The Diagnostic scans of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, by AHA tutor Freddie Mason.

It is often said that the life of Maurizio Seracini is like something out of the Da Vinci Code. He studied bioengineering at Harvard in the 70s before returning to his home, Florence, to develop technology to investigate Florentine renaissance paintings diagnostically and non-destructively. Since then, he has adapted medical and military technology to scan paintings and disclose secrets locked within the layers of paint.

In the 90s he used this technology to scan the walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio to find a lost Leonardo fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, believed to be under the Vasari frescoes that are visible today. More recently, he turned his attention to an investigation of da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. What his work uncovered in this latter piece is simply spell binding.

 

 

Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi, 1481

I recently helped to write a chapter in a book to be published about what was discovered. I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what Seracini’s work means for Leonardo da Vinci scholarship and the future of art history.

Leonardo’s enigmatic Adoration is unfinished and in a somewhat unsatisfactory state. The yellowing varnish that covers the entire piece mutes the vibrancy of the forms a great deal. Art historians have long suspected that a hand other than Leonardo’s applied the paint to the work at a later date. The dark brown smears in the foreground certainly seem much cruder than the delicate forms of the congregation.

But despite its unsatisfactory condition, it is clearly a bold work, exhibiting the young Leonardo’s precocious talent. With the painting, Leonardo broke decisively from the moods of pageantry and celebration that Gentile da Fabriano chose for his famous Adoration half a century earlier and instead gave the event a highly unusual sense of troubled urgency. Figures approach the Madonna in a state of unrest, desperately trying to catch her attention or a glimpse of the miraculous occasion. Gone are the dreamy, utopian landscapes of, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration, and instead we have a work that finds a kind of disquiet in the worship of the young Christ. It is a painting, I think, which associates the coming of Christ from the trauma of his crucifixion.

With Seracini’s scans we are able to see Leonardo’s original intentions for the piece. They provide us with unseen Leonardo drawings and a fascinating insight into his compositional process. We are literally able to ‘step into’ the painting.

 

 

Underdrawing for Leonardo’s Adoration.

Notice how the leg of the Virgin is bathed in an ethereal light in the under-drawings. This detail is completely lost in what is visible today. The scans restore a former luminosity to the seated Madonna and a sacred atmosphere to the event. This luminosity perhaps explains why one of the figures to her left appears to be shading his eyes.

Notice how Leonardo thought it necessary to design a much more complete architectural setting in his preparatory sketches. This is a truly remarkable insight into Leonardo’s compositional process: he seems to have felt the need to build the temple first before subjecting it to imaginary ruination. In the discovery of these hidden sketches we can see Leonardo working as a master of naturalistic gesture and anatomy, but also as an architect.

Notice how Leonardo included figures rebuilding the temple in his preparatory sketches. The ruined temple is a common theme in adoration scenes. It is meant to represent the decay of paganism at the birth of Christ. But, its rebuilding displays a desire to preserve, reawaken and revere the forms and ideals of pre-Christian antiquity. It seems Leonardo intended a more complex symbolic duality to the image of the ruined temple. The condemnation of paganism combined with the respect for classical antiquity is after all a contradiction at the heart of all renaissance religious painting.

These are just some of the amazing details you discover when observing Seracini’s scans. I think it is safe to say that his work has changed art history for ever.

Crucially, the scans are not just an important moment for scholarship, but also a deeply pleasurable aesthetic experience.

 

 

Art, Religion and the Smartphone: The Selfie by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

When people take pictures of famous paintings in galleries, these pictures are often selfies: ‘this is me in the Louvre, pointing at and smiling next to the Mona Lisa’. It is the ‘me’ and the ‘next to’ that the selfie really cares about; people want to watermark their own original version of the painting with that thing that is indisputably their own: their face.

Someone taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa

 

What we are now able to do with Smartphones is put ourselves in the same picture as the Mona Lisa. We can enter the same frame as her. We can place our face into the same visual context as the most iconic face in existence. We can change ourselves slightly. We can get something new about ourselves to take back across that mysterious threshold between art and life.

