Miró: Sculptor Yorkshire Sculpture Park – 6 January

“These days … exhibitions are expected to come up with a “take” observed Alastair Sooke when reviewing Tate Modern’s retrospective of Miró last year. Tate represented Miró’s work in relation to its socio-political environment, explaining how the artist’s output is loaded with political influences and responses to Fauvism. Yorkshire Sculpture Park daringly goes against Sooke’s expectations, and present Miró’s creations detached from their exterior manipulations. This fits the style of the park in which works of Gormley, Hepworth and Moore are permanently introduced to the viewer through their relationship first with the landscape, and secondly with the visitor– a refreshing alternative to over-ambitious iPad presentations and overly distracting extensive visitor guides.

IMG_0901

Joan Miró, Personnage, 1982
© Successió Miró_ADAGP, Paris & DACS, London 2012 Photo © AGP

Miró’s outdoor pieces are carefully arranged to follow his instruction: stand[ing] in the open air, in the middle of nature, with even contextual distractions removed. Rarely is such a collection displayed outdoors when not in the artist’s foundations in Barcelona or Palma de Mallorca ( Fundació Joan Miró/ Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró a Mallorca). The effect of this removes contextual history of each piece, while giving each creation a stage from which to perform. Thus the works express their personalities while the Yorkshire seasons weather the Catalonian expressions. After a contemplative walk interacting with these works, one can easily see Miró striving to make his sculptures a “phantasmagoric world of living monsters and observe how he succeeded.

The Underground Gallery presents a tightly curated exhibition, which is less of a “take” on the art than an unobtrusive clarification of how Miró’s creativity is dictated by, and later comes to control, the subjects and materials which feature in his sculpture. The first room presents a conflict between two versions of ‘Oiseau lunaire’ (Moon bird) and ‘Oiseau solaire’ (Sun bird). Smaller-than-life models of birds created in 1946 (the first he moulded using clay) are overshadowed by larger-than-life reworkings of the pieces, created 20 years later. It is as if the early work is forced into extinction by the sculptor’s progression. The change in the sculptor’s confidence is noticeable in the larger size of the later work, which could be accounted for by increased finances over than a burst of creativity. However, there is a distinct change in the texture of the surfaces: from the earlier metal roughness which detracts from the form, to a smooth finish which embodies the confidence of the artist. This conflict in the first room – between the earlier rougher works and the later smoothly finished works – immediately prompts the visitor to question “What contributed to such a change?”.

Joan Miró, Femme Monument, 1970

Joan Miró, Femme Monument, 1970 © Successió Miró_ADAGP, Paris & DACS, London 2012 Photo © AGP

Rather than turning to political and artistic movements for explanation, this exhibition concentrates on the intrinsic changes to Miró’s sculpture. As with the sculptures outside, the works are allowed to speak for themselves. While we learn that Giacometti guided Miró in applying paint to his work, this note is given no greater importance than the observation that Miró owed a debt to anyone he sculpted with. His acknowledgement of and openness to the methods of his contemporary – and most importantly nearby – sculptors meant he became adept at moving between styles and texture. His style not only developed through local colleagues, but his subjects were plucked out of his immediate environments. Miró’s use simple objects, such as bowls, a pebble or a tap, which hand in hand with his respect for his colleagues work, show his “profound respect for humanity and are a homage to the richness of simple living”.

The last museum-like room turns from examining each part of Miró’s creativity in isolation towards a dedication of his whole life. Miró’s biography is told in the form of a timeline which asserts we can which constantly trace his  career from tales of  early childhood – doodling in school books – all the way through to his last pieces of work. The room itself is surrounded with tools, plasters and other objects found in his studio. Even here, the influence of art movement and politics is downplayed, and the exhibition does not fall back to relying on presenting a “take” to make Miró’s work interesting. However, that refreshing and ambitious move makes Miró’s work accessible, because it allows his work to speak for itself.

