Tag Archives: National Gallery

2013 Highlights

29 Dec

As I’ve said before, I haven’t been able to write nearly as regularly as I would have liked.  2013 has flown by with excitement, hustle and bustle and some truly fabulous exhibitions.  Again, there has been more grey paint on gallery walls than I care to remember but the point of this post is to celebrate some of the remarkable things I have seen.  I have missed a lot too, particularly in the last couple of months, but it is testament to the incredible art programme across the UK that it is impossible to see everything.

Here we go with my highlights of 2013…

Towering at TateSchwitters in Britain  

Cast your mind back to February when Tate Britain brought us an exhibition showing off Schwitters’ incredible multi-disciplinary practice that expressed his determination to make art using whatever was to hand.  Tate successfully showed how Schwitters’ figurative works moved into abstraction and vice versa.  Schwitters never gave up and his drive and enthusiasm, as well as his interaction with British art and culture, was excellently applauded by Tate.

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Kurt Schwitters, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, 1920 and 1939. Own photograph.

Number One at the National GalleryFacing the Modern  

There is no doubt that, in parts, Facing the Modern was a confusing show and it has been suggested that curatorially it was in the wrong order.  But, notwithstanding these comments, it is one of the best shows I have seen this year.  Using portraiture, the exhibition tells the story of Vienna’s middle classes – works are commemorative, critical, cautious, radical and chart the changing fortunes and times of the incredibly diverse city.  This is a subtle exhibition that requires thought and tenderness whilst viewing.  It may not include the most famous and familiar works by Klimt or Schiele but that is what makes it so special and the fact some of these works have been loaned is a triumph.  The National Gallery are continuing to go from strength to strength with their exhibition programme and Michael Landy’s Saints Alive is also worthy of mention.

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Walking around Facing the Modern. Image via www.theupcoming.co.uk

Captivating Courtauld The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure 

The Courtauld are rightly renowned for the quality and strength of their exhibitions and The Young Dürer was another golden gem from this small gallery.  The exhibition concentrates on the artist’s journeyman years from 1490-96 when he travelled widely and was exposed to a range of new influences.  Here, The Courtauld follow Dürer’s path to greatness as he learnt the intimacy and delicacy for which he came to be famous.

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Detail of Albrecht Dürer, A Wise Virgin, 1493. Image via www.courtauld.ac.uk

Blazing Barbican The Bride and the Bachelors

The title of alone was going to be enough to pull in the punters but The Bride and the Bachelors was the first ever exhibition to explore Marcel Duchamp’s impact on John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.  This was a challenging exhibition that blurred the boundaries between stage and gallery in a style that I think would have delighted Duchamp.  Due to the exhibition’s design, the conversations between these creative genii were still very much ongoing.  Duchamp governed the creativity of the period as well as our enjoyment of the show.

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Duchamp stars at the Barbican. Own photograph

Leaving LondonFrom Death to Death and Other Small Tales, Modern One (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art), Edinburgh

As any regular reader will know, I spend at least one month of the year in Edinburgh and this summer I was able to see the sublime From Death to Death and Other Small Tales.  The exhibition sought to create a conversation between works from the gallery’s own collection and pieces from the collection of Dimitris Daskalopoulos that focus on the human body.  Some works referenced the body explicitly while others made subtle gestures to bodies that may or may not be present.  It was so extensive it took over the entire building with around 130 works of top quality – an exhibition that really worked without compromise.

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Ernesto Neto, It Happens When the Body’s Anatomy of Time, 2000. Own photograph.

Also with podium finishes were:

Glittering Gold – Leon Kossoff’s London Landscapes, Annely Juda

London Landscapes focused on Kossoff’s life in London looking at the congestion, the dirt and the real life of London.  Kossoff made us fall in love all over again with the vigour and vibrance of the city.

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Leon Kossoff, Dalston Lane No. 1, 1974.  Image via www.onestoparts.com

Shimmering SilverDeath: A self-portrait, The Wellcome Collection

Death: A self-portrait is an exhibition that showcased the collection of Richard Harris with approximately 300 objects from his strange and unique collection devoted to death.  It was incredibly diverse – there were paintings, drawings, artefacts, sculptures, photographs, anatomical illustrations and much more. This was a giant cabinet of curiosities!

