‘Rembrandt’s Light’ lights up Dulwich

 

A new show has opened for autumn at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It’s called Rembrandt’s Light. It’s intelligent, empathetic, surprising and at one point breathtaking, and I urge you all to go and see it as soon as possible.

Dulwich, the UK’s earliest purpose-built public picture gallery (it was founded in 1811), was designed by Sir John Soane, an architect obsessed with light. Soane’s architecture suits Rembrandt – his idiosyncrasy, his small spaces within larger rooms, the domesticity he celebrates, and Soane’s understanding of the nature of outside light inside, as well. One senses off-stage at the Gallery a great deal of determination therefore to make Dulwich the premier London site for this Rembrandt year – 2019 being the 350th  anniversary of the artist’s death. Because if ever there was an artist obsessed with exploring light and its effects, and equally adept at manipulating those effects – visually, temporally and emotionally – it was Rembrandt.

The first mighty coup Dulwich have achieved here is to have their show lit by the cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, who lit Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back amongst many another major movie. This, you might think, would be quite starry enough, but the show takes the ethos of the movies further, until it has you thinking about light, and its opposite, darkness, in ways that make it quite one of the most arresting and satisfying exhibitions I have seen this year.

It has fun with the theatricality of the paintings, first of all. ‘EXT. JERUSALEM – NIGHT,’ begins the wall-text for one of the show’s major loans, the Denial of St Peterof 1660, which you would usually have to go to the Rijksmuseum to see, as if Rembrandt were storyboarding a movie. Then, balancing the fun with proper heavyweight curatorial purpose, you are led to see (in my case, for the first time) how Rembrandt uses light in this work to depict time itself – the fiery glow up-front, at the surface of the painting, where St Peter utters his third denial, and in the murk of its background, Christ with his hands bound, hearing the words, and slowly, resignedly, turning toward their source.

The Denial of St Peter

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Denial of St Peter, 1660. © The Rijksmuseum

The showstopper here – and at the press view, it had hardened reviewers gasping – is the lighting of the Royal Collection’s Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb. Hung on a wall in Buckingham Palace, I hate to say it, but it’s just another 17th-century religious painting. The way it is displayed here, with the lighting set to softly intensify around it, you come as close as you could reasonably expect to sharing the Magdalen’s astonished, almost terrified recognition of Christ; and you see as well the brilliance in Rembrandt’s own lighting of the scene: the symbolism of the dawn, the painful brightness of Christ’s robes, the light cast on the Magdalen’s face as she finally sees him for who he is.

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, 1638, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Rembrandt of course created his works with no such 21st-century aids; all he had in his ruinously expensive house and studio on the Breestraat in Amsterdam were daylight and candles, but if that house gave him his light, no wonder he thought it was worth going broke for. Two of the rooms in the show (and it’s not huge, by any means, there are only 35 works and five separate spaces, and a very open hang – ‘slow-looking’ is what this show is about) recreate a studio-room in that house as it is shown in his own drawings and etchings of it – the large window, the linen hung above the window to reflect light down into the room, and then the same space as it would have appeared to his students by night, as they worked away under flickering candles with a slumbering fire in the grate. One lovely example of how intelligently this show has been hung shows the studio by day, with a model, half-clothed, sat under that fall of light, keeping warm by a stove; and then beside it is a study of a half-clothed model sat just as she might have appeared in that studio to the artist.

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Rembrandt van Rijn, The Artist’s Studio, c. 1658. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The final room (see image at top) contains a run of portraits, including Dulwich’s own wondrous Girl at a Window of 1645. Here she’s been hung against a panel of one of those state-of-the art super-blacks, so she seems to be hanging in a void. She hangs between a model waiting very likely in Rembrandt’s own bed, and very likely for Rembrandt himself, drawing back the bed curtain at his approach; and the artist’s study of his partner Hendrickje Stoffels, standing in a stream. Why Hendrickje should be paddling about in a stream at night, dressed only in her shift, no-one ever asks. The whole point of the scene is its sparkle – a word Rembrandt used about his paintings in 1639. The final work in the show is Rembrandt himself, in his self-portrait of 1642. He too is looking highly twinkly – as well he might.

