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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sound of Silence. Cage and Rauschenberg Take On A New Life With MusicArt.

During the summer of 1952, composer John Cage staged a happening that was going to change the world of music and art forever. At Black Mountain College in North Carolina, in the college dining hall, the audience listened to Cage read from an essay he had written on the relationship between music and Zen Buddhism. He punctuated his talk with long silences. It must have read like an extended poem.

Cage’s preoccupation with silence as musical form lead to his publishing of 4’33’’, his silent work, that same year.

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At that same college event, four white paintings had been suspended in the air above the audience. Robert Rauschenberg’s pristine White Paintings incarnated what Cage had expressed in words and in silence, namely painted space onto which the outside world could be projected. These paintings could change according to where they were hung; daylight, nature, harsh light spots could cast various shadows across the work. The canvas was a receptacle. A living tableau even, which changed from minute to minute – if only we were attentive enough. And that was the point – conceptual art as it came to be known, required us to think and to fine-tune our senses. And senses are at their most acute in stillness and space.

Knowing this, Cage in his 4’33” silent composition, drew our attention to ambient sound. For him there was no difference between sounds and music.

To this day, these ideas seem radical!

 

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Inspired by Cage’s and Rauschenberg’s works and ideas, pianist Annie Yim invited an audience to attend the premier of ‘Conceptual Concert in Three Acts’, at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London the other evening.

The concert room could barely accommodate the fashionable crowd that gathered for the event. Many had to make do with standing at the back, for along the walls, either side of them, precious Rauschenberg paintings had been hung. They formed part of a wonderful exhibition entitled Spreads 1975-83, the Thaddaeus-Ropac Gallery is putting on at the moment.That there wasn’t a white painting in sight was no bad thing and was consistent with the artistic layering that was about to take place in an evening of music, art and poetry.

At the front, a shiny black piano waited to be played. It was positioned between what seemed to be two huge canvases covered in sheets.

A tape recorder was switched on. ‘Nature is better than Art,’ said a gentle voice from the past belonging to the inimitable John Cage.

Annie Yim, founder of MusicArt which brings different art forms together, walked on stage to perform The Seasons composed by Cage in 1947. Sitting down at the piano she launched into winter: stark chords; spring: frolicking and skittering notes across the keyboard and summer: lyrical melodies, interspersed with mischievous interludes. Nuanced, precise playing of what is still considered to be experimental material is often hard to pull off and Annie Yim did so with gusto! The composition ended abruptly.

Act 11 was given over to new music by distinguished composer, Raymond Yiu which contained jazz elements and a beautiful duet played by Yim and the composer himself.

Meanwhile, Kayo Chingonyi, award-winning poet, read his own compositions. His poem entitled Matrix – Who’s to say, a tribute to Cage’s reverence for everyday (musical) sounds was particularly memorable and pertinent.

The latter part of the Act was devoted to Cage’s wonderful musings on the creative process: ‘I am trying to change my habits of seeing. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing’ (what dedication to permanent invention!) and poem To Whom which he read out at opening show of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings at the Stable Gallery in 1953. For me, one of the highlights of the evening was to listen to him speak.

And finally Act 111 unfolded. The sheets were removed to reveal two large mirrors. Pianist Yim sat down at the piano and as instructed by Cage in the 4’33” score, didn’t play a note.

Silence prevailed for 4’33’’. It was an entrancing experience. At first, time really did seem to stand still. As the performers froze, so did the audience. Very soon bemused expressions started to reflect in the mirror, bobbing heads looked this way and that.  Others, worn out by the lead up towards Christmas no doubt, simply closed their eyes and napped. Tiny sounds started to emerge from the stillness: nails clinking a wine glass, creaking chairs, stifled coughs. As if on cue, a rasping motorbike broke into the space. A tiny part of me felt it had been orchestrated but it didn’t matter for the mirrors revealed a room of smiling faces.

Cage had woven his magic as had MusicArt. It had been a bold enterprise by Yim and her team. She risked putting too many eggs into one basket. But overall, the project was cohesive, expertly performed by all and thought provoking, shedding further light on two iconic figures.

 

KH

 

Catch Rauschenberg Spreads and John Cage Ryoanji exhibitions at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, 37 Dover Street, London. On until 26 January 2019.

