Thursday, 17 May 2018

Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship. English Artist Designers 1922-1942. Compton Verney Art Gallery & Park, Warwickshire (17 March-10 June 2018)

Top:  The Westbury Horse, Eric Ravilious (1939)
Bottom: Barrage Balloons at Sea, Eric Ravilious (1940)

Despite being widely considered as one of the best British watercolourists of the 20th century and the most significant wood engraver of his generation, I suspect that the name Eric Ravilious is still not widely known outside of the UK, or for that fact, within it either.  I have to confess that my knowledge about him and his peers was very limited, so I was much looking forward to finding out more in this exhibition.  Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) was an English painter, designer, book illustrator and wood engraver, most known for his watercolours of the South Downs and other English landscapes which had a modernist sensibility.  He grew up in East Sussex and studied at the Royal College of Art in London, where between 1924-1925 he was taught by renowned British surrealist painter and First World War artist, Paul Nash, who had a profound influence on his work.  Ravilious also served as a war artist in the Second World War and died when the aircraft he was in was lost off Iceland in 1942.

Top:  Sussex Church, Eric Ravilious (1924)
Bottom: Island, Eric Ravilious (1935)

This charming exhibition shines a light on a fascinating (and somewhat overlooked) period in 20th century British art and considers the professional and personal relationships of Ravilious and his group of artist-designer friends (which included Barnett Freedman, Edward Bawden and Douglas Percy Bliss), from their first meeting at the Royal College of Art in 1922, through to the outbreak of the Second World War.  It examines their relationship with modernism and how they revitalised British design in the 1930s.

Top: Spring, Tirzah Garwood (1926)
Bottom: Summer, Tirzah Garwood (1927)

“Ravilious & Co” also casts a new light on the creativity of the women within the friendship group and includes newly discovered work by Ravilious’ wife, Tirzah Garwood, along with watercolours, engravings and illustrations by Helen Binyon, the artist’s mistress and confidente.  It also includes never before exhibited early wood engravings by Enid Marx (who went on to design iconic textiles for the London Transport Board and who was the first female engraver to be designated as a Royal Designer for Industry), as well as a range of fabric, textile and wallpaper designs by Diana Low and Peggy Angus, two other important contributors within the group.

Top: Barcombe Mill Interior, Tirzah Garwood (1927)
Bottom: Helen Binyon and Eric Ravilious at Furlongs, Peggy Angus (c. 1940)

I am a huge fan of woodcut printing, so just to see such exquisite examples by Ravilious, Garwood and Marx was a treat by itself.  But to learn more about this period of British art was also very enlightening.  Despite the impact these artists had on British design, within art history narratives they are almost a lost artistic generation, sandwiched in history as they were between their Bloomsbury and Vorticist predecessors and then figurative painters such as Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, who dominated the art scene following the Second World War.  It is perhaps for two reasons that this has happened.  In mainly capturing everyday scenes and details from English life, the work of Ravilious and his peers could be seen as too genteel and provincial compared to their more avant-garde modernist predecessors and emotionally devoid when compared to Auerbach & Co.  I suspect though that it was the very successes that they achieved in design and that they earnt their living through commercial endeavours rather than by private commissions and exhibiting in galleries, which has ultimately relegated them within art history hierarchies.

Top and Middle: Design for upholstery for London Transport, Enid Marx (c. 1940)
Bottom: 'Travel' pattern for Wedgwood dinner service, Eric Ravilious (c. 1938)

“Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship.  English Artist Designers 1922-1942” considers these possibilities with a comprehensive and absorbing display of work by a group of artists whose practice was indeed formed by modernism, but who chose a discipline which ultimately embraced the decorative over the avant-garde.

Tirzah Garwood and Eric Ravilious painting a mural at the 
Midland Hotel, Morecambe (1930)

Saturday, 31 March 2018

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life. Tate Britain, London (28 February-27 August 2018)

Installation view:  Reverse (2002-2003), Jenny Saville 

Unsurprisingly for an exhibition about life painting, there is a lot of emotional angst, anguish and naked flesh (both male and female) on display in Tate Britain’s “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life”.  Covering over a century of art making, along with Bacon and Freud, this exhibition also includes a stellar supporting cast of artists, such as Walter Sickert, Frank Auerbach, Euan Uglow and Jenny Saville.

