Ming: 50 years that changed China at the British Museum. A review by AHA alum Will Martin

Ming is a word familiar to most of us, and tends to be synonymous with any fragile, rare Eastern pottery. We all know the trope of the Priceless Ming Vase; someone on a (usually pretty mediocre) TV show happens upon a Ming vase, and is at pains to ensure that no harm comes to it. What happens next is inevitable – one particularly clumsy character will knock it off its absurdly precarious perch, smashing the vase into a million pieces, before spending the rest of the episode frantically trying to repair it!

Longquan shrine (Yongle era, 1406). Stoneware, celadon glaze and gilding. Zhejiang province

In reality however, the Ming dynasty, also known as the Empire of the Great Ming, was the ruling house of China for around 300 years between the late 14th century and the middle of the 17th century. The influence of the Ming dynasty on the politics, art, governance and history of Asia is huge, but it is perhaps not always appreciated.
Now though, light is being shed on the dynasty through a new exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition focuses on the years 1400 to 1450 – the period in which the dynasty cemented China as a superpower in an increasingly globalised world – and brings together artefacts from various museums in China, as well as the British Museum’s collection, and pieces from other museums in the UK.

The effect of this collaboration between the various museums is a stunning array of pieces, spanning the obligatory Ming porcelain, gold, jewels, textiles, paintings and much more. A large amount of the antiquities displayed have never been seen outside of China until now, and as such, this is a rare chance to view some truly stunning Eastern artwork.

Large porcelain flask painted with underglaze blue decoration of lotus flowers (1426-1435). Made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi (province), China, Ming dynasty Xuande (reign)

The exhibition starts with a brief video, providing a timeline of the five rulers of the dynasty during the 50-year span covered. Initially focusing on the Yongle emperor and his decision to move the court of the dynasty from the city of Nanjing to Beijing, the exhibition moves on to look at all parts of Ming society, examining military, religion, hunting, every day courtly life, trade, and everything in between.
There is surprisingly little porcelain given its indelible association with the word Ming, although the standout piece is a huge, polychrome cloisonné jar, covered with dragons and various other regalia. Also amongst the collection are a vastly opulent sword, whose handle takes the form of a gilded dragon, a beautiful golden Buddha, a Daoist shrine crafted from a single piece of jade, and numerous pieces of red lacquered furniture.

Cloissoné enamel jar and cover with dragons, Xuande mark and period (1426-1435)

Furthermore, adorning the final wall of the exhibition is, strangely enough, a painting by Andrea Mantegna, the northern Italian Renaissance artist. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi, but is notable for featuring a small Ming porcelain bowl, illustrating the pervading influence of the dynasty throughout the world at the time.
These are some of the very best pieces, but truth be told, almost everything in the place is a highlight – such was the quality of the artefacts on show, it took me nearly three hours to leave what is essentially a single room of pieces!
I went into this exhibition with virtually no knowledge of anything to do with the Ming dynasty, but came out feeling far better acquainted with what is a truly fascinating part of history and of art. Tickets are not cheap, but for such a brilliant exhibition, they are worth every penny.

Tickets for Ming: 50 years that changed China, are available to book online, and cost £16.50 (£13 for concessions). The exhibition is free to British Museum members. The exhibitions continues until 5 January 2015.

Copyright for all images belongs to the Trustees of the British Museum

For more information; visit www.britishmuseum.org

Books about town: by AHA alum Catriona Grant

Quick! Last chance to see the wonderful collection of book benches scattered around London as part of the collaboration between the National Literary Trust and Wild in Art.

War Horse bench

 

The project comes to a close on the 14th and 15th of September and it is certainly worth visiting a few of the literary pews before they disappear.

 

For the dedicated among you, there are 4 trails around parts of London – the City Trail, the Bloomsbury Trail, the Greenwich Trail, and the Riverside Trail. Some seats are tucked away in hidden venues, such as the Noughts and Crosses themed bench at Fen Court in the City, whilst others are in popular tourist spots or public thoroughfares such as Mary Poppins in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, or the Shakespearian homage plonked outside the Globe.

