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Modernists and Mavericks

By Martin Gayford. ‘After the war, because everybody who was about had escaped death in some way, there was a curious feeling of liberty. It was sexy in a way, this semi-destroyed London. There was a scavenging feeling of living in a ruined city.’

This is the reflection of Frank Auerbach, one of the subjects of this absorbing study. Auerbach had arrived in London aged 16 in 1947. His passage to Britain from Germany when aged only seven had been sponsored by Iris Origo, well known for her sheltering of children in Tuscany in the war. His parents had perished in Auschwitz. It was understandable that he felt he was a scavenger and this might be said of many of the artists in this book, most of them figures marginal to society with a passion for a deeper understanding of reality that forced them to break through the barriers of conventional art. Auerbach’s friend David Kossoff put it well: ‘Nothing really begins to happen in a painting until you reach the point where conscious intention breaks up and ceases to be the thing that’s driving you.’

Gayford has already provided a detailed account of himself as a sitter for a portrait to the reclusive Lucian Freud (the acclaimed The Man with the Blue Scarf, 2010) so Freud and Bacon are presented here with authority. By adopting a chronological approach, from the 1940s through to the 1960s, and drawing on many notes and reminiscences, he presents a history of aesthetic struggle in which the personalities are almost as important as the art. One of the strengths of the book is the recording of many somewhat inarticulate attempts to describe what the act of creation means. There is a sense, encapsulated in the Kossoff quotation above, of breaking through to a higher state of being through the endless working and reworking of paint. The artist does not know how or why he or she has arrived at a masterpiece but recognises it when he sees it. There is as much destruction as creation, as rejected alternatives are scraped off in frustration.

Naturally many readers will be interested in the great names and there is much to enjoy. There is a particularly good section on Hockney, a close friend of the author, who was rejected by many of his contemporaries and their dealers because he did not fit into any recognisable category. As Gayford notes, like Hogarth, William Blake (a major exhibition of Blake opens at Tate Britain in September 2019) and Stanley Spencer, Hockney resolutely set out on his own path, although it was not until he arrived in New York that he found his personal and artistic awakening. He was drawn to the States for much of his working life.

Gayford is good on showing the impact of the arrival of the Abstract Expressionists, from their first London exhibition in 1956. This was the moment when the centre of the art world moved from Paris to New York. This left the London painters divided between those who followed the new trends and those who stuck to their own paths. It paid off for some. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (from 1969) became the most expensive work ever sold at auction when it went under the hammer for $142.4 million in 2013. It is only a few artists who have the determination and confidence to transcend movements. I enjoyed the many dismissive remarks of even radical professors of art when their fledgling students upset convention.

This being London, it was inevitable that by the end of the book I began longing for some warmth, sun and blue skies in the paintings. In the many illustrations there is much to admire—some pictures that I would even have on my walls—but there was one painting above all that haunted me: Michael Andrews’ Portrait of Timothy Behrens from 1962, now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. I knew nothing of the Norwich-born Andrews (1928–95). I was inspired to research him more fully, being drawn to his humanity, the sensitivity of his portraits and his continuous reinvention of his subject matter through to a period of peaceful spiritual landscapes. Sadly, only 250 of his pictures survive.

One bonus of this book is its readability across such a spectrum of different movements and personalities. Not least, it is a relief to be free of the jargon through which so many art historians attempt to show off their apparent knowledge. It will be hard to find a better introduction to the ‘London Painters’ than this one and it left me looking forward to reading Gayford’s more detailed studies of Freud and Hockney.

Martin Gayford, ‘Modernists and Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters’, Thames and Hudson, 2018. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. His review of Martin Gayford’s ‘Rendez-vous with Art’, a discussion with Philippe de Montebello (Thames and Hudson, 2014), can be found on this website.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits

"Assumption of the Virgin", Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

“Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits” is the title of an exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in London. It has come from the Prado in Madrid, in slightly slimmed-down form. Not all of the works on show in the Prado can be seen in London (the catalogue is teasingly tantalising in this regard) but there are still a great many treats in store. This is a splendid show, for anyone who already loves Lorenzo Lotto just as much as for those who have yet to be introduced to him.

