Paul Klee: Making Visible (Tate Modern)

kleeTate Modern’s freshest exhibition traces the artistic career of Paul Klee, commonly considered one of the most highly regarded artists of the early twentieth century. Beginning in Munich in the years 1912-13 through to the artist’s last years in Switzerland around thirty years later, the exhibition brings together works that exemplify Klee’s idiosyncratic pictorial constructions and use of line and colour in painting.


Curator and Courtauld alumnus Matthew Gale has carefully selected fascinating works by the German-Swiss artist, many of which are rarely given attention in the paradigmatic visual histories of Klee’s artistic developments. The most striking examples are perhaps found in Room 10 – where one can see how Klee combined drawing and sprayed or splattered paint in Sacred Islands or Clouds (both 1926) – and in Room 13 – where works such as Clarification and Memory of a Bird (both 1932) exemplify the artist’s use of pointillism.


Static-Dynamic Intensification 1923 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Static-Dynamic Intensification 1923
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The chronological principle privileged throughout the exhibition – which, in other contexts, sometimes feels reductive or simplifying – has the merit of organizing a quite diverse and, at times, not obviously reconcilable body of work, and of helpfully juxtaposing it – never too simplistically – to historical and social dynamics. The many inclusions of Klee’s own words and the division of space into relatively small rooms each introduced by section labels successfully avoid the now pervasive sterilization of gallery spaces.


Park near Lu 1938 Zentrum Paul Klee

Park near Lu 1938
Zentrum Paul Klee

My only misgiving is that I doubt that “Making Visible” is the most appropriate title for this exhibition. If at the start we are indeed led into thinking that the exhibition will address the various shapes that Klee’s concerns with vision and the visible took throughout his artistic career – the walls of the opening room are upholstered with the quotes “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible” and “Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things” – those concerns are not explicitly brought back in the subsequent rooms. Paul Klee: Making Visible rather takes the form of a survey – to be sure, a thorough and articulated one – of the artist’s pictorial techniques and innovations, which I would not have so easily identified with interests in vision and visuality. But this is a quite minor hitch when compared to the exhibition’s overall successful achievement of its aims.

Vincent Marquis is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Paul Klee: Making Visible is at Tate Modern until 9th March 2014.

Ways of Seeing

“Visual Insights: What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain”

Professor Margaret Livingstone, Tuesday 22 October 2013.

For the second Frank Davis memorial lecture of 2013, the Courtauld community and guests were given a privileged glimpse into the workings of our own visual processing by Margaret Livingstone of Harvard Medical School. Applying developments in neurobiology to a study of pictorial reception, Professor Livingstone’s research in recent years has explored the evidence that artists also spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we see. Along with plentiful information on the finely tuned operation of neurons within the visual pathway, it was the interactive experience – facilitated by red-green cinema specs – which cemented for the audience the evidence of how the brain processes retinal responses to pictures, faces, and pictures of faces.

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, 1873. The shimmering effect of the reflection can be explained by equal values of luminance in the colour choices.

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, 1873. The shimmering effect of the reflection can be explained by equal values of luminance in the colour choices.

Those who had turned up to hear the big neurological reveal on the secret of the Mona Lisa’s smile were not to be disappointed, but first we needed the basic picture. Through diagrams illustrating the opposing actions of ganglion cells on the retina, which can both fire or repress signals depending on the area receiving light, Professor Livingstone demonstrated the dominant principles of luminance and contrast at the base line of vision. This evidence helps to access the employment of light and shadow throughout the history of art, from the uniform brilliance of haloes in a Duccio altarpiece to Impressionist experiments with movement created by subtle variants in light value. Such effects were further explained by a diagram of the primate brain showing the division of two distinct functions: the ‘what system’ which has developed to recognise objects, colour and faces; and the ‘where system’ which takes the more general role of detecting spatial relations of depth, distance, figure/ground, and movement. These separate functions are behind the puzzling effects of optical illusions and those red-green patterns familiar from optical examinations; and, as illustrated with works by Monet and Mondrian, are expertly manipulated by visual artists. Correspondingly, we were shown how it could be the difference in acuity between central and peripheral vision which is behind the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa.

