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I could have danced… Degas at the Royal Academy

17 Oct

Degas is loved the world over so there has been much excitement around the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition.  So much so, that they have even changed their admission system whereby friends of the RA now also have to book tickets to avoid over-crowding and ‘enhance their experience’ (really?).

The exhibition focuses on Edgar Degas’s preoccupation with movement, the obsession that led him to concentrate on the ballet imagery which made him famous.  These iconic images range from rehearsal scenes to innovative pastels produced towards the end of his career.

Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on a Stage, c. 1874.  Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk.

Degas was yet another artist who was meant to pursue a different path.  His father, an art lover and collector, had earmarked his son for a career in law, and Degas had to persuade his father to let him attend the École des Beaux-Arts.  He was fortunate enough to receive advice on drawing from J.A.D. Ingres but was largely self-taught, travelling extensively and gaining experience by copying the works of the great Renaissance artists.

This exhibition follows Degas’s attempts to capture movement similarly to photography of the time.  The concept behind the show is brilliant and really reveals the artist’s pioneering ingenuity but, at times, the exhibition becomes more about movement than Degas and a number of key masterpieces are missing here.

Edgar Degas, Dancer Posing for a Photograph, 1875. Image via www.topofart.com.

The exhibition opens with projections of a ballet dancer, shown on the blackened walls.  There is no doubt that this is an unusual start but presents a fascinating beginning, revealing that, as important as Degas’s paintings are, the key focus is movement – the graceful, elegant dance of a beautiful ballerina (I’ve always liked tu-tus).

The RA has erected temporary walls to encourage flow and movement around the exhibition.  Their gorgeous putty colour and the dim lights do make this very dark (I almost needed a torch) but this is for conservation reasons, so unavoidable.

Sometimes, we peer into dancers’ classrooms, at other times we, too, are watching a performance on stage; Degas’s vivid realism, seen through both his finished compositions and preparatory drawings, is intriguing.

One entire room (with atmospheric, murky cassis walls) is focused around Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, the largest sculpture Degas made and the only one displayed during his lifetime.  Degas made 26 figure studies providing a comprehensive study of the girl in the round, analysing the figure in a way that was easy to translate into three dimensions.  Unusually, it is apparent that here the artist moved while the model remained still.  Some of the sketches, consisting of only a few fluid chalk lines, tell us that Degas was moving quickly.  Degas had an innovative approach to representing modern individuals and the power of these drawings shows that there is no one way to see this figure.  This sculpture was based on Marie van Goethem, a dance student at the Paris Opera School.  Modelled in wax, supported by a metal armature, the figure is dressed in a muslin skirt, lace-trimmed bodice and ballet slippers.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, 180-81. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The work caused a sensation when exhibited in the sixth Impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1881.  The dancer appeared so real, that people were shocked, commenting that she looked like a horrible, repulsive guttersnipe.  We have seen this piece so frequently, and in so many forms, that we are no longer as struck by it as we should be.  But it’s important to remember that for its time, it was shocking.  It is the forerunner of many contemporary works that initially provoke dramatic reactions.  Remember the torn opinions caused by works
such as Damien Hirst’s shark or Tracey Emin’s bed.  Now we are used to them, we are immune to their shocking nature.  The same goes for this work, we have become over-familiar, which is a travesty as this sculpture is far from boring and deserves all this attention.

The exhibition also presents Degas’s work juxtaposed against the photography and film of the day, primarily by photographers Etienne-Jules Marey (a leading French scientist specialising in movement) and Eadweard Muybridge.  By doing so, the curators have attempted to show that, as well as being an artist known for his beautiful images, Degas was modern and radical – fully attuned to the developments of his time.  This is really a second exhibition and, in one sense, it was fascinating.  In another, it rather got in the way.  I’d come to see Degas, we’ve seen plenty of Muybridge recently with Tate’s large-scale retrospective.

