Tag Archives: wall labels

It’s Edinburgh time again…

18 Aug

The Edinburgh Art Festival is always a highlight of my August and I decided to start with the big players and see the blockbuster shows first of all.

The National Galleries of Scotland are showing a Peter Doig exhibition – a homecoming for the Edinburgh born artist although I don’t think many would instantly associate him with Scotland.  After all, he moved to Trinidad when he was two and, despite much moving around in the meantime, he has now moved back there.  The exhibition focuses on works from the last ten years and, naturally, his paintings reflect more the Trinidadian lifestyle and culture than the rugged Scottish landscape.

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Peter Doig, Paragon, 2006. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.

Doig really is a master of paint.  One of the highlights for me, and I’m sure for many others too, was Man Dressed as Bat from 2007 – a beautifully washed out work that can no doubt be read as a study in evanescence and transparency. Before Doig started this work, the canvas was affected by rain coming into the studio. Doig liked the effect and allowed it to suggest an approach to the painting whereby successive layers of paint barely mask those underneath.  The result is ghostlike; we are trapped in a dream that slowly reveals itself to us. There are other similar works with an equally wonderful diaphanous texture.  Although I don’t like all of Doig’s works, it is his subtlety and the transparent fading hues that form his true masterpieces and this exhibition captures the impressive quality of Doig’s oeuvre showing his over-riding commitment to one media.

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Peter Doig, Man Dressed as Bat, 2007. Image via www.nationalgalleries.org

One room shows his Studio Film Club Posters – Doig and Lovelace established this club in 2003 and Doig made hand-painted posters to advertise the weekly films that have a raw spontaneous quality almost reflecting some of the makeshift signs found in Trinidad.  The paintings throughout the exhibition have been arranged in a way to challenge each other and show the development of ideas through his works.  Doig does not paint from real life but devises his images from diverse sources including photographs, films and even memories.  This does sometimes make it hard to connect truly with the canvases – they aren’t abstract but they aren’t fully present, they remain tantalisingly inaccessible to us, trapped in Doig’s own ‘foreign land’.  His works linger in one’s mind and don’t quite disappear, the ghostly images calling from room to room.

Although I was short of time, with the Fruitmarket Gallery just across Princes Street Gardens, I couldn’t resist a quick visit.

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Princes Street Gardens. Own photograph. 

This summer their focus is on Gabriel Orozco and the exhibition takes his 2005 painting The Eye of Go as a starting point – a computer-generated pattern of black circles.  The thinking behind this show requires time and concentration but demonstrates the enormous range of materials and practices he uses to exploit the circle’s capacity to be an ‘instrument’ rather than just a geometric form in a composition.  His re-workings of this motif are rigorous and obsessive.  Circles appear as gestural sweeps of ink on paper, or points on meticulous grids in pen and graphite, as cuttings, inscriptions on tickets, letters and photographs and cedar wood, as wet pools of colour or dense ink impressions and shaded graphite spheres.  The possibilities are endless.  But these are far from just circles and at times you almost forget that this is the focus of the exhibition so fascinating are the works.

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Gabriel Orozco, The Eye of Go, 2005. Image via www.edinburghartfestival.com

You may not automatically think of an exhibition around circles to be the most dynamic that you will see but this exhibition seeks to shine light on Orozco’s practice and diverse methods.

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Upstairs at Fruitmarket Gallery. Own photograph.

I decided to have an art day and headed over to Modern One for what has to be described as a sublime exhibition – From Death to Death and Other Small Tales – which I was lucky enough to be shown around by Simon Groom as part of a Courtauld alumni event.  The title stems from a Joseph Beuys work and the exhibition seeks to create a conversation between works from the gallery’s own collection and pieces from the collection of Dimitris Daskalopoulos that focus on the human body.  Some works reference the body explicitly while others make subtle gestures to bodies that may or may not be present.  The works presented often confront art historical tradition through similarity in subject matter.