Top:  Nuit d'Ete (c.1906), Walter Sickert   
Bottom: Polish Woman (c.1922), Chaim Soutine 

As well as examining how Bacon and Freud moved beyond naturalistic representation to capture ways in which they were affected by their subjects, “All Too Human” also traces the influences, relationships and connections between the ‘supporting cast’ of artists featured as well as redressing art historical gender and ethnicity imbalances, with London as a backdrop where most of the artists have lived, studied and exhibited.

Top:  Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964), Francis Bacon 
Bottom:  David and Eli  (2000-2004), Lucian Freud

The influence of Chaim Soutine on Bacon and Stanley Spencer on Freud are easily seen and there are some wonderful examples of their work in the first gallery of the exhibition.  Walter Sickert is also included here.  Sickert taught David Bomberg, who taught William Coldstream and Frank Auerbach.  Coldstream told Euan Uglow, Michael Andrews and Paula Rego at the Slade School of Fine Art, where Freud was also a tutor.  All these artists are included in the exhibition and provide a fascinating contextual and visual narrative throughout.

Bacon’s monumental, solitary and angst-ridden figures undertaken in the years following the Second World War in the second room are incredibly powerful.  Displayed on every wall and circling Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture Woman of Venice IX (1956), the intensity of the anguish rendered in every raw brushstroke is almost palpable.  Even Bacon’s animal, as well as human subjects featured, appear consumed with existentialist angst!

Clockwise: Study after Velazquez (1950), Francis Bacon ; Woman of Venice IX (1956), Alberto Giacometti;  
Study of a Baboon (1953), Francis Bacon 

Frances Bacon was nineteen years older the Lucien Freud and their individual approaches to their subjects differed dramatically.  Bacon’s models bear the artist’s inner emotional turmoil and feelings towards them, particularly in the portraits of his lover George Dyer.  Bacon's series of portraits of Freud are fascinating.  In contrast, but by no means lacking in potency, Freud’s cold analytical gaze tore out and displayed to the world the vulnerability of his sitters.

Top: Bella (1996), Lucian Freud   
Bottom: Georgia (1973), Euan Uglow 

Of all the naked flesh on display, only Freud’s naked portrait of his daughter makes uncomfortable viewing.  However, it is the clothed studies which are more characterful and offer the most interest.  Of these, Freud’s Bella (1996) and Uglow’s Georgia (1973) particularly stood out for me.  Two group compositions by Michael Andrews, Colony Room I (1962) and The Deer Park (1962), capture the artist’s group of friends in and around Soho and act as a window into a world of creative and destructive hedonism.

Top:  Reclining Figure (c.1954), Margaret Mead
Middle: Colony Room I (1962), Michael Andrews
Bottom: The Deer Park (1962), Michael Andrews

With the exception of one painting by Margaret Mead, two thirds of the exhibition are dominated by male artists, reflecting how women’s lives and stories were often overlooked in art as a historically male-dominated activity.  Thankfully, as the exhibition timeline progresses through to contemporary art practices, paintings by the formidable Paula Rego are followed by a final room of the youngest of artists featured.  All women, thes artists demonstrate not only how their practice has been influenced by their predecessors, but more importantly how this generation of  female artists investigate and challenge stereotypical views on gender, sexuality and race.  Of course, the superb Jenny Saville is featured, as is the wonderful Cecily Brown and both artist's gaze gaze and skill with brush and paint are equally as intense as Bacon's and Freud's.

 The Company of Women (1997), Paula Rego

“All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life” is big, ambitious, intense and powerful exhibition.  It demonstrates the enduring potency and possibilities in exploring the human condition within artistic practice and is a not-to-be-missed exhibition.

