a few years ago when she installed a piece as part of our East Wing Collection VIII at The Courtauld, a mighty installation  of falling dough that explored the fragile balancing act between life and death, between stabil­ity and flux.  The flesh-like dough seeped through a labyrinth of nets at a variety of speeds, the dough constantly morphing and evolving along its downward path.  Whitelaw has a new work in Blain|Southern’s Gravity and Disgrace.  Based around a similar premise, a solid rock anchors a rope that, via a pulley, suspends a net of raw salt dough.  Both sculptural and performative, the organic material ends its journey on the gallery floor where it dries out leaving twisted, elongated shapes in stark contrast to its initial bulbous, clean appearance.  I would have liked to see the work at the very beginning but it is still effective and still manages to present the same unusual medium in a new guise.

Amelia Whitelaw, There are no Accidents, 2012. Own photograph.

The show also includes work by artists Jane Simpson and curator Rachel Howard, focusing on pieces where materiality is key.

It was time for a rest and I managed to resist strong alcohol and head to Joe & the Juice for a ‘stress down’ and a sit down.  Next stop was Haunch of Venison on Eastcastle Street showing a series of new works from Simon Patterson – the man famous for The Great BearUnder Cartel (a historic term regarding the status of exchanged prisoners of war or hostages) is a series of photographs of equestrian statues from around the world.  Each statue is paired with another, suggesting ideas of bartering or exchange.  The proposed swap is illustrated by flashing neon arrows that indicate the journeys the sculptures will take.  Additional photographs rest on the floor on foam blocks, waiting in reserve in case one of the first choice works was ‘unavailable’.

Simon Patterson’s Under Cartel at Haunch. Own photograph.

It’s a truly brilliant exhibition raising questions of ideological, historical, political and cultural values.  Patterson asks if we would notice if these works were swapped?  Are these statues and their ideas outmoded?  Opie obviously thought not with this modern version of an equestrian statue but maybe they are indeed relics of another time, relics that we would not want to live without and that form part of the heart of, not only London but, cities across the world.

Simon Patterson’s Under Cartel at Haunch. Own photograph.

We sheltered outside waiting for a taxi as no way was I risking another slip and we headed to White Cube, Hoxton Square for an exhibition of cast iron blockworks by Antony Gormley.  Now, of course, we knew what to expect – the gallery was filled with sculptures of the artist himself.  I joke but I do really like him and his work.  These pieces show a new direction in Gormley’ sculpture as he uses the blockwork to attempt to describe the internal mass and inner state of the body through architectural language.

Antony Gormley’s Still Standing at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Image via www.antonygormley.com 

The 17 figures on the ground floor gallery are each composed of small rectangular iron blocks that map the body’s internal volume, investigating the verticality of the human form in spatial and conceptual terms.  Upstairs is a work from Gormley’s Proper series which continues these ideas.  Here, the body is made playful and elongated, recalling childhood Jenga or high-rise towers.  The austere geometric blocks are remarkably emotional and receptive considering the formal nature of their construction.

Antony Gormley at the State Hermitage Museum in 2011. Image via http://www.flickr.com/photos/britishcouncil/6194705382/

I was getting hungry and it was time to pop to the final gallery of the evening.   Celebrating the launch of Dennis Morris’s photo essay of The Stone Roses, the Londonewcastle project space (where I spent most of June) has been temporarily transformed into a music festival.  With dry moss on the floor (that wasn’t easy to walk on), dim lighting, stage areas and loud music, the space is unrecognisable.  I’m not a big festival fan and I’ve never really seen the fun in standing in a muddy field and queuing for dirty toilets.  I think last night was the closest I will get as Londonewcastle even had the dodgy portacabins so I could truly do the festival thing.

Crowding in at Londonewcastle. Own photograph.

Morris’s works showing The Stone Roses live at Spike Island and Glasgow Green are projected onto the gallery walls.  The photographs offer a glimpse into the world of the band, showing their timeless image and the hysteria of their fans.  The atmosphere was electric.  It was no longer a gallery.  My stomach won and we popped across the road to the Albion for dinner but we couldn’t resist heading back for another look.  It was even louder, even grimier and generally what a festival should be at the mid-way point!

BP Portrait Award 2012 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd September 2012, www.npg.org.ukJulian Opie is at Lisson Gallery until 25th August 2012 and Ryan Gander: The Fallout of Living is at Lisson Gallery until 24th August 2012, www.lissongallery.com.  Gravity and Disgrace is at Blain|Southern until 25th August 2012, www.blainsouthern.comSimon Patterson: Under Cartel is at Haunch of Venison, Eastcastle Street until 31st August 2012, www.haunchofvenison.comAntony Gormley: Still Standing is at White Cube, Hoxton Square until 15th September 2012, www.whitecube.comDennis Morris: This is the One will be at the Londonewcastle Project Space until 19th July, www.londonewcastle.com.

