Dulwich Printmaking Show Impresses

 

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Dorrit Black, Music, 1927-28EZ2l3yZg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

KH

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

 

Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera. A Revelation.

 

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Verdi and the Naples censor when preparing “Ballo”, 1857–58, caricature by Delfico

 

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, nearly didn’t see the light of day.

The problem lay in Italy’s troubled political situation and the opera’s libretto, based on the assassination of King Gustave III in 1793 during a masked ball. 

When Verdi was set to stage it in Naples in January 1858, the authorities were given more reason to feel jittery. Three Italian revolutionists, who saw Napoleon III as a hindrance to Italy’s unification, threw three bombs at the Emperor’s carriage in Paris. He was making his way to the opera with his wife. The bombs exploded, killing horses, staff. There were eight fatalities and a hundred were injured. Miraculously the Emperor and Empress escaped unharmed!

Back in Naples, the terrified censors asked Verdi to change his story-line, worried over the incendiary message the opera may be sending to the people. Verdi refused. The Neopolitans took to the streets, shouting ‘Viva Verdi.’ Verdi’s surname got caught up in the unification movement and became a code name for those who wanted Vittorio Emmanuele Re DItalia as King.

It wasn’t until February 1859 that Verdi agreed to change the name of the opera (it had taken on several different titles, Gustavo III and even Un Vendetta) to Un Ballo in Maschera, and for the narrative to be set as far away as Boston!

Nowadays the opera is back to its original Swedish setting. It is a political opera but with a love story thrown in. On a deeper level it is also, as the name suggests, an opera about secrecy and the suppression of truth.

Rodula Gaitanou, director of Holland Park Opera’s production, provided a sumptuous opening, drawing on the secrecy theme. It opens on a fencing school, the chorus and main singers, indistinguishable from each other, in their fencing apparel and visors. The set of wood panelling, stretching right  across the stage behind them, shields them from the outside world but also provides secret doors, through which those with things to hide, can disappear.

In the middle of the fencing class, a tightly-suited, young man with shapely thighs, leapt across the set, confidently wielding his foil. Oscar, King Gustavo’s page, is a wonderful incarnation and Alison Langer, bright-voiced and cheeky, sang him to perfection.

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But it is not only the staging, direction and cameo roles which impress, in this Holland Pk production. Matteo Lippi as King Gustavo never ceased to hold the audience’s attention on the night that I went, with his sympathetic portrayal of the pleasure-loving, decent monarch facing sentimental and political problems. His fine-phrased, focused singing seemed ideally suited to his role as chivalrous admirer to Amelia, his best friend’s wife. I also appreciated Lippe’s authentic rendering (he is Italian-born) of what seemed to be a simple folksong ‘Di’ tu se fedele/Tell me if the sea awaits me faithfully” and imagined the Italian audiences of Verdi’s time humming along to it.

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Anne-Sophie Duprels’s voice meanwhile, expressed all the torment of Amelia’s perilous standing. Married, and loving her husband’s best friend, from afar, she faced two years imprisonment in Verdi’s time, should she commit the unpardonable. Italian audiences would have been painfully aware of this fact.

Most heart-breaking and mournful however was her aria, ‘cello obbligato Morrò, ma prima in grazia, where she begs her husband, Anckaström, not to take her son away. I can still see her now, holding her baby to her breast, her face expressing loss, confusion, terror. Duprel’s goes to the very heart of this poor, defenceless woman.

Anckaström’s baritone voice, controlled, and also steely was excellent in Eri tu where he reveals his   contradictory emotions towards his wife, who he still loves.

I had never been to see Un Ballo in Maschera; perhaps I had been deterred by what I thought to be its innocuous title. The opera does have protracted scenes. In Act 1 Scene 2 for example, at the fortune teller’s. Rosalind Plowright singing Madame Arvidson provided a mesmerising performance however, her tall, crane-like figure occupying the stage, and her eerie contralto voice kept me on the edge of my seat. She had already made her mark in OHP’s Queen of Spades several years before. Once seen, never forgotten!

For three days now I have been reliving the highlights, the arias, duets, quintets. It is a very rich work musically and City of London Sinfonia orchestra under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s baton was seamless and totally in synch with the singers. I couldn’t detect any timing issues.

 This is a very slick production all round. Go! Only a few performances left!

KH

Un Ballo in Maschera is on for a few more dates : Friday 21st June, Tuesday 25th June, Thursday 27th June, Friday 28th June and Saturday 29th June.

https://operahollandpark.com/season-and-events/

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

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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. 

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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.’ 

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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

Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern

 

Natal’ya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were the power couple of the Russian avant-garde. They first met at art school in Moscow in 1898, where they were talent-spotted by the theatrical impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The two gained further recognition by exhibiting with various short-lived groups: Knave of Diamonds (named by Larionov because of its vaguely subversive associations), Plevok (‘spit’) and The Donkey’s Tail (don’t ask). Larionov was no slouch when it came to self-promotion but Goncharova garnered more column inches because of her sex. In 1910 she was arrested on charges of peddling ‘pornography’, i.e. nudity; she helped things along by wearing trousers in public and appearing in experimental cabaret daubed in body paint and not much else.