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June Leaf, No stomach for death: Gentleman on Green Table, 1999-2000.  Image via www.standard.co.uk

Bright Bronze – Caitlin Art Prize 2013, Londonewcastle Project Space

The Catlin Art Prize is a highlight of the calendar and the brilliant eye of the curator means that we can normally expect great things from the nine chosen graduates who have had to produce new work for the exhibition.  This year was no exception and the Londonewcastle Project Space was transformed with the latest ‘ones to watch’.

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Terry Ryu Kim, Screening Solution I,II and III. Image courtesy of Peter Hope and via www.artcatlin.com

Last but by no means least – Runner Up  – Jodie Carey: Untitled (Slabs), Edel Assanti

Every exhibition at Edel Assanti is so very different but powerful in its own way.  Although very simple in conception, the striking display of Jodie Carey’s works stayed with me.  Seven plaster slabs were arranged within the gallery, connecting and conversing with one another despite their differing formats.  The works had a real inescapable presence in the gallery – fragile yet monumental, they rose with impressive dominance.

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Jodie Carey, Untitled (Slabs), 2012. Image via www.edelassanti.com.

There have been so many more shows, some that I have written about and some that I haven’t.  There are a lot of fabulous exhibitions planned for next year, including some that I am working on, and I shall totter from one to another in skyscraper heels or by taxi if it’s too chilly.

As many of you enjoy the shoe signatures here my favourite three shoes pictures of 2013 plus a new one with which to wish you all A Merry Christmas and a Happy Shoe Year.  Thank you, as ever, for reading Artista.

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Here, there and everywhere

26 May

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind – as soon as I seem to be back in London and on top of my to-do list I’m heading off somewhere new.  Of course, I’m loving every minute but it has certainly been chaotic which is why this particular post ranges from France to Sussex and back to Shoreditch and Trafalgar Square.

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Monet’s House at Giverny. Own photograph.

A few days after Berlin Gallery Weekend I was woken up in the very early hours to head over to France for the Bank Holiday weekend.  I’ve always wanted to visit Giverny and, as it was only an hour off route (heaven forbid that I could just relax and enjoy French wine and cheese), we programmed the sat-nav and off we went.  Entry to Giverny provides access to Monet’s house and garden.  This was the second pink house with green shutters in which Monet had lived and the second time his house had been separated from the garden by a road.  Colour is everything here – both inside and out.  The walls of the house are adorned with works – there are Japanese prints everywhere plus his huge collection of paintings including works by Delacroix, Cézanne and Renoir.

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Inside Monet’s House. Own photograph.

Even on an overcast day, the garden cannot help but make you smile with its full-to-the-brim flowerbeds and radiant colours.  Monet had started gardening while living at Argenteuil but not on a scale that would suggest the passion he imbued into the gardens at Giverny.  His garden was designed with his paintings in mind – he planted what he wanted to paint so, in a sense, he created the scene that resided in his imagination.  When Monet arrived at Giverny there were no ponds but it had always been his dream to have them and it is, of course, his water lily ponds and the Japanese bridge that have become synonymous with his name.

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The Japanese bridge. Own photograph.

Monet was severely afflicted by cataracts despite two operations towards the end of his life.  As his sight worsened, his works turned from fresh, bright colours to a heavier palette, almost certainly as a result of his blurred colour vision.  Whether or not his gardens became lost to him is hard to say but what can be certain is that his pronounced choices of colour infused his world with light and life for many years and helped to create some of the scenes we remember him for today.

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Monet’s garden. Own photograph.

After settling in at Nogent-Le-Rotrou, it was irresistible to visit the Chateau Saint-Jean as it was only two minutes away.  Built around 1020 on the site of an earlier castle, the building has suffered a lot of intervention over the years and much of what remains is of a later period.  It is an imposing and impressive fortress perched on a point with a vantage over the entire area.  Inside there is a museum dedicated to the history of the town and, strangely enough, a contemporary art gallery with an exhibition of works by Patrick Loste, evoking the often crude portrayals of cave paintings.  I can find art anywhere!

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Chateau Saint-Jean. Own photograph.

It was a flying visit to France but, on the way back home, there was just time to stop in at the Holy Trinity Abbey in Vendôme enabling me to indulge my love of the Gothic period.  The feature of most note has to be the 12th century frescoes that were discovered behind the 14th century chapter house walls.  The sections that remain are badly fragmented the sections but have been preserved remarkably well and one scene showing the Miraculous Catch after Christ’s Resurrection is still strikingly clear consider its age.

