(click here to see this painting in very high resolution thanks to the Google Cultural Institute)
Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, was the supreme master of vedute, the painted or drawn views which reached the peak of their popularity in the eighteenth century. Born to a family of theatrical scene-painters, Canaletto depicted his native Venice as an atmospheric backdrop to a colourful cast of merchants, ambassadors and seafarers, and his portraits of the great city, La Serenissima, have evoked its charm for over two hundred years.
And if the barge looks familiar …
… that’s because we’re still using them. This one will start this year’s Lord Mayor’s Show by carrying the new Lord Mayor from Westminster to St Katherine’s dock.
Little is known of Canaletto’s early apprenticeship, although by 1720 he was entered as a member of the Venetian painter’s guild; and by this time he had already visited Rome. From the first documented commission, four views for Stefano Conti of Lucca, the artist’s pristine treatment of the architecture and detail and his strong contrasts of light and shade were in evidence. His work was especially prized by foreign visitors on the Grand Tour (the original, nothing to do with Jeremy Clarkson) – around the centres of classical and Renaissance civilization – who ordered paintings as souvenirs of their travels. Prominent among these patrons were member of the English aristocracy, and among others Canaletto collaborated with the enterprising Owen McSwiney, who secured the interest of the Duke of Richmond, and the collector and agent Joseph Smith.
Canaletto paid an extended visit to England between 1746 and 1756, where he produced compelling views of the Thames and its skyline, and capriccios or architectural fantasies. Surprisingly he found it difficult to secure an equivalent reputation in England, where it was even alleged that he was “not the veritable Canalleti (sic) of Venice”. For an unusual but fascinating view of his English period read this recent abstract “Canaletto’s Colours” from British Art Studies. To counter these accusations the artist invited doubters to inspect his painting of St. James’s Park for reassurance. Canaletto’s sojourn abroad eventually cast its influence on English topographical painters, and many private collection still hold examples of this work.
Canaletto’s paintings are a byword for clarity and realism, achieved in part by his occasional use of the camera obscura device, and in part by his brilliant shorthand delineation of figures. Sadly, when he died in 1768 he left almost nothing; twenty-eight unsold paintings, a single bed, two bed covers and, as the executor of his will described them, “some old cloths.” In contrast, the record price paid at auction for a Canaletto is £18.6 million for “View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto”, set at Sotheby’s in London in July 2005.
The BP ‘Walk Through British Art’ is a Lonely-Planet-style walking tour through the pinnacles of Britain’s creativity from the 16th century until today. A chronological re-hang of the Tate’s collection, it offers icons of every Art History textbook, as well as lesser known masterpieces.
If you have no idea about art, and are clueless about what you like, this exhibition is the best introduction. It is still worth a visit if you know everything. Every person will pick and choose a different highlight in each room, but here is a wandering trail of personal favourites…
This walkthrough begins with Hans Eworth’s ‘Portrait of an unknown lady’ (c. 1565-68). The tiny painting of the anonymous lady comes to life in the miniature beading and gold fabric, and feels living and conversational. A century or so later, Peter Monamy’s ‘Ships in Distress in a Storm’ (c. 1720-30) jumps from the rigid to the über-dynamic. The capsulated moment is frozen, turning waves into rocks and mountains, and implies fate in the sinking wood. Death in art turned from a fashionable skull in the corner of an opulent dress, to a violent, realistic and confrontational scene.
William Hogarth’s ‘Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants’ (c. 1750-55) injects humanism into the pomp and circumstance that pervaded Britain in the eighteenth century. Amongst aristocratic painted peacocks, six very real faces are stuffed together – helpfully mimicking the inequality in living conditions of the period – but, magnified and luminous, they are infinitely more emotive. Joseph Wright of Derby, in ‘An Iron Forge’ (1772), captured the working class a few decades later. The indiscernible light source, shading and fiery warmth are pure artistic genius and draw you in. The presence of young women and children make it a metallic and raw nativity scene on the eve of the Industrial Revolution’s birth.
While industry rose its heavy head in Britain, abroad colonialism thrived and coloured Britain’s grey paintings. ‘Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match’ by Johann Zoffany (c. 1784-86) shows the unruly event – tumbling and vibrant colours of India spotted with the white and red pretension of British officers. Barbaric and unruly, the sporting event exemplifies looser moral codes of British colonial life. At home in 1830, John Frederick Herring painted ‘Birmingham with Patrick Conolly Up, and his Owner, John Beardsworth’. Stark and rigid figures on a grey seaside landscape, they provide a surreal and tight-laced contrast to colonial exploits.