Miró: Sculptor runs at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 6th January 2013

http://www.ysp.co.uk/exhibitions/mir%C3%B3-sculptor

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Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the Twentieth Century

The nature of a photograph, whilst commonly intended to communicate something found in a moment or composition, can remove the third-party viewer precisely because they did not share in the of the communication first hand. It is a daunting task to curate an exhibition which aims to delve into Hungarian photography in the twentieth century. One must satisfy not only those who have read in depth expositions on the works of Brassai, Capa, Kertesz, Moholy-Nagy and Munkacsi, but also those who only skim read Susan Sontag’s tome On Photography or those who prefer to explore photography first hand through mobile uploading on social network websites. The audience is split between those more interested in the photographer’s work than their biography and those wishing to learn something of the unique history of Hungarian photography. How does the curator satisfy both parties?

Undoubtedly the absence of that which creates the most distance between the subject and the viewer is that which welcomes viewers of all levels of learning to the exhibition. The development of Hungarian photography in the twentieth century is explained, but the refreshing aspect of this exhibition is that a timeline is not forced. By leaving out an overpowering timeline, the exhibition communicates with the third party viewer through the images themselves. Thus it is the images, rather than a mediating voice of curatorship, which narrate this show. Both a portrait of Hungary and a biography of five Hungarian photographers are presented simultaneously, but wordy arguments never intrude on the power of the images. As the visitor moves between rooms they move through paradigm shifts of Hungary’s integral history: The First World War; the movement of photographers (along with thousands of fellow Hungarians) to new lands after the war; the Second World War in Hungary; and the effects of the aftermath which shaped Hungarian’s lives into the twentieth century. However, the success of this exhibition lies in accepting these movements without forcing the photographs to tell this story. Moments of contentment and vivacity are given as much, if not more, importance as photographs which are steered with the demands of photojournalism and advertising.

István Kerny Still Life, Hungary, 1925. (Vintage silver gelatine print). Rudolf Balogh Shepherd with His Dogs, Hortobágy, c. 1930. (Vintage silver gelatin print). Martin Munkácsi, Car Racing. Mátra, 1929. (Silver gelatine print, 1994, form original).

István Kerny Still Life, Hungary, 1925. (Vintage silver gelatine print). Rudolf Balogh Shepherd with His Dogs, Hortobágy, c. 1930. (Vintage silver gelatin print). Martin Munkácsi, Car Racing. Mátra, 1929. (Silver gelatine print, 1994, form original). ©’eyewitness’, Royal Academy of Arts, 2011

In his essay regarding the exhibition in the RA magazine, John Bonneville recognises “the most striking thing about the mighty five gathered here is that…each of them forged a distinctly individual style. There is no ‘school’ here…no obvious exchange of technical or stylistic ideas’. It is in recognising this, and not trying to push a hypothesis about twentieth century Hungarian photography which gives the exhibition its own vivacity. These photographs are not the appendices to a historic timeline, as one would be tempted to present them when contemplating an exhibition. Rather, they are presented more as we would treat our own photographs. Some of us hoard our photos away in shoe boxes, a collection of intimate treasures which only has value to ourselves. On occasion we will re-discover this forgotten shoe box and scatter these poetic moments suspended visually across our kitchen table. Others of us preserve these collections of pictorial memories in finely bound albums, as if laying a down a good bottle of wine for future satisfaction, knowing that the addition of time will bring a maturity to the subject. ‘Eyewitness’ presents photographs with an unobtrusive subtle coherence, which lets these images flow as if they have just been scattered from a shoe box by the viewer. The absence of obtrusive argument and propositions means the images alone are presented to us as we would display them ourselves. In short, there is naturalism to the display, which eases the viewer into the exhibition.

