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. Severals 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.

 

 

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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 many 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 choices, the squandered opportunities, the unmistakable signs of hobby horses being ridden and what has seemed at times like a deliberate policy of obfuscation? Probably the lowest point was the exhibition on the Impressionists in 2017 with virtually no Impressionist paintings in it (and who could forget those ghastly lavender walls?).

However, 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 Van Gogh 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 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

 

As Tate convincingly demonstrates, however, Vincent may not have been a practicing 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 Old Master paintings as he was to the art 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 many years later. It’s obvious, for example, once you see them side by side, how much Whistler’s ‘Nocturne: 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). Certainly, those early years in London weren’t wasted.

The second half of the show starts with ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, the exhibition organised by Roger Fry in 1910, which included 20 Van Goghs. Critics of the day tended to employ 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 approach to 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!’. Vanessa Bell and Christopher Wood –  artists with mental health problems of their own – were particularly strong advocates, Wood 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’.

 

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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

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light

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The Spanish impressionist artist, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923), is little known outside of Spain. Half a million flocked to his retrospective at the Prado Museum in 2009. Meanwhile his house in Madrid, now the Sorolla Museum, has become a tourist destination and is best visited, I imagine, out of season.

And yet how strange to think that at the turn of the 20th Century, Sorolla, was considered to be one of the greatest living artists – Monet spoke of him as ‘the master of light’.

Born in Valencia, southern Spain, life for Sorolla had not always been so dandy. He lost both parents to cholera, aged two, and was brought up by a maternal aunt. His love of painting was however encouraged in the early years and following his military service, he managed to gain a scholarship to study painting in Rome.

It took him to Paris in 1885 where he was able to expose himself to contemporary painting. In 1889 he married Clotilde Garcia del Castillo, moved to Madrid and had had three children by her by 1895.

We are told at the exhibition that ‘he was a good family man.’ I admit to feeling my enthusiasm wane a little when I heard the guide say this to a group of journalists. I had just entered a room of domestic portraits and feared that the exhibition might be thereafter a tad dull! True, there was a charming oil canvas of his wife, Clotilde, in bed with Sorolla’s third child. Both mother and child were barely visible snuggling in snow-white sheets and covers.

Clotilde is much in evidence at the show, always impeccably dressed and graceful in hats and long, swirling dresses. By all accounts she stayed beautiful throughout her life.

The second room was infinitely more exciting and was devoted to Sorolla’s social realist works. Another Marguerite (1892) shows a woman clad in black, sitting down in a third-class carriage, her head bowed in shame. Behind her, two civil guards look on. A little light slants through a window, lighting a tiny part of her face, her cloth bag and the bare wooden seat in front. Marguerite, was a slang word for prostitutes in Valencia (Sorolla’s home town) or it could be a reference to the Marguerite in Goethe’s play, Faust, where the woman commits infanticide. The spartan interior conveys all the misery of the situation. It’s a good piece and won him his first Gold Medal in Madrid and then in Chicago.

Unknown-4Even more striking is Sad Inheritance (1899). A monk on a beach leads crippled children (polio victims or perhaps children born of syphilitic parents) to the water to bathe. The huge oil canvas fills a wall. The work is heartrending, the boys so painfully thin and vulnerable in their nakedness. Several are blind and their progression towards the sea is laborious. I returned to this canvas several times. By all accounts Sorolla found the scene distressing and after painting these boys never returned to such a painful subject.

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Other social realist paintings, Sewing the Sail (1896), are more optimistic in outlook. A family gathers around a rolled-out sail. It is early afternoon, the sun filters through the veranda and gathers in the sail’s voluptuous folds. (See Title picture)

Packing Raisins (1900) is an equally lovely, peaceful composition, this time women workers are pictured labouring in a cool interior. Fierce sunlight slants through a window reminding us of its presence.

A room of dark portraits followed. The old master Velasquez was very much in evidence here, especially in Sorolla’s painting of his children – Mis hijos (1904).

A room entitled Sunlight and Sea took my breath away. Monet was right; Sorolla’s mastery of painting light on water is second to none. But it was not only that which struck me. Sorolla, I believe, is one of the few artists, who really know how to paint children. In Boys on the Beach (1909) prepubescent boys lie face down on the sand naked. It is a marvellous composition of harmonising hues: violet (for the shallow waters), straw yellow for a boy’s hair and sand, pink and white for the boys’ glistening skin. In Afternoon at the Beach in Valencia (1904), boys paddle in the shallows towards a back-lit horizon of late afternoon sun. The shimmering composition is nothing short of stunning.

