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.

Just add water: Monet and Architecture at the National Gallery

Monet was born a city-boy, in Paris, but grew up to be the great philosopher-artist of the rural (haystacks) and the bucolic (his lily-pond). Aside from his mirage-like studies of the front of Rouen cathedral, you don’t think of him in relation to architecture, or as having been inspired by the hustle and bustle of city life. Correcting that impression (forgive the pun) is just one of the reasons to visit this deeply satisfying, gently surprising show.

A while ago, it seemed any London gallery finding itself short of cash would schedule a ‘can’t fail’ Impressionism show – until some of them did. The public, it turns out, does know when a pot of paint is being flung at them. But the National Gallery’s show – carefully considered, strongly themed, beautifully paced, and including a number of works rarely if ever seen in London – demonstrates how it should be done. It also rather daringly does it without wall-text. So if it’s important to you to know the title or date of what you’re looking at, you’ll need the audio guide. The show, however, makes perfect sense without.

I want to paint the air”, Monet declared in 1895, and in works such as Fog Effect of 1875, a painting which I simply fell in love with, there and then, did just that.

Effet de brouillard, 1872
Fog Effect (Effet de brouillard), 1872, 47 × 73.7 cm, Mr Joseph D. Conté and Mrs Lynn Von Freter Conté, © Photo courtesy of the owner

His words might put you in mind of Hockney’s Yorkshire landscapes, painting the atmosphere weighing down on the land; the painting certainly will. Suddenly Monet stands in a new relation not only to Hockney but to Millet, and Millet’s scenes of stubbly French fields. Other bits of artistic connective tissue, made visible here, link him to Dutch landscape painting, to Turner, and to Whistler’s London riverscapes above all – indeed, you start to imagine that the two of them must almost have been painting away on the banks of the Thames, easels almost side-by-side, even if a good couple of decades separate their river-scapes.

Charing Cross Bridge, reflets sur la Tamise, 1899-1901
Charing Cross Bridge, Reflections on the Thames (Charing Cross Bridge, reflets sur la Tamise), 1899-1901, 65 × 100 cm, The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Helen and Abram Eisenberg Collection, BMA 1945.94, © The Baltimore Museum of Art / Photography By: Mitro Hood

The show also makes you reconsider quite how deliberate and structured Monet’s works were, for all their evanescent, catch-the-moment qualities. He worked out what he wanted to do and how to do it in canvas after canvas, in a series of precise experiments – portraits of backyards, of train stations, of churches and boulevards in different lights, palettes, and weather. What the city and its architecture gave him was life and energy and movement on the surface; the work all goes on underneath. It also gave him steam, rain, snow, fog and pollution – water in every scintillating, evanescent, structure-dissolving form. When he retired to Giverny (the show ends of course with the National Gallery’s own Water-Lily Pond of 1899), you wonder if this was because with failing eyesight, the softer forms of nature were easier to interpret than those of hard architecture. But even there, water was still the key.

JCH


Monet & Architecture, National Gallery, London

Until 29 July 2018

All too human curating at Tate Britain

‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life’ at Tate Britain takes its cue from an article written by Walter Sickert for ‘The New Age’ magazine in 1910, in which Sickert called for art to mirror ‘the sensation of a page torn from the book of life’. Despite this intriguing premise, ‘All Too Human’ is marred by questionable curating decisions, some of which I found completely baffling.

For one thing, although it claims to span ‘a century of art making’, the exhibition doesn’t really deal with the first half of the twentieth century at all, unless you count the rather perfunctory selection, including two paintings by Stanley Spencer, in the first room. The real starting point is actually Bacon’s brooding ‘Figure in a Landscape’ (1945). A better subtitle might have been ‘Paintings by the School of London’, because, in addition to Bacon and Freud, the big names here are all post-war London artists: David Bomberg, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Michael Andrews and Ron Kitaj.

Euan Uglow 1932-2000 Georgia 1973 Oil paint on canvas 838 x 1118 mm British Council Collection © The Estate of Euan Uglow

Another caveat that I should enter, because it’s not entirely clear from the title, is that although this is a show about painting ‘life’, it’s not really about painting from life as such. Freud, of course, painted directly from the model but Bacon, for example, worked almost exclusively from photographs. True, there’s a room of carefully-composed paintings by William Coldstream, Euan Uglow and the Slade school, whose traditional methods Bomberg dismissed as ‘the hand and eye disease’. Mostly, though, the emphasis here is on the ‘conceptual’ rather than the ‘perceptual’ .

