Olafur Eliasson’s Show: Pioneering and Powerful.

 

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Beauty 1993

A trip to the Tate Modern almost always involves me taking a left at the Turbine Hall where I know I will end up in familiar art territory, one which preferably involves paint! Going right on the other hand, into the Blavatnik Building, constitutes more of an art departure for me: tech art and design installations, dating from the 1990s, is often a step too far, but I figure that if I don’t try these things, I will age and get more set in my ways a lot faster!

And of course it was Olafur Eliasson’s solo show I had come to see, the artist who brought the sun to the Tate Modern in 2003.  HIs construct, required hundreds of lamps and lit up the Turbine Hall for 6 months. Amazingly it attracted 2 million visitors, most of whom returned many times. They had not only come to bask in the sun’s light but to lie back and gaze narcissistically at themselves and at others, in a large mirror installed above their heads. This installation not only transformed the austere Turbine hall into a friendlier place, but it also initiated another type of art, one which brought total strangers together.

Having listened to the Danish-Icelandic artist speak so eloquently about his latest artistic projects, his concerns for the environment and his love of human connection on radio, I wanted to see the art and design that accompanied the talk.

I walked out of the lifts floor 2 and was assailed by harsh, yellow strip lighting at the entrance to the show and also circled two multifaceted rotating orbs projecting their calm, mesh-like shadows onto the ceiling. The bulk of Eliasson’s work is inspired by the natural world, the earth and the elements such as light and water. Also maths. I entered a dimly lit room and peered into a vast glass cabinet. Hundreds of exquisitely fashioned, intricate, geometrical sculptures of paper, wood metal, marked Elliason’s collaboration with architect and mathematician Einar Thorsteinn (1942-2015), all prototypes for some of his architectural installations which are to be seen throughout the world. 

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Model Room 2003

The rooms following attested to Eliasson’s continual love affair with natural phenomena and preoccupation with climate change.

Room 7 entitled ‘Glacial works’ particularly impressed and moved me. Eliasson’s childhood experiences in Iceland and his preoccupation with the melting of glaciers has led him to produce Glacial spherical flare 2019. The circular dish on the wall, made up of rock particles created by glacial erosion, is composed of gorgeous green, gold, ruby disks. In the same room a sculpture entitled The presence of absence pavilion 2019, was a bronze cast of a ball of ice now disappeared. The sculpture was both delicate and devastating in its message.

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Glacial spherical flare 2019. (Dark shadows are my reflection!)

Eliasson is also interested in our perception of our world and our senses. Many of his installations use reflections, inversions, after-images and shifting colours. Water installation, Beauty 1993 (see Heading Image) took us into a moist cave-like interior. Iridescent violets and pinks flitted across the fine water spray. As we moved around the room, the rainbow colours came and went.

The colours of the spectrum also featured in Your uncertain shadow (colour) 2010, as our pink, violet, green, yellow silhouettes were projected onto a wall and moved with us. I was pleased to have sped past the convoy of journalists on the guided tour, who were told not to linger in the space simply because they would have blotted out everyone’s silhouettes! The room works best if you are three at the most! I am not sure how this show is going to be policed as this was not the only room where numbers need to be controlled.

Two simple pieces moved me the most and belonged together: a burning candle on a small, circular mirror entitled – as I grew up in solitude and silence 1991. The other a tall ‘rain’ window where rivulets of water streamed down continuously. Side by side they conjured up a slightly dull but peaceful rain-washed afternoon in childhood when one is left to flick through a book. This is probably Eliasson’s child growing up in Iceland but it is also all of our childhoods.

I found this an inspiring exhibition. Nothing felt arbitrary or gimmicky as it could be with this type of modern art probably because the craftsmanship was a consequence of years of experimental work, discussion and artistic collaboration. It had soul and meaning. And, there is no doubt about it – I felt connected to others viewing the works, especially in the fog tunnel. 

