24 hours in…Sumptuous Siena with AHA alum Frankie Dytor

Perhaps less well-known and certainly less visited than its neighbouring city Florence, Siena was founded in antiquity by the two sons of Remus (whose brother, Romulus, founded Rome). I recently spent two glorious weeks there to brush up on my rather non-existent Italian skills. The post below is a condensation of what I consider to be the highlights – arty and foody – of my time in this beautiful and bountiful city. I hope you enjoy!

The famous Campo: night time haunt of young revellers

 

AM:

The Duomo – Vasari was generous in his praise when he described the decorated pavement of the interior as “most beautiful…grand and magnificent”; so it comes on good authority that Siena’s Duomo rates pretty high in the must-visit-Cathedrals-of-Italy list. After admiring the ornate gothic facade, prepare to marvel at works by Bernini, Donatello and Nicola Pisano. Make sure you don’t miss the Piccolimini library, painted partly by a young Raphael with his teacher Pinturricchio.

Lunch – Il Gallo Parlante, Via Casata di Sopra

This soon became an established lunchtime favourite during my stay in Siena. A glass of rather good house wine will set you back just €2, and the menu changes daily. Expect to find a party of Italians eating a huge shared bowl of either ribollita or papa al pomodoro outside – neither of these two dishes, local to Tuscany, are to be missed.

PM:

The Baptistery – Stroll around here for a game of spotting bible stories. The  font, realised by the main sculptors of the time (these including the choice selection of Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and Ghiberti; not bad really), stands proud and beautiful in the centre.

The Crypt – This is one of Siena’s hidden gems; if you go in the later afternoon you may pretty much have the place to yourself.  The 13th- century fresco cycle, heartbreakingly rendered by none other than Duccio, depicts a range of scenes from the New Testament. These would originally have been accompanied by a parallel set from the Old Testament, but the loss of these in no way detracts from the breathtaking potency of what remains.  The tender humanity of Giotto is already present. In the Lamentation the faces of Mary and Jesus seem to morph into one, yet it is clear that he is not with her, try as she might to desperately search for life within his cold, stiff body.  The others, crowded around the slab, appeal to the limp figure, total disbelief at what they can see. They have not yet comprehended the gravity of the situation – they are still imploring, still begging him to get up. And suddenly it seems that Mary understands. She stares, static against the frenzy of activity around here. Mary and Jesus are united by a halo of terrible solemnity. The viewer can only watch, and maybe weep.

Words can only do injustice to the beauty of the crypt

Aperitif – Diacceto’s, Via Diacceto

In need of a drink? Head over to Diacceto’s for an Aperol Spritz, a steal at only €3. According to your willingness to flirt with the owner, an abundant range of snacks will also be served. If he takes a particular shine to you, the delightful porchetta crostini will  soon be wheeled out. Relax here and take in the surroundings with all the locals as they come here for an after-work drink.

Dine in Italian rustic style

 

Dinner – La Taverna del Capitano, via del Capitano, 6/8

The proximity to Siena’s main square may set alarm bells ringing, but the dulcet tones of Italian floating out of this place will soon set even the most adventurous of diners  at their ease. Simply ask for what they recommend here – my original order was rebuffed, and I was instead strongly advised to sample ‘pici cacio e pepe’ as my primi. It certainly did not disappoint. A Sienese dish made out of only pici (a thickish type of spaghetti), the finest pecorino, olive, pepper and salt it was quite simply one of the most delicious dishes I have ever had during my extensive culinary adventures of Italy. This was Italian cooking at its best – humble ingredients of the highest quality combined in perfectly balanced proportion. It was a happy, but rather full, stomach that left the restaurant a few hours later.

AM:

Museo dell’opera del Duomo – Situated in the nave of what was intended to be Siena’s new and upgraded version of their current Cathedral, the location is a grim reminder of just how devastating the plague was for the city. Inside, the paintings testify to a city that literally halted in progress after the Black Death in the 14th century. But the art of the Sienese school has plenty of artistic merit in its own right, and the museum gives total validity to this in the masterpieces displayed.