Robert Capa The Last Victim of the War. Leipzig, 1945. (Silver gelatine print, 1970, from original). Nándor Bárány, Balance. Budapest c. 1933. (Vintage silver gelatine print). ©’eyewitness’, Royal Academy of Arts, 2011

Robert Capa The Last Victim of the War. Leipzig, 1945. (Silver gelatine print, 1970, from original). Nándor Bárány, Balance. Budapest c. 1933. (Vintage silver gelatine print). ©’eyewitness’, Royal Academy of Arts, 2011

Furthermore, as in a shoe box one keeps memories of intense, dramatic life events alongside creative attempts at capturing a human meaning in overlooked scenes, so in this exhibition momentous events are naturally laid alongside more creative shots. Times when one rushes to grab a camera to capture a moment of momentous importance are placed alongside those shots which have demanded lengthier contemplation and preparation. For example, Capa’s ‘Last victim of War’ – an image of a dying soldier, collapsed at his sniper tower, attracts as much attention as Bárány’s ‘Balance’, a creative image of an egg, elegantly balanced on the precipice a half-full martini glass. However, one never feels a deliberate juxtaposition between these two. The personal composed shots never detract from the rushed momentous shots; the photojournalistic shots never seize our attention from the personal reflections. Rather the shots are balanced like Bárány’s egg sitting rigidly on the ledge of a glass. It is in this balance we see history each of these five Hungarian eyewitnesses, not forced, but at its most natural, seen and narrated through their own works.

***

Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century continues at the Royal Academy until 2nd October 2011. For further information visit: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/

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Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe

“Amazing Grace,

How sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me,

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind, but now I see”

The exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven’ is advertised throughout London as the current exhibition at the British Museum. However, one does not need a guide map to realise the curators have a much higher ambition for this exhibition than a temporary show: it is portrayed as if existing in a near-celestial space, that gap between the human and the divine.

The Bust reliquary of St. Baudime

One ascends from the dark spiral corridors, accompanied only by the sound of Gregorian chant. When one finally reaches a dim light, one notices this cloister-like entrance is decorated with books of learning where one would expect cherubim. One is directed, more by careful lighting than by a tour guide, to the Bust reliquary of St. Baudime, [French (Auvergne), mid-12th century (1146-78]) his arms outstretched as to greet a pilgrim. The golden wealth of the exhibition can daringly be seen behind the metal bars behind St. Baudime. This is a brave move – to present so much of what is to come at such an early stage – but the confessional type bars encourage us not to rush into the next room, but to take a slower pace, suited to the spiritual concerns of the exhibition.

Cardinal Bessarion with the Bessarion Reliquary c. 1472-3. Gentile Bellini

Before the visitor is allowed to view other shrines, they must understand the changing importance of reliquaries. The importance is developed through painting, specifically in the stunning Genti le Bellini painting of the Reliquary of Cardinal Bessoriori(1472-3), which was commissioned as a door to the shrine. The reliquary this grand door would once have

covered is still in the Galleria dell’Academia in Venice, but this does not detract from the painting itself. Rather, it acts as a point of entry into understanding the role of the wealth of reliquaries we will see. (1472-3). Ornate Maps reveal the significance of reliquaries’ role in medieval pilgrimages, while a section devoted to the development of reliquary images shows how visual motifs have been borrowed from Roman worship-art in creating later Christian reliquaries.

Reliquary Pendant of the Holy Thorn. Medieval, around AD 1340 From Paris, France.

One cannot display a reliquary as one would another work of art because the stories of each piece involve many personalities and twists in tales: nearly all involve an understanding of other beliefs, and a few demand a leap of faith in order to be fully appreciated as they were intended. For example, the amethyst bound-hand held reliquary, ‘Reliquary Pendant of the Holy Thorn’ [French (Paris) ca. 1340] which is believed to house one of the Holy Thorns from the Crown of Thorns, one cannot help but welcome appreciation for the role of the relic alongside a visual analysis. One is moved by the sight of the piece, but understands they would be truly moved should they be grasping the relic while reflecting on its past: the belief it once commanded and the meaning it has held for those faithful appreciators of both God and aesthetics. Thus, this exhibition will satisfy not only the religiously curious or the antiquity minded, but those who revel in stories, and can see power and wealth gleaming from golden surfaces where the cynical-eyed can only see the bones of misplaced trust gilded in gold and expensive stones.

