Having returned last week from Nice and Antibes, where AHA ran a tour of 20th Century art in the South of France, it was nice to be reminded of Picasso when learning that a new record for the sale of art has been broken.
The Women of Algiers – Version O by Picasso, 1955. Sold $179m
The picture sold is the last of a series of 15 paintings (version A – O). It’s interesting because these paintings are a sort of essay on a painting by Delacroix of the same title.
There are 15 versions in the group, for instance:
Have a look at the whole collection here, it’s fascinating.
From Picasso in 1955 to Ai Weiwei in 2015 … a competition
For a bit of fun, I wonder if anyone would like to pick one of the 15 versions and tell us why they prefer their choice – the best reply will get a free place to our Ai Weiwei Day (date in October tbc ) which will include a lecture, lunch and entry to the upcoming and soon to be celebrated autumn exhibition at the Royal Academy. Give it a go. Usually, hardly anyone has a go at these things, so your chances are good. If you cannot make the date, we will give you another lecture day when you can come. Competition ends 15th June 2015.
One would have to work quite hard on these images to unravel what is meant by them and where they fit; but nevertheless pictures like Guernica (1937) and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) spring to mind in the use of fragmented form and space.
Was Pablo thinking of Eugène or Henri?
Most striking to me is Picasso’s seeming reference to Matisse, who was also fascinated by North Africa and who went there many times in the 1930’s. Matisse was following Delacroix in a shared fascination with the Orient. I think it was the sensuous, foreign, patterned and colourful nature of another world that absorbed both Delacroix and Matisse.
Picasso knew Matisse well – there was a friendly admiration and rivalry between them. On their last meeting, Matisse notes afterwards that Picasso “saw what he wanted to see. Now he will put it all to good use.” I wonder to what extent The Women of Algiers series, painted just some 100 days after the death of Matisse, is a homage to Matisse rather than Delacroix.
In 1930, aged 24, Horst moved to Paris. Attractive, urbane and in search of experimental aesthetic, Horst was absorbed into a bohemian clique that included many renowned people who would shape his career. Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, a photographer for Vogue Paris, became his lover and mentor; Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a lifelong friend and champion.
Horst began his career as the era of photography began to eclipse graphic illustration in magazines. Fashion week in the 1930s was absent of the model hysteria it has today. Modelling was in its infancy as a profession, and to avoid inconveniencing haute couture clients, models were shot in the studios at night. The black and white nocturnal photographs are sensual and atmospheric, with lighting that is intense without harshness.
The exhibition is large and laid out according to theme. Photographs move from elegant chiaroscuro to the surrealism of the Dali years. Whimsical elements increasingly infused Horst’s 1930s work, making the commercial mystical: tasked with cataloguing nail varnish, he creates impossible patterns with layered hands; mirrors in dark, cluttered attics reflect blue skies and bright clouds.
The centrepiece of Horst’s legacy and the V&A’s exhibit is the ‘Mainbocher Corset’ (1939). Madame Bernon wears a Mainbocher corset, assuming the role of Venus with perfect statuesque proportion. The last photograph Horst shot in Paris before the war, it epitomises the end of a charmed era. Melancholy and seductive, it was retouched to make the corset cling to Madame Bernon’s body; but the original has a loose provocativeness that is more striking.
The 1940s present a mess of fractured wartime motifs and icons of the silver screen. Horst trained with the army in Fort Belvoir, accepted US citizenship and worked as a photographer for army magazines. Photographs of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth hang opposite landscapes of ruined Persepolis (then recently uncovered) and the newly established state of Israel.
Straying from the fashion he was known for, the V&A presents close up ‘Patterns from Nature’, repeated and panned out to replicate gothic architecture. Along with Horst’s collection of nudes, the sheer skill in artistic composition underlines the integrity of his fashion photography, in an era that was steeped in commercialism.