Visitors should look in on the small display of ‘Artists in Amsterdam’, as well, which makes its own quiet point of London’s European connections. And don’t forget the deeply pleasing exhibition publication, either, which has big, high-quality illustrations and a properly thought-through narrative. Dulwich is pioneering a £5 ticket for this show, for 18-30 years olds. Scoop up as many as you can find, and take them with you.

JCH

‘Rembrandt’s Light’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery, 4 October 2019 – 2 February 2020

Top: ‘Rembrandt’s Light’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Lighting by ERCO. Photography by Gavriil Papadiotis.

 

Dior and the Story of the Perfect Dress

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In his autobiography Christian Dior tells the story of a fortune teller he met at a 1919 charity event for veterans of the Great War. He was an impressionable, imaginative young man. The fortune teller told him that he would suffer poverty earlier on in his life but that his luck would change and that he would make ‘a great deal of money out of women’. Needless to say, he ran home to tell his family. His father, Maurice, an affluent industrialist, laughed the loudest.

His childhood spent in Normandy by the sea with his brothers and sisters was happy. Life was full of parties and friends. Despite being shy and reserved, Christian knew how to make good friends.

In 1931 disaster struck. Christian’s father’s enterprise went bust and Christian lost both his brother and beloved mother, Madeleine. Penniless, Christian wound up the art gallery he had set up with a friend and fell gravely ill with TB. If it hadn’t been for the friends rallying round to raise money for the sanatorium, we would have probably been deprived of one of the greatest dress designers of the twentieth century. Dior recovered and returned to Paris to embark on a career in haute couture.

In 1946, aged forty-one, Maison Christian Dior was born, thanks to the financial backing of an important French industrialist named Marcel Boussac. Nicknamed ‘the cotton king’, Boussac had made money out of two world wars and had become the richest man in France.

At the V and A’s exhibition: Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. I  joined a traffic jam of people and circumvented the cameras, a television presenter and a small army of photographers, who had parked their tripods in front of the choicest Dior creations and were refusing  to budge!

I imagined Christian Dior peering down at us from his cloud, in his habitual grey suit, looking every bit the plump French priest, shaking his head and floating off into oblivion. He cherished his privacy and was happiest sketching at a café table, well away from the fashion circus.

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I finally slipped into Room 1 of the exhibition, which is devoted to Christian Dior, the man. The display cabinet was full of photographs of his childhood. Dior as a boy in a sailor suit. We have a portrait of Christian as a young man. He has bright, sensitive, kind eyes and he’s sitting on a divan with an open book. Like Proust, he was a great watcher. A watcher of women at the balls and parties his mother and others held in his circle.  When she died so suddenly something must have broken inside of him. He consciously strove to recreate her world, her liking for the eighteenth century furniture and dress.

All these things are implied and shown in the ball gowns in the Historicism room. Christian Dior was drawn to the sinuous lines of the Belle Epoque dress (late 1880s), the sumptuous silks, and the tightly waisted mid-19thcentury fashion. His fashion showroom at 30 Rue Montaigne was made up in the same style – but in muted grey, so that the furniture and soft furnishings wouldn’t detract from the beautiful models circling the drawing room.

A crazy John Galliano gown embroidered with aqua marine flowers dominates the room. In the background stands an 18thcentury folly with formal garden. Galliano was the great-great grandson in the Dior designer dynasty if we are to view it as a family. I overheard someone say: ‘Galliano is not necessarily the best but he is the most interesting after Dior.’ There is no doubt, Galliano’s theatricality and his exuberance and colour brought magic to the show.

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For me, the real highlights were Dior’s impeccably tailored suits of the early nineteen fifties, the cinched waists, soft shoulders, the skirts coming down below the knee moulded to the figure were the height of femininity and sophistication.