How To Get Out of the Cage. Engaging documentary featuring John Cage by award-winning film-maker Frank Scheffer on Youtube.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fortune’s Favours: ‘Sir Richard Wallace the Collector’ at the Wallace Collection, London

Two people I would very much like to have been born as – either one of those majestic 19th-century American wives, the type who married multi-millionaires and set about shoe-horning culture and art into their husband’s lives, whether the husband liked it or no; or, Sir Richard Wallace. If neither of those is possible, I’d like to be reincarnated as the director of the Wallace, one fine day. I once had the delight of listening to Rosalind Savill talk about her years in charge there, and no talk by any ex-director could have been more unexpected or inspiring. The affection with which Dame Rosalind regarded her ‘charges’ in the collection, as she spoke of making them ‘happy’, is something Sir Richard, the collection’s founder, would have understood perfectly.

How to typify the Wallace? Can you, indeed? In spirit it’s maybe close to the passion of a collector such as Sir John Soane, who also founded his own public museum (there is something very English about this kind of obsession – think of the Ashmolean in Oxford, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge). It’s something like the Frick in New York, only bigger, better, wider-ranging. There’s not an item in it that doesn’t have some claim to be exceptional – rare beyond belief if not unique, superlatively made, exquisitely beautiful. Just a few snapshots: the paintings include Hals’ Laughing Cavalier and Rembrandt’s portrait of his one surviving son, Titus, which is literally so lovely and painted with such love as to bring tears to the ears; the furniture includes masterpieces of the cabinetmaker’s art that would have had George IV weeping too, with envy. There are exquisite objets d’art from almost every country on earth, including in the current exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of Wallace’s birth, a gold mask from the Asante kingdom of Africa, which must have survived God knows what rude passage to find a resting place here, seconds from Oxford St. There is porcelain, armour, weaponry, maiolica, glass, bronzes and jewels. If you took the top 10% say, from the V&A, the Metropolitan in New York, the Frick itself and the Louvre, you might make a rival to the Wallace, but not otherwise. It takes more than money to be a collector at this level; it takes knowledge, taste; the passion that, now so few make or inherit money on that insane 19th-century scale, has transmogrified itself into the sensibility of the best museum curators or directors. And they still want the things in their charge to be happy.

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I think anything collected by Richard Wallace must have been very happy. Wallace had something of a charmed life of his own, to begin with. Born in 1818, and educated by the 4thMarquess of Hertford at his own expense, Wallace was then employed by the Marquess as his private secretary, and on the Marquess’s death in 1870 inherited a sizable chunk of the Hertford fortune, and all the Marquess’s own art collection, thus confirming every single suspicion that had ever been entertained concerning Wallace’s own likely parentage. Not that he and the 4thMarquess were that similar – the Marquess was the kind of skinflint-ish collector who one imagines rubbing his hands together as he locked his collection away and pocketed the key, hissing ‘Mine, mine, all mine!’ while Wallace himself was open-hearted and open-handed too. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, this globally minded soul contributed 2.5 million francs to relieve the suffering of the wounded and of those Brits the siege had trapped.

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The bicentenary exhibition is down on the Wallace’s sunken ground floor, past what may be one of the pleasantest places to sip coffee in London (yes, this really is a rather nice museum with an ace caff attached). It’s not large, it’s not boastful, but it is endlessly intriguing. It’s set up as a sort of catwalk of the pieces Wallace himself most loved and prized, including a diddy little French gold and enamel cutlery-set, too pretty to be used for eating anything beyond the odd macaroon, which Wallace bought as a very young man, then had to sell after he had over-reached himself as collector and before he came into the Hertford fortune, and hunted down anew and bought back, twenty years later. One of the joys of a collection such as this is the chance to play detective, linking together the separate treasures within it and providing your own psychological infill. The exhibition concludes with the last piece Wallace every bought, in 1888: a 17th-century bronze of an acrobat, 40 cm high, walking on his hands, muscles in his back tensed and ridged as he tries to bring his waving legs under control. He might be falling headlong; he might have conquered and suspended time. As the embodiment of the collector’s mentality, it’s all that needs be said.

JCH

‘Sir Richard Wallace the Collector’ is at the Wallace Collection until 6 January 2019.

