How Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s Roman Chapel Was Recreated in London – Hyperallergic


First published in Hyperallergic April 17th 2017

LONDON — The National Gallery’s fascinating exhibition Michelangelo and Sebastiano is an academically rigorous survey examining the 25-year relationship between the two Renaissance artists. It uses clear visual examples to explore how their work was at times positively collaborative in the fiercely competitive art scene in Rome, prior to the artists’ eventual falling out. Throughout are many instances illustrating their sharing of motifs and ideas, most often in the provision of drawings by Michelangelo that were adapted in paint by Sebastiano. The most startling of these examples is the presence of an almost-life size reconstruction of the domed Borgherini Chapel from Rome’s Church of San Pietro in Montorio, painted by Sebastiano, with the originating Michelangelo drawings displayed adjacent. The National Gallery has championed the combination of pioneering technology and traditional craft behind this feat, which is the work of Factum Arte, part of the Madrid-based Factum Foundation for Digital Technology.

The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)
The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)

Factum Arte spent two days on site in Rome taking over 2,400 high-resolution photographs of the Chapel’s surface, from which Photogrammetry software extracted data detailing volume, dimension, and color, resulting in a minutely accurate digital 3D model. The greatest difficulty was then realizing the 3D model as a physical print, given that printing operates two-dimensionally; using a similar principle to printing a globe’s surface, this involved some complex digital processing, mapping color and texture onto the curved surfaces of the 3D model, and then ‘flattening’ the data into segments using 3D Studio Max software. These segments could then be printed using flexible material and applied to a physical recreation of the Chapel built of lightweight steel, plywood mounted on aluminum panels, and topped with a fiberglass dome. The plaster elements were created using the same techniques employed in 16th century Italy, and profiles were taken of the original plaster work to aid faithful recreation. Further complicating the process is the fact that the original’s dome is not perfectly spherical. The restrictive dimensions of the gallery space at the National also demanded that the reconstruction be 90% of its original scale.

The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)
The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)
The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)
The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)

The development of 3D printing technology has been embraced by artists as a new medium to explore and facilitate hitherto impossible realizations of the imagination. Its usage here, in the context of the National’s survey, indicates its usefulness as an art historically educative tool — the next step, perhaps, in a long line that progressed from simply making sketches to creating plaster casts to taking photographs. The exhibition includes a 1975 plaster cast of Michelangelo’s Pietà (which will never leave St Peters Basilica in Rome) to demonstrate a cross-pollination of visual motifs: most specifically, the adaptation of the Pietà’s pose by Sebastiano in his nearby “Lamentation” (1516). The presence of the Borgherini Chapel recreation serves a similar function, showing how Sebastiano adapted the numerous preparatory drawings for the piece by Michelangelo, which are displayed adjacent. Even more illustrative here, however, is that the physical recreation gives a greater visual and three-dimensional understanding of the differences between the drawings and the finished painting in scale, color, modeling, and, most importantly, the final context of display. Put the Michelangelo drawings next to a mere photograph of the original Chapel, and one cannot glean anywhere near the same level of understanding of their relationship. The show proves that when used methodically and with judicious intent, such pioneering technology is far from a mere gimmick.

The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)
The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)

The Factum Foundation raises an interesting point however with the observation in its press release that, “In viewing a faithful reconstruction with original works of art, visitors may be prompted to reconsider their notions of originality, authenticity, and preservation.” The use of the term “authenticity” is a worrying one, and recalls the recent experiment conducted by the Dulwich Picture Gallery in which one of the works in its permanent collection was replaced with a faithful copy, challenging visitors to guess which one. Successful or not, the show’s intention was undoubtedly to get visitors to look closely at the physical works in front of them; to take into consideration the real material value, form, and condition of the paint on canvas, rather than the image contained therein. It is important to recognize that the presence of the recreated Chapel cannot replace the tangible qualities of the original, and that 3D printing should not usurp the place of ‘traditional’ crafted objects and things.

The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)
The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)

Moreover, the Factum Foundation notes that not only does this recreation serve to enhance the Michelangelo and Sebastiano exhibition, but that this technological process represents “a significant step in the original Chapel’s preservation, acting as a reference of its current state and as a tool for future study”. The importance of this singular facet of the project, aside from its use in the exhibition as an educational tool as combined with ‘creative’ recreation for that purpose, cannot be overestimated in light of the destruction of irreplaceable artworks and monuments around the globe. Geographically, earthquakes in Italy provide a continuing threat to the preservation of artworks, but on a more urgent level it is impossible to not mention here the threat from deliberate destruction by man. The 3D model of Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria, while achieving mixed results in its effectiveness both as a physical recreation and in its purpose of raising awareness about terrorism, nonetheless faithfully recorded an item destroyed by ISIS in 2015. In this light, while it is exciting that such technology is capable of reproducing large monuments and even whole towns, it is chilling to realize that there is increasing necessity for it.

