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Who’ll Stop The Rain – Tate, Barbican and The Courtauld

19 Feb

So many exhibitions have opened in the last week or so that it is nearly impossible to keep up.

Last Monday, I started at Tate’s latest BP British Art Display – Looking at the View – which brings together a multitude of landscape works from Tate’s stores. The works span 300 years and vary in quality and excitement but there are some pieces worth seeing including works by Julian Opie, Paul Graham, Wolfgang Tilmans, Gilbert & George, Willie Doherty, Patrick Caulfield and JMW Turner. Landscape has often been used to highlight changing social or political conditions and this display demonstrates the usage of the genre, showing how unconnected artists, centuries apart, have looked at our landscape in surprisingly similar ways and asked similar questions of their audiences.

Opie

Julian Opie dominates in the distance. Own photograph.

The display has been publicised using Joseph Wright’s Sir Brooke Boothby partnered with Tracey Emin’s Monument Valley (Grand Scale). Wright shows Boothby reading Rousseau’s first Dialogues, of which he was the publisher, while Emin is also seen reading her own book – a comment on literary self-regard and the act of reading itself. It’s quite different to a normal Tate exhibition (and I breathed a sigh of relief that thankfully they haven’t painted the walls grey) but there is a lack of information as you wander round the space which, combined with the lack of narrative, can be confusing. It’s meant to be simplistic, an exhibition about looking, but a tad more guidance wouldn’t go amiss.

Tate Britain Looking at the View

Joseph Wright’s Sir Brooke Boothby next to Tracey Emin’s Monument Valley (Grand Scale). Image via www.guardian.co.uk

I’m not sure all of the works quite fit in with the thematic arrangement of landscape but it’s certainly a diverse survey. It isn’t as worthy of consideration as a proper exhibition in its own right. It’s a bit of a hotchpotch; there are some beautiful juxtapositions but some strange ones too.

The display does act as a prelude to the Tate Britain re-hang that will be completed this May and aims to pull together the varied media of Tate’s collection and unite the works across the periods, providing coherence and solidarity. Let’s see shall we.

looking at the view

Looking at the View at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

Next up for me was the Barbican; I was excited about The Bride and the Bachelors and my expectations didn’t let me down. This is the first exhibition to explore Marcel Duchamp’s impact on four other modern greats – John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. It traces and studies their exchanges and collaborations blurring the boundaries between stage and gallery. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as mere creative relationships – Cage and Cunningham were life partners while Johns and Rauschenberg were long-term lovers – and the Barbican cast light on this spider’s web.

Press Preview At The Barbican Art Gallery Their New Exhibition The Bride And The Bachelors

The Bride and the Bachelors at The Barbican. Image via www.gettyimages.com

The personal and creative relationships of these artists are no doubt complicated and Barbican has not gone down an easy or over simplistic route in making these connections. It’s well-interconnected throughout, bringing the group together at every unexpected turn. By avoiding the obvious, the exhibition is challenging and really makes us think about what was going on during this important period.

Of course, there’s Duchamp’s The Bride (the show’s title piece) but there’s so much more including ghostly piano and dance performances and live dance pieces smack bang in the middle of the gallery, challenging our ideas about what a gallery can be in a fascinating cross-fertilisation of the arts. We can’t help but become part of the performance as we walk around the stage, encountering the art from every conceivable angle and viewpoint. This radical curation would have delighted Duchamp who sought to do things differently and change perceptions. Due to the exhibition’s design, the conversations between these creative genii are still very much ongoing today. The works of the ‘bachelors’ are saturated with Duchamp but often in such subtle ways that we are shocked to realise the inherent connections. Where would these artists have ended up without Duchamp? Duchamp oversees the power and poetry here, an invisible figure governing the creativity of the period as well as our enjoyment of the show. The soul of Duchamp is a persistent presence as we look at how important he was for the ‘bachelors’ and how important they were for him.

upstairs

Exploring the upper galleries. Own photograph.

The exhibition has been partly devised by artist Philippe Parreno and the juxtapositions he creates on the main stage are quite remarkable. I believe the live dance pieces will be performed on Thursday evenings and during the weekends and, to make the most of this exhibition, I’d recommend going at these times.

dancers

Dancers in action on the main stage. Own photograph.