The selection of artists in the show is frequently bizarre. Where is David Hockney? The only possible explanation I can think of for his absence (he isn’t even mentioned) is Hockney’s lack of a London connection – not a recent one, at any rate. Or perhaps Tate Britain thinks we’ve had enough of him after all the hype surrounding last year’s retrospective. Equally odd is the decision to devote an entire room to the work of the Indian artist F. N. Souza, who worked in London for a while after the war (he painted a bit like Jean Debuffet) before moving to New York in 1967. Without wishing to sound chauvinistic, why include Souza and not, for the sake of argument, Richard Hamilton, John Minton or Carel Weight? Sticking my neck out still further, why does the final segment of the show, covering the last thirty years, include only women artists: Paula Rego, Jenny Saville, Celia Paul, Cecily Brown and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye? Why no Julian Opie or Peter Doig or Gary Hume?

Francis Bacon, 1909-1992 Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud 1964 Oil paint on canvas 1980 x 1476 mm The Lewis Collection © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS, London Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

Otherwise, Bacon and Freud predictably take centre stage, cropping up not only in each other’s paintings but also in other people’s – Michael Andrews’s ‘Colony Room I’ (1962), for example, although there’s no mention of this on the wall label. The big draw is supposedly Bacon’s seldom-exhibited portrait of Freud from 1964 but I find it rather a comical thing, almost a caricature, reminding you that sometimes Bacon could produce thunderously bad art. Thankfully, there are much better works by Bacon here.

Freud gets a huge room to himself. The overall effect is undoubtedly impressive, although I still prefer the paintings he did before he discovered hog hair brushes, including the two portraits of Kitty Garman, his first wife (‘Girl with a Kitten’ and ‘Girl with a White Dog’), both of which crop up earlier in the show. Kenneth Clark would have agreed, once telling Freud as much to his face (that took guts): Freud never spoke to him again,

Paula Rego, born 1935 The Family 1988 Acrylic paint on canvas backed paper 2134 x 2134 mm Marlborough International Fine Art

The true creative genius here, though, in my opinion, is Bomberg, and this isn’t the first time he’s stood out for me in a survey show of twentieth century British art. Even before he left the Slade in 1913 Bomberg was producing stunningly original paintings with the merest nod to contemporary Cubism and Futurism. Between the wars he went off to paint landscapes in Spain; ‘Toledo from the Alcazar’ (1929), shown here, is a knockout. Both in his own work and in his later teaching at the Borough Polytechnic Bomberg was an advocate of ‘painterly’ values, and his importance in this regard to Auerbach, Kossoff and indeed Freud emerges very clearly in ‘All Too Human’. (I can’t illustrate his work because the organisers obviously don’t think it’s important enough to be included among their authorised images).

Pallant House Gallery in Chichester recently held a retrospective of Bomberg’s work but the Tate hasn’t had a major show on him since 1988. If anyone epitomises the search for truth through painting – the hallmark, you might say, of the School of London – for me it’s Bomberg. He deserves to be up there with Sickert, Spencer, Bacon and Freud.

NM

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life: Tate Britain till 27 August 2018

A feast of art in London in 2018

ArtMuseLondon is a tender one year old. We launched this site in 2017 as a place where we could write what we wanted to about the art and music we’re enjoying in London. Freed from an overseeing editor or a publication’s “house style”, we aim to write informed, intelligent and above all honest reviews.

Last year started well, with a major retrospective of British artist and national treasure David Hockney. A vast improvement on the sprawling show at the RA in 2012, this well-conceived exhibition offered a clear and concise overview of Hockney’s life and work, and it was good to see some of his best-known pictures alongside more intimate and small-scale drawings and prints.

Other highlights of 2017 included Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the RA, America After the Fall (also at the RA), Howard Hodgkin Portraits (NPG), Giacometti (Tate Modern), Grayson Perry (Serpentine Gallery), the newly refurbished home of J M W Turner in Twickenham, Rachel Whiteread (Tate Modern), Soutine (Courtauld Gallery), Cezanne Portraits (NPG) and Modigliani (continues at Tate Modern). We saw two brand new operas (A Winter’s Tale and Marnie at ENO) and a Prom in a disused carpark in Peckham. There were a few “misses” last year – a muddled and rather egocentric concert by young Hong Kongese musicians at Wilton’s Music Hall and the misnamed Impressionists in London at Tate Britain, an exhibition which contained only a handful of true impressionist paintings and a lot of tedious late-nineteenth century French art.