The V&A’s exhibit imparts a loose sense of the man behind the camera. Handsome and elusive, there are a few childhood pictures of Horst, scattered objects and the rare glimpse of him on a fashion shoot. But personality leaps forth with endearing anecdotes. Horst once visited Chanel in her studios to shoot some jewellery she had designed. He sat, chatting to her, playing with a bit of putty they were using to model the jewellery. A few weeks later she gifted him a cigarette lighter. She had moulded it on the putty he had left behind so it fit perfectly into his fist; he carried it throughout the war.
The penultimate room in the exhibition pops with 1950s colour. As fashion crossed the Atlantic to settle in New York instead of Paris, technicolour entered the mass media. Ninety-four Vogue magazine covers, and 25 giant photographs are blown up with jewel tones. Some are overlaid with murals, making haughty models the centre of easels.
Horst’s fashion has a spontaneous feel. It has no desperation or need for immediate admiration, but is confident and considered. There is an inexhaustible thirst for the ground-breaking, but not necessarily the brand new, original, garish or shocking. With no vindictive internet audience to please, art was able to permeate his work as the world moved at a stunning, sloping pace.
Model Carmen Dell’Orefice on shooting with Horst, opening the exhibition and staying young: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29017638
It seems that the concept of a finite war has collapsed in the face of long-term conflicts without geographical limits. In the same way, reporting has changed and as smartphones have emerged as a reporting device, perhaps art seems out of place in a war zone. Static, micro-level portraits will not headline the ten o’clock news or sprint through Twitter. The ease of taking grainy last-minute iPhone footage befits the chronicling of ceaseless long-term struggles, it seems. But a portrait can just as easily convey the enormity of a conflict as a graphic battle scene. And as today’s battle scenes have chenged, becoming shattered generations rather than muddy, shelled fields – portraiture reflects some of the deeper consequences of war, reverberating across countries and time.
And so, artists are creating collaborative projects to thread communities out of those displaced by war. On 1st February 2014, in central Kiev, anti-government protestors were barricaded in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, living under a lethal siege. Armour was improvised in a setting of ice, fire, smoke and soot. Anastasia Taylor-Lind, a photojournalist from London, set up a makeshift portrait studio by the barricades. The result of her work is immensely powerful. Against a blank black curtain, ordinary men and women confront the viewer, vulnerable in their homemade protective clothing. As time progressed during this project, the artist’s subjects morphed from revolutionaries brandishing weapons, to women cradling flowers for the dead.
When conflicts feel like relics of history, or too distant to be relevant, photojournalism throws forward untold stories that demand attention. Photojournalist Michael Kamber published photos from three of the Iraq war’s most prominent photographers. Frustrated at America’s desire to tune out of the war, and the US military’s encouragement of indifference by taking an active role in censoring what could be photographed, the cautiously obscure portraits – some shocking and gruesome – convey an unavoidable sense of perpetual sadness.
The mass of social media flowing from every war zone makes it almost impossible to separate out nuanced understanding from the fake or unrevealing. Portraits from warzones offer a considered insight into the effects of war and social displacement around the world. Kamber’s portraits show wounds scarring both Iraqi and US communities, as soldiers bring home injury, grief and disillusionment with their sovereign state’s confused world identity. Syrian artist Tammam Azzam’s version of Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, superimposed on a hauntingly empty, bullet-ridden building in Damascus, is a passionate plea for empathy and kindness amidst cold brutality. Here, the golden ghost of Klimt’s tender portrait mourns the splendour and love the city once offered.
As conflict after conflict is buried under an avalanche of new crises, it is too easy to forget one for another. The interchangeablity of hashtags perhaps references this better than anything: #Ukraine, #Syria, #Iraq and #IslamistState. Photojournalism moves with a society undergoing struggles, capturing the suffering that will remain with people for generations. Most importantly, portraits encourage us to consider the status of the subject in a world perplexed by the boundaries of nation, class, race and religion.
With thanks to Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Michael Kamber and Tammam Azzam for photographs.
