Portraits from a Warzone: Photojournalism, life and death in conflict, by Helena Roy

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.

'Anika' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)
'Eugene' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)
'Olena' by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Kiev, 2014)

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.

In Ali Musayyib, an Iraqi child jumps over the remains of victims found in a mass grave south of Baghdad. The victims were killed by Saddam Hussein’s government during a Shiite uprising here following the 1991 Gulf War. (Photography by Marco di Lauro, 27 May 2003)
An Iraqi woman walks through a plume of smoke rising from a massive fire at a liquid gas factory in Basra, as she searches for her husband. The fire was allegedly started by looters picking through the factory. (Photograph by Lynsey Addario, 26 May 2003)
Samar Hassan, five, screams moments after her parents were killed by U.S. soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division. The troops fired on the Hassan-family car when it unwittingly approached during a dusk patrol in the tense northern town of Tal Afar (Photograph by Chris Hondros, 18 January 2005).

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.

Alan Jermaine Lewis, 23, a machine gunner with the Third Infantry Division, was wounded July 16, 2003, on Highway 8 in Baghdad when the Humvee he was driving hit a land mine, blowing off both his legs, burning his face, and breaking his arm in six places. He was delivering ice to other soldiers at the time. (Photograph by Nina Berman, 23 November 2003 - Milwaukee, Wisconsin.)
Syrian artist Tammam Azzam's 'Kiss' in Syria

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.

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.

Pick of the week: 13 high octane Instagrammers by AHA alum Helena Roy

Instagram may seem unoriginal and spammed with selfies, but the tainted jewel of an app has the potential to inject some artistic colour into the palm of your hand. Instagram’s artistic stars are overrun with photographers and street artists, whose rapid style suit Instagram’s pop aesthetic; but the plethora of visual bites from around the world paints a creative description of day-to-day life…

Best artists

Ai Weiwei (@aiww) – this Chinese artist is on nearly every channel of social media known to man. His feed is a mess of photographs, snaps of artistic process and excitable pictures of everyday life.

Sara Rahbar (@sara_rahbar_) – contemporary mixed media artist, born in Tehran, living in New York. Heavily political, her feed is littered with bullets, flags, limbs and relics of war. Confusing and brutal fusion of East and West.

'Land of Opportunity' by Sara Rahbar

Tanya Ling (@tanya_ling) – A fashion-illustrator-cross- Instragram-whiz, British Tanya Ling creates art in grid form to move and mesh with Instagram’s format. Using multiple snaps to build the bigger picture, look out for clever manipulation of the social media site and microscopic perspectives.

Tanya Ling's picture puzzle Instagram feed

Best for street art

BeirutPost – grafspace (@grafspace) – a charming window into the burgeoning world of street art in the Lebanese capital, occasionally roaming beyond its borders.

Street art in Beirut by grafspace

Gaia (@gaiastreetart) – This prolific street artist is known for his oversized, curious and creature-like concoctions on the street. Thrown in are energetic admirations from similar artists across the globe.

Patternity (@patternity) – Finding order out of chaos, Anna Murray and Grace Winteringham scour the streets and burst off them looking for natural repetitions that inspire materialistic motifs.

Best for virtual travel

Art History Abroad (@ahacourses) – couldn’t slip by without a mention! Follow to live a virtual life of architecture, art, and food in the heart of Italy.

Corners of Italy snapped by Art History Abroad

Sam Horine (@samhorine) – Photographer based in NYC who makes photographs ‘on the go’. Shoots the skyline to the sofa, showing New York in majestic, lit-up and downtown detail.

Borojaguchi (@borojaguchi) – Tokyo-based, globe-trotting web director, snaps the tourist-y to the kitsche in an endearing fashion. Follow to notice things you never knew were there.

Best photography

National Geographic (@natgeo) – without a doubt the most stunning Instagram feed there is, National Geographic collates world observations from an army of adventurous, insane and genius photographers. Shows a side of humanity and the environment rarely seen or noticed, from the Amazon to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Paul Nicklen for National Geographic

Hawkeye Huey (@hawkeyehuey) – 4-year-old analog photographer, depressingly (or unwittingly) talented. Account maintained by father and National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey, who started it all by noticing his son’s playful shots. Follow for the first-time discoveries and Polaroid perspectives of a child.

Hawkeye Huey camera-ready

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (@nasagoddard) – When this world gets boring, move from National Geographic to NASA. Kaleidoscope views from space are an escape from the constant food-grams of someone else’s chocolate pudding.