In the last few metres of the Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) 2010 installation, I nearly knocked over a young man with a notepad. He looked up in surprise at seeing me suddenly appear through the fog. ‘I’ve been here for quite some time,’ he quipped. He had just heard me talking to a fellow woman traveller in the tunnel about heaven and end of life experiences. I laughed nervously, now desperate to get out of there! The fog tunnel is not for the claustrophobic!

A thought-provoking and beautiful show and good one to experience with friends and family. But try to go outside peak viewing times as the queues may be great for certain installations.

 

 

KH

 

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is on at the Tate Modern until 5th January 2020.

Dulwich Printmaking Show Impresses

 

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Dorrit Black, Music, 1927-28EZ2l3yZg

I had never heard of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art until I set foot in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Founded  by wood engraver, Iain Macnab in 1925, the Grosvenor School was different from other London-based art schools of the time. There were no exams, students enrolled on courses when they could, and once they learned the rudiments of linocutting (the course most associated with the school), they were encouraged to develop their own style. 

The emphasis on printmaking, and more specifically linocutting fell in with the ethos of key members of staff. Claude Flight, art department head, wanted cheap, easy to use materials, firm in his belief that art should be accessible to all. Not only should one produce art, irrespective of one’s standing in life, but it should be affordable, selling for no more than a few guineas.

In this forward-thinking environment the linocut, once a sombre monochrome affair, underwent a make-over and became a new, democratic art form. Colours were introduced into the printmaking process and both teachers and students, inspired by the ever-changing scenery of London, set to work recreating the energy of the capital in their compositions.

The exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is a fascinating and rare opportunity to see the work of this generation of print artists, who in the 20s and 30s captured the mood and preoccupations of the inter-war years. 

I dived into the ‘Urban Living’ section and was struck by the proliferation of styles.

Ethel Spowers’s compositions stood out for me, particularly Special Edition 1938. A crowd forms in the street, each member of the public avidly reading the newspaper. Have Hitler’s troops just marched into Czechslovakia? White sheets, like billowing sails, fill the frame. Interestingly, they are principally women readers, judging by the cloche hats on show. Spowers’s repetition of plum, russet and green hues and her flattened perspective remind me of a beautiful Japanese woodcut. The traffic lights emerge from a sea of newspaper.

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Equally appealing but perhaps less elegant, was another of Powers’s prints, A Gust of Wind 1930-31. A figure clutches at a newspaper being swept away in all directions. A little scene captured to perfection.

In the ‘At Work At Play’, ‘Pastoral Life’ sections, one was reminded of how, despite the reduction of working hours for many, how hard manual labour could be for those straining to produce food for the expanding cities. I was particularly struck by Sybil Andrews’s rather unnerving Fall of the Leaf 1934.

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Three horses tug an obsolete, hand-held plough up a remarkably steep terrain. The fields surrounding, curve off at odd angles and the trees resemble half-opened fans. It is an extraordinary work of warped reality which makes one feel quite queasy!

On the ‘Play’ front, Dorrit Black’s Music 1927-8 (see Title Image) was a more vibrant version of Matisse’s The Dance,1909. Black’s print encapsulates the ecstasy of dance during the jazz age. Meanwhile Cyril Power’s The Concerto, 1935, is a study of an orchestra in full flow. Here it is interesting to see the old woodcut style appear in the cellos and piano strings.

Cyril Power also impresses in the room entitled, ‘On the Move’, where, in The Tube Train 1930, the printmaker captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of the commuter train, referred to as ‘The Tank’ at the time. The discomfort of its red-faced occupants is palpable, sweltering no doubt in  their suits, top hats and Trilbies! 

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Power also sought to capture the speed and movement of the new spectator sports such as tennis, sports car and horse events. The Sport section was interesting in that it was the first time sport was captured in this way. The elongated arms of the tennis player at the net and the racing car distorted by the speed it is travelling at, are all exaggerated images and perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but they are an early record of the excitement caused by these spectator sports which were in their infancy.

This was a very satisfying show on many fronts. The art-deco age will always attract the crowds of course but what was of particular interest for me, was to see an equal input of both female and male artists. There is so much talk these days of women been underrepresented in art and this show certainly redresses the balance. It gives it a satisfying wholeness.

