Paris: AHA semester student Rebecca Asoulin reminisces about their two weeks en France

When I unpacked my bag in Tuscany after taking a sleeper train from Paris (decidedly unlike the ones in the movies!), I found Paris Metro tickets had found their way into everything I own: in the bottom of my shoes, in the pockets of coats I didn’t know had pockets in, and at one point I swear they were multiplying. These tickets are a testament to how much we saw and did in our two weeks Paris.
Our first day in Paris we went to the Louvre with Lavinia and focused on the history of French art: from massive history paintings to delicate Rococo paintings. Our full day at the Louvre was pretty reflective about what the rest of our Paris trip would be like: Harpreet almost fainted when she saw the “Winged Victory”,  we spent half an hour looking for a toilet because there are literally TWO in the entire Louvre (bad museum planning), and a swarm of Brazilian tourists descended upon us as we were looking at Da Vinci’s “Virgin and Child with St Anne” (Emma promptly started talking to them in Portuguese).


Tourists scramble for a look at Antonio Canova's 'Psyche revived by Eros' Kiss'

Some other highlights of the trip included an Impressionist walk around Paris in which Olivia showed us the places that impressionist artists had painted, lived and exhibited their work. We stood on the same street that Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day” depicts and we saw a comparison to the painting using a handy AHA iPad.

Caillebotte, Paris Street, A Rainy Day

That night we also had our first Paris crepes at Page 35 which was both delicious and cheap! Other food related deliciousness included Cafe Angelina (Emma’s suggestion) which had the most thick and yummy hot chocolate. Jackie’s dining suggestion led us to L’entrecote, a steak place with magic sauce for Jackie and endless french fries for Harpreet.

We also visited Versailles on a beautiful rainy day to learn about French history with Olivia, visited the Musee d’Orsay where we learned about Realism and Impressionism and visited both the Auguste Rodin and Gustave Moreau House Museums. We learned about modernist architecture by seeing THE modernist building–la Villa Savoy with Lavinia and saw fantastic street signs and bits and pieces of history like recreated rooms, furniture, and royal hair at the Musee Carnavalet.

Steve arrived at the end of the second week to teach us all about modern and contemporary art and with him we learned about Piccasso and Braque as well as how modern movements are related and built from each other.  In fact, Paris was so excited for Steve to come that a fire erupted one block up from us and what seemed like every fireman in Paris came to greet him (!) The last few days of the trip, we went to the Musee de Tokyo and climbed on some interactive artwork and visited the Cartier foundation where we experienced art outside of the canon from places like Brazil and Japan.

By far my favorite experience in Paris was the culmination of two different days. The first in Giverny, outiside of Paris, where we saw Monet’s garden and water lilies and a few days later at the Orangerie Museum in Paris where we saw his eight massive water lily paintings. Being able to see Monet’s water lilies and then see his paintings the next day makes both more alive and meaningful. I enjoyed it so much even my spectacular fall (ouch) and consequent cut didn’t put me off Monet’s wonderful garden.

Yesterday, Emma made up a song and an awesome dance about how lucky we are to
not be in school sitting exams but rather to be experiencing art and food and
life. Being able to be in places and touch and see the world that produces the
art we look at is an incredible experience.

Now back to Italian class!


Hidden Treasure in North London: The Estorick Collection

A short 5 minute walk from Highbury & Islington station will bring you to this hidden gem of a gallery; a Grade II listed Georgian building housing a fantastic specialist collection – the only gallery in Britain devoted to Italian modern art.

Eric Estorick (1913-93) was an american writer and political scientist who began collecting works of modern when he settled in England after the Second World War. His discovering Umberto Boccioni’s 1914 book Futurist Painting and Sculpture marked the beginning of his passion for Italian art, which gave rise to this world renowned collection. It has been displayed in major exhibitions around the world including one in the Tate Gallery in the 1956, and in 1994 was moved to its current home in Canonbury Square, Islington.

The refurbished interior of the beautiful Georgian townhouse creates a enchantingly domestic and intimate space for the display of the artworks, which hang in 6 different rooms across 3 floors – there were only 2 other visitors when I was there this week and it felt like I had been privileged with a private viewing of someone’s personal collection.

