Tag Archives: Leonardo da Vinci

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).

shoes (3)

P1050311

P1050373 - Copy

P1030131

shoes (4)

Shoes

shoes (2)

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

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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.

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.

Masterminding Masterpieces: Leonardo at the National

10 Nov

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery is one of the most talked about shows of the year and I had been eagerly anticipating my visit.

One of the world’s most famous artists, Leonardo moved to Milan in around 1483, gaining a position as a court artist for the Sforza family.  He remained there until 1499 and returned from 1506-13 when he finished his second version of Virgin of the Rocks, now housed permanently at the National Gallery.  The exhibition focuses on his time in Milan and traces the development of his work, analysing what made him the artist of all artists.  Leonardo had great ambitions for the art of painting; he revolutionised the medium to express feelings and bare the soul and this is the first exhibition to study his ambitions as a painter.

Leonardo’s Saint Jerome in the National Gallery’s exhibition. Own photograph.

Five years in the planning, the coming together of this exhibition is an immense achievement.  The sensational and unprecedented loans and the amassing of these works is something that will, in all likelihood, never be attempted again.  Nearly every surviving painting from Leonardo’s Milan period is exhibited including nine of his own works plus around 60 preparatory studies.  Curator, Luke Syson’s approach was “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” and his perseverance and sheer passion for the project paid off.   The Royal Collection and Her Majesty The Queen have generously lent 33 sketches and studies which are some of the highlights of the exhibition.  Very few works actually come from the National’s own collection – they are, of course, showing The Burlington House Cartoon which looks spectacular in its new temporary home in the Sainsbury galleries.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a man with his head turned, c. 1495, red chalk on red prepared paper.  Lent by Her Majesty The Queen, image via www.royalcollection.org.uk

Each room is based on a theme, focused around one Leonardo and supplemented by drawings and works from his followers.  Often, the works serve little purpose, detracting from the main focus of the show.

Room two is themed Beauty and Love and shows two of the three portraits completed in Milan.  Leonardo talks about a painting’s capacity to inspire love, a response that this room is certainly capable of eliciting.  The Lady with an Ermine shows the Mistress of the Duke of Milan, described at the time as being “as beautiful as a flower”.  The divide of her face is mesmerising – one side is tentative while the other is alert with a slight smile, drawing us in closer.  The portrait is so vivid that we almost believe she is real.  Painted in 1488-90, the work shows Cecilia Gallerani with a white ermine, a visual pun on her surname since the Greek for ermine is galay.  It may also represent her lover, Ludovico Sforza, who had been awarded the order of the Ermine and was often known as l’Ermellino.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (‘The Lady with an Ermine’), c. 1489–90, oil on walnut.  Courtesy of the Princes Czartoryski Foundation, image via www.theartsdesk.com

Shown in the same room is The Belle Ferronnière, a lady whose identity is much debated.  Syson thinks she may be the Duchess of Milan and, if so, the mistress and the wife are displayed here in the same room.  The figure’s head is a perfect oval and it is possible to see the ideal proportions of the face as Leonardo has imposed his geometrical workings onto a real face showing the ideal of womanhood.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a Woman (‘La Belle Ferronnière’), c. 1493–4, oil on walnut. Image via www.louvre.fr

There is a remarkable sense of encounter with his portraits, partly achieved through the power of the intoxicating gaze.  It’s easy to spend hours analysing one Leonardo but that is not my aim here.  Ironically, the popularity of the show will prevent you from affording these works the time they deserve.

Be warned.  Own photograph.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the inclusion of the two Virgin of the Rocks – one from the Louvre and the National Gallery’s own recently restored version.  The Virgin of the Rocks was intended as an altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception but, when the original work was finished in 1485, Leonardo decided that the price was too low.  When they wouldn’t give him more money, he sold the work to someone else.  So, the Confraternity were forced to commission a replacement which was not to be finished until 1508.  Despite having the same subject, there are notable variations between the two works.  However, they are not shown here in competition or for comparison.  Instead, they are displayed opposite one another in conversation as individual masterpieces.  Nobody before now has seen these two works together and I doubt anyone ever will again.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1491/2–99 and 1506-8, oil on poplar, thinned and cradled. Image via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

I know that wall colour is a constant gripe of mine but it is important and they’ve chosen a gloomy aubergine that consumes the works.  Journalists at the preview seemed united in this criticism.  The wall texts do not show off the achievements of the exhibition and can often be relatively mundane.  Yet, the catalogue is fascinating, beautifully laid out and riveting.  It just didn’t translate well enough from page to wall.

In a career covering roughly 50 years, Leonardo only completed 15 paintings.  Prolific he was not, but a genius he certainly was.   This exhibition is a crowd-pleaser and visitors are flocking to see the Leonardos. The National Gallery may have restricted entry numbers but this is going to be hell on earth for anyone visiting.  On Tuesday, the queues were forming to buy advance tickets even though the exhibition is nearly sold out for this year.

Queues at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

The catalogue is definitely worth buying and illustrates what an amazing concept this is.  This will be the most important exhibition of the year.  Although it doesn’t have the razzle dazzle I expected, the works themselves and the fact that they are here is incredible.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is at the National Gallery until 5th February 2012, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

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