Some of Duchamp’s most seminal works are here and, in the same way that we still talk about them in any discussion of this period, I feel sure that this exhibition will be talked about long after its closing.

duchamp stars

Duchamp is the star of the show. Own photograph.

While at the Barbican, and with only two weeks until its closing, I decided to make the most of my visit and go to see the Rain Room. Having been told to change my shoes (heels aren’t recommended for walking over a wet metal grid), I slipped my ballerinas on and headed into the Curve Gallery.

The piece, created by Random International, invites us to control the rain and puts our trust to the test. It goes against our better nature and our very instincts to walk headlong into this torrential sheet of water. I must say, having heard mixed reports, I wasn’t very trusting but eventually fought my demons and walked into the water with my arms outstretched hoping they would trigger the sensors before I did. I didn’t think It would make for a very good blog if I wussed out and walked round the edge. I’m not upset that I must have looked like someone from the Ministry of Silly Walks wandering about in this somewhat strange fashion as my coat sleeves had been rained on by the time I emerged. Maybe I should have gone in more casual attire and worn a raincoat but, needs must, and straight hair and a smart dress were required.

starting

The nervous beginning… Own photograph.

You walk round a dark curving corridor and are confronted by a large patch of thundering rain. It must be that we don’t see quite enough rain in the UK because people are going wild to get into The Rain Room. The piece is activated by sensors and the falling water is meant to stop as you walk through the installation. You are forced to walk slowly and sedately through the piece allowing for greater and calmer appreciation of your experience. The sense of power and control is bewildering and surreal. Standing in the middle of the 100 square metre grid, enclosed by rain, is exciting. I can’t deny the wonder I felt at being part of the work. But, after a couple of minutes I was done. I’d walked through the rain, I’d stood in the rain and I’d narrowly avoided getting drenched. Maybe the inner child in me didn’t want to come out to play but I didn’t really see the point in hanging around.

inside

Inside the installation. Own photograph.

The technology behind the work is amazing. It’s memorable but I’m not sure it was as satisfying and spellbinding as I had expected it to be. There can be no doubt that it has caused a great deal of excitement and that the work is innovative but when I got outside I just wanted to dry off my arms.

looking back

Looking back. Own photograph.

Numbers are limited to five people in the rain at any one time which explains the four hour queue at peak periods. Is it really worth it?

It was a busy day and, with wet arms and my heels back on, I headed over to The Courtauld to have a look at their Becoming Picasso which revolves around the artist’s work in 1901. The Courtauld’s recent exhibitions have gone from strength to strength focusing around one work from their own collection with a series of exceptional, rarely lent, loans to reinforce their message. This exhibition, in that sense, is no exception and they deserve to be very highly commended for the loans they have achieved here.

picasso-met-2010-02

Picasso, Seated Harlequin, 1901. Image via www.arthistory.about.com

The Courtauld’s own Child with a Dove is one of the stars of the show, looking at when Picasso ‘found his own voice as an artist’. The exhibition title is apt as it was in 1901 that Picasso went to Paris and really began to find his feet as an artist and concentrate on his art rather than his more vivacious lifestyle in Spain.

Pablo Picasso's Child with a Dove, 1901

Picasso, Child with a Dove, 1901. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition is ordered differently from usual and the entrance is where we would expect to find the exit, partly for practical reasons to avoid queuing on the stairs but also to make this space curatorially clearer. It is an unmissable exhibition with an exemplary selection of works, a fascinating look at Picasso becoming Picasso, developing his own style and identity in preparation for his debut exhibition at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery. A selection of works from that exhibition fills the first small room, setting a context for this period and allows us to get a feel for the pace at which Picasso worked, influenced by the bustle of Parisian life – the colours, the art and the daring nightlife.

first room

The new first room of The Courtauld Gallery exhibition space. Own photograph.

The second room looks at Picasso’s change in direction as we see him introduce themes that would come to dominate his works throughout his career. The works here introduce a more melancholic mood which the gallery explain in part by the tragic suicide of Carles Casagemas, one of Picasso’s closest friends. Here, the pieces are emotionally powerful, anticipating his later Blue Period. He moved so quickly from the saleable and marketable artist we saw in the first room to someone who the Parisian market struggled, at the time, to understand – this was the seminal year when he found his artistic voice and began to make his mark that will never fade in the history of art. These paintings explore the interplay between innocence and experience, purity and corruption and life and death, bound up both with his friend’s death and a number of visits he made to the Saint-Lazare women’s prison.

