Around the World in Eighty Minutes: AHA alum Helena Roy reviews Genesis by Sebastião Salgado at the Natural History Museum

In a world where snap-happy Instagrammers are producing millions of edited photos daily (I admit it, guilty as charged), photography is becoming more and more popular, and, arguably, more and more ‘mainstream’. Sebastião Salgado’s exhibition at the Natural History Museum, however, is classic and revolutionary – a reassertion of what photography should be about.

Through the Natural History Museum’s cavernous hall, Salgado’s exhibition is tucked down a corridor – a spacious, minimalist room displaying photographs on recyclable structures.

The exhibition room at the Natural History Museum
The Genesis exhibition at the Natural History Museum

Leila Wanick Salgado (Sebastião Salgado’s wife, who masterfully curated the exhibition) says Genesis is “a quest for the world as it was, as it was formed, as it evolved, as it existed for millennia before modern life accelerated and began distancing us from the very essence of our being.” It is far too easy to spend forever wandering round the exhibition, admiring the mosaic of the world it shows. Genesis combines art with natural history, geography and zoology in one rich display.

Salgado’s photos show landscape and natural life on an epic scale. In the vast and remote regions he studies, nature reigns supreme. Though all the photos are in black and white, they are not static in the slightest, and instead lend Salgado’s subjects majesty, and a sense of powerful silence.

He redefines high-definition, and the motion he captures is just as intense as any shot in an Attenborough documentary. Genesis displays not just brilliant photography, but incredible natural history. It shows the extremities and eccentricities of natural world in full force.

Salgado’s shots portray animal life in a wonderful way. (He often photographs from a balloon to avoid disturbing animals with unnatural noise of engines.) There are portraits of a mountain gorilla, leopard or tortoise staring accusingly and emotively at you for intruding into their isolated world. The glowing eyes of hundreds of caimans light up the surface of the Pantanal Wetlands in Brazil (which house over 10 million of the species in total), while in another photograph, the tail of a southern right whale emerges solitary and butterfly-like from the surface in the Valdés Peninsula, Argentina.

Two lions – brothers – collapse upon one another under the shade of a tree after a night of hunting

Along with animals, Salgado studies human tribes, showing our species’ affinity with nature. A Yali Huntsman blends in with ferns in West Papua, Indonesia – the sinews of his body contouring the lines of the leaves. A sledge stands against a blank and barren Siberian landscape, driven by a Nenet woman with three reindeer as companions. Salgado shows their habits, rituals and lifestyle – connecting the viewer in London with people from the outermost corners of the globe.

The landscapes in the exhibition are unrivalled. Salgado magnifies the tentacles of carnivorous plants in Venezula, and zooms out on the huge mountains in the Brooks Range, Alaska, which slide down to shelter a river, minute by comparison. He gives a bird’s-eye view of Disappointment River snaking through a mountain range in Canada, and the Perito Moreno Glacier swelling to blanket a landscape in white, and slice a river in half, in Argentina.

The Brooks Range, Alaska

Genesis is not merely trying to convey nature’s beauty, however. Leila Wanick Salgado says it is “a call to arms”, and a “visual tribute to a fragile planet.” It forces us to think about climate change and our actions – not only our responsibility to protect the planet, but the guilt we all share for damaging it as we have thus far. For their part, the Salgados run Instituto Terra, a non-profit conservation organisation. But we all have a duty to not only conserve the natural world, but nurture it. As the Salgados say: “Governments can act to control… emissions, but only trees naturally absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.”

Genesis continues at the Natural History Museum until 8th September

With thanks to the Natural History Museum and theupcoming.co.uk for photographs.

The Power of Portraiture: Photographic reflections on the BP Portrait Award, 2013 National Portrait Gallery – Marie Naffah

 

Now in it’s thirty-fourth year, the BP Portrait Award continues to be one of my favourite exhibitions. Ranging in style, scale and subject, the exhibition shows a plethora of ways through which one can communicate expression within a portrait. This collection provided me with a reassuring sense of familiarity – there are no daunting or challenging narratives that pervade each work. With certain exceptions of the occasional famous face, the works focus on the artists’ friends or family, aggrandising your average Joe and making them worthy of your time and attention.

