More than just the David

Although Michelangelo’s David is today considered the most important single art object to be seen in Florence (or possibly one of three, along with Botticelli’s Spring and Birth of Venus in the Uffizi), it was largely ignored by visitors up until around 1860, soon after which it was brought inside from Piazza della Signoria to be protected in a specially-built ‘tribune’ in the Galleria dell’Accademia. By 1868 Baedeker had decided it merited a star, and in the 1903 edition of the guide it had become ‘celebrated’.

 

Today one has the impression that very few tourists are prepared for the many treasures to be seen at the Galleria dell’Accademia, which are of quite another character from Michelangelo’s (now ‘famous’) David. These range from 350 plaster models from the studio of the 19th-century sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini; the collection of musical instruments made by the last Medici and the Lorraine grand dukes, considered one of the most important in Italy (where you can also listen to recordings); Florentine paintings from the time of Giotto up to the 16th century; a large group of paintings by Michelangelo’s close contemporaries; and exquisite individual works such as Giovanni da Milano’s Man of Sorrows (1365). The new director, Cecilie Hollberg, seems to have every intention to steer visitors to all the different parts of the gallery, not just the hall with Michelangelo’s Slaves and St Matthew, and the tribune with his David.

 

One could almost wish the arrangement of the galleries could be reversed, since at present visitors can be disorientated by the itinerary imposed: you start in the large room of 15th- and early 16th-century paintings with the plaster model made by Giambologna for his Rape of the Sabines in the Loggia della Signoria. Off this is the museum of musical instruments, after which you pass through the gallery with Michelangelo’s great works. From the tribune with the David there are conspicuous signs to the exit which is routed through the gift shop. But you also pass three rooms of the earliest paintings and this is also the way to the stairs (and inconspicuous lift) to the top floor, where there are paintings dating from 1370 to 1430.

Some of the most interesting works it would be a great pity to miss on the race to the David and then out, are described below:

 

Close together on the entrance wall of the first room are two paintings dated around 1460: the so-called Cassone Adimari (which may have been a bed-head or a wainscot) with brightly coloured, elegant scenes of a wedding pageant by Masaccio’s younger brother, Lo Scheggia; and, in great contrast, a very dark painting of The Thebaids thought to be by Paolo Uccello. Other curious scenes exist of these desert fathers, who lived around Thebes in Egypt, including one in the Uffizi which is attributed in situ to Fra’ Angelico (even though some art historians have suggested it could have been painted in the 18th century). Also hung on this wall are two beautiful Madonnas by Botticelli dating from the following decade.

 

Among the well-labelled paintings by Michelangelo’s Florentine contemporaries, one of the most curious (it hangs on the end wall to the right of the David) is the crowded Allegory of the Immaculate Conception, the best work of the eccentric painter Carlo Portelli (signed and dated 1566 on the stool on the left). The iconography is unique, with the graceful, naked Eve portrayed prominently below the Madonna (the new ‘Eve’), while Adam is shown still asleep. At the time the nudity of Eve caused a scandal and she was given a fur coat to restore her modesty. This was finally removed in a restoration in 2013.

 

The Salone is filled with the 19th-century sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini’s models for his works in marble. This huge, well-lit hall was formerly the ward of the hospital of San Matteo (a little painting by Pontormo shows the room at that time). The extraordinary collection of models (often more interesting than the final marble versions) is arranged more or less as it was left in Bartolini’s studio. The works include serried ranks of some 250 busts: a group of them (on the right and left of the entrance) record the English visitors to Florence who asked Bartolini if they could sit for their portraits (many of these are unique, as the whereabouts of the marble versions, which ended up in private collections in Britain are often no longer known). This is not the case with his well-known portraits of Byron and his mistress Teresa Gamba Guiccioli (there are marble versions both in the National Portrait Gallery in London and in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Palazzo Pitti). The son of a Tuscan blacksmith, Bartolini spent time in Paris where he worked in the atelier of David and met Ingres, who later painted two portraits of the sculptor. By the time of his death in 1850, he had become the best-known sculptor in Italy. There is an excellent website with a database still in progress.

