Flesh and Bone: Moore and Bacon at the Ashmolean by AHA Alum Frankie Dytor

Bacon and Moore are displayed side by side for the first time at the Ashmolean

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore are hefty subjects for an exhibition. Both giants of modern Art in their own right, the combination was a promising one. But other than a shared era, could any more but tentatives links be drawn between the two? Such were my feelings on walking through the balcony corridor to the exhibition. The introductory posters did little to dispel these fears, highlighting Bacon’s lack of training in comparison to Moore’s academic credentials.

The first point of comparison given was the shared influence of Michelangelo. But what they drew from the Renaissance master is clearly very different. For Bacon, it was in the beauty of the male form, ever edged with the thrill of homoeroticism. For Moore however, it was in the treatment of material. In an interview with David Sylvester (the exhibition has a board of every newspaper clipping or article in which a comparison between the titular artists is made) he is quoted as saying “[Michelangelo] used a contrast between a highly finished part and a part that is not so finished, and this is something one likes”. Whilst not a particularly insightful comment onto Michelangelo’s work, is it nonetheless useful for establishing the key areas that Moore drew from.

What I had never personally noticed before the exhibition, or certainly not in such an extremity, was the grotesqueness present in so much of Moore’s work. Clearly, Bacon’s work is saturated with the grotesque. His figures are stripped of their form to become pure dripping matter. The only thing that saves them from total dissolution is the structure of the “room space“, to borrow a phrase from TJ Clarke. But Moore – he had always been the lover of smooth, curvilinear forms to me. Faced with ‘Woman‘ (1957 – 88) the polite classicism vanishes. Flesh bulges, almost to the point of oozing, but there is a horrible stillness in her mutilation – with no arms and legs she is totally trapped. The body has become master of the mind, and there is a kind of visceral elasticity to her body.

Moore's image of fertility

Brutality is, therefore, a common theme. A brief socio-historical context offers an easy answer to this – the presence of the Second World War at formative times for both of the artists. Some drawings by Moore during the air raids of the Blitz are even included. Yet there is an inescapable feeling that it cannot be so simply explained. In the shelter drawings, for example, there is an eternal quality to the figures. It is not three women huddled together, but the three fates. They almost all shrouded, personifications of some everlasting doom. Bacon’s work perhaps feels more contemporary, if only for the unremitting boldness of his colour.

Bacon's 'Portrait of Henrietta Moraes' - almost abrasive in tone

How much the exhibition worked as a comparative exercise, I am not sure. Certainly, there are links to be made between the two, most evidently in their influences. The real strength of the exhibition however is the quality of works that have been chosen, particularly for Moore. The middle room, in particular, is a staggering testament to the virtuosity of the pair. It is, for me at least, British Art at its absolute best.

 

150 years of Munch: not just the man behind The Scream

On a recent trip to Oslo, I visited the 150 year anniversary exhibition of the work of Norway’s most famous artist, Edvard Munch. The exhibition, spread across two of the city’s galleries – the National Gallery and the Munch Museum – is the biggest ever retrospective of the artist’s work. One of four versions of Munch’s world-famous ‘The Scream’ was sold last year at Sotheby’s New York for record $120m. With 250 pictures on display this summer in Oslo,  I was brought to think about the painting, and question how one work might become the focus of so much attention while the rest of the artist’s prolific oeuvre remains relatively unfamiliar.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, Pastel on Cardboard 1985

A painting often misunderstood, The Scream was created as part of a large series which Munch named the Frieze of Life, exploring ideas of love, anxiety and death. This painting, believe it or not, was the final work from the first in the list. It represents despair, which the troubled and morbid Munch believed to be the ultimate outcome of love.

