Saturday, 4 November 2017

Impressionists in London at Tate Britain

This is a wonderful exhibition which has just opened at Tate Britain.  It's Impressionists, but not just pretty, fridge-magnet Impressionists - it's far more challenging than that..  This is an exhibition about art history, and something you can really get your teeth into.


View an introductory trailer here.

But my goodness, The Guardian vehemently disagrees.  In its article here, it calls it "the worst show about the Impressionists.... ever",  and "a desiccated seminar in third-rate history", whilst sourly ruminating that if they had only started with pluckily plein-air Brit John Constable, then the Tate would have had a real, wholesome, traditional block-buster on their hands, and also showed those French where the true roots of Impressionism lay into the bargain.

Which is kind of completely missing the point.

This isn't a show about the linear development of art towards Impressionism.  We know all about that, and that's an easy chronological show to curate.  Nor is it simply about what Britain gave to French 19th century painting.

This is about immigration, and the creative migrant bringing fresh eyes to their host country, about positively adding to the sum of the parts of that host country; about bringing endeavour and vitality and creativity, and fresh energy and impetus, and business acumen. 

Just as art history and art movements do not come about in a vacuum, but are products of the age in which they exist, with all their political, literary, musical, societal and social influences, so art exhibitions are also reflections of times in which they exist.  This, now, is an age about big fundamental questions of immigration and identity, and about the organisation of our society and all the upheaval that that entails, just as it was during the Franco-Prussian War. 

The exhibition starts in 1870, with the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, and a civilised world suddenly turned upside down by the horror of war.  Death is in the streets, the buildings of Paris destroyed, the people reduced to eating rats.  

The artist Jacques Joseph Tissot writes a traumatised letter recounting his eye-witness account of Communards being brutally executed.  Manet's 1871 lithograph Civil War, reminiscent of his Dead Toreador, has in its quick, agitated mark-making of greasy crayon upon stone, all the immediacy of an on-the-spot Magnum photographer. 

And well might these artists be traumatised.  Their houses are taken over as soldier's barracks, their paintings destroyed, their families threatened and livelihoods ruined.  Many are to be conscripted.  

No wonder they followed art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel's example and hot-footed it for safety to London.  Here they got shelter, bought materials, settled their families, and started to make business links with dealers and patrons. 

So destruction for some became opportunity for others.  Savvy Durand-Ruel had an eye for opportunity out of the chaos, and a chance for a new market for his painters, whilst fledgling tour operator Thomas Cook also spied a new business angle.

In one of the most interesting parts of the exhibition, there are astonishing photos from "A Guide to the Ruins" the guide to a Cook's tour of the rubble that remained of Paris. This was an outsiders view of a foreign society, but with the purpose of deliberate disengagement from the human plight in order to aestheticise the results of war for the purposes of profit. This was some pretty distasteful war tourism, dressed up as elevated art appreciation in order to be palatable.

"Fire is a worker of genius,"  gushed the guide talking about a ruined building, "From the uniform, geometric insolent regular mess, it has made a dynamic, decorative, interesting edifice'.  

Crassly forget the massive human cost, destruction was portrayed as a force for good, creating money-making aesthetic beauty and true art for English tourists who were able to remain detached from the reality of the war whilst getting a peripatetic thrill from it.  

However, it was the horrific reality of that same war that drove the French painters in the opposite direction, towards England, where they settled down to engage positively with their new subject matter and new society.   So when the immigrant painters came to London, they started to interpret their new subject matter of London, its climate and society, with outsiders eyes.  

Tissot (now using the anglicised name James), who was so traumatised during the war, now paints superficially frothy society scenes.  However, these are scenes of gentle mocking, where women arrive too early for concerts, or float around in little dingies in harbours full of big-prowed ships, or show off their over-corsetted rear ends, or are wooed in pairs by a single indecisive man (for of course, men were in short supply in wartime). 

James Tissot, On the Thames (How Could I Be Happy with Either?)

One beauty of a painting is Daubigny's St Paul's from the Surrey Side, with its wonderful dark lower half, and the cheeky little punch of a red funnel on the left hand golden section. Reproductions just don't do it justice, as the real thing has a wonderful warm tone to it, a sense of the real and of early Mondrian-like Dutch pattern making (check out Fen near Saasveld 1907 by Mondrian).  It's a painting all about the horizontals playing off against the verticals.  It's very clever and understated.

