Tag Archives: Sicily

Worth the Walk down Upper Street: Burri at The Estorick

27 Mar

It was a sunny spring day and I hopped off the tube at Angel for a stroll to lunch at Byron, opposite the Business Design Centre, before heading to the Estorick for their latest exhibition of Alberto Burri.  But wow!  I always forget quite how long Upper Street is and this is not a walk to be undertaken by the faint-hearted.  The Estorick is at the Highbury and Islington end of the road and there is a good reason why this street is serviced by two tube stations.  By the time I eventually arrived, I imagine I looked a little worse for wear.

As popular as it is, I still feel that the Estorick is one of London’s hidden treasures; it is a small but marvellous gallery that many people have still never visited, including many of my colleagues in the art world.  I know that there are always far too many things to see in London but the Estorick is a gem.

The Estorick Collection.  Image via http://citygirldiariesec1.blogspot.co.uk

I didn’t really know what to expect on entering their Burri exhibition as he is an artist I knew very little about, partly because this is the first major retrospective of his work in this country.  In fact, only one of the works in this exhibition is a British loan – a piece owned by Tate who currently house it in storage.  Made of acrylic and collaged hessian sack, the painting resembles a field with a burning red sky.  Its energy appeals to all our senses.  Burri is known and admired internationally (and a work of his recently sold at Sotheby’s in London for over £3 million) but people seem to have had difficulty placing him in art history.   So, perhaps this is why he has been sidelined but this exhibition seeks to change that and open our eyes.

Alberto Burri, Sacking and Red, 1954. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

Initially working in an Expressionist style, Burri’s work developed swiftly.  He quickly abandoned this mode and began exploring the boundaries of the two-dimensional nature of wall-mounted artwork.  The first piece I encountered was iron on painted wood and stretcher – a dark and truly emotive work with textures that really grab you and don’t let go.  Burri is famous for using such unorthodox materials as sacking, twine and PVA glue.  I’m a fan of heavily textured works anyway but these pieces have a new depth to them enhanced by Burri’s abstract vocabulary.

Alberto Burri, Iron, 1960. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

The first room also includes a selection of his Klee-like tempera on card and paper works.  Although these are more intimate, they lack the passion and dynamism of the more striking mixed media works.

Alberto Burri, Untitled, 1952.  Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

Room two opens with Black from 1961, another powerful and dynamic canvas.  Burri constantly plays with surface; the Cretto works, with zinc oxide and PVA glue on cellotex, look like giant crevices splitting the earth yet they retain a harmonic delicacy, exemplifying Burri’s skill.

Alberto Burri, White Cretto, 1975. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

Burri’s interest in unconventional materials was, in part, inspired by Umberto Boccioni’s 1912 Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture in which he exhorted artists to reject the exclusivity of such materials as bronze and marble.  Burri has certainly taken this to heart (or as I accidentally wrote in my first draft, taken this to art – spot on I think!) and makes use of simple materials to create his own unique masterpieces.  His sacking often resembles lacerated and stitched flesh which some scholars have suggested may be autobiographical, referencing his own medical background.   Burri was trained in medicine and had served as a doctor in North Africa during the Second World War before being taken prisoner in 1943.  It was here, interned in a camp that Burri began to paint with materials supplied by the YMCA.  As well as this medical interpretation, other works invite political readings while some resemble the landscape of his Umbrian homeland enhanced by his use of earthy colours.  But, Burri dismissed analysis that gave the works symbolic value.  For him, it was about the simple integrity of material and the work’s formal quality; he said its meaning was to be found within the composition and nowhere else.

Alberto Burri, Sack, 1954. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

From 1954, Burri introduced fire to his work – charring, scorching and melting materials.  This development shows his power to manipulate his materials.  The exhibition demonstrates the incredible range with which Burri worked.  His methods show that he concentrated on one material until he exhausted the possibilities it offered him, pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable.  Burri’s works are as far from traditional representation as possible; instead, they are an exploration of the aesthetic potential of materials.  So much of art is inherently contradictory and Burri is no different – the works are aggressive but romantic and protective.

