If ever a city was primed for the stereotypical ‘city break’, it was Seville. Packed with a perfect cocktail of culture, sun (essential), and great food, it is walk-able, explore-able and exudes a warm comfort and curiosity from its sandy Moorish architecture. From a couple of visits, here is a haphazard checklist of what to do, see, taste and take note of in 24 hours in the city…
1. Don’t go in summer
The hardest thing to organise about a trip to Seville the temperature. Believe it or not, summer is ‘low season’. If you manage to get sunburnt in Cornwall (as I do) – don’t attempt to disprove this. September through to April is prime time to visit – when I visited in January, it was 23 degrees Celsius.
2. Don’t take a map
Seville’s winding medieval streets are sights in themselves. Be ready to get lost – you will stumble across a multitude of squares and churches that are all the more beautiful in the surprise of discovering them.
3. Visit the Cathedral and Palace
Dead centre in the main square lies the famed Seville cathedral. It is huge and majestic, containing an eclectic mix of art and Christopher Columbus’ tomb amongst other wonders. Built mostly in the fifteenth century atop the twelfth-century Almohad mosque, the mosque’s minaret (the Giralda) still towers beside it. Climb the bell tower for stunning views of the river, the neighbouring palace and the cathedral’s Gaudi-esque roof. The Moorish fortified palace, adapted by later Christian kings, is an impressive building in itself, but explore the plush and peaceful gardens, which really steal the show.
4. Try Sangria and tapas
If you’re looking for tapas, just south of the cathedral is Casablanca – apparently a favourite of the King and Queen of Spain. Be brave and ask for a selection of the best traditional favourites. Seville’s streets come alive at night. Wander through the bustle and grab some sangria (there is a winter variety) from one of the bars tucked away in corners between tottering layered apartments.
5. Look out for festivals
Wandering around in January we came across celebrations for the three kings. This included music in the main square, and a parade of huge cars decorated as an assortment of ships, clouds, and fantastical shapes gliding through town with children throwing sweets from the roofs. Read up beforehand and explore at night, and you may find yourself caught up in similarly unexpected festivities.
6. Explore by bike
Seville’s equivalent of Boris bikes are available to rent and allow you to whiz round the more remote locations. The mammoth terracotta Plaza de Espana was built for the Ibero-American exposition in 1929. Intricate towers and balconies shield a tiled stream with small bridges leaping over it. Rent tiny wooden bucket-y boats and race around the square at sunset, when music starts playing out of the adjoining park as well.
7. Fit in a long stroll by the river
Lining the banks of the Guadalquivir are famed orange trees (don’t try them – they’re marmalade oranges and give a new meaning to the word ‘sour’), and an explosive wall of street art. Better than any indoor gallery, they’re packed with colour, references to a multitude of artists (including some brilliant Picasso imitations) and creative panache.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In preparation for a paper I am taking this term on Romanesque Art and Architecture, I travelled up to Durham for a weekend to see some of the finest surviving examples of Norman architecture in Britain.
We started at the castle, now an amalgam of architectural styles due to years of modifications and extensions. It is now the home of students of University College – a very grand setting for student digs! Beneath the castle is a Norman chamber – most likely a chapel (though this is debated). The quirky capitals feature animals, plants, figures, and vignettes from stories such as the story of St Eustace. Eustace was a Roman general, who whilst hunting a stag in a forest, saw a vision of the crucifix between the animal’s antlers, and instantly converted to Christianity. By alluding to this story in the chapel, whoever built it was sending a message to the laity that Christianity was accessible, and paradise was within reach of all who believed in Christ.
The nearby cathedral is a spectacular feat of Medieval engineering. It is a hugely impressive space, with ornate decoration and some of the first rib vaulting in Europe. Principally it was built to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, whose body was brought from Lindisfarne, a holy island attached to the coast of Northumberland by a causeway, and cut off at high tide. The Cathedral also houses the tomb of the Venerable Bede, a doctor of the Roman Catholic church and a hugely important early theological historian.
The cathedral is of great artistic importance as the earliest surviving example of stone vaulting on such a large scale. The development of the stone vault can be seen within the architectural scheme itself, from the semi-circular arches, to the pointed arches which allowed stonemasons to build higher, spreading the weight and strain of the stone more efficiently.
