Tag Archives: Tate Britain

An Intoxicating Edge – Picasso and Modern British Art

13 Feb

February is over-saturated – more snow than London can cope with, hearts filling every shop window display (no matter how tenuous the connection) on every street and more blockbuster exhibitions than we have time to see.  This week alone I have four major openings marked in my diary plus a smattering of smaller ones that may well have to wait for a later date.

Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain explores Picasso’s lifelong connections with Britain through a series of dialogues with the heroes of Modern British Art, examining his critical reputation and acclaim as both a figure of controversy and celebrity.

Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, 1932. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The exhibition can be split into two – one strand that documents the exhibition and collecting of Picasso’s art in Britain which is interleaved with ‘conversation’ rooms showcasing the British Greats responding to Picasso’s work – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney.  This is a veritable treasure trove for any Modern British lover like me.  Picasso’s own versatility, in part, explains the range of these responses but the exhibition also seeks to show how these artists were responding to Picasso well before he had been embraced by the British public.

Picasso first exhibited in Britain in 1910 in an exhibition organised by Roger Fry.  After explaining this, the exhibition moves straight into a room looking at his influence on Duncan Grant who adopted African inspired figures and decorative patterns and later began to respond to Cubist collages.  Grant’s work does little for me; Tate don’t even dedicate a whole room to him and he shares wall space with Wyndham Lewis.  Although Lewis was a harsh critic of Picasso throughout his life, it’s not actually known if they ever met but his work suggests that he saw Les Demoiselles.

Wyndham Lewis room at the exhibition. Own photograph.

Throughout, the exhibition looks at Picasso’s trips to London with a stunning section on the scenery and costume designs he produced for Diaghilev and Ballet Russes in 1919 when he resided at the Savoy.  During the first few weeks of this stay, Picasso sat in the corner of the Ballet Russes rehearsal rooms, drawing away while they danced.  The Three Cornered Hat was the largest ballet that Picasso worked on and his designs were not just limited to costume and set – they even extended to the accessories and make-up, which, when possible, he applied himself.

Pablo Picasso, The Three Cornered Hat, 1919-20. Own photograph.

This is not an exhibition to be taken lightly; it includes some extraordinary works many of which are loaned from private collections.  Most works have hefty wall labels – I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but this is not a show to flit through during your ten minute lunch break.  It is altogether a more serious exhibition.

Obviously, there have been more responses to Picasso than the seven studied here but those included here illustrate variety and quality over a period of more than seventy years.  It is rare to have the opportunity to view these alongside the original Picasso’s that may have influenced them.

Inside the exhibition. Own photograph.

Ben Nicholson first encountered Picasso in Paris in the 1920s and recalled a specific Picasso of 1915 which he saw as the benchmark for the qualities in his own work.  In the following decade, he developed his own distinctive version of the Cubist composition where he adopted decorative patterning, intersecting forms and made use of materials such as sand to create a more physical presence.

Ben Nicholson, 1933 (coin and musical instruments), 1933. Own photograph.

Moving on, Sutherland acknowledges his debt to Guernica; he made several works where natural objects metamorphose into figurative presences – tortured anxious works reflecting the state of England at the time.  Sketchbooks throughout the exhibition allow us to see some real gems and we are teased here with some fabulous Sutherland studies.  I only wish Tate made more use of their technological ability, offering turning pages on a screen as they did in the Vorticism show last year.

Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1946. Own photograph.

The exhibition includes some fabulous and intriguing early works by Bacon and Moore.   The Bacon’s are particularly remarkable and, if you are a fan, this room if worth a visit in its own right, bringing together seven of only nine works that are known to have survived Bacon’s attempts to destroy all his pre-1944 works.  Bacon said that ‘[Picasso’s work is closer] to what I feel about the psyche of our time [than any other artist]’; it was after he saw an exhibition of Picasso’s in the late 1920s that he abandoned interior design and began painting.  It was seeing Picasso’s representations of the body as a biomorphic structure that inspired him with the possibilities this medium could offer.  It would be a pleasure to write a whole piece on this one room looking at how Bacon’s works on the theme of crucifixion echo Picasso’s The Three Dancers (which Bacon may have seen a reproduction of in 1930 in Documents) or looking at his triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.  As Bacon’s style developed and became more distinct, the debt to Picasso became more embedded.  The two artists shared an approach that would forever tie them together.

Francis Bacon, Crucifixion/Figure, 1933 and Composition (Figure), 1933. Own photograph.

The curators decided to stop at Hockney, feeling that after this point Picasso’s influence just becomes too universal and never-ending.  The exhibition finishes with Picasso’s The Three Dancers of 1925, taking us back to the Picasso we know and love and, in turn, slightly losing the dialogue which has been so excellently explored throughout.

