Using Mirrors to See van Eyck Reflected in the Pre-Raphaelites

Published on Hyperallergic February 1st 2018

LONDON — The term “Reflections” in the title of this National Gallery show,Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites — which explores the influence of Jan van Eyck, and specifically his painting commonly known as the “Arnolfini Portrait” upon the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — emerges as a qualifying clause. For many, the supposed connection between Van Eyck and the Brotherhood will not be immediately apparent, therefore the evidence presented here, pinpointing the specific tangible influence of this singular painting will be a stimulating revelation. From this starting point, to contextualize the Brotherhood, the exhibition fragments into tangents: the predominant one being the theme of the curved mirror famously reflecting unseen guests in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini piece, through dazzling optical trickery (hence “Reflections”). The result is a distinctly lofty intellectual show which at times threatens to deviate from Van Eyck altogether.



Jan van Eyck, “Untitled” (known in English as the Arnolfini Portrait) (1434) oil on panel, 82 x 59.5 cm (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)



The Arnolfini arrived at the National in 1842, when William Holman HuntDante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais were studying at the Royal Academy Schools which then occupied the east part of the building. (As an aside, the Arnolfini benefits here from its temporary move; the better lighting lends a refreshed vitality.) The Pre-Raphaelites emerged at a time when the National’s collection was largely comprised of traditional academic painting, dominated by either thematically weighty history scenes or frivolous decorative work. This first piece from the Low Countries must have looked thoroughly alien amongst its new wall neighbors, and its impact appears to have been instrumental in the Brotherhood’s total rejection of the academic tradition, with its prescribed themes and dedication to naturalism. In their output we can see immediately an affinity with the attention and importance that Van Eyck attaches to the physical world around us – his domestic marriage scene is full of specifically contemporary details and objects – rather than concern for historic scenes removed from real experience. The picture’s meaning and intent is communicated via complex symbolism as opposed to an explicit narrative. Such symbolism is what arguably lends impenetrability to much Netherlandish religious work, so much so that Erwin Panofsky famously spent a career interpreting it.

These formal qualities are profoundly evident here in the hallucinogenic riotous colors and almost hyperreal detail of Holman Hunt’s “Awakening Conscience” (1853) and “Lady of Shalott” (about 1886–1905). They also adopted the obtuse symbolism contained within the Arnolfini, as well as explicit citations of domestic objects. The Brotherhood chose religious and literary themes, filling humble domestic interiors with objects weighted with significance. Millais’s “Mariana” (1851), based on Tennyson’s poem, through a single burning candle, solitary bed and desk, shows the conflicted mentality of desire and penitence in this jilted bride. And Morris’s “La Belle Iseult” (1858-7), from the Tristram and Iseult legend, clearly borrows the Arnolfini’s bed, carpet, oranges, dog, mirror, and slippers.



William Holman Hunt, “The Awakening Conscience” (1853) oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (© Tate, London)



Van Eyck’s Arnolfini forms the core of the exhibition. Secondary is the supporting influence of other paintings from the Low Countries which entered the National around the same time. A reduced scale copy of the Ghent altarpiece by Van Eyck and his brother Hubert is included to highlight that the original was on show in London circa 1819, implying its exposure to the Brotherhood. Van Eyck’s self-portrait arrived in 1933. Its caption stating “As I can” is consciously borrowed by Morris for the frame of his “La Belle Iseult”.

From here onwards, the convex mirror dominates. It is easy to see within the designs for the mirror in sketches for Hunt’s Lady of Shalott a direct visual reference to theArnolfini’s mirror, with its tiny painted scenes of the passion in radiating circles forming a halo. Burne Jones, a British artist and designer associated with the Pre-Raphaelites called the Arnolfini the “finest picture in the world“, and uses the convex mirror in a painting departing from narrative invention and literary/legendary basis in a portrait shown here of his daughter Margaret (1885–6).



William Holman Hunt, “The Lady of Shalott” (c.1886-1905) oil on wood 44.4 x 34.1 cm (Manchester Art Gallery © Manchester City Galleries/Bridgeman Images)



Taking a more theoretical tack on the analysis of Van Eyck’s influence is Alison Smith’s idea that the mirror signifies Victorian notions of order and sexual morality. She argues in the exhibition catalogue that the presence of the large reflective surface in “The Awakening Conscience” is a direct inversion of the moral rightness embodied within the Arnolfini’s marriage scene. Furthermore, she argues, the mirror, like an eye, mimics the shiny glass of the scrutinizing camera lenses used at the time. This theory works on paper though some may regard it as overly optimistic interpretation of the artist’s intent.

Relevance to Van Eyck becomes less convincing with the inclusion of the actual convex mirrors of William Orpen and Rossetti, the latter of whom owned twenty four mirrors, nine of them convex. A study in the round of “Rossetti’s Bedroom at Cheyne Walk” by Henry Treffry Dunn (1872) depicting the reflected interior of Rossetti’s house indicates a general interest in convex mirrors for their illusionary possibilities by the wider aesthetic movement and not just the Pre-Raphaelites. The lurch away from relevance is not helped by the inclusion of Charles Haslewood Shannon’s “Les Marmitons” (1897), two figures painted in broad impressionistic strokes and brooding somber tones which seemingly qualify for display because of its circular mirror in the background. When the same occurs with Orpen’s “Bloomsbury Family” (1907) and Mark Gertler’s “Still Life with Self Portrait” (1918) the shows focus deviates further from Van Eyck.