So what happened to the humble print priced at a couple of guineas? Well now an original Cyril Power print  may go for as much as £100,000!

Highly recommended.

KH

 Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking runs until 8th September 2019

 

The Art of Recycling: THE ROYAL ACADEMY SUMMER EXHIBITION 2019

When you think about it, it’s a strange sort of job, being a reviewer. There we are, exerting all our writerly skills to create on the page the experience of attending an exhibition, doing all we can to help you decide if it’s one for you, and if it is, zhuzhing you up to buy that ticket now, now, now; when the exhibition you will experience is inevitably going to be entirely different to the one we work so hard to bring to life for you.

These philosophical musings were prompted by the Press View for this year’s RA Summer Exhibition  – which, with its whiff of the London season, the cocktail party and the 19th-century Paris salon, is always a bit of an oddity in any case, and all the better for it, IMHO. Attend the show as a punter and you will be shuffling round shoulder to shoulder, shouting to make yourself heard; and whether you intend it or no, being shoved constantly one way or the other in your judgement of the works on display by the all-important splatter of red dots they do (or don’t) carry, as just to add to its novelty, the Summer Exhibition is also a buying show. So there’s a whole vital level of engagement available to you, the visitor, which is not accessible to us reviewers at all, unless of course we wish to drop the persona of objective professional, and start squealing with excitement over the one work that has just summoned us across the room with its siren cry of ‘Take me home or you’ll never forgive yourself.’ (If you want to experience the most ruinous thing you can do to your personal finances, catch the germ for buying art. Trust me, I know whereof I speak, and so does my bank manager.)

In place of all that, us reviewers get sepulchral hush, unless and until the curator starts speaking, and no over-excited crowds of punters at all. Doesn’t sound anything like as much fun, does it? Not a solitary red dot, either, unless you count Cornelia Parker’s distinctly cheeky print of three diminishing empty frames, freckled with pseudo red dots as part of the work itself.

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Jock McFadyenPoor Mother, Oil on canvas 151 x 211 cm, Photo: Lucid Plane

The Summer Exhibition this year, the RA’s 251st, which opens on the 10thJune, has been curated (or ‘co-ordinated’, as the RA puts it), by the painter Jock McFadyen. Grayson Perry was in charge last year, and Grayson now has the sort of Living National Treasure status otherwise only accorded to Stephen Fry and Sir David Attenborough, so yes, he’s a hard act to follow. Whether by accident or design, however, the show this year takes the public temperature in a rather intriguing way. Walk in, and the mass of sculptures that greet you in the Wohl Central Hall, and the paintings surrounding them, are all inspired in some way by our relationship with all the other species with whom we share this planet. I’ve just published a book – The Animal’s Companion – that explores this very subject via the lens of the pet-owner and their history, and it’s unmistakable, how much the imperiled nature of our relationship with the natural world is uppermost in the human hive-mind at present, and certainly in the minds of those making the selection for the show – 16,000 works, whittled down to 1,500.  The curation this year is old-school, earnest, and present – themes repeat from one wall to the next, and from one gallery to the next as well, sending you from one piece to another and then (the shoulder-to-shoulder business of being there not for the Press View permitting) back to check on something that snagged your eye somewhere else altogether; but then that’s exactly what curation should do.

Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of ArtsOne of the great good things about the RA show is that it exposes you to everything, that’s its point – the excellent, the proficient; the bad, the alarming; the naff, the kitsch, the clichéd. There are, for example, at least three different ‘murmurations’ of seagulls, one of them repurposing the background to Fragonard’s Girl on a Swing. There are two works that use the

