Views and Reviews


Rembrandt: The Late Works (National Gallery)

Friday, 24 October, 2014 by Evy Cauldwell-French

rembrandt_ticket[1]Many an exhibition will market itself as “once in a lifetime”. The National Gallery’s Rembrandt blockbuster is no different, clearly marking out the rare accumulation of a vast amount of canonical works in one place. Exhibitions of this size take years to plan, fund and curate. Speaking to employees of the Gallery, it becomes clear that this was by no means an easy feat. The question on everyone’s lips: will it pay off?

It seems so. Aside from the excellent reviews the exhibition has received in the press, personal experiences have been equally positive. My fellow students are eager to part with their fiercely guarded student loans just to catch a glimpse of seminal works such as “The Syndics” or “The Jewish Bride”.

Focusing on his later years as an artist, the exhibition reflects a period of personal unrest. Rembrandt was beset with money worries, and as a citizen he had been hounded by the church for his common law marriage. Facing bankruptcy in 1656, he was forced to sell his spacious house and studio for more modest accommodation. One can only imagine the loss of pride for a man so concerned with self-representation in his paintings.

Yet despite this, Rembrandt was not ready to give up hope. The vast collection of work grouped together in the Sainsbury Wing assures us that Rembrandt’s creative energies could not be dulled by external factors. Organised thematically, the exhibition allows us to explore Rembrandt’s concerns during the last years of his career, spanning ideas like the representation of everyday life to more internal concerns such as intimacy and conflict.

Young Woman Sleeping  © Trustees of the British Museum

Young Woman Sleeping
© Trustees of the British Museum

In fact, it soon becomes clear that Rembrandt’s tender nature has not been blunted by hardship. His pen and ink drawing of A Young Woman Sleeping (c.1654), has been attributed as an affectionate rendering of his partner Hendrickje Stoffels. Stoffels, branded a whore by the Church due to her communion with Rembrandt, is here depicted softly in a position of complete innocence. This private insight into Rembrandt’s personal life suggests his ability to appreciate simple pleasures despite economic complications.

Self-Portrait with Circles. Kenwood House.

Self-Portrait with Circles. (Kenwood House)

Rembrandt’s union with Stoffels has marked him in historical discourse as a man who didn’t always conform. He offers us further hint of this inner rebellion through his many self-portraits of the later period. In “Self Portrait with Two Circles” (c.1665-9), he asserts himself as a wizened elderly man, with a frontal gaze and a hand on his hip. Painted ten years after he declared bankruptcy, Rembrandt is declaring his continued status as an artist. Our eye is drawn to his painting materials, which, undemarcated from his body, are offered as part of his very being. Two circles frame his proud expression, once again reminding the contemporary viewer that money would not stop him from devoting his life to art.

And it is this devotion, arguably, that comes through strongest in the exhibition – not only the dedication of Rembrandt to his art, but also of the gallery to its public.

Evy Cauldwell-French is a second-year BA at the Courtauld, specialising in 20th century interior design.

Rembrandt: The Late Works is at the National Gallery until January 18 2015.

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Constable: The Making of a Master (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Thursday, 23 October, 2014 by Chelsey Randall-Wright

Study of cirrus clouds, John Constable, about 1821-22, oil on paper © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Study of cirrus clouds, John Constable, about 1821-22, oil on paper © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

John Constable is one of those artists who will stay forever loved among the English, but is unfortunately often relegated to obscurity abroad. When I visited the V&A for this major new exhibition of his painting, I was struck by not only how busy it was on a Tuesday morning, but it also appeared that the median age of attendees was about fifty. Comments about the painter’s appeal to the elderly aside, this exhibition demonstrates Constable’s genius through an unapologetic statement regarding his influences, both contemporaneous and historical, reaching beyond his oft-celebrated colleague Turner. Constable collected over 5,000 prints and numerous paintings during his life. His friend and biographer, C.R. Leslie recounted that, ‘Constable died as he lived, surrounded by art, for the walls of the little [bedroom] were covered with engravings’. If there is a singular importance to this exhibition, it is the ability to view Constable’s works alongside the art he immersed himself in.

