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2012 Highlights

27 Dec

When it comes picking my highlights of the last year, I am impossibly indecisive – as ever there have been been the usual disappointments but there have been a fair few stunners in the arts calendar.  I can’t believe how many shows I’ve seen but I also feel I’ve missed a lot – if only there were a few more hours in every day.

As I did last year, I’ve chosen the exhibitions that stand out for me as being remarkable; they include stunning art work, and are interesting and well-curated.  Here we go…

Triumphant at Tate – Way back in February, I visited Yayoi Kusama at Tate Modern and I can still vividly picture the exhibition.  Kusama has always been ahead of her time – her work is beautiful, innovative and ground-breaking.  The exhibition worked broadly chronologically with each sequence of rooms studying the emergence of a new artistic stance.

Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, I’m Here, but Nothing, 2000. Own photograph.

Radiant at the Royal Academy  – while the rest of the world is still raving about Bronze, the RA’s highlight for me was their exhibition Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed.  I admit that, as an 18th century art historian, I may be slightly biased but through these 60 or so works, the RA successfully argued his importance to the artistic culture and heritage of his time.

Zoffany

Johan Zoffany, Three Sons of John, Third Earl of Bute and Three Daughters of John, Third Earl of Bute, 1763-4. Own photograph.

Nailing It at the National GallerySeduced by Art is still on show at the National Gallery and is an unmissable exhibition.  This divided opinion but, for me, it was a stunning and enthralling.  Seduced by Art is not a survey, nor a history of photography.  Instead, it offers an argument and dialogue that presents historical painting, alongside historical photography, alongside contemporary photographs. The National Gallery has had a strong year and I feel its Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 (with Wallinger’s Diana in particular) is also worthy of mention.

The Destroyed Room, 1978

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada and via www.ng-london.org.uk.

Leaving LondonEdward Burra at Pallant House was the first major show for over 25 years of the artist’s works in which Burra is finally awarded a smidgeon of the recognition he deserves.  It offered an opportunity to study his extraordinary creativity.

Burra

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

Also with podium finishes were:

Glistening GoldMondrian||Nicholson: In Parallel, The Courtauld Gallery

This explored the creative relationship between Mondrian and Nicholson, charting the parallel paths explored by these two artists during the 1930s.  It was a far more contemporary show than we would normally expect from The Courtauld and it successfully changed the gallery aesthetic, pairing two artists who many wouldn’t otherwise have realised are connected.

Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue

Piet Mondrian, Composition C (no. III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935. Image courtesy of Mondrian/Holtzman Trust and via www.courtauld.ac.uk.

Scintillating SilverNowhere Less Now, Tin Tabernacle

Artangel’s commission by Lindsay Seers, took place in the Tin Tabernacle; Nowhere Less Now was a poignant amalgam of film, photography, sculpture, performance, animation, philosophy and writing.  Its complexities still offer food for thought many months afterwards.

Tin Tab

The Tin Taberacle. Own photograph.

Brilliant BronzePainting from Life: Carracci Freud, Ordovas

Having successfully juxtaposed Bacon and Rembrandt in the past, Ordovas knows how to get its shows right: Painting from Life was a tiny exhibition bringing together head studies by Carracci and Freud.  This was an intimate, simple and stunning juxtaposition.

Ordovas

Ordovas. Image via www.ordovasart.com.

Last but by no means least – Runner Up  – Alberto Burri: Form and Matter, Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art

Before this exhibition, I didn’t really know who Burri was but he is undoubtedly a master of the 20th century who revolutionised the vocabulary of post-war art.  From the simplest materials, Burri was able to create something monumental and striking, imbued with energy and movement.

6. Burri White Cretto 1975

Alberto Burri, White Cretto, 1975. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com.

But, there was also David Shrigley: Brain Activity at the Hayward Gallery, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist at the Queen’s Gallery, Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Secrets at Pace London, Tim Lewis: Mechanisms at Flowers, Doris Salcedo at White Cube and Louse Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed at The Freud Museum and numerous great little shows at Josh Lilley.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten lots of gems.  We are so fortunate to have such varied and high calibre art to admire on our doorstep.  It’s so easy to get from gallery to gallery however precarious your footwear may be and, of course, there’s always a taxi around the corner.

It seems only fitting to include some of my favourite shoe pictures from the past year and to thank my principal shoe photographer (you know who you are).

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shoes (4)

Shoes

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Thank you, as ever, for reading Artista.  I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and wish you all a Happy Shoe Year.

Ski boots

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.

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.

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