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Sarah Lucas, Bunny Gets Snookered, 1997. Image via www.fadwebsite.com

There are the works we’d expect such as Sarah Lucas’s Bunny Gets Snookered which picks up on the tradition of full frontal female nudes.  But for it to be seen in this context is unusual and it really is good.  Every show about the body has to have a Tracey Emin and we aren’t left disappointed but then there are also some extraordinary surprises, particularly the 15 or so rarely seen works by American artist Robert Gober.  These turn everything on its head, often focusing on duality and collision of ideas.

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Robert Gober, Untitled (Torso), 1990. Image via www.thisispipe.com

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for once is not taking centre stage.  Here, it is removed from its pedestal and placed in a corner, allowing the other works to come forward and take their rightful place in the spotlight.  Chadwick’s Piss Flowers are very simple but utterly beautiful.  Chadwick pissed in the snow and cast the remains, memorialising something that did not even exist.

The smell permeating through the ground floor galleries comes from Ernesto Neto’s labyrinth-like installation, It Happens When the Body’s Anatomy of Time where columns, made from gauze, are weighed down with aromatic spices, dividing the space. It is a very contradictory piece that feels like it was made for the space.

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Ernesto Neto, It Happens When the Body’s Anatomy of Time, 2000. Own photograph.

The exhibition also includes all of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series in one gallery – five feature length films set in a folkloric world of his own invention.  It would take a day to get through these incredible films and, indeed, I was quite upset I hadn’t known sooner that they were here.  Seeing them all together in this incredible performance/installation is mind-blowing.  Not many rooms are given over to one single artist but this room is all-encompassing and mesmerising.

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A still from the Cremaster series. Image via www.artsbournemouth.org.uk

Nearly every work in this exhibition deserves a mention which is a surprising feat (there are of course always some pieces that don’t float your boat and I will never be a fan of Paul McCarthy’s Pirate Party that takes over an entire room and can be heard in a couple of others).  I’m used to exhibitions at Modern One occupying only the ground floor but this one is so extensive it takes over the entire building with around 130 works of top quality, playing to the gallery’s own strengths while showing their curatorial expertise.  It’s fabulous with contrasting atmospheres throughout.  This is an opportunity to see works that get very little exposure. The gallery have created an exhibition that really works without compromise.  There aren’t many wall texts around the exhibition – we are allowed to make up our own minds without intervention and can then read the excellent catalogue at a later date.

This exhibition has been open since the end of last year and is closing early in September.  If you were having an urge to pop to Edinburgh then seize it – after all you can always go for the day like I crazily did last week.

I popped back to London for a few days last week too and took the opportunity to see Conrad Shawcross’s Timepiece which is currently transforming the Roundhouse.  As a Shawcross fan, this was always going to be a winner for me.  He describes the piece as ‘an engine driving a functioning clock’.  Each hand is fitted with a 1000-watt bulb and solely the light from the installation illuminates the room.  The shadows are sent over the entire Roundhouse creating a huge sundial.

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Conrad Shawcross at the Roundhouse. Own photograph.

We are normally used to seeing the Roundhouse as a concert venue filled with loud noise and hubbub.  Timepiece has completely transformed the space.  It is now one of hushed contemplation with people sitting on the floor gazing at the four-metre high contraption as it rotates and moves at different speeds.  The work is poetic and isn’t just something to take a quick glance at.  It deserves consideration.  Ironically it is easy to lose track of time watching Timepiece work its magic.

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Peter Doig, No Foreign Lands is at the Scottish National Gallery until 3rd November, http://www.nationalgalleries.org/Gabriel Orozco: Thinking in Circles is at Fruitmarket Gallery until 18 October, http://fruitmarket.co.uk/.  From Death to Death and Other Small Tales | Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the D.Daskalopoulos Collection is at Modern One (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) until 8th September, http://www.nationalgalleries.org/Conrad Shawcross’s Timepiece is at the Roundhouse until 25th August, http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/conrad-shawcross-timepiece

Oh Woe is Woking

6 Apr

I’ve long been aware of The Lightbox and, when I read Florence Water’s article in January’s Apollo, I decided that it was time for a Mini adventure to Woking.