Mark Gertler, “Still Life with Self-Portrait” (1918), oil on canvas 50.8 × 40.6 cm (© Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. / Bridgeman Images)



For a show so modest in size the themes explored are densely packed, demonstrating Van Eyck’s influence through visual comparisons which satisfyingly reveal a complex relationship between two otherwise disparate movements in art. The theoretical analysis however is of a particularly hardcore academic, art-historical nature and will remain largely baffling to casual viewers who lack the aid of the catalogue or audio guide. A note regarding the history of institutional collecting is also important: We forget that the collections we visit now did not appear fully-formed, and that interrelationships between collections play a vital part in the construction of ambitious shows such as this. Perhaps this is why the Pre-Raphaelite Rossetti’s “Ecce Ancilla Domini!” (1849–50) loaned from the Tate is not presented inside the exhibition space itself, but is displayed in the Sainsbury wing amongst the early medieval panels that it mimics. This placement serves to elicit awareness that our cultural heritage is historically bisected by the separate collections of the Tate and National, and rarely considered together by the casual visitor.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites continues at the National Gallery(Trafalgar Square, London) through April 2.

Seeing Beyond Basquiat’s Market Value

Published in Hyperallergic Jan 26th 2018

LONDON — Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mind-boggling pulling power at auction can seem bigger than the artworks themselves — it’s nearly impossible to consider his work independently of its market value. A typical “Untitled” painting from 1982 sold this year at Sotheby’s for a US auction record of $110.5 million, its Japanese buyer commenting, “When I saw this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art.” The painting is now the sole subject of an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

With Basquiat’s work transformed into an overhyped commodity, it can seem difficult to assess it for ourselves. At the Barbican, Boom for Real — billed as the first large-scale survey of Basquiat in the UK — offers us this chance, with a collection of more than 100 exhibits ranging from paintings and notes, to owned objects and postcards.

Basquiat’s persona has become almost mythical: impossibly cool, the darling of the avant-garde ’80s scene in New York, dead from a heroin overdose at the rock-star age of 27. The insurance bills and logistics covering obscenely valuable works, sold-out queues, and security involved in mounting this show (no bags whatsoever; no pens, only pencils, lest work gets damaged) add to the legendary aura. But once we get past the lines, the Barbican show sets out to untangle an individual whose art was enmeshed within an intensely messy New York City scene comprising music, graffiti, parties, and painting.



Installation view of Jean-Michel Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Centre (© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Licensed by Artestar, New York)



On the one hand, the untamable, cool New York city scene in the ’80s feels incongruous when categorized, as it is here, into segments like “The Scene,” “Beat Pop,” and “Beebop.” Yet this sprawling ultra-hip mess of parties populated by movers and shakers is key to understanding how this Brooklyn-born kid of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother who left school at 17 soared into Icarus territory so quickly.

Fashioning himself as SAMO©, standing for “Same old shit,” with friend Al Diaz, Basquiat gained attention for spray-painted slogans around the city; tags like “SAMO© 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE” make you question his canniness towards the scene he was simultaneously mocking and courting. Exhibitions and club parties (most notably at famous Mudd Club) allowed him to mingle and collaborate, enjoying meteoric exposure. It was only a matter of time before Basquiat would encounter Andy Warhol.

The show is fascinating here partly for the backstory of the young, handsome Basquiat looking up to the older, more established Warhol in pieces like the adoring double portrait “Dos Cabezas” (1982), painted in two hours and delivered still wet to his new mentor. And then there’s the famous double photo portrait of them as boxers, the Barbican caption countering the New York Times’s dismissal at the time of Basquiat as merely Warhol’s “mascot,” remarking that Basquiat convinced Warhol to return to painting by hand and that he himself took up Warhol’s silkscreen technique.

The overarching sense that emerges throughout the exhibition is of a terribly young artist utterly and totally swallowed up by the glamorous, edgy avant-garde, enjoying near-instant recognition, and thus encountering no form of or requirement for discipline. He was a talent unfiltered, which perhaps goes a little way to explaining its enduring appeal. When the large Basquiat paintings we recognize appear — scrawled, snarling skulls, figures, stick men, and doodled slogans and tags and bold sloshes of color — they are arguably less about trying to decipher a meaning and message, and more about the raw energy guiding his hand, somewhere between automatic and naïve, yet clearly planned and constructed with an aesthetic aim. It makes sense, then, that he worked from television, video, music, or any immediate stimuli, drawing simultaneously and seemingly without over-contemplating it.

It is clear from the sheer vivacity (and volume) of works that Basquiat was in possession of a raw talent, that elusive ‘something,’ forever frozen in time by the severance of life at 27, and untrammeled by the self-doubt, failure, and all the other pitfalls that artists encounter as they age. Yet the inevitable surrounding hype which has snowballed with every auction record will always threaten a dispassionate survey of his work.

An early film, “Downtown 81,” filmed in 1980 when Basquiat had only exhibited a single work, follows him around town, a boy brimming with hubris ready to conquer the world; a moment strolling in front of the Guggenheim feels prescient of the greatness due to come. One wonders how it all would have looked if fame had not so quickly been handed to him.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Boom for Real continues at the Barbican Centre (Silk St, London) through January 28. 

One Colour but not One Dimensional

Published in Hyperallergic Jan 10th 2018

LONDON — Monochrome: Painting in Black and White sounds a soul-sappingly dry subject for survey, and an unlikely choice for the National Gallery’s autumn schedule. Grayscale cannot be treated in the same manner as the gallery’s 2014 blockbuster Making Colour, which explored the physical properties and histories of selected pigments pivotal to painting. Criticism of this exhibition has (perhaps inevitably) featured complaints at perceived glaring omissions: Alison Cole labels the absence of Picasso’s Guernica “the elephant in the room” (despite the absolute certainty that it will never leave the Reina Sofía), and Jonathan Jones calls the show “a sum of exclusions as much as it is a display of works.”


Jan van Eyck “The Annunciation Diptych (The Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Mary)” (about 1433–5), oil on panel, left wing 38.8 × 23.2 cm, right wing 39 × 24 cm (© Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid)


Yet these criticisms demonstrate how the number of possibilities for working in grayscale are as infinite as the infinite tonalities within this segment of the color spectrum, and to mount a comprehensive show covering such is by definition an impossibility. Curators Lelia Packer and Jennifer Sliwka openly do not attempt this, instead adopting a more inventive approach by selecting art-historically off-piste examples that take the viewer through an utterly absorbing display in which there are almost as many uses for grayscale as there are exhibits — a great many of which will be new and fascinating to the average viewer.