Free-air gravity map of the moon by NASA

Simone Bramante (@brahmino) – surrealist photographer making use of fantastically filtered natural props and mundane habitats to bring storytelling to photography.

With thanks to Sara Rahbar, Tanya Ling, BeirutPost grafspace, Paul Nicklen for National Geographic, Hawkeye Huey, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Instagram for photography

 

Artistic Walking Tours: AHA alum Helena Roy’s picks from the Tate Britain’s ‘BP Walk Through British Art’

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.

'Portrait of an Unknown Lady' (c.1565-8) by Hans Eworth
Peter Monamy’s ‘Ships in Distress in a Storm’ (c. 1720-30)

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.

William Hogarth’s ‘Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants’ (c. 1750-55)
Joseph Wright of Derby's ‘An Iron Forge’ (1772)

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.

'Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match' (c.1784-6) by Johann Zoffany
'Birmingham with Patrick Conolly Up, and his Owner, John Beardsworth' by John Frederick Herring (1830)

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.

'The Great Day of His Wrath' by John Martin (1851-3)
'An Athlete Wrestling with a Python' by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1877)

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.

'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' by John Singer Sargent (1885-6)
'Merry-Go-Round' by Mark Gertler (1916)

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.

 

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.

Of chickens and men. In the first to two otherwise unrelated blogs, Richard Stemp considers some connections between art and politics, and celebrates a monumental bird.

There is no art without politics, I thought to myself the other day as I crossed Trafalgar Square. Built – or rather cleared – to celebrate Nelson’s victory at the eponymous battle, the square has at its centre the Admiral himself atop the eponymous column. He is joined by a number of notable monuments to the great and the good, British military heroes of whom, we are told, we should be rightly proud, and a big blue chicken.

 

Hahn/Cock, Katharina Fritsch, 2013

The sculptures include a spendthrift King and two suppressors of India. That is why I am far more fond of the chicken. Or cockerel, rather  – a big blue cockerel, to be precise, by German sculptor Katharina Fritsch, whose English is surely good enough, that when she titled her work Hahn/Cock, she must have realised the subjects of the other sculptures might be made to look like a bunch of – well – Hähne, I believe is the correct German plural, more paltry than poultry. It stands there, puffing out its chest (as do the other heroes), trying to look as important as possible. The German word for this I learnt just the other week: Schwanzvergleich. You’ll have to look it up. The only differences between Hahn/Cock and the occupants of the other plinths seem to be that it’s blue, and a bird. This was Fritsch’s intention: to puncture the manly posturing of the other figures.  I love its irreverence, I love its sense of anarchy, and I especially love its colour, particularly on a sunny day. It’s made me realise that I hope that the Fourth Plinth remains ever free for a celebration of our freedom in the 21st Century – in Britain at least – to say what we think and to live how we feel. It would be awful if it were replaced by another permanent authority figure, a member of the supposedly great and apparently good who would become institutionalised as a figure of respect.

 

Trafalgar Square, with the National Gallery top centre, Canada House centre left and South Africa centre right: a pleasant place for tourists, or a monument to Empire?

It is, after all, an entirely institutionalised Square. After the British victories at the Battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815) Britain could (rightly?) claim to be ‘top nation’, and it was thought that this should in some way be recognised and celebrated. It helped that the Regency was in full swing, and when, in 1820, the Regent came to the throne as King George IV, he wasn’t happy with his palace. After all, St James’s had been constructed as a hunting lodge for Henry VIII, and in no way represented the newly affirmed status of the nation. Before long, Buckingham House was converted into a Palace, but not before the King’s stables, not far from Whitehall (which had been the location of the Royal Palace until it burnt down under William III in 1698), were demolished and rebuilt (next to the new Palace) as the Royal Mews. This left an open space for Trafalgar Square, not to mention an ideal location for two of Britain’s great artistic institutions, the National Gallery and The Royal Academy.  Both moved into a new, shared building on the North side of the square in 1838, which filled so rapidly that 30 year later the RA moved to its present location on Piccadilly.

 

George IV, Sir Francis Chantrey, 1828. The bronze equestrian monument was commissioned by the King himself, to go atop the entrance arch designed by John Nash for the courtyard of the newly refurbished Buckingham Palace. However, after the profligate King’s death in 1830, the plans were changed, and before long the archway was moved to the North East corner of Hyde Park – Marble Arch. The sculpture found a temporary location in Trafalgar Square in 1843 – and has been there ever since.