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The Lightbox, Woking, Own photograph.

In 1993, a group of 70 arts and heritage enthusiasts decided it was time to create an arts centre in Woking. Through their endeavours they achieved this goal raising more than £7 million and in September 2007 The Lightbox opened its doors (be careful on your way in as the automatic doors open outwards). Although the gallery does have a permanent body of staff, it still relies largely on the support of its 150 volunteers showing the strength of community in these parts. Education is obviously where this gallery comes into its own – as well as having great learning facilities, they run a young curators’ group, after-school arts clubs and more structured schools’ programmes that work within the national curriculum.

The Lightbox is located alongside numerous shopping centres, endless multi-storey car parks, lane after lane of traffic and more traffic lights than I’d care to count; its striking design sticks out like a sore thumb. This is obviously the most impressive building in town although I’m not sure there is much competition; designed by Marks Barfield Architects it is found, clad in wood with gold and silver aluminium panels, alongside the Basingstoke Canal. The canal-side garden is protected by a gabion wall, gesturing to Renaissance fortifications. Inside is the most wonderful expanse of wall, lit from an atrium that stretches the entire length of the south side. Currently there’s a mobile of hands hanging in the space but there is a painfully ‘blank canvas’ of white wall. Considering the surroundings this architecture is challenging but it is successful and effective.

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The white wall. Own photograph.

Most of the time, The Lightbox is filled with Chris Ingram’s spectacular collection of Modern British Art, helping to fulfil his desire to make this period more accessible to a wider public. The drawback of visiting during the Frink exhibition meant I saw very little of the collection I had hoped to view; it is usually on permanent rotating display in the Lobby galleries (aka the corridors). I made do with buying the books to give me a greater insight into the Ingram Collection which really is incredible, showing the works that Ingram likes and chooses to share with the nation. The generosity of his loan programme across the country and, indeed, his permanent loan here is fabulous.

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Chris Ingram at The Lightbox. Image via www.surreylife.co.uk.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Woking is the home of Kenwood food mixers and also where HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds. Part of the aim of the gallery is to house Woking’s Story which tells the social history of the town looking at the railway, the history of mental health through Brookwood Hospital, Brookwood Cemetery (once the largest cemetery in Europe) and Britain’s first purpose-built mosque. This display is aimed at a young audience and, although simplistic in format, it does well at highlighting the cultural importance of the area.

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Woking’s Story. Own photograph.

Currently, The Lightbox is mounting a retrospective of Dame Elisabeth Frink’s career. In the 1960s, while other artists turned increasingly to abstraction, Frink continued to pursue an interest in figurative and naturalistic imagery.

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The sculpture gallery on the ground floor. Own photograph.

In the double-height gallery on the first floor we are introduced to Frink’s main artistic concerns: Frink had no interest in sculpting the female body saying it didn’t act as a suitable vehicle for her ideas. Her fascination with man (whether standing, walking, running or seated) extended across her career, expressing ideas of masculine courage, strength and heroism. Her men are complicated vessels of emotion, sensuality and vulnerability.

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The main gallery. Own photograph.

Her interest in animals – horses, dogs and birds – also comes to the forefront here. She admired the strong bonds between man and beast – the loyalty, intimacy and interdependence.

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Frink’s horses. Own photograph.

Throughout the exhibition, which is spread across the building, we also see her heads, religious iconography and her vast array of print work which strongly complemented her sculptural processes.

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Frink’s Rolling Over Horse, 1979, and Lying Down Horse, 1977 from The Ingram Collection. Own photograph.

But, the gallery just hasn’t done very much with this amazing body of work – the pieces lose something by being plonked in the corridors and placed higgledy-piggledy across the space. We encounter the first Frink sculpture within seconds of walking through the front door before we’ve even seen a welcome panel.

