Sunday, 31 May 2015

Inventing Impressionism

Very often, you get the sense that galleries put on exhibitions of Impressionist painters merely as a way of selling a lot of fridge magnets in the gift shop. 

So it is rare to come across an exhibition so thoughtful, thought-provoking and comprehensive as Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery in London.

It's an exhibition about landscape as a business, and a lucrative one at that.  The subject of the show is Paul Durand-Ruel, the Parisian art dealer who pioneered not only the Impressionists, but the invented the whole profession of the modern art dealer.  

Here he is, painted in 1910 by Renoir.

This art market business is an area considered too mercenary to touch on in art schools, who instead concentrate on ideas rather than studying history, learning craft, or preparing for a career.  By insulating today's students from the realities of the art market, art school ill prepares them for life as artists, and completely misunderstands that the vehicle for creativity is the creativity of business itself.  

This exhibition shows how integral the art market quickly became to the working lives of the artists it facilitated.

The exhibition opens with a recreation of Durand-Ruel's Parisian sitting room.  Here, amidst fine furniture and fittings, are paintings by Renoir, and Monet, and sculpture by Rodin.  Even the panels on the doors are painted with still lifes by Monet, reminding me of the Bloomsbury Group decorated farmhouse at Charleston.

 Claude Monet, French Door, Grand Salon.  Photo - Laura Vezzo, Artslife

Claude Monet, French Door – Gran Salon. Foto Laura Vezzo ArtsLife - See more at:
Claude Monet, French Door – Gran Salon. Foto Laura Vezzo ArtsLife - See more at:
Claude Monet, French Door – Gran Salon. Foto Laura Vezzo ArtsLife - See more at:
Charleston Farmhouse

As the son of an art dealer, the Barbizon School painters and new-fangled Impressionists were Durand-Ruel's passion.  He raised his sons and grandchildren to expand the firm, and the painters quickly became an extended part of the dealers' family.  Renoir's portraits of the Durand-Ruels meet you with their direct gaze and piercing eyes. 

By decorating his own house with the 'merchandise', Durand-Ruel was doing a number of things when he invited his friends and clients in to his salon.  Firstly, he was demonstrating how much he personally admired the new circle of painters, who were largely rejected and shunned by the art establishment.  And he was also demonstrating how the paintings and sculpture would look in a domestic setting, one of taste and class.  He was making the art desirable, accessible, fashionable.

The second room of the exhibition shows the beginnings of Durand-Ruel's business.  When he took over from his father in 1865, he seized the chance to corner a market he felt had been unjustly ignored. Using methods he borrowed from the world of finance, he found backers and partners for purchases, sought exclusivity deals, worked to push up prices at auction, and brought his product before the public through exhibitions and publications. Being savvy enough to take these models of business and marry them with his knowledge and love of modern painting was where his truly creative genius lay.

This is Courbet, who along with Corot and the Barbizon painters, painted with an earthy realism which was spurned by the state-run, jury-selected Salon, and polite society in general. This was exactly the reason why Durand-Ruel loved the work, because it was fresh, modern and alive.

Rejected by the Salon, Courbet's Apples are bruised, pitted and imperfect, and were in fact painted in prison when Courbet was in the clink for six months for being a revolutionary in 1872.  These are not idealised fruit, they are - quite literally - fallen fruit.  And painted by a radical!  No wonder they were rejected tout de suite by the Salon - and no wonder Durand-Ruel gave them pride of place in his gallery window.

Here's more fallen fruit by Courbet.

Gustave Courbet, Woman in the Waves, 1868

This is Venus, but a Venus who's been around the block a million times, and who doesn't give a hoot about showing off her underarm hair.  It's a subversive image (although not as graphically subversive as L'Origine du Monde - a link which is perhaps wise not to open at work), which had Durand-Ruel splashing out a record price to Courbet just 3 years after he'd started business.

