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

The Unstoppable Art Scene in Iran – Billionaire

First published in

A change in the world order – putting Iran increasingly at political odds with the West – presents significant challenges for a vibrant Iranian art scene.

In 2016 Tehran Auction, Iran’s biggest auction, held two sales of classic and modern Iranian art, and contemporary Iranian art, smashing record prices to reach US$7m and US$3m in sales, respectively. One month into 2017, US President Donald Trump included Iran in a list of seven countries subjected to extreme vetting regarding entry to the US, and, at the time of writing, has put Iran formally ‘on notice’ after the country had tested a ballistic missile. Such critical events demonstrate keenly how the development of Iran’s cultural scene has long been inextricably bound with its political activity; both internally, in terms of how artists respond to issues of national identity and history, and externally; the exchange, both physical and intellectual, of art and artists internationally. At the beginning of 2016 thawing international relations underpinned a solo show by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye in Tehran, yet by the end of the year a proposed exhibition destined for Berlin, then Washington DC, of modern artworks from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) was postponed indefinitely.

In spite of, or even because of, constant upheavals and turbulence, Iranian art has long been astonishingly rich and diverse, reflected in its flourishing presence in the international art market — especially so following the lifting of sanctions in 2016 — and in the city of Tehran. The last four decades have seen a thriving cultural scene coloured by progressive artistic tendencies; a new generation born in the years after the 1979 Revolution is less concerned with producing ethnic or political art, using traditional modes and iconographies, and more with forging an independent voice on a global stage.

Iranian art is fiercely and proudly unique, using its heritage but by no means bound to its traditions. Graphic artist Reza Abedini personifies this when he asserts: “For me, graphic design is totally art.” In his compositions, Abedini conceives of the Persian-Arabic script less as typography and functioning text, adapting the traditional calligraphic art form so it becomes a form of pure art, and pushing it to the limits of legibility by running the letters together, squishing into shapes to form silhouettes and patterns. He discards the regularity of Western graphic design, instead focusing on the capability of the text to carry a spiritual or poetic significance visually. This radical use of the historic Persian text is alone a political act — Abedini cites lithographs and paintings of the Qajar period as particularly influential, frequently copying their portrait format of a silhouetted figure against block colour – adapting an historic, traditional discipline for contemporary means. Although initially inspired by Western artists such as Kandinsky, Pollock or Warhol, and having studied graphic design at the School of Fine Arts taught according to Bauhaus principles, Abedini’s career now spearheads a strain of contemporary Iranian art strongly informed by its cultural heritage. Its importance has been recognised on a global stage.

Abedini’s studio is based in Tehran, a city that has thrived as an artistic centre open to cultural exchange, and, with the lifting of sanctions, has become something of a cultural hub. This is in spite of its political circumstance; Iran’s relative isolation is dictated by sanctions and the difficulty of market exchange with the outside, and artistic expression is compounded by restrictions enforced by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. Isolated from the international art world’s recognised structure of galleries, auction houses and curators, these roles are blurred in Tehran, where the artistic community is forced into finding its own way of working. This is evident in flourishing exhibitions, lectures and talks, late openings and a strong art dealership.

A desire for outward exchange is matched in turn by the international art world’s eagerness to show and acquire Iranian art; the TMoCA in 2016 planned a show of modern art from Arab countries including the Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while the UAE itself has held major exhibitions of Iranian artists Parviz Tanavoli, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and Farideh Lashai; Dubai’s market in particular has been responsible for the sale of much Iranian work, with Christie’s Dubai notably making Tanavoli’s sculpture Oh, Persepolis the most expensive Iranian artwork, selling for US$2.8m in 2008.

State intervention in the arts continues to be a problematic presence within Iran: controversially, the modern Western masters owned by the TMoCA have never been available for show, appearing only in censored format in 2012, with concerns expressed by many over conditions of storage. In the collection’s now-cancelled schedule to travel to Berlin in 2016, Europeans would have enjoyed a fuller experience than Iranian nationals. On the other hand, in 2016, for the second year running, the mayor of Tehran had all billboards and adverts replaced by works of art for 10 days, turning the city into a giant breathing art gallery. Tanavoli has long been celebrated as a giant of Iranian art since the 1960s, famously for his ‘Heech’ sculptures which adapt the characters representing the word ‘nothing’ in Persian, but in 2016 had his passport confiscated as he was about to leave the country; he had been due to speak at the British Museum.

