Tuesday 30 January 2018

The Impressionists in London

The Impressionists in London, at Tate Britain.

Thousands of French nationals sought refuge in Britain around 1871, the 'Terrible Year' which left France drained and scarred after the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, the ensuing civil war in Paris. 'The horror and terror are still everywhere ... Paris is empty and will become even emptier ... Anyone would think there never were any painters and artists in Paris', wrote the critic Theodor Duret to Camille Pissarro.

The painters included in this exhibition came to London during or in the wake of these traumatic events to avoid conscription, to escape the Prussian invasion as political exiles or as economic migrants, almost invariably referring to their stay as 'exile'. They transformed representations of London.

Gustave Dore, Sister of Charity Saving a Child, Episode in the Siege of Paris, 1870-01, (oil paint on canvas)

Dore enlisted in the National Guard during the Franco-Prussian war. He witnessed this scene, which took place on the Left Bank, rue Gay-Lussac, by the convent of Sisters of the Adoration, in an area that was heavily pounded by the Germans. A frail nun carries a vulnerable child to safety in the night, casting a dramatic shadow on the blood-spattered and shrapnel-dotted snow.

Camille Pissarro, Crystal Palace, Upper Norwood, 1871, (oil paint on canvas)

Pissarro has placed as much emphasis on the suburban pavilions and inhabitants as he did on what was popularly known as the 'people's palace', relegating it to the background. He has shifted the focus from an international symbol of modernity to modern life itself.

Claude Monet, The Thames below Westminster, 1871 (oil on canvas)

Monet's subject here was resolutely modern: Westminster Bridge had been inaugurated in 1862, and the new Palace of Westminster was not fully completed until 1870, the same year as the Victoria Embankment. Workers can be seen dismantling the scaffolding that was assembled for its construction. For this open-air painting, Monet used a scumbling technique of soft colours to convey the depth and luminosity of the foggy sky with its pastel undertones, reserving contrasting broken brushstrokes for the treatment of reflections in the water.

Alfred Sisley, View of the Thames: Charing Cross Bridge, 1874, (oil on canvas)

Alfred Sisley, Molesey Weir, Hampton Court, Morning, 1874, (oil on canvas)

Modern life most attracted Sisley and he represented two bathers to the left, and a third man removing his socks to dabble in the river.

Claude Monet, Meditation (Madame Monet on the Sofa), 1871, (oil on canvas)

During his 7 to 8-month stay in London, Monet only painted 5 landscapes and this portrait of his wife Camille, who followed him there with their 3-year-old son. She is represented in their High Street Kensington flat, looking melancholy. The interior is sparse, but includes elements of early aesthetic decoration, such as the Japanese fan and blue china on the mantelpiece. These and the distinctly British floral chintz-upholstered chaise longue suggest Monet's attempt to suit English taste. The painting was exhibited in the French section of the 1871 International exhibition, but failed to find a buyer.

James Tissot, Portsmouth Dockyard, 1877, (oil on canvas)

James Tissot, The Ball on Shipboard, 1874, (oil on canvas)

The ship, with all its flags, is decorated in full dress, adding to the many colours of the elaborate dresses and uniforms. In the background, the sailors have become spectators, lined up to observe the performance of high society and royalty.

Alfred Sisley, The Bridge at Hampton Court, Mitre Inn, 1874, (oil on canvas)

During his stay at Hampton Court, Sisley never painted the palace. Here its entrance is concealed behind the trees to the right of the composition. Sisley privileged as a subject elegant strollers on the banks of the Thames, and rowers under the new Hampton Court Bridge. Built on a metal framework in 1865, many Victorians thought it an eyesore, but Sisley placed it prominently in a painting dominated by the reflection of clouds and light on the Thames.

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1904, (oil on canvas)

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament, Fog Effect, 1903, (oil on canvas)

Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, 1899-1902, (oil on canvas)

In this composition the fog is too thick for the Palace of Westminster to be visible. A steam train in the centre of the composition is made more eye-catching than the familiar gothic architecture of the Houses of Parliament.

Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, 1904, (oil on canvas)

Giuseppe de Nittis, Westminster, 1878, (oil on canvas)

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament (Fog Effect), 1903-04, (oil on canvas)

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament, Effect of Sunlight in the Fog, 1904, (oil on canvas)

A similar composition to the previous one, which demonstrates Monet's primary interest in the atmospheric and light 'envelope' of his subject.

