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.

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.

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


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.

All too human curating at Tate Britain

‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of painting life’ is about art based on everyday human experience. A very British preoccupation, you might say, if the story of twentieth century painting in this country is anything to go by. Unfortunately, despite its interesting premise, this show at Tate Britain is marred by some very questionable curating decisions, many of which I found completely baffling.

For one thing, although the exhibition claims to span ‘a century of art making’, it 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 elsewhere in the show.

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. 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 and ‘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.


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

London through French eyes

Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile, 1870-1904

Tate Britain, London. 2 November 2017 – 7 May 2018

1871. France is ravaged by the Franco-Prussian war. Paris is under siege and rife with insurrection. Thousands flee the country in search of refuge and a new life away from war and revolution. Amongst those that fled to England in the wake of the traumatic events were a small group of artists and sculptors. They faced no entry restrictions and were welcomed into the country, with leave to stay indefinitely.

The premise for this exhibition is an intriguing one; sadly, in reality it’s a dull, worthy survey of French art produced in England at the tail end of Victoria’s reign. Claude Monet, who came to London to avoid conscription into the French army, lived not in a poor artist’s garret, but in chintzy lodgings on High Street Kensington (see ‘Meditation’, the picture of Madame Monet on the sofa, c.1871), and James Tissot, who cannot truly be considered an Impressionist painter (though this doesn’t seem to worry the Tate), had access to Victorian high society, replete with all its feathers and furbelows. In fact, his paintings are some of the more interesting works on display: he captured Victorian Londoners d’une certaine classe at play, at soirees and boating parties, picnics and park strolls. Neither artist could be considered to be “struggling” when he arrived in London, and the group of French artists active in London towards the end of the nineteenth century were quickly taken under the wing of sponsors, dealers and patrons, who offered mentoring and financial support, notably Charles-François Daubigny (who supported Monet), Jean-Baptise Faure and Paul Durand-Ruel, who purchased over 5000 impressionist works in his lifetime.

The Ball on Shipboard c.1874 by James Tissot 1836-1902
James Tissot – The Ball on Shipboard, c1874. Tate

There are some attractive Pissarros and Sisleys in the exhibition, scenes of London and its suburbs, its people and their everyday lives.  As the visitor moves inexorably towards the famous Monets, there are three exquisite Whistler paintings of the Thames – blue-grey nocturnes with delicate dabs of yellow lights. Before that, one must run the gamut of some pretty tedious sculptures by Jules Dalou and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.

The penultimate room contains the six paintings of the Houses of Parliament by Claude Monet. Like his series of Rouen Cathedral, haystacks and of course the waterlilies, these paintings share the same viewpoint (from Monet’s window or a terrace at St Thomas’ Hospital overlooking the Thames) and are painted at different times of the day. They all share elements of the same palette of misty mauves, blues, pinks and oranges, but they don’t vibrate with quite the same astonishing resonance as the waterlilies series, and their impact is rather dulled by the lavender-coloured walls on which they are hung.

In the final room is an odd little trio of works by Paul Derain. It feels like an after-thought because the works are so different to what has gone before. Here London’s river life is portrayed in the hot earthy colours of the south of France and Derain’s Fauvist eye.

The exhibition title and the publicity material – a detail of one of Monet’s misty evocations of the Houses of Parliament – and the lure of six of Monet’s Houses of Parliament series on display together for the first time in 40 years will have the crowds queuing for entry, but I fear they will be disappointed. This is not an exhibition about Impressionism, but rather a dry examination of French émigré artists London in the 1870s-90s. As such, it’s really not that interesting…..


(header picture: Claude Monet – Houses of Parliament, Sunlight effect, 1903. Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)

ArtMuseLondon reviewers recommend:

Soutine’s Portraits (Courtauld Gallery, London)

Cézanne Portraits (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Objects from the inside out: Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Pink ‘Torso’

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

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

Line Up, 2007-8 (copyright Rachel Whiteread)

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



Until 21 January 2018 tate.org.uk


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

All splashed out? David Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain

In the year of the artist’s 80th birthday, Tate Britain presents a survey of almost 60 years of David Hockney’s work in the first major retrospective for nearly 30 years and already the gallery’s fastest-selling exhibition. Once the rebel – he was painting queer art (We Two Boys Together Clinging) when homosexuality was still illegal – he’s now considered a national treasure somewhat in the manner of Alan Bennett, and is dubbed Britain’s “greatest living artist”, a title rather indulgently conferred upon him after the death of Lucien Freud in 2011. His work remains perennially popular and highly accessible, with its vibrant colours, classical genres (still life, landscapes, portraits) and subject matter drawn from the places where Hockney has lived and the people he has encountered, including many intimate and personal pictures of family, lovers and close friends.

