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.
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.
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.
The plot of ‘Marnie’ has all the prime ingredients for dramatic classic opera: childhood secrets, multiple identities, unspoken feelings, disturbing relationships, kleptomania, lust, sex, treachery, betrayal and subterfuge. In creating his brand new opera for ENO and the Met in New York, American composer Nico Muhly turned not to the “insane sadism” of Alfred Hitchcock’s film (and his disturbing obsession with Tippi Hidren who starred as his eponymous heroine), but to the novel by Winston Graham, author of the ‘Poldark’ series, on which Nicholas Wright based the libretto. Comparisons will inevitably be made with the film and the novel, but I deliberately avoided seeing the film ahead of the premiere and have not read the book. Muhly brings the action back to England (as in the book) and the first act opens in a drab 1950s office in Birmingham before moving to Barnet and Beaconsfield.
One of the key themes explored in the opera is the control and objectification of women via the lustful male gaze. This of course is up-to-the-minute topical and lends an additional frisson to the drama. Throughout Marnie is being watched, tracked and objectified – from her first meeting with Mark Rutland to the queasily flirtatious encounter with his brother Terry (brilliantly sung by counter-tenor James Laing, whose voice is by turns wheedling and shrill). To emphasise this further, she is stalked by a group of sinister men in grey suits and homburg hats, who step in and out of the shadowy corners of Marnie’s conscious and the set, providing a constant masculine antagonism (both physical and metaphorical), and whose writhing dancing also serves to inform the narrative.
It is the psychology of Marnie herself on which the plot hinges and music is the means by which her secrets are unlocked. Instruments at their highest and lowest registers (specifically a solo oboe) become the mouthpieces for her when she is under the most extreme pressure. In the same way, each instrument is paired with a character in order to express his or her unspoken feelings. In a narrative where people are continually lying, the orchestra, by contrast, never lies: Mark Rutland’s lust is expressed by the trombone, while Terry’s loucheness is portrayed by a sleazy sinewy trumpet motif. Thus sound is used to convey powerful emotions in a way the text or action don’t always inform us: trembling slicing strings, frenetic percussion, shrill yet haunting woodwind, together with urgent agitato rhythms or long layers of sound and spooling melodies. The splendid ENO chorus is also used to great effect, acting at times like a Greek chorus to comment on the action, taunting Marnie or revealing her inner thoughts. Her psyche is further expressed through four Marnie-clones, whose vividly-coloured costumes vibrate against the drab set. These “Shadow Marnies”, as Muhly calls them, are particular effective in the psychiatric analysis scene in Act II where they interchange with one another and Marnie herself, suggesting her confused mindset as she confronts her complex emotional landscape and troubled past.
Sasha Cooke as Marnie is marvellous, her mezzo voice resonant and expressive (and brilliantly sustained throughout as she barely leaves the stage during the entire opera), and her interactions with Mark Rutland, sensitively played by David Okulitch, who succeeds in appearing both sexually predatory and vulnerable (and as a consequence one of the more sympathetic characters in a cast of generally unlikeable people) are edgy and compelling in their portrayal of this couple’s difficult relationship. Lesley Garrett makes a wonderful cameo appearance as Mrs Rutland, the manipulative matriarch.
The costumes, designed by Arianne Phillips, are fabulous – deeply evocative of the era (late 1950s) and a hommage to the Hitchcock film too. Martyn Brabbins, in his first appearance as the new director of music of ENO, conducts with subtle sensitivity, while the spare set and staging allows characters and music to come to the fore with tautly-paced drama (at times almost unbearably tense, particularly in the first act) and moments of deeply disquieting dramatic irony. The only longueur for me was the fox hunting scene (used in the narrative as a metaphor for Marnie’s constant flight from her past and her persecutors). Not easy to stage, it was cleverly organised with a projection of galloping hooves, but it was not entirely convincing and was rather too drawn out.
Overall, a compelling and enigmatic psycho-thriller.
Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile, 1870-1904
Tate Britain, London. 2 November 2017 – 7 May 2018
1871. France is ravaged by the Franco-Prussian war. Paris is under siege and rife with insurrection. Thousands flee the country in search of refuge and a new life away from war and revolution. Amongst those that fled to England in the wake of the traumatic events were a small group of artists and sculptors. They faced no entry restrictions and were welcomed into the country, with leave to stay indefinitely.