The Three Trees, Rembrandt, 1643, etching. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Three Trees, Rembrandt, 1643, etching. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The gallery space itself is much larger than I would have expected and unlike many modern exhibitions, flows nicely from room to room. Although I have done a fair amount of personal study on Constable before, I still felt the displays had taught me a wealth of knowledge. Additionally, Constable’s painterly process is outlined beautifully by the curators. There is a clear line of thought that is enumerated through the progression of sketches made en plein air, to larger studio sketches and finally to finished works, many of which he displayed at the Royal Academy then at Somerset House, the Courtauld’s current home. It brings together these earlier stages for many of Constable’s most loved works, such as The Hay Wain, and the grandiose scale of this exhibition allows the viewer to get up close and see each one individually.

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, oil on canvas. © The National Gallery

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, oil on canvas. © The National Gallery

I do, however, take some issue with the curators’ use of the term ‘impressionistic’, which is used once to describe Constable’s style.  Although it demonstrates that the attitude the French Impressionists are often credited with inventing was actually begun almost a hundred years earlier, it does seem an often inappropriate comparison that belittles Constable’s own originality. However nit-picky that may seem, the overall composition, lay out and framing of this exhibition brings to light this great English painter’s thought process, and his insatiable work ethic.

Chelsey Randall-Wright is a MA History of Art student at the Courtauld working on Early Netherlandish Art. 

Constable: The Making of a Master is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 20 September 2014 to 11 January 2015.

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Anselm Kiefer – A View from a critical distance?

Tuesday, 14 October, 2014 by Sarah Hegenbart

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014 Key. 11   /  Cat.  Anselm Kiefer Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft), 1970 Watercolour, gouache, and graphite pencil on paper, 42.9 x 35.6 cm Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, 1995 (1995.14.5) Photo © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014
Key. 11 / Cat. Anselm Kiefer – Winter Landscape (Winterlandschaft), 1970
Watercolour, gouache, and graphite pencil on paper, 42.9 x 35.6 cm
Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, 1995 (1995.14.5)
Photo © 2014. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence / © Anselm Kiefer

I need to begin with a declaration of interest. First, I am German. Second, I am currently writing a dissertation on another post-war artist. This could explain why I might be a bit more sensitive towards these topics than the average visitor of Anselm Kiefer’s large-scale retrospective at the Royal Academy. Nevertheless, I think that I have reasons to my claim that this show is extremely problematic.  Good things first: It comprises an enormous amount of work, provides a good insight into the development of Anselm Kiefer’s works from his early beginnings in the 1970s to his most recent works from 2014, and it makes perfect use of the difficult architectural gallery space. Despite all achievements, the exhibition dramatically fails in approaching Kiefer’s oeuvre from a critical distance.

Some obvious facts first: The earthen colours Kiefer favours, the monumentality of his works, the way in which they overwhelm the viewer, mythological references, the legitimation through German culture and a somehow distorted view on German Romanticism. All of these characteristics are features his works shares with Nazi aesthetics. Kiefer, of course, explains his aesthetic language with the attempt to work through his country’s history to understand the horrors of the Second World War into which he was born in 1945. But his visual language expresses a secret fascination for Germany, which strongly contradicts his verbal assurances. His Deutschtümelei – about which I can find no warning anywhere in the exhibition – is what makes me very suspicious.

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014 Key. 28  /  Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer Heroic Symbol V (Heroisches Sinnbild V), 1970 Oil on canvas, 150 x 260.5 cm Collection Würth Photo Collection Würth / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014
Key. 28 / Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer – Heroic Symbol V (Heroisches Sinnbild V), 1970
Oil on canvas, 150 x 260.5 cm
Collection Würth Photo Collection Würth / © Anselm Kiefer

For example: Plenty of heroic symbols, mentioning of German philosophers and poets, the Nibelungen, Wagner, of course, Parsifal and overall the Rhine, the Rhine, the Rhine. But what is critical engagement, what blind fascination for a fascinating culture? It is exactly this blindness towards the agency of his imagery, which disturbs me.

