My recent research has brought to light (pardon the pun) a trend which seems to be gaining popularity with both artists and the general public; the use of lights in ways and places they do not belong. It seems to me, there is a fascination in the collective artistic world of the way electric light can be manipulated in art. This is being done in many ways, such as in Jessica Lloyd-Jones’s glass human organs containing neon lights or any display from Gent’s yearly Light Festival, an event which is definitely on my bucket list. However, I think it is the subtler use of light that appeals to the general public. Specifically, stimulated lighting in a natural setting.
The placement of ethereal shapes in a landscape creates a juxtaposition of a traditionally urban feature and nature, yet when it’s done well, there does not seem to be anything unnatural about it. The work of an artist like Barry Underwood perfectly illustrates how well this creation of an electric environment works in beautiful harmony, despite all logic.
Works such as these, whilst falling under the category of ‘land art’, also span many other mediums, and this could explain why it has gained such popularity. This fascination has even seeped its way into national advertising, like Ikea’s recent advert. These light installations are sculptures, surreal photographs and now advertising agents. Underwood’s work seeks to turn the everyday into something unique and unusual. These images, to me, are reminiscent of fairy tales, of something magical happening away from the every day world. They are scenes from a mysterious play, and each installation has its own dream-like narrative, which the viewer cannot help but be drawn to.
The collision of the material and the natural world generates a refined contrast.
The strange beauty of light cannot be captured to its fullest extent but this has not stopped artists from trying and at the heart of this use of light, we essentially see an example of the human condition, choosing light over darkness. Barry Underwood’s lights in a night landscape brilliantly brings together all aspects of installation, photography and a basic human instinct.
What’s in a name? Call him Paolo Spezapreda, Paolo Bazaro or Paolo Caliari, Paolo Veronese will always be among the greats, and has finally been put into the spotlight at the National Gallery.
Paolo Veronese has his name because he was, quite simply, the best artist ever to come out of his hometown, Verona. Although he moved to Venice more-or-less full time at the age of 27 in 1555, and instantly entered the top ranks of the Venetian art élite, his work was grounded in his youth and formation in the mainland city.
Born in 1528 into family of stonecutters, Paolo may have initially trained in the family business with his father, but by the age of 13 he was already apprenticed to Antonio Badile, a competent but uninspiring artist. He also seems to have worked alongside Giovanni Battista Caroto, but not for long: he was established as an independent master in his own right by the age of 18. In 1553 he signed himself ‘Paolo Spezapreda’ – Paul the Stonecutter – but within two years he was calling himself ‘Paolo Caliari from Verona’. Caliari wasn’t even his father’s name. His father, Gabriele Bazaro, married a girl called Caterina, some six years his senior. And when you’re only 14 that’s a big difference. Maybe they married because she was already pregnant. But then her parents never married: her father was an aristocrat by the name of Caliari, and by choosing the name of his illegitimate mother’s father Paolo implied he was going up in the world, no longer a humble stonecutter, but an artist with a high-class background. Nevertheless, in Venice he must have stood out from the Venetian artists and became known, quite simply, as Paolo Veronese.
The earliest known paintings by him are both in the National Gallery’s splendid exhibition. Both are painted in oil on paper, later mounted on canvas, and both show his origins clearly. They are studies for two works which are lost – one completely, and one only practically, as the full-scale version of the Bevilacqua-Lazise altarpiece survives, but is highly damaged and badly over-painted. The little modello – probably painted so the clients could see what they were getting – is a better representation of what was intended. The architectural setting, with the Virgin and Child enthroned to the side of a marble altar, shows the influence of Titian – via Antonio Badile – but also the architectural style of Michele Sanmicheli, the leading architect of Vicenza at the time. Paolo’s father probably worked for him. As a boy, Paolo may have done so too.
By the age of 20 he was apparently fully formed. What first strikes you about The Conversion of Mary Magdalene is the brilliance of its colours – chopping from sky blue to rose, emerald to primrose and a daring combination of white and vermillion, like a Bridget Riley inhabited by people. The story, probably derived from a life of Christ written by Pietro Aretino, shows Mary Magdalene falling to her knees with shame as she first beholds Jesus, and immediately removing her jewelry, the outward sign of her inner vice. Her sister Martha holds her hand and points the way, from the shadow into which she has subsided to the brilliant light of Christ. This is where we first see a compositional tendency which recurs throughout Veronese’s oeuvre: the protagonist is at the bottom, in the shade, and partly hidden by the other characters – and yet we always know who is important, as Veronese can always lead our eye in the right direction.