The labels are sheets of sticky paper that are peeling off the walls. The lids of the Perspex cases aren’t actually screwed down (possibly not the best protection then) and are so smeared in places that it’s difficult to see the works beneath them. Ingram, the inventor of the modern media agency, has a fascinating background and obviously understands the importance of quality finish and appearance. Perhaps it would be worth him sharing a little of his expertise, as well as his art, with the gallery. Water wrote that ‘he loathes preciousness’ which I get and I have the utmost admiration for the aims of this space but The Lightbox comes off as distinctly amateur – it is not doing justice to the great works of art that it has the privilege to display.

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Victoria Way runs next to the gallery. Own photograph.

Hepworth Wakefield, Pallant House and Turner Contemporary can all get it right so being out of London is not an excuse. If The Lightbox wants people to come to see their gallery a little more work needs to go into the presentation and the curation needs more thought. The exterior is wonderful and I hope that, in time, the interior will match it. There was a huge party of men in fluorescents walking around so maybe they are planning some work to The Lightbox.

All the enthusiasm and dedication that formed this gallery in the first place needs now to be used to take The Lightbox to the next level.

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Elizabeth Frink: A Retrospective is at The Lightbox until 21st April 2013, www.thelightbox.org.uk.

The Surreal World of a Spellbinding Genius

24 Dec

Somerset House has been transformed into a veritable fairyland, a surreal world belonging to the magical stylings of Tim Walker.  Walker has always been fascinated by the make-believe since as a 19-year old intern at Vogue he established their Cecil Beaton Archive.  After completing his studies at the age of 25 he shot his first Vogue fashion story; the rest, as they say, is history.  He was the recipient of the second ‘Isabella Blow Award for Fashion Creator’ at the British Fashion Awards in 2008 and the following year he received an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in New York. His photos are instantly recognisable including many famous fashion campaigns such as those of Mulberry (who are supporting the exhibition), Hèrmes and Valentino.

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Tim Walker, Giant doll kicks Lindsey Wixson, Eglingham Hall, Northumberland, 2011.  Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

The extravagant and dazzling exhibition seeks to replicate the photos.  The first room contains a life-sized Spitfire, a prop used for a 2009 Burberry shoot for Vogue starring Lily Donaldson.  Here, it has crashed and erupted through the fireplace.  There’s no slow start.  This is Walker – take it or leave it.

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Tim Walker, Lily Donaldson and Blue Spitfire, Glemham Hall, Suffolk, 2009. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

The exhibition guides us through Walker’s collaborations with some of the biggest names in contemporary fashion and culture: Alber Elbaz sporting a pair of rabbit ears (fairy tales are frequently referenced); Karen Elson up against it with a giant crocodile; Agyness Deyn in the sand dunes of Namibia; Tilda Swinton in Iceland; Alexander McQueen and a memento mori of skull and cigarettes; Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton turning an Essex garden centre into a danse macabre; Stella Tennant in a pink cloud among the rhododendrons of an English country garden and a visitor from outer space who surprises a foxhunt in Northumberland.  Some of the scenes are a bit bizarre to say the least but they are not scary – in fact they are mesmerising.  Walker’s images are characteristically British – from the models and design to the background.

© 2009 Tim Walker. All rights reserved. Moral rights asserted.

Tim Walker, Stella Tennant and pink powder cloud, Eglingham Hall, Northumberland, 2007. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

As with the Spitfire, props from the photographs are brought into the gallery.  I, for one, love bringing props into exhibitions and so they were onto a winner here with me but, when busy, this can make the display seem cluttered.  In particular, the room with the giant swan is very difficult to navigate especially as all the cold skaters from the Somerset House ice rink are migrating inside, seeking warmth from anywhere, even an art gallery.  The wall labels are also quite amateurish and some are even peeling off – a shame considering how the rest of the show has been thought out.  The wall labels and quotes are printed on corners making you move with them – the photos aren’t straightforward and the display follows this.  Despite these flaws this is a really fabulous show where the new East Wing at Somerset House has truly found its feet .