Returning to the visual peculiarities of artists themselves, the lecture concluded with an intriguing insight into the properties of stereovision and the likelihood of ocular misalignment or of dyslexia as a contributing factor in the artist’s particular facility in translating volumes into flat pictures. A graph based on Rembrandt’s depictions of his own eyes in a series of painted and etched self-portraits provided a convincing argument in favour of the research, as of Professor Livingstone’s parting comment; namely, that ‘if you can make a graph of the unlikeliest thing, you can get published’. The background to this science and its application to artistic vision are explained in Margaret Livingstone’s book, Vision and Art (2002), available in the Courtauld Library.

Elizabeth I and her People (National Portrait Gallery)

ElizabethReviewElizabeth I has been somewhat overshadowed by her namesake in recent years, but the curatorial team at the National Portrait Gallery, led by Tarnya Cooper, have sought to reestablish her as the mighty monarch she once was, as well as attempting to depict the lives of her subjects.
For a shy monarch the range of portraits of Elizabeth in the opening rooms are impressive, including rare examples of those painted from life. This was a time in which her image began to mean many things – from the power and prestige of its owner, to its reassuring qualities in the face of war. Her image was also one of the first to be mass produced, again evidenced in the exhibition with fine examples of coins, miniatures and portraits made from copies.
The largest room at the rear of the U-shaped exhibition space is concerned with the Nobility, Gentry and Court. This section opens, poignantly, with a portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh accompanied with a poem begging for Elizabeth’s forgiveness after his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton. The rest of the room is given over to detailing the huge advancements made throughout this era. Travel and adventure are shown in the portraits of Elizabeth’s Moorish ambassador and the Arctic explorer Frobrisher, and the fruits of other exotic endeavours are scattered throughout, the highlight being the first depiction of a Guinea Pig as a household pet.

Queen Elizabeth I, The 'Ermine' Portrait Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, 1585

Queen Elizabeth I, The ‘Ermine’ Portrait Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, 1585

All of the advancements were made possible by the increasing trade during the Elizabethan era, and these men and women have their own room in the exhibition. Again what is truly astounding in the works in this space are the international ties and the draw London must have had during this period. There are a series of remarkable, candid family portraits of the Wittewronghele family as well as many others from what would have been at that time far-off lands.

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520/21-1598) by an unknown artist

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520/21-1598) by an unknown artist

Towards the end of the exhibition the works began to peter out somewhat. The section on Professionals, Writers and Artists is a little sparse, although the painting of the poet John Donne is a highlight. In an attempt to represent the entirety of Elizabeth’s people the curators have left a small space for the Working People and the Poor, but it is really inadequate to get a truly rounded picture of their lives. This, though, is not the curators’ fault. As they openly admit there simply are not many representations of the poor during this period, and I think it is nice that they end the exhibition with this admission, rather than simply trying to hide it in the beginning or middle of the exhibition.

The focus is undoubtedly on the well-off in Elizabethan society but this is purely because they were the only section of society that were recorded. Overall though, despite the shortfalls of breadth, the exhibition does what it sets out to do: show the lives the first Elizabethans lived to their current incarnations.



Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Elizabeth I & Her People is at the National Portrait Gallery until the 5th January 2013.

British Drawings: 1600 to the Present Day (Victoria and Albert Museum)

British Drawings gallery

A brief look through the Courtauld Institute’s course options paints a bleak picture for the study of British art. Italy and France
dominate and I dare say an exhibition presenting graphic works from one of these more celebrated artistic nations would not attempt what the Victoria and Albert has: to survey four hundred years of British drawing (from Issac Oliver to Siân Bowen) in the space of two small rooms. Yet it works perfectly, the curators have been careful to make wide reaching selections in subject, media, and artist, choices that inject the exhibition with a vigour that to many people its title might not suggest.

Henry Fuseli - Portrait study of Martha Hess,1778-79.

Henry Fuseli – Portrait study of Martha Hess,1778-79.

What becomes clear throughout the exhibition is that British art has been holding its own for more than four hundred years: from indigenous Brits, such as Frederic Leighton, almost natives like Lucian Freud, to those who spent their professional life in Britain, such as Henry Fuseli, Peter Lely and Antony van Dyck. Each of these five artists, not surprisingly, shines through particularly strongly. Fuseli’s black and white chalk portrait of Martha Hess was a personal favourite. It seems to owe much to the delicate silverpoint renderings of female faces by old masters like Verrocchio. Yet here, surrounded by a Constable country scene and a furiously sketched William Blake drawing it seemed curiously out of place, serving to remind that British art has continuously produced a multitude of fine works. This is something the curators must have intended in their selections.