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Picasso, Yo – Picasso, 1901. Image via www.bbc.co.uk

Although it is no doubt a brilliant exhibition, it doesn’t quite live up to some of The Courtauld’s recent shows and something was lacking here. These are certainly not Picasso’s most palatable paintings and herein lies one of the problems with the exhibition – for a Picasso lover or scholar it is a masterpiece. But, for someone finding Picasso (as he was indeed finding himself) I’m not sure you’ll come away enraptured by the artist.

becoming picasso

Becoming Picasso at The Courtauld. Own photograph.

With only 18 works, The Courtauld don’t fuss around or waste space and their exhibitions are always academically enlightening. They have also produced a wonderful catalogue which looks in depth at the profound changes of 1901.

I haven’t even made a ripple in the water of all the shows that have recently opened, my list at the moment is ever growing but then again I wouldn’t like it any other way. I’m not too sure I’ll be hurrying back to any installation that requires flat shoes though – not really my thing at all.

Looking at the View is at Tate Britain until 2nd June 2013, www.tate.org.uk.  The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns is at The Barbican until 9th June 2013 and The Rain Room is at The Barbican until 3rd March 2013, www.barbican.org.uk.  Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 is at The Courtauld Gallery until 26th May 2013, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

Drenched in Devotion – the National Gallery

23 Aug

Anyone who had the pleasure of being in London today will know the weather was monsoon- monstrous.  The diagonal downpour rendered my umbrella useless.  The roads were flooding.  Thinking that my knee wasn’t strong enough to tackle slippery streets in stilettos, I made the foolish mistake of changing into a pair of ballerinas that I keep, in my bag for emergencies.  Oh what a fool I was, ‘what an addlepated fool’.  Within seconds, my pumps confirmed my earlier idea that I should have worn wellies.  I slowly squelched my way to the National Gallery.  The lady in front of me actually lost a shoe as hers were so wet so I suppose I should count myself lucky but really there is nothing worse than wet feet!

Now that hand driers are so high tech even my cunning plan of drying my feet in the loos was a failure. I was destined to remain uncomfortable so I headed to the exhibition leaving a trail of wet footprints behind me.  Unusually, for downstairs at the National Gallery, Devotion by Design is free of charge. Although the works are drawn mostly from the Gallery’s own collection, this does not dilute the exhibition especially as some are not normally on public view.

Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, Baptism altarpiece, 1387. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition considers altarpieces in context, examining their structure and relationship to the surrounding architecture, following the formal, stylistic and typological developments across the period of concern.  It also looks at how they have been dismembered and displayed independently and out of context.  Until now, the Rogier van der Weyden work upstairs (from a 15th century Netherlandish altarpiece) was the best example of fragmentation of which I was aware.  We are fairly certain that this fragment, known as The Magdalen Reading, has come from the lower right-hand corner of an elaborate painting showing the Virgin and Child with Saints.  Scholars have ascertained that the Magdalen was cut down to its present shape before 1811 and then, between approximately 1845-1860, moved to its new mahogany support.  When the picture was cleaned in 1955, an area of brown overpaint, that covered the red drapery on the left-hand side, was removed and this revealed two feet that protrude from the drapery.  Two other fragments from the larger altarpiece survive and using this, and a 15th century drawing of the Virgin and Child, it is possible to show how the fragments would interlink.  In the National Gallery exhibition of 1999, the three fragments were brought together in an attempt to make modern reconstructions more easily understood.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalen Reading, before 1438. Image via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

One of the fascinating things about altarpieces is the sheer variety of works that come under this category.  An altarpiece is an image-bearing structure placed upon or behind an altar in a Christian church.  Usually painted, it often forms the focus of devotion.  The size, construction, complexity and decoration will vary depending on the location and original commission.  Although this exhibition focuses solely on Italian altarpieces from the 13th-15th centuries the range is still immense.