***

Treasures of Heaven is exhibited at the British Museum until 9th October 2011. For further information see:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/treasures_of_heaven.aspx

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Watteau: Drawings at the Royal Academy

Watteau: The Drawings. Royal Academy of Arts.

Banners hang in the air, thin graphite sketching caught on the light breeze powerlessly waves, emphasising the weightless lines of the artist’s pencil. The subject is a young woman wearing a mantilla. Her eyes, covered by the shade of her headwear, make a plea to the passerby to approach the accompanying exhibition. Therein one will learn the work itself is recognised as one of Antoine Watteau’s most accomplished sketches, mixing red and black chalks and graphite to bring drama and physical presence to this unimposing portrait.

There is a certain daring to this exhibition of drawings. Antoine Watteau is famous for his unique fete gelante, colourful scenes of pleasurable courting in woodland settings, executed with the delicate dexterity of a Harley Street dentist. These scenes are created with light, feathery brushstrokes, as if Watteau has caught a whispered poem passed between the painting’s courting subjects on the tip of his brush, and composed the scene by laying down each whispered syllable with a reverent fragility, like laying gold leaf on an altarpiece. However, his drawings lack this colour, this variance in brush stroke, and the musicality which is suggested by Fête galante. Indeed, his skill noticeably progresses, as one would expect, towards the red chalk/ white chalk/ graphite infusions which we see above, but how does one display a listless series of red chalk sketches drawn before this moment?

The Royal Academy has approached the daring challenge by exploiting the drama of Watteau’s works. Sketches of actors provide the perfect scenes to display Watteau’s skill at capturing expression over and above emotion, through bodily posture, enlivened faces and creased clothes. Meanwhile, the undeliberate composition of his sketches shows not only his skill, but reveal a new viewing point on a particular aspect of Watteau – his creative workspace between reality and imagination.

The exhibition guide directs the viewer to the Fête galanteby describing the enchanting countryside scenes as “blurring the boundary between reality and fantasy”. However, this

The David-Lynchesque 'Studies of Acotrs, a Pair of Hands and a Fragment of an Arabesque' c.1711 (Red chalk on paper)

is nowhere more present than in Watteau’s early sketches. These early works themselves are a compendium of different styles and approaches. Fashion plates illustrating men and women in the latest styles reveal Watteau to be a part time advertising talent – an 18th century French Don Drapper – while his sketches of soldiers show his development in using his artistic ability to capture scenes personal to his life. Meanwhile, a section dedicated to his sketches after Old Masters reveals his measured academic treatment of his talent. However, among these sketches one sheet of paper stands out. ‘Studies of Actors, a Pair of Hands and a Fragment of an Arabesque, c.1771’ shows an almost careless composition, a casual sketching of different subjects economically created on one piece of paper. The result of this is a David Lynch-esque world. The actors stand as if illustrating Jacque’s aphorism “All the world’s a stage, and men merely players” (Shakespeare, As You Like It). The pair of hands is far removed from Watteau’s measured, anatomically correct sketches of hands in his thirties, (Ten Studies of a left Hand c. 1715-16) but shows the fingers forcefully clasped in prayer, the religious motif extenuated by the dove like bird

The skilled 'Ten Studies of a left Hand c. 1715-16 (Two tones of red chalk on paper)

figure to the right, and the wispy red chalk forming a tear shaped curve next the left hand. This is juxtaposed by the surreal scene of a gnome playing bagpipes directly below the hands. The passion involved in sketching the hands can be seen in the deep chalk impression, while the tenuous gnome juxtaposes these lines, being created with frail red chalk lines. The actors, depicted in a chalk medium which is neither too weak nor too strong, stand oblivious to the motifs which surround them – and so they continue happily unaware to entertain each other. The distance between reality and fantasy is already blurred.

