Saturday 30 December 2023

The Bloomsbury group

The Bloomsbury Group at the Courtauld, London.

A few paintings by the Bloomsbury Group, whose members were some of the most radical artists, writers and intellecturals of the early 20th century. From about 1910, this close-knit circle began challenging the conservative values of the British establishment, embracing freedom of artistic expression and upturning social and sexual norms. They became known as the Bloomsbury Group after the area in London where they lived and worked. Their most famous member was Virginia Woolf. Among the prominent artists of the group were her sister Vanessa  Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry. Best known as an influential art critic, Fry introduced French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art to a London audience with two important exhibitions in 1910 and 1912.

Roger Fry, Portrait of Nina Hammett, 1917, (oil on canvas)

Vanessa Bell, A Conversation, 1913-16, (oil on canvas)

Bold colours and simplified shapes depict three women in deep conversation. The painting's strong visual impact suggests the discussion is of great significance, although we are left to imagine the subject matter. Perhaps Bell was paying tribute to the friendship and debate the Bloomsbury Group found so vital.

Bell produced some of the most innovative paintings of the period. Her painting Strudland Beach, one of my top favourite paintings, and one that I never tire to look at, has been described 'in its move towards abstraction as ... one of the most radical works of the time in England'. You can read see it and read more about it here

You can also see more of her work here


Roger Fry, Blythburgh, The Estuary, 1892-93, (oil on canvas)

With its rhythm of dark trees against a watery twilit landscape, the painting reflects Fry's interest at the time in the European movement known as Symbolism, in which mood and mystery are expressed through a flattening of shapes.

Frederick Etchells, The Hip Bath, 1911-12, (oil on canvas)

The stylised figure, the strange flattening of the bath and the unfinished appearance offended conventional taste and Etchells was accused by one critic of setting out to 'merely play the clown and lose all sense of responsibility'.

Duncan Grant, Seated Woman, Ka Cox, 1912, (oil on wooden panel)

Thursday 28 December 2023

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, 1880-1900,  at the Courtauld.

These movements changed the course of art. Impressionists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir created new ways of painting modern life and landscape, conveying the immediate experience of light and atmosphere. Embracing the liberating character of Impressionism, Post-Impressionist painters such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat went further; their bold brushwork and expressive use of colour were a major influence on artists throughout the 20th century.

Paul Cezanne, Lac d'Annecy, 1896, (oil on canvas)

Paul Cezanne, The Card Players, 1892-96, (oil on canvas)

Cezanne spent several years drawing and painting farm workers from the rural estate where he lived in the South of France. His figures are elongated, somewhat out of proportion. However, the overall feeling is one of stillness and concentration, with the men completely absorbed in their game. Before Cezanne, artists and illustrators often represented card playing as a rowdy activity in taverns with wine and beer flowing. This painting offers a different vision: Cezanne's labourers are monumental and dignified, like time worn statues.

Paul Gauguin, The Haystacks, 19889, (oil on canvas)

A radically simplified approach to painting - forms are rendered as flat patches of  vibrant colour, while three-dimensional relationships and perspective are deliberately ignored. Gauguin reduces the peasant women raking hay to the basic shapes of their black-and-white regional dress, presenting their actions as a timeless ritual.

Edouard Manet, Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil, 1874, (oil on canvas)

The bright colours and swift brushstrokes creating the ripples on the water show Monet's influence. However, Manet maintained his distinctive use of thick oil paint and rich blacks to give weight to the painting.

Edouard Manet, Au Bal, 1877, (oil paint on canvas)

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882, (oil on canvas)

The most important painting in the collection in my view, and one of my favourites of all time. It's a painting that has been written about extensively, a painting full of mystery.

A complex and absorbing composition that is considered one of the iconic paintings of modern life. It's a painting that is full of ambiguity and doubt, a painting of surfaces while being flat, and it's also about class relations.

I wrote about this in this blog a few years ago and you can see the analysis here

Vincent Van Gogh, Peach Trees in Blossom, 1889, (oil on canvas)

Van Gogh captured this view of an open plain outside Arles in early spring 1889. He wrote to his brother that the blossoms and the distant snow-capped mountain reminded him of the cherry trees and Mount Fuji in the Japanese prints he collected and greatly admired.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, (oil on canvas)

This famous self-portrait by Van Gogh expresses his artistic power and personal struggles. He painted it in January 1889, a week after leaving hospital. He had received treatment there after cutting off most of his left ear. This self-mutilation was a desperate act committed a few weeks earlier, following a heated argument with Paul Gauguin.

The fur cap secures his thick bandage and wards off the winter cold. Created in harsh conditions, this self-portrait demonstrates Van Gogh's determination to continue painting, reinforced by the objects behind him: a canvas on an easel and a Japanese print, an important source of inspiration. Above all, it is Van Gogh's brushwork and powerful handling of colour that declare his renewed ambition as a painter.

