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.
What’s in a name? Call him Paolo Spezapreda, Paolo Bazaro or Paolo Caliari, Paolo Veronese will always be among the greats, and has finally been put into the spotlight at the National Gallery.
Paolo Veronese has his name because he was, quite simply, the best artist ever to come out of his hometown, Verona. Although he moved to Venice more-or-less full time at the age of 27 in 1555, and instantly entered the top ranks of the Venetian art élite, his work was grounded in his youth and formation in the mainland city.
Born in 1528 into family of stonecutters, Paolo may have initially trained in the family business with his father, but by the age of 13 he was already apprenticed to Antonio Badile, a competent but uninspiring artist. He also seems to have worked alongside Giovanni Battista Caroto, but not for long: he was established as an independent master in his own right by the age of 18. In 1553 he signed himself ‘Paolo Spezapreda’ – Paul the Stonecutter – but within two years he was calling himself ‘Paolo Caliari from Verona’. Caliari wasn’t even his father’s name. His father, Gabriele Bazaro, married a girl called Caterina, some six years his senior. And when you’re only 14 that’s a big difference. Maybe they married because she was already pregnant. But then her parents never married: her father was an aristocrat by the name of Caliari, and by choosing the name of his illegitimate mother’s father Paolo implied he was going up in the world, no longer a humble stonecutter, but an artist with a high-class background. Nevertheless, in Venice he must have stood out from the Venetian artists and became known, quite simply, as Paolo Veronese.
The earliest known paintings by him are both in the National Gallery’s splendid exhibition. Both are painted in oil on paper, later mounted on canvas, and both show his origins clearly. They are studies for two works which are lost – one completely, and one only practically, as the full-scale version of the Bevilacqua-Lazise altarpiece survives, but is highly damaged and badly over-painted. The little modello – probably painted so the clients could see what they were getting – is a better representation of what was intended. The architectural setting, with the Virgin and Child enthroned to the side of a marble altar, shows the influence of Titian – via Antonio Badile – but also the architectural style of Michele Sanmicheli, the leading architect of Vicenza at the time. Paolo’s father probably worked for him. As a boy, Paolo may have done so too.
By the age of 20 he was apparently fully formed. What first strikes you about The Conversion of Mary Magdalene is the brilliance of its colours – chopping from sky blue to rose, emerald to primrose and a daring combination of white and vermillion, like a Bridget Riley inhabited by people. The story, probably derived from a life of Christ written by Pietro Aretino, shows Mary Magdalene falling to her knees with shame as she first beholds Jesus, and immediately removing her jewelry, the outward sign of her inner vice. Her sister Martha holds her hand and points the way, from the shadow into which she has subsided to the brilliant light of Christ. This is where we first see a compositional tendency which recurs throughout Veronese’s oeuvre: the protagonist is at the bottom, in the shade, and partly hidden by the other characters – and yet we always know who is important, as Veronese can always lead our eye in the right direction.
He excels at the depiction of religious subject matter, notably in the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine and The Martyrdom of St George in the third and fourth rooms of the exhibition respectively.Both are triumphs for the National Gallery. The former has never left Venice (painted for the Church of Santa Caterina, it now resides in the Accademia, the main art gallery there), while the latter has only left the church in Verona for which it was painted once before – when Napoleon stole it at the end of the 18th Century. Both are sublimely coloured and beautifully composed. St Catherine is arrayed in the finest of Venetians fabrics, a white, blue and gold brocade, and is about to be enveloped in a voluminous white cloth-of-gold cape by one of the attendant angels. A woman behind raised her arms high and gazes to heaven, her hands framing the faces of the Virgin and the Saint and bringing them together in a form of ecstatic union. In the next room of the exhibition, St George, brought low, accepts his immanent death while looking up at the figure of Hope, who looks to the Virgin and Child, pleading, with her companions Faith and Charity, on his behalf. The interlocking gazes and gestures of the celestial gathering lead our eye around the upper half of the painting, while the red flag of the Romans – inscribed with the letters SPQR (‘the Senate and People of Rome’) cuts like a knife from the top left corner and tears our eyes down to the brilliant vermillion of George’s hose.
