Tag Archives: Ingres

Works on Paper Win the Day: Picasso at the BM and Leonardo at The Queen’s Gallery

16 May

The British Museum’s latest prints and drawings exhibition is designed to show off their incredible new acquisition of the 100 etchings, generously given by Hamish Parker, comprising Pablo Picasso’s Vollard Suite.  While some of these works are synonymous with Picasso many of the prints have rarely been seen and certainly very few people have seen the set exhibited like this, in its entirety.

The story behind the acquisition is like a fairy-tale; the BM already owned seven etchings, one of which was put on show at a small viewing for patrons by Coppel, the exhibition’s curator, who said he hoped that one day the BM would own a series.  Three months later Parker e-mailed to say he’d help and just three months after that he had £900,000 (the BM had been offered the series for only £1,900 in 1955) in place when a complete set serendipitously came on the market.

Picasso’s The Vollard Suite at the British Museum. Own photograph.

Commissioned in 1930 by Ambroise Vollard, Picasso executed the majority during a creative flurry in the spring of 1933 although the series took seven years to complete.

The wall labels here guide us expertly through the show.  The BM has not tried to be flashy; this show is about the works and they are allowed to speak for themselves as we follow them around.  On first glance it is easy to mistake this as a dull-looking and uninspiring exhibition but this could not be more wrong.  The Vollard Suite is shown alongside examples of the classical sculpture that inspired Picasso as well as Ingres drawings, Rembrandt etching and Goya prints.  This also allows the BM to highlight their varied and exemplary collections.

Picasso’s The Vollard Suite at the British Museum. Own photograph.

What is important to remember is that the Vollard Suite is a series and should be viewed as such – as a story and a single work which drastically changes our impression of both the work itself and the exhibition.  Picasso didn’t title the works as they are not individual and only elements of the whole.  Instead they are dated to show us the order and the progression of the creative journey.  They can be read as the story of Picasso’s life, a story of his originality and sexuality which we can see through his depictions of Marie-Thérèse Walter, his muse and lover, at first drawn with life, light and beauty but, over time, becoming less playful as Picasso, often shown as a minotaur, becomes more bestial and vicious as problems with his wife Olga become more apparent.  Even the way he has scratched at the surface of the etching plate shows the darkening situation.  It is not a simple or kind story to follow.  The series ends with the minotaur, a blind and impotent creature, led and cared for by a girl resembling Marie-Thérèse – the world had changed and fascism and civil war were rife across Europe.  The Vollard Suite is an emotional overload of Picasso’s internal conflicts and desires; at this point we aren’t far away from the anguish he expressed in Guernica.

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Sculptor before the Small Torso, 30 March 1933, Paris. Own photograph.

This set of the Vollard Suite is in pristine condition, coming directly from the heirs of dealer Henri Petiet who handled the distribution of the works in the 1950s.  I was shocked that visitors were being allowed to use flash photography in the gallery – the BM should demand that works on paper are treated with more respect.

These prints are so forceful that it is impossible not to engage with them.  Picasso was a truly great etcher and pushes the artform to a new level, mastering every aspect of the medium.  Aside from the snap-happy people, it was wonderful to see others engaging so actively with works on paper.

I decided to stop for lunch in the Court Restaurant which has just been taken over by Benugo.  I hadn’t been here in a while but used to love their long leisurely lunches.  Sadly this was not one of those lunches and I was left disappointed by poor, luke-warm food and a menu that hints at tapas without going the whole way.

The Great Court at the British Museum. Own photograph.

To cheer myself up, I headed over to Buckingham Palace to see some more works on paper (though it’s always a bonus to see the Guards outside as well).  You may have thought we’d had our fill of Leonardo da Vinci last year with the National Gallery’s blockbuster exhibition and, indeed, many of his drawings included in that were on loan from the Royal Collection (although they were hard to see in the dark and crowded galleries).  But, here is another show of his works – the largest group of his anatomical drawings ever exhibited (the Royal Collection holds all but one of da Vinci’s surviving drawings – the other is in Weimar).  Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist is a splendid display of 87 pages from his notebooks, 24 sides of which have never been seen before.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Muscles of the Leg. Own photograph.

