AHA Alum Helena Roy reviews the V&A’s ‘Horst: Photographer of Style’

If fashion is most often a triumph of style over substance, the V&A shows Horst P. Horst’s photography to be the very substance of style, and the redemption of the materialistic.

In 1930, aged 24, Horst moved to Paris. Attractive, urbane and in search of experimental aesthetic, Horst was absorbed into a bohemian clique that included many renowned people who would shape his career. Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, a photographer for Vogue Paris, became his lover and mentor; Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a lifelong friend and champion.

Gloria Vanderbilt, photographed in 1941 by Horst. American Vogue captioned: 'She is dark and beautiful, seventeen years old'.
Gloria Vanderbilt, photographed in 1941 by Horst. American Vogue captioned: 'She is dark and beautiful, seventeen years old'.

Horst began his career as the era of photography began to eclipse graphic illustration in magazines. Fashion week in the 1930s was absent of the model hysteria it has today. Modelling was in its infancy as a profession, and to avoid inconveniencing haute couture clients, models were shot in the studios at night. The black and white nocturnal photographs are sensual and atmospheric, with lighting that is intense without harshness.

The exhibition is large and laid out according to theme. Photographs move from elegant chiaroscuro to the surrealism of the Dali years. Whimsical elements increasingly infused Horst’s 1930s work, making the commercial mystical: tasked with cataloguing nail varnish, he creates impossible patterns with layered hands; mirrors in dark, cluttered attics reflect blue skies and bright clouds.

Salvador Dalí-designed costumes for Léonide Massine's ballet Bacchanale, 1939

The centrepiece of Horst’s legacy and the V&A’s exhibit is the ‘Mainbocher Corset’ (1939). Madame Bernon wears a Mainbocher corset, assuming the role of Venus with perfect statuesque proportion. The last photograph Horst shot in Paris before the war, it epitomises the end of a charmed era. Melancholy and seductive, it was retouched to make the corset cling to Madame Bernon’s body; but the original has a loose provocativeness that is more striking.

Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher (unedited), 1939

The 1940s present a mess of fractured wartime motifs and icons of the silver screen. Horst trained with the army in Fort Belvoir, accepted US citizenship and worked as a photographer for army magazines. Photographs of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth hang opposite landscapes of ruined Persepolis (then recently uncovered) and the newly established state of Israel.

Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1942
View of ruins at the palace of Persepolis, Persia, 1949

Straying from the fashion he was known for, the V&A presents close up ‘Patterns from Nature’, repeated and panned out to replicate gothic architecture. Along with Horst’s collection of nudes, the sheer skill in artistic composition underlines the integrity of his fashion photography, in an era that was steeped in commercialism.

'Patterns from Nature' Photographic Collage, about 1945

The V&A’s exhibit imparts a loose sense of the man behind the camera. Handsome and elusive, there are a few childhood pictures of Horst, scattered objects and the rare glimpse of him on a fashion shoot. But personality leaps forth with endearing anecdotes. Horst once visited Chanel in her studios to shoot some jewellery she had designed. He sat, chatting to her, playing with a bit of putty they were using to model the jewellery. A few weeks later she gifted him a cigarette lighter. She had moulded it on the putty he had left behind so it fit perfectly into his fist; he carried it throughout the war.

Horst directing lights and cameras on a fashion shoot with model Lisa Fonssagrives, New York, 1949

The penultimate room in the exhibition pops with 1950s colour. As fashion crossed the Atlantic to settle in New York instead of Paris, technicolour entered the mass media. Ninety-four Vogue magazine covers, and 25 giant photographs are blown up with jewel tones. Some are overlaid with murals, making haughty models the centre of easels.

'Summer fashions' for American Vogue, May 15, 1941

Horst’s fashion has a spontaneous feel. It has no desperation or need for immediate admiration, but is confident and considered. There is an inexhaustible thirst for the ground-breaking, but not necessarily the brand new, original, garish or shocking. With no vindictive internet audience to please, art was able to permeate his work as the world moved at a stunning, sloping pace.

Model Carmen Dell’Orefice on shooting with Horst, opening the exhibition and staying young: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29017638

‘Horst: Photographer of Style’ will run at the V&A until 4th January 2015. For more information visit http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/exhibition-horst-photographer-of-style/

 

With thanks to Conde Nast Horst Estate for photographs.

Marina Abramovic at the Serpentine: 512 hours of being by AHA alum Frankie Dytor

How may art be made out of nothing?

