Tag Archives: Hampstead

Bourgeois through Freud: A Trip to Maresfield Gardens

17 Mar

Since I popped to Kenwood during the week I have realised that I don’t make the most of the art on my doorstep.   And so, on this particularly grey and rainy day, I donned a pair of wellies and set off for the Freud Museum.  In a beautiful residential street in Hampstead is the house where Sigmund Freud spent the last year of his life.

The Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens. Own photograph.

Watching the traffic warden walk up and down with his camera, I had to sit in the car for 20 minutes waiting until the residents’ bays were available for everyone which gave me ample opportunity to admire the exterior of this gorgeous red-brick, revitalist, Queen Anne style house.  Freud’s daughter Anna (along with his wife, sister-in-law and housemaid) continued living at Maresfield Gardens after his death in September 1939 and, on Anna’s death in 1982, in accordance with her wishes, the house was turned into a museum.  It contains Freud’s collections of antiquities with around 2,000 items filling cabinets, shelves and every conceivable surface.  It also houses Freud’s extensive library as well as memories of Anna’s own research; there is a room specifically dedicated to her upstairs which explains that she was a keen weaver and a knitting enthusiast, hence the presence of looms in the house.

Plaques on Freud’s House. Own photograph.

The study and library are preserved as they were at the time of Freud’s death and these take up a large portion of the ground floor.  It is a mark of Anna’s devotion to her father and acknowledgement of the importance of his work that these rooms remain untouched – his spectacles still sit on his desk.

Freud’s Study. Image via www.freud.org.uk

Here, visitors can see the original analytic couch (a gift from a grateful patient) where patients would reveal everything that came to mind and where psychoanalysis was born.  This is the heart of the house and reflects the complexity and diversity of Freud’s life – colourful oriental rugs carpet the floor, antiquities litter the shelves and the walls are lined with books.  The guide to the house discusses Freud’s obvious passion and dedication to collecting.  In fact, everybody seemed to be leaving the Museum with a shopping bag, their interest having been sparked by this remarkable property.

Freud’s couch. Image via www.freud.org.uk

Freud’s eclectic collection of furniture and art can be seen across the rest of the house too.  This includes portraits of him by Ferdinand Schmutzer and Salvador Dali – a work on blotting paper that shows Freud’s head based on the shape of a snail.

Salvador Dali, Portrait of Sigmund Freud, 1938. Image via www.freud.org.uk

The museum regularly holds special exhibitions and it was mainly for this reason I was visiting today.  Heading into the conservatory (now the shop) to buy entrance tickets affords a lovely view of the garden which was very important to Freud, who reflected his own interests through the changing seasons.  It has also been preserved and Anna’s trowel still rests beside a terracotta flower pot.  Today, the garden is occupied by a Louise Bourgeois spider, one of the most enduring images from her oeuvre.  This marks the start of Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed which shows the impact of psychoanalysis on her art and thinking.  Although she was always ambivalent to pigeon-hole her work into one genre, she readily admitted that her pieces were a form of psychoanalysis – a confessional art that allowed her to express some of her complicated feelings about her past and come to grips with her anxieties, directly accessing her unconscious.  She was also fascinated by Freud and, as part of the exhibition, the Museum has republished her essay Freud’s Toys, a piece in response to an exhibition of Freud’s collection, with a short introduction from the curator, Phillip Larratt-Smith.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, 1994. Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read and via www.freud.org.uk

When Bourgeois died in 2010 she had given Larratt-Smith permission to display her newly discovered writings alongside a series of sculptures.  Viewing them side-by-side, in the house of the father of psychoanalysis, allows us to see how Bourgeois found sculptural equivalents for the psychological states of fear, guilt, aggression, and so on.