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Sorella painted these beach scenes straight off with no preliminary sketches. It is why the brushwork feels fluid, flowing and natural. They were the highlight of the show.

Between 1911 and 1919, Sorolla was commissioned by the Hispanic Society of America in New York to create a body of mural-like work entitled Vision of Spain.

Room Five in the exhibition contains four large studies of people in traditional costume. Seen separately the canvases have little impact. I only know this because I then searched Sorolla’s Vision of Spain on YouTube and watched a detailed film of what is on show at the Hispanic Society in New York. Only then can you fully appreciate the monumental murals Sorolla produced.

The artist was on the road for 8 years. He exhausted himself carrying out the commission but he was determined to capture a way of life that would soon disappear.

Two world wars and a civil war later, Spain was never quite the same.

Sorolla was long gone, having died in 1923.

His panoramic vision of Spain however lives on now that the National Gallery has taken up his cause.

 

 

KH

 

 

 

Sorolla : Spanish Master of Light runs until 7 July 2019. Sainsbury Wing. National Gallery.

The Sorolla Museum, Madrid, might be worth a visit.

To see Sorolla’s Vision of Spain murals: Hispanic Society of America. Upper Manhattan, New York.

 

 

 

PRIVATES ON PARADE: The Renaissance Nude at the Royal Academy

The naked is sacred, as someone once said, but the nude is rude. The RA’s new show, in its Sackler Wing, offers plenty of both in an exhibition that (with a very few splendid exceptions) is not titillating in the least, but is thought-provoking in a most enjoyable way.

The show covers the period from 1400 to 1530 when, so the curators suggest, the ‘appearance, meaning and culture of the nude’ were still being worked out and explored by artists of the period, but in truth we’re still asking ourselves the same questions about nakedness and nudity, the sacred and the rude, today. What, for example, is ‘nude’? Does a half-length bust with one exposed breast count, if that breast is small to the point of androgyny? Is a Christian martyr nude, no matter how ferocious the thorns upon which he is being impaled, if he’s wearing a drapery version of boxer-shorts? Is the naked human body the ideal, as in the Garden of Eden; or frail, vulnerable, and an instrument of sin, to be punished in hell eternally? Indeed, is the naked human body always there to suggest our vulnerability? The poignant yet still lovely boxwood sculpture of an aging female bather, shielding herself like Botticelli’s Venus, says yes, it is; while the gigantic

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man and woman in Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune of c.1530 are anything but. And how many of these nudes, in our LGBTQ, #MeToo world, are to be seen as straight, and how many should we be interpreting as gay? Bronzino’s curly-headed St Sebastian, for example, absurdly calm and coy, and apparently wholly oblivious of the arrow sticking out of his ribs, has everything to do with the naked young male body and nothing at all to do with martyrdom; while Titian’s irresistible Venus Rising from the Sea is so very un-immortal, and so very much a human being placed there for the viewer’s pleasure, that she’s even wringing out her wet hair.

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Exhibitions in the Sackler tend towards the unexpected and the fun – the space is small, and the experience of going round it always more satisfying, and the shows themselves stronger than the padded-out blockbusters in the cavernous galleries downstairs. In The Renaissance Nude, many of the works are small as well – tiny, even, in the case of the illustrations from illuminated manuscripts, and the exquisite relief by Donatello that opens the show – and pretty small where the panel paintings are concerned, too. By no means all are top-rank, but the sheer anatomical daftness and psychological weirdness of some of the works here, especially those from the Northern Renaissance, only add to the exhibition’s fascination. One of the most winning is Lucas Cranach’s A Faun and his Family of c.1526 – Mr Faun the Hunter, Mrs Faun the Trophy-Wife and Master Faun the Toddler, with Mrs Faun’s modesty being preserved by a long2-a-faun-and-his-family-with-a-slain-lion-lucas-cranach-the-elder stray tendril of hair that curls round from that on her head to both hide where her pubic hair would be, and to substitute for it. Surely no-one ever viewed this painting without finding themselves cracking a grin?