The late nineteenth century favoured the epic. John Martin’s series ‘The Great Day of His Wrath’, ‘The Last Judgement’ and ‘The Plains of Heaven’ (1851-3) stuns with orthodox opposition of heaven and hell (painted in conjunction). They are completely and utterly breathtaking in their maddened imagination of the apocalypse. Lord Leighton’s ‘An Athlete Wrestling with a Python’ is fleshy and forceful, achingly classical with a hands pressing sensuously into the python’s flesh.
John Singer Sargent’s ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ (1885-86) is a twilight look back at the haze of childhood. A peaceful flurry of lilacs, pinks and mossy greens with pure lilies, harkens back to the eighteenth century’s fascination with natural elements. By the early twentieth century, culture was shattering and war clouded over Britain. Mark Gertler’s ‘Merry-Go-Round’ (1916) sarcastically paints soldiers as young men marched off to war with false hope and childhood dreams. The fairground ride endlessly rotates with military rigidity, carrying those killed by an unrealistically bright view of the world.
Without designated themes or movements, the range of art is diverse and conversational. Unlike exhibits of one artist, theme or period, the ‘BP Walk Through’ lets the viewer sense their own artistic taste buds and connect the dots through the centuries. A comfortable circuit, it is simple but perfect in its choice of pieces. More relaxed than an exhibition, the ordered randomness catches you off-guard, and lets you look at art without any accompanying brochure telling you why you’re seeing this exhibition, and what to think.
The BP ‘Walk Through British Art’ is open daily at the Tate Britain until January 2023. Admission is free.
John Craxton. The name many have little significance to the British public, but his recent exhibition at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge (which closed at the end of last month) served to change the fact. And with just cause. The British-born, Mediterranean-bred artist, produced some of the most vibrant and beautiful work I have encountered in a while. Despite the small scale of the exhibition, it demonstrated the evolution and diversity of Craxton’s work, from delicate line drawings, to geometric landscapes.
Inspiration from artists like William Blake, Picasso and Samuel Palmer is clear throughout his oeuvre. His friendship and teaching from Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud also found its way into the young man’s work. He was also appreciated as a good companion as well as an artist and the variety of his art testifies to his colourful character.
It was Craxton’s first visit to Greece in 1946 that inspired him with light, food, landscape and nature. His work shed the slight gloom of his youth and took on the romanticism of the Mediterranean, where he spent the majority of his adult life. He demonstrated a unique ability to capture the easy pace of these sunny regions and the unique characters he encountered there. Many of his larger scale works are of pastoral scenes and the use of block colours, effective layering and intentional compositions work in harmony to give an impression of an exotic culture – one that any traveller to Greece or Sicily will be familiar with. There is no doubt that his landscapes are seeking to create arcadia with their serene shepherds, chromatic light and whimsical goats.
However, the most interesting aspect of Craxton’s work did not occur to me until after I had stood enjoying Landscape with the Elements, a monumental kaleidoscopic work. Craxton was producing works such as these in the aftermath of the Second World War, wanting to project a joyful, energetic picture of life – life in Europe that was continuing despite the years of loss they had suffered. To this end, he painted images of thriving landscapes, flourishing feasts and animated locals. Because he chose to remain in Greece for the remainder of his life, his work was not celebrated by the British art world for many years. Thankfully, it is now possible to view Craxton in the context of history and see him as a joyous contrast to the horrors occurring during his lifetime.
His paintings have a personal sensitivity to them and also capture the fullness of a life lived. He will amaze you with his talent, complexity, simplicity and emotional narrative. And his goats really are humorous too.
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.
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 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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
My musings on Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/Cock (see the previous post!) reminded me of a recent visit to the newly, and splendidly, refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. While many will flock to the works of the Golden Age, the Rembrandts and Vermeers (and you should flock, but get there early!), I fell in love with the display of Medieval and Renaissance art, which takes up one half of the basement. Looking at just three (or maybe four) of the exhibits should help you map out the progress of Amsterdam’s history from its earliest formation to its role as a Spanish colony, an essential precursor to that burst of creativity that was the Golden Age.