Peering through to Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers, 1925. Own photograph.

The sooner Tate finish their job-lot of grey paint the better; it’s a brilliant show often dulled by the monotonous, gloomy wall colour.  The works are all so sensational that the exhibition comes together despite the somewhat tenuous nature of some of the links and comparisons.

Picasso’s climb to fame in the UK was not easy and he received much criticism along the way – in 1949, Churchill even said he would like to kick the artist up the backside.  Yet when in 1960 Tate finally mounted its first Picasso retrospective, it attracted more than 460,000 visitors in two months.  The exhibition made a profit and received positive reviews.  It appeared we had at last embraced Picasso’s Cubist ways and we’ve never really let go.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, 1924. Own photograph.

This exhibition is extensive but the works here are something to behold.  Tate really shows off some Modern British masterpieces; somewhat ironically, it is these that stay with me most and they are what I recommend you go to see.  Don’t get me wrong, the Picasso’s are brilliant but the Modern British story has an intoxicating edge aided by the influence of the Spaniard.

Walking through… Own photograph.

It’s easy to get lost in the academia of the exhibition.  I wouldn’t advise reading all the wall text or you may never get out.  Instead, admire the paintings and let the excellent catalogue tell the story in depth at a later date when you’re able to sit in the warm by a fire and not having to stand up.

This is an exhibition to allow time for; an hour and a half felt like I’d only scratched the surface.  It doesn’t have the gloss or jazz of the RA’s Hockney or the NPG’s Freud (although Hockney is, of course included here).  Instead, it is quietly brilliant.

Picasso & Modern British Art will be at Tate Britain from Wednesday until 15th July 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

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I could have danced… Degas at the Royal Academy

17 Oct

Degas is loved the world over so there has been much excitement around the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition.  So much so, that they have even changed their admission system whereby friends of the RA now also have to book tickets to avoid over-crowding and ‘enhance their experience’ (really?).

The exhibition focuses on Edgar Degas’s preoccupation with movement, the obsession that led him to concentrate on the ballet imagery which made him famous.  These iconic images range from rehearsal scenes to innovative pastels produced towards the end of his career.

Edgar Degas, Two Dancers on a Stage, c. 1874.  Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk.

Degas was yet another artist who was meant to pursue a different path.  His father, an art lover and collector, had earmarked his son for a career in law, and Degas had to persuade his father to let him attend the École des Beaux-Arts.  He was fortunate enough to receive advice on drawing from J.A.D. Ingres but was largely self-taught, travelling extensively and gaining experience by copying the works of the great Renaissance artists.

This exhibition follows Degas’s attempts to capture movement similarly to photography of the time.  The concept behind the show is brilliant and really reveals the artist’s pioneering ingenuity but, at times, the exhibition becomes more about movement than Degas and a number of key masterpieces are missing here.

Edgar Degas, Dancer Posing for a Photograph, 1875. Image via www.topofart.com.

The exhibition opens with projections of a ballet dancer, shown on the blackened walls.  There is no doubt that this is an unusual start but presents a fascinating beginning, revealing that, as important as Degas’s paintings are, the key focus is movement – the graceful, elegant dance of a beautiful ballerina (I’ve always liked tu-tus).

The RA has erected temporary walls to encourage flow and movement around the exhibition.  Their gorgeous putty colour and the dim lights do make this very dark (I almost needed a torch) but this is for conservation reasons, so unavoidable.

Sometimes, we peer into dancers’ classrooms, at other times we, too, are watching a performance on stage; Degas’s vivid realism, seen through both his finished compositions and preparatory drawings, is intriguing.

One entire room (with atmospheric, murky cassis walls) is focused around Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, the largest sculpture Degas made and the only one displayed during his lifetime.  Degas made 26 figure studies providing a comprehensive study of the girl in the round, analysing the figure in a way that was easy to translate into three dimensions.  Unusually, it is apparent that here the artist moved while the model remained still.  Some of the sketches, consisting of only a few fluid chalk lines, tell us that Degas was moving quickly.  Degas had an innovative approach to representing modern individuals and the power of these drawings shows that there is no one way to see this figure.  This sculpture was based on Marie van Goethem, a dance student at the Paris Opera School.  Modelled in wax, supported by a metal armature, the figure is dressed in a muslin skirt, lace-trimmed bodice and ballet slippers.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, 180-81. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The work caused a sensation when exhibited in the sixth Impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1881.  The dancer appeared so real, that people were shocked, commenting that she looked like a horrible, repulsive guttersnipe.  We have seen this piece so frequently, and in so many forms, that we are no longer as struck by it as we should be.  But it’s important to remember that for its time, it was shocking.  It is the forerunner of many contemporary works that initially provoke dramatic reactions.  Remember the torn opinions caused by works
such as Damien Hirst’s shark or Tracey Emin’s bed.  Now we are used to them, we are immune to their shocking nature.  The same goes for this work, we have become over-familiar, which is a travesty as this sculpture is far from boring and deserves all this attention.

