Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

It feels like the right moment to reacquaint oneself with the work of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. In our uncertain times, escapism provides relief and comfort, and when you enter EBJ’s dreamscape world of myth and fantasy, you move beyond the petty preoccupations and ugly politics of our world now.

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Edward Burne-Jones ‘Desiderium’
(1873), Tate, London

This is the first large show of EBJ’s work in a generation and Tate Britain’s new autumn exhibition offers a major retrospective, plus some unexpected delights. Even if you don’t know EBJ’s work, you’ll be familiar with the style and imagery – his pale, elfin, androgynous figures populate the worlds of Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones and his angels regularly grace Christmas cards. This exhibition is a chance to get to know him better.

As an artist, he was an enigmatic figure. A theology scholar at Oxford (where he met his long-time collaborator and friend William Morris), he was largely a self-taught artist (mentored by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood); yet looking at his drawings, redolent of Michelangelo and Raphael in their exquisite craftsmanship and elegance, one can only marvel at the mastery and idiosyncratic technical prowess of this auto-didact. He worked slowly and meticulously with an immense level of detail and care. EBJ did not do spontaneity: continually refining and finessing, his work evolved over many years. Regardless of the medium – oil, pastel, watercolour or chalk – his works are sumptuous, with jewel-like colours, gilding and rich textures.

EBJ was not a realist painter: he preferred the world of Bible stories, classical mythology, Renaissance culture, Arthurian legend and the Medieval romances of Chaucer and Malory (which I studied as an undergraduate, often recalling EBJ’s imagery as I deciphered these Middle English texts), but the rendering of detail in his work – clothing, armour, architecture, decorative details, plants – creates a “hyper-realism” which is immersive and mesmeric, and also curiously soporific. One can almost smell the drowsy scent of roses drifting from his great series Legend of the Briar Rose (c.1890, based on Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty fairytale). Somnolent figures are draped over beautifully-executed furniture, the air heavy with deep sleep and a general sense of inertia – we sense their arousal will be slow, a gentle groping into wakefulness. I last saw these paintings as a child, at their home at Buscot Park, a National Trust house in Oxfordshire: I loved them then, and still do. The other great EBJ series, the legend of Perseus (begun 1875), is also here, revealing the artist’s skill in rendering complex imagery and textures within a limited colour palette. These two great narrative cycles are united for the first time in this exhibition.

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Edward Burne-Jones, Portrait of Amy Gaskell. 1893.
Private Collection

Sensuous beauty oozes from every canvas, from the delicate, pale figures in their classical-style draperies to the furniture upon which they recline, or the foliage from which they emerge, insinuating themselves into view. But it was the drawings that were the real revelation of this exhibition, not just the ancillary or preparatory sketches for the large paintings, but  dashed off humorous vignettes, of his friend William Morris, or fat tattooed ladies (a subject of fascination to EBJ). These are charming, witty and personal and offer a glimpse beyond the fantasies and Medievalism. There are also a number of portraits (displayed together for the first time), more traditional in their presentation (EBJ was a reluctant portraitist), though unmistakably EBJ in their palette. Gone are the draperies and foliage, the gilding and the decorative art, allowing us to get closer to the subject – and perhaps their artist.

EBJ’s long friendship and collaboration with William Morris is also celebrated in this exhibition with examples of decorative art produced by the Morris & Co workshop. Like Morris, EBJ valued the applied arts (and craft) and the fine arts equally, and this respect is evident in his work with Morris & Co, most notably the two stunning Holy Grail tapestries. EBJ described the medium of tapestry as “half way between painting and ornament”, and like his paintings, the detail is incredible (Grayson Perry’s contemporary tapestries echo EBJ’s glorious multi-coloured narratives in their painterly style). Their Medieval imagery, setting and composition immediately reminds one of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at Cluny in Paris, which I saw as a student. There’s stained glass too, again all glowing colours and delicate grisaille (a grey painting technique). And in the middle of this room is a Broadwood grand piano, its boxy design suggestive of a harpsichord, covered in illustrations by EBJ, as much a fine piece of decorative art as a musical instrument. Other exquisite decorative items are on display – gifts created for loved ones, including a spectacular painted casket given to Frances Graham, with whom EBJ had a long-lasting and intense relationship.

EBJ shared his friend William Morris’s view that art should be for the people, and his work was, and still is, loved by the people. So ignore the sneering review by one critic of this new exhibition and go and lose yourself in EBJ’s sensuous dreamy world for a few hours.

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

24 October 2018 – 24 February 2019


FW

Header image: Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt ARA. 1873-75. Oil on canvas. The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Objects from the inside out: Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

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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.

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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.