For the cultured ‘art-lover’ there is nothing more embarrassing than the selfie. There are those that take selfies in front of Leonardos and there are those art-lovers that look on in despair.

Why is this?

I think this opposition between different kinds of gallery-goers has a lot to do with the theological oppositions between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Let me make a crude summary:

One of the things that particularly annoyed the new modes of protestant faith that developed during the Reformation was the worship of holy objects, relics. The worship of relics involves a very bodily orientated kind of faith: it is all about your physical proximity to the holy object. This catholic mode of worship is an externalised kind of religious being that is based upon the arrangement of people and things within space. In some cases, religious objects are even touched, a ritual act I’ve always found exquisitely dramatic.

 

A nail from the 'True Cross'

Protestantism, on the other hand, is much more internalised. It requires the individual to contemplate, in the solitude of prayer, their own fallen existence: faith and faith alone. One should not need the bones of the saints or a bit of the true cross to help absolve sins, only your own intense relationship with the word of God.

But, what has this got to do with selfies?

The tourist that sidles up alongside a Caravaggio to take a selfie is really interested in this Catholic belief in proximity. The tourist is not ‘learning to look’ as the exasperated art history tutors that surround them would like. What’s really important is that they were there, here, near, right next to the divine presence of the ‘original work of art’. In the world of art experience this pertains to a very Catholic set of values. ‘I was physically there. Next to this! The actual one!’

The desire to affirm physical presence in relation to the original artwork with a selfie is, I think, related to that mysterious, much more ancient impulse to physically touch works of art or religious objects.

Some artists have noticed this desire, creating works that ask you to break the rules. Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Objet’, for instance, cries out to be touched.

Meret Oppenheim, Objet, 1936, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

On the other end of the spectrum of gallery-goers is the good student who keeps their Smartphone switched off in their bag, listens attentively to the tutor and looks carefully in the hope that they might one day ‘learn how to look’ properly at art. For the good student, the whole affair is much more internalised. For them, proximity to the original is part of an individualised learning process through which they might gain a private aesthetic sensibility. With regards to their experience of art, they are acting like a Protestant might.

A sign in a gallery

 

Max Weber’s ‘protestant work ethic’ perhaps applies here: does one have to work to understand Caravaggio? Or is being there, having made the journey, the pilgrimage, enough?

I do not want to say something boring about which kind of gallery-goer is more or less superior. Instead, I think we can learn something about our historical position by observing this opposition. This is: however much we think society has become secularised, our ‘secular’ activities are structured by impulses that have their origins in religious ritual or dogma.

 

 

 

Art, Religion and the Smartphone : Pictures and pictures of paintings by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

Whilst in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, one of the more philosophically inclined students on the AHA early summer course remarked to me: ‘isn’t it funny that the first thing people do when they see an original work of art, is make a reproduction of it’. This struck me as an extremely intelligent thing to say.

She was referring, of course, to the expansive sea of Smartphone screens bobbing up and down in front of the original Capitoline Wolf, desperately catching snaps. The remark was intelligent because the student wasn’t looking to condemn the modern trigger-happy habits of gallery-goers, but contemplate it as a cultural phenomenon. She didn’t say ‘isn’t it hateful’ or ‘isn’t it irritating’ (which, I accept, it often is!), but chose that very thoughtful phrase ‘isn’t it funny…’.

The Capitoline Wolf, The Capitoline Museum, Rome

What I take ‘funny’ to mean here is:

‘I can feel something strange going on here that I might be able to learn something from’.

I want to suggest that we can learn a great deal about the history of art and religion from the strange spectacle of the Mona Lisa exploding into a thousand pixelated versions of itself on mobile phone screens all over the room.

The student cleverly noticed the irony of this act: all these people are here because this object is ‘original’, yet all they are doing is reproducing it. People are making out of the image exactly the thing they didn’t come to see: a reproduction. People appear seized by the paradoxical desire to make their own original version of something that is, we’ve been told, original.

But what exactly is an ‘original’?