He excels at the depiction of religious subject matter, notably in the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine and The Martyrdom of St George in the third and fourth rooms of the exhibition respectively.Both are triumphs for the National Gallery. The former has never left Venice (painted for the Church of Santa Caterina, it now resides in the Accademia, the main art gallery there), while the latter has only left the church in Verona for which it was painted once before – when Napoleon stole it at the end of the 18th Century. Both are sublimely coloured and beautifully composed. St Catherine is arrayed in the finest of Venetians fabrics, a white, blue and gold brocade, and is about to be enveloped in a voluminous white cloth-of-gold cape by one of the attendant angels. A woman behind raised her arms high and gazes to heaven, her hands framing the faces of the Virgin and the Saint and bringing them together in a form of ecstatic union. In the next room of the exhibition, St George, brought low, accepts his immanent death while looking up at the figure of Hope, who looks to the Virgin and Child, pleading, with her companions Faith and Charity, on his behalf. The interlocking gazes and gestures of the celestial gathering lead our eye around the upper half of the painting, while the red flag of the Romans – inscribed with the letters SPQR (‘the Senate and People of Rome’) cuts like a knife from the top left corner and tears our eyes down to the brilliant vermillion of George’s hose.
If he excels with the religious, he excites with myth. The National Gallery’s own Allegories of Love look superb in what was their long-time setting, where they are reunited with a Mars and Venus that they haven’t seen forthree hundred years when they were all part of the collection of the Hapsburgs in Prague. A cheeky and delicate version of The Rape of Europa shows the heroine tentatively mounting a snow-white bull, not knowing it to be Jupiter in disguise. He tenderly nuzzles her sandalled feet, before carrying her off, in a background scene, across the lapping waves and far across the sea. A regretful heifer peers longingly into the distance, apparently regretting that she didn’t get in on the action.
If the mature paintings look as if they are bathed in sunlight, the last works have something of the night about them, they seem to be moonlit, and you get the feeling that without Veronese’s exploration of chiaroscuro Caravaggio’s career might not have been possible. The story of Lucretia is dark in every way. Raped, she kills herself rather than suffer the shame, and plunges a dagger into her breast through the cloth with which she is so desperately trying to maintain her dignity. Elsewhere in this final room a heroic Perseus plummets through the air, a secular angel rescuing a gymnastic Andromeda from the most energetic of sea monsters, while two late portraits, in tranquil mode, show that Veronese perfected his skills depicting character and surface like no other. The last painting in the exhibition is the last he ever painted, The Conversion of St Pantalon,commissioned for the high altar of eponymous Venetian church by the Parish Priest, Bartolomeo Borghi. No ideal palaces here, no soaring classical columns, but a seedy Venetian backstreet in which the Saint cures a boy bitten by a snake with the power of prayer alone. Borghi himself plays a minor role, supporting the body of the dead child before he is resuscitated. As so often in Veronese’s work the patron takes part in the religious drama: throughout the exhibition any slightly suspect characters photo-bombing the holy scene are probably portraits of the patrons.
This may be the last painting, but as you go, stop and contemplate The Agony in the Garden. Christ’s traditional vigil has worn him down, and while Peter, James and John sleep securely in the background, Jesus has collapsed in the arms of a consoling angel, who is left with the task of looking up to Heaven and pleading for forbearance. The light streaming from on high trickles like liquid gold down the angel’s violet robe, and Christ’s limbs hang heavy, forming a counterpoint with the angel’s legs and framed by the blue and red of his own robes, as if blood and water flow mingled down. It is an exquisite image: quiet, considered, contemplative, sublime.
The exhibition has 50 paintings by this great master, from the earliest known works, to the last one he painted. It’s the first exhibition devoted to him in Britain, and the size and scale of the paintings mean that the National Gallery has moved some of its permanent collection out of the way so that Veronese’s works can enjoy the space and natural daylight of the main floor. The colours shine gloriously, the dramatic compositions have space to breathe, and some of the paintings can be examined up close for the first time ever. It really is the exhibition you should be going to see – and if you can conspire to see it when the sun is shining, so much the better.
There is no art without politics, I thought to myself the other day as I crossed Trafalgar Square. Built – or rather cleared – to celebrate Nelson’s victory at the eponymous battle, the square has at its centre the Admiral himself atop the eponymous column. He is joined by a number of notable monuments to the great and the good, British military heroes of whom, we are told, we should be rightly proud, and a big blue chicken.