During the Renaissance, in order to paint the body correctly, the artist had to understand its structure.  In 1489, Leonardo began working on ideas for a treatise on human anatomy; while some of his notes are clearly intertwined with his artistic needs, his ideas go above and beyond the basic requirements of a painter.  Leonardo was not one to do things by halves.   During winter 1510-11 he is thought to have worked with Marcantonio della Torre, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Pavia, who gave him access to dissected humans which he illustrated in great detail, drawing most of the major muscle groups and every bone except the skull.   Leonardo looks at the body as an architectural form with elevations, plans and sections; he follows an artistic approach with a scientific mind.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Lungs. Own photograph.

The systems of display of this and the Picasso exhibition could not be more opposite – the Royal Collection’s approach is much jazzier and brighter but both work equally well due to the different styles of works on display.  Leonardo’s works are intellectually demanding but are presented in a way where they don’t seem exhausting or overbearing.  There is an amazing amount of information provided about the works with enlarged details printed on raised wall sections enabling visitors to analyse the drawings more thoroughly.  They have really brought the intricacies alive for the general public.  Some of the boards include pictures of the drawings in ultraviolet light offering a clearer look while some show translations of Leonardo’s notes so that they can be appreciated and understood.  This exhibition has involved a lot of work and it certainly pays off in leaps and bounds.

Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery.

Across three main rooms with smaller offshoots, the drawings are displayed with projections, anatomical models and explanations.  Where necessary they are displayed in cases so that the recto and verso can be seen; the curators have understood perfectly the space and attention these drawings deserve.  The beautifully produced, and very reasonably priced, hardback catalogue is also a revelation with incredibly detailed entries on all the drawings.

Leonardo’s drawings alongside modern anatomical models. Own photograph.

In September 1513, Leonardo left Milan for Rome where he tried to resume his anatomical research but he was accused of unseemly practices.  He moved to France in 1516 and never continued these studies; due to their dense and unorganised content they were never really appreciated.  If Leonardo’s work had been properly handled there is no doubt it would have been greater than Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica of 1543.  Leonardo’s work would have been unquestionably the most important document on anatomy in history.  It wasn’t until 1900 that his works were finally published and understood but, having been lost to the world, it was too late to affect change.  Their power and insight is still evident.

Leonardo da Vinci, The throat, and the muscles of the leg. Own photograph.

It is clear that Leonardo was a scientist as well as an artist.  His discoveries, if known at the right time, would no doubt have influenced the course of science.  The Royal Collection’s exhibition offers a very different viewpoint to the aforementioned NG show.  Leonardo’s highly detailed and sensitive scientific drawings show his artistic skill at its most advanced – these are subtle and spellbinding and I personally find them more engaging than his paintings.  This is a really beautiful exhibition of works by a sensational draughtsman that will enrich our knowledge of Leonardo and help us to understand his incredible mind.  It’s worth the security queue to get in!

Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite is at The British Museum until 2nd September 2012, www.britishmuseum.orgLeonardo da Vinci: Anatomist is at the Queen’s Gallery until 7th October 2012, www.royalcollection.org.uk.

Languishing in the Languedoc: Musée Fabre and Pavillon Populaire

13 Sep

Arriving in Montpellier after only two hours’ sleep, le petit train was the perfect way to relax and see the city – full of gorgeous architecture and intoxicating French culture.  Suitably resuscitated, I headed off to the Musée Fabre.   Mad I know, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to miss such a well-known gallery.

Musée Fabre, Montpellier. Own photograph.

The Museé Fabre is housed within a 17th century Jesuit college and an 18th century Hotel de Ville brought together in a maze by a series of 19th century extensions.  It is as big as it sounds.   The current exhibition, touring from the Grand Palais in Paris, presents the works of Odilon Redon, a forerunner of the Impressionists, known for his fascination with the imaginary.

Odilon Redon, Crying Spider, 1881. Image via www.odilonredon.net

Redon is not an artist with whom I was familiar and I wasn’t sure what to expect but the exhibition is striking.  The opening curved rooms are painted dark blue, encouraging visitors to move around the space.  Although the rooms themselves are quite dark, all the works are well lit.  Peepholes allow previews of what is to come and, importantly, all the wall labels are in both English and French (this did deny me the chance to show that a summer course at L’institut was not a waste but I’m sure there will be other opportunities).

Redon exhibition, Musée Fabre. Own photograph.

Redon’s work presents dreamlike visions.  He had an affinity with the ideas of Edgar Allan Poe and many of his early works were inspired by Poe’s writing.  But he did not intend to recreate the scenes and, instead, his works were independent and freely created.

