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.

London Area Gallery Review, October 2014 – Pre-FRIEZE

Pre-Frieze London Art Gallery Overview By Olivia McEwan - ArtLyst Article image

This weekend Artlyst reviewer Olivia McEwan covers the most talked about exhibitions to see before the Frieze sets in!

This week sees a pleasing blend of the old and the new: selected entrants to the annual Illustration Awards are showing at Somerset House, while José Damasceno’s ‘Plot’ revitalises the Holborn library’s staid 1960s décor with an ArtAngel commissioned installation. Tom Dale makes child play of politics and power at the Copperfield gallery in SE1, while giants of the latter half of the 20th century Anthony Caro and Paula Rego are represented by Annely Juda and the Marlborough Gallery respectively.

Organised by the Association of Illustrators, the Illustration Award is the only annual jury selected competition of its kind in the UK, representing a panorama of the vast uses and professions for which illustration is currently employed. The most stimulating element of such a show is the density of themes and wholly contained projects displayed here: while contemporary fine art – and perhaps specifically painting – exists in relative isolation, meant to suggest, to ask more questions than answer, these graphic works are created to a brief, and as such exist as fully formulated responses.

Standouts include Laurindo Feliciano’s graphic work reflects the creative process within both fine art and fashion, likening it to that of a physician or anatomist working upon the blank canvas of the body, using medicine journal-like motifs. Breathtaking is Jillian Tomaki’s blending of precision graphics with painterly impression in an illustrated ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ created for the Folio Society: a reminder of how beautifully complementary visual accompaniments can so enhance the bare medium of text. Andy Ward’s series of posters commissioned by the University of California to raise mental health awareness are an ironic use of bright cartoon colours and fluffy animals to suggest that surface harmony may not be all as it seems: a devastating and hugely affecting sequence.

Worth visiting alone for a perfectly preserved slice of 1960s architecture and décor, the Holborn library is currently sporting a subtle and well integrated series of installations by José Damasceno, drawing on the idea of literary narrative linking the viewers’ experience through public spaces, bringing to attention the possibilities of scale. Thus in the main reading room, miniature silhouette figures derived from Letraset’s 1970s standardised characters created to inhabit architectural plans spring upside down from the ceiling; a direct literary evocation of Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Most interesting is his intervention on the top floor theatre – once used to screen back to back Hammer Horror films – imagining the theatre stage breaking into miniature islands floating throughout the audience space.

Annely Juda’s modestly sized galleries currently focus on the later works of Anthony Caro before his death in 2013, mainly his latter experimentation with Perspex. This is an exercise not in philosophical ideas pursued through visual medium, but in creating aesthetic sculptures that exist harmoniously independently and in plural. On paper looking like an afterthought, the careful matching of Perspex colour, opacity and shape actually adds an extra dimension to each piece, enhancing the endless interplay of facets and joins between plastic and rusted metal. Two of the works are in direct response to a visit to the Courtauld Gallery, more specifically Cézanne’s ‘Card players’, and make for an otherwise unlikely – though here proved brilliant – comparison between the two mediums. One can easily see how the faceted planes of pure coloured paint structured around hatched and angular linear outlines is translatable into the three dimensional models of interlocking and conflicting planes of Perspex or metal.

A giant of draughtsmanship, Paula Rego is another influential figure in British Art, here represented by Marlborough Fine Art, Mayfair. The usual dark themes and strong narrative are present – each piece a unified whole and crammed with visual detail and intrigue. Yet the work seems deliberately to be wandering into the realm of the currently fashionably naïve school: the strength of line has in some places been allowed to waver and falter, the grotesque element of bodily contortions and caricature allowed to come to the fore, rather than remaining a disturbing undercurrent. Adding to the equation is a greater conflict between medium, with the scratchiness of pencil line vying against swathes of patchily applied opaque white. Rego’s work has always been challenging in its dark nature, yet carried by the strength of line and strong composition: here we see works that threaten to become cluttered, uncomfortably disproportionate.

Crammed into the tiny Copperfield gallery tucked away in SE1 is Tom Dale’s ‘Department of the Interior’ – a giant bouncy castle made from bondage leather. While the current Turner Prize opens further down the river, filling Tate Britain with ideas barely made comprehensible (Duncan Campbell’s 54 minute long waffly video, anyone?), Dale’s point is powerful and concisely made. A slamming pun on the ‘child’s play’ that is the UK seat of power, or politics in general even, the castle entices and lures us in, despite its imposing, forbidding shiny black. Towering above us – yet forbidden to enter – it represents a false home, a chomping vagina, portcullis (portcuntis?) threatening to slam shut, with those inside engaging in the most childish, unashamed of practices. A well thought out idea, and well executed. Other pieces are slightly dwarfed, though no less intriguing. ‘I Cave’ is similarly a very simple idea: children’s party masks face inwards in a sphere, sprayed brilliant gold. Viewing through the mask eye-holes, we are posited in various guises and confronted with a distorted, glittering though obscured vision of ourselves in a curved mirror. Evoking Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, it questions what worlds we consider real or folly, a comment on superficiality and our own petty aspirations. A small but very consistent show.