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Skaters at Somerset House.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk

In this exhibition, we are transported to Walker’s world where his imagination comes alive. And what a world it is!  Walker shoots entirely in film – for him, the easy part is pointing and shooting and the camera ‘is simply a box put between you and what you want to capture’.  The magic, and his genius, lies in the designs of these amazing sets that show off his models and all their couture finery.  The team involved here includes hair and make-up artists, fashion stylists, costume fitters, model makers, set designers, builders, producers, painters, prop suppliers and models with Walker at the centre waving his magic wand.

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Tim Walker, Olga Shearer on blue horse, Sennowe Park, Norfolk, 2007. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

Somewhat surprisingly, Walker’s preference when looking at this show is his portraits, favouring the stripped back contrast of the faces to his previous flamboyance.  He feels it’s time for something new but I find it very hard to believe he’s going to leave all this behind.  Who knows?  Let’s see.

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Tim Walker, Alexander McQueen with skull and cigarettes, Clerkenwell, London, 2009. Image via www.somersethouse.org.uk and courtesy of Tim Walker.

Looking at Walker’s photographs feels as if we are somewhere else, in his own surreal land.  The soft focus, framing devices and clever lighting enhances this.  It is, in fact, the experience of viewing the photograph that stays with us longer than some of the specific images.  The works are an incredible cross between fashion, theatre, design and art.  They don’t have to come down in one place as they encapsulate all these things; and they encapsulate them faultlessly. 

And so it was time for me to journey to my own winter wonderland and don some skates at the Tower of London to be whisked away once more, this time onto the ice.

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Tim Walker: Story Teller is at Somerset House until 27th January 2013, www.somersethouse.org.uk.

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.

A Game Plan with No Energy – Boetti at Tate Modern

4 Mar

It has been nearly a week since I visited the Alighiero Boetti exhibition at Tate Modern.  Generally, I like to write about exhibitions as soon as possible but, for this, I needed time to digest.  I felt thoroughly bamboozled by parts of the show.  To be honest, I still do.

Boetti is one of the most influential Italian artists of the 20th century, strongly associated with the Arte Povera movement of the late 1960s (which he then rejected in 1969 with his work Niente da vedere niente da nascondere).  The exhibition begins with his Arte Povera objects at a time when he was experimenting with the figure and identity of the artist.  Taking this to extremes, Boetti began to represent himself as split in two, as twins called Alighiero E Boetti.

In the background – Alighiero Boetti, Niente da vedere niente da nascondere, 1969. Own photograph.

The exhibition highlights Boetti’s engagement with travel, geopolitics, games, numbers, words, dates, sequences, systems… with far too many things in fact.  It is very hard to tie Boetti down; throughout his career, he always jumped around, never remaining in one place for long and, for this reason, after the second room there is no route around the exhibition.  Instead, it is structured by ideas rather than arranged chronologically.  Game Plan is playful and conceptual, aiming to be the exact manifestation of the artist himself.

Game Plan at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Boetti is most widely-known for his maps where each country is created using the colours and symbols of its flag.  From June 1967, not having any interest in learning the skill himself, Boetti asked his wife to embroider the shapes for him.  When travelling, he commissioned local craftswomen as he was intrigued by the female approach to colour.  At one point, supposedly, the embroiderers did not recognise the ocean as an ocean and used a colour that was more plentiful in their supplies.  After this time he gave them leeway to choose the colours they preferred for the seas; the values of the locals are woven into the pictures along with the artist’s ideas.  Boetti was fascinated by systems of which maps are the very embodiment, the human method of representing the world through shapes and symbolic colours.  At the heart of this exhibition are 12 maps embroidered in his characteristic, vivid colours.  This room is certainly the highlight of the exhibition and one where we most coherently get a sense of Boetti’s personality and ideals.

Alighiero Boetti, Mappa, 1971-72. Own photograph.

