A few months ago, looking both backwards and forwards in my life, I decided that it was time for a change, and quite a large one. Not only leaving my job but also leaving London. I've known London since I was a boy, and lived here for thirty years, seeing many changes, good and bad. I'll miss many aspects of life down here, not least the cultural, and I've had some great times. I've decided to move back to Edinburgh, a place I know well and where I went to school and university. It also has many cultural attractions. I'm sad to leave but excited also to start a new chapter in a beautiful city.
A second visit to the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at the Tate. My first visit was a month or so ago, but not an entirely happy experience: too busy. This time was much better: still busy but at least I could get a proper look at the paintings and displays.
I initially thought that the British connection was a little strained, but second time around I can see that there was a stronger link than I saw at first. This is shown in Van Gogh's letters, books, pictures and prints he owned. The curators have mixed in a lot of period media, including prints and literary sources (like Dickens).
I particularly liked the Gustav Doré prints, and Van Gogh's copy of one of them showing the exercise yard inside of Newgate Prison :
In the end, who can quibble with seeing Van Gogh paintings you've not seen before? On top of this, we are also shown art works with a debt to the Dutch master, including some lovely Peploe paintings.
I've been to the Sorolla exhibition at the National Gallery a few times now (four?), including the warm and sunny Easter bank holiday last month. A perfect show for the weather because the paintings are bright and sunny as well; some wonderful work. I had never heard of Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida until the gallery started to trail this exhibition last year, using a painting (Sewing the Sail, 1896. Detail above) that immediately grabbed my attention.
He can really paint: in the grand style of a John Singer Sargent and also an almost impressionistic capture of movement, light and colour. Some paintings have a very bold use of light and shadow; consider "Packaging Raisins" :
In some of his pictures the paint is spread in a very rough and thick impasto style: thick paint and large brushstrokes, surprising to see. Not an impressionist by any means but a modern painter, with some large canvases almost approaching abstraction. It's a shame we don't seem to have any of his work in this country, at least in public. I think he ranks with the greats.
Another year and another visit to the Mall Galleries for the 2019 Royal Society of Portrait Painters exhibition. There are a lot of really stunning paintings on display and the show is well worth a visit.
Below is some detail from a painting Floating Life No 2 by Jie Cai. The realism and level of detail is truly astonishing: the painting of the bubbles is beautifully done. I think bravura is the word.
All the pictures can be seen here. As I say, some amazing works as usual. More this year I think.
As well as visiting a famous museum to look at Rembrandt prints, I caught the first program (of two) the BBC have produced called Looking for Rembrandt. This is one of those productions that make the BBC so good, and the license fee worthwhile. It tells the life of the artist in his own words, with a backdrop of Leiden and Amsterdam, talking to curators, collectors and archivists. Wonderful and moving. I've yet to see the second program but look forward to it.
Angst and anxiety really came of age in the Nineteenth Century: the age of Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, as well as nihilism, anarchism and nationalism. A lot of "isms" and various pathologies we still live with today. The Norwegian apostles were Ibsen and Munch, two artists who stripped away a middle-class veneer of respectability and exposed something darker or lonelier underneath.
The British Museum has a very good exploration of the art of Edvard Munch just now, with a large number of his famous and less familiar prints, most from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Striking, spartan and often troubling, they seem to portend the cataclysms building up inside Europe, ready to explode in 1914.
More Print Mastery
In Room 90, the Museum's print and drawing gallery, an exhibition of prints (and a few drawings) from Rembrandt, a master print maker as well. The prints are beautiful, but there is also a story in their creation and the techniques used. Drypoint and etching are two methods, with the print having various stages of production. A technical as well as artistic process, I would like to know more. I think watching the process would help.
Not only Rembrandt: also in Room 90 is a small exhibition of Symbolist prints, some a good complement to the Munch show downstairs.
Room 90 is a gem, slightly hidden away at the top of the rear of the museum. It has had some wonderful displays over the past few years and its slight remoteness means it is a bit quieter and therefore a more pleasant place to be. Crowds are getting larger.
The Hemlock Cup
By Bettany Hughes
Bettany Hughes has written an excellent book about the tumultous, calamitous and glorious Athenian 5th Century BC "Golden Age". The age of Socrates, Euripides, the Parthenon, the Persian invasion and defeat by the Athenian and Spartan alliance, the flowering of new intellectual fields and the new experiment in "people power": demokratia.
What gives Hughes' book its power though is the way she doesn't shy away from describing the dark side of the Athenian century; and the dark side was terrible indeed.
I learned a lot reading this book and that has really enhanced my understanding of this period and place in our history.
A Cathedral Visit
A visit to Rochester in Kent on Saturday led to an unexpected artistic discovery.
I knew the Cathedral was very old but didn't know it was the second oldest in the country after Canterbury. Founded in 604, by the Saxon King Ethelbert and Bishop Justus, it has had a number of rebuildings and contains Romanesque, Norman and Gothic architecture. The Lady Chapel is Tudor. A very impressive building. We were lucky to have a guide to show us around the place, starting off with some of the medieval graffiti.