Against this background, Mehdi Ghadyanloo is a remarkable case; born during the Iran-Iraq war (1980–88) and having lived and worked as a fine painter all his life in Tehran, he has perhaps the unique position of having been commissioned by both the US and Iran governments to create public art. Monumental in scale, yet playful in his use of surrealism and trompe l’oeil, brilliant colours and impressions of blue skies lend an upbeat, wondrous feel. In completing 100 such murals around the city, he has literally changed the face of Tehran. His murals also appear in the US in Boston, Los Angeles, and at sites in England and Norway.

Indeed, Ghadyanloo encapsulates the new artistic generation of Iran; the Boston mural was created at a critical point in the thawing of US-Iran relations following the historic nuclear deal. It remains to be seen whether he will fulfill works in the US given recent activities by the Trump administration. This illustrates the challenges the Iranian art scene and its emerging talent continues to face.

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.

History of Colour


First published in

In order to create the paintings we know and love, a painter’s job was once akin to alchemy to wrest usable paint out of natural ingredients.

In terms of physical colour we live in a hyper-sophisticated age; synthetic, controllable colours in any hue imaginable are easily available in every form desired, from printing ink to humble household paint. Yet synthetic colours are a relatively recent phenomenon, ubiquitous due to ease of production and malleability, with the first, Prussian blue, being discovered by accident in 1704. Naturally occurring pigments (used for millennia as far back as Neolithic civilisations where yellow ochre is in evidence) each have their own characteristics and properties, not least the varying expense or difficulty in obtaining them. It is surprising then to think that for many centuries of art history, in order to create the paintings we know and love, a painter’s job was one akin to alchemy, or even cooking, to wrest usable paint out of these natural ingredients.

For paint is essentially pigment suspended in a medium: watercolour is pigment bound with gum arabic; the earliest Byzantine icon painters or those working at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance used egg tempera before oil became dominant (the oil is linseed, and remains to this day, although theoretically anything such as olive or walnut can be used); in the 20th century, plastics were introduced, making acrylics. The first pigment ever used was yellow ochre, a natural mineral consisting of silica and clay, varying from yellow through red, brown and even purple due to its iron-oxide content. Present on every continent, it has been used as paint by innumerable civilisations, notably forming the backbone of Aboriginal painting. In perhaps the first ‘how-to’ guide on painting written at the turn of the 15th century, craftsman Cennino Cennini describes stumbling across yellow ochre in the valleys near Sienna, taking some away on his penknife. Ochre in its various shades became so associated with Italian Renaissance painting that some hues — raw or burnt Sienna, and raw or burnt Umber — remain named after these towns.

Cennini’s text reads like a Renaissance-era recipe book, as he describes how to prepare pigments for painting: apparently in addition to its flavoursome properties, saffron is ground to make a yellow; the green pigment verdigris is “manufactured by alchemy, from copper and vinegar”; making blue from lapis lazuli (more on this below) requires a complex, three-day-long process involving pine rosin, gum mastic and wax. That artists had only natural materials to work with at this time is wondrous; glue for binding wood or paper was made using, if not fish or animal glue from boiled bones, an extraordinary recipe of lime and cheese, and blacks could be made from burning bones (one daren’t imagine the smell). Imagine using a crust of bread, as Cennini advises, as an eraser for rubbing out drawing mistakes.

While ochre, the original colour from the earth, fittingly became the most common ground colour in painting up to the modern era, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is remarkable for favouring instead its variant, green earth, to achieve his distinctively colder visual feel; like ochre, green earth is a naturally occurring deposit composed by varying degrees of iron oxide, magnesium, aluminium silicate, or potassium. In his Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, circa 1670-72 in London’s National Gallery, he mixes it variously with bone blacks, yellows and reds, and ultramarine blue, tempering the purer colours with this earth hue. The woman’s arms, particularly the shadowed part of her face, and the light spilling from the window are thus considerably cooler in tone than his contemporaries.

