Friday, 24 December 2010

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010, at the National Portrait Gallery

The more I go to photographic portraiture exhibitions, the more the boundary before me of portraiture and documentary photography is blurred. From a very good selection of photographs, five winners were highlighted, of which most had on analysis little more than an interesting story, or exciting location to reason their renown. Naturally, subjective as it is, I hardly ever agree that those awarded at prize exhibitions are the cream of the crop…

Thus, it has led me to consider what makes a good photograph? This has to be a distinct answer to what we ask of a painting. And as a medium of modernity, it is perhaps subject to more change. Subject to the treatment of a commodity. Photography represents the leisure of modern society, the accessibility of all to technology, and the blurring between art and the everyday. Therefore for photography to be a high art, it has to live up to increasing standards and regular jousts of criticism. That said its market is wide reaching, and its works potentially mass-produced. Photography is able to be a driving force of modern art, so it’s worth taking seriously.

My opinion is that, fairly formalistically, a photograph’s quality ought to be recognised in its materiality - That is the aesthetic properties in the design of the photograph. Not, for example then, for its exotic location or sob story, that is often true of much photojournalism, especially, as this is a portraiture exhibition.

Through some of my favourites from the exhibition, a visual delight and a mere £2 entry cost, I will define what I believe makes a memorable and praise worthy work of digital art.

The first, Haitian Woman by Ramin Talaie, is to prove I’m not anti-narrative. It would be hard to see a photograph entitled Haitian Woman and not consider the earthquake of early 2010 –therefore the narrative is silently present. The photographer can instead grip us with his oxymoronic model, who is bold yet fragile. To me it is an image of hope. The history of her very face, recalls the history of the natural disaster in our memories. The memory will not leave her; she cannot look at us to acknowledge that which is outside of the event. However her pose is reminiscent of the Greek gods sculpted into marble, held in contrapposto. She stands firm on neglected land, in a dress that carries a feministic and daring confidence. To me the depiction, the colours, the focus, and composition of this photograph are all fine-tuned perfection.

‘Unsafe Journey’ champions the exhibition. Again, it is not the exotic location that sells this picture to me. It is the undeniable technical skill of the photograph. We look down upon a Bangladeshi woman precariously clings to the back of a train in the packed Ramadan season, cradling herself in a wealth of sari material. Of course there is only one place in which to take this shot, from above, and so we imagine Amy Helene Johansson held to the top of this train unshaken and so taking a picture of her ‘sitter’ in crisp, ironic stillness, where the ground beneath blurs into zigzags and strips of earth colours. The lady seems confused to be photographed, but not anxious by her experience – a pictorially anecdotal image.

An example of well-rehearsed concept is The Solitude of Pygmalion by Steve Barrett, who has redressed the Greek myth of the sculptor he was so astounded by the beauty of his work, that he then fell in love with his creation.

Tony Blaire #1 is certainly my favourite headshot of the show. It embodies the characterization and individualization of a good portrait. As well as flaunting the fundamental benefits of the photographic medium – post shooting editing, there is a soberness of his role reflected in the dull tones, and a haggard effect honouring his hard work, in what I believe is a positive portrait of the politician. His eyes glisten, reminding us he is still alive with ideas, and fixed on a goal.

All these photographs speak for themselves. They are visibly mouthy.

Pictured: ‘Haitian Woman’ by Ramin Talaie

‘Unsafe Journey’ by Amy Helene Johannsson

Don’t miss The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portraiture Prize is at the National Portrait Gallery until 20th February 2011.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Dizzy of Art

Banksy most be one of the most well-known artists of our generation. Street art as a whole is quickly becoming the twenty-first century’s pop art – the Dizzy Rascal of art. In Coventry, is an exhibition dedicated to the celebrated genre – ‘Street Art: Contemporary Prints from the V&A’, at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. What is it then that gains it its edge from other contemporary and past art, and popularity amongst a diverse group?

Street art appeals to the rebellious (a side of which everyone has,) because of the forbidden nature of the medium it has grown out of – graffiti. This is only emphasised by the genre’s leading artist Banksy being a fugitive himself, as though he has to hold his head down in shame.

The unique and refreshing core of street art is that the attention isn’t on the artists themselves, as there is only a tag to track the author’s identity, the emphasis is always the artwork. “I’m just trying to make the pictures look good; I’m not trying to make myself look good,” which Banksy recently stated after The Mail on Sunday claimed they’d discovered the name of the infamous character. The paper reported that the man, based on photo identification is the Bristolian (that we know true) Robin Gunningham. Though this information seems dubious when the mother of the thirty-four year old public school boy denied ever having a son.

What so often distinguishes Banksy’s and others’ genius is the mischievous nature, the wit of exemplar pieces, of which is only really comparable to the Dadaists, and breathes freedom to the rebel. Freedom, firstly found in expression. Much characteristic pieces of work are a comment on an aspect of society – a social or political issue – a form of propaganda, and this appeals to our democratic senses. For example, the print Gaza Strip by Blu, c. 2009, pictures a figure-of-eight racetrack in which alternating tanks and construction vehicles meet each other’s tails. The artist identifies in simple visual form the repetitive nature of destruction and rebuild in the war-ridden Middle East.

Freedom is also from the restraints of traditions in art. It is endearing in this manner because it bridges the gap between what can be perceived as the pretentious world of idealised fine art, and life as we see it – the subjects of these works of art. This highly honest form of pictorialisation, mocks idealised and superficial representation, inserting the figure reality. For example, Banksy’s painting of Van Gogh’s wilted Sunflowers; and sculptures of Venus de Milo and Apollo Belvedere as today’s familiar characters (heroic or not): an overindulging party princess, and proud extremist.

Again this is comparable to the Dadaists, who were essentially anti-artists posed as artists. These examples of street art protest against the beauty that most artists have made it their life aim to achieve a sense of, as though it is a one-sided encounter of life. Street art exalts the underdog, because in many senses it is the underdog.