 

Noughts and Crosses at Fen Court
a detail from the Mary Poppins bench
Shakespeare at the Globe

 

Some benches are specifically tied to their location – a series of pastel motifs and character portraits commemorating Mrs Dalloway is to be found in Gordon Square Gardens, adjacent to Virginia Woolf’s former home in Bloomsbury – an endearing Wind in the Willows bench is placed at the steps of the Bank of England, where Kenneth Graham once worked, – and a lively depiction of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days featuring a mock newspaper front page detailing Fogg’s ambitious wager, is found in the basement of Stamfords, a well loved travel bookshop in Covent Garden.

 

Mrs Dalloway
Wind in the Willows
Around the World in Eighty Days

 

A variety of local artists produced the series, which will be auctioned off in October to raise money for the National Literary Trust charity. Do try and spot a few if you’re wandering through London – they are a beautiful contribution to the bustle of city life, in the same vein as the ever popular Art Everywhere project that stretched throughout the UK over the summer.

 

All photos courtesy of Fiona Grant.

What to watch: Picks for Summer 2014 by AHA alum. Catriona Grant

Art Everywhere

Art Everywhere has launched again after its huge success last year. Billboards across the country are being filled with posters of artworks from our national collections. Over 38,000 public votes produced the shortlist of 25 works which will be found across 30,000 poster sites in cities, towns and villages throughout the UK.

Enjoy #arteverywhere for the next 6 weeks – the largest outdoor exhibition in the world! You can donate to the project via its website (http://arteverywhere.org.uk) and receive rewards in the shape of limited edition prints, posters and postcards.

 

Summer Exhibition 2014

The ever-popular Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy is in its final few weeks. For almost 250 years the same concept has directed the exhibition – submission is open to all, and is judged by a panel of leading contemporary artists. The result is a plethora of artworks of wide-ranging styles, with amateurs hung on equal terms alongside Royal Academicians. Sometimes you stumble upon new works by much loved artists, and always you leave feeling inspired at the range and quality of previously unknown artists.

This is a particularly great opportunity for busy art lovers to stay up to date with developments in contemporary art and practicing artists, and according to the curating team ‘everything you’ll see at the Summer Exhibition represents what is happening in the art world right now.’

 

Film4 Summer Screen at Somerset House

This year marks the tenth year of the open air cinema screenings at Somerset House – the ‘cinema under the stars’. For 2 weeks (7th-20th August) a variety of films are projected in the Neoclassical surroundings of one of central London’s most iconic buildings.

From new releases such as French drama ‘Two Days, One Night’, to well known classics like ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, ‘E.T’, and ‘Annie Hall’, there is something to suit everyone’s taste.

 

House of Illustration

The House of Illustration opened this summer in King’s Cross, London, as the first permanent exhibition space for international illustrators, with an extensive education space at its core.

Its collection contains illustration ‘in all its forms, from adverts to animation, picture books to political cartoons and scientific drawings to fashion design’. Its initial exhibition is Quentin Blake: Inside Stories, and runs til November this year.

 

Cambridge Shakespeare Festival

Throughout the summer, Shakespeare’s timeless plays entertain audiences in the beautiful gardens of the ancient collegiate university. Try swapping the Globe for a genteel picnic and performance of Twelfth Night in St John’s College Gardens, Othello in Trinity, The Taming of the Shrew at Homerton, or The Merchant of Venice in the grounds of Robinson.

American Impressionism at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Until October there is a chance to throw the spotlight onto the American contribution to the Impressionist movement. Whilst the likes of Monet, Renoir and Pissarro may have dominated the canon of Impressionist art, many well travelled American artists engaged with the style and spread its influence back to the United States. The exhibition features the work of artists such as Theodore Robinson, Frank W. Benson, and Mary Cassatt.

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.