The very first piece you encounter is a Romanesque relief commissioned by Petronella, Countess of Holland, for the Benedictine abbey-church at Egmond. She is shown as a donor figure on the right of the relief, whereas her son, Dirk VI, occupies the Position of Honour on the left – but then, she was only the Regent, her son, still in his minority, was the Count. The County of Holland, a state of the Holy Roman Empire, is first mentioned by name in 1101 but emerges from the County of Frisia (roughly equivalent to the contemporary Provinces of North Holland and Friesland). The first Count of Holland is generally considered to be Dirk I, who inherited lands from his father, or step father (it’s a long way back, and even history finds it hard to remember some things) Gerolf, Count of Frisia, in 896 – although as yet it was not called Holland. Gerolf himself had been given lands by the last of the Carolingian Emperors, Charles the Fat (the names are not always encouraging). Dirk was, like Gerolf, rewarded for good service by King Charles the Simple (see what I mean?) with a gift of the Church of Egmond, which he re-founded as an Abbey – and it was for this abbey that Petronella commissioned the stone tympanum.
Her husband had died in 1121 when their eldest son was only seven, and Petronella served as Regent until he reached his majority at the age of fifteen, some eight years later. However, that didn’t stop her – Dirk was apparently not ambitious, and was relatively weak: Petronella held onto the reins of power until her favourite son Floris was old enough to rule, although an initial burst of sibling rivalry ended with Dirk and Floris ruling side by side. Nevertheless, the period of the Regency helps us to date the relief – c. 1122-1133.
The House of Holland died out in 1299, and was taken over by the House of Avesnes, who ruled as Counts of Holland and Hainault (no, not the one on the Central Line) until they were succeeded by the Wittelsbachs in 1345. And then, after a war of succession at the beginning of the 15th Century, Holland was taken over by Phillip the Good (the names get better) in 1432, and Holland became part of Burgundy. Phillip was succeeded by Charles the Bold, and Charles by Mary the Rich (see what I mean?). Mary’s mother, Isabella of Bourbon died in 1465, twelve years before Mary inherited the titles, and just before she did inherit she commissioned what must have been a splendid tomb for her mother, surrounded by 24 pleurants or ’weepers’ cast in bronze. Today only ten survive, and are housed in the Rijksmuseum just round the corner from the Egmond Tympanum. Attributed to Renier von Thiene, they represent members of Isabella’s family as well as her ancestors: the fact that the latter were already dead may explain why they do not appear grief-stricken, and not even weeping, as their name might suggest. Their clothes, richly represented and intricately cast and chased, are rather old fashioned for the 1460s, possibly because they were inspired by figures on other, lost tombs.
Mary herself married Maximilian Archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor. Their son, Phillip the Handsome (still looking good – indeed, in this case, looking particularly good) married Joanna the Mad (ah… not so good). Admittedly she didn’t go mad until his death in 1506, by which time she had inherited the Kingdom of Castile (and Leon) from her mother Isabella and went on to inherit Aragon from her father Ferdinand. Phillip and Joanna’s son Charles ruled with her as King of the newly united Spain from 1516, and became Holy Roman Emperor when his grandfather Maximilian died in 1519: this was Charles V, and his realm included Holland. The Rijskmuseum has several treasures relating to his reign, ranging from a rather wonderful tapestry to a number of knives and a fork. The complexity of his inheritance is expressed in his coat of arms, visible on all these objects – and these are relatively simple versions. The arms of Castile and Leon are the lions and castles at top left, for example, with Aragon top right. The double-headed eagle behind the coat of arms represents the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1556 Charles abdicated, handing the Holy Roman Empire his younger brother Ferdinand, and the Kingdom of Spain to his son, Phillip II. Unlike Charles, Phillip was entirely Spanish in upbringing, and had no real interest in his northern provinces. This signalled increasing unrest: more and more parts of Europe were adopting Protestantism and a wave of religiously inspired destruction swept though the Netherlands in 1566 – the Iconoclast Fury. One victim of this was the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon. The main body of the tomb has ended up in Antwerp Cathedral, whereas the pleurants were pulled off and disappeared, only to resurface in Amsterdam in 1691 where they were bought by the burgomasters, who thought they represented the Counts and Countesses of Holland (maybe Dirk VI and Petronella were thought to be among their number).
Two years after the Iconoclast Fury the Eighty Years War began, and in 1581 the Act of Abjuration officially deposed Phillip II. It was this struggle for independence, finally achieved with the Peace of Münster in 1648, which created the background for the famous art of the Golden Age. So when you get to the Rijksmuseum (I suggest 8.58am), and have spent some time on your own with the Vermeers (which you can, if you go straight there), then head back downstairs to the basement. Vermeer wouldn’t be possible without it.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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/.