As Tate’s new retrospective reveals, Goncharova’s early work was relentlessly experimental and impressively diverse: besides her paintings, she turned her hand to book illustration, printmaking and designs for fashion, textiles and the theatre. Her preferred subject-matter was a rather idealised version of peasant life: hay cutting, apple picking, harvesting and so on. She used an unholy mix of modernist styles du jour: Neo-Primitivism, Cubo-Futurism and a weird, semi-mystical form of abstraction known as Rayonism, which had been dreamt up by Larionov (who gets short shrift here, by the way).

 

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Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) Peasants Picking Apples 1911 Oil paint on canvas 1045 x 980 mm State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Received from the Museum of Artistic Culture 1929 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

 

Despite the undoubted influence of the School of Paris on her work Goncharova roundly denounced Western art and pledged her soul to ‘the source of all arts, the East’. This meant adding to the mix folk art, religious icons – very risky – and, above all, the glorious tradition of the Russian popular woodcut (lubok), grandaddy of, among other things, today’s criminal tattoo art. The overall effect is exuberant, eclectic – I think I spotted some Pointillism in there as well – and invigorating. It’s also very uneven, deliberately so; her four ‘Evangelists’ (1911), for example, which caused much scandal, are as coarsely painted as scenery flats.

 

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Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) Orange Seller 1916 Oil paint on canvas 1310 x 970 mm Museum Ludwig © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

 

Goncharova’s big break came when Diaghilev took her to Paris to work on designs for Rimski-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or, which brought her international fame. In 1915 she and Larionov settled permanently in Paris, never to return to Russia. This meant that they missed out on all the later artistic and political upheavals: Suprematism, Constructivism and, of course, the Revolution. Living in genteel poverty in a small flat on the Left Bank, their work became decorative and rather tame. Goncharova’s creative urges waned still further after Diaghilev’s death in 1929; she eventually died aged 81 in 1962, Larionov two years later. At the risk of exposing my ‘bourgeois’ tendencies, I have to say I rather like the prettified version of Cubism that Goncharova adopted in her Paris years (see above). All the same, Tate is probably right to concentrate on the glory days.

However, most visitors to this show will probably gravitate towards the final room, covering Goncharova’s work for Ballets Russes, for which she’s probably best known. Here you can admire her dazzling sets and costumes for Les Noces, Sadko and the Firebird, as well as Le Coq d’Or, while the music of Stravinsky strums away in the background.

 

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Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern until 8 September 2019

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Installation image, Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern, 2019. Photo:©Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood)

Header image credit: Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies, 1907-1908 Oil paint on canvas 775 x 582 mm State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Purchased 1927 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Rowan Hudson – Passing Ships

Guest review by Doug Thomas

Rowan Hudson is a British pianist and composer who stands halfway between the worlds of jazz and minimalism. His musical activity is diverse – playing with his piano trio with JJ Stillwell (bass) and Angus Bishop (drums), his duo with singer Richard Hadfield, his six-piece group Nattacackle, and his new five-piece group Passing Ships with whom he has just released a debut album, Rowan Hudson’s Passing Ships. With his piano trio and the addition of Sophie Creaner on clarinet and Sophie English on the cello, Hudson delivers a project full of cool jazz harmonies, pictorial sounds tinted with Delius-esque passages (the pianist writes a blog dedicated to the English composer), and humorous textures.

Passing Ships starts with Transatlantic; it is built on a dominant tonality that creates a pulse of tension, progressively unfolding and over which the ensemble decorates and sets contrasting pictures and textural idioms. Hudson might have been influenced by the works of The Dave Brubeck Quartet, and it is visible through Wind-up Birds. Here the prominence of the cello creates an opportunity for the composer to develop the structural aspect of the piece, making it richer and richer, and at times more intense and perhaps darker. Ometepe Patterns is based on pianistic musical cells that provide a foundation for the clarinet and the cello to jokingly sing. The Lighthouse is a lot more melancholic and very lightly built on an odd rhythmical structure that creates a musical sway.

Although all the album has been fully composed, pieces like Pianosa display Hudson’s talent at creating true organic conversations between the instruments. It is based on a dancing pizzicato pattern on the cello and double bass, with a responding and contrasting cymbal. Finally, the very descriptive Longitude reflects on the passing of time and monotony; the pianistic ostinato, the beating cymbaling of the waves and the liquid motion of the cello.

Hudson’s music is very light in spirit, and at times whimsical. One can really hear the musicians interacting with each other, and enjoying their performance, and this reflects on the listener’s experience. While listening to Passing Ships, I had pictures of Renoir, Manet, Sisley, Monet and Pissaro. But most importantly I could see the pictorial landscapes of Bournemouth, Margate, Brighton or St Ives. In this album, there is a sensation of joyfulness, lightness and peace of mind; there are images of children running on the shore, couples cruising away from it, and friends playing on the dunes. A musical escape from the grey sounds of the city.

