Into the Night at the Barbican

ARTSTOR Chat Noir Interior 2

Shadow Theatre at Le Chat Noir, Paris. 

I always look forward to the Barbican Gallery’s exhibitions. Theme-based with enticing titles, they always capture my imagination. The last show I covered there, entitled Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde (see here LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE) in January of this year, was riveting. With the theme of power couples in art, the curators had their work cut out for them. It was an enormous show. Letters featured in great numbers, as well as paintings, sculptures, photographs and textile prints. I remember been amused by Camille Claudel’s letters to Rodin.

When I turned up to Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art this week, the galleries seemed sparsely furnished in comparison.

I could see the curator’s challenge though. Cabarets and bars are all about atmosphere which is hard to evoke in paintings and photographs.

Walking up the steps, I entered Paris. Le Chat Noir corner to be precise. The cabaret sprung up in Montmartre in the late nineteenth century. Entertainment then consisted of poetry, improvised monologues and satyrical songs. The first artists and writers, who came here,  liked to call themselves ‘Hydropathes’, those afraid of water (ie wine and beer drinkers)

As Le Chat Noir grew in popularity and occupied larger premises, up sprung another source of entertainment, the Shadow theatre (see header image)

An arrangement of zinc silhouettes adorn the wall at the Barbican. It’s hard to imagine that they were used for such ambitious stagings of religious tales, epics and complete fantasies. People flocked to see these plays in a grand room hung with drawings by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

I run my eyes over a strange creatures with wings, a maid and a Napoleonic soldier on a horse. Later at home, I read of a production entitled L’Epopée (The Epic) performed in 1887 by Caran d’Ache at Le Chat Noir. It was a grandiose work replete with heroic Napoleonic scenes in twenty tableaux.

Back at the gallery, I peer down at the exhibition space below, where much larger recreations of the puppets, twist and turn above peoples’s heads and project large shadows upon the walls.

Still in Paris I turn my attention to dancer  Loïe Fuller, who performed at the Folies Bergère in the 1890’s. Fuller became known for her mesmeric dances, using her costume, poles and lighting to creative effect. Toulouse-Lautrec, clearly captivated by her, produced a series of hand-coloured lithographs.  In the gallery, I was particularly drawn to La Danse du Feu. It’s strange – so used are we to seeing mass-produced posters of Lautrec’s dancers, that we forget that they were of talented performers! Knowing a little about Fuller now, I will look out for her in the poster shops.

At the show, an early film features an imitator of Fuller. This dancer performs a flower dance. The effect produced is rather like peering through a child’s magic kaleidoscope.

Next I was in Vienna 1907 at the Fledermaus cabaret which was renowned for its spectacular, modern, tiled interior. Visitors at the show were treated to a recreation of the multi-coloured tiled bar, which you can admire on the lower level  of the exhibition. Gleaming tiles displayed fantastical motifs but the installation itself seemed oddly bare with no waiters or singers to animate the space. Music, which had been wafting up to the upper levels, had ceased. I think I might have missed a show!

Sticking to Europe, I peeped into the Berlin Weimar Nightlife of the 1920s and 30s. Of interest was Rudolf Schlicher’s Damenkneiper (Women’s Club), a painting depicting women dressed in men’s attire and sporting bobs. In Germany, women had got the right to vote in 1919, and were now, not only taking their liberated selves out, but foregoing masculine company as well.

Mexico of the 1920s was a welcome addition to the exhibition. At the Café de Nadie in Mexico City  radical artists and writers met to  discuss new political and social ideas following the Mexican revolution. Slogans such as ‘Chopin to the Electric Chair’ must have driven Chopin-playing pianists underground! In 1924 the radical group held its first  exhibition which embraced poetry, performance, music, woodcuts and paintings. Masks were also used, showing the movement’s attachment to ancient culture.

IMG_20191003_104909_resized_20191007_013940772

Mexican masks by sculptor Germán Cueto 1924

A celebration of indigenous culture also came up in what was to me the most interesting part of the show: the Nigerian Mbari Clubs. They came into being in the early 1960s, after Nigeria’s independence. ‘Mbari’  was an Igbo word for ‘creation’ and the first club was open-air in the university town of Ibadan. Here writers, musicians and actors congregated to read their poetry, exhibit their art and perform music and dance. Another club opened in Osogbo and became home to the Yoruba opera company. 

oznorHBOil portrait Self-portrait of Suffering 1961 by Ibrahim El-Salahi

The clubs were both influenced by Western art but were rooted in their own tradition. I loved the art on display particularly an oil portrait by Ibrahim El-Salahi but also a black and white film of a performance of drumming and dance where the cheekiness of the woman dancer wanting to outdo her male dance partner is delightful to watch. The joy and exuberance of all taking part in the musical event warms the soul.