 

In my opinion, the most successfully engaging portraits touched on the crucial factors of eye contact and a simplified background but more interestingly, specific examples sparked the question of whether the inclusion of a face is truly necessary. Are we able to access the identity of a person that lacks what is commonly believed to be the most fundamental aspect of the portrait? Using this photographic exploration, I intend to incorporate the aforementioned artistic techniques of portraiture into my own rendition within the digital medium.

 

On entering the display, Hynek Martinec’s large scale, hyper realistic depiction of Zuzana in London (1980) was difficult to ignore. Immediately I was enthralled by a fixed, confident gaze of the sitter, directly confronting me with her intense stare and sincere expression. Is it a photograph? – No, it’s acrylic on canvas, executed with a ruthless attention to detail that imitates and emulates the prevailing impact of a photograph.

 

Above Left: Zuzana in London, Hynek Martinec (Acrylic on Canvas), Above Right: Barny, Marie Naffah (Photograph with enhanced film grain)

What continues to fascinate me is the often taken for granted necessity of the direct gaze. Established in the 17th Century, the device creates a seamless relationship between the subject and audience, thus enhancing the emotional worth of the piece. (For more on this subject, have a look at my earlier entry, Blurring the Boundary, A photographic exploration of Baroque Techniques).

Another common feature that proved particularly noteworthy within the exhibit was the blank backdrop that accompanied each  sitter. Such a simple device that has clearly been intentionally executed in order to confirm that our focus can only be directed to the figure that occupies the foreground. As well as offering a visually satisfying finish, no distractions hinder our personal experience with each character, as we are offered the opportunity to draw our own conclusions to their stories.

Above Left: Self Portrait, Ian Cumberland , Above Right: My Father, Julie Held

Above: Amy, Marie Naffah (Photograph)

Above: Fergus, Marie Naffah (Photograph)

The thing that really stuck with me after this exhibition though, and has sparked further contemplation a week later, is  the question of whether a facial expression is necessarily crucial to a successful portrait? Interestingly, my two ‘postcard worthy’ images both lacked the typical, assumed inclusion of the face, yet managed to conjure up the same emotions without it.

 

Above Left: Net No. 10, Daniel Coves , Above Right: Kristy, Geert Schless

No eye contact, no facial expressions, these portraits really are the game changer regarding  our consideration of portraiture. We’re taken out of our comfort zone and relocated to somewhere that contains a combination of thought provoking and unsettling ambiguity. Love them or loathe them, these portraits may have not won the BP Portrait prize,  but they certainly won my vote. What impressed me most was the artists’ ability to create an emotional stimulus to piety in such a subtle and constructive manner. Perhaps it’s the close attention to the other details of the work, or maybe the focus on each figure’s posture that creates a certain psychological tension, reminding us of the impact of gesture and expression in art.

Above Left: Will, Marie Naffah (Photograph), Right: Rosie, Marie Naffah (Photograph)

Open until the 15th September and admission is free, this exhibition is definitely worth a visit.

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg: Too big for it’s own good?

The museum as seen from the Neva river.

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel St. Petersburg, Russia for a long weekend. Whilst there I took a trip, two trips in fact, to The Hermitage Museum, and it was quite frankly the most astonishing art gallery and museum experience I’ve ever had. This revelation comes as a result of numerous factors, however the most obvious of these is the sheer size of the place, and the volume of art contained within it. A quick search on the ever reliable Google tells me that the Hermitage is the 4th largest museum in the world in terms of area. I’ve never been to the Smithsonian, the Acropolis Museum, or the Louvre, so I can safely say it is the biggest museum I’ve ever visited. Honestly, it makes gargantuan sites like the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, the British Museum and others feel very small indeed. As well as the size of the museum, what is equally as astonishing is the sheer variety of art and artefacts on display. Objects range from paintings by Rembrandt and Leonardo, to Japanese Samurai armour and Egyptian sarcophagi, right back to classical sculpture from Ancient Rome and Greece.