No route into this exhibition needs to be imposed, and no biography forces us to approach the sketches in a certain way. The Royal Academy has set up an unobtrusive narrative which helps us explore Watteau’s work – but the reward of this exhibition lies in rediscovering Watteau in the purity of these initial and accomplished chalk sketches – away from the colourful music-filled Fête galante filled with the crescendo of whispers of flirting partners. It is in these weightless grains of chalk where we first encounter Watteau’s blurring of reality and fantasy – and let him take us to a fragile world, built on whispery chalk marks and light brush strokes which encourages the spectacle of the Fête galante.

* *  *

‘The Watteau Drawings’ continues at the Royal Academy until 5th June 2011.

Tickets and further information can be found at:  http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/watteau/

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Dutch Landscapes, English Collectors.

The way we read any art is conditioned by our time. We cannot fully

Paulus Potter, The Young Thief (oil on panel, 1649) © The Royal Collection

grasp the originality of impressionism; we cannot fully comprehend the ‘Shock of New’ throughout the 20th century, or even fully grasp the early acceptance of the Young British Artists. So much has been written on all of these movements, that we cannot grasp the way in which any of them took off. The surprise of each movement has been dulled over time as they are forced into relationship and called to contend with newer schools with their own original elements. This not only challenges artists, but confronts curators: the time frame between the original planning and the last days of an exhibition is often months, and frequently (in the case of touring exhibitions) years. In this time our response to images change, reputations of artists and art establishments alter, and interest in one exhibition over another fluxes with competing marketing. This is especially for consideration when launching a potential exhibition for the Queen’s Gallery, attached to Buckingham Palace. When the gift shop contains as many postcards of Charles, Camilla, and 100 years of pageantry alongside more aged masterpieces, the inseparability of the Royals to the art displayed cannot be denied.

To follow these touristy-weekend musings to their logical end, am I asserting that the wedding of our Duke and Duchess of Cambridge influences how we view a 17thcentury Adriaen van de Velde landscape

Philip Wouwerman's, 'The Hayfield' (oil on canvas, 1660-68) © The Royal Collection

with a hawking party? Does a spirit of celebration make us look anew at a Wouwermann’s depiction of peasants in a Hayfield? The answer to this is a most resolute ‘Yes’. The royal wedding is to these landscapes what those sweet caramelised biscuits are to your afternoon cup of earl grey: they add that extra sweet flavour to the already satisfactory brew.

The audience are offered a series of approaches to the exhibition. In the first room the notion of the Dutch Golden age and its influence on contemporary art is expounded, most obviously in a particularly lengthy audio discussion on Paulus Potter’s “A Young Bull and Two Cows in a Meadow”, assuring the audience that this isn’t simply a bull and two cows, but a rich symbolist panel defining the anticipated wealth coming to the Netherlands.

However, between the valid academic arguments and rich symbolist readings of the landscapes, a theme of humour pushes to the foreground of this room – a rich, personal humour, an appeal to that strongest human emotion which connects the 17th century artist with the 21st century viewer and the royal collector (in this case George V) with the day-tripping tourist. It is communicated in Paulus Potter’s ‘The Young Thief’ (oil on panel, 1649), a heavily animated scene showing a child attempting to steal two new born puppies from their mother. The screaming boy startled the on-looking milkmaid and brings a thundering sense of human activity as he hurtles into the idyllic landscape. His guilt in his face, half elated with his success, half fearful of the bitch’s response, is instantly recognisable and recognisably comical. 

Similarly, Potter’s “Two Sportsmen outside an Inn” (oil on panel, 1651), is filled with more humour and self-aware comments on social status than Michael MacIntyre’s stream of middle-class observations.  The contrast between the moneyed huntsman and the poor inn-keeping family – a relationship which is mirrored in the huntsman’s spaniel sniffing the inn-keeper’s mongrel – is played out against a mixed background of broken pots and shabby walls buried in a landscape of golden dunes and a further huntsman. Meanwhile, the naked bather in the lower left corner of Philip Wouwerman’s “The Hayfield” (oil on canvas, 1660-68) brings the touch of humour into the corridor of the adjoining room, and, being influenced by the recent pageantry, one could not help but compare this bather to those members of the public who celebrated the royal wedding by jumping into the fountain outside Buckingham Palace (only 400 yards away) in joyous celebration two weeks before.

