Sunday, 29 December 2013

Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900, The National Gallery, London (9 October 2013-12 January 2014)

Gustav Klimt: (L) Portrait of a Lady in Black, c. 1895
(R) Portrait of Hermine Gallia, 1904
Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele feature heavily in this exhibition at The National Gallery and as you walk through the galleries it is their work which consistently jump from the walls and grab your attention.  Even with contemporary eyes their work appears wonderfully alive and vibrant and so must have seemed incredibly daring and controversial at the turn of the twentieth century.  The two paintings above by Klimt demonstrate not only the artist's incredible talent but also the artistic transition from salon realism to individual artist expressionism and the clash of artistic traditions which was taking place in Vienna at that time.
"Portraiture was the genre most closely associated with the flourishing of modern art in Vienna in the years around 1900.  Artists focused on the image of the individual, working to the demands of patrons from the city's burgeoning middle classes.  From the commemorative to the critical, the cautious to the radical, their portraits charted the changing fortunes of men, women and children facing the distinctly modern challenge of living in one of the most diverse cities of its time". [from Gallery Guide]
Schiele's edgy portraits and self-portraits rendered in his language of scratchy, diseased-looking, elongated figures are a reflection of the artist's vision and extension of his own persona, rather than actual depictions of the sitters themselves.  While they confounded many critics at the time and appeared to reflect all that was deemed abject and degenerate for many, Schiele's self-portraits in particular were hugely popular and eagerly collected by his peers and other artists and intellectuals.
Egon Schiele: (L) Self Portrait with Raised Shoulder, 1912
(R) Portrait of Erich Lederer, 1912
Inevitably within all contemporary reviews of art movements the issue of female artists being excluded from art historical accounts has been re-addressed here with the inclusion of work by Broncia Koller, Teresa Ries and  Elena Luksch-Makowsky, who represent a small proportion of the women who regularly exhibited at the Secession and all who had careers as public artists in Vienna.  Koller was a member of  the Klimt Group and a high profile figure at the centre of Viennese intellectuals, artists and musicians.  Ries was once one of Vienna's most famous and successful artists and much sought after for portrait commissions.  The directness of her gaze and confidence exuding from her self-portrait of 1902 in which she portrays herself in a simple work smock typifies the notion of the New Woman - a purposeful, independent, self-sufficient and modern. 
Ries's depiction of her artistry and creativity is however in stark contrast to Luksch-Makowsky whose symbolist meditations permeated throughout her work and her self-portrait with her son has been read to suggest that childbirth was the ultimate creative act.  This view has been subsequently challenged by many feminist critics and may in part be why her name has been forgotten.
Ultimately though, the period of erasure, murder and emigration in the Austria-Hungary empire around the two World Wars and the treatment its Jewish population ensured that these artists, along with many others who were Jewish, were lost to art history records for many years and have been among the last women artists to be rediscovered.  Vienna in the 1900s reflected the ambivalent modernism of most capital cities of the time which offered unparalleled opportunities for women while at the same time continued to display misogyny towards them.  Koller, Ries and Luksch-Makowsky are three artists such women who had careers as public artists, their own studios, received commissions and exhibited regularly but whose names are virtually unknown today.
Bronica Koller: Nude Portrait of Marieta, 1907
Bronica Koller: Silvia Koller with a Bird Cage, 1907-08
Teresa Ries: Self Portrait, 1902
Elena Luksch-Makowsky: Self Portrait with her Son Peter, 1901
Turn of the twentieth-century Vienna had a fascination with death.  From death masks and death bed paintings, the notion of the 'beautiful corpse' was also celebratory.  Two paintings by Klimt show the public and private manifestation of deathly obsessions.  The hauntingly beautiful Ria Munk on her Deathbed was a commission from the deceased's family who wanted to commemorate the loss of their 24 year old daughter, who committed violent suicide (she shot herself in her heart) after the end of a love affair.  Klimt's intimate drawing of his dead son, Otto who died suddenly at just one year old demonstrates the artist's fascination with death both privately and publically. 
Gustav Klimt: (L) Ria Munk on her Deathbed, 1912
(R) Portrait of the Artist's Dead Son Otto Zimmermann, 1902
The new Viennese featured in this exhibition (both on and behind the canvases) reflect the intense, somewhat dark and unsurprisingly (given this was the age of Freud and analysis) introspective view of themselves.  The people immortalised in these paintings reflect the experiences of the newly emerged middle classes in one of the most diverse cities of the time from their initial hopes and aspirations to their growing anxiety and alienation as world events engulfed them.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Starring Vivien Leigh: A Cetenary Celebration, National Portrait Gallery, London (30 November 2013-20 July 2014)

Tucked away on the first floor landing in the National Portrait Gallery are twenty eight photographs of my first and most enduring girl crush, the mesmerizingly beautiful Vivien Leigh.  I could fill pages and pages of photographs of her at the peak of her beauty, she was so extraordinarily photogenic, it is almost criminal.  In a lifetime questioning why and how women have been judged and objectified solely on their physical attributes and rallying against the injustice of valuing women purely in these terms, it seems somewhat disloyal to include a exhibition celebrating this very British beauty.  However, while ever bone in my feminist body will always condemn objectification in all its varying forms and manifestations, I understand how the allure of beauty when these photographs were taken (and even to a great extent even today) continues to commodify women and which remains virtually unquestioned (even by many women themselves).