This room also displays a lovely work by Millet, which he again paid a record sum of 20,000 francs in 1872 (the painting at that time being about 15 years old).

Jean-Francois Millet, The Sheepfold, Moonlight (1856)

It has a silent, earily other-worldiness spirituality about it which oddly reminded me of Paul Nash.

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (1940)

The next section looks at Durand-Ruel in the new market of London. 

In 1870, France declared war on Prussia, and Durand-Ruel shifted a large quantity of stock to London for safety.  Turning this necessity to his advantage, he opened a gallery in New Bond Street and started to hold regular exhibitions.  This was a new idea - normally exhibitions were retrospectives of dead artists.  Here, they were events to promote living painters, in whose careers patrons were invited to invest and participate.  Durand-Ruel brought a new, fashionable event to London from the Continent, and in the process, exposed his painters to a fresh market.

Durand-Ruel was also introduced by Barbizon painter Daubigny to two other painters who were similarly taking refuge in London at the time - Monet and Pissarro.  Both were out and about, painting en plein air, and depicting modern life as they saw it.  Durand-Ruel snapped up their work.

Here's Monet painting the new Thames embankment.

Claude Monet, The Thames Below Westminster (1871, National Gallery)

Using an off-white ground, Monet uses a limited palette of greys, salmon pinks and yellow ochre to create his atmospheric picture.  There's a beautiful use of negative space in the sky, made up of a myriad of similar sized brushstrokes, contrasting with a range of different, more fluid mark-making used to create the effect of the water and the trees.

The wonderful thing about the Inventing Impressionism exhibition is that it flows, with each room feeling like a natural progression, containing a topic which doesn't feel forced and with paintings that are entirely pertinent.  Thre's a logic running through it all.  Nor is it a show which is overwhelming.  

The next section is all about Edouard Manet, a challenging artist whose rapidly painted work was constatly rejected by the establishment, and he struggled to promote his work.  Well, guess what...

Returning from London in 1872, Durand-Ruel found two Manet paintings (The Salmon and Moonight at the Port of Boulogne) at another artist's house.  He bought them on the spot, and set out to find more.  

All the paintings in the Manet room of this exhibition were purchased in a single month, as Durand-Ruel descended on Manet's studio and bulk purchased 23 paintings for 35,000 fancs - 40 times the annual wage at the time.  It made Manet instantly spectacularly rich, but was a huge gamble for Durand-Ruel (you have to wonder what else he gambled on, and lost).  

Edouard Manet, Moonlight at the Port of Boulogne, Oil on canvas 1868 (Musee d'Orsay)

This strategy - of purchasing an undiscovered artist in bulk, salting away the stock, creating an excitement about it, and therefore increasing the 'worth' of the artist, then controlling the release of pieces to a receptive and eager market at increasingly higher prices - was also famously followed by Albert Barnes (he of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia).  Create a market, starve the market, feed the market.  

Barnes was a chemist who made his fortune with the formula for an eye cream for babies.  He then set about trying to find the formula for Good Art.  

Barnes found impoverished Chaime Soutine sloshing about in paint and animal carcasses in his squalid Parisian flat-come-studio in 1924, and bought up 52 of his paintings for cash on the spot.  (The amount varies depending on whose letters you read, but it works out at between $15-30 per painting. Barnes considered he got a bargain, which he most certainly did from the less-than-savvy Soutine, especially when you compare what Durand-Ruel was paying his artists.  However, Soutine was ecstatic, and immediately ran out of the flat with the cash, hailed a taxi, and headed to Nice in the south of France.)  Barnes, in creating a market in an artist through all his contacts, was suddenly sitting on a small fortune.

But back to Manet.

The most arresting painting in the exhibition here was, for me, The Salmon.

Edouard Manet, The Salmon (Oil on canvas, 1868, Shelburne Museum, Vermont, USA)

In a loose and fluid style, Manet is referencing 17th century Spanish painters such as Velasquez, and Dutch still  life paintings in the balancing of the knife on the edge of the table, with its implications of the precariousness and fragility of life and its ephemeral values.  It's also a tour de force in portraying different textures, especially the skin of the fish.