The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)
The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte (photo © Factum Arte)

Michelangelo & Sebastiano continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, UK) through June 25

Hockney Retrospective at Tate Britain – Hyperallergic



First published in Hyperallergic, 4.4.17



LONDON — Since the passing of Lucian Freud, David Hockney has come to be regarded as the UK’s greatest living painter, his name a byword for extraordinary draftsmanship and an altogether less “passionate” style of painting. The queues snaking around the block for his retrospective at the Tate demonstrate the compelling popularity of his bright colors, the aesthetic pleasantness of his vibrant landscapes spanning his near-60-year career, and his capturing of glamorous sex and sun in the 1960s. Hockney is comparatively dispassionate, however, because his method of working is instructively informed by inquisitive intellectual and technical explorations. Tate Britain curators Chris Stephens, Andrew Wilson, and Helen Little make this clear by their choice to arrange this chronological survey around Hockney’s technical interests, theming each segment in the context of, say, abstraction, naturalism, and optical theories regarding cameras. The chronological method of display overall, however, reinforces what has been cited by many a critic and will be obvious to any visitor: Although the technical interest is in play throughout his career, the visual quality of his work undeniably suffers and declines following his 1960s peak.

Rooms One through Five cover early works of the 1960s, demonstrating Hockney’s prodigious inventiveness in his youth combined with his absolutely breathtaking draftsmanship skills. The period is compartmentalized into technical explorations thus: “Play within a Play” shows his investigations into the conventions of perspective (his reimagining of Hogarth’s famous perspectival oddity in “Kerby (After Hogarth) Useful Knowledge” of 1975 is a cocky artist’s in-joke); “Demonstrations of Versatility” covers his work at the Royal College of Art, in which Hockney selects or discards different styles, treating painting as an intellectual exercise. (He noted, “I deliberately set out to prove I could do four entirely different sorts of picture like Picasso.”) “Paintings with People In” addresses his years after the royal College of Art, visiting Los Angeles for the first time in 1964, pointing out his interest in the painting plane as a stage combined with interplay between modes of abstraction vs. representation: 1963’s “The Hypnotist” quite literally turns the picture plane into a theatre stage, across which two players traverse.



David Hockney, “Model with Unfinished Self Portrait” (1977), oil paint on canvas, 1524 x 1524 mm (Private collection c/o Eykyn Maclean © David Hockney)



If all this sounds terribly detached and unemotional, that’s because Hockney’s technical skill is quite clearly completely effortless and natural — almost unbelievably so. His confidence of line and economy of modeling means that painting, for him, presents no struggle whatsoever, hence the room for complete focus on its means to explore intellectual ideas. Such formidable talent is evident in some iconic portraits, lending that distinctive 1960s coolness: “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy” (1970–71); “American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman)” (1968). The famous LA paintings, including “A Bigger Splash” (1967) and “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” (1972), strip all modeling down to its bare minimum, using precision of line, color choice, and composition that make it all look so still, easy, and unforced. These are presented again in terms of artistic theory — we are invited to observe their use of pictorial framing, and, yes, you probably never noticed that the sensational “A Bigger Splash” has an enormous expanse of unpainted canvas left as a framing device — but their visual punch nonetheless goes straight to the gut.



It’s all too easy. Thus, one can’t help but feel that the output following this initial starburst tends toward the sloppy. When you’ve encapsulated the 1960s in a singularly iconic body of work, though, why should you bother? This was my repeated thought throughout the subsequent works. Hockney’s landscapes are increasingly abstract from the naturalistic, using freer, more expressive strokes that sometimes don’t actually cover the bare canvas. His colors similarly depart from naturalism in their loudness: all purples, yellows, and greens straight from the tube, applied to all landscapes, whether supposedly LA or East Yorkshire: They could theoretically depict anywhere. Indeed, his recent works of large scale and outdoor depictions of trees tend toward the outright naïve; gone is the precision of hand, that economy replaced with — I hate to say it — what looks an awful lot like laziness. When the final rooms bring the advent of Hockney’s digital paintings, conducted on an iPad, one wonders how much of it is for the technical interest in the “next step” in making art, and how much for the convenience of no longer bothering with the messiness of paint. Perhaps I’m being harsh to an increasingly frail artist who has already more than proven himself, but from a coldly art-historical perspective, given that the iPad lends itself particularly to the naïve tendencies in Hockney’s drawing skills, the case for it here as a method of advancing the means of making art is not exactly convincing.



The show’s curation at times feels forgiving toward this decline, in evidence from the first when it chooses to bend the rules of its own chronological method; the exhibition’s mantra is to show how the “roots of each new direction lay in the work that came before,” and it uses Room One to juxtapose works from the 1960s, 1970s, and one from 2014 to reinforce this cyclical idea, justifying the progression into computer generated images. Thus the brilliant “Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool” (1971) — gorgeously economic in its geometrical treatment of a plan view of a pool, just two blocks of color with a red circle — sits with 2014’s “4 Blue Stools,” a “photographic drawing” splicing together drawing and digital photos of sitters, with the Tate arguing for its technical concerns with pictorial plane and perspective. The brilliance of Hockney’s early paintings, regardless, still acts as a yardstick that his forays into fiddling with digital manipulation never come close to surpassing.

Similarly, describing Hockney’s experiments with multiscreen video works — shown here in a film recorded by nine cameras of a Yorkshire road over four seasons — as “a cubist film, showing different aspects of the same scene as perceived by a moving observer,” uses backward-facing art-historical terms to describe something we expect to be forward-looking, straining to justify the artist’s ongoing relevance in a contemporary art world which, it must be said, is already leaps ahead of him in its use of cutting-edge technology.