Two days left to catch the Burra Bug

17 Feb

By now, you’ve probably all seen the documentary and read about the Edward Burra exhibition which opened at Pallant House in October.  Various things have conspired against me and yesterday I realised how close I had come to missing this show.  So, off I went on a very Mini Adventure.  If I can’t take the car via the Strand and Waterloo Bridge then I tend to navigate via The Stoop (Harlequins’ home ground) and this was the way I zoomed yesterday.

This is the first major show for over 25 years of Burra’s works and he is finally getting a smidgeon of the recognition he deserves.  As well as his work being included in Tate Britain’s watercolour show, Zoot Suits fetched a record £1.8 million at Sotheby’s sale of the Evill/Frost Collection.  But, the art world elite have always been aware of his work.  It’s to everyone else that he has remained a mystery.

Edward Burra, Zoot Suits, 1948.  Image via www.voltcafe.com

The Edward Burra exhibition provides an opportunity to study Burra’s extraordinary creativity.  Burra was remarkable; suffering from severe arthritis and rheumatism, he was barely able to move his claw-like hands at the end of his life and grasped a paintbrush with his swollen fist.  Serious anaemia also left him debilitated and subject to collapse with no energy but, notwithstanding his constant ill health, he never wanted to be defined by this as it was something that he abhorred.  Burra was fortunate to be born to a wealthy family and to have humour and an indomitable spirit, qualities that allowed him to rise above his many illnesses.  For Burra, art was his drug and his escape; the only time that he didn’t feel any pain was when he was painting.

Edward Burra, The Snack Bar, 1930. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Burra lived in Rye, Sussex but he travelled far and wide drawing inspiration from diverse sources, creating complex artworks often redolent of the time in which he lived.  His sharp eye combined with a love and knowledge of art history that is often evident in his works.  He was fascinated by modern urban life – the cheap glamour of tarts and prostitutes who congregated in the Mediterranean seaports and the boulevards of Montparnasse and by the black culture he saw in Harlem where he was intoxicated by the violent colour, noise and heat.

Edward Burra, Harlem, 1934. Image via www.tate.org.uk

Apart from his collages, almost all of Burra’s incredible works are executed in watercolour and he was one of the most skilled exponents of the medium.  Initially, it’s hard to believe that they are not painted in tempera as the handling of the medium is so tight and the works lack the fluidity and tonal quality one would normally associate with watercolour.  It’s probable that he worked so heavily with this medium as it allowed him to paint at a table rather than being forced to stand at an easel.

Edward Burra, The Straw Man, 1963. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.  

Burra is an eccentric artist who resists categorisation.  The characters in his paintings jump out at you from their frames.  His compositions are often playful, provocative and powerful – nowhere else will you find such dynamism and life.   The Danse Macabre works look at Burra’s experimentation with collage; his strange composite beings are almost Surrealist and further heighten the confusion as to what movement Burra should be ‘shoved’ into.

Edward Burra, Dancing Skeletons, 1934. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The Pallant House exhibition is ordered by theme – High Art/Low Culture, Danse Macabre, A Sense of Unease, The Sussex Landscape, Late Landscapes and Painting The Stage – which works quite well because it is hung in relatively small rooms off the main gallery space.   It’s a difficult exhibition space to work and although a thematic display is successful sometimes the rooms feel too isolated and self-contained.

Most of the works here are on loan from private collections and are rarely seen.  The exhibition includes some very unusual Burra works, particularly the Sussex landscapes with which I wasn’t really familiar; these are rare as the majority of Burra’s work did not deal with Britain.  The room of Late Landscapes includes Burra’s painting materials and colour tests from the ’70s. Amidst these is an envelope that had become a testing page and a shopping list; in his distinctive writing Burra has scrawled ‘anchovies, paste, sardines, coffee, BRD, 4 batterys, savlon’.   This is a really lovely human detail.  In fact, as I write there is an envelope next to me that I have commandeered as a to-do list.

Edward Burra, Landscape near Rye, 1934-5. Image via www.pallant.org.uk

Burra was able to create an incredible atmosphere of suspense with heightened drama.  Although his subject altered radically over the years, there is always a sense that something isn’t quite right as he imbues even happy scenes with a sinister quality.  His works are humorous but disquieting, both comic but tragic; we are always left with questions and never quite know what Burra wanted us to think.  But that is the point.  After all, he famously said that he never ‘never tell[s] anybody anything’ so he wanted us to work it out for ourselves – or maybe not.

I was pleased to see how busy the exhibition was.  It is Burra’s seedy depictions of social scenes that grab us, opening windows into the underbelly of a world we have not visited.  John Rothenstein suggested that they may ‘constitute the most grand and the most vivid interpretation of the least reputable seams of society by any painter of our time’.  Although I’d have liked to see a few more of his idiosyncratic bustling urban scenes, the exhibition is great to allow an overview of the Burra that few people know.