However, what really struck me here was how what Manet was doing has elements of Cezanne.  Take a look at this - here's that knife motif again..

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Compotier, Oil on canvas, 1879

But more notably, here's Cezanne displaying a lot of the elements from the Manet, if you look closely.

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Basket of Apples, Oil on canvas, 1890, Art Institute of Chicago

Cezanne was the father of modern painting and abstraction.  He begins to look at objects in new ways and release them from traditional depiction, to look at space and form and volume differently.  

So in his still life, although initially making sense as a basket of apples on a table with a bottle and some fruit scattered on a cloth, it is actually spatially ambiguous.  The table edges don't line up.  You are unsure how to read the surface that the still life sits on.  The ellipses of the bottle, the plate and the basket don't quite make sense.  Not all of the fruit could occupy the space that they sit in - objects are both flat and round at the same time, two dimensional and three dimensional.

Now take a look at the Manet.  Look at that line of the table running along the back.  It doesn't add up either - it's higher on the right than the left.

Nor do the ellipses of the glass or the ceramic object on the left completely add up.  The bowl on the right is tipped up unsettlingly.  It's not overt, as these elements are not the thrust of the painting, Manet's not breaking all the rules all at once.  It's too early for that - this is a painting 20 years before the Cezanne, and Manet was, in his painting, already challenging enough conventions as it was with his virtuouso paint handling.  

What Manet is saying is, "Look, I can be the next stage in the still life tradition, but I can do it in a new, modern way - and my picture is all about fishscales and lemon and cloth and glass and china, but more importantly it's all about PAINT".  

But, I would argue, those little seeds of abstraction which Cezanne potted up and grew on are right there as well.

And there we must leave it until the next blog, because there's plenty more. 

Read Part 2 HERE.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Tower Bridge from Bermondsey

As part of the process of collecting preparatory material for paintings for my solo show in London next year, I decided to take a walk along the Thames embankment at Bermondsey at dusk.

The view back upriver has Tower Bridge with the sun setting behind it, with the Shard to the left, and the dome of St Pauls appearing on the right the further you walk down the curve of the river bank.  I thought that this was an image which I'd like to explore, with the interplay between the natural and man-made landscape, and the lovely graphic elements of the buildings, the shoreline, the cranes, the boats and the water.

I like to take an 'essay' of photographs from which to refer, in this case capturing what it felt like as the evening progressed and the sun slowly set.  In doing this, I am creating a narrative of my own experience.  I was watching how the light and the colours changed, clouds moved, changing relationships between the passing boats and the buildings, exploring different angles and compositions, different textural qualities, the interplay of all the elements.  

When I am back in the studio I will be using these images as visual notes and reference points as part of the process of making the final oil paintings.

So come with me on a walk along the embankment at Bermondsey on a chilly evening in May.  it's very very quiet, and there's hardly anyone else around.....

Salt and Silver - Early Photography 1840-1860

"Photography has become a household word and a household want; it is used alike by art and science, by love,, business , and justice; is found in the most sumptuous saloon, and in the dingiest attic - in the solitude of the Highland cottage, and in the glare of the London gin-palace, in the pocket of the detectives, in the cell of the convicts, in the folio of the painter and architect, among the papers and patterns of the mill-owner and manufacturer, and on the cold brave breast on the battlefield."
 Elizabeth Rigby, "Photography" (1857, London Quarterly Review)

Today, you can't walk around London, or indeed any city in the world, without nearly getting your eye taken out by someone with a selfie stick.  