'The Sacrifice of Isaac' by Rembrandt (1635)

One issue I have with the museum is that it doesn’t seem, to my admittedly amateurish eyes, to be particularly well curated. Granted artworks are grouped by nation and period, but beyond that, it seems that they’ve all just been hung with little regard for creating a real flow within the gallery. I think this may be something to do with the vast size of the collection held within the Hermitage. To give an example, part of my second afternoon in the museum was spent in the ‘French Painting of the 20th century” section, which is unfortunately tucked away in a stuffy corner, in what is essentially the attic of the Winter Palace. Housed within this are innumerate works by the likes of Cezanne, Matisse and Derain, which are hung with what appears to be little concern towards style, period etc.

Henri Matisse's 'The Dance'. One of numerous works of his held in the museum.

My family and I spent nearly two days in the Hermitage complex and I think we saw most of what was on offer, but I’m certain that I missed a lot, and I feel that I was only really able to see most of the art superficially as there is just so much to look at, and to be to totally honest, one needs to sift through a lot of very average paintings before finding the good stuff.

Canova's 'Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss'

To sum up, I must say that the Hermitage Museum complex holds one of, if not the most impressive collection, of paintings, sculptures and antiquities I’ve ever seen. However it is let down by poor curation, and I think this is a real shame. That said, if you’re a lover of art (and if you’re reading this blog, I assume you are) then I’d say that if you’re ever given the chance to go to St. Petersburg, you should bite off the hand of whomever afforded you the opportunity. Not just the Hermitage, but the entire city, is quite spectacular!

For more information about the Hermitage museum, visit http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/

A History of the Bellini: Italy in a Drink – by AHA alum Helena Roy

As summer fast approaches, (even in Britain it’s getting warmer!) and flocks of tourists depart to Italy for sun, sights and…the food, there is one drink that epitomises that Italian spirit: the Bellini.

A classic cocktail known the world over, it is one of Italy’s most popular drinks. Venetian through and through, it was invented between 1934 and 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani – founder of the famed Harry’s Bar in Venice (which welcomed guests such as Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart). The story goes that its unique, sunset-pink colour reminded Cipriani of the shades in his favourite paintings by 15th-century Venetian artist… Giovanni Bellini. And so the drink was christened.

A Bellini

The creation went from a seasonal delight to a year-round favourite; from a secret of Venice to a globally-known cocktail. It first found its way to Harry’s Bar in New York, and eventually its popularity spread.

The concotion is a mix of prosecco and puréed white peaches. The original recipe has a small amount of raspberry or cherry juice added, to give it that subtle rose glow. The drink is the embodiment of Italian summers – fresh, sweet, sun-ripened peaches with dry, crisp prosecco.

Looking for evidence of Cipriani’s inspiration is not difficult. A colourful example might be the Sacra Conversazione (1505) in San Zaccaria, Venice; or perhaps The Agony in the Garden (1465), which hangs in our own National Gallery. Bellini shaped Venetian artistic tradition with his innovative use of rich colours – using sumptuous shades and jewel-like tones. The altarpiece of San Zaccaria robes the Madonna in deep pink and sapphire tones, and The Agony in the Garden shows the very sunset/sunrise tint that inspired the celebrated cocktail.

Sacra Conversazione (1505) in San Zaccaria, Venice
The Agony in the Garden (1465)

Nowadays there are several variations, designed to make best use of the available ingredients. Multitudes of fruit, and prosecco or champagne are used to create new mélanges. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to use prosecco, not champagne. The latter is stronger and overpowers the delicate peach taste. You risk falling victim to adding more and more peach to find the flavour, resulting in an alcoholic fruit smoothie.

On many a menu will you find different bellinis: raspberry, passion fruit, pear, apple – even rhubarb was a recent find! But it is peach and prosecco that is the classic combination. True DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) prosecco is made in the regions that surround Venice – Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia – and is the best base.