Whether intentional or not the show’s small size seems perfectly suited to the realm of drawing. More often than painting, it is a private artistic pursuit. While most paintings are created with a public of some form in mind, drawings are usually for the artist’s personal use. The lineage from brain to pencil can be a pure and uninterrupted flow, in which ideas, thoughts, and secrets move more freely than in painting. Witness of this flow, made manifest in the marks on the paper, seems to provide insight into the private mind of the artist. And so covering four hundred years of an art form in two rooms begins to make sense when drawing is viewed in this way. The V&A seems to have tried to emphasise this closed personal world of drawing by attempting to transport the viewer into something similar: two small rooms for meditation and private appreciation on the products of some of the world’s greatest draughtsmen. In the first room, a cabinet of sketchbooks, never created with a viewer in mind, further adds to this feeling. The anecdotal descriptions of the drawings match this urge for insight into the mind of the artist, for instance telling us of Jonathan Richardson the Elder’s urge to draw a daily self-portrait as a kind of therapy.

David Connearn, Mappa Mundi: Drawing to the Extent of the Body, 1984.

David Connearn, Mappa Mundi: Drawing to the Extent of the Body, 1984.

Any bigger, this exhibition would have been overwhelming. It takes on an often overlooked subject and presents it in all its variously imagined glories. Most importantly, it serves to educate about the very nature of the art of drawing.

Thomas Mouna is a third-year BA at the Courtauld.

British Drawings: 1600 to the Present Day will be on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Room 90 until the 13th April 2014. Entry is free.

Facing The Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 (National Gallery)

FacingModernPicI’ve always thought that the National Gallery could have a better temporary exhibition space – but this time its underground location was less of a weakness and more of a metaphor. For if history tells the breakdown of a liberal and democratic age into one of intolerance and bloodshed, the paintings themselves may rather tell of a death-drive spurting out from underground.

Death is what one sees upon entering the exhibition’s first room: it is Beethoven’s death mask.  A witness at the composer’s passing reported it was marked by a peal of thunder. Of course, it was apocalyptic – but still, that was 1827, long before the other works in the room were selected for the Miethke Gallery exhibition recreated in Room 1. But then again, that show was in 1905. Vienna 1900 eluded me in a wink.

Showcasing the Austrian Old Masters and their heroic models, the Miethke Gallery show established a genealogy for the new Viennese middle class. The New needed to set its footing in the Old. Accordingly, the moderns found in Ebyl and Amerling the precedents for their innovative painting – for the Kokoschka and Schiele and Gerstl in Room 2. Nevertheless, the contrast is startling, and it remains so throughout the show. For if traditional paintings are everywhere exhibited next to decidedly modern ones, this is only exhibition, not explanation: the viewer is not shown how the ones derived from the others.

Arnold Schönberg: Blue Self-Portrait, 1910.

Arnold Schönberg: Blue Self-Portrait, 1910

The criteria for grouping paintings in different rooms are just as evanescent. After presenting the New Viennese self-constructed antiquity, the subdivisions become thematic rather than historical, concentrating on themes such as the positive perception of private life, the figure of the artist, love and loss. ‘The Appeal of the Artist’ was surely my favourite. Both Rudolf von Alt’s and Schoenberg’s self-portrait were discoveries by artists I did not know before.

Richard Gerstl - Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky (1908)

Richard Gerstl – Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky (1908)

Moreover, I appreciated the emphasis on the fabricated nature of Freud’s ‘tormented human subject,’ an aspect easy to ignore face to so many dramatic suicides. Other rooms however fail to deliver what they promise. Grouping together group scenes and portraits, young siblings and adults, the display ‘The family and The Child’ is too heterogeneous to delve deep into the hidden tensions of idyllic families.

But then, why should one delve? There is here enough experimentation on the painted surface. Both the Amerlings and the Schiele reveal their great mastery, made all the more evocative by the flexible and atmospheric lighting. This is definitely not an exhibition to learn about history, but it may be a good one to learn about looking. For as in Gerstl’s Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky, the revelation may lay on the surface.