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Holy Trinity Abbey, Vendôme. Own photograph.

Back in the UK, it was time for the opening of the opera season at Glyndebourne, the wonderful opera house in Sussex founded in 1934.  As tempted as I am to do so, I will resist touching on the opera but do have to mention their art programme.  As many of you will know, I am very into public installations and making the most of outdoor spaces through art.  Glyndebourne are very much on the same page and this season is marked by an exhibition of works by Sean Henry who does exactly this, creating monumental works in bronze for the urban landscape.  His works capture the mundane, subjects caught in a moment of introspection with which we can identify.  Glydnebourne don’t have the strongest selection of his sculptures but they are unavoidable in the picturesque landscape of the house.

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Sean Henry, Catafalque, 2003. Own photograph.

Finally, it seemed I was back in London for long enough to get around some exhibitions here.  The Catlin Art Prize is a highlight of the calendar and the brilliant eye of the curator means that we can normally expect great things from the nine chosen graduates who have had to produce new work for the exhibition.

Catlinexterior2013 The Catlin Prize takes over Londonewcastle. Image courtesy of Peter Hope and via www.artcatlin.com

The winner Terry Ryu Kim forced the visitor to become part of her installation – manipulating the viewer’s path through architecture and technology.  The work explores how structures can exert power, the installation becomes a stage that dictates our actions.  It is haunting and beautiful, both intimate and evasive at the same time.

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Terry Ryu Kim, Screening Solution I,II and III. Image courtesy of Peter Hope and via www.artcatlin.com

Juno Calypso who won the visitor vote has garnered a lot of attention, using the more traditional medium of photography.  Calypso staged scenes in which she performs as a character called Joyce, always obscuring her face and thereby forcing us to focus on other elements of the scene.  The narrative of the unsettling seems to be a theme in this year’s award.

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Juno Calypso, 12 Reasons You’re Tired All The Time. Image via www.artcatlin.com

All of the finalists deserve mention but I think praise must be given to Nicky Deeley.  Of course, performance art is common now but for a young graduate to produce a work of such maturity is impressive.  The piece sits deftly on the line between creepy, cute and fascinating.  Admittedly I only saw one costume change but the crowds of people gathered around the work certainly suggested everyone was hooked.

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Nicky Deeley performing Island Year. Own photograph.

I can often be hard to please and so regularly gallery spaces rest on their laurels.  One may think this is more true of traditional spaces that are guaranteed the crowds come what may.  Well, The National Gallery is currently shaking things up.  Michael Landy’s Saints Alive is a result of a two year residency with an in-house studio.  Many artists in the past have failed this challenge but Landy has risen to it.  He wasn’t scared of the esteemed regard in which everyone holds the National Gallery’s collections.  Everything that made him seem the most inappropriate person for this position has actually made him the best.

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Saints Alive at The National Gallery. Own photograph.

Asked my thoughts on The NG I would normally name it as a place of calm, a space where one can think and admire some of the most wonderful art in London.  It was the first gallery I visited as a child and somewhere I still regularly visit.  As I approached the Sunley Room I could hear crashes and bangs, normally such noises would have the guards running to find the source of the disturbance.  But the disturbance is, in fact, part of the exhibition.  Landy has subverted the serenity.

Walking in I was met by Saint Apollonia, a nine-foot sculpture made of fibre glass, recalling a sculpture painted in a Lucas Cranach work.  I nervously edged towards the pedal at her feet, balancing precariously on a stiletto and pressing it down.  At this point the pliers she was holding smashed persistently into her mouth.  There’s a spare head ready for when this one becomes a tad too battered.  She is not the only one who is bringing to life the suffering the saints endured.

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Saint Apollonia in the Sunley Room. Own photograph.

Landy has been inspired by the stories of the saints – stories which were once known by everybody yet today have fallen into obscurity. Towering over visitors are seven large-scale kinetic sculptures that swivel and turn, evoking the torment of each saint’s life.  These sculptures are interactive; there are buttons to press, a handle to crank and foot pedals to push. There are T-shirts to be won and a Saint Francis of Assisi donation box activated by coins.

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One of Landy’s kinetic sculptures. Own photograph.