If he excels with the religious, he excites with myth. The National Gallery’s own Allegories of Love look superb in what was their long-time setting, where they are reunited with a Mars and Venus that they haven’t seen forthree hundred years when they were all part of the collection of the Hapsburgs in Prague. A cheeky and delicate version of The Rape of Europa shows the heroine tentatively mounting a snow-white bull, not knowing it to be Jupiter in disguise. He tenderly nuzzles her sandalled feet, before carrying her off, in a background scene, across the lapping waves and far across the sea. A regretful heifer peers longingly into the distance, apparently regretting that she didn’t get in on the action.
If the mature paintings look as if they are bathed in sunlight, the last works have something of the night about them, they seem to be moonlit, and you get the feeling that without Veronese’s exploration of chiaroscuro Caravaggio’s career might not have been possible. The story of Lucretia is dark in every way. Raped, she kills herself rather than suffer the shame, and plunges a dagger into her breast through the cloth with which she is so desperately trying to maintain her dignity. Elsewhere in this final room a heroic Perseus plummets through the air, a secular angel rescuing a gymnastic Andromeda from the most energetic of sea monsters, while two late portraits, in tranquil mode, show that Veronese perfected his skills depicting character and surface like no other. The last painting in the exhibition is the last he ever painted, The Conversion of St Pantalon,commissioned for the high altar of eponymous Venetian church by the Parish Priest, Bartolomeo Borghi. No ideal palaces here, no soaring classical columns, but a seedy Venetian backstreet in which the Saint cures a boy bitten by a snake with the power of prayer alone. Borghi himself plays a minor role, supporting the body of the dead child before he is resuscitated. As so often in Veronese’s work the patron takes part in the religious drama: throughout the exhibition any slightly suspect characters photo-bombing the holy scene are probably portraits of the patrons.
This may be the last painting, but as you go, stop and contemplate The Agony in the Garden. Christ’s traditional vigil has worn him down, and while Peter, James and John sleep securely in the background, Jesus has collapsed in the arms of a consoling angel, who is left with the task of looking up to Heaven and pleading for forbearance. The light streaming from on high trickles like liquid gold down the angel’s violet robe, and Christ’s limbs hang heavy, forming a counterpoint with the angel’s legs and framed by the blue and red of his own robes, as if blood and water flow mingled down. It is an exquisite image: quiet, considered, contemplative, sublime.
The exhibition has 50 paintings by this great master, from the earliest known works, to the last one he painted. It’s the first exhibition devoted to him in Britain, and the size and scale of the paintings mean that the National Gallery has moved some of its permanent collection out of the way so that Veronese’s works can enjoy the space and natural daylight of the main floor. The colours shine gloriously, the dramatic compositions have space to breathe, and some of the paintings can be examined up close for the first time ever. It really is the exhibition you should be going to see – and if you can conspire to see it when the sun is shining, so much the better.
There is no art without politics, I thought to myself the other day as I crossed Trafalgar Square. Built – or rather cleared – to celebrate Nelson’s victory at the eponymous battle, the square has at its centre the Admiral himself atop the eponymous column. He is joined by a number of notable monuments to the great and the good, British military heroes of whom, we are told, we should be rightly proud, and a big blue chicken.
The sculptures include a spendthrift King and two suppressors of India. That is why I am far more fond of the chicken. Or cockerel, rather – a big blue cockerel, to be precise, by German sculptor Katharina Fritsch, whose English is surely good enough, that when she titled her work Hahn/Cock, she must have realised the subjects of the other sculptures might be made to look like a bunch of – well – Hähne, I believe is the correct German plural, more paltry than poultry. It stands there, puffing out its chest (as do the other heroes), trying to look as important as possible. The German word for this I learnt just the other week: Schwanzvergleich. You’ll have to look it up. The only differences between Hahn/Cock and the occupants of the other plinths seem to be that it’s blue, and a bird. This was Fritsch’s intention: to puncture the manly posturing of the other figures. I love its irreverence, I love its sense of anarchy, and I especially love its colour, particularly on a sunny day. It’s made me realise that I hope that the Fourth Plinth remains ever free for a celebration of our freedom in the 21st Century – in Britain at least – to say what we think and to live how we feel. It would be awful if it were replaced by another permanent authority figure, a member of the supposedly great and apparently good who would become institutionalised as a figure of respect.
