From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Emily Carr, In the Forest, B.C., c. 1935, oil on paper, mounted on multi-ply paperboard, Overall: 45.8 x 30.2 cm (18 1/16 x 11 7/8 in.), Frame: 63.2 x 48.1 cm (24 7/8 x 18 15/16 in.). ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Professor Kathleen Coburn, 2004, 2004/128

Emily Carr, In the Forest, B.C., c. 1935, oil on paper, mounted on multi-ply paperboard, ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Professor Kathleen Coburn, 2004, 2004/128

From the Forest to the Sea brilliantly turns the disadvantages of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s small exhibition space into an opportunity: the gallery’s long vista — a corridor rather than an enfilade of rooms — and its changing wall colours firmly encourage visitors’ progress from green to blue, from dark to light, from the forest to the sea.  To Canadian artist Emily Carr, movement was life. As she wrote in her diary: ‘I think trees love to toss and sway; they make such happy noises.’ Such organic, undulating movement animates both her paintings and this exhibition, which eschews chronology to weave a looping narrative.

The exhibition opens with paintings of trees dated to the 1930s, near the end of Carr’s life. Dynamic but earnest, the forest is used to present the landscape of British Columbia, rather than to introduce the artist herself. Yet if the paintings are clearly spontaneous, they are not artless: echoes of Kandinsky, Orphism and Cubism reveal Carr’s European training.  Next to the forest paintings, a display case with North-western aboriginal artefacts sets the scene further; documenting the artistic legacy of Canada’s natives became Carr’s avowed mission in 1907 when she discovered their totem-poles and sculpture during an holiday in Alaska.

Emily Carr, Totem and Forest, 1931, oil on canvas, 129.3 x 56.2 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.1, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art

Emily Carr, Totem and Forest, 1931, oil on canvas, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.1, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art

The illustrated diary she kept on this trip has recently uncovered in a collector’s basement and is exhibited for the first time. It is open to the pages of the artist’s first encounter with a totem pole: behatted but overwhelmed, Emily and her sister gape at the reliefs helpfully described by their chaperone. The focus in on aboriginal art, yet the scene is one of refined European gentility. Here, as in most of Carr’s works, aboriginal people are absent. Artworks alone are memorialised and pre-emptively ‘musealised’, if with deep-felt longing for what she described as a ‘broader,’ ‘piercing’ art.

Emily Carr, Blunden Harbour, c. 1930, Oil on canvas, 129.8 x 93.6 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo © NGC

Emily Carr, Blunden Harbour, c. 1930, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo © NGC

The disappearance of people is a problem for the exhibition itself: comparing the painting Blunden Harbour with the ethnographic photograph on which it is based, a wall-panel concludes: ‘…she transformed it [the photograph] in curious ways…’.  If cautious in revealing Carr’s blind spots, the exhibition’s texts are nuanced in their presentation of aboriginal objects: as the exhibition’s curators were advised by the Haida chief and master carver James Hart, the inferences of Western anthropology are sometimes contradicted by native interpretations.

Carr is best known for her depictions of aboriginal art, but this was not the only focus of her long career. Indeed, the exhibition opens and closes with images of nature, often sketched close to the painter’s home. As the room ‘Knowledge and Experimentation’ reveals, Carr continuously re-interpreted this familiar nature in the light of her changing personal and stylistic interests. Nothing expresses this more clearly than the exhibition’s final juxtaposition of Beacon Hill Park (1909) with Broom Beacon Hill (1937). The artist said it herself: ‘Everything is green. Everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places…. Colours that you had not noticed come out, timidly or boldly.’

Costanza Beltrami is an MA student at the Courtauld.

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 8 March 2015.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision (National Portrait Gallery)

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912 Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912
Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

The idea that an exhibition of assorted paintings, photographs and objects can constitute a ‘portrait’ of someone is an interesting one. Bloomsbury biographer Frances Spalding’s exhibition on Virginia Woolf has added another chapter to the interdisciplinary history of Bloomsbury by confronting the usually only vaguely acknowledged influence of the visual arts on this heroine of literary Modernism. However, it can be complacent about historical stereotype and at times its principle of selection borders on sheer miscellany.