And while the mechanics of the gaze may not have changed much in the 500 years since, taste certainly has. The ideal woman, in the 15th century, was short in the leg, wide in the hip, and so small in the bust that sometimes it’s only the elaborate hairdo that tells you the body below the neck was meant to be seen as female at all. The ideal man, meanwhile, was muscle-bound as Schwarzenegger, ‘a condom stuffed with walnuts,’ in Clive James’ memorable phrase. You can be staggered by the beauty of some of the works – the Durer engravings, the Raphael Three Graces, the Leonardo Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck – but if any of this was the pornography of its day, it’s now not so much soft as flaccid. The human body might have been regarded in the Renaissance as the measure of man, but if skill at depicting it was the measure of the artist, most of those included here fall short by a country mile.

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The most intriguing part of this show is not the art on display in any case, but the attitudes. There is, for example, an engraving of the little-known legend of St John Chrysostom. It has the saint in the background, a homunculus crawling through the undergrowth on hands and knees like an animal, while in the foreground is a naked mother nursing her child – any excuse to show a buxom nude, you may think, as with so many Biblical/mythological scenes. But the legend behind the image is startling.  The mother was raped by the saint – and then in an excess of shame, he threw her down a precipice and thus never knew he had fathered a child. You can’t put on a show like this without provoking the odd giggle, but The Renaissance Nude will also have you pondering, especially in today’s context, what our attitudes toward sex and nudity and gender were in the past, and even what, were such an exhibition to be re-staged in 500 years time, they might have evolved into then.

 

JCH

The Renaissance Nude, Royal Academy, London to June 2, 2019

Raphael, The Three Graces, c.1517-18. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Unknown artist, Elderly Bather, c.1480. Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main

Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’), c.1520. National Galleries of Scotland. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion, c.1526. The J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art Museum Council Fund. Photo: © Museum Associates/ LACMA.

 

 

 

SCANDI-NOIR IN SE21: Harald Sohlberg the Dulwich Art Gallery

Ah, Norway. Fjords, trolls, Ibsen; and birthplace in 1869 of Harald Sohlberg, whose atmospheric and alluring landscapes are on exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery until June. If you like Scandi-noir, you will love this.

Norway, like Switzerland, has one of the most beautiful and (you would think) artistically inspiring landscapes on earth; so it’s a puzzle why both countries have produced so few landscape painters. Most of us, I think, would be hard put to come up with the name of any Norwegian painter, beyond that of Munch. Munch was Sohlberg’s contemporary, and there are similarities between the two – the influence of the Symbolists such as Paul Gauguin (much as both men might have denied it); but above all, in this show, the influence of the Norwegian landscape itself. Snow-covered mountains glowing under the Nordic moon, legions of pine-trees, and that Scandinavian relish, product of the long monochrome winters, for deep, vivid colour – red-painted houses, leaning under the weight of snow, the glow of a sunset, distant hills of hallucinogenic violet, and the gold of a candle-lit window. Sohlberg also does a particularly wonderful job of getting onto canvas the luminescence and the colours of the midnight sun, a phenomenon which is completely unbelievable if you haven’t seen it for real, but Sohlberg catches it perfectly. His Fisherman’s Cottage of 1906 is a sort of summation of these traits, and of the cleverness with which his paintings are constructed. The foreshore dips down, the trees, painted with such thick impasto that their trunks have cracked, have just enough space between them to let you through, and there is the little bright cottage, inviting you come in from the cold.

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Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage, 1906, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edward Byron Smith.

Sohlberg initially trained as a painter of scenery and there is a scenic sense of layering in his works. The foregrounds have that hyper-detailed, Rackham-esque quality; the mid-ground lures you to walk down that path or up that road; in the distance there is some vast new vista to aim for. You can see exactly why his paintings lend themselves so well to being cover-images for novels; thrillers in particular, perhaps. And nothing in them is there by accident. Winter on the Balcony, perhaps the same balcony from which the artist watched the midnight sun, is so lightly painted that the squaring-up of the canvas is still visible, as is the care with which Sohlberg constructed the wooden exterior of the building and the balcony itself – the tightness of their carpentry hinting at the meticulousness with which you had to create habitations for yourself in this landscape and this weather. There is a sense in these works of the landscape giving form to thought, a quality that puts you in mind immediately of the similarly curious, almost uninhabited cityscapes of Atkinson Grimshaw.