Photography is everywhere - a careless glut of self-indulgent instant image-taking that records in order to boast, to flatter, to make other people jealous of where you are, of who you're with, of what you're seeing and experiencing that they're not seeing and experiencing.  It records everything and nothing, is of huge social importance, and of no cultural significance.  It is, by and large,  a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, a record of the surface of things, of the veneer of lives, instantly and artlessly made, able to be deleted with a button.  Everyone is a curator of their own image, but conversely no-one gives much thought as to what they let posterity and the rest of the world have access to.

Back at the beginning of photography, 175 years ago, things were different.  Even when I started taking photographs as part of my painting practise, I worked with rolls of film with 36 exposures.  This meant that you had to think very carefully about the subject and composition of each photo.  Each was precious, conscious, considered.  You only had 36.  Then you had to change a roll of film, and that cost time and money.  You couldn't check the image or experiment in the field, and because of the investment you were making in terms of time and effort getting to the subject, you had to make sure that each exposure counted.

Salt prints were the first photographs on paper that still exist today.  Chemicals fix a shadow onto light-sensitive paper coated with silver salts, and until new techniques came in, these rare, sensual images captured modern life, the natural world and the human figure in rich, soft interplays of light and shade.  They are small and intimate images, whose subtleties can really only be seen when viewing the originals.

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Great Elm at Lacock, 1855

For example, in Fox Talbot's image of a huge, ancient tree, the salt print technique has a fine ethereal quality where the ends of the twigs reach tentatively into the surrounding air.  It's a giant, living organism touching the elements of its environment.  

A photograph was a significant and important thing, where time and effort and care, not to mention money, were lavished on its making.  This significance and importance therefore elevates the subject of a mere tree into a monumental portrait.

There are four exquisite rooms in this exhibition at Tate Britain, and although the technicalities are skimmed over, there are many memorable images.  The last of Georgian England and the birth of the Victorian age, survivals from medaeval and ancient times, architectural studies, images from the Crimean and American Civil War, and some startlingly vivid and intimate portraits.

Here is a stunningly immediate one, of a woman at the Crimea.

Roger Fenton, Cantiniere, 1855

Usually the wives of non-commissioned officers, Cantinières (women supplying food and drink to soldiers), played an important role in the support of French regiments in the Crimean War, running canteens and providing additional rations such as brandy to the soldiers.

A particularly poignant photograph is of Captain Lord Balgonie, a well respected soldier at the Crimea, but here recorded by Roger Fenton as a haunted, shellshocked and broken man at 23 - yes, 23.   He died at 25.

There are photos of Newhaven fishermen by David Hill and Robert Adamson.  It is striking just how self-assured and gallus these men are, striking a pose and filling the frame.  They take on the elemental sea and risk their lives every time they go to work, so a man with a new-fangled camera obviously holds no fear.  Here we are.  This is us.  Go on - take our photographs.

Thought to be a Mother and Son circa 1855 © Wilson Centre for Photography - See more at:
Thought to be a Mother and Son circa 1855 © Wilson Centre for Photography - See more at:
Thought to be mother and son, c1855 (c) Wilson Centre for Photography

The very fragility of the paper print also emphasises the fragility of the lives that they record, whilst at the same time expressing unspoken relationships between the subjects they depict.

Have a look at the relationship between these two people.  This mother's face clearly expresses something about her fear for the future of her child.  Has she lost other children?  There's something very tangible behind her anxious look, and also about the way that she holds her child's arm and looks up at him.  It's as if she's relying on him on some way, she needs him.  Maybe he's her only son, and she's relying on him purely to keep on living.  In any case, he's clearly her world, and she focusses on him alone.  All the folds of her clothes emphasise her twisting awkwardly around to hold on to him, as if she's afraid that he'll float away like a lost balloon.

He, on the other hand, looks outward, and has a far more complex expression.  What is it?  I guess he's around 11 or 12, and with his carefully smoothed hair and cravat tied sharply under his chin, he looks as if he is there under duress as he leans against the chair.  He looks up, straight at the viewer, with an oddly intense, confrontational stare.  There is a dimple at the corner of his mouth on his left that suggests a certain petulance, as if he is pursing his mouth, somewhat fed-up with the smothering and wants to rebel.  He looks as if he'd like to walk away and slam the door.

