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One for the kids… Andy Warhol and Philip Haas

20 Jun

The popularity of Andy Warhol will probably mean that many people will flock to Dulwich to see their latest exhibition.  And this is exactly what I did on Tuesday morning.  Sean, my trusty sat nav, took me round the North Circular and through the Rotherhithe Tunnel and soon as I was outside the gallery ready to have a coffee and a quick sunbathing session in the gardens of the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Warhol is renowned for turning himself into a brand and he is one of the most recognisable and important figures in recent art history.  His iconic prints of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup in particular will never leave our visual vocabulary.  Andy Warhol: The Portfolios focuses on the period from 1962-84 when he worked almost exclusively with silkscreen printing.  Using a method more commonly practised in commercial reproduction, Warhol transformed famous faces and still lives into fine art using multiple colour combinations (that required separate screens).  Warhol was a master at this technique and although he set up a factory-like system where he was rarely present to pull the screens himself, he selected the colours, the design and the form, and chose which prints were to be published.  The quality of these prints is of the highest standard, the colours are dazzling and the finish is exemplary.

Andy Warhol, Grapes D. D., 1979. Own photograph.

I don’t think the exhibition fully shows off the impact of all of Warhol’s work.  It’s nice but it’s a bit of a gentle show that doesn’t do enough to draw people in beyond the fact that the works are Warhol’s.

Warhol prints at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.

The gallery is naturally long and narrow, providing a kind of viewing experience that is different from the norm.  The prints are densely hung, recalling an 18th century salon print room, as opposed to the usual white box hang customary for Warhol’s.  I often find the Dulwich space quite difficult and it certainly doesn’t work for all exhibitions.  Here, there are no wall panels or captions, instead the works are allowed to speak for themselves.  To be fair, we already know a lot about these works and many of them don’t require much explanation.

Andy Warhol: The Portfolios in situ at Dulwich. Own photograph.

Dulwich has chosen not to produce an exhibition catalogue to accompany the show as they’ve rightly said that there are so many books already in existence.  In general though, there seems to be something missing here.  Not just a catalogue but that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that would give this show more of a spark.

Running concurrently is an exhibition of Philip Haas works, a set of four 15-foot high fibreglass sculptures (found outdoors) and their maquettes.  The works are huge recreations of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 16th century paintings that Haas aims to bring into a physical reality.  The small maquettes are actually more effective than the finished pieces although, placed in the Gallery, they distract from Dulwich’s amazing permanent collection.  The setting of the gardens is more appropriate with Winter now a three-dimensional gnarled tree trunk emerging from the Gallery grounds but at this scale the pieces become too garish.

Philip Haas works in the Dulwich gardens. Own photograph.

A warden actually told me that ‘the kids love it’; although it’s great to attract all age groups into the Gallery I’m not sure that this should be the selling point of an exhibition at a gallery of such calibre.  In my opinion, although striking, these works make a mockery of the Arcimboldo paintings on which they are modelled.  The faces lose the profound sensitivity that Arcimboldo managed to create through assembled fruit.  It seems strange to have these comic playful pieces juxtaposed with the iconic imagery of Warhol.

For obvious reasons the Warhol exhibition is being given far more prominence in the literature produced but the Haas can’t help but make an immediate visual statement when you walk in.

Philip Haas works in the Dulwich gardens. Own photograph.

I did enjoy the Warhol but I left feeling a bit unsure.  Dulwich is always a treat but I think I expected a little more.  My lack of excitement wasn’t helped when Sean let me down on the homeward journey and decided that I should go home via Clapham and Chelsea.  I had no idea I’d set off in the wrong direction and so my cunning plan to avoid central London was foiled.

Andy Warhol: The Portfolios is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 16th September 2012, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

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Out of London and out of Heels – A Dreary Day Out in Colchester

17 Nov

I’d been getting restless so it was time for a day trip to visit another of the new contemporary galleries popping up all over the country.  This time it was Colchester, only a hop skip and a jump away by Mini.  My sat-nav, Sean with his gorgeous Irish accent, has a real thing for the M25 and by deciding to ignore him and following my own geographical instincts the journey took a tad longer than it normally would have done.  Sorry Sean.  My route, however, enabled us to enjoy the scenery and the pretty country lanes of Essex and we arrived excited to see what Colchester has to offer.

Colchester. Own photograph.

Colchester is a hill town with typically English characteristics – a castle, a river, a market place and a strict Roman grid plan surrounded by a town wall.  It’s very walkable – in fact, we easily managed to see everything within the day and still get out in time to miss rush hour!

Colchester Castle. Own photograph.

Our first stop was the town’s Norman castle, built during the reign of William the Conqueror.  The interior doesn’t do justice to the excellent condition of the building and its impressive build.  It is designed solely with children in mind; OK, fair enough, they are the museum’s bread and butter but, here it speaks down to them with patronising and dark displays and is done in a way that practically excludes adults.  Wasted opportunity #1.

Inside the Castle. Own photograph.