Those who balk at the idea of looking at impenetrable medieval altarpieces sitting in the gallery’s Sainsbury wing will find new meaning in Hans Memling’s “Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors” (1478). It is presented here with its doors near closed to illustrate how grayscale versus color was used to establish a hierarchy between the religious figures depicted. And it illustrates the drama facing contemporary viewers when the normally-shut doors with monochrome scenes were opened on feast days to allow maximum impact of the fully colored interior. This point is consistently lost when museums permanently display altarpieces open. Similarly, fragments of medieval stained glass from Saint Denis, Paris, highlight an obscure grayscale method which results in a subtle yellow tint when fired. So often such displays focusing on the technical methods in applied art can appear dangerously dry to audiences, making it a brave point of inclusion here.


“Agony in the Garden” (1538) oil on indigo canvas, 440 × 335 cm, state property on deposit in the Museo Diocesano, Genova (© Courtesy of the Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo, Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per la città metropolitana di Genova e le province di Imperia, La Spezia e Savona)


Worth mentioning for its astonishing obscureness is a giant hanging indigo cloth resembling the architectural shape of one side of a chapel wall complete with arched top and doorway. On its blue surface scenes from the Agony in the Garden are highlighted in white. Manufactured in Genoa 1538, it forms a set of fourteen which function as a traveling chapel which can be assembled anywhere. Medievalists will be familiar with such portable liturgical “scene” cloths, most famously the grisaille Parement of Narbonne, too fragile to ever leave the Louvre — but perhaps none of such scale and striking appearance.


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop “Odalisque in Grisaille” (ca. 1824-34), oil on canvas, 83.2 × 109.2 cm,the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1938 (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence)


Such a disparate collection, each representing a different use for grayscale, across a considerable timespan which encompasses medieval up to the contemporary will naturally be uneven despite this umbrella theme. We see “Diomedes Devoured by Horses” date unknown, by Gustave Moreau, showing both how grisaille underpainting has long been standard practice for painters, and how Moreau displayed it in unfinished state, valuing the grisaille layer for itself. This is followed in swift succession by a monochrome version of Dominique Ingres’s “Grande Odalisque” (1824–34), described by some criticsas an erotic enhancement of the original, though it remains a hilarious exercise in misjudged anatomical proportion. Then there is Alberto Giacometti’s gray portrait of “Annette Seated” (1957), and Eugène Carrière’s“Maternity (Suffering)” (1896–7), in which a monochrome haze engulfs its figures as if in a sandstorm, suggesting emotional turmoil. In the same room appears a 1437 panel tentatively attributed to Jan Van Eyck, “St Barbara,” said to be the first example of a monochrome work in its own right (but this complex argument deserves an essay all to itself). Each is singularly exemplary in itself and the curators have wisely avoided trying to force them all into a narrative.


Eugène Carrière,“Maternity (Suffering)” (about 1896-7), oil on canvas, 81.3 × 65.4 cm (© Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Cymru – National Museum of Wales)


So we jump back in time for the next room which is themed around the idea of “paragone,” or technical comparison between disciplines. Van Eyck appears again with his 1433–5 “Annunciation” diptych, its grayscale figures reflected within painted black marble in illusory niches in a trompe l’oeil technical tour de force. Titian’s“Portrait of a Lady (La Schiavonia)” (1510–12) shows his sister resting her arm on a painted marble relief portrait of herself in profile, directly comparing the disciplines of painting and sculpture. Andrea Mantegna’s “Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome” (1505–6) takes the competition further in painting red marble as a full-scale frieze background behind a procession of figures — in the real world a physical impossibility for this material.

The emergence of print and photography, seismic shifts in art history, are only given thumbnail coverage with one example given per exhibit. This is a scrupulous choice, since both subjects could fill exhibitions this size several times over. Rembrandt used the emergence of print to secure his status as painter. His “Ecce Homo” print of 1634 is faithfully copied by Jan Van Vliet in 1635–6, in monochrome, with evidence of corrections by Rembrandt as quality control. Coverage on the arrival of photography in the 1830s is represented as a single image taken by Gustave le Gray of waves breaking (ca.1857), and linked here with Peder Balke’s seascape of circa1862 which veers toward self-undermining for its deliberate brevity. Opposite, Chuck Close’s 1993 painting “Joel” in his inimitable pixelated style — in which, unlike almost everything else here, the grisaille gives nothing discernibly different from his color versions — feels present simply to bridge the chronological gap to the next room which focuses on the twentieth century.


Gerhard Richter, “Grey Mirror – 765” (1992) pigment on glass, 220 x 176 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (© Gerhard Richter 2017 (12072017) photo by SMK)


This is again a carefully chosen selection of works that use grayscale as a their entire purpose and meaning. Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” (1929) is a yardstick that many can agree on, and is accompanied nearby with one of Josef Albers’s monochrome “Study for Homage to the Square” from the 1960s. Most striking are those focusing on optical illusions. Bridget Riley’s op art or Gerhard Richter’s “Gray Mirror 765’ (1992) reflects the viewer back onto its glazed, gray surface, leading up to the final installation where the exhibition comes full circle to the contemporary. “Room for One Color” (1997) by Olafur Eliasson, is a space lit by single-frequency sodium yellow light tubes, suppressing every other color in the spectrum and giving the very curious an eyeball- popping effect of physically only seeing in black and white. It is a high-impact punch of a finale that, far from simply being an Instagrammable gimmick, feels a fitting conclusion and welcome modern inclusion in such a history-heavy institution.

This is bold curating which, where most traditional narrative or survey shows are criticized for diversions from the main drive, conducts its examination entirely through diversions: at every turn is a method, technique, or usage of grayscale that will be new and refreshing for many viewers. Given the scope for including almost anything gray, there is clear discipline and precision in the choice of works which could have easily been scattershot. Monochrome is a thoroughly arresting show that appreciates the negative qualities in art in the way a picture is defined by its image as by the image’s negative space.