Landy doesn’t intend to cause offence with these sculptures; his research into the works in the collection and his retelling, through these kinetic beasts, of the saints’ stories is remarkable.  Each saint has a symbolic attribute that makes him or her instantly recognisable.  Landy has transformed the saints from objects of spiritual devotion into artworks, made from pieces of junk that play on his interest in destruction.  Landy brings the saints from the walls of the gallery to life.  They are fascinating.  We want to press the buttons again and again – are they unnerving or are they funny?  I don’t think anyone was quite sure.  The legends themselves are often ridiculous and Landy has captured this with his own unique magic, comedy and an enticing undertone of the macabre.  The awful and gruesome ordeals these saints underwent were meant to show their patience and endurance.  As the sculptures break under the strain there is a certain irony here.  And don’t think that’s not fully intentional either.  Landy’s past works have always been about selflessness, generosity and virtue so he wasn’t actually as far removed from these topics as many thought.

Alongside the sculptures are his drawings and collages made from cut-up reproductions of works in the collection.  I’d urge you not to get so distracted by the sculptures that you miss these.

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Saint Jerome in action. Own photograph.

As I turned back to take one last look at the exhibition Saint Jerome was still quivering behind me.  Legend tells that he used to beat himself with a rock to prevent him from having impure sexual thoughts.  But as he stands there quivering you can’t help but wonder what is going on beneath the excessive drapery around his legs.  However, before there was a chance to cast any aspersion onto the virtue of the saint, someone else had crept towards the pedal and Saint Jerome had returned to whacking himself.

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Michael Landy’s Saints Alive is at The National Gallery until 24th November 2013, www.nationagallery.co.uk.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Thank you, as ever, for reading Artista.  I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and wish you all a Happy Shoe Year.

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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.

Frieze Fever and Frenzy: Too Many Galleries to Count

14 Oct

The week just gone is affectionately known by the art world as Frieze week – it is when Frieze (and this year Frieze Masters) takes over Regent’s Park and art lovers flock to London from across the world.  Frieze is accompanied by a host of other fairs (my favourite, and the most stylish, being PAD) as well as gallery openings that compete with each other on every night of the week.

Monday night saw the opening of PAD – the most chic and classy fair by far.  As I don’t ever write about fairs all I will say is that, although we were there for a considerable amount of time, I felt I needed to go back.  I also fell in love with numerous pieces including a Gerrit Rietveld Billet Chair from 1927.

Gerrit Rietveld, Billet Chair, 1927.  Image via www.pad-fairs.com

From PAD, we strolled out the square planning to go to Gagosian.  But the opening was at Britannia Street not Davies Street.  Oops!  Peering through the window we could see the Penone exhibition but not get near the works.  One black cross for me.  Next we tried Ordovas which my Frieze companion assured me was open.  One black cross for him.

Post PAD… Own photograph.

So, with very tired feet (well mine were already and it was only Monday) we went to Stephen Friedman who are exhibiting works by Tom Friedman (no relation).  Friedman’s work explores everyday objects, elevating the mundane beyond its original purpose to extraordinary new forms.  He deconstructs ideas and materials, rebuilding them into sculptural or artistic forms with a new level of genius.  What we think we see and what we actually see are very different things.

Tom Friedman at Stephen Freidman Gallery.  Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

The main gallery space holds the biggest and the best work in this exhibition – a mass of tangled wires that take over the entire room.  As we move around the installation, we can see the hidden silhouettes of human figures and faces trapped within the forms, interlocked within the wires, emerging and evaporating depending on our position.  Friedman is obsessive and, for every piece, he distils each material back to its essence and rebuilds it, presenting a new structure that crosses between the mundane and the magical.

Tom Friedman at Stephen Freidman Gallery.  Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Everyone is opening a blockbuster this week (which makes this time of year both amazing and horrendous) and the National Gallery has gone for Richard Hamilton who was still planning this exhibition days before his death last year.  The painted white walls present a very modern space in the middle of this traditional gallery.  Previewing on Tuesday, the same day as Frieze, the exhibition is a powerful statement of intent – this is Hamilton challenging the art world.  It traces several themes of Hamilton’s career from the 1980s until his death, showing how he was moving towards a more traditional iconography at the end of his life.

The exhibition allows us to study his engagement with Marcel Duchamp, particularly in his works looking at the nude descending the staircase (addressed here in two works).   The works are perfectly executed but have a sense of disquiet; they are quite hard to read, it is often very ambiguous as to what we are looking at.