The exhibition seeks to offer a unique insight into Bourgeois’ cathartic practice, looking at her art and writings as a whole.  The dining room, which opens off the conservatory is given over to the first room of the Bourgeois exhibition and includes the work Knife Figure, 2002, a fabric variation of her earlier femme couteau.  Here, the woman’s identity has been displaced as her head has been replaced by an attacking knife.  In Freudian terms, the knife may be seen to take on a phallic form warding off the fear of castration hence the amputated leg.  Bourgeois’s parents made a living repairing and restoring tapestries so she grew up surrounded by textiles – it was this early exposure to fabric that led to it being such a vital component of many of her works.

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled (double sided), c. 1960. Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read and via www.freud.org.uk

We are afforded a more personal experience by seeing her work in such an unusual, intimate setting.  Although it was busy, the Freud museum can only accommodate around 200 visitors a day so it’s never going to be swamped.  Half way up the stairs, flooded in light from the large bay window, is Dangerous Obsession, 2003, where a fabric figure holds a red glass sphere as one would cradle a baby.  The glass orb is fragile, symbolising vulnerability, while its colour represents violence, jealously and intensity.  The work suggests ideas of being fixated on something lost or unobtainable, possibly an object of love, but it points to the danger of this psychological state and shows its consequences of melancholy, and possibly even insanity.

Louise Bourgeois, The Dangerous Obsession, 2003. Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth and Cheim & Read and via www.theartsdesk.com.    

Two of the three upstairs rooms are also given over to the exhibition.  Across Bourgeois’s work we see her interest in ideas of confinement and captivity through her use of vitrines and cages.  Cell XXI (Portrait), 2000, is a fabric form made from towels that hangs from the roof of a caged cell.  The work is hard to categorise; it is both figurative and abstract, a fusion of male and female with two faces that are asymmetrical yet complementary.  There is another comparable work here from 2001 that includes mirrors in the corners that offer different perspectives of the different faces.  The hanging nature of the heads means that they are ever-changing, always susceptible to new configurations and perceptions.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell XIV (Portrait), 2001. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Also upstairs is Untitled, 2000; on one side, a multiplied collection of breast-like forms (made from Bourgeois’s collection of berets) have been clumped on top of a fabric torso.  The use of the breast and the maternal metaphor is frequent in the artist’s vocabulary as she looks at herself as mother to three sons and worries about her increasing dependence on others.  The form on the left is an abstract rubber element that is surrounded by spools of thread – the thread references both her mother’s profession and the delicacy of relationships.  The needles in the rubber suggest the pinpricks of memory, trauma and anxiety.  Resembling a figure laid out for surgery, the whole work shows Bourgeois’s increasing anxiety and her fear of abandonment.

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2000. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Psychoanalysis has never been one of my strongest areas but this exhibition clearly elucidates Bourgeois’s artistic development as she struggles to come to terms with her past.  Through her writings she records her emotions and anxieties, analysing the conflicting feelings of her three roles – artist, wife and mother.  They enable us to see how active her engagement with psychoanalysis was until the end of her life, defining the connections between her thought and sculptural processes.

Louise Bourgeois, Loose Sheet, c. 1957. Image courtesy of The Easton Foundation and via www.freud.org.uk

This exhibition is just the right size, neither too small nor too big – it’s a revelatory insight into Bourgeois through Freud and it sits perfectly in the wonderful, domestic setting of Freud’s house.

Louse Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed is at the Freud Museum until 27 May 2012, www.freud.org.uk.

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Parallel Painting Paths – Mondrian and Nicholson converse at The Courtauld

22 Feb

As you know, the exhibition space at The Courtauld is at the very top of the building.  Now, during a quiet afternoon it may be permissible to have a quick pant in-between floors or to embark on the climb wearing flat shoes but these weren’t options at an evening opening and so I bravely tottered all the way up, without stopping and without moaning (well, not that I recall).  This is an unusual exhibition in many regards: It is a more contemporary show than we would expect of The Courtauld, it successfully changes the gallery aesthetic and it pairs two artists who many wouldn’t otherwise have realised are connected.