Alberto Burri, Combustion, 1961. Image courtesy of the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri and Città di Castello and via www.estorickcollection.com

The wall labels are perfect, informative without overloading visitors; they help us to understand his life, theoretical approach and the rationale behind his artwork.  Burri is recognised as one of leading protagonists of Art Informel, a movement that focused on the instinctive and irrational aspects of the artistic process as much as on the finished product.  From the simplest materials, Burri is able to create something monumental and striking, imbued with energy and movement.  These are works about process and about the fundamentals of material.  Although I didn’t really know who Burri was, he was undoubtedly a master of the 20th century who revolutionised the artistic vocabulary of post-war art.  I have long been planning a trip to Sicily and now I have even more desire to go as Burri’s work Cretto is a must-see.  After a devastating earthquake destroyed Gibellina, Burri used the city’s ruins to create a concrete cemetery, preserving the layout of the hillside town.  It’s said to evoke a comforting gravestone that transforms a horrific catastrophe into something beautiful and poignant.

Alberto Burri, Cretto, 1985-89. Image via http://palermo.for91days.com/tag/cretto-di-burri/

Although only a three-room exhibition (the rest of the Estorick is taken over by their permanent collection), this show was definitely worth the walk.  If you don’t already know Burri’s works, it is important to look at them in the way that he intended and to learn about him and his influences afterwards.  We may have previously failed to acknowledge Burri as truly important but it is now time to do so and this beautiful exhibition does just that.

Alberto Burri:  Form and Matter is at The Estorick Collection until 7th April, www.estorickcollection.com

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Pestilence in Palermo – Van Dyck in Sicily

15 Feb

As many of you will know, I’m somewhat geographically challenged.  When I was studying, I found a quick and easy way from home to the Strand.  As a result, when I drive around London (and I mean anywhere in London), I operate rather like a homing pigeon.  I can get to pretty much anywhere as long as I plan my route around the Strand.  So you can imagine my delight when the online route planner advised me to go exactly that way to get to the Dulwich Picture Gallery on Tuesday morning.  And better than that, the route then continued past VAULT.  I couldn’t stay away even for a day.

I got to Dulwich without any real mishaps and managed to park outside the Picture Gallery.  What a relaxing way to travel – well, apart from the traffic, speed cameras and red lights but that’s all par for the course.  At least I had heating the whole way!

Anyway, the reason for my visit to the other side of London was the opening of Dulwich’s new Van Dyck exhibition which focuses on the year and a half he spent in Sicily.  The exhibition brings together all 16 of the works believed to have been executed during his stay in Palermo.  Normally, when we think of Van Dyck we think of Charles I or the Swagger portraits and, until now, very little study has been devoted to this earlier period.

Van Dyck exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.

The key point to be aware of here is that Van Dyck only spent a short amount of time in Sicily and his paintings were quite time-consuming enterprises.  I warn you of this because I was initially surprised by the size of the show – half the normal amount of rooms used for Dulwich’s temporary exhibitions.  Admittedly, the three rooms used here are beautifully curated with deep purple and dark grey walls.  Although compact, it’s full of personality –the exuberance of Van Dyck, Dulwich and the curator, Xavier Salomon.  It’s a dramatic exhibition.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, Prince of Oneglia, 1624.  Courtesy of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Hearing Xavier give his exhibition tour took me back to my days at The Courtauld when he taught a survey course in my 1st year.  Until 1999 it had been thought that Van Dyck only spent four months in Palermo but recent discoveries, made possible by the Sicilian state archives, have been able to prove the full time frame using legal documents, invoices and papers regarding commissions.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, St Rosalie in Glory, 1624. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Here, we are told the story of how Van Dyck arrived in Palermo in 1624 expecting to complete a commission to paint Viceroy Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy and head home.  But, things didn’t go quite to plan.  In May 1624, a ship from Tunis arrived at the busy port of Palermo carrying with it bubonic plague which, by December that year, had killed off most of the population.  Surrounded by death, catastrophe and disaster, Van Dyck had little choice but to prolong his stay and, amidst this panic, he set up studio, establishing a practice and producing a variety of works for local clients – many of which are thought to remain undiscovered.  Towards the end of summer, the bones of Saint Rosalia were discovered in a nearby cave and carried in procession through the city; after which the plague ceased and Saint Rosalia was declared Palermo’s protector.  In the final room, the exhibition brings together Van Dyck’s images of the patron saint.