The exhibition also presents Degas’s work juxtaposed against the photography and film of the day, primarily by photographers Etienne-Jules Marey (a leading French scientist specialising in movement) and Eadweard Muybridge.  By doing so, the curators have attempted to show that, as well as being an artist known for his beautiful images, Degas was modern and radical – fully attuned to the developments of his time.  This is really a second exhibition and, in one sense, it was fascinating.  In another, it rather got in the way.  I’d come to see Degas, we’ve seen plenty of Muybridge recently with Tate’s large-scale retrospective.

Eadweard Muybridge, Woman Dancing (Fancy), plate 187 of Animal Locomotion, 1887.  Image via http://makingamark.blogspot.com/

The exhibition includes a series of six wide, narrow canvases from the 1870s which are extraordinary, not least because they are such unusual works.  The curators here suggest that they may have been inspired by photography of the time showing panoramic scenes.  The works mostly depict wide exercise rooms where the dancers are positioned rhythmically, in rehearsal.  The viewer is invited to scan the scene as one would have with popular panoramas.

Edgar Degas, detail of The Dance Lesson, c. 1879. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Continuing with the theme of photography, the exhibition focuses on Degas’s own photographs. Having bought his first camera in 1895 (when he had just turned 60), Degas became an instant enthusiast and his photographs reflect the compositions of many of his paintings.  Several of the self-portraits are startlingly intimate, focusing on the solitude of his later life.  Although his own photographic equipment was unable to capture movement, he used his photographs to make drawings.

Edgar Degas, detail of Dancer Adjusting Her Shoulder Strap. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk

We became fully aware of quite how busy the exhibition was when we went into Colour and Dynamism – a dead-end room that traps visitors on one side.   Here, pastels from later in Degas’s life have been showcased.  The ballerinas, who we saw in such active and lively poses, seem to have aged along with Degas and these works are have less movement, but the highly saturated colours of the pastels help to animate the dancers.

A room full of pastels. Image via www.timeout.com

The last room contains a video work but it was absolutely freezing and, not having dressed for the Arctic, I was forced to hurry out rather than watch.

The exhibition is actually not as extensive as I anticipated although it did allow me to indulge and study many of Degas’s exquisite drawings. Hung here en masse the works do, for me, lose some of their charm and intimacy but this is a remarkable, and very focused, exploration of a great artist.  Degas was unusual as an Impressionist, his preoccupation with movement setting him apart from the others, whose concerns centred around the transient effects of light and atmosphere.  Degas’s ballet scenes and passionate focus on contemporary subjects is wonderful and this show re-teaches us to appreciate his genius.

Edgar Degas, Three Studies of a Dancer in Fourth Position, c. 1878–81. Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement is at the Royal Academy until 11th December 2011, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Something Old and New: John Martin and The Millbank Project

2 Oct

Downstairs at Tate Britain has been given over to an exhibition of works by John Martin, a nineteenth-century painter renowned for his dramatic retellings of biblical stories and myths.  His somewhat everyday name gets lost by the wayside but Tate has gone for a striking exhibition title – Apocalypse – to grab everyone’s attention.

Martin’s, often fantastical, paintings attracted huge audiences  when they were displayed across the country, whether at galleries, commercial venues or public spaces.  Apparently one exhibition required the equivalent of crowd barriers to stop the work from being damaged.  While the public adored him, the critics degraded Martin’s work saying it was sensationalist.  I don’t regard this comment as a criticism; his paintings depicting the sublime are often sublime themselves.  Many consider his works personify the extravagance of Victorian bad taste but their immense scale and detail is very impressive.

John Martin, Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, 1852.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

This exhibition is the most comprehensive survey of Martin’s works staged since his death in 1854 and finally acknowledges his importance to 19th century art history.  The exhibition focuses on all elements of Martin’s oeuvre.  He was not just a brilliant landscape painter but also a highly skilled watercolourist and draughtsman.  Characters of Trees, published in 1817, consists of seven plates that were to act as a drawing book intended for amateurs learning to draw various species of tree.  He was a known draughtsman and, two years prior to this publication, had been appointed Drawing Master to Princess Charlotte, the daughter of George IV.

The first few rooms of the exhibition follow Martin’s progression to more apocalyptic subjects.  His expressive nature becomes apparent in Room Two where some of his early blockbuster pieces are shown, spectacular works such as Belshazzar’s Feast (1820).  This is the story from the Book of Daniel in which writing on the wall prophesises that Belshazzar will be killed and succeeded by Darius the Mede.  We join the spectators flocking to look at the writing on the wall, lit, by Martin, to extraordinary effect.  His paintings of actual, rather than
imagined, scenes do not have the same impact – imagination and romanticism are fundamental.

