Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’

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’

Jasper Johns – Fool’s House (1962)

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.

Until 10 December 2017

Royal Academy of Arts, London




Objects from the inside out: Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Pink ‘Torso’

It’s not often that one gets to see the inside of a hot water bottle, but there are plenty of opportunities to do so at the major new exhibition of Rachel Whiteread’s work at Tate Britain. She calls these ‘Torsos’ and describes them as “headless, limbless babies”. Cast in a variety of materials – plaster, resin, wax, concrete – they are plump and tactile and look easy to cuddle.

In 1993 Whiteread was the first female winner of the Turner Prize and this exhibition celebrates the legacy of that: 25 years of sculpture that is distinctively hers and instantly recognisable. Her sculptures focus on “negative space”, the interior volume that fills objects and buildings (she first came to prominence with her ‘House’ (1993), a concrete cast of the interior of an entire terrace house in East London), an approach which reveals hitherto unseen and often minute details and textures of buildings, doors, walls, the underside of a bed and other every day objects which provide the inspiration for her work. From her witty response to the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square (simply a clear resin cast of the actual plinth, placed upside down on the original) to her resonant and deeply poignant Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, her work is strikingly powerful with its spare, minimalist monumentalism.

Line Up, 2007-8 (copyright Rachel Whiteread)

To best appreciate this Tate Britain has removed the walls of the exhibition space (which earlier this year hosted the David Hockney show) which gives visitors the opportunity to take in the scale of Whiteread’s pieces, including the Untitled (Room 101), the room at the BBC where George Orwell worked during the war and said to be the inspiration for Room 101 in his dystopian novel ‘1984’, and Untitled (Stairs), two staircases from her studio (a former synagogue) turned inside out via her personal artistic process to create a large yet curiously airy sculpture which inhabits the space. The nature of her work gives it an ancient feel – a bathtub becomes a sarcophagus, the apex of a house roof, made from papier maché, is redolent of a Grecian temple freize. There are smaller works too – Line Up, a series of cast coloured cylinders looks like Edinburgh Rock and good enough to eat. And out in the light-filled Duveen galleries her Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) 1995 installation of 100 resin casts of the underside of chairs is a delicious arrangement of giant cuboid fruit jellies.



Until 21 January 2018 tate.org.uk


(header image: Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) 1995 © Rachel Whiteread)

High-rise Harmonielehre

A concert in a carpark, orchestra and audience gathered on level 8 of a 1980s brutalist hulk of concrete in Peckham, south-west London. It all sounds rather J G Ballard-esque, and indeed the way in to the venue is a grubby, litter-strewn entrance beside the PeckhamPlex cinema. There’s a bouncer in attendance and some heavy-duty metal barriers such as one might see at a demo. At the box office, we’re given a not a ticket but a wrist band, as if we’re attending a secret rave. The BBC Proms logo reassures us that we’ve come to the right place. It’s a hot day so a visit to the chemical loos on the top floor of the carpark requires a deep breath and a strong stomach.

In fact the Bold Tendencies multi-storey carpark arts venue is far from J G Ballard’s dystopian visions of violent chaos in the teeming, thrusting city. If anything, it’s a modern-day utopia, this ugly building revived (but hardly refurbished) as a space for art, drama and music, food and drink, shared purpose, community and conviviality. Twenty years ago the notion of presenting classical music in such a venue would have been laughed out of town; today it’s proving a popular venue for concerts by the resident Multi-Story Orchestra, and this is the second year the Proms have ventured outside the plush crimson-and-gold splendour of the Royal Albert Hall to present concerts in Peckham.

The traditional rules of engagement of classical music are more relaxed in this unusual setting. Complaints about extraneous noise or inappropriate applause are rendered redundant, for the music is regularly suffused with the sounds of south London – rattling trains and honking traffic on Peckham Rye. The acoustic in this uncompromisingly stark urban venue is surprisingly good: the low ceilings amplify and funnel the sound, and the close proximity of orchestra to audience creates a compelling immediacy to the performance. The atmosphere in the audience is a lot more relaxed – there were children and babes in arms at the performance I attended, and you can take your drinks into the performance space (there’s a rather cool bar on the top floor where they will mix you a mean Negroni). But the audience’s commitment to the performance matched that of the musicians, proof that you can hold a concert anywhere provided musicians and music are of the highest standard. The venue may be unusual, but there’s nothing novel about the quality and conviction of Multi-Story Orchestra.

