How to Survive February:It's All About Colour

February can be a pretty grim month. The days might be getting marginally longer but, it’s still bone chillingly damp and cold, and the sky a shade of gravel grey. Although the last few days in London have given us a tantalising breath of Spring, I suspect the wintry blasts will be back, so my strategy is to stock up with colour-just in case.

Pierre Bonnard, Femme a Table, 1926, (private collection)

Pierre Bonnard, Femme a Table, 1926, (private collection)

The French artist Pierre Bonnard,(1867-1947), immerses us in the emotive power of colour and memory. London’s Tate Modern launched its 2019 exhibition programme with the first major Pierre Bonnard exhibition in twenty years, and what an antidote to February gloom it is. . Bringing together around 100 of his greatest works, this chronological overview, spanning four decades between 1912 and his death in 1947, traces Bonnard's experimentation with composition and his use of colour as well as the integral importance of memory.  He always painted from sketches or photographs, so there is a detachment, a distance in his work, even a form of melancholy, but any sadness is joyfully redeemed by blasts of colour which infuse the intimate, quiet, private moments of a life he shared with his life-long muse- and eventual-wife Marthe de Meligny .

‘Drawing is a sensation.’ he wrote, ‘Colour is reasoning’. It is in the drawing that the intimacy of his work was created but colour is the way to experience it. 

Offering a much-needed burst of colour, Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory,(until May 6th) leaves you feeling light-of-step and inspired at a time when you need it most. 

Pierre Bonnard, Dining Room in the Country, 1913

Pierre Bonnard, Dining Room in the Country, 1913

Pierre Bonnard,  Nude in Bath and Small Dog , 1941-6,

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in Bath and Small Dog, 1941-6,

Pierre Bonnard, The Terrace at Vernon (1939)

Pierre Bonnard, The Terrace at Vernon (1939)



Meanwhile, during a recent trip to Paris I caught a wonderful exhibition of the Hungarian artist, Victor Vasarely, (1906-1997),at the Pompidou Centre. Often referred to as the father of optic art, Vasarely spent much of his career in France, and his work encompassed painting, sculpture, architecture and advertising-he designed the logo for Renault cars.

Varsarely designed the Renault logo in 1967

Varsarely designed the Renault logo in 1967

Vasarely had an enormous influence on the aesthetics of the 20th century. His compositions are truly hypnotic, and at times hallucinogenic, with compelling colours and forms. Here are some of the highlights for me:

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This is a Vasarely design for a tapestry

This is a Vasarely design for a tapestry

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Victor Vasarely: Le Partage des Formes, Centre Pompidou, until May 6th






Brilliant Bruegel

Bruegel: The Hand of the Master, 2 October 2018-13 January 2019, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This is the first comprehensive exhibition of Pieter Bruegel the Elder to be mounted anywhere in the world: two thirds of his known works and almost half his known drawings and engravings. It’s an exhibition which needs time and patience, (it is very crowded), but will not disappoint. Wherever you look in Bruegel’s art, another human marvel hits you. His paintings are worlds on oak panels, packed with all the inanity of the human race. Each one is abundant enough to look at for hours.

There is also a fascinating section on how he prepared the wooden panels on which he chose to paint although, by the second half of the 16th century, when he worked, canvas was becoming more common. Hard oak surfaces give his paintings their prismatic solid brightness. Bruegel’s drawings are revelatory: landscapes are full of forensically observed leaves and tree bark, mountain slopes and distant castles. He made a trip to Italy, hence the rather wacky addition of Italianate hills and Alpine peaks in Flemish flatlands. But this eye for landscape is essential to his magic. It grounds his extraordinary display of humanity into a sense of home, weighting his vision into ours. Everything becomes believable.

Here are some of my favourite images:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder,  Dulle Griet, 1563,(Museum Mayer van den Bergh,Antwerp)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Dulle Griet,1563,(Museum Mayer van den Bergh,Antwerp)

Here is the formidable Dulle Griet, known as Mad Meg, carrying away plunder from the field of hell. Here she is,storming through the battlefield,a casket of money tucked under her arm, armed with a sword and a frying pan. This is a strong woman battling hideous small monsters and marauding soldiers. This work inspired Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage. It’s a spectre of hell with a woman protecting all she has: she thinks only of surviving with the loot, and why the hell shouldn’t she?