Costanza Beltrami is a BA3 student at the Courtauld.

Facing the Modern is on at the National Gallery until the 12th January.

Art in the Face of Trauma (Sacred Traditions and the Arts seminar, 15th October 2013)

Sacred Traditions and the Arts is one of the Research Forum’s consistently exciting ventures, organised jointly with King’s College London to create a dialogue between art history and theology. Glenn Sujo (G. F. Watts Associate Artist) warned us that his paper might be rather more sombre than Grayson Perry’s Reith Lecture that had aired that morning on Radio 4. But in some ways this whole seminar addressed some similar modern anxieties about art, not least the thorny matter of beauty.

Dr. Glenn SujoGlenn’s lecture “The Image of atrocity is never innocent: the aporiai of the visual” was about the art produced, often covertly, during and in the immediate aftermath of the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah. To what extent do these “products of the imagination” adequately represent the horrific experience? His analysis of these aporiai concerned their subjects. A sketched view of a window spoke of confinement, and the seemingly simple subject of Jews transporting sewage carried an underlying message of the resilient struggle to maintain civilisation and sanitation in the ghetto. While there was not a complete disregard of treatment; sombre colours and jagged lines were considered, it was “Draw what you see” that almost became his keynote, and that these works embodied experience.


Professor Tim Gorringe

Tim Gorringe (University of Exeter) had written his lecture as a direct response to Glenn’s address. He began by stating that the “classical” view of beauty: harmony and proportion, as embodied in the art of Ancient Athens through Aquinas to Kant, when applied to religion, fails. It produces “high-grade kitsch” such as the Sistine Madonna, certainly an interesting definition of Raphael’s Roman masterpiece. For Tim, Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, through its choices in form and style addressed theological truth with greater success: the outrage at the suffering in the world. Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion achieves much the same: its initial exhibition leaving Kenneth Clark only able to remark “what an extraordinary world we live in”. For Steiner, true Tragedy in the arts required a metaphysical overlord, removed in the modern era by a secular, rational worldview. But Tim tried to show that a painter within the secular age could still articulate profound tragedy through a “silent scream” at the injustice of existence.


Glenn and Tim in the final discussion and the horrors of BelsenThis series always places a great emphasis on encouraging discussion afterwards. Showing a commendable willingness to disagree, a difference emerged between the two speakers of the status of a work of art made in the wake of tragedy as an object of knowledge. Is its ultimate value as a work of truth as a document of experience, or as an ineffable, theological statement akin to Job’s questioning of the injustice wreaked upon him? Keats’ aphorism of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” is often maligned as a bit of a cop-out, and indeed it is not all we need to know. But it is a starting point. We all have our own truths, artist, viewer and art historian, and many were expressed in this highly rewarding evening.

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm (Tate Britain)

Statue of the Dead Christ The Mercers’ Company

Statue of the Dead Christ
The Mercers’ Company

There are many ‘Histories’ to destroying British art, perhaps too many for this expansive exhibition of over 500 years. The main problem is that works with similar or contrasting messages are isolated from one another, and the chronological narrative is confused by redundant thematic subtitles. Starting at the Reformation, the exquisite early-sixteenth century Mercers’ Christ was a foremost victim: its agonised face and bleeding body – on Christ’s left neck a solitary vein protrudes with a dying delicacy – provoked ire from the iconoclasts. Four saints have been viciously scratched out of a late-fifteenth century painted screen, and in a rare 1380-1400 altarpiece the kneeling figures’ faces have also been attacked. To deface a portrait, it seems, is universally a stark act of iconoclasm. An English monarchist’s upturning of Oliver Cromwell’s portrait would work well, then, with the Chapman brothers’ graffiti on three Victorian portraits. There is an unexplored contrast to make between treating an image or portrait seriously – and defacing it seriously – and being content to scribble on it or turn it upside down. Otherwise, the Chapmans’ puerility baffles after such vigorous iconoclasm.

The Reformation’s campaign was to destroy the Image and replace it with the Word. This is shown well. A c.1500 Rood image of Christ was later whitewashed and scrawled with Biblical text (which would work well with Kate Davis’s beautiful 2012 palimpsests). In bold defiance of Protestant logocentrism the Little Gidding Harmony’s c.1635-40 beautiful book crams its pages with collaged images and complementary texts.