woodgrain of woodblock to create ripples of water, of sand, or clouds of pollution. There’s an homage to Clara the rhinoceros (just visible at top) who so entranced Venice in the 18thcentury. There’s recycling, if you like, of ideas from the past – Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow becomes people walking their dogs on snowbound Richmond Park. This being Brexit Britain, there’s a Banksy. There are slightly less than the predictable number of female nudes, and (predictably again) just about no male nudes at all, unless you count the gentlemen disporting themselves top-right in Claire Douglass’s recycling of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Of portraits there are very few – until you walk behind a spur wall, and there they all are. Portraiture was once what the Paris salons were all about. Now art is – and it truly is – Kate McGwire’s Viscera, a giant intertwined knot covered in pheasant feathers that make it look as if it’s perpetually slithering over itself; and a nightmarish installation of oversize crows, made out of torn, melted, half-decayed bin-liners, with a soundtrack of inane human burble that resolves itself into Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ speech, only to disintegrate anew. And there are three miniature sky-boats, held in mid-air, like airborne Noah’s Arks of ecological rescue, sailing off into some happier future where their intervention might be no longer necessary.

Tony Bevan RA, TREE (PP1845), Acrylic and charcoal on paper, 85 x 121 cm, Courtesy of the artist

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It’s part of the British summer to decry the RA Summer Exhibition as pointless and hackneyed, just as it is the NPG Portrait Award, but that shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle carries on regardless. People come here to see art, to engage with art, to comment at deafening volume on art, and some of them even buy art. All of them have a damn good time. And one of the other great good things about the RA Summer Exhibition is the little book they produce listing all the works in the show. This is un-illustrated, and the listings are as basic as can be – but no bloody app, for people to pour over, heads down, whilst the art goes past them unseen. There will be a website, once the show opens, but if you want to see the art as art, let alone as retail therapy, you gotta go see the art. And you gotta applaud that.

JCH

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2019 sponsored by Insight Investment

10thJune – 12 August 2019

Top image: The Wohl Central Hall. Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

Leonardo da Vinci. A Life in Notebooks

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Study of Fetus in the Womb circa 1511

 

Part artist, part scientist, Da Vinci embodies the Renaissance man par excellence.

Luckily for us, the workings of his inner mind in painting, sculpture, anatomy, military engineering and cartography have all been recorded in the notebooks he kept throughout his life.

One of these notebooks made it into the Queen’s Royal Collection during Charles II’s reign. For hundreds of years following, the 550 drawings were carefully preserved in the Print room at Windsor castle.

To mark the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, 200 of these drawings have travelled up to London for a show entitled Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at the Queen’s Gallery, London.

Leonardo began his career as an apprentice artist, a garzone, aged 14, working for the eminent Florentine painter and sculptor Verrocchio. Under his inspirational master’s wing, he was exposed to both theoretical training and a wide range of technical skills, including drafting, chemistry, metal work, plaster casting, leather work, mechanics, woodwork, as well as drawing, painting and modelling. 

To complement their education in the human body, Verrochio’s pupils were sent down to the local hospital to perform dissections. For Da Vinci it was a revelation, setting him along the path of scientific observation.  

At the show the anatomical section is the most fascinating. Da Vinci’s documentation of muscles, nerves and vessels demonstrate the artist’s investigation into the  mechanics of movement. 

The act of procreation also preoccupies the polymath as you would expect. His artistic representation of coitus is both intriguing and poetic. Man’s ‘material’ is seen to enter the female uterus, and in Da Vinci’s drawing, it is the man’s brain which baptises it with an ‘animal element’ or soul. Meanwhile woman, the receptacle of the man’s offering, gives her soul to the child via her spinal cord.

Further on in the show, da Vinci’s dissection of a uterus reveals a mature foetus  (see heading). Beautifully drafted, it is unsettling to think of the circumstances in which Da Vinci captured nature’s best kept secret. Burying its head in its hands, its placenta snaking around its back and thigh, the baby is both immaculate and lifeless.

Other highlights were Da Vinci’s outstanding botany drawings, the map of the Tuscan valley he drew up as a military engineer and cartographer, and finally a sculptural project for the Duke of Milan.

Da Vinci was commissioned to make a bronze equestrian statue to honour one of the Duke’s forebears. Unfortunately only the clay version survived until it was destroyed by French soldiers when they invaded Milan. As for the bronze required for the colossal equine cast totalling 75 tons, it was used instead for the production of cannon balls.