His most well-known work is Homage to Goya.  Although this series does not actually have any formal borrowings from Goya, the title revealed Redon’s desire to draw attention to his work by following the path acclaimed by critics.  This prompted much attention from the literary circle of the time, not least acting as the trigger for his friendship with Stéphane Mallarmé.  Redon began to display works from the series individually and provoked interest from collectors and exhibition organisers.

Odilon Redon, Homage to Goya, 1885. Image via www.moma.org

The dark tonal qualities of his early works radiate originality and character through his highly individual vision and near abrasive use of his medium.  Continuing in a similar vein, one of his slightly later series was inspired by Flaubert.  Again, these were categorically not illustrations but, instead, an aesthetic encounter expressed in literature and art.  From the 1890s, colour was
introduced as a more dominant element in his work and this swiftly became a permanent transition as he began to experiment with new forms.  For me, here, his works lose some of their mystique.

Mid-way through the exhibition the walls change to a deep rust orange colour; this denotes a shocking change in style as Redon took a renewed interest in the decorative arts, prompted by commissions from his growing circle of patrons.  Although his love of flora now becomes evident, he still extolled fantasy and undertook the decorative path simply with no excess or fuss.  This is far too drastic a change from his earlier work for me and from this point on the exhibition (or rather his oeuvre) becomes disjointed and a little confusing.  That said, there are some gorgeous works including one very unusual portrait that shows a delicate sympathy to his sitter.

Odilon Redon, Portrait of Marie Botkine, 1906-07. Image via http://picasaweb.google.com

The exhibition is beautifully curated and the changing colours of the walls serve well to show the developments of Redon’s career.  Upstairs, displayed on mustard yellow, Redon’s later works focus more on his interest in spirituality while continuing an evocation of the dream-like imagination and an interest in Classical mythology.  Gustave Fayet, one of Redon’s best patrons, bought Fontfroide Abbey (a gorgeous site and definitely worth a visit – I went last summer) and undertook its restoration.  He commissioned the library décor from Redon who created the large panels Day and Night as a synthesis of all his ideas.  The interior rooms of the Abbey have been specially opened for the course of this exhibition.

Fontfroide Abbey. Own photograph.

As I said, Musée Fabre is extensive and the permanent collections include works by all the French greats – there’s Géricault, Delacroix, David, Ingres, to name but a few.  The Soulages’ rooms present a more shocking contrast to the traditional space of the gallery; lit by a wall of translucent glass, many of the works are suspended in space, their startling black highlighted by the white walls.

Soulages at the Musée Fabre. Own photograph.

With the sun shining and beckoning me outside, it was hard to give these galleries the time they deserved but Musée Fabre is definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in, or near, Montpellier.

After wonderful crêpes in the Place de la Comédie, I headed to the Pavillon Populaire, just across the Esplanade from the Favre, for their Brassaï exhibition.  I have written about Brassaï fairly recently as he is one of the ‘greats’ included in the RA’s Hungarian photography exhibition and so I shall not go into too much detail about his work again.

Place de la Comédie, Montpellier. Own photograph.

This exhibition focuses on the artist in America in 1957.  As known from his famous Paris photography, Brassaï enjoyed looking at a city’s undercurrents and photographing prostitutes, drug addicts and seedy music halls as well as the better-known attractions.  In this way, he set himself apart from other artists of the time.  Perfectly displayed here in groups, his short exposures capture an amazing spontaneity – many of the shots have been captured in quick succession showing movement or the progression of time, often in comic ways that reveal remarkable insight into the mind of the artist.

Brassaï en Amérique, 1957. Image via www.paris-art.com

Again, different sections of the exhibition have different wall colours, a stylish presentation that the French pull off with aplomb.  Brassaï was a very talented photographer with an incredible eye.  His photographs of people from behind show a remarkable intimacy and offer a new perspective on city life.

It was time to head into Marseillan and have a siesta before cocktail hour!

Marseillan sunset.  Own photograph.

Odilon Redon, Prince du rêve, 1840-1916 is at the Musée Fabre until 16 October 2011, http://museefabre-en.montpellier-agglo.comBrassaï en Amérique 1957 is at the Pavillon Populaire until 13 October 2011, http://www.montpellier.fr/506-les-expos-du-pavillon-populaire.htm.

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