The premise for this exhibition is an intriguing one; sadly, in reality it’s a dull, worthy survey of French art produced in England at the tail end of Victoria’s reign. Claude Monet, who came to London to avoid conscription into the French army, lived not in a poor artist’s garret, but in chintzy lodgings on High Street Kensington (see ‘Meditation’, the picture of Madame Monet on the sofa, c.1871), and James Tissot, who cannot truly be considered an Impressionist painter (though this doesn’t seem to worry the Tate), had access to Victorian high society, replete with all its feathers and furbelows. In fact, his paintings are some of the more interesting works on display: he captured Victorian Londoners d’une certaine classe at play, at soirees and boating parties, picnics and park strolls. Neither artist could be considered to be “struggling” when he arrived in London, and the group of French artists active in London towards the end of the nineteenth century were quickly taken under the wing of sponsors, dealers and patrons, who offered mentoring and financial support, notably Charles-François Daubigny (who supported Monet), Jean-Baptise Faure and Paul Durand-Ruel, who purchased over 5000 impressionist works in his lifetime.
There are some attractive Pissarros and Sisleys in the exhibition, scenes of London and its suburbs, its people and their everyday lives. As the visitor moves inexorably towards the famous Monets, there are three exquisite Whistler paintings of the Thames – blue-grey nocturnes with delicate dabs of yellow lights. Before that, one must run the gamut of some pretty tedious sculptures by Jules Dalou and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
The penultimate room contains the six paintings of the Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet. Like his series of Rouen Cathedral, haystacks and of course the waterlilies, these paintings share the same viewpoint (from Monet’s window or a terrace at St Thomas’ Hospital overlooking the Thames) and are painted at different times of the day. They all share elements of the same palette of misty mauves, blues, pinks and oranges, but they don’t vibrate with quite the same astonishing resonance as the waterlilies series, and their impact is rather dulled by the lavender-coloured walls on which they are hung.
In the final room is an odd little trio of works by Paul Derain. It feels like an after-thought because the works are so different to what has gone before. Here London’s river life is portrayed in the hot earthy colours of the south of France and Derain’s Fauvist eye.
The exhibition title and the publicity material – a detail of one of Monet’s misty evocations of the Houses of Parliament – and the lure of six of Monet’s Houses of Parliament series on display together for the first time in 40 years will have the crowds queuing for entry, but I fear they will be disappointed. This is not an exhibition about Impressionism, but rather a dry examination of French émigré artists London in the 1870s-90s. As such, it’s really not that interesting…..
(header picture: Claude Monet – Houses of Parliament, Sunlight effect, 1903. Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)
Richard Jones’s sombre Rodelinda, returning to the Coliseum after a three-year break, is a far cry from the frothiness of ENO’s Partenope, which I reviewed back in March.
Grimoaldo, not content with stealing the throne from rightful king Bertarido, has designs on his queen, Rodelinda, while sidekick Garibaldo sets his cap at her sister-in-law Eduige. Missing-presumed-dead Bertarido, meanwhile, delays revealing himself in order to test Rodelinda’s fidelity – with disastrous results. There’s plenty in this farrago for Jones, with his trademark pitch-black humour, to get his teeth into.
Jeremy Herbert’s multi-level set relocates the action to seedy post-war Milan, where Rodelinda dresses as Anna Magnani in neorealist widow’s weeds. Jones’s stagecraft, inventive as ever, incorporates CCTV, Mafia blood ritual, neon, tango, Michelangelo’s Pieta and no doubt much else that I missed.
Everything moves at a frenetic pace. Doors bang, knives flash; nobody’s still for long in Jones operas (he’s even supplied some treadmills downstage this time). I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that performers should stand like statues to sing their arias, as in the old days, but you do begin to crave a bit more gravitas.
When Jones is good, though, he’s very good. The undoubted highlight is the reconciliation duet at the end of Act II: as Rodelinda and Bertarido sing ‘Io t’abbraccio’ (‘I embrace you’), the set slowly divides – sending them in different directions, as if in ironic counterpoint to the text. It’s a glorious fusion of music and spectacle, something only live opera can do.