Leigh was more than her looks though, and despite an extremely privileged upbringing and glamorous lifestyle, including the infamous affair and marriage to Laurence Olivier, she was an incredibly talented actress.  She was also haunted by her own demons, suffering from returning episodes of depression throughout her life and was also dogged by ill heath for much of her adult life.

That she should choose to portray two characters, Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Karen Stone in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, both which tapped into the heart of her own particular darkness shows just how brave and resilient this woman could be.  In both films Leigh portrayed two fatally flawed women and this must have taken its emotional and psychological toll on the actress as they reflected her own fragile mental state and the coming to terms of her own aging and loss of looks.

The photographs on display at the National Portrait Gallery span her acting career from its roots in British theatre through to Hollywood blockbuster films and beyond and are a mix of studio shots and stills from the films themselves.  It is the studio shots which really romanticise and immortalise Vivien Leigh.  Many show how similar poses were repeated in order to show the actress at her most ravishing, while some of the film stills

capture Leigh's mix of emotional determination and coquettishness.  These photographs capture a lost era when the private lives of film stars were closely guarded secrets. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Leigh was the Queen of British Film.  She captured the heart of many fashionable photographers and the results of the their adoration of Leigh are fabulously apparent in the images chosen here.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman, Wolverhampton Art Gallery (1 June-16 November 2013)

Colour Her Gone, 1962

The name of Pauline Boty will not be familiar to many people and despite being a founder member of the British Pop movement and contemporary of Peter Blake, Derek Boshier and David Hockney, art history has not been kind to the artist.  Boty’s work fell into obscurity after the artist’s untimely death at the age of 28 in 1966 and her name was almost obliterated from narratives on British Pop Art until as recently as the late 1990s, when David Mellor rescued her canvases from rotting in her brother’s barn.  Since then, Mellor along with Sue Watling and Sue Tate have worked tirelessly to rehabilitate her name and the importance on her work within the movement.  Her name is increasingly included in art historical surveys of British Pop Art yet astonishingly despite their efforts, only two monographs of Boty’s work have been published and this relatively low key exhibition at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery is the first survey of her work held in a public gallery and in fact the first solo exhibition since 1998.

Self Portrait, c, 1955

In a relatively small triangular room, rather annoyingly lit with changing colour lighting, twenty eight pieces of Boty’s work, including ten large scale canvases and six early collage works, chart the artist’s development from her time at the Wimbledon School of Art between 1954-58 and then the Royal College of Art to her most productive and successful years between 1961 and 1966.  Her early self portrait of 1995, painted when she was just 17 is an early indicator of just how talented this young woman was.  Collages such as A Big Hand (1960-61) and Untitled (hand, secateurs and children) of the same year evidence Boty’s skill at the delicate balance of composition and juxtaposition of imagery which can make or break a collage. 

A Big Hand, 1960-61
However, it is her large scale rarely exhibited canvases which really were a feast for the eyes.  It was truly and honour to see these paintings at close range.  They are exquisitely and boldly painted, both in terms of the handling of the paint and their subject matter.  Boty was a wholly contemporary artist of her time.  Her paintings of Marilyn Monroe were produced a year after the movie star’s death.  She painted Scandal ’63 in the very year that the Profumo affair featured in national newspapers.  Boty’s mixing of figuration and abstraction in her paintings mirrored her collage work.  The catalogue refers to Boty’s paintings as exposing the subjective experience of an autonomous female sexuality and turning her lustful gaze gleefully on male objects of desire.  They were also extremely political and as such precursor feminist sensibilities at an extremely challenging time for British women.  The manner in which she was portrayed in the media as well as her own portrayal of her sexuality in her work blurred the lines between emancipation and exploitation, a problem which has faced my many female artists.