Some of the marble used for the columns is beautifully patterned with ancient corals. These scattered fossils incased within the stone pre-date the dinosaurs! Also worth noting are the beautiful stained glass windows throughout the cathedral – some contemporary interpretations of Biblical narrative, others stunning Medieval stories. A window close to the great entrance commemorates the night Durham was saved from bombings during the Second World War. Hitler had planned on destroying much of Durham during a large attack on the north of England, but that night a grey mist descended and shrouded the city, preventing the bombs from dropping.
Our final view of Durham comprised of a long walk along the river bank opposite the cathedral on a chilly but beautifully sunny Sunday morning. The path gave a spectacular view of the cathedral on the edge of the hill, silhouetted against the bright blue skyline, and emphasized the achievements of 12th-century builders in such a grand feat of engineering.
To anyone who hasn’t been, Durham is definitely worth a visit – its a lovely town of winding passages, cobbled hills and bridges, as well as stunning historic architecture and examples of medieval art, stonework, stained glass and manuscripts.
Images courtesy of http://www.durhamworldheritagesite.com/ and http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk
Today we have become so used to the unadulterated mocking of politicians, that direct insults and impersonations are unabashed and abundant. What we find less and less is fantastical caricature and unreal analogy. Daumier’s notorious political satire – currently on display at the Royal Academy – offers a soaring vision of the origins of satirical portraiture, through his uncompromising caricatures of the political elite and bourgeoisie.
Daumier chronicled every day life in nineteenth century Paris with shameless precision – pushing every grimy detail into the spectator’s view. The stars of his portraits come from the margins of society: laundresses, street entertainers, farm workers. He reduced Paris from its dreamy, stony architectural grandeur to its viscous, sordid streets. Working from memory, his figures are harrowingly blurred and distorted – with warm pastels overrun with ribbon-like outlines.
An unexpected idiosyncrasy is Daumier’s brilliant skill in portraying contemplation, and isolation. Amidst the bustle of city scenes there are voids – blank windows, shadows or walls – which bring out the paradoxical solitariness of city life. Lone figures are common: at the end of the exhibition, there is a peaceful portrayal of artistic beginnings, with light streaming through a window onto a canvas to suggest creative potential (‘The Artist Facing his Work’, 1860-63).
The political elite, by contrast, were satirised in a fantastical, grotesque world; mimicking their own misunderstanding of the reality they presided over. Daumier’s process began with cartoonish sculptures in seedy tertiary colours, from which is modelled his distorted figurines. He aimed for high-profile targets; his lithographs moving with all the violence and changeable nature of politics at the time. Monarchy is detailed as a corpse in a coffin, with the sarcastic caption ‘Meanwhile, they keep insisting she has never been better.’ (1872). By the 1870s his satire was intense, powerful and prescient: censorship laws had by now relaxed with the fall of authoritarian rule.
Faces are gaunt – with pale pink flesh cut under black bone structures. Appalling realities such as cholera epidemics are analogized to fairytale figures. Raw violence is shown in gaunt form. ‘Madame is moving, transferring from the cemeteries. Hurray! The dead are going fast!’ (1867) is an instance of the recurring theme of mortality towards the end of Daumier’s life. Rejected by the censor three times, it is Tim-Burton-esque, correlating the death (the Grim Reaper) with industry (a steam engine) and military armament.
Daumier separates these two sides of Paris – the laughable and the horribly real – but meshes the mediums and styles in ‘Ecce Homo’ (1849-1852). Daumier was opposed to religion, and though this scene is biblical, it is more a general depiction of protest than an outright illustration of the moment Jesus is condemned to crucifixion. It offers a traditional way of demonstrating the easy manipulation of crowds. Though unfinished, its size is exceptional, its movement animated but skeletal.
The editor Pierre Véron commented ‘I could never understand how Daumier, so assertive, so revolutionary when holding a pencil could be so shy in everyday life.’ Perhaps he made up for a reclusive personality with an inimitable intensity in his art and its message. He refused to pursue more lucrative mediums such as portraiture, landscape and book illustration, but the truth and skill in his work inspired artists from Picasso to Francis Bacon and Quentin Blake. Daumier thrived on his political indignation. His visions of Paris are – whether fantastical or deleteriously real – as truthful and moving a portrait of an era as can be found.
‘Daumier: Visions of Paris, 1808-1879’ is on at the Royal Academy until 26th January 2014. For more details, visit http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/daumier/.