How may space become something?

Three, almost empty rooms, turned into an extraordinary piece of performance work.

Abramovic: pioneer of performance art

As the slogans surrounding the exterior of the space pronounce, the exhibition is a “landmark”. It proposes something totally new. The audience themselves have to become a living piece of art. Their reaction is essential in transforming the rooms from an area simply populated by art lovers to one that may considered of artistic value and credibility.

 

It is difficult to describe exactly how ‘512 hours’ works.  But that it does work, as an entirely viable innovation, I was entirely convinced. The notion of energy and ‘being’ lie at the core of what Abramovic seems to be aiming for. The audience are invited to focus entirely in on themselves; it is not an experience where you ‘lose yourself’ but rather become keenly aware of the workings of your own existence. Chest heaves up and down. It must do this eternally for us to live. In our day to day lives this goes unnoticed. But here, in this space of total self-absorption – every participant is given sound blocking headphones – it is all that you are aware of.

 

Yet there is also a kind of strange bond between everyone in the rooms. Everyone moves at the same pace, even though you are never specifically directed to do so. The best comparison to this sensation is the automatic stillness and hush upon entering a church. Abramovic has turned the gallery into a type of holy space. She moves throughout the rooms as supreme creator; the sense of artist as God was potent, even though she had in material terms brought nothing. Opening my eyes and seeing her next to me was like receiving an electric shock. Although it sounds rather incredulous now, my heart beat at twice its normal rate. For a few seconds it was difficult to breathe, and my vision was horribly clouded by tears.

Present in the exhibition, the artist herself will guide you

There are moments when you fall out of the trance. Suddenly it all seems ridiculous and rather posed, a gathering of posturers who all take themselves terribly seriously. And then, with the effort of mindfulness you may fall back in. It was an all enveloping white room, charged with such intensity that by the end I couldn’t stand it any longer. I left feeling utterly drained and curiously empty, even though in the actual rooms I had perceived the experience to be an uplifting one.

 

‘512 hours’ should certainly not be missed. It really is a show like none other, and the thrill of actually being able to see the artist herself (and maybe even be touched by her) is certainly worth the small queue to get in. One word of advice – go alone, or with someone that you entirely trust and love. It is a deeply powerful experience, and one to be shared only with the very best.

The exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery continues 10 am – 6 pm until Monday 25 August.

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.

Paintable Pain: Helena Roy reviews ‘The Great War in Portraits’ at the National Portrait Gallery

By the end of the Great War the social, imperial, political and military structure of society had transformed. Humanity was mercilessly plunged into the common predicament of grief and suffering; and the innocence of an entire generation was destroyed. ‘The Great War in Portraits’ at the National Portrait Gallery is a moving commemoration to the people who embroidered the world’s harrowing experience with individual stories.

The exhibition immediately confronts you with a distorted sculpture; at once machinery and man,  then transports you to the war’s lacy Edwardian prelude. Portraits of royals with pomp and circumstance map a family tree spanning Britain, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. These grand portraits of a lost age show striking similarity and blithe ignorance. The portrait of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – whose death led to the deployment of over 70 million military personnel, with eventual losses of more than 9 million – is harrowingly modest.

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' by Sir Jacob Epstein (1913 – 14)

A room entitled ‘Leaders and Followers’ displays a hierarchy of seniority – commanding officers in traditional garb, ordinary soldiers through a broken lens. A portrait of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig shows him watery-eyed and blank-faced. On observing the portrait he instructed ‘Go and paint the men… They’re getting killed every day.’ The Battle of the Somme, which he led, brought 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 dead, on its first day. Contrasted to his medalled portrait is the cracked ‘La Mitrailleuse’ by C. R. W. Nevinson (1915). The fractured perspective of a volunteer ambulance driver tragically points out the shattered reality of military plans compared to their orchestrated theoretical plots.

'La Mitrailleuse' by C. R. W. Nevinson (1915)

Initial patriotic euphoria quickly faded into angry disillusionment. As time progresses, artists visibly work against the shackles of propaganda, increasing tension as the exhibition progresses. People crowded round ‘Gassed and Wounded’ by Eric Kennington  (1918). The cramped and ruddy conditions muffle almost audible screams of pain.

'Gassed and Wounded' by Eric Kennington (1918)

‘Captain A. Jacka’ by Colin Gill (1919) is painted with clear colours – facial contours emphasised to bring out contorted confusion. Jacka was worshipped in Australian press for incredible military acts – both audacious and lethal. ‘Damaged and wounded’ by Henry Tonks (1916-1918) is small and shy by comparison, but infinitely more devastating than the admiring celebration of killing.