Ruin Lust, Tate Britain – Review

As published on

Azeville, Jane Wilson & Louise Wilson, 2006 (Courtesy of Tate)

Ruin Lust is the snappy but problematic title to this Tate Britain show which draws from its own collections to explore – in wildly abstract fashion – the continuing fascination with ruins, from the Eighteenth Century onwards. The less explicit the title, the less prescriptive to the content; the exhibition thus proceeds to consider ‘Ruin’ as referring generally to decay, not just fragments of architecture from a given era, and the ‘Lust’ part transpires to be the range of relationships between artists and the concept of decay, rather than simple admiration or idolatry. Ruin Lust appears to be a pun on the German term Reinelust, comprising two words loosely meaning ‘ruin’ and ‘loss’, although the Tate does not clarify its aims behind the adoption of ‘lust’, as ‘loss’ captures more succinctly the emotional flavour displayed towards ruins. ‘Ruin Lust’ therefore actually undermines the real richness of the show. This is an unfortunate blip in an otherwise exceptionally stimulating exhibition that throws up more questions than it answers. Compared to the current National Gallery show in which paintings from its own collection entitled ‘Strange Beauty’ which in effect expounded a period in the history of its collecting, rather than examine the notion of aesthetics with regard to German art as per the similarly snappy title, the Tate has similarly drawn from its own collection differing and otherwise incongruous pieces which illustrate the varying relationships of artists towards the idea of decay throughout history. The abstract term Ruin Lust provides a starting point from which a barrage of ideas and concepts appear and reappear throughout. It is a brave move, which will stimulate some and infuriate others by its unruly and scattergun nature.