If ever a city was primed for the stereotypical ‘city break’, it was Seville. Packed with a perfect cocktail of culture, sun (essential), and great food, it is walk-able, explore-able and exudes a warm comfort and curiosity from its sandy Moorish architecture. From a couple of visits, here is a haphazard checklist of what to do, see, taste and take note of in 24 hours in the city…
1. Don’t go in summer
The hardest thing to organise about a trip to Seville the temperature. Believe it or not, summer is ‘low season’. If you manage to get sunburnt in Cornwall (as I do) – don’t attempt to disprove this. September through to April is prime time to visit – when I visited in January, it was 23 degrees Celsius.
2. Don’t take a map
Seville’s winding medieval streets are sights in themselves. Be ready to get lost – you will stumble across a multitude of squares and churches that are all the more beautiful in the surprise of discovering them.
3. Visit the Cathedral and Palace
Dead centre in the main square lies the famed Seville cathedral. It is huge and majestic, containing an eclectic mix of art and Christopher Columbus’ tomb amongst other wonders. Built mostly in the fifteenth century atop the twelfth-century Almohad mosque, the mosque’s minaret (the Giralda) still towers beside it. Climb the bell tower for stunning views of the river, the neighbouring palace and the cathedral’s Gaudi-esque roof. The Moorish fortified palace, adapted by later Christian kings, is an impressive building in itself, but explore the plush and peaceful gardens, which really steal the show.
4. Try Sangria and tapas
If you’re looking for tapas, just south of the cathedral is Casablanca – apparently a favourite of the King and Queen of Spain. Be brave and ask for a selection of the best traditional favourites. Seville’s streets come alive at night. Wander through the bustle and grab some sangria (there is a winter variety) from one of the bars tucked away in corners between tottering layered apartments.
5. Look out for festivals
Wandering around in January we came across celebrations for the three kings. This included music in the main square, and a parade of huge cars decorated as an assortment of ships, clouds, and fantastical shapes gliding through town with children throwing sweets from the roofs. Read up beforehand and explore at night, and you may find yourself caught up in similarly unexpected festivities.
6. Explore by bike
Seville’s equivalent of Boris bikes are available to rent and allow you to whiz round the more remote locations. The mammoth terracotta Plaza de Espana was built for the Ibero-American exposition in 1929. Intricate towers and balconies shield a tiled stream with small bridges leaping over it. Rent tiny wooden bucket-y boats and race around the square at sunset, when music starts playing out of the adjoining park as well.
7. Fit in a long stroll by the river
Lining the banks of the Guadalquivir are famed orange trees (don’t try them – they’re marmalade oranges and give a new meaning to the word ‘sour’), and an explosive wall of street art. Better than any indoor gallery, they’re packed with colour, references to a multitude of artists (including some brilliant Picasso imitations) and creative panache.
Day by day, e-readers are making the trade of physical books more competitive, and though cut-outs and matte effects do not change a book’s content, cover art is becoming bolder and more experimental as a result of competition. There is a unique relationship between two art forms when a book is made which is perhaps relatable only to a film and its score, a reminder of just how necessary an attractive or striking cover is. The quality of the cover creates a distinct expectation of the writing inside, and so choosing a cover is one of the most important decisions a publisher makes in the process of a book’s release, especially in the ferocious fiction market.
Books have been design objects for centuries, and are often bought in this capacity by those who have no interest in the content, but rather in their aesthetic effect. The Lindisfarne Gospels, for example, dating back to the 7th or 8th Century and now in the British Library, were encased in embellishment and never designed to be opened, despite the sacred words within. Cover art can often reach a state of independence from the words within, and, in some cases, cult status among those who have never read even the book. Examples include some of the most recognisable books of 20th Century, and many modern novels too: the cover of The Great Gatsbyby F Scott Fitzgerald and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (see above) have posters, pencil-cases, and all manner of other merchandise based on their covers.