Monochrome: Painting in Black and White continues at the National Gallery(Trafalgar Square, London) through February 18.

Dalí and Duchamp’s Lasting Friendship, and the Art It Might’ve Inspired

Published in Hyperallergic 22nd Dec 2017

LONDON — The two behemoths of 20th century art, Marcel Duchamp, credited with introducing the concept of readymades and radically altering attitudes towards the plastic arts, and Salvador Dalí, perhaps the most famous of the Surrealist painters, will be to many the unlikeliest of bedfellows. Little known, however, is that they enjoyed an intimate and lasting friendship, and the Royal Academy of Arts takes this never-before explored angle as the basis for the exhibition Dalí / Duchamp, aiming to demonstrate “the aesthetic, philosophical and personal links” between them.

Given that the two artists ploughed careers fiercely independently of one another, and evidence of collaboration is fundamentally scant, the exhibition instead draws visual parallels within their work. It is a risky method which presents the art as in ‘dialogue’ — a lateral way of suggesting links and shared themes which, at least on paper, may never have been anything more than coincidental. After all, many of the themes highlighted — identity, sexuality, the body, and object — were commonly explored by their contemporaries throughout the first half of the century.


Salvador Dalí, “Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach” (1938)

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain” (1917, 1964 edition)


Inevitably then, the show is a mixed bag from the start, though this is by no means a bad thing; the show refers to a “rich and rewarding exchange,” rather than try to prove a direct collaboration, allowing a refreshingly off-piste ride. Dalí travelled to Paris, encountering Duchamp there in 1930; their friendship however blossomed after Duchamp’s trip to Spain in 1933, as photographs show Duchamp, Dalí, and Gala, his lover then wife, at Dalí’s house in the Spanish fishing village of Portlligat. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Duchamp rented a summer apartment down the road in Cadaqués. Photographs of the pair naturally indicate holidaying chums rather than artistic geniuses locking horns. A rare non-Cubist, non-Surrealist painting by Dalí of 1922–23, titled “Lane to Porttligat with View of Cap de Creus,” is a straightforward, even vaguely impressionistic landscape showing the parched dusty roads and brilliant sunlight. Presumably, an early Duchamp painting, “St Sebastian” of 1909, is placed next to it as a similar exercise in capturing searing light on the baked figure of the saint. More directly connected are two portraits of the artists’ fathers: Dalí’s of 1925 and Duchamp’s of 1910. It’s interesting to see these early paintings before the main ‘signature’ style emerges for each artist (in Duchamp, of course, this being abandoning paint altogether).

Notable is Duchamp’s painting from 1912, “Kings and Queens Surrounded by Swift Nudes,” which is a lesser-seen, shorter, squatter brother to “Nude Descending Staircase,” as well as Dalí’s own forays into Cubism with a self-portrait from 1923: an uncomfortable affair of jagged green edges, missing the elusive oxymoronic harmony of the best Cubist works. Indeed, Duchamp’s abandonment of painting following his rejection by the Cubist group is highlighted as a main connecting link with Dalí, though an extremely tenuous one; while Duchamp’s abandonment was life-long, Dalí’s lasted less than a year. The curators’ label for his “Untitled” (ca.1928), a deliberately nihilistic expanse of gray canvas, suggests the painting illustrates Dalí’s own uneasy attitude towards painting that was “nuanced, even ironic and explain[s his] sympathy for Duchamp’s position.” This is a conveniently neat conclusion, and seems to actually assert Dalí’s definitive sympathy when it could be entirely invented. Curatorially it is fine to adopt this left-field suggestive method of display, but it is difficult to be convinced of an artist’s intellectual or emotional opinion when so glibly asserted in the captions here.


Salvador Dalí, “Surrealist Object Functioning Symbolically – Gala’s Shoe” (1931) (1973 edition)


The next two sections titled “The Body and Object” and “Experimenting with Reality” contain more iconic works for which we know Dalí and Duchamp. And it is here that it often feels as if the two artists are exhibited in parallel, with the themes of eroticism, then ideas of time, energy, quantum theory, space, and optics, as mere starting points for a similar free-fall association exercise. Familiar Dalí-surreal paintings and erotic drawings (amongst them, remarkably, is the inclusion of his 1928 “Anthopomorphic Beach,” a disturbing piece of wood with a vulva-like middle and extending finger) are displayed surrounding a central glass box containing some of Duchamp’s greatest hits of readymades, including, of course, “Fountain” (1917/64) and “Bicycle Wheel” (1913/64). Next to them sits Dalí’s “Lobster Phone” of 1938. It is probably fairer to say that the juxtaposition demonstrates a shared visual language — indeed, the ideas of Freud, Darwin, and the uncanny were themes preoccupying many contemporary artists and thinkers — rather than a direct exchange of influence between the two, and, for the most part, the show is not trying to invent one.


Marcel Duchamp (reconstruction by Richard Hamilton), “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même),” known as “The Large Glass” (1915) (reconstructed in 1965–66 and 1985).


Nonetheless, there are some connections made between works which feel optimistic and inventive: Dalí’s “Christ of St. John on the Cross” (ca.1951) is said to share “striking synergy” with Duchamp’s “Large Glass,” his upstanding monolith sculpture containing squished shapes between panes of glass, on the grounds that both are vertically rectangular, have been likened to altars, and utilize sophisticated perspectival techniques. But the show’s freewheeling method seeks only to suggest similarities as visual starting points rather than provide evidence of direct influence. One has to just go with it.

Dalí and Duchamp did, however, actively supported one another in the display of specific artworks; Dalí’s “Madonna” (1958) was included by Duchamp and André Breton in their 1960 exhibition Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters Domain in New York. These kind of examples tell us that they supported and respected each other’s work, rather than gained influence from it. Indeed, a whole section on Duchamp’s moustachioed Mona Lisa, “L.H.O.O.Q” (1919) shows Dalí’s admiration (he writes of it in an article in Studium magazine) and even emulation of it in photographs, yet the amount of collaboration this inspired was minimal.