Right at the end of the tour, we were shown a new addition to the building: a wonderful fresco by the Russian artist Sergey Fyodorov. Large and beautiful, finished in 2004, it shows the baptisms of Christ, King Ethelbert and the Saxons in the River Medway This was completely unexpected. It is the first fresco in an English cathedral in 800 years. As you would expect from an artist called Fyodorov, it has a very Russian orthodox look (he is an icon painter). One of the things I noticed (and was even mentioned by the guide) was the lack of any smiles in the work! Beautiful nontheless.
More pictures and description of the fresco on the Kent Yesterday and Today blog.
I should also mention a great little cafe in the Cathedral Crypt. A lovely tranquil place compared to the Saturday crowds queing for a coffee on the high street.
As the guide explained, a fresco is different to a mural. A fresco becomes part of the wall it is painted on because it is painted on wet plaster, and seeps into the plaster itself and dries. A mural decorates a dry wall with paint.
Well, it's 2019, so a Happy New Year to everyone. Except the bastards that stole my bike yesterday!
This is the second Brompton I've had stolen now. After the first, I bought a much better lock (Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboudit) but obviously not good enough :
This was locked at the bike rails at the North West side of Cavendish Square, opposite the back entrance to the Oxford Street John Lewis. About 11 am and left for about 40 minutes, returned to find the lock cleanly sliced and no bike. Basically, I don't think it's safe, period, to lock a Brompton up outside. A busy area as well, with lots of cars, a taxi rank opposite and people around.
2018 was not a great year for me for various reasons. Apart from the bad start to 2019, I'm hoping 2019 will be better. So, staying positive!
At the British Museum's exhibition of I am Ashurbanipal, I heard a couple of women talking Arabic, and they seemed very engaged and animated. I asked if they were Iraqi: Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire is outside what is modern day Mosul, northern Iraq. One said yes, "I am Assyrian!". She was very happy here, seeing all the old artifacts on display and reading the ancient history. It's been a very tough few years over there, with civilisation replaced with utter savagery sometimes. Let's hope things get better.
The quiet, subdued and cathedral like quality of the museum interior makes a perfect antidote to the mad consumerist rush at Christmas. Whenever I stare at the old cuneiform writing tablets (see left) I'm left very confused as to how it all makes sense! But it all did: letters, literature and starting with plain accounting of course.
The word tome means large book. I think Codex Amiatinus is the largest book I've ever seen: an Anglo-Saxon bible a foot tall. Quite exceptionally large and a beautiful piece of work from 1300 years ago, it is the oldest surviving, complete Latin Bible in the world.
Made at the monastery of Wearmouth Jarrow in the North East of England, it is back in England for the first time since it was sent over to Rome as a gift to the Pope. The British Library exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is a show full of books and writing, and a fascinating journey back to the beginnings of the English language. I just wish I could understand it better.
Swaffham holds an Visual Arts Festival every year, including an exhibition. There are always a lot of bad pictures on show but often a lot of very good ones as well. The "bad" art is generally no worse (and maybe better) than some stuff you'll see at the Summer Show. The Swaffham show is for charity and always worth a visit. I sometimes seriously consider buying something and this year was no exception.
Like last year, one of the people with a small display of ceramic work was Jane Bygrave. A Norfolk artist, she creates some lovely little ceramic figurines. Quirky, with a lot of character.
The National Gallery's Mantegna and Bellini exhibition is the sort of show perfectly suited to London's national art gallery. Not only because they own a few pictures by the two artists but because they have the international clout to borrow other precious paintings from sister galleries in America, Germany and Italy.
Right: The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (detail shows Mary), Giovanni Bellini, 1490, Oil on Panel
It's not a "blockbuster" in the way that a Leonardo or a Monet show is (after all, Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini are not well known) but the collection brought together here is very high standard. Some beautiful paintings, as well as drawings from the British Museum and others, as well as sculpture. Worth a second visit.
The National Gallery has a YouTube channel of course, where you can view a short introductory video as well as see Caroline Campbell's longer introduction :
Artist Helen Flockhart has a show on at the Arusha Gallery in Edinburgh called Linger Awhile. Her art is detailed and colourful, with a very gothic sensibility. As far as I could see, she has fans as well: all the paintings (oil on board mostly) were sold. Not bad at all.
Below: I see and Keep Silent, oil on board, 2018, 40x26cm
I've been very lax in updating this blog recently but I have still been doing my usual gallery visits and reading some good books. I've even had bursts of productivity in painting. Unfortunately, I've not managed to write much. I'd ike to rectify that a bit.
Right: A painting by the German artist Rudolf Schlichter called Jenny (oil, 1923).