The second room replaces the focus on financial readings of the Golden Age with a spiritual light.  Jennifer Scott, curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection, details the spiritual approach of Cuyp,

The final room of this small exhibition can be considered a chapel to Dutch Master Landscapes. These landscapes should not be considered “secular”, as we misleadingly use and loosely define the work today. Whilst religious subjects are not explicit, they are to be found symbolically. For example, on the left hand wall, amidst a serious of seascapes, Jennifer Scott puts forward an argument for the religious symbolism in Aelbert Cuyp’s ‘The Passage Boat’ (oil on canvas, c. 1650). Meanwhile, on the right hand side, she welcomes the viewer to explore the way in which Cuyp’s spirituality is present in his landscapes, describing this half-portrait, half-landscape, as deeply

"Deeply spiritual" - Aelbert Cuyp, 'A page with two horses' (c. late 1650's) © The Royal Collection

“spiritual”, not simply the arrival of wealth, but a “pause on a journey”. This religious approach to landscape reflects an important new trend in theological studies, and is becoming increasingly recognised as an invaluable school of reading in art history. Scott says “Cuyp does seem to have travelled extensively into his imagination”, and it is this which the current viewer recognises amidst foreign topographical scenes.

These two paths, the symbolic and spiritual presence of religion in Dutch Masterworks, are split at the top of the room by the only explicitly religious painting of the exhibition: Jan Booth’s “Landscape with St. Philip baptising the Eunuch”, (Acts Chapter 8). This oil on canvas showing the two paths on which the Eunuch has travelled, and is yet to travel, hangs in the alcove at the end of the arched hall, like an altarpiece below and arched window, fitting for its religious subject matter.

Thus, while the first room opens up a path for the viewer to relate to the artworks through the transcending understanding of humour, the second shows spiritual relationship between the artist and his brushwork. A further relationship, between the viewer and the artworks of the Dutch Golden Age – separated by as many miles as years – is created. Be it through spiritual means, humorous appeals or historical expounding of the golden age, it is a relationship which is founded in the more immediate connection of the visitor as a viewer to alongside the Royal’s role as a collector – it is a place which makes us aware of our position in our own landscape – and glorifies it.

* * *

Dutch Landscapes is shown alongside Treasures from the Royal Collection, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 15 April – 9 October 2011. Buy tickets.

The exhibition is accompanied by the catalogue Dutch Landscapes by Desmond Shawe-Taylor, with contributions by Jennifer Scott (Royal Collection Publications, 176 pages, 110 colour illustrations). Exhibition price £14.95 from Royal Collection shops and online.

Preview a selection of highlights online in the exhibition microsite.

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An Artistic Enlightenment

 

‘Faces in the Crowd: Joseph Wright and Friends in Georgian Derbyshire’ is a regional exhibition for a regional man. David Fraser outlines in this introduction to the 1997 bi-centenary catalogue of Joseph Wright of Derby’s works held by Derby Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Wright chose not to move to London to further his career, unlike Reynolds or Gainsborough, from Plymouth and Suffolk respectively. In this respect, Wright truly is a son of his native Derby’. Therefore the first aim of a Derbyshire show, using the Derby Museum and Art Gallery’s paintings, is to imbue Wright’s paintings with a regional feel; meanwhile ensuring the exhibition appeals to the national sensibility which the understated grandeur of his work deserves. The use of the unpretentious Buxton Museum and Art Gallery welcomes a personal feel of a smaller provincial art gallery.