Richard Hamilton exhibition at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

Hamilton was one of the great experimenters with the computer, creating images that were entirely new, clean and crisp.  This exhibition of his work shows areas of interest that had obsessed him for so long.  One series of works remained unfinished at the time of Hamilton’s death – a trio of inket prints that visualise a moment from Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, telling the story of a painter who loses his mind trying to achieve the perfect nude.   Hamilton knew he would not live to finish the work and made the decision that the exhibition would culminate in the initial presentation of these three large-scale variations.  We will never really know what Hamilton intended and this makes us sombre and reflective.  Each work features Courbet, Poussin and Titian contemplating a reclining female nude.  For me, these works would still be mysterious even if they were finished but, in this state, they just leave us to wonder.

Richard Hamilton exhibition at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

These later paintings aren’t my favourite Hamiltons – they are quite clinical in parts – but there is no denying that this is a beautiful, and surprisingly moving, exhibition.  Seemingly simple, there is so much going on; the paintings lead into one another, as the ideas progress from work to work.

Next, I headed down the road to Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly who are showing Fire by Days – paintings by the New York-based Rita Ackermann.  The idea for these resulted from an accident, a paint spillage on the floor of her studio that she was hastily forced to clean.  It was through these splurges of paint that she began to see suggestions of forms, abstracted but also figurative.  The works are very striking in this space, their strong and vibrant colours complementing the style of the room.  The pages from Ackermann’s sketchbooks, upstairs on the wood panelling of the American Room, look as if they have always been there.  There is nothing wrong with this exhibition but it failed to move me or make enough of an impact (rather like several things recently).

Rita Ackermann at Hauser & Wirth.  Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk

Continuing down Piccadilly to White Cube Mason’s Yard, I popped in to see Magnus Plessen – another artist who oscillates between abstraction and figuration.  Figurative elements cry out to us but they are juxtaposed with abstract passages that seek to disorientate the viewer.  Plessen’s techniques are the most interesting aspect of his work – he often physically turns the canvas to reposition and confound the arrangement of the piece.  It appears that he has scraped away the paint in parts using gestural washes of colour over heavier oils to muddle the picture planes.  With psychedelic acid yellows and hot pinks, there is often too much going to fully understand his intentions.  The show is well-curated and the works are afforded a lot of space – they need a white cube to shine which is exactly what has been allowed to happen here.

Magnus Plessen upstairs at White Cube.  Own photograph.

My list was looking daunting as the day hurried by and I headed up to Pace, the newly opened New York gallery which is now housed in the west wing of the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens’ space.  They have juxtaposed the paintings of Mark Rothko with the seascape photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto.  The eight Rothkos included here make use of a limited palette of predominantly black and grey while the Sugimoto’s use a similar grey-scale colour scheme.  The artists form an aesthetic and quite superficial dialogue that, at times, becomes more of a battle.  It is a stunning exhibition that prompts interesting comparisons – another simple show that achieves its aims stylishly without any fuss.  Pace claim not to have opened in London sooner as they hadn’t found the right person to run the gallery or the right space – well they certainly seem to have hit the nail on the head here and I’m sure they will prove themselves during their four-year tenure.

Pace London. Image via www.manoelabowles.com

After visiting a few shops on Regent Street (to give my brain a well-needed art break), I headed to Savile Row where Thomas Houseago has taken over both of Hauser & Wirth’s gallery spaces there.

Heading to Hauser. Own photograph.

He has chosen not just to split the works between the two galleries but also to give the two spaces different titles: I‘ll be Your Sister (in the North Gallery) comes from a very raw Motorhead song while Special Brew is a strong beer that Houseago used to drink every day before school, getting drunk and avoiding normal school-time activities.  It allowed him to step outside the box.  The North Gallery presents his monumental sculptures, intentionally big and messy, these works have the wow-factor.  His works are brutally straightforward but still manage to appear mysterious and unworldly.  Houseago spends a lot of time drawing and planning the process of his work and this is evident in the highly-textured surfaces that resemble sketching.  The scale in the North Gallery is far more impactful than that in the South and the works are actually causing passers-by to stop and gape.

Thomas Houseago’s I’ll be Your Sister. Own photograph.

By nature of the sheer overload that is Frieze week, I’m having to be brief in my descriptions.  Most of these exhibitions deserve more time and attention but this overview of my mad run around London should give you a taster.