 

Munch suffered terribly from a life illness and loss that began with the death of both his mother and sister from Tuberculosis during his youth. He was the victim of almost constant mental instability, that clearly fuelled his work as an artist. He wrote of the experience in Oslo that led to the creation of The Scream:

I went along the road with two friends—

The sun set

Suddenly the sky became blood—and I felt the breath of sadness

I stopped—leaned against the fence—deathly tired

Clouds over the fjord dripped reeking with blood

My friends went on but I just stood trembling with an open wound

in my breast I heard a huge extraordinary

scream pass through nature.

The title and imagery of the painting would lead most to believe that its representation focuses on the open mouthed figure (perhaps we thought it was the artist himself shrieking, or a figurative image of the suffering human soul). It is therefore interesting to consider that the eponymous ‘scream’ is not a human one, but instead refers to Munch’s dark psychological experience of the surrounding nature.

The work is powerful and eye -catching because of the sheer terror evoked by its bald, androgynous and ghost-like protagonist, surrounded by vivid blues and bloody reds. It has perhaps become so famous because it is such a memorable simple yet horrifying depiction. It conveys universally recognised emotion; the image of the ghoulish face has become globally iconic.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, oil on cardboard, 1893

Despite a $120m price tag for a pastel version, I can confidently say that the scream is far from being the my favourite of Munch’s paintings. Other, equally melancholy works boldly portray scenes of death, love and the suffering of specific emotions.  Thoughtful portraits paint sensitive images of Munch’s acquaintances, whilst group scenes subtly yet powerfully hint on themes of exclusion and loneliness.

Edvard Munch, Jealousy, oil on canvas 1895

But not everything is centred around such dark ideas. My particular favourites of Munch’s works are his depictions of nature, which are detached from his personal suffering and instead illustrate a strong relationship between the artist and the extraordinary Norwegian landscape. His images of moonlight over the fjords embody a strikingly beautiful tranquility, whilst scenes of forests and snow coated paths create boldly atmospheric depictions of the scandinavian surroundings.

Edvard Munch, Moonlight, oil on canvas 1895

A days spent looking at 250 works by Munch may not be the best idea if you are searching for a positive outlook on human existence, but it helped me to discover the great extent of the artist’s works, a powerful painter of both death and love, of the horrifying and the beautiful.

 

Can we value art economically? AHA alum Helena Roy examines funding for the arts…

Culture Secretary Maria Miller argued in April 2013 that the arts had to make a case for their economic worth to receive government funding. Speaking at the British Museum, she said British culture should be viewed as a ‘commodity’ and ‘compelling product’ to sell at home and export abroad.

Investment in art, she went on, is only a means to ‘healthy dividends’. When British art is exported, it should be part of ‘relationship marketing’ to help ‘attract investment which will drive jobs and opportunities here at home’.

Maria Miller at the British Museum in April

But at the heart of Miller’s speech was contradiction.

The arts can only grow and benefit Britain’s economy with significant government funding. Asking them to increase profit whilst reducing funding is paradoxical. The most successful theatrical exports of recent years – War Horse, One Man Two Guvnors (seven-times Tony-nominated and currently touring Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia), and Matilda – came from the subsidised sector. Sir Nicholas Hytner, head of the National Theatre, said ‘she seems to be acknowledging that the arts are an engine for growth, but growth is what we are desperately in need of.’

Besides, Britain’s culture is already fantastic value for money. London theatre alone returns almost as much to the treasury in VAT as Arts Council England gives to theatre across the country. If we consistently reduce funding we may see a repeat of the 1980s, when persistent reduction in funding closed roughly a quarter of the country’s theatres. This would be an astronomical loss. Arts funding amounts only to 7p in every £100 of public spending, yet the creative industries, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), account for 6.2% (GVA) of goods and services in the economy, £16.6 billion in exports and 2 million jobs.

The musical 'Matilda' has been a hit both at home and abroad

Despite this, Chancellor George Osborne announced a 7% spending cut to the DCMS as part of the Spending Review in June 2013. It was probably the best case scenario in a worst case economy. But Richard Mantle, general director of Opera North, pointed out that ‘it’s a 5% cut on top of a period of quite severe cuts…since 2011, so it’s the cumulative effect which is the challenging thing.’

