Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Bronze at the Royal Academy, London

Brace yourselves, this one's a biggie!

As well as the latest Bond film, I managed to take in something a bit more cerebral when I was in London, namely the Royal Academy Bronze exhibition.  Initially, a show about bronze didn't sound very enticing, but it's a show that's had gold-star reviews from the critics.  

So, flashing my 'Friends' card at the door, I went to see what all the fuss was about.

The first room sets the tone.  In the centre, there's a single large statue - the 4th century Dancing Satyr, pulled from the ocean by a fisherman off Sicily in 1998.  The year before, the same fisherman trawled up the left leg, and amazingly then found the body and head of the statue to which it belonged the following year.  Apparently it was brought out of the sea headfirst, as if swimming up from beneath the waves.

It's a truly stunning, gorgeous piece.  Life size, it has the most amazing presence and movement to it.  It reads as a fluid form from all angles, with an inherent  movement and life of its own.  Thanks to its centuries in the water and the chemical reactions of the salt on the metal, the bronze has a beautiful green patina and texture to it.  The lack of arms and a leg actually add to it, giving it a very modern and abstract feel, and a certain poignancy, as if it it is something beautiful and triumphant and timeless against adversity.

The Greeks were the first to perfect the techniques of casting life-sized figures in this amazing medium, and there is a room which explains the casting method with a very informative display.  

Casting bronze is a painstaking process, involving wax models, plaster jackets, baking and firing and pouring of metal and finishing.  It's a big commitment to make a model of something in bronze, requiring a lot of resources, money, time and effort.  The reward is that you are making something permanant, and something of great beauty.  Bronze confers status and permanence on the object, elevating and preserving it for all time.  Especially interesting in this part of the exhibition is the display of bronze casts of a raven's wing, to demonstrate the different patinas (or finishes) that bronze can have.  You can touch the wings, and they are indeed very tactile.  Bronze can be polished like a mirror, or have a surface like satin, or rough and patterned and textured, or coloured black or green or gold. 

The exhibition's strength is that it displays objects by themed rooms, and mixes them up chronologically.  So you can see that very ancient work has resonance in modern work and vice versa.  Sometimes the most ancient piece looks like it could have been made last week.  

So in the first room, there is an Etruscan piece made in the 2nd century BC, called Evening Shadows (how they know this I don't know).  It's a long tall, skinny stylised figure,  which looks like it was made by Modigliani.

There's Donatello's exquisite little Putti with Tambourine of 1429, and Giovanni Francesco Rustica's three huge figures, bearing all the hallmarks of his collaborator Leonardo da Vinci.

Giovanfrancesco Rustici, The Pharisee, St John the Baptist and The Levite from The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist, 1511

Then there's the vast. towering Perseus by Cellini, made in a single casting (rather than in sections), and possibly the most ambitious statue ever made - how on earth did they ever physically make such a thing?

And in the same room there's also something which was, for me, the most exciting piece, Portrait of a Painter by David Smith, from 1954.

This was made from lots of found art-related objects, such as an artists palette, which were textured with plaster and resin before being assembled and cast.  I can't tell you how exciting an object this was.  Unlike the Perseus, this is something you can imagine making yourself, so I guess that was its attraction and what I could identify with.

Room 3 was all about animals, such as another assemblage of found objects, this time by Picasso, wittily made into his 1951 Baboon (which included his son Claude's model car for the head - bet he was pleased)

to Louise Bourgeois' creepy 1996 Spider IV perched menacingly on the wall

to Giambologna's 1567 Turkey, all life-like feathers and free and textured surfaces - the most life-like and heart-felt thing he's ever done, so different to his highly-finished, mannered Mercury in room 9.

The next room was dedicated to groups, which I have to say didn't do anything for me, and Room 6 was all about Objects, both decorative and functional.  This included such diverse items as the green-man-like 1170 Sanctuary Ring from Durham Cathedral (which I have seen in situ - it must have been quite an undertaking to remove it for the exhibition) to Barbara Hepworth's 1956 Curved Form (Trevalgan). I can understand the Sanctuary Ring as object (and it is such a singularly fierce and grotesque face that you would have to seriously be in dire need of sanctuary before daring to use it)

but putting the Hepworth in that section puzzled me.  However, as it is a sculpture about landscape, I suppose there wasn't really another heading under which it could have been included.  Curved Form is just that - a winged shape; feminine, uterine, pelvis-like, encompassing.