I could have forgiven Kiefer a lot, but not that his imagery follows his ‘cosmology’ which is described in the wall text as ‘an immense alchemical oven in which spirit and matter find themselves in a continuous process of creation and destruction’. This is simply unbearable. It sounds as if the holocaust is nothing more than a tiny aspect within the big universe – a normal process within the continuous re-negotiation between the metaphysical and the physical. The uncritical reading of Kiefer’s understanding of ‘oven’ makes me want to take a pen and annotate this wall text with footnotes.

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014 Key. 40  /  Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer Interior (Innenraum), 1981 Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311 cm Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer 27 September 2014 to 14 December 2014
Key. 40 / Cat. 0 Anselm Kiefer – Interior (Innenraum), 1981
Oil, acrylic, and paper on canvas, 287.5 x 311 cm
Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Photo Collection Stedelijk Museum / © Anselm Kiefer

In his seminal lecture in 1959, Theodor Adorno emphasised the meaning of working through history. He points out that fascism in Germany is still alive if the idea of a ‘nation’ matters within a context that has lacked the critical distance of working through the past. My worry is that Kiefer’s aesthetics underlines the fascination for a German-ness rather than providing the environment being required for a critical engagement with the fact that this same fascination once contributed to the incomprehensible murder of more than eleven million people – an event so shockingly unique that it cannot be legitimised as a mere incident within Kiefer’s cosmology.

Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld, working towards the first English-language monograph on the German artist Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010). She explores Schlingensief’s late project of an Opera Village Africa as a participatory experiment, which manifests a diversity of themes resulting from Germany’s post-war struggles to come to terms with its highly problematic past.

Anselm Kiefer is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House from 27 September — 14 December 2014.

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Berlin Biennale 2014

Monday, 18 August, 2014 by Sarah Hegenbart

Listening to the sounds of a classical string quartet on the terrace of a beautiful lake-side villa in Berlin’s affluent Zehlendorf neighbourhood evokes an image of the past; somehow reminiscent of Berlin’s Golden Twenties. This grand venue is however, not the setting for a glamorous garden party, but part of this year’s Berlin Biennale. The sound is part of Carla Zaccagnini’s installation Le Quintuor des Negres (2014), inspired by an interest in the reconstruction of history, in particular the idea of the noble savage as featured in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Zaccagnini’s work pursues the question of how idealisations of the primitive featured in the music of German Romanticism, and the piece is based on a fragment by Nepomuk Hummel she discovered during her research, transcribed for string quartet by Frankfurt-based composer Theodor Köhler.

This sort of scholarly investigation provides a good example of the manner of conception behind the majority of the works at this well thought-out Biennial curated by Juan Gaitán. The research process is the starting point in the creative process, which is then condensed into an aesthetic form.

Tonel - "Commerce" (2014)

Tonel – “Commerce” (2014)

The traditional centre of the Berlin Biennial – the grand hall in the KW Institute of Contemporary Art – sums up the principle of this biennial exhibition. It resembles an artistic research centre, in which Tonel (like Zaccagnini, an art historian turned artist) engages with commerce from a Cuban perspective. But the emphasis on research does not prevent visitors from aesthetic encounters. In fact, one can discover a lot if one looks closely. For example, the installation Weltall by the artist group Kartenrecht. Do these broken wooden balks comment on the fragility of borders, or do they allude to the garbage flying around in the Weltall? There is definitely space for imagination…

Kartenrecht

Kartenrecht – “Weltall” (2014)

Judy Radul’s Look. Look Away. Look Back (2014) provides an interesting cross-reference from the top floor of the KW to a further venue of this year’s biennial: the Museen Dahlem. Radul’s vitrines touch the controversy of the relocation of the ethnographic collection from Dahlem to Berlin’s Mitte. Gaitán’s decision to exhibit well-known artists, such as Tacita Dean, Goschka Macuga, Anri Sala and Wolfgang Tillmans, in Dahlem raises awareness for neighbourhoods other than the hipster-esque Mitte, Friedrichshain and Kreuzkölln. Gaitán here makes a clear statement against Berlin’s urban planning.