Dalí / Duchamp is billed as a first-ever look at the relationship between the two artists, most likely because they remained staunchly independent of one another. The show displays the works in ‘dichotomy,’ which in theory avoids the temptation to invent a deeper artistic relationship in a formal sense between Dalí and Duchamp, though the curators tease us with this possibility. Still, it’s a stimulating exercise; though they may represent two highly distinct singular voices, when the bodies of work are presented together, one can see the more lateral, less formal factors, such as their mutual admiration and life circumstances, that may have inspired shared visual ideas and themes.

Dalí / Duchamp continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, Mayfair, London) through January 3, 2018.

Hokusai’s “Great Wave” Was Only a Drop in the Bucket

Published in Hyperallergic July 20th 2017 


LONDON — About a third of the way into the British Museum’s survey of the latter thirty years of Katsushika Hokusai’s life in Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave the unmistakable sublimity of his “ Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)” (1831) looms into view. It is arguably the image that westerners most commonly associate with Japanese, or even eastern art in general. That print has been so endlessly reproduced in a myriad of incarnations littering popular culture (even on a drum kit currently displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition on Pink Floyd), that to see in the flesh its simple dynamism — the simultaneously still yet crashing wave forming an arc of crisply circling foam above a fishing boat nearly hidden by the brilliant blue sea — is a powerful moment, not least because the British Museum has kept its copy of this celebrated woodblock print off display since 2011, due to its fragility.


Installation view of Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum


Few may know that Hokusai completed this iconic image well into his seventies, circa 1831, or that he already had a successful artistic career behind him. The “Great Wave” represents a pinnacle in a revitalized career characterized not by decline and retrospect, but bounteous improvement and exploration. Believing that his art would improve the longer he lived, from his sixties Hokusai’s paintings and prints begin to accelerate in ambition and sophistication, leaping between styles and subjects, informed by European influences on perspective or reverting to tradition as required, and moving away from traditional woodblock production to more painterly practice. Throughout his life his profound spirituality informed this constant renewal of styles and artistic endeavors. In fact, his devotional practice shaped his life in other profound ways. He had not always been known as Hokusai; he took the name Hokushinsai meaning “North Star Studio” at age thirty-nine. The Nichiren sect of Buddhism, of which he was a member, believed the North Star was associated with the important deity Myoken. Hokusai continually renamed himself accordingly to his spiritual pursuits, artistic goals or life events. Names he took included Manji (meaning “ten thousand things” or “everything”) and Gakyo Rojin (“Old Man Crazy to Paint”).


Katsushika Hokusai, “Shōki Painted in Red” (1846) hanging scroll, ink and red pigment on silk


To define his late-in-life acceleration a blossoming is to discredit the successful career preceding it. Such is the confidence and skill permeating the variety of styles in the display’s prelude of a brief introduction of early works that curator Tim Clark nearly threatens to undermine his own purpose. Hokusai trained in his twenties in the “Floating World” school of art, which reflected the hedonistic culture of its base city Edo. Here in his “Beauty on a Summer Morning” (ca. 1810) a woman brushes her hair before a mirror in a crisp, flat rendering on a decorative scroll; illustrations of adventure stories are fashioned in the organized chaos of popular comic books. Already, Hokusai is fully accomplished and by his fifties adept at an eclectic range of styles.


Attributed to Hokusai, “Boys’ Festival” (1824–1826) ink and color on old Dutch paper


The prelude is required however, to establish the historical status quo against which Hokusai’s subsequent astounding artistic achievements may be measured. Examples from his “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” commissioned in 1831 at a time of great hardship for Hokusai — having recently suffered a stroke — proved so popular that a further ten designs were published. Clark suggests that such was their success that through them Hokusai had effectively introduced landscape views as a major new genre, and the variety in perspectival, painterly, and color treatment present here supports this view. Where one composition posits us in the point of a view of fishermen on a boat tossing in the sea, its hull receding away towards the mountain in a thunderously dynamic composition, another adopts a ground level perspective watching little figures on a stationary platform staring even further away at the tiny mountain in the distance, all stillness and peace. Such perspectival sophistication indicates Hokusai’s knowledge of Western practices, which he utilizes to dramatic effect here. “Red Fuji” (1830-32) on the other hand, does away with perspectival inventiveness and reverts to the two-dimensional tradition: presenting the mountain as a gorgeously deep red triangle cutting into a deep blue background, its lower half bisected by green wash, simplifying the composition in almost geometric terms.


Katsushika Hokusai, “Clear Day with a Southern Breeze (‘Red Fuji’)” (1831) from Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, color woodblock


In the “Great Wave” Hokusai makes full use of Prussian blue pigment (typically a tool of western practice) lending an intense depth to this already dynamic work. To convey the popularity of “36 Views” images like the “Wave” may have run to 8,000 impressions, each one sold for little more than the price of a bowl of noodles in his time. For Hokusai however, the series is the product of his increasingly concentrated artistic and spiritual interests. Fuji was a devotional place to which Hokusai attached great religious significance; his artistic endeavors visible in these images were intrinsically bound with his spiritual goals — to see the divine as present in every element in the physical world — and so commercial success was unimportant. Because of this commitment, he was known to have happily lived in relative poverty.


A second installation view of Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum


From the age of 88 Hokusai began using a red seal with the character meaning “100” on it, expressing his wish for older age, saying in 1848, “From ninety years I will keep on improving my style of painting.” His output accordingly showed no sign of slowing down. He produced a series of flora and fauna of varying scale — isolated renderings of cockerels on decorative display scrolls, or a leaping carp in a waterfall — that show unbelievable consistency, painterly confidence, inventiveness, and minutely observed detail. “Watermelon and Knife” of 1839 is an exquisitely beautiful yet enigmatic depiction of a simple ritual, the fruit sitting under a translucent sheet of paper, wafer thin twirls of just-cut flesh hanging above. He illustrated “One Hundred Poems,” (ca 1835) and “One Hundred Ghost Tales” (1833). He made model books of varying purpose for students to copy and study. Since the Japanese were forbidden to travel abroad from 1615–1868, he made a bird’s eye view in “Picture of Famous Places in China” (1840) minutely labelled, as well as decorative images of heroic, ancient Chinese mythical figures.


