As part of my studies in History of Art at the University of Warwick, there comes the opportunity to spend the autumn term of my third year in one of the greatest, and most unique, artistic centres of the world. This term abroad is the reason I choose Warwick and two years have flown by. I am now officially living and working in Venice for ten weeks and of course this fantastic and rare chance had to be documented for AHA readers.
I have survived a full week in this watery paradise and I can safely say there is no fear I will run out of things to do, nor will I ever get bored of the stunning canal views over every bridge. Over the next ten week I hope to share some of the beauty of the city, the best places to eat and drink and some of the oddities that are only noticed one you live in a place.
Typically, a day might start by being woken up by the clanging of bells across the city (at first rather magical, but the midnight bell tolls are proving irritating). Since I am up, there is the need for coffee, so I stroll sleepily down the road, over the canal to my local coffee bar, where I use my limited (but improving) Italian to ask for a caffe latte. In true Italian fashion, I stand at the bar sipping away, enjoying the rapid chatting around me, a chorus of “Ciao”’s and “Buongiorno”’s. Once I have fuelled up on coffee, its time to get ready for the day.
With some free time in the morning, it is time for touristing. When I initially arrived, I wanted to go and see and do everything in the first week. I have decided to pace myself a bit more, once the full realisation that I am here for ten weeks sunk in. So I allow myself to get a bit lost in the crowds and find new routes. Despite being October, it is really warm and sunny here and there are still hundreds of tourist flooding in everyday. One quickly learns the winding back streets and shortcuts of Venice, and in fact the best shops, restaurants and friendliest people are often found off the beaten track.
Being a History of Art student, naturally I hit the galleries, the Guggenheim in particular. It has been one of my favourite galleries since visiting with AHA, due to the layout as well as the content, and a free day can easily be spent there admiring Peggy Guggenheim’s extensive collection.
In the afternoon, I usually have seminars and this particular aspect of being here certainly bring back memories of my AHA tour. We have seminars on site, awkwardly and eagerly writing down information whilst standing in front of our topic. The experience of seeing the live work as it is explained to you is a far more engaging method than powerpoint and a classroom and I am thoroughly enjoying getting to experience it again.
Evening approaches and life slows down a bit. From about 4 o’clock onwards, people will be sitting in cafes with a spritz aperol and bruschettas, chatting and taking it easy. So of course I join in, having always a weakness for prosecco. This is a wonderful time of day.
After an aperitif and a bowl of pasta for dinner, it is an easy walk to Campo Margherita, the resident student piazza, where the is prosecco is cheap, the company great and the pizza slices substantial. Usually the rest of the Warwick course end up here for a few laughs and catch up about what they have discovered in Venice that day. A great place to get to know the Venice students and meet the locals before heading home to bed, eagerly to bring on the next day in Venezia.
Look out for more blogs about Anna in Venice soon.
Perhaps less well-known and certainly less visited than its neighbouring city Florence, Siena was founded in antiquity by the two sons of Remus (whose brother, Romulus, founded Rome). I recently spent two glorious weeks there to brush up on my rather non-existent Italian skills. The post below is a condensation of what I consider to be the highlights – arty and foody – of my time in this beautiful and bountiful city. I hope you enjoy!
The Duomo – Vasari was generous in his praise when he described the decorated pavement of the interior as “most beautiful…grand and magnificent”; so it comes on good authority that Siena’s Duomo rates pretty high in the must-visit-Cathedrals-of-Italy list. After admiring the ornate gothic facade, prepare to marvel at works by Bernini, Donatello and Nicola Pisano. Make sure you don’t miss the Piccolimini library, painted partly by a young Raphael with his teacher Pinturricchio.
Lunch – Il Gallo Parlante, Via Casata di Sopra
This soon became an established lunchtime favourite during my stay in Siena. A glass of rather good house wine will set you back just €2, and the menu changes daily. Expect to find a party of Italians eating a huge shared bowl of either ribollita or papa al pomodoro outside – neither of these two dishes, local to Tuscany, are to be missed.