Moreover the British are fascinated by all perceptions of their own culture. Is this not the reason why we gawk in front of endless hours of reality television programs? By choosing not to view the idealised, utopian, perfect, or beautiful, they present a real, if often borderline angry, view of urban life and culture. Take for example Modern Youth by Kerry Roper. A boy with a polished fresh face of a china doll, and perfectly laid hair of a child featured on a 1960s edition of Blue Peter is hooded, obliviously holds a weapon of war in his right hand almost the size of he. This exhibition exemplifies that most commentary is focussed on the bad, and the ugly – the cynical and critical – rather than the good. However, though often-blatant parody, out of such untainted observations comes thought-provoking truth.

Perhaps my favourite part of the exhibition was ‘Fresh Paint’ a look at six up-and-coming street artists. Included within this was a film entitled Nowhere Near Here by Pahnl. This is a street-level viewpoint of the city of Oxford through continuous motion long exposure shots; over which is laid an animation of a running dog, which we discover at the end is cheerfully chasing an untouchable cat.

This short film pulsates life – it embodies the joy and energy of the city. Surely this is one other reason why street art has become so popular – for so many of our population the cityscape is life. This I believe to one of the key reasons Impressionism is so enjoyed too – it represents (if in very different form) city life.

The film remains true to the subject matter of street art, though lacks some of the other characters mentioned above. However this is no disappointment. As street art becomes more popular, it also expands into a range of disciplines such as film and photography, and purposes. A genre that was once cheap and ugly vandalising, is now a professional and noteworthy art form.

Street Art: Contemporary Prints from the V&A is at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry until 16th January– free admission.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Visual Indigestion

Pop artist, Robert Indiana, stated in interview, “Impasto is visual indigestion.” I am humoured by his analogy but couldn’t be more opposed.

There is no artist before or after Rembrandt that paints a person like he does. The impact of his style is immense. His sitter, his pose, composed and painted by any other and the result would be a painting, but Rembrandt’s is a person – once living, once feeling. It is due to his sensual and personal handling. He sculpts the face through high impasto in oils. Yet it is not modelling alone that defines it alive, for there’s been many artists hundreds of years before who painted a dramatically realistic 3D portrait.

Enter Portrait aged 63 - It is his use of light – real, unidealised, undesirably dinghy, but cosy with dark edges that encase the figure inside further earth tones. It is the vivacity of brush stroke – it feels the motion of life, and lifts the man from the canvas. In some ways also I think it is the lack of crisp vision – our sight circles a person, when we try to make them out, we do not look in once place. Usually, as Self Portrait aged 63 does, we then rest on the face and begin to investigate, but on first sight, we do not remember the exactings of his appearance, but we gain an impression - a very positive one this is.

Turner would not finish a painting if he had created the impression he had hoped to; in fact one of his Royal Academy contemporaries described his technique as not being refined, or methodical, but that he instead ‘drives the colours about [the canvas] till he has expressed the idea in his mind.’ This I admire, as I am very much caught by ideas, but when I see one of Turner’s best, I needn’t any other thought of interest to capture my imagination.

Venice from the Canale della Guidecca, Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute&., a mouthful, but is absolutely stunning. I cannot find any fault it in. Everything is so well balanced – colour, forms, contrast, technique…The 3D effect is incredible. Yet it doesn’t grow outwards like a sculpture, like relief. It appears like a canvas, that then concaves backwards to form a stage set of surprising depth….

Well-crafted and inserted technique can make a painting. Let’s be frank, art is about aesthetics, and so aesthetics in art can mean everything.

And this, I hope I don’t sound too enthusiastic to add, is also why Rembrandt is to me the champion of the portrait, and Turner the champion of the landscape.

Pictured: ‘A Woman bathing in a stream’ 1654, Rembrandt

‘Venice…’ 1840, Turner

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Women – Concealed and Revealed

I think that allegory, embodying abstract ideas inside a persona, is one of the most powerful and creative philosophical tools available to an artist. I’ve become fascinated by how so frequently it is women who are used to express temperaments, characteristics, and even more so: the varying genres of the arts. It’s quite ironic then that an article I wrote a good year back I entitled Beauty is a Woman in reference to Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, thinking I’d found a relatively undiscovered and explored idea.

Recently I’ve had the light shone on some 18th century art, and thus begun to recall some 18th century pastoral literature, in which I became acquainted with the nine muses. These, the inspiration of the arts: Caliope of epic poetry, Erato of lyric poetry, Clio of history, Euterpe of music, Polyhymnia of choral poetry, Terpischore of dance, Melpomene of tragedy, Thalia of comedy and Urania of astronomy, are personified by the attractive Grecian goddesses; almost like the precursors to the Spice Girls – each to their very own female empowering identity (though, I feel sorry for Scary Spice!)

Is or is this not a compliment to female sex, that, all that is possessed in that creative character is female. It surely elevates the capabilities of the gender? I have found it particularly pleasing and encouraging that painting (right hand figure) pictured in Angelica Kauffman Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting (right painting) and in Artemisia Gentileschi‘s self portrait (left painting), is an alluring female (and is such in paintings by male I do not hesitate to add!) So here’s my thought - If painting’s character is female, surely she is, even more so, insightfully actualised by a female [artist]. Unfortunately the past is proof that this hasn’t been an idea that has struck any significant people – for then female artists would have been all-over-the-shop praised with natural talent! So surely I must be missing something?

Perhaps then this would be too optimistic a view to hold and in fact I am missing the point of women’s involvement. While I see visual arts as essential, and liberal in form – an output of intelligent beings – for much of history, the arts have been underappreciated when compared to other disciplines. In the modern world, science has taken precedence, especially in the Enlightenment (1800s) when what was rational and reasonable gained significant not that which ‘persuade[s] by touching men’s sensibilities…’ as French socialist St Simon (1760-1825) said in ‘The Artist, The Savant and the Industrialist’. So it could be said, that being the inspiration for the arts is a minor role as far as progress is concerned, and that the arts’ importance (and some would say) like women’s is, is concerned by emotional matters.