Edward Burra, Three Sailors at a Bar, 1930. Image via www.hh-h.com

I’m not sure you’d leave Chichester loving Burra if you don’t already but if you have the Burra bug, like me, then it’s definitely worth rushing down to this.  I hope that before too long there will be another opportunity to talk more about Burra but, right now with only two days left, I urge you to jump on the train or head over via The Stoop and see his work for yourself.

Edward Burra is at Pallant House Gallery until 19th February 2012.  Also, in room four is a small David Dawson exhibition which includes his wonderfully intimate photos of Freud – some of which are at the NPG – and his own lesser known paintings.  David Dawson: Working with Lucian Freud is on until 20th May 2012, www.pallant.org.uk.

Getting to know Lucian Freud…

8 Feb

Although Lucian Freud died last year, the exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery is very much a living show, a survey curated in collaboration with the artist.  This is not meant to be a tribute show or a memorial retrospective and the NPG did not try to change the feeling of the hang they were working on with him.

Instead, it is a show spanning seven decades of Freud’s portraiture and it does this beautifully.  Paintings of people were central to Freud and, indeed, he felt that all of his works were portraits.

Lucain Freud, Girl with a White Dog, 1950-1. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition comprises 130 works from which it is possible to trace Freud’s stylistic development and his movement towards a denser application of paint.  It starts with the early works – head and shoulders portraits where an often alarming tension permeates the canvas as though Freud had not quite become comfortable with his own hand.  In the mid-1950s, when he began using stiffer hogshair brushes and loosening his style, he also started to work standing up – a drastic change for an artist who had always painted while sitting down, in a confined space.  From here on, you can feel his work become more alive and energetic as he moves around the canvas and uses his whole body to paint.  After Freud stood up, he said he never sat down again.  This is the start of the Freud that we truly know.  The canvases then increase in size from the 1980s when he seems to offer himself and his sitters breathing space.

Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. Own photograph.

Broadly chronological, the exhibition begins in 1940 with a portrait of Cedric Morris, Freud’s tutor at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing; it ends with the unfinished work that was on his easel when he died.  For many, this final piece will be the highlight – a huge unfinished portrait of David Dawson – Freud’s studio assistant and closest friend – with his whippet, Eli.  Portrait of the Hound is a deeply affectionate work, showing the intimacy between artist and sitter, their mutual understanding and respect.  Both the dog and Dawson are completely relaxed in Freud’s presence.

Lucian Freud, Portrait of the Hound, 2011. Image via www.artknowledgenews.com

Enough has been written about Freud’s many lovers and children that I do not feel the need to discuss Freud himself in depth – I don’t want to detract from what an amazing exhibition this is.  This is Freud’s life in paint showing the cast of fascinating characters he met along the way.  With sittings often taking several months (some even years), the works are a result of Freud’s intimate study and concentration.  His relationship with the sitters is often attributable to the success and fame of his portraits.

Lucian Freud, Nude with Leg Up, 1992. Own photograph.

The show includes many of Freud’s well-known works such as portraits of Francis Bacon, Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley.  Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, one of his many paintings of Big Sue, set a world record of £22m when it sold in 2008.  I was lucky enough to see Sue, posing in front of the three portraits of her including in the exhibition.  Her vivacity and larger than life personality was infectious and seeing one of Freud’s sitters up close brought new meaning to the work.  His truthfulness is inescapable.  Freud’s expert depiction of flesh (acres of which can be seen on show here) was in part attributable to his use of Cremnitz white – a dry pigment with a stiff consistency (it has so much lead content that the tube weighs twice as much as normal) that he began to use the mid-1970s.

Sue Tilley posing in front of one of her portraits. Own photograph.

Usually when I go round an exhibition, I make copious notes but this art is so incredible that it speaks for itself.  I’m not trying to discredit the critics who find that a biographical approach is inevitable when discussing Freud or the many excellent monographs on his life which have told me so much about Freud over the years but, here, you must just look and revel in the opportunity that is being afforded you and give his work the close attention it deserves.  It is an intimate exhibition and the scale of some of the smaller rooms is intended to mimic the scale of his studio.

Lucian Freud, Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait), 1967-8. Own photograph.

My only criticism, and this is really a sign of the exhibition’s greatness. is that it will be too busy.  It was even a scrum at the preview this morning.  The works deserve quiet solitude but the small rooms here are going to be unbearable at peak times.  This criticism, however, just shows how incredible Freud is.  He deserves the heaving throngs that will fill the NPG from tomorrow.

Lucian Freud, detail of Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985. Image via www.dawn.com.

This is a living exhibition; Freud’s paintings allow us to see the real people behind the paint with human frailty at its most magnified.  There’s no hiding in a Freud, no distractions – the works are compositionally simple and successful.  He scrutinises every detail and the intensity of some of his paintings still has the power to shock us 40 years on.

There are many works here that we know but far more that we don’t.  This show is a triumph.  Most people can recognise a Freud but, until this exhibition, I don’t think many could understand the evolution of his painting.

Lucian Freud Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery from tomorrow until 27th May 2012, www.npg.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.

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