Just over the road, Ordovas are presenting Painting from Life: Carracci Freud, a tiny exhibition that brings together a group of head studies by Annibale Carracci and Lucian Freud.  This is a beautiful juxtaposition – intimate, simple and stunning.  Ordovas knows how to get their shows right and this rare collaboration between them and a public art collection (Dulwich Picture Gallery has loaned a work) shows the esteem in which this gallery is held.  The connections between Freud and Carracci have never before been explored but comparisons reveal intriguing affinities in technique, style, viewpoint and subject.  This isn’t the gallery’s first show of this type as they previously juxtaposed Bacon and Rembrandt and attracted over 10,000 visitors in their first month alone!

Ordovas. Image via www.ordovasart.com

The second of three New York galleries to open in London is David Zwirner (I’ve still not managed to pop into Michael Werner but hope to do so next week).  The gallery has certainly chosen a statement show of Luc Tuymans’ work with which to open their 18th century Grafton Street townhouse.  What a way to inaugurate this space.  Again, the gallery knows how to keep it simple, allowing the paintings space to breathe and space to be viewed.  Tuymans has lacked a proper presence in London since his 2004 Tate Modern retrospective but things are changing.  Allo! is inspired by The Moon and Sixpence, a film loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin.  But Tuymans’ interest in this topic has to do with a general negation of modernism and Hollywood’s long-standing idealisation of the artist as a romantic savage.  This gallery adds a frisson of excitement to the already vibrant area – Dover Street and Grafton Street only continue to improve.

Luc Tuymans’ exhibition at David Zwirner’s new gallery.  Image via www.davidzwirner.com

After a very late lunch, I headed to Gagosian Gallery on Davies Street to see the Giuseppe Penone exhibition I’d planned to see on Monday night.  I seem to have seen a lot of Penone recently.  Here, he has engaged with the long narrow space of the Davies Street gallery, filling it with Pelle di foglie—sguardo incrociato, a large-scale standing sculpture comprised of delicately arranged tree branches and leaves defined in bronze.  Positioned to conceal a human face, two long branches jut outwards in place of the eyes in a projective act of looking, recalling Penone’s long-held fascination with the process of seeing.  It’s only a small show but, if you like Penone, then it’s worth popping in.

Gisueppe Penone, detail of Pelle di foglie—sguardo incrociato.  Image via www.arttribune.com

Further along the road at Gimpel Fils is Shana Moulton’s Preventation, a series of news videos in the on-going saga of Cynthia, her alter-ego.  The films are accompanied by a number of the artworks that feature in her films.

I was nearly all art-ed out for the day but had a final stop for the opening of Tess Jaray’s Mapping the Unseeable at The Piper Gallery.  This exhibition is definitely worth a visit partly to see how paintings need to be appreciated first-hand for the full experience.  Jaray has always maintained a fascination with geometry, pattern, colour and repetition culminating in her distinctive, subtle yet penetrating works.  As with many of the works I saw on Tuesday, Jaray plays with a carefully wrought tension between opposites: serenity and intensity, silence and sound, stasis and motion and two and three dimensions.  The exhibition includes over twenty identically-sized works from Jaray’s recent series, After Malevich; inspired by Malevich’s Red Square, they have an energy and intensity that grabs you as soon as you enter.  Despite the vast number of openings on Tuesday night, the gallery was packed!

Peaking into Tess Jaray’s Mapping the Unseeable.  Image via www.thepipergallery.com

Wednesday was my fairs day and, as well as a return trip to PAD, I spent time at Frieze and Frieze Masters which took up most of the day and evening.  But, I did make a small window to pop to The Courtauld for a private tour of their Peter Lely exhibition.  Lely is an important artist in British history but I don’t actually think very many people are familiar with, or excited by, his work so this is a brave choice of exhibition from The Courtauld.  Lely was appointed Principal Painter to Charles II in 1661 and his paintings define the glamour and debauchery of the period.  The works in this exhibition, however, concentrate on the period in the 1640s and 1650s when he was working in England, painting pastoral landscapes and large-scale narratives.  The exhibition is organised around The Courtauld’s own unfinished The Concert – originally thought to depict Lely and his family, it seems to be a highly personal and allegorical interpretation of Music in the service of Beauty.  This particular piece hasn’t been on display for a while and it’s nice to have the opportunity to view it in the context of other similar works.