 

By this stage the sculptures had started to arrive as celebrations of Empire, and in 1925 the buildings to the West of the square became a monument to one of the bastions of the British Empire, Canada. Shortly after this, another monumental edifice, South Africa House, was constructed opposite. In this day and age it may seem a little surprising that Canada and South Africa are given such a central role in that celebration of national pride that is Trafalgar Square, a surprise which only goes to remind us that we cannot escape history (as friend and AHA colleague Catherine Macaulay and I never fail to point out to one another). But maybe we can learn from history and escape some of its posturing: we should always be careful about what we choose to monumentalise. That’s why, from time to time, we need a big blue chicken.

Lion, Edwin Landseer, 1860-67. One theory about the lions is that they were intended to cut down the space in the square to limit the size of crowds and therefore the possibility of protest. However, lions (though not Landseer’s) were envisaged as part of William Railton’s original design of Nelson’s Column. It was the fountains, installed originally in 1838, which were intended to limit the size of the square for precisely this reason.

 

 

 

Concealed in Cookham: Helena Roy visits the Stanley Spencer Gallery

Stretched along the Thames, Cookham is a town better known for boating and riverside walks than iconic British art. Visitors are more likely to be heading to a local pub, than a gallery for renowned artist Stanley Spencer. But this little-known gem is a poignant and fascinating tribute to the artist.

Spencer's 'Self Portrait' (1959) painted the year he died
Spencer's 'Self Portrait' (1959) painted the year he died

What makes the gallery so personal is its sole dedication to Spencer and proximity to his life. The gallery opened in 1962, three years after Spencer’s death. He was born in Cookham, and died in Cliveden – the neighbouring village.

Spencer drew heavily on his surroundings. Much of his work depicts biblical scenes happening not in the Holy Land, but this small Thames-side village. From Christ’s miracles to the Crucifixion, all is relocated to leafy Berkshire. He referred to Cookham as ‘a village in heaven’: his choice of setting gives the visitor an eerie immediacy to Christianity’s stories. The gallery even offers a walk through the areas which inspired the paintings: you can visit the church depicted in Spencer’s work ‘The Resurrection’.

'The Resurrection, Cookham' (1923-7)
'The Last Supper' (1920)

From 1908 to 1912, Spencer studied at the Slade in London. He was so attached to his birthplace that he would often take the train back home in time for tea – his fellow student C.R.W. Nevinson nicknamed him Cookham.

With the arrival of the First World War, Spencer volunteered to serve with the Royal Army Medical Corps. His survival affected Spencer’s attitude to mortality irrevocably. Upon his return to Cookham, he had lost that ‘early morning feeling’ which had so awakened his spirit. But the war provided fresh, if bloody, inspiration. He was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to paint from his experiences and his works in this genre included ‘Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916’ (now at the Imperial War Museum), and murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel. The altarpiece here depicts ‘Resurrection of the Soldiers’. On the eve of the centenary, Somerset House began an exhibition of his work, aptly titled ‘Heaven in the Hell of War’.

Spencer's murals in the Sandham Memorial Chapel

Spencer’s work has a soothing storybook nature. Its form is clear – lines firmly separating shapes into recognisable bodies. His style has a calmness about it, and incorporates mainly soft, natural colours. This lends it a sense of finality and completeness; the events he depicts are untouchable. His biblical imagery thus seems more spiritual and legendary than physically realistic. The paintings are detached from the viewer’s reality – comfortingly similar but still a mythical portrayal of religious or military events.

'Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem' (c. 1920) was based on Cookham's landscape

To me, Spencer’s conjoining of Christian miracles with local areas showed a belief in people’s inherent morality. It insinuates people – not the divine – are the foundation of religion. He depicts soldiers being resurrected, and painted a military hospital scene inside a chapel. Just as Christ and Christianity have been preserved through art, so Spencer made immortal the sacrifice of the First World War through his paintings.

'Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta' (1954)

Spencer’s work is easily accessible elsewhere: from the Tate Britain to Royal Academy, Cambridge Fitzwilliam and Imperial War Museum. But there is something significantly different about experiencing his art so close to where he lived for most of his life. The meaning of his work is pervaded by the context in which he created it: spiritually, physically and mentally. Both the Stanley Spencer Gallery and the village of Cookham provide a profound sense of the artist and his heritage.