This is not a straightforward question and one that has been pondered by a number of formidable minds. Its perhaps most startling discussion is by Walter Benjamin in his influential essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

What we learn from Benjamin’s essay is that the whole notion of the ‘original’ is dependent upon the possibility of reproduction. In the 15th century, art couldn’t be ‘original’ in the same way that it is today. The whole notion of authenticity requires the invention of that which is seen as ‘inauthentic’ – fridge magnets, advertising, posters, book covers etc. All those silly little tourist-tat trinkets that carry the Mona Lisa’s image make space within us for a reverence of the ‘original’.

Andy Warhol, Cambell's Soups Cans, 1962

The 21st century experience of the Mona Lisa is fundamentally different from the 15th century experience of the painting because it has been reproduced so many times. Fascinatingly, a spirit of the originary (as I like to call it) has literally been added to paintings by their reproduction. The more an image is reproduced, the more thrilling people find the experience of seeing the original. This ‘spirit’ is enhanced by reproduction.

This all may seem obvious.

But, in an age where art is becoming an increasingly secular phenomenon, this ‘spirit of the originary’ gives works of art a bizarre, modern kind of religiosity. The reproduction of art works provides a substitute religiosity for the one that is being lost through art’s gradual detachment from formalised religious practice. The visual reproductive capacities of the Smartphone play an active role in re-spiritualising the secularised work of art.

When people take photos of paintings they are partaking in a ritual which makes that painting original. They are part of a congregation of camera phone owners who sanctify the object.

One last point:

Though the technology is 21st century, this camera phone habit has a history. When someone takes a snap of a painting in a gallery they are exhibiting a distinctly renaissance impulse – the desire to return to origins in order to appropriate those origins for your own ends. If I put a picture I’d taken of the Hercules from the Archaelogical Museum in Naples on my facebook page, I would be behaving a lot like Alessandro Farnese did when he excavated the statue from the Caracalla Baths and put it in his palace.

The Farnese Hercules, thought to be c. 216 AD, The Archaeological Museum, Naples

We shouldn’t be suspicious of the involvement of technology in art and art education. Instead, we should think carefully about how people use technology in their aesthetic experience to feel our position in human history with greater sensitivity – to realise, perhaps, how little has changed.

 

Lift Off! A review of Gustav Metzger’s current exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, by Frankie Dytor

“So, it’s, um, auto-destructivist art. A creative form of political protest through destruction and disintegration”.

Such were my words in an attempt to convince my family to come to the new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, ‘Lift Off!’, featuring the work by the activist and artist Gustav Metzger. This rather paltry attempt to enthuse was fairly unsuccessful, and it was a sullen group that shuffled into the extension of Jim Ede’s bequeathed house. I needn’t have worried, however. Twenty minutes later we were all lying on the floor in awed silence, transfixed by a particular piece entitled ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’.

Liquid Crystal Environment

In it, this all absorbing and all encompassing rapture, slides containing heat sensitive liquid crystals are rotated, creating movement that is projected onto the walls. As they are heated and cooled the crystals also change colour, creating a protozoic psychedelia. The wish emblazoned on the wall in the previous room suddenly became manifest; that Metzger wanted art that would “levitate”, art that would “gyrate”. Faced with these endlessly moving shapes, his wish was transparent. Removed from the acts of human and consciously physical creation, a new type of artistic distance is created. But did this distance permit greater comprehension?

 

In ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’ politics, an element so strong in Metzger’s writings,    did not seem to me to be a primary concern. Or certainly it inspired no political anxiety within me. Rather a state of abstract being. It was like lying back and looking at the stars, whilst the immediate present remained irrelevant. The forms were histological, although it was not they that changed but rather their colour and luminosity. Eventually, their flickering grew stronger, more urgent. Saturation increased with violent luminosity until it was almost painful to look at them. But, as if in a trance, everyone in the room stayed. The light became blinding, and reality became the vision you get when you shut your eyes after too much brightness. And then, popping in and in with less confidence and determination each time, the forms slowly faded to black.