A great variation of artworks and movements is represented in the collection, including works of impressionism, surrealism, cubism, and futurism, as well as sculpture and a series of sketches, lithographs, and etchings. Including works by Modigliani, de Chirico and Boccioni, it is a diverse and lively collection that offers a taste of what it meant to be producing art in Italy in the first half of the 20th Century.

The gallery’s best known, and perhaps most striking , works come from the Futurist movement. One of my favourite pieces is in this group: Giacomo Balla’s 1912 Hand of the Violinist, a captivating painting, which captures light effects to create an impression of rapid movement.

Giacomo Balla, The Hand of the Violinist, 191


The Estorick also hosts temporary exhibitions alongside it’s permanent collection. Currently on display is Giorgio Morandi Lines of Poetry,which features a large number of the artist’s prints depicting rural Italian landscapes, as well as a series of exquisite still life etchings of everyday objects, which Morandi brings to life through his slow and delicate labour.

Also being shown is the exhibition Nino Migliori Imagined Landscapes, a small collection of pieces by the Italian post-war photographer, which includes a series of large-scale reworked polaroids depicting emotive landscapes of the Italian village of Grizzana.

A trip to the Estorick is a fabulous way to spend a free hour or two in London. It hosts a superb and unique collection of art, is tucked away from any crowds of tourists, and has a sweet little cafe (and a lovely courtyard that looks like a great place to meet when the sun comes out)! Plus it is free entry for students, so there’s no reason to not pay a visit.

Nearest Station: Highbury & Islington (Victoria Line, Overground)

Entry (includes temp. exhibitions) : Adults – £5, Cons – £3.50, Students with valid ID – Free


Food in the Baroque: Examining depictions of fruit in the works of Caravaggio

As a little change of pace from usual, this month, I’m not actually going to be writing about real food, but rather having a little look at depictions of food (well, just fruit really) in the work of everybody’s favourite Baroque painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Caravaggio is obviously best known for his stark usage of dark and light, his hyper-realistic representations of biblical scenes, and of course, for being a bit of a loveable rogue (he famously killed a man after an argument over a game of tennis.) However, as well as all of this, Caravaggio had a supreme talent for still life painting.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601)

Granted many of these depictions are within larger pictures, such as The Supper at Emmaus (1601), housed at the National Gallery, and his Bacchus (c.1597) at the Uffizi in Florence, but there are instances where depictions of food take the centre stage, like the spectacularly originally named Basket of Fruit (c. 1595-96), in the Ambrosian Library, Milan.

Bacchus (c.1597)

What is perhaps most interesting in this painting, is that the fruit shown is not perfectly manicured and polished, instead it looks almost as if it is decaying. Some leaves sag wearily under their own weight, whilst others are pockmarked and filled with holes, whilst a central apple bears all the hallmarks of having a worm buried deep in its flesh. Even the grapes, so often shown as glowing orbs of purple and green, are distinctly dusty, and some even look to be rotten, turning to detritus quicker than their friends. As a painter, Caravaggio was never one to skirt around the truth, or do things by the book. He was renowned for using prostitutes and other folks of ill repute as models in his paintings, in order to portray a gritty realism onto his canvasses, and the slow decay of the fruit in Basket of Fruit is reflective of this style.

Basket of Fruit (c.1595-96)

In stark contrast to the slightly tatty, ragged appearance of fruit in Basket of Fruit, the work Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (dated between 1601 and 1605, but widely disputed) is a veritable smorgasbord of earthly delights. All of the produce seems to scream at the viewer ‘EAT ME!’ with its appeal heightened by the cross-sections of marrow and watermelon portrayed. One can almost see the juice dripping invitingly from the melon. Virtually all of the imagery in the painting is of immense fertility and life – a handful of art historians have even argued that the writhing, bulbous white marrows are decidedly phallic, bringing to mind Nicholas Poussin’s famously censored painting of Priapus (1634-38). The iridescent freshness and life of the fruit is contrasted greatly by the stone ledge upon which it is placed. Not only is it decidedly cold and grey, but it also cracked and chipped, perhaps serving as a reminder that the fruits will also perish one day.

Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge (c. 1601-05)

Caravaggio is rightly seen as one of the most influential and important painters of biblical imagery in the history of art, however his still life works, of which there are many more than the two previously mentioned, tend to be overlooked. This in my eyes is a great shame. So I say next time you feel the need for a Caravaggio fix, ignore The Calling of Saint Matthew (1600), and Judith beheading Holofernes (1599), and instead look at a painting of some food!

Casper David Friedrich by AHA alum Anna Fothergill

Casper David Friedrich has become an artist of interest to me lately. Wanderer Above Sea of Fog, is perhaps his most famous work and as I read more about him I am increasingly fascinated by his approach to nature and its relationship to religion and spiritualism. It seems to me that his work demands an emotional response, usually one of loneliness or contemplative wonder.

Wanderer above Sea of Fog

Born in the 19th Century, Friedrich is now considered one of the most important painters of the German romantic period. His early career brought him fame and popularity though he fell out of favour towards the end of his life – despite, in my opinion, creating some of his strongest work during at this time. What caused public favour to turn away from Friedrich in his later life and for his talent to only be fully appreciate years after his death? To me his career is a clear cut example of society’s role in the promotion of art, and how changing times effect the creation of art as it follows a roller coaster ride of mixed appreciation.

Friedrich’s genius comes in his ability to capture the stillness of nature, to make it seem completely frozen and untamed. His painting of a simple snow covered tree can stir all kinds of emotions in the viewer, as his colour palette and the flawless attention to detail turn a landscape into something other than a simple view to be enjoyed. His landscapes are the motive and expression centre of drama, and humans are conspicuously absent. The subtle inclusion of crosses in several pieces points us, quiet literally to something beyond ourselves. To me, his landscapes seem like you could step into them and explore them: both frightening and wonderful at the same time. His scenes seem as if no one has set foot in them, enticing us, the audience, to run through them and create tracks.

Cloister Cemetery in the Snow

Despite the magic and mystery of his paintings, Friedrich died in poverty and supposedly half mad. The demand of the German art world at the end of the 19th century was not for still, winters landscapes, but for modern dynamic art works. His work was old fashioned. Yet it gained popularity with the impressionists of the 1920s who drew ideas and influences from his themes. Unfortunately, his skill was also recognised by the Nazi movement of the ’30s and ’40s, and so this, quite naturally after World War II, meant a huge decline in his popularity.

Winter Landscape

However, Friedrich’s talent could not be long forgotten and now all associations with the Nazis have fallen away and he is widely accepted as one of the most influential artists of this period. Yet the changing attitudes towards him raise an interesting question about an artist’s skill versus his worth. Friedrich’s skill never changed, his work was always the same, yet his value as decreed by society rose and fell very dramatically. He went from innovative to old fashioned, icon to unpleasant reminder. His fortunes illustrate how the value of an artist’s work and his influence upon the changing face of art history, is ultimately limited by the values of society, raising many ineresting questions about the art of our own society and times.

Organ of Excess? Andy MacKay looks at portraits from the 1980s

Sometimes I’m struck by how odd it is that we still commission and spend money to see painted portraits – and I say this as an art historian. I mean, I love portraiture – it’s possibly one of my favourite forms of art. But in the 21st century it can still occasionally feel just a little antiquated.

A recent walk about the National Portrait Gallery got me thinking about 20th century painted portraits; and specifically portraiture from the early 1980s. That diabolical decade of excess feels like the least likely period for a flourishing of portraiture. And yet it was a decade which witnessed a ‘new realism’.

