Rembrandt: The Late Works (National Gallery)

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.

Thank Francis It’s Friarsday: Art, Architecture and the Friars: New Work and Future Prospects (23rd May 2014)

S. Caterina, Treviso. Friary with temporary wall for unbuilt nave. Fresco attrib. Tomaso di Modena.

S. Caterina, Treviso. Friary with temporary wall for unbuilt nave. Fresco attrib. Tomaso di Modena.

This was no Friday, but a Friarsday, when the lecture theatre became like a plenary general chapter meeting of scholars working on mendicant art and architecture, discussing the large amount of scholarship that has recently appeared on the friars in Italy. It was a highly discursive day at which the Courtauld excels, highlighting the new avenues of enquiry medieval art history is taking in pursuit of meaning.

The first papers were given by Caroline Bruzelius and Erik Gustafson, focusing on the architecture of the mendicants. They investigated the social context of the friars’ vast hall-like churches, generally held as being tremendously influential on urban late Gothic architecture, a tall order for men who asserted monastic poverty. The architecture certainly suited the uncertain nature of their income from lay bequests: built piecemeal, but of high impact in terms of sheer scale. The twelfth-century reformed Vallumbrosan and Camaldolese monks were also shown as important precedents for both their rule and architecture, a revelation to many.

John Renner and the statue of St. Francis in San Francesco, Siena

John Renner and the statue of St. Francis in San Francesco, Siena

In the next session imagery took the fore, something the Franciscans are commonly credited in having an enormous influence in, trailblazing a new naturalism looking forward to the Renaissance. Janet Robson demonstrated through the fresco cycle at Assisi how we should not treat images as encoded texts, but instead as lived intellectual experience tied up in artistic representation. This was also how John Renner engaged with the statue of St. Francis in Siena, performing a sculptural exegesis on its form to interrogate it as an object of Franciscan belief and self-identity.

The Morgan Codex f.22, Pacino di Buonaguida, c.1320s

The Morgan Codex f.22, Pacino di Buonaguida, c.1320s

Donal Cooper and Claudia Bolgia returned to buildings to look at them as  as venues for art and ritual. What was revealed here was that narrow genres are unhelpful. Objects and spaces are not limited to one purpose nor does form prove function, the church had many spaces common to both layman and friar. Then the final pairing continued to investigate these concepts with more specific approaches. Amy Neff showed how prayer books could carry specifically Franciscan strategies of ascent through prayer outside the convent, influencing the wider world. Finally Michaela Zöschg took us beyond the visual into the world of sound: and how the female convent allowed not just avenues for seeing, but also for hearing, and how the acousmatic could even more so demolish ideas of segregated space and experience.

This was a conference not just of relevance to those who work on the religious orders, but also medieval art generally, and it showed how art history needs to branch out into many disciplines, methods and sources if it is to uncover the situation of the making of the work of art. One figure who cropped up in the discussions was T. S. Eliot, appropriately for modern medievalists, a trailblazing Modernist with great esteem for the past and tradition. “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice”, he writes towards the end of The Four Quartets. It seems however, with the variety of approaches embodied in every paper, next year’s art historians will need to speak in  tongues to really comprehend the intellectual and material context of mendicant art.

Living Laboratory: Richard Pare on Le Corbusier & Konstantin Melnikov (Pitzhanger Manor)

This exhibition, showing at the gallery alongside renowned Regency architect John Soane’s pile in Ealing, features photographs of work by two 20th century architects: Konstantin Melnikov and Le Corbusier. Eloquent text panels introduce each architect and individual images. The photographer Richard Pare depicts buildings in three distinct ways in this exhibition: architecture as objects, buildings and landscapes, or rooms. People are not the subject of the photographs. There are a few individuals lurking in the backgrounds of some prints but these images are mostly forgettable.

Only one building designed by Melnikov is present. The Melnikov House, a suburban villa formed by two interlocking cylinders with hexagonal windows. Two large prints – side by side – to form a sort of interior panoramic of the house’s studio, but fail to create any sort of coherent image. Sunlight from several windows makes for a harshly lit interior –  too intense to view all at once. Another diptych, this time of the salon, is photographed diagonally from interior stairs in the left background, stacked paintings by the architect’s son, and onto a desk in the right foreground. The viewing axis of the photographs suggests a spectrum from the intensity and privacy of the desk which reduces across the room and onto the staircase: this room is connected to others and can be left freely. Diffuse light softens the lilac painted walls and reveals scars in the plasterwork where light-fittings used to be. Perhaps comfort isn’t the right word for the effect but there is certainly a lack of anxiety in this image.

Unité d'habitation, Marseilles, 1946-52 (2011)

Unité d’habitation, Marseilles, 1946-52 (2011)

A range of Le Corbusier buildings are displayed, from early projects like the Villa Le Lac, to later work such as the priory of La Tourette. Here Pare demonstrates the anxiety between landscape and building in the work of Le Corbusier. A photograph of the rooftop of the Unité d’Habitation shows the contrast between the building’s garden with the Mediterranean in the background. Photographed orthogonally, the seated enclosures of the middle-ground are reflected in a manmade pool in front of them and the coastline is reduced to mere scenery.