 

Lotto was born in Venice in 1480. He was greatly influenced by the school of art of his native city but his working life was an itinerant one, spent in Treviso, Bergamo, Venice and the Marche, where he died. He was a deeply religious painter and has left behind him many altarpieces (the devotion often leavened with an infectious sense of fun) but his bread and butter also came (when it came—and in Lotto’s case it was always intermittent) from portraiture, likenesses of members of the increasingly affluent and aspirational middle class of administrators, clerics, artisans and merchants.

 

The painting which begins this article, the Assumption of the Virgin from the Brera in Milan, is not part of the current show. The reason for including it here is because it epitomises the art of Lotto. He was of all the Renaissance masters the one with the greatest sense of humour. Here we see the Virgin, borne aloft on her statutory latex cloud, with the Apostles agog and incredulous beneath her. But Lotto makes us laugh with the witty details. One of the Twelve has taken out his pince nez, the better to view the spectacle. Another, Doubting Thomas, is in danger of missing the whole show. We see him off to the right, sprinting down the mountainside, drapery afloat. We can almost hear him crying, “Wait for me!”

 

If this is the Lotto you love, this exhibition will show you another side of him. There are not many jokes here, probably because his sitters didn’t want to be made fun of—nor did the artist dare to poke fun, in case he did not get paid. A good many of the works displayed here were painted in exchange for bed and board. Lotto never had much money.

 

Nevertheless, he loved a game and he loved a symbol. Some of the portraits include an elaborate rebus, playing on the sitter’s name. Lucina Brembati, for example, wealthy matron of Bergamo, is portrayed (c. 1528; on loan from the Accademia Carrara) with a crescent moon in the top left-hand corner, with the lettters ‘CI’ included within it. The Latin LUNA (moon), with the addition of CI, makes the name Lucina. Another Bergamo patron, painted in 1523 (on loan from the Hermitage), earnestly points to a red squirrel, rather bizarrely (but very sweetly) asleep beneath his cloak. It stands for constancy, a virtue that this new bridgeroom (portrayed with his very young and scared-looking wife) is going to do his level best to embody.

 

One of the heaviest symbolic portraits is the very first in the exhibition, the warts-and-all likeness of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505; lent by the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), a well-fed young thug with incipient rosacea, clutching a scroll which may allude to a successful lawsuit brought against opponents who had plotted his assassination. The portrait originally had a cover, likewise painted on a wooden board, an elaborate allegory of the progress of the soul. On the right we see a spent and drunken satyr, having given the best of himself to wine. On the left, an immature putto cluelessly dabbles with Art and Science, embodied by a pair of compasses and a recorder and pipes. Above them a tiny figure—De’ Rossi’s soul?—studded with four pairs of wings like a seraph, is determinedly making his way up a steep cliff towards a mackerel sky, as blushful as the bishop’s own complexion.

 

Let us not say, then, that the exhibition contains no jokes. There is a particularly good one in the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) from the Royal Collection in London. The wealthy Venetian antiquary poses with his treasures: a head of Hadrian, a Diana of Ephesus. Behind him stand two more: a Venus at her bath, foot daintily raised above a basin of water, into which a statuette of a drunken Hercules is casually urinating.

The "Assumption of the Virgin" in situ in Asolo cathedral.

Even in his altarpieces Lotto includes portraits. One of the delights of this show is the altarpiece of the Assumption from the cathedral of Asolo in the Veneto. In situ it is difficult to appreciate because it can only be viewed from a distance. Here in London, one can get right up to it and inspect the features of the Virgin as she ascends on her cloud. This is no saintly Mother of God. She has been given the mature, worldly features of the redoubtable Caterina Cornaro (1454–1510), Venetian noblewoman and sometime Queen of Cyprus, who retired to Asolo and gathered about her men of literature and learning. The font in Asolo cathedral bears her coat of arms.

 

As the exhibition catalogue admits, “Lotto was not the greatest portraitist in Renaissance Italy and Titian has a better claim to this privileged title in Venice; yet no other painter’s portraits—not even Titian’s—could probably stand up to such a major exhibition without seeming monotonous or creating a sense of déjà vu.”