The painting loaned from the Prado is the smallest of all his images of her and is particularly moving.  Although this is compositionally similar to the others, Van Dyck painted Rosalia in many different guises.  In this devotional image, she looks up to heaven while an angel offers her a crown of roses.  In her left hand she holds a skull, referencing the recent mortalities of the plague and the iconography of hermit saints, while her right clutches her breast and heart.  These paintings were made as forms of prayer and to give thanks to God and Rosalia for their benevolence which ended the city’s suffering (better late than never – Van Dyck himself must have been grateful for his survival).

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Saint Rosalia, c. 1625. Courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

The painting of the Viceroy is one of the highlights of the permanent collection here.  It is incredibly rare for the armour seen in the painting to have survived in such good condition and it is an interesting juxtaposition and point of comparison to see them side-by-side.  Armour was a very valuable possession (described by Xavier as the Porsche or Ferrari of the day) and, ironically, at the time, would have been worth more than any of the paintings now on show here.  But this image is a definitive one showing the viceroy majestically armoured and prepared against his enemies.  Sadly, shortly after the painting was finished and by July of that year, he too had been lost to the plague after leaving the confines of his palace to access the situation and inspect the city.

Maestro del Castello de Tre Torri, Armour of Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, c. 1606. Courtesy of Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Room two focuses on two large devotional works, that were most probably painted for the aristocracy of the island, as well as two highly emotive portraits of Sofonisba Anguissola.  A fragment of a larger portrait that has been cut down on all sides, Sofonisba Anguissola (1624) is touching evidence of the young artist’s encounter with an aged celebrity painter.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1624.  Courtesy of the Sackville Collection, Knole and Matthew Hollow Photography and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

This is a historical exhibition, using a limited number of paintings to elucidate a period of history.  The self-portrait of Van Dyck seen at the start is not actually from the period in Palermo (but through x-rays we actually know that he did paint a self-portrait under one of the paintings of Rosalia).  He’s dressed as an aristocrat – a young Flemish dandy arriving in Palermo.  He was dressed in rich attire and used to the company of noblemen.  He knew he was something special – a point that we see emphatically by looking at this exhibition.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Self-Portrait, 1620-21. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

In contrast to the Picasso exhibition, I wish this show had been bigger.  But, no more works remain so that is hardly the fault of Dulwich or the curators and, in a way, it is refreshing to see such dedicated focus and concentration.  They haven’t tried to pad it out. This is a tight-knit, story-board exhibition.

Alongside this, the Picture Gallery are showing Ragamala Painting from India to highlight the work of Tilly Kettle, a relatively unknown artist from their permanent collections.  This is not so much a curated exhibition but a collection of 24 rarely seen objects.  A ragmala is a set of miniature paintings depicting various musical modes of Indian music.  Each painting is accompanied by a brief caption or poem, most frequently focused around love.  These were tactile objects for private consumption and were never intended to be seen on display.  Magnifying glasses have been provided to allow you to get up close and personal with the miniatures.  I didn’t really have the time to inspect these properly as I had spent a considerable time in the Van Dyck exhibition and I needed to head back to meetings, over Waterloo Bridge of course – where else?

Bhairava Raga, Pahari, Nurpur, c.1690. Courtesy of the Claudio Moscatelli Collection and Matthew Hollow Photography and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Ragmala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song and Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague are both at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 27th May 2012, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

Two Galleries for Tuesday: Stephen Friedman and White Cube

23 Nov

I often walk past the Stephen Friedman Gallery as I wander down Old Burlington Street – their wonderful frontage means it’s always easy to have a quick peek at the current exhibition without going in.  But their current exhibition of Catherine Opie photographs is reason enough to stop and take a closer look.  Although simple at first glance, Opie’s works have always been far more complicated and powerful than they initially appear.  They cross diverse genres including portraiture, landscape, and street photography, exploring complex issues of community and identity across her American homeland.  Opie has always been interested in the conditions that people live and how communities form and are defined.