Detail from  Dulle Griet

Detail from Dulle Griet

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail from  The Tower of Babel,  c 1563, (Kunst Historisches Museum, Vienna)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail from The Tower of Babel, c 1563, (Kunst Historisches Museum, Vienna)

The detail of daily life is extraordinary. This is a crane circa 1563 in his Tower of Babel, which is powered by men running in a wheel-like contraption, much like hamsters.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder,  The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow ,1563,(Federal Office for Culture,Oskar Reinhart Collection,Winterthur)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow,1563,(Federal Office for Culture,Oskar Reinhart Collection,Winterthur)

From a slightly elevated viewpoint we look down on a Flemish village through gently falling snow. You can almost touch the flakes, and according to the curators this is perhaps the very first painting in which falling snow is depicted. You are so immersed in the wintry scene that you practically miss the stars of the show. This is after all the Adoration of the Magi but they are easy to overlook, as are the Virgin Mary and her all important infant. The genius of Bruegel is that he brings home the story of the birth of Christ by nestling it in a snowy village at home.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder,  The Drunk Cast Into the Pigsty , 1557, (private collection)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Drunk Cast Into the Pigsty, 1557, (private collection)

This tiny work has only recently been rediscovered. The hapless peasant is being punished by his fellow villagers for being drunk so they lock him up with the pigs.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail from  The Peasant Dance, c 1568, (Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail from The Peasant Dance,c 1568, (Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna)

Celebrating the end of a successful harvest,one of the peasants keeps his spoon close to his head so it is not stolen during the dancing.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder,  The Peasant Wedding ,c1567, (Kunsthistsorisches Museum, Vienna)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Peasant Wedding,c1567, (Kunsthistsorisches Museum, Vienna)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death,  c1562, (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder,The Triumph of Death, c1562, (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)

This is the end of the world as we know it…for all of you optimists-here there is no hope. Death awaits everyone. Always look on the bright side? Forget it. This must surely be one of the world’s most radical of paintings.

Bruegel:The Hand of the Master, Kunsthistorisches Museum until January 13, 2019.

The Black Presence in British Art

The subject of a black presence in British history has, up until quite recently, been largely excluded from the mainstream narrative. But for the next few months guides at Tate Britain, including myself, will be giving special tours focusing on the black presence, or lack of it in British art.

The island story of Britain cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the world and certainly not from African, and other parts, of what was once the British Empire.

Africans were a  part of Britain’s history centuries before the empire-going back to Roman times.

In Tudor times there was a black royal trumpeter, John Blanke, who was brought to England as one of the attendants of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In fact recent research has shown there were hundreds of Africans in Tudor England.

Image of John Blanke, Royal Trumpeter, The National Archives

Image of John Blanke, Royal Trumpeter, The National Archives

William Shakespeare, who was often performed in Queen Elizabeth’s court, was clearly intrigued by the notion of ‘the other’ and wrote several black parts, the greatest of which was Othello. The fact that he put them in mainstream entertainment reflects that they were a significant element in the population of London.

Britain’s great homes, its financial system, major ports, textile and sugar trades- all this prosperity was based, to a large extent, on the  enslavement of black men, women and children

There were black freed slaves who fought for the Crown, as this painting by John Singleton Copley shows:

John Singleton Copley,  The Death of Major Pierson, 6th of January, 1781  , 1783 (Tate Britain)

John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Pierson, 6th of January, 1781 , 1783 (Tate Britain)

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Lubaina Himid, Carrot Piece, 1985, (Tate Britain)

The work of British artist Lubaina Himid celebrates Black creativity and the people of the African diaspora, while challenging forms of institutional invisibility. Her work includes paintings, prints, drawings and installations, and she has addressed the histories and legacies of colonialism and slavery, and engaged with political questions and artistic traditions from the eighteenth century to the present day. She is the first black woman to have won the Turner prize in 2017 and also the oldest woman to have won at the age of 63. Fabulous, inspirational and long overdue.

To find out more, come to one of Tate Britain’s special tours, 30 Minutes on African Heritage, Mondays and Wednesdays at 1.15pm

 

The spat which lasted 187 years......Constable and Turner re-united

Is there really such a thing as artistic rivalry or is the notion more a product of our own obsession with comparisons and a curious need to have a 'favourite'? There are certainly some noteworthy artistic sparring partners: Picasso and Matisse; Reynolds and Gainsborough; Bacon and Freud; and of course Constable and Turner. In all cases, I am often asked: 'Who do I prefer?'. It is, of course, an impossible question to answer. In any case, I would never let on.

The Tate has given us an opportunity to revisit one of the most famous feuds between the two greats of  19th century British landscape painting, John Constable and JMW Turner. For the first time in 187 years,  Constable's Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadows and Turner’s Caligula's Palace And Bridge will be reunited, hanging together in the relative peace of Tate Britain.