Portrait of Derek Marlowe with Unknown Ladies, 1963
 5-4-3-2-1, 1963


Boty is remembered as a beautiful, Bardot lookalike, the quintessential swinging Sixties girl.  She immersed herself in contemporary popular culture, both on and off the canvas.  Interspersed between the paintings were collections of some of the numerous photographs taken by Michael Ward in 1963 of Boty posing provocatively with a selection of her work.  A number of magazine articles were also included where Boty is portrayed as an alluring beauty first and an artist second (if at all).  The publicity she attracted was comparable to Tracey Emin in the mid 1990s.  Yet Boty’s untimely death cannot be solely responsible for her virtual erasure from art history.  Egon Schiele, as just one example, died at the same age and his work has not suffered the same fate.  The Tate Gallery owns just one of Boty’s paintings, The Only Blonde in the World (1963), which they only bought this year, and this, along with the treatment of Boty’s work (physically and academically) are sad indictments of bias which can continue against some female artists, even today.

Pauline Boty by Michael Ward, 1963

The exhibition is transferring to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex from 30 November to 16 February 2014 and I would urge people to visit and discover one of the most important female artists this country has produced and which we have still yet to fully embrace as it has, for example, Barbara Hepworth or Sarah Lucas.

The Only Blonde in the Worlds, 1963

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Victoriana: The Art of Revival, Guildhall Art Gallery, London (7 September-8 December 2013)

This exhibition will delight lovers of the unexpected, the whimsical and the unusual.  It is the first to be held in the United Kingdom to offer a major examination of Victorian revivalism and includes twenty eight contemporary artists whose work (either in its entirety, or specifically for this exhibition) has looked back to the nineteenth century with very post-modern twenty first century eyes.  Recognised names such as Yinka Shonibare, Grayson Perry and  Mat Collishaw appear alongside (among others) the wonderfully sounding Neo-Victorian Kitty Valentine, Miss Pokeno and Otto von Beach.  Photography, film, textiles, kinetics, taxidermy and drawing are all included in this multi-media, multi-sensory gem.  

Film Still from Damaged Goods, Barnaby Barford

Although a haunting beauty emanates from much of the art, this is soon followed by a sense of unease and even Barnaby Barford’s  animated film Damaged Goods, a love story played out by porcelain figurines on the back shelves of a bric-a-brac shop, contains a Gothic sensibility within it.  This mix of the contemporary and the Gothic is also wonderfully captured in the mechanical objects of Collishaw’s  Magic Lantern and Paul St George’s Geislich Tube.  Along with Simon Venus’s  mechanized theatre set In Two Minds, these beautifully crafted pieces could have been created in an alchemist’s workshop.    Behind the thin veneer of nostalgia and fantasy, irony and politics can also be read in the work a number of artists featured, particularly in Shonibare’s Dorian Gray photographs looking at his identity as a black British man and Jane Hoodless’s commentary on the changing role of women in Victorian society in Shorn Out of Wedlock. 
In Two Minds (detail), Simon Venus
Shorn out of Wedlock, Jane Hoodless
Surprisingly, for a vegetarian and animal rights supporter, I found the most engaging and original work came from Polly Morgan (Why Do We Wait 3), Miss Pokeno (Trophy Chair) and Tessa Farmer (Mignon, Ambushed by a Mob of Fairies), all who used stuffed animals in their work!   I can only hope (probably naively) that the animals used met a natural death, but I do think there is something very noble that the status of animals such as a tiny finch, the much loved/hated fox and even bees can be raised and immortalized in a piece of fine art.  If I was a betting fledging art historian, I would put money on a long and successful career for both Morgan and Farmer.  Their work is very original and beautifully crafted, while still retaining an avant-garde edge.  If, of course, they source their animals in any other way, then I withdraw my support and implore them to find more humane sourcing methods!
Trophy Chair, Miss Pokeno
With the exception of one artist, Chantal Powell, all the artists featured had managed to engage with Victoriana so well that on some occasions their work would have sat easily in a genuine 19th century home or institution.  Unfortunately, Powell’s work by comparison just seemed a bit lazy and naive.  She had three pieces featured Siren (plastic flowers in a parrot cage), Nightingale’s Rest (an installation comprising of multiple plaster casts of cherubs on miscellaneous pieces of white painted furniture and)  and another piece which so underwhelmed me I did not even write the name down (peacock feathers fixed to some form of wire grid).  Compared to the other artists, Powell’s work just gave the impression of an (average) degree graduation show.
Nightingale's Rest (detail), Chantal Powell
Overall though, a visit to Victoriana: The Art of Revival, will not disappoint.  The stand out piece was Farmer's Mignon, whose assault/intervention on Edwin Roscoe Mullin's 1881 marble sculpture of the same name, was funny, irreverent and bold.  Congratulations must also go to the exhibition's curator Sonia Solicari, for her extremely unique vision.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Traces: Ana Mendieta, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London (24 September-15 December 2013)