And this was the strength of this part of the show – that you could see, hear and feel the atmosphere of the club. 

An imperfect show but with fascinating insights into clubs from further afield. 

KH

Talks, music and film accompanying the show: https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2019/event/into-the-night-cabarets-clubs-in-modern-art

 

 

‘Rembrandt’s Light’ lights up Dulwich

 

A new show has opened for autumn at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It’s called Rembrandt’s Light. It’s intelligent, empathetic, surprising and at one point breathtaking, and I urge you all to go and see it as soon as possible.

Dulwich, the UK’s earliest purpose-built public picture gallery (it was founded in 1811), was designed by Sir John Soane, an architect obsessed with light. Soane’s architecture suits Rembrandt – his idiosyncrasy, his small spaces within larger rooms, the domesticity he celebrates, and Soane’s understanding of the nature of outside light inside, as well. One senses off-stage at the Gallery a great deal of determination therefore to make Dulwich the premier London site for this Rembrandt year – 2019 being the 350th  anniversary of the artist’s death. Because if ever there was an artist obsessed with exploring light and its effects, and equally adept at manipulating those effects – visually, temporally and emotionally – it was Rembrandt.

The first mighty coup Dulwich have achieved here is to have their show lit by the cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who lit Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back amongst many another major movie. This, you might think, would be quite starry enough, but the show takes the ethos of the movies further, until it has you thinking about light, and its opposite, darkness, in ways that make it quite one of the most arresting and satisfying exhibitions I have seen this year.

It has fun with the theatricality of the paintings, first of all. ‘EXT. JERUSALEM – NIGHT,’ begins the wall-text for one of the show’s major loans, the Denial of St Peterof 1660, which you would usually have to go to the Rijksmuseum to see, as if Rembrandt were storyboarding a movie. Then, balancing the fun with proper heavyweight curatorial purpose, you are led to see (in my case, for the first time) how Rembrandt uses light in this work to depict time itself – the fiery glow up-front, at the surface of the painting, where St Peter utters his third denial, and in the murk of its background, Christ with his hands bound, hearing the words, and slowly, resignedly, turning toward their source.

The Denial of St Peter

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Denial of St Peter, 1660. © The Rijksmuseum

The showstopper here – and at the press view, it had hardened reviewers gasping – is the lighting of the Royal Collection’s Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb. Hung on a wall in Buckingham Palace, I hate to say it, but it’s just another 17th-century religious painting. The way it is displayed here, with the lighting set to softly intensify around it, you come as close as you could reasonably expect to sharing the Magdalen’s astonished, almost terrified recognition of Christ; and you see as well the brilliance in Rembrandt’s own lighting of the scene: the symbolism of the dawn, the painful brightness of Christ’s robes, the light cast on the Magdalen’s face as she finally sees him for who he is.

Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, 1638, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Rembrandt of course created his works with no such 21st-century aids; all he had in his ruinously expensive house and studio on the Breestraat in Amsterdam were daylight and candles, but if that house gave him his light, no wonder he thought it was worth going broke for. Two of the rooms in the show (and it’s not huge, by any means, there are only 35 works and five separate spaces, and a very open hang – ‘slow-looking’ is what this show is about) recreate a studio-room in that house as it is shown in his own drawings and etchings of it – the large window, the linen hung above the window to reflect light down into the room, and then the same space as it would have appeared to his students by night, as they worked away under flickering candles with a slumbering fire in the grate. One lovely example of how intelligently this show has been hung shows the studio by day, with a model, half-clothed, sat under that fall of light, keeping warm by a stove; and then beside it is a study of a half-clothed model sat just as she might have appeared in that studio to the artist.

The Artist's Studio

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Artist’s Studio, c. 1658. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The final room (see image at top) contains a run of portraits, including Dulwich’s own wondrous Girl at a Window of 1645. Here she’s been hung against a panel of one of those state-of-the art super-blacks, so she seems to be hanging in a void. She hangs between a model waiting very likely in Rembrandt’s own bed, and very likely for Rembrandt himself, drawing back the bed curtain at his approach; and the artist’s study of his partner Hendrickje Stoffels, standing in a stream. Why Hendrickje should be paddling about in a stream at night, dressed only in her shift, no-one ever asks. The whole point of the scene is its sparkle – a word Rembrandt used about his paintings in 1639. The final work in the show is Rembrandt himself, in his self-portrait of 1642. He too is looking highly twinkly – as well he might.