Rembrandt: Titus, the artist’s son, c.1657

Asante trophy head, 18th or 19th century

Barthélemy Prieur, An acrobat, c.1600

All images © The Wallace Collection

https://www.wallacecollection.org

LOST HISTORY RECLAIMED: William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load’

The first shot of World War I was fired in present-day Togo, in Africa. Did you know that? Nor did I. We know the name of the man who fired it – Sergeant-Major Alhaji Grunshi, who was part of the British West Africa Frontier Force, fighting in what was at that time a German colony. Maybe a million Africans served under the British in World War I, and maybe 350,000 under the Germans, but we know hardly any of their names at all. They were carriers and porters for the most part, as un-individualized and to those they worked for, as easily replaceable as the mules and horses they worked alongside.

This is the starting point for William Kentridge’s ‘The Head and the Load,’ a simply astounding piece of work that mixes his art with shadow-play, defunct documentation, African dance, early jazz, Dada-ist insanity and historical fact; plus the bodies and voices of an ensemble team of musicians, singers and dancers. At Tate Modern, the gloomy length of the stage gave it something of the feel of a mystery play as well – one moment, one image, succeeding the last in a manner that suggested the ticking-past of images on some lost newsreel of ghosts. ‘The head and the load are the troubles of the neck’, goes the African proverb that gives this piece its title; you might substitute ‘The white man and his wars are the troubles of the African.’

Kentridge was born in South Africa, white and Jewish, which placed him in the position of outsider, of observer, from the start. His spiky, graphic style takes genres apart. Is what you are looking at print-making, or an image in evolution into something else? Is it a print, at all, or is it an arrested animation? Also, Kentridge hates white paper. His images are made on newsprint, old textbook pages, out-of-date maps. In this show his spiky marking become the bodies of the Africans herded out of Africa and, shipped across Europe to end up in the battlefields of Belgium and France; background to the dancers acting out their suffering, the speeches demanding emancipation from those who returned home, the primitive technology that tried to literally shut them up and mow them down. I can’t imagine anything that would have made being there more hellish than arriving in the mud of Flanders as an African conscript, nameless – the names were deliberately unrecorded, in case one of them should perform some act worthy of a medal – and for the most part, bootless, too.

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Print-making uses repetition; so does ‘The Head and the Load’, in a way that partly suggests the stalemate of the Western front, but also to drive its message home. You listen to a chorus long enough, are presented with the same statistics frequently enough, watch the pathetic attempt of two exhausted, ragged, wounded men to get back to safety down the length of the stage, and whether you like it or not, you are shamed into an emotional involvement with what you’re seeing. Occasionally the voices onstage – and what voices they are, what power, what richness – morph as you listen. A siren becomes a scream of anguish and of outrage, a screech of Dada-ist poetry the stutter of a machine-gun. To come out of a performance ashamed of the colour of my skin was a novelty, but this is what ‘The Head and the Load’ accomplishes, moving the audience to a standing ovation and in some cases, actual tears. The show moves to New York in December, to the Park Avenue Armory. Hats off to the Tate for having got it first.

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Images © Stella Oliver

 

JCH

MIXED MESSAGES IN MIXED MEDIA: MICHAEL JACKSON ON THE WALL National Portrait Gallery, London

In which your humble reviewer is left asking questions.

When Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video launched in 1983 it was a major media moment at a time when media moments were still a rarity. David Dimbleby, no less, introduced it on British TV, and back then in the 80s it blew our little sparkly socks off. Conversations in the office were about nothing else for days. Then came Bad, which made us all smile, because no matter how much the Peter Pan of Pop sexed himself up with codpieces and grabbed his crotch, we knew you weren’t really, Michael. No bad boy, but Lord, you could move, and that voice, which always seemed about to crack out of its register, punctuated with all those babyish little gasps, was unique. Then, somewhere between Bad and HIStory, the slave – you know, the one who sits behind the Emperor, whispering ‘Remember Caesar, you are only mortal’ – got kicked out the chariot, and it all went a bit weird. There were the first rumours, then the first allegations of child abuse. The albums still sold in their millions, but then so did Liberace’s. There was the overblown unwitting self-parody of ‘Earthsong’ at the Brits in 1996, where Jarvis Cocker leaped on stage and did what we were all thinking. (One of the exhibits at the NPG is the ‘Earthsong’ video, scrolled backward, which is about the kindest thing to do with it.) There were more allegations of child abuse, and a court case, where those of us who remembered Thriller and Bad were presented with what Peter Pan turns into in middle-age – anorexically frail, pop-eyed, with wiggy hair and a tiny scared white face ruined by plastic surgery. It was awful. You could have foretold then and there that the end was nigh.