Christopher Stark conducts the Multi-Story Orchestra and Multi-Story Youth Choir

John Adams’ gigantic, absorbing Harmonielehre was the central work of the concert. A symphony in all but name inspired by Adams’ surreal dreams, this three-movement work takes its title from Schoenberg’s textbook on harmony, and in it Adams pays homage to the monumental works and rich romanticism of Mahler, Wagner, Sibelius and pre-atonal Schoenberg. Rejecting the more rigid minimalism of his compatriots Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Adams’ work fuses the familiar elements of minimalism – spooling motifs, complex rhythms, shifting time signatures – with the opulence of fin-de-siècle romanticism: thus the second movement, for example, does not directly quote from the Adagio of Mahler’s tenth symphony, but rather is a palimpsest, recalling with unfolding pain the earlier work, its rich textures and haunting melodies interwoven with Adam’s distinct use of sparkling percussion and trembling strings. From the booming, powerfully attention-grabbing repeated chords and propulsive energy of the first movement to the third movement, which unfolds like the sunrise opening prelude of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder before building in intensity to an astonishing, emphatic blaze of sound, this was a performance which enthralled, the sounds of the city absorbed into Multi-Story Orchestra’s full-bodied surround sound.

Kate Whitley’s I Am I Say was written in 2016 for local schoolchildren and was performed by the Multi-Story Youth Choir, a wonderful group of young voices whose clear diction presented the music’s forthright message of hope and anger. Organised in three parts, this bold, energetic and empowering work is a heartfelt plea to wake up and care for the world around us. Built on subtle repeated motifs, the music ebbed and swelled to fill the carpark concert space in a rousing and expressive finale.

A wake up call of a different kind opened the concert: Bach’s beautiful Chorale Prelude Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Sleepers Awake!), orchestrated by Granville Bantock, its tender and meltingly familiar melody played with an enveloping warmth, infused with the unmistakable sounds of the big city.



(pictures: BBC)



East meets West: Prom 41

‘Passages’ by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass

Britten Sinfonia with Anoushka Shankar, sitar, Karen Kamensek, conductor, Alexa Mason, soprano

Tuesday 15th August 2017

The Late Proms, introduced in 2012, offer a slightly different musical experience to the main concerts and often feature non-mainstream classical music, jazz or specially-themed concerts (such as the Ibiza Prom and Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights Prom), in addition to memorable performances of some of the greatest works by Bach, including the Goldberg Variations (Andras Schiff) and the solo cello suites (Yo Yo Ma). There’s a different atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall later in the evening and despite the size of the hall and audience, concerts which start after 10pm often feel more relaxed and intimate. Prom 41 was no exception, with an additional special resonance – 15th August 2017 was the anniversary of Indian independence. Appropriately, East met West in the first complete live performance of Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar’s concept album ‘Passages’, performed by the Britten Sinfonia and an ensemble of Indian musicians, with Shankar’s daughter Anoushka on sitar.

Philip Glass met Ravi Shankar in Paris in the 1960s, a time when Shankar was already famous in the west for his collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison of The Beatles. Shankar taught Glass, then only 29, how to accurately notate Indian classical music and Glass learnt how Indian music achieves its sophisticated rhythms and ornamentation, which had a profound affect on his approach to rhythmic structures as a foundation for his own music.

I did a remarkable, intuitive thing, which is I took the music I had written down and I erased all the bar lines. And suddenly, I saw something which I hadn’t seen before.”

– Philip Glass

In ‘Passages’ American Minimalism fuses with traditional Hindustani classical music to create a mesmerizing flow of exquisite sounds and intoxicating pulsating rhythms. The first movement is based on a theme Shankar gave to Glass (a raga played on saxophone), the second vice versa, and so on through the six movements of the work. The influence of Shankar and Indian music is clear in Glass’s use of complex rhythms and multiple time signatures, repeated elements, drones and open fifths, but ‘Passages’ is very different from the hard-core Minimalism one normally associates with Philip Glass – the spooling, repetitive motifs which ebb and flow, and his distinctive, sensuous harmonic shifts are all there, but there is a wealth of lyricism and poetry too in the intertwining lines and voices (including solo soprano and four other singers). The whole work is a rich tapestry of sounds as East and West flow effortlessly in and out of one another, with passages of jewel-like clarity and exotic dialogues between Western and Indian instruments.

Conductor Karen Kamensek, who began working with Glass in the 1990s, said ‘Passages’ blew her mind when she first encountered it and she secretly hoped she might one day have an opportunity to perform it. She cracked the code of Glass’s and Shankar’s notation to create a performance score which is accessible to Western orchestral musicians, and the result was this extraordinarily absorbing and exquisitely presented Late Prom.