On 19 January, it would have been Paul Cézanne’s 175th birthday. The Post-Impressionist painter bridged the gap between 19th century Impressionism and 20th century Cubism, and his inimitably idiosyncratic style is still a source of inspiration today. The portraits, landscapes and still-lifes that dominate his repertoire are iconic – prized by famous museums the world over. In celebration of a matchless artist, here is a concentrated retrospective of his life and work…
Cézanne’s life forever had a backdrop of culture and wealth: he absorbed the influences of Courbet and Manet in his early years; was friends with Emile Zola from childhood (breaking promptly when Zola based an unflattering character on him in the 1880s); and had a strong bond (eventually a collaborative relationship) with Camille Pissarro. His father was a successful banker, affording him a financial security most artists of his time did not receive. (His father’s imposing portrait was one of his earliest works, painted in 1865.)
His early years in Paris (1861-1870) were characterised by murky colours and domineering black – garnering the epithet the ‘dark period’. Cézanne’s work was violently expressive – depicting murder and rape – and he experimented with the use of a palette knife to paint (he later disparaged this technique, telling Renoir it took him twenty years to realise painting was not sculpture). Cézanne started with an edge of Caravaggio’s gloomy shading, as seen in Portrait of Uncle Dominique, (1865–1867).
An Impressionist stage followed (1870-1878), during which he flitted between Provence and Paris. Under Pissarro’s influence he abandoned darker hues, shifting to light and airy landscapes. A mature period in Provence (1878-1890), comfortably continued this, encompassing his renowned paintings of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, a mountain in southern France overlooking Aix-en-Provence.
Cézanne created some of his most iconic works in his twilight years (1890-1905), including The Card Players (1892)and Les Grandes Baigneuses (1898-1905). Deceptively simple paintings conceal a myriad of subtle shading – but his shapes and colours aren’t realistically detailed. Cézanne used heavy hues, creases and shades to emphasise the contours he found so appealing – giving his ‘impression’ of an object, not the veritable image. He once said ‘painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realising one’s sensations.’ He simplified natural forms to their geometric fundamentals, giving an architectural structure to the nature he portrayed. What you see is not the exact picture, but Cézanne’s feelings – he painted a weighty, thick surface over reality, giving us his ethereal sensation instead.
As his life became onset with troubles, recognition of mortality crept into his work. A devout Roman Catholic, his faith drew forward in his work as his age slowly got the better of him. He had commented previously : ‘When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.’
Cézanne once said ‘We live in a rainbow of chaos’. He incomparably captured that confusion and beauty, so present in nature, and inspired the colourful works of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, to name but a couple. In a way, his artistic trajectory is cyclical, mirroring life as he experienced it – confused angst and darkness moving into light, and returning to shades of mortality in his final years. His innovation in art is now timeless. Cézanne paved the way for ground-breaking art – allowing future artists to be fearless in bucking trends. His unique visual contribution to history of art just outmatches the attitudes he shaped towards it, which allowed so many after him to try to be different.
With thanks to Wikipedia, the Courtauld Institute and the National Gallery for photos.
The twenty-first century has been heralded as the century of the East. Asia is rising exponentially on the global stage, while Western dominance is undeniably waning. The star of this exotic movement is China. Impossible to pin down and infinitely mysterious, growing interest in China is currently evident in the V&A’s exhibition, ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900’.
From tiny intimate works by monks, to huge 14-foot scrolls by the literati, the exhibition charts the evolution of style and subject in Chinese art over a 1200-year period – with many paintings never seen before in the UK. Videos show the artistic process of painting on silk; and in the dark exhibition rooms, pale-lit scrolls are eerily luminous. Chinese paintings were not made for permanent display (with the exception of murals), but were treasured possessions, often stored away in boxes to be observed for set special periods. Subjects are portrayed on scrolls, banners and fans – all very tangible objects that act as alternative canvases.
The display starts with painting for religious purposes in the Tang and Five Dynasties period (700-950). A selection of Buddhist banners and deities are adorned with intense colour; tigers with gleaming eyes prowl around monks clad in red and orange robes. Monks are cluttered with swirling clothes and excessive, ribbon-like detail while their portraits are encased in circles offering serenity. Stories are laid out on scrolls, to be read like a book, allowing subjects to develop in a way traditional Western painting does not.