The Baptistery – Stroll around here for a game of spotting bible stories. The font, realised by the main sculptors of the time (these including the choice selection of Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and Ghiberti; not bad really), stands proud and beautiful in the centre.
The Crypt – This is one of Siena’s hidden gems; if you go in the later afternoon you may pretty much have the place to yourself. The 13th- century fresco cycle, heartbreakingly rendered by none other than Duccio, depicts a range of scenes from the New Testament. These would originally have been accompanied by a parallel set from the Old Testament, but the loss of these in no way detracts from the breathtaking potency of what remains. The tender humanity of Giotto is already present. In the Lamentation the faces of Mary and Jesus seem to morph into one, yet it is clear that he is not with her, try as she might to desperately search for life within his cold, stiff body. The others, crowded around the slab, appeal to the limp figure, total disbelief at what they can see. They have not yet comprehended the gravity of the situation – they are still imploring, still begging him to get up. And suddenly it seems that Mary understands. She stares, static against the frenzy of activity around here. Mary and Jesus are united by a halo of terrible solemnity. The viewer can only watch, and maybe weep.
Aperitif – Diacceto’s, Via Diacceto
In need of a drink? Head over to Diacceto’s for an Aperol Spritz, a steal at only €3. According to your willingness to flirt with the owner, an abundant range of snacks will also be served. If he takes a particular shine to you, the delightful porchetta crostini will soon be wheeled out. Relax here and take in the surroundings with all the locals as they come here for an after-work drink.
Dinner – La Taverna del Capitano, via del Capitano, 6/8
The proximity to Siena’s main square may set alarm bells ringing, but the dulcet tones of Italian floating out of this place will soon set even the most adventurous of diners at their ease. Simply ask for what they recommend here – my original order was rebuffed, and I was instead strongly advised to sample ‘pici cacio e pepe’ as my primi. It certainly did not disappoint. A Sienese dish made out of only pici (a thickish type of spaghetti), the finest pecorino, olive, pepper and salt it was quite simply one of the most delicious dishes I have ever had during my extensive culinary adventures of Italy. This was Italian cooking at its best – humble ingredients of the highest quality combined in perfectly balanced proportion. It was a happy, but rather full, stomach that left the restaurant a few hours later.
Museo dell’opera del Duomo – Situated in the nave of what was intended to be Siena’s new and upgraded version of their current Cathedral, the location is a grim reminder of just how devastating the plague was for the city. Inside, the paintings testify to a city that literally halted in progress after the Black Death in the 14th century. But the art of the Sienese school has plenty of artistic merit in its own right, and the museum gives total validity to this in the masterpieces displayed.
Lunch – Gino Cacino, Piazza del Mercato, 51
This tiny deli, tucked away in the beautiful square of Piazza del Mercato, serves panini such as have never been served before. I had previously taken an attitude of mild complacency towards sandwiches – useful for a quick lunchtime bite, but generally underwhelming compared to the rest of what Italy has to offer. But goods offered here changed my mind completely about this. Hyperbole can only do the panini injustice so I will do is urge you to go – and to try either the ‘porchetta arosto crema di senape al miele’acacia’ or, and this sandwich must be the food of the Gods as the name indeed suggests, ‘elisir di miale e pecorino caldo’. If you ask for the staff favourite, they will without a doubt recommend this, with beaming smiles and half-eaten panino in hand.
And finally, if you are in the neighbourhood of Siena, certainly consider taking the short train to Arezzo to make a pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle of ‘The Legend of the True Cross’. Unmissable art.
“So, it’s, um, auto-destructivist art. A creative form of political protest through destruction and disintegration”.
Such were my words in an attempt to convince my family to come to the new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, ‘Lift Off!’, featuring the work by the activist and artist Gustav Metzger. This rather paltry attempt to enthuse was fairly unsuccessful, and it was a sullen group that shuffled into the extension of Jim Ede’s bequeathed house. I needn’t have worried, however. Twenty minutes later we were all lying on the floor in awed silence, transfixed by a particular piece entitled ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’.