David Hockney, “9 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon” (1998), oil paint on nine canvases, 1003 x 1689 mm (Richard and Carolyn Dewey © David Hockney; photo credit: Richard Schmidt)



Despite its best efforts to justify the relevance of his digital experiments, the arc of Hockney’s career remains clear, well presented, and with precision focus on his varying intellectual ideas of pictorial representation. The sheer skill of draftsmanship similarly shines through in intervals as a key element underpinning his freedom to paint naïvely if he desired; as late as the iPad paintings are charcoal pieces observing his native Yorkshire, proof that he can draw if he wants to (though frequently he doesn’t: In his recent show of 80 portraits painted in recent years at the Royal Academy, the work was embarrassing in its wanton laziness). The epic heights he reached in the 1960s, however, are so magnificent that they have apparently given him a free pass ever since.

David Hockney continues at Tate Britain (Millbank, Westminster, London) through May 29.

Michelangelo & Sebastiano at National Gallery – City AM


First published in City AM 16.3.17

You probably haven’t heard of Sebastiano del Piombo, the Venetian born artist and contemporary of the Renaissance superstar Michelangelo. Frankly the dynamic, superlative output of Michelangelo blows Sebastiano’s relatively diminutive works out of the water.

Thankfully, this show is unconcerned with ‘rediscovering’ a lost master, or using Michelangelo’s name to sex-up a generic Italian Renaissance exhibition; instead, this is a rigorously academic – and utterly fascinating – exercise in exploring a working artistic relationship through collaborative paintings, drawings and correspondence.

The two men shared a friendship that lasted 25 years, enduring twists and turns up to its acrimonious end. Revealingly intimate letters exchanged between the two create a vivid impression of an unforgivingly competitive art scene in early 16th century Rome.

Some fascinating theories are put forward by the show, each one backed up with visually compelling evidence. It suggests Michelangelo joined forces with Sebastiano against his ‘detested’ rival Raphael, demonstrated by the shift in Sebastiano’s typically atmospheric Venetian style towards the brilliant primary colours that were recognised as Raphael’s main selling point.

The juxtaposition of a preparatory drawing of clasped hands by Michelangelo are directly borrowed in Sebastiano’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ, the back of which bears doodles by Michelangelo anticipating certain sections of his Sistine Chapel composition.

The exhibition is stuffed with such thrilling cross-pollination of designs by Michelangelo worked into paintings by Sebastiano.

It’s undeniable that the utterly beautiful Michelangelo drawings lose their vitality in the versions painted by his friend: the Lamentation, though directly influenced by Michelangelo’s Pieta (a copy of which is loaned here from the Vatican) lacks grace and refinement; likewise, the centrepiece of the Raising of Lazarus is clunky.

This justifies the National’s radical decision to recreate Sebastiano’s Borgherini Chapel in S. Pietro in Montorio using ground-breaking technology; we gain an awesome impression of its scale and presence, but there’s not much in the way of fantastic paintwork to see.

It’s refreshing to see an exhibition set out not to champion a lesser known artist but to use his friendship with a true master as a starting point for a compelling visual investigation.

America After the Fall at Royal Academy – City AM



First published in City AM  23.2.17

American Gothic by Grant Wood

Hot on the heels of its Russian Revolution exhibition downstairs, the RA continues on an exciting trajectory in its programming with an equally intriguing – and rigorously curated – show in its Sackler Wing, focusing on American art in the decade following the Wall Street Crash of October 1929.

Much has been made of the UK debut appearance of its starring piece, Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ of 1930; even if you are unfamiliar with the title, you will have seen this famous painting (above) duplicated, referenced or parodied somewhere in contemporary life.

For a relatively small exhibition, so many themes are crammed in.Yet they’re represented perfectly in the 45 paintings selected here that it is impossible to emerge without a better appreciation and understanding of the uncertainty and turmoil that characterises this strange period.

The compact rooms efficiently cover key themes; mass migration from rural areas to cities in search of prosperity and, in turn, the importance of New York City as a focal point; slowly recovering industry and cautious optimism twinned with nostalgia for its agricultural past.

Striking, then, is Charles Green Shaw’s giant Wrigley’s chewing gum floating amidst abstract skyscrapers, the ominous onset of commercialism and advertising (anticipating American Pop Art as we know it), contrasting with Alexandre Hogue’s ‘Erosion No.2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare’, which imagines the dust bowl literally as a female figure abandoned, lamenting the passing of an era. In this context, the question of whether Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ celebrates or satirizes old-style rural America is compellingly renewed.

Elsewhere, more forceful images delve into darker issues: Joe Jones’s ‘American Justice’ of 1933 shows a lynch mob behind a prostrate black woman, while Philip Guston’s ‘Bombardment’ of 1937, directly inspired by the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, refers to a universal terror of conflict.

What emerges from this collection is a distinct aesthetic; none of these paintings are large scale or particularly ambitious. Rather, many appear subdued, communicating a tangible unease and anxiety, keenly felt during the Great Depression.

Against this background, more recognisable names – Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe – are illuminated in a more sombre social-political context than we usually see them, allowing us to experience their works anew in this most turbulent period of American art and history.

The Portraiture Of Van Dyck –

First published in March 23rd 2016

Van Dyck revolutionised the portraiture of northern Europe and it is this achievement that forms the basis of a comprehensive and enticing display at The Frick Collection, New York.