With the Song Dynasty there was a quest for reality (950-1250). Gone was the exuberance of the Buddhist era: artistic impetus was now for a momentous, monochrome aesthetic – against light brown silk scrolls, scenes are painted with porcelain precision. Guo Xi, a landscape painter, commented in 1117 that ‘without leaving your room you may sit to your heart’s content among streams and valleys. The glow of the mountain and the colours of the waters will dazzle your eyes glitteringly. Could this fail to quicken your interest and thoroughly capture your heart?’ Mountains drape gracefully into lakes and streams (the Chinese word for ‘landscape’ means ‘mountain and water’), with trees tripping down the edges of cliffs. Dragons and seas are meshed, appearing in the form of smoke as charcoal-like ink is waved across silk.
Monks and scholars later embraced solitude (1250-1400), uniting calligraphy, painting and poetry in a contemplative manner. During this period, the Chinese saw poetry as painting without image; painting as wordless poetry. Art became laden with literary, philosophical and political meaning. Stark black ink on white paper became the means of expressing creative solitude. Lone blossom, trees and orchids symbolised endurance and regret of the lost past.
Stability and prosperity during the Ming Dynasty led to an enthusiastic artistic explosion (1400-1600). Paintings became status symbols; with romanticism and decoration taking over, and instances of portraiture rising. Roosters were portrayed as elaborate birds of paradise, flowers enlarged and women’s gowns elaborated. From 1600-1900, art challenged the past and increasingly looked to the West; artistic rivalry festered, and the slow seeping of European influence into China took effect on painting too. Jesuit missionaries introduced western styles in the late 16th century, importing greater linear perspective, realism in portraits and chiaroscuro.
Much of the art in the exhibition is anonymous. This groups the pieces, giving them a unified national identity that dominates over its artistic identity. Though the painting is beautiful, it is overrun by the study of China. Though not necessarily a negative, this makes it less an exhibition of art, and more a study of history and a nation. Interesting nonetheless, but possibly not what the artists would have wanted.
‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting, 700-1900’ runs at the V&A until 19th January 2014. For more information visit http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/masterpieces-of-chinese-painting/.
Art History Abroad are running a Dilettante Lecture, lunch and Exhibition day on Thursday 16th January for which there are a few places left. Click here or contact Charlie Winton at charlie@arthistoryabroad for more details or to sign up.
That Nelson Mandela’s influence is so pervasive is evident not just in the way he changed South Africa. Beyond that isolated period of history, it spreads from Hollywood, through galleries and music, to the streets of Johannesburg. From Clint Eastwood’s soaring film ‘Invictus’ to the eminence Mandela gave Henley’s poem by reciting its mantra of self-mastery to fellow prisoners on Robben Island, the strength of his values have gained extensive prominence in the creative arts.
His death is quite obviously a painful loss. The world has lost a statesman valued internationally for his humility and inescapable relevance to justice and freedom, and South Africa has lost its most beloved son. But the blow of his absence is softened by the fact that he was already an icon. The morals he represented transformed him into a symbol of kindness, modesty, forgiveness and reconciliation. The views he propagated have an unbeatable international following that will inevitably continue. Refusing to be classed by any label thrown upon him – be it as a criminal, judged by race or nationality – he became a universal icon in every sense of the phrase.
Street art blends Mandela into the very construction and bustling, heaving life of South Africa; it shows the history of the country not through architecture, but through urban mural. His image spreads from the streets of South Africa to squares on London; outside Parliament he serves as a constant reminder to the inevitability of defeat unjust government must face.
At a time when the ANC and Mandela were taboo in South African media, songs inspired by South African music spread worldwide. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ remains the epitome of exploitation of popular music for powerful political purposes. The very act of singing when mere mention of his name was banned, was itself a peaceful, delighted expression of opposition to persecution and solidarity with divided South Africans.
Photographs of him capture the reality of his fight and act as proof of his message. In the National Portrait Gallery, photographs of a young man reasoning and challenging can be found from 1962; of an elderly statesman ever-conscious and proactive from 1997.
Mandela has been, and remains, an intense creative symbol because the life he lived was so vibrant, poignant and real. Almost uniquely, the fact that this symbolism is backed up by reality strengthens the message in a way no myth or legend could, and thus ensures its enduring popularity among the creative. Mandela symbolised freedom and equality – but proved their worth by living his life for them, rather than asserting their value by analogy.
With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, Wikipedia and ADN for pictures.
There is hardly an abundance of Polish art on display in Britain. The vast majority of the population will never have seen Polish art at all. But interest is growing, in correlation with a cultural spring taking place in the Polish art world.