 

It is true. In Venice, Lotto (1480–1556) was completely surpassed by Titian (1488–1576). In Bergamo by Moroni (1520–79). His draughtsmanship (particularly of the sitters’ hands) is often clumsy. But the life of the imagination and the sense of personality is never so vivid or so manifoldly felt as it is in the idiosyncratic works of poor Lorenzo Lotto.

Lorenzo Lotto: thought to be his self-portrait (in red) among the paupers begging for alms.

Poor Lorenzo. In 1542 he painted what might be his self-portrait, among the paupers begging for alms in the wonderful Charity of St Antoninus altarpiece from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (one of the wonderful things that the show achieves is to have found a rug that matches the pattern of the carpet in the painting). Four years later, in Loreto, Lotto made his will. “Art,” he admitted, “did not earn me what I spent.” He died in 1556, melancholy and discouraged, in penury. A painting containing another putative self-portrait survives in Loreto, a Christ and the Adulteress (c. 1550), where a bearded figure in the crowd puts his finger to his lips in a gesture that warns us to “Speak no evil.” It is tempting to believe that Lorenzo Lotto was just such a man: broad-minded, tolerant and merciful.

 

This exhibition is poignant in the way it reveals to us a genius unrecognised in his lifetime and the injustice that that entails. We still have not learned to spot talent until it is too late. This show reveals to us an artist who, in a way that so many artists do not, leaves traces of himself in all his works. Lorenzo Lotto speaks to us down the centuries. We long to tell him how much we would have appreciated his work—if only we’d been there.

 

Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits. At the National Gallery, London until 10th February 2019.

Charles I: King and Collector

This magnificent display of Old Master paintings from the royal collection amassed by King Charles I, many of them reunited for the first time since the mid-17th century at the Royal Academy in London (running until mid-April) has been met with frenzied enthusiasm. And rightly so. There are some stunning works on show here, by Titian, Veronese, Mantegna, Correggio, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and others. Many of them are from the Royal Collection. Others are from the National Gallery, London. Still others have been borrowed from international collections, to which they made their way following the Commonwealth Sale after the beheading of Charles I, when his collection was dispersed (from 1649).

 

Charles I, as is well known, was frail and diminutive of stature but magnificent in his own conception of what kingship meant. His ideas about the Divine Right of kings were to be his undoing: he met his death by beheading in January 1649. While alive, Charles made full use of his own image to create an iconic status for himself as God’s appointee. In Britain he was the first monarch to do this. With the aid of his court painter, Anthony Van Dyck, who was appointed to the position in 1632, he drew on Classical models, derived from the painting and sculpture of Renaissance Italy, to create an awe-inspiring image of a ruler somehow superhuman. Superhuman but not remote. Just as Roman imperial statuary was impressive in its ability to portray a natural likeness, so the portraits of the king and his family by Van Dyck show a real man, inhabiting and dominating the picture space in regal fashion, but a flesh and blood mortal nonetheless.

 

The paintings here, though ‘reunited’ in a sense (King Charles exhibited them throughout his palaces and the two great equestrian portraits of the king in armour would never have hung side by side in his lifetime as they do now in the Royal Academy Central Hall), cannot, in the exhibition space offered by the RA, replicate the effect they would have produced when seen at the end of carefully contrived vistas at Whitehall, for example. What they do show is the way Van Dyck, inspired by Rubens, reached constantly back into the world of the north Italian Renaissance (and through that, back into antiquity) for iconographical models to convey divinity and power. These models were made available to the artist by his royal patron, who bought wisely and well, with the express aim of setting up a collection to rival those of the great courts of Europe. His desire to do so appears to have been kindled during a visit to Spain in 1623, in an attempt to secure the hand of the Infanta Maria Anna. The marriage negotiations failed but the young prince had seen the magnificent portable trappings of the Spanish Habsburg court and his baggage train on his journey home to London creaked and groaned with masterpieces by Titian and Velázquez. After 1627, when the House of Gonzaga, rulers of Mantua, became extinct in the male line, Charles purchased the bulk of the family’s stupendous collection, which included masterpieces by Mantegna (the Triumph of Caesar cycle) and Correggio (The School of Love, which fetched a particularly good price in the Commonwealth Sale. Young men loved Correggio’s semi-suppressed salaciousness).