Van Dyck represents the pinnacle of late 17th century portraiture for many art collectors. Apprenticed from a young age to the mighty Rubens in Antwerp, Van Dyck forged his own immensely successful career first in Italy — most notably among the gentry of Genoa, then of Palermo, Sicily — then under the patronage of Charles I of England.

Emerging from the distinctively fleshy, loose workshop style of Rubens, Van Dyck effectively revolutionised the portraiture of northern Europe with a tauter style that presented sitters in the height of sophistication; making unprecedented use of the full-length format, they gaze down at the viewer in a position that is simultaneously intimate and authoritative. Van Dyck made the image of Charles I, who was short in stature, both humane and powerful.

It is little wonder then that Van Dyck’s portraits are highly prized by collectors of Old Masters. For example, Billionaire founder David Leppan’s collection features Van Dyck’s depiction of Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, and Filippo Spinola, 2nd Marquis of Los Balbases, Spain. This is the only British collection to feature two such full-length portraits on the same wall outside the Wallace Collection and Buckingham Palace. With great dynamism, these figures of the aristocracy seem to fill the pictorial space with impressive presence and a stylishness that would have had enormous impact on their audiences.

Also in Leppan’s collection is a small, seemingly innocuous cropped study of a hand emerging from outside the frame, pressing the shoulder of a black man, whose face is upturned towards its unseen owner, bought from Christie’s in 2011. This takes on greater significance when related to Van Dyck’s portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine, a member of the French court under Louis XIII, now in Kenwood House, London. For it is her hand on this man’s shoulder; the image directly mirrors a small section of the final portrait’s composition, and its existence presents another dimension to our understanding of Van Dyck’s working methods and studio. Fully worked up — as in not left in sketch or unfinished form — it is thus most likely a copy of a section made by a studio member as an aid to his apprenticeship under the workshop master.

A similar principle is at work in the Frick Collection of New York City’s exhibition ‘Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture’. Henry Frick’s immaculate taste led to his purchase of eight Van Dyck portraits, which form the basis of this, the largest and most comprehensive display in living memory of examples from major collections around the world. Complementing this overwhelming array of some of his most powerfully rendered figures is an equally comprehensive selection of supporting drawings, etchings and sketches, each giving invaluable insight into Van Dyck’s practice. Off the bat, preliminary sketches alone in brown pen and ink, occasionally highlighted with chalk, display an exceptional draughtsmanship that is loose and expressive, effectively bridging the gap between his tutor Rubens’s signature brushwork and his own tighter rendering. Portrait Study of a Commander on Horseback from the British Museum (circa 1621) from his late Italianate period is flamboyant, yet capturing maximum depth and tone using a minimal touch.

Differing mediums alone illustrate varying purposes for his portraits: a miniature sketch of Antwerp politician and cultural figure Nicolaas Rockox depicts the visage in grisaille (or grey tones only) against a classical niche, while its adjacent preliminary drawing has rapidity in its pencil marks, showing it to be the initial sketch from life. The subtle differences in expression between the two versions are minute, yet with extraordinary impact on their overall effect and, crucially, the sitter’s conveyed character. Adjacent again is an engraved version, laterally inversed and rendered in sharp, crisp ink lines due to this particular method. The crispness of the engraved line, combined with its ease of duplication, indicates this portrait was more likely to have been intended for multiple reproductions; a means of mass communication favoured by such political figures.

A startling and welcome inclusion is the famed oil sketch discovered by the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow team, thought to be a preparatory portrait for a now lost group portrait of The Magistrates of Brussels, under later overpainting. London-based art dealer Philip Mould, who helped secure its attribution to Van Dyck, was also responsible for the identification of David Leppan’s own Duke of Bracciano as authentic. Now in a private collection, the newly discovered Brussels oil sketch — here the only one of its kind and thus incalculably significant — demonstrates an alternative method to sketching from life in pencil; it is larger in scale, and a looseness of touch indicates that it must have been completed in relatively brief sittings.

Compare this to the unfinished portrait of a woman (circa 1640), loaned from the Speed Art Museum of Louisville, in which the visage of its sitter is fully modelled, as is a radiating amount of drapery, body, hands and background, yet the extremities remain completely unmodelled. While his sketch of the Brussels sitter is an oil sketch among surrounding bare canvas due to its preparatory purpose, in the Louisville piece the high finish of the completed areas gives an indication that the surrounding areas were intended for completion by various second hands in Van Dyck’s studio. We are given excellent insight into the division of labour among his pupils; it is this division and working practice — which parts were by the hand of the master or pupil(s) — that holds the key to correct attribution, and may be the difference in value when it comes to auction. Certainly the practice of a studio ‘working up’ a composition planned out by the master indicates his presence in composition alone: with such individual geniuses as Rubens and Van Dyck, the question of a pupil convincingly emulating the master is moot. One has only to look at another genius follower of Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, to see how differently the master’s style could be developed.

If a painting has such overwhelming evidence in its favour that Van Dyck’s hand is present in the most crucial elements, then you can comfortably add a few zeros to your guide price.

‘Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture’ is at The Frick Collection, New York, 2 March to 5 June.

Largest Exhibition of Sandro Botticelli’s Works in Britain Since 1930 –

First published in March 17th 2016

An astonishingly diverse display of interpretations by creative minds across fine art, design, fashion and the applied arts.