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Memories of a Dior-inspired Agnes B suit I had bought in the early nighties surfaced. Charcoal grey, fashioned in flannel with fitted jacket, lots of buttons, and figure-hugging skirt. With it, I had positively sailed into business meetings. My Agnes B suit was my lucky suit. The one that pulled in the big contracts – strict but feminine, professional but comfortable. It lasted me ten years and I am so sorry I didn’t have a copy made of it!

Aside from the tailored suits, tailored dresses, such as Dior’s Tulip Dress from the Spring 1953 collection or the chic H-line dress, sheathed at the chest of Autumn 1954, stopped me in my tracks. They are still so timeless, so beautiful.

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H-line Dress

There are five hundred objects on display in this exhibition but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by them. This is all due to Oriole Cullen’s careful curating and also Nathalie Crinière’s artful exhibition design. The themed rooms, eleven in all, showed off the clothes to their best advantage in their different settings. The labelling meanwhile provided just enough information to retain our interest.

 

Most memorable was The Garden Room,which draws on Dior’s passion for flowers and gardens. There is a touching story about Dior’s youngest sister, Catherine Dior, who joined the resistance during World War II and was interned at Ravensbruck concentration camp. Christian was so relieved when she returned safely that he named his Miss Dior perfume after her. The stunning Baccarat bottles containing the original perfume are on display. He also designed a Miss Dior dress with tiny silk flowers in her honour knowing that she loved gardens as much as him. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s (Dior’s present Creative director) Garden in Bloom dress from the Dior Spring-Summer collection of 2017 is also worth lingering over. The petal-like flowers ornamenting the gown are in fact cut and dyed feathers.

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I finally entered the Ateliers room with great anticipation for I was setting foot into Dior’s inner sanctum, the workroom. It was filled with dummies in glass cases. They were clothed in white cotton toiles, the test garments made up from Christian Dior’s sketches. Admiring them in turn, I began to appreciate the different panels of a jacket, a dress or skirt, the layering, the stitching and sheathing. Here I started to really see how one hundred hours could be spent hand producing one of these garments.

Christian valued his seamstresses or petites mains for good reason for he was no technician. They cried when he died so suddenly, aged fifty-two. During his ten-year tenure he produced seventy collections. He was an inspiration for the artistic directors who followed. I wonder however whether any of his successors came through the tradesmen entrance as he liked to do at 30 rue Montaigne. I somehow doubt it.

 

KH

 

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams runs from 2 February – 14 July 2019

 

The very readable, Dior by Dior (The Autobiography of Christian Dior) is on sale at the V and A priced £9.99

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE

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Artistic duos tend not to receive the attention they deserve in art history. We often read about the art movements and the artists who create them. The artist’s partner or lover meanwhile is often overlooked, or simply seen in terms of a muse.

An ambitious exhibition at the Barbican, entitled Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde seeks to explore the subject of couples and to show how spouses and lovers have had a lot more to bring to the creative pot.

I stepped in room 1 of the show where the pairings of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel and Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp were considered. Both couples had passionate affairs – it seemed a good place to start.

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I was called upon to contemplate Auguste Rodin’s exuberant sculpture, Je Suis Belle. A beautiful naked young woman, bunched up into a ball, is held aloft by a tall, muscle-bound Adonis (In reality Auguste Rodin was small and lame!) The energy of the piece perfectly encapsulates love’s rapture and exemplifies Rodin’s superhuman passion for his eighteen-year old assistant.

Camille Claudel’s letters on display reveal her minx-like hold over him in the early years of their affair. In one she asks Rodin to buy her a two-piece bathing suit in serge from Bon Marché so that she can swim in the lake and avoid the public baths! And to excite him further she states: ‘I go to bed naked every night to make me think you’re here’.

The correspondence in this show is riveting  and should not be overlooked even though it may slow your progress through the rooms!

Though the odds were stacked against Claudel, she was a mere woman after all, Claudel’s talent was recognised by her mature lover. He allowed her to fashion the hands and feet of his statues. In the show we see the clay head Claudel produced of him. I found it disappointing and decided to go to the Rodin museum next time I was in Paris to investigate further.