The theme of unfinished works is a reoccurring one with da Vinci. Personal procrastination and  destruction seem to have blighted da Vinci’s existence. It is really poignant to think that though Leonardo was revered in his day as a painter, he was only able to complete 20 paintings.

The exhibition does give us the opportunity to view the preparatory sketches for several of the most famous works, The Last Supper for instance. The relatively unknown (The) Head of Leda was the main attraction at the show however.

Da Vinci’s charming sketches of a beautiful young woman with Renaissance hair, plaited, rolled and trained and seen from all angles, is enchanting. Da Vinci worked on the painting for the last 15 years of his life. It entered the French Royal Collection but had to be destroyed due to its ruinous state.

 

The head of Leda

Head of Leda 1504-1505

 

For me, The Head of Leda’s studies are a precious record of what could have been da Vinci’s greatest painting of all.

All in all, I found this an inspiring show and one which leaves you wanting more.

KH

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing runs until October 2019 at the Queen’s Gallery, London.

Munch’s Scream Revisited at the British Museum

 

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The Sick Child by Edvard Munch 1885

You wouldn’t wish Edvard Munch’s childhood on your worst enemy. Munch was brought up in Kristiania (as Oslo then was) in a strict Lutheran family in the second half of the 19th century. Aged five, Munch lost his mother to TB and nearly succumbed to the same illness himself eight years later. As he lay on his bed coughing up blood aged thirteen, his father, a medical officer, told him to prepare for death. Several years later, his beloved older sister was the next victim to die of consumption in their family. 

Most understandably, Munch escaped this house of doom as soon as he could. His art studies and student life put him in touch with local bohemian circles. What a breath of life-affirming air that must have been even if it meant teaming up with the local nihilist who advocated suicide as an affirming fingers up to society!

Munch survived and took to drinking, brawling and tortuous love affairs. Like a modern-day Instagrammer, Munch transformed his personal life into an art form.

The prints on show at the British Museum are the products of the formative years he spent in Kristiania, Berlin and Paris, right up until the end of WW1. 

Love is the overriding theme. The Kiss (1895) shows a naked couple in passionate embrace by a window with the curtains drawn back. Their complete disregard for privacy shows the all consuming aspect of love which ignores any rules of propriety. It’s Rodin’s passionate Kiss statue taken one step further. A wood cut alongside the print, repeats the theme but this time the couple is fused together, into a twisted opaque block. The print in this instance has become an abstract work.

 

 

 

 

The Kiss

 

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 In Vampire II a red-haired woman buries her face into her male lover’s neck. Her long strands spill over his shoulder, his hair and face. The print was originally called Love and Pain. Women as seductresses and destroyers of men was a familiar theme with artists at the time and it was one which proved popular with the art-buyers.

Meanwhile in Madonna, a bare-breasted woman, stripped to the waist, is presented as a life-bearing vessel. A strange foetus peers out at you in the bottom-left hand corner and swimming sperm inhabit the frame. The swirling paint making up the background is reminiscent of Van Gogh, who Munch much admired. It is interesting to note that in 2010, a Madonna print attained the highest price ever recorded in the UK £1.25 million, double its estimated value.

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The Americans and Europeans have been great collectors of Munch prints and we can see why. The emotion they ignite in the viewer is immediate.

Jealousy for instance below. The bespectacled  man in the foreground stares out pale-faced at us, encased in a black background. His eyes express the shock and despair of one’s first encounter with sexual betrayal. It is a magnificent portrayal of perhaps the most destructive of emotions.

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Other prints depict other violent states of mind: madness, despair, separation and illness. All universally potent themes.Most moving was one of the few paintings in the exhibition showing a young woman lying, pale-faced and in profile against her pillow (see Title heading). Her mother, head bowed and hands clasped prays at her bedside. The print version is even more harrowing. The young woman, still in profile, is alone now staring out at death. It’s a haunting image for any adult to behold. Munch returned to the image of his consumptive sister often.

Unknown-1The British Museum prints on show make up part of the collection that Munch called The Frieze of Life.