Katsushika Hokusai, “Self-portrait, Age Eighty-Three” (1842) drawing in a letter, ink on paper


For the latter stages of his life Hokusai lived with his daughter Katsushika Oi who worked as his production assistant. Oi was also an accomplished artist in her own right, represented in the exhibition by some of her own surviving works. Together they devoted their waking lives to art-making. In a self-portrait sent to his publisher in 1842, Hokusai mirthfully shows himself an old man creased with age, winking laughter in his eyes, lacking any pretension; literally an “Old Man Crazy to Paint.” There is no artist’s ego, only the search for the divine in every tiny detail of ordinary life, visible here throughout every inch of these breathtaking works, from humble cut watermelon to the famous “Great Wave.”

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave continues at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London) until 13 August 2017


Seeing Beyond Alberto Giacometti’s Bronzes

Published in Hyperallergic July 12th 2017


LONDON — In April 2016, following the announcement of Tate Modern’s monumental new retrospective devoted to the Swiss sculptor, Alistair Sooke mused in the Telegraph: “What is it about Alberto Giacometti?” The National Portrait Gallery had recently closed its major Giacometti show, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich had opened its Alberto Giacometti: A Line Through Time, and it was only in 2015 that the Swiss sculptor’s “Pointing Man” (1947) became the most valuable sculpture to sell at auction, for $141 million. Though art historians and curators have in recent years sought to diversify the traditional canon of Great 20th Century Artists — i.e. predominantly white, male, and European or American — it is fair to say that Giacometti remains firmly categorized as one of those artists in the popular imagination. For many, his slender bronze figures are a shorthand for the wrought emotion and desolation caused by the horrors of war.


Alberto Giacometti, "Head of Woman (Flora Mayo)" (1926), painted plaster, 31.2 x 23.2 x 8.4 cm, collection of the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris (© Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)
Alberto Giacometti, “Head of Woman (Flora Mayo)” (1926), painted plaster, 31.2 x 23.2 x 8.4 cm, collection of the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris (© Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)


Granted unparalleled access to the Giacometti Foundation in Paris, curators Frances Morris and Catherine Grenier have assembled a staggering 250 works, including ample material with which to explore Giacometti beyond the bronzes. To immediately dispel the artist’s restrictive associations with bronze, the co-curators take as a starting point the Giacometti Foundation’s recent efforts to restore his plaster works, many of which had been damaged by their usage in creating bronze versions. Giacometti actually favored bronze and plaster equally and, as becomes clear here, explored various media, styles, and influences, often simultaneously in a methodical and inquisitive manner. Unlike his contemporary Pablo Picasso, there are no definitive periods in Giacometti’s oeuvre, and as such the show’s chronological progression underlines his consistently exploratory approach. It is as expansively comprehensive as you could wish, with room for some creative display techniques that, for the most part, enhance the viewing experience.

The exhibition’s first room precedes the chronological sequence with a display juxtaposing bust portrait sculptures in varying media and styles in neat, uniformly regulated rows on plinths of equal height, generally progressing from early to late from front to back. The installation acts as a synopsis for what is to come; Giacometti appears not to have progressed from one style and medium to another in a conventionally linear fashion, but produced at any one time naturalistic (though lightly stylized) portraits in the round as well as deliberately primitivist pieces, their features incised crudely into flattened surfaces. The familiarly mangled, elongated bronze figures emerge toward the back of this prologue display. The group appears like a theater of faces looking forward in unison; we are invited to walk all around and compare the styles and media, observing closely the physical marks and qualities of the differing materials. It is a bold curatorial decision that cleverly introduces what will become an overarching theme: the significance to Giacometti of the process of making and constant exploration as intrinsic to the artworks’ raison d’être.


Alberto Giacometti, "The Hand" (1947), bronze (cast 1947–49), 57 x 72 x 3.5 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti Stiftung (© Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)
Alberto Giacometti, “The Hand” (1947), bronze (cast 1947–49), 57 x 72 x 3.5 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti Stiftung (© Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)


The display technique allowing groups of works to be seen all at once, and then one after the other, continues in the exhibition’s early rooms with similar effect. During the mid 1920s, Giacometti moved away from traditional representation, exploring abstraction methods like his contemporary Constantin Brancusi, or drawing inspiration from African and Oceanic art. In a sequence of works all titled “Woman (Flat),” each piece presents an upright, loosely oblong form with only minimal undulations hinting at the figures’ intended anatomy. The different versions span many media: bronze, marble, plaster, terracotta. In the same room are examples of Giacometti’s forays into surrealist thinking, similarly in search of modes of abstraction. “Cage” (1930–31) is a cube containing suspended spokes and crudely geometric forms constructed in untreated wood. You can see its joins and pins and the marks of its making, offering an altogether rawer impact than the smooth, polished bronze seen elsewhere in the show.

As the exhibition’s chronology progresses to the familiar, stick-like figures, a sequence of small pieces is presented evenly spaced behind glass and very dimly lit, befitting work that emits such a sense of stark solitude and desolation. “Very Small Figurine,” from around 1937, is barely the size of a matchstick on a tiny plinth, with minute traces of pigment, but it packs the most intensity of the more than a dozen pieces in in its case. The display is minimalistic, sombre, and evidently conceived to enhance the intensity of viewing, but this uncluttered design comes at the expense of clear wall text. All the labels are crushed into a tiny space at the entrance to the room. No visitor is going to be walking back and forth between each sculpture and its distant wall text 15 times — I like to read what it is I’m looking at without the extra exercise. This is not such a problem in most of the other early rooms in the show, which similarly place sequences of sculptures together on one plinth with captions elsewhere. One room contained a single plinth with only four works on it, and reading all the scattered wall texts necessitated walking all the way around, thus accentuating the startling physical contrast between, for example, the violent “Woman with her Throat Cut” (1932) and the distinctly non-rectilinear mound of “Cube” (1933–34). Some exhibitions opt for pamphlets instead of wall captions to avoid this issue, which may have been a better idea here if the curators were so concerned for the uncluttered display of these works.