In ‘Botticelli Reimagined’, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum London sets itself the mammoth task of tracing the resounding influence of this iconic figure of the Italian Renaissance throughout 500 years of art and culture. What emerges is an astonishingly diverse display of interpretations by creative minds across fine art, design, fashion and the applied arts. Running through the chronology is the same recurring quest for the ideal of beauty, and how this ideal changes between societies and the ages, and will continue to change.

In the opening section, Global, Modern, Contemporary, it is a testament to the richness of the original Botticelli Birth of Venus of 1484-1486 that its reproduction by so many contemporary artists from the mid-20th century to the present take on wildly varying forms, each making entirely independent points. Far from being a visual cliché such as the over-exposed Mona Lisa, or a pastiche, it becomes a vessel through which we can examine the idea of beauty in our own times. Milan-based Tomoko Nagao imagines Venus in a mass consumerist age as a manga figure emerging from a sea of chocolate bacci on a games console instead of a shell, with an EasyJet aircraft crashing through the background.

Photographer David LaChapelle presents a blonde pneumatic model Venus amid a glittering kitsch landscape, a tactful but prominently placed glistening conch shell brings the subtle eroticism of the original to the fore, reflecting today’s over-sexualised culture. Elsewhere, Dolce & Gabbana uses the image as a fabric pattern for its Spring/Summer collection of 1993; Warhol makes abstract her cropped face in coloured prints; and Chinese artist Yin Xin’s Venus, after Botticelli gives her Asian features. Where the original is largely considered to be a universal idea of beauty, the conflicting ideas charging around in this exhibit demonstrate that the definitive concept remains elusive in our own time, yet a hotly contested one.

The inclusion of French artist Orlan dares to remind us that the quest for beauty is subjective, often against women. Famous for undergoing plastic surgery in the 1990s in The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan, her modifications read like a shopping list of iconic beautiful artworks: the nose of Gérôme’s Psyche; the lips of Boucher’s Europa, Mona Lisa’s forehead, and the chin of Botticelli’s Venus. By this violent submission to the subjective gaze of others — male or female — Orlan reminds us that behind our quest for the idea of visual perfection lies a person within the objectified vessel; against the 500 years of art that precede her and beyond, it is startling how feminism is so recent a development.

The next section, Rediscovery, illustrates the enormous impact Botticelli had on artists following his rediscovery in 1815 with the presentation of the Birth of Venus and Primaverain the Uffizi, Florence, after several centuries of obscurity. An explosion of drawings by Ruskin, Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelites slavishly copy Botticelli’s nudes, as if somehow the very dimensions are the formula for perfection. Ruskin claimed that he copied the figure of Zipporah from Botticelli’s Temptation of Moses almost as facsimile suggests an obsessive quest to capture this notion of beauty as an abstract concept, independently of the idea of woman. Conversely, Rossetti’s brooding portraits of La Donna Della Finestrapursue his personal idea of perfect beauty in the features of a model in his own time. Elsewhere, Ingres’s La Source cites the bodily pose of Botticelli’s Venus, rendered with the impossibly smooth painterly modelling that epitomises the Romantic era. Curators Mark Evans and Ana Debenedetti cite an unknown French critic who claimed that through Ingres, the spirit of Botticelli was revived.

Finally, we go further back to Botticelli in his Own Time, demonstrating that behind the compelling images that so inspired the artists earlier in the show was a supreme talent for design combined with a mind for business. Among several stunning examples of his own hand — the appearance of the Uffizi’s Pallas and the Centaur, travelling to London for the first time is a delight — are workshop pieces maintaining the consistency of his own distinctive visual style. This is evident in several tondos featuring the Holy Family, tweaked in composition to fit the difficult circular tondo shape, and it is a rare treat to see so many in one place.

To close, we return to the iconic Venus, shown isolated, monumental, in two versions from Turin and Berlin respectively. Presented so simply, we see the “endless adaptability” of this composition, and are reminded of the many versions interpreted throughout 500 years by subsequent ideals of beauty and perfection, and the contentious issues this entails. It seems the pursuit of the elusive concept of beauty is a fundamental primal drive in our need to create visual art.

‘Botticelli Reimagined’ will be on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 3 July 2016.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at the Royal Academy review – City AM

First published on 28th Jan 2016

At the turn of the century the concept of the modern garden – a tended, cultivated individual plot to be enjoyed as a respite from urban life – increased in popularity throughout Europe and the US, with fervent intellectual interest in botany.

The Royal Academy captures the artistic reaction to this in its show Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, which explores how the modern garden influenced the development of art from the early 1860s to the 1920s.

The impressionist movement is key, and most will recognise the much-loved water lilies of Monet adorning the show’s promotional material. But what emerges is an exhibition infinitely richer and more rewarding than a simple collection of pretty pictures.

The paintings assembled are overwhelmingly riotous in colour, full of fizzing life, all ingeniously arranged to create the illusion of a garden in full bloom. Through this the RA cleverly demonstrates just how much of an impact the garden had on painters during this time.

Joaquin Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911. Source: Royal Academy

The collection includes works by such giants as Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Sargent and Van Gogh, but a personal highlight was Joaquín Sorolla’s 1911 portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany (pictured below), surrounded by the huge swirling purple, yellow and white flowers of Tiffany’s Long Island home.

One surprising room, amusingly entitled Avant-Gardens, explores the influence these patches of greenery had on other artistic movements. Here the likes of Kandinsky and Emile Nolde interpret the subject matter in heavily abstracted, primary colours of great intensity.