Kamensek is clearly very comfortable with this music (she conducted ENO’s acclaimed new production of Glass’s ‘Akhnaten in 2016), combining rigour with an instinctive feel for its shifting rhythms and palpitating melodic streams. The strings of the Britten Sinfonia were wonderfully sleek and silky, the percussion sparkled with precision, the harp delicate and filigree. There was fine playing from woodwind and an elegantly supple solo trumpet. Soprano Alexa Mason’s translucent voice melded with the ensemble as another layer of instrumentation. From the first shimmering sounds of Anoushka Shankar’s sitar, we were instantly transported to another time and place.

This was an entrancing fusion of modernity and tradition, an exquisite meeting of minds, music styles and instrumentation, and a brilliant exchange of musical languages and compositional methods.



(picture: Anoushka Shankar, sitar. BBC)


Rowan Hudson Trio at The Bull’s Head

I admit it, I’m a jazz ingenue. I know very little about the genre and even less about how to write a convincing review of a jazz gig or album. People say the rubric of classical music is complex and inaccessible; for me, jazz is even more complicated – there are genres and sub-genres aplenty. Do you know your Be-bop from your Hard bop, your trad from your stride? I don’t, but in jazz as in classical music, or world, or folk, or pop, the fundamental rules apply: it’s what you receive aurally – the music – that matters, and I can certainly appreciate really well-played music when I hear it.

This gig was part of 7 Star Arts‘ year-long residency at The Jazz Room at The Bull’s Head, a venue which has a fine long-standing reputation in the London jazz world. Once called “the suburban Ronnie Scott’s” (the pub is in villagey Barnes, overlooking the Thames), its legendary jazz room, now housed in a separate building next to the pub, has played host to many jazz “greats”, including Humphrey Lyttelton, Alan Price, Jeff Beck and Peter King, and there is live music in the jazz room every night.

Rowan Hudson is a young pianist whose interest in music developed from a stack of LPs of music from the 1960s and 70s, alongside some hefty independent research online and plenty of time spent at the keyboard developing his improvisation skills. When I spoke to him briefly during the interval, he explained that he is now exploring classical music, and one of the pieces in the second half was by the Spanish classical composer Joaquin Turina, arranged for trio. His trio colleagues are Joe Dessauer (drums) and Jj Stillwell (bass).

Rowan Hudson

The Jazz Room is an intimate space, usually arranged club style so you can set your drinks on a table before you and lean back and enjoy the music. As with any music, whatever the genre, being up close and personal with the musicians can make a huge difference to one’s enjoyment and engagement with the performance (except perhaps at a Thrash Metal gig!), and its fascinating to see the musicians at work individually and how they interact with each other.

The programme was a mixture of tunes by, amongst others, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, along with some lesser-known numbers, and the vibe was generally relaxed and – let’s be honest here – the very epitome of “cool”, in the best sense of that word. Listening to and watching this trio, one has the sense that these three musicians have been playing together for donkey’s years, such is their empathy and synergy, and lack of ego too. Yet they are all still young. Rowan’s piano playing is sensitively paced, supple and elegant. His dynamic palette is varied and colourful: he can do the gentlest whispered pianissimos and muscular fortes without ever losing clarity or quality of tone, and he can make piano sounds bend and waver, seemingly effortlessly.

Highly recommended.


7 Star Arts presents…… at the Jazz Room at the Bull’s Head continues on 12 September with Liam Stevens Trio and special guest Matthias Beckmann on trumpet. For further information please visit www.7stararts.com

A visit to Turner’s house

Five minutes walk from St Margaret’s station on a quiet residential road of large late-Victorian villas stands Sandycombe Lodge, former home of one of Britain’s greatest painters, J M W Turner.

Turner designed the house as a country retreat for himself and ‘old dad’, his father William (1745–1829), a barber and wig-maker. Located close to the river Thames in what was then rural Twickenham, the house shows the influence of Turner’s friend, the architect and art collector Sir John Soane. It’s a modest residence with well-proportioned, high-ceilinged rooms and a spiral staircase which is almost identical to the one at Sloane’s house in Lincoln Inn’s Fields. Turner used this peaceful spot to escape from the pressures of the London art world, to walk and sketch along the Thames (it would have taken him about 30 minutes to walk to the top of Richmond Hill, from where he sketched and painted the view which is still recognisable today). He also enjoyed fishing with one or two close companions, and occasionally entertained larger groups of friends. His father tended the garden and looked after the house when Turner was away.

J M W Turner – England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday (Tate Britain, London)

The house has undergone considerable renovation under the auspices of the Turner’s House Trust (THT), which raised the necessary funds to restore the house, remove Victorian additions and return it to its appearance in Turner’s day.