 

This spectacle required no artistic foreknowledge or understanding. Simply every human’s deep attraction to light. And there was a certain beauty in that, one quite different to many of Metzger’s other works, such as ‘Dancing Tubes’. Without the choice sentences from his fifth manifesto (a nice curatorial choice) the work would have been totally baffling. Every ten minutes, two tubes… well, dance. All very interesting, but what of it? The words of Metzger must be turned to, in particular his notions regarding random activity. Art, he says, is the “drawing of belief”, whilst random activity “escalates an extension of accepted (unproductive) concepts of art, nature and society”. The presentation of activity with the minimal amount of interruption by the artist is “belief at its maximum’. So random activity allows the work to take on a new state, to reach a particular “transcendence…which the artist could not achieve except through random activity”. A perfectly logical explanation to the seeming chaos of the work.

Metzger’s work is exciting and inspiring. His works combined with his words force you to think about the implications of technology, the effect of machines and the social responsibility of the artist. What is interesting is that he uses this problematic technology in his art, and in so doing creates things which are profoundly beautiful. It’s a pity that the exhibition is so small, but it leaves you with that delicious feeling of wanting more.

Gustav Metzger: Lift Off continues at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge until 31 August 2014.

Kaleidoscope Landscapes and Playful Goats: John Craxton, by AHA alum Anna Fothergill

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.

Pastoral for P.W, 1948, Oil on canvas

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.

Lucian Freud, 1946, Conte pencil
Portrait of Sonia, 1948-57, Oil on Canvas

 

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.

Landscape with derelict Windmill, 1958, Oil on board

Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85. Tempera on Canvas

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.

 

Landscape with the Elements, 1973, Oil on board

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.

Study for Four Figures in a Mountain Landscape, 1950,

Is the cult of celebrity undermining portraiture? Helena Roy looks at modern subjects…

A trip to the National Portrait Gallery requires passing the newsagents’ stalls that litter every London tube station and street corner. Here, fluorescent glossy magazines throw pictures of a myriad of celebrities at the bystander. Entering the gallery, you recognise a few faces from those very same stands in the portraits.

Modern society is obsessed with celebrity. The famous are everywhere – infiltrating all areas of our lives. The reason for this is probably economic: celebrities sell. The list is endless: from clothes and false eyelashes to insurance and payday loans. And now, to some extent, artwork.

Classical works habitually depict religious figures – sacra conversazione and biblical tales in glorious paint and sculpture added meaning and marvel to worship for an illiterate congregation.  Some contemporary art is (only partially satirically) mimicking this to benefit from the worship of celebrities. Marc Quinn’s work on Kate Moss depicts her in goddess-like form: she commands worship in Microcosmoss – The Road to Enlightenment; and becomes an avant-garde version of the golden calf in Siren.

Commanding worship - Kate Moss in 'Microcosmoss - The Road to Enlightenment' (2008) by Marc Quinn

But whilst religious tales often had morals to benefit society, celebrity artwork noticeably lacks this: the idol of the skeletal Siren, Kate Moss made headlines for declaring she lives by the motto ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’

A modern golden calf? Kate Moss as 'Siren' (2008) by Marc Quinn

Sam Taylor-Wood has created portraits of David Beckham and Daniel Craig. Jonathan Yeo’s fame soared when he painted Sienna Miller pregnant in 2012 (he has painted Nicole Kidman, Tony Blair and David Walliams, amongst others). These subjects bring attention, but is it the right type? The first portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, by Paul Emsley, was unveiled in January 2013 to slating criticism – but at the National Portrait Gallery the crowd gravitates towards it, ignoring works portraying unknowns that need more than a glance.

We are inundated with pictures of celebrities daily. Society devours their lives in magazines, social networks, films and fashion; inhaling news of divorces, cat fights and diva-like behaviour. In the age of 24/7 media, there is no escape.

Art is a remaining exception. Art allows you to escape from the infectious world of idols to a more obscure, extraordinary medium. But the two are increasingly combined. Celebrity corrupts art by begging for publicity on merit of the subject, not the message, beauty or moral the art can convey.