Vienna 1900 – the result of revolution. As an imperial capital of Austria-Hungary, the city was politically and socially volatile to its core. It was an avant-garde powerhouse of creativity and radical ideas about taste, aesthetics and multiculturalism. But just beneath this facade of modernity, the age-old insecurities about social status and national identity still thrived. Prior to 1900, the city’s liberal climate had attracted immigrants from across the whole Empire, many of whom became successful, wealthy and cultured members of the middle classes. These citizens were the ‘New Viennese’. But the liberalism that had drawn them to Vienna was short-lived.
Nationalism, conservatism and anti-Semitism increased with the foundation of the Austrian Christian Social Party under Karl Lueger, who was then elected mayor of Vienna in 1897. The diversity that previously had been embraced was suddenly rejected, and the newly established middle classes had somehow to prove themselves and defend their position.
The New Viennese turned to portraiture, in a city where modern art was flourishing. The National Gallery’s Facing the Modern exhibition addresses these political twists and turns very effectively. It illustrates how the ambitious middle classes reacted against anti-liberalism using portraiture and theatricality as tools to assert themselves, and how their social instability resulted in a sense of alienation that permeated their whole world. The first room, titled ‘The Old Viennese’, highlights the significance of the Miethke Gallery’s 1905 exhibition of portraits from the first half of the 19th century. These portraits were intended to anchor the present to the past; to identify a lineage between the new and old that would pacify the middle classes’ anxieties about their social standing. The stylistic traits of the works, based on the Biedermeier tradition, also provide an effective point of comparison for the later Secession works.
The Secessionists took their name from the verb ‘to secede’, meaning ‘to withdraw’. Like the Impressionists, they rejected the strict values of the academies and embraced the avant-garde, the different and the modern. The portraits exhibited in this exhibition displayed the vitality and powerful expressivity of the Secessionist painters. The ‘Big 3’ were represented (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka) in haunting and stunning works like Klimt’s unfinished Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl and Schiele’s expressive and immediate Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder, but there were also some real gems to be found in some of the lesser known artists. Isidor Kauffman’s Young Rabbi from N. is a poignant statement about what it meant to be Jewish in an anti-Semitic political climate. This beautiful portrait defends Judaism and its place in Vienna, yet proudly owns its differences.
The second room reflected the reformed face of domestic values and what constitutes a family portrait; Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality posed serious questions for family life. The portraits on display here demonstrated a sense of vulnerability, and once again, anxiety. Schiele’s unsettling work The Family (Self Portrait) from 1918 shows how much family portraits had changed since the work of Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, for example. Another room focused on the self-portrait and how self-definition was paramount, and another on women artists and their position within the artistic infrastructure. Broncia Koller’s Nude Portrait of Marietta from 1907 represents a model as both a studio nude and a portrait, and is strikingly beautiful in its sophisticated simplicity.
The penultimate space was dedicated to death and Vienna’s morbid fascinations. Posthumous and deathbed portraiture were very popular (as were death masks), and while this may seem rather pessimistic to current viewers, these works were often celebratory a well as commemorative. The idea of the ‘beautiful corpse’ (schöne Leich) embodies this juxtaposition of beauty and dignity in life with beauty after death. Klimt’s portrait of Ria Munk on her Deathbed (1912) is a perfect example of this kind of celebration. Her head resting on a pillow, surrounded by flowers, the young woman could be mistaken for a literary maiden asleep, vulnerable yet beautiful, rather than the tragic reality of a young woman who shot herself in the heart.
Despite scathing reviews from the Guardian, in my opinion Gemma Blackshaw curated a show which informatively and enjoyably combined the old with the new and demonstrates the expressive power of the portrait. Having just returned from Vienna myself, I can testify to its current magnificence and beauty. Sadly, much of it is a reconstruction, having been torn apart by war. But seeing this exhibition before I arrived helped me to imagine what an incredibly diverse and complex climate had occupied the city about a century ago; a radical age of theatricality, wonder, constant change and most importantly, anxiety.
With thanks to the National Gallery. For more information, please see their website and the exhibition catalogue.