It is, after all, an entirely institutionalised Square. After the British victories at the Battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815) Britain could (rightly?) claim to be ‘top nation’, and it was thought that this should in some way be recognised and celebrated. It helped that the Regency was in full swing, and when, in 1820, the Regent came to the throne as King George IV, he wasn’t happy with his palace. After all, St James’s had been constructed as a hunting lodge for Henry VIII, and in no way represented the newly affirmed status of the nation. Before long, Buckingham House was converted into a Palace, but not before the King’s stables, not far from Whitehall (which had been the location of the Royal Palace until it burnt down under William III in 1698), were demolished and rebuilt (next to the new Palace) as the Royal Mews. This left an open space for Trafalgar Square, not to mention an ideal location for two of Britain’s great artistic institutions, the National Gallery and The Royal Academy. Both moved into a new, shared building on the North side of the square in 1838, which filled so rapidly that 30 year later the RA moved to its present location on Piccadilly.
By this stage the sculptures had started to arrive as celebrations of Empire, and in 1925 the buildings to the West of the square became a monument to one of the bastions of the British Empire, Canada. Shortly after this, another monumental edifice, South Africa House, was constructed opposite. In this day and age it may seem a little surprising that Canada and South Africa are given such a central role in that celebration of national pride that is Trafalgar Square, a surprise which only goes to remind us that we cannot escape history (as friend and AHA colleague Catherine Macaulay and I never fail to point out to one another). But maybe we can learn from history and escape some of its posturing: we should always be careful about what we choose to monumentalise. That’s why, from time to time, we need a big blue chicken.
Lion, Edwin Landseer, 1860-67. One theory about the lions is that they were intended to cut down the space in the square to limit the size of crowds and therefore the possibility of protest. However, lions (though not Landseer’s) were envisaged as part of William Railton’s original design of Nelson’s Column. It was the fountains, installed originally in 1838, which were intended to limit the size of the square for precisely this reason.
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 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!
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.
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.
‘If music be the food of art, play on’– Rachel Campbell Johnston, The Times
Painting is traditionally seen as an art concerned only with the visual and the aesthetic, and similarly, music is considered a solely aural medium. This exhibition, however, attempts to prove that the two are inextricably linked, and to demonstrate how this phenomenon is evident in 17th Century Dutch art. By including rare musical instruments, a visual link is created between these objects and those in the paintings, and viewers are also reminded that the creation of these fine, intricate instruments is an art in itself.
The first room, entitled ‘Music as attribute and allegory’ explores the connotations and symbolic significance of music when depicted in art. Music was a popular and important theme in Dutch art, and it carried a wide range of associations. Since there was no recorded music at the time, music was an art of performance and could be used to denote transience. The presence of musical instruments in Harmen Steenwyck’s ‘Still Life: an Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life’ symbolises human knowledge and the pleasures of the senses, but the work is dominated by a skull, an obvious symbol of death. Frans van Mieris the Elder’s ‘Self Portrait of the Artist, with a Cittern’ demonstrates the dialogue between painting and music: since music was considered to be the more sophisticated of the two, it was often referred to in an attempt to raise the status of the sitter. The works of the first room engage well with the works of the second, which feature musical companies and festive galleries. The poignant contrast between instruments being played and lying still emphasizes the change in atmosphere that music can bring to a work.
The third and fourth rooms also form a cohesive dialogue, this time on the quantity of musicians in each work. The works in the third room all feature ‘intimate duets’, and they explore the role of music in developing romantic relationships, and the metaphor of music as harmony. Music provided a channel of unsupervised communication for young men and women at the time, as it was one of the only activities that did not require a chaperone. These works contrast well with the solo musicians featured in the fourth room, who either appear lost in solitude or open to participation. Vermeer’s ‘Young Woman seated at a Virginal’ looks out to the viewer, inviting them to join her in a duet by picking up the viola de gamba that lies suggestively in the foreground. The inscription on the virginal in Vermeer’s exquisite ‘The Music Lesson’ (Royal Collection) translates as ‘music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow’, emphasizing music’s emotional power and importance.