Albert Ball - recipient of the Victoria Cross and the first pilot to become a British popular hero, died aged 21 in 1917
Albert Ball - recipient of the Victoria Cross and the first pilot to become a British popular hero, died aged 21 in 1917
A detail from 'Soldier with Facial Wounds', by Henry Tonks (1916-18)

The methods of slaughter revealed new depths of barbarism: gas, barbed wire, flame throwers, machine guns – all were unimagined horrors that confronted soldiers above the trenches. Between 1914 and 1918, compassion was seemingly smothered by unabated and unjustified cruelty and hatred. The attempt to represent the psyche of a traumatised nation erased traditional artistic styles. ‘Hell: the way home’ by Max Beckmann (1919) throws forth the pain of pointless defeat. ‘Self portrait’ by William Orpen (1917) is blank and objective, stifling emotions against snowy white background.

'Self portrait' by William Orpen (1917)

Today, as part of a generation that never possessed the innocence the Great War destroyed, it can be hard to imagine the trauma to those who survived. The National Portrait Gallery’s unabashed and unafraid display of this tragic transition is one of the most effective renditions yet. When faced with pain that is utterly unspeakable, sometimes art can be the best way to shout.

With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, the Guardian, BBC and the Tate for photographs.

‘The Great War in Portraits’ is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 June 2014, admission is free. For more information visit http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/firstworldwarcentenary/exhibition.php

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,

Matisse: The Cut-Outs. A review and other thoughts by AHA tutor Richard Stemp

Starting, unconventionally, in Pittsburgh, Richard Stemp looks forward – and back – to Matisse’s Paper Cut-Outs on display at Tate Modern, and then looks forward again to living happily ever after.

I have been to Pittsburgh four or five times, more often, in fact, than I’ve been to Boston or Washington DC, and most Americans would ask, horrified, ‘Why?!’ It still hasn’t recovered from the reputation it gained in the early 20th Century as the soot-blackened, smog-ridden steel capital of the States. But when I first went, way back in 1986 (ah, how time flies), it had just been voted America’s Most Liveable City. Andy Warhol was from Pittsburgh, as was Henry Clay Frick, a coke and steel industrialist whose vast wealth (from all that pollution) allowed him to put together one of the greatest individual art collections, the Frick, which found its home in New York and is one of the highlights of any visit to that remarkable city. Andrew Carnegie, another Steel Magnate and philanthropist from Pittsburgh, is perhaps not as well known, but you can still find Carnegie Libraries across Britain. It is intriguing to think that in the early 20th Century an American thought that the British needed to read, but he was British – a Scottish émigré, in fact, from Dunfermline. He gave his name to Pittsburgh’s wonderful Carnegie Museum of Art, well worth a visit, and home to probably my favourite work by Matisse, a paper cut-out called The Thousand and One Nights.

 

The Thousand and One Nights (1950) Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

I know this image remarkably well. Having seen it several times in the late 1980s, it was still in my mind when I moved in the late 90s.  The new flat was in the basement, and had a long, narrow room underneath the ground floor entrance, ideal as a study. At the far end was a window, perfect for a coffee table and an armchair, so I could sit and read, work and relax at the same time (Matisse once said that art should be like a comfortable armchair). I thought The Thousand and One Nights would look perfect there, and planned to write to Pittsburgh to see if they did a poster. But before I got round to writing, I was forced to go to IKEA. That’s what love does – it makes you go to IKEA. It makes you go to Pittsburgh. True love means you don’t have to do these things if you don’t want to, and, a couple of exes later, I haven’t been to either for a long time now. But this was Kismet – a perfect concept, in this context – as IKEA actually did do a poster, and it fit perfectly on the wall by the window at the end of the study for four years. And, when I moved ten years ago (exes being what they are), it found a place above my bed.