That challenge is particularly felt outside the South East. We cannot hold up all British arts to of London theatres, in terms of revenue. This risks an increased split between the South East and rest of the country in terms of arts funding, and thus artistic creation – denying millions the opportunity to enjoy and generate culture. Keith Merrin, director of Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, is facing a struggle as a result of a 10% cut to local authority budgets. ‘The belief that philanthropy will pick up the slack is simply unrealistic in most parts of the country,’ he lamented.

The British Museum - one of London's top attractions and free for visitors

Making art a commodity most detrimentally risks reducing interest in new culture. It is not just profit that makes art valuable – it is the fresh and exciting risk it takes; the challenges it throws at society’s mores. Creative risk-taking produces excellence and modernity, but artistic figures cannot do this if they are programmed to focus on profits. A desperate need for funding will lead to overreliance on big names to generate the required investment. A cycle of reliance on celebrity artists will ensue – making the art market elitist, and denying opportunities to younger artists.

Above all, art is about more than money. Labelling it with an economic value is harmful. Art is generates a sense of community and identity, and offers a platform for opinions and public discussion. Miller’s speech seemed to sideline all other benefits the arts bring. The fact that art is about more, and that access to it is mostly free, is what makes it so culturally valuable. It is first and foremost a social commodity. Former Arts Council England chair Dame Liz Forgan summed it up well:

“The danger…is that people actually start to believe that because art produces huge economic benefits, we should start directing our investment in culture for its commercial potential. That’s not only philistine, it’s self-defeating, because then you get accountants making artistic decisions, which is as silly as having artists making accounting ones. If you start to invest in art because of an identified commercial outcome, you will get worse art and therefore we will get a worse commercial outcome.”

Culture undoubtedly has economic value. UNESCO has identified the UK as the world’s largest exporter of cultural goods – bigger than the US, Japan, Germany or France – and 40% of tourists to the UK cite culture and heritage as the primary reason for their visit. But this should be a pleasant, unintended (but not unforeseen) consequence of funding the arts. Making financial gain the ends of artistic creation will destroy and commercialise the means.

Miller admitted that ‘culture educates, entertains and it enriches. We must never lose sight of that fact.’ But in times of economic crisis, with harsh cuts being made everywhere, that is exactly what we risk. The British Museum is a pertinent example: the UK’s most popular tourist attraction, part of its appeal is that entry is free of charge – it is accessible to all. As I described with opera earlier this year, art and culture is unifying. If we give it an economic label, we risk splitting its audience by income and depriving future generations of artistic opportunities.

With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC and the Independent for photos.

 

Deadly Beauty: AHA Alum Cassia Price visits Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection

 

European Armoury I at the Wallace Collection

 

The Wallace Collection in London’s Manchester Square houses an eclectic assortment of exhibits, all of them of the highest standard. The collection includes Turner, Fragonard, and some of the Old Masters, as well as ceramics, sculpture and furniture of an extraordinary calibre. However, this was my second trip this year, and I decided to focus my attention on just one thing. The Arms and Armour galleries are, in my opinion, the most exciting and unusual part of the museum, in jarring contrast with the Parisian splendour that fills the rest of the building.

 

 

19th century German Parrying dagger in steel and gold, etched and gilded

 

The galleries house over 2,500 objects, originating from across Europe and Asia, and are recognised as the finest collection of its kind in the UK. Acquired by the Fourth Marquess of Hertford, and assembled by Sir Richard Wallace, this collection finds its origins in the fashions of 19th Century Paris, where military objects were an increasingly popular means of expressing personal wealth. However, the way the collection has been curated does not evoke the Parisian charm of the rest of the museum. The blood-red walls and glass cabinets give a solemn tone to the rooms, as if they were armouries lying dormant between battles. No labels are found in the cases, but the numbered plaques next to each mace, sabre and helmet, suggest a lending library for weapons. This makes the exotic and painful-looking Turkish daggers and Milanese maces dance threateningly through the imagination.