As an artist, Hockney’s principal obsession continues to be the challenge of representation: how we view the world and how that view can be captured in two-dimensions. Although presented largely chronologically, the exhibition uses thematic elements to demonstrate Hockney’s ongoing interest in challenging the conventions of picture making. Thus the show contains his early forays into photo-montage in the 1980s, a genre which he has extended in recent years into large multi-screen video installations, and pictures created using an iPad app, which reveal his willingness to utilise new technology in the creation of new artworks. The problem is these works add little to the exhibition: they appear merely self-indulgent and attention-seeking – a case of “look at me! Look what I can do!”.

In fact, it was those interminable iPad pictures – vividly colourful, but curiously flat and lifeless because of the medium – which crammed the walls of the 2012 Royal Academy exhibition of Hockney’s work, which finally convinced me that this is an artist who, in his later years, has sold out to gimmicks and popularity over artistic integrity. If Rembrandt’s or Beethoven’s late style demonstrates a creative individual fully at ease with himself who no longer feels the need to play to the gallery nor please the audience, Hockney always has an eye trained on “the market”. In his book On Late Style Edward Said examines the concept of a distinct artistic/literary “late style” and highlights features such as a certain “insouciance” or self-confidence which may stem from a sense of completion, serenity, acceptance, or reconciliation. Sure, there is a distinct insouciance in Hockney’s most recent work with garish, straight-from-the-tube colours, inelegant outsized pointillist blobs, and crudely-drawn stripes. These works may reveal a supreme self-confidence, but looking at these paintings one has the sense of an artist who is very conscious of how they will be received (something neither Rembrandt nor Beethoven seems remotely concerned with in their late works).

Fortunately, the Tate show contains only a handful of dreadful iPad pictures, and there are many crowd-pleasing favourites in the exhibition, works which Hockney himself describes as “old friends”, including A Bigger Splash, Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy, and his celebrated double portrait of writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy (complete with a suggestive banana in the fruit bowl), together with sensitively-drawn portraits of family and friends, including his parents and his long-time friend Celia Birtwell. The works from the 1960s and 70s are, for me, the most interesting and reveal a skilled, confident artist at ease with his subject matter. There’s a sophisticated restraint and refinement of execution in these naturalistic paintings (sadly lacking in the later works), and fifty years on, works like A Bigger Splash still seem fresh and cool (in the best possible sense of that word).

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Colour has always been important for Hockney – from the sun-drenched landscapes of California to the glittering azure of the swimming pool paintings, and related works, hot pinks, rich umbers and intense greens leap from the paintings. The later works are notable for both their colour, vast scale and crude execution, and it seems as if Hockney has transferred the intense colours of California to his native Yorkshire: never has the English countryside looked so gaudy!

A whole room is devoted to drawings, which prove that Hockney is, above all else, a fine draughtsman. Thoughtful, intimate and domestic in scale, these works, together with a series of charcoal landscape sketches, are by far the most interesting part of the exhibition and provide welcome relief from the brash palette and vast scale of the later landscapes. I was disappointed to find no prints in this show. His beautiful etchings, made in response to the gay poetry of Constantine P Cavafy, which he adored, are omitted (perhaps for reasons of logistics/permissions) which is a great shame for these, like the drawings, reveal Hockney’s compositional skill and craftsmanship far better than the giant canvasses and photo-montages.

The show also presents rarely-seen works from the late 1950s when the artist was studying at London’s Royal College of Art, plus Hockney’s landscapes from his native Yorkshire to his adopted home in California. New paintings of Hockney’s home and garden in Los Angeles (Garden With Blue Terrace) are displayed for the first time, works which vibrate with glaring colours and lush vegetation, and show that old age has certainly not dimmed this artist’s creative impulse and output.

But as a “retrospective” the exhibition works well – all of Hockney’s life is here – and unlike the 2012 Royal Academy show, there is not an overwhelming amount to take in. It’s a manageable exhibition whose first half is far superior to its second.

David Hockney, Tate Britain, 9 February – 29 May 2017