I was at Trevalgan Hill in Cornwall near St Ives earlier in the year.  It's a place where Peter Lanyon also used to return to frequently, as it has long, sweeping curved views right along and round the coast.  The sculpture is a direct response to that view, encompassing many viewpoints.  It's the big, sweeping curve of the coast as you stand on the  top of the hill and look around you.  There are large rocks on the top, and gorse, so that although it is exposed and you have this amazing, powerful view, it is at the same time secret and enclosing, like a castle or fortress.  It is a sculpture about a landscape, but also about a feeling, an experience, and the action of looking.

The next room is about Reliefs, and includes Matisse's clunky Back 1-4, which he worked on over 20 years and moves towards an increasingly abstract and simplified figure.

Room 9 is 'Gods', and includes a Hellenistic Dionysis from 1st century BC.  This figure lay for years on a river bed wrapped in a loose fabric, and this has left a textural imprint on the right leg.  

Room 10 is 'Heads', and again the stand-out is a Hellenistic portrait head of King Seuthes III.  It's so immediate and modern-looking.

There's much, much more, for this is a show that's a brilliant demonstration of what an exhibition should do.  It takes a subject, and it explains and demonstrates the medium with a freshness and a logic that astounds and delights.  Just the sheer physicality of getting all those objects into such an show is amazing enough, but to see how such diverse pieces inform and complement each other within the logic of the arrangement is a thing of great pleasure.

What struck me, though, is how few women cast in bronze.  I could only see two women represented, Louise Bourgeois and Barbara Hepworth (although obviously we don't know the identities of the uncredited ancient pieces, but I'd take a stab that they were done by men).  In any art exhibition, there are going to be far fewer women than men represented (for the reasons for this I would point you to Germaine Greer's The Obstacle Race), and I have a personal peeve about gender-based women-only shows.  

However, it did make me think about the gender-implications of the medium.  Bronze is about making a bold, permanent, costly piece, a statement that your art is so important it will last for ever.  That's quite an egotistical in-your-face thing, and it demands a lot of time and effort (or arranging a lot of someone else's time and effort).  Very often, women's art tends to not be about these things, tending towards the more fragile, ephemeral, physically smaller mediums, the stuff that's apologetically in the corner rather than 90 foot tall in the middle of the town square. However, look how the women artists use the medium here -  Bourgeois' spiders are menacing giant-sized overbearing mothers, Hepworth takes a very masculine, hard medium and makes it feminine, organic and nurturing.

If you're in London, please do go and see this show.  I doubt you'll get the chance to see anything like this again.  It's on until December 9th.

For more information, go to the Royal Academy website.

Monday, 29 October 2012

New Q in Skyfall

Whilst in London over the weekend I managed to get to see the new super-duper block-busting Bond film Skyfall.

One of the highlights is the new Q (played by Ben Whishaw), who turns out to be a geeky young whippersnapper with a neat line in witty one-liners.  

Here he is in his first meeting with Bond.


The plot is all about establishing 50th anniversary Bond as a very British Jubilympic icon, so here they are appropriately against a backdrop of quintessentially British paintings in Room 34 of the National Gallery in London (NOT the National Portrait Gallery, film fans - that's round the corner).

And in case you're interested, or want to amaze your friends with your art historical knowledge in a Bond-themed pub quiz, the painting on the left is Joseph Wright of Derby's 1768 Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (all about cutting-edge innovations in science - an appropriate as a backdrop for Q)

....and the one on the right behind Bond is Thomas Gainsborough's The Morning Walk of 1785, showing a little lap-dog looking adoringly at its mother-figure mistress (Bond and M?).

The painting that Bond and Q are contemplating as a metaphor for Bond himself is Turner's The "Fighting Temeraire" Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up of 1839.

Whilst there are clear parallels between the imagery of the redundant old warship heading for an ignominious end, here's a further twist.  

In the early 1800s, Turner lived at 119 Cheyne Walk in London.
In 1923-26, Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond, also lived there. 

(He later lived at Flat 24, Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk from 1950-54, where he wrote Casino Royale.)

To read more about the scene in Room 34 in the National Gallery, go to my other blog here.

To read more about the other paintings in Skyfall and how they inform the plot, go here for the painting in Mallory's office and here for the stolen Modigliani in Shanghai.

But the thing I really liked about new Q, apart from his penchant for choosing top art locations for his spy assignations,  is his Scrabble letter Earl Grey tea mug.

You mostly only see it from the back (especially in one particular close-up where he takes a drink out of it), and it looks like this...

Yup, I recognised it because it's like my studio mug (which is why mine has paint on it), only mine says 

and his says....(obviously)
 Well, it made me laugh!

(Now, if you're wanting to read anything into Q's mug - and Skyfall seems to be a film where there are multiple layers of meaning hiding away where you least expect it - then I would draw your attention to the fact that there is only one 'Q' in the letter distribution of Scrabble (Q being the equal-highest scoring letter), but two 'M's'.  As there turns out to be in Skyfall by the end....)  