 

 

16th Century Milanese mace, iron or steel, gold and silver

The beauty and craftsmanship of these slices of metal are exquisite, adding another unique facet to the collection. I would have assumed that the most intricate works would be found among the ceremonial pieces, but I was bowled over by the rich detail of every sword hilt, every scabbard. The Needles, Excaliburs and Stings of the fantasy universe are surpassed, and it was hard, at first, to remember that these were remnants of history and not magical objects from a story.

 

 

19th Century Iranian helmet, iron, steel, brass, textile and gold

Fascinated by the opulence of these exhibits, I was then puzzled by their purpose. A talwar or an axe knife is not a work of art in a Wildean sense, but both are, at least, needlessly beautiful, and to consider the destructive nature of an attractive object is certainly troubling. These rooms of drawn daggers are threatening for a reason, but also reminded me of the enduring value of art. The fact that armour is designed in as much detail as the paintings next-door shows how even in the fundamental ugliness of the battlefield, appreciation for beauty remains.

 

 

19th Century Axe knife from Kutch, India

Photos courtesy of wallacelive.wallacecollection.org/

 

The Joy of Discovering Lost Art, by AHA alum Charlie Whelton

“This is a very, very special morning and you’re seeing a very, very happy director in front of you”.

These were the words of the Van Gogh museum’s Axel Rueger when he confirmed the authenticity of Sunset at Montmajour, the first full-size Van Gogh to be discovered in 85 years. Mr Rueger was not alone in his elation. I certainly felt a surge of joy on hearing the news, and I am sure I was not the only one to feel excited from afar. It is an odd type of happiness that accompanies the discovery of a lost or unknown artwork, however, and one that varies depending on the details of the case.

Sunset at Montmajour, for example, was not really ‘lost’ in the literal sense, but rather misattributed. The piece was long believed to be a fake, and so remained in the attic of a Norwegian collector for decades before it could finally be declared genuine. In a situation like this, the long road to verification leaves one feeling happy for the artist himself – authentication being a posthumous vindication of a work long misunderstood. In a similar vein, Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman With Red Hat was ‘lost’ for years in the basement of a museum – mislabelled, unappreciated and kept from public eyes until it was tracked down by the head of an auction house. This type of discovery of lost art is satisfying, because it appeals to our sense of justice. Not only has the world been blessed with a ‘new’ Van Gogh piece, but a beautiful artwork is also finally getting the credit and exposure it deserves.

 

Picasso, Seated Woman with Red Hat

This being said, it is certainly more romantic when a lost artwork is discovered hanging on the wall of a modest family home, rather than the basement of a museum. The story of the recovery of Martin Johnson Heade’s Magnolias on Gold Velvet Cloth is a wonderful example of this. A man from Indiana bought the 19th century work for ‘next to nothing’ to cover a hole in his wall, where it stayed until he noticed the similarity between it and a painting in the art board game Masterpiece. After verification, he sold the work for $1.25 million.

This type of story resonates in a different manner to the Van Gogh authentication. We like it when a potential Michelangelo is found down the back of a sofa in Buffalo because it feeds into a common fantasy we have of being plucked from obscurity and catapulted to stardom. It says not to take things at face value, that the strange $5 painting bought from a thrift shop could be a Jackson Pollock, and that the ugly plaster statue of Buddha could be solid gold underneath. If the joy of the Van Gogh discovery is in the justice of verification, with these stories it is in the romance of speculation. The beauty of possibility.

The Golden Buddha reminds us that discovery of lost art takes many forms. The chance discovery of the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings by four boys and a dog in 1940 seems a world away from the sophisticated verification of Sunset at Montmajour, for example. Likewise, the Venus de Milo, one of the most famous sculptures in the world, was found by accident by a peasant digging in his field on a Greek island in 1820. More recent is the excavation of the sunken city of Heracleion. Lost for 1,200 years, it was considered legend for centuries, before being rediscovered in 2000. The images demonstrate how magical the rediscovery of long-lost treasure can be.