Rebecca Evans, back in the title role for this production, sings beautifully, from the early bravura arias through to her final haunting lament, ‘Se’l mio duol’. Countertenor Tim Mead makes a charismatic Bertarido, and Spanish tenor Juan Sancho is a wonderfully sleazy Grimoaldo. Susan Bickley, Neal Davies and Christopher Lowrey lend strong support in the subsidiary roles, and there’s a sly, non-singing turn from Matt Casey as Rodelinda’s son Flavio.
If the evening belongs to anyone, though, it’s probably Christian Curnyn, who spins Baroque gold from the ENO Orchestra in the pit. Curnyn’s transparent love of Handel’s music is highly contagious and he rightly received the loudest ovations on opening night.
Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, 26 October 2017 – 11 February 2018
Paul Cézanne’s gardener, M. Vallier, peers out from under the wide brim of his straw hat, his eyes shaded from the sun. He sits cross-legged on a chair in a shaft of light in the garden of the artist’s house in the hills near Aix-en-Provence. Probably painted in the summer and autumn of 1906, shortly before Cézanne’s death in October that year, it shows the artist’s unique method of building form with colour using distinct overlapping brushstrokes, and his desire to capture the exact tone of each element. It’s striking and original, at once enigmatic (what is the gardener thinking?) and intimate. It is one of 50 revealing portraits in this new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery by the artist more usually associated with bowls of apples and the craggy outline of Mount Saint Victoire, which he painted repeatedly in his obsessive interest in portraying the absolute essence of the subject.
There has not been an exhibition of portraits by Paul Cézanne since 1907, which seems incredible given the quality of these works and the window they offer onto the artist’s creative development: Cézanne painted portraits throughout his working life, and these striking paintings tell us a great deal about him, serving as markers in his prolific career and revealing the most personal and human aspects of his work.
Portraiture was popular in Paris in the 1860s, encouraged by the state-sponsored annual Salon exhibitions. But unlike his peers, Cézanne never received a portrait commission during his career. So he eschewed the “triumph of bourgeois art”, capturing the exact likeness of the sitter in the rather insipid style of portrait painting prevalent at the time, and instead directed his intense gaze on a handful of sitters – his wife Hortense, members of his family (notably, his father and his Uncle Dominique), friends, servants and himself. Out of these apparently ordinary subjects he created extraordinary paintings which say far more about him the artist than the lives of the people he painted. It’s an astonishing display, drawn from collections across the world, including works never before seen on public display in the UK. The exhibition is staged in conjunction with the Musée d’Orsay and Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art.
The early works are painted in what Cézanne called his “maniere couillarde” (literally, “ballsy style”), the paint confidently applied using a palette knife, with a preference for contrasting pigments of dark and light. Impressionist-style “patches” of colour are used not to suggest the shifting effects of light but rather to denote the form and structure of the sitter’s body – the jut of a cheek or angle of the forehead – an approach which later found favour with the Cubists and the Fauves, and must have seemed revoluationary at the time. In a self-portrait based on a photograph, the artist’s eyes, bloodshoot and almost aggressive, peer out in a direct, challenging gaze, the choice of colours sinister and gloomy. In others, he portrays himself in a bowler hat, his favoured headgear in his later years. He found the domed shape appealing, taking pleasure in modelling solid geometric forms (again something later taken up by the Cubists). He places himself in a familiar pose, looking back over his shoulder, his right eye engaging with the viewer. Again the paint is applied with confident brushtrokes, adding depth, vigour and structure to the picture.
The slightly guarded or enigmatic manner in which sitter engages with viewer is notable in many of the portraits. While the sitter may appear face on, the gaze is rarely direct, asking more questions than it answers. Cézanne reveals little about his subjects – that is not his primarily interest. Instead, he tells us more about how he paints, how he creates the work, its structure, composition and physical form.
Cézanne painted around 30 portraits of Hortense, his lover and later his wife. Her plainnness – oval face, symmetrically parted hair – makes her the ideal subject for his interest in and exploration of form over the portrayal of the inner personality. Details on her dress, the furnishings in the room in which she sits, the shimmering stripes of her skirt are brought to life with Cézanne’s vigorous technique, while her face is delineated with flat planes of colour which contrast with her surroundings. Confidently produced, the work surpassing Cézanne’s earlier potraits, these pictures of Hortense are arresting and intimate with a strong rapport between sitter and painter.