Does allegory flatter its model? In the tradition of Feminine Portraiture in the Royal Academy at the time of their first president, Joshua Reynolds, allegory such as the Tragic Muse used to represent the tragedienne Sarah Siddons began to cover the sitter’s individual female identity with a generic form that doesn’t record the lady in contemporary social status or noteworthy history. It’s a generalised but true statement that portraiture of females were more commonly idealised than of men.

Now I see also how to be a Beauty, as many female portraits are known as Bellas without the real name of the sitter when lost, is not in fact a compliment upon her radiant looks, but simply eye candy for a male viewer. This opinion of art is very well argued in John Berger’s second essay from Ways of Seeing. Then again, for I hate to leave writings on a negative note, without the inspiration of the muses attributed to the female sex, so many masterpieces would not have existed, and in this case is it a worthy cause for good art?

Thursday, 2 December 2010

ReQuietening – the natural landscape

‘Viewing…nature’s scenery assuages from the soul all passions frees it from all tensions, brings together its scattered powers invites it to calm contemplation, and strengthens, enlivens, and refreshes it.’ Ludwig Fernow from ‘Römische Briefe’

I thought landscape appreciation was for the middle-aged, but of late I’ve become fixated by the very art that is outside of my my window, and become convinced of the remedial ability of it – the spiritual connection achievable through it. On a rare occasion I’m not going to attempt to discuss, but to show you the quietening potential of the natural landscape… (photographs by myself.)

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

ReQuietening – the interior landscape

In my most recent blog I discussed the concept of an idea that has the power to grip. I came across a thought in February, (which in hindsight I have realised is just this,) when preparing work on a theme for my final major project of art foundation. I discussed this in Sacred (of January 2010) and then homed in further in Quiet in February. I haven’t intended to consider the idea of quiet since, but clearly there is a lot more to this thought than a ten-week project would allow me to explore.

In the last week or so I’ve gained new familiarity with the work and ideals of early 20th century artist Gwen John. She quite famously said she desired ‘a more interior life,’ a statement that has gained her a reputation unfitting to that which she was – that she, an artist, had no great aim to be one or to be known as one, and longed to be indoors, hidden, beavering. In fact Gwen John was deeply spiritual, and hoped that her art would be an expression of her inner self, with the walls of a room becoming a metaphor for her mind and soul. For example the delightfully inviting, ‘A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris’ c. 1907-9, in which her interior is bathing in the light of a cloudless day, and an empty wicker chair, often the symbol of an artist, rests unfelt by a sitter. Yet, resting on top and to the side is a sun umbrella and jacket – she is far from removed from the scene, from absent-minded. Gwen was one of many artists to paint an empty room at this time, enough for an English art critic of 1902 to comment on ‘interior fever’ in the NEAC exhibition hall.

There is but more to this that I have discovered. I spoke of a type of art refocused on the construction of the beautiful, not the destruction caused by war in the afore mentioned articles, commenting that the anger the war had created fostered art that represented the intentionally ugly, and the machine-age as the monster rather than the prodigy of social progress. Later in Gwen’s life in Paris, at the time of the first world war, seen within the alternative art scene was the ‘rappel à l’ordre’ or ‘call to order.’ That is, to reorder from chaos to peace whether it be in subject matter, or in technique, with many new depictions of contemplative tranquillity, as well as a revival of the classical, and a return to traditional painting techniques and methodology. An interesting consequence of the terrors of war – that such negativity could cause a retreat from creativity and from exploring new territory. In areas, it paused modernity in favour of something more…familiar, and probably, pleasant. For what is nicer (horrible word itself) than the picturesque landscape of centuries gone by? As Michael Soloman, and ex-Slade student said to Gwen John, "There is nothing antique or archaistic about your work. THey are so intensely modern in all but their peacefulness."

And so I’ll return to some beautiful paintings I looked at before but now in a new light: ‘Interior’, 1908, by Vilbelm Hammershoi and ‘Queens House Green II’, 1978, by Ben Johnson, considering that this enjoying essence isn’t mere lighting, and sparse detail but the suggestion made of an interior, spiritual life that unknown to me was at this time capturing my creativity.

Most of these ideas were provoked by my reading of ‘British Artist: Gwen John’ by Alicia Foster.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Romanced into Contemporary Ideas of Independence

The birth of art criticism came with the modern world, and its two greatest products: ideas, and independence. From these we can attribute much of what we know and appreciate now in art, and they make sense of so much of our contemporary ways of thinking about art.

Romanticism is slowly, when considering measures like this, becoming my favourite period of art because of the newness of life it mothered. This movement put emphasis on the thing that grips me most in relation to art - ideas. I do not feel the urge to write about anything until a concept grips me. This is so clearly put forward in the film inception when the protagonist says, “What is the most resilient parasite?...An idea. Resilient…highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.”

In the 1700s many questioned, using the tool of newly identified reason, the ruling bodies. Independent decision-making and opinion-forming was praised over following church bodies and other key instructional institutions - this could be in relation to the anti-monarchy as it was in France with the succession of revolutions, or through social criticism and plans for utopian, scientific and technological progress as it was seen outworking in England. As Philosopher Immanuel Kant, the vanguard of this period – the Enlightenment, said in What is Enlightenment? ‘Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another… Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.'

How did this play out? The revelation of the revolutions was freedom of ideas and thus independence. Theoretically being independent could lead to the achievement of personal ideals, which was both empowering and stimulating for the imagination. Out of urbanisation came the new city life that spilt a community into individuals through reserve, and detachment. Thus, practically being alone in a crowd was easier and consequently retreating into their own thoughts.

And so to be independent, to question and be critical in order to find improvement, was praised above all. This can bee seen in contemporary art: to find new methods of expression, to be unique, even if absurd, is exalted under the 19th century conviction of ‘Romantic Genius.’

