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.

2993

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.

S91-6.width-2000

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

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.

http---cdn.cnn.com-cnnnext-dam-assets-180628162958-michael-jackson-mark-ryden

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.

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One at Tate Britain

 

Tate Britain’s survey of the impact of the First World War on art in Britain, France and Germany opens with a series of iconic images of the conflict. There are photographs of shattered cathedrals, helmets dented by shrapnel and post-war Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battlefields of France. There are Henry Tonks’s unforgettable pastel drawings showing facial injury cases before treatment. There is Jacob Epstein’s Terminator-like torso in bronze from his ‘The Rock Drill’ of 1913-14, as unnerving as ever. Less familiar will be German works such as Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s sculpture ‘Fallen Man’, made for the cemetery of his hometown of Duisburg – humanity crawling away on all fours to die.

The first two or three rooms of ‘Aftermath’ admirably convey art’s role in the public memorialization of 1914-18, although in truth there’s not much here that you won’t see on a visit to the permanent collections of the Imperial War Museum. What I didn’t come away with (and this is where Tate could have played its strong suit) was much sense of the personal response of artists to the war.

Take the case of Paul Nash, one of several artists who were left with psychological scars as a result of their experiences in the trenches. Nash spent the early 1920s recovering from ‘war strain’ at Dymchurch on the edge of Romney Marsh, where he painted a series of bleak, despairing landscapes; there are stories of him staring fixedly out to sea for hours on end, often at night. On the whole, I’d rather have seen one of those Dymchurch seascapes than another vitrine filled with trench paraphernalia.

 

b
Otto Dix (1891-1969), War: Skull 1924, etching on paper 257 x 195 mm The George Economou Collection. © Estate of Otto Dix 2018

 

And what about taking the opportunity to remember those artists who were killed in the war? The best-known cases were the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the German painters Franz Marc and August Macke and the British painter-poet Isaac Rosenberg. Marc in particular, like Macke a co-founder of Der Blaue Reiter and only 36 when he died at Verdun in 1916, was a huge loss to art. Yet none of these names are even mentioned in the Tate show.

In Room 4 (of eight) there’s an abrupt change of gears and the rest of the show is a whistle-stop tour of the main movements in post-war art, from the angry counterblasts of Dada & Surrealism to the considerably more lyrical mood of the so-called ‘Return to Order’. In the last two rooms there’s a breathless attempt to chronicle the war’s impact on society by looking at Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’), Bauhaus and life in ‘the New City’.

 

d
Christian Schad 1894 – 1982, Self-Portrait 1927 Oil on wood 760 x 620 mm, lent from a private collection 1994 © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

 

‘Aftermath’ feels like two exhibitions sandwiched together, one that can’t make up its mind if it’s trying to show us that ‘war is hell’ or simply trying to unravel the complexities of post-war art. Worse, all the blood and gore in the early rooms makes the classicizing trend of the 1920s seem frivolous, which it certainly was not (as the Tate itself demonstrated in a landmark exhibition in 1990, ‘On Classic Ground: Picasso, Léger, de Chirico and the New Classicism 1910-1930’).

The Germans are the ones who come out on top in all this, whether it’s the existential Angst of Beckmann and Kollwitz, the mordant satire of Grosz and Dix, the sinister decadence of Christian Schad’s portraits or the weird geometric automata of Oskar Schlemmer. Perhaps the post-war upheavals in German society, far more thoroughgoing than in Britain or France, provided better take-off points for art. Or maybe they were better artists. Germany may have been defeated on the battlefields but in cultural terms it was the undoubted victor. Until, of course, the Nazis showed up.

NM

 

‘Aftermath’ at Tate Britain (to 23 September 2018)

 

Header image: Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill” 1913-14 bronze 705 x 584 x 445 mm, Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein

 

All too human curating at Tate Britain

‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life’ at Tate Britain takes its cue from an article written by Walter Sickert for ‘The New Age’ magazine in 1910, in which Sickert called for art to mirror ‘the sensation of a page torn from the book of life’. Despite this intriguing premise, ‘All Too Human’ is marred by questionable curating decisions, some of which I found completely baffling.

For one thing, although it claims to span ‘a century of art making’, the exhibition doesn’t really deal with the first half of the twentieth century at all, unless you count the rather perfunctory selection, including two paintings by Stanley Spencer, in the first room. The real starting point is actually Bacon’s brooding ‘Figure in a Landscape’ (1945). A better subtitle might have been ‘Paintings by the School of London’, because, in addition to Bacon and Freud, the big names here are all post-war London artists: David Bomberg, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews and Ron Kitaj.