The exhibition explores the creative relationship between Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson, allowing us to continue London’s exploration of Modern British, charting the parallel paths explored by the two artists during the 1930s when their works were often presented side-by-side.  The exhibition presents the two artists in parallel – in conversation – with the works leading us through their story.  When Nicholson first visited Mondrian’s studio in 1934 he had to rest in a café afterwards to try to take in what he had just seen – the elegant serenity of the works, the ambience of the studio and the energy of Mondrian himself.  This visit marked the beginning of a fascinating friendship that lasted until Mondrian’s death.

Ben Nicholson, 1936 (white relief). Image  via www.courtauld.ac.uk

At Nicholson’s invitation, Mondrian moved from Paris to London where the two worked in neighbouring studios in Hampstead.  They were separated by the outbreak of war when Mondrian moved to New York and Nicholson to Cornwall but there are over 60 letters from Mondrian to Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth (Nicholson’s then wife) covering the ten years of their friendship.

As they often do, The Courtauld has cleverly conceived a show around one of their own works – this time a Nicholson canvas, 1937 (painting).  It is part of a group of related works with powerful colour combinations of white, black, yellow and red, moderated by a cool blue.  Nicholson stretched his canvas over board, ensuring a flat and solid surface on which to work.  As ever, the painting is precise and disciplined; the colour planes are carefully ruled and there is no chance that colours will bleed into each other.  The painter’s mark is suppressed. The composition is actually very unlike Mondrian but these two artists are united by their use of forms.

Ben Nicholson, 1937 (painting). Image  via www.courtauld.ac.uk

Nicholson explores lines, shapes and spatial effects in a subtle way whereas Mondrian’s works radiate energy.  It is so easy to go around this exhibition comparing them but this should not be the point.  Yes, their lives are placed in comparison but Nicholson was never trying to imitate Mondrian and their works must be viewed as a relationship of influence.  Their art offers an alternative modern vision using a restrained vocabulary of colour and line.  Although, at times, the compositions may be strikingly similar and their vocabulary is harmoniously shared, they are very different.  They do work well as conversational pairs but there can be no denying their extreme differences. Mondrian’s works have a calming effect yet their vibrancy is uncontainable.

Before this show, I don’t think many people were aware of the depth of the mutually reinforcing friendship of Mondrian and Nicholson.  Like the exhibition, the catalogue is small and focused, a perfect reflection of a joyously academic and calming show.  It mentions the ‘opposites attract’ theory stating that Nicholson was a networker while Mondrian was a loner, Nicholson demanding and provocative while Mondrian was courteous and quiet and that Nicholson was intolerant while Mondrian was patient.  Further research into their lives has shown that this is probably a myth but a rather nice one as there is an interesting parallel in their works – they are similar but different.

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

Mondrian painted using very specific rules where geometric figures were only ever to be the result of linear intersections and never to be separate forms.  Colour was reduced to the three most saturated primaries creating a stark contrast of black lines with bright colours.  His works have a forceful impact.

No spotlights are used to illuminate the paintings; instead, the white walls are floodlit bathing the works in light rather than starkly presenting them.  The show is beautifully and thoughtfully curated.   The exhibition space isn’t large and, therefore, the curators needed to be disciplined in their selection, presenting juxtaposing works that reveal the similarities and differences between these two artists.  Comments that the show is too small are unfair as this is what The Courtauld has to work with and they have done so brilliantly and in an astute fashion.

Mondrian and Nicholson present two strains of modernism that art history has often separated.  Now, thanks to this smartly masterminded exhibition, the two are no longer disjointed and are shown to be very much related.  Although Mondrian was Nicholson’s senior by 22 years, this only aided their reciprocal inspiration and willingness to develop.  The exhibition concludes with Nicholson’s 1936 (two forms) and Mondrian’s Composition No. III White-Yellow from 1935-42.  Nicholson’s painting, of which he produced nine variations over a period of great upheaval, is a transitional work that concludes his abstract paintings of the 1930s.  A small but intense rectangle sits proudly among three shades of grey; the work illustrates Nicholson’s highly refined use of colour relationships and the precise combinations he engineered.  The vertical format of the Mondrian is relatively unusual giving emphasis to the shape due to the obvious length of the lines.  No horizontals cross the full width of the composition.  Although the artists were apart when these works were conceived and painted, the paintings speak of the profound affinity that had developed between the two men as they worked in parallel.