Lunch – Gino Cacino, Piazza del Mercato, 51

This tiny deli, tucked away in the beautiful square of Piazza del Mercato, serves panini such as have never been served before. I had previously taken an attitude of mild complacency towards sandwiches – useful for a quick lunchtime bite, but generally underwhelming compared to the rest of what Italy has to offer. But goods offered here changed my mind completely about this. Hyperbole can only do the panini injustice so I will do is urge you to go – and to try either the ‘porchetta arosto crema di senape al miele’acacia’ or, and this sandwich must be the food of the Gods as the name indeed suggests, ‘elisir di miale e pecorino caldo’. If you ask for the staff favourite, they will without a doubt recommend this, with beaming smiles and half-eaten panino in hand.

Munch and enjoy a spectacular view from the Piazza del Mercato

And finally, if you are in the neighbourhood of Siena, certainly consider taking the short train to Arezzo to make a pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle of ‘The Legend of the True Cross’. Unmissable art.

 

Twenty-four hours in Seville – by AHA alum Helena Roy

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.

Snippets from Seville in January...

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.

Random figures around Seville's squares
A skyline view of Seville's sprawling layout

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.

Views from inside the cathdral

 

 

Views from la Giralda

 

 

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.

Plaza de Espana at sunset

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.

Street art on the banks of Rio Guadalquivir
Street art on the banks of Rio Guadalquivir

All photos are the author’s own.

Where Communism and Commercialism Collide: Beijing’s 798 Art District and Shanghai’s M50, by AHA alum Helena Roy

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.

The 798 Art District in Beijing
Graffiti in M50, Shanghai

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.

A statue in the 798 Art District

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.

ShaghART gallery and streets in M50
Political art depicting a PLA soldier in M50, Shanghai

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.

All photographs by Helena Roy.

Under a Tuscan Sky: AHA alum Anna Fothergill reviews Tuscany’s lesser know treasures.

During my AHA experience, back when I was a young bright Gap Year student, drinking in the wonders of Italy (as well as the prosecco), the days we spent in Florence and Siena secured themselves a special place in my Italian Romance. And for so many others, the lure of Tuscany is undoubtedly present. This summer, I was fortunate enough to return to the land of pencil cedars, rhythmic hills and Medici fortunes. And I soon realised, that while Florence and Sienna might be the most famous gems of Tuscany, the surrounding region has ancient villages atop every hill, and endless landscapes to fill any camera.

 

View from San Gimignano - Own photo

So if you are drawn back to the heat and beauty of Tuscany, here are some places to consider visiting if you want a taste of real Italian life.

1) San Gimignano. A name which you may have heard, but know little about. I spent one gelato-meltingly hot day there, and was awestruck by the quiet beauty of it. Be warned that most of your time will be spent walking around looking skyward to the 14 remaining “power-towers”, which give San Gimignano it’s distinctive skyline. The town appeared to me like a 14th century Manhattan, with each stone skyscraper attempting to tower over its neighbour. There is a gelateria that claims to be the World Ice Cream Champion, and of course I sampled it to assure you all that it lives up to its title. If you wander into the Duomo, first being wrapped in Crete paper to protect your modesty, the church is illuminated with wall to wall frescos that for me were reminiscent of those in Giotto’s Area Chapel in their colour brilliance and animated expressions. The hellish portrayal of gluttony was particularly descriptive.

 

Sam Gimignano

 

Frescos in San Gimignano Duomo

Should you leave San Gimignano in search of new adventures, a place for a true taste of local Tuscan life is Montepulciano, a town where they have their own version of the Palio…trading the horses for barrel rolling. The town has wide, movie set streets and bars resting on sloped paved roads, any number of which will serve for apperitvi, before you head to the viewpoint to take in the sweeping countryside. A highlight of this town for me was the atmospheric Ristorante sotto L’arche, a pizzeria which seated you under a canopy of a lighted arch, the owner greets you as his own family and live music accompanied every bite of the unforgettable pizza (the real Italian stuff, not your standard Dominoes). The meal was loud with laughter and music, the manger himself as concerned with performing an aria as he was dutiful to his customers. Definitely  worth a visit.