In his Romantic art, Friedrich demonstrated the ways of Erlebniskunst, which in German translates to art experience. Or more importantly - the individual experience. For example while within the circles enshrining classicism, or even those prior - the Middle Ages, above all, clarity of communication was required so that the myths of the past were recognised and known didactically. Whereas, Friedrich’s painting of a thicket in winter From the Dresden Heath (Trees and Bushes in the Snow), 1828, could be understood spiritually through the entering into one’s own mind in order to associate it with the experience of life, so the image can be a means of translating the narrative of the art to oneself.

To emphasise this, while for the centuries of 15th-18th, most art looked back to the history painting of tales gone by, and to the style of antiquity as a model, Baudelaire said these were regurgitated, ‘they had a vested interest in ceaselessly depicting the past; it is an easier task, and one that could be turned to good account by the lazy.’ Suddenly this switch has occurred from what is prized as being more intelligent art – that which references work gone before as a sign of art education, to that which invents new ideas which we understand now to be the most innovative.

This latter focus led to, in manly places, a complete abandoning of the standard genres, of recognizable forms and materials. Now, we also pride art that allows the audience to not only have an experience, but that the art leaves enough iconographic space so that that viewer’s experience may too be utterly unique and individual. Thus the audience in so many cases, not the artist forms the ideas. Shifting the power from what could be described as the ruling class of this analogy, to the layman.

Baudelaire –‘On the Heroism of Modern Life’, from Salon of 1846

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Women - Eve

I took some time at my a-levels looking at the apple of discord – that is the sin of the world, embodied in the skin of a fallen apple, in art. At that time, I was of course fascinated in the arts, but far from an art historian. This week, I’ve seen a painting that speaks of great clarity of a history of women. And it comes in the form of works I am constantly revelling in at the moment, the pre-Raphaelite, and surrounding schools, as seen in the stunning lady of John Collier’s painting that I spoke about in Women – Female Virtue, and is in Last Summer Things Were Greener, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, by John Byam Liston Shaw.

Eve Overcome by Remorse was exhibited by the American artist Anna Lea Merritt at the Royal Academy in 1885. The painting echoes Rubens’ The Judgement of Paris (pictured.) From the sensual, soft painterly touch to skin of the three beautiful Greco-Romans that Paris must chose between; the palette selection, and the treatment of the natural world. According to this tale, the golden apple that Paris holds is an allegory for discord – the disruption to harmony caused by the competition and jealously introduced at Paris’ decision. Like the disruption to peaceful and perfect bliss in the Garden of Eden when the fall occurs.

If Eve is womankind than I believe it is of great testament that it is a female artist who grasps the emotional burden of Eve. It’s been a significant part of discussion in our seminars - the extent in which male and female are depicted differently according to the gender of the artist. The point of Eve in the story of creation is that she is blamed for giving into temptation, and then she follows the serpent’s suggestion and becomes the temptress to Adam. And so, depicted throughout art history, we can relate how men’s [comparative] strength is flaunted. Yet, we all know that Eve’s giving into the bittersweet treat was no more intentional than Adam’s latter feast. And this is what so many depictions of the scene lack.

Remorse, regret, self-assigned shame. Eve is a woman who is self-aware (the Biblical passage tells us this is the impact of fall) – she is not proud in the knowledge of what she has done. She shields her body and her face, curls up in a protective foetus; the apple in anger has been tossed aside, out of reach and sight - rejected.

This again is an image of virtue, for although it doesn’t appear so on outer appearances; Eve is a woman who knows what is wrong and right and will not stand emotionless when she is in the knowledge of her sin.

Pictured left: ‘Ever Overcome By Remorse’ 1885, Anna Lea Merritt

Right: ‘The Judgement of Paris’ 1632-5, by Peter Paul Rubens

The Pre-Raphaelite woman is in strong display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Flâneur and Badaud

Behind the Impressionist concept of an artist, I believe lays the foremost way for all to engage with art.

The Impressionist artist was a unique type of person. He was very much more than an artist for he required specialist skills. In fact there was a group, a subsection within the movement, who barely spoke of themselves as artists alone. They were the flâneur: an exclusive selection of pseudo-gentry with enough dosh to not work, but to spend their days roaming, looking. Looking for nothing in particular, and thus always successfully finding things of interest.

They were the artist-observer and in this concept was founded a new art that was both more spontaneous and documentary. These were no longer composed portraits and scenes; and no longer people and places documented how those inhabiting it wished, but how the on-looker happened to find them.

In contrast to the flâneur, is the badaud (the clue is embedded in the suffix), also in Victor Fournel ’s Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris, 1858, who was a literary concomitant of Degas and Manet, and all of whom were complying flâneurs. The badaud live in a world where things inessential or lacking in appropriacy to that very moment are lost, unnoticed.

At the birth of modernity, here is a thoroughly contemporary idea for us today. For we are surrounded by imagery constantly that every piece is desperate to capture our attention, and inversely becomes even less doted upon. The same applies with photography; the creative medium loses its significance when happy snappy shots are so regularly taken on phones and uploaded to social networking sites. Imagine the time when paintings in gallery in the major cities, or frescos and altarpieces on the walls of the churches were the only visual produce. How much more precious would these be?

I’d love to restore this interest in art. Yet, I believe it commences with the artist-observer: with a renewed intention in looking. Because once you look, you begin to make visual revelations…creative ideas. And this is the key to enjoying art – allowing yourself to be captured by what you see.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Women - Female Virtue

I am desperate to discuss with you the most beautiful work of art I’ve seen in the last week, and the most intellectual and morally inspirational work of art I’ve seen in the last week. The absolutely perfect coincidence is that they have something in common, Female Virtue.

The work of art who’s beauty is strikingly extravert is, Lady Godiva, c. 1897, by John Collier, at The Herbert museum and art gallery, Coventry. The work of art who’s is an enigmatic introvert is, Innocence between Virtue and Vice, 1790, by Marie Guillhelmine Benoist.