Ben Nicholson, 1940-43 (two forms). Image via www.courtauld.ac.uk

The PV was so busy that I must return to this show another time, to view the works in a calmer atmosphere than amidst the bustling crowds of last Wednesday.  Not that there’s ever anything wrong with a bit of chatter and a glass of wine!  Dinner at Cigalon beckoned and I made my way a tad more cautiously back down the stairs.

Mondrian||Nicholson: In Parallel is at The Courtauld Gallery until 20th May 2012, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

Due to restrictions by the Mondrian estate, I have only been able to reproduce one image here without charge.

Look again at London– Stephen Walter at Fenton House

29 Oct

I had planned to venture further afield for this post but, somewhat typically, I have been struck by the lurgy so I decided to stay closer to home.  However, the fact I don’t have to go far to reach Fenton House does not diminish what a great place it is.  But hurry!  The exhibition ends tomorrow so you don’t have long.

Fenton House, Hampstead. Image via the National Trust photo library, www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Fenton House is perched atop the hill in Hampstead, hidden in the old winding lanes where it’s easy to get lost, and I frequently do.  A 17th century merchant’s house, it’s filled with a treasure trove of fine furnishings, porcelain and art. For the month of October, it has also housed a wonderful selection of Stephen Walter’s London Series.

I have known Stephen for a number of years now and I’m a huge fan of his work, I even have some myself.  The Island: London Series was first published in 2008 and has enjoyed much acclaim ever since.  It’s impossible not to love these maps and discover Stephen’s incredible and witty detail whilst spotting your own road or familiar landmarks.

Stephen Walter, The Island, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.tagfinearts.com.

Stephen was inspired by the unfolding drama of city life, tracing its dynamic history.  His maps of London combine personal insights, local knowledge and research, bringing together stories, legends, histories and stereotypes; they are ultimately a celebration of place.  Under the guise of traditional techniques, his work reveals a myriad of words and symbols that merge older notions of Romanticism with the intricacies and contradictions of our modern world.

Stephen Walter, detail of The Island, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.tagfinearts.com.

Though geographically accurate, the maps have their own unique identities fashioned by Stephen’s idiosyncratic semiotics, which are juxtaposed with the familiar everyday signage of cartography and public spaces.  Each of his drawings is another world, full of fine detail, created through the self-enforced processes of re-representation and repetition.

Stephen Walter, detail of Camden showing Hampstead, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.tagfinearts.com.

It is Stephen’s lucid combination of diverse source material and his accurate re-mapping of our city that is so compelling.  Every time I look at one of these maps, I spot something new.  Displayed on the staircase, at this distinctive National Trust property, the maps sit beautifully.  You can explore the whole of London in the time it takes to climb the stairs.

Stephen Walter’s maps at Fenton House. Own photograph.

Stephen is currently working on a commission for the London Transport Museum to create a map of the City’s underground systems, which will be released in 2012.  I saw this work in progress a couple of weeks ago and it’s absolutely stunning.  If possible, each of Stephen’s works is more exciting than the last.  There’s always something amazing – a new place to explore, a new theme to play with.

Stephen at work. Image courtesy of Lars Borges.

Affordable Art Fair ticket holders will be offered 2-for-1 entry to Fenton House and 2 Willow Road.  NT members (with valid membership cards) will receive 2-for-1 entry into the AAF fair.

Stephen Walter: London Series is at Fenton House until 30th October 2011, www.tagfinearts.com or www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

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