Tag Archives: science

Flesh, Despair and Glistening Oil – Haunch and Saatchi

4 Dec

This is certainly not the first time we have seen Patricia Piccinini at Haunch of Venison and I doubt it will be the last but this is her first solo UK exhibition.  I popped into the opening one night last week but I have to say it lacked the normal buzz of Haunch’s exhibitions.  I don’t know if it was the cold or that this has been done and seen before – it’s impossible not to mention Mueck when looking at her works.

Piccinini’s work blurs the boundaries between the artificial and the natural, encompassing many different media along the way.  She explores our desire to homogenise the human body and considers if we do, or do not, accept those who don’t measure up to a manufactured ideal of perfection.

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Looking at Piccinini’s The Carrier at Haunch. Own photograph.

Her fascination with medical science is obvious and she uses this to attempt to explain our contemporary world.  Piccinini’s figures are far removed from the people we are used to seeing – they are mutated human/animal hybrids that are alarmingly lifelike.  The panels on the walls have been presented in a square format – silicone, fibreglass and human hair resembling a slab of butchered meat.  Her anthropomorphised machines reference both a universal instinct to apply human emotions to all animals and things as well as a consideration that people and technology are increasingly, and unavoidably, intertwined.

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Patricia Piccinini, The Lovers, 2011. Own photograph.

Haunch haven’t overcrowded this exhibition or been over-ambitious.  The space afforded to the works allows us to form a baffling relationship with the pieces as we look at these familiar, yet alien, forms.  Piccinini is fetishising scarred and damaged flesh but the honesty of the material and her process removes some of the repulsion which we may otherwise feel here.

The hyper-realism draws us in closer.  Although I was disgusted by the sculptures, I couldn’t stop looking at them, admiring her technique and ideas.  Haunch state that the works both ‘attract and unsettle the viewer’ and this could not be more accurate.  This contradiction of emotions is Piccinini’s aim and couples perfectly with the juxtaposition of ideas in the works.

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Scarred Flesh. Own photograph.

On Sunday afternoon, I popped to Saatchi who have just opened Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia.  Saatchi like to do things big and recent exhibitions have looked at art from India, America, Germany, Korea and China.  This time they tackle Russia but this exhibition presents Russia in a grim and unforgiving light, with little optimism.

Before I make any comment, I have to say this is one exhibition that truly teaches the importance of being able to put aside personal taste.  To be honest, I am not a fan of the works in this show but it cannot be ignored that this is a powerful and well put together exhibition that doesn’t cower from conveying its messages.

A mono photo-like print of a bare chested man with tattoos

Sergei Vasiliev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Print No.12, 2010.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition opens with works by Sergei Vasiliev, possibly the images that, for me, were the most enduring.  Put simply, Vasiliev, a former prison warden, has photographed tattoos.  But there is so much more here.  Tattoos were, in fact, illegal and these images aren’t just about making a mark and an image but an act of defiance created with a scalpel using blood and urine.  This isn’t a subtle veil but a coded message that we see recur again and again on worn flesh.  These men are in prison and many don’t ever expect to be released.

All of the works in this exhibition are intertwined with the unavoidable political history of Russia.  The works are immediate and exposing; Vikenti Nilin’s photographs show people sitting on the windowsills or roofs of towering buildings.  They don’t seem as if they are about to jump or are on the verge of falling, instead they sit calmly on the edge – a fascinating comment about their day-to-day existence.

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Vikenti Nilin, from the Neighbours Series. Image via www.culture24.org.uk

Boris Mikhailov’s works repel and mesmerise us, in the same way that Piccinini does at Haunch, and two galleries here are dedicated to his work.  These photographs are a small portion of 400 images he took in his homeland of Ukraine showing the distressed, desperate, dying, destitute and decaying.  The drama and theatricality of the poses would be comic if the people weren’t baring all to reveal gashes, cuts, bruises, cancerous cysts and far worse.

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Boris Mikhailov photographs.  Image via www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk

The photographs are at the epicentre; not all of the works deliver their messages in such a compelling way and I don’t think some of the pieces translate to a London audience.  It would have been stronger if it wasn’t quite so big and determined to show a survey of Russian contemporary art.  Of the 18 artists on show, many have never been seen outside Russia.

The title Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union comes from a speech by Joseph Stalin but there is no gaiety here and the work comments on the aftermath of the regimes that have gone before.  The irony could not be more poignant.

A dummy of a man hangs in a hand-built row of cells

Gosha Ostretsov, Criminal Government, 2008  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The highlight of visiting the Saatchi has to be the opportunity to gaze into Richard Wilson’s 20:50, an incredible reservoir of metal, filled with engine oil, that takes the shape of the room.  You’ve probably seen it before; the oil reflects its surroundings, it glows and glistens.  It perfectly harmonises with the architecture around us, confounding our ideas of distance and space.  Sadly, the walkway into the pool of black was closed on Sunday but I had experienced this at County Hall.  It could not be simpler; it could not be more perfect and concrete despite the fluidity.

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Richard Wilson, 20:50.  Image via www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk

As strange as this may sound, 20:50 provides the perfect counter-balance to the grim despair of the Russian exhibition.  For me, this work is timeless and whatever Saatchi may be showing make sure you get lost in Wilson’s black depths.

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Patricia Piccinini: Those who dream by night is at Haunch of Venison, New Bond Street, until 12th January 2013, www.haunchofvenison.comGaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union: Art from Russia is at the Saatchi Gallery until 5th May 2013, www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk.

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

16 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Court at the British Museum. Own photograph.

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

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

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

Leonardo da Vinci, The Lungs. Own photograph.

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

Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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