Bryan Organ, Prince Charles, 1980

Coinciding with Margaret Thatcher’s election to the Conservative premiership, this ‘new realism’ appears have been a response to the apparently chaotic voices of Post-Modernism and its association with left-wing agitation.  The painter Bryan Organ (b.1935) dabbled in left-wing abstraction during his youth before by the 1980s becoming a conservative ‘realist’. His abstract roots indeed are evident, for in Organ’s most famous images he treads a fine line: his figures are scrutinised with an unforgiving, if slightly other-worldly, ‘realism’ whilst existing in an abstracted context where the world conveniently departs, only momentarily, in order than we might catch the sitter alone and unable to hide behind their attributes. Organ is perhaps most famous for his iconic portraits of The Prince of Wales (1980) and Lady Diana Spencer (1981) –  two separate images, forming in the Renaissance manner a mysterious altar piece devoted to the worship of marriage. Whilst not unresponsive to the cultural currents of the time (naturally his modern-day sitters are self-aware and lack a degree of certainty; his ‘style’  enigmatically restrained) in many ways Organ’s work of the 1980s essentially does the same as that of Reynolds in the 18th century and Sargent in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

Bryan Organ, Diana, 1981

His 1980 portrait of former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is monumental in the Victorian manner, and yet at the same time deeply unforgiving, indeed almost mocking. Immediately striking is the dark two-dimensional background and the odd vantage point of the portrait: Macmillan is old and broken and is almost a small child who cannot see above the parapet. He is grand in the noble artistic tradition – and yet he is also impotent: symbolic of Britain’s imperial demise. The way Organ poses his sitters tells us all we need to know; they are neat little narratives to distract the eye. Princess Diana is awkward, Harold Macmillan frail, Margaret Thatcher watery-eyed and calculated, David Hicks louche, Prince Philip stern, Prince Charles earnest, Jim Callaghan harassed, Alan Sugar arrogant, Francois Mitterrand stubborn, Elton John insecure and ‘Dickie’ Attenborough engaging.

Bryan Organ, Harold Macmillan, 1980

When photography can so easily capture a person, a mood, a moment, it does seem odd that the Establishment still crave immortality at the stroke of a brush. But it is the difference between a well-cooked meal and a sugary snack. Time and leisure suddenly became more expensive than ever during the 1980s and consequently one of the greatest status symbols remained: the laboriously painted portrait. Portraiture an excess? Certainly. But with cash to spend (even if one loathes Organ’s tepid approach) it is a rather glorious excess.

Blurring the Boundary: A photographic exploration of Baroque techniques by Marie Naffah

The 17th century brought a new emphasis on the role of the viewer. Barriers were broken down and the audience no longer looked through a window into Renaissance perfection. Instead, they found themselves amidst the dirty feet of Caravaggio’s figures, up close and personal with Bernini’s mythological subjects- absorbed in all things ‘baroque’ – emotion, movement and drama.

The focus of this piece is to explore how artists  managed to engage their audiences in works of art in the 17th century and successfully blurred the boundary between the observer and the observed. The centralised government’s concern for ‘reaching the people’ meant that artists started to manipulate their work in order to be involved in, control or intrude on the observer’s space.

Using similar techniques to those used by 17th – century masters, such as Caravaggio and Bernini, I have tried to create photographs that not only encourage, but crucially, demand the participation of the observer.

Arguably, the simplest technique for provoking interaction with the viewer, is through the creation of protruding elements that reach out of the picture plane, and fall into our space.

Above Left: Cerasi Chapel, Sta. Maria del Popolo Rome, Caravaggio Conversion of St. Paul – The foreshortening of both man and horse in such an uncomfortably small space, enhances dramatic tension here as we are physically confronted with the body of Paul, stretching out into our space.

Above Right: (Original photograph, Florence) – Here, I have taken the two photographs from below, creating a similar foreshortening effect which leads the viewer in through the sitter’s feet, into the overall composition.

For the first time, the 17th century brings a crucial element to portraiture – the direct gaze.

From Top: Caracci: The Bean Eater (c. 1585) – the fixed stare of the figure creates an immediate, private connection with the viewer. The sense of immediacy is intensified through the beans that fall from the subject’s mouth, consequentially creating a ‘snap-shot’ effect.

From Below: ‘Bubblegum’ (Original Photograph, Florence) – In the same manner as Caracci, I have used the bubblegum to suggest this similar ‘snap-shot’ effect, as the viewer anticipates the bubble bursting. The figure however grabs our attention through an intense, and some-what seductive gaze, inviting you in and again, forcing direct interaction between the subject and the onlooker.