Zarouhie Abdalian - "a caveat, a decoy" (2014)

Zarouhie Abdalian – “a caveat, a decoy” (2014)

Those mourning the lack of aesthetic seductiveness at this biennial ought to climb up to the last step in the KW, where Zarouhie Abdalian’s owl watches over the buzzing city. Her gaze is directed at the TV tower, lovingly called ‘Alex’. Might this be the owl of Athena, an attribute of the Greek goddess of knowledge? Maybe it is exactly this: the beauty of knowledge, which transpires through the 8th Berlin Biennale.

Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld.

The Eighth Berlin Biennale ran from 29th May to the 3rd August 2014.

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A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution (V&A)

Sunday, 20 July, 2014 by Percy Darukhanawala

View into one of the two exhibition rooms Photograph by reviewer

View into one of the two exhibition rooms
Photograph by reviewer

Art exhibitions come in many volumes. The more and more frequent stentorian blockbusters make London’s art offering both important and substantive. However, the noise made by these grand shows – aided by dense crowds, zig-zag prams, loud conversations et al – can drown out the sometimes unassuming but potentially very rewarding tones of smaller displays dotted around the capital.

This display of a century of protest posters, packed into two  plain, serene rooms at the V&A, try to jostle, agitate, manipulate and seek attention in various ways. The fact that each work has something specific and immediate to say means that being hung in close proximity to others does nothing to blunt each poster’s impact.

 

The Blue Bra Girl Image: Reuters

The Blue Bra Girl
Image: Reuters

The posters have been loosely categorized under nine headings, ranging from revolution and agitprop, via war and activism, to more unmediated, home-made media. The latter includes self-made prints and digital messages, as in the viral video of an unknown woman in a blue bra beaten by Egypt’s military in 2011 in Tahrir Square.

These posters, as with anything that has elements of poetic, indirect communication about it, reward sustained contemplation with deeper insights and knowledge at many levels: aesthetic, semantic, historical, cultural, national and more. There is characteristically subtle but dark and even menacing word-play in a British poster that urges that the Tories not only be metaphorically kicked  ‘out’ but, one can only assume, physically kicked  ‘in’. This contrasts and reveals telling cultural differences with, a less aggressive, less punning German admonishment about the CDU’s complicity with Chile (‘Since Chile, we know exactly what the CDU thinks of democracy’).

Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Fuck the Draft, lithograph, 1968 Photograph by reviewer

Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Fuck the Draft, lithograph, 1968
Photograph by reviewer

Unlike much art and design, language is a critical tool of the protest idiom. Unsurprisingly, it often borders on the manipulative and borrows from advertising, modulating into ‘subvertising’, as one of the sections is called. In quite a few of the posters, the stark shapes of letters and words and their direct meanings vie with, and even overwhelm, the visual, as in the unequivocal message towards the Vietnam draft by Kiyoshi Kuromiya.

Designers Republic, Work, Buy, Consume, Die, offset lithograph, 1995 Photograph by reviewer

Designers Republic, Work, Buy, Consume, Die, offset lithograph, 1995
Photograph by reviewer

In the most successful, they combine and complement each other and create a communication that is multivalent, even existential, as in the self-critical poster made by Designers Republic (DR) of Sheffield, in 1995. DR were disenchanted with corporate-driven consumerism but acknowledge their role in the process. The imaginary company Pho-Ku (say it aloud – but not in polite company) stands for an anti-corporate identity in the face of increasing global branding.

If you are thinking of popping over to Tate Modern for the Matisse, but just don’t fancy the decibels and prams, it might be worth changing course to Kensington and remembering: s/he who shouts loudest certainly does not shout best.