In Room 7 we are treated to Monet's Thames series (eventually exhibited in Paris by Durand-Ruel, but none were bought by British buyers).  These were painted during three consecutive winters (1899-1901) from the same spot with  a quite conceptual repetition of motif, and are all fog and baffling diffusion of light.  This is London viewed by people who feel outsiders - cityscape that is difficult to understand, beautiful but shrouded, a pastel-coloured continental London. This was understood and appreciated by French audiences, but not by contemporary British ones.

There are also paintings of parks, which apparently baffled the Impressionists.  French parks are very formal, created by elite architects.  People stay off the grass, and follow the rules by not stepping on the grass.  But in London, the paths are created by the ordinary people, and wind randomly and organically across the grass of the parks.  

These are artists who are painting about orders - the order of a different society, the order in class, the heirarchies of those different layers of class; about having to follow orders and act as a unit if you are in a war, about how you can have freedom and individualism in peacetime.  It is about learning to understand the constraints and rules of a society, and the breakdown of those constraints and rules.  And because all art is a product of the times in which it is made, it is about the breakdown of constraints and rules in painting, in the move towards Modern painting, from Impressionist to Fauvism (with a room of rather lovely Derain paintings), and then on to abstraction. 

In fleeing to London, the Impressionists found a place where they could live and create, and were welcomed.  They were lucky, and the fruits of that can be seen here in this wonderful show.  

The big question which this exhibition poses is - how possible is this going to be in the future? 

Banks, Bridgland and Drummond

Here's a few photos from my show which opened today with Scottish art luminaries Lesley Banks and Marion Drummond at the Grilli Gallery in Edinburgh.

Lesley has a lovely collection of her detailed, atmospheric paintings of canals, whilst Marion shows off her bravado fingers-and-rags technique of applying paintn which give a lovely, smudgy sfumato effect to her still lifes.

It's a long, high-ceilinged, light-filled gallery in Dundas Street (the main art street in the city centre of Edinburgh), which unfortunately my photos don't do justice to.  However, the show is open until 25th November if you're able to get along to see it and see it for yourselves!


Thursday, 28 September 2017

Stepping into a Van Gogh

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to actually step into Van Gogh's world, inside one of his paintings, then here's your chance.

A full-length animated film has been made where every single frame is an oil painting in the style of Van Gogh, based on live action using real actors, and recreations of Van Gogh's paintings.

This superhuman endeavour used the talents of hundreds of artists working 12-13 hour days, in order to create 65,000 oil paintings to turn into film to tell the life of Vincent in paint. 

Take a look!   See a clip of the film here, and also here.


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Philip Larkin's Photography

There was an interesting little programme on the BBC this week (available on i-Player HERE) called Through the Lens of Larkin.

(Photograph by Fay Godwin, 1970)

Philip Larkin, the Hull librarian, was, of course, most famous for his poetry (although I've never really connected with them myself, finding the rather predatory Larkin creepiness just too pervasive).  Whilst the five thousand photographs that he took - of everyday life, his female friends, and self-portraits taken with his Rolleiflex 10 second timer - were often very good, they were variable.  Sometimes they were just those of a holiday snapper.  Whilst there were flashes of insights, he certainly didn't have the genius in this medium of say, fellow amateur photographer Vivian Maier (compare her work HERE).  

Like Maier, Larkin's photos were found after his death, and weren't shown or exhibited.  For both, it was a pursuit to please themselves, unbound by any sort of conventions.  

Maier's working method was to take a trip to a rough part of Chicago (where she worked as a nanny) with her camera and a single roll of film, and take a whole film as a record of her journey.  Each frame is a masterpiece, often taken at very close quarters to subjects.  Hers is a female gaze.  She is the outsider looking on to other people's worlds, but they don't find her threatening or confrontational. She is bearing witness to their lives, and to her own through her self-portraits. For her, you get the sense that it is a kind of obsessional therapy, repeating the feeling that although she is within the world, she is detached, and that to take a photo is to reinvent herself.

Larkin's methodology is quite different in approach.  It is clearly a male gaze, and often about attachment, setting up coquettish photos of women who look down the lens at him. There are parades of women, and you are invited to think of the relationship between these women and Larkin.  What does the sum of all these parades of women gazing down the lens at Larkin say about him?  

The programme even meets Larkin's secretary and lover (how handy) Betty Mackereth, who was the subject of one of his most beautiful and ambiguous love poems, Morning At Last: There In The Snow.  She describes how, after many years together in a perfectly normal hum-drum office situation, he suddenly made his move on her.  Yikes.