 

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

Little Italy: AHA alum Helena Roy looks at Italianate churches in Britain

One of the most exciting things about studying History of Art in Italy is that you don’t have to go to a national gallery to see a Titian, or to a pay an entrance fee to see a Michelangelo. Wandering around churches is as good a way as any to discover and experience incredible artworks.

A highlight for me when I did the Northern Italy trip in July 2012 was Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin(1516-18) in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, in Venice. Once inside, the Basilica exudes calm and history beyond the bold edifice of brick, and the painting is spectacular – even more so because it’s in such a spiritual setting.

The brick exterior of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice
Titian’s 'Assumption of the Virgin' (1516-18) at the altar of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Titian’s 'Assumption of the Virgin' (1516-18) up close

England is by no means short of interesting and beautiful places of worship, but Italianate churches are a different kind of impressive. Oddly, there are one or two dotted around England – including a stunning one in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside.

St. Catherine's Church in Hoarwithy, Herefordshire

St Catherine’s church in Hoarwithy, Herefordshire, is an isolated treasure. Hoarwithy is a small village tucked away on the River Wye, and the church itself rests on a high hillside. Prebendary William Poole, Vicar of Hentland, decided to build it between 1870 and 1900, as he found the original style ‘an ugly brick building with no pretensions to any style of architecture’. Designed by architect John Pollard Seddon, it was built in the Italian Romanesque style, with a detached campanile. The brick exterior conjures a vague link to the Venetian Basilica, and the warm terracotta tone brings warmth to the English landscape that surrounds it. Inside there is a rich mosaic of Christ in Glory, installed by an Italian workman who had just worked on St Paul’s Cathedral. Much of the filigree and detail in the church is copied from Saint Vitale at Ravenna in Italy.

The cloister at St Catherine’s in Hoarwithy
The ‘Christ in Glory’ mosaic above the altar at St Catherine’s, Hoarwithy

Similarly placed in the English countryside is the Italianate church in Wilton, Wiltshire. The Hon. Sidney Herbert begged his mother, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, to rebuild the ancient medieval church of St Nicholas, which had fallen into a severe state of disrepair. Accordingly, it was built in the Italianate style which he so loved,  on a Roman basilica plan and complete with a campanile. Inside is the fantastic Capocci Shrine, with twisted black marble columns removed from a shrine at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

St Mary and St Nicholas parish church in Wilton, Wiltshire
The south door of St Mary and St Nicholas church, Wilton
The interior of St Mary and St Nicholas church, Wilton

Finally, there’s St Peter’s Italian church, slid in between houses in Clerkenwell, London. Built at the request of St Vincent Pallotti, it was for the growing number of Italian immigrants in London (by 1850 nearly 2,000 had settled there). It was modelled by architect Sir John Miller-Bryson on the Basilica San Crisogono in Rome, and at the time of its opening, in 1863, was the only church in England in the Roman Basilican style. This year it celebrates its 150th anniversary which will be celebrated at their annual processione held in July.

St Peter’s Italian church, Clerkenwell, London
The interior of St Peter’s Italian church, London

All of these churches are stunning (as the picture-heavy nature of this post testifies). If this post needs a moral, it is this: go exploring. You never know what you will come across, and you might find a little bit of Italy where you never expected it.

With thanks to Wikipedia, Wiltshire Council, St Peter’s Italian Church and wyenot.com for photos

‘Stardust’: AHA alum Helena Roy reviews David Bailey at the National Portrait Gallery

Supermodel stardom and being shot by David Bailey are positively correlated. So surprisingly it’s hard to walk away from ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ at the National Portrait Gallery with images of celebrity swirling in your head. Sure, innumerable stars pepper the exhibition, but ‘stardust’ relates more to the unseen and unique that Bailey attempts to catch and project. This exhibition brings forth a hidden side to his work, and teaches the viewer more about people than merely how super a supermodel can look.

Over 250 images have been personally selected and arranged thematically by Bailey, in a process lasting two and a half years. Glossy photos light up the National Portrait Gallery’s walls with star-wattage, to a relaxed white noise of jazz. The retrospective is an organised explosion of 50 years of Bailey’s style – at once witty and refreshing, brutal and perceptive.