The restoration is exquisite and sensitive, and one of the first things which strikes the visitor on arriving at the house is how beautifully the exterior brickwork has been restored, complete with careful ‘penny line’ pointing. The render, a later addition, was completely removed after evidence of what the original exterior looked like was discovered when the upper rooms were taken down. Inside, the muted earthy colour schemes, wallpapers and carpets have been selected to reflect the taste of the day. The discovery of a tiny fragment of wallpaper in the bedroom enabled the THT to recreate the design which now hangs in the large bedroom. The delicate marbled effect on the walls of the vestibule, hall and stairwell is all hand-painted, using an ancient paint effect which came back into fashion in the early 19th century. The house is lightly, but carefully furnished with furniture in keeping with the period of the house, together with selected prints and other artworks and ephemera such as clay pipes. Everything is elegantly and tastefully displayed and the house is thankfully free of the rather didactic or bossy displays one encounters at National Trust houses. And there is no twee tea room either: given its proximity to St Margaret’s, one can stroll back towards the station or down towards the river to enjoy a cup of tea in a local cafe.

The house is open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday, and in the mornings one can wander at will, while those wishing for a more informed visit can enjoy a guided tour in the afternoon.

For more information and to book tickets, please visit turnershouse.org




(Header image: Turner’s House museum)

Matisse in the Studio

Henri Matisse, Safrano Roses at the Window, 1925
Oil on canvas, 80 x 65 cm
Private collection
Photo © Private collection
© Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

Strange things lurk in artists’ studios, amidst the creative clutter. The Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka kept a life-size mannekin of his former lover Alma Mahler with him for company. Several big names have stored guns in their studios, for no particular reason; certainly not to shoot themselves with (suicides are rare among artists). The slightly mad German Pop artist Sigmar Polke kept a lump of uranium handy, which he used as a quick way of developing photographs. Not good.

How refreshing to turn to the benign and well-ordered world of Henri Matisse.

Transferring to the Royal Academy after a highly praised run at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, this medium-sized exhibition features 65 of Matisse’s paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints and cut-outs, alongside 35 of the studio objects that inspired them.

Matisse is a very apt subject for this sort of treatment, because like his great rival Picasso he was an inveterate collector, not only of fine art and antiques but also of curios, knick-knacks and what might frankly be described as junk. He called these accumulated objects his ‘actors’, and did indeed arrange them into little dramas in his studio.

Here, for example, you can admire the silver chocolatière given to him as a wedding present by his artist friend Albert Marquet, which found its way into several of his early Chardinesque still lives. Here too is the green Andalusian vase that stands prominently in ‘Safrano Roses at the Window’ (above). There’s also the Venetian rococo chair Matisse acquired in 1942, the arabesque curves of which feature in a number of paintings over the next decade. The contrast between this sinuous chair and Van Gogh’s plain, rush-seated version speaks volumes.

Muyombo mask, Pende region, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th-early 20th century
Wood, fiber and pigment, 49 x 19.3 cm
Former collection of Henri Matisse. Private collection
Photograph by Jean-Louis Losi

Matisse was also a huge fan of African art, particularly tribal masks. As the exhibition demonstrates very well, there are clear echoes of them in his portraits, such as the one of his daughter Madeleine (1907), once owned by Picasso. (Only having seen this painting in reproduction before, I was keen to examine it closely, because of the old story that in idle moments Picasso would throw darts at it. I’m happy to report that this appears not to be the case, although perhaps he used those ones with suckers on}.

It’s suggested here that Matisse’s late cut-outs may have been partly inspired by his collection of Chinese calligraphic panels, Moorish screens and Congoese textiles, though by this stage his take-off points were so diverse that it’s difficult to nail down a particular visual source.

Henri Matisse, The Moorish Screen, 1921
Oil on canvas, 91 x 74 cm
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950
Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Is there any point to all this juxtaposition, apart from the fun to be had from playing ‘hunt the vase’? You certainly gain an insight into an important aspect of Matisse’s creative practice, although by no means all the wellsprings of his art are dealt with by this approach. The inspiration for his early landscapes, for example, or his brief flirtation with abstraction during 1913-17, clearly lay beyond bric-a-brac. Wisely, the organisers don’t overreach themselves by trying to cover everything.

The show is being held in the Royal Academy’s Sackler Wing, completed by Norman Foster in 1991. I’ve long thought this to be one of the best small exhibition spaces in London. As you approach it in the glass lift you can admire the original garden front of Burlington House, exposed by Foster’s clever linking of the Georgian and Victorian buildings on the site. The exhibition space itself – just three rooms, roughly the same size, all fairly small – is satisfyingly spare. It may be obvious, but I think it’s worth underlining the point that the environment in which you see an exhibition can make a huge difference to your enjoyment of it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in all the years I’ve been going to the Sackler, I’ve never seen a duff show.


Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy of Arts 5 August-12 November 2017