Also contributing to this overall cooler effect is his mixing of ultramarine in areas most artists would never dream of putting it due to its hefty price. Ultramarine was made from ground lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan: in 1508 Albrecht Dürer wrote complaining that one pound cost 100 florins, or £2,500 in today’s money. It is understandable then that in Christian iconography this blue is commonly reserved for painting the Virgin’s robes, being the most precious colour. As well as its obvious use here in the chair and the woman’s shoulders, The National Gallery’s technical analysis reveals its presence also in areas of flesh, the floor tiles and even the white walls. Vermeer is as such recognised as unique among his contemporaries for using this ultra-expensive pigment so lavishly.

Suffused throughout Young Woman Standing at a Virginal is lead white, the most commonly used throughout Western art history for its luminosity. It is however highly poisonous — records of its manufacturing process, and its use in make-up attest to this — and has been banned from sale in Europe since 1994 except under special conditions, with titanium white used instead. Indeed, painters today arguably face none of the struggles of historic artists, with synthetic versions even of ultramarine easily and cheaply available. In this respect, Indian artist Anish Kapoor is notable in his continuing engagement with natural pigment and its inherent physical properties, in the 1980s using raw pigment powder in his sculptures, making irresistibly gorgeous and pure mounds of colour. As of 2016, Kapoor has copyrighted use of the revolutionary new pigment developed by British company NanoSystems, called Vantablack. Designed to absorb 99.96 percent of all light, it is apparently the blackest pigment ever, and light years away from medieval craftsmen burning bones for black charcoal in their workshops. With ever-developing technology pushing new boundaries, one wonders where colour can go next.

Hieronymus Bosch: For Your Sins, Prado, Madrid

First published in

Bosch’s grotesque, abnormal creatures represent the literal embodiment of sin, in defiance of nature and the natural order of the world.

This year marks the fifth centenary of the death of the iconic but mysterious Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516). A landmark exhibition held at the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the hometown from whence the artist born Jheronimus van Aken took his professional name, has sensationally gathered an unprecedented number of extant works, certainly for the only occasion in this lifetime.

Bosch is remarkable throughout art history for his singularly unique voice and startling originality; ‘s-Hertogenbosch lacked a painters’ guild — the established practice by which craftsmen learned their trade — which certainly allowed greater creative freedom, as did his status within the wealthiest echelon of Netherlandish society. Yet the sheer scale, breadth and inventiveness of his highly moralising paintings, famously populated by grotesque visions of writhing bodies, hellish beasts and fantastical landscapes has so startled and entranced viewers that he has stood apart from any other artist contemporary or since.

That we have so little documentary evidence of his life and commissions adds to the mystery surrounding his work. Certainly within his own time Bosch originals were rarely distinguished from copies or works by followers, and although patrons existed around the general area within the Duchy of Brabant in northern modern-day Holland, little is known about their intended purpose or raison d’être. In May 2016 the exhibition moved to the Prado in Madrid, where it was joined by several more works attributed to Bosch that had been rejected by Dutch scholars who disputed their authorship: the number of ‘original’ paintings therefore varies between 27 and 24, depending wholly upon stylistic and technical interpretation by each camp.

Because Bosch’s paintings did not follow a standardised Western iconography and purpose (say, a patron would pick a favoured saint’s life, maybe insert his own portrait as donor, and decide the format and function, like an altarpiece or contemplative panel) many of his scenes instead relied on images of folklore, visual puns stemming from popular moralising sayings. These would have made sense to a 15th century audience, but the meanings of specific scenes and characters are now effectively indecipherable. What remains clear throughout, however, is his distinct preference for the use of natural, ‘earthly’ elements recognisable to the contemporary audience as a stark warning against the follies of sin, and the dire consequences for mankind. His grotesque, abnormal creatures so lovingly imagined, represent the literal embodiment of sin because they are in defiance of nature and the natural order of the world. The teachings of religious thinker Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) equating beauty and clarity with goodness were well known; medieval Christians saw beauty, goodness and truth as fundamentally linked.