Eadweard Muybridge, Woman Dancing (Fancy), plate 187 of Animal Locomotion, 1887.  Image via http://makingamark.blogspot.com/

The exhibition includes a series of six wide, narrow canvases from the 1870s which are extraordinary, not least because they are such unusual works.  The curators here suggest that they may have been inspired by photography of the time showing panoramic scenes.  The works mostly depict wide exercise rooms where the dancers are positioned rhythmically, in rehearsal.  The viewer is invited to scan the scene as one would have with popular panoramas.

Edgar Degas, detail of The Dance Lesson, c. 1879. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Continuing with the theme of photography, the exhibition focuses on Degas’s own photographs. Having bought his first camera in 1895 (when he had just turned 60), Degas became an instant enthusiast and his photographs reflect the compositions of many of his paintings.  Several of the self-portraits are startlingly intimate, focusing on the solitude of his later life.  Although his own photographic equipment was unable to capture movement, he used his photographs to make drawings.

Edgar Degas, detail of Dancer Adjusting Her Shoulder Strap. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

We became fully aware of quite how busy the exhibition was when we went into Colour and Dynamism – a dead-end room that traps visitors on one side.   Here, pastels from later in Degas’s life have been showcased.  The ballerinas, who we saw in such active and lively poses, seem to have aged along with Degas and these works are have less movement, but the highly saturated colours of the pastels help to animate the dancers.

A room full of pastels. Image via www.timeout.com

The last room contains a video work but it was absolutely freezing and, not having dressed for the Arctic, I was forced to hurry out rather than watch.

The exhibition is actually not as extensive as I anticipated although it did allow me to indulge and study many of Degas’s exquisite drawings. Hung here en masse the works do, for me, lose some of their charm and intimacy but this is a remarkable, and very focused, exploration of a great artist.  Degas was unusual as an Impressionist, his preoccupation with movement setting him apart from the others, whose concerns centred around the transient effects of light and atmosphere.  Degas’s ballet scenes and passionate focus on contemporary subjects is wonderful and this show re-teaches us to appreciate his genius.

Edgar Degas, Three Studies of a Dancer in Fourth Position, c. 1878–81. Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement is at the Royal Academy until 11th December 2011, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Something Old and New: John Martin and The Millbank Project

2 Oct

Downstairs at Tate Britain has been given over to an exhibition of works by John Martin, a nineteenth-century painter renowned for his dramatic retellings of biblical stories and myths.  His somewhat everyday name gets lost by the wayside but Tate has gone for a striking exhibition title – Apocalypse – to grab everyone’s attention.

Martin’s, often fantastical, paintings attracted huge audiences  when they were displayed across the country, whether at galleries, commercial venues or public spaces.  Apparently one exhibition required the equivalent of crowd barriers to stop the work from being damaged.  While the public adored him, the critics degraded Martin’s work saying it was sensationalist.  I don’t regard this comment as a criticism; his paintings depicting the sublime are often sublime themselves.  Many consider his works personify the extravagance of Victorian bad taste but their immense scale and detail is very impressive.

John Martin, Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

This exhibition is the most comprehensive survey of Martin’s works staged since his death in 1854 and finally acknowledges his importance to 19th century art history.  The exhibition focuses on all elements of Martin’s oeuvre.  He was not just a brilliant landscape painter but also a highly skilled watercolourist and draughtsman.  Characters of Trees, published in 1817, consists of seven plates that were to act as a drawing book intended for amateurs learning to draw various species of tree.  He was a known draughtsman and, two years prior to this publication, had been appointed Drawing Master to Princess Charlotte, the daughter of George IV.

The first few rooms of the exhibition follow Martin’s progression to more apocalyptic subjects.  His expressive nature becomes apparent in Room Two where some of his early blockbuster pieces are shown, spectacular works such as Belshazzar’s Feast (1820).  This is the story from the Book of Daniel in which writing on the wall prophesises that Belshazzar will be killed and succeeded by Darius the Mede.  We join the spectators flocking to look at the writing on the wall, lit, by Martin, to extraordinary effect.  His paintings of actual, rather than
imagined, scenes do not have the same impact – imagination and romanticism are fundamental.