Bailey burst into photographic history with his ‘Box of Pin-Ups’ portraits in 1965. Complete with his signature style, they started a trend which has spanned his career – blank white, sharp lighting and no set dressing.  These photos are the epitome of pop culture and impetus behind a lifelong relationship with fashion and celebrity. Bailey has produced more than 350 covers for Vogue; but for this exhibition, he chose inimitable personalities – the subjects that were most exciting to capture. His monochrome vision is most striking on ‘Carlos Acosta‘ (2011) – highlighting the passion in his dance rather than the technicalities of ballet’s movements, which static film cannot portray. ‘Alexander McQueen‘ (2002) pops out against a flat white backdrop in an utterly British leap of vibrant eccentricity and wild tradition. Eruptions of ostentatious fashion are rare – Bailey keeps things strong and simple. But ‘Abbey Lee Kershaw’ (2010) offers a refreshing bang of the self-conscious, wide-eyed pretension of fashion – staring out in satisfied confusion.

Bailey's giant portrait of Michael Caine at the National Portrait Gallery
'Abbey Lee Kershaw' (2010) for i-D Magazine

Criticising Bailey for focusing on the material shallowness of celebrity ignores vast swathes of his work. Bailey shot artists who defined the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in a cycle of creative talent behind and in front of the camera. ‘Man Ray‘ (1968) is captured in a convergence of photographer on photographer – the focus on an empty black eye, the key to his fame. Warhol and Dali are photographed together in decadent glamour and a ‘Midnight in Paris‘ vibe. ‘Salvador Dali and David Bailey’ (1972) is a vintage selfie: as today we imitate the past; then they imitated the future. ‘Damien Hirst‘ (2004) is shot naked surrounded by animal carcasses and foil – uniquely modern and awkward, displaying the discomfort many have with modern art. ‘Bruce Weber‘ (2013) shoots with a lime green phone as the picture convulses with the supernatural colour of modern technology.

Selfies in the '70s: 'Salvador Dali and David Bailey' (1972)

Roots in London’s East End gave Bailey a proximity and fondness for the true grit of the criminal underworld; in stark contrast to the bubble of stardust he later encapsulated. A city scarred by war and grimy with poverty is ruthlessly exposed in photographs from the early 1960s. ‘Bernie Davis’ (2002) is a double whammy with Bailey’s portrait of the murderous Kray brothers on a tattooed leg. ‘Look’ is a poignant portrait of discomfort and instinctive rebellion. The ‘Democracy’ (2001-5) series is more celebratory, but still visceral and raw: biological grit remains the only star of the show as photographic method was kept entirely consistent, allowing only for variation in the sitters.

Art charades with Bailey's 'Look'

Powerful humanitarian images are plucked from around the world. The Kukukuku tribe in the highlands of Papua New Guinea provide a contrast to peaceful monochrome, with huge headshots bursting with colour (1974). Time with the Kukukuku tribe and aboriginals in Australia inspired rare and neglected sculpture by Bailey – including ‘X-Man’ (2008). Decaying waxworks in Delhi demonstrate a creeping modernisation in India, and increasing disillusion with native traditions. Photographs of Ethiopian refugees in Sudan (1984) reduce the viewer to tears: children with worn eyes and desperate limbs stare blankly down the lens, invoking inescapable guilt.

A recurring obsession with mortality scatters images of skulls around the exhibition. Bailey considers skulls ‘ just portraits without skin and flesh. I like the idea that we all end up as a piece of art. To me, the ultimate sculpture is a skull.’ In ‘Ralph Fiennes (with skull)’ (1995), there is easy movement between the two heads – live and dead – isolated against a rare background of black, illuminating the two structures through chiaroscuro.