Visitors should look in on the small display of ‘Artists in Amsterdam’, as well, which makes its own quiet point of London’s European connections. And don’t forget the deeply pleasing exhibition publication, either, which has big, high-quality illustrations and a properly thought-through narrative. Dulwich is pioneering a £5 ticket for this show, for 18-30 years olds. Scoop up as many as you can find, and take them with you.

JCH

‘Rembrandt’s Light’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery, 4 October 2019 – 2 February 2020

Top: ‘Rembrandt’s Light’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Lighting by ERCO. Photography by Gavriil Papadiotis.

 

Kollwitz’s War and Grief at the British Museum

Käthe Kollwitz Woman with dead child, 1903,© The Trustees of the British Museum

‘Woman with Dead Child, 1903. Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)

 

Käthe Kollwitz, née Schmidt, is not a name I had come across in the art world until the British Museum’s show. 

Born in 1867, in Königsberg, East Prussia, Kollwitz established herself as a leading, influential graphic artist by the time the First World War came about. Her travels to communist China and Russia, and finally to USA in the mid nineteen-thirties, consolidated her reputation abroad, which probably explains why she is virtually unknown in the UK.

But she was always going to succeed in the male-dominated art world she grew up in. Having been raised by progressive parents, who encouraged debate and self-expression at home, she was never going to be a wallflower! And there was much to discuss in this period of social and political unrest.

At art school in Berlin and then in Munich, she focussed on drawing, believing it to be the best medium for conveying what she had to say and feel about the injustices of society. Her father, who was supportive of her career, was not by the same token supportive of her marrying. A proposal from a medical student, Karl Kollwitz, got given short shrift. Interestingly, the Munich School for Women Artists she attended dissuaded female students from forming romantic liaisons with men. Celibacy was not only encouraged but a rule of the institution.

Independent-minded Käthe finally jumped ship after producing her first print in 1890. She went ahead and married Karl Kollwitz who was now a doctor. His practice took them to a deprived part of Berlin.

It is no surprise, given Kollwitz’s concerns, that the poor and down-trodden would dominate her early work. 

At the show I was swept up in the drama of her etchings and lithographs of revolt. In Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War): Losbruch (Outbreak) we see a woman with her back to us, sinewy arms and fists held aloft, firing up an army of men charging with pitchforks. Great stuff! 

Käthe Kollwitz, Losbruch (Outbreak), 1903 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Weavers’ Revolt series, where she follows the uprising, backroom plotting and anguished family scenes, is also arresting and earned her an art prize. A lithograph entitled Tod (Death) shows a dimly lit room, where a man sits, his face, a mask of grief, shock and exhaustion.

Kollwitz’s images are never neutral. In her evocations of war, produced post 1917, her heart and focus is always with the civilian. Mothers offer their children up as sacrifices. Parents huddle together in grief. Mothers form a tight circle around their children. ‘The Mothers’ is an image which has stayed with me.

IMG_20190911_104732_resized_20190912_032233895

‘The Mothers’ by Käthe Kollwitz (1922-23)

The works are heart-rending as you would expect them to be and the use of the wood-cuts, the grooves and crude lines, have a primitive quality, one which perfectly conveys the starkness of the WW1 nightmare.

When I was there, the curator, Frances Carey, drew our attention to a searingly emotional lithograph entitled ‘Woman With Dead Child’ (See Header Image)

 It is a self-portrait of Kollwitz with her son Peter from 1903 . She executed it in front of a mirror, much to her young son’s annoyance I imagine, who was told to keep still. A woman embraces her lifeless child with mad passion. Peter was to die on the Western Front in 1914.

Her son’s death confirmed Kollwitz’s pacifist outlook.

In Berlin today, in front of the Neue Wache (a museum dedicated to the victims of war), you will see an enlarged version of Kollwitz’s sculpture entitled Pietà, featuring a mother with dead son (1937-39). I will certainly be going there on my next trip.

One of the most moving exhibitions I have seen in a long while. Well worth a visit.

And if you need a little cheering … walk into the British Museum’s Pushing Paper: Contemporary Drawing from 1970, next door. It is a neat, colourful, and thought-provoking, themed show. The ‘Identity’ section, containing works by Tracy Emin, Grayson Perry and David Hockney is of particular interest.

 

 

KH

‘Portrait of the artist: Käthe Kollwitz’ and ‘Pushing Paper: Contemporary Drawing from 1970 to Now’ are on until 12 January 2020. In Room 90 of the British Museum. Both are free entry shows.

 

Dulwich Printmaking Show Impresses

 

Dorrit Black - Music.jpg

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.

IMG_20190619_110406_resized_20190625_095904064

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.