Euan Uglow 1932-2000 Georgia 1973 Oil paint on canvas 838 x 1118 mm British Council Collection © The Estate of Euan Uglow

Another caveat that I should enter, because it’s not entirely clear from the title, is that although this is a show about painting ‘life’, it’s not really about painting from life as such. Freud, of course, painted directly from the model but Bacon, for example, worked almost exclusively from photographs. True, there’s a room of carefully-composed paintings by William Coldstream, Euan Uglow and the Slade school, whose traditional methods Bomberg dismissed as ‘the hand and eye disease’. Mostly, though, the emphasis here is on the ‘conceptual’ rather than the ‘perceptual’ .

The selection of artists in the show is frequently bizarre. Where is David Hockney? The only possible explanation I can think of for his absence (he isn’t even mentioned) is Hockney’s lack of a London connection – not a recent one, at any rate. Or perhaps Tate Britain thinks we’ve had enough of him after all the hype surrounding last year’s retrospective. Equally odd is the decision to devote an entire room to the work of the Indian artist F. N. Souza, who worked in London for a while after the war (he painted a bit like Jean Debuffet) before moving to New York in 1967. Without wishing to sound chauvinistic, why include Souza and not, for the sake of argument, Richard Hamilton, John Minton or Carel Weight? Sticking my neck out still further, why does the final segment of the show, covering the last thirty years, include only women artists: Paula Rego, Jenny Saville, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye? Why no Julian Opie or Peter Doig or Gary Hume?

Francis Bacon, 1909-1992 Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud 1964 Oil paint on canvas 1980 x 1476 mm The Lewis Collection © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

Otherwise, Bacon and Freud predictably take centre stage, cropping up not only in each other’s paintings but also in other people’s – Michael Andrews’s ‘Colony Room I’ (1962), for example, although there’s no mention of this on the wall label. The big draw is supposedly Bacon’s seldom-exhibited portrait of Freud from 1964 but I find it rather a comical thing, almost a caricature, reminding you that sometimes Bacon could produce thunderously bad art. Thankfully, there are much better works by Bacon here.

Freud gets a huge room to himself. The overall effect is undoubtedly impressive, although I still prefer the paintings he did before he discovered hog hair brushes, including the two portraits of Kitty Garman, his first wife (‘Girl with a Kitten’ and ‘Girl with a White Dog’), both of which crop up earlier in the show. Kenneth Clark would have agreed, once telling Freud as much to his face (that took guts): Freud never spoke to him again,

Paula Rego, born 1935 The Family 1988 Acrylic paint on canvas backed paper 2134 x 2134 mm Marlborough International Fine Art

The true creative genius here, though, in my opinion, is Bomberg, and this isn’t the first time he’s stood out for me in a survey show of twentieth century British art. Even before he left the Slade in 1913 Bomberg was producing stunningly original paintings with the merest nod to contemporary Cubism and Futurism. Between the wars he went off to paint landscapes in Spain; ‘Toledo from the Alcazar’ (1929), shown here, is a knockout. Both in his own work and in his later teaching at the Borough Polytechnic Bomberg was an advocate of ‘painterly’ values, and his importance in this regard to Auerbach, Kossoff and indeed Freud emerges very clearly in ‘All Too Human’. (I can’t illustrate his work because the organisers obviously don’t think it’s important enough to be included among their authorised images).

Pallant House Gallery in Chichester recently held a retrospective of Bomberg’s work but the Tate hasn’t had a major show on him since 1988. If anyone epitomises the search for truth through painting – the hallmark, you might say, of the School of London – for me it’s Bomberg. He deserves to be up there with Sickert, Spencer, Bacon and Freud.

NM

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life: Tate Britain till 27 August 2018

Lousy king, outstanding connoisseur of art: Charles I at the Royal Academy

Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, which last year smashed the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, was not considered one of the jewels of Charles I’s art collection. During the Interregnum, when ‘the late king’s goods’ were disposed of by the republican government, it was sold to a mason – the appropriately named John Stone – for £30, hardly a princely sum, even at seventeenth century prices. That will be one reason (I’m sure there are many others) why it’s not included in the Royal Academy’s new show, ‘Charles I: King and Collector’.

Sir Oliver Millar, the former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, thought that the perfect Charles I exhibition could only be mounted in the imagination, because it would mean borrowing some of the most famous pictures in the world. Well, the RA has had a decent stab at that, negotiating impressive loans from the Paris Louvre, the Museo del Prado in Madrid and elsewhere, by artists of the calibre of Breughel, Titian, Van Dyck, Rubens and Velasquez. By far the biggest lender, though, is the Queen: over two-thirds of exhibits on show at Burlington House are from the current Royal Collection; the walls at Windsor Castle must be looking very bare at the moment. After the Restoration, Charles II managed to buy back a significant chunk of his father’s estate, including such iconic images as Van Dyck’s ‘Charles I in Three Positions’ and other, lesser-known works, rarely seen today.