Portrait of Rev D'Ewes Coke, his wife Hannah, & Daniel Parker Coke, MP (oil on canvas, 1780-82) © Derby Museum and Art Gallery

 

The local feel of this exhibition is felt not only because Wright’s works are hanging in his home county, but the subjects of his paintings. The room is predominantly filled by portraits of local dignitaries, a factor which is inflated in the exhibition title ‘Faces in the Crowd: Joseph Wright and Friends in Georgian Derbyshire’. The implications of the word ‘friends’ implies these various portraits depict people who would pass one another on the street and share anecdotes at Georgian society events whilst recommending Wright’s artistic abilities to one another. However far one buys such whimsical notions of regency Derbyshire, the implication certainly adds animation to group scenes. One of the most remarkable of these is ‘The Rev. D’Ewes Coke, his wife Hannah, and Daniel Parker Coke, M.P.’ (oil on canvas, 1780 -82). This painting is simply annotated with the description “The reverent D’Ewes Coke wears his clerical black while his distant relative, the M.P. for Nottingham, listens to the discussion’. No comment is made of the deeper narrative here – Hannah’s pointing towards Daniel Parker Coke’s papers, while her eye corresponds to Reverend Coke’s gesturing towards the landscape (in previous exhibitions of this painting the composition has led to suggestions that Wright is depicting a discussion of alterations for the recently inherited estate of Brookhill Hall, Derbyshire). Nor is much attention paid to the local landscape which unrolls behind the three friends. Nor is mention made of the Reverend Coke’s left hand, which appears to have undergone extensive re-painting. Some insight into the creation of the piece – both in terms of narrative and style – would offer a more dynamic approach to Wright for visitors to the exhibition exhibition.

Nevertheless, pitching an exhibition for a crowd of visitors with varying knowledge, understanding and fondness of Wright’s work is a near impossible task. The literature which would satisfy the esteemed art critic would bore their child to tears on a family day-trip. Similarly the posed questions which encourage a new train of thought in younger visitors can appear patronising to an older generation, thus distancing them from the exhibition. In this instance, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery have left leading questions to encourage new points of view, and left the portraits to speak for themselves. Where no mention is made of family dynamics, as mentioned before, or the use of light – a common comment on the effects of the Enlightenment – in the infamous ‘The Alchymist’ (oil on canvas, reworked and dated 1795).

‘Enlightenment!’

The Alchymist. (oil on vancas, reworked and dated 1795) © Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Meanwhile, the hanging of the paintings proposes a meta-narrative. The enlightenment works are hung opposite the portraits, thus artificially overlooked by dignitaries of the day. Thus we receive an impression of the regional importance of the enlightenment. Those taking part were not fictional figures, but locals, such as Jedediah Strutt (18th century entrepreneur and friend of Richard Arkwright), Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) and the Reverend Coke. And as we stand between these portraits and scene of scientific breakthrough, we position ourselves within the enlightenment story through our locality – be it as a local resident of visiting tourist. Furthermore, we become aware of another presence, one who amidst these scientific breakthroughs – the re-ordering of logic and the examination of light itself – was artistically recording the deepest poetic moments of the enlightenment.

Faces in the Crowd: Joseph Wright and Friends in Georgian Derbyshire runs from Saturday 5th March until 30th May, at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, as part of the ‘Enlightenment!’ programme – a Heritage Lottery Funded Programme exploring innovation in 18th and 19th century Derbyshire. It is a partnership between three museums: Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, Belper North Mill, and Derby Museums and Art Gallery.

www.enlightenmentderbyshire.wordpress.com

www.derbyshire.co.uk/buxtonmuseum

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” ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world”

We stand like the gods who gathered in council to watch Ulysses’ ill-fated journey home from the Trojan War to his loving steadfast Penelope in Ithaca – fortunate enough to share their omniscient viewpoint as we briefly glimpse one of the more intimate moments of Ulysses’ wanderings.

The Parting of Ulysses, John E. Millais, 1862. Watercolour. © The Courtauld Gallery

We can sense the moments shared by this couple – the arching forward of Circe’s body, like the maidenhead on a ship, is echoed by the stance of Ulysses, who is jerked forwards on the waves. Circe’s wave farewell is dramatically accentuated by the full motion of her right arm. The forceful waving of a flag which drops limply in the newly present winds adds a wistful air to Circe’s body, whose hair equally floats weakly in the winds, reflecting the symbol of surrender. The only sign of strength in the image – a quality for which Ulysses is renowned – is seen in the stiff rigidity of Circe’s left arm which clutches to her left breast in a classic pose of mourning.