The current trend for cover art seems to be simplicity, with advertising for factual books like Ten Billionby Stephen Emmott showing the public how effective an uncomplicated design can be. However, fiction remains a little more decorated, and this can lead to disastrous covers, especially in the teen fiction section, despite this genre recently occupying many top spots in best-seller lists. While the Twilight Saga has striking colours and images on its covers, similar books like Cassandra Clare’s present a series of messy, poorly composed covers. Both are what one might call (however fondly) “trashy” but the differences still definitely command one’s expectations of the inside. A similar effect can occur with classics, as seen below in the contrasting Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Great Gatsby. The gloomy figures have a very different effect to that of the vivid example above, and yet they have both been chosen to represent the same story. Judge the book for the words and the object for the art, but judging a book by its cover can clearly only get you so far.
A problem with the increased pressure on a book’s appearance, its outer art, is that its contents can never be twinned exactly with a different medium. The pairing does not become a diptych, bonded by subject matter, however many editions are produced. They remain advertisements for the contents, just as full of untruths as adverts for anything else. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons simplicity has become so popular (see the new Penguin Hardcover Classics but risk a much lower bank balance), so that expectations are stripped away and abstract ideas can have precedence and judgement is reduced. Keep buying books for the reasons you always have, whether that means literature or design, because if you are reading this blog you probably care about the continuation of art for its own sake.
If you are interested in the best and worst of cover art, Flavorwire has an article on this subject, and a Dutch Booktuber, Sanne Vliegenhart, has a wonderful video on her favourite covers. I recommend both.
China’s art is exciting – it really is. Extremely simplistically, the PRC’s art history can be divided by pre- and post-Mao’s rule. What little art there was in between was either so corrupted it is purely propaganda, or was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This makes modern Chinese art one of the few windows into their confusing, contradictory and colourful political system.
Graffiti in the 798 Art District, Beijing
Modern art in China comprises expressions formed by political, economic and cultural combustion. In the 798 Art District in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai, China’s revived interest in nudging at societal boundaries have bred edgy art scenes. With many relics decimated during the Cultural Revolution, the low rent and spacious rooms in the disused factories of mutating cities gave artists a unique and low-cost way of creating a Chinese artistic history.
Closeted amongst decommissioned military factories built by the East Germans during the Maoist heyday of the 1950s, the 798 Art District in Beijing is a thriving microcosm of artists’ studios, boutiques and independent cafés. ‘Saw-tooth’ roof design, high ceilings, north-facing windows and right-angles give each building a distinctly utilitarian feel. Communist slogans paint the walls in fading red letters. Quietly riveting exhibitions confront depictions of the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and China’s “great leader”, with established or fresh mainland artists pushing forth ardent political messages from minimalist gallery walls.
Once the Chunming Slub Mill, and now the nerve centre of Shanghai’s art scene, M50 is a similar complex, with galleries and noodle bars stuffed into every crevice of a disused cotton factory. Satirical undertones pervade the air: the Maoist personality cult haunts modern China, which now paints Little-Red-Book-waving PLA soldiers with dummies in their mouths.
But no matter how exciting the art may be – no matter how many times it embellishes China’s rigid daily politics with under-the-surface views – it is neither Communism nor political repression that mars the 798 Art District or M50. Neither escapes the rampant, almost religious commercialism that paints nearly every street in the Chinese metropolises. Wandering the manicured boulevards, you enter a bubble of Sino-Europe. At Café – a wild café with bombed-out brick walls in Beijing – serves spaghetti bolognese and tuna niçoise. Illy Coffee signs jump out between every gallery, offering respite to tourists, and a chance to imitate the West. Previously an oasis of individualism, born by the low-cost nature of the shabby setting, both complexes have become playgrounds for people who want street-stall souvenirs to be sold in Scandinavian-style shops.
Perhaps this is utterly inevitable as China strides confidently forward into the world economy, squeezing every drip of GDP it can from its culture. But in doing so, the subtle political dissent the galleries quietly put forward is overrun by capitalisation of what attracts tourists to the art districts – shopping for mass produced Communist memorabilia and homesickness for good coffee.