In the first room, a photograph of a ravaged Alfred Lord Tennyson by Woolf’s aunt Julia Margaret Cameron joins other portraits of nineteenth-century luminaries. These are delightful to see, but they are of dubious relation to the subject of the exhibition. Together with a rather sadly-skied allegory by G. F. Watts, contextualised as a friend of Woolf’s parents, they represent a black-and-white, whiskery ‘Victorian period’ out of which Bloomsbury (and ‘Modernism’) miraculously appeared.

Bloomsbury members certainly reacted against their Victorian parents’ ways of writing and painting, not least Roger Fry, who went from Berensonian aesthete to Cézanne fanatic. However, I would caution against falling for Bloomsbury’s own ploy to cover up its late-nineteenth-century origins to appear cutting edge. In the excellent accompanying book, Sandy Nairne singles out an interesting statement of Fry’s that compares Woolf’s Modernist language to the verbosity of Henry James, and historical comparisons like this might have been fun to see played out through the objects on show. We are also promised an insight into Woolf’s overlooked political life, though the inclusion of a distracting Picasso drawing commissioned for an event at which Woolf happened to sit on stage compromises the show’s credibility.

T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924 National Portrait Gallery, London

T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924
National Portrait Gallery, London

One highlight is an actual portrait of Woolf by her sister, Vanessa Bell, slumped in an orange armchair and Vuillard-like hard at work with needle and wool (c. 1912). It is a provocatively gendered piece: this is an aspiring author – the artist’s sister – not writing, but knitting. In the other paintings on show, Duncan Grant appears as inconsistent. His early portrait of James Strachey against a red screen (1910) is the first in a very successful trademark genre of portraits of people reading, though his memento mori Still Life with Bust of Virginia Woolf (c. 1960) is a decidedly dodgy exercise in paragone and defuses the emotional force of Woolf’s nearby suicide note. Particularly interesting photographs of Woolf from Vogue are nice reminders of Bloomsbury’s talent for self-publicity and its privilege.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939 Estate Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939
Estate Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

This small show makes an interesting case for the significance of assorted visual material in understanding an author. But that anecdotal tendency is worrying because it risks presenting, as many have done before, Bloomsbury itself as something anecdotal. The exhibition clearly makes the point that Bloomsbury occupied a very well-connected place in artistic (not to say political) milieux in the first half of the twentieth century in Britain. But did we already know that? And was Bloomsbury something more?

Thomas Hughes is a PhD student at the Courtauld working on the language of art writing in the later nineteenth century.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision was at the National Portrait Gallery from July 16 to October 26 2014.

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.

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

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.

Anselm Kiefer – A View from a critical distance?

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.

Jenny Saville (Gagosian Gallery)

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.

Artistic Exchanges: Corot, Costa, Leighton (National Gallery)

If you plan on visiting the National Gallery this summer, you won’t want to miss the sun-drenched Mediterranean landscapes currently on view in “Artistic Exchanges: Corot, Costa, Leighton.”  The paintings in this display reconstruct the interactions between three of Europe’s foremost artists of the nineteenth century: France’s Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Italy’s Giovanni Costa (1826-1903), and Britain’s Frederic Leighton (1830-1896).  “Artistic Exchanges” insightfully draws attention to the admiration these men had for each other’s work, as well as their shared appreciation of the natural world.

Corot - Avignon from the West (1836)

Camille Corot – Avignon from the West (1836)

Eager to establish a landscape tradition in his native country, the Roman-born Costa sought inspiration from foreign artists such as Corot, who was keenly interested in painting the poetic effects of light and atmosphere.  Corot’s Avignon from the West (1836), for example, unites land and sky with one another through a harmonious pattern of sunshine and shadows.  The interplay of light and form became a salient feature in Costa’s own compositions, such as Bocca d’Arno (c. 1895), a sweeping riverscape bathed in subdued blue-grey tones.  The panoramic views of Italian countryside favored by Costa made a subsequent impact upon Frederic Leighton, a fellow admirer of Corot.  Throughout his life, Leighton regularly traveled to Italy for painting excursions, on which trips he was occasionally accompanied by Costa after the two met in 1853.