Primi Piatti - Own photo

For those who wish for rest and relaxation, an escape from the endless supply of cultural wonders, it can be found at the villas of La Foce. The massive estate has a fascinating history as well as breathtaking views. Built on the volcanic lands of Val del’Orcia, it has served as a farming estate, was taken over by Nazis, secretly fed artisans during WW2, and today one can tour the gardens, relax by the pool and even attend olive oil tastings – the golden syrup is grown right beside your villa. The whole complex radiates with the smell of cedars, lavender and olives. the coolness and calm of La Foce is an oasis in the dry Tuscan heat.

La Foce

Sunset over La Foce -own photo

These are just a few of the things I was fortunate enough to discover in only a week. This is what amazed me about Tuscany. How there can be so much to do if you desire to do things, yet such an emphasis on Italian lifestyle. On enjoying eating and drinking, taking hours over meals, feeling no pressure to go to any 14th century town today because it will still be there tomorrow. If you are in Tuscany in the next year, know that you can see as much or as little as you want, and it will still be a wonderful Italian holiday. Of course, there is always Florence.

Firenze -own photograph

 

Pick of the week: a mini guide to London’s artistic eateries – by Helena Roy

Food and art have a long and illustrious history (think Caravaggio’s ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, or Van Gogh’s ‘Apples’ or ‘Crabs’) – and ever more cafés, restaurants and bars are adding to that tradition in London. A recent post detailed the artistic work of Taylor St Baristas – not a gallery, but a coffee shop.

Van Gogh's 'Apples' (c. 1885)

Though I have yet to find an Italian example (I’m at a loss as to why given a) my obsession with pasta and b) the Italian love of art – any suggestions would be greatly appreciated), one discovery led to another, and thus here are a couple more artistic eateries in London…

Koshari Street

Koshari is a delicious and speedy traditional Egyptian street food: a hearty combination of lentils, rice and pasta topped with a spicy tomato sauce and garnished with caramelised onion, boiled chickpeas, dried herbs and nuts. Koshari Street is a new restaurant (read: cramped but cosy alley that bursts onto the street) serving the dish from St Martin’s Lane, just off Trafalgar Square.

Inside you’ll find the stark black and white street art from Egyptian artist Samir M. Zoghby. A self-taught artist, Zoghby works with a modest felt pen and acrylics. Born in Egypt, he completed his education in the USA and served with the US Government. Zoghby says, ‘my work conveys no message but simply looks at the world through the changing prism of earthy humour.’ His signature is all clear lines, blank monochrome and traditional forms; a nadf style mostly influences by his Arab and Czech roots, and experiences in Africa and America. He has designed stamps for UNICEF and the World Food Program.

Koshari Street and the work of Samir M Zoghby

Dishoom

A slice of Bombay in London, Dishoom is a tribute to the old Bombay cafés – or Irani cafés – a tradition which Dishoom believes has been ‘lost in the frantic rush of progress’. A myriad of hot spiced, salty and sweet tastes, Dishoom offers Indian cuisine with a twist. Dishes are moderate in size but big in zest: packed to the brim with a heady mix of flavours. Their Shoreditch branch is a charming, idiosyncratic blend of warmth and bare decoration.

Dishoom in Shoreditch

Dishoom’s art is of the DIY variety: nostalgically reminiscent of the paint-your-own pottery cafés of childhood. Their plate-wallah is a project whereby customers can note their memories of Irani cafés down online, and the best ones (crazy and unusual anecdotes encouraged) are displayed at Dishoom. The more personal the stories, the better. Umbrella-shaped text on a creamy plate tells stories of discovery on rainy days, while jagged strips of words convey incomprehension after the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008.

Dishoom's Plates

Galleries

Of course, there are some gorgeous locations for a drink and a nibble in galleries across London. On a Friday evening in the summer, the Royal Academy’s sunlit courtyard is packed with people sipping Pimm’s amongst posters and sculptures. The Tate Modern bar offers a minimalist interior, with spectacular skyline views across the Thames to St Paul’s; as does the National Portrait Gallery’s restaurant over Trafalgar Square.