With thanks to siue.edu and the BBC for photos.

The Stanley Spencer Gallery is open everyday from 10.30-5.30. More information can be found at http://www.stanleyspencer.org.uk/.

Visions of Paris: Helena Roy reviews Daumier at the Royal Academy

Today we have become so used to the unadulterated mocking of politicians, that direct insults and impersonations are unabashed and abundant. What we find less and less is fantastical caricature and unreal analogy. Daumier’s notorious political satire – currently on display at the Royal Academy – offers a soaring vision of the origins of satirical portraiture, through his uncompromising caricatures of the political elite and bourgeoisie.

Daumier chronicled every day life in nineteenth century Paris with shameless precision – pushing every grimy detail into the spectator’s view. The stars of his portraits come from the margins of society: laundresses, street entertainers, farm workers. He reduced Paris from its dreamy, stony architectural grandeur to its viscous, sordid streets. Working from memory, his figures are harrowingly blurred and distorted – with warm pastels overrun with ribbon-like outlines.

‘The Third-Class Railway Carriage’ (1862-64) was (according to a contemporary commentator) ‘a profoundly expressed observation of working class patience and fortitude.’
'The Laundress' (1861-63)

An unexpected idiosyncrasy is Daumier’s brilliant skill in portraying contemplation, and isolation. Amidst the bustle of city scenes there are voids – blank windows, shadows or walls – which bring out the paradoxical solitariness of city life. Lone figures are common: at the end of the exhibition, there is a peaceful portrayal of artistic beginnings, with light streaming through a window onto a canvas to suggest creative potential (‘The Artist Facing his Work’, 1860-63).

'A Man Reading in a Garden' (1866-68)

The political elite, by contrast, were satirised in a fantastical, grotesque world; mimicking their own misunderstanding of the reality they presided over. Daumier’s process began with cartoonish sculptures in seedy tertiary colours, from which is modelled his distorted figurines. He aimed for high-profile targets; his lithographs moving with all the violence and changeable nature of politics at the time. Monarchy is detailed as a corpse in a coffin, with the sarcastic caption ‘Meanwhile, they keep insisting she has never been better.’ (1872). By the 1870s his satire was intense, powerful and prescient: censorship laws had by now relaxed with the fall of authoritarian rule.

'Rue Transnonain, 15 April 1834' portrays a father crushing the corpse of his little child in a cold, poor attic - all silence and death. Daumier thus condensed the events of riots 13-14 April 1834, where protesters were massacred by government troops.

Faces are gaunt – with pale pink flesh cut under black bone structures. Appalling realities such as cholera epidemics are analogized to fairytale figures. Raw violence is shown in gaunt form. ‘Madame is moving, transferring from the cemeteries. Hurray! The dead are going fast!’ (1867) is an instance of the recurring theme of mortality towards the end of Daumier’s life. Rejected by the censor three times, it is Tim-Burton-esque, correlating the death (the Grim Reaper) with industry (a steam engine) and military armament.

Les Divorceuses (1848)

Daumier separates these two sides of Paris – the laughable and the horribly real – but meshes the mediums and styles in ‘Ecce Homo’ (1849-1852). Daumier was opposed to religion, and though this scene is biblical, it is more a general depiction of protest than an outright illustration of the moment Jesus is condemned to crucifixion. It offers a traditional way of demonstrating the easy manipulation of crowds. Though unfinished, its size is exceptional, its movement animated but skeletal.

‘Ecce Homo’ (1849-1852)

The editor Pierre Véron commented ‘I could never understand how Daumier, so assertive, so revolutionary when holding a pencil could be so shy in everyday life.’ Perhaps he made up for a reclusive personality with an inimitable intensity in his art and its message. He refused to pursue more lucrative mediums such as portraiture, landscape and book illustration, but the truth and skill in his work inspired artists from Picasso to Francis Bacon and Quentin Blake. Daumier thrived on his political indignation. His visions of Paris are – whether fantastical or deleteriously real – as truthful and moving a portrait of an era as can be found.

‘Daumier: Visions of Paris, 1808-1879’ is on at the Royal Academy until 26th January 2014. For more details, visit http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/daumier/.