Also surprising is Gustav Klimt’s Cottage Garden, painted in muted reds and greens, contrasting with his more famous glittering and gilded works.

The show is a triumph: an excellent idea, executed with imagination and flair, presenting material that moves far beyond the boundaries of impressionism.

All of this, however, won’t prepare you for the impact of the final room: here, the panels of Monet’s monumental triptych Water Lilies (Agapanthus) have been reassembled from the Cleveland Museum, Saint Louis Art Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri.

A culmination of his iconic works made at his garden at Giverny, they represent a profound response to the traumas of the First World War. It’s an exhilarating display, and a jewel in the crown.

Marveling at Goya’s Haunting Portraits, National Gallery –

Francisco de Goya, "The Marchioness of Santa Cruz" (1805) (© Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)Francisco de Goya, “The Marchioness of Santa Cruz” (1805) (© Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)

LONDON — 2015 saw a clutch of high-profile London museums lose their directors: Neil MacGregor at the British Museum; Sandy Nairne at the National Portrait Gallery; Penelope Curtis at Tate Britain; Nicholas Penny at the National Gallery. Many commentators have pointed to an increasingly hostile atmosphere for arts institutions, in which savage cuts in government funding demand the need to generate income through special exhibitions, while at the same time maintaining free entry and curatorial integrity. Goya: The Portraits is the first major exhibition at the National Gallery to herald the arrival of its new director, Gabriele Finaldi, fresh from his tenure at the Prado, Madrid. And rest assured, any anxieties that the National might begin a program of showy but curatorially superficial crowd-pleasers are immediately allayed: what a success it is! A dual victory of curation and diplomacy. The decision to investigate Goya, well-known for his darker, more tormented output — the Black PaintingsAtrocities of War, or bullfighting series (the Courtauld Gallery recently showed his Witches and Old Women album) — entirely through portraiture proves a fresh and profitable one. The show is the first of its kind in the UK, made possible by exceptional negotiations that led to the borrowing of more than 70 works from all over Spain, the United States, and some impressive private collections (a 1783 portrait of María Teresa de Vallabriga y Rozas belonging to Mexican billionaire Pérez Simón makes an appearance). They’re curated by Xavier Bray in a way that boldly allows them to speak for themselves, rather than imposing a forgone conclusion. A classic example of show, not tell.

Francisco de Goya, "Ferdinand VII in Court Dress" (1814–15) (© Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)Francisco de Goya, “Ferdinand VII in Court Dress” (1814–15) (© Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)

When was the last time you saw a survey of one artist that could dispel completely the need for filler, i.e. supporting and contextual works by others? That every piece here is Goya’s, and that they’re all arranged simply chronologically, achieves that rare curatorial trick: to allow stylistic analysis to emerge through progression, without spoon-feeding us what that stylistic development is. It’s to be expected, then, that some early clunkiness is apparent: his first official commission, at the age of 37, for the Count of Floridablanca in 1783 shows Goya himself in the picture, holding the canvas for approval. The imbalanced piece is chaotic and crammed with extra details referencing the Count’s duties as First Minister of State and Protector of the Royal Academy of San Fernando. Elsewhere, despite flourishes such as the beautiful rendering of fabrics and embellishments, sitters are often stiff and lacking in dynamism, bearing a weirdly blank, spaced-out gaze. The Marquis of San Andrián, painted in 1840, sports the most wonderfully zingy lemon-green velvet breeches, painted with verve and confidence, yet a distinctly constipated, strained expression.

Francisco de Goya, "The Duchess of Alba" (1797) (© and courtesy The Hispanic Society of America, New York) (click to enlarge)Francisco de Goya, “The Duchess of Alba” (1797) (© and courtesy The Hispanic Society of America, New York) (click to enlarge)

Minus the occasional wobbles, the 1790s and onwards signalled the blossoming of Goya’s success as a portraitist. He suffered a devastating illness which left him deaf in 1792–93, but he remained a lively communicator, learning sign language and connecting in a new way with his sitters through his work. An array of stunning examples is shown here, notably the celebrated portrait of the Duchess of Alba in 1797, lent by the Hispanic Society of America. A whirlwind of rapid brushwork captures her extravagant lace; a haughtily defiant, knowing gaze communicates her famed eccentricity. Goya wrote in 1794 of his capricious new patron: “[The Duchess of] Alba … barged into my studio yesterday to have her face painted, and went off like that.” No less lively are the portraits of the celebrated engineer Bartolomé Sureda and his wife, Thérèse Louise Sureda y Miserol: both combine relaxed stances indicative of real friendship with the formalities of commissioned portraiture, as well as some superb costume work.

Francisco de Goya, "The Family of the Infante Don Luís" (1783–84) (© Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Parma, Italy)Francisco de Goya, “The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón” (1783–84) (© Fondazione Magnani Rocca, Parma, Italy) (click to enlarge)

In 1799 Goya was made First Court Painter to the King, the highest honor for artists in Spain, and became the first Spaniard to hold the position since Diego Velázquez. The influence of the latter emerges as a strong thread throughout the survey, as early as 1783 with “The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón.” The work directly references Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656), with which Goya was intimately familiar, sharing the same composition of the central regal figure attended to by family and servants, and more explicitly by placing both the canvas in question and Goya himself within the frame, creating an optical game. His “Count of Cabarrús” of 1788, now in the Prado, draws upon Velázquez’s depiction of Pablo de Valladolid (c. 1635), discarding props and background setting and placing the sitter as if poised in action. I would even venture to say there’s a whiff of the “Rokeby Venus” — Velazquez’s celebrated nude that Goya admired while it was in the Duchess of Alba’s collection — about “The Marchioness of Santa Cruz” (1805), shown full length and reclining in the guise of a muse, classical lyre in hand.