 

In the three rooms of the earliest paintings is Giovanni da Milano’s moving Man of Sorrows (beneath the window in the room on the left) and works by other followers of Giotto (and even a fresco fragment with a shepherd and goats attributed to the master himself).

 

The very peaceful upper floor is a place to savour, away from the crowds. There are even comfortable places to sit down (totally absent on the ground floor). The display is excellent and the extraordinary colourful altarpieces, especially those by Lorenzo Monaco and (on the end wall of the main room) a Coronation of the Virgin by the less well-known Rossello di Jacopo Franchi present a magnificent sight. Here too is an extraordinarily beautiful embroidered altar-frontal from Santa Maria Novella, signed and dated 1336 by a certain Jacopo di Cambio, with scenes from the life of the Virgin decorated with numerous birds. There is a small study room on this floor where you can consult catalogues, also online.

 

The Gallery has space for small exhibitions, always worth seeing, and usually connected to the permanent collection (in 2015 there was an exhibition of all the paintings known by Carlo Portelli).

 

So far this year there has been no queue to enter the gallery, but when the crowds begin in March you should book online. NB: All other booking websites charge more and should be avoided. You can also book by telephone, T: 055 294883. When in Florence you can also buy your ticket and book a visit directly opposite the entrance to the gallery at the bookshop and café called myaccademia.com for the same price as at the gallery ticket office itself (the other ticket offices in this street charge more).


It is worthwhile remembering that throughout the year the gallery is almost always much less crowded in the late afternoon (and in the height of the season it can sometimes have extended opening hours).

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

The formidable Empress Matilda

Who was Matilda of Canossa? Last year, the Casa Buonarroti in Florence housed an exhibition dedicated to her, a woman who might seem to have little to do with the great sculptor who once owned the house that is now a museum to his memory. But the connection becomes clear when we are reminded of Michelangelo's concern to prove that he was descended from an important family. He chose for his ancestors no less than the Canossa. Surviving letters from Michelangelo to his nephew, reminding him of this connection, prove his determination to establish this link. Amusingly enough, a letter even survives from a certain Count of Canossa to Michelangelo confirming their illustrious—if fictitious—parentage.

 

Matilda (1046–1115) is still one of the most famous women in history, and the 900th anniversary of death was celebrated in 2015 in various towns of Italy. The Italian expression andare a Canossa is still sometimes used to signify an action which involves great humiliation. For it was Matilda who, in her impregnable castle of Canossa, south of Parma, in 1077, proudly received the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, after he had waited outside the walls, barefoot in the snow in one of the bitterest winters on record, to ask her to intercede on his behalf with her great friend Pope Gregory VII to lift his excommunication.

 

But her story begins much earlier. Parchments bearing her signature survive to this day, her name written in a bold hand: Matilda dei Gratia si quid est. Quite simply: 'Matilda who by the Grace of God is who she is'). Matlida’s father, Boniface, Margrave of Tuscany, administered vast territories in Italy on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor. When he was killed, his wife Beatrice took over from him together with her daughter Matilda (then only aged six). By feudal law women were not allowed to inherit, so this action naturally led to disputes but Matilda managed to hold onto the land after her mother's death. She allied herself with the pope and encouraged his independence, too, from the Holy Roman Emperor. To uphold her claim she used laws set down in the Justinian Code, since that great Roman emperor had established that female heirs had the same rights as male. Matilda employed distinguished jurists to study Justinian's Digest concerning civil laws (which he laid out in just 27 brief and memorable sentences), including the fundamental concept that "all men are equal".

 

Matilda spent her life founding or restoring cathedrals and churches in Italian territory (she is credited with some 100 such works) and facilitated travel between them, as well as building a circle of walls around Florence to keep the emperor out. She transferred her powers as ruler to the towns of Florence, Pisa and Lucca, and saw to it that the feudal claims of the Holy Roman Emperor over the people on Italian territory were extinguished. In effect she also helped to diminish the emperor's secular power over the papacy, and supported Pope Gregory VII in his reforms (and formally left her lands to the papacy). As a young woman she often travelled with the Pope through Italian territory (her detractors suggested she was his concubine), and she promptly abandoned not one but two husbands when they took refuge with the Emperor. Indeed, the history of Italy’s free communes can with some justification be traced to her.

