Tag Archives: Albrecht Dűrer

Seduced and Surprised by the National Gallery

4 Nov

Early on Tuesday morning, I joined the throng of commuters walking across Green Park.  I was freezing and realised that fingerless gloves don’t do very much now it’s winter!  I was off to a bloggers’ breakfast at the Queen’s Gallery – the Palace are embracing new technology – to view their new exhibition, The Northern Renaissance ­­.

The exhibition apparently reunites the enemies and allies of Henry VIII’s court, a place characterised by political intrigue and betrayal.   With around 130 works, it is a great excuse to show off some of the Royal Collection’s Renaissance gems including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Urs Grat and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Artists responded to changing ideas and a revival in humanism by producing ingenious works with advancing technical skill.

The Northern Renaissance at The Queen’s Gallery.  Own photograph.

The period saw an increase in the demand for tapestries, moveable furnishings that demonstrated the wealth and power of the owner.  When this exhibition was on display in Scotland, these weren’t shown as the exhibition was in a smaller form.  This show also teaches us that the Renaissance is not only Italian and concentrates on Northern Europe with particular emphasis on Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

One of the tapestries in the exhibition. Own photograph.

Without Holbein we wouldn’t even know what Henry VIII looked like and he also immortalised many of the personalities of Henry’s court.  The exhibition opens with a lovely collection of Holbein drawings.

The Apocalypse was a popular subject for illustration in the Middle Ages.  In 1498, Dürer published the Book of Revelations with 15 illustrations – incredible nightmarish scenes including figures from all sections of society, reminding viewers that no-one would be spared the day of judgement.  Dürer understood how to brand himself and his AD monogram, placed on all his works, made his art instantly identifiable.

Dürer’s The Apocalypse. Own photograph.

The Bruegel work, Massacre of the Innocents, which is normally on view in isolation in Windsor, is here seen in context.  But, this piece presents an interesting conundrum; during its lifetime, when owned by Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, nearly all the slaughtered children and babies were painted over to change the tone of the scene.  Evidence of them can be found using infra-red reflectography.  Do we intervene or accept that this is the history of the work?

Bruegel, Massacre of the Innocents. Own photograph.

In this vein, the gallery has conserved eight paintings for this exhibition, bringing them back to life.  One example of this is Holbein’s Hans of Antwerp – the cleaned portrait reveals new details and clues as to who this sitter may actually be but how much conservation is too much?!

Holbein, Hans of Antwerp. Own photograph.

The Queen’s Gallery do get their brightly coloured walls right and the exhibition is dark but not gloomy.  This is a much more serious exhibition than their usual and the curators haven’t gone for tricks to attract punters.  It’s a bit of a mix but maybe that is the point – to show the truly varied practice of this period.  This is a large and thoughtful exhibition (although sometimes the delicacy of the drawings is lost) and I don’t really know if it is right for their audience.  It’s alright but it’s not mind-blowing.

One exhibition, however, which is mind-blowing is Seduced by Art at the National Gallery.  I didn’t know what to think about the ideas behind this show so my expectations were low but it is sensational.

As soon as I walked into the first room I was grabbed (not literally).  Visitors are greeted by Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room, 1978, where he evokes the destructive frenzy of Delacroix’s painting The Death of Sardanapalus.  This is Wall’s earliest attempt to quote the past and he incorporates spectacle into the photograph, showing the aftermath of man-made disaster.  This room looks at how photographers responded to fine art traditions, especially painting; it’s called Setting the Scene which is what it does – it is a room of theatre.

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

This is an exhibition that constantly surprised me.  If I had any doubts, they were gone by room two (portraits) where I was greeted by Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (one of my all-time favourite paintings, loved all the more for its inclusion in Freya North’s Chloë) alongside Martin Parr’s Signs of the Times from 1991.  Parr recognised the satiric potential of a protracted pose.  His discomfort contradicts the couple in Gainsborough’s work but this is a clever and fascinating juxtaposition that is still making me smile that nearly a week on.  Parr’s work has a real edge but he also takes a well-considered look at social portraiture through pose and stance, among other things.  It encapsulates something very different to the usual snapshot, showing a young couple at the beginning of their married life in their first home – in this way, the work is very sympathetic to Gainsborough.

Parr and Gainsborough.  Own photograph.