I have no doubt that Collier’s figure is the (for I can recall no other) most beautiful figure I have seen in art. It surpasses even Deigo Veláquez’s stunning posterior view upon Venus in, The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’), 1647-51, at the National Gallery, London. For in Collier’s masterpiece, Godiva’s flesh radiates. It is utterly sensuous, and yet wholly dignified. Even the ratty hair standard to Pre-Raphaelite painting, of which Collier’s style could be associated with, that I usually find myself twitching at, does not bother me in this painting. Moreover, it isn’t something of visual surplus, it is in this painting completely visually necessary – it seals the Lady’s virtue.

Though it may seem that her head is head in shame, and as though she is a prostitute paraded about the city; she is in fact a woman of will, whose head is held down to show the sacrifice of shame she has made in order to achieve good. This historic character of Saxon nobility, alive between c.980-1067, rode through the streets of Coventry naked to make a stand against her husband’s unjust leadership. Her spouse, Leofric the Earl of Mercia, enforced unreasonably high taxes upon his tenants, to which Lady Godiva could not support. What a woman of virtue?

Female artist, Maria Guilhelmine, Comtesse Benoist painted Innocence Between Virtue and Vice to retell the didactic mythological story, ‘The Choice of Hercules.’ Hercules, in this case Innocence, is to decide between the characters of morality and immorality, and if [s]he chooses correctly [s]he will reach the temple of innocence and success. The artist (1768-1826) worked at a time of male dominance, when women were often viewed as an evil temptress of sexual immorality. Thomas Gisborne in Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex wrote on the supposed instable mental qualities of the female gender, arguing they had the tendency to, ‘frivolousness…a thirst for admiration and applause; to vanity and affection.’

In this painting the balance is readdressed. Vice, or the appealing pleasure, is the male figure the leaps towards Innocence who is appropriately dressed in the colour of purity. Innocence rests into Virtue, who becomes thus the symbol of protection. The nature of Vice’s unexpected and aggressive approach left Innocence little time to consider the temptation upon her, he had planned to whisk her away immediately; yet in Vice she will find freedom as she runs gaily towards the temple. Together the women represent the relentless and unified quality of feminine willpower. They flash Virtue an evil gaze and skidaddle.

A great interactive exhibition on Lady Godiva is at Coventry’s Herbert Museum and Art Gallery, entitled ‘Discover Godiva’ and is one of the permanent exhibitions.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

It has to be this Way2, Lindsay Seers at the Mead Gallery

Whether or not people agree art is becoming increasing inviting, it is becoming increasing involving. The way of contemporary art, and so much of the work exhibited at the Arts centre’s Mead Gallery, is to immerse its audience into the varying 3D and multi-media format of the art. It seems logical that this should become today’s trend when considering how long the average person, students especially, spend in front of screens in a world that is almost completely reproduced virtually. We long for intimacy, to feel, to be amongst it all.

This couldn’t be truer for the work of artist Lindsay Seers, who was mute until she was eight years old. This was due to her feeling overwhelmed by the intensity of her sensory experiences of the word, that, quite literally words weren’t enough. But in this new world, the world created for us in these art exhibitions, do we long for reality or for fantasy?

The artist’s inspiration for the film and fortifying sculptures was the disappearance of her step-sister, perhaps to a diamond smuggling industrial area in west Africa. It appears that Lindsay searches for the facts of the case: for clues to her survival, and records of memories and events. Yet the work is far from a missing persons case; its style of communication reflects the confusion of the data found. Nothing, when viewing the film, appears to be true. It all seems like a surreal, disjointed fantasy. Guardian writer, Laura McLean-Ferris, questioned Seer’s award winning film of 2009, Extramission 6 – ‘Is any of it true?’ Concluding, ‘It doesn’t matter…’ Facts aside, (how can memory ever be fact?) all that is remaining is a range of viewpoints.

Seer’s film It has to be this Way2 imposes its impression in a completely unique and praise-worthy manner. Even though you long for reality, for the truth of the matter, when you discover the darkness of the truth, that it doesn’t embody this ideal image, you become reserved and retreat.

The room in which this short gothic thriller (20 minuets of fear-invoking voices and progressive imagery,) is shown in a mock, true-to-scale slave fort and throughout the film flashes of images of the real and the re-created are integrated until you lose any real sense of location. Seers picks you up and carries you in and out of reality. At times you are very conscious of the view you have down upon the circular screen that imitates looking through the camera; at other times you are completely submerged. At anytime when you are not consumed by baffled thoughts, you can admire her creative ability to relate language, the arts, and experience. A skill fostered during, and in reaction to her time when she couldn’t speak herself.

Get involved in Seer’s work and become the modern viewer. From outside appearances, the white cube design of gallery seems empty of substance. But upon seeing the film inside the slave fortress, you begin to make sense of the sculptures found outside of it. You needn’t stop for 20 minutes to capture Lindsay’s unique and ultra-modern, creative style of film making; even two minutes inside the viewing room gives you a great sense of mystery, intrigue and to some vague extend – insight. And a warning, don’t arrive with the preconception that the work there is to be understood; to enjoy the full glory of contemporary art you mustn’t search for an answer, but enjoy the exploration of the questions.

This essentially is the idea behind Lindsay Seer’s It Has to be this Way2 project. That she is not likely to solve the mystery of her missing step-sister, Christine Parks - as if she thought it possible she would have surely invested some time earlier in her life into it - it is to revel in the unknown of the journey and through a range of interviews and travels, build up a picture of the distortion and frailty of memory itself.

The Mead Gallery, part of the University of Warwick’s art centre, is holding this exhibition until 11th December. Entrance is free!

This article can also be found on Warwick University’s student newspaper – The Boar:

Friday, 17 September 2010

Wolfgang Tillmans at the Serpentine

If you go to the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition at the Serpentine, you are welcomed into a mix-tape of photography frailty, beauty, and (most importantly to the artist,) experimentation. Composed to uncomposed, perfected to left.