Another highlight is John Singer Sargent’s 1913 portrait of Henry James, thrice slashed by Mary Wood with a meat cleaver. But the Suffragettes attacked art differently from the Puritans, less for what it depicted, more for its status as the ‘cultural heritage’ of a patrician political establishment – a very different kind of iconoclasm. The exhibition tries to reconcile and generalise when really it should distinguish. If Wood’s attack on the Sargent was random, why was the attack on three painted late-Victorian ‘beautiful women’ a ‘symbolic act’, in the curators’ words?

Michael Wilkinson’s 2013 parody of the Taliban’s destruction of videotapes reminds us that censorship is still rampant. Yet censorship is different to iconoclasm and if there is a grey line between the two, it’s not until the penultimate piece in the show that we encounter it. Wilkinson might work well with Charles I’s autobiographical Eikon Basilike, redacted by Portuguese inquisitors, which languishes in Room 4.

Allen Jones, Chair 1969  Tate © Allen Jones

Allen Jones, Chair 1969
Tate © Allen Jones

Puritan-like objections to art resound throughout British history – how often it’s said Britain has a culture of words and not paintings – and this merits a lot more attention. The three general themes ‘Religion’, ‘Politics’ and ‘Aesthetics’ are vague and confusing. How were attacks on Allen Jones’s salacious 1969 ‘Chair’ ‘Aesthetic’ and not ‘Political’ (or feminist)? If it were both more relaxed and more precise about how attacking art can mean different things to different people at different times, this exhibition could go from an iconoclastic plethora of strands to a coherent map of pluralities.

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm is at Tate Britain until the 5th January 2014.

Throwing shapes in the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre

Tuesday 8 October 2013, First Frank Davis lecture on ‘Part-Whole relationships in Vision Science’, given by Professor Johan Wagemans, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Science, KU Leuven


Michael Baxandall commented that perception is 95% hardwired and 5% cultural; with most of our interest falling into the latter segment. Launching this term’s Frank Davis lectures on the science of vision, Professor Johan Wagemans of Leuven University in Belgium gave art historians an opportunity to contemplate that neglected 95%. With associates in a team of experimental psychologists, Wagemans is running an ambitious project to develop methods of mapping the role of perceptual organisation in the composition and appreciation of visual art. Demonstrating both general principles of the Gestalt psychology that underlie the multi-layered project, and technical data gained through targeted experiments, this lecture on part-whole relationships in art and vision presented a wealth of detail at a pace that was perhaps demanding for a non-scientific audience; but in a good way!

Beginning by testing our response to a series of visual puzzles, including surrealist illusions and artful cows, Wageman promised further dynamic moves when he offered to ‘throw some shapes’ on the screen. These resolved themselves into an illustration of the lecture’s central argument; namely, that vision is organised according to wholes which are not only greater than, but different to, the sum of the parts. While many might have been familiar with the general principles, it is the hard science behind pictorial observation that is new here; and the results demonstrate impressive progress in quantifying what happens when we look at pictures. The specific focus of this lecture concerned the perception of volume in planar designs, in experiments which recorded observational patterns relating to a series of line drawings of female nudes by Picasso.

Perceptual ambiguity of figure-ground organization in vision science and visual art. Stimuli from Kogo et al (2011); artwork by AMVK.

Through a range of computer graphics designed to register different perceptual features – including a convincing contour map showing depths of relief (see first photo) – it was revealed how the perception of 3D features on a flat surface, and the meaning of individual line structures, depends on the viewer’s apprehension of the pictorial space as a whole. What the research aims to isolate in such experiments are those workings of the biological matrix within the brain which seek out meaningful patterns; a function referred to as the ‘creative microgenesis’. What was less clear to many in the audience was how far experiential and cultural associations could be ruled out of the equation, especially when the lines concerned represent aspects of the familiar female form. To the question of how these experiments perform in relation to abstract art, the answer was an honest ‘disappointing’. Nonetheless, there is no doubting the robust potential of these developments for analysing pictorial perception, as was illustrated at the close of the lecture with a series works by contemporary artists created in parallel with vision scientists in the dynamic interdisciplinary project known as ‘Parallellepipeda’. For more on this and a range of articles published by the Leuven project, go to