The 798 Art District and M50 are triple-tiered exhibition fields. On one level, China’s socio-industrial history creates a backdrop to modern Chinese art where the forgone creativity of the late 19th century should have been. On the second level, the cultural aspirations of modern China offer timid satire of China’s political system. In reality, however, a third level of crazed commercialism drips over both, clouding what modern Chinese art is really for.
Abroad, Chinese government officials often justify their regime by putting the economic enfranchisement of millions on a pedestal. If everyone’s getting rich, who needs more than one political party? It is certainly ironic, but possibly even intentional, that the Chinese commercialism post-Mao Zedong has almost become a new form of political repression.
Art Everywhere has launched again after its huge success last year. Billboards across the country are being filled with posters of artworks from our national collections. Over 38,000 public votes produced the shortlist of 25 works which will be found across 30,000 poster sites in cities, towns and villages throughout the UK.
Enjoy #arteverywhere for the next 6 weeks – the largest outdoor exhibition in the world! You can donate to the project via its website (http://arteverywhere.org.uk) and receive rewards in the shape of limited edition prints, posters and postcards.
Summer Exhibition 2014
The ever-popular Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy is in its final few weeks. For almost 250 years the same concept has directed the exhibition – submission is open to all, and is judged by a panel of leading contemporary artists. The result is a plethora of artworks of wide-ranging styles, with amateurs hung on equal terms alongside Royal Academicians. Sometimes you stumble upon new works by much loved artists, and always you leave feeling inspired at the range and quality of previously unknown artists.
This is a particularly great opportunity for busy art lovers to stay up to date with developments in contemporary art and practicing artists, and according to the curating team ‘everything you’ll see at the Summer Exhibition represents what is happening in the art world right now.’
Film4 Summer Screen at Somerset House
This year marks the tenth year of the open air cinema screenings at Somerset House – the ‘cinema under the stars’. For 2 weeks (7th-20th August) a variety of films are projected in the Neoclassical surroundings of one of central London’s most iconic buildings.
From new releases such as French drama ‘Two Days, One Night’, to well known classics like ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, ‘E.T’, and ‘Annie Hall’, there is something to suit everyone’s taste.
House of Illustration
The House of Illustration opened this summer in King’s Cross, London, as the first permanent exhibition space for international illustrators, with an extensive education space at its core.
Its collection contains illustration ‘in all its forms, from adverts to animation, picture books to political cartoons and scientific drawings to fashion design’. Its initial exhibition is Quentin Blake: Inside Stories, and runs til November this year.
Cambridge Shakespeare Festival
Throughout the summer, Shakespeare’s timeless plays entertain audiences in the beautiful gardens of the ancient collegiate university. Try swapping the Globe for a genteel picnic and performance of Twelfth Night in St John’s College Gardens, Othello in Trinity, The Taming of the Shrew at Homerton, or The Merchant of Venice in the grounds of Robinson.
American Impressionism at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Until October there is a chance to throw the spotlight onto the American contribution to the Impressionist movement. Whilst the likes of Monet, Renoir and Pissarro may have dominated the canon of Impressionist art, many well travelled American artists engaged with the style and spread its influence back to the United States. The exhibition features the work of artists such as Theodore Robinson, Frank W. Benson, and Mary Cassatt.
The BP ‘Walk Through British Art’ is a Lonely-Planet-style walking tour through the pinnacles of Britain’s creativity from the 16th century until today. A chronological re-hang of the Tate’s collection, it offers icons of every Art History textbook, as well as lesser known masterpieces.
If you have no idea about art, and are clueless about what you like, this exhibition is the best introduction. It is still worth a visit if you know everything. Every person will pick and choose a different highlight in each room, but here is a wandering trail of personal favourites…
This walkthrough begins with Hans Eworth’s ‘Portrait of an unknown lady’ (c. 1565-68). The tiny painting of the anonymous lady comes to life in the miniature beading and gold fabric, and feels living and conversational. A century or so later, Peter Monamy’s ‘Ships in Distress in a Storm’ (c. 1720-30) jumps from the rigid to the über-dynamic. The capsulated moment is frozen, turning waves into rocks and mountains, and implies fate in the sinking wood. Death in art turned from a fashionable skull in the corner of an opulent dress, to a violent, realistic and confrontational scene.