With religious worship somewhat in decline and celebrity adulation in a shooting trajectory, the most intense portraits are often of unknowns. One of the most iconic is Afghan Girl, the cover of National Geographic in June 1985. Steve McCurry’s shot has been likened to the Mona Lisa, and was taken in the split second when Sharbat Gula (an orphan of the Soviet occupation) unwittingly turned her blazing eyes towards him. The World Press Photography Award 2013 was granted to a heart-wrenching picture of two Palestinian children, killed by an Israeli strike, being taken for burial in Gaza.

'Afghan Girl' – Sharbat Gula, a refugee in Pakistan, captured by Steve McCurry in June 1985
'Gaza Burial', the winner of the World Press Photo Award 2013, by Paul Hansen

Portraiture has the power to present unknowns – those who will never grace the covers of magazines, or have their life stories slavishly consumed by the population. Portraiture has unique stories to tell that are rarely communicated in any other medium. It should focus on these and not succumb, like everything else, to celebrity worship.

With thanks to Marc Quinn, the Telegraph, World Press Photo and Wikipedia for photos.

Have a go at Sensing Spaces at the RA, by AHA alum Annie Gregoire

 

Eduardo Souto de Moura's concrete installation

When you hear the word ‘architecture’, your mind probably conjures images of the shapes of buildings, their facades, interiors, materials and ornament. But hopefully it will also lead you to consider feelings, to think about light, scent, texture, comfort, space, and everything else that is architecture in addition to its aesthetic. This is the principle of the Royal Academy’s recently opened exhibition Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, and is one that everyone should be urged to consider.

 

The RA has devoted the grand spaces of its main galleries to architectural installations created by 7 architects. Those chosen to exhibit stretched to every corner of the globe, from Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Japan, Ireland and Portugal. It is refreshing to visit n exhibition turning away from the ‘big dogs’ that tend to dominate the British architecture scene. In a setting in which the art lover is so accustomed to just looking, you are now invited to touch, smell, spin, sit, wander, at any pace you choose, and absorb your surroundings.

 

On top of the Portuguese architects' 'Blue Pavillion'

This time, there is no designated route by which to visit each room. As I entered, however, it was  hard to miss the enormous wooden structure designed by the Chilean couple  Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen. Its bold geometry contrasts starkly with the classical interior of the gallery itself in an exciting and arresting way. A little investigation will lead you to the foot of four spiral staircases – choose any one and it will take you to a raised platform. Looking out from the top of this edifice offers a novel and interesting perspective on the space, highlighting the design and ornamentation of the gallery ceiling that you may have never noticed, or certainly will have never seen this close. The installation is enjoyable to explore, and for me its success lies not in creating a space for you to sense but a platform upon which to sense the exhibition space itself.

 

 

Inside Li Xiaodong's hazel labyrinth

Next I found myself transported by the all-surrounding work of Chinese architect Li Xiaodong who creates walls of hazel twigs assembled in a fun but sometimes disorienting maze. The two installations designed by the Grafton Architects from Ireland also totally dominate and transform the spaces they are in, creating fantastic effects by playing with straight lined designs and the interception and transportation of light.

 

Tailored light in an installation by the Grafton Architects

 

Kengo Kuma's magical network of scented bamboo

Scent constitutes an important part of place, experience and memory and this is addressed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. He has devised two dark rooms in which stand floor-lit lattices of thin bamboo sticks omitting scents that vividly recall his childhood. The final installation is enjoyable and the smell is certainly pleasant, however I found the exploration of scent and memory perhaps a little too obvious in this instance and found myself craving another layer of meaning. In these rooms the viewer must also walk around the sticks which are placed in the centre in an arrangement which confuses the idea of the exhibition a little – the construction operates less as a creation of architectural space and more as a sculpture or piece of installation art. Perhaps this was a deliberate intention to explore the line between architecture and sculpture.

Diébédo Francis Kéré's honeycomb lattice with straws installation
Visitors can contribute a straw to Kéré's installation

The Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré has created a bright and fun tunnel made of honeycomb lattices, very enjoyable to wander through and with the addition of reclining chairs that allow you to stop and consider the space from a different perspective. Kéré, coming originally from a remote village in Burkina Faso, is interested in community and creating architecture that everyone can contribute to and feel part of. He emphasises this in the exhibition by leaving a box of bright coloured plastic straws and inviting visitors to interact with the installation by adding one or two to the lattice. The experience reminded me of contributing a twig or two to a forest stick house (to which any child of the countryside might be able to relate). Kéré’s ideas are engaging and thought-provoking but perhaps more could have been done to add to the visitor experience in this instance.