James Abbott McNeill Whister, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights, 1872 (oil on canvas)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-75, (oil on canvas)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea, 1871, (oil on canvas)

There is no evidence that future impressionists knew of Whistler's earliest nocturnes in 1871, so their attempts to paint what they saw, fog included, was probably a parallel endeavour. Whistler claimed ownership of London fogs in the 1870s: 'My lovely London fogs... I am their painter!'  (1879) and Oscar Wilde credited him with their invention: 'To whom, if not [to the Impressionists] and their master [Whistler], do we owe these lovely silver mists and brood over our river and turn to faint forms of fading grace. There may have been fogs for centuries in London - I daresay there were - but no one saw them... They did not exist until art had invented them'. Beyond this question of 'ownership' the Nocturnes played an important part in the association between fogs and London in representations of the capital, which was taken up by several artists in this exhibition.

Andre Derain, Charing Cross Bridge, London, 1906-06, (oil on canvas)

Like Monet, Derain represented steam trains on the bridge, but instead of focusing on fog and atmospheric effects, Derain's painting represents the more industrial aspect of the Thames, with tis banks and boats at low tide, and with characteristic bright, unrealistic colours.

Andre Derain, Barges on the Thames, 1906, (oil on canvas)

Here Derain has chosen to represent the activity on the river, and a Thames worker in the foreground, standing on a boat, gives a sense of the sheer scale of the river. This impression of vastness is heightened by the succession of bridges spanning the Thames. The different angles in which the pulleys, masts and the roof in the foreground are orientated reflect the hustle and bustle on the busy river.

Andre Derain, The Pool of London, 1906, (oil on canvas)

Saturday 27 January 2018

Tate Britain - the permanent collection

During our last visit to Tate Britain, we revisited some our favourites in the permanent collection.

Michael Sandle, Der Trommler, 1985, (bronze)

Jeremy Deller, The History of the World, 1997-2004, (graphite and acrylic paint on wall).

The History of the World takes the form of a flow diagram hand painted onto the wall. It shows the social, political and musical connections between acid house and brass band music. Deller says 'it was about Britain and British history in the 20th century and how the country had changed from being industrial to post-industrial'. Deller's work is often rooted in collaboration and engagement with people from outside the art world. This diagram provides the visual rationale for Deller's Acid Brass 1996 in which acid house music was arranged for and performed by a colliery brass band.

Lubaina Himid, The Carrot Piece, 1985, (acrylic paint on plywood, wood and cardboard and string)

The Carrot Piece shows a white man failing to tempt a black woman with a carrot. Her arms are already full of everything she needs. Himid says that when the work was made, cultural institutions 'needed to be seen' to be integrating black people into their programmes and 'we as black women understood how we were being patronised ... to be cajoled and distracted by silly games and pointless offers. We understood, but we knew what sustained us ... and what we really needed to make a positive cultural contribution: self-belief, inherited wisdom, education and love'.

Goshka Macuga, Death of Marxism, Women of All Lands Unite, 2013, (polyester, cotton, wool, nylon and elastane fabrics and performance)

Macuga places images of women from photographs by Miroslav Tichy around the London tomb of Karl Marx. Tichy was a Czech artist who took thousands of voyeuristic pictures of women. Macuga moves the women from passive objects of Ticky's gaze to active participants of a history that excluded them. At times during the display, two female performers will sit on the tapestry and discuss Marxist theory. The title humorously adapts Marx's famous slogan from the Communist Manifesto, 'Workers of all lands unite'.

Chris Ofili, Blue Devils, 2014, (oil paint and charcoal on canvas)

This work draws from the character of the blue devil in folklore from Trinidad, where Ofili lives. At carnival time, people from the town of Paramin dress up as devils and cover themselves in blue paint terrorising onlookers with blood, snakes and frogs. In the tradition of carnival, these blue 'devils' have permission to behave in a menacing and intrusive manner that would normally be prohibited by society. Ofili associates them with the 'boys in blue', the British police. The barely discernible images in the painting suggest misconduct occurring in a state of near invisibility.

Rita Donagh, Reflection on Three Weeks in May 1970, 1971, (oil paint and graphite on canvas)

This painting charts Donagh's response to a performance piece by the students she taught at the University of Reading. At the time of this class project four American students were killed by the
National Guard at Kent State University during a protest against the Vietnam War. Donagh incorporates references to the shooting into her work: the pink shape refers to a blood stain left on the floor from entrails used in the performance and to the killing of the student protestors. For Donagh the performance brought home the contrast between the relative safety of her group and the Kent State students.