Francisco de Goya, "Self Portrait" (1815)Francisco de Goya, “Self Portrait” (1815) (© Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) (click to enlarge)

The greatest benefit of this chronological arrangement of a great many works together, undiluted, is the emergence right from the outset of the very essence of Goya’s peculiar style. Even before the dark periods and ill health, his work evidences a curiously perplexing, almost uncomfortable tone that falls short of flattering his sitters; some pieces are deliberately unforgiving. A certain vulnerability and willingness to reveal his sitters’ — and indeed his own — soft underbellies distances him from the undeniable bravura which permeates the work of, say, Rembrandt or indeed his hero Velázquez. And while an unflinching deathbed self-portrait from the very end of Goya’s life, in 1820, brings us into line with the more familiar Black Paintings, an early 1780 self-portrait which opens the show is almost selfless in its total lack of vanity and faux-humility — a far cry from the distinct self-awareness that’s present in even the humbler of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. It’s as if Goya tended towards pessimism and a bleaker outlook on life from the very beginning, and continued on unaffected by the sparkling glory of societal and royal commissions. Whereas Velázquez displayed unabashed virtuosity and vivaciousness, there is undeniably something earthier and more genuinely sincere about Goya’s work. It is hugely affecting, haunting even. Some critics are calling this the exhibition of the decade: I couldn’t possibly comment in that regard, but it is certainly the most richly rewarding and important show you will see in a long time.

A Fresh Look at Rembrandt: ‘The Late Works’, review

First published in

LONDON — Rembrandt: the Late Works is that truly rare event: a study focusing on an artist whose quality of output is so universally lauded that it is fully supported by staggering loans never previously shown in this combination or indeed in the same country; “The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis” of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sweden, has never appeared in the UK. Apart from the unabashed gushing by critics over the undeniably compelling emotional and technical power of the paintings, their collective presence alone makes it a once in a lifetime opportunity for curators to flex their skills and do justice to an oeuvre that is satisfyingly rounded and of exceptional depth.

Rembrandt, "Self Portrait at the Age of 63" (1669), oil on canvas, 86 x 70.5 cm (© The National Gallery, London)Rembrandt, “Self Portrait at the Age of 63″ (1669), oil on canvas, 86 x 70.5 cm (© The National Gallery, London)

It is a common targeting of Rembrandt’s personal misfortunes in later life as the source of the works’ gravitas that tends to color most surveys, and indeed the National Gallery uses it to frame the first room, subtitled “Rembrandt Considers His Own Ageing Features.” It is so easy to pinpoint the sorrowful gaze of the famous self-portraits as symptomatic of internal turmoil and self-pity, yet by placing three such self-portraits together for a high-impact opening — hitting an emotional wallop — it becomes clear that here is an artist far too sophisticated for such a conclusion. Present with the “Self-Portrait” loaned from the Andrew W Mellon Collection, Washington (1659), is “Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul” of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (1661), and the “Self-Portrait” at the age of 63 from Kenwood House, London (1669). Consider the seemingly infinite depth of one portrait, then treble it, and consider then the pleasure that arises from comparison; the innumerable layers, strokes, and sophistication of color in each actually highlight a technical range within which these pieces sit, speaking of a superfluous capability. Combine this with the sitter role-playing parts: Kenwood House’s piece posits the painter against two circles, evoking the fabled skill of the model artist being able to sketch perfect circles freehand. The Rijksmuseum piece shows him role-playing, adopting a different yet still mysterious character gazing at us cryptically. Seeing all three in this way proves that far from baring his soul in a tragic, public self-flagellation, openly mourning lost family and fortune, they are in fact the embodiment of the artist confident in his supreme and still-expanding abilities, and it is we who are utterly taken in by the emotional gravitas these techniques conjure. Thus Rembrandt “Considers His Own Ageing Features,” but does it so that his own features act as a vessel through which to explore many more intellectual factors.

Rembrandt, "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman" (1656), oil on canvas, 100 x 134 cm (© Amsterdam Museum, SA 7394)Rembrandt, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman” (1656), oil on canvas, 100 x 134 cm (© Amsterdam Museum, SA 7394)


Indeed, though unfashionable as a commercial painter and declared bankrupt in 1656, the compulsion to continue pushing his own painterly abilities through self-portraits demonstrates a natural gift at the height of its power. Room three is devoted to the various influences of other major artists as absorbed and interpreted by Rembrandt; we know from his inventory of the vast quantities of prints, drawings, and curiosities held as teaching aids and visual stimuli. The superiority of Rembrandt amongst Dutch painters often has led to his consideration in isolated terms: it is refreshing then to identify influences as diverse as painted miniatures of the Mughal era (c. 1628–58), sixteenth century Venetian types and Titian, and earlier works of Raphael, leading to an impression of an artist well rooted and inspired constructively by the artistic traditions leading up to his era.