Autumn on Hampstead Heath

Just back from a weekend of photography in London.

Here's one from Hampstead Heath.

It was a mixture of sunshine and showers, and very cold!  Every so often the sun would break through the clouds and the ground would be dappled with sunlight, and the autumn colours would glow.

They're getting the exhibition tents ready on the heath for the Affordable Art Fair, which opens there with a charity preview on Wednesday evening.  

I'll have work there with Duncan R Miller, and it runs until Sunday 4th November.

For more information on the fair, click here.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Autumn Splendour

I'm off to take photos of the autumn leaves this weekend, for new paintings for my London show next year.

Apparently the really terrible summer has had benefits in that the bad weather then means a spectacular autumn display of colour now.

Let's hope so!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Caravaggio and the Importance of Seeing the Real Thing

When I studied my MA in Fine Art, we were sent to look at artwork in situ across Europe.  We were told that, in order to understand art, there was no substitute for seeing the real thing.  I'd never been abroad before, so the whole trip was rather mind-blowing.

One of the places our class of 14 visited back in the late summer of 1983 was Rome, and one of the top places to see on our list was the church of S Luigi dei Francesi, which holds the St Matthew cycle of paintings by Caravaggio.

When you see them in books, you see this.  Here's St Matthew being called by Christ.

Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew (Oil, 1600)

Here is St Matthew being instructed by an angel.

Caravaggio, St Matthew and the Angel (Oil, 1602)
And here's how the story ends up, with the martyrdom of St Matthew.

Caravaggio, Martyrdom of St Matthew (Oil, 1600)

All well and good.  But seeing them in books doesn't give you an idea of their size, for example.  Also, they were painted for very specific positions in a particular chapel of the church, taking into account the architectural features which surround them.  This is very important to the understanding of the works.

Here's the paintings in the chapel, if you stand back from them.

You'll see the St Matthew receiving the holy word from the angel is above the altar, and the two other paintings flank the sides.  The angel painting wasn't the first one that Caravaggio did for the centrepiece - the original one was rejected for being too radical.  Unfortunately, it was destroyed in the second world war, but here's a photo of it.

Caravaggio, St Matthew and the Angel (Oil, 1600, First Version (destroyed))

The first version encapsulates what Caravaggio was trying to do with his religious paintings - paint religion as something that real, ordinary people could connect with by showing saints as real, ordinary people.  Unfortunately, this St Matthew was far too real and ordinary for the Church.  He's shown as an awkward, middle-aged man with dirty feet thrust out towards the viewer, his hand actually being touched and guided across the page by an angel.  It was too much.

However, his second version - with a suitable distance between St Matthew and the angel - still has a concession to Caravaggio's radical vision.  In the church, you are looking up at the painting, over the altar.  The marble altar is in real life, and then it is also along the bottom of the painting.  St Matthew is rather oddly kneeling on a stool to take dictation, and the end of the stool is thrust out, off-balance, over the edge as if it is going to tumble down onto the altar.  So on the face of it, it is a balanced painting, but on closer inspection it is actually about being caught off-balance - it thus externalises in a more subtle way what St Matthew is feeling.

But back to the importance of seeing the work in real life.  It's all about the light.

The Chapel reads like a giant book, from left to right.

On the left, in the Calling, the light comes from the right hand side.

The direction of the light, which just catches Christ's summoning hand and falls on Matthews face, is therefore a guiding spiritual light, the light of God.

However, remember there's a real window above the altar in the chapel.

So there is also real light coming down from above - but not at the same angle as in the painting.

Stand right at the centre of the entrance to the Chapel, and you'll see that the light hits...

..the face of St Matthew, like a natural spotlight.  How clever is that??

In the Angel painting, the light source is from above, from the direction of Heaven, where the angel is descending from.  The light therefore is also a spiritual light.  It doesn't get any natural light from the window above.

The Martyrdom painting on the right has the light source coming from the left, same as the natural light, which comes in to spotlight...

...the palm of martyrdom being handed to St Matthew.

Compositionally, it would have been impossible to put St Matthew's head up at the top, at the point where the light hits, so Caravaggio had to work out some other solution.  His answer was to spotlight the attribute of matrydom instead of the protagonist, which in turn also drives the dynamicism of the composition.  It makes our eyes dart round to read and try to make sense of the moment of confusion, giving a sense of movement and action.

The scene is set at a baptism (hence the opportunity for some semi-naked male figures), so we are standing down actually in the water of the baptism pool (the dark void on the edge of which St Matthew is lying).  We, too, are being baptised, are in the pool, and the implication is that we, too, are in a vulnerable state of near-nakedness.  That makes the moment of the killing of St Matthew, during a sacrament, even more of a betrayal, both for him and for us.