Tillman’s exhibition is one of varied taste – it’s not easy to gage what makes him passionate, yet this is far from disconcerting because it appears he has a passion simply for taking unique shots, and it is invested in individually unconnected, but very enjoyable outcomes. At points it appears it is light that interests him most, for example Paperdrop (Puma) 2007; sometimes composition e.g. Roy 2009; in some photographs narratives are exalted, Anders Pulling Splinter From his Foot, 2004; and on many it is photographic exploration: Gedser 2004. (I urge you to look these up as exemplary specimens.)

Now I know I have said this before about another piece of work (The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt, after seeing it in November), but I believe I’ve now seen the most beautiful piece of artistry put before my eyes. And, I don’t think it is completely unjust or fickle to change my mind on my favourites - to have found another which rivals the first in the course of a year, from the many exhibitions and permanent collections I’ve viewed, I think that it is still only proportionate and true to my devotion to good taste.

Ostgut Freischwimmer, 2004 by Wolfgang Tillmans, is both the most bewilderingly beautiful photograph (that which it is), and painting (that which it appears) I’ve come across, (those which are my two favourite mediums).

It is not often that I cannot correct any part of the work; to the extent that I am stunned by the work itself and have no consideration deeper into the realms of analysis – that’s when you know you’ve seen real beauty. You just want to stare: “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Drop knowing something. You are not here long.” (Walker Evans, American photographer.) Just look at this piece and see how it captures your imagination, how it stuns your senses. It is somewhere between the tracts of a falling feather, or a rustling bag caught in wind, or paper as it floats to the floor. It’s alive with definite but delicate movement. It feels like it’s in a deep place, but not to the depths of entrapment, but to the depths of new unexplored places (the work itself is experimental, it’s new); like a sea creature gliding the sea floor. It’s a ballet dancer – Tchaikovsky’s Swan. It’s dumbfoundedly creative, and yet surprisingly simple and quiet. It’s a lady who is completely casual, but very prim. And I’ve watched how she charms on the catwalk.

If this doesn’t appeal to you, there will be something of Tillman’s that will: it is that varied.

This show continues until, at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, London.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Ernesto Neto: The Edges of the World

I was shamefully too late in noticing this show in order to recommend that you visit it (it closed on Sunday), so let this be a lesson, now that I know Ernesto Neto, that you should never miss out on an opportunity to follow his work: he is a truly surprising find!

The photo above evinced the odd feeling I possessed throughout: my father, a fair art fiend like myself reading the published literature, and in the background a child jumping around. There were times where I did not feel like I really belonged at this exhibition, not that I wasn’t welcomed…It was like being welcomed into a home with unquestionable hospitality to find the family are all Earl Grey drinkers and you are not and suddenly you don’t feel so comfortable. It was the weirdest exhibition I’ve been to, but it wasn’t disturbing like Dali - It was the one of the few shows I’ve been to when I’ve felt: art more than for all cultures, is for all ages. But let me correct you now – this was no playground. Ernesto Neto is in the discussion of intellectual and imaginative art. You only have to read the literature to know how deep his considerations go.

So let me explain, if I can. Your place is this world Ernesto Neto has created - in his five-room-spreading-instillation in the upper gallery (indoor and terraces) of The Hayward - is some fusion of alien, animal and amoeba. It is the most effective transformation of space I have seen done in the art world. When you go to the latest Turbine Hall instillation, you still know you are in the turbine hall. Neto’s earth is a world of its own: and he calls his show The Edges of the World and comments, ‘The idea of a boundary, a limit, is very important in my works as they are always in every sense, on the verge of something.’ There are parts that resemble our world, but not obviously enough for it to not engage your brain into the intrigue of its mystery. His point is that his world itself is like a body. There’s bone-like structures; a strawberry-shaped net pavilion that is the heart fitted with drum inside for its beat of life; and a womb-like tepee of which it is written, ‘it is here, perhaps, that we come closest to the sensation of being inside our own selves.’ There is also water, of which our bodies is made two thirds of (so maybe in this world we’re not aliens, animals of amoebas, but human); and blood – again in no sinister way, but in a matter-of-fact science museum style.

So what does this exhibition actually look like? Depending on the scale of your imagination: either we are roaming around inside our own regenerated magnified bodies; or we are exploring a varying and unfamiliar landscape. Neto said he sees the body: ‘more like a city than an emotional and psychological representation of a person.’ So his garden city is made of ‘large-scale sculptures of biomorphic forms and participatory, immersive environments.’ Sculptures, such as wooden look-out points that are plagued with large Dalmatian shaped holes that could also be like leaves woven around trees. When you step up onto these tree houses you emerge from within the layer below. This is perhaps my favourite feature about the show: the utilising of vertical space. Through netting, he has divided the areas; so that to below your head appears above the mist or clouds, but from above you overlook a canopy of new foliage. (The Rainforest feel is no doubt related to Neto’s Brazilian birthing.) From the first room to the second room, this scenery turns from open, white-netted coves, and collections of pebbles; to shoots of green tight life – ‘his work is characterised by the use of stretchy, transparent fabric.’ Coves turn to enclosed brightly colours tunnels, structured by skeletal wooden slacks, and scented like spices. Across the outdoor areas there are plant-like sculptures, and actual organic forms (that don’t appear half as fun and interesting anymore), and a swimming pool like no other!

As proved by this exhibition, Ernesto is truly in touch with his senses holistically, which wholly shapes the outcome of the art he forms. He recommends, ‘breath through [y]our pores, close [y]our eyes to see, smell to listen, dance to levitate.’ If you really fancy educating yourself, as the booklet exemplifies, I assume the catalogue will prove also, that reading into Neto’s thoughts will open your eyes to your world and his.