Images of skulls in Bailey's work
'Ralph Fiennes (with skull)' by David Bailey (1995)

Bailey exposes the celebrity to the viewer, giving his famed subject nothing to hide behind. In doing so he extrapolates their idiosyncrasies, making each portrait achingly cool and painfully unique. His portraits are not of chart-topping singers or Oscar-winning actors, but of friends; and he does not set out to flatter. Bailey’s photos – whether of London’s neglected underbelly, the Rolling Stones or Kate Moss – are timeless in their dazzling glamour. This exhibition is a masterpiece in bringing to the fore rolls and rolls of neglected work. It provides an electric retrospective of the past fifty years in world history.

With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery for photographs. ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ is displayed at the National Portrait Gallery until 1 June 2014. For more information visit http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/bailey/exhibition.php.

An Englishwoman Abroad: Moscow through British Eyes by Cassia Price

With the Sochi Olympics underway, Meet the Russians hitting our screens, Londongrad on shelves, and borscht becoming a staple in trendy restaurants, Russia is making its cultural mark on London. In -10 degrees and a coat not at all thick enough, I found myself in Moscow, eager to see whether our capital had rubbed off on theirs in turn.

This colossal country straddles continents and its politics have been at the centre of worldwide controversy for centuries.

Nevertheless, having visited St Petersburg, I anticipated that Moscow would be as Westernised as other cities on the edge of Europe. I was surprised then to find that it revealed itself indifferent and even hostile to Western culture, even on first impression. So I found that although in both cities most people live in apartments, the large, monotonous Soviet blocks I saw around me in Moscow were a far cry from the cool, classical, shimmering palaces of St Petersburg.

Determined to see Moscow through the medium of its art, I was taken on the Metro to the Tretyakov Gallery.  Everyone talks about the Metro – it is the pride of the city. Chandeliers hang from the painted ceilings and marble lines the walls.  These walls are in turn edged with metal friezes of cannon and scythes and as I walked through the impressive underground halls I found myself thinking that modernity in Moscow was overshadowed by brutality. Remembering again the European glitz of St Petersburg, Muscovite beauty is a different breed.

 

Believe it or not, a normal Moscow Metro station
Believe it or not, a normal Moscow Metro station

When we reached the gallery I couldn’t help feeling the same slight unease. The rooms here are neither well cared for, nor made beautiful for the sake of the art on the walls. The Tretyakov houses a significant collection of Orthodox icons, whose medieval aura pervades many of the churches around the city. However, it was through the secular paintings of the early twentieth century that I began to see a European Russia.Western motifs pervaded the paintings on every wall, and once again I found myself comparing Moscow to St Petersburg, built in many ways as a celebration of the European aesthetic.

 

St George, 12th Century painting in the Tretyakov Gallery Collection
St George, 12th Century painting in the Tretyakov Gallery Collection

 

The Winter Palace in St Petersburg, home of the State Hermitage Museum, built from 1732-1837
The Winter Palace in St Petersburg, home of the State Hermitage Museum, built from 1732-1837

Between the two cities the nature of being Russian and the shadow that political turmoil casts upon each is distinct. The pastel surface in St Petersburg cannot cover what Moscow’s architecture reveals: its mathematical brutality would create a cold impression even if one were wrapped in mink.

 

The Moskva Hotel - asymmetrical due to Stalin signing off on the build without noticing the different design options on each side of the plan
The Moskva Hotel - asymmetrical due to Stalin signing off on the build without noticing the different design options on each side of the plan

I found it hard to understand my host’s explanation of Russian hostility towards LBGTQ+ rights: “Western” values are not Russian values. According to him it is a case of integrity, not a lack of progressiveness. One only has to watch Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad to understand how proudly, icily separate Russia is from Western Europe, and, indeed, from the sugary shine of St Petersburg. There is a depth to Moscow underneath the gilt glamour of oligarchy that will take more than a long weekend to uncover.

Photographs thanks to: http://www.museum.ru/m106 http://reiflarsen.tumblr.com/post/11431499982/the-ersatz-city-while-trying-to-remain-hopeful http://www.ecuad.ca/~vsager/FNDT%20150%20Spring%2012/icons.htmlhttp://www.railnews.co.in/the-moscow-metro-system-is-just-incredible/

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/.