 

A contemporary biography of Matilda was written by a monk from Canossa called Donizone. It has delightful illustrations showing Matilda enthroned and very much in command. Another extant manuscript shows her with Anselm, Bishop of Canterbury. On her death she was buried in the monastery church of San Benedetto Po but in 1634 Urban VIII decided to transfer her remains to St Peter's. He made history when he did so, as Matilda was not only the first woman but the first lay person, neither pope nor saint, to be buried there. Bernini designed the statue for her tomb. Her monument is mentioned in Blue Guide Rome and the ruins of her castle at Canossa feature in Blue Guide Emilia Romagna; but she will certainly get a stronger billing in the other Blue Guides to Italy from now on. One can only admire Michelangelo for choosing this Grancontessa as his ancestor.

by Alta Macadam

11.01.2017
11:57

Life, Art and Kenneth Clark

The impact of Kenneth Clark, the erudite patrician raconteur of the episodes of Civilisation, his majestic survey of European art first shown on the BBC in 1969, will always resonate with those who watched him. He adopted an unashamedly elitist approach that was delivered in a memorably clipped voice. ‘Civilisation’, he told us, was always precarious and would have been lost with the fall of the Roman empire if a few geniuses had not restored and kept it alive. It could be seen in exquisite buildings, great paintings and superb craftsmanship. Civility and rational thought acted as a backdrop to this fragile world distanced as it was from the toil and turmoil of everyday living

 

Of course, Clark’s approach was challenged, not least a few years later by John Berger in his Ways of Seeing, which looked far more critically at the way that art masked privilege and was used to maintain status. But when I listened again to one or two of Clark’s episodes (for the first time since 1969) I still found them absorbing. They drew me to this new biography of Clark by James Stourton, an accomplished art historian and former UK Chairman of Sotheby’s. I had enjoyed a retrospective of Clark’s life at Tate Britain in 2014 but had been disappointed by Meryle Secrest’s earlier life, which showed little understanding of the man and the world he lived in. This is a much more sophisticated and searching study.

 

Clark’s upbringing, as an only child on the large Suffolk estate of his fabulously wealthy parents, did much to shape him as a loner who developed a passion and sensitivity to art which provided him with the most enduring relationship of his life. He was lucky, while at Oxford, in securing the patronage of Charles Bell, the Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean, who allowed him to explore freely the wonderful collection of Italian drawings. It was Bell who took him to Italy and introduced him at the age of 22 to Bernard Berenson, by now firmly ensconced at I Tatti, his villa outside Florence. Stourton suggests that it was within the Berensen ménage that, for the first time in his life, Clark found an emotional home. As their recently edited letters [https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Dear-BB-Berenson-1925-1959/dp/0300207379/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1484131492&sr=1-1&keywords=my+dear+bb] show, their relationship endured until Berenson’s death in 1959 but neither was able to establish a warm intimacy and a persistent undercurrent of rivalry pervades their correspondence. Clark’s first marriage, to Jane Martin, gave him his chance to escape Berenson’s tentacles and to embark on his glittering career back in England, working on the royal collection of Leonardo drawings, curating at the Ashmolean and directing the National Gallery through the challenges of the Second World War.

 

The Clarks became one of the must-have couples of the 1930s and their circle was wide. The relationship lasted but it had its bad moments, with Jane’s alcoholism and Kenneth’s affairs. The longest of these, with Janet Stone, lasted thirty years and the few extracts from their letters which have been published (most are still embargoed) show him at his frankest and most unbuttoned. Yet even here there would be limits. He failed to marry Janet when both were free to do so and in a melancholy aside Stourton tells how many of her letters to him were discovered still unopened. It is hardly surprising that Clark remained an enigma to most of his acquaintances. He often spoke of himself as a fraud, as if there was some appalling secret about him about to be revealed. There was a gulf between how accessible he wanted to be to others and the distance that they usually encountered as they tried to get close. There was another between his glittering lifestyle, his castle at Saltwood, and his adventurous purchases of art, and his claim to be a socialist at heart.