Food and art are two of the best ways to get to know the soul of a culture. What makes these eateries so unique is not necessarily the food or drink – though it is fantastic. It’s the sense of a different, original atmosphere which brings comfort and escape. The art infinitely contributes to that in telling the cuisine and café’s story. It brings warmth and fullness to the material comfort of sharing a meal.

With thanks to Koshari Street and Dishoom for photos.

What came first, the turkey or the pumpkin? Will Martin looks into the origins of Thanksgiving Dinner

'Freedom from want' by Norman Rockwell (1943)

Being very much the Englishman, I’ve never known an awful lot about Thanksgiving, with my knowledge being limited to that episode of Friends where Monica puts a turkey on her head. However considering that I’m supposed to be AHA’s dedicated student foodie, I thought it might be interesting to explore the origins of the food that is seemingly everywhere throughout North America at this time of year.

For those of us unfamiliar with exactly what Thanksgiving is, it is a holiday celebrated in November, allowing the American people to give thanks, especially to God, as stated by President Lincoln in 1863 when he declared the official holiday. However, Thanksgiving’s origins can be traced to a feast held by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in 1621, to celebrate their first harvest. 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans are said to have attended the feast, which lasted three days.

'The First Thanksgiving' by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (1915)

Obviously if you ask people what they associate with Thanksgiving dinner, 99.9% will say the turkey. Turkey has become so commonplace on the Thanksgiving table that many Americans now call the day ‘Turkey Day’. But why exactly is it that the turkey is so utterly ubiquitous on the tables of Americans on the third Thursday of November? To be honest, there is no definitive answer. It is known that at the ‘First Thanksgiving’, with the Pilgrims, the centrepieces of the meal were beef and an ‘assortment of wild fowl’, but we do not know exactly what these fowl were. We do however know that in a letter sent before the feast, Pilgrim Edward Winslow mentions going hunting for wild Turkeys.

Another tale, most likely apocryphal, is that Queen Elizabeth I, upon being informed of the sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588, was so delighted that she ordered an extra goose to be prepared for dinner that evening. Some argue that the early settlers took inspiration from this action, but chose to roast turkey instead of goose.

'The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth' by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

Whilst the turkey is very obviously the centerpiece of any Thanksgiving dinner, there are of course a multitude of accompaniments and side dishes which are equally important and delicious. Cranberry sauce, different types of squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes are just a few of the foods eaten during the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and it is known that the vast majority of these foods were either native to America, or were brought over on the Mayflower. As well as being native to America, many of the foods consumed at Thanksgiving dinners are seasonal, especially the squashes and pumpkins served. These have always been fruits associated with the Autumnal harvest, and therefore it seems apt that they are eaten at a festival, which initially existed to celebrate the fact that the Pilgrims had survived their first year in the New World and had managed a successful harvest.

Whilst it may be a holiday celebrated in only some parts of the world, the food history of Thanksgiving is fascinating and manages to provide an insight into how the Pilgrims lived in the early days of Plymouth colony and how their struggle shaped the America we know today. Now, off for some leftover turkey!

All images courtesy of Google

The Art of Coffee: AHA alum Helena Roy visits a creative cafe…

Starting a career as a young artist can be tough: with inconsistent income, a heavy reliance on publicity and the need to gain a reputation. But a new coffee shop is changing that. Rather than contracting young artists, as a gallery might, they are offering their cafés up as hybrid coffee / art shops.

Taylor St Baristas treat coffee as an art, and want equally inspiring surroundings for their customers. The mod brand employs coffee enthusiasts who take their job extremely seriously: Costa and Starbucks are losing out fast. Their shops are more personal, their coffee delicious; even the milky patterns they weave on top of their cappuccinos are worth an extra five minutes walk.

The Taylor St Baristas in Mayfair, and their coffee signature

Italy makes the best coffee; but in Taylor St Baristas, it is facing competition. The brand was started by Australian siblings Nick, Andrew and Laura, during a bleak London winter in 2006, ‘as a much needed response to the dire state of London coffee.’ They weren’t wrong. With not only the state of coffee poor, but the state of the big brand’s finances questionable (Starbucks suffered a crippling consumer boycott when its taxes were revealed) , Taylor St Baristas offers a less commercial, more ethical café: perfect for feel-good lazy Sundays or a morning dash for caffeine.