 

Rubens, who first visited London in 1629 on a peace-keeping mission from Spain, was to dub King Charles ‘the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world’.There are many highlights in this show. To choose just two, it would be Titian’s Supper at Emmaus (c. 1534; sold for £600 in 1651, now in the Louvre), a magnificent scene with calm mountain peaks of the Veneto dolomites in the background and a cat and dog duelling under the table; and the deliciously self-satisfied self-portrait by Van Dyck, in which he looks complacently out at the viewer, holding up the gold chain that he received upon his knighthood in 1632, and pointing with his other hand at an outsize sunflower, surely a symbol of gilded royal patronage.

 

This is a triumph of a show, not least for the extraordinary borrowing power it demonstrates. Many of the works on display here are not readily lent. It also reminds us how intrinsically interlinked are all the strands of human endeavour and human progress. There has always been a great symbiosis between artists, of course. Antonello da Messina was influenced by Netherlandish painters. Dürer was influenced by Bellini. Without the great allegorical celing paintings of Venice, by Veronese and Tintoretto, or of Rome and Florence by Pietro da Cortona, or of Parma by Correggio, could we ever have had the Banqueting House in London by Rubens? Not likley. And the art of Rubens was brought to foggy Albion by Charles I. The canvases he painted for the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace, between 1629 and 1630, celebrating the power and wisdom of Charles’ father and predecessor James I and culminating in the apotheosis of the monarch, had brought allegory, monumentalism, grandeur and godliness to the art of Britain. It came to a squalid end. It was through a window of that very Banqueting House that Charles I climbed onto the scaffold. His cosmography, his taste, his spirit and his vision were extinguished at an axe-stroke.

 

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

A full official exhibition catalogue is available on Amazon, check the links below.

The Scythians at the British Museum

“The Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” is the title of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, London, running until 14th January. The show attempts to redeem from oblivion the culture and character of a people who strewed their path across the steppe with gold but who are otherwise little remembered and little understood.

The Scythians flourished in the 9th–3rd centuries BC. Their heartland was the Siberian steppe, but at their greatest extent they controlled territory and maintained trading links from north China to the Black Sea. They were never a single people, but a loose confederation of tribes, sharing certain customs and, it appears, speaking a language or languages with Iranian roots. They were herdsmen and hunters, nomadic and warlike, fighting both outsiders and each other over territory and livestock. They were superb horsemen. Their mounted archers, riding with saddles but without stirrups, struck fear into the hearts of Persians, Assyrians and Macedonians. And it appears that Scythian women rode as expertly—and fought as dauntlessly—as Scythian men. Scythian art is filled with representations of totem animals: deer, big cats, birds of prey. Chief of all these, though, was the horse. It was the horse that, in death, was caparisoned for the final great ride, to the world beyond, where it is presumed it would live again with its owner, roaming and grazing Elysian pastures. It is thanks to the Scythians' mastery of the horse and their skill with metal that they were able to rise to dominance.

 

The first room sets the tone for the show with an audio display of howling Siberian wind. As it whistles in your ears, you can admire the stunning gold belt plaque of the 4th–3rd century BC: a warrior, presumed deceased, lies in the lap of a woman, presumably a deity, under a tree in whose boughs he has slung his quiver of arrows. Beside him a groom holds two horses, their harness very carefully rendered. It is exquisite—and in Scythian terms, quite late. This type of narrative scene does not seem to emerge until about the 4th century and human representations before this seem to be rare. Instead we find examples of the so-called “animal style”: gold plaques fashioned in the form of stylised beasts: stags, vultures, panthers, often shown tortuously attacking each other, often inlaid with pieces of turquoise. Some of these plaques are quite large in size, designed to be worn on a belt around the waist. Others are smaller, for decorating bow cases or quivers or for use as bridle fittings. Others are tiny appliqué pieces that would have been attached en masse to articles of clothing.