Alberto Giacometti, "Woman with her Throat Cut" (1932), bronze (cast 1949), 22 x 75 x 58 cm, National Galleries of Scotland (© Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)
Alberto Giacometti, “Woman with her Throat Cut” (1932), bronze (cast 1949), 22 x 75 x 58 cm, National Galleries of Scotland (© Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)


The eight surviving works from the Woman of Venice series — which Giacometti ­created when he represented France at the 1956 Venice Biennale and are reunited for the first time here — boldly introduce visitors to the iconic elongated figures, firmly asserting the significance of plaster alongside bronze. Five of the original works have been restored specially for the show by the Giacometti Foundation, and the immediacy of the medium is evident in the surfaces he savagely worked with his hands. Giacometti often returned to the work to cut away at the dried plaster, reapplying liquid plaster, sometimes finishing with fine lines in dark red and black. The figures are at once solemn and still, and full of feverish working.


Alberto Giacometti, "Woman of Venice V" (1956), painted plaster, 113.5 x 14.5 x 31.8 cm, collection Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris (© Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)
Alberto Giacometti, “Woman of Venice V” (1956), painted plaster, 113.5 x 14.5 x 31.8 cm, collection Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris (© Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)


The exhibition’s return to a more conventional mode of display here, with sculptures dotted around the room instead of sharing a central plinth as in the earlier rooms, is probably a gesture of mercy, lest we be faced with a forest of indistinguishable stick legs. It is perhaps a minor and unfortunate consequence of this show’s impressive number of loans — some utterly breathtaking to behold, like “Head on a Rod” and “The Nose” (both 1947), which are as distressing as they are awesome — that they detract from the powerful sense of loneliness and distinctness that comes from seeing a solitary Giacometti.

Aside from their diluted emotional impact, in numbers the sculptures nonetheless invite comparison of their differences in size, surface texture, and finish (or lack thereof), bringing the focus back to the centrality of the process of making. The presence of Giacometti’s portrait paintings enhances this idea. A work like “Bust of Yanaihara” (1959), for example, is an unhappy, thick pool of grey sludge, and Giacometti himself lamented that it is “lacking in likeness,” according to its wall text. The exhibition concludes with a late group of paintings he made of his mistress Caroline between 1960 and 1965, all identical in pose and composition. The painting method employed here bears less of the differentiation of mark-making and physical emotion that Giacometti achieved with his sculpture sequences.  Like his sculptures, the paintings appear many in a sequence, all similarly searching and experimenting. Yet somehow the canvases fall short of the essential and unique visual language present in the physical  marks of his bronzes and plasters, which by comparison feel alive and urgent.

The show is colossal and comprehensive, even including forays into design from the period in the 1930s when Giacometti made a living producing decorative objects. Throughout, his methodical practice is clearly demonstrated across styles and media, presenting an essential dichotomy between the process of making art as crucial to its very being, and the idea that art is the end product as a vessel for an idea, emotion, or ideology.


Alberto Giacometti, "Man Pointing" (1947), bronze, 178 x 95 x 52 cm, Tate (© Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)
Alberto Giacometti, “Man Pointing” (1947), bronze, 178 x 95 x 52 cm, Tate (© Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017)


Giacometti continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, UK) through September 10.

Chronicling the Rivalry and Camaraderie of Michelangelo and Sebastiano

Published in Hyperallergic May 24th 2017


LONDON — It is fair to say Sebastiano del Piombo is not the first name that springs to mind when thinking of High Renaissance Italy — specifically the artistic hub of Rome during the early 16th century. That role goes to Michelangelo, then working on the immortally iconic Sistine Chapel. Considering that the new exhibition, Michelangelo and Sebastiano, in London’s National Gallery promises in its press release the “first ever exhibition devoted to the creative partnership” between these two artists, and thinking of this year’s earlier Caravaggio show remarkable for its lightness on Carvaggio’s actual paintings, one’s immediate dread is that Michelangelo’s ticket-selling name has been shoehorned into a study seeking to elevate an obscure contemporary of his. How delightful it is then that the show methodically and academically does what it says on the tin: offer compelling instances of collaboration, consistently demonstrated with convincing examples, and reveal the twists and turns of a 25-year friendship and artistic relationship. A happy bonus is how this survey paints an image of a deliciously Machiavellian art world in Rome — all scheming competition and heated rivalry.


Michelangelo “The Entombment (or Christ being carried to his Tomb)” (c. 1500-1) oil on poplar, 161.7 x 149.9 cm (© The National Gallery, London)


As such, it quickly becomes clear that curator Matthias Wivel is not out to champion del Piombo as an unsung master. Throughout the show, his work is shown to be decidedly clunky and lacking in comparison to the finesse and genius virtuosity of Michelangelo. Beginning with the Venetian-trained del Piombo’s arrival in Rome, the focus is exploration of the technical differences between the two artists within the context of fiercely competitive art patronage in Rome. We are thus invited to compare the working method behind Michelangelo’s “Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels” (c. 1497) — its unfinished state revealing meticulously exact linear planning, green coloring of the dead flesh, and a piecemeal approach regarding covering the canvas surface — with del Piombo’s also unfinished “Judgement of Solomon” (c. 1506–09). With its underdrawing clearly showing hesitancy and a late-stage change in composition characteristic of an improvisatory way of working, it contrasts with Michelangelo’s determined precision. Del Piombo’s preference for an overall painterly fuzziness that evokes mood and atmosphere is consistent with the Venetian school of painting. Elsewhere, del Piombo’s Saints Bartholomew and Sebastian (c. 1510–11) from the doors of the Church of San Bartolomeo in Venice, similarly show a kind of all-over sfumato that fuzzes outlines, giving a murky, moody tone. In his paintings there is none of the distinguishing dynamism of the Florentine Michelangelo’s solid figures and strong composition.