Rembrandt, "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife" (1655), oil on canvas, 113.5 x 90 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz (© Scala, Florence / Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin. Photo: Jörg Anders)Rembrandt, “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” (1655), oil on canvas, 113.5 x 90 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz (© Scala, Florence / Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin. Photo: Jörg Anders)


Indeed, it is a testament to the consistency and depth of quality of his work that, despite arranging the pieces into themed rooms such as “Emulation” (i.e. that referred to in above paragraph), “Observation of Everyday Life,” and “Intimacy,” you could in actuality place any piece in any of these rooms and it would still have huge relevance. A brilliant example is the case of the controversial “The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis” (c. 1661–2), an enormous lone painting amongst many etchings and drawings. Uncompromising in its brutal depiction of grotesque physiognomies, so that it was removed shortly after its installation in Amsterdam Town Hall in 1662, we are invited to look at it here in the context of light and shade. Where etchings display extremes of light and black, here the painting exists within a limited spectrum of earth brown tones; the comparison highlights brilliantly the range of depth and mood achieved within such a limited tonal scope.

Rembrandt, "Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback" (probably 1663), oil on canvas, 294.5 x 241 cm, Bought with a special grant and contributions from The Art Fund and The Pilgrim Trust, 1959 (© The National Gallery, London)Rembrandt, “Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback” (probably 1663), oil on canvas, 294.5 x 241 cm, Bought with a special grant and contributions from The Art Fund and The Pilgrim Trust, 1959 (© The National Gallery, London)


The show is pure pleasure from start to finish, with emotional resonance that will stay with you, enhanced by varied and insightful arrangements allowing stimulating comparison and study. With such hyperbolic works there are a few over-excited statements from the National Gallery, such as suggesting Rembrandt was the first to mix paint on the canvas using a palette knife — a worryingly unproven assertion. Given such superb loans, this is an intense and revealing display, and absolutely once in a lifetime.

Rembrandt: the Late Works continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London) until January 18.

Yoshitomo Nara @ The Dairy Centre – Review Oct 2014

Yoshitomo Nara: Commercial Allure Presenting The Right Touch Of Unease - ArtLyst Article image

Perhaps the most persistent characteristic of Nara’s work is its commercial allure and marketability (expect a strong presence at Frieze this year). This is not to say it has simply been well publicised – though the hagiographic forward from the Dairy co-founder Nicolai Frahm does try its best, describing viewing a new work: “For the next hour everyone sat fixated on the painting, unable and unwilling to utter a word. Each of us was absorbed in a near spiritual experience”. Moreover, his works comprise elements of such a broad span as to appear visually easy to live with yet just presenting the right touch of unease – the cuteness yet menacing undertone of paintings populated by wide eyed, innocent looking children with expressions of mischievous intent – coupled with references to both East and Western cultural influences, all rendered in very palateable pastel colours, simplistic compositions and soft, babylike contours. Put simply, the blend of the distinctive cartoon/manga child motif so prevalent in Japanese popular culture has in effect been applied within the fine art discipline of Western painting, with widespread appeal as a result.

Such is the success of this formula that Nara has rarely strayed from it throughout his career.  This is not to downplay the subtle variances and painterly skill within the pieces: within the restrictive framework of the repeated child motif, expert colour construction applied with measured precision makes for a painting surface that is deceptively layered and rich. Instead of flat planes as dictated by the traditionally linear-dominant cartoon method, dabbles of light and golden colours temper the girls’ eyes, hair, with more than a passing resemblance to the glittering surface treatment of Klimt. A discernible palette has been decided upon and stuck to with rigidity, resulting in subtle but distinctive variety between each piece. Such is the consistency of paint application, that a girl whose hair is rendered in delicate painterly swirls rather than blotches instantly attracts greater notice than perhaps otherwise.

Large scale and with enough deviation from the formula, these are pieces more suited to collect, rather than existing independently. They are thus well suited to the large gallery spaces of the Dairy Art Centre, only lightly disguising the impression that there seems to be very much of a muchness going on. Included are a sequences of bronzes, a medium Nara has only relatively recently adopted in 2011. Each is again of the child heads we see in the paintings, cut off at the bust, oversized and over-round, with the same characteristic physiognomy of wide spaced eyes, pudding bowl/crash helmet hair, upturned button nose and slit-like mouth. The additional interest is confined thus to the application of the formula to this new medium, drawing attention to visible hand marks on the surface, the scale and the physically imposing weight of the girls reimagined three dimensionally. They are tailor made for large exhibition spaces; statement pieces to show off the comprehensiveness of one’s collection.

This impression is reinforced by the smaller gallery stuffed with over two hundred drawings dating from 1984 to 2014, revealing not only the process by which Nara arrived at this formula, but also the potential ideas and works discarded along the way. Here is a staggering array of crazy ideas and sketches: Nara clearly has an eye for graphic composition and comic book styles. The variance of the medium used is also fascinating; furious crayon and paint sketches reveal a keen sophistication and energy. It is curious then to see the sketching progressing (or regressing) towards the restrictive limitations that so define his ‘official’ work, the motif of children becoming more dominant, with all other elements slowly dispensed with. Depending on how successful you consider his main work, this is either the development of an artist’s ‘true style’, or the development of a mode of work that best facilitates further practice as a self-sufficient commercial artist: put simply, a mode of work that sells.

Words: Olivia McEwan © Artlyst 2014

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