Top:  Teenage Wildlife (2003), Cecily Brown
Bottom: Coterie of Questions (2015), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Modigliani - Tate Modern, London. (23 November 2017 - 2 April 2018)

Self-Portrait (1919)

Fans (like myself) of Modigliani will think they have died and gone to Modigliani heaven in Tate Modern’s eleven room exhibition which continues until 2 April.  Not only do the artist’s iconic paintings and sculptures transport the audience to early twentieth century Paris, but his last studio in Montparnasse can also be experienced through a fascinating virtual reality recreation.  

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) moved to Paris in 1906 to develop his career as an artist, he was twenty-one years old.  Just fourteen years later, the artist was dead.  Years of chronic ill-health (he had suffered from reoccurring tuberculosis since childhood) had been further exasperated by alcohol and drug addiction as an adult and ultimately fuelled his tragic early demise.

Left: Portrait of Paul Guillaume (1916)  Right: Young Woman of the People (1918)

Portraiture and the female nude dominated Modigliani’s practice and breath-taking examples of these, which chart the development of his now instantly recognisable elongated stylisation, abound in this exhibition.  I have seen many of these painting reproduced in numerous books, so it was an absolute delight to see the originals.  There is a melancholy which appear to emanate from the languid poses and black-out eyes, together with the dark, rich colour palette, which I find absorbing.

Madam Zborowski on a Sofa (1919)

For a short while (between 1911-1913) Modigliani also sculpted.  He was great friends with Constantin Brancusi and Jacob Epstein, and although influences from both these maestros can be seen in Modigliani’s work, this in no way reduces the strength of his own vision.  I would have loved to see even more of this fascinated heads, but those pieces which were on display were totally exquisite.  Apparently, Modigliani’s first love was actually sculpture, but he had to abandon it  because the dust from carving aggravated his tuberculosis and also for such an impoverished artist, it was considerably more expensive to pursue than painting.

Installation View of Room 5, Tate Modern (2018)

Modigliani’s portraits included artist friends, patrons and lovers.  His nudes featured lovers too, as well as professional life models and the most successful paintings pulsate with erotic energy.  At the time they were painted, these modern nudes shocked the Parisian middle-class.  They featured in Modigliani’s only solo exhibition held in his lifetime, which was nearly shut down on the grounds of indecency.  The police commissioner involved particularly found their pubic hair offensive, as traditionally in fine art nudes were depicted hair-free.  Rather than idealised, chaste and anonymous women (depicted as symbols of females in mythology or religion for example), Modigliani painted modern women and depicted them as they really were, which to a degree challenged accepted norms of female representation.  Their personality as well as their flesh dominated the canvas.  Their faces are highlighted with cosmetics, reflecting the growing influence of female film stars and they made direct eye contact with the viewer, almost defying them to return their gaze.  L’Algérienne (1916) and Nude on a Divan (1916) are clearly the same woman.  The intensity of her gaze in both the clothed portrait and nude pose, reflect the absolutely confidence in herself and her sexuality.


Top:   L’Algérienne (1916)  Bottom:  Nude on a Divan (1916)

Of all Modigliani’s portraits and nude studies, it is those of his most regular sitter, Jeanne Hébuterne, which are the most poignant.  They met in 1917 when she was a nineteen year old art student and she soon became the artist’s muse and mistress, until his death.  Modigliani’s portraits of Jeanne show her three year accelerated maturity from a gauche teenager to a woman shaped by hightened life experiences.  They lived together in Montparnasse and already had one child when Modigliani died.  A few days later, pregnant with their second child but inconsolable in her grief, Jeanne took her own life.

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919)

The studio Jeanne and Modigliani shared together has been meticulously re-imagined in the exhibition’s virtual reality room.  Created from old photographs and first-hand accounts, this is a fascinating immersive experience, from a dog barking in the courtyard below the open window to a cigarette burning in an ashtray on the table next to your ‘seat’.  It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to feel as if you are truly sharing the same space as the artist and his tragic muse.