The sculptures include a spendthrift King and two suppressors of India. That is why I am far more fond of the chicken. Or cockerel, rather – a big blue cockerel, to be precise, by German sculptor Katharina Fritsch, whose English is surely good enough, that when she titled her work Hahn/Cock, she must have realised the subjects of the other sculptures might be made to look like a bunch of – well – Hähne, I believe is the correct German plural, more paltry than poultry. It stands there, puffing out its chest (as do the other heroes), trying to look as important as possible. The German word for this I learnt just the other week: Schwanzvergleich. You’ll have to look it up. The only differences between Hahn/Cock and the occupants of the other plinths seem to be that it’s blue, and a bird. This was Fritsch’s intention: to puncture the manly posturing of the other figures. I love its irreverence, I love its sense of anarchy, and I especially love its colour, particularly on a sunny day. It’s made me realise that I hope that the Fourth Plinth remains ever free for a celebration of our freedom in the 21st Century – in Britain at least – to say what we think and to live how we feel. It would be awful if it were replaced by another permanent authority figure, a member of the supposedly great and apparently good who would become institutionalised as a figure of respect.
It is, after all, an entirely institutionalised Square. After the British victories at the Battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815) Britain could (rightly?) claim to be ‘top nation’, and it was thought that this should in some way be recognised and celebrated. It helped that the Regency was in full swing, and when, in 1820, the Regent came to the throne as King George IV, he wasn’t happy with his palace. After all, St James’s had been constructed as a hunting lodge for Henry VIII, and in no way represented the newly affirmed status of the nation. Before long, Buckingham House was converted into a Palace, but not before the King’s stables, not far from Whitehall (which had been the location of the Royal Palace until it burnt down under William III in 1698), were demolished and rebuilt (next to the new Palace) as the Royal Mews. This left an open space for Trafalgar Square, not to mention an ideal location for two of Britain’s great artistic institutions, the National Gallery and The Royal Academy. Both moved into a new, shared building on the North side of the square in 1838, which filled so rapidly that 30 year later the RA moved to its present location on Piccadilly.
By this stage the sculptures had started to arrive as celebrations of Empire, and in 1925 the buildings to the West of the square became a monument to one of the bastions of the British Empire, Canada. Shortly after this, another monumental edifice, South Africa House, was constructed opposite. In this day and age it may seem a little surprising that Canada and South Africa are given such a central role in that celebration of national pride that is Trafalgar Square, a surprise which only goes to remind us that we cannot escape history (as friend and AHA colleague Catherine Macaulay and I never fail to point out to one another). But maybe we can learn from history and escape some of its posturing: we should always be careful about what we choose to monumentalise. That’s why, from time to time, we need a big blue chicken.
Lion, Edwin Landseer, 1860-67. One theory about the lions is that they were intended to cut down the space in the square to limit the size of crowds and therefore the possibility of protest. However, lions (though not Landseer’s) were envisaged as part of William Railton’s original design of Nelson’s Column. It was the fountains, installed originally in 1838, which were intended to limit the size of the square for precisely this reason.
Whilst this might at first seem a dry topic for an exhibition – I can assure you it was anything but.
The display is divided into three topics: weather and climate, public health, and biological diversity. My experience of scientific learning did not greatly extend past my Triple Science GCSE, so I felt if someone like me could grasp these concepts, the images and diagrams of the exhibition would have fulfilled their purpose well.
Meteorology, out of the three topics, was probably the one I had encountered least often and knew least about. However, looking at the cartographical imagery superimposed with swirling, dramatic wind patterns, I realised how instantly familiar I was to the imagery of planetary weather. It is something we see everyday on the weather forecast and seeing demonstrations of climate activity from the 1800s it became clear to me how influential and effective illustrations such as Robert Fitzroy’s Weather Book are today. Many of the early meteorological observations pre-20th century were reliant on the information provided by explorers and mariners, and in the case of the ship The Rochester of the East India Trading Company, their logging of weather from 1709-12 were integral in understanding patterns of precipitation and wind. What makes the tables of data more exciting however, are the intricate illustrations of animals and ships that embellish the graphical information. Similarly, Luke Howard’s Barometrographia of 1847 shows lines of longitudinal and latitudinal points surrounded with the measure of air pressure as it’s tondo frame, acting both as a visual stimulus and providing supportive information.
At the heart of global concern is the science of epidemics, and the utilisation of graphs and diagrams are no less integral to understanding health issues, as the exhibition continues to demonstrate. Behind the glass displayed Florence Nightingale’s influential Rose Diagram, representing in a concise, circular fashion the causes of death during the Crimean War. I was surprised to learn that as well as being one of the most important figures in British healthcare, Nightingale was also a celebrated and enthusiastic statistician.