The NPG’s new show spends very little time on end-stage Michael Jackson, which is understandable, although in a show that is about image, is an obvious and very white elephant in the room. It’s not biographical, and it’s not about memorabilia either, although it does include the ‘Dinner Jacket’, tinkling with miniature cutlery and as small, up close, as historical costume. So it misses that sense of being closer to the star that the V&A achieved in its Kylie and Bowie shows. According to the NPG’s new(ish) director, Nick Cullinan, the inspiration for the show came about almost as an epiphany, when he realized the number of artists who were inspired by Michael Jackson’s staging of himself; in which case it’s odd that quite so many of the exhibits were created in response not to Jackson live and in full and glorious flower, but to Cullinan sending out what sounds to have been almost a call for entries. There was a lot of newspeak at the press view, in that slightly desperate tone resorted to when an exhibition doesn’t quite add up, of how Jackson’s image-making is ‘an interesting phenomenon to think about.’ Really? In what way, and what are the Gallery’s thoughts? Maybe the catalogue explains them – it would be fascinating to read Zadie Smith’s thoughts on Jackson, especially – but at the press view, the shop was still being put together, and the catalogue unobtainable. Note to whoever is in charge of the commercial side of the Gallery: having your shop ready for the press view is Museum Retail 101.

The show also aims to bring in a new and younger audience, which Lord, knows, the NPG could do with – visitor figures have collapsed to the level they were at nearly twenty years ago. There have been redundancies, questions asked. Asked they will be still. All galleries want to attract that new and younger audience – the museum demographic is like a slide rule with the top end fixed while the other constantly seeking to fall lower and lower – and it’s a praiseworthy aim, but is Michael Jackson really the way to do it? The show opens in the year when he would have been 60 – this is not Ed we’re talking about, not Kanye, not Taylor. This is an entertainer as remote from most 18-25 year olds as Vera Lynn was from me. And one that in his deracination of himself is a pretty compromised figure too. What would have become of him in the age of #metoo is best left unguessed.

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Dangerous by Mark Ryden, 1991. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

On to the exhibits, however, as they’re what it’s all about. There’s a Haring, a Warhol, a Grayson Perry, a Maggie Hambling – most of the other artists will be much less familiar. Precious little here for the core audience of NPG visitors; they will have to wait for the Gainsborough show in the autumn. What there is, is kitsch, which is both colourful and fun, although at times the show does feel a bit thin – video art is large-scale, obviously, but to have quite so many spaces devoted to a single example of it makes the show feels like one of those essays padded out with quotes from other people; and all of the spaces are way too small for the music bouncing around distortedly amongst them; even at the press view you could hardly hear yourself think. There’s a huge green Michael, and a small grey one; heartbreaking reminders of how cute he was as a kid, and how handsome as a young man. The infamous Jeff Koons sculpture, the kind of exhibit the show is crying out for, is there only as the background in a photograph; and Mohammed al Fayed’s irresistibly awful statue of Jackson, which used to stand outside Craven Cottage, is missing too. David McCarthy’s drawings suggest he saw Jackson as Pinocchio, which is thought-provoking, if rather cruel; David La Chappelle’s Beatification (‘We persecuted him, every person who ever bought a tabloid or watched the news…’) equates Jackson with Princess Diana. There is a heck of a lot of religious imagery in the show, but the Gallery’s interpretation lets this go almost unremarked; in fact it’s as if there’s a whole layer of comment simply not attempted here. The visitor is dutifully told what they are looking at, the circumstances in which it was made, what the artist thinks of it, but curatorial explication or interpretation is waveringly uncertain and hesitant, or absent altogether. The High Gothic hubris of Dangerous by Mark Ryden, for example, cover art for the 1991 album, in its astonishing Hapsburg Empire frame, could fill a book on its own. Likewise Kehinde Wiley’s 2010 Equestrian Portrait of Jackson as Philip II of Spain – one of the few works that is contemporary with the singer himself, even if it was finished posthumously. You find yourself pondering stage costume as armour, then image-making as a whole as armour, and struck by the poignancy and subtle truth in the fact that the face atop the body is not that of Jackson as he was in 2010, but that from the height of his career – lightly tan, crisp-featured, alert and wary. When you’re dead your image belongs to everyone, but how could any artist add anything to Michael Jackson’s image-making that he hadn’t in fact already done to himself?