Key 64

Charles may have been a hopeless king but his eye for fine art was beyond reproach. One of his biggest coups was the purchase of Mantegna’s great cycle ‘The Triumphs of Caesar’ from the bankrupt Dukes of Gonzaga in 1629-32; all nine canvases (and they are huge) have been brought up from Hampton Court for the exhibition. In an adjoining room there’s a selection of tapestries from the Mortlake tapestry workshops based on the famous Raphael Cartoons, which Charles bought for £300 in 1623, when he was still Prince of Wales. Their acquisition demonstrates Charles’s astonishing precocity as a collector, all the more remarkable for having been achieved from a virtual standing start: earlier British monarchs weren’t exactly noted for their interest in the visual arts. ‘But wait’, I hear you say, ‘what about Holbein at the Court of Henry VIII?’ In fact, most of the Holbeins in the Royal Collection were acquired by Charles between 1625 and 1640.

The spotlight in the exhibition falls most dazzlingly of all on two of the biggest stars in the seventeenth century art firmament, Rubens and Van Dyck. Between them, the Flemish duo were responsible for transforming the unprepossessing king – he stood less than five foot in his stockinged feet – into, variously, archetypal country gent, proud family man, Rex Imperator, even St. George saving England from the dragon. The impact of these paintings on later British art would be enormous (on his deathbed Thomas Gainsborough is said to have murmured, ‘We are all going to heaven, and Vandyck is of the company’).’

Lesser talents on show include Orazio Gentileschi, father of the proto-feminist painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who has long been a personal favourite of mine. His seductive interpretations of some of the raunchier stories from the Old Testament (‘Lot and his Daughters’, ‘Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife’) adorned the Greenwich residence of Queen Henrietta Maria, who emerges here as no mean patron in her own right. In a nice touch, the labels on these and other works identify their original location in the collection, where known, according to the original inventories (‘Whitehall Palace, Little Room between the Breakfast Chamber and the Privy Gallery’).

2
Andrea Mantegna, Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers, c. 1484-92 Tempera on canvas, 269.5 x 280 cm RCIN 403961 Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Towards the end of the show, a room has been arranged in the manner of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ in the Royal Palace at Whitehall. Here the king would withdraw to admire smaller works ‘in the secresie of a retired and more solitary place’; these included drawings, statuettes, miniatures and ‘limnings’ – smaller copies of the highlights of the collection ‘in large’. Just when you think you’ve exhausted the potential of this room, you notice Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’ lurking in the shadows…

The RA is launching its 250th anniversary in grand style. And if all this isn’t enough, you might stroll through Green Park to The Queen’s Gallery to see Charles II: Art & Power (to 13 May). Truth be told, the Merrie Monarch wasn’t in the same class as his father when it came to collecting art. Still, it’s a worthy sequel – Charles II: It’s Buyback Time, you might say.

NM

Charles I: King and Collector, 27 January-15 April 2018

3
Anthony van Dyck, Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson, 1633 Oil on canvas, 219.1 x 134.8 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington. Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.39 Photo © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Modigliani at Tate Modern

If all the stories about Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) are true, you wonder how he found time to produce any art. Certainly, booze, drugs and women played a big part in Modigliani’s life after his arrival in Paris in 1906, his increasingly erratic behaviour fuelled no doubt by his frustration at the almost complete lack of public recognition of his work (unless you count the time when a show of his was closed as an offence against decency). Modigliani’s lifestyle took its toll on his health, which was never that good, and he was only 35 when he died of tubercular meningitis. Two days later his heavily-pregnant lover Jeanne Hébuterne jumped out of a window, killing herself and her unborn child.

This new show at Tate Modern does an excellent job of illuminating the avant-garde milieu from which most of Modigliani’s sitters were drawn: people like Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Anna Akhmatova, various dealers, and hangers-on like the actor Gaston Modot (who later starred in Buñuel’s film L’Age d’Or). Of Modigliani’s friends among artists there are portraits here of Brancusi, Miro, Picasso and a marvellously ebullient-looking Diego Rivera, although curiously there are no examples of the many likenesses that Modigliani made of Chiam Soutine. Towards the end of the exhibition you can immerse yourself still further in Bohemia with a VR recreation of Modigliani’s final studio at 8 rue de la Grande-Chaumière.