Peter Lely, detail of The Concert. Own photograph.

The Courtauld is making the most of this exhibition with a Lely-fest; two other Lely’s are on show downstairs and room 12 boasts a display of drawings from Lely’s own celebrated and rare collection.

What this week has proved is how effective simple exhibitions can be.  Exhibited on putty-coloured walls with beautifully focused lighting, this exhibition gets it right.  Lely is a confusing artist with a mixture of styles that often betray his Flemish origins.  The paintings on show here are far more powerful than his Court portraiture of later years and this is another winner from The Courtauld.

Lely exhibition at The Courtauld. Own photograph.

Thursday was my final day of rushing round fairs and exhibitions and the evening saw two conveniently close openings on Riding House Street.  You may remember that I wrote about visiting Nick Goss’s studio a while ago.  I popped back a couple of weeks ago to see his new works and, as a result, was ridiculously excited by the prospect this exhibition.  The works here concentrate on portrayals of two different kinds of space – rehearsal spaces and the artist’s studio – where Goss seeks to investigate the detritus associated with the spaces used when playing in a band.  Cheap and simple, the limitations of these rooms allow creativity to flourish which promulgates the development of musical ideas.  Yet, devoid of players and instruments, the spaces have an uncharacteristic, melancholic atmosphere.  Goss has developed the theme of the shabby rehearsal space in a study of fakery and idealisation, filled with a sense of nostalgia and an elusive sensibility.  His are beautiful works, subtle paintings that pull you into his unique world.

Nick Goss’s new works at Josh Lilley. Image via www.joshlilleygallery.com

Over the road at TJ Boulting is an exhibition by Juliana Leite; her new work stems from consistent investigations into the physical action of her own body in space.  The centrepiece is a large sculpture, of two separate latex forms joined in the centre; describing the artist’s movement up and down a staircase, the piece strikes a resonance with Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending a staircase (a common theme this week).  The two parts were cast from a large mould composed of a set of stairs covered with a wooden tunnel, slowly lined with clay.  The work is immense and we are drawn to walk around it, exploring its textures and crevices several times before we feel we have understood its form.

Juliana Leite’s impressive new sculpture.  Image via www.tjboulting.com

Even thinking about the week just gone slightly exhausts me.  I have seen such a wealth of incredible art (some not so incredible too) and I have the sorest feet to show for it.  I still have 12 exhibitions to cover that I didn’t manage to have the time for, I’d have loved to get to the other art fairs and I would have relished more time at the fairs I did explore.  But, there are only a set number of hours in the week and I think I didn’t do badly!

Tom Friedman is at Stephen Friedman Gallery until 10th November 2012, www.stephenfriedman.comRichard Hamilton: The Late Works is at the National Gallery until 13th January 2013, www.nationalgallery,org.ukRita Ackermann: Fire by Days is at Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly until 3rd November 2012, www.hauserwirth.comMagnus Plessen: Riding the Image is at White Cube Mason’s Yard until 10th November 2012, www.whitecube.comRothko/Suginoto: Dark Paintings and Secrets is at Pace London until 17th November 2012, www.pacegallery.comThomas Houseago: I’ll be Your Sister and Special Brew are at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row until 27th October 2012, www.hauserwirth.comPainting from Life: Carracci Freud is at Odovas until 15th December 2012, www.ordovasart.comLuc Tuymans: Allo! Is at David Zwirner until 17th November, www.davidzwirner.comGiuseppe Penone: Intersecting Gaze / Sguardo Incrociato is at Gagosian Davies Street until 24th November 2012, www.gagosian.comShana Moulton: Prevention is at Gimpel Fils until 17th November 2012, www.gimpelfils.comTess Jaray – Mapping the Unseeable is at The Piper Gallery until Friday 9th November 2012, www.thepipergallery.comPeter Lely: A Lyrical Vision is at The Courtauld Gallery until 13th January 2012, www.courtauld.ac.ukNick Goss – Tin Drum is at Josh Lilley Gallery until Friday 23rd November 2012, www.joshlilleygallery.comJuliana Cerqueira Leite: Portmanteau is at TJ Boulting until 10th November 2012, www.tjboulting.com.