However, it was still an interesting programme, especially as, most importantly of all, Larkin's photographs interact with his best output, his poetry.

View a clip of the programme HERE.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Dave Gilmour at the Royal Albert Hall, London

Here are some photos from Dave Gilmour's now-legendary series of gigs at the Royal Albert Hall in London.  These particular photos are from 28th September.  

Strongest on the old Pink Floyd material, and definitely a concert of two halves, this was nevertheless a not-to-be-missed occasion with stunning visuals.


Oh my goodness, who's this coming on stage?  Good grief, it's none other than  old Otterface himself, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH.  To sing Comfortably Numb.  How utterly incredible!!  Woo-hooooooh!!!
 And he sounds AMAZING!!! Who knew he could sing??

(Actually, on returning home and listening to a Youtube recording, it turned out that my delusional ears may have heard him as pitch-perfect on the night, but he was in fact as flat as a proverbial pancake.  How weird is that??)

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Drawings at the Metropolitan Museum, New York

Now, yesterday, I posed the question of who drew three drawing.  This was the first...

And it was by....

Here's the second.

And it's by...

And lastly - and you may be detecting a theme here - this drawing... by...

Yes, Jack the Dripper himself, the man whom you wouldn't wish to invite round to your house if you had an open fireplace (ask Peggy Guggenheim), and the artist who went on to paint this, which hangs in the Met next to these drawings and is considered his masterpiece.

What I'm showing you here is that an artist does not immediately arrive at the technique or way of expressing themselves for which they are best known.  The drawings are shown in chronological order, and Pollock used them as a way of developing technique, exploring the language of art, getting to know how other artists have worked and observed natural forms, movement, the body, what it is to abstract.  

In other words, there is a huge body of work behind every artist, of learning and understanding and experimenting, of observations and coincidences, of making mistakes and building upon them.  This is work that isn't necessarily seen, but is vital to an artist in understanding themselves and their art.  Without it, they couldn't learn and grow, nor could they create what they ultimately feel best expresses themselves.

Pollock eventually arrived at his giant works of abstract expressionism through a whole host of influences, including childhood walks in the wilderness with his father, and seeing American Indian sand painters and Mexican muralists, which saw him moving away from painting with brushes and pencils on easels, to working on the floor with organic matter such as sticks, sand and even broken glass.  Which is about as far away from the Renaissance masters as you can get.  However, I guess what he took away from his earlier study of work by Michelangelo and so on, is the organic rhythm that they have within their compositions. Just take a look below at Leonardo's studies of water turbulence, for example.  Then look at the organic rhythmical lines of Pollock.

To know your own art, therefore, you need to understand the art of others.  And the most important thing my tutor at art school ever told me was 'Look'.

Read more about Jackson Pollock in this interesting Guardian article HERE.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Drawings at the Metropolitan Museum, New York - Who Drew These?

Whilst in New York recently , I took the chance to revisit the wonderful Metropolitan Museum, with its truly breathtaking collection of art and objects.

For a bit of fun, I've put together three drawings from the collection - using your skill and judgement (no googling!) see if you can guess which artists they are by.

Which Renaissance master is this by?

Which Modern master drew this?

Which Surrealist master is this by?

 Answers tomorrow!

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Yestival: Yes at PNC Bank Center, Holmdel, 12 Aug 2017

Ok folks, you know the routine.  And tonight is the last gig of our three night Yestival concert series.

This is the very pretty open air amphitheater of the PNC Bank Center in sunny New Jersey.  It's all very civilised.  They have parking lots where you can have tailgate parties, and lawns where you can picnic, drink, and, er, smoke.  America knows how to do venues, and let's face it, they have the weather for it.

The weather this evening was hot.  It was so hot, that Carl Palmer's shirt stuck like a wet rag to his eternally youthful and perfectly formed torso, sweat plastered the hair of Jon to his forehead and threatened to make his glittery eyeshadow run, and the sweat ran in beads down Billy's face. All this I could see even from Row H.  It was that sweaty.

So here we go again.  Not so many photos tonight, but here's Young Person's Guide...

And there's also a rather bad video which I took of Survival.


He's blurry, He's sweaty.  He's glittery.

See also photos from Yes's Ford Amphitheater Coney Island performance on 11 August 2017 HERE.

Photos from their performance at Foxwoods, Connecticut on 10 August 2017 HERE.