And now, visual art is on their menu too. Gone are the bland Ikea prints of Café Nero and Costa; Taylor St Baristas offers young artists their cafés as a place to display their works. The exhibitions change bimonthly, and only include artists at the start of their careers. If their increasingly loyal following of coffee-drinkers take a fancy to piece while sipping a hazelnut latte, they can email the shop (katarina@taylor-st.com) and buy the work in question.

When you think about it, it is a prime location. Hundreds visit a single shop in a day: with nine branches having popped up recently, that number is hugely multiplied. Not only do they get a large customer base, but they are placed in some of the most affluent areas of London: Bank, Liverpool Street, Canary Wharf and Mayfair, to name but a few. People spend a lot of time there – comfy seats and a warm atmosphere encourage long lunches and extensive chats, and their coffee is gaining fame.

Imantas Selenis' 'Dunes'

Recently exhibited artists include Will Scobie (a Brighton-based illustrator and graphic artist), Imantas Selenis (a Lithuanian urban landscape and portrait photographer) and Hannah Devereux (who investigates the abstraction of landscape). Taylor St Baristas’ branch in the chaotic, commercial Canary Wharf is dripping with Michal Radzio’s calm landscapes – offering a caffeine boost and artistic refuge in one stroke.

Michal Radzio's 'Spaces'

In a cloudy economic climate, art has to be innovative – not just in its form, but in how it is sold. Taylor St Baristas is offering a personal hybrid with a huge network of potential art collectors. Artists, especially young up-and-comers, shouldn’t treat this as a second-best option to a gallery: it is an original and interesting display venue in itself.

With thanks to Taylor St Baristas and Imantas Selenis for photos.

Notes from Venice: A summer student talks about one leg of the Northern II trip

My trip to Venice with Art History Abroad was glorious! The location of the hotel introduced me to a new and exciting area of Venice with which I was unfamiliar, allowing me to become delightfully lost in Venice’s intimate streets. For a large part of the group the aim was to become lost: you can only really appreciate Venice when you are in a state of mild desperation when the map has abandoned you and your bearings have failed.

 

Days in Venice were fascinating, visiting various Churches that boasted works by artists such as Titian, Bellini and Carpaccio. One of my favourite afternoons in Venice was my visit to the Accademia. The display of Gothic art in contrast to the later developed Renaissance Art was remarkable and with the help of the tutors this transition in art was explained effortlessly. However the teaching role was not always left to the tutors: student pairs were formed with the instruction to choose a curious painting to explore in front of the rest of the group. For my pair, ‘The Crucifixion of Ten Thousand Martyrs’ by Carpaccio was sufficiently curious to allow for a thorough exploration. Despite our ignorance of the event and having little knowledge of the artist, we were able to give a short presentation on our reaction to the painting.

Our evening lecture -told with glasses of ‘fragolinos’ in hand- allowed the group to fully appreciate our day ventures by associating the transitions in the style of art with the time period.

The Venice Biennale was a delightful contrast as a display of contemporary art. Meandering around the ‘Giardini de Venezia’ was wonderful; stumbling across the various countries’ entries and enjoying the cool shade provided by the trees. The group had different interpretations to the countries’ entries, allowing for good conversation on our thoughts. Despite differing interpretations on the exhibitions, the enjoyment of the morning at the Biennale was shared between all.

 

 

Our free afternoon after the Biennale allowed the group to branch out into all parts of Venetian life: some benefited from a relaxing time at the Lido, whilst others took advantage of the current Manet expedition held at the Doge’s Palace.

One of the highlights for me was our visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum on the final day in Venice. Its location on the Grand Canal made the group green with envy and the Modern Art was quite a contrast to the works we had seen before; yet there seemed to be themes running through, as if art was cyclical in nature. I loved their decision to display Peggy Guggenheim’s works of art alongside pictures of her in the house when she lived there.

 

On our last night the tutors arranged a picnic supper on the Punta della Dogana. The view of Venice at twilight was gorgeous. It was a great time to relax and reminisce (with hints of nostalgia) on the trip so far, while also feeling excitement for the next two cities.