The exhibition concludes with a video that introduces the figures of the exhibition and runs through a series of their meditations on architecture with a backdrop of film of their work outside of Sensing Spaces (it is a great feature of the exhibition that the installations are accompanied by very basic labels and fantastically little supplementary information that could get in the way of your physical and personal exploration of the spaces) . The video provokes some interesting thoughts on the subject of our environment, as well as demonstrating that the architects featured are indeed exceptional, and have created some of the greatest and most interesting buildings of today.

Sensing Spaces is n innovative and exciting exhibition, though I have to say I was a little disappointed. I think I visited in the hope of being swept away into other dimensions but I was always conscious of being in the gallery. Perhaps this was in part the point of the show – to explore architecture within architecture. The most fantastic element for me was that each visitor is able to respond differently to the spaces; you can wander them alone and reflect on how your environment makes you feel, or use them as a platform for discussion with others. This exhibition explores something I have not encountered in a gallery before,  and if it is encouraging people to think more broadly about architecture and experience then it is a great success.

 

Experience many interesting thoughts on architecture at 'Sensing Spaces'

 

The Body in Art: Latest exhibition to open at The Herbert Art Gallery

Throughout art history, the body has been manipulated, idealized and explored by artists. There is a fascination as to the way it works, how one unified form can come in so many shapes, both beautiful and ugly. I found I was no stranger to this fascination after going to see the latest exhibition to open at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, which combines a range of artist’s studies of the human form. The exhibition’s focal inspiration is the story of Pygmalion from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the tale of an artist who sculpted a woman in ivory who was so beautiful that he fell in love with her and asked Venus to breathe life into the work.

Pygmalion - Edward Burne-Jones 1878

This story opens up complicated ideas about the relationship between the artist and their work and the exhibition brilliantly elaborates on this idea. Can an artist create something so perfect that we mistake it for reality? Should art depict total reality, or seek to rise above human imperfection? Portrayals of the body are used to remember, study and document the delicate and complex way our forms work. For this particular exhibition, although the area where it is held is small, the arrangement of space, and progression of works means the viewer is taken through the narrative of the body. Traditionally, the creation of the “ideal” body was seen as one of the highest achievements an artist can strive for and much of the art of Classical and Renaissance Periods sought to show the strength, agility and idealized perfection of the body. Indeed, the show’s earliest work by Durer is a print of the strong, overly muscled Hercules.

 

Hercules at the Crossroads - Albrecht Durer 1498

While these versions of perfection are of course beautiful, I found that the most striking and interesting study of the body was when the artist made no effort to hide the flaws of their subject. We see idealized Venues and luminous nudes in so much of the art of Western culture, but as you wandered through the history of the exhibition, the focus moves away from this archetypal form to real studies of blemished body. Perhaps the reasons this exhibition inspires such interest is the fact that it does not simply use the beauty from the Pygmalion story, but gives us, who are indeed imperfect bodies, a relatable experience. This is why the piece I found most striking from the exhibition, and I encourage you to look out for it, if you happen to visit, is Freud’s Woman with an Arm Tattoo, the latest work in the collection.

Woman with an Arm Tattoo 1996 by Lucian Freud 1922-2011

This image, drawn in black ink, is pretty hideous. There is no effort to flatter the sitter, with her bulging arms and way her hand is almost lost in her greasy hair in her despairing pose. She is no beauty. But the drawing is so unusual that I found it led me to question the traditional way I have regarded the body in art before.

The exhibition also includes works from Ford Maddox Brown, Francis Bacon, Gillian Wearing and a variety of others and each present new and dynamic ideas. It is running until the 31st April and I would highly recommend you pop in and have a wander around if you get the chance.