William Hogarth’s ‘Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants’ (c. 1750-55) injects humanism into the pomp and circumstance that pervaded Britain in the eighteenth century. Amongst aristocratic painted peacocks, six very real faces are stuffed together – helpfully mimicking the inequality in living conditions of the period – but, magnified and luminous, they are infinitely more emotive. Joseph Wright of Derby, in ‘An Iron Forge’ (1772), captured the working class a few decades later. The indiscernible light source, shading and fiery warmth are pure artistic genius and draw you in. The presence of young women and children make it a metallic and raw nativity scene on the eve of the Industrial Revolution’s birth.
While industry rose its heavy head in Britain, abroad colonialism thrived and coloured Britain’s grey paintings. ‘Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match’ by Johann Zoffany (c. 1784-86) shows the unruly event – tumbling and vibrant colours of India spotted with the white and red pretension of British officers. Barbaric and unruly, the sporting event exemplifies looser moral codes of British colonial life. At home in 1830, John Frederick Herring painted ‘Birmingham with Patrick Conolly Up, and his Owner, John Beardsworth’. Stark and rigid figures on a grey seaside landscape, they provide a surreal and tight-laced contrast to colonial exploits.
The late nineteenth century favoured the epic. John Martin’s series ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’, ‘The Last Judgement’ and ‘The Plains of Heaven’ (1851-3) stuns with orthodox opposition of heaven and hell (painted in conjunction). They are completely and utterly breathtaking in their maddened imagination of the apocalypse. Lord Leighton’s ‘An Athlete Wrestling with a Python’ is fleshy and forceful, achingly classical with a hands pressing sensuously into the python’s flesh.
John Singer Sargent’s ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ (1885-86) is a twilight look back at the haze of childhood. A peaceful flurry of lilacs, pinks and mossy greens with pure lilies, harkens back to the eighteenth century’s fascination with natural elements. By the early twentieth century, culture was shattering and war clouded over Britain. Mark Gertler’s ‘Merry-Go-Round’ (1916) sarcastically paints soldiers as young men marched off to war with false hope and childhood dreams. The fairground ride endlessly rotates with military rigidity, carrying those killed by an unrealistically bright view of the world.
Without designated themes or movements, the range of art is diverse and conversational. Unlike exhibits of one artist, theme or period, the ‘BP Walk Through’ lets the viewer sense their own artistic taste buds and connect the dots through the centuries. A comfortable circuit, it is simple but perfect in its choice of pieces. More relaxed than an exhibition, the ordered randomness catches you off-guard, and lets you look at art without any accompanying brochure telling you why you’re seeing this exhibition, and what to think.
The BP ‘Walk Through British Art’ is open daily at the Tate Britain until January 2023. Admission is free.
By the end of the Great War the social, imperial, political and military structure of society had transformed. Humanity was mercilessly plunged into the common predicament of grief and suffering; and the innocence of an entire generation was destroyed. ‘The Great War in Portraits’ at the National Portrait Gallery is a moving commemoration to the people who embroidered the world’s harrowing experience with individual stories.
The exhibition immediately confronts you with a distorted sculpture; at once machinery and man, then transports you to the war’s lacy Edwardian prelude. Portraits of royals with pomp and circumstance map a family tree spanning Britain, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. These grand portraits of a lost age show striking similarity and blithe ignorance. The portrait of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – whose death led to the deployment of over 70 million military personnel, with eventual losses of more than 9 million – is harrowingly modest.
A room entitled ‘Leaders and Followers’ displays a hierarchy of seniority – commanding officers in traditional garb, ordinary soldiers through a broken lens. A portrait of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig shows him watery-eyed and blank-faced. On observing the portrait he instructed ‘Go and paint the men… They’re getting killed every day.’ The Battle of the Somme, which he led, brought 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 dead, on its first day. Contrasted to his medalled portrait is the cracked ‘La Mitrailleuse’ by C. R. W. Nevinson (1915). The fractured perspective of a volunteer ambulance driver tragically points out the shattered reality of military plans compared to their orchestrated theoretical plots.