Another exhibit which caught my eye was On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, 1845, a map which marked the places where the disease was reported in Soho. Here, the concentration around Broad Street helped health authorities to identify the exact pipe which the water-borne disease stemmed from.
As well as fascinating examples such as these, the exhibition also offers an interactive map, where the visitor can ‘play god’ for a few minutes, controlling a hypothetical epidemic configuring its contagiousness, source of origin and season of spread, watching the disease disperse across the globe in mesmerising red and orange trails.
Before going to this exhibition I knew Darwin’s work in the field of biological diversity and his Tree of Life was a landmark and treasure of British history, but it was only seeing it in the context of these other works that I understood its true beauty. The diagram of the trunk and branches of the animal kingdom not only create a digestible arrangement of the vastness of nature’s variety, but the symbolism of the tree also gives the diagram a sense of vitality and life. I was intrigued to learn that the tree was not exclusive in this respect, as Georg August Goldfuss’ 1817 System of Animals represented the animal world in the shape of an egg, another life-giving symbol. Two centuries before, Robert Fudd’s Great Chain of Being interpreted nature’s diversity through concentric levels of god, man, animals and minerals, overseen by Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. Today scientists employ the practical yet visually intricate methods of fractal geometry to depict the ever expanding scope of our understanding of the natural world, and interactive screens in the exhibition allow visitors to explore just how deep our knowledge is becoming through graceful animations of spiralling shapes.
It did not surprise me what a large role imagery has played in the discipline of scientific learning but I must admit I was taken aback by the variety of different modes of representation which scientists used and still use. NASA’s video of the Perpetual Ocean, depicting the currents of the world’s water were animated in such a hypnotic, undulating manner that it began to resemble the romantic swirls of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
The whole exhibition was a wonderful, visual and intellectual surprise. If you have spare time before May, head down and have a look – not only is it short and sweet, it’s also free!
When I did my AHA course in the summer of 2012, an evening activity we were introduced to was (prosecco-fuelled) ‘Art Charades’. The group splits into judges and two teams, and each takes turns re-enacting artistic masterpieces live on the streets of Venice, Florence or Rome (much to the amusement of perplexed locals).
It seems the fashion world has been at it too – albeit on a slightly more professional scale. Artists from Salvador Dali to Barbara Kruger have been invited to direct fashion shoots. Throw celebrities into the mix, and their recreations comprise a hilarious, odd, fantastical and real-life response to visual fictions.
A recent cover shoot for US Vogue depicted Jessica Chastain in a series of art-inspired portraits; striking poses from Matisse, to Van Gogh and Klimt. Models have recreated works from Magritte to Vermeer. ‘Girl with a pearl earring’ is a fashion favourite, having been modelled by Julianne Moore, Katja Borghuis and Scarlett Johannson (to promote her film about the subject).
Mimicking paintings spreads from photography to live fashion. Marc Jacobs caused quite a stir when he sent ‘sexy nurses’ down the Louis Vuitton catwalk, inspired by Richard Prince’s ‘Nurses’ painting series. Another example would be Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Mondrian’ collection, which became the epitome of Swinging Sixties fashion.
Why does fashion take such obvious inspiration from art, when it is meant to be such a source of vision and creativeness itself? Perhaps to borrow some of the power of the art world’s most iconic, beloved and recognisable pieces. Or, perhaps simply for the fun of dress-up and charades…
With thanks to Vogue, W Magazine, Zink Magazine and Wikipedia for photos.
Visual culture in the twenty-first century is profoundly different to anything that has ever gone before it. This may seem like an obvious statement – everyone, of course, is aware of the effect that new technologies have had on our perception of art. But do we really understand the influence this has had on the nature of our ‘period’ eye, as Baxandall would say?
According to Baxandall, in order to best comprehend and analyse a piece of art we must understand the cultural conditions from which it was produced. (This theory, as many of you will know, he applied most famously perhaps to Renaissance Florence). It is, of course, extremely difficult – perhaps even impossible – to develop a true and unbiased understanding our own period eye. This blog post – rather fearlessly then – is a small attempt to do just that!
To propose the media site tumblr as a source for shaping our culture’s period eye is maybe an exaggeration. After all, how many people does it really reach? Can we claim that it really has any effect on the production of art? Well, tumblr has an estimated 216.3 million viewers each month, with currently 108.9 million blogs and counting. Granted, this is a tiny percentage of the Western world. But it seems that those who use tumblr are generally more likely to be involved in artistic processes.