IMG_20190625_095055_resized_20190625_095207199

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! 

IMG_20190626_125743_resized_20190626_125802896

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

 

Elizabeth Llewellyn In Fine Voice in Opera Holland Park’s ‘Manon Lescaut’.

vintage-opera-poster-manon-lescaut-1416842129-view-0

 

It had been quite some time since I had last seen Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s early opera. Not since 2014 when leading man, Jonas Kaufmann, the Tom Jones of opera, topped the bill, playing an overly confident De Grieux at the Royal Opera House. Nevertheless I lapped up his ill-fated love affair with Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, singing Manon, and the extravagent sets. 

Thinking back on it now, I question the lavish production. The operatic couple may have melded beautifully and the contemporary staging may have dazzled at first, but somehow it was distracting. 

Puccini’s operas run on high octane emotion. To have an ostentatious set can be de trop!

Opera Holland Park minimalist set did its work with no frills: a bar, a boudoir, which morphed into a film set and finally the harbour with broken brick wall, where Manon and other fallen women are shipped off to New Orleans. New Orleans well – you just had to imagine it. You wouldn’t have known the places without checking the libretto. Sometimes this was a touch disorientating.

More important was the inspired casting and interaction between the lovers and other key members of the troupe.

Here, I believe, Opera Holland Park got it absolutely right. Elizabeth Llewellyn, a statuesque Manon, was good at fleshing out her heroine’s complex character. Kittenish and flirtatious at first, cavorting with abandon at a party on a Twister mat, she shows herself to be easily led and impressed by money. She has supposedly fallen for student De Grieux beforehand and yet it doesn’t stop her playful antics with her brother, Lescaut, before Geronte, the wealthy and aged pursuer of young women. 

Paul Carey-Jones, as Lescaut, artfully demonstrated his slippery character in the way he disappeared and popped up unexpectedly on stage, first in the De Grieux, then in the Geronte camp. His baritone voice contained the right amount of menace and humour required for the role.

TT_Ssv80Meanwhile Stephen Richardson, singing Geronte, had the air of an eminent professor one minute, his elegant grey streaks and sharp suits giving him maximum allure, and mafioso, the next, in his dark shades. Wherever he was, he seemed to dominate the scene. His solid bass voice was memorable in the lower register but not allowed much space in this opera for tenors!

Peter Auty, playing the all important paramour, De Grieux was an interesting one. It must be hard for all principal singers to interpret well known roles and works. The audience expects so much of you and your leading lady, and Puccini certainly expected 100 per cent from his singers. 

zLT9grxP

There is also the problem of the way we perceive the lover. De Grieux in the story of Manon is a poor student and madly in love. The audience sympathies could well lie with him. In this production, he is seen as not only grief-stricken but obsessive and childish; even unhinged! I’m thinking that that might be what Karolina Sofulak, director of Manon, had in mind.

Peter Auty captures the restlessness of the lover, his jerky body language on stage, manifests physically the inner turmoil Manon instils in him. His Italianate tenor voice is at times close to breaking point and his high notes seem to be wrested from a truly tortured soul. Important arias like ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ (Have a care – I’m driven to madness’) when he persuades the captain of the ship, to take him on board to join Manon, are truly moving.  

Placed before the more poised Manon, whose strangled emotion only really comes through in the final act, De Grieux comes across as a psychological mess.

Llewellyn’s soprano voice was sophisticated, rich with all the necessary fragility in all the right moments. In the final act for example, when De Grieux has left her momentarily to seek help, she crumbles as the lights suddenly  illuminate the cinema posters on the wall where a ‘Manon’ tops the bill . She rips them to shreds, no longer able to contemplate her young, beautiful former self or is it her replacement? ‘Now I beg for the grave.’ ‘My love help me.’ 

UzeweJgi

There was some consternation in the audience after the final scene as the lovers ended up far apart from each other, Manon standing beneath a flickering street lamp and De Grieux many metres away in despair. The ladies in question seated in front of me, might have seen Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais in the Convent Garden Opera version, virtually joined at the hip, lying on the edge of a truncated flyover (you had to be there!). 

There is method to Karolina Sofulak’s vision. This quirk at the end emphasises Manon’s complete isolation. When Manon sings ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata,’ she really is, even when her lover returns from his vain search for help.

Highly recommended as Elisabeth Llewellyn is in fine voice.

Manon Lescaut, Opera Holland Pk runs for four more performances : Tues 18th June, Thurs 20th June, Saturday 22nd June and Wednesday 26th June.

KH

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.

Tsunami, 2019

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

Tony Bevan 2

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

fetalneonatal-1997-November-77-3-F249-F3.large

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.