This show, part of Festival Brazil [19th June – 5th September] has now finished.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The BP Portrait Award 2010 at the National Portrait Gallery

My opinion is that portraits have the greatest potential of all the genres to be masterpieces. This is a visceral view of mine, yet for Kenneth Clark it is easily theorised, ‘[certain] portraits are masterpieces because in them a human being is recreated and presented to us as an embodiment, almost a symbol, of all that we might ever find in the depths of our hearts.’ It is the art that reaches into us that has the lasting impression of greatness, and this is how I’d separate my hot-tipped from luke-warm. Though it is very true that each individual will relate to a painting differently, for example the winning Last Portrait of Mother by Daphne Todd, will speak deeply to those who have been faced with this grief, I believe that some portraits, are so blatant, so universal, that the power of its expression crosses boundaries.

Perhaps the most memorable of the exhibition was the striking and surprising, Le Grand Natan by Daniel Enkaoua that absently greets you upon turning the corner to it. The painting is one that evokes energy of the imagination. It is compositionally somewhat empty, but its impression has great brooding breadth. It imprints upon the memory and reawakens the past in a most mysterious way. The child, with feet of a giant, revives memories of shaken moments from The Orphanage. And so it is even more intriguing as a piece when you discover that four year old painted, Natan, is the artist’s son who insisted he be painted the largest possible, as though imposing adulthood upon himself.

There is just one thing that bothers me about portraiture from the last decade: intentionally inaccurate perspective that serves no purpose at all. Did Wendy run out of canvas space in Mary (The Visit V), determined to fit in the (to be true, nicely painted) tiles of the fireplace, and so have to put everything on the squat, like a home-made passport picture that doesn’t fit the ratio of your railcard? Quite what is the point of its extremity in Love Painting – Portrait of my wife Jackie, and our cat Amy, Redbrick Mill Studio by Tony Noble – why inflict upon your viewers that queasy feel of vertigo? Perspective is a great tool in which creativity can be explored to effect. It has the power to altar our perception of a situation, such as the masterpiece Lila Pearl by Thea Penna. In viewing, there is a transferral of emotion from the artist, to her painting, to us. The artist looks down on her child who is boxed into the corner, vulnerable, in the same way the mother resembles due to her responsibility – she feels exposed, watched, and disquieted herself.

Modern portraiture has developed in a fair number of directions, and the BP portrait prize each year celebrates these equally. It is a great opportunity to assess, like the Frieze Fair or the RA summer exhibition, the movements within an annual period. Though I believe this exhibition to be the best opportunity of them all, due to its specialised focus, and competitive status: you are thus able to judge not only what is being created, but what is most valued from that which has been produced.

Pictured: Le Grand Natan, and Lila Pearl

BP Portrait Award 2010 is at the National Portrait Gallery until September 19

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Royal Academy of Art Summer Exhibition

I’ve had the privilege of dissolving probably the greatest problem of the annual RA summer show. That being that: human nature, even for one who tries their hardest out of pure dogged fascination, cannot keep our feet from tiring, our eyes from glazing over, or our concentration from lapsing; due to the sheer quantity of art stifling all viewable wall or plinth space available unto the academy. There is only one case worse, October’s Frieze Fair, which is a completely overwhelming and disorientating experience requiring sheer mental strength. Overall, despite there being great work to discover here, the experience is itself disappointing. This is due to the fact that no attempt will be able to reveal the mysteries of the unseen. (One always assumes that in failure to complete a viewing, the most exquisitely mind-blowing, beautiful and radical will be just around the corner). There is nothing worse than rushing the experience of art out of no given choice…

I, by complete charming chance, have been able to preview the exhibition not once, not twice, but three times, in my job as…a waitress, which provided just enough to be able to judge the holistic atmosphere of the exhibition, to note the famous and their iconic styles, the unnoted, and the notably unnote-worthy. And have since made a dedicated longer visit.

There is a couple of artists featured with whom I have formed particular alliance to after hearing them speak in the flesh about their work: Grayson Perry on his slightly queer and very eccentric ceramics; and Humphrey Ocean on his series Peggy’s Birthday, which was exhibited at the Sidney Cooper Gallery in Canterbury last September. Six of Peggy’s Birthday made the show, of which one - Geoffrey - has been printed onto postcard.

Grayson Perry’s work seems to be the perfect proportion of creative absurdness. His visually extravagant work could be furniture pieces in the Wallace Collection or British Museum because through tradition eyes, Personal Creation Myth could not be deemed anything other than a pot – it’s well made, decorative and certainly beautiful – the coral pink marbling of the varnished sky particularly. It’s absurd, some might say surreal - though not in the way of the Surrealists - due to it’s subject matter, and means of exploration. (For some reason, a pot will never seem as natural a place for creative expression as a canvas.) Perhaps then the perfect home for a Perry pot would be a rescued country home, out of a programme entitled something like that, where Laurence Llewelyn Bowen and Andy Warhol (, or more likely, Michael Craig-Martin) have had their way, sometimes in unison and sometimes not. It is yet unsold! Ocean’s works are characterful portraits of which I only have one slight complaint: the dull skin minorly snuffs the life of these personalities.

I was unimpressed by the repetitive work of Michael Craig-Martin – I expected to feel indebted that I missed last year’s summer show – that the work of 2010 Untitled (Real), Untitled (Paradise) and Kids, would be noticeably different from 2008. Personally, I think the man has been holidaying since bulk printing in 2008…He’s been using the same imagery year after year, regardless of the so-called title and supposed intent. Honestly, Untitled or Real. Don’t suggest it has no obvious point when it glows neon 2m letters that very unambiguously spell what they do. There is a difference between an artist choosing to use an unusual, non fine-art medium for creative affect, and an artist who through the way he works, appears unable to create work outside of the niche he is filling – this is when you come to doubt the artist because essentially you see little creative future in their work.

Likewise, a previous favourite of mine, Lisa Milroy, appears to have lost momentum as her years have matured her. Her attempt to broaden out of regimented grids of repeated aerial viewed objects has left work that is dull, and less, not more, imaginative. I can’t bear to look at the increasing quality of cartoon.