Initial patriotic euphoria quickly faded into angry disillusionment. As time progresses, artists visibly work against the shackles of propaganda, increasing tension as the exhibition progresses. People crowded round ‘Gassed and Wounded’ by Eric Kennington (1918). The cramped and ruddy conditions muffle almost audible screams of pain.
‘Captain A. Jacka’ by Colin Gill (1919) is painted with clear colours – facial contours emphasised to bring out contorted confusion. Jacka was worshipped in Australian press for incredible military acts – both audacious and lethal. ‘Damaged and wounded’ by Henry Tonks (1916-1918) is small and shy by comparison, but infinitely more devastating than the admiring celebration of killing.
The methods of slaughter revealed new depths of barbarism: gas, barbed wire, flame throwers, machine guns – all were unimagined horrors that confronted soldiers above the trenches. Between 1914 and 1918, compassion was seemingly smothered by unabated and unjustified cruelty and hatred. The attempt to represent the psyche of a traumatised nation erased traditional artistic styles. ‘Hell: the way home’ by Max Beckmann (1919) throws forth the pain of pointless defeat. ‘Self portrait’ by William Orpen (1917) is blank and objective, stifling emotions against snowy white background.
Today, as part of a generation that never possessed the innocence the Great War destroyed, it can be hard to imagine the trauma to those who survived. The National Portrait Gallery’s unabashed and unafraid display of this tragic transition is one of the most effective renditions yet. When faced with pain that is utterly unspeakable, sometimes art can be the best way to shout.
With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, the Guardian, BBC and the Tate for photographs.
‘The Great War in Portraits’ is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 June 2014, admission is free. For more information visit http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/firstworldwarcentenary/exhibition.php
John Craxton. The name many have little significance to the British public, but his recent exhibition at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge (which closed at the end of last month) served to change the fact. And with just cause. The British-born, Mediterranean-bred artist, produced some of the most vibrant and beautiful work I have encountered in a while. Despite the small scale of the exhibition, it demonstrated the evolution and diversity of Craxton’s work, from delicate line drawings, to geometric landscapes.
Inspiration from artists like William Blake, Picasso and Samuel Palmer is clear throughout his oeuvre. His friendship and teaching from Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud also found its way into the young man’s work. He was also appreciated as a good companion as well as an artist and the variety of his art testifies to his colourful character.
It was Craxton’s first visit to Greece in 1946 that inspired him with light, food, landscape and nature. His work shed the slight gloom of his youth and took on the romanticism of the Mediterranean, where he spent the majority of his adult life. He demonstrated a unique ability to capture the easy pace of these sunny regions and the unique characters he encountered there. Many of his larger scale works are of pastoral scenes and the use of block colours, effective layering and intentional compositions work in harmony to give an impression of an exotic culture – one that any traveller to Greece or Sicily will be familiar with. There is no doubt that his landscapes are seeking to create arcadia with their serene shepherds, chromatic light and whimsical goats.
However, the most interesting aspect of Craxton’s work did not occur to me until after I had stood enjoying Landscape with the Elements, a monumental kaleidoscopic work. Craxton was producing works such as these in the aftermath of the Second World War, wanting to project a joyful, energetic picture of life – life in Europe that was continuing despite the years of loss they had suffered. To this end, he painted images of thriving landscapes, flourishing feasts and animated locals. Because he chose to remain in Greece for the remainder of his life, his work was not celebrated by the British art world for many years. Thankfully, it is now possible to view Craxton in the context of history and see him as a joyous contrast to the horrors occurring during his lifetime.
His paintings have a personal sensitivity to them and also capture the fullness of a life lived. He will amaze you with his talent, complexity, simplicity and emotional narrative. And his goats really are humorous too.