Lily Cole by Gillian Wearing 2009

 

‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’… Helena Roy considers whether art today is too secular

With the influence of Christianity declining in Britain, I was struck by Alain de Botton‘s statement in his recent book, ‘Religion for Athiests‘: ‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’. De Botton explores the power Christianity previously exercised over civilian life; many aspects of which he mourns as a loss to society. He is looking to replace what positives Christianity could bring to society with an atheist version. But what would this mean for art and museums.

Masterpieces which command global admiration today were often designed for worship in the past. Though some of these remain in their original intended setting, such as Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, many have been plundered from religious buildings, now only viewable in a sterilised gallery environment.

Titian's 'Assumption of the Virgin' in Venice (1516-1518)

Perhaps this sterility is the result of tension between secular and religious perceptions of art: Hegel defined art as ‘the sensuous presentation of ideas’; whereas De Botton argues Christianity  ‘never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to remind us about what matters… whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of.’ Religious culture’s power to move might be shown by the author’s own experience – an ardent atheist, he admits to a crisis of faithlessness in his twenties, which he attributes to Bach’s cantatas and Bellini’s Madonnas.

Comparing the two, it would seem that Christian art understands that images are important primarily in generating compassion, enabling the boundaries between strangers to dissolve, and provoking a sense of fragility that leads us to understand new situations and morals. Modern museums – as fascinating as their avant garde enclosures are – can be too frigid, detailing the material facts and dry context of a piece, not its meaning or what we should learn from it. Catholic architecture, for example, made a point, ‘half touching, half alarming’ about how humans function: as a race we suffer from ‘a heightened sensitivity to what is around us… we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon’, a vulnerability to which Protestantism, and our secular celebrity-heavy society prefers to remain indifferent or blind.

Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco in Venice

Maybe this is what scares people away from modern art: is it presented in an inaccessible manner, too technical and seemingly unrelated to the average bystander to merit a segment of everyone’s time? Modern museums tend to groups works of art according to the period they were born from; de Botton argues ‘a more fertile indexing system would group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the concerns of our souls.’ Perhaps in one room we would be taught about love, in another fear might feature, and another might show suffering as an impetus for pathos. A compulsory dose of culture by way of a visit to a museum would then be transformed into a structured encounter with some of the concepts which are easiest for us to forget, and the most essential and life-enhancing to remember.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice might be an example. Tall and striking with its ruddy terracotta facade, it is proudly indifferent to the dusty indexing science of academic methodology. The Frari instead presents an eclectic range of works – including a fresco by Paolo Veneziano (c. 1339),  Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’ (1488) and a large altarpiece by Titian (1516-1518) – designed to rebalance our souls, priorities and understanding. Sculpture, painting, and architecture are artfully thrown together from across regions and centuries to coordinate the impact of art on our sentiments; prioritising a coherent effect on our souls over a rigid grouping of origins and stylistic inclinations. Separating paintings by genre or period risks reducing any real coherence at an emotional level in museums. The art might not need to change, but museums maybe do.

Giovanni Bellini's 'Madonna and Child with Saints' (1488)

Maybe all of this is because modern priorities have taught us as a society at large not to worry about leaving an impact on art for future generations. This ignores art’s ability to shape society, however. Though many would not like to admit it, art is infinitely indebted to religion: beliefs, a desire for status and aggregated money has fed demand for art during some of the most important aesthetic periods and can still teach us new ideas today. Auguste Compte believed capitalism aggravated people’s ‘competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them from their communities, their traditions and their sympathies with nature… Capitalism would in the end always favour a skilled, obedient and unintrospective workforce over an inquisitive and emotionally balanced one.’ Art and culture is not part of the ends towards which our modern economic society tries to force everyone to hurtle.

But art can offer society a guiding moral force – less dogmatic than religion, merely challenging and probing. Religious pictures in the past presented images it would be easier to turn away from, but standing witness to them directs us towards those who deserve our sympathy. ‘Crucifixion’ by Andrea Mantegna (1459) demonstrates this. De Botton argues that the ‘unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art.’ In the past, religious works were commissioned to show specific scenes or emotions to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. Levels of literacy may be very different now, but the power of the visual is not. Art should seek to give us a moral lesson; and perhaps museums and commissioners should focus on this, marrying painters with thinkers. To specify which topics art should focus on is not to insist that it all appears identical.