 

Even so, Clark’s expertise and extensive address book kept him going from post to post. He was always much more than a social butterfly. His patronage of important artists such as Henry Moore and John Piper were crucial for their success. He showed, through a love of Japanese art, of Aubrey Beardsley, alongside that of his contemporaries, that he could break free of the rarefied world of Renaissance drawings. He took on roles that seemed far from any of his interests. To become Chairman of the Independent Television Authority when he did not own a television set and when ITA was seen as the harbinger of a collapse in cultural standards appears more than public duty demanded.

 

Stourton deals well with the making of Civilisation. He has tracked down some of the original film crew and interviewed the widow of the director, Michael Gill. Gill appeared to represent everything that Clark most despised. As his widow remembered, the couple did not fear that the barbarians were at the gate, Gill would have actually liked to be one of the barbarians. The relationship between Clark, Gill and the third director, Peter Montagnon, eventually developed into a creative one and the series turned out to be an extraordinary success, especially in the United States. It is what ‘Lord Clark of Civilisation’ is remembered for.

 

It may be that Clark’s life and times are now too remote for this book to be a bestseller (his son Alan made a more recent éclat with his gossipy diaries) but this was a biography that deserved to be written and it has been exceptionally well done. Until the full range of Clark’s letters to Janet Stone are revealed it will be as definitive a life as we could wish for. It may even take some of us back to important books of Clark’s such as The Nude, a groundbreaking study, or his Leonardo da Vinci, still regarded as one of the finest explorations of this genius and praised by Stourton as such.

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation, by James Stourton. William Collins, London, 2016. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine

"Robert Smyth’s Hungarian Wine ... is a really pleasurable wine book and hedonist’s travel guide. It would make a great Christmas present for almost anyone who is interested in good wine and travel."

A nice review from wine blogger Quentin Sadler:

A Lovely Wine Book for Christmas

I love wine and I love books and I really, really like books about wine, so when my friend Robert Smyth gave me a copy of his excellent new book I leapt into action and little more than a year later I wrote this review.

Read his full article: https://quentinsadler.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/a-lovely-wine-book-for-christmas/

07.12.2016
11:39

Remarkable Manuscripts

by Christopher de Hamel.

 

How does one “meet” a medieval manuscript? The examples explored in this book are such celebrities that effecting a face-to-face encounter needs a lot of arranging. It helps if you are a world authority like Christopher de Hamel. Having worked for years at Sotheby’s, he has handled more illuminated manuscripts than anyone else alive. Since 2000 he has abandoned the buzz of commercial sales for the librarianship of the Parker Library in Corpus Christi, Cambridge, the books and manuscripts bequeathed by Matthew Parker, a former Master of the college and Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Elizabeth I.

 

It is here that he introduces us to the first of his manuscripts. Small and rather battered, it is a very early set of the gospels (in the Latin Vulgate of St Jerome) and a deeply moving document in that it may well be the very copy sent by pope Gregory the Great to Canterbury with the monk Augustine in 597. De Hamel lists the circumstantial evidence for the provenance, is largely convinced, but then leaves the question open. Then he produces his clincher: an analysis of the Latin shows phrases from a pre-Vulgate Latin version that Gregory found superior to that of Jerome. If this is right, the Gospels is the founding document of Christianity in England, provided as a gift by one of the great popes of the Middle Ages. For Parker the Gospels was especially important as a relic of an original Anglican church that had now been restored to its independence under Elizabeth. He probably found the manuscript in the library of the dissolved monastery of Augustine in Canterbury.

 

The Gospels of Saint Augustine is the first of the wonderful manuscripts to which we are introduced. They are chosen from century to century, a total of twelve over a thousand years, so that we learn not only about the manuscripts themselves but about the changing world that produced them, the Carolingian Renaissance of the 9th century, the shift in commissioning from monasteries to royal families in the 12th, and the retreat into private prayer from the 14th century onwards that inspired some of the most opulent manuscripts of all, the Books of Hours. While most of the chosen few are religious texts, there is an extraordinary 9th-century copy of a Classical picture book of the constellations, the Aratea (named after the 4th-century BC astronomer Aratus of Soli), as well as a collection of drinking and love songs (the 13th-century Carmina Burana), and one of the earliest texts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Hengwrt Chaucer, now in the National Library of Wales.