Undoubtedly his most celebrated work, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1500 according to the Prado, 1495-1505 according to the Dutch specialists), comprises three panels that open on hinges. The outside shows in grisaille the spherical world, and on the inside a vision of paradise and hell. Here, on the left is a vision of paradise in which Eve is presented to Adam in marriage among a light-green ground, yet it shares the same pictorial landscape as the middle panel, which is populated by naked bodies cavorting on the backs of oversized animals, eating enormous fruits and generally enacting as many sinful pleasures as Bosch can think up. Reading left to right, the vision of hell on the right in contrasting darkness contains at its centre the famous image of a giant figure forming a grotesque tree-like structure, bearing inside the unmistakable scene of a grim brothel at night. The figures chewing on strawberries in the centre are equated to erotic love as opposed to the institution of marriage: sinful pleasure Bosch shows as a temporal and transient thing, leading to licentiousness on the right. A sober warning to his audience.

By placing the scenes not as before and after, but at one single point in time, and filling the plane with ghastly abominations of recognisable animals and domestic objects — musical instruments are visible, as are a distinctive type of knife known in Brabant, or German earthenware pots — Bosch represents the earth as real and current, not some vision distanced from the audience by fantasy. The idea communicates that the horrid perversions of nature and earth are actually of man’s own making, all around us right now. The effect must have been truly terrifying.

Interestingly enough, despite the seemingly ultra-Christian message, Bosch is communicating, it is the reliance on showing natural elements of the earth — and their distortions — along with more ‘earthy’ visual puns, rather than drawing from the accepted canon of Christian iconography, that makes Bosch paradoxically an exceptionally secular painter. This perhaps explains the enduring power his images continue to have over viewers; for his messages are essentially universal ones of morality. Indeed, it is impossible not to be overpowered and disturbed by these works even today.

Jeff Koons at Newport St Gallery

First published in truncated form in City AM.

Whatever your opinion of Damien Hirst’s own artwork, it is hard to fault his activity as a collector and proprietor of Newport Street gallery. Opened in October 2015 and gorgeously designed by architects Caruso St John, it is the perfect space – medium sized, light and airy with some double height rooms – to mount long running exhibitions of his collection. Mr Hirst has over 3,000 works, and is seemingly unconstrained financially, thus capable of selecting the cream of what can be bought, and – crucially – in sufficient number. This was evidenced in the excellent John Hoyland show which opened the project, and continues in this survey of Jeff Koons: ‘Now’. 

Indeed, it is almost impossible to go wrong when Hirst has such an impressive selection spanning Koons’s entire career since 1980. We get the greatest hits: the iconic basketballs floating in water, ‘Three Ball 50/50 Tank’ from 1985; the inflatable pool toys and hyper-realistic paintings from the ‘Popeye Series’ begun in 2002; an oversized ‘Balloon Monkey (Blue)’ of 2006-13; kitch, eroticized (and highly explicit) prints from the notorious ‘Made in Heaven’ series of 1991. We also get lesser known pieces such as ‘Bowl With Eggs (Pink)’ of 1994-2009, incredibly constructed from impossibly perfect polyethylene and in staggering size, and a series of framed Nike posters from 1985. 

Perhaps most interestingly, the show opens with his earliest sculptures of Hoovers displayed in fluorescent-lit boxes from 1980-83, reminding us of his roots in the traditions of pop art, lampooning consumerism and commercialism, and the culture of ‘readymades’; that is, objects made into art simply by their selection and display in a gallery. The later balloon dogs, Play-Doh sculptures and inflatables, all of which are rendered in impossibly perfect stainless steel and aluminium, created using the absolute cutting edge in technology, and all of which selling for hyper-bucks at market, symbolize Koons’s morphing into the ultimate Pop Artist of today, or Now. 

I maintain that the justifying ‘meaning’ behind the works, such as his declaring that “the basketball is the womb”, or that ‘Made in Heaven’ represents “the biological eternal”, is as empty and cynical a sentiment as the advertiser’s pitch. Listen to any Koons interview and it’s the perfect salesman patter. It consolidates his position as today’s uber artist; someone who peddles empty luxury with cod-philosophical ideals, and is enormously financially successful at it. 

Which is why this show is in some ways a blissful marriage of two of today’s most successful artist-businessmen. Both Hirst and Koons employ large workshops to create what are essentially products, bright and shiny and infinitely marketable, representing the ultimate in art as commodity. This is where the interest lies, and it truly is fascinating: just don’t strain yourself trying to decipher the works’ ‘meaning’ in the traditional sense.

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.

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