John Martin, Belshazzar’s Feast, 1820.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Room Four presents a rather unexpected side to the artist looking at his surveys and engineering drawings, focusing on suggested improvements to London’s sewage and transport systems.  Through these drawings, Martin is trying to ‘save’ London from the disasters he depicts in his paintings.  Although, during his lifetime, none of these schemes was realised, and the pursuit of these projects nearly bankrupted Martin they have all since come to fruition, in one way or another.

The exhibition progresses chronologically through Martin’s life.  Although his works are quite varied in colour and subject, they all maintain power, skill and impact.  Even the small paintings have an imposing presence.  One room focuses on his mezzotint illustrations including those for John Milton’s Paradise Lost and his Bible illustrations. The works are brilliant although you really need a magnifying glass to view those in the cases.  Martin was a big fan of the mezzotint and one of the earliest artists to rely on mechanical means, which allowed him to reproduce his works in books and magazines.

John Martin, Paradise Lost, 1827 edition.  Image via www.spaightwoodgalleries.com. 

Martin’s paintings have a striking visual impact with their sharp focus and incredible use of light.  His strong use of verticals and his red palette provide drama and powerful dynamism as we, alongside his characters, rather like a 19th century action thriller, teeter on the brink of world destruction.   My choice of footwear felt rather apt as I too hovered at an extreme height, afraid of going over the edge.

The exhibition is well curated and, although, here, it does work, Tate is back to using its favourite grey wall paint.  The one yellow room later in the exhibition came as such a shock that my eyes had to adjust slowly to the use of colour.

John Martin at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

Tate wanted to try to re-capture the sense of excitement felt by Martin’s original audience and, to this end, it has created an ‘extravagant’ light show around one of his final triptychs – the culmination of his on-going obsession with divine and destructive forces.  This triptych, The Last Judgement (c. 1845-53) was shown as a spectacle in theatres and music halls, occasionally accompanied by light and sound installations.  This was not just art but cinematic entertainment.  The works are beautiful and some of Martin’s most powerful pieces.  Working with a theatre company, Tate has used narrative and special effects to attempt to refresh the traditional gallery experience and recreate the original scenario.  This ‘sensation’ takes place every 30 minutes, but what a disappointment!  The work was broken and took a while to get going – when it did it was the sort of thing you’d expect primary children to enjoy…maybe!  It did little to depict the sensationalist nature of the 19th century but we are different people with far greater expectations than the original audiences so maybe it is impossible in such situations to create authentic performances.  They always come across as slightly tacky.  We cannot be expected to have a similar appreciation to the Victorians as we are not the same.

John Martin, The Last Judgement, c. 1845-53. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The exhibition closes with a room of Martin’s watercolours or so we think…  In a final annex we find Glenn Brown’s The Tragic Conversation of Salvador Dali (after John Martin) where he manipulates Martin’s The Great Day of Wrath.  Yes, the work is clever with distortion, the inclusion of science-fiction buildings and clever twists and turns, but it’s not Martin and what a shame to end on someone else’s work.  This is a retrospective of Martin’s works and I’d have liked to leave with him making his own final impact.

Glenn Brown, The Tragic Conversation of Salvador Dali (after John Martin), 1998. Image via www.independent.co.uk

Martin had no formal training, he was never destined to be an artist yet his works, following a series of apocalyptic subjects, are enigmatic and powerful.  The Victorians loved catastrophe so no wonder they fell in love with the melodrama  of Martin’s vivid imagination.  This is a great contrast to the Flanagan show on display upstairs and, unlike that, definitely worth a visit.

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-3. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

After this, I popped along to see some of the building work at Tate as part of The Millbank Project – a huge undertaking, by architects Caruso St John, to make the navigation of the gallery more coherent, introducing a more circulatory environment.  This £45 million project involves repairing and restoring galleries, removing false walls and ceilings to open up the building and introducing new stairs and lifts.  Tate aims to increase the capacity of its galleries, transform the main Rotunda and enhance the visitor experience to the galleries.