This painting is part of the Tate exhibition Aftermath. Aftermath is on at Tate Britain, but Tate Modern also has a German-themed exhibition at the moment called Magic Realism, covering Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33. Both exhibitions are very good. The post-war art of Germany was an early fascination for me years ago, the angry and so-called "degenerate" art that appeared in the turmoil of defeat and revolution. Jenny has a very 1920's look, but also a very typical German 1920's look, a bit sad, a bit strange. These two exhibitions (Magic Realism is free) also go with another one at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, Colour is Life, devoted to the German Expressionist Emil Nolde. Nolde had more works on show in the Nazi's Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich in 1937 than any other artist. His work is very colourful, and sometimes beautiful but, on occasion, he sank to using the same anti-semitic stereotype in one or two religious paintings he produced.
Below: Emil Nolde, Paradise Lost, Oil, 1921.
A big Summer Show this year for the RA, celebrating its 250th anniversary, and curated by Grayson Perry. It's getting quite a monster of an event now, including what appears to be a new annual BBC advertprogram to trail it properly.
As usual, a unique collection of all sorts of art and architecture: you see stuff at the Summer Exhibition you would not see anywhere else. Some very good, a lot I don't like and plenty I don't really understand.
However, this year seemed to have a lot more I thought was terrible. Not merely because it's something I, personally, don't like, but something I felt was bad art, on its own. I know all about the eye of the beholder, and I understand personal taste, but the things I mean here seemed on a different level. When I see something that appears laughably amateur, but see an "RA" after the name, I almost did laugh out loud. Is someone pulling my leg? You really never know today. Even Ken Howard's work seemed a bit flat to me.
There's a lot more I could highlight.
See all the art work here.
I bought three art DVD's last week, two Peter Brown and one Haidee-Jo Summers. I like both painters a lot and they share some similarity in style. I've really loved some recent work from Brown (noted on the blog here and here); he also won the Critics Prize at the recent NEAC show again (see right). There's something very confident, almost effortless, in the way his paintings are put together and I really liked seeing how he did it on the DVD's. Both Brown and Summers manage to do a lot with a small amount of actual paint work sometimes, so nothing is laboured or too fussy. I have a lot of learning to do!
Right: Ned Drawing on the Studio Floor, Peter Brown, Oil, 147 x 107 cm. Winner of The NEAC Critics’ Prize 2018.
Below: Greenhouse with Figure, Haidee-Jo Summers, Oil, 25cm x 35cm
The production company APV also do a streaming option using the Vimeo service, but I've never had much success with Vimeo, and the preview they have didn't work (it didn't play), so that option was off the table. I'd rather buy a digital download like I have for some Will Kemp videos. Anyway, DVD's bought but two of the three didn't play on my main DVD devices. I don't have a dedicated DVD player anymore, relying on my laptop - which didn't play two of the disks. Tried a USB DVD, same thing: chug..whir..chug..whir.. basically getting into some read loop failure. Luckily, my last DVD on a spare Windows laptop worked. Compared to a digital download, this is all far too painful and unreliable.
The BP Portrait Award opened this week at the National Portrait Gallery. A lot of very good paintings as usual, including the stunning winner by Miriam Escoffet: An Angel at my Table.
On the right, however, I'll highlight my own (cropped) photograph of Rebecca Driffield's painting Claire Tomalin. A more painterly picture than some but I really like the style.
This year, the exhibition seemed smaller, although that might just be because it was a lot more cramped than usual. The usual, larger gallery space must be being prepared for another show (maybe the upcoming Michael Jackson exhibition). I think the smaller rooms detract from the experience and I hope they return to the larger space next year
See all the paintings here.
Good weather for a visit on Sunday to see the new Royal Academy, now the building work is almost complete and it's open to the world. This celebrates the 250th anniversary of its founding.
And what would Sir Joshua Reynolds, first President of the RA, think today? Especially when confronted with the display they have of some of the current student art work, let alone the dress code nowadays. Probably dumbfounded!
As part of the new displays, we are confonted with something quite horrific in many ways: a cast of a "real" crucifixion (made to "settle an artistic debate"). From the label :
Sculptor Thomas Banks RA and painters Benjamin West RA and Richard Cosway RA believed that most artists' depictions did not accurately demonstrate the effects of crucifixion. To prove their point, they obtained a corpse fresh from the gallows and nailed it to a cross while it was still warm. Once rigot mortis set in, a surgoen removed the skin and Banks made his plaster cast from the flayed body.
A less unsettling display is a copy of Leonardo's The Last Supper. A large oil painting, it is thought to be a copy by pupils of the master, painted about 1520. The original is extremely degraded now but this copy shows many details lost over time. The RA web page has the history.
A very good article in History Today about the Language of the Roman Empire. The question being: what language did the Romans speak? The answer is quite complicated. It was not just Latin. Not only did the Italian peninsular contain many languages, such as Oscan, Umbrian, Etruscan and Greek, but as the empire expanded, we start seeing languages like Punic used. This was a language spoken by Rome's great enemy Carthage and and all over North Africa. Slaves would also bring in a great variety of languages and dialects. A fascinating and well written article by Katherine McDonald of Exeter University.