In it, this all absorbing and all encompassing rapture, slides containing heat sensitive liquid crystals are rotated, creating movement that is projected onto the walls. As they are heated and cooled the crystals also change colour, creating a protozoic psychedelia. The wish emblazoned on the wall in the previous room suddenly became manifest; that Metzger wanted art that would “levitate”, art that would “gyrate”. Faced with these endlessly moving shapes, his wish was transparent. Removed from the acts of human and consciously physical creation, a new type of artistic distance is created. But did this distance permit greater comprehension?
In ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’ politics, an element so strong in Metzger’s writings, did not seem to me to be a primary concern. Or certainly it inspired no political anxiety within me. Rather a state of abstract being. It was like lying back and looking at the stars, whilst the immediate present remained irrelevant. The forms were histological, although it was not they that changed but rather their colour and luminosity. Eventually, their flickering grew stronger, more urgent. Saturation increased with violent luminosity until it was almost painful to look at them. But, as if in a trance, everyone in the room stayed. The light became blinding, and reality became the vision you get when you shut your eyes after too much brightness. And then, popping in and in with less confidence and determination each time, the forms slowly faded to black.
This spectacle required no artistic foreknowledge or understanding. Simply every human’s deep attraction to light. And there was a certain beauty in that, one quite different to many of Metzger’s other works, such as ‘Dancing Tubes’. Without the choice sentences from his fifth manifesto (a nice curatorial choice) the work would have been totally baffling. Every ten minutes, two tubes… well, dance. All very interesting, but what of it? The words of Metzger must be turned to, in particular his notions regarding random activity. Art, he says, is the “drawing of belief”, whilst random activity “escalates an extension of accepted (unproductive) concepts of art, nature and society”. The presentation of activity with the minimal amount of interruption by the artist is “belief at its maximum’. So random activity allows the work to take on a new state, to reach a particular “transcendence…which the artist could not achieve except through random activity”. A perfectly logical explanation to the seeming chaos of the work.
Metzger’s work is exciting and inspiring. His works combined with his words force you to think about the implications of technology, the effect of machines and the social responsibility of the artist. What is interesting is that he uses this problematic technology in his art, and in so doing creates things which are profoundly beautiful. It’s a pity that the exhibition is so small, but it leaves you with that delicious feeling of wanting more.
Gustav Metzger: Lift Off continues at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge until 31 August 2014.
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.
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.
When you hear the word ‘architecture’, your mind probably conjures images of the shapes of buildings, their facades, interiors, materials and ornament. But hopefully it will also lead you to consider feelings, to think about light, scent, texture, comfort, space, and everything else that is architecture in addition to its aesthetic. This is the principle of the Royal Academy’s recently opened exhibition Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined, and is one that everyone should be urged to consider.
The RA has devoted the grand spaces of its main galleries to architectural installations created by 7 architects. Those chosen to exhibit stretched to every corner of the globe, from Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Japan, Ireland and Portugal. It is refreshing to visit n exhibition turning away from the ‘big dogs’ that tend to dominate the British architecture scene. In a setting in which the art lover is so accustomed to just looking, you are now invited to touch, smell, spin, sit, wander, at any pace you choose, and absorb your surroundings.
This time, there is no designated route by which to visit each room. As I entered, however, it was hard to miss the enormous wooden structure designed by the Chilean couple Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen. Its bold geometry contrasts starkly with the classical interior of the gallery itself in an exciting and arresting way. A little investigation will lead you to the foot of four spiral staircases – choose any one and it will take you to a raised platform. Looking out from the top of this edifice offers a novel and interesting perspective on the space, highlighting the design and ornamentation of the gallery ceiling that you may have never noticed, or certainly will have never seen this close. The installation is enjoyable to explore, and for me its success lies not in creating a space for you to sense but a platform upon which to sense the exhibition space itself.
Next I found myself transported by the all-surrounding work of Chinese architect Li Xiaodong who creates walls of hazel twigs assembled in a fun but sometimes disorienting maze. The two installations designed by the Grafton Architects from Ireland also totally dominate and transform the spaces they are in, creating fantastic effects by playing with straight lined designs and the interception and transportation of light.