I turned to another female artist, Maria Martins, occupying the same room. Before meeting Marcel Duchamp in New York in March 1943, she was already a sculptor in her own right. Her bronze cast entitled  Le Couple , produced in the same year, is impressive. Two animalistic male-female forms rear up and spew tendrils. Their bodies arch away from each other (Martins as a married woman clearly had some reservations about the affair!) In contrast, Marcel Duchamp’s artistic offering is less showy. Five mysterious artefacts are displayed in a glass case. One resembles part of a bronze shoe, Feuille de Vigne, 1950. I read the explanation and find that it is in fact an imprint of Martins’s female genitalia! The five pieces together are all imprints of Martins intimate parts. They are strangely elegant, oddly moving.

 

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Sexual desire and the artistic impulse are of course closely linked. I am drawn to the Surrealist section entitled Mad Love where André Breton, founder of the movement, encourages his male followers to go out into the street in search of love. Breton saw women as innately ‘surrealist’. The theme of the female muse resurges. The women associated with Surrealist artists were no shrinking violets however. In the photographs they come across as wild and free. In one they are relaxing at a picnic, sheets draped over their  intimate parts. Their male friends meanwhile are fully clothed! The photograph is no doubt the surrealist take on Manet’s painting,  Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.

One of these women is the American photographer Lee Miller. Early on in her career she teamed up with avant-garde artist Man Ray. In the show they occupy a room of their own. Their homage to the Marquis de Sade seems tongue in cheek. A very young Miller wears a thick iron collar around her neck. In another very strange image Lee Miller and Man Ray have placed a glass dome over their heads! I can’t help but laugh!

Lee Miller’s photographs could also be moving and poignant. In the Dora Maar-Picasso section, we see an older Dora Maar sitting alone in her apartment looking into space. In the centre of the picture hangs a painting Picasso made of her. It is a rare portrait of her facing out at the viewer (rather than in profile), and it is the only portrait she liked of herself. She dismissed the others as ‘lies’. They may be ‘lies’ but Picasso’s Portrait de Femme 1938, of Maar, is still a wonder to behold on an adjacent wall, as is Frida Kahlo’s oil painting entitled The Wounded Deer 1946 located in the same room

 

 

To counterbalance the theme of suffering female artists, Maar’s own photo images of Picasso have been included in the show. A glass plate negative of Picasso caught my eye. Around his face Maar has scratched a halo or crown of thorns of black ink. It gives the painter the air of a saint or more worryingly, the appearance of Jesus Christ bound for crucifixion. It is unusual to see Picasso objectified in this way. So much with Picasso was on his terms.

Alma Mahler in another room seems to be made of sterner stuff. The exhibition focuses on her relationship with husband Gustav Mahler and lover Oskar Kokoschka. Long suffering muse, she was not! A photograph of her shows a Valkyrien woman in a corseted dress and dark, expressive eyes.  She was a talented pianist and composer when she met Mahler. It is surprising to read therefore that at the beginning of her marriage to Mahler she gave up her musical career at his request. It was a big mistake of course; outwardly acquiescing, Alma soon grew bitter. When she was on the point of running off with Bauhaus architect Gropius, Mahler agreed to play and help publish his wife’s lieder which are on show.

 The painter Kokoschka, seven years her junior, filled the void after Mahler’s death. ‘He painted me, me, me!’ Alma Mahler exclaims in a quote on the wall. Kokoschka joined up as a soldier in WW1, perhaps to escape her intensity and jealous nature. On his return however he underwent a change of heart. By then Alma had gravitated towards Gropius again. Kokoschka spent the next few years trying to win her back. The painted fans he produced, depicting their life together, are on display on one wall. We read about a doll he had made in her image. ‘I must have you for my wife or my genius will self-destruct’, he says in a letter. Alma’s power over men was astounding!

