‘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.

Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

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.

The Artist's Studio

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.

 

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

Lee Krasner: Living Colour

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

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

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

You can have a tiny painting which is monumental in scale

– Lee Krasner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended

FW


Lee Krasner: Living Colour

Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 1 September 2019

 

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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 a lot 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