                 John Constable,  Salisbury Cathedral in the Meadows ,(exhibited 1831) ,Tate

                 John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral in the Meadows,(exhibited 1831) ,Tate

                       JMW Turner,  Caligula's Palace and Bridge,  (exhibited 1831,)Tate

                       JMW Turner, Caligula's Palace and Bridge, (exhibited 1831,)Tate

The spat between the two men dates back to 1831 when Turner accused Constable of giving him a rough deal. The 1831  exhibition saw Constable named as  the Royal Academy’s “hang man”, which meant he was in charge of arranging the paintings for the Summer Exhibition. In other words,  his choice of who went where would be crucial for showcasing new work.

He initially gave the Turner one of the best positions, in the centre of the end wall of the Great Room at Somerset House, then the home of the Royal Academy. He had  placed his  Salisbury  Cathedral in the Meadows, along with two works by Turner: Caligula's Palace And Bridge  and Vision of Medea to the other side. So far so good. Before the exhibition opened, however, he made the last-minute decision to swap, putting his own offering centre stage.

The change, which Turner was not aware of until  after the exhibition opened, did not go down well with JMW. In his defence, Constable argued that he changed his mind for the good of both artists. Rather unfortunately the two men were the invited to the same dinner afterwards. Turner was furious and it’s said that it was this  incident which led Turner to upstage, some might argue humiliate, Constable the following year. The two artists had paintings hanging side by side once again: Constable’s Opening of Waterloo Bridge which he had spent ten years working on, and Turner’s  seascape scene, Helvoetsluys-The City of Utrecht Going to Sea. The former was  rich with magnificent reds, gold and silver; the latter altogether more monochromatic-a subtle cloudscape at sea.

                             John Constable, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge,1832, Tate

                             John Constable, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge,1832, Tate

         JMW Turner,  Helvoetsluys-The City of Utrecht Going to Sea,  1831, Tate

         JMW Turner, Helvoetsluys-The City of Utrecht Going to Sea, 1831, Tate

 Just before the opening Turner came in several times, standing behind Constable who was putting finishing touches on his work. Turner looked from one painting to the other and finally slapped a  daub of red paint, slightly bigger than a coin, on his grey sea and went away without saying a word. The flash of intense red, against the cool sea tones, caused a sensation. Constable came into the room just after Turner had left. 'He has been here', said Constable,'and fired a gun'. The scene was brilliantly portrayed in Mike Leigh's film, Mr Turner.

The 1831 paintings have been reframed and reunited at Tate Britain for the Fire and Water display in the Clore Gallery, which will include fascinating contemporary reviews that remarked on Turner’s poetic imagination and Constable’s naturalism.The Salisbury Cathedral painting had been on long loan to the National Gallery. It was put up for sale in 2013 but saved from export after a national appeal, major grants from the Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and an unprecedented partnership between the Tate, the national museums and galleries of Wales and Scotland, and the local museums in Colchester, Ipswich and Salisbury.

Come and see them at Tate Britain. They will be side by side once again until July 2019, but please, do not ask me which one I prefer.

 

 

 

 

Monet and Architecture at the National Gallery, London

This is a wonderful exhibition, filled with some astounding works by the painter of effects, les effets: effects of light, of mist, of snow, of sunlight, of fog. What Mone was not particularly interested in was architecture; he certainly never wrote about it. So the theme of this show at the National Gallery would, I fear, have bemused, if not dumbfounded him.

For Monet, buildings became integral parts of his dialogue with landscape. A building was a surface for flickering effects of light and shade. 'Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat' he once wrote, 'I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat.’ Yes, there are buildings in every one of the paintings on show at the National Gallery, but they are part of the experience of looking at a particular moment, seeing a particular colour, absorbing a particular effet.

Monet compared Rouen cathedral to a cliff. Architecture was therefore another way of imbibing nature. Each subject-bridges, railway stations, boulevards, the Houses of Parliament,Venetian palaces, were structures on which to explore and express the memory of a gradual dawn, a glowing form in evening light, or fog. For Monet, the experience of seeing always came first. I'll let some of the paintings speak for themselves:

Claude Monet,  From the Top of the Cliff at Dieppe ,(1882) Kunsthaus Zurich

Claude Monet, From the Top of the Cliff at Dieppe,(1882) Kunsthaus Zurich

Claude Monet,  The Boulevard des Capucines,Paris ,(1873), The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Claude Monet, The Boulevard des Capucines,Paris,(1873), The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Claude Monet,  The Gare Saint-Lazare , (1877), The National Gallery

