Sunday, August 29, 2010

Surprises at the Courtauld

 Master of Flémalle (Robert Campin?), Triptych with the Entombment,
the Resurrection and a donor, c. 1420, ? oil and gold leaf on panel.

Once again the Courtauld Institute Art Gallery has produced a surprise, for me anyway. The gallery is in Somerset House on the Strand (it was in Portland Place the last time I was there in the early 1980s, more on that later). The surprise on this occasion was the Gothic and Early Renaissance collection in a room on the ground floor. This era of painting has never appealed to me before but somehow my mind got changed. The paintings, small and tightly painted on panels, are beautiful as objects, exquisitely wrought with delicate textures, and the way they were displayed brought this out. There were several altar pieces and predellas, triptychs on hinged panels, absolutely beautiful and perfectly preserved. This room made the visit well worth while.

The only previous visit about twenty-five years ago was surprising too. I had gone specially to see Cézanne's Card Players, which was just as I'd imagined, but near to it there was a large Van Gogh of a tree in blossom which just knocked me over. It might have been a peach tree, what I remember is that it was a close-up of a tree with pinkish-white blossoms, quite large, maybe 24 x 30 ins or 30 x 40, and it was as if it was alive, shimmering and hovering in the air, a gasp-inducing painting. It had looked so dull in the book and the contrast showed me once and for all how necessary it is to see paintings in real life whenever possible.

I've been wondering if it would still have the same effect and expected to find out on this visit, but sad to say the van Gogh painting I remember is no longer there. After coming home I checked their website and there's no record of it. Did I make a mistake? I don't think so. The Courtauld was the only gallery I went to on that occasion, and the experience was particularly vivid and memorable.

Whatever about that, the gallery still has an interesting Impressionist and Post Impressionist collection which includes Renoir's La Loge and Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergéres, also quite a few Cézannes. They have a small Picasso still life painting, about the least interesting I've ever seen. They've also been adding contemporary prints by the thousand, mostly donated. In addition there's a lot of Rubens and a display of silver. But for me the stars of the show were the pre-Renaissance paintings in Room 1.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Alice Neel


Alice Neel is to my mind one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, so it was a thrill to find a major show of her work on at the Whitechapel Gallery in London (until Sept 17, 2010). I loved the show, every bit of it. Many of the great paintings that I know are there -- Nancy and Olivia, Hartley (her son, arms casually behind head), Meyer Schapiro, Andy Warhol, an Irish trade unionist banging his fist on the table, her nude self-portrait at the age of eighty. All just pure, pure pleasure. Loads of others too that aren't so well known, but will be. The twins dressed in red pinafores is an amazing painting, I can go on looking at it for ages. I'd have bought the book there and then but it's heavy to cart back to Trinidad. At some stage I will get it. There's an award-winning film by Neel's grandson accompanying the show, well worth watching. Overall, I just can't do her justice, so I've collected a set of reviews, each of which adds something to the mix. These are:
Since the show, I'm seeing Alice Neel people everywhere, in the tube, in shops, on the street. It's uncanny and it shows how an artist can change the way people see the world.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

National Gallery, unedited notes from a short visit

Crowds of people. I went only to the rooms with late 19th -- early 20th century painting, and to the exhibition of children's work in the basement. Some notes:

Toulouse-Lautrec – Portrait of Emile Bernard, 1886. Dead on drawing. Bernard is a little boy.

Van Gogh's Mother by a Cradle 1887 – lively surface –  the hatching really does animate it.

Van Gogh – Chair – visibly raised ridges of paint.

Van Gogh – Farm Near Auvers – not as good as reproduction – thin, paler, smaller than expected.

Van Gogh – Wheatfield with Cypresses, 1889 – don't know this one, lovely composition, very bright and alive – but is it rather too neat? (under glass)

Picasso's Child With a Dove – under glass, 1901, nice surface.

The Cezanne Old Woman With A Rosary – great because of abstract patterns of light, dark and colour, + sense of depth.

Renoir, The Umbrellas. This was popular culture, but upmarket. Such great drawing – every hand, every foot (except one?)

Manet – Corner of a Cafe – horrible drawing of man's left arm (blue smock).

Ingres –  Monsieur de Norvins, 1811-12 – large black area perfectly varnished, not sunk or uneven.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Architects build small spaces at the V&A

at the Victoria and Albert Museum
15 June – 30 August 2010

The theme for the seven architects who built the exhibits for this show was “retreat”. As the brochure says, “The starting point for these experimental projects is the idea of a small enclosed space representing an escape from the chaos of urban life to an area of peace, contemplation, shelter or creativity” This sounds lovely and it was interesting to see all the different interpretations.

One of the exhibits was a book-lined wooden staircase with a recessed fur-covered seat half-way up, a lovely idea. Unfortunately it swayed and felt slightly insecure when I was in it, which defeated the purpose I thought. An exhibit in the Cast Court was from India and showed clever use of the long narrow spaces between buildings. These are often used as dwellings. The architects  made a replica of one actual structure which had been built around a large tree and they retained this feature, making a cast of the tree growing up through the building. A little hidey-hole in the interior lit by a dim red lamp gave a feeling of solitude and peace. I was not brave enough to go to the upper level, the stairs were narrow and steep with a vertical handrail. Going up would have been okay but I began to wonder about getting back down and thought better of it.

The Japanese “Beetle's House” was actually more like a tree house. It had pleasing proportions and was painted all in black on the outside, Access to the inside was by a ladder. People who saw inside were saying that it contained a little tea set and a painting, or materials to make a painting. It sounded like an idyllic retreat.

A rough sketch of the Beetle's House

In the Architectural Gallery on the 4th floor, posters setting out the concept and scale models were on display for all nineteen submissions that the seven were chosen from.

The best came last – this was the American exhibit, a simple wooden shed. It was solidly constructed and felt totally secure and stable. The two ends were open. The designers had made a light for the back (tallest) wall in the shape of a vine, with bulbs like flowers on the end of each branch. It was really lovely, very simple and effective and for some reason deeply pleasing. It topped off the show nicely and made me glad I'd seen it.