Percy Darukhanawala is an MA graduand at the Courtauld

A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution is in Room 88 at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 2 November 2014.

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Jenny Saville (Gagosian Gallery)

Monday, 14 July, 2014 by Lisa Moravec

Jenny Saville, Odalisque, 2012–14, 
Oil and charcoal on canvas
, 217 x 236.5 cm © Jenny Saville, 

Photo by Mike Bruce

Jenny Saville, Odalisque, 2012–14, 
Oil and charcoal on canvas
, 217 x 236.5 cm © Jenny Saville, 

Photo by Mike Bruce

The latest large-scale works by the British painter Jenny Saville (*1970) are for everyone who makes a fetish of delicate fingers and toes.  The strong, but at the same time tender, black outlines of bodily endings and coloured heaps of flesh reveal much about the different stages of human embrace.

In 2012, Jenny Saville said in an interview with the Guardian that the older you get, the more doubtful you become – in a good way. Back then she compared being an artist to being an athlete. “You get quite fit on your toes when you’re really pushing. But then you finish a piece, and you have to start all over again.”

Jenny Saville, 
In the realm of the Mothers I, 2012–14, 
Charcoal on canvas
, 249.8 x 332.2 x 5 cm © Jenny Saville, 

Photo by Mike Bruce

Jenny Saville, 
In the realm of the Mothers I, 2012–14, 
Charcoal on canvas
, 249.8 x 332.2 x 5 cm © Jenny Saville, 

Photo by Mike Bruce

Even though, so far, each series of her paintings has referred to a different period of her life – which she has painterly depicted through her own physical appearance; but, she has never had to start all over again. Human flesh has always remained in the centre of her work. Interestingly, all her paintings are based on photographs since she dislikes working from life.

Her latest exhibition, which is her first solo-exhibition in London, provides more insights into her current state of mind and provides some great material for art historians. As remarkably sensational as usual, her latest works appeal not only to psychoanalysts, dermatologists, white or black colonialisers, but obviously also still to Larry Gagosian – who first showed her work in New York in 1999.

Jenny Saville, In the realm of the Mothers III, 2014
, Pastel, charcoal, and oil on canvas, 
94 1/2 x 144 1/8 inches (240 x 366 cm)
© Jenny Saville, 

Photo by Mike Bruce

Jenny Saville, In the realm of the Mothers III, 2014
, Pastel, charcoal, and oil on canvas, 
94 1/2 x 144 1/8 inches (240 x 366 cm)
© Jenny Saville, 

Photo by Mike Bruce

Especially the two works In the realm of the Mothers I (2012-14) and In the realm of the Mothers III (2014) echo the subject matter of the painting Odalisque (2012-14). The black male coloniser is on top of the female white colonised body. As a mother of two small children, Saville figuratively presents the physical act of how to become one, while painterly expressing a woman’s personal feelings towards the playful interaction between the nude female and the nude male body. Hence, Jenny Saville’s latest work still follows the same initial plan: Fleshing and sexing the canvas in reality.

In comparison to her earlier works, the swamping energy steaming from various colours of flesh seems to have clamed down. The flesh of her human bodies has changed its nuance and shape. In 2014, twenty-two years after graduating from Glasgow School of Art, Jenny Saville’s work is even more serious than ever, as she has moved into the realm of a post-painterly security.

Lisa Moravec is a graduate diploma student at the Courtauld.

Jenny Saville is at the Gagosian Gallery until the 26th July 2014.

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Art and Life (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Monday, 7 July, 2014 by Harry Laughland

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, c. 1923

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula

‘Art and life’ is currently in its third incarnation after stops in Leeds and Kettle’s Yard. When it closes after the Dulwich offering in late September it will have been on the road for nearly a year, an impressive feat for an exhibition that covers only eleven, albeit prolific, years of British art.