Frederic Leighton - An Outcrop in the Campagna (perhaps 1866)

Frederic Leighton – An Outcrop in the Campagna (perhaps 1866)

The intimate exhibition space encourages viewers to draw comparisons between the landscapes by all three featured artists.  Leighton’s An Outcrop in the Roman Campagna (c. 1866), for example, employs the broad, lateral format favored in Costa’s paintings.  Meanwhile, the loose application of pigment in this landscape resembles Corot’s mode of handling in The Roman Campagna, with the Claudian Aqueduct (c. 1826).  The two artists’ treatment of light is also similar, so much so that a different painting by Leighton—The Villa Malta, Rome (1860s)—was originally attributed to Corot.  One of the most striking similarities of design appears between Costa’s A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81) and Corot’s The Leaning Tree Trunk (c. 1860-65), both of which the motif of sinuous branches backlit against a vaporous sky.

Giovanni Costa - A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81)

Giovanni Costa – A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81)

At the same time, the display also highlights the stylistic characteristics that made each artist’s approach to landscape painting unique, such as Costa’s delicate brushstrokes, Leighton’s solid forms, and Corot’s soft-focus delineation.  Corot’s large series The Four Times of Day, which hangs in the adjacent gallery, is a fitting compliment to “Artistic Exchanges,” particularly because it was Leighton who originally purchased this work from the artist in 1865.

Overall, these landscapes construct a compelling visual argument that emphasizes how these three artists influenced one another over the course of their careers. It also underlines the international nature of landscape painting during the nineteenth century.

Lindsay Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Artistic Exchanges is in Room 42 of the National Gallery from 7 May – 3 September 2014 .

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.

Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America (Saatchi Gallery)

‘Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America’ is a moving, intriguing exhibition of wide-ranging art from sixteen contemporary artists, often with complex socio-political influences. The diversity of media and raw talent of several of the artists on display promised a successful, unconventional display, something achieved in part. Unfortunately, something is missing.

This issue could relate to the vague curatorial purpose of the exhibition, evident in its very name; Pangaea refers to an ancient supercontinent, which united most continents in one landmass, and began to separate around 200 million years ago. The word roughly translates to ‘all lands’: an alarmingly wide theme to cover. Latin American and African art is rapidly gaining wider recognition, with recent art fairs such as 1:54 setting precedent for further platforms in London, and it is refreshing to see such art on display in such a prominent gallery. However, Saatchi Gallery offers no explanation for the specific combination of Latin America and Africa, other than their roles as former ‘sister continents’, and the ‘parallels between their distinctly diverse cultures and creative practices’. This puts the exhibition at risk of ‘otherising’ its contributors; emphasis is placed upon continent-of-origin rather than preventing generalisation by selecting a narrower curatorial theme.

Aboudia Untitled (Diptych) 2011 Acrylic and mixed media on canvas © All rights reserved - The Saatchi Gallery / Aboudia

Aboudia – Untitled (Diptych), 2011
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas
© All rights reserved – The Saatchi Gallery / Aboudia

Despite this, many of the actual works on display counter generalisation. This is exemplified in Aboudia’s powerful canvases, carried out upon collages of newspaper clippings, including images of hair braiding techniques and African masks. This, juxtaposed with the violence of over-painted imagery of childlike figures brandishing guns, displaces simplistic understanding of culture by bringing to light the trauma of the political state of his native Republic of the Ivory Coast. The cacophony of vibrant colour, combined with an unsettling naivety of figuration, challenges Western expectations of primitivism, displaying instead politically charged imagery of the complexities of contemporary urban life.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou - Untitled triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series) Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou Untitled triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series) 2012, C-print

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou – Untitled triptych (Demoiselles de Porto-Novo series) 2012, C-print, © All rights reserved – The Saatchi Gallery / L. R. Agbodjélou

This challenge to the viewer is also evident in the series of large-scale photographs by Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, entitled ‘Desmoiselles de Porto-Novo’. These works present semi-nude female models in a colonial mansion, addressing the viewer from behind wooden ceremonial masks. The series’ title suggests a play upon Picasso’s ‘Desmoiselles d’Avignon’, referencing the influence of African art and masks upon the development of cubism, yet with a melancholic realism which draws the viewer back to the social reality of life in Porto Novo, and the impact of colonisation.