Moving on, the Learoyd photo of Man with Octopus Tattoo II,which has been used for all the publicity, is here compared with the Laocoön group.  The National Gallery argues that they have a similarly sensuous and disturbing impact.   The resemblances don’t go very far aesthetically but the ideas are shocking in both.

Learoyd and surrounding works at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

The National Gallery is once again giving their large middle room a church-like atmosphere and here the exhibition presents provocative religious imagery.  Included is Thomas Struth’s photograph of visitors to the National Gallery viewing one of their altarpieces.  Is this photo real?  What are we looking at, a snapshot or a carefully contrived and created moment?  We will never really know and this helps to teach us to question what is presented to us.  The exhibition also shows the incredible advances that have taken place within the medium.

Religious imagery.  Own photograph.

Three photographs have also been incorporated into the permanent collections offering a sensational effect.  Each comparison is a revelation making a statement using the most incredible works to support its arguments.  It’s hard to keep superlatives from my writing as the exhibition really was so good!

Seduced by Art is not trying to be a survey, nor is it a history of photography.  It’s making an argument.  Whether or not you agree, the exhibition is a dialogue that looks at significant moments.  A survey of photographs can be found anywhere but this exhibition is different.  People who know and understand painting are led into photographs, people who love early photographs can see their relevance to contemporary work and so on.  It presents historical painting, alongside historical photography, alongside contemporary photographs.  It is a tripartite exhibition with various points of access that all knit together perfectly.  The rooms work into each other, offering wonderful vistas.  They bring connections between old, new and subject matter through a series of amazing loans.

Julia Margaret Cameron, Kate Keown, c. 1866.  Image courtesy of the Wilson Centre for Photography and via www.ng-london.org.uk

This is a very darkly lit, theatrical and beautiful exhibition.  It is an enthralling show and, rare as this is for me to say, I genuinely cannot get over how great it is.  It took me by surprise.  The curators have surpassed themselves.  The press release describes the exhibition as ground-breaking and I find myself agreeing.  I will certainly be back for another visit as it deserves a lot of time, attention and awe.

 

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 14th April 2013.  Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present is at the National Gallery until 20th January 2013.

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Titian’s Treasure at The National: The Flight into Egypt

22 Apr

As I have previously mentioned, I love the National Gallery – nothing really beats wandering through their rooms filled with artistic gems that tell the story of art history under one roof.  Whether you’re popping in for a ten minute peek when sheltering from the rain or to see a full-blown exhibition, it’s a wonderful place to visit.  Often their free exhibition programme is truly outstanding and it was to see one of these that I was there on a rainy afternoon earlier this week.

Now there’s no denying that Titian is an incredible artist and probably the greatest painter of 16th century Venice but this still isn’t my preferred period and consequently I wouldn’t pick him as one of my favourites.

Titian, Noli me Tangere, c. 1511-12. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Currently on display is Titian’s first major commission (described by Vasari as his first masterpiece hence the exhibition’s title); The Flight into Egypt, on loan from the Hermitage Museum, is being shown for its first time out of Russia since 1768.  Due to this lack of visibility, it’s been pretty much ignored by scholars but has now been restored, cleaned and given due consideration.  This exhibition seeks to explore Titian’s journey in creating his first large-scale landscape (it’s over 10 feet wide), making comparisons with other contemporaneous artists both in subject and composition and showing the influences that shaped him.  The painting is shown alongside 28 other relevant works including those by Albrecht Dürer and Titian’s tutor, Giovanni Bellini.  The wall panels explain the decision of the various inclusions, looking at his inspirations for different sections of the painting.

Albrecht Dürer, The Vision of St Eustace, c. 1500-02. Courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

The holy family’s escape was a popular subject although a work of this scale is unprecedented in Venice at this time.  Painted in 1507, when Titian was only 18, The Flight into Egypt is believed to be one of Titian’s earliest compositions, showing off his skill at landscape painting and his unprecedented sensitivity to colour and detail – elements that would later define his career and become known as his part of his signature style.

Titian, The Flight into Egypt, c. 1506-07. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.   

The exhibition also gives an introductory look at Titian’s Venetian patrons, many of whom are unidentified but appreciated him before he became famous.   The Flight was almost definitely commissioned by Andrea Loredan for his new palazzo on the Grand Canal where it hung until the mid-18th century – we know this from frequent descriptions that record its location.