A neatly manicured park sweeps down from the Castle to the River Colne and rather non-descript Roman wall.  The boating lake had dried up and was rather smelly and we hurried on.  Although the park itself is pretty, this certainly counts as wasted opportunity #2.

The River Colne. Own photograph.

The town’s Natural History Museum, that we happened on by chance, is housed within a pretty church. Unlike the castle, entry is free so it’s worth a quick peek if you’re in the area.  The churchyard is overgrown and has been left to deteriorate, a common theme in Colchester – wasted opportunity #3.  It feels a bit like a town that time has left behind and is in desperate need of some TLC.   There are some English Heritage properties in town too but everything is so badly signed that you need a degree in orientation and a great deal of common sense to get around.  Oh yes, #4.

The churchyard of the Natural History Museum. Own photograph.

After lunch, it was time to visit firstsite, our main reason for this trip.  Dubbed the Golden Banana, firstsite (annoyingly, with no capitals or spaces) opened in September this year.  Designed by Rafael Viñoly it was originally scheduled to open in 2008 with a projected budget of £18 million.  It finally came in £10 million over budget and a few years late – not a good start.  Designed as an art gallery for purposes of display, it is the strangest shape building.  The curved walls do not lend themselves to conventional picture hanging and, rather than confront this ‘problem’ with ingenious ceiling hangings or sculptural installations, the curators decided to leave vast expanses of the walls bare (and boring).  This space could be interesting to play with but the gallery just doesn’t make sense.

On approach, the building does look impressive with its distinctive gold colour.  But, although great at first sight (excuse the pun), the building peters off into a bungalow-like extension that is tedious compared with the statement-making front elevation.

Firstsite.  Own photograph.

Their current exhibition is inspired by Colchester’s history as Britain’s first city.  While all the other new galleries across the UK have gone for something big to mark their openings, this exhibition gets lost in the space.  It supposedly considers how history is represented and re-enacted and how art and archaeology invite us to think about everyday, functional objects as sources of information or symbols of our cultures, past and present.  In this vein, the gallery will permanently exhibit the Berryfield Mosaic, in almost exactly the same spot where it was discovered.  This is a nice touch as it was originally part of the dining room floor in a Roman townhouse that once stood here.  But, the amount of existing museums in Colchester concentrating on local history and civic pride meant that firstsite needed to take a braver leap.  Despite its striking design, the gallery has managed to be bland – peculiarly, one work is already missing for conservation reasons.

An empty wall at firstsite. Own photograph.

They have all the big names in there but there’s no wow factor and no feeling of excitement.  There’s a nice Bill Woodrow narrative sculpture and a good Ai Weiwei column-like sculpture that combines the traditional Chinese materials of porcelain and bamboo.  The Barbara Hepworth on loan from Tate is pressed against a wall in a specially air-conditioned room.  Visitors can’t walk around it and it seems cramped.  Yet, the leaflet proudly proclaims that at 3,200 square metres firstsite will rank among the largest contemporary art venues in the UK.  What a waste of space!

Bill Woodrow, Car Door, Boot and Wing with Roman Helmet, 1982. Own photograph.

Mostly, the gallery seems to be filled with loos – I reckon we passed about eight different toilet blocks as we went round.  Maybe they’d have been better getting a few more works in and fewer toilets.  Firstsite is a wasted opportunity (#5) and not a gallery that I’ll be rushing back to.

Inside firstsite. Own photograph.

Onwards…  We headed to the Minories, the gallery that used to house what is now firstsite.  Built in the last phase of the Palladian style, it is another stunning building although most of it is now shut off.  Again, it’s so disappointing (wasted opportunity #6).  Colchester has so much potential but most of it has been allowed to fade away.

The Minories. Own photograph.

The nearby Holytrees Museum was the most engaging stop of the day.  Built in 1719 on the site of an Elizabethan house, Holytrees is a beautiful 18th century building whose collections focus on themes of domestic life and childhood in Colchester over the last 300 years.

The Holytrees Museum. Own photograph.

We had an amble around the town with the aim of seeing Jumbo, the town’s Romanesque water tower, built by Charles Clegg in 1882-3, and standing where the Roman Forum would have been.   Construction required well over a million bricks and Jumbo can hold up to 230,000 gallons of water.  Although it was decommissioned in the 1980s, it is a beautiful structure that dominates the town and was worth the stroll to go and see it close up.  It is partly consumed by the modern developments that surround it and I think this area could have been more sensitively regenerated (that’d be #7).

Jumbo. Own photograph.

Architecturally, the old town is quite pretty but it lacked excitement.  Although there’s a lot to see, there are very many more places where I’d prefer to spend the day.  Luckily, we passed the time gossiping and we had a giggle but that was nothing to do with the ‘delights’ of Colchester – a town that hasn’t quite worked itself, or the tourist market, out yet.

Camulodunum is at firstsite, Colchester, until 22nd January 2011, www.firstsite.uk.net.