John Martin, Belshazzar’s Feast, 1820.  Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Room Four presents a rather unexpected side to the artist looking at his surveys and engineering drawings, focusing on suggested improvements to London’s sewage and transport systems.  Through these drawings, Martin is trying to ‘save’ London from the disasters he depicts in his paintings.  Although, during his lifetime, none of these schemes was realised, and the pursuit of these projects nearly bankrupted Martin they have all since come to fruition, in one way or another.

The exhibition progresses chronologically through Martin’s life.  Although his works are quite varied in colour and subject, they all maintain power, skill and impact.  Even the small paintings have an imposing presence.  One room focuses on his mezzotint illustrations including those for John Milton’s Paradise Lost and his Bible illustrations. The works are brilliant although you really need a magnifying glass to view those in the cases.  Martin was a big fan of the mezzotint and one of the earliest artists to rely on mechanical means, which allowed him to reproduce his works in books and magazines.

John Martin, Paradise Lost, 1827 edition.  Image via www.spaightwoodgalleries.com. 

Martin’s paintings have a striking visual impact with their sharp focus and incredible use of light.  His strong use of verticals and his red palette provide drama and powerful dynamism as we, alongside his characters, rather like a 19th century action thriller, teeter on the brink of world destruction.   My choice of footwear felt rather apt as I too hovered at an extreme height, afraid of going over the edge.

The exhibition is well curated and, although, here, it does work, Tate is back to using its favourite grey wall paint.  The one yellow room later in the exhibition came as such a shock that my eyes had to adjust slowly to the use of colour.

John Martin at Tate Britain. Own photograph.

Tate wanted to try to re-capture the sense of excitement felt by Martin’s original audience and, to this end, it has created an ‘extravagant’ light show around one of his final triptychs – the culmination of his on-going obsession with divine and destructive forces.  This triptych, The Last Judgement (c. 1845-53) was shown as a spectacle in theatres and music halls, occasionally accompanied by light and sound installations.  This was not just art but cinematic entertainment.  The works are beautiful and some of Martin’s most powerful pieces.  Working with a theatre company, Tate has used narrative and special effects to attempt to refresh the traditional gallery experience and recreate the original scenario.  This ‘sensation’ takes place every 30 minutes, but what a disappointment!  The work was broken and took a while to get going – when it did it was the sort of thing you’d expect primary children to enjoy…maybe!  It did little to depict the sensationalist nature of the 19th century but we are different people with far greater expectations than the original audiences so maybe it is impossible in such situations to create authentic performances.  They always come across as slightly tacky.  We cannot be expected to have a similar appreciation to the Victorians as we are not the same.

John Martin, The Last Judgement, c. 1845-53. Image via www.tate.org.uk

The exhibition closes with a room of Martin’s watercolours or so we think…  In a final annex we find Glenn Brown’s The Tragic Conversation of Salvador Dali (after John Martin) where he manipulates Martin’s The Great Day of Wrath.  Yes, the work is clever with distortion, the inclusion of science-fiction buildings and clever twists and turns, but it’s not Martin and what a shame to end on someone else’s work.  This is a retrospective of Martin’s works and I’d have liked to leave with him making his own final impact.

Glenn Brown, The Tragic Conversation of Salvador Dali (after John Martin), 1998. Image via www.independent.co.uk

Martin had no formal training, he was never destined to be an artist yet his works, following a series of apocalyptic subjects, are enigmatic and powerful.  The Victorians loved catastrophe so no wonder they fell in love with the melodrama  of Martin’s vivid imagination.  This is a great contrast to the Flanagan show on display upstairs and, unlike that, definitely worth a visit.

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851-3. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

After this, I popped along to see some of the building work at Tate as part of The Millbank Project – a huge undertaking, by architects Caruso St John, to make the navigation of the gallery more coherent, introducing a more circulatory environment.  This £45 million project involves repairing and restoring galleries, removing false walls and ceilings to open up the building and introducing new stairs and lifts.  Tate aims to increase the capacity of its galleries, transform the main Rotunda and enhance the visitor experience to the galleries.

Tate Rotunda. Own photograph.

The upper floors of the Dome are set to become the new members’ rooms – this space used to be storage for the Tate archives and is now a general dumping ground but is set to be stunning.  Although the route up is currently a tad dangerous in stilettos on a slippery stone spiral staircase, by 2013 we’ll all be able to glide up in a lift.  I can predict I’ll be spending a lot of time there once this project is completed.

John Martin: Apocalypse is at Tate Britain until 15th January 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

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