 

Some of the choices are so famous that they have become ‘iconic symbols’ of a nation. Such is the Irish Book of Kells, the only one of the manuscripts here that I have seen myself, with its intricate and delicate embroidery of illustrations. Others have to be dug out. Meeting the Visconti Semideus, a treatise on armaments and warfare presented to Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, in 1438, now in St. Petersburg, requires getting a visa for Russia, having one’s passport examined at the entrance to the library, photographs taken, papers stamped, long corridors to the reading room traversed and eventually this fine manual handed over for inspection. By now we have reached the Renaissance, and Classical allusions fit alongside exhortations to reconquer the Holy Land for Christendom. The original owner, Filippo Maria, is not named after the apostle but after Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. As de Hamel passes lunchtime without refreshment, a middle-aged woman with outsized glasses, ‘a saint among manuscript librarians’, takes pity on him and feeds him whisky-flavoured Russian chocolates.

 

When he meets his manuscripts, de Hamel quickly establishes an intimate relationship with them. They have no chance of hiding their blemishes, ‘erasures, scratches, overpainting, offsets, patches, sewing-holes, bindings and nuances of colour and texture’ that have often been concealed in reproductions. But he is a kindly man, forgiving of the manuscripts for the scrapes (I use the word literally as some surfaces have been scraped off the parchment ) that they have endured. They, and he, must be relaxed enough for their story to be told. They cannot conceal the style of their illuminations or the script of their text, and their origin and history is often marked by the dedications and the names of later owners—but they more than hold their own and some keep their secrets to themselves.

 

Much else is dependent on careful detective work. So the hand of the artist of the ‘Hours of the Virgin’ section of the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre is found across a range of illuminations from the middle of the 14th century whose patrons are known. There is only one illuminator who, records show, worked for all these patrons, Jean le Noir, the ‘illumineur du roi’ and de Hamel concludes that the Hours (still in Paris in the Bibliothèque Nationale) were the gift of king Philippe VI to Jeanne, daughter of Louis X, king both of Navarre and France.

 

There has been an attempt to ascribe the manuscript of the Hengwrt Chaucer, the next manuscript to be met, to one Adam Pinkhurst whom Chaucer had urged to copy his texts more carefully. Pinkhurst is indeed recorded as a scribe, the dates fit and there is some resemblance between the scripts ascribed to Adam and that of the Chaucer. De Hamel thinks long and hard and finally decides they are not one and the same. In recompense he leaves the National Library clutching a mug and coasters bearing the illustrations he has just been studying in the original.

 

There is so much to treasure here. One can follow the intricacies of the Book of Kells for hours. I was fascinated by the planetarium from the Aratea as it shows the planets Venus and Mercury in orbit around the sun (which is in orbit around the earth, as are Saturn, Jupiter and Mars). Quite by coincidence I had come across the view of the 9th-century Irish scholar Eriugena that the sun did revolve around the earth but the planets Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury revolved around it. No doubt this hypothesis is common knowledge to historians of astronomy but it was quite new to me and I am grateful to de Hamel for giving me a source to put alongside Eriugena.

 

Tracing the increasing sophistication of the illuminations is a pleasure in itself. The illustrator of the Morgan Beatus, a 10th-century text of interpretations of the Apocalypse from Spain, has created a fun toy box of a Noah’s Ark, the animals shown on a series of shelves with the family at the top, Noah reaching up to the dove. Two hundred years later, in the opulent Copenhagen psalter, the figures are now full of emotional responses. Perspective arrives, the army of the Visconti march across mountain passes with valleys below. Colours become rich and one can even pick out details of clothing. The scenes of everyday medieval life in the Spinola Hours (now in the Paul Getty Museum high up on its flattened Los Angeles hillside) are particularly enchanting.

And so one could go on. Please put this book at the top of your Christmas wish list.

Meetings with Medieval Manuscripts, Allen Lane, 2016, reviewed by Charles Freeman

Also recommended: Stella Panyatova (ed.), Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, June to December 2016, to celebrate its first 200 years. It has a wealth of information on the techniques of creating manuscripts

Abstract Expressionism at the RA

Abstract Expressionism, on show at the Royal Academy, London, until 2nd January 2017.