JCH

Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson) by Kehinde Wiley, 2010. Olbricht Collection, Berlin. Photo by Jeurg Iseler. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Sean Kelly, New York © Kehinde Wiley.

Michael Jackson: On The Wall is at the National Portrait Gallery from 28 June until 21 October.

A Great Spectacle: a revved up RA Summer Exhibition & opening of new gallery spaces

Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London W1

The RA Summer Exhibition, 250 years old this year, is as English as strawberries and cream, Wimbledon tennis, and wasps at a summer picnic. It’s a key part of the summer season and is the world’s most democratic art show: any one can submit work, from professional artists to Sunday painters. Twenty years ago, my mother achieved a long-held dream and had three prints accepted for the Summer Show (this coincided with the birth of my son, her grandson, so it was a particularly special summer for her!). I’ve been going to the Summer Exhibition, initially with my artist mother, and latterly with friends and my co-reviewer NM for years now. It’s a curious beast – the format is essentially unchanged, but in recent years the exhibition has been coordinated by a leading artist, who, along with the hanging committee, brings a personal vision to the show. In fact, the unchanging format of the exhibition always leads NM and I to ponder “what will this year’s show be like?” as we make our way to Burlington House.

On the occasion of the exhibition’s quarter-millennium birthday, this year’s coordinator is Academician, Turner Prize winner and lovable National Treasure Grayson Perry, and his love of colour and keen, but largely benign, eye on the paradoxes of modern society and its social mores, has resulted in a significantly zhuzhed up show. It’s vibrant, witty and joyful, with much to amuse and delight, and also give pause for more serious reflection on where we are today: there are two works concerning Grenfell Tower and a Brexit piece by Bansky in the same room (its walls painted sunshine yellow) as a rather pompous picture of Nigel Farage (beneath – perhaps significantly, depending on how you wish to read it – a picture of a dog vomiting). These on point juxtapositions combined with a show pulsating with vivid colours, textures and vibrant imagination make this the best Summer Exhibition I have seen in years.

 

 

 

Added to that the 250th anniversary marks the opening of expanded galleries, and the Summer Exhibition takes the visitor on an intriguing meander through some of the new spaces. The RA acquired the building on Burlington Gardens which used to house the Museum of Mankind, an elegant Victorian pile, and it’s been transformed thanks to architect David Chipperfield into a pale and interesting gallery space, and increasing the RA’s footprint by 70%.

An elegant bridge joins Burlington House with the Burlington Gardens building. Visitors descend via the original garden steps, uncovered and set alongside cool shiny terrazzo. In this exhibition space, there are paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures (including two fascinating anatomical sculptures) from the RA collection, works not previously displayed, to remind the visitor that this is also an art school – an academy. A large, uber modern picture window offers a glimpse into what was once an unseen yard, now attratively laid out by landscape architects Wirtz: when finished, it’s going to be really wonderful. From here, you can also appreciate the rear of Burlington House and the scale of the building, before proceeding into the expanded gallery space. Visitors can appreciate not only the well-proportioned public rooms, but also the “below stairs” details such as the 18th-century brick vaults, which have been beautifully restored. The loos are pretty stunning too – sleek steel cubicles set in a room to delight any bricklayer worth his salt (I know my builder, Hugh, would appreciate the craftsmanship and skill of his 18th-century counterparts).

Back to the Summer Exhibition, and not content to be confined to the main gallery, the show spills out into the courtyard of Burlington House, with a giant sculpture by Anish Kapoor, and beyond – onto Piccadilly and the surrounding streets. Look up and you’ll see colourful flags designed by leading Academicians fluttering in the summer breeze (read more here). It’s clear that as coordinator of this year’s show, Perry has done wonders for it – no longer a rather worthy trudge through contemporary art, it’s now a vibrant celebration of creativity and imagination and I hope this sets a positive precedent for future years.

Recommended

FW

 

Poor David Griffiths, he only wanted to see his respectful portrait of Nigel Farage hanging in the 250th Summer Exhibition. According to his website, Griffiths is ‘one of Wales’ most well-known portrait painters…trained at The Slade School of Art… under the direction of Sir William Coldstream, Sir Ernst Gombrich and Sir Anthony Blunt’. Impressive credentials indeed. Still, it doesn’t hurt to get some national coverage. So why did they have to go and stick ‘Farage’ underneath a picture of a dog throwing up and next to a giant fibreglass sculpture of the Pink Panther?