Catherine Opie, The Gang, 1990. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

This is a simply, but very well, curated show.  Opie’s work is known for moving between portraiture and landscape and this exhibition harmoniously combines these two realms, presenting two very different bodies of work: a selection of portraits from her Girlfriends series and a new series of landscapes, captured at sea – Twelve Miles to the Horizon: Sunrises and Sunsets.

Catherine Opie, Sunset 5, 2009. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Taken from the mid-eighties through to 2010, Girlfriends is a striking, stark series of black and white portraits showing a diverse range of friends and lovers.  Opie’s representation often aims to provoke.  With no excess allowed in her compositions, these sitters are themselves and they dare you to accept them as they are.  The works have a playful intimacy, often highly sexualised, that transforms them from voyeuristic objects into subtle peeks into the artist’s world.

Catherine Opie, Gabby (back), 1989. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Twelve Miles to the Horizon: Sunrises and Sunsets documents Opie’s journey on a Hanjin cargo vessel, travelling across the Pacific Ocean, from Korea to California.  Living on the ship for 11 days, Opie documented each sunrise and sunset.  The images work in pairs, in conversation with each other, focusing on the passage of time and the transience of a day.  For me, these aren’t as exciting as the series in the front gallery but they certainly are beautiful and Opie puts her mark on the well-worn genre of landscape photography.

Catherine Opie, Sunset 6, 2009. Image via www.stephenfriedman.com

Time for a drink so we headed over the cobbles into Mason’s Yard for White Cube’s exhibition of new works by Jeff Wall.  I know it’s cold, and there are Christmas decorations adorning the whole of London, but this was the first true indication that winter has arrived – for the first time in months there were more people inside the gallery than outside (where the bar is).  Quelle horreur!  As at Stephen Friedman, White Cube are showing two series of works.  The first, upstairs, Sicily, 2007 consists of only three photographs.  This was in complete contrast to Opie’s use of landscape.  Using his typical large-scale format, Wall evokes ancient settings, mingling eras in a timeless world that he creates.  The works came about after a holiday to Sicily where Wall was struck by the powerful rocky landscape and the sense of desolate beauty.  The sheer scale of the works is necessary to convey the impact of the landscape.  Wall doesn’t wish just to photograph stunning scenery but to explore the power of nature.  This is most successful in his black and white images, showing that colour is not important here, only shape and space.

Jeff Wall, Hillside, Sicily, 2009. Image via www.thisislondon.co.uk

Downstairs, White Cube are showing seven new works that depict a figure or a group of figures, who appear to be playing or enacting a role.  Again, the photographs seek to transport the viewer to Wall’s timeless world.  They are always carefully composed and staged.

One such work is Boy Falls From Tree that aims to show a contrast of calmness interrupted by drama.  Yet, the drama does not really impact on the tranquillity of the scene.  The boy is playing a role; although staged, the scene is real, it isn’t created digitally, Wall actually did have someone fall from a tree but ‘protected him from the consequences’.  It is this that gives his work such imaginative depth – staged reality (whether on TV or in art) always captures the public imagination most of all.

Jeff Wall, Boy Falls From Tree, 2010. Image via www.whitecube.com

These are good exhibitions but not really exciting and the whole evening lacked the normal buzz of PV nights in Mayfair.  Even though there are now PVs every night of the week, and the same people attend the majority, it’s always easy to lose track of time chatting.  The art world never sleeps and there’s always gossip to be shared and news to be exchanged.  Reports from friends dotted over London at other openings weren’t encouraging and, with little time to spare before they shut, I decided to put the others on my list on hold until later this week.  The joy and nightmare of living in London is the amount there is to see but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Catherine Opie is at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until 21st January 2012, www.stephenfriedman.comJeff Wall is at White Cube until 7th January, www.whitecube.com.

 

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