Tate Rotunda. Own photograph.

The upper floors of the Dome are set to become the new members’ rooms – this space used to be storage for the Tate archives and is now a general dumping ground but is set to be stunning.  Although the route up is currently a tad dangerous in stilettos on a slippery stone spiral staircase, by 2013 we’ll all be able to glide up in a lift.  I can predict I’ll be spending a lot of time there once this project is completed.

John Martin: Apocalypse is at Tate Britain until 15th January 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

Lost Potential – Barry Flanagan: Early Works at Tate Britain

26 Sep

Everyone knows Barry Flanagan – love them or hate them – we’ve all seen one of his bronze hares somewhere or other.  There are certainly enough of them dotted around!

Tate Britain’s latest exhibition deliberately tries to steer clear of the overtly commercial, second half of Flanagan’s career and, instead, concentrates on his early works that are often forgotten or overshadowed.  The exhibition begins at the end of Flanagan’s time at St Martin’s, where he used varied tactile media, such as cloth, felt, clay, plaster and rope, to create sculptures that explored process, material and tradition.  Displayed in a carefully planned yet organically haphazard way, I had to be careful not to catch a stiletto and trip over the materials that trailed on the floor.  His sculptural objects play with basic, raw materials that often use the wall as a support, thereby blurring the boundaries between the two-and three-dimensional.  It is easily evident in this exhibition that Flanagan liked to play although he was sometimes evasive in his method.

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

Flanagan’s work often defies conventions in unconventional ways.  His pre-sewn canvas shapes are filled with plaster or sand, allowing them to create their own forms during the process.  He let the materials guide him playing with chance, simplicity and shape.  Flanagan, in his early days, was a craftsman with a deep understanding of material; both and then among Celts, for example, have a delicacy and tactility with the authenticity and humility of material hinting at his true personality.

Barry Flanagan, and then among Celts N. ’77,  and then among Celts N.W. ’77, 1977. Own photograph.

He was also a superb draughtsman and some of his drawings are included in the later rooms.  But only the very last room introduces his hares.  The curators decided to curtail the retrospective at 1982 because the large bronzes are already so well-known and accessible.  Instead, they wanted to look at the more private, intimate works of Flanagan’s beginnings.  For me, here lies the problem.  Many of Flanagan’s works are personal and this exhibition does not teach, or tell, us enough about the artist and his inspiration to allow these works to capture our attention.  The wall labels are scant and uninformative.  He was intensely private from a very young age and did not even speak until the age of 7.  Instead, he constructed internal worlds to which only he was privy.  This echoes in his art.  Without knowing Flanagan, we are not privy to the ideas that manifest themselves in his art.

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

The show aims to argue a continuity of practice across Flanagan’s oeuvre but, I think, it still leaves his career split very much into two polarised sections.  What unites his works, however, is their lack of pretension; whether his mighty bronzes or his small-scale sand sculptures, his personal touch and often humorous approach brings these pieces down to earth.  The large hare at the end of the exhibition heralded a new phase and the end in more ways than one – the end of Flanagan’s manipulation of materials and the beginning of his obsession with the idea that took off and brought him commercial success.

His early works are so different and have the potential to be interesting, but the exhibition fails to present them in a powerful light.  No, I’m not using a hidden meaning here.  Once again, the awfully low light levels take away any wow-factor the works may otherwise have had and leave a rather bland, unexciting exhibition. For once, Tate seem to have used white paint for the walls but they have managed to give a grisaille effect with the lighting!  The dimness gives the gallery an almost reverential feel which is wrong here.  The works aren’t meant to be deified and admired in this way.  They are light-hearted explorations of craft, showing an exciting artistic progression; they need to be presented in a lively way.

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

Well lit, Line 3 ’68 could be beautiful if displayed properly but here it looks static.  In fact, the catalogue shows how great this work can look – it’s a shame its potential is lost.