With the influence of Christianity declining in Britain, I was struck by Alain de Botton‘s statement in his recent book, ‘Religion for Athiests‘: ‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’. De Botton explores the power Christianity previously exercised over civilian life; many aspects of which he mourns as a loss to society. He is looking to replace what positives Christianity could bring to society with an atheist version. But what would this mean for art and museums.
Masterpieces which command global admiration today were often designed for worship in the past. Though some of these remain in their original intended setting, such as Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, many have been plundered from religious buildings, now only viewable in a sterilised gallery environment.
Perhaps this sterility is the result of tension between secular and religious perceptions of art: Hegel defined art as ‘the sensuous presentation of ideas’; whereas De Botton argues Christianity ‘never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to remind us about what matters… whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of.’ Religious culture’s power to move might be shown by the author’s own experience – an ardent atheist, he admits to a crisis of faithlessness in his twenties, which he attributes to Bach’s cantatas and Bellini’s Madonnas.
Comparing the two, it would seem that Christian art understands that images are important primarily in generating compassion, enabling the boundaries between strangers to dissolve, and provoking a sense of fragility that leads us to understand new situations and morals. Modern museums – as fascinating as their avant garde enclosures are – can be too frigid, detailing the material facts and dry context of a piece, not its meaning or what we should learn from it. Catholic architecture, for example, made a point, ‘half touching, half alarming’ about how humans function: as a race we suffer from ‘a heightened sensitivity to what is around us… we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon’, a vulnerability to which Protestantism, and our secular celebrity-heavy society prefers to remain indifferent or blind.
Maybe this is what scares people away from modern art: is it presented in an inaccessible manner, too technical and seemingly unrelated to the average bystander to merit a segment of everyone’s time? Modern museums tend to groups works of art according to the period they were born from; de Botton argues ‘a more fertile indexing system would group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the concerns of our souls.’ Perhaps in one room we would be taught about love, in another fear might feature, and another might show suffering as an impetus for pathos. A compulsory dose of culture by way of a visit to a museum would then be transformed into a structured encounter with some of the concepts which are easiest for us to forget, and the most essential and life-enhancing to remember.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice might be an example. Tall and striking with its ruddy terracotta facade, it is proudly indifferent to the dusty indexing science of academic methodology. The Frari instead presents an eclectic range of works – including a fresco by Paolo Veneziano (c. 1339), Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’ (1488) and a large altarpiece by Titian (1516-1518) – designed to rebalance our souls, priorities and understanding. Sculpture, painting, and architecture are artfully thrown together from across regions and centuries to coordinate the impact of art on our sentiments; prioritising a coherent effect on our souls over a rigid grouping of origins and stylistic inclinations. Separating paintings by genre or period risks reducing any real coherence at an emotional level in museums. The art might not need to change, but museums maybe do.
Maybe all of this is because modern priorities have taught us as a society at large not to worry about leaving an impact on art for future generations. This ignores art’s ability to shape society, however. Though many would not like to admit it, art is infinitely indebted to religion: beliefs, a desire for status and aggregated money has fed demand for art during some of the most important aesthetic periods and can still teach us new ideas today. Auguste Compte believed capitalism aggravated people’s ‘competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them from their communities, their traditions and their sympathies with nature… Capitalism would in the end always favour a skilled, obedient and unintrospective workforce over an inquisitive and emotionally balanced one.’ Art and culture is not part of the ends towards which our modern economic society tries to force everyone to hurtle.
But art can offer society a guiding moral force – less dogmatic than religion, merely challenging and probing. Religious pictures in the past presented images it would be easier to turn away from, but standing witness to them directs us towards those who deserve our sympathy. ‘Crucifixion’ by Andrea Mantegna (1459) demonstrates this. De Botton argues that the ‘unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art.’ In the past, religious works were commissioned to show specific scenes or emotions to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. Levels of literacy may be very different now, but the power of the visual is not. Art should seek to give us a moral lesson; and perhaps museums and commissioners should focus on this, marrying painters with thinkers. To specify which topics art should focus on is not to insist that it all appears identical.
This is not an argument for religion: there are many ways it has irrevocably damaged nations, societies and cultures; and its decline may be inevitable, as it increasingly struggles to reconcile itself with our scientific age. It is instead an argument for perspective; the kind of outlook religion once advocated and offered. Religion, in some ways, promotes a sense of humility in the individual, a sense of there being something bigger, greater than us; and perhaps that is a good thing. Art can help spread that perspective; perhaps museums should work to facilitate this. There are few other institutions that can.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
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.
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.