I was thoroughly impressed by Self, Vasiliki Gkotsi’s Jenny Savilleish piece and some very buyable pieces in the Small Weston room by Bernard Dunstan - The kitchen and Sitting by the Window, which are stunningly gentle-spirited. One other mention would be of Anselm Kiefer’s ever dramatic but simplistic Einschüsse, which greets you first on entrance to VI from the central hall – art fiend or not, Kiefer’s work is beautifully raw and thought-provoking to investigate.

The show is open until 22nd August, and is one of the events in the international art calendar.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Picasso - Celebrating the Muse, at Marlborough Fine Art

I’ve never been a die-hard Pablo fan. It probably sprouts from a late afternoon drag-of-a-sweaty trip around his house museum in Barcelona, when I was young, disinterested, and frankly confused by it all. (My parents still quote that, and the visit we took to the Musée d’Orsay, which came even earlier in my childhood, as a tale of amusing dramatic irony from my life). That and, (I have only myself to blame for this), the disturbing, uncomfortable and unsettling impression I’ve often felt from what I perceived as inconsistency in his work. For example, Andrew Wyeth’s life-long commitment to the Helga Pictures steadily, solidly, and unquestionable, always seemed admirable to me. Picasso, I’ve imagined as a fidgety child, and a fickle adult. How unreasonable and ignorantly callow, to dictate that an artist who lived as long as Picasso did, should, or even could, remain challenged, inspired and motivated by the same style, influences and subjects; unchanged throughout his life.

What I realised viewing totalling 200 prints, is the pure frantic speed of his creativity. What I just outlined as a weakness: that Picasso exhibitions are visually loud, incohesive, chaotic, discordant and disorganised, is because you never can see just one Picasso at a show; which is in fact the testament to his greatness. His imagination, ideas and style seem to develop so rapidly that it can be identified within one piece. His work is constantly futuristic – forward facing…forward running.

In places and at times, you could also think of Picasso as being too easily swayed. His work is, as a single piece or in a body, always highly referential and a broad-ranging culmination of influences. Yet despite this, he appears so influence-less, in that his persona is utterly unique, independent, fresh, bold, and as it was…modern.

As I pointed out in my article Italian Renaissance Drawings…, if drawing be the father of all the other arts, and Picasso be the master of prints, then by viewing a collection of prints from the core of his career is perhaps the greatest insight into the decisions of direction and development he made in his paintings and sculptures. For a man who’s work is as varied as the entirety of the History of Art, to reach beyond insight to understanding of all his achievements, is a complex but rewarding task. And so, like this was for me, with every exhibition of his work, you can expect to learn of something new.

Pablo Picasso: Celebrating the Muse – Women in Picasso’s Prints 1905-1968 is only available today and tomorrow (until 2 July,) at the Marlborough Fine Art, Albermarle Street.'s-Prints-256276.html

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Italian Renaissance Drawings at the British Museum

If ever I’ve seen an informative and theoretical exhibition, here was it. Following Change to Come? and the foundation show it dialogues, here is a show and a blog marking the change to come in my art education: from almost wholly practise to incessant study; from an environment of the very contemporary in art, to a varied environment of sources and a traditional approach to the study of art’s history. My Art & Design Foundation diploma is complete, and I embark on a History of Art degree in the Autumn term that is destined in its final year for the origin of many of the drawings in this exhibition, in a study trip to Venice. I found it uncannily considerate how the colour scheme chosen by the British Museum, a rich berry red and naturalistic Christmas tree green; and the demography of visitors couldn’t point more literally to the topic of tradition itself. The Renaissance, I’ve always felt, is where the traditions of Western Art began, and as the exhibition very clearly explains, the tradition of drawing.

Renaissance Man (author, artist, architect, poet, philosopher etc.), Leon Battista Alberti, warned, ‘Never take the stylus or brush in your hand if you have not first constituted in your mind all that you have to do.’ I think most contemporary tutors and artists would advise this also for a brush, but for a pencil, we see how the tradition of drawing and its purpose has changed. To make a drawing could have two very different approaches: to plan and to sell. To plan may be with brisk rousing marks as in Da Vinci’s fluid Virgin and Child with a Cat c.1475-81, as he explains: ‘The sketching out of a narrative should be rapid, and the arrangement of limbs not too defined.’ This becomes the visual brainstorm of the artist as he considers a range of compositions (mostly). Or to plan, as in elder works - from model books of old paintings - the composition of a scene through the careful cohesion of many parts. Or, as never seen quite so importantly as before this time: to sell oneself. Artists could advertise their skills in finished books of drawings and prints (to which could be reproduced) to the wealthy bankers that kept town states such as Florence and Venice afloat and thriving.

From an exhibition that includes the works of powerhouse High Renaissance artists: Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, I was challenged by the sight of a Da Vinci charcoal mess. I found myself resting in front of some other favourable Italians, whose drawings reflect a core of craftsmanship, and an intuitive talent. One was Andrea Mantegna, and his dramatic Man Lying on a Stone Slab, c.1475-85 (pictured), that for anyone who knew it already, would reignite imagery of his stunning tempera masterpiece The Lamentation over Dead Christ, c.1480, and both pieces’ highly desirable foreshortening. This is the growing talent of the Renaissance that can be spotted over the retrospect of the exhibition, and the course of 150 years from the late Gothic traits, to the borderline Baroque.

Another notable piece would be Fra Filippo Lippi’s radiant Virgin and Child with Two Angels (recto) c.1460-5, where exquisite yet bold touches of white over an ochre preparation are so commanding that the drawing exudes the physical and metaphorical light and purity intended from these four characters. Quite on the other end would be the stainless steal appeal of Fra Bartolommeo’s Christ in Judgement c. 1500, whose very finished and crisply delivered drawing, found at the end of the exhibition, enunciates drawings, (though never excepted on the same plane as a painting,) as being a considered art form themselves. My feelings on it couldn’t be arranged better than Giorgio Vasari wrote in Lives of the Artists, 1568, ‘Drawing: the father of our three arts, architecture, sculpture and painting.’ For me, drawing is a key skill that underlines all great artists, and for me, the practise of it births undeniable masterpieces.

Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings is at the British Museum until 25 July.