There are riches in store for art lovers in 2018, beginning this month at the RA with a major exhibition focusing on Charles I as a subject for artists and also a significant collector. We’re also looking forward to All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and painting from life at Tate Britian, Ocean Liners at the V&A, Tacita Dean (NPG, NG and RA), Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe (V&A), and Klimt/Schiele Drawings at the RA in the autumn. We will not be covering everything – first, because there are only two of us, and secondly, because we believe a degree of discernment and quality should rule over quantity of exhibitions covered. In addition to exhibition reviews, we will also cover some opera and concerts in London, as well as CD reviews. We hope you will continue to enjoy reading ArtMuseLondon.


Nick and Fran

America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s

The big draw at the Royal Academy’s new show is the iconic painting “American Gothic” by Grant Wood. It’s one of the most recognizable images in American art: a stern-looking father and daughter pair – actually posed by Wood’s sister Nan and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby – stand in front of their Carpenter Gothic house. Completed in 1930, the painting was acquired soon after by the Art Institute of Chicago, which has generously loaned it for this travelling exhibition, coming to London from the Musée de l’Orangerie  in Paris.

No other painting in the history of art, except perhaps Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, has been so endlessly parodied. It’s safe to assume that Wood, reportedly a man of fastidious tastes, would be appalled that his most famous work has since been used to sell products as diverse as cleaning fluids, video games and beer. But wasn’t “American Gothic” always intended to be tongue-in-cheek? In fact, Wood denied that he was poking fun at Midwestern folksiness, although another painting by him here, “Daughters of Revolution”, showing three “Tory gals” standing in front of “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, is more obviously satirical. Poor old Wood. Compare the fortunes of “American Gothic” to that of another memorable image of the Depression years, Dorothea Lange’s photograph of a destitute pea-picker and her children, “Migrant Mother”: nobody would ever dream of parodying that.

This exhibition charts the course of American painting during the unsettled period after the financial crash of 1929. Many works of art – indeed, many of the artists – in the show will be new to British art fans. Of course, we all know Edward Hopper, who’s represented by two works, “New York Movie” and a painting that for some reason always makes me shudder – “Gas”. There’s Georgia O’Keefe, too, the subject of a big show at Tate Modern only last year. Other artists, though, including such fine talents as Thomas Hart Benton, Alice Neel and my personal favourite here, the creepy Magic Realist painter Ivan Albright, will be far less familiar.

What becomes apparent is the sheer diversity of American art in this period. Inevitably, a lot of space is devoted to “American Scene” or Regionalist painting by Wood, Benton and lesser lights such as John Steuart Curry. Artists like Stuart Davis and Reginald Marsh, meanwhile, chronicled the urban experience, while Charles Demuth immortalised the industrial landscape in his Precisionist “River Rouge Plant”. Peter Blume’s “Eternal City” attempts, not entirely successfully, to re-work European Surrealism in an American idiom, while “The Fleet’s In!” by Paul Cadmus is pure camp. There’s much that’s overtly political, such as Joe Jones’ “American Justice”, which depicts the grim aftermath of a lynching. Social Realism takes centre stage here, though there’s also a fair amount of abstraction and even, as in Charles Green Shaw’s pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint hovering above the Manhattan skyline, precursors of Pop.

My only criticism of the show, staged upstairs in the Sackler Wing, is that it’s rather small – just 45 works by thirty-odd artists – making it feel at times rather like a whistle-stop tour of a huge subject. But I suppose this is understandable, given the risks involved in staging a show featuring so many little-known, albeit intriguing, artists.

“America after the Fall” serves as a sort of coda to the Royal Academy’s recent, well-received blockbuster on Abstract Expressionism. There’s even some overlap at the end, with early works by future “Ab Ex” artists such Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston. You’re reminded of how much was later swept away in the anxiety to create a truly American art form, so much so that in 1954 the critic Clement Greenberg could write that “abstraction is the major mode of expression in our time; any other mode is necessarily minor”. Not that the Realists gave in without a fight: Wood died aged only 51 in 1942, but Hopper and, in particular, Benton would later stage a vigorous defence of traditional painting. Nowadays, of course, it’s “Ab Ex” that looks old hat, and in recent years, words like “figuration”, “realism” and even “life model class” have once again become acceptable terms in contemporary art.

America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, Royal Academy Of Arts, 25 February-4 June 2017

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