 

These gold pieces were first revealed to the world in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great sent out exploration parties to Siberia in search of natural resources and trade routes. The pieces that were unearthed, from grave mounds, were all sent back to St Petersburg and drawings of all of them were made to serve as a record. It is from the Hermitage Museum that most of the pieces in the current exhibition have come.

 

A section of the finds in this exhibition were also preserved by ice. Water percolating into the tomb barrows, and afterwards freezing, has remained there ever since as a layer of permafrost. As the arid conditions in Egypt, so the freezing conditions in the Altai have preserved materials otherwise rare to find: human skin, leather, wood and textiles. There are pieces of clothing, horse apparel and tomb hangings made of wool, leather, squirrel fur, sable and felt. The women, presumably the high-born ones, had diamonds on the soles of their shoes, almost literally: a beautiful moccasin with a geometric decoration of pyrite lozenges on the sole is extraordinarily well preserved. The tomb remains of a Pazyryk chief from the Altai Mountains shows that these Scythians extensively tattooed their arms, legs and shoulders. It also shows how savage their battles could be. This man—not young, about 60 years old; and not short, about 176cm tall—died of axe blows to the head. Scythian warfare did not only take the form of mounted archery; they also fought hand to hand in close and bloody combat.

 

Which brings us to the question of what they looked like. This man was scalped, so the top of his head is missing. But as far as we can tell, the Pazyryk Scythians shaved their heads leaving only a tuft of hair at the crown. This applied equally to the women, who twisted this tuft into a tall topknot, threading it through a narrow, very tall conical headdress to form a sort of fountain pony tail. There is some debate as to whether the men wore facial hair. The gold belt plaque showing the dead warrior and his groom portrays both men with walrus moustaches. The Kul Olba cup (4th century), from the Black Sea (modern Ukraine), shows figures with flowing beards. There cannot have been a single type, or a single style. Fashions must have come and gone, as they do today, and different Scythian groups probably had different habits. The Pazyryk chieftain seems to have been clean shaven, but in death he was equipped with a false beard. Scholars speculate that it might have had a ritual function. False beards as divine appurtenances are not an anthropological oddity; they are known from ancient Egypt, for example.

 

The Scythians did not write anything down, which is frustrating, because we never hear them speaking for themselves. Instead, we hear from Herodotus, who encountered the Scythians of the Black Sea and wrote about their customs and behaviour. Some finds appear to bear out his accounts. He mentions their custom of inhaling the vapour of toasted hemp seeds at the funerals of their chiefs, and “howling with pleasure” as they did so. And sure enough, a hemp-smoking kit has been unearthed. Contact with Greece from the 8th century BC had an influence not only on their art but on their diet, as the traditional fermented mare’s milk was replaced with wine (a Greek kylix is one of the grave goods on display here), which they apparently drank undiluted, gaining a reputation for alcoholic excess. The famous Pazyryk rug, the world’s oldest known carpet, was found in a Scythian tomb, but in its design shows clear Persian influence. It would be fascinating to know who made it: a Scythian influenced by Persian forms? Or a Persian working to Scythian taste? The Scythians, at least in origin, were a nomadic people, and their goods are mostly portable. A round wooden table with lathe-turned legs reminds us of this: it is a collapsible table, which can be folded up and easily carried away. They took their art with them, and assimilated other styles and ideas as they went. But to what extent did they depend on settled peoples for manufacture?

7th-century gold plaque in the form of a stag, Hungarian National Museum.

The supremacy of the Scythians was waning by 200 BC, as other nomads moved in to replace them, or, as is probable in some cases, as they themselves settled down. They flashed brilliantly across the screen for a mere few hundred years. There is probably much of their culture left to find. And they are not entirely forgotten. In Hungary, for instance, the “Scythian gold stag” has mythical significance. There are two examples in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

 

This is a very enjoyable exhibition, tantalisingly suggestive. It answers fewer questions than it asks, which is always the best way, leaving you thinking long after you have left the museum.

 

Annabel Barber

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.