Still view from Modigliani VR: The Ochre Atelier, Tate Modern (2018)

During his life, Amedeo Modigliani had little professional success.  Apart from the infamous exhibition of nudes, the other other exhibition he participated in was the 1919 Salon d'Automne, in which seven of his head sculptures were displayed.  Despite his prolific output in portrait painting, few actually sold or those which did only brought in limited funds.  As is the case of many of the giants of early twentieth century modernism, Modigliani achieved greater popularity after his demise, with his colourful life story becoming immortalised in art history narratives and popular culture.  In 2015, one of those scandalous nudes sold at auction for £100 million...  Modigliani's work, however has more than stood the test of time, notoriety and Hollywood dramatisation (with some marvelous overacting by Andy Garcia).  This totally beguiling exhibition at Tate Modern definitely ranks high in my Top 10 of most eagerly anticipated and enjoyed exhibition visits.  It is a must-see for 2018. 

Top: Modigliani, Picasso and André Salmon in Paris, 1916
Bottom:  Modigliani and Jeanne in the Montparnasse studio, c.1918


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Seurat to Riley: The Art of Perception, Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire (8 July-1 October 2017)

 Corona, (1970) Peter Sedgley

Unsurprisingly, given that her name is featured in the title, Bridget Riley features strongly in Compton Verney’s Summer exhibition.  I have to confess that Riley’s eye-popping canvases have never been at the top of my favourite artworks list.  I find them two highly coloured and the effect of movement too disorientating, so to say I was expecting an exhibition focusing entirely on ‘optical art’ to be quite a challenge, is an understatement. 

The curatorial premise behind the exhibition is how artists have exploited the ways in which the eye and mind perceive what is seen, with its key themes - pattern and perception – demonstrated by works in which colours other than those painted on the canvas are generated in the eye by the viewer, and those that communicate movement by static form.  With Seurat’s nineteenth century pointillist landscapes as its starting point, leading to Bridget Riley and her fellow Op Artists of the 1960s and right through to contemporary artists including Lothar Götz’s site-specific wall painting and Liz West’s light installation, this exhibition far exceeded my initial expectations.

Left:  The Morning Walk, (1885) Georges Seurat   Right:  Abstract Multicoloured Design, (c.1915) Helen Saunders

After pulling myself away from Seurat’s exquisite “The Morning Walk” (1885), a sketch which provided the starting point for his seminal work “The Seine at Courbevoie” painted the same year, I was delighted to see “Abstract Multicoloured Design” (c.1915) by lone female British Vorticist Helen Saunders.  After some examples of geometric and kinetic art (notably Josef Albers and Victor Vasarely) and before the first full explosion of eye-popping canvases from the 1960s, a wall of preparatory sketches and works in black in white by Bridget Riley, such as “Study for Painting ‘Pause’” (1964), really took me by surprise.  The delicate balance of line, tone and illusion of movement were for me, far more engaging that her colour works.  In fact, I found many of the black and white artworks in the exhibitions much more interesting than the multi-coloured ones.

Blaze IV, (1963), Bridget Riley

Ecclesia (1985), Bridget Riley

Most exciting about this exhibition was the fact that despite its title, it was far more than just a historical survey.  As Riley is still extant (and producing art), it opened up the potential of bringing in her later works as well as more contemporary artists, whose work has been influenced by the movement and who are interested in exploring ‘optical art’ further.  Standing out amongst these were Jim Lambie’s “Sun Visor” (2014), Lothar Götz’s geometric drawings (2015-2017) and most notably Liz West’s beautifully serene light installation “Our Spectral Vision” (2016).

Exhibition View

Installation view: Lothar Götz

Despite the art galleries being split up throughout the rooms of the eighteenth century mansion house and around its other decorative galleries, and resulting in a certain amount of disjointedness, Seurat to Riley: The Art of Perception surpassed all my expectations.  Although my tolerance for the illusionary nature of most Op Art remains the same, being introduced to the work of artists previously unknown to me, like Jesús Rafael Soto and Peter Sedgley and seeing Riley’s early work, made the trip up to Warwickshire more than worth it.