Everyone loved our Venice stay; how could we not? The magnificent art, the charming city, the relaxed nature of the visit and the good nature of everyone involved meant that enjoying ourselves was simply inevitable!

 

With thanks to Helen Elston for putting together her memories of Venice, Summer 2013…

Melon Ice-cream and Travertine: A student’s impression of Rome

The capital of Italy was our final and busiest city visit. Before I get to the art, I’m going to have to mention a couple of the most amazing things that happened in Rome. First of all: Melon Ice Cream (ever tried it?), this is best when made by ‘GROM’ and if you ever have the pleasure of going to Italy, your trip will be incomplete without this life-changing substance. Secondly, travertine stone – I admit – I originally thought this quasi-sedimentary calcium carbonate was rather boring – but Helen Oakden’s enthusiasm eventually had our whole group caressing a travertine stone in the centre of Rome. We ignored the slightly startled passers by.

GROM...

Melon and Travertine aside, the art in Rome was beyond belief. The Colosseum and Forum let us dive beyond the world of the Renaissance and appreciate the ancient Rome that was beneath our feet and The Vatican City certainly lived up to expectations. A short tan-top-up for the girls as we queued outside lead us to the most incredible frescos, sculptures, architecture and paintings I’ve yet had the pleasure to see.

The Glorious Basilica of St Peter

 

Michelangelo's incredibly moving Pieta

St Peter’s Basilica was incomprehensibly large – the small letters around the base of the dome interior were in fact, we learned, each 2m high… and finished nearly 400 years ago. Not only is this place the largest church in the world, but also it is also home to Michelangelo’s genuinely moving Pieta. I had never seen my favourite fresco, Raphael’s The School of Athens (best fresco in existence), in the flesh, but when I saw it in the Vatican Palace for the first time I really did feel like I was meeting an old friend.

Raphael's 'School of Athens' in the Vatican Palace
Amazement at seeing the School of Athens, finally...

The two weeks had been good enough already, but it made them all the more worthwhile. To top the day off we had also seen some mind-blowing classical sculpture. Us boys in the group did feel jealous upon seeing the Belvedere torso…!

The Belvedere Torso in all is muscular glory

Of course it wasn’t all go – we did have some down time; the ever-knowledgeable tutors took us out to supper to a roof terrace restaurant which was great fun albeit bittersweet as we knew we were coming to the end of our trip.

Bernini's David in the Borghese Gallery
Outside the Borghese Gallery on our last day...

Our final day was in a similar vein; while we were all soaking up the atmosphere and some incredible sculpture (Berlini’s David is both very emotive and unfortunately overshadowed by Michelangelo’s) in the villa Borghese, everyone was sad to be saying goodbye to such an atmospheric city, and of course to each other. Rome, in the true sense of the word, was awesome, and I know that all of us will want to go back very soon.

With thanks to Hugo Dunn, student on our Northern II summer course 2013.

Revolution: AHA alum Helena Roy looks at the RA’s latest exhibition and Mexican culture’s growing presence in London…

Mexico fever has taken hold of London. In July it celebrated MexFest – a three-day event offering tasters in Mexican film, architecture and music. The modish La Bodega Negra is being chased by its edgier sister, Casa Negra; whilst Wahaca has become the go-to restaurant for anyone looking for a great last-minute evening. One of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies, Mexico has a culture backdrop to match: its daring and colourful art, architecture, food, film and music may just prove its most successful export yet.

Evidence may be the Royal Academy’s ‘Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940’ – an exhibition showing the artistic reaction to a thirty-year period of political and social change, which gave Mexican art a place on the world stage. Revolution in 1910 brought years of instability, and flowered a cultural renaissance that included some of the seminal figures of the 20th century.

'Man Seated on a Trash Heap' (1926-7) by Francisco Goitia

Mariano Azuela said ‘How beautiful revolution is, even in its savagery!’ The exhibition shows that euphoria. Unlike the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, there was little state interference in the arts. Yet every inch is political – containing a unique social interpretation. It was a time of mass destruction and death, but exciting and intense reform. The artistic outpouring the revolution inspired is passionate to behold.