The Royal Academy, it would be fair to say, has evolved since the days when a former president, Sir Alfred Munnings, offered to horsewhip Picasso in the name of art. You couldn’t argue that the RA, one of our most prestigious cultural institutions, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. All the same, Grayson Perry was an inspired choice to chair this year’s selection committee, because if you need someone to blow away the residual cobwebs, Perry’s the man. Only don’t expect him to take things too seriously.

Perry, with characteristic pizzazz, has used the raw material of the ‘send ins’ (including, it must be admitted, some right old tat) to deliver a droll commentary on the world of art, and indeed the world generally, in 2018. There’s sterling support for this project from Perry’s co-curators, including Phyllida Barlow, Conrad Shawcross and Cornelia Parker, and an impressive line-up of guest artists, among them Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Ed Ruscha, Bruce Nauman and Anselm Kiefer.

Don’t miss the Sackler Gallery, on the second floor, which this year has been made over to printmaking, and where among other things you’ll will see an intaglio print by Queen Sonja of Norway no less. This I find deeply symbolic. Thirty years ago, the best we could hope for from royalty would have been a fussy little Prince Charles watercolour accompanied by much bowing and scraping from Sir Hugh Casson. But – guess what? – Queen Sonja actually has talent. She’s also, for good measure, a member of Europe’s funkiest dynasty: last year she and King Harald celebrated their 80th birthdays with a surfing holiday in South Africa.

NM

Chris Orr MBE RA /The Fauves Picnic/Silkscreen 55 x 75cm John Bodkin / Dawkinscolour

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, 12 June – 19 August

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Header image: Michael Landy RA, Closing Down Sale, Mixed media and audio (Image courtesy the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery, © Michael Landy)

My Favourite Things: A Word in Your Shell-like

Aporrhais Pespelecani is a marine snail, the thing that lives inside a seashell, a little mollusk that can be found from the Norwegian coast to the shores of the Mediterranean. It has a very pleasing shape, which seems designed to fit into the human hand – a deep bowl, and 3 or 4 spiny ‘fingers’, radiating out like the struts in the webbed foot of – well, a pelican, which is how the snail gained its name.

 

It can also be found in Gallery 156 of the Metropolitan Museum.

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About 500 years BCE, a workshop somewhere in Greece or in its islands began sculpting these shells in marble. We have no idea how many were made, but only a very few have survived (the British Museum has one; so has the Getty), and given how complex and delicate the shape would have been to sculpt, maybe all of them were the work of one single workshop, maybe of one single mind that saw the natural original, washed up on a beach somewhere, and was inspired, and worked at the design, and then worked at it some more, until they had perfected it. They made it bigger than the shell is in life, so this one, if you were to hold it, would project either end of your palm, with the tips of your fingers fitting between the spines.

 

This is far and away the finest of the survivors. The marble it is carved from is snow-white, and has tiny sparkles of quartz in it, like snow again. As you crane your head to see all the way around it, held upright in its  display case, you begin to realize how magically put-together is the shape – the soft round of the bowl, the delicate spines, the tiny whorl at one end (a separate piece, like the stopper to a bottle), the flat lip at the other. The way all these shapes fit together is half the enchantment of the piece. The other half is what it tells us of us, that human impulse to take something from nature, and recreate it, give it new form, give it rebirth as art, and how that defines us and has propelled us forward from all those centuries ago to what we are today.

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Its surface tells of a final chapter in its history. The marble has been eroded by the action of water and sand. This shell that is not a shell was returned to the ocean at some point, which took the bright paint that would once have covered it (there’s a tiny trace left, on the whorl), and gave it its foamy whiteness, and wore at its spines, just as it would have done a real Aporrhais. In other words, it is so beautiful, it fooled even the sea.

Real Pelican’s Foot shells, with that suggestive, hand-friendly shape, were used as libation vessels, and then maybe cast back into the sea. Their carved marble cousins were probably made for the same purpose. Perfected, painted, used – and cast back into the element that inspired it. Everything about this is as perfect and organic a whole as it is possible for a work of art to be.

JCH