Michelangelo & Sebastiano at National Gallery – City AM


First published in City AM 16.3.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America After the Fall at Royal Academy – City AM



First published in City AM  23.2.17

American Gothic by Grant Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History of Colour


First published in Billionaire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hieronymus Bosch: For Your Sins, Prado, Madrid

First published in Billionaire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Koons at Newport St Gallery

First published in truncated form in City AM.

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

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

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

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

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

The Portraiture Of Van Dyck – Billionaire.com

First published in Billionaire.com 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 – Billionaire.com

First published in Billionaire.com March 17th 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

First published on Cityam.com 28th Jan 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marveling at Goya’s Haunting Portraits, National Gallery – Hyperallergic.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Barbara Hepworth Retrospective Hampered by Her Male Contemporaries – Tate Britain

t00699Barbara Hepworth, “Pelagos” (1946), Sculpture Elm and strings on oak, 430 x 460 x 385 mm (Tate © Bowness)

LONDON — Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World marks one of the last exhibitions backed by the outgoing Tate Britain director, Penelope Curtis. The first major retrospective of Hepworth in London for half a century seeks to revisit this modernist sculptor who has long been overshadowed by her male contemporaries Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and others. It’s very easy to blame institutionalized sexism for the oversight of her significance on an international stage, the show says, and this clearly feels like a pet project for Curtis, who is a specialist in British sculpture.

Finally, Hepworth will be shown as the giant she really is. Except Curtis’s five-year tenure at Tate Britain has not been troublesome for nothing: despite rearranging the permanent collection to critical and public acclaim, a series of curatorial missteps and eyebrow-raising exhibition ideas (see Art Under Attack of 2013, or the weird Ruin Lust of the same year) has caused some critics to despair, with Waldemar Januszczak sensationally calling for her resignation. The curation here is, sadly, no less complicated and ultimately does Hepworth few favors.

Biog 25Barbara Hepworth in the Palais de la Danse studio, St Ives, at work on the wood carving “Hollow Form with White Interior” (1963) (Photo by Val Wilmer, © Bowness) (click to enlarge)

The exhibition’s attack is two-pronged in its aim: to revisit Hepworth’s role in the development of international avant-garde sculpture, and to analyze her works in the wider context of the St. Ives landscape, where she lived in the latter part of her life and to which she owed much inspiration. To start, Hepworth’s small studio carvings place her in a trend amongst sculptors in the 1920s to hand-carve everything — harder stones especially — themselves. Considering we mostly associate Hepworth with large, abstract forms, it is a delight to see smaller scale, representational renderings of animals emerge from natural shapes (works that have mostly traveled from private collections: another plus). Yet her undoubtedly charming, squat toad in green onyx pales next to John Skeaping’s (her first husband) mighty sleeping buffalo in lapis lazuli, or a snake by Henry Moore, both of which are displayed adjacent to Hepworth’s work. Certainly, she can hold her own against her male contemporaries, but she doesn’t rise above or add her own ideas to the group.

This resounds throughout the first gallery, not helped by its layout which decides to isolate each sculpture within innumerable infernal Perspex boxes scattered throughout the floor in seemingly random order, as if curated by someone who specialized in crowd flow control (were the curators expecting the record-breaking visitor numbers enjoyed by the blockbuster Steve McQueen exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum?). Hepworth’s wood carvings are lost amongst others of similar character and style by Alan L. Durst, Eric Gill, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska — having the captions positioned all over the shop doesn’t help to compare or even identify who sculpted what. This certainly shows how involved and integrated Hepworth was in the modernist movement, yet the arrangement doesn’t make the case for highlighting her talent above anyone else’s. It feels a little empty to find celebration in a female sculptor simply because she can equal her male contemporaries.

The exhibition progresses to the period of Hepworth’s marriage to Ben Nicholson and the artistic interchange that resulted, her pieces encircled (and probably outnumbered) by scores of Nicholson’s drawings and paintings on the walls. There is a certain interest in the exchange of visual language and motifs between the two; however, the comparison threatens to yet again contextualize Hepworth’s work against someone else’s — so far she has not emerged with her own voice. It is by no means intentional, but nonetheless intriguing, that a couple of her rarely seen drawings of surgical operations on first inspection look uncannily like Moore’s own pen and ink washes.

id_122Barbara Hepworth, “Oval Form (Trezion)” (1961–63), bronze, 940 x 1440 x 870 mm (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections Photograph courtesy The Kröller-Müller Otterlo, The Netherlands, photo by Mary Ann Sullivan, Blufton University © Bowness)

By the decades of the 1920s and ‘30s, however, the sculpture we recognize as distinctly hers emerges: the seemingly impossibly smooth marbles of “Three Forms” (1935), larger scale wood carvings with painted interiors, cut through with harp-like strings. Gone are the imprisoning boxes, and we can enjoy the clean, abstract, and carefully considered disks, blobs, and columns. They express an enormous silent power in their monumental size and form. Perhaps one reason for Hepworth being overlooked is her sculptures’ deceptive simplicity, and a dedication to harmony and restraint as opposed to anything approaching turmoil or conflict. “Pierced Hemisphere” (1937) of the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield in the North of England, and “Two Segments and a Sphere” (1935–6) from a private New York collection make irresistible use of the highly polished surfaces of wood and marble respectively, eradicating the traces of the clumsy human hand.

These works stand alone, free from comparative works in rooms that seem as clean and free from clutter as the sculptures themselves. Such is their strength it is a shame there is not more exhibition space given over to them, which inadvertently indicates that they really need to be appreciated in the outdoor context as originally intended.

What undermines the show more than anything else is a lack of natural light and the categorical impossibility of a London gallery fulfilling its own criteria of examining Hepworth’s work against the St. Ives landscape. We can admire the polished wood finish of her enormous sculptures underneath the mellow gallery spotlights, yet they do not offer the intended brilliant blue-rich daylight that Hepworth originally conceived her works within, and as such something in our visual and textural understanding of the work is immediately denied us. In the final room, there is a recreation of the pavilion designed by Gerrit Rietveldto house a retrospective of Hepworth’s works at the 1965 Kröller-Müller museum in the Netherlands, with one wall covered with a photograph of trees, as if half-heartedly conveying something of the pavilion’s original natural setting. The model highlights how clinical the whole display now feels.

entrance_to_flats_3Photo-collage with “Helicoids in Sphere” in the entrance hall of flats designed by Alfred and Emil Roth and Marcel Breuer at Doldertal, Zurich (1939), photograph, gelatin silver prints on paper (Private collection © The Hepworth Photograph Collection)

Sculpture for a Modern World is honorable in its earnest survey of the overshadowed Hepworth. Yet the very settings of the gallery format deny appreciation of her work on a very fundamental level, and in this respect the curators have set themselves an impossible task. Similarly, while proposing her as a greater and more influential sculptor than previously recognized, these curatorial decisions to swamp her with contemporaries have almost the opposite effect. It seems that the biggest recognition she will enjoy remains “Single Form” (1961–4), the 21-foot tall bronze standing outside the United Nations Building in New York, mentioned here in passing in a wall caption.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World continues at the Tate Britain (Millbank, London SW1P 4RG) through October 25. 

First published on Hyperallergic.com

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