There are other well-known highlights; his 1973 work ordine e disordine covers a whole wall with a hundred embroidered squares featuring the randomly-dispersed phrase.   Also included are his monumental embroideries and a book created in an attempt to classify the thousand longest rivers in the world.  Shown in a room with windows, through which it’s possible to see the Thames, the hangings take a vivid actuality with their sense of movement and research mirrored by the flowing fluvial contours outside.

Alighiero Boetti,Ordine e Disordine, 1973. Own photograph.

I found his postal works particularly interesting; in 1969, Boetti selected 25 characters to be part of his Viaggi  Postali.  He created 25 different journeys.  The first envelopes were sent to the first addresses but were obviously returned to sender as the addressee didn’t live there.  Boetti photocopied both sides of the envelope and filed the copies in grey folders.  The original envelopes were then placed in larger envelopes and sent to the second address.  And so the same thing would continue as part of Boetti’s own strange game.  19 envelopes remain in the final work, the others having got lost on their travels.

Alighiero Boetti,Viaggi Postali, 1969-70. Own photograph.

And then there’s the work generating most attention – his Lampada Annuale, a black box holding a single light bulb that only illuminates for 11 seconds a year.  Few people will ever see it alight but there will always be a great sense of expectation when approaching it.  But, Boetti will always have the last laugh; no doubt the work will illuminate one night, enjoying its 11-second glory in solitude.

In the foreground – Alighiero Boetti, Lampada Annuale, 1966. Own photograph.

Game Plan is another exhibition that Tate has dimly lit, making it gloomy and exhausting.  It is highly likely that the tapestries dictate these low light levels but the curatorial decisions have removed any playfulness from the exhibition.  Tate has done nothing to jazz this show up.  I’d only seen a few of Boetti’s works before but the sheer diversity is incredible.  However, if you don’t know anything about the artist, Tate’s choice of labelling and explanations is strange.  I found the catalogue to be far more palatable than the show and it is through this that I’ve been able to understand some of the more baffling elements in greater detail.  It clearly elucidates Boetti’s multi-faceted career in a non-exhausting way.

Alighiero Boetti,detail of I mille fiumi più lunghi del mondo, 1976-78. Own photograph.

Even on a preview morning, as people ‘accidentally’ stepped over the boundary lines, a ridiculous symphony of beeps deafened everyone in the gallery.  The alarms were like a sound installation which I imagine will get tiresome.

Some of Boetti’s works are a revelation and his use of texture throughout is amazing but overall it’s not for me.  The volume of work at Tate shows how active Boetti was.  Although, he made very few of the pieces himself, he saw thought as a sixth sense and was constantly bubbling with ideas.  There may be no continuity in his medium but Tate aims to show that his principles are consistent and that his eccentricity was omnipresent.

Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan is at Tate Modern until 27th May 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

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.

Masterminding Masterpieces: Leonardo at the National

10 Nov

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery is one of the most talked about shows of the year and I had been eagerly anticipating my visit.

One of the world’s most famous artists, Leonardo moved to Milan in around 1483, gaining a position as a court artist for the Sforza family.  He remained there until 1499 and returned from 1506-13 when he finished his second version of Virgin of the Rocks, now housed permanently at the National Gallery.  The exhibition focuses on his time in Milan and traces the development of his work, analysing what made him the artist of all artists.  Leonardo had great ambitions for the art of painting; he revolutionised the medium to express feelings and bare the soul and this is the first exhibition to study his ambitions as a painter.

Leonardo’s Saint Jerome in the National Gallery’s exhibition. Own photograph.