Probably the most arresting and most notorious image he produced in this collection was the iconic Skrik (Shriek), or The Scream. The skull-like being holding his ears with his mouth wide-open caused a furore in Munch’s Berlin solo show. He was forced to wrap up his canvases and prints after only a week! The young artists however loved it as you would imagine they would latch on to anything so radically new and unsettling. 

The print in the exhibition is a rare, black and white lithograph. It includes a faint inscription, absent in the colour versions: ’I felt a great Scream pass through nature.’ Nature seen as the screamer puts a whole new slant on things and sends a chill through me now.

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Munch was very much buoyed by the controversy sparked off by The Scream at his Berlin show. He knew that such adverse publicity would launch him in the art world and he wasn’t wrong.

 

 

KH

 

The exhibition Edvard Munch: love and angst will run to 21 July 2019 in the Sir Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum.

Mary Quant retrospective at the V&A

The Victoria & Albert Museum always excels in its presentation of fashion – from the memorable Vivien Westwood exhibition back in 2004 to Balenciaga (2017) and the current blockbuster Dior show. Smaller in scale than the lavish Dior exhibition, but no less significant, this is the first international retrospective of iconic fashion designer Mary Quant, who, like Dior before her, shaped fashion and social mores for a new generation. Her colourful, witty clothes challenged conventions, encouraging women to abandon the traditional, ultra-feminine and often restrictive clothing of their mothers and grandmothers, and liberated them, literally and metaphorically, at a time when feminism and gender identity were of huge significance to many women (and men too) and social commentators. And by making her clothes accessible and affordable, she democratised fashion, prompting a retail revolution on the high street that has had a lasting impact today.

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Mary Quant at her apartment in Draycott Place, Chelsea, London, about 1965. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Quant herself personified the energy and fun of swinging London in the 1960s and as a successful designer and businesswoman, with a keen eye for promotion and the creation of a distinct corporate identity, she continually responded to and reflected the zeitgeist. She herself was the greatest ambassador for her brand, with her chic Vidal Sassoon haircut which matched the playful simplicity of her clothes.

The exhibition is organised chronolgically, beginning in post-war London and the opening in 1955 of Quant’s experimental shop Bazaar on the King’s Road. School girl pinafores and masculine tailoring, wittily “repurposed” for the female body, brought an entertaining and playful slant to fashion, at a time when dreary wartime utility clothing and clothes rationing were an all too recent memory. From these modest beginnings, Quant’s empire grew quickly into a wholesale brand available in department stores across the UK – the antithesis of couture and the beginning of mass-market fashion. With the widening of her empire into the US market, Quant’s clothing was accessible to a new generation of eager fashionistas.

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Three patterned ensembles, Mary Quant, 1964 – 1971, London ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In addition to the fashion displays, with many items drawn from the V&A’s own Mary Quant archive, there are photographs, films and other ephemera which set the clothing and the brand in context. Many of the outfits are displayed with a note about who owned and wore then, further connecting them to a real people rather than the couturier’s poker-faced mannequin. There are also displays of Quant’s make up range, with her iconic daisy logo, and the Daisy doll, her rival to Barbie, who wore doll-sized versions of some of Quant’s most recognisable clothes, from mini skirts and hot pants to baby doll dresses or full-length boho gowns.

It’s an enjoyable and uplifting show, and refreshing to note that few of the outfits on display appear dated; many of the shapes and styles, fabrics and tailoring are found in today’s fashion – especially fast-fashion – proof of both the enduring nature of “good” , democratic fashion, and Quant’s forward-looking artistic and business vision.

Until 16 February 2020, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Further information


FW

Stop Press – Tate Britain nails it at last!

 

Here at ArtMuseLondon we’ve been less than enthusiastic about a lot of the temporary exhibitions that Tate Britain has put on of late. Mayhap some imp of perversity has been loose around Millbank these past few years. How else to explain the questionable curatorial decisions, the squandered opportunities, the telltale signs of hobby-horses being ridden and what has almost seemed, at times, like a deliberate policy of obfuscation? The undoubted low point was the exhibition on the Impressionists in 2017 with virtually no Impressionist paintings in it (and who could forget those ghastly lavender walls?).