My own memory of the best bellini wasn’t at Harry’s Bar, but on the Punta della Dogana on a humid Venetian evening, having a picnic dinner with the AHA Northern Italy trip. At the risk of making this blog post redundant, it isn’t actually the drink that matters, but the company. The Bellini: best enjoyed at sunset, in summer, and in Italy.

AHA Northern Italy Trip - Bellinis at Sunset
AHA Northern Italy Trip - The View from the Punta della Dogana
AHA Northern Italy Trip - Evening on the Punta della Dogana

With thanks to artrenewal.org, nationalgallery.org.uk and redbookmag.com for pictures.

Delaroche and Damien Hirst: views on capital punishment – by AHA alum Helena Roy

Politicians, campaigners, philosophers, journalists and many others always clamour to express their views on sensitive ethical issues through the press. In conjuring an emotion and provoking a reaction, however, art can surpass this medium – on the issue of capital punishment, two pieces stand out to me in doing so.

St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles, flayed alive for refusing to worship Pagan gods. Damien Hirst’s St Bartholomew: Exquisite Pain symbolises the greatness of freedom of speech and strength to say what you believe.

‘St Bartholomew: Exquisite Pain’ by Damien Hirst

The sculpture conveys a key message: unjustified pain can be overcome to achieve greatness. Hirst says: ‘It has the feel of a rape of the innocents’, but despite this aesthetic the figure still steps forward and displays strength and defiance. The pose is neither timid nor physically hurt. His skin, draped over one arm, is carried as a trophy with the scissors, showing the insignificance of pain inflicted by those who are wrong, and celebrating how resilience against injustice can transcend the petty physical.

Whilst St Bartholomew was killed for obviously unjust reasons, I believe the message criticising capital punishment in general, remains. The taking of someone’s life intentionally is always murder, and even if the accused is guilty, they become a victim. The sculpture objectifies another key argument against using capital punishment: the killing of an innocent man while believing him guilty is an unforgivable tragedy. It also shows the martyrdom offered to those facing the punishment: rise above or defy it and you can be seen as heroic and brave, while your punisher is shamed.

Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, however, I think acquiesces to capital punishment, and to me this destroys its appeal. I cannot deny its artistic magnificence, but it is also cruel, painful and a true example of why capital punishment is so wrong.

 

'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey' by Paul Delaroche, displayed in the National Gallery

Its historical reality heightens the sense of injustice. Lady Jane Grey’s reign lasted nine days – resulting in her execution, aged 16, along with her husband and father: to whom she was a mere puppet.

Painted with uncanny realism, the event is portrayed in a private setting. Although inaccurate, this makes the observer feel like a witness – not a historian observing an informative article. When the painting was first showcased in 1834 it caused a sensation – it is not hard to see why.

While most of the painting is in darkness, Jane is bathed in light – aesthetically asserting her innocence. Fresh straw lies around the block, there to soak up blood that will follow. This makes it even more devastating, as instead of creating a still scene in your head it creates a series of pictures, ending with the death of an innocent girl.

Delaroche’s masterpiece succeeds in conjuring the emotion of watching an execution – it has more emotional punch than many of today’s graphic films. It portrays a state of mind no human should ever be forced to experience: completely contradictory to human nature but the essence of capital punishment.

Jane’s innocence is, like Hirst’s piece, a key argument against using capital punishment. But what makes Delaroche’s work more upsetting is her resignation. Her acquiescence with the execution and passive acceptance – trying to find the block with her hands – gives the piece a sense of hopelessness Hirst’s does not have. Delaroche protests Jane’s innocence with his artistic technique and symbolism – but she does not.

The Streatham Portrait believed to be of Lady Jane Grey

By contrast to Lady Jane Grey, St. Bartholomew was obscure – as an apostle, not even his name is certain. However, in Hirst’s depiction he emerges from his insignificance and there can be no question of his power. His freedom and will, and the pleasure of exerting it and not submitting, as Jane does, makes the sculpture fantastic to witness. The fact that he is overcoming his punishment makes the pain and his killers insignificant, and him ‘exquisite’.

With thanks to mymodernmet.com and Wikipedia for photos.