Our Spectral Vision, (2016) Liz West

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Giacometti, Tate Modern, London (10 May-10 September 2017)

"Portrait of Peter Watson" (1953)

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was, without doubt, one of the great painter-sculptors of the twentieth century.  Innovator and experimenter, his relentless pursuit of capturing the appearance of a living model has  led to a body of work which demonstrates the breadth and diversity of his talent and innate skill. 
Giacometti’s distinctive elongated figures are some of the most instantly recognisable works of modern art.  This retrospective by Tate Modern, the first of such scale held in the United Kingdom for twenty years, brings together over two-hundred and fifty works by Giacometti and showcases the development of the artist’s career which spanned fifty years.

Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition detail)

I have been a long-term admirer of Giacometti’s work and have been very lucky to see a number of his painting over the years and most recently in “Pure Presence” at the National Gallery in 2015, which was a much smaller exhibition and left me hoping that I would get an opportunity to see a full retrospective.  I had a lot of expectations.
Giacometti’s consistent return to sculpting the human head throughout this oeuvre and in particular people he was the closest to throughout his life  - his mother, father, brother and wife - is the focus of the first room of the exhibition.  From the very early clay and plaster portraits of his teenage years such as “Head of a Child [Simon Bérard]” (1917-1918) through to the later bronzes of his brother Diego, all demonstrated that Giacometti was born to sculpt.  I could have stayed in that room for hours, it really was a feast for my eyes.  German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) once said that if she could live her life again, she would be a sculptor and nothing more.  If I had been born a sculptor, with even a small percentage of the talent of Giacometti (and Kollwitz), I would have been a very happy woman.

Top: "Head of a Child [Simon Berard] (1917-1918)   Bottom: "Bust of Diego" (1953)

Like many artists at the turn of the twentieth century, African and Oceanian sculpture was very influential on Giacometti.  “Spoon Woman” (1927), first exhibited in Paris in the year it was finished illustrates just how easily the artist assimilated the influence into his own modernist vision.  Giacometti joined the Surrealist movement in 1931.  It proved to be an uneasy alliance.  Despite standing out for being one of the movement’s rare sculptors, Giacometti produced some truly disturbing misogynist depictions of women during his association with the movement.  “Woman with her Throat Cut” (1932) is surely one of the darkest works from the corners of a Surrealist spirit and vision of women.  However in that same year, the artist also produced “Walking Woman II”, reflecting his interest with Egyptian art and this piece thankfully shows the beginnings of his journey away from Surrealism (he was actually formally expelled in 1935) and towards his most iconic figurative work.
"Spoon Woman" (1927)

"Woman with her Throat Cut" (1932)

Every room in Tate Modern’s retrospective featured example after example of Giacometti’s genius.  His intimate busts of his brother and wife are completely compelling, as are his numerous painted portraits, which have always held a particular fascination. 

Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition view)

The overall highlight of this retrospective for me, out of all the wonders on display, was the eight restored original plasterworks “Women of Venice” (1956) made for that year’s Venice Biennale. These haunting, elongated nudes with their base-like feet recall Giacometti’s interest in Egyptian statuary and much like his re-interpretation of Oceanian sculpture nearly thirty years earlier, once again demonstrate the artist’s unique and contemporary vision.
"Women of Venice" (1956)

Giacometti is best remembered for his elongated walking figures such as “Man Pointing” (1947) and “Tall Woman” (1958), which he mostly concentrated on from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1966.  His remarkable career traced the shifting influences and experimentation of European art before and after the Second World War.  Although as a member of the Surrealist movement in the 1930s Giacometti devised innovative sculptural forms, it was his work after the war which developed alongside Existentialism and visually reflected the philosophy's interests in perception, alienation and anxiety after the trauma of the conflict, which has ensured Giacometti’s place in the art history canon and quite rightly too. 
Top:  Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition view)  Bottom: "Man Pointing" (1947)

With the exception of the monumental figures in the final room at Tate Modern’s retrospective, the vast interior space of the gallery surprisingly overwhelmed the artworks as a collection.  Although unexpected, it did not particularly matter given that the individual pieces deserved equal individual attention and overall the retrospective more than met my expectations.

Giacometti in his studio (c.1963)