Two of a Kind? Twombly and Poussin at Dulwich

26 Jul

Driving down to Dulwich earlier today, I decided to rely on the brain power of my sat-nav to guide the way.  I thought it was a fairly safe decision to use a gadget designed for navigating to help me on my way but here I was mistaken.  Admittedly, I was treated to a delightfully scenic tour of London before happening on Dulwich but I got there in the end.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery, as always, is worth a visit for the sheer beauty of Soane’s architecture (I have a thing for Soane since one of my first ever work placements was at the Sir John Soane Museum) and its impressive permanent collection.

Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.

Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters attempts to combine the works of Cy Twombly and Nicolas Poussin.  Both artists moved to Rome aged 30 and found their lifelong subject matter in this amazing city, inspired by the worlds of Classical antiquities.

Nicolas Poussin, The Nurture of Jupiter, mid-1630s. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.  

There is no doubt that both these artists are great and that there is a link but I don’t think this bold idea quite pulls through.

Poussin’s paintings are detailed canvases which draw the viewer into his Classical narratives. Although Twombly’s works draw you in, they draw you into a space where you often feel displaced and overwhelmed. This hazy sea of paint is what we may expect from an Abstract Expressionist and it delights us as we try to understand and read these canvases.  The effects both artists achieve are very different and why shouldn’t they be.  After all, they are two very different artists.

Cy Twombly, Bacchanalia-Fall (5 Days in November), 1977. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Twombly and Poussin approach their subjects in dissimilar ways.  For Poussin, the Classical is both a motif and a form of critique.  It is his sole subject that he explored in a figurative manner.  His formal, yet dramatically powerful works are carefully planned compositions in which he removes himself, and his own feelings, from the equation.  For Twombly, Classical antiquity is baffling; it is the allure of a romantic world expressed through his abstract palette that he makes his subject.  The fluidity of his painting results in drips, splodges and near explosions of colour and expression.  His works are infused with snippets of text, almost obliterated by heavy layers of textured paint and it is this romantic notion of hidden text that has appealed to writers throughout his career.

The artists may have studied the same subject matter (which is no coincidence) and Twombly may have idolised Poussin but they are poles apart.  On paper, they may be connected but when seen side-by-side on the walls at Dulwich, I’m not sure that they really are.  Although Twombly was inspired by Poussin and wanted to be Poussin (he once said ‘I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time’), he fell in love with a different Rome to that of his hero – a modern, vibrant and frenetic city.

Nicolas Poussin, The Triumph of Pan, c. 1636. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

For me, one of the highlights was Twombly’s Hero and Leandro telling the classical legend of doomed lovers.  The painting was executed after Twombly read Marlowe’s poem on the legend. Drowning is expressed by the turbulent waves of dripping paint, expressive brushstrokes and rippling textures across the surface.  The work is entrancing; the mesmeric colours conjure up the passion and emotions of the myth.

Cy Twombly, Hero and Leandro, 1985. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

So, what do Twombly and Poussin have in common?  They both painted.  They both painted in Rome about Classical antiquity.

In the exhibition’s defence, I don’t think it is attempting to compare and contrast the two artists.  Yes, some of the pairings provoke comparisons but that is not necessarily the point.  Rather it aims to show these artists journeying through a shared ambition, albeit in different centuries and in different styles.   Actually, I think the wall labels confuse visitors here.  Although they are brilliantly informative, for once, they are too detailed and almost imposing.

The final room consists of Twombly’s Four Seasons which are always spectacular to view –  an all-encompassing journey of colour and time.  Although Dulwich hasn’t been able to loan the Poussin ‘equivalents’ from the Louvre, they have included reproductions of the works so full marks to them for common sense.  The show ends with Twombly and I think Twombly dominates the show.  Poussin comes off a dull second which is ridiculous as he is obviously one of the greats but this just doesn’t work.

Cy Twombly, Quattro Stagioni, Autunno, 1993-5. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

There is a special Poussin display in the main galleries showing the series of five Sacraments (held by the Duke of Rutland) mounted on green walls and, here, Poussin is able to shine rather than being overshadowed.   On the Farrow & Ball white walls of the joint exhibition – clean, crisp and beautiful – Poussin is lost and his work diminished by the brash confidence of modernity.

Also on show is Tacita Dean’s film portrait of Twombly which unfortunately plunges the permanent collection of room 10 into darkness.  The work offers glimpses into Twombly’s life and world. The suspension of a small screen creates a rather magical and intimate viewing experience and it is particularly poignant to see Twombly in action at the end of the show.

Tacita Dean, Edwin Parker, 2011. Image via www.artvehicle.com. 

An In Memorian sign has been placed at the start as a mark of respect to Twombly who sadly passed away on 5th July this year, just after the exhibition had opened.  This exhibition is a great testimony to his works and it is a suitable tribute that he is shown alongside his idol.

The exhibition is brave and, for that, I think Dulwich deserve credit but I’d have preferred to see the works apart and admire the two artists separately, giving them the individual attention they deserve.  It does, however, give pause for thought and provoke us to reconsider our opinions on these two artists.  You’ll never again be able to look at a Poussin without thinking of Twombly and you’ll never again be able to look at a Twombly without thinking of his idol.

Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 25th September 2011, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

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