Lastly, 17th century artists often intended to include elements of surprise in their works, in order to provoke a reaction and involve the viewer. Paintings and sculptures often had sensual undertones which may be thought as slightly controversial, for perhaps religious subject matter, causing questions to be asked by the onlooker.

Left: Untitled, (Own Photograph, Buckinghamshire) The fixed gaze contrasts the motion blur of the overall piece, whilst the sitter’s shoulder is left slightly exposed adding an air of sensuality to the photograph. The sitter still maintains a distinguished beauty, similar, I think, to Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa. In this case, the focus is not on a sexual matter, yet the daring interpretation of the religious subject intends to shock, providing an invitation for further questions to be asked – again, another way of involving the viewer.

At a time when population – particularly in Rome where two of these great artworks were created and still remain – personal space was not an option. Perhaps this is the same today. Certainly I hope I have shed a little light on how the composition techniques employed by great artists of the seventeenth century can still be used today, across artistic media.

John Singer Sargent: An interior in Venice by Andy MacKay

Born in Florence in 1856 to well-off expatriate New Englanders, John Singer Sargent grew up speaking four different languages and was schooled in the great centres of European civilisation, later going on to art school in Florence, Dresden, Berlin and Paris. Whilst studying in the studio of distinguished Third Republic portraitist Carolus-Duran in Paris, Sargent quickly found his own vibrant style and soon gained several commissions for portraits-in-oil from the French aristocracy. Handsome, intelligent, well-connected and with an already assured painterly technique, the young Sargent’s career naturally began to flourish.

John Singer Sargent, Self Portrait, 1906

 Familiar with Venice from childhood, Sargent was a regular visitor to this faded watery paradise of ruins. He often extended his trips in order to stay with distant cousins, the wealthy Bostonian Curtis family who lived on the piano nobile of the 17th century Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal. Painted on the eve of the new century, An Interior in Venice (1898) is a rare ‘conversation’ piece which depicts the Curtis’ in their grand drawing room. We find the middle-aged Daniel Curtis in profile, positioned as a man of the world, reading a starched folio and yet seemingly ready to leap into action at any given moment. The middle-aged Mrs Curtis (or the “Dogaressa” as Sargent always affectionately called her) sits passively, eyes dreaming reflectively toward us – but not at us; her hands joined and resting peacefully upon her needlework. Across the room, towards the background, we see Ralph Curtis and his new American bride, Lisa De Wolfe Colt. Ralph was an elegant contemporary of Sargent’s and both young men studied at the same time under Carolus-Duran in Paris. He, with his lacquered moustache, perches upon the edge of a gilt console table, one hand upon his slender right hip, his body a distorted contrapposto hinting at the dynamic potential placed here in repose. Lisa, dressed in feminine, virginal whites and creams has just poured herself a cup of tea and cuts a newly fashionable masculine silhouette with her puffed and padded shoulders.

Sargent, An interior in Venice

An Interior in Venice possesses a vast amount of deliberately dark and indistinct space within the canvas. The architectural contours of the room itself are comprehensible only because of the timeless objects which adorn it. The past exists here, unavoidably; and for only a moment the present must submit to it. The two couples are separated here, not only generationally, but symbolically too by a significant swath of carpet whose muted tones neatly balance the Baroque exaggeration of the walls and ceiling. Apparently entirely unaware of each other, the four Curtis’ are each struck by the light of the Canal which bind one to the other. Stagey and theatrical it may be, but the painting is deeply Venetian in that the ‘narrative’ is woven together by the shimmering, generous light of the canals. What we see here is an idealised moment of family quietude marked not by the ticking of a clock but by the lapping of waves against the Palazzo walls.

The Palazzo Barbaro

Few artists are lucky enough to capture the essence of their milieu, but undoubtedly Sargent did. His work is a visual complement to the novels of his contemporary Henry James, who in fact wrote The Wings of the Dove (1902) whilst staying at the Palazzo Barbaro. Sargent’s portraits are stylish fantasies, powerful near-operatic meditations on morality and decadence and clearly evoke one of the last great moments of European confidence.