I first saw Donagh's work in Ireland and was immediately hooked. You can see some of it here and here

Peter Blake, Portrait of David HOckney in a Hollywood Spanish Interior, 1965, (actylic paint, graphite and ink on canvas)

The painting is based on a photograph by Michael Cooper, showing Hockney in front of another photograph by Cooper of Spanish Interior. The setting is possibly a party in Hollywood. The fabricated nature of Blake's composition may be an allusion to Hollywood's reputation for superficiality.

Victor Pasmore, Relief Construction in White, Black and Maroon, 1962-63, (painted wood and Perspex)

Bridget Riley, Late Morning, 1967-8, (polyvinyl acetate paint on canvas)

Elisabeth Frink, Dying King, 1963, (bronze)

Frink's life-size figures of men often suggest the interdependence of their heroic success and savage failure. Her Dying King is an image of Shakespeare's Richard III defeated in battle.

As a type of fallen hero, this sculpture relates to a series of figures crashing down out of the sky which Frink began in the 1950s. She made these sculptures directly out of plaster, adding to an armature (a metal framework) and then cutting material away. In this way she could quickly make and alter shapes. This body looks emaciated and wounded, devastated by its fall to the ground.

Ben Nicholson, August 1956, (Val d'Orcia), 1956 (oil, gesso and graphite on board)

Francis Bacon, Study for a Portrait, 1952, (oil paint and sand on canvas)

One source for the figure here may be a film still from Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin in which an elderly nurse wearing cracked glasses opens her mouth in a silent scream.

Eduardo Paolozzi, Cyclops, 1957 (bronze)

The sculpture's pierced armour and dilapidated state has been seen as an ironic comment on the human condition in the nuclear age.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald, 1950, (oil on canvas)

This is one of several works painted following a visit to the Grindelwald Glacier in Switzerland in 1948 where Barns-Graham had direct experience of the monumental shape of the glacier, its light, and the contrast between solidity and glass-like transparency. This led her to attempt to combine multiple views 'from above, through and all around, as a bird flies, a total experience'.

Lynn Chadwick, Stabile with Mobile Elements (Maquette for 'Cypress'), 1950

The Festival of Britain in 1951 was conceived by the Labour government as a celebration of recovery and of British identity following WWII. The focal point of this national event was an exhibition on London's South Bank. Artists made works for the Festival and this is a model for a four metre-high sculpture in the small garden of the Regatta Restaurant. The sinuous form of this sculpture and its green colouring recall cypress trees from which the work gets its subtitle.

Mary Martin, Expanding Form, 1954, (wood and emulsion paint)

Expanding Form is constructed on a grid pattern of 12 units - six reliefs and six recessive spaces. The cubes are combined with smaller interlocking geometric elements. Martin often spoke about the importance of the surface of her works, and described the spaces between the relief sections as areas of play, opposition and even conflict. She described her working process as free from 'artistic interference' and any 'foreknowledge' of the final appearance of the work. The aesthetic of 'construction' was often determined by following mathematical models such as the Golden Section and Finobacci sequence of numbers.

Elisabeth Frink, Dead Hen, 1957, (bronze)

Frank frequently portrayed animals in her work. Birds, in particular, began to appear in her sculpture shortly after WWII. They were used by her as vehicles for strong feelings such as panic, tension or aggression. They have also been read as having connotations of military might, particularly air power. Although many of Frink's bird subjects appear predatory and aggressive, the hen in this work is a victim whose pose evokes the tragic aftermath of conflict. The sculpture is one of a series, made during the same period, depicting animals in their death throes.

Henry Moore, Half-figure, 1932

Henry Moore, Recumbent Figure (bronze)

Henry Moore, Helmet Head No. 4: Interior - Exterior, 1963, (bronze)

Henry Moore, Family Group, 1949, (bronze)

Henry Moore, King and Queen, 1952

Henry Moore, Draped Seated Figure, 1957-58, (bronze)

The style of drapery on this sculpture was seen in Moore's Shelter Drawings and derived from such ancient Greek sculptures as the figures from the Parthenon.

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1951, (plaster and string)

Reclining Figure
is Moore's original plaster from which was cast the bronze sculpture commissioned by the Arts Council for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Moore held the sculpture in high regard, describing it as 'perhaps my first sculpture where the space and the form are completely dependent on and inseparable from each other'.

Henry Moore, Woman, 1957-58, (bronze)