 

A diver at the excavating at the lost city of Heracleion

While this article has mainly dealt with the thrill of discovery or the justice of proper attribution, this overlooks the (admittedly geeky) joy of the detective work inherent in finding and verifying an important work. The popularity of The Da Vinci Code has certainly added to interest in locating Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari, believed to be hidden behind a Giorgio Vasari fresco in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. While this search, with cryptic clues, endoscopic cameras and hidden cavities continues, the recent discoveries of works entitled La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi appear to offer a greater chance of authenticating a genuine lost Da Vinci artwork. While the debate over these works is less ‘Dan Brown’ than the search for the Battle of Anghiari, an array of books, articles and lectures arguing both sides have been produced in the pursuit of verification. The desire to figure out the final piece of the puzzle is strong in human nature, and the potential discovery of lost works by great artists offers the perfect opportunity.

Leonardo's 'La Bella Principessa' and 'Salvator Mundi'

 

Whether the particular joy of the recovery of a lost piece of art comes from the justice of attribution, the improbability of the discovery or the puzzle of verification, there is always one common factor: that a work of beauty once lost, is now found. Having written for this blog before on artworks being stolen and defaced, it restores hope to witness what is essentially the opposite happening in Amsterdam right now.

An Internship in Cape Town: AHA alum Caz St Quinton spends the summer in South Africa

Cape Town is a city bursting with expressive design. It seems the city has had to house and display this range of creativity almost overnight, resulting in streets of art galleries appearing in the city bowl. Because of this, attaining an internship at a Gallery proved astonishingly easy. During snowy January in Durham I decided to email a handful of Galleries that I had found online. To my delight I received quite a few offers. Choosing which one to accept looked a daunting prospect, but then I discovered that one of my offers, the ‘Mogalakwena Craft Art Gallery’, was running an exhibition called ‘A Glimpse: Dress and Fashion in Africa’ and so the decision suddenly became an easy one for me to make.

 

Mogalakwena Exhibition Brochure

I did slightly wonder what I had got myself in for when on my first morning I was immediately shown the electronic buzzer for the metal gate door and the panic button! However, after realising that this was simply a precaution which most shops take in Cape Town I began to relax and focus on work.

 

I had a couple of days to learn about the Gallery before I had to take tours through the ‘Dress and Fashion’ Exhibition. I found myself discussing the missionaries influence on Namibian clothing and dye techniques of the Bamileke people from Cameroon. These were things that a few days previously I had never even imagined existed and all of a sudden I was explaining them to other tourists. The highlight for many visitors was a pair of high heels painted with a chicken feather by the famous South African artist, Esther Mashlangu.

 

Esther Mashlangu Shoes

I loved showing visitors the room full of 18 embroidered self portraits by the Mogalakwena craft artists. Each woman had to do a self portrait using embroidery because it is the medium they are most comfortable with using. They were asked to depict themselves in their favourite outfit. Many of them dressed up in their traditional clothes which they save for church and other special occasions. They were then photographed and interviewed about dress and fashion topics, a favourite subject was trousers and how women shouldn’t wear them.

Embroidered Self Portraits

Whenever I wasn’t taking tours through the Gallery I had lots of other things to be getting on with. The most exciting was helping the owner curate a new room. We began to transform the old store room into a marine themed space. I was also busy with a proposal for the exhibition space at the five star hotel around the corner. I had the time of my life interning in Cape Town and couldn’t be more thankful for that cold, miserable, January that encouraged me to send off my applications.

The Gallery

 

‘Vermeer & Music: The Art of Love and Leisure’ at the National Gallery, by Lucy Speelman

‘If music be the food of art, play on’ – Rachel Campbell Johnston, The Times

Painting is traditionally seen as an art concerned only with the visual and the aesthetic, and similarly, music is considered a solely aural medium.  This exhibition, however, attempts to prove that the two are inextricably linked, and to demonstrate how this phenomenon is evident in 17th Century Dutch art.  By including rare musical instruments, a visual link is created between these objects and those in the paintings, and viewers are also reminded that the creation of these fine, intricate instruments is an art in itself.