Georges Seurat, The Bridge at Courbevoie, 1886-87, (oil on canvas)

Seurat used pointillism, the technique that entails placing coloured dots side by side to create an image, instead of mixing colours on a palette, for this painting. New optical theories at the time suggested that this made the surface of the painting more vibrant. However, the overall effect is one of melancholy and stillness, emphasised by the vertical trees and masts of the boats.

Georges Seurat, Beach at Gravelines, 1890, (oil on wood)

This nearly abstract seascape is rendered with only a few colours, the separation between water and sky barely marked by the strip of orange in the centre.

Georges Seurat, Man in a Boat, 1884, (oil on wood)

Paul Gauguin, Nevermore, 1897, (oil on canvas)

Intended for a white European male audience, this image of a reclining nude belongs to a long artistic tradition. To the familiar theme however, Gauguin added a sense of exoticism and of unease. The young woman - or should I say, child - is not at rest but looks anxious. Her youth is the nost disconcerting aspect. She is sometimes identified as Paul Gauguin's 15-year old companion Pahura.

Gauguin took advantage of his position as a European coloniser. Pahura was one of several teenagers that he took on as 'wives'. The widespread racist and sexist fantasy of Tahitian girls as sexually precocious led to clear exploitation.

Sunday 24 December 2023

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to everyone.

I thought a fairy tale would be appropriate - Sleeping Beauty

from Blenheim Palace.

Once upon a time, in a land far away a princess was born and the whole kingdom celebrated

A grand celebration is arranged for Princess Aurora's christening. All the fairies of the kingdom are invited and  each bestow their gifts on the princess.

The Wicked Fairy, Carabosse, was not invited to Aurora's Christening. She is very angry about being forgotten. She places a curse on Princess Aurora, that she will die before her 16th birthday after pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel.

The Lilac Fairy has not yet given her gift and attempts to reverse the evil fairy's curse. This means Princess Aurora won't die but she will sleep for 100 years.

As the story progressed we went through a series of doorways, each more elaborately done up than the previous one.

The King, hoping to save his child from this misfortune, commands that all spinning wheels from across the kingdom should be collected and destroyed.

The day of Aurora's 16th birthday has arrived. Everybody across the kingdom is preparing for the celebrations. She receives a spinning wheel as a gift.

Another doorway, another chapter.

The Wicked Fairy, Carabosse, finally sees her evil spell cast on Princess Aurora. She tricks her into using the spinning wheel and pricking her finger. Aurora, along with every living person and animal in the kingdom is sent to sleep for 100 years.

True Love travels by boat from another realm in search of Aurora with the Lilac Fairy close at hand. Only their presence can awaken Sleeping Beauty and the kingdom from its slumber.

To journey by the silent moon,
The guiding light above,
To sail the oceans of your dreams,
To find the one True Love.

True Love and the Lilac fairy continue their search through the dense forest, battling the undergrowth and cutting back the brambles.

Sleeping Beauty lies in her bed as the foliage grows around her. Finally the Lilac Fairy and True Love find the Prncess. The fairy casts her spell and the magic begins to awaken the sleeping princess.

Princess Aurora and every living creature in the kingdom magically awakens.

Even the creatures living inside the toadstools awakened.

And here she was in the flesh. She came up to me and said: 'Wow! How small your camera is. They used to be huge before I went to sleep'. 'Well', I answered, 'that was 100 years ago'. I asked her if I could take her photograph and she happilly obliged.

After this happy ending, we were happy to leave the palace and go to wander around the grounds.


Tuesday 19 December 2023

Twentieth century British art

Twentieth-Century British Art at the Courtauld, London.

We went to the Courtauld to see the Claudette Johnson exhibition and since we were there we had a look at some of the other galleries, some that we had visited before, and some for the first time.

In this display the works range from the early years of the century, through two world wars, and into the 1960s and 1970s. The diversity of styles and approaches reflects the great changes and upheavals that characterise 20th century culture in Britain and this period of modern history more broadly. Several of the artists shown here were concerned with finding new ways of expressing the experience of particular places that resonated strongly with them. 

The paintings of London building sites by Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach are powerful testaments to the devastation and reconstruction of life and art in the city after WWII. Whereas they were drawn to the elemental forces at work as London was excavated and rebuilt, Peter Lanyon immersed himself in the primal drama of the wild landscape of his native Cornwall. He developed a new type of landscape painting that pushed the limits of representation to an extreme in order to express the intensity of his experience. 

Still life is the other theme that features strongly in this display. Although painting objects arranged on a table might seem limited in scope, still life has turned into a radical subject matter in the modern period. Matthew Smith's painting of flowers from the beginning of the century challenged conventional rules of representational art by presenting a scene bursting with colour and energy. With his large still life from the 1970s, William Scott moves the genre towards the realm of abstraction, distilling only the essential elements of his composition.

Patrick Heron, Still Life, 1948-49, (oil on canvas)

In this early still life, Heron explores the boundaries between abstraction and representation. He depicts objects, including an oil lamp and mirror, as simplified outlines against the bold hues of the wall ad window. Lines and colours appear to have a life of their own, beyond their purely representational function. Heron's approach at this time alligned him with major modern painters such as Matisse and Braque.