The salt paper print was also a very sensitive,sensual medium for representation of the nude form, allowing the softness of skin to be suggested. 

Mariette, Felix Nadar (1855)

The woman standing in front of the lens here is Marie-Christine Roux ('Mariette') (1820–1863), a professional model who earned her living in the ateliers of Paris. Her career ended tragically 8 years after this photograph,  when she drowned in the wreck of the Atlas, a steam ship on the way to Algiers. 

'Mariette' was one of the first paper photographs to represent the figure unclothed.   This isn't a perfect classical sculpture or an idealised painting, this is a real woman with underarm hair and the mark of her recently removed garter still on her right thigh.  However, she is still artfully arranged, revealing her naked body but covering her face, although with a somewhat confrontational elbow thrust out at us.  It's a tangle of life and art, truth and artifice.

Do go and see the show if you can, it's lovely.  Salt and Silver at Tate Britain 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Paintings at the 20 21

Here's a couple of photos of my paintings on the Duncan R Miller stand at the 20 21 art fair this week at the Royal College of Art in London.

Here's my paintings of the white sands at Camusdarach on the west coast near Morar (top), and the beach at Ayr with the isle of Arran in the distance (bottom).

These are tulips from my garden - unfortunately, due to the very mixed weather, there wasn't a very good show of them this year. They didn't seem to like the alternating spells of warm and cold weather.  Mixed in amongst these tulips photographed last year are the purple flowers of honesty.

Here's a close up of my Ayr beach painting.  The problem with photos is you can't see any of the juicy texture of the surface. There's a lot of paint goes into making those waves!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Presents from Whitby

Here's some paintings from my trip at the end of last month to the Yorkshire Coast. - I thought you might like to see them.

These two are from the clifftop at Whitby one evening, with the moon reflected on the sea.  The night was cold and clear, and the sea quite still.

Moonlight on the Sea (Oil on linen, 12 x 12)

This is a larger version of the same scene.  There was still a glow in the sky from the sunset.

Moonlit Shore, Whitby (Oil on linen, 20 x 30)

This is a little further along the coast, looking back towards Whitby.  You can see Whitby pier in the distance at the far top right.

Sandsend (Oil on linen, 16 x 16)

Queen of the Night

Now, regular readers will know that around this time of year, I post a picture of my favourite tulip making her welcome spring arrival.  It's my magnificent Queen of the Night bulb, which I await which much eager anticipation.  

Here's how she looked on 2 May 2012...


29 May 2013..


23 April last year...


and 13 May this year...


I think the Queen may have abdicated... :-(

Monday, 11 May 2015

Exhibiting at 20/21 International Art Fair

I'm going to have paintings on display in London this week, at the Royal College of Art near the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington.

The 20/21 International Art Fair is held there annually, and this year runs from the 14th - 17th May.  

With dealers from all over the world, the fair exhibits top names in modern and contemporary art, such as Graham Sutherland, Duncan Grant, William Gear, David Hockney, Sir Peter Blake, Henry Moore and the Scottish Colourists such as Cadell, Peploe and Fergusson and Modern Scottish painter Joan Eardley.

I will as usual have work with Duncan R Miller Fine Arts.

Poppy Field, York (Oil on linen, 26 x 32)

For two free tickets to the show which you can print off, click here.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Accepted into Paisley Art Institute

I've had two pieces accepted into the annual Paisley Art Institute exhibition, so that's great news.

Here's one of them, a painting from the beach at St Ives in Cornwall, with Godrevy lighthouse in the distance.

October Sea, Porthminster Beach (Oil on linen, 26 x 32)

The show opens runs from Saturday 23rd May until Sunday 28th June at the Paisley Museum and art Galleries, High Street, Paisley.