Ville Le Lac, Corseaux, 1924-25, (2012)

Ville Le Lac, Corseaux, 1924-25, (2012)

Another photograph, this time of Villa Le Lac, has the familiar composition of Pare’s photographs of Corb’s buildings: the landscape is photographed orthogonally with the building shown obliquely at one side of the image. But rather than portray the building an object, Pare allows us just a little portion of it: a pocket of covered space and a doorway which connects back into the open-plan villa. The lakefront wall runs along a boundary marking the threshold between site and landscape. On the left edge the wall rises up to form a garden room with a frame-less window at its centre. Underneath this opening are two chairs either side of a concrete table. Compared with the plan libre and ribbon window of the villa’s interior, this window frames a fixed subject (the landscape) where all chance is abolished. Perhaps like one of Pare’s photographs.

Matthew Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld

Living Laboratory: Richard Pare on Le Corbusier & Konstantin Melnikov is at the PM Gallery, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, until the 11th May 2014.


Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined (Royal Academy of Arts)

Sensingspaces1“Allowing room for the visitor’s imagination is essential if a space is to become a satisfying physical experience.” These are the words of Li Xiaodong, one of seven architects who have been invited to transform the neoclassical galleries of the Royal Academy for their freshest exhibition, Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined. Xiaodong’s suggestion captures the spirit of the exhibition, which sets out to evoke the experience and power of architecture within a traditional gallery space.

The exhibition is carefully divided yet without any imposed sequence, each architect having been allocated one or two rooms. Many structures are visually and conceptually striking, such as Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s Blue, an imposing pine wood construction occupying half of Room 2 in which visitors are invited to enter. In Room 6, the Ireland-based Grafton Architects call attention to the dramatic effects of roof light with their suspended plaster panels. Elsewhere, the Burkinabe Diébédo Francis Kéré created a stunning tunnel from honeycomb plastic linking two of the rooms, transformed by the visitors’ gradual addition of coloured plastic straws. Surely, the works in this exhibition succeed in heightening our awareness of the sensory realm of architecture. Be it through visually destabilizing environments, tactilely appealing surfaces, or even the smell of materials, the works underscore the ways in which architecture may have a direct impact on our bodily and mental states.

One of my concerns is that the exhibition is rather under-curated. The galleries display only basic factual information about the work they contain. And the iPads at the entrance of the exhibition, through which one will essentially learn about the production processes of the structures, do not offer much more. We learn little about how the architects have concretely sought “to address the human spirit,” and the way they have used “their appreciation of history to create buildings that acknowledge the past but are also highly meaningful within the present” remains completely speculative for the viewers.

I also wonder whether Sensing Spaces will have the long-lasting impact it hopes for. The statement of curator Kate Goodwin begins with a reflection on the ignored ubiquity of architecture in our daily activities, acknowledging how it very often is only the background to our lives. “Working, sleeping or playing,” she writes, “mostly take place within, and interact with, architecture.” The structures are quite spectacular in themselves, but precisely for this reason one is unlikely to engage differently with ordinary, everyday architectural spaces. The question remains open as to how these everyday spaces can become more rewarding, more satisfying.

Vincent Marquis is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined is at the Royal Academy until the 6th April 2014.

Boundaries in Medieval Art and Architecture (Annual Medieval Postgraduate Colloquium, 2nd February 2014)

John Lowden entertains the (mostly) black and white robed audience at the Religious Poverty, Visual Riches book launch

John Lowden entertains the (mostly) black and white robed audience at the Religious Poverty, Visual Riches book launch

The Thursday before the nineteenth annual medieval colloquium, the longest running of all the Courtauld’s postgraduate student conferences, was a very special occasion. It was the official launch of the new book of the Institute’s longest serving current lecturer, Joanna Cannon. Religious Poverty, Visual Riches is a long-awaited and sizeable achievement, and all were treated to a feast of black and white nibbles to match the habit of the Dominicans that the book focuses on as artistic patrons. But also much thought is given to the theme of boundaries in its pages. Not just between what is history and art history to create an engaging story of art serving the Religious Life, but also conceptual: what is connoisseurship and what is technical analysis. Most important are the boundaries of the very churches themselves: the spaces of the Laity and the Friars and the liminal areas between form the architecture of the book’s chapters.

Speaker James Hillson at St Stephen's chapel at Westminster this summer: vault 1290s or 1340s?

Speaker James Hillson at St Stephen’s chapel at Westminster this summer: vault 1290s or 1340s?

This was why the following Saturday conference was given over to theme of Boundaries in Medieval Art and Architecture. The first session brought us into the conceptual realm of historiographical geography and nationalism. Sophie Dentzer begun the day by showing the exuberant vaults of fourteenth-century England were subject to circumstances. Being often retro-fits on to earlier buildings, and not unknown elsewhere in Europe, consequently she advanced that the English Decorated Style may not have been as English as we thought. James Hillson similarly used his new research into the almost obliterated royal chapel at Westminster to show that some parts may have been designed and built nearly half a century later than usually proposed, 1340s rather than 1290s, to remind us that invention should not be tied to centres of power.