I once read that the best way to understand the level of importance an artist has had in art history is the extent to which his or her work can be seen in that of the next generations of artists coming after them.  If this is the case then Ana Mendieta is a far more influential artist than she is given credit for as traces of work can be seen in artists as diverse as Cindy Sherman, Janine Antoni, Anthony Gormley, Jenny Saville and Pipilotti Rist.  In this first retrospective of her work to be held in the UK is a long time coming and given that Mendieta’s work seems contemporary even today, it must have been extremely cutting edge when originally created in the early 1970s.  Undertaking an MA in Intermedia as it was called at that time would have been a bold and avant garde programme of study which is now standard practice for many art students today.  Video and photography documenting her performances both staged in the studio and engaging in site specific landscapes dominate this exhibition and Mendieta’s obsession with her own body from the very outset of her practice and blood (fake or real) permeated  throughout her practice whether it be slowly seeping out of her skull in a video documented staged performance, dripping from a decapitated chicken (again in a video) or used as paint in her early blood drenched drawings.

For Mendieta, blood was a magical, powerful thing both metaphorically and materially.  She is perhaps best known for her earth-body sculptures that   combined ritual with metaphors of life, death, rebirth and spiritual transformation and has been firmly placed within art history narratives essentialist feminists of the early 1970s such as Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke and Valie Export and she was a member of the AIR Gallery, the first all-female cooperative art gallery formed in New York in 1972. 

There are elements of essentialism in her work and there can be no doubt that her work was very politically motivated, but Mendieta managed to achieve that fine and almost elusive balance of being politically engaged without being too obvious or preaching.  The work stands up for itself aesthetically as well as conceptually.  This can be seen best in her Siluetas series, either when only traces of the outline of her body in a landscape can be seen, or when her  whole body  is evident but becomes almost indistinguishable from the landscape itself.   Mendieta’s life story is a film script waiting to be developed.  Born in Cuba in 1948 and sent to America when she was fifteen to escape Castro’s Communist regime, she lived and studied art in Iowa.  She then lived and worked in Mexico for many years, before settling in New York in 1978.  Mendieta died in 1985 in New York from a fall from her 34th floor apartment in Greenwich Village where she lived with her husband of eight months, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre.   Just prior to her death, neighbours heard the couple arguing violently but there were no eyewitnesses.  Andre was tried and acquitted of her murder due to insufficient evidence.  This retrospective is a long time coming and confirms that even today, there are female artists of great merit who have yet to achieve the level of sustained recognition and enquiry which they rightly deserve.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Master Drawings, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (25 May-18 August 2013)

Head Study of an Old Man, Rembrandt (c, 1630)

Tucked away in two galleries on the third floor within the behemoth which is the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, seventy-one  drawings from the museum’s collection of works on paper which include artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Holbein to name but four, are guaranteed to take your breath away.  I have visited many, many exhibitions over the years and I have to say that this is the first one which I can, in complete truth and without any embarrassment say, was as close to a spiritual experience I have ever had.  It really is a feast for the eyes and it also reminded me how much I love drawing as a medium.  The immediacy of the line from a pencil or piece of charcoal or chalk on paper can convey as much emotion and power as any over-sized oil painting.  Drawing also seems to allow the viewer an instant connection and insight into the mind of the artist.  Who could not failed to be moved when faced with the exquisite skill contained in drawings such as Michelangelo’s Ideal Head or Rembrandt’s Head Study of an Old Man.  With some of the unfinished sketches on display, such as Ingres’ Portrait of Jean-François-Antoine Forest, it felt as it both artist and model had just left the room a few moments before.  The sense of history and legacy was also very humbling to experience in this exhibition, with the earliest drawing dating back to the late fifteenth century it proved how fundamental drawing was, and continues to be, for artistic practice.  Holbein’s simple, yet exquisite A Young Englishwoman is a fashion plate of its day and gives us a glimpse into an almost unimaginable ere.  Given its Pre-raphaelite connections, surprisingly the exhibition only contained one example from the group, Rossetti’s sumptuous Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast.  I was disappointed to see only one female artist represented here, Gwen John, and given her prolific drawing output and skill, it would have been nice to see more examples of her work if the museum had more in its collection.  For any real lover of art and history I cannot recommend this exhibition enough, it really is one not to be missed.

A Young Englishwoman, Hans Holbein (c. 1527)
St Jerome, Lucas Van Leyden (c. 1519)
Ideal Head, Michelangelo (c. 1520)

Portrait of Jean-François-Antoine Forest, Ingres (c. 1820)
A House and Garden at Tintern, Samuel Palmer (c. 1835)
Study of a Kingfisher, John Ruskin (c. 1870)
Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (c. 1855)
A Seated Girl, Gwen John (c. 1918)