A Collaborative Conversation: The Power of Metamorphosis at the National Gallery

9 Jul

I’m not enjoying this weather.  Waking up in July and putting on winter boots because of the rain and puddled pavements just doesn’t seem right.  The mixture of clothes is so incongruous.  Some are determined that it’s July and are donning summer dresses and flip flops no matter what.  While others are more resigned and have brought their Uggs back out.  So, it was with a heavy heart that I set off in the dank this morning to the National Gallery.

But I’m pleased to say that with Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 the National Gallery has once again pulled it out of the bag.  The exhibition is part of a much larger collaborative scheme which sees artists, choreographers, composers, poets and librettists responding to three paintings by Titian. Each visual artist (Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger) has been afforded one room at the National Gallery as well as space in which to illustrate their costume and set designs for newly commissioned ballets that will be performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House.  Two of each of their costumes are shown here: Ofili’s using his trademark vibrant colours, Wallinger’s employing a tile pattern derived from Siena Cathedral and Shawcross’s using configurations of geometric spirals that originate from the light patterns created by his robotic Diana.

Chris Ofili’s costume designs. Own photograph.

The source of all these new works in various media is the three Titian paintings, displayed here together for the first time since leaving Titian’s own studio.  The dark and enigmatic curation of the exhibition means that the paintings shine from the walls.  The only downside of the darkness is that the wall labels are practically illegible but in terms of the atmosphere it conjures up it’s worth the loss.  There is no cop-out here with dim lighting, this is dark, powerful and evocative.

Titian, Diana and Actaeon, 1556-59. Image courtesy of the National Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

I have been a Conrad Shawcross fan since I first saw one of his works but, even without this bias, his Trophy is the clear winner (although in no way are the works intended for comparison).  Shawcross’s Diana is a robot, reminiscent of not only his past works but also Tim Lewis’s mechanised pieces.  His Diana moves around her glass case in a beguiling way, her seductive movement leaves us heady.  Actaeon is represented by a wooden antler and, here, Diana examines her trophy with a light at the end of a wand.  The work is mesmerising and hypnotic.   By looking at Diana through innovative modern and technological design, Shawcross has redesigned Titian’s figures so they are now in tune with our modern world.  I came back to this work time and time again, following Diana’s journey and joining her in this ritual.

Conrad Shawcross, Trophy, 2012. Own photograph.

Mark Wallinger’s work superbly plays with the ideas of voyeurism found in these Titian pieces.  He has created a bathroom within a closed box which we are able to look into through peepholes.  By doing this we invade Diana’s space and ruin her privacy, recalling Actaeon encroaching on Diana’s sanctuary.  Wallinger explores Diana bathing through a contemporary motif by using a real Diana to explore the themes of Titian’s paintings. The piece is very physical and six actual women called Diana will play the role throughout the duration of the exhibition.  It’s brilliant – you can’t help but look and want to see more.  One viewing hole is a broken pane in a frosted window (even in high heels, I had to strain on tiptoes to see through, which may make the work a bit too obtuse for those of us on the smaller side) and another opening (better for those in flat shoes) can be found in the slats of a wooden window.  Intentionally, this only affords us partial glimpses of the scene.

Mark Wallinger, Diana, 2012. Own photograph.

On one side are two eyeholes that reveal the model in more detail and it is this that diminishes the work slightly for me as I felt that here the piece lost part of its mystery.  Notwithstanding, this is still very powerful and very Wallinger.

Mark Wallinger, Diana, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist and Anthony Reynolds Gallery and via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

For me, Ofili’s works are the least effective and are partly lost alongside the other two responses. His body of seven new paintings embraces the female form, transposing the Classical world to his home in Trinidad. These works don’t have the force or immediacy of the others.  Placed in between Shawcross and Wallinger they didn’t grab me in the same way.  Maybe they would have been better set apart.

Some of Chris Ofili’s new paintings. Own photograph.

There is also a choreographic room affording a glimpse into the work of the seven choreographers and a room showing working models of the artist’s sets.  The exhibition is designed to give a taster of the overall project and it certainly does this.  I now want to go to see the ballets at the ROH, I want to spend more time with Shawcross’s Diana.

Conrad Shawcross’s Royal Opera House set design. Own photograph.

I was disappointed that a publication hasn’t been produced to accompany this exhibition although I’m told that a leaflet is to follow.  I find the cross-media conversation intriguing, especially as there can be no doubt that it’s been a success and has resulted in some very powerful new works.

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is at the National Gallery from 11th July until 23rd September 2012, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

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.

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