Rowan Hudson’s Passing Ships is available on CD or via download. More information

Meet the Artist interview with Rowan Hudson


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London and a regular writer for ArtMuseLondon.

Read more

 

This review first appeared on Doug Thomas’ own site

The Art of Recycling: THE ROYAL ACADEMY SUMMER EXHIBITION 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

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

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

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

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

JCH

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2019 sponsored by Insight Investment

10thJune – 12 August 2019

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

‘Mrs Pollock’ breaks free of her husband’s shadow in a vibrant burst of colour and energy

Lee Krasner: Living Colour

so good you would not know it was done by a woman – Hans Hofman

For too long the artist Lee Krasner (1908-1984) lived in the overbearing shadow of her alcoholic husband, Jackson Pollock, in both life and death. Yet when they met in 1941, she was already developing a significant career for herself as an artist in her own right who earned praise – and a dancing partner – from Piet Mondrian, amongst others. But that was then – when women were sidelined, overlooked or just ignored (Krasner changed her name from Lena to the andrognous “Lee” in response to this) – and this is now. And this long overdue exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery – the first in Europe in 50 years – reveals Krasner as an important artist in her own right, a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism who adopted an entirely abstract approach which endured throughout her life. Her artistic language was distinctive, independent and continually evolving. Unlike many of her contemporaries, her husband included, she refused to develop a ‘signature image’, preferring to “believe in continuity”.

Largely organised chronologically (take the mini guide with a map as the exibition layout is initially rather confusing), the Barbican show actually begins with work created in 1945 and after, when Krasner moved to Springs, Long Island, with her new husband, Jackson Pollock. While Pollock worked in his own studio, Krasner set up her own makeshift studio space in a bedroom. The paintings produced during this period may be small in scale but include a wealth of precise detail, and they pulsate with an energy redolent of her husband’s famous drip paintings. These jewel-like abstractions, and the mosaic tables she created from old wagon wheels, prove that size need not be a constraint on the freedom of artistic imagination.

You can have a tiny painting which is monumental in scale

– Lee Krasner

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Lee Krasner, 1908-1984 Self Portrait, 1930 Oil on linen 30 1/9 x 25 1/8 in. The Jewish Museum

The exhibition then backtracks to Krasner’s early years, when as young woman she started experimenting with self-portraits. By 1928 she had graduated from the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union, and was due to commence her studies at the prestigious National Academy of Design. These self-portraits are confident works, her love of colour and bold strokes already evident. Examples of her life drawing, classical in style but assured and uninhibited, are displayed in the next room, opposite her early adventures in abstraction: the influence of the cubists, and particularly Picasso is clear in these works.

The most significant work on the upper floor of this exhibition is Prophecy (1956) a large canvas dominated by fleshy human forms and gashes of red and yellow. Boldly outlined with black, the work was painted at a time when her relationship with the unfaithful, alcoholic Pollock was under considerable strain. She herself was disturbed by the painting, leaving it on her easel while she went to France. On 12 August 1956 she received a telephone call informing her that Pollock had crashed his car, killing himself and Edith Metzger, a friend of his lover Ruth Kligman. Just a few weeks after the funeral, Krasner returned to her painting, creating equally troubled, psychological companion pieces to ProphecyBirth, Embrace and Three in Two, which are reunited in this exhibition.

In the downstairs rooms of the Barbican Art Gallery, a series of spacious white rooms allow the viewer to fully appreciate Krasner’s ongoing artistic development. It was as if the loss of her husband allowed her artistic vision and creativity to really take flight, and the works on display here are big-boned, expansive and highly expressive. Colours bounce exuberantly from the canvasses – soft shapes in vibrant crimsons and hot fuchsia pinks which pay homage to one of her artistic heroes, Henri Matisse. Even her monotone canvasses in umber and white, painted at nighttime during periods of insomnia, are vivid and gestural. Her willingness, or need, to create and reinvent, to move forward, is seen clearly in the ‘Palingenesis’ series, paintings with hard-edged abstract forms in which cool blues and greens join Krasner’s favourite reds and pinks. These works have a minimalist grace and a sense of peace, expansive yet restrained.

The same hard-edged forms find new expression in her ‘Eleven Ways’ collages, created from earlier works and cut with scissors to achieve “precise incision” (her earlier collages were made from torn paper and her old canvasses and even some of Pollock’s discarded works). The juxtaposition of shapes bring energy and dynamism to these striking works.

In an age when the habit of identifying artists, writers and composers as “female artist/writer/composer” seems paramount, Krasner’s work confirms that there is no need for such distinctions, that it is all just “art” – and very fine art it is too.

Recommended

FW


Lee Krasner: Living Colour

Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 1 September 2019

 

Header image: Desert Moon, 1955. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. © 2018. Digital Image Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource NY/Scala, Florence