The Sapphic section entitled Chloe liked Olivia, was not only illuminating but revealed a whole host of new writers for me such as Natalie-Clifford Barney and painter Romaine Brooks. I was already aware of the love affair between blue stocking Virginia Woolf and aristocrat Vita-Sackville West, but it was interesting to learn of the influence each woman had on the other’s work. The desire Sackville-West ignited in Woolf powered Woolf’s Orlando. In this tale a young man transforms into a woman and retains his love for women. Sackville-West’s writing meanwhile became more experimental. Her book Seducers in Ecuador is on display together with Orlando and Woolf’s wonderful extended essay, A Room of One’s Own.

By the time I reached the painter Klimt and designer and fashion muse Emily Flöge (also fascinating if I had had more time) I was replete with information. I had only covered the first floor of the exhibition! (There are two!)

The show warrants a whole afternoon with two tea breaks!

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Modern Couples is an exhilarating show. A real curatorial tour de force. I am now keen to read up about L’Académie des Femmes (the feminine equivalent of the all-male literary Académie Française), and to explore the art of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks whose self-portraits reveal a growing confidence in her new sexuality. From a timid, thin-faced girl in a graceless hat she evolves into a beautiful, bright-eyed woman with wind-swept hair. I felt happy for her.

Hats off to the Barbican for a thought-provoking and rich experience! Worth joining the Barbican Centre membership scheme methinks!

 

KH

 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on at the Barbican (Floor 3) until 27 Jan.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

To this day, these ideas seem radical!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

KH

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

In which your humble reviewer is left asking questions.

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

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

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

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

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

JCH

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

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

My Favourite Things: A Word in Your Shell-like

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

JCH

 

ArtMuseLondon recommends…… ‘Phantom Thread’

Phantom Thread, the latest film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) is an intense, beautifully-crafted meditation on creativity and obsession. Said to be Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film before he retires (he has stated this is the case and he’s not given to changing his mind), the film explores the relationship between a man and the women in his life through the lens of a couture house in London in the 1950s. This eye-wateringly sumptuous setting also provides the backdrop for an examination of the nature of creativity and the persona and habits of a creative individual.

DDL plays Reynolds Woodcock, an English couturier to society ladies, princesses and dames. He is fastidious to the point of ridiculousness (and this makes for some wonderful comic set pieces, usually over breakfast). Effete, almost autistically-obsessive and buttoned-up, he rules his workshop and fashion studio with a hawk-like eye for detail and a violent distaste for anything considered “chic”.

The women in his life are the ladies in his workshop who sew and create the dresses he designs, Cyril, his sister and business partner (played by Lesley Manville with a masterfully cool acerbity and authority) and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a pretty young waitress whom he meets at a country hotel and who becomes his muse. Over time, Alma determines to unbutton Reynolds via a sequence of weird and dysfunctional Hitchockian schemes which bring a piquant ambiguity to the narrative right up to the close of the film.

It’s a delicious feast for the eyes, not least the surreally-beautiful gowns which are paraded through the film, and the scenes of 1950s London. DDL inhabits the role fully – just as he did in There Will Be Blood – with a brooding intensity, impossibly controlling and exquisitely bizarre in his appearance, manner and attitudes. The overall feeling throughout the film is one of claustrophobia and neurosis. For example, Reynolds’ intolerance of noise at breakfast when he is trying to sketch new designs, hints at the unsociability and almost pretentious meticulousness of the creative person (traits which I have observed in musicians, writers and artists).

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The lavish visual impact and unsettling narrative of the film is further enhanced by the score by Jonny Greenwood, who has worked with Paul Thomas Anderson before, which perfectly captures both the period of the piece (lush, silky strings, touches of popular jazz and dance music) and the obsessive atmosphere – unsettling dissonances, minimalist loops, slithering harmonies, itchy anxious strings, Baroque statements and Messiaen-esque timbres, spiky harp sounds and pearly droplets of piano notes. I was fortunate enough to see a preview of the film with a live score, performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra, which brought film and score to life with an immediacy made the viewing even more concentrated, as if in a state of heightened reality.

Phantom Thread is strange, beautiful, unpredictable, bizarre, poised and Gothic, very much deserving of its standing ovation at the Royal Festival Hall last night, and its Oscar nominations.

Highly recommended

 

FW


Phantom Thread opens in the UK on 2 February 2018