Recommended

FW

Until 21 January 2018 tate.org.uk

 

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

An added poignancy to Howard Hodgkin’s ‘Absent Friends’

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends – National Portrait Gallery, London

The title of the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition of portraits by British artist Howard Hodgkin has an added poignancy: called ‘Absent Friends’, the show opens just two weeks after the artist died at the age of 84, and thus Hodgkin himself is an absent friend to this exhibition, with which he was very much involved in the planning. It’s the first ever exhibition of Hodgkin’s portraits and contains over 50 works from around the world, dating from 1949 to the present, including a recently completed self-portrait by the late artist together  early drawings from Hodgkin’s private collection, made while he was studying at Bath Academy of Art in the 1950s, and exhibited for the first time.

Howard Hodgkin has never quite attained the same status nor acclaim in the contemporary British art world as David Hockney or Lucien Freud, yet for me his work seems far superior to the former artist’s later creations, in particular in its execution, imagination and refinement. Compare Hodgkin’s sprezzatura brushstrokes, vibrant dots and exuberant joie de vivre with the clumsy faux-pointillism and migraine-inducing colours of Hockney’s most recent landscapes, currently on display in a retrospective of his work at Tate Britain, and Hodgkin wins hands down in my book.

There aren’t many faces in this exhibition and initially one may find it strange to encounter so many obviously abstract works in an exhibition billed as portraiture. But for Hodgkin, portraits were not about figurative representations of people – friends, lovers, colleagues – but rather the private realm of experience that connects one more intimately with the world and its inhabitants. “I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances.” said Hodgkin of his work, “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.” Hodgkin’s portraits move far beyond literal appearance and instead represent more subjective aspects – memory, experience, emotion and expression associated with the person. Rather like Elgar’s portrayal of friends in his ‘Enigma Variations’, Hodgkin drew on his accumulated experiences and the paintings became the physical equivalent of the artist’s experience and feelings: “they should be like memorials“. These works are highly personal and often intangible, created with wit, warmth and intimacy, whose colours, shapes and brushstrokes express the artist’s evocation of specific individuals in particular situations.

The early works from the late 1940s and 50s are far from abstract. These are purely figurative works, but Hodgkin’s interest in colour is evident from the outset. The drawings, on display for the first time, demonstrates key characteristics of Hodgkin’s approach which continued throughout his career. In all three works, including a drawing of his landlady ‘Miss Spackamn’, he evokes the appearance of the sitters very precisely, with confident pencil marks, yet they are based entirely on memory, a factor central to Hodgkin’s work, and reveal his remarkable powers of recall. Two Women at a Table explores the physical relationship between the two sitters, with the underlying theme of the intimacy of their situation. The works from the late 1950s are also the result of recollected images: their subjects are recognisable, but the artist’s expressivity is used to recapture his “original feeling” of recalled experiences with and about that person. In the 1960s, the art critic Edward Lucie-Smith described Hodgkin as “the nearest thing to a classical artist at present working in England” and for Hodgkin the notion of “classical art” was connected with “making art out of feelings”. This psychological dimension – picturing reality as he felt it rather than as he saw it, going into the mind and painting consciousness instead of reality – would assume greater prominence in his later work. The works from the 1960s are witty and affectionate, highlighting aspects unique to their subjects’ lives and work: for example, ‘The Tilsons’ (1965-7) portrays the British Pop artist Joe Tilson, whose handmade, constructed work reflects his background in carpentry. Hodgkin uses bold colour and repeated geometric shapes which recall Pop Art’s appropriation of techniques from advertising and commercial design. Meanwhile in ‘Mr and Mrs Robin Denny’ (1960), a double portrait of the painter Robyn Denny (1930-2014) and his wife Anna, Hodgkin’s bold brushwork and vibrant colours may be an affectionate riposte to Denny’s geometric compositions and restrained palette.

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Mr & Mrs Robyn Denny (1960)

©Howard Hodgkin

From the 1970s, Hodgkin’s work moved further into the realms of abstraction, and while these paintings may appear to have been created in a matter of hours or a few days, they are the result of much painstaking work and revisions over many years. Yet they vibrate with an irresistible spontaneity and vibrancy. These are the paintings I remember from childhood visits to art exhibitions with my mother (also an artist and art historian). I was fascinated by Hodgkin’s habit of painting right across the frames of his works, something which seemed highly subversive in a tradition concerned with edges and defined limits. And so just as he challenged the received notion of what constitutes a portrait, he also made a statement about how we define “a painting”.

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Going For A Walk With Andrew (1995-98), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

It is these later works which really sing from the walls – simple in composition with broad bands of colours, dappled surfaces, jewel-like colours – they feel fresh, newly-created and replete with a zest for life. The final room displays Hodgkin’s last major painting, Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music, completed in late 2016 with the National Portrait Gallery exhibition in mind. This large oil on wood painting, (1860mm x 2630mm) evokes a deeply personal situation: the act of remembering memorialised in paint. While Hodgkin worked on it, recordings of two pieces of music were played continuously: ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ composed by Jerome Kern (a song about looking back and reliving the past), and the zither music from the film The Third Man. Both pieces were favourites of the artist and closely connected to earlier times in his life that the experience of listening recalled. Surrounded by a hefty frame, which does not contain the picture but rather allows it to extend, its colours and broad gestures invite one to step into it, to explore it further. The colours are more muted than in the other paintings which precede it, but its celebration of the experience of being alive vibrates across the work. This is a work of genuine emotion and integrity.