Scent constitutes an important part of place, experience and memory and this is addressed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. He has devised two dark rooms in which stand floor-lit lattices of thin bamboo sticks omitting scents that vividly recall his childhood. The final installation is enjoyable and the smell is certainly pleasant, however I found the exploration of scent and memory perhaps a little too obvious in this instance and found myself craving another layer of meaning. In these rooms the viewer must also walk around the sticks which are placed in the centre in an arrangement which confuses the idea of the exhibition a little – the construction operates less as a creation of architectural space and more as a sculpture or piece of installation art. Perhaps this was a deliberate intention to explore the line between architecture and sculpture.
The Architect Diébédo Francis Kéré has created a bright and fun tunnel made of honeycomb lattices, very enjoyable to wander through and with the addition of reclining chairs that allow you to stop and consider the space from a different perspective. Kéré, coming originally from a remote village in Burkina Faso, is interested in community and creating architecture that everyone can contribute to and feel part of. He emphasises this in the exhibition by leaving a box of bright coloured plastic straws and inviting visitors to interact with the installation by adding one or two to the lattice. The experience reminded me of contributing a twig or two to a forest stick house (to which any child of the countryside might be able to relate). Kéré’s ideas are engaging and thought-provoking but perhaps more could have been done to add to the visitor experience in this instance.
The exhibition concludes with a video that introduces the figures of the exhibition and runs through a series of their meditations on architecture with a backdrop of film of their work outside of Sensing Spaces (it is a great feature of the exhibition that the installations are accompanied by very basic labels and fantastically little supplementary information that could get in the way of your physical and personal exploration of the spaces) . The video provokes some interesting thoughts on the subject of our environment, as well as demonstrating that the architects featured are indeed exceptional, and have created some of the greatest and most interesting buildings of today.
Sensing Spaces is n innovative and exciting exhibition, though I have to say I was a little disappointed. I think I visited in the hope of being swept away into other dimensions but I was always conscious of being in the gallery. Perhaps this was in part the point of the show – to explore architecture within architecture. The most fantastic element for me was that each visitor is able to respond differently to the spaces; you can wander them alone and reflect on how your environment makes you feel, or use them as a platform for discussion with others. This exhibition explores something I have not encountered in a gallery before, and if it is encouraging people to think more broadly about architecture and experience then it is a great success.
Throughout art history, the body has been manipulated, idealized and explored by artists. There is a fascination as to the way it works, how one unified form can come in so many shapes, both beautiful and ugly. I found I was no stranger to this fascination after going to see the latest exhibition to open at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, which combines a range of artist’s studies of the human form. The exhibition’s focal inspiration is the story of Pygmalion from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the tale of an artist whosculpted a woman in ivory who was so beautiful that he fell in love with her and asked Venus to breathe life into the work.
This story opens up complicated ideas about the relationship between the artist and their work and the exhibition brilliantly elaborates on this idea. Can an artist create something so perfect that we mistake it for reality? Should art depict total reality, or seek to rise above human imperfection? Portrayals of the body are used to remember, study and document the delicate and complex way our forms work. For this particular exhibition, although the area where it is held is small, the arrangement of space, and progression of works means the viewer is taken through the narrative of the body. Traditionally, the creation of the “ideal” body was seen as one of the highest achievements an artist can strive for and much of the art of Classical and Renaissance Periods sought to show the strength, agility and idealized perfection of the body. Indeed, the show’s earliest work by Durer is a print of the strong, overly muscled Hercules.
While these versions of perfection are of course beautiful, I found that the most striking and interesting study of the body was when the artist made no effort to hide the flaws of their subject. We see idealized Venues and luminous nudes in so much of the art of Western culture, but as you wandered through the history of the exhibition, the focus moves away from this archetypal form to real studies of blemished body. Perhaps the reasons this exhibition inspires such interest is the fact that it does not simply use the beauty from the Pygmalion story, but gives us, who are indeed imperfect bodies, a relatable experience. This is why the piece I found most striking from the exhibition, and I encourage you to look out for it, if you happen to visit, is Freud’s Woman with an Arm Tattoo, the latest work in the collection.