 

'Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life' by Harmen Steenwyck (National Gallery)

The first room, entitled ‘Music as attribute and allegory’ explores the connotations and symbolic significance of music when depicted in art.  Music was a popular and important theme in Dutch art, and it carried a wide range of associations.  Since there was no recorded music at the time, music was an art of performance and could be used to denote transience.  The presence of musical instruments in Harmen Steenwyck’s ‘Still Life: an Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life’ symbolises human knowledge and the pleasures of the senses, but the work is dominated by a skull, an obvious symbol of death.  Frans van Mieris the Elder’s ‘Self Portrait of the Artist, with a Cittern’ demonstrates the dialogue between painting and music: since music was considered to be the more sophisticated of the two, it was often referred to in an attempt to raise the status of the sitter.  The works of the first room engage well with the works of the second, which feature musical companies and festive galleries.  The poignant contrast between instruments being played and lying still emphasizes the change in atmosphere that music can bring to a work.

 

'A Young Woman seated at a Virginal' by Johannes Vermeer (National Gallery)

The third and fourth rooms also form a cohesive dialogue, this time on the quantity of musicians in each work.  The works in the third room all feature ‘intimate duets’, and they explore the role of music in developing romantic relationships, and the metaphor of music as harmony.  Music provided a channel of unsupervised communication for young men and women at the time, as it was one of the only activities that did not require a chaperone.  These works contrast well with the solo musicians featured in the fourth room, who either appear lost in solitude or open to participation.  Vermeer’s ‘Young Woman seated at a Virginal’ looks out to the viewer, inviting them to join her in a duet by picking up the viola de gamba that lies suggestively in the foreground.  The inscription on the virginal in Vermeer’s exquisite ‘The Music Lesson’ (Royal Collection) translates as ‘music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow’, emphasizing music’s emotional power and importance.

'The Music Lesson' by Johannes Vermeer (Royal Collection)

 

An informative aspect of the exhibition is the focus on the technical aspects of Vermeer’s work, which gives visitors an interesting insight into his inventive methods.  Extreme close-ups provide an opportunity to see in precise detail how Vermeer achieved certain effects, like dappled sunlight on hair, or the wood-grain appearance of instruments.  Scientific examination explains how the underpainting and surface layers react, and how physical traces of Vermeer remain, in brush bristles and even a fingerprint or two. The display emphasizes the importance of close, scientific examination of artworks and opens up this area of research to the public.

 

The exhibition is however, not without fault.  It successfully expresses how music was an integral part of 17th Century upper class life in the Dutch Republic, but there is no coverage of music-making scenes featuring peasants and the working classes, which is a pity.  Vermeer himself completely neglected these figures in his oeuvre, but they appear frequently in works by his contemporaries, such as Jan Steen.  Visitors may also be disappointed, as I was, in the lack of works on loan from external sources.  Nicholas Penny (director of the National Gallery) did state previously that the exhibition was intended to be based around works in the gallery’s permanent collection, but I must admit I was expecting, after paying £7 (with no concession option for students), a little more bang for my buck.  The underlying intention seems to be to gain publicity and profit from the loan of the Kenwood House Vermeer.

'The Guitar Player' by Johannes Vermeer (Kenwood House, on loan to the National Gallery)

 

That being said, the exhibition is evocative, informative and clearly laid out.  The inclusion of live music performed by the Academy of Ancient Music is also a bonus if you visit at the right time, and the element of multimedia is quite effective and refreshing.  The exhibition presents a striking contrast between stillness and movement, between silence and sound, just as Vermeer aimed to do all those years ago.

 

For more information please visit the National Gallery’s website.

The Exhibition continues until 8th September