Abstract Expressionism emerged in the 1940s in the United States and remained a predominantly American phenomenon. Its main characteristic, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Art, is the “desire to convey powerful emotions through the sensuous qualities of paint, often on canvases of huge size.” The Baroque movement of the 20th century, then? A Counter-Reformation against intellectual, social- and community-minded –isms, with all their rules and strictures, and a headlong, self-conscious race into the arms of feeling.

 

The genesis of the movement is well illustrated in the first room. Two early figurative works by Mark Rothko are hung on the right. Both date from 1936. One is his Self-portrait: the fat, red twisted lips and dark blind circles of eyes hidden by dark glasses strike a disreputable and sinister note. The other work is Interior, where a pair of ghostly white and faintly grotesque classicist sculptures flank a dark doorway populated by a huddle of brown-clad, white-faced, stricken-looking people. Normality and the conventional are shown distorted and turning ghoulish.

 

There is a scene in the film Funny Face where the character played by Audrey Hepburn, feeling angry and put upon by the character played by Fred Astaire, says: “Isn't it time you realised that dancing is nothing more than a form of expression or release? There's no need to be formal or cute about it. As a matter of fact, I rather feel like expressing myself now. And I could certainly use a release.” And then she dances. Wonderfully well. It is the only really good scene in the film.

 

Abstract Expressionism is like that. An emotional response to an external trigger. Dark times (world war, economic depression) cannot be argued away by reason, logic or objectivity. Objects turn ugly. What we can use is colour and gesture.

 

The exhibition rooms are crowded with visitors. The air hums with their whispered reactions. There is talk of “creative revelation” and of “traumatic experience”. These are personal responses. The artworks themselves are personal responses. Here we are as an audience, being called on to respond personally to a series of personal responses. This is art as me-journalism. And when the artist’s response succeeds in triggering a response of our own, either in reaction or in sympathy, the result is extraordinarily powerful. This is the ideal time to be looking again at these works, in an age so politically polarised that we can scarcely even sit at the same table as people who don’t agree with us. We need Abstract Expressionism to save us from fetishes and propaganda.

 

But is self-expression anything more than simple self-indulgence? Yes, if the self-expresser is equipped with the vocabulary to interpret his or her feelings productively. All (or almost all) of the artists represented in this show are very well equipped, and their eloquence elicits a productive response. The solemn, Beaux Arts neoclassicism of the exhibition rooms is a perfect foil for this art.

 

The problem, though, is that too many feelings are being expressed. And too few walls are available to harbour all the wealth of feeling that is outpoured. The result is a clamorous hubbub. And there are very few places to sit down. But perhaps this is a quibble. You need to give yourself time. This is not a show to see in a hurry.

 

The work of Arshile Gorky had a formative influence on the AbEx movement and an entire room is dedicated to him. He does not use the medium of abstraction to express emotions or ideas; he is rooted in Surrealism and his paintings send audiences scrabbling for figurative interpretations. The exhibition points out Gorky’s “knack for camouflaging forms so that their identities hover between the recognisable and the cryptic.” This means that we are perpetually trying to see forms in all his works, forms that will provide the meaning and the interpretation, like looking for recognisable shapes in clouds. We do this with The Orators, which the wall text tells us is an “artfully obscured scene of figures around the funeral bier of Gorky’s father.” The figures are either obscured too artfully or not obscured enough. We spend too long intellectualising, trying to make them take comprehensible shape. If we aren't careful, we can talk a lot of rubbish about art like this. Fortunately AbEx didn't linger there.

 

For a while perhaps it looked as if it was going to. Willem de Kooning, in his figurative phase, makes us sit and watch while he wrestles with the age-old male dilemma: Women. Do you worship them or make fun of them? Thankfully he emerges from it to give us his best work (and the finest two pieces in the room dedicated to him): Villa Borghese (1960) and Untitled (1961), generous patches of lemon yellow, blue, green and pastel pink, which evoke sunshine and tranquillity. Franz Kline’s violent black slashes across white backgrounds evoke cast-iron bridges, steelyards and gantries. They are like photography gone backwards into painting. One enjoys them in silence, they are all about atmosphere. So is Milton Resnick’s beautiful, wintry Octave, which strikes the viewer like a grey day at Giverny.