Sebastiano del Piombo “The Visitation” (1518-19) oil on canvas, transferred from wood, 168 × 132 cm Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris (© RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) by Hervé Lewandowski)


This technical introduction to the two artists in the exhibition’s first room thus makes the story that del Piombo was actively promoted by Michelangelo as competition against his “detested” rival Raphael, all the more compelling. In an era of prodigious art commissioning by the ruling religious and political elite (most famously, the powerful Medici family), a highly cynical scene emerges in which del Piombo, specializing in oil painting (tempera being the more common medium), is championed by Michelangelo specifically as a challenger to the city’s only other big oil painter, Raphael. The National Gallery makes a convincing case of del Piombo seeing himself as being in direct competition with the famed colorist skills of Raphael via a progression of works showing del Piombo’s increasing tendency away from murky painting towards pure brilliant color. More juicy illustration of the two artists’ devious machinations in pursuit of patronage comes with the display of their correspondence: del Piombo says to Michelangelo in 1519, having just finished his Raising of Lazarus, “I beg you to persuade Messer Domennico [Boninsegni] to have the frame gilded in Rome, and to leave me to arrange the gilding, because I want to make the Cardinal realise that Raphael is robbing the Pope of at least 3 ducats a day for gilding .” Similarly, in 1520 following Raphael’s death, Michelangelo writes to Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena persuading him to take on Sebastiano to “share in the work at the Palace, now that Raphael is dead,” humbling adding “You are always granting favours to men of esteem; I beg your Lordship to try out [the favour] with me.”


After Michelangelo “Pietà” (1975) (copy after “Pietà” (1497-1500) St Peter’s, Vatican City) plaster cast from five piece moulds, with wood and iron armature, 174 x 195 cm, Vatican Museums, Vatican City (© Photo Vatican Museums)


In terms of concrete art historical evidence, the show works brilliantly with a methodical presentation of clear examples of the cross-pollination of ideas and designs between the two artists. The Vatican museums have loaned the Gallery a 1975 plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “Pietà” of 1497–1500, shown opposite del Piombo’s Pietà, or “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” (c. 1512–16). (Enjoy it — this is the closest you’ll get to the sculpture; the real thing should never leave its bulletproof case at St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome.) Each piece has its monumental, centrally positioned Virgin arranged to be perpendicular to the horizontal Christ, yet del Piombo makes innovative changes by including a nocturnal setting. More thrilling is the adjacent drawing by Michelangelo: a study of hands (among other bits and bobs), which is placed directly in the line of sight of the Virgin’s hands in del Piombo’s “Lamentation.” So displayed, it’s extremely hard to defy the argument that the former was a preparatory drawing for the latter. If this isn’t exciting enough, on the back of the “Lamentation” panel are sketches the National posits as studies consistent with designs in the Sistine Chapel; suggesting Michelangelo used this panel to sketch out designs and ideas eventually used there.


Sebastiano del Piombo, after partial designs by Michelangelo, “Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Pietà)” (c. 1512-16) oil on poplar, 248 × 190 cm, Museo Civico, Viterbo (© Comune di Viterbo)


The same presentation occurs again for two main del Piombo showpieces, demonstrating a working relationship in which del Piombo blended into his oil painting drawings provided by Michelangelo. The near four-meter-tall “Raising of Lazarus” (1517–1519) — apparently del Piombo’s answer to Raphael’s “Transfiguration” (1516-20) — is surrounded by supporting drawings. Sensationally, del Piombo’s Borgherini Chapel in Rome has been reconstructed here using state of the art printing technology to add visual heft to the translation of Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings.

The rigorous, academic method of display absolutely makes this show. It is undeniable, looking at the key examples in the “Lamentation” and “Raising of Lazarus,” that there is little to distinguish del Piombo as a key Renaissance presence. The latter piece has been in the National’s collection since 1824, yet for all its scale and vibrant colour it somehow still feels uninspiring and workman-like. That del Piombo was not a Renaissance master of the level of Michelangelo is confirmed in the final room covering their parting of ways after


After Michelangelo “The Risen Christ” (c. 1897-8) (copy after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) plaster cast from approximately eight piece moulds consisting of approximately 81 individual pieces 251 × 74 × 82.5 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (© SMK Photo by Jakob Skou-Hansen)


1536 by which time Michelangelo has broken from his one-time collaborator, labelling him, according to the final room’s wall caption, “lazy.” Del Piombo’s latter works melt into generic Italian Renaissance fare. The show’s press has trumpeted much about the envelope-pushing reconstruction of the Borgherini Chapel, and boasted of some admittedly excellent loans. The Pietà copy, and the two versions of Michelangelo’s the Risen Christ — one from 1514, loaned by the San Vincenzo Monastery in Bassano Romano, the other a cast of its second version from Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, both surrounded by exceptional preparatory drawings — are a very rare treat indeed. However, Michelangelo’s “Taddei Tondo” (1504–06) doesn’t count since it’s otherwise freely viewable in the Royal Academy, down the road, the presence of the Pietà copy, and the two versions of Michelangelo’s the Risen Christ — one from 1514 loaned by the San Vincenzo Monastery in Bassano Romano, the other a cast of its second version from Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, both surrounded by exceptional preparatory drawings – are a very rare treat indeed.

Most importantly, the exhibition has successfully steered clear of unduly inflating the importance of del Piombo, or presented another painter as an excuse for yet more Michelangelo worshipping. It is fortunate that their 25-year friendship has proven ripe for examination. It provides a rewarding experience that overcomes the complaint by some critics that Michelangelo by nature just dominates any other artist on the bill.

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

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.

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