Five years in the planning, the coming together of this exhibition is an immense achievement.  The sensational and unprecedented loans and the amassing of these works is something that will, in all likelihood, never be attempted again.  Nearly every surviving painting from Leonardo’s Milan period is exhibited including nine of his own works plus around 60 preparatory studies.  Curator, Luke Syson’s approach was “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” and his perseverance and sheer passion for the project paid off.   The Royal Collection and Her Majesty The Queen have generously lent 33 sketches and studies which are some of the highlights of the exhibition.  Very few works actually come from the National’s own collection – they are, of course, showing The Burlington House Cartoon which looks spectacular in its new temporary home in the Sainsbury galleries.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a man with his head turned, c. 1495, red chalk on red prepared paper.  Lent by Her Majesty The Queen, image via www.royalcollection.org.uk

Each room is based on a theme, focused around one Leonardo and supplemented by drawings and works from his followers.  Often, the works serve little purpose, detracting from the main focus of the show.

Room two is themed Beauty and Love and shows two of the three portraits completed in Milan.  Leonardo talks about a painting’s capacity to inspire love, a response that this room is certainly capable of eliciting.  The Lady with an Ermine shows the Mistress of the Duke of Milan, described at the time as being “as beautiful as a flower”.  The divide of her face is mesmerising – one side is tentative while the other is alert with a slight smile, drawing us in closer.  The portrait is so vivid that we almost believe she is real.  Painted in 1488-90, the work shows Cecilia Gallerani with a white ermine, a visual pun on her surname since the Greek for ermine is galay.  It may also represent her lover, Ludovico Sforza, who had been awarded the order of the Ermine and was often known as l’Ermellino.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (‘The Lady with an Ermine’), c. 1489–90, oil on walnut.  Courtesy of the Princes Czartoryski Foundation, image via www.theartsdesk.com

Shown in the same room is The Belle Ferronnière, a lady whose identity is much debated.  Syson thinks she may be the Duchess of Milan and, if so, the mistress and the wife are displayed here in the same room.  The figure’s head is a perfect oval and it is possible to see the ideal proportions of the face as Leonardo has imposed his geometrical workings onto a real face showing the ideal of womanhood.

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a Woman (‘La Belle Ferronnière’), c. 1493–4, oil on walnut. Image via www.louvre.fr

There is a remarkable sense of encounter with his portraits, partly achieved through the power of the intoxicating gaze.  It’s easy to spend hours analysing one Leonardo but that is not my aim here.  Ironically, the popularity of the show will prevent you from affording these works the time they deserve.

Be warned.  Own photograph.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the inclusion of the two Virgin of the Rocks – one from the Louvre and the National Gallery’s own recently restored version.  The Virgin of the Rocks was intended as an altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception but, when the original work was finished in 1485, Leonardo decided that the price was too low.  When they wouldn’t give him more money, he sold the work to someone else.  So, the Confraternity were forced to commission a replacement which was not to be finished until 1508.  Despite having the same subject, there are notable variations between the two works.  However, they are not shown here in competition or for comparison.  Instead, they are displayed opposite one another in conversation as individual masterpieces.  Nobody before now has seen these two works together and I doubt anyone ever will again.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1491/2–99 and 1506-8, oil on poplar, thinned and cradled. Image via www.nationalgallery.org.uk

I know that wall colour is a constant gripe of mine but it is important and they’ve chosen a gloomy aubergine that consumes the works.  Journalists at the preview seemed united in this criticism.  The wall texts do not show off the achievements of the exhibition and can often be relatively mundane.  Yet, the catalogue is fascinating, beautifully laid out and riveting.  It just didn’t translate well enough from page to wall.

In a career covering roughly 50 years, Leonardo only completed 15 paintings.  Prolific he was not, but a genius he certainly was.   This exhibition is a crowd-pleaser and visitors are flocking to see the Leonardos. The National Gallery may have restricted entry numbers but this is going to be hell on earth for anyone visiting.  On Tuesday, the queues were forming to buy advance tickets even though the exhibition is nearly sold out for this year.

Queues at the National Gallery. Own photograph.

The catalogue is definitely worth buying and illustrates what an amazing concept this is.  This will be the most important exhibition of the year.  Although it doesn’t have the razzle dazzle I expected, the works themselves and the fact that they are here is incredible.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is at the National Gallery until 5th February 2012, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

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