Rafael Gómezbarros Casa Tomada, 2013 © Gabriela Salgado, © Saatchi Gallery

Rafael Gómezbarros – Casa Tomada, 2013
© All Rights reserved – Gabriela Salgado / Saatchi Gallery

Further highlights include work from Oscar Murillo, who draws on his experience of emigration from Colombia to London to create a chilling examination of class, cultural coding and migration of materials, and Rafael Gómezbarros’ simultaneously playful and macabre installation of oversized ants, referencing the plight of displaced immigrants. However, the exhibition’s overall effect is shaken by curious juxtaposition of such powerful and unconventional works with garish Pop Art inspired canvases and somewhat derivative abstraction. Having said this, any questionable curatorial choices are more than made up for by the quality of several of the artists on display.

Izzie Hewitt is a third year BA at the Courtauld.

Pangaea: New Art From Africa and Latin America is at the Saatchi Gallery until the 2nd November 2014

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice (National Gallery)

VeroneseVeronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice is the first monographic exhibition of the artist’s work to be held in the UK. The expansive selection of works clearly aims to reposition the master alongside his better known Venetian counterparts Titian and Giorgione; not only to introduce him spectacularly to the British public, but also to emphasise his importance in an art historical context.

The artist’s deft navigation of the colore/disegno (colour/line) debate is immediately striking. The poetic, colour-loving Venetian Renaissance tradition is apparent, but Veronese doesn’t trump line with colour. Instead the exhibition highlights his characteristic depiction of bright, jewel-coloured figural groups against soft-hued background scenes and pale stone architecture. Perhaps Veronese’s early beginnings as a stone cutter can account  for his intense interest in these detailed settings. The bold juxtaposition of colours cordons-off the registers of foreground action and background location to imbue the figures with a heightened presence, saturated with life, particularly evident in works such as The Supper at Emmaus (c. 1555) and The Family of Darius before Alexander (c. 1565-7).

The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565–1570)

The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565–1570)

The exhibition describes these chromatic juxtapositions in terms of the “theatricality” of stage sets, as if Veronese’s figures have congregated in tableaux against pastel-hued backdrops. There is certainly a sense of contrivance to Veronese’s colour choices, however beyond the “pomp” and “magnificence” which the National Gallery describes the artist’s continual contrasts produce bodies that are suffused with life and fabrics that are illusionistically tangible.

Veronese’s depiction of light is also shown to be crucial to his work. Throughout the exhibition, contrasting light depictions emphasize the different exquisitely rendered textures of luminous silks, plush velvets and the soft, powder-finish of skin. In the final room, Veronese’s late works of the 1580s emphasize the joyous use of light in his earlier works, as somewhat dulled, enigmatic figures, such as Lucretia (c. 1580-5), now emerge from dense and darkened backgrounds. These works seemingly signal a general move towards a fashion for darkened scenes, most famously taken up by Caravaggio in the 1590s.

The Dream of Saint Helena, c.1570

The Dream of Saint Helena, c.1570

Overwhelmingly, the exhibited works seem to present Veronese as an important transitional figure, whose life and work spanned the artistic developments of the High Renaissance. The influence of Titian and Raphael are clear; as is Veronese’s impact on the work of Rubens. A wander through the National Gallery’s display of Rubens after visiting the exhibition is certainly recommended; a pity that this isn’t suggested in the exhibition itself.

Besides his Venetian colore influences and the move towards chiaroscuro, a number of “split paintings” are on show, in which extra narrative scenes or symbolic registers are included in the background of paintings; the earlier Dream of Saint Helena (c. 1570) is an intriguing example. Predominantly these signal the close links between Northern Italian art and that of the Low Countries during the early modern period, as this was a popular narrative device in the Netherlands, intended to stimulate contemplation.

Veronese is rewarding viewing, both for its insights into the artistic developments of the 16th century and  the artist’s enthralling visual rhetoric of colour and line.

Susannah Smith is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice is at the National Gallery until 15th June 2014.