Barry Flanagan, line 3 ’68, 1968. Own photograph.

It is important not to underestimate Flanagan’s stature as an artist and it is interesting to see these works.  So much of the exhibition’s problem (in fact, maybe all of it) is to do with the method of display.  The exhibition is flat and non-descript and does not do justice to these works.  The catalogue, however, does!

As we passed one of the monumental hares ‘running’ along the Duveen Galleries, we too decided we needed to hurry off for a revitalising glass of wine (or two).

Barry Flanagan at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

(Spot the stilettos – due to popular demand, whenever possible, pictures that include ‘the shoes’ will now be appearing at the end of my posts.)

Barry Flanagan: Early Works 1965-1982 is at Tate Britain until 2nd January 2012, www.tate.org.uk

Top Marks to Tate Britain – The Vorticists

13 Jun

I first came across Vorticism when I was about 12 and our class art project was to produce a portrait of ourselves in the Vorticist style.  I realised at the time that it wasn’t a masterpiece (it’s somewhere in the attic and, even if I found it, I wouldn’t let you see it) and that I hadn’t quite captured the Vorticist aesthetic but then I had no idea how wrong I’d gone.  My own attempt played with the faceted angularity of Vorticism figuration, which originated from Cubism, but I had not grasped the subtle abstractions that develop this movement far beyond the previous Cubist works.  It’s lucky I decided to become an art historian, not an artist.

There is no doubt that I am a fan of this period – indeed of most 20th century British artwork – but that never normally stops me from criticising.  This exhibition, however, is spectacular, bringing together an amazing collection of artists, charting a movement that followed in the wake of Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism.

The Tate Britain exhibition opens with the now-familiar Jacob Epstein sculpture, Rock Drill – a modern phallic power, a machine-like figure, astride a drill, an emblem of industry further representative of his hard phallus.  Although later emasculated in the reduced version, this work expresses the confidence and power of Britain on the brink of war.

Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from the ‘Rock Drill’, 1913-16.  Own photograph.

Tate have set the sculpture against a pink wall, evoking the colour of the first issue of Blast in 1914, an announcement of Vorticist ideals as well as a presentation of literary values.  Although this is one of the most iconic pieces in the exhibition, and Epstein was credited by the Vorticists, he never officially joined the group.  Instead, this sculpture shows the importance of machine aesthetics to these artists.

Jacob Epstein, Rock Drill, 1913-15.  Own photograph.

Aiming to place Vorticism in an international context, this exhibition looks at a tiny period of about two to four years, studying the impact of World War I on the Vorticists through close historical analysis.  The specificity of this exhibition looks at Vorticism in its own time, showing how quickly these artists were undermined by the reality and atrocities of war.  Many of the paintings from this time are now lost.  Imagine what may only be out there.  Indeed, the curators optimistically hope that this exhibition, the first of its kind in our internet age, may tempt some hidden gems out of our attics.

The exhibition, which works chronologically, starts with a broad introduction addressing the explosion of the avant garde and, in turn, Vorticism, in London.  Wyndham Lewis when describing the concept to a friend in 1914 said ‘Think of a whirlpool… At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated.  And there, at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist.’  Tate makes this statement clear and thus help to define this isolated movement.

Ezra Pound commissioned his close friend, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, to carve the similarly iconic Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914, which sits proudly in the centre of the second room.  Pound’s only instruction was that the work was to be virile and Gaudier-Brzeska didn’t let him down.  Influenced by the Moai of Easter Island, Pound’s ‘back’ is depicted as a giant phallus.  Known for his direct methods of carving, Gaudier-Brzeska worked directly from the stone, without using models – you can feel his passion and energy as you look at the piece.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914 – rear view.  Own photograph.

There really are too many masterpieces to name – the striking Bomberg paintings in room 2, the Epstein drawings that sit proudly on statement burgundy walls in the third room.  Tate have done this well.  The exhibition seems to get a sense of artists’ individual characters, with rooms focusing on singular figures, such as Epstein, in this dimly lit exploration of a number of his sculptures.