Firstly, it provides a platform in which budding new artists can showcase their art. There are an abundance of blogs which either belong to a specific artist, or, as is the unique nature of tumblr, display an assortment of the art that one person – artist or layman – enjoys. The effect of this is many fold. Primarily, it means that even those who do not specifically create or commission art are now being involved in the art ‘market’, if not in a commercial sense then certainly in terms of contemporary taste and sensibility. We are all aware of the profound influence of the media on young minds in shaping issues such as body image and sensationalism, but have we ever considered its effect on the aesthetic of today? Such bloggers have a huge power in shaping taste, particularly if we consider the susceptible nature of tumblr’s main demographic:teens and those in their early twenties. Its potential here is precisely why Yahoo deemed it worthy of a $1.1 billion investment.
Because anyone can reblog an image, tumblr may be seen as an ultimately democratic site which strips away the elitism so often attached to art. Even a thirteen year old from a small village in the countryside may become part of a cutting-edge art circle. But perhaps this carries many inherent dangers; do we want this to be the case? Is art in a sense degraded through such mass proliferation?
Maybe the reverence and sanctity of art is slowly being degraded by mass culture. But is that really such a problem? Prints have been in circulation since the fifteenth century, although they in some sense only proved to re-enforce the distinction between art for the masses and ‘high’ art. Sites like tumblr treat both equally, and it is the viewer’s individual taste, rather than their economic means, that determines whether they want it to be included as part of their own unique artistic profile.
Tumblr ultimately serves as an example of the changing way in which we may perceive art in an age where politics, art, food, fashion and more are regularly placed side by side. Multi-media now encourages the world to engage with ‘high art’ on a day-to-day basis, rather than placing it on a pedestal. At the same time, Tumblr encourages all things to be viewed as potentially containing artistic significance. And for that, in my mind at least, it is hugely important.
Fancy entering into the world of tumblr? A few favourites……
One of the most exciting things about studying History of Art in Italy is that you don’t have to go to a national gallery to see a Titian, or to a pay an entrance fee to see a Michelangelo. Wandering around churches is as good a way as any to discover and experience incredible artworks.
A highlight for me when I did the Northern Italy trip in July 2012 was Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin‘ (1516-18) in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, in Venice. Once inside, the Basilica exudes calm and history beyond the bold edifice of brick, and the painting is spectacular – even more so because it’s in such a spiritual setting.
England is by no means short of interesting and beautiful places of worship, but Italianate churches are a different kind of impressive. Oddly, there are one or two dotted around England – including a stunning one in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside.
St Catherine’s church in Hoarwithy, Herefordshire, is an isolated treasure. Hoarwithy is a small village tucked away on the River Wye, and the church itself rests on a high hillside. Prebendary William Poole, Vicar of Hentland, decided to build it between 1870 and 1900, as he found the original style ‘an ugly brick building with no pretensions to any style of architecture’. Designed by architect John Pollard Seddon, it was built in the Italian Romanesque style, with a detached campanile. The brick exterior conjures a vague link to the Venetian Basilica, and the warm terracotta tone brings warmth to the English landscape that surrounds it. Inside there is a rich mosaic of Christ in Glory, installed by an Italian workman who had just worked on St Paul’s Cathedral. Much of the filigree and detail in the church is copied from Saint Vitale at Ravenna in Italy.
Similarly placed in the English countryside is the Italianate church in Wilton, Wiltshire. The Hon. Sidney Herbert begged his mother, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, to rebuild the ancient medieval church of St Nicholas, which had fallen into a severe state of disrepair. Accordingly, it was built in the Italianate style which he so loved, on a Roman basilica plan and complete with a campanile. Inside is the fantastic Capocci Shrine, with twisted black marble columns removed from a shrine at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
Finally, there’s St Peter’s Italian church, slid in between houses in Clerkenwell, London. Built at the request of St Vincent Pallotti, it was for the growing number of Italian immigrants in London (by 1850 nearly 2,000 had settled there). It was modelled by architect Sir John Miller-Bryson on the Basilica San Crisogono in Rome, and at the time of its opening, in 1863, was the only church in England in the Roman Basilican style. This year it celebrates its 150th anniversary which will be celebrated at their annual processione held in July.
All of these churches are stunning (as the picture-heavy nature of this post testifies). If this post needs a moral, it is this: go exploring. You never know what you will come across, and you might find a little bit of Italy where you never expected it.
With thanks to Wikipedia, Wiltshire Council, St Peter’s Italian Church and wyenot.com for photos