Paul Moorhouse, the exhibition’s curator says of this picture: “When we look at this painting it’s got such a highly-charged, emotional message which is rather different from the more celebratory pictures elsewhere in the exhibition. To me, it’s a deeply-moving painting and I think it is a painting in which Howard was confronting what he saw approaching. I think he knew.

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Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music (2016)

The exhibition begins with Hodgkin’s earliest portrait, and the story ends with this final work. What is in no doubt is that this exhibition is a wonderful tribute to and celebration of one of Britain greatest artists.

FW (reviewed 22 March 2017)

HOWARD HODGKIN: ABSENT FRIENDS
23 March -18 June 2017, at the National Portrait Gallery, London
www.npg.org.uk

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy of Arts

The centenary of the Russian Revolution will be commemorated by a plethora of exhibitions large and small in London during 2017. Among them will be two undoubted blockbusters. In November Tate Modern will launch ‘Red Star over Russia’, a survey of over fifty years of Soviet visual culture; first off, though, is the Royal Academy’s ‘Revolution: Russian Art, 1917-32’.

Although inevitably there will be some overlap between the two shows, the one at the RA is more narrowly focused on the period from the revolution itself to Stalin’s brutal suppression of the avant-garde in 1932, which also saw the beginning of state-sponsored Socialist Realism. Occupying the main galleries at Burlington House, ‘Revolution’ features over 200 works, the majority either from the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg or the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The exhibition is organised thematically, rooms being labelled ‘Brave New World’, ‘The Fate of the Peasants’, ‘Eternal Russia’ and so on, and you get a good idea of the sheer diversity of artistic output before Stalin’s clampdown. Painting enjoys the lion’s share of the space, but there are newsreel clips, ceramics, posters and architectural models, too, even a full-sized reconstruction of an ‘ideal’ apartment (eerily reminiscent of my student digs in the ’70s) by EL Lissitzky. It’s all rather didactic and worthy, but there’s no denying that the organisers have done an efficient curatorial job.

A word of warning at this point: if you come expecting wall-to-wall knockouts from the likes of Kandinsky and Chagall, you’ll be disappointed. Both artists were in Russia in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution but had left by the end of 1922, never to return. From St. Petersburg there is Kandinsky’s fabulously expressive ‘Blue Crest’ of 1917, whilst Chagall is represented by ‘Promenade’ (1917-18), showing him out walking with his first wife Bella, who flies above him like a kite. The illusion of flight is echoed in another jeu d’esprit, the curious “worker’s flying bicycle” by the Constructivist architect Vladimir Tatlin, suspended from the ceiling of the nearby central octagonal gallery.

Of the other big names, Kasimir Malevich, already the subject of a show at Tate Modern in 2014, gets a room of his own here, featuring some 30 paintings, including one of his trademark Black Squares. It’s a faithful reconstruction of the room he had in an exhibition staged in the State Russian Museum in Leningrad in 1932, ‘Artists of the Russian Federation over Fifteen Years’. This show, organised by Nicholai Punin (husband of the poet Anna Akhmatova), is often seen as the high-water mark of progressive art in Soviet Russia.

Otherwise, it’s more traditional fare that takes centre stage. There’s some perfectly agreeable stuff from artists barely known in the West like Alexander Deinecka, Isaak Brodsky and  Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Stylistically, I found their work remarkably similar to the likes of Stanley Spencer and Laura Knight, or American Scene painters such as Grant Wood. There are one or two gems: I particularly liked Petrov-Vodkin’s still lives, Konstantin Yuon’s rather trippy ‘New Planet’ (1921) and, in the first room, Georgy Rublev’s totally unofficial portrait of an off-duty ‘Uncle Joe’ relaxing in a wicker chair reading Pravda, with his dog curled round his feet.

‘Stalin’s Utopia’, the final room, provides a foretaste of the officially-approved Soviet art of the 1930s, which, like much of Nazi art, seems to have consisted largely of wholesome-looking young people running around with few, or even no, clothes on. Artists like Deinecka, the Soviet Norman Rockwell, continued to churn out reassuring pap like this long after Stalin’s death in 1953. Even today, Deinecka is rated by the Artists Trade Union of Russia in its highest category: ‘1A – a world famous artist’. I don’t think so…

The last room also features the rather grandiloquently labelled ‘Room of Memory’, which in reality is a photo booth where you can watch slides showing mugshots of artists, intellectuals and ordinary Russians, with descriptions of their grisly fates during the Great Purge. It’s a dispiriting experience, if a necessary one, and I for one exited through the gift shop with a heavy heart.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, Royal Academy Of Arts, 11 February-17 April 2017

NM