Nor was the movement populated solely by Mexican artists. Many foreigners were intoxicated with its lifestyle. Henri Cartier-Bresson said Mexico ‘is not a curiosity to be visited, but a life to be lived’. Josef Albers pronounced it ‘truly the promised land of abstract art.’ D. H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry were both attracted there. Englishman Edward Burra painted watercolour and gouache masterpieces. ‘El Paseo’ (c. 1938) has a sense of film noir, and exposes the huge tension between light and dark in Mexico. ‘Mexican Church’ (c. 1938) displays a pained, organic body in ornate surroundings. It is a faintly pagan depiction of a Catholic scene.

‘El Paseo’ (c. 1938) by Edward Burra

Mexico’s Aztec and natural heritage also inspired artists. The movement is streaked with native elements – more exotic and untouched than American art. Tertiary colours are drawn from its landscape, sometimes slyly blending into spiced shots of primaries. For example, Marsden Hartley’s ‘Earth Warming’ (1932), or Dr Atl (Gerardo Murillo)’s ‘Landscape with Iztaccihuatl’ (1932). Block shapes, clear curves and colour exude the fertility and diversity of Mexico. Forms are larger – hair flows in strands and locks; trees blow in ropes, not leaves.

'Earth Warming' (1932) by Marsden Hartley

Mexico mixes the macabre and the carnival-esque. Its imagery is at once bright and violent: bombastic, nationalist and brutally realistic. Francisco Goitia’s ‘Zacatecan Landscape with Hanged Men II’ (c. 1914) shows branching trees lowering bodies to the ground. The ferocious image is utterly organic, and the sun-bleached desert has its own deathly beauty. The motif of a grimacing (often dancing, moustached or sombrero-ed) skull is peppered everywhere – even in José Chávez Morado’s lively ‘Carnival in Huejotzingo’ (1939).

‘Zacatecan Landscape with Hanged Men II’ (c. 1914) by Francisco Goitia
‘Carnival in Huejotzingo’ (1939) by José Chávez Morado

Revolution brought a sense of realism in art – propaganda was out, toil and poverty was in. Thus, photography is just as important a medium as paint. A brutal triple execution is laid out stage-by-stage in picture postcard form. Journalism is mixed with art as freedom of speech was a thrilling novelty.

'Workers Reading El Machete' (c. 1929) by Tina Modotti

Heavy socialist views permeate the works in this exhibition. Many portraits have faceless subjects – either blurred by paint or hidden by shadow. They are the unidentifiable worker who props up the country. José Clemente Orozco’s ‘Barricade’ (1931) shows hard, physical work in earthy colours, juxtaposed to the silver of a knife and the red of a revolutionary flag. Bullets blend into muscle and flesh, and contorted shapes hint at the artist’s time as a political cartoonist.

‘Barricade’ (1931) by José Clemente Orozco

A reward at the end of the exhibition is a tiny self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was the first foreigner to recognize Kahlo’s talent. He labelled her a surrealist, and though she disliked the tag, it brought her prominence. Married to the equally talented Diego Rivera, she had an affair with Trotsky, and her introspective, Mona-Lisa-like portraits became iconic.

But, the artistic epitome of this period are murals in Mexico, particularly those by Rivera. His epic depiction of Mexican history on the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City is a masterpiece. This is what the RA’s exhibition lacks. Murals were the people’s medium. They were a way to communicate with the largely illiterate population – much as biblical works in Renaissance churches. Firstly political, secondly artistic, they culturally embody their time. The mural movement in the US, (especially in Chicago in the 1960s) was inspired by what had happened in Mexico.

'Dance in Tehuantepec' (1928) by Diego Rivera
'Dance in Tehuantepec' (1928) by Diego Rivera

Tensions between earth and humanity, nature and industry, concrete and the organic, the religious and the pagan, all expose Mexico’s varied chaos. There is a saying that we should ‘pity Mexico, so close to the USA and so far from God’. This view is not only changing economically, but culturally. The RA’s exhibition shows the power with which Mexico inspired art in the past, and the creative energy it has to offer the world in the future.

With thanks to the Royal Academy and the Guardian for photos.

‘Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940’ is on at the Royal Academy until 29 September 2013. Details can be found at http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/mexico/.