Patrick Heron, Red and Grey Still life with Balcony Window, 1950, (oil on canvas)

This ambitious still life is inspired by Cezanne and Braque but achieves a pitch of vibrant colour and flowing movement that is distinctively Heron's own.

David Bomberg, Zahara, 1954, (oil on board)

A dramatic view of the mountain town of Zahara in southern Spain. Bomberg renders the sun's searing heat in fiery reds and yellow. The forms of the buildings only just maintain definition amids the fierce energy of his brushwork. 

Frank Auerbach, Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, 1962, (oil on board)

Auerbach made a group of paintings of building sites across London as the city was being rebuilt following the devastation of WWII. He reworked this painting over many months, the paint accruing to an extraordinary thickness in places. Beams span the plunging depths revealed by the broken floor levels, and forms emerge within the encrusted paint. Auerback used the red lines of the beams to structure the frenetic scene of demoliton and construction he observed as the Empire Cinema was gutted and rebuilt.

looking closer

Leon Kossoff, Shell Building Site, 1962, (oil on board)

Kossoff drew and painted the bomb sites and building sites of London extensively after WWII.  This remarkable painting depicts the massive construction works undertaken on London's South Bank to replace the pavilions of the 1951 Festival of Britain with one of the city's first skyscrapers, built for the Shell oil company. Kossoff's painting is a vision of volcanic eruption as the new structures wrestle their way out of the deeply excavated earth. His vigorous working of the thick paint gives a palpable sense of creative energy.

Graham Sutherland, Study for the Origins of the Land, 1950, (gouache, pencil and crayon on paper).

This is a study for a large painting commissioned for the Festival of Britain, which was staged on London's South Bank in 1951. The work formed part of a pavilion telling the story of Britain's land, past and present. The study shows Sutherland creating a cross section of the earth's crust, like an exposed cliff face layered with accumulated earth, rock and fossils, vibrantly coloured and full of energy. The very narrow strip at the top is the earth's surface with the sun a swirl in the sky.

Peter Lanyon, Halsetown, 1961, (oil on canvas)

Far from depicting a conventional view of the village of Halsetown in Cornwall, Lanyon conveys the rush of sensations of moving through the landscape, with the colours of land, sea and sky animated by his lively brushwork. Lanyon learned to fly gliders so that he could experience the landscape from air.

Peter Lanyon, Eagle Pass, 1963, (oil on canvas)

A painting he made a few months after visiting Eable Pass, Maverick County in the US. The dominant red and yellow forms were likely based on his memories of the buildings and structures he saw visiting Eagle Pass. The greens and blues are an evocation of the sky and surrounding landscape of the banks of the Rio Grande river.

William Scott, Recent Orange Note, 1973, (oil on canvas)

The genre of still life was central to William Scott's art throughout his career. At first glance, this work appears to be an abstract composition, but it is rooted in real objcts that Scott painted often, arranged on a table top. The form on the left is based on a pan with a long handle while those on the right evoke plates, bowls and cups. This painting marks a new direction in Scott's work when, in the early 1970s, he began distilling the forms of his objects to create harmonies of shape and colour that invite contemplation.

Ivon Hitchens, Balcony View, Iping Church, 1943, (oil on canvas)

After his London home was bombed during the Blitz in 1940, Hitchens moved to West Sussex where he painted this view looking towards Iping Church from the balcony of a house. The open door divides the picture vertically; on one side, the sky is dark and threatening whereas the brightly coloured scene behind the glass door offers a contrasting mood. The vase of poppies - a poignant symbol of remembrance from WWI - strikes a mournful note, reminding us that the picture was painted at the height of WWII.

Barbara Hepworth, Sleeping Form, 1971, (white marble)

By the time Hepworth carved this work she had achieved a reputation as one of the most important and innovative sculptors of her generation. Sleeping Form is partly an homage to one of her formative influences, the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The work recalls his series of reclining heads and ovoid forms. However, the sculpture is distinctively Hepworth's own: the crescent-shaped cut is typical of her ability to reveal beauty and complexity in her chosen sculptural material.

Cecily Brown, Unmoored From Her Reflection, 2021, (oil on canvas)

Brown made this work for the curved panel at the top of the historical staircase in The Courtauld. When the building opened to the public in 1780, the panel contained a painting of the goddess Minerva and the Muses of Art and Learning by the Royal Academician Giovanni Battista Cipriani - long since lost. Brown's painting is the first to be displayed here in two centuries.

This backdrop, as well as The Courtauld's collection, sets the perfect stage for Brown, an artist who enjoys twisting the codes and canons of the past. In a realm of predominantly male artists gazing at the female nude, she decided to make the male body her central theme.

Brown's work envelopes the viewer in a dreamscape of painting, pushing back and forth between abstraction and figuration. Allusions to artworks she particularly admires float to the surface. For example, the figure of a bather to the right of the central figure group, which relates to Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe. Brown's work invites us to reimagine paintings from earlier times. The past and present flow into one another and onto the broad sweep of her curved canvas.