Cézanne’s portraits not only invite us into the world he knew; they also allow us to contemplate the continuing inventiveness of the artist at work
– John Elderfield, curator
This is a highly engaging exhibition, intelligently curated with a wealth of impressive loans, all attractively displayed, despite the rather disjointed layout of rooms. It is another triumph for the National Portrait Gallery in a series of heavyweight exhibitions of portraiture by key European modern and contemporary artists (Grayson Perry, Giacometti, Picasso), doubtless led by the vision of the current director, Nicholas Cullinan. No longer the poor relation to the National Gallery next door, the National Portrait Gallery proclaims its status as one of the most significant players in London’s artistic life.
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.
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.
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.
Last autumn London’s Royal Academy of Arts gave us Abstract Expressionism, a mighty exhibition celebrating the output of the stellar artists of the genre – Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning and their contemporaries. This year, in what may be a deliberate sense of continuity, the RA’s major winter exhibition focuses on the work of the American artist Jasper Johns, whose renditions of familiar or very recognisable objects – flags, targets, maps, beer cans, numbers, and letters – provide a daring counterpoint to the subjectivity and portrayal of the “inner self” of the Abstract Expressionists.
The exhibition comprises over 150 works, spans over 60 years of Johns’ life and is the first major survey of the artist’s work to be shown in the UK in 40 years. If this sounds exhaustive, visitors can expect to be pleasantly surprised on entering the large rooms of Burlington House. The size of Johns’ work, and the intelligent way in which it is displayed, prevents this exhibition from becoming too overwhelming. But it’s undeniably intense – the introspective nature of his work and his determination to give little of himself away in his art. The exhibition is presented thematically rather than chronologically, so that the viewer can chart the evolution of Johns’ personal iconography and his lifelong interest in repetition and variation.
Most people associate with Jasper Johns with paintings of flags. His flag paintings were made in the 1950s, during the Cold War and at a time when America was replete with patriotism, exceptionalism and anti-Soviet sentiment. The American flag is a potent, almost cult-like symbol, a clarion call to national unity, and common purpose, a social sign which resists aesthetic transformation. In Flag (1958), created the year of the artist’s highly auspicious exhibition at the Leo Castelli gallery in New York, we find the US flag replicated exactly in its dimensions and appearance. But when Johns painted a flag he used a technique called encaustic (heated beeswax) which creates unusual complex textures on the canvas. Treated this way the flag, that powerful icon of America, becomes something else – is it still an American flag? Does it now symbolise something completely different or has it lost its meaning altogether? With that crinkled, tattered surface it could symbolise a nation battered and bruised but still holding it all together…… Truth or illusion. Truth or post-truth. This is the essence of Johns’ artistic raison d’etre and in the 1950s it represented a significant move away from the navel-gazing of the Abstract Expressionists and a return to realism.
This appropriation of familiar objects – flags, targets, beer cans, numbers – and their transformation through Johns’ distinctive techniques makes the familiar unfamiliar and challenges us to examine these objects and symbols in different ways, without the nuance of their original meaning or significance. A painted target, for example, is no longer a real one: seen aesthetically, as a painting in a gallery, its original purpose is now lost. It is no longer a sign but an image designed to “delay the eye”. In a way it operates in the same sphere as Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas un pipe (This is not a pipe) – because it is a painting, not a flag.
Johns would show what could be done with things that were not invented – things so well known that they were not well seen
– Robert Hughes, ‘The Shock of The New’
Gradually, other familiar objects – brooms, beer cans, light bulbs, torches – found their way into Johns’ work, thus paving the way for Pop Art. Later works move into abstraction with his cross-hatchings, while the work from the 1980s and 90s explores ambiguities of perception and themes of memory, sexuality, and the contemplation of mortality.
His work is not always immediately accessible and he is famously enigmatic (he rarely gives interviews), but the pieces in this exhibition demand close interrogation and while their meaning or intent may not be immediately apparent, his technical and artistic assuredness is always evident. The development of his approach is charted through these works and his diversity and imagination is what makes this show so interesting. If you attended the RA’s Anselm Kiefer exhibition in 2014, this survey of Johns’ work acts as a useful comparison – two living artists with distinct and highly personal approaches to art and their portrayal of the world in which they exist.