Poland is by no means lacking in renowned cultural figures – it has produced Joseph Conrad, Frederic Chopin, and has won four Nobel Prizes for Literature in the past 110 years. Henryk Stażewski (1894-1988) was a pioneer of the classical avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s and co-creator of the Geometric Abstract movement. But between the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, there was somewhat of a cultural freeze.
The suppression of culture that went hand-in-hand with Communism stifled art in Central Eastern Europe in the twentieth century. Destruction of historical culture was perpetrated by all sides during the Second World War, and continued long afterwards with totalitarian regimes. This is now provoking an embrace of modernity in the Central Eastern European art world – perhaps to be considered a search for, or rebuilding of, an attention-grabbing artistic identity.
At the Venice Biennale this year, Polish artist Pawel Althamer displayed in the Arsenale. His installation Venetians was met with critical acclaim. The 90 ghoulish figures were composed of plaster casts (of the faces and hands of locals) and strips of plastic – draped over rough scaffolding supports to create a sinuous, muscle-like effect. Such work from a little-known artist exposed the dark imagination thriving beneath the surface of the glossy modern art world, often saturated with celebrity. Wojciech Fangor, Szymon Urbanski, Andrzej Cisowski and Andrzej Jackowski are other talented individuals.
Pawel Althamer with preview work
Wilhelm Sasnal’s work typically sells for several hundred thousand dollars, after being discovered by Saatchi. His work reflects Poland’s Communist history in a hazy memory. His piece Soldiers is mimics modern pop culture more than conflict. The Saatchi Gallery describes them as ‘reduced to a kitsch logo: war, oppression, and authority are reconstituted as youth culture communismo-chic.’ His work Factory is painted from a famous propaganda image, but swaps glorified labour for a hardened, grey, uniform reality.
One reason for the flourishing culture is a revival of the Polish art market. Acclaimed artist Anna Szprynger commented: ‘the trouble is after so many years of dictatorship that there is no tradition of an art market in Poland. People respect you if you’re an artist, but they expect you to lead the existence of a starving pauper and they don’t tend to buy the art.’ The modern art scene has been free from Communism for nearly 25 years, but it is restricted by poor financial support. Mentalities are changing, however. Disposable income is rising rapidly, and consequently the art market is now growing at around 20-30% a year. Skate’s, a New-York-based arts market research company, recently estimated the country’s “innovative and quickly growing art market” at an annual worth of £66m.
Recently there was a speedy 4-day exhibition called ‘Polish Art Now’ at the Saatchi Gallery – a mélange of highlights from the past 50 years and up-and-coming names. The force behind this project was Abbey House. Based in Warsaw, the auction house has devised a scheme whereby unknown artists are contracted for a 5-year period and given a permanent wage, in return for the auction house having exclusive rights to sell their work: amalgamating financial security with publicity and growth.
Many have denounced Abbey House’s work: they argue it hikes the price of the artists’ work to extremes, distorting the market. But is this too large a cost, when the house gives many new artists an environment in which to improve and create? The prices may be marginally artificial, but they facilitate thriving culture. They allow artists to become self-sufficient, and in turn encourage more to take up the profession.
Government funding for the arts is increasingly scarce and insecure. This may encourage the treatment of art as a commodity – something to be priced, and a market to be manipulated – but if this allows art to grow when public subsidy is dwindling, is it detrimental to the nature of the product?
The prosperous trajectory of Polish art is worth this cost. Hopefully, the nationality will ultimately drop from the label entirely. Art should be appreciated regardless of its origin, and technique and meaning should be the focuses. With Warsaw overtaking Berlin as Europe’s artistic hub, however, an influx of Polish art is on the horizon.
With thanks to the Daily Telegraph, the Muzeum Sztuki, Deutsche + Guggenheim, theartnewspaper.com, it.phaidon.com, the Tate Modern and the Saatchi Gallery for photos.
When posters started popping up on the Tube for an exhibition of LS Lowry’s work, I was initially (and ignorantly) sceptical. I had only seen the work of this oft-derided artist on superfluous memorabilia, with his little matchstick men making a pretty background for various tea towels and notebooks. So I wandered through the Tate Britain with mild, unconvinced curiosity…
But LS Lowry is one of those artists that come to define the era they work in. To visit this exhibition is to be transported back to aftermath of the Industrial Revolution – from its noisy beginnings to polluted wane.