2
Amedeo Modigliani, Boy in Short Pants, c.1918, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of the Leland Fikes Foundation, Inc. 1977

With over 100 objects, the show dwarfs the last major Modigliani survey in the UK at the Royal Academy, back in 2006. A room crammed with early works demonstrates Modigliani’s debt to Cezanne and his gradual move away from naturalism. His initial preoccupation with sculpture is highlighted by a fabulous display of nine of his primitive-looking Heads. There’s a whole room of his nudes here too, 12 in all, arranged literally wall-to-wall in one of the biggest displays of them ever mounted. There’s even a rare example of Modigliani’s landscapes; he’s only known to have done four. The bulk of the show, though, is devoted to his portraits, with their characteristic long necks, sinuous curves and heavily stylized features. Modigliani may not be for all tastes (I know people who can’t stand him) but if, like me, you’re a fan, you certainly won’t be disappointed by what you get here.

3
Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne. 1919, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

My only reservation about the show is that nowhere does it really delve into Modigliani’s creative process, despite the fact that he was seemingly an artist who struggled to find a personal style, and even after he had done so continued to oscillate between Fauvism, Cubism and Pointillism. The excellent catalogue supplies some of the answers but more studio material (drawings in particular) would have been helped; the Modigliani phenomenon as a whole is well handled but the show is rather light on art history.

NM

Modigliani at Tate Modern 23 Nov-2 Apr 2018

Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys at the Courtauld Gallery

Pastry Cook of Cagnes (Le pâtissier de Cagnes _ Der Konditor von Cagnes), 1922. Private Collection
Pastry Cook of Cagnes (Le pâtissier de Cagnes _ Der Konditor von Cagnes), 1922. Private Collection

Chaim Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani met in Paris in 1915. Both were immigrants and also Jewish but otherwise their backgrounds were very different: Modigliani came from a middle class, liberal family from Livorno in Italy, whereas Soutine was raised in a desperately poor, very Orthodox shtetl near Minsk (now Belarus). The two occupied the same lodgings for a while, taking turns, so the story goes, to sleep in the only bed. More importantly, Modigliani also introduced Soutine to his dealer Léopold Zborowski.

Coincidentally (or maybe not coincidentally – I don’t know), the two artists each have exhibitions devoted to them in London this autumn. You don’t need a Jonathan Jones or an Alexander Graham-Dixon to tell you that Modigliani at Tate Modern will be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. First off, though, is this show at the Courtauld Gallery, which concentrates on the curious series that Soutine painted of serving staff from the luxury hotels and restaurants of Paris during the 1920s. It’s a small show, just twenty-odd paintings in two rooms, but it packs quite a punch.

Chaim Soutine 1893-1943, Bellboy, around 1925, oil on canvas Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d_art moderne Centre de creation industrielle
Chaim Soutine 1893-1943, Bellboy, around 1925, oil on canvas Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Musee national d’art moderne Centre de creation industrielle

What you get here is a remarkable gallery of types, all rendered in Soutine’s very idiosyncratic, rather melancholy, brand of Expressionism. The most endearing are the gawky teenaged pastry chefs with their outsized ears; Soutine must be the first artist to have used ears to anchor a composition. At the other end of the psychological spectrum is a marvellously sly valet de chambre, looking positively diabolical in his dark uniform. The rest tend to be cocky, hands-on-hips, defiant; clearly, there’s backstairs intrigue aplenty going on here. If Tim Burton (or, better still, Todd Browning of Freaks fame) had made ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’, it might have looked a bit like this.

Why were Soutine and other Jewish artists of the 20th Century – Bomberg, Kossoff, Auerbach – so attracted to Expressionism? Probably for the same reason that Soutine revered Rembrandt, famously recreating Rembrandt’s ‘Slaughtered Ox’ in his studio and driving the neighbours to distraction with the stench of rotting flesh. According to David Sylvester, Rembrandt appeals to Jewish sensibilities not just because of his Old Testament subjects but because he’s got soul.

La Soubrette (Waiting Maid), c.1933 (oil on canvas)
Waiting Maid (La soubrette), c.1933. Ben Uri Gallery & Museum

Soutine’s waiters and bellhops aren’t really portraits in the conventional sense, more like character studies, or ‘tronies’, to use the Dutch term. We know surprisingly little about his sitters, not even their names, apparently, in most cases. Presumably they agreed to pose for Soutine in order to augment their meagre wages; if so, they paid a heavy price in the marathon sessions that Soutine’s frenetic working methods demanded. Why, on the other hand, Soutine chose to make these paintings, which, on the face of it, had no obvious commercial appeal, is rather baffling and unfortunately the show isn’t very enlightening on this point.

No doubt when Modigliani opens on 23 November all roads will lead to Tate Modern. Yes, Modigliani is sexier but Soutine was also a great painter and this absorbing show should be seen as more than just a curtain-raiser for the Modigliani juggernaut.

NM

Courtauld Gallery, 19 October 2017 – 21 January 2018