01.08.2015
09:35

Five major London museums

Emily Barber, author of Blue Guide London, recommends five main museums: 

1. "V&A" - the Victoria and Albert Museum - for its architecture and varied content. It is also home to the National Art Library which is a peaceful place to read or study overlooking the courtyard. And the V&A houses one of best collections of jewellery in world. Blue Guide review, details and website »

2. National Gallery - as the best place just to wander and see some of the finest paintings in the world. Details »

3. National Portrait Gallery - where the galleries aren't too large so feel personal. The brilliant portraits are stunning as art and fascinating as history. Details »

4. The Tower of London - where the Norman White Tower still retains a sense of its impressive ancient past. The pure austerity of the Chapel architecture gives a peaceful sanctity (if there aren't too many tourists). The gems in the Crown Jewels are legendary. Have a chat with the famous ravens who are excellent mimics. Details »

5. Hampton Court - a perfect palace in gorgeous setting by river. It still conveys a sense of wonder as you approach and see twisted Tudor chimney stacks. The Stuart part of the palace has one of the finest 17th century interiors in the UK. Details »

Whither Tate Britain?

London is thriving, museum attendance is higher than ever.  Here are the numbers (visitors) for some of the main museums:

 

2014 2004
1 British Museum 6,695,213 4,868,176 +38%
2 The National Gallery 6,416,724 4,959,946 +29%
3 Tate Modern 5,785,427 4,441,225 +30%
4 V&A South Kensington 3,180,450 2,010,825 +58%
5 Somerset House 2,463,201 n/a
6 National Portrait Gal. 2,062,502 1,516,402 +36%
7 National Maritime Mus. 1,516,258 1,507,950 +1%
8 Tate Britain 1,357,878 1,733,120* -22%
9 Imperial War Museum 914,774 754,597 +21%
10 Hampton Court Palace 560,513 498,278 +12%
11 Churchill War Rooms 472,746 306,059 +54%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source ALVA (* Tate number is for 2005, 2004 not given.)

William Hogarth 1697–1764

So what's going on with poor old Tate Britain?  Its stunning collection of many of the best-known works from the greatest names in British painting—Hogarth, Turner, Blake, Constable—seems underplayed on the website, and yet this should put Tate Britain at the top of the list for the London visit of every British school child, foreign tourist, NADFAS day tripper or urban intellectual. And indeed shows on subjects such as the Pre-Raphaelites or Turner do well. The exhibitions with challenging themes maybe less so: irrespective of their quality, this may not be where Tate Britain's competitive advantage lies?

And what about the legacy of its modern art mission, thoroughly eclipsed by the arrival of its altogether more modern—right down to the name—sibling, Tate Modern, in 2000?

All questions for the people who run 'Tate'.  And very relevant now, as a replacement is sought for Tate Britain's chief Penelope Curtis.  Hard decisions and major changes may be needed, but, asks Martin Oldham in Apollo Magazine, is her successor being handed a poisoned chalice (Tate Britain: A Poisoned Chalice)?

The new Blue Guide London covers all the museums in the table above, and many more, extensively. And all are listed in the older Blue Guides Museums and Galleries of London, given too here on our website, with contact details and opening times.

Artwork of the Month: January. Medieval stained glass

Medieval stained glass is relatively rare in English country churches because so much was destroyed by zealots during the Reformation in the 16th century and under Cromwell in the 17th. Fragments of old glass exist and have been pieced together in many windows across the country, but entire windows are scarcer. The two shown here are from c. 1350. They are the north and south chancel windows of the church of St Andrew in Chinnor, Oxfordshire, just at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. Light was poor in the church when I was there and these are the best images I could get: photographs taken with my telephone. The window on the left (the north window) shows two bishops, with crosier and processional cross. Above them, in the quatrefoil, is a depiction of one of the Seven Acts of Mercy: Feeding the Hungry. The window on the right (the south window) shows St Lawrence and St Alban and another of the Seven Acts, Clothing the Naked: a man in yellow (St Martin) is seen giving a green garment to a naked man. (The other Acts of Mercy are Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Sheltering the Homeless, Nursing the Sick, Visiting those in Prison and Burying the Dead. Caravaggio manages to depict all seven of them in a single canvas in a famous painting in Naples. Perhaps at one time all seven were shown in the windows of this little church, too.

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