Ben Nicholson is the headline act. But this exhibition investigates the period before he became arguably British modernism’s MVP. Before Barbara Hepworth Nicholson’s first wife was Winifred Roberts. As husband and wife Winifred and Ben travelled to Lugano in Switzerland – via Paris and exposure to European modernist developments – where they spent three consecutive winters in the early 1920s. Here they produced works of vitality and atmospheric gravity. The tissue paper wrapped around Winifred’s flowers in Cyclamen and Primula becomes another mountain to match with their dramatic backdrop. The austere use of muted colour by Ben in 1921-c.25 (Cortivallo, Lugano) expertly displays a glimpse of a Swiss winter. They developed as artists together, their relationship reciprocal. Winifred’s colour comes out in Ben’s First abstract painting, Chelsea, and Ben’s quasi-cubist tonal blocks are referenced by Winifred in Castagnola (Red Earth) and King’s Road, Chelsea. The relationship clearly of equal importance to each.

Ben Nicholson - First Abstract Painting

Ben Nicholson, First Abstract Painting

In 1926 Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood became the third member of this cast of British post-war painters. Wood was a colourful figure who came to the Nicholson’s home in Cumberland ‘like a meteor’. He was the freest of the three, lacking the shackles of an artistic heritage such as Ben Nicholson’s, whose father had been highly respected painter, as well as being exposed to European modernist movements early in his practice, before adopting the sometimes staid English traditionalism present in Winifred’s work. All three were different, but happily worked alongside one another, each learning new ways of painting. This is beautifully shown in the exhibition by the handing of three views of Northrigg Hill, one by each: Winifred’s traditional, Wood’s gestural, Ben’s austere.

Ben Nicholson - Porthmeor Beach

Ben Nicholson, Porthmeor Beach

The fourth member of the group came in 1928 when Wood and Ben discovered the work of Alfred Wallis. Wallis became Wood and the Nicholson’s Douanier Rousseau. An untrained individual who as a result made paintings as real as real life. Wallis was championed, especially, by Ben in London, where he exhibited him in a 7 and 5 show, and it gave both Ben and Wood encouragement in their pursuit of imbuing their work with life. Examples of this abound in the exhibition, but highlights are Le phare, Porthmeor Beach and Boat on a Stormy Sea.

But nearly as soon as the quartet was formed was it finished. In 1930 Wood died in mysterious circumstances, the Nicholson’s marriage was dissolving and Wallis was becoming more and more paranoid as the success earned for him by his London friends began to affect how he was treated in St. Ives. Overall, Art and Life succeeds in showing the development and complementary relationships of this group of British painters that were sadly all too fleeting.

Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Art and Life is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 21st September 2014

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A conference diptych: Gothic Ivories: Content and Context

Monday, 7 July, 2014 by James Alexander Cameron

The Louvre Descent from the Cross

The Louvre Descent from the Cross in 2013

Part of the Gothic Ivories Project, a free-to-use database that aims to catalogue every surviving European ivory carving of c.1200-1530, is to hold a bi-annual get-together, this year jointly held by the Courtauld and the British Museum. For a conference that swallowed up a medievalist’s weekend right before the annual International Medieval Conference at Leeds, apparently quite a number were made of stronger stuff than mere animal teeth to sit out the series of papers by early career academics and museum curators. The database is a very useful tool for the armchair connoisseur enabling one to compare ivories from all over the world on a laptop screen. But V&A curator Paul Williamson’s keynote on Saturday morning reminded the essential challenge for scholars. To understand these objects, we have retain a keen understanding of the wider historical context and the visual culture of the time, and of course cross-overs into other media by carvers working predominantly in ivory.

So we had an initial session of close-looking. Louvre curators Danielle Gaborit-Chopin and Elisabeth Antonine-Konig and conservator Juliette Levy-Hinstin investigated the object history of works in their collection such as the extraordinary Descent from the Cross and the dispersal of its figures and the separation of their heads in the tumult of the Revolution. From a completely different angle, Christian Nikolaus Opitz and Katherine Eve Baker both gave papers with less pretty pictures and more focus on documents, but vividly illustrating the creation, trade, function and storage of these objects in medieval life.