 

I don’t always sleep very well (though better, I’m sure, than Matisse, who suffered terribly from insomnia), but The Thousand and One Nights is the perfect companion for a sleepless night, a great tale well told. Scheherazade knows that the King, angry at the infidelity of his first wife, has killed many subsequent wives after just one night of marriage. Nevertheless, she accepts his proposal, and to save her own life she tells him a story, keeping his attention throughout the night, and leaving off half way through as dawn breaks. She lives to see the day – and to tell the rest of the tale the following night. Only she never finishes. Well, not for a thousand nights, by which time he has fallen in love with her, and from the thousand and first night, we presume, they live happily ever after. Matisse tells his tale in separate sections, using five main ‘blocks’, which he developed separately and then joined together, chapters in a story. The first, a smoking lamp, as night falls, is followed by a stylised, blue female form: Scheherazade herself, perhaps, in obeisance before the King. Flashes of stars, and leaf-like forms take us through the night, which draws to a close with another, smokeless lamp. Day has dawned. And finally, a rich, round, red oval – the rising sun? The warm heart of the story? Or something more sensually direct? And then the image opens up, a red leaf crosses from the hard edge of the last ‘block’ and brings the white background into play, an open-ended, happy ending. Red and pink hearts trail along the bottom, and along the top, black hearts, which alternate with green, trail off into words: “…she saw the dawn appearing, and discreetly fell silent”.

The Dance (1932-33) The Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.

I’ve always loved the cut-outs, and when I heard that Tate would hold a major retrospective this year I was very happy. Even more so when I heard that the Carnegie – who don’t always display The Thousand and One Nights, paper being so fragile – are lending it to this exhibition. It was remarkable to see it, like meeting an old friend, with whom you’ve been asleep for ten years, for the first time in twenty-five. It’s far larger than I remembered, and the colours far more subtle. Its physical presence, as a made object – not a machine tooled, flat plane of colour – is also essential for its understanding. The flatness of the printed versions of his cut-outs was something that disappointed Matisse himself, even though he developed them, in part, to avoid other disappointments of printing – the subtle shifts in colour, for example, between the preparatory maquette, or model, and the finished edition.

 

Two Dancers (1937-8) Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Initially, paper cut-outs were just a tool for him. He would use them while developing other works, a form of sketching, or drawing with colour. As such it was vital for the development of his mural, The Dance, of 1932-3, for another great American entrepreneur, Albert C. Barnes: the more-or-less vertical bars of pink, blue and black relate to cut-out elements in the preparatory stages. His interest in dance led to a commission to design the ballet, Rouge et Noir, for choreographer Léonide Massine. The stage curtain design is still held together with pins, the same colour as the paper, showing how the individual elements could be moved and adjusted to find the right combination of line and colour. But it was with Jazz – undoubtedly one of the most important artist’s books of the 20th Century – that he began to realise the full possibilities of the cut-out.

 

The Heart (1943), maquette for plate VII of Jazz (1947) Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Jazz is exhibited in its entirety in the Tate exhibition, and is one of the highlights. Indeed, it is exhibited twice, as the final, printed version is displayed alongside the original maquettes. Frustrated, as I have said, by the changes in colour from design to print, Matisse decided to cut into colour itself, using paper painted in exactly the same pigments as the printer’s ink. The original idea was to illustrate poems, but instead Matisse wrote notes about his ideas, his working practice and about the inspiration for the images. The text functions formally, a black and white breathing space between the brilliant intensity of the images. Already, with The Heart, we have the seed for the later tale of Scheherazade, with the same combination of black and green, pink and red, in adjacent blocks, and with the tell tale heart. This is by far one of the simplest of twenty vibrant images. It is wonderful to see them all together, and instructive, too: given the accuracy of the colour, Matisse was now disappointed by the flatness of the final image, and, of course, he was right. Side by side they are still glorious, but somehow lifeless, and later cut-outs were arranged together, loosely pinned to the wall so that cut leaves would wave in the breeze, as three-dimensional works. Different combinations of colours were tested against one another, much as Albers would focus on the square, or Riley on the line. Indeed, the undulating leaf forms so beloved of Matisse allow the maximum interaction between two different colours, in the same way that Riley uses long lines, straight or curving, to maximise the contact between the elements of her chosen palette.

The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Matisse used the technique to design book covers and posters, ceramic wall panels and stained glass, and even the decoration of an entire chapel (including the priest’s vestments) for the Dominican Nuns of Vence, in the South of France, one of whom had nursed him through a serious illness. But before long he realised that the paper cut-outs could be an end in themselves, they could live free of the restrictions of the canvas, and take up entire rooms. The Parakeet and the Mermaid, for example, was developed on the walls of his studio, and originally wrapped around a corner of the room, while the Oceania works developed, in part, as a way of covering marks on the dull and shabby walls of a room in Paris. As you go round this wonderful exhibition the works get steadily larger, his ideas become freer and you gradually find yourself encompassed by colour. If you do go – and you should – it will be the most positive, glorious and life-affirming thing you see this year – this decade, for that matter, or this millennium – and it will leave you happy, if not forever, at least for now.