An informative aspect of the exhibition is the focus on the technical aspects of Vermeer’s work, which gives visitors an interesting insight into his inventive methods. Extreme close-ups provide an opportunity to see in precise detail how Vermeer achieved certain effects, like dappled sunlight on hair, or the wood-grain appearance of instruments. Scientific examination explains how the underpainting and surface layers react, and how physical traces of Vermeer remain, in brush bristles and even a fingerprint or two. The display emphasizes the importance of close, scientific examination of artworks and opens up this area of research to the public.
The exhibition is however, not without fault. It successfully expresses how music was an integral part of 17th Century upper class life in the Dutch Republic, but there is no coverage of music-making scenes featuring peasants and the working classes, which is a pity. Vermeer himself completely neglected these figures in his oeuvre, but they appear frequently in works by his contemporaries, such as Jan Steen. Visitors may also be disappointed, as I was, in the lack of works on loan from external sources. Nicholas Penny (director of the National Gallery) did state previously that the exhibition was intended to be based around works in the gallery’s permanent collection, but I must admit I was expecting, after paying £7 (with no concession option for students), a little more bang for my buck. The underlying intention seems to be to gain publicity and profit from the loan of the Kenwood House Vermeer.
That being said, the exhibition is evocative, informative and clearly laid out. The inclusion of live music performed by the Academy of Ancient Music is also a bonus if you visit at the right time, and the element of multimedia is quite effective and refreshing. The exhibition presents a striking contrast between stillness and movement, between silence and sound, just as Vermeer aimed to do all those years ago.
Few artists see their work exhibited at the National Gallery during their lifetime. To many, the idea of modern art at the London landmark is disconcerting – a genre that belongs to the imposing, edgier Tate Modern across the Thames.
But Michael Landy’s Saints Alive exhibition is far from traditional. The unpredictable artist is famed for destroying all his possessions in 2001, in his Break Down exhibition – but not before meticulously cataloguing all 7,227 in detail. Landy admits contemporary art is regarded as an eyesore by stereotypical frequenters of the National, before adding: ‘I like eyesores’. Despite this avant-garde background, Landy was chosen as the Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist in residence at the gallery in 2010.
The only brief Landy was given was that his exhibition had to engage with the National Gallery’s collection. Thus the exhibition is juxtaposed to classical works, highlighting Landy’s intensely modern interpretation. Its violent nature could have been deleterious to understanding the paintings that inspired him, but in fact it brings out the serenity of the originals – making you to appreciate the pain behind the expressive beauty. Landy unites polar opposites – from Carlo Crivelli to the 1970s kinetic sculpture of Jean Tinguely.
Landy had never visited the National Gallery prior to his appointment, and regarded it as ‘stuffy’. By responding to the gallery’s collection as an outsider, he has utterly broken that. Michael Craig-Martin has called Landy a ‘sophisticated innocent’. As a newcomer, he was drawn to the saints and martyrs; as an ‘innocent’ he noticed the physical and emotional details over the theological. He has made the saints kinetic in a way not seen before.
Saints Alive is an experience. Health and safety notices are pointed out before you visit (curators ‘wanted to avoid the torso of Christ hitting the public in the face’). I jumped out of my skin after pushing an innocent-looking pedal which made a gigantic sculpture of Saint Apollonia rock fiercely after bashing her mouth with pliers.
The concentrated exhibition contains seven huge sculptures, climbing up like distorted fairground figures, mimicking horror-movie dolls. A personal favourite was the body of Saint Francis – gigantic and kneeling – with an industrious, rusted crane constantly taking of his body to try and give. It was here that I felt the symbolism of saints the strongest.
Statues are assembled with one of Landy’s artistic hallmarks: refuse. He has scoured car boot sales and flea markets, accumulating old machinery to construct the works. Landy says he feels ‘like Baron Frankenstein, digging around getting various body parts from different parts of the Renaissance.’ In a short film we see torsos sawn apart to make his sculptures – a martyrdom of the saints yet again, this time in the name of art.
Accompanying collages combine elements of Picasso’s distortion with classical painting and greyscale line-drawing. Components are made bold and surreal on blank white canvas – psychedelic cogs tear renaissance torsos apart.