The Flight’s background shows off Titian’s highly accomplished skill as an artist.  His gift for landscape stems from his tuition under Bellini and the looser approach of Giorgione, another Bellini pupil.  For Titian, landscape was as important as figures and both are afforded equal detail even if his skill set wasn’t quite balanced at this stage.  The figures in the foreground are rather stiff and generic; they appear to be superimposed on the scene, frieze-like in their inflexibility.  Titian’s Virgin and Child here seem to recall a figure group from a Bellini painting with a comparable pyramidal structure and tilt of heads.  A few years later Titian changed direction and broke away from Bellini’s influence but, here, it is evidently visible.

Giovanni Bellini, The Madonna of the Meadow, c. 1495-1500. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Titian hadn’t yet mastered portraits and The Flight doesn’t really enlighten us as to what a great artist he was to become; other works in the exhibition show how quickly he developed.

Although not visibly overloaded, The Flight is filled with everything Titian knew how to do; it’s a smorgasbord of his talent and an advertisement of his capabilities.  Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Titian was able to bring all these elements together into a great work.

Titian, detail of The Flight into Egypt, c. 1506-07. Courtesy of The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersberg and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.   

Later this year, the work will be shown in Venice before returning to the Hermitage from where it will never travel again in our lifetimes.  Unless you book your tickets and visa to Russia this really is a once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunity.  The fact that the National Gallery has been honoured with the exhibition of this work shows not just what a great gallery it is but also complements the strength of its own collection.

Titian, Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, c. 1509. Courtesy of The National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

The catalogue is an enlightening publication that looks at Titian and landscape, studying the painting to which so much time is being devoted.  Although small, the exhibition was actually more substantial than I expected and in a room and a half there is a lot to get your teeth into.  This is a rare opportunity to see this early work (masterpiece or not), with a small exhibition of superb quality to accompany it.  Don’t waste any time, go to have a closer look.

Titian’s First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt is at The National Gallery until 19th August 2012, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Fond Memories of The Courtauld: The Spanish Line

28 Dec

The Spanish Line explores the diversity of the Spanish drawings in The Courtauld’s own collections, spanning from the Renaissance to Modern periods – although the majority of works date from the 17th century.  This exhibition allows the wonderful Prints and Drawings department to unleash some of its magic and display a mere fraction of their 3,000 strong collection.

With approximately 100 works on paper, The Courtauld holds one of the most important collections of Spanish drawings, outside Spain.  This is the first exhibition in London to focus on the tradition of Spanish draughtsmanship and marks the culmination of a major, four-year, research project; one of its aims is to highlight how Spanish artists drew inspiration from the Dutch and Flemish schools – their work and ideas having been transmitted through the study of prints, as can now be seen, in part, by the bold graphic lines of the drawings.  That this exhibition has been managed by a drawings’ curator is instantly apparent – the works are well-lit and well-hung and provisions have been made to allow us to see the recto and verso of some sheets.

The Spanish Line at The Courtauld. Own photograph.

An exhibition of Spanish drawings has to include the extraordinary drawings of Jusepe de Ribera – although I will not go into detail about his work here, the subtlety of his line illustrates his exemplary skill.  The exhibition is broadly chronological with many highlights including Juan de Juanes’s Saint Stephen taken to his martyrdom, produced in preparation for an altarpiece, now housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, that is celebrated as one of the early masterpieces of Spanish art.

Jusepe de Ribera, Man tied to a tree and a figure resting, 17th century. Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

In fact, every drawing is notable.  The Nine Worthies of Antiquity and Modern Worthies (c.1683-85), attributed to Matias de Torres, is a sheet of small drawings, probably intended as models for educational playing cards, displaying illustrious ancient and biblical heroes alongside modern worthies.   The detail is gorgeous and figures include Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar with moderns such as the Emperors Charles V and Leopold I.

Another work that really stood out was Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra’s Four studies of the head of a young man (c. 1645-55). I love studying studies and researching the unknown, looking at the purpose of a drawing – more of that later though.  This work demonstrates the artist’s great skill with pen and ink.  Symmetrically arranged in two rows, the heads leave space for the artist’s monogram, AC, at the centre – an unusual inclusion in a preparatory sketch.  It, therefore, seems likely that the sheet may have served either as a model for studio assistants or as a design for a pattern book.

Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra, Four studies of the head of a young man, c. 1645-55. Image via www.criticscircle.org.uk

Tucked away on one of the far walls, quite separate from the other works is Study of a left hand (c. 1685-1800).  I couldn’t help but stop to reminisce.  Early on in my Masters at The Courtauld, sitting in the Prints and Drawings room, we were presented with folded up pieces of paper that we each had to pick from a hat (or some such).  They were ‘mystery’ works and at the time I thought I pulled the short straw – a study of a hand by John Vanderbank.  At first, I was rather horrified and, by the end of my essay, I never wanted to see a Vanderbank sketch again.  Strangely, now I can’t walk past a study of a hand without fond memories resurfacing – isn’t it funny how things turn out?

John Vanderbank, Study of a Man’s Hand, c.1727-39 (?). Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

The hand has always been given primary importance in preparatory studies, such as Albrecht Dűrer’s Study of Praying Hands (1508), and Leonardo da Vinci’s A Study of a Woman’s Hands (1490) and its gestures can lead to the understanding of a finished work.  The anatomical construction of the hand makes it the most pliable part of the body, able to contort around any object; its complexity allows the artist great dexterity and innovation in its depictions.  Considered by artists as particularly demanding to render, the convention of drawing hands is long established.  My hand – Vanderbank’s Study of a Man’s Hand also, of course, from The Courtauld’s own collections – appeared to be a preparatory sketch for a painting.  I was able to establish it was an elegant hand (seen through the unblemished skin and the choice of costume), the drawing of which broadly conformed to a conventional pattern of using chalk on coloured paper for preparatory studies: initially a method championed by Sir Anthony Van Dyck and mediated through intervening generations.  Through the positioning of ‘my’ hand, I was able to ascertain that the study may have been for either John Michael Rysbrack (c. 1728), or A Youth of the Lee Family, Probably William Lee of Totteridge Park (1738) but the highly conventional pose did make it difficult to link it to any one painting.  I could get carried away quite easily here but I think enough is enough…

Albrecht Dűrer, Study of Praying Hands, 1508. Image via www.wga.hu

The hand is far more important than you may originally realise and there were even books written on the language of the hand and how gesture can be used to communicate and show intention.  The preparatory drawing of body parts was not an innovative practice and follows a well-established lineage of portraiture and gesture, which conveyed the social and aesthetic values of the time.  Portrait drawing, the importance of which is stressed in artists’ manuals, encompasses many different categories including drawings for the sitter’s retention and studies executed from life, used to help complete the finished portrait.  These preparatory works were conventional forms of studio practice. This Spanish hand, in black and white chalk on faded grey blue paper, reaches towards the viewer in a startlingly direct manner.  It appears to have been drawn as part of an exercise in foreshortening and the careful modelling is typical of academic studies.  It is unclear whether a live model was used or whether the drawing was made from a plaster cast but the sheet is certainly an example of early academic practice in Spain, which began informally in Seville in the 1660s.

Study of a left hand, c.1685-1800. Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

Possibly the most famous Spanish draughtsman is Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes whose work stands out for its energy and freedom of execution.  Goya pushed the conventional boundaries of drawing, experimenting with stain drawings where he rubbed and brushed ink onto the paper leaving different textures and marks.  In fact, only one Goya is included in the exhibition alongside, a Eugenio Lucas y Padilla (c. 1845-60), a Baldemiro Galofre y Ximenez (c. 1880-90) and two Pablo Picasso’s.  Picasso’s Pigs (1906) was made when he spent a summer in Gosol with Gertrude Stein.  It was the year they first met and they quickly formed a strong friendship.  As one of the most regarded female writers of her time, Stein saw herself as an equal rather than a patron although she already owned a number of Picasso’s works in her collection.  This charming drawing was almost certainly Picasso’s gift to Stein who ‘was always fond of pigs’.  His command of line is effortless.  Pigs is delightful and shows Picasso’s skill – he has made something so simple, wonderful to behold.

Pablo Picasso, Pigs, 1906. Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

The Courtauld’s last exhibition had nearly 100,000 visitors in three months and it seems this show is also doing well.  The Courtauld is obviously right not to underestimate the public, as so many other galleries do, and deserves praise for providing us with such specialised exhibitions.  As the lift was out of order (something I became used to at the Institute), I had to totter back down the uneven spiral stairs, watching my step and trying not to make too dramatic an exit.

The Spanish Line:  Drawings from Ribera to Picasso is at The Courtauld Gallery until 15th January 2012, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

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