NOR Gate i Røros, ENG Street in Røros in Winter

Harald Sohlberg, Street in Røros in Winter, 1903, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway.

Sohlberg’s drawings are as cunningly constructed as his paintings. There are two drawings in particular in this show – one, the side of a clapboard cottage in charcoal and pencil, and the other, of a girl, a rare inhabitant, looking over a fence in a backyard – that are quite breathtaking. The backyard is one little world, yet behind it there rears the impervious façade of a 19th-century apartment block, so that you have the entire life and history of a city in just three elements. Sohlberg was painting at a time when the rural industries of Norway – fishing, mining, and the landscapes they existed in – were being transformed by the technological changes of the early 20thcentury, and while there is no consciousness in any of these works of the revolutions and conflict that were going on in the rest of Europe at the time, they have an undertone; there are details that unsettle and perturb. Night, Roros Church, for example, painted looking down into the sleeping town, seems so peaceful, and there is that one comforting beam of light coming from a window at the top of the church itself, but then you look at the tombstones scattered over the uneven ground before you, the rough black crosses, and you realize where the artist had placed himself – back here, amongst the dead.

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Harald Sohlberg, Night, Røros Church, 1903, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Dulwich is on something of a roll with exhibitions such as this – first showings, unexpected works, and unexpected artists, too. There was Escher in 2015, Tove Jansson in 2017, Jusepe de Ribera and Edward Bawden in 2018, and now Sohlberg is another – and another not to miss.

Harald Sohlberg, Dulwich Picture Gallery to 2 June

JCH

At top: Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1914, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway.

LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE

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Artistic duos tend not to receive the attention they deserve in art history. We often read about the art movements and the artists who create them. The artist’s partner or lover meanwhile is often overlooked, or simply seen in terms of a muse.

An ambitious exhibition at the Barbican, entitled Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde seeks to explore the subject of couples and to show how spouses and lovers have had a lot more to bring to the creative pot.

I stepped in room 1 of the show where the pairings of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel and Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp were considered. Both couples had passionate affairs – it seemed a good place to start.

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I was called upon to contemplate Auguste Rodin’s exuberant sculpture, Je Suis Belle. A beautiful naked young woman, bunched up into a ball, is held aloft by a tall, muscle-bound Adonis (In reality Auguste Rodin was small and lame!) The energy of the piece perfectly encapsulates love’s rapture and exemplifies Rodin’s superhuman passion for his eighteen-year old assistant.

Camille Claudel’s letters on display reveal her minx-like hold over him in the early years of their affair. In one she asks Rodin to buy her a two-piece bathing suit in serge from Bon Marché so that she can swim in the lake and avoid the public baths! And to excite him further she states: ‘I go to bed naked every night to make me think you’re here’.

The correspondence in this show is riveting  and should not be overlooked even though it may slow your progress through the rooms!

Though the odds were stacked against Claudel, she was a mere woman after all, Claudel’s talent was recognised by her mature lover. He allowed her to fashion the hands and feet of his statues. In the show we see the clay head Claudel produced of him. I found it disappointing and decided to go to the Rodin museum next time I was in Paris to investigate further.

I turned to another female artist, Maria Martins, occupying the same room. Before meeting Marcel Duchamp in New York in March 1943, she was already a sculptor in her own right. Her bronze cast entitled  Le Couple , produced in the same year, is impressive. Two animalistic male-female forms rear up and spew tendrils. Their bodies arch away from each other (Martins as a married woman clearly had some reservations about the affair!) In contrast, Marcel Duchamp’s artistic offering is less showy. Five mysterious artefacts are displayed in a glass case. One resembles part of a bronze shoe, Feuille de Vigne, 1950. I read the explanation and find that it is in fact an imprint of Martins’s female genitalia! The five pieces together are all imprints of Martins intimate parts. They are strangely elegant, oddly moving.

 

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Sexual desire and the artistic impulse are of course closely linked. I am drawn to the Surrealist section entitled Mad Love where André Breton, founder of the movement, encourages his male followers to go out into the street in search of love. Breton saw women as innately ‘surrealist’. The theme of the female muse resurges. The women associated with Surrealist artists were no shrinking violets however. In the photographs they come across as wild and free. In one they are relaxing at a picnic, sheets draped over their  intimate parts. Their male friends meanwhile are fully clothed! The photograph is no doubt the surrealist take on Manet’s painting,  Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.