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare, (1877), The National Gallery

Claude Monet,  Snow Effect at Giverny,  (1893),New Orleans Museum of Fine Art

Claude Monet, Snow Effect at Giverny, (1893),New Orleans Museum of Fine Art

Claude Monet, The Doge's Palace, (1908), Brooklyn Museum

Claude Monet, The Doge's Palace, (1908), Brooklyn Museum

Claude Monet,  Rouen Cathedral, The Portal, Morning Effect,(1894), Foundation Beyler,Riehan/Basel      

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral, The Portal, Morning Effect,(1894),Foundation Beyler,Riehan/Basel

 

 

Claude Monet,  The Water- Lily Pond ,(1899), The National Gallery,London

Claude Monet, The Water- Lily Pond,(1899), The National Gallery,London

Much as I might quibble over the imposed theme of architecture, I accept that it must be getting increasingly difficult to give us 'new ways' of looking at one of art's guaranteed crowd pleasers. And yes, I am pretty sure that every aspect of his treatment of landscape has already been featured somewhere in the world, every one a blockbuster: Water-lilies-check!; Gardens,-check!;the Normandy coast,check!; haystacks-check! So now let's do ARCHITECTURE! The show overstates its arguments, particularly in its early stages, but it has, nevertheless brought together a magnificent, life-enhancing, spine-tingling, unforgettable  collection of paintings to make its case.

One last thought...The National Gallery really needs to sort out this special exhibition space in the Sainsbury Wing. As it charges up to £22 a ticket to see this show, it is absolutely unacceptable that visitors are crammed into small, stuffy rooms, craning to see works in an atmosphere more akin to Oxford Circus station at 5.30pm on a Friday.

Picasso 1932-Love Fame Tragedy at Tate Modern

What a wonderful show this is. Energy and inventiveness bursts out of every room. Here is an image of his muse and lover Marie Therese Walter, as if tightly squeezed into a sardine tin. It was done on the back of an opened up envelope, precisely dated  19th June, 1932

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Swimmer, June 1932. Marie Therese Walter was a strong swimmer. Picasso, on the other hand, did not even know how to swim. 

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Paulo, Pablo Picasso's only legitimate child with his first wife, the ballet dancer, Olga Khokhlova.

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Girl in a Chemise, 1905. Waif-like,sensual,deathly,gorgeous.

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Bust of a Woman, 1931

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Rest, January 22, 1932. Picasso re-inventing his Cubism with vibrant, practically psychotic  patterns. Even the wallpaper background reminds us of his early collages.

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The Crucifixion, Tuesday October 4th, 1932. Using such minimal, restrained strokes, an image of abject misery and pain emerges.

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I Want to Be Joan Jonas When I Grow Up

I am ashamed to say that I was not really too aware of the work of Joan Jonas until going to Tate Modern’s current show which runs until August 13th. Run, skip, or twirl to see it. It’s the largest exhibition of Jonas’s work ever to be held in the UK and it is truly inspiring. Jonas is a veteran of the 1960s New York scene:performance artist, raconteuse,choreographer,filmmaker,actor, dancer -with  a loyal dog to occasionally supervise. Her art is not easy to absorb: noisy and confusing,  vaguely decipherable sounds  leak out out of installations. It can be a bit difficult to fathom. I’m not saying I ‘understood’ it all, but the experience is affecting and unforgettable. I went on a bitterly cold day in March having been buffeted by Arctic winds across the Millennium Bridge. Seeing her 1968 film ‘Wind’, the earliest work in the exhibition,  was particularly apposite. Since the 1960s, Jonas has spent part of each year working in Nova Scotia, and the Cape Breton coastline is a recurring motif in her work. The film is both comical and uncomfortable. Jonas and fellow artist Keith Hollingworth struggle across a wintry windy beach dressed in costumes with mirrored panels. The outfits remind me of something out of a Russian constructivist play. Another group of ‘performers’ wearing black masks and capes struggle against the wind, practically falling over from its force.. Here is a still from 'Wind'. If you want to see a snippet from the film itself have a look in my Images section from Instagram.

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There is a frenetic energy about Jonas's work. Some of it is downright silly,  some of it is inscrutable, but in a world of control, surveillance and proscription, it is all wonderfully anarchic and un-directed. Jonas is 82 years old and still full of mischief, surprise and innovation.  I cannot imagine her ever saying : 'I'm too old for this'.

Joan Jonas in her studio in New York City.Photograph:Mike McGregor for the Observer

Joan Jonas in her studio in New York City.Photograph:Mike McGregor for the Observer