The exhibition opens with a glossary of Christian worship and a plan of an Italian Church;  I was impressed by the wall labels and this continued throughout.   The paintings in the first room show altarpieces in context, for example van der Weyden’s The Exhumation of Saint Hubert where the altar is decorated with an altarpiece, a reliquary set and a tabernacle.

Rogier van der Weyden and workshop, The Exhumation of Saint Hunbert, late 1430s. Image via http://en.wikipedia.org

Perhaps the rain seemed to have encouraged more art ‘experts’ than usual and I could have been entertained for hours, listening to people’s comments in the gallery.  As I stood quietly taking notes, the guard came up and said to me ‘I am so pleased to have you in my room, it’s a great pleasure’. Sadly, I kid you not!

I had thought I’d pop in and out of the National today but this exhibition and these works demand respect, they were after all destined as objects of religious prayer.  In the second room, two altarpieces, constructed 70 years apart, are displayed together intentionally to be contrasted.  The works are free-standing so we can see both sides. The backs of the objects tell a story as well and the glossary that continues on the walls helps to explain these objects.  Through these two altarpieces, we are able to examine the formal changes undergone in the 15th century when a multi-panelled polyptych in a Gothic frame developed into a unified rectangular pala.  By being able to circumnavigate the structures, it’s possible to understand the different constructions.

Room two in Devotion by Design. Image via www.independent.co.uk

Crivelli’s La Madonna della Rondine, which remains in its original frame, from a side altar at San Francesco dei Zoccolanti in Matelica, looks exquisite in these dimly lit rooms.  This work was jointly commissioned and the interests of both patrons are represented with the left-hand side showing clerical interests and the right-hand side lay interests.

Carlo Crivelli, La Madonna della Rondine, after 1490. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.   

Interestingly, in the same room, the National Gallery have been able to include a reproduction of the contract for the Gozzoli altarpiece, designed for San Marco, a Dominican convent in Florence. It is amazing to see the detail and how every element has been considered and discussed.  It not only names each Saint for inclusion but also stipulates their positions.  The network of relationships involved in commissions, whether they were private or through a religious confraternity, is fascinating.  Altarpieces represent the will of patron rather than artist in many cases.

Room Four has been turned into a chapel, evoking the interior of a Tuscan church, c. 1500.  The positioning of the benches, the music and the dim lighting create a mystical atmosphere.  The high altar has two candlesticks and an altar cross for celebration of mass while, around the edges of room, different styles of altarpieces show how the progression of design has changed over time.  As the 15th century moved on, so did artists’ practices and ideas as perspective was introduced and new styles of altarpieces evolved.

Luca Signorelli, The Circumcision, c. 1490-91. Image via www.intofineart.com

As the exhibition progresses, it focuses more on dislocations.  This affords us the opportunity to study why these were they taken apart.  Historians and scientists are working to reconstruct these fragmentary pieces using incredible modern technology such as x-radiographs, infrared photographs, diagrams and virtual reconstructions.  As the final room shows, sometimes it is very hard to know if these fragments or large-scale paintings were, or were from, altarpieces at all. Without specific evidence of the original context we can only ever guess.  Altarpieces were commissions to express and aid Christian devotion and were not intended to be viewed individually.  Art historians will always be stuck in debate and will always have different opinions.

Fra Angelico, Blessing Redeemer, c. 1423.  Image via http://en.wikipedia.org

There is no denying that it is wonderful to be able to see an altarpiece in the location in which it was intended but the fragments shown throughout this exhibition illustrate that this is not always possible.  It is sometimes hard to imagine the magnificence and intricacy, the subtleties and complexities of the original altarpieces but the encounter created here by the National Gallery is the perfect substitute.

This exhibition is informative, educational and fascinating.  It considers these objects in their original context, as well as their new homes in galleries, following their lives and histories.  This exhibition makes use of the National Gallery’s permanent collection, showing the strength of research they have carried out.

I thought I knew these images well but they have been rediscovered and presented in a new light.  I hope this exhibition encourages people to look more closely at the altarpieces in the gallery upstairs as well.  Devotion by Design deserves more time than I had today and it is certainly an exhibition I will revisit.  I’d even forgotten my wet feet until I left and the spell of devotion was broken.

Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500 is at the National Gallery until 2nd October 2011, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

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