One of these women is the American photographer Lee Miller. Early on in her career she teamed up with avant-garde artist Man Ray. In the show they occupy a room of their own. Their homage to the Marquis de Sade seems tongue in cheek. A very young Miller wears a thick iron collar around her neck. In another very strange image Lee Miller and Man Ray have placed a glass dome over their heads! I can’t help but laugh!

Lee Miller’s photographs could also be moving and poignant. In the Dora Maar-Picasso section, we see an older Dora Maar sitting alone in her apartment looking into space. In the centre of the picture hangs a painting Picasso made of her. It is a rare portrait of her facing out at the viewer (rather than in profile), and it is the only portrait she liked of herself. She dismissed the others as ‘lies’. They may be ‘lies’ but Picasso’s Portrait de Femme 1938, of Maar, is still a wonder to behold on an adjacent wall, as is Frida Kahlo’s oil painting entitled The Wounded Deer 1946 located in the same room

 

 

To counterbalance the theme of suffering female artists, Maar’s own photo images of Picasso have been included in the show. A glass plate negative of Picasso caught my eye. Around his face Maar has scratched a halo or crown of thorns of black ink. It gives the painter the air of a saint or more worryingly, the appearance of Jesus Christ bound for crucifixion. It is unusual to see Picasso objectified in this way. So much with Picasso was on his terms.

Alma Mahler in another room seems to be made of sterner stuff. The exhibition focuses on her relationship with husband Gustav Mahler and lover Oskar Kokoschka. Long suffering muse, she was not! A photograph of her shows a Valkyrien woman in a corseted dress and dark, expressive eyes.  She was a talented pianist and composer when she met Mahler. It is surprising to read therefore that at the beginning of her marriage to Mahler she gave up her musical career at his request. It was a big mistake of course; outwardly acquiescing, Alma soon grew bitter. When she was on the point of running off with Bauhaus architect Gropius, Mahler agreed to play and help publish his wife’s lieder which are on show.

 The painter Kokoschka, seven years her junior, filled the void after Mahler’s death. ‘He painted me, me, me!’ Alma Mahler exclaims in a quote on the wall. Kokoschka joined up as a soldier in WW1, perhaps to escape her intensity and jealous nature. On his return however he underwent a change of heart. By then Alma had gravitated towards Gropius again. Kokoschka spent the next few years trying to win her back. The painted fans he produced, depicting their life together, are on display on one wall. We read about a doll he had made in her image. ‘I must have you for my wife or my genius will self-destruct’, he says in a letter. Alma’s power over men was astounding!

The Sapphic section entitled Chloe liked Olivia, was not only illuminating but revealed a whole host of new writers for me such as Natalie-Clifford Barney and painter Romaine Brooks. I was already aware of the love affair between blue stocking Virginia Woolf and aristocrat Vita-Sackville West, but it was interesting to learn of the influence each woman had on the other’s work. The desire Sackville-West ignited in Woolf powered Woolf’s Orlando. In this tale a young man transforms into a woman and retains his love for women. Sackville-West’s writing meanwhile became more experimental. Her book Seducers in Ecuador is on display together with Orlando and Woolf’s wonderful extended essay, A Room of One’s Own.

By the time I reached the painter Klimt and designer and fashion muse Emily Flöge (also fascinating if I had had more time) I was replete with information. I had only covered the first floor of the exhibition! (There are two!)

The show warrants a whole afternoon with two tea breaks!

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Modern Couples is an exhilarating show. A real curatorial tour de force. I am now keen to read up about L’Académie des Femmes (the feminine equivalent of the all-male literary Académie Française), and to explore the art of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks whose self-portraits reveal a growing confidence in her new sexuality. From a timid, thin-faced girl in a graceless hat she evolves into a beautiful, bright-eyed woman with wind-swept hair. I felt happy for her.

Hats off to the Barbican for a thought-provoking and rich experience! Worth joining the Barbican Centre membership scheme methinks!

 

KH

 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on at the Barbican (Floor 3) until 27 Jan.