Though Lowry’s style is often mocked as cartoonish, the exhibition is serious and solemn. Similar work by (mainly French) contemporaries is displayed: York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester (1913), by Adolphe Valette, shows lights of perpetual industrialisation glowing in gloomy darkness; works by Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro and Maurice Utrillo further encapsulate the feeling of the period.
Lowry enjoyed an affluent childhood, but his family experienced a distinct drop in social standing resulting in a move to the industrial suburb of Pendlebury. His reaction to his surroundings went from loathing to obsession. A solid Lancashire Conservative, his paintings are emotionally distant – perhaps reflecting discomfort with his ambiguous social class. Unique works stand out as offering some personal insight: pencil sketches with anomalous realism; and The Sea (1963) which, though not in the exhibition, is peaceful and organic in contrast to the man-made starkness of his typical landscapes.
But if Lowry’s paintings do not give a picture of the individual, they give a scenic view of society at the time. He said: ‘I have a one-track mind. I only deal with poverty. Always with gloom.’ Emotional remoteness makes his style an absolute political commentary. One review in 1928 called his work a ‘moral essay’. He shows the power of industrialisation when it has a shot at morphing society to suit its development. Cities are depicted where industry steadily crawls over culture – foundries, cotton mills, glass works all abut slabs of terraced housing, which increasingly resemble the blocks of the factories themselves.
Lowry shows the operatic clash between industrialisation’s frantic chaos and the steady British calm: he is at once humorous and bleak, affectionate and despairing. Paintings of churches – such as Saint Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury (1924) – show imposing, Gothic structures masked by industry’s black smoke and dwarfed by factories’ towers, as industrial values dominate the moral: this was the age of business and social mobility. A Football Match (1949) shows the integral role the Football League played in working class life from the late 19th century, and stooped men file into the stadium as they would the mill or mine.
His idiosyncratic ‘matchstick men’ are the stars of his landscapes. He resolutely believed ‘a country landscape is fine without people, but an industrial set without people is an empty shell.’ Lithe, moribund figures are actors on the stage of industrialisation. Clothed in gloomy drapes and caps, they walk with a slanting, tired intent, staring downwards as new constructions tower over them. Emotion is near-impossible to interpret, but Lowry admitted ‘they are symbols of my mood, they are myself. Natural figures would have broken the spell of my vision, so I made them half unreal.’
The cold blankness of his subjects is reserved, but his paintings still communicate with the visitor. The Industrial Revolution is a static, intense period of our history – one we could never recreate. But Lowry’s work, though not melodramatic, conveys the period’s traditional, brusque nature. There is no warmth to be found when a tidal wave of industrial values is sweeping the nation: experiencing at once society decaying and industry thriving.
In later years he became more cartoonish – capturing the pop of post-war decades. Fun Fair at Daisy Nook (1953) crackles with a staccato of atypical colour, and Piccadilly Circus, London (1960) blares the perpetual Coca-Cola logo, meshing the start of Americanisation in post-war Britain with Lowry’s recognisable industrialisation.
The grand finale of the exhibit is a series of five stunning panoramas, painted between 1950 and 1955 – the first time all have been united in one place. None are based on one location, but rather are amalgamated fragments of Lowry’s memory and imagination. This isn’t the history of one place, but the backdrop of all society. With soaring, stretching perspective they compound waste ground on bustling streets and industrious factories. Britain was an ordered wilderness of a society, thrown by the new industry thrust upon it.
Lowry’s retrospective imparts not only artistic spectacle, but an enlightening economic and social commentary. He was fascinated by the ‘battle of life’ and urban fabric. His vivid picture of the Industrial Revolution is an important part of our heritage that should not be neglected. No other artist faced the social change so persistently and characteristically. Though he polarises sentiments, even within a single painting, the intangible absence in his art is unique to experience. He interpreted the change that swept over the nation in a way photographs cannot: realism threaded with eerie confusion as to how this laborious volte invaded Britain.
With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC, the Guardian, culture24.org.uk and thedabbler.co.uk for photos.
Lowry captured the Industrial Revolution in art, whilst others – most notably George Orwell – did so in other mediums. Boldly printed in the Tate’s rooms is this extract from The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), by Orwell. It describes the bleak, frigid, apocalyptic environment Lowry painted:
‘I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag heaps and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag heaps in the distance, stretched the “flashes” – pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits. It was horribly cold. The “flashes” were covered with the ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore tears of ice. It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.’