“With an apple I will astonish Paris.” AHA alum Helena Roy looks at the legacy of Paul Cézanne in the year of his 175th birthday…

On 19 January, it would have been Paul Cézanne’s 175th birthday. The Post-Impressionist painter bridged the gap between 19th century Impressionism and 20th century Cubism, and his inimitably idiosyncratic style is still a source of inspiration today. The portraits, landscapes and still-lifes that dominate his repertoire are iconic – prized by famous museums the world over. In celebration of a matchless artist, here is a concentrated retrospective of his life and work…

Cézanne’s life forever had a backdrop of culture and wealth: he absorbed the influences of Courbet and Manet in his early years; was friends with Emile Zola from childhood (breaking promptly when Zola based an unflattering character on him in the 1880s); and had a strong bond (eventually a collaborative relationship) with Camille Pissarro. His father was a successful banker, affording him a financial security most artists of his time did not receive. (His father’s imposing portrait was one of his earliest works, painted in 1865.)

The Painter's Father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne, 1865 – a work which now hangs in the National Gallery

His early years in Paris (1861-1870) were characterised by murky colours and domineering black – garnering the epithet the ‘dark period’. Cézanne’s work was violently expressive – depicting murder and rape – and he experimented with the use of a palette knife to paint (he later disparaged this technique, telling Renoir it took him twenty years to realise painting was not sculpture). Cézanne started with an edge of Caravaggio’s gloomy shading, as seen in Portrait of Uncle Dominique, (1865–1867).

The Murder, (1867-1868), painted during Cézanne’s ‘dark period’ – which refers to both his style, subject matter and, it is said, his personality at the time
Portrait of Uncle Dominique, 1865–1867, a work of Cézanne’s ‘dark period’, which is now displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

An Impressionist stage followed (1870-1878), during which he flitted between Provence and Paris. Under Pissarro’s influence he abandoned darker hues, shifting to light and airy landscapes. A mature period in Provence (1878-1890), comfortably continued this, encompassing his renowned paintings of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, a mountain in southern France overlooking Aix-en-Provence.

Jas de Bouffan, 1876, painted during Cézanne’s Impressionist period, where lighter shades became predominant
Mont Sainte-Victoire (c.1887), displayed at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Cézanne painted many pictures of this subject during his mature years
Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier, (1893-1894), painted during Cézanne’s twilight years, is the most expensive still life ever to sell at an auction. This painting was sold at Sotheby's, New York on 10 May 1999 for $60,502,500.

Cézanne created some of his most iconic works in his twilight years (1890-1905), including The Card Players (1892) and Les Grandes Baigneuses (1898-1905). Deceptively simple paintings conceal a myriad of subtle shading – but his shapes and colours aren’t realistically detailed. Cézanne used heavy hues, creases and shades to emphasise the contours he found so appealing – giving his ‘impression’ of an object, not the veritable image. He once said ‘painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realising one’s sensations.’ He simplified natural forms to their geometric fundamentals, giving an architectural structure to the nature he portrayed. What you see is not the exact picture, but Cézanne’s feelings – he painted a weighty, thick surface over reality, giving us his ethereal sensation instead.

The Card Players, Fifth Version, (1894-1895) – a work in Cézanne’s iconic series, seen by many as a prelude to the genius work of his final years
Les Grandes Baigneuses (1898-1905), a painting from Cézanne’s renowned series, which hangs in the National Gallery.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, (1907), by Pablo Picasso. Painted a few years after Cézanne’s 'Les Grandes Baigneuses', they show the heavy influence the French artist had on Picasso’s work.

As his life became onset with troubles, recognition of mortality crept into his work. A devout Roman Catholic, his faith drew forward in his work as his age slowly got the better of him. He had commented previously : ‘When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.’

Pyramid of Skulls, (1901) – painted during Cézanne’s ‘final period’ in Provence, when he began to focus more on death and mortality. He painted several still lifes of skulls during his final years.
An Old Woman with a Rosary, (1895-1896) - evidence of Cézanne’s growing dependence on Catholicism during his final years. The painting is displayed at the National Gallery.

Cézanne once said ‘We live in a rainbow of chaos’. He incomparably captured that confusion and beauty, so present in nature, and inspired the colourful works of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, to name but a couple. In a way, his artistic trajectory is cyclical, mirroring life as he experienced it – confused angst and darkness moving into light, and returning to shades of mortality in his final years. His innovation in art is now timeless. Cézanne paved the way for ground-breaking art – allowing future artists to be fearless in bucking trends. His unique visual contribution to history of art just outmatches the attitudes he shaped towards it, which allowed so many after him to try to be different.