John Everett Millais (1829-96) painted this small watercolour around 1862. It was already a recognised image with the public, who had seen the wood engraved image in ‘Once a Week’. However, in spring 2011 the image will become just as recognised by London’s tourists, art enthusiasts, and public alike. It represents the Courtauld’s “Life, Legend and Landscape: Victorian Watercolours and Drawings” exhibition. To choose an image to represent such a show is an important decision – the exhibition is marketed against competing blockbuster events of the genre: the Royal Academy’s ‘Watteau: The Drawings’ exhibition, and Tate Britain’s exhibition, undemandingly titled “Watercolour”. The Courtauld has clearly put the most effort into their title, but does this effort continue in the exhibition itself? Can an exhibition which barely fills one room be worthy of the illustration of Ulysses, of a man who travelled through worlds undreamt of, encountering creatures the type of which Millias’ society longed and hoped Darwin would discover on his trips in the Beagle?

Just as the poet tailored each retelling of Ulysses’ story to his specific audience, so the curators have tailored the story of Victorian watercolour into this tight exhibition space. The result means the story is told in a nutshell. But it is told with such polished finesse, this could not be mistaken for anything other than a gilded nutshell, glowing with interest and gleaming with expertise. The Courtauld gallery have mastered the delivery of academic interest alongside the public’s demand to be entertained.

The exhibition starts at the birth of watercolour – the nativity of market interest in Victorian society for artists’ rough sketches – by announcing: “Artists relied heavily on sketches and studies for the preparation of paintings, sculptures and illustrations. However drawings increasingly came to be valued in their own right as artists such as James Mc Neill Whistler showed them in exhibitions of their work”. Alongside such a description one might expect smudged sketches, homunculus’ of men, unformed ghostly outlines of figure studies which would be perfected in later work. However, we are immediately presented with Edward John Poynter’s black chalk sketch for the demanding scene of ‘Faithful unto

Study for the Venus Verticordia, D.G. Rossetti. © The Courtauld Gallery

Death’ – a popular image of the time of a Roman sentinel remaining during the destruction of Pompeii. This image hangs next to a Rossetti study of Elizabeth Siddal sitting at an easel – a figure who remains as recognisable to today’s audience as the destruction of Pompeii was popular for the Victorian audience. The viewer is then taken on a Homeric journey at concorde speed – Ruskin’s watercolours of the ever popular Bay of Naples and Chamonix, Lear’s views of the Quarrie’s of Syracuse, and finally Ulysses’ parting from Circe.  Although there are no sign of Homeric monsters – unless you make the analogy between ticket

Head of a Lion. Sketch. Landseer © The Courtauld Gallery

prices lifting pounds from your purse, as Scylla and Charybdis took men from Ulysses otherwise content ship – the inclusion of Landseer’s sketches of Lions fit well into the exhibition. Landseer was given considerable attention in last year’s “Victoria and Albert: Art and Love” exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. While there is less room to dedicate to him here, the stories told alongside the fine example of his work show not only the quality of his work, but the effort which has been put into this exhibition.

But what of audience interaction? Has the exhibition dated itself by including ‘Victorian’ in its title, rather than the simple ‘Watercolour’? I think not. Rather, like Ulysses himself, we are taken on a journey into times and places which are not our own, but have so much to teach us. We have been guided on a route of entertainment and academia, a route which can compete with other blockbuster exhibitions while retaining the Coutauld’s unique academic approach. More-over, this exhibition is accompanied by talks in the Courtauld’s ‘Prints and Drawings’ room where one can see and learn about related works – an approach which shows off the Courtauld’s research advantages whilst adding the gleam to the truly gilded nutshell.

* * *

“Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” – Ulysses Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1842

 

LIFE, LEGEND, LANDSCAPE: VICTORIAN DRAWINGS AND WATERCOLOURS Continues until the 15 May 2011 at the Courtauld Gallery, London.

http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/exhibitions/2011/victorian/index.shtml

 

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