David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914.  Own photograph.

The summer of 1915 heralded the first Vorticist exhibition at the Doré Galleries in London where six artists were invited to show alongside seven of the eleven original Vorticists; Jessica Dismorr, Frederick Etchells, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts, Helen Saunders and Edward Wadsworth.  The exhibition was a culmination a series of modern art exhibitions in London and was one of the most pronounced demonstrations of Vorticism.  For me, Gaudier-Brzeska is the star of this section of the exhibition.  His large dynamic works are shown alongside miniscule sculptures next to sensitive studies from his sketchbooks.  The display of one of his sketchbooks is brilliantly done – shown in a cabinet, a (badly lit) screen to the right shows a man flicking through the pages so we can appreciate every sheet rather than experience the usual yearning we are left with when such books are displayed.   I do hope this is something we begin to see more of.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Doorknocker, 1914.  Own photograph.

Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in the trenches aged only 23 and was already dead by the time of this 1915 exhibition, a powerful reminder of the times in which the Vorticists were working.  His death was announced in the second (and last) issue of Blast which also included an article he had written earlier.

The same room also has a work by Wyndham Lewis, the self-proclaimed leader of the movement – The Crowd from 1914-15.  This ingenious abstract composition suggests a modern city.  Individual figures lose their sense of individuality as they too become rigid structures.

Wyndham Lewis, The Crowd, 1914-15.  Own photograph.

The final room, in two sections, brings us to 1917 looking at the Penguin Club exhibition of that year, the last in the Vorticists’ ‘lifetime’, and the ‘vortographs’ of Alvin Langdon Coburn, an innovator and creative photographer.  The strong wall colours split the room with the photographic pieces hung on a powerful blue.  Here, my favourite works have to be the Wadsworth woodcuts – tiny images dealing initially with industrial towns from the North of England where Wadsworth explores and exploits the potential of the texture and contrast of his medium.

Alvin Langdon Coburn works.  Own photograph.

The War was a source of inspiration for many of these artists, most of whom also fought for their country.  The sombre feeling of the exhibition perfectly captures the environment in which they were working.  Big names successfully mix with those who are lesser known, including the female artists Dorothy Shakespear and Helen Saunders whose powerful compositions and use of colour is most striking.

Dorothy Shakespear, Composition in Blue and Black, 1914-15.  Image via www.artmonthly.co.uk

Vorticism has a distinctive look and an inherent aesthetic; the works are abstract expressions of a grey and gloomy time.  They show the subtle traffic of ideas from Europe and the continent through which the Vorticists forged their own distinctive style and ideas – ideas brilliantly explored in the catalogue that traces the movement’s connections with both New York and Europe.  Although, the Vorticists were a resolutely English group, they were influenced by worldwide trends and had a diverse heritage – Epstein was an American Jew, Gaudier-Brzeska originated from France, Lewis was Canadian-born and Ezra Pound, their spokesperson, was American.  A cosmopolitan England – today’s England.

Yes, I had a few of my usual moans – some of the grey paint I disliked so intensely in the Miró show seems to have come out of the cupboard again and some of the labels are peculiarly placed at the back of the sculptures but, overall, Tate haven’t tried to jazz this up – it is a beautifully curated selection of stunning and important art works.  It is clearly and concisely laid out – you can walk around the sculptures, walk through the rooms without obstruction and understand the development of the movement.

The War ended and with it Vorticism – one of its many casualties.  The main problem with Vorticism is that too few people know about this short-lived movement and this exhibition and catalogue should help to change that.  Too few works survive but the energy, talent and sheer vivacity of these artists, despite the horrific times in which they worked, shines through.  It is a brilliant exhibition, bringing these genii to the forefront.  Bravo Tate.

The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World opens tomorrow until 4th September 2011 at Tate Britain, http://www.tate.org.uk.

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