16th-centy Memento Mori from the Schnutgen Museum, Cologne, looms over Igmar Reesing, Jack Hartnell and Stephen Perkinson's panel questions

16th-century Memento Mori from the Schnutgen Museum, Cologne, looms over Igmar Reesing, Jack Hartnell and Stephen Perkinson’s panel questions

Post-lunch we were treated to Jack Hartnell’s object analysis of an ivory surgical knife, a tantalising suggestion of intertwined form and function, and a pair of enticingly macabre memento mori ivories by Stephen Perkinson, with a complex appeal for their original owners of humanistic allegory, anatomical detail and dark humour. The way that the nineteenth century received ivories was considered in the final session of the day, and the presentation of some nineteenth-century sketchbooks in papers by Franz Kirchweger and Benedetta Chiesi excited much of the audience interested in tracing the wanderings of these objects.

Chuck Little, Emily Guerry, Sarah Guerin and Marta Karyzhanovskaia at the BM

Chuck Little, Emily Guerry, Sarah Guérin and Marta Karyzhanovskaia at the BM

On Sunday the looking beyond ivories continued, with papers by Glyn Davies, Monique Blanc and Michele Tomasi on the Embriachi, a loosely-defined workshop who work primarily in bone rather than ivory, who show how difficult it is to categorise the medieval craftsman. The relationship of ivories to monumental works was looked at throughout the day by scholars working primarily on other material, Emily Guerry on the Saint Chapelle as a source of ivory iconography and Carla Varela Fernandes on the narrative panels on a stone tomb in Alcobaça perhaps looking to ivories.

The Gothic Ivories Project is only one tool in the arsenal of anyone wishing to study this genre. These two days showed the importance of viewing the object in person whenever possible, their documented history from the beginnings as pure ivory right through to the present, and their place in devotional and material culture to truly bring these precious objects to the level of regard held by easel painting and monumental sculpture.

See here for the full programme of these two days and some of the excellent papers there has not been space to mention

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Gueorgui Pinkhassov (Magnum Print Room)

Friday, 4 July, 2014 by Tom Balfe

russianphoto1

Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Russia. Moscow. (2008)

The threshold of the visible, where frail light ebbs away into darkness, is the preferred territory of the Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov (b. 1952), whose work is the subject of a commercial exhibition of around 30 images currently on display at the Magnum Print Room. His pictures explore spaces and surfaces clogged with visual noise: interiors filled with cigarette smoke; grimy windows; murky water; cityscapes where the weak glow of dawn sunshine transforms human bodies into faceless silhouettes. In a 2008 photograph of a Moscow street taken through a windscreen, patches of snow rest on the glass like fallen clouds; in the road beyond, the dark figures that loiter among other cars, and the soaring, boxlike buildings that dwarf everything else in the scene, generate an atmosphere of quiet menace. Ordinary things – snow, people, cars – remain recognisable and highly concrete at the same time as their arrangement within the frame creates odd juxtapositions and distortions of scale. Pinkhassov is often attracted to abstract patterns, such as the tangle of arms, hands and torsos to be found in a 1995 photograph taken in Rajastan. But in his most absorbing images, like the Moscow street scene, the principal effect is not abstraction but defamiliarisation: the making strange of what has come to seem commonplace.

russianphoto2

Gueorgui Pinkhassov, India. Rajasthan. Jaisalmer. (1995)

 

In recent decades, the prestigious Magnum agency to which Pinkhassov belongs has tended to define itself less as an outlet for traditional news photojournalism and more as a centre of excellence for collectible, aesthetically-sophisticated documentary photography – work often produced in the course of long-term personal projects which reflect members’ particular interests or distinctive visual style. In the present exhibition, compositions which exploit the weirdly beautiful effects of shadow and artificial light in hotels, shops and subways are displayed alongside photographs of the anti-government demonstrations which took place in Kiev earlier this year. Presented with minimal contextual information, these different types of images have been grouped together as evidence of the photographer’s creative vision. The emphasis here is not on the thing or event seen but on the virtuosic seeing eye.