With thanks to Wikipedia, the Courtauld Institute and the National Gallery for photos.

 

What Can We Learn From The Parliamentary Portraits?

An Evening Standard Freedom of Information request has revealed that £250,000 has been spent on portraits of parliamentarians since 1995. It is certainly a strong and provocative headline, but perhaps a little misleading in its attack on ‘expensive vanity portraits’.  £250,000 sounds like a lot of taxpayer money, and certainly some of the more bombastic headlines have screamed that “YOU” have paid a quarter of a million pounds for paintings of people you probably don’t like. Of course, spread £250,000 over 19 years and it begins to look more reasonable. Divide that sum up by Britain’s approximately 30 million taxpayers and it becomes nearly insignificant. It may not make a very good headline, but the portraits have actually cost “YOU” a grand total of £0.0004 a year. At that rate, it won’t be until 2020 that you’ve paid a single penny.

If we remove the issue of the cost from the equation, we are left with the more interesting questions behind this story – why get these portraits done at all? And what do they tell us about the subjects?

Portraiture is an artistic genre that carries with it a set of potent associations. The history of portrait painting is one filled with depictions of great leaders who have left their mark on the world. Commissioned portraits (rather than those of an artist’s model) throughout history have captured kings and popes, military generals and secular leaders who shaped the landscape of their time. In return, through patronage, they allowed our greatest artists to practice their craft and produce their masterpieces. This relationship, in which great artists produce great paintings of great men, has led the statesman’s portrait to assume a status higher than may be immediately apparent. It is not just a painting that you receive when you sit; it is a position in a long and distinguished tradition.

With this in mind, the reason for the parliamentary portraits seems a little clearer. Politicians have rarely been reluctant to attempt to place themselves within a tradition of great rulers, after all. Consider also the fact that British politicians are often mocked and seldom liked. The vast majority of the time they see themselves artistically depicted is in satirical newspaper cartoons. The opportunity to sit for a flattering portrait after a long career of being drawn as a spineless weasel or horned demon is understandably attractive.

When you get past the outrage of their being commissioned, the portraits speak volumes about the subjects, and the manner in which they wish to be seen. The bronze statue of Margaret Thatcher that stands in the Members Lobby of the House of Commons depicts her apparently in mid-speech. The dynamism of the pose is in-keeping with the more positive aspects of her image, and she is shown with a pointing finger, extended as if to lead her MPs forward, even now. Diane Abbott is depicted head on, in close-up and seemingly nude – an uncompromising and open position from the left-wing backbencher. The implication is that she lays her principles bare and refuses to retreat from them – an interpretation supported by her history of rebelling against her own government on defence policy and tuition fees.

Thatcher and Abbott’s portraits try to accentuate certain qualities that they are known for, but in others, the opposite is the case. Michael Howard’s in particular seems to be an attempt at correcting the way in which he is usually seen. Howard, the former leader of the Conservative Party, has often been regarded as sinister and unsettling. Fellow Tory Ann Widdecome famously remarked there was ‘something of the night about him’. Perhaps with this in mind, his portrait features him smiling sweetly, casting a soft look out from the canvas.

The point of their career in which the subjects sat is also reflected in the paintings. Compare the portraits of Iain Duncan Smith and Tony Blair below. Iain Duncan Smith was painted in 2004, the year after he was replaced as leader of the Conservative Party after losing a vote of no confidence. He is shown bullish and defiant, with hands on hips as if to project resilience at a time that he was being labelled a spent force. Tony Blair, by contrast, is shown looking vulnerable and tired. The 2008 painting captures him having just stepped down from a premiership tainted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The portrait shows a statesman who was presented with tough decisions and feels keenly the pain and suffering of those affected by them. Incidentally, this is the view of himself that he attempted to put forward in his memoir two years later.

Unpacked then, the story takes on a different feel. This is not a scandal like that over MPs’ expenses (the cost in fact is just half of what Sinn Fein MPs claimed while refusing to turn up to Westminster), but something quite different. For £0.0004 a year, the taxpayer has purchased a better understanding of some of the most prominent figures of contemporary British politics. The result, far from being the ‘vanity portraits’ of the screaming headlines, is actually quite sad – a series of anxious eyes towards future history, pleading that they will not be remembered as an irrelevance or a joke, a sinister figure or a callous warmonger, but as something more. How successful they will be in this, of course, only time will tell.