Violence pervades the exhibition. Landy has worked solely with martyrdom: he satirizes the arrow piercing Saint Sebastian’s body by multiplying hundreds of them across one perfectly sculpted torso; fate is arbitrarily decided on a spiked martyr’s fortune wheel, inspired by Saint Catherine; Saint Francis doubles as a donation box, and strikes himself with a cross when coins are received, as if pain is what the giver wants. I was left confused about what the overt brutality meant – modern media may anaesthetise society to violence to an extent, but in Saints Alive it seemed almost unnecessarily explicit.
Paired with religion, the violence engenders uneasy tension. Landy expected religious controversy. He fell in love with the saints’ stories as an artist – not a Christian – affectionately calling them ‘barmy’. Martyrdom is inherently paradoxical: the saints seem to destroy themselves in the name of furthering faith in God, but by doing so in such brutal fashions often diminish belief.
As mirrored in his sculptures, Landy thinks the saints have been discarded. He argues ‘we’ve forgotten about them and they’ve been junked, really.’ Saints Alive tries to regenerate them for another audience. The saints of Saints Alive seem desperate: the sculptures begin to destroy themselves with the force of pedals and buttons visitors push, worn out trying to prove their faith.
Landy said of Saints Alive that ‘you can’t dictate how people interpret artwork’. He was unsure of what people’s reaction would be, and yet I am unsure of my own. The vitality Landy has brought to the National is exhilarating and fascinating, but the saints don’t necessarily seem more ‘alive’ to me. Landy has transformed fragments from altarpieces into destructive modern art: to me, this made the saints seem deader than ever.
‘Saints Alive’ by Michael Landy is exhibited at the National Gallery until 24 November 2013.
To discover the paintings in the National Gallery that inspired Landy’s work, visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting/printed-trails/michael-landy-trail.
With thanks to the National Gallery, the Guardian and the Telegraph for photos.
The National Gallery is about to house its first major exhibition of photography, entitled ‘Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.’ It is a collection of photographs that have used old masters, most of which are from the Gallery’s collection, to inspire their work. Undoubtably, it is an exhibition to get excited about. Not only will it be a delightful game to draw connections and make patterns, but it should also help us relate to old paintings that are now somewhat removed from society.
For example, Richard Learoyd, the London based photographer, makes a beautiful reference to ‘The Small Bather’ by Ingres. Learoyd chooses a heavily tattooed man as his subject but keeps the iconic pose of Ingres’ nude. The viewer immediately spots the similarities of light and form, but also the differences as our detective eye considers the harem of women surrounding Ingres’ nude but not Learoyd’s.
The opening of the exhibition has encouraged me to share my project called “Bad Artists Copy, Good Artists Steal’ which I did for my final piece at Art School. I used this quote, thought to be said by Picasso, to show how throughout time artists have always stolen ideas from each other. Sometimes they steal an exact composition but paint it in their own style. For example, Picasso spent four months on a series based entirely on Velazquez’s ‘Las Meninas.’
I began researching my favourite portraits and thought of aspects of the piece I could steal in order to make my own image. I found out all I could about the sitter in the portraits and then I would get into character by dressing up like them and trying to act like them. I realised as a viewer we only ever consider the sitter in that exact pose. What about a few seconds before of after the image? Surely they would be fidgeting or maybe talking to the artist, perhaps complaining of a sore back, or asking when the next break would be?
I wanted to take famous images, steal the key composition but change the subject to myself. One day I would be Frida Kahlo with flowers in my hair, the next I would be Van Gogh with a cigarette and bandaged ear. My flat in Edinburgh was converted into a kind of theatre. One that saw a different famous artist each day. I would sit in front of my tripod for hours, firstly trying to capture the image that had exactly the same composition, secondly trying to capture supporting images that went with the theme and mood of the image.
The first portrait I stole from was one by Chuck Close. I have always loved the boldness of this piece and wanted to steal his lazy, colourless gaze. I drew facial hair on my face with eyeliner and covered my hair in gel to emulate his scruffy look.
Days later, when I was satisfied with this image, I began to act around this pose. I imagined what other positions Chuck Close may have tried before he decided on this one.
In this way we are reminded that the sitter was once a living, moving person, not just the 2D representation from one fixed angle that we are now familiar with.
Watch out for further blogposts by Caroline St Quinton along this theme…