 

‘Strange Beauty’ is strange indeed… Jazzy’s review of the National Gallery’s newest exhibition on the German Renaissance

It’s safe to say that I am an avid fan of the work of the Northern Renaissance, having written a dissertation on Holbein’s The Ambassadors last year. It excited me greatly to hear then, that the National Gallery was to dedicate its Sainsbury Wing to masterpieces of the German Renaissance under the entrancing title Strange Beauty, offering an alternative cultural exploration that has been marginally overshadowed by the Veronese  show opening this time next month.

'The Crucifixion' by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece, photo courtesy of the National Gallery

The premise of the exhibition was captivating –  to shed light on the overlooked paintings produced by German painters, often shrugged off in favour of Italian High Renaissance greats, perhaps because of their more eccentric sense of “beauty”. The information in the first rooms gave a fascinating insight into the history behind the National Gallery’s acquisition of German Renaissance works, or perhaps, their lack thereof. It was startling how overlooked this area has been. Indeed,  it took 23 years for the National Gallery to acquire its first German painting, the 15th-century ‘Crucifixion’ by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece. And even after this, the painting wasn’t displayed until the 1880s. This aversion to German paintings extends into the early 20th century, and it wasn’t until the rise of Modernism that the institution and audiences of the time began garnering a larger appreciation of these works. For example, the gallery was offered ‘Virgin and Child’ by Dürer’s workshop in 1872, which was not accepted until 1945!

'Virgin and Child (Madonna with the Iris)' by Dürer's Workshop, photo courtesy of the National Gallery

As interesting as finding out the provenance of the gallery’s acquisition of these works was, I was surprised, however, to find that this theme was a the only prominent driving force of this exhibition. I did not expect half of all the caption details for each painting to be so descriptive of which bequest resulted in the appropriation of the work and must admit that I was a little disappointed as a result. In all honesty, I’m afraid that my aesthetic appreciation of the works was a little diminished by my disappointment, particularly as the exhibition itself had “beauty” in its title. Nevertheless, some interesting comparisons were drawn and I was especially struck by Raphael’s ‘St Catherine of Alexandria’ which was juxtaposed with Grien’s ‘Trinity and Mystic Pieta‘,  to enhance the contrast in styles and heighten the disparate notions of beauty between the Italian and Northern Renaissance. The Raphael did look very out of place among all the Northern works but, I suppose, that was the point the curator was trying to make.

 

(above) 'St Catherine of Alexandria' by Raphael, photo courtesy of the National Gallery; (below) 'Trinity and the Mystic Pieta' by Hans Baldung Grien, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For me, the most intriguing objects were sourced, ironically, from outside the collection of the National Gallery. The miniature sculptural portraits loaned by the V&A were intricate and beautiful, and the inclusion of woodblock prints and engravings of Dürer and Cranach the Elder,  originally from the collection at the British Museum, were a refreshing change for the eye, and for me really captured the essence of what was meant by a “strange beauty”, displaying raw emotional power and visceral detail. In my opinion, it was the greater focus on the visual nuances of the prints and paintings in the fourth and fifth room that picked up the pace of the exhibition. For me, the most interesting parts of the exhibition were those which focused on the innovations of German workshops rather than the acquisitions of the National Gallery itself and I would have liked to see more rooms dedicated to this.

'Man Holding a Glove' by Jan Gossaert, photo courtesy of the National Gallery

Strange Beauty exhibits some gems of the German Renaissance from the National Gallery’s  permanent collection and visiting the gallery brought them to my attention. For example,  Gossaert’s ‘Man Holding a Glove’, which I felt somewhat guilty and ashamed that I had never spotted from previous visits, captured my attention for the first time and I’m glad that I will now be able to go back and re-visit it in the future.

The last room of the exhibition poses the questions in large font on the walls: “Is ugliness more authentic than beauty?” or, “Can art be both inventive and true to nature?” and paper and pencils where visitors could display their responses. It was amusing to read some of the scribblings of visitors, though one particularly scathing remark commenting, “what a waste of a room”, stood out. This posed an interesting point about curating and balancing the expectations of visitors whilst encouraging them to engage directly with exhibition content. Though I found myself edging towards agreeing that more could have been done with this last room, still, it was an interesting show and one which allowed me to discover some new art and ideas.