The natural spotlight hits the arm of the angel which carries the palm frond, which in turn drives our eyes down the upraised hand of St Matthew and the heart of the story and the action.  We then read down his other arm, and then in a clockwise circle round the action, with characters dynamically bursting off outwards into the darkness as if an explosion has gone off.

Just imagine Caravaggio getting the commission for these paintings, and coming into the Church to look at the site where his work would be placed.  

He would have stood at the spot where visitors can stand today, and considered every aspect of the actual site, all the existing paintings, the decorations, the altar, the window, the way the light came in, the angles, the architecture, how they all played and worked together.  How could he use all these elements to give power to his canvasses, to help tell the story more effectively so that people could feel that they were right in the heart of the biblical action, making it real and relevant? 

He would obviously thought very carefully about how and where the natural light would come in and worked out where, on his canvasses, he would have to position the narrative and the figures in order to make the whole thing work.  So he's using the actual space of the Chapel as part of his narrative. It's all part of a multi-media, 3D concept.

It's very exciting when you see it and realise what he's doing, using the light on the very day you visit the Chapel as part of your experience and understanding of the paintings, even though it was conceived as an idea over 400 years ago by someone who's long since dead.  He set it going and it's still working away.  

The pictures weren't meant to be seen in books by scholars.  They only come alive when you, as one ordinary person, stand in front of them, in that church, at one particular point, and read them.  Caravaggio is speaking directly one-to-one with you through the Chapel as a whole.  

The paintings really speak on a totally personal level, and that's a very powerful thing.  The man was an absolute genius.

He even put himself in the painting.  Here here is.

 That's him at the back with the beard.

He's saying I'm human and fallable and vulnerable, and I, too, can bear witness to great religious moments, just as you can. 

So go and see the paintings.  They may not be as easy to see or study as they are in books.  But in order to understand them, there's no substitute for seeing the real thing.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

House for an Art Lover Christmas Show

I'll also have some work on display at Glasgow's House for an Art Lover over Christmas.

The House for an Art Lover is a design by Charles Rennie Mackintosh made in 1901 (for a competition run by a German design magazine, but disqualified for being a late entry).  It was never built in his lifetime, but was later constructed in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, opening in 1996. 

Here's the rather fine Music Room.

It combines all the typical Mackintosh aesthetic, that so wowed the Secessionist movement on the Continent, especially in Vienna, but largely left Mackintosh an unsung hero during his lifetime. The contrasts and tensions between black and white, masculine and feminine, organic and geometric, and the sense of the vitality and cycle of life with the design references to trees, buds, flowers and seeds, were all startlingly different to the dark, cluttered look of contemporary Victorian interiors. 

Detail from the Music Room, House for an Art Lover by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Declan O'Doherty)

Stained Glass Door Panel, House for an Art Lover by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Declan O'Doherty)

 Detail of Door Lock Escucheon, House for an Art Lover by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Declan O'Doherty)
 Detail of Chandelier, House for an Art Lover by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Declan O'Doherty)

He had amazing attention to detail, designing the house right down to the cutlery as an organic holistic whole, a machine for living.  Mackintosh's rooms are very clean, uncluttered, enveloping, and sensual.  The man himself was rather hot as well.

Anyway, there's a Christmas show running at the House for an Art Lover from 26th November - 7th January, with a Private View from 6-8pm on Thursday 29th November, so if you're in the area, please do come along.

These are the works on show - 

At the Edge of the Water, White Sands, Morar (Oil on canvas, 20 x 20)
Study, Dark Sky, Yellow Moorland (Oil, 6 x 6)

Study, Yellow Grasses, Hell's Glen (Oil, 6 x 6)
For more information about the House, please click here.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Exhibition at Pricewaterhouse Coopers

I've got some work going into an exhibition at Pricewaterhouse Coopers' Headquarters in Glasgow over the festive period.  

I've taken the theme of the white sands at Morar, and have an oil painting and two little acrylics which are rather fun.

Here they are, first the oil...

Curve of White Sand, Morar (Oil, 17 x 17)

..and the two little acrylics...

Pink Sand, Morar (Acrylic, 6 x 6)

White House by Beach, Morar (Acrylic, 6 x 6)

The nice thing about acrylic is that it acts rather like watercolour, so you can use it to sketch freely and loosely with strong bold colour.  You can also get some texture with the impasto quality to the paint, and draw into it with the end of the brush.

The show runs at PwC at 141 Bothwell Street, Glasgow G2 7EQ from 8 November - 10 January.