Room one greets us with sombre dark walls and three large scale pieces immediately indicating the range of works to be explored. Though otherwise unrelated, their relation by loose theme of ‘ruin’ produces an inevitable aesthetic comparison which is useful for comprehending what the Tate means by ‘Lust’. John Martin’s apocalyptic ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (1822), all tumbling rocks, larva and fleeing terrified figures, sits next to the still, eerie but threateningly looming derelict bunker shown in the photograph ‘Azeville’ by Jane and Louise Wilson (2006), representing the contemporary counterpart. Adjacent is Constable’s oil sketch for ‘Hadley Castle’ ca.1828, a romantic study of fragile fractured structures against vibrating landscape settings featuring feverish, textured brushwork. No captions explain the works (apart from Martin’s explaining its damage from the Tate flooding), allowing aesthetic comparisons to suggest themselves. We glean visually a sense of impermanence, of inevitable decay in a threatening, foreboding manner characterised by the consistently grainy textured surfaces of the images and sense of movement by the sheer business of each image space. It speaks of chaos, of order disrupted, yet the original pattern of design is still discernible. It is a curious aesthetic precursor which sets the tone for the following galleries and reflects something of the allure of ruin and decay itself. The next gallery continues this foreboding sense, being dimly lit and reverberating with the unsettling echoes of the sound installation to follow; if intentional this certainly continues the tangible sense of threat which the concept of inevitable destruction communicates.
Where the artworks most closely adhere to the simplest, most literal form of Ruin Lust – i.e. the desire, or idolatry of ruins in the architectural, ancient form – is the selection of sketches and watercolours drawn from the Tate prints collection. Martin sought to depict the ancient towns during ruination, capitalising on destruction and decay itself as a source of drama. By contrast, Piranesi focusses on the sadness of a grand, noble ancient society now lost, seeking to ‘immortalise’ their perceived grandeur through etchings of exaggerated proportions and shadows. Similarly, Richard Wilson’s paintings of the ruined villas of Hadrian and Maecenas as frequented by peasants are quaint, chocolate-boxy studies, summery in colour and only vaguely nostalgic. Tate Britain is spoilt for choice when it comes to Turner’s sketches, and most likely could have filled the entire room with studies of ruined structures in addition to those selected here, amply representing this Romantic attitude towards ruins.
When we progress to the Twentieth Century works however, the imaginative concepts and suggestions come pinging at us thick and fast. It appears that the curators have simply gone through the Tate collections and selected anything visually relevant to ruins and decay, and it would be easy to condemn this as laziness; with Patrick Caulfield sitting next to John Piper and John Stazeker, the word ‘tentative’ springs alarmingly to mind. The captions’ justifications however invite us to consider these works in this new light, with regard to the flowery terminology of the title. Indeed, it becomes a pleasure to explore the various potential interpretations, and again for revising the accepted ‘interpretation’ of the works used in the catalogues.
As such, Caulfield’s 1964 work ‘Ruins’ would more regularly in other exhibition contexts be considered with regard to the development of pop art, or colourism in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Here however the little blue blocks or ‘ruins’, outlined in Caulfield’s distinctive black lines and surrounded by bright yellow are seen in contrast with the preceding ‘noble’, melancholic and gloomy tones rendered by the Romanticists. The scope for potential interpretation of ‘lust’ – Caulfield’s relationship with this subject matter – is in this case thus massively widened for our benefit, with no ready packed conclusion. Is it a relationship of awe, appropriation, irony, or something else?
Indeed, such is his abstract treatment of these ‘blocks’ – for we know them to be ruins by their chipped corners and cracks – that it appears that the ‘ruins’ referred to have progressed from the classical era into an ahistorical concept, a distinction not made explicit by the show and adding some degree of confusion. Adjacent, Laura Oldfield’s work is selected for her focus on contemporary ruins with a 2010 painting of unsavoury, dilapidated London council estates in lurid fluorescent. The final room more coherently and in greater focus explores this theme of contemporary ruin with regard to cityscapes; Oldfield’s placement here is not entirely helpful for the bewildered viewer.
The relationship of appropriation reappears with John Stazeker’s distinct collages splicing retro photographs together. Here two examples are chosen presumably because they include fragments of postcards depicting ancient ruin. They have one foot in the Romantic-esque regard for ancient ruins, smacking of melancholy and loss, but also one foot in the less emotional, practical concern for the use of images of ruins; that of utilising them to create new work not wholly concerned with classic civilisation. At this point certainly it is difficult to differentiate the exhibition’s point with that made during last year’s show focusing on the destruction of images; the whole latter part of ‘Art Under Attack: British Iconoclasm’ (2013) discussed pieces which were formed from the destruction of other pieces, i.e. appropriating previous ideas and images.
Further interpretations ping at us with the inclusion of Tacita Dean’s video work showing the last productions made by the photographic Kodak Company in 2006, far removed from any traditional imagery of classical ruins or architecture. The idea is that a strange, eerie and nostalgic beauty is found through capturing the last breath of a dying medium. It certainly fits the terms Ruin Lust in an abstract manner, though feels an anomaly amongst the surrounding ideas of the other works.
Where the terminology really comes unstuck is the room discussing the art created in response to the conflicts of the Twentieth Century, with such harrowing pieces as those by Paul Nash showing crumpled fighter planes abandoned to rust. The Tate’s argument is that historically this era remained too recent in memory for artists to respond with any feelings of fondness or nostalgia; and indeed to apply the term ‘lust’ rather than ‘loss’ to the artistic products of brutality would be callous in the extreme. It claims instead that artists applied the ‘historic idea of ruin lust in order to come to terms with the aftermath of modern warfare’. This to my mind is to unduly simplify the relationship to the newly scorched earth artists found themselves in, and misses the immense tragedy attached to such works. These are works coming to terms with horror, not a romanticised vision of conflict as per John Martin’s idealised destruction of Pompeii. Muirhead Bone’s 1940 ink and charcoal piece ‘Torpedoed Oil Tanker’ is not so much created for aesthetic pleasure but as a method of recording the aftermath of conflict, very much like coming to terms with something so unnatural. The photographs by Jane and Louise Wilson make another appearance, this time with a caption revealing the bunker that we admired aesthetically in the first room is actually a fragment of the Nazi’s defensive Atlantic Wall. Intentional or no, this ‘reveal’ works powerfully upon us; can we still find aesthetic pleasure in the relics of brutal inhumanity?
These potent questions and ideas owe a lot to such ‘happy accidents’ of comparing such a diverse range of images. Yes, the Tate have clearly plundered their collections for anything remotely related, but such optimistic inclusion has facilitated a whole range of various interpretations of ‘Ruin Lust’ to present themselves. Even the presence of the first John Martin painting is justified because the piece itself is ‘ruined’, having been badly decayed in flooding, as noted in the caption. Does this increase our ‘Lust’ or admiration and protectiveness of it? Such are the wild thoughts pinging around the show that it requires an active engagement of its audience to make it really rewarding; there really are no solid conclusions here, and all the better for it.