This is not an argument for religion: there are many ways it has irrevocably damaged nations, societies and cultures; and its decline may be inevitable, as it increasingly struggles to reconcile itself with our scientific age. It is instead an argument for perspective; the kind of outlook religion once advocated and offered. Religion, in some ways, promotes a sense of humility in the individual, a sense of there being something bigger, greater than us; and perhaps that is a good thing.  Art can help spread that perspective; perhaps museums should work to facilitate this. There are few other institutions that can.

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.

Why Study Art History? Economics student Helena Roy discusses…

In July 2012, I went to northern Italy with AHA to study Art History for two weeks (I had never studied it before). After a gap year, I have now started university… studying Economics. Some may dismiss my trip as contrary, perhaps unnecessary; but there is an intrinsic value to studying Art History even if your speciality lies in another subject.

Art History gives you a sense of perspective you can’t gain anywhere else. Aristotle argued that ‘the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’. Art uncovers that significance in the myriad of political, social and religious thoughts it conveys. Where literature offers fictional allegory, art offers visual symbolism – Orwell analyses the class system through animal fables, whereas Lowry does through paint.

The social state of the working class in Britain’s Industrial Revolution, as shown by LS Lowry in 'Oldfield Road Dwellings, Salford', (1927)

An obvious benefit (the clue is in the name) is that art reveals a plethora of historical sources. Dry statistics can only teach you so much: art can communicate emotional details about events. Who has not been moved – even if disgusted – by Picasso’s Guernica and the chaotic destruction it depicts? That the bombing of Guernica caused 41 fatalities per ton of bombs is informative, but in a wholly different way.

Picasso’s 'Guernica', (1937) – conveying the terror and intensity of war

My enthusiasm for the subject stems from the two weeks in Italy. Art History is the most fantastic travel companion. Appreciating and seeking it out facilitates deeper understanding of a place’s culture – how better to see consumerism in 20th century America than in Andy Warhol’s work, or understand the power of Catholicism in Italy in Baroque altarpieces?

Andy Warhol’s 'Campbell’s Soup Cans' (1962), the epitome of post-WWII American consumerism, on display the Museum of Modern Art in New York
Nothing beats viewing art in its contextual setting… 'The Inspiration of St Matthew' (1602) by Caravaggio – part of a cycle of paintings situated in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome

In a time of dire employment prospects, students are turning to lucrative and traditional professions, allowing these to consume all facets of their interest as a means to realising that place on that bank’s graduate programme. But becoming a one-trick pony saps the energy and novel viewpoint someone can bring to the workplace. Work can only be balanced by hobbies you enjoy: study Art History, and you can benefit from it infinitely. (Picasso once said that ‘the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.’) Besides, it is relevant to countless professions in itself – journalism, consultancy, law, marketing and branding to name a few – and vital to Britain’s economic health (the sector accounted for 1% of GDP in 2011, and pays on average 5% more than the UK median salary).

Ultimately, studying Art History engenders a broader attitude to life. Art is something everyone can relate to. It is the impetus for conversation and debate, and introduces you to a new sphere of people. To understand Art you need to understand its political and social history. Art is painted against a backdrop of archaeology, anthropology, literature, design, science, geography – and innumerable other subjects. This interdisciplinary approach gives you a mammoth diversity of perspective.

In an era that relies so heavily on visual literacy, Art History offers invaluable lessons in the study of civilization. We are surrounded by things that demand our vision – film, advertising, architecture. Kafka said that ‘anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.’ Art History offers the broadest education possible in analysing what you see, and discovering beauty in unexpected places.

I went to study Art History after a friend did an AHA trip and spoke of nothing else for the summer – she is now studying Chemistry at university. Art History need not be esoteric – it is there for everyone to enjoy. It’s easy, but mistaken, to doubt Art History’s significance without trying – so find your nearest gallery, visit churches or museums while abroad, or just start here!

With thanks to Wikipedia for photos.