Russianphoto3

Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Japan. Tokyo. Hotel restaurant. (1996)

 

Would it matter if documentary photography comes to be thought of, and valued, primarily as a mode of personal expression? Arguments to the effect that its ethical bite is likely to atrophy as a result of this development demand serious consideration. Yet in a world where many of the events encountered by photographers are stage-managed to make the interests of the powerful seem coherent and persuasive, it is useful to be reminded of how surreal and complicated the world can look. Photography like Pinkhassov’s trains us to resist easy acceptance of the (seemingly) transparent image, and to recognise that a subjective brain lurks behind every camera.

russianphoto5

Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Ukraine. Clashes between anti-government protesters and police in the Ukrainian capital, on Maidan Square and across the city of Kiev. (2014)

Tom Balfe is a visiting lecturer at the Courtauld.

Gueorgui Pinkhassov is at the Magnum Print Room until the 31st July 2014.

 

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Ancient Lives, New Discoveries (British Museum)

Tuesday, 1 July, 2014 by Lisa Moravec

Mummy undergoing CT scan at Royal Brompton Hospital (c)Trustees of the British Museum

Mummy undergoing CT scan at Royal Brompton Hospital (c)Trustees of the British Museum

This new exhibition gives visitors an insight into the latest scientific research methods in the field of physical and cultural anthropology. But at the same time, the exhibition is also of interest for art historians since it changes our understanding of the human body. Ever since we have been capable of drawing and painting, we have visually recreated our own faces, body postures and body movements; and the emergence of new media, such as photography and technical animation has simply expanded our physical possibilities. Hence, the current high-tech exhibition at the British Museum juxtaposes the standard representation of the human body as it raises awareness to the decaying process of a human body instead of highlighting its genesis and the artistic recreation process of human faces and bodies – what art historians usually do. It is outstanding as it draws a compelling link between technology and mortality, and conveys the idea that a mummy is little but the residue of a human being preserved over several centuries.

Technology: CT scan 3D visualisation of the residue of Tamut (©Trustees of the British Museum)

Technology: CT scan 3D visualisation of the residue of Tamut (©Trustees of the British Museum)

While anthropologists have long studied the conditions of mummies’ teeth to determine the age at which the person died as well as to shed light on their diet and social class, this exhibition is unique that it provides more information about the general physical the condition of the human bodies. Anthropologists and art historians have more in common than you might think: both study the object itself before drawing on its visual representation to explain the reasoning of their thesis to others. For example, the penetration of the mummies with invisible light in CT has resulted in several x-ray images, in which invisible light appears white since the heavy materials of the bones have absorbed it. They are joined together to a cohesive image on a computer screen, and are used to create short 3-D animations to make the decaying process of the skeletons more easily accessible for non-experts.

The CT scan of the mummy of an adult male (name unknown). © Trustees of the British Museum

The CT scan of the mummy of an adult male (name unknown). © Trustees of the British Museum

Studying the physical anthropology of mummies may give us some time to rethink how we use and fuel our own mental and physical machine. Hence, the exhibition’s memento mori effect demonstrates that the Deleuzian “body without organs” is only a skeleton, coated with muscles to uphold our upright standing position, covered with a layer of vulnerable flesh. Without keeping our organic engine running our body is not very different to the skeleton of a mummy since our “coating” depends on it. The same observation, but the other way around, can be made when studying the artistic renditions of bodies. At first artists need to study the anatomy of a human body, and at the same time understand the possibilities and limitations of the media they are using to visualise it, just as in science. In light of this, the British Museum exhibition is highly significant for anthropologists and art historians as it promotes the closure of the gap between social science and the field of art history by strengthen cross-disciplinary approaches.

 

Lisa Moravec is a Graduate Diploma student at the Courtauld.

Ancient lives, New discoveries is at the British Museum til the 30th November 2014.

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