But now it’s time to give credit where credit is due, because this new show on Van Gogh and Britain is an absolute corker. Thoroughly immersive, scholarly yet accessible, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Best of all, given that it isn’t intended to be a straightforward survey show, it’s packed to the rafters with Van Goghs.

The show is in two parts. The first half deals with the British connection, focusing on Van Gogh’s prolonged stay in 1873-76; the second examines his posthumous influence on British art.

Vincent Van Gogh arrived in London aged 19 and remained, off and on, for the next three years, doing various short-term jobs. He was fluent in English and read voraciously; Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ was a favourite book. He also loved George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe and particularly Dickens, all of whom shared his concern for social justice. He was already a great frequenter of art galleries, signing the visitor’s book at Dulwich Picture Gallery on 4 August 1873 – a bank holiday Monday – for example. He hadn’t decided to become an artist yet, although he did include one or two tantalising little sketches in his letters back home, and it wasn’t until almost three years after his return to Holland that he finally took the plunge.

 

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Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) 1890 Oil paint on canvas 810 x 650 mm Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

 

However, as Tate convincingly demonstrates, Vincent might not have been a practising artist at this stage but he was already thinking like one. The vivid descriptions he gives in his letters to his brother Theo of an autumnal walk along the Thames at Richmond, say, or of a chance storm off the Kent coast, betray the painter’s eye. He was as receptive to the Old Masters as he was to the artists of his own time and London was one of the best places to discover both. What he saw or read about would go into his visual memory bank, often to re-emerge only years later. It’s obvious, for example, seeing them side by side, how much one of Whistler’s nocturnes, ‘Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge’, laid the ground for Musée d’Orsay’s ‘Starry Night over the Rhone’, 1888 (not the painting that Don McLean sang about, that’s in the Met in New York). Those early years in London weren’t wasted.

The second half of the show begins with ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, the exhibition organised by Roger Fry in 1910, which included 20 Van Goghs. Critics tended to use the ‘artist and madman’ cliché when discussing his work, a disproportionate amount of attention being paid to his time in hospital and to his self-harming as possible triggers for his otherwise unfathomable art. Tate does an excellent job of unravelling how Van Gogh went on to become a recognised modern master even in artistically conservative Britain, so much so that when the first major solo exhibition of his work was held at the Tate in 1947 people queued for hours round the block in the rain.

 

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Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) Starry Night 1888 Oil paint on canvas 725 x 920 mm Paris, Musée d’Orsay Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / HervéLewandowski

 

The Bloomsbury and Camden Town artists were probably the ones most directly influenced by Van Gogh but countless others identified strongly with his life and travails (don’t most artists, if they’re honest?). Harold Gilman would begin each painting with a flourish of his brush: ‘À toi, Van Gogh!’. Christopher Wood – an artist with mental health problems of his own – was a particularly strong advocate, making a special pilgrimage to Arles in 1927, ‘where Van Gogh, my Van Gogh, painted his best pictures’. This proselytising trend continued into the post-World War II era and the exhibition is rounded off by the series Francis Bacon did inspired by his favourite Van Gogh, ‘The Painter on the Road to Tarascon’.

Earlier, you’ll see Vincent’s famous ‘Sunflowers’ in ‘conversation’ with other flower paintings by the likes of Frank Brangwyn, Winifred Nicholson and David Bomberg. Nowadays the painting normally hangs in the National Gallery but it was originally bought by the Tate and you can read the moving letter written by Van Gogh’s sister-in-law Jo when she was finally persuaded to part with it:

‘For two days I have tried to harden my heart against your appeal. I felt as if I could not bear to separate from the picture I had looked on every day for more than thirty years. But… I know that no picture would represent Vincent in your famous Gallery in a more worthy manner than the “Sunflowers” and that he… would have liked it to be there… it is a sacrifice for the sake of Vincent’s glory’.

 

NM

The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain until 11 August 2019

Header image: Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) Self-Portrait 1889, Oil paint on canvas 572x 438mm, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney

 

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Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) Path in the Garden of the Asylum 1889 Oil paint on canvas 614 x 504 mm Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo