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Category Archives: Art

Two Revolutions


Revolution; Russian Art 1917 – 1932 – Royal Academy

The centenary of the Russian Revolution this year has been marked by the Royal Academy with a retrospective of revolutionary Russian art. It is an enormous, at times bewildering exhibition but I found it rewarding, dashing some of my preconceptions of Russian art and demonstrating how vibrant the art scene was.

Of course, there are images that we associate with Soviet art – none more so than Kustodiev’s colossal Bolshevik of 1920, an enormous peasant waving a red flag striding onwards, trampling underfoot anything in his way. The certainty in the cause is all apparent. And we have the obligatory pictures of Lenin, the most moving being the leader in his coffin. Lenin couldn’t be portrayed dead and so Petrov-Vodkin’s painting has been condemned to a life in storage. It rarely makes a public appearance and, if for no other reason, this makes a trip to the exhibition worthwhile. The heavy hand of State censorship is wonderfully illustrated by Demkov’s kerchief where the portrait of Trotsky has been cut out from one of the corners.


Artists were dragooned to help the cause and so we have paintings extolling the virtues of labour, Stakhanovite men and women glorying in their liberty, freed from selling their lives and labour for profit. Women workers heave bales around and shock workers perform skyline gymnastics erecting buildings. There is a wonderful and rather unsettling picture of a tram conductor – scary, certainly, and one certain to collect her fares! Artists were deployed to design workers’ uniforms, even dainty porcelain and El Lissitzsky’s plans for a worker’s living capsule is utilitarian to the extreme.


Russian artists were quick to embrace the avant-garde movement that was springing up elsewhere in Europe. The revolution offered a new beginning and why not a new beginning for art? The highlight of the show is the room devoted to Malevich – I came across him a couple of years ago at the Tate Modern. The Black Square, the antidote to art, seems rather lost in the exhibition, being hung a little too high for my taste. Malevich’s abstract paintings are one thing but Popova and Rodchenko eschew any form of symbolism, their works full of geometric shapes and concentric circles.

1932 was the watershed for Russian art. An exhibition entitled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic was held – as here Malevich and Petrov-Vodkin had their own rooms – which was intended to be a proud proclamation of the radicalism and progressiveness of artists operating in the liberty that a communist state provided. Rather, though, it was the beginning of the end. Stalin tightened his grip on the state and abstract art was suppressed. What he wanted was more heroic idealism not nonsensical doodlings.



A revolution of sorts was happening at the same time in the rural county of Sussex, at least if you buy in to the thesis of the curator of Two Temple Place’s latest exhibition, Sussex Modernism – Retreat and Rebellion. Artists fled to the rural idyll to get on with their art and their lives, away from the pressures and prying eyes of London. Drawn from nine museums in the county – I was surprised there were so many – we see examples of the Bloomsbury set’s work, more male nudes than you could shake a stick at, wonderfully decorated boxes and furniture – the show stealer was Duncan Grant’s Leda and the Duck Chest (1917) – beautiful lithographs and the wonderful Edward james and Salvador Dali Mae West Lips sofa. The objets d’art have to fight hard to stand out against the exquisite opulence of the venue but in this instance they just about manage it.

Never Mind The Pollocks, Here’s James Ensor


Abstract Expressionism – Royal Academy

A rare trip to the smoke saw me divert to the Royal Academy to catch the Abstract Expressionism (or AbEx as we hipsters call it) exhibition which is on until 2nd January. I have had a difficult relationship with modern abstract art. I often come away thinking of the Emperor’s new clothes. Is there really something in it or is the artist just taking the piss? Wandering around the galleries, crammed with the monumental works of the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still in what is the largest exhibition of their works for over half a century, the old nagging doubts hit me again.


Many of the works are monumental, vast acres of canvas daubed with colour, geometric design and dripping paint. Impressive or provocative as any one of the works on display may be, to see so many at one time dulls the senses. Too much of a good thing, perhaps. For me, the Jackson Pollock gallery was the highlight of the show, a heady mix of manic design and frenetic brush work. I may not rush out and buy one but there was a kind of hypnotic quality about them that drew me in.


Rothko has the Central Hall to himself and this is where I really struggled, great canvasses with blocks of colour in geometric design. The first was mildly interesting but after a while the repetition of a theme started to grate. You could see why Rothko is one of the most defaced artists. The find for me was Still who at least presented you with a riot of colour, reds and oranges clashing in a painting that rises majestically to the ceiling and another which features white and pink with bright red, blood like splashes – a really unsettling iage.

I began to feel I was being suborned by what is a wonderfully curated exhibition of some 150 paintings – the room featuring drawings and photographs is a tad unnecessary and seems a bit of an afterthought – until I came across Ad Reinhardt’s enormous canvas filled with black paint. Normality restored, I thought.


More to my taste was the exhibition in the Sackler Wing of the Belgian born artist, James Ensor (1860 – 1949), entitled Intrigue, on until 29th January. He was an artist with a keen sense of humour, his paintings full of caricatures, skeletons and the macabre. The painting that really took my fancy was The Skate, a wonderful image of the fish with a tragi-comic expression, lounging languidly on a table as if it had just had a satisfying meal, rather than about to become a meal itself. I also enjoyed the portraits of Ensor a century on, a lounging skeleton (natch).



His art is wide ranging, from caricature to landscape – the picture Afternoon in Ostend, is dark and brooding with an eerie green glow above the roof tops – and his Seven Deadly Sins reveal an artist with a mordant, satirical eye. His most famous work, The Intrigue, has a crowd of masked figures surrounding a mother whose baby is a doll, an amusing but slightly disturbing image.

Unsettling for sure but wonderfully evocative with images full of small details that unless you really look you might miss. His caricature of Sloth includes an image of snails crawling up on to the bedspread – a powerful image of how long the laggards have been asleep. I left the RA into the London drizzle with a spring in my step and a smile on my face, my faith in art to surprise and entertain restored. A marvellous exhibition.

Our Fate Cannot Be Taken From Us; It Is A Gift


In the age of Giorgione – Royal Academy

Up to the Sackler Wing – the lift was working – to see the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Giorgione (1477 – 1510) and others from the Venetian High Renaissance. The title of the show puts one in mind of a CD featuring European disco hits from the 1980s. Perhaps it would be better entitled in search of Giorgione because, truth be told, there are very few paintings in the collection which can be definitively attributed to Giorgio da Castelfranco, erstwhile trainee of Bellini.

But there is one which can and was for me the stand-out painting in the exhibition, La Vecchia, which is almost the direct antithesis of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, painted around the same time. Here we have an old woman with crumpled, time ravaged skin and stumps for teeth, grey strands of hair dressed in ragged clothes, with the legend “Col tempo” in her hand. What impressed me was the immediacy and vividness of the image. Compared to the ethereal Mona Lisa, this is real life in the raw. Her pose, the sensitive brushwork and the delicate portrayal of light reveal a Renaissance artist at the height of his powers but one who is interested in reality rather than Platonic ideals.

The other overwhelming theme is one of melancholy. The portraits are of fragile humans with wistful, lovelorn expressions, gazing out at us for pity and sympathy. It is hard not to think that this reflects the world-view of an artist, conscious that he only had a short time on earth. According to Vasari Giorgione died at the age of 32 on the quarantine island of Lazarretto Nuovo where the Venetian republic put those exposed to the plague. It is said that he was also a brilliant musician and courted his female lovers by playing the lute under their balconies. Alas, it was from one of these lovers that he contracted the plague that did for him.


As a bit of a jack-the-lad Giorgione wasn’t above luring his paramours to some quiet glade and persuading them to disrobe. The world of art benefitted from this rather direct approach. Giorgione prototyped the knowing, carnal nude, a style imitated and enhanced by his younger contemporary, Titian. He laid the foundations upon which Titian and, to some extent, his tutor, Bellini, built.


There are four rooms, featuring portraits, landscapes, devotional works and allegorical paintings, Giorgione’s works being augmented by contributions from contemporary Venetian painters, including Titian, Bellini, Durer and Lorenzo Lotto. There were some rather ugly representations of Christ in the devotional section. Titian’s Christ and the Adulteress, previously attributed to Giorgione, was particularly powerful in its imagery and movement. And the beginning of the development of landscape as a genre in itself rather than just a background to a portrait or allegorical scene and which became a defining feature of Venetian art was interesting to observe. But even Giorgione’s treatment of a pastoral scene seemed laced with melancholy.

I enjoyed this exhibition which gave me a fascinating insight into an artist whose work though few in number was highly influential. Perhaps, to echo, Dante, that was his fate.

I Perhaps Owe Having Become A Painter To Flowers


Painting The Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse – Royal Academy

One of the (very few) things about not working in London I regret is that my opportunities to visit the art galleries of the capital are limited. Ordinarily I would have seen an exhibition like this in its first week or so but here I was sneaking in with just a week to spare. Perhaps sneaking in is the wrong term as security has been tightened since my last visit with bag checks as you enter the court off the street.

Gardening is the new rock and roll, they say, and is the hobby, nay obsession, of many middle aged and more mature citizens. With the rise of wealth and the middle class, gardening changed during the 19th century horticulture moved from being an aid to survival to a leisure pursuit. With artists of the calibre of Monet, Renoir, Pisarro, Bonnard and Cezanne being gardeners and gardens featuring in their works, there is fertile ground for an exhibition of horticultural art.

On the whole this exhibition works well. The triptych of Monet’s water lilies, reunited for the first time in decades, and left until the final room, is breath-taking and worth the trouble of visiting on its own. It is a swirling profusion of water, flower, foliage, light, reflection and colour. Astonishing. And many of the old favourites are to be found here, a series of pictures of the Japanese bridge at Monet’s garden in Giverney – reproduced on many a biscuit tin – and water lilies galore, each painted at a different time of the day and showing the subtle changes in light and texture. Monet’s later pictures, painted when he was suffering from failing eyesight, are a mass of heavily daubed whirling colours.

But it is not just Monet on display. Van Gogh’s Daubigny’s garden in Auvers is wonderfully evocative and Caillebotte’s astonishing portrayal of nasturtiums from on high emphasises their spread, colour and fragility against a mauve background. And the exhibition opens with a reductio ad absurdum, Renoir’s famous painting of Monet painting his garden in 1873.


It is easy to see why gardens and flowers in particular captured the artists’ imagination. There is pattern and a plethora of vivid colours in surprising shapes and sizes. And, of course, apart from blowing gently in the wind, the subject matter doesn’t move so there are none of the draughtsmanship challenges presented by motion. But, in part, this is one of the problems with the exhibition. After a while, the paintings merge into each other, there is too much green, too little life and what might be masterpieces if viewed individually lose their impact in aggregation.


There are also some oddities. Quite why we need to see seed catalogues and frames is beyond me and inevitably there is a film of Monet painting in his garden. He approached the subject in just the way I imagined – sitting in front of an easel planted in a garden with brush in hand. Why did I need proof positive?


And there is also a very middle class perspective to the show. The depictions of gardens are stunning but there is little sense conveyed of the physical work involved in gardening, pace Pisarro and the wonderfully evocative painting of Gertrude Jeckyll’s gardening boots by William Nicholson. After all, these gardeners were gentlemen gardeners – we see Monet’s planting instructions to his gardeners – and beyond colour and shape they seemed little interested in the physicality of horticulture or, if the truth be told, in the actual form and individual characteristics of particular plants.

Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles and overall it is a worthwhile exercise.

Golden Is Their Hair And Golden Is Their Garb


Celts – Art and Identity

To the British Museum to see the Celts exhibition. I had been meaning to go to it for some time but what with one thing and another and now rarely being up in London, I have only just got round to it. I have been critical of the British Museum experience in the past but this time, so close to the start of the new academic term, at least I wasn’t jostling with crocodiles of schoolkids to get a view of the exhibits. Many (of the exhibits, that is) are small and warrant close inspection to appreciate the intricacy of the designs.

What strikes you as you enter the exhibition is what can only be described as background muzak in a Celtic stylee – wailing uilleann pipes and the like. I was waiting for the thumping bass and drums of the Afro Celt Sound System to kick in but to no avail. I’m not sure why the curators found it necessary to provide a low volume sound track to get us in the mood. The exhibits are strong enough to stand on their own two feet and the music is irksome.

Be that as it may, it is a wonderful exhibition. For someone who has been immersed in the culture of the Ancient Greeks and Romans there is a tendency to be somewhat dismissive of the barbari, those who didn’t share their language and culture. The term Keltoi was used by the Greeks in the sense of “people who are different or strange” and if the self-publicising account of the Gallic campaign produced by Julius Caesar is to be believed, the Gauls called themselves Celts. There was no single Celtic culture but disparate groupings spread out over northern and central Europe who share a number of linguistically related languages.


The exhibition shows that the haughty dismissive attitude of the Greeks and Romans to the Celts was misplaced. They were skilled craftsmen, producing beautifully wrought jewellery in gold and silver, fearsome weaponry and helmets and highly decorative pots, cooking equipment and drinking paraphernalia. What is perhaps surprising is that they were not operating in a cultural vacuum but some of their artworks are suggestive of contact with other cultures, some of which were a considerable distance from where we associate the Celts. A group of painted vases found in France are reminiscent of Cretan pottery whilst the abstract animal forms seem more Eastern, perhaps Russian. Two large bronze jugs dating from the fourth century BCE could easily be mistaken for being Chinese.


For me the most wonderful and intriguing piece was the stunning silver Gundestrup cauldron found in Denmark. I must have spent ten minutes gazing at its exterior and interior. It is formed of beaten and moulded plates with a ring of gods with glowering faces along the exterior and mysterious rituals – some of which look distinctly oriental – on the inside. The carvings are full of vitality and to modern eyes mystery.


The Celts liked their bling and there are more armlets and torcs than you can shake a stick at. A clever touch on the part of the curators is to display them in piles reminiscent of the hoards in which they were found and the way in which their original owners entrusted them to the safe deposit box that is the earth. What is perhaps surprising is the realisation that the concentric designs we associate with Celtic art are a later development. For those who like their exhibits monumental there are the obligatory replicas of stone crosses and an intriguing reconstruction of a pony-drawn chariot.

The exhibition shows the uneasy assimilation of Roman and Christian cultures and finishes with the Romantic movement’s rediscovery of the Celts. The old fraud James Macpherson and his Celtic bard Ossian take centre stage as does a hideous Victorian statue of Caractacus. We leave the exhibition with the invitation to ponder the link between the Celts and the rebirth of nationalism.

For me, though, the glory of the exhibition is in the objects that span across the first millennium or so of Celtic culture.

Pastel Master


Jean-Etienne Liotard – Royal Academy

To the RA and the Sackler Wing – lift working this time – to see the first exhibition of the Genevan portrait painter’s work to be presented in Britain. I was not familiar with his work before I set foot in the six room exhibition.

Born in 1702 and dying in the tumultuous year of 1789 – to add to the piquancy of the year of his death the exhibition features a portrait of a seven year old Marie Antoinette –  Liotard was operating at the height of what we term the Age of Enlightenment. It was a period of revolution both political and of thought. Old conventions and traditions were being challenged and overthrown. And Liotard was part of that trend, at least as far as art was concerned.


Liotard was a peripatetic artist, travelling extensively around the principal capitals of Europe in the search of rich patrons and commissions. He worked in Paris, Rome, Vienna, Rome, London and spent four years in Constantinople. The astonishingly vibrant self-portrait is thought in part to have served as his calling card or advert.

In Constantinople Liotard recorded what to Western eyes were exotic Eastern scenes and sights and cashed in on the rather bizarre fad of rich Western lads and lasses dressing up in Turkish garb. His reputation was such that he was able to command substantial fees for his portraits and attracted the patronage of many of the crowned heads of Europe. The exhibition has a mix of his work in the Ottoman empire (room 2) and society (British – room 3 and Continental – room 5) and court portraits (room 4). The first room is taken up with portraits of the artist himself – he was an inveterate self-portraitist – and his family whilst the sixth – and to my mind the most satisfying features still lives, what are known as genre paintings depicting scenes of everyday life and some interesting trompe l’oeil which pave the way for the likes of Escher.


Liotard worked mainly, but not exclusively – there are water colours on enamel, minatures, works in chalk and engravings – in pastel and the portraits, mainly half-length, are broadly set against a plain background, emphasising the features of the sitter, not altogether to their benefit. Whilst he is no Lucian Freud, he did not airbrush their features – it would be interesting to know what the rather dumpy Countess of Guildford thought of her portrait when she first saw it.

What comes through loud and clear is Liotard’s naturalistic style – these are not formal poses but often the subjects are shown at ease, reading, gesticulating and/or smiling – something which, as we have discussed before, was rare in a portrait – that is why the Mona Lisa is so unusual – because of the state of their teeth. He has a fine eye for detail and some of the attention to the clothing is simply wonderful, enhanced by the plain backgrounds.

Because of the naturalistic style some of the portraits are haunting, particularly those of the ailing Princess Louisa Anne who died soon afterwards and the queen of Moravia grimly hanging on to her throne.

I’m not a great fan of portraits but I was impressed by the freshness of Liotard’s approach and his attention to detail.


As I had some time on my hands I popped in to see Daniel Maclise’s splendid and enormous cartoon of The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher after the battle of Waterloo, drawn in 1858-9. It is an astonishing piece of work,, some 13 metres long, and the painted version is to be found in the Houses of Parliament. Having hidden in storage for decades it was restored in time for the bicentennial commemoration of the battle.

Art Critic Of The Week (2)


Regular readers of this blog may realise that I struggle to understand or come to terms with what is termed modern art. It seems as though I’m not the only one.

Milanese artists, Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari, put together an installation called “Where shall we go dancing tonight” representing the hedonism and political corruption of the 1980s and which was on display at the Museion museum in Bolzano. It featured cigarette butts, empty bottles, paper streamers, confetti and discarded shoes, all arranged, I’m sure, in an artistic style.

Unfortunately, when the cleaning staff turned up they though the installation was the remains of a party held in the museum the previous night and cleared it all away, carefully putting the different items in glass, plastic and paper sacks for recycling.

An easy mistake to make but I can’t help thinking that if the artists had slipped the cleaners a few euros they would have left well alone.

First Be A Magnificent Artist And Then You Can Do Whatever, But The Art Must Be First.


Goya : The Portraits – National Gallery

In a world that seems to be obsessed with selfies and where popular photography has ruled the roost for over a century it is hard to imagine a time when having a life-like representation of yourself was the real deal. It was generally only the preserve of the wealthy and nobility. The common person passed through life without leaving a trace of how they looked.

Of course, having commissioned a portrait your immortal image was very much in the hands of the painter. People often have an inflated image of their looks and demeanour and an artist, particularly one desperate for commissions, must have to battle with the temptation to create a flattering image of their subject. Some artists throw caution to the wind and paint what they see in front of them, blotched cheeks, frizzy hair and all. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was definitely in the latter camp as this magnificent exhibition of 71 of his portraits amply demonstrates.

Before visiting the National Gallery I was not overly familiar with Goya’s portraiture – for me he was an artist with a brooding imagination, a surrealist who satirised vice and illustrated the horrors of war. I’m not overly fond of portraits as a genre as en masse they have a tendency to be samey and formulaic, the painter walking the tightrope between veracity and flattery. By the time I had wandered through the seven rooms I realised that Goya was a cut above the rest.

Where to begin? The exhibition is broadly in chronological order. A latecomer to portrait painting – he was 37 when he gained his first commission – Goya’s early works, principally in the first couple of rooms, are rather awkward in composition and what rescues them is his remarkable insight into human nature. You feel you get sense of the character of the individual before you.

The chronological approach serves to emphasise the enormous transformation in Goya’s style following his serious illness in 1792-3 which left him deaf. The series of portraits of some of the key figures of the Spanish Enlightenment have a much more naturalistic style about them and demonstrate that he was in total command of his materials. Without doubt the later paintings are much more satisfying and one is left wondering whether the loss of his hearing sharpened his visual powers, perhaps in the way that Turner’s myopia engendered his dalliance with impressionistic techniques.

I was surprised to see a rather exhausted and troubled Duke of Wellington amongst the array of Spanish royalty and nobility but the general’s entry into a jubilant Madrid in 1812 made him a natural subject for Spain’s pre-eminent portrait painter. Goya’s paintings from 1799 of King Charles IV in his hunting gear and queen Maria Luisa in her mantilla puncture the veneer of stuffy royals. These are real people with real characters, almost approachable. And Goya’s famous portrait of the Duchess of Alba whose finger points down to the legend, sola Goya, at her feet is as magnificent as it is cracked up to be. It is a bold, confident statement of Goya’s mastery of the genre.<pimage


For me, though, the finest painting was one of his later ones, Self portrait with Doctor Arrieta (1820) – Goya painted a number of self-portraits and occasionally included himself in the composition of other portraits – a marvellous celebration of the artist’s triumph over a near fatal illness and a paean to the skill of his medic. The shadowy figures in the background are either ghouls or people assembling to witness the last rites. They were to be thwarted for another 8 years.

If you are able – the National Gallery despite a timed ticket policy can be a bit of a bun fight – it is worth some time studying the background and foregrounds as this is where Goya has some fun. The portrait of Luis Maria de Vallabriga (1783) shows the child with a piece from a geographic jigsaw in his hand. It just happens to be that part of Spain to which he and his family were exiled. The Countess of Fernan Nunez (1803) has a miniature portrait of her hubby around her neck and in perhaps the most amusing painting, Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga, three cats skulk in the dark background eyeing up the caged birds whilst a magpie holds Goya’s calling card in his beak.


Master Recycler


Ai Weiwei – Royal Academy

You must have lived in a hermetically sealed bubble not to have heard of the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, and that he is the subject of the Royal Academy’s major exhibition this autumn. He is, after all, a consummate self-publicist. And it is not hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for him. His so-called dissident activities have brought him to the attentions of the Chinese authorities, causing him to have his studio destroyed and him being incarcerated in prison, spending periods under house arrest and living under travel restrictions.

I first came across his work at the Tate Modern some time ago when he filled the Turbine Hall with 100 million porcelain seeds. The nagging question I had as I went to the Members’ Preview at the RA was there any substance behind the public persona? Is his art any good? And the overwhelming feeling I had on exiting was probably not. Mind you, by the time I go to the exhibition I was not in the best of humours having walked through a torrential cloudburst – I looked as though I had wee-weed my trousers. The force of the rain meant that the collection of tree like sculptures in the courtyard received only the most cursory of inspections.

The principal impressions of an exhibition spread out over 11 galleries are of the sheer scale of the exhibits – it must have been a logistical nightmare transporting and assembling some of the pieces and the size and weight of the exhibits must be testing the load bearing limits of the venerable old building – and the underlying sense of vandalism running through much of his work.


I hope Neolithic pots and vases from the Hang Dynasty are ten to the yuan in China. Be that as it may, there is something inherently wrong in my view in painting them in gaudy colours or putting a Coca Cola sign on one or displaying a cupboard of jars stuffed full of dust from crushed Neolithic pots. And then there is the triptych of photographs showing our artist dropping a vase from the Han dynasty – all in the name of art!


Weiwei is a master recycler. Perhaps for me the most satisfying piece is in the final gallery – an enormous chandelier with bicycles forming the central part of the structure. Fragments in the fifth gallery uses wooden beams from four temples and pillars made from Ming dynasty furniture to create an odd structure which you can walk through. But the real meaning of the piece – apparently it is shaped to represent the geographical limits of China, something which can only really be appreciated from on high – is lost on the viewer.


Souvenir of Shanghai is made from a pile of rubble – what was left of Weiwei’s studio after it was demolished by the Chinese authorities – interspersed with elaborate wood carvings. Later on, we have a room comprising of cubes made from crystal, wood and one from compressed tea leaves. In some of the earlier galleries pieces of furniture, principally stools, are conjoined to make interesting shapes and, of course, we have the coat hanger bent into the shape of man’s face, the famous Hanging Man.


Probably the most powerful piece in the exhibit is Straight which features a mass of metal rods from the damaged buildings in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake laid out to make an undulating pattern with the names of the 5,000 child victims posted on the walls.


I also liked the enormous piece called stroller, made out of marble and featuring a perfectly carved push chair in a field of what looked like bunches of two-bladed grass. To remind us of porcelain seeds we have a pile of crabs made out of porcelain in a corner of one of the galleries and of his incarceration a series of dioramas representing various aspects of his life under lock and key. The latter were strangely underwhelming and had something of an exhibit an impecunious provincial museum would knock up to attract some attention.

Weiwei’s work certainly was provoking and the RA are to be commended for putting on this first major exhibition of his work. But it didn’t really grab me. I have enormous sympathy for him as a man and his fight for freedom of expression and rather like Voltaire, I left thinking I may not like your art, but I will fight to the death for your right to produce it.

The Boxer

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38 Box Construction, 25.4 x 23.5 x 5.4 cm Collection of Robert Lehrman, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman Photo The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman. Photography: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC (c) The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015  Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Press use is considered to be moderate use of images to report a current event or to illustrate a review or criticism of the work, as defined by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 Chapter 48 Section 30 Subsections (1) - (3). Reproductions which comply with the above do not need to be licensed. Reproductions for all non-press uses or for press uses where the above criteria do not apply (e.g. covers and feature articles) must be licensed before publication.  Further information can be obtained at or by contacting DACS licensing on +44 207 336 8811. Due to UK copyright law only applying to UK publications, any articles or press uses which are published outside of the UK and include reproductions of these images will need to have sought authorisation with the relevant copyright society of that country. Please also ensure that all works that are provided are shown in full, with no overprinting or manipulation.

Wanderlust – Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972)

To the Royal Academy to see the Joseph Cornell retrospective – another artist with whom I was unfamiliar. I wouldn’t have met him either because born and raised in the Nyack area of the Big Apple, he was pretty much a reclusive, never travelling beyond the New York metropolitan area. But what he lacked in road mileage and real life experience he made up with a fertile imagination. The show in the Sackler Wing – lift still out of action – gives a fascinating insight into his work.

If I was to characterise his work it would be Damien Hirst without the formaldehyde, putrefaction and bling. Technically, Cornell’s work is assemblage which uses a multitude of media and is generally in a 3-d format. The surrealists in general and Picasso in particular developed this art form but in Cornell’s hands it is not plain weird, just a bit weird. I’ve often wondered what to do with all my old books and magazines. Cornell had the perfect answer – he takes pages and cuttings, pictures and images from the press, hollows out books and stuffs them in glass-fronted wooden boxes. First impressions are that you are in the presence of a slightly deranged collector or in the rather dusty reject room of some provincial Victorian museum.


But the works are worthy of a second glance. Each box is filled with a varied collection of artefacts – there are bird’s eggs, thimbles, stamps, marbles, a whole gallimaufry of objet d’arts. Perhaps my use of gallimaufry is a bit unfair on Cornell. There is artistic design behind each box but it is studied disorder, perhaps a difficult effect to succeed with. There is something actually ethereal about the work or, certainly, other-worldly. Cases in point are probably my favourite pieces in the collection, the Medici Slot Machine boxes. The images of the Medici children stare out of their boxes and the viewer is left with an unfulfilled urge to touch the box and examine their intricate mechanics. Fairground games and slot machines abound in the exhibition, some with moving parts and esoteric rules. Object/Tower of Babel and Children of Israel is a game where the player has to get the red beads, representing the children of Israel, past a little cork tower without knocking it over.. I would have loved to have had a go. But throughout his pieces there is an air of wistfulness, of lost childhood and a yearning for places he would never see.


Cornell was also fascinated by eccentrics and some of his works encapsulate the lives of historical characters such as Ludwig of Bavaria, he of fairy castle fame, and the soprano Henriette Sontag through associated objects arranged in a box or suitcase. A number of the boxes are devoted to Galileo and Cornell’s fascination with the cosmos. There is a child-like sense of awe that comes through his Observatory sequence. Simply stunning is the Tilly Losch box, representing a girl in crinoline, rising high above snowy mountains, borne aloft by strings – a sense of grace and weightlessness but the red bead in her hand hints of a darker side. And the opening piece as you walk in – a silvery palace with a brushwood background, the image created by inserting a mirror behind an old illustration of a palace and cutting out the windows – in retrospect epitomises the fairy-tale quality of this astonishing artist’s work.

The RA are to be commended for putting on the first major show of his work in over 30 years.