In session two, Federica Gigante’s illustration of painted textile showed how meaning could be carried across media: the draping of holy Islamic objects in fabrics into the painting of whole sections of Christian buildings in such patterns to demarcate their importance. But Maria Alessia Rossi’s extremely involved study of fourteenth-century pictorial cycles at Thessaloniki through the textual evidence of homilies and the liturgy reminded us that a work of art can contain different but parallel meanings. A contemporary audience could read motifs in multiple ways, and it is no mean task for the art historian to synthesise them into a single interpretation.

 St Michael shutting the gate of hell, part of a Last Judgement scene in BL Stowe 944, the New Minster Liber Vitae (c.1031)

St Michael shutting the gate of hell, part of a Last Judgement scene
in BL Stowe 944, the New Minster Liber Vitae (c.1031)

After lunch, we had consideration of objects that stood at a physical threshold. First Cristina Dagalita gave us a new reading of the tempting prince with a horrifying gisant back among the Wise and Foolish Virgins on the portal of Strasbourg Cathedral. He was identified with the fool “who said in his heart there is no God”, as pictured in the margins of Psalters, tempting the foolish Virgins away from the true door where Christ waits inside for His brides. Karl Kinsella applied an intellectual exegetical reading to Doors in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, a transition between realms: Earthly and Heavenly, pre- and post-lapsarian, Life and Death.

Synagoga at Strasbourg

Synagoga at Strasbourg

The day was brought to a close with one of the oldest boundaries of all: that of gender. Monica Winiarczyk showed Synagoga, the downfallen counterpart of Ecclesia, as a positive figure: an illustration of the Jewish people within salvation history, and therefore a potential bride of Christ rather than totally damned. Andrea Mattiello’s case studies of some fourteenth-century Byzantine churches in Greece with fascinating surviving frescoes showed that delimiting their two-storey spaces into male and female, priestly and lay, elite and common was more difficult than it first seemed. Finally Niamh Bhalla’s study of gender in Byzantine Last Judgements brought the day to a thoughtful close: an apparently misogynistic view of sin that was reinforced in a society with a extremely fluid concept of the performative act of gender: where does a masculine female saint stand in a culture of Eunuchs, celibate priests and the glorious Virgin Mary?

Such literal gendering reminds of the wider view of the importance of concepts of contraries, but also the vast spectrum in between which all speakers touched on throughout the day. The conversations within the community of the Courtauld and our gratefully received visiting speakers and audience this weekend certainly boded well for such far-reaching art historical discourses in the next generation of scholarship.

Architecture and Music in Renaissance Venice (Thursday 21st November)

Howard1They say architecture is “frozen music”, but this week has been a particularly noisy one for this art historian. First there was the Liturgy in History study day at Queen Mary University, where both the seminar room in Whitechapel and then St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield were filled with beautiful singing, including us lay people lending our voices to provide the drone of Perotin’s thirteenth-century Viderunt Omnes. Then at Mellon Centre on Wednesday, the rector of Ranworth provided those gathered with a rendition of the Gloria attached to his church’s medieval lectern in a round table seminar about the great rood screen.

This means that the Art History and Sound series, organised in the Courtauld Research Forum by Ph.D. students Michaela Zöschg and Irene Noy, is in very good company of a consideration of the sonic environment of the visual arts. This Thursday marked the second of three autumn lectures after a successful series of workshops last year.

Deborah Howard, the co-author of Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice, came to the Courtauld to demonstrate the methodology behind the book. Did the great architects, Sansovino and Palladio, while designing their temples to Counter-Reformation piety, allow provision for the Gabrielis and Monteverdi to achieve the same with their ground-breakingly sophisticated polyphonies?

Howard3Although audience surveys were used in the project, rather than this subjective evidence, much attention was given to presenting the results of computer modelling simulations to actually show what was happening to the sound in these churches. There was little problem in a shoe-box like the Ospedaletto – the sound quickly reverberated from off the roof to seem like it was raining down to the audience without any dissonance.

The monumental Il Redentore however proved more of a problem. It was fine for the daily offices of the Capuchin friars in the enclosed choir. However, for the great festival day when the choir were stationed under the mighty dome, the simulation showed how it would reverberate the sound waves like “a giant food processor”, throwing down the carefully orchestrated polyphony that had been composed specially for the day as an utter muddle of sonic hummus. But it was shown how on such days, the church would be covered in tapestries, draped in hangings and filled with robed bodies, to give a much more promising situation, and that the composition would not be destroyed by the architectural setting. The same was demonstrated in a festally adorned San Marco, the sound given a clarity and vibrancy when the harmonies would have been all but obscured in an empty church. All well and good for Renaissance polyphony, but was this a happy accident rather than design? Did Palladio really reassure a frustrated Gabrieli at rehearsals it’d be alright on the night?

Howard2Deborah did admit that the results of the project merely reinforced their expectations. But the real achievement of this lecture was to make people aware of the methodology behind it. An architectural historian may wish for a silent, empty church when wielding a tripod, but now a building resonating with “molten architecture” should also prove equally rewarding for interrogation.

For more information and music tracks related to the project, visit