 

Monet is not the only artist echoed and challenged by these painters. Picasso also looms large. And Jackson Pollock’s Summertime 9A looks like a Mondrian pulled so tight that the black lines have stretched and buckled: released, they spring back into a knotted, rhythmic tangle, clotted with the yellow, red and blue areas of infill.

 

Age-old scriptural and mythological figures are abstractly explored by Barnett Newman: Adam, Eve, and Ulysses (1952). Tempting as it is in Ulysses to interpret the strongly divided planes of blue as representations of sea and sky, Newman has chosen to make his axis a vertical one. So we are left more with a mood and a feeling than an idea, and the result is restful. Vast landscapes are evoked by Clyfford Still. Ad Reinhardt puts a frame around black nothing to turn it into something, a thing to go on a wall, like a sort of anti-mirror, sucking all reflections in, giving nothing back.

 

And what about Rothko, who famously hoped to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch” who dined in the room where his Seagram murals were to hang? If they had ever been hung there, I doubt he would have succeeded. His Self-portrait or Interior would have appalled the sons of bitches. De Kooning’s Woman II would have had them running for the door. Rothko’s colour-field rectangles such as No. 4 (Untitled) couldn’t possibly. Here is an artist who set out with such aggressive intent, aiming to “defeat” the walls with the plenitude of his art. Yet the result is tremendously relaxing and satisfying. It is daring but it is not terrible. The whole gamut of human emotion is there, but there is no dissonance. Each tableau speaks like a still small voice of calm. Expressionism, when it is figural, is grotesque. When it is abstract, it is not, however belligerent or morbid the emotions that engendered it. The Rothko paintings, in the central octagon, are as gorgeous and uplifting as any juxtaposition of tragedy and ecstasy in a Baroque canvas of sacred apotheosis. Where they triumph (and where other Abstract Expressionist artists fail) is that they leave you with nothing to say. You can only feel.

 

The scale of these works, in terms of the value of their content, is in almost every case equal to their size. The “sensuous qualities of paint” are also important. What strikes one forcibly is how old-fashioned the works are. There is no dilettantish daubing at play here. We are dealing with a masterly handling of the medium. What people are responding to is not just the call on their emotions but also the sheer skill of the artists. No one would ever look at one of these works and say, “I could paint that.”

 

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, London, until 2nd January.

Comments on Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old World

Hungarian wine has never been so exciting. More than ever before, wine tourism is taking off in the country, revealing a beguiling mix of tradition and innovation. With ancient, underground, rock-hewn cellars and wineries of cutting-edge design, Hungary offers much to experts and amateurs alike. This new guide, written by Budapest resident and wine writer Robert Smyth, visits each of the country’s wine regions, meets the winemakers, tastes the wines and makes recommendations of who to watch.

29.11.2016
11:03

Transylvania Launched

Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley was launched last week at a crammed reception in John Sandoe Books in London. Devotees of the shop will know that there is more floor space in it for books than for people—but luckily the afternoon rain gave way to clear skies and those who could not fit inside took the party onto the pavement. The author of this new Blue Guide, art historian and tour leader Lucy Abel Smith, spoke briefly about her book, which traces the course of the Greater Târnava river, visiting towns, villages, ancient manor houses, high pastures and castles along the way, knocking on doors in search of ever-elusive keys to museums and churches that harbour beautiful medieval altarpieces or works of exquisite stone carving. The Târnava river can be seen as a microcosm of Transylvania itself: it flows through lands that have been historically inhabited by the many peoples who have called this fascinating place home: Hungarian-speaking Székelys at its source above Odorheiu Secuiesc, Saxons at Sighișoara, Hungarians at Criș, Armenians at Dumbrăveni, Jews in Mediaș, Roma at Brateiu and Romanians at Blaj, the town that proudly asserts its identity as the cradle of the Romanian nation (Transylvania was joined to Romania in 1920, after the First World War).

Many thanks to John Sandoe Books for hosting the launch party. Lucy Abel Smith has a house in Transylvania, in the heart of the valley she writes about. She is the founder and organiser of the Transylvanian Book Festival.

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