This image, drawn in black ink, is pretty hideous. There is no effort to flatter the sitter, with her bulging arms and way her hand is almost lost in her greasy hair in her despairing pose. She is no beauty. But the drawing is so unusual that I found it led me to question the traditional way I have regarded the body in art before.
The exhibition also includes works from Ford Maddox Brown, Francis Bacon, Gillian Wearing and a variety of others and each present new and dynamic ideas. It is running until the 31st April and I would highly recommend you pop in and have a wander around if you get the chance.
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.
End of the World films have now become synonymous with the
Big Budget mania of Hollywood. The recent Brad Pitt film ‘World War Z‘ is perhaps a good example of this. Plenty of fighting, a good looking protagonist,and lots of money to spend on special effects. So I must confess a certain degree of scepticism before watching Tarkovksy’s ‘The Sacrifice’. The brief synopsis on the DVD packet promised a similar template to the Apocalyptic films that I know and have never loved. The premise was simple: World War III is approaching, and Alexander, a retired actor, will do anything and everything he can to regain peace.
Now, in the film, War never actually breaks out. But it looms,
and when the threat is most apparent everything turns black and white. The boundaries between reality and perception are constantly blurred. It is crucially in Alexander’s dream that he finds the solution to ceasing the threat of nuclear warfare. We are never sure if his actions actually took place. But the moral necessity of his sacrifice remains.
Alexander promises that he will give up everything if the
war stops. And so when it does, he must bear the consequences of his promise. He sets fire to his house. As we watch the structure burn, so we see his sanity collapse, teetering on the edge of madness like the chairs he has arranged to construct the pyre. Hysteria and silence run side by side in the film. In many ways Tarkovsky polarises gender, using long takes for the men who examine philosophy and semiotics, whilst the women are presented as irrational and wild. One is called a witch, another suffers from hysteria. Alexander’s mute child, known as ‘Little Man’, is unnervingly still. His only line is the final line of the whole film, an utterance of the opening of St John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was the word”. Language is questioned throughout the film in his continual silence but in that line we have hope that the world does have the possibility of another beginning.
Through the material purge of Alexander we can hope for a new simplicity. The world will not be transformed into a black and white one of war, but one where Alexander’s Japanese tree will finally blossom.
‘Offret’, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986, Swedish Language
On the day I left for my gap year trip with Art History Abroad, I felt terrified. I cried while I sat in the terminal, waiting to board my flight. I was on my way to Italy, and for the first time in my life, I was on my own.
I had been accepted to UC Berkeley for the spring semester, rather than the fall, when my sister and all my friends would be starting. Gap years are common in Europe, but not many American students take one. I was worried. What would I be missing? Would I feel left behind?
As soon as I arrived in Italy, however, I knew that my time there would give me just as much as a semester of college, if not more. My gap year course was my first chance to see the world as an adult. It would teach me to make friends with people from across the world, to take care of myself, and to discover new passions. Every day felt like an adventure, as we ate, laughed, and learned our way through a dozen Italian cities, and I felt more independent and excited than I ever did in high school. I learned how to take risks: to get lost in the alleys of Venice, to dance in a nightclub, to sit in front of a monument or a sculpture and try to sketch it, despite the belief that I had absolutely no artistic ability.
I think it’s exciting that more American students are now taking gap years. College has been challenging and exhilarating, but I know that my experience with AHA is the reason I’m getting so much out of it. On the trip, I began to discover a new, independent identity—an identity I continue to explore in college. When I started at Berkeley, I already knew how to take care of myself and how to challenge myself with new experiences. My Italian journey is the reason I’ve been able to make so many friends in college, and it’s the reason I’m studying Urban Design. I’ve found the perfect niche in a place I never expected to feel so comfortable. I’ll remember my trip as not only one of the most exciting experiences of my life, but as one that helped me learn who I am and what I can do.
For more thoughts on taking a Gap Year and its benefits, see this article by founder of the AGA (American Gap Association) Ethan Knight.