A wry view of life for the world-weary

Category Archives: Art

Discovery Of The Week (8)

You never know what you might find when you go rooting around.

Tracy Wood and her father, Brian Russell, were digging out the rockery of their garden in Guernsey when they struck metal. After some further patient excavation work, they unearthed a chassis, engine block, front bumper, window frames and other automotive parts which have since been established as belonging to a Daimler dating from the 1940s or 1950s.

Quite how it got there is unclear but the most popular theory is that the previous owner of the house started to do the car up, got bored with it and put a rockery over it to hide it, as you do.

Brian is looking for someone to cart it all away.

Still, this find is not as valuable as that made by Robert Warren as he was rooting around a cupboard in the Hoyt Sherman Place art gallery in Des Moines, Iowa in 2016, on the search for a couple of Civil War flags, as you do.

Wedged between a table and a plaster wall he came across a wood panel painting, water stained and badly damaged. Now it has been cleaned up and restored – a job that took four months – it turns out to be Apollo and Venus by the Flemish painter, Otto van Veen, conservatively valued at $4 million.

It seems that the painting was donated to the Des Moines Women’s Club in 1923 but the subject matter, a naked cherub and Venus de Milo’s unclothed posterior, may have been too racy for the good folk of Des Moines and so it was hidden away.


Performance Artist Of The Week

The courthouse of the Belgian coastal town of Ostend was the venue for an unusual piece of performance art, I read this week. The rules of what constitutes art are not set in stone but Mikes Poppe was, using a 10 foot long shackle to chain himself by the ankle to a four ton block of Carrara marble. |In the piece entitled De Profondis the stone represented the inescapable burden of history – of course it did, silly me – and the idea was that Poppe would chisel his way to freedom.

Unfortunately, 19 days after, despite constantly chipping away and eating and sleeping on the job, Poppe still hadn’t freed himself from the shackles of history and Joanna Davos, the curator of the courthouse, decided that enough was enough. In another piece of performance art a workman was sent for who, angle grinder in hand, cut the artist out.

Poppe claimed he had misjudged the strength of the marble – you don’t say? Still, undaunted, he claimed that his moment in the spotlight was a success. After all, you just can’t escape the burden of history. I could have told him that and saved him all the trouble. Artists, eh?

The Object Is An Actor

Matisse in the Studio – Royal Academy

Well, would you believe it? Henri Matisse owned a pewter jug, an Andalusian glass vase, a chocolate pot and a replica of a beautiful Venetian rococo chair – treasured possessions all. They made unusual and interesting shapes and, well, he included them in many of his still lives. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the point of a still life is to take some everyday objects and make an interesting composition out of them. Matisse was just following convention. Some of the objects were unusual – there were some interesting African masks, Chinese calligraphy and Islamic embroidery – but the premise of the Royal Academy exhibition in the Sackler Wing is that the 35 objects on display give us an insight into how they informed and influenced the 65 works on display.

The problem with this was that it turned the viewing experience into a bit of a game of I-Spy. I was more interested in spotting the various artefacts and shapes in the assembled collection that I almost forgot to appreciate the art as art.

Similarly, we are told that Matisse used to cut out his strange and colourful shapes and position them on the walls of his studio, moving them around until he found a pattern that met his approval. Interesting for sure but it poses the question as to whether knowing about the mechanics of how a piece of art was produced enhances our appreciation or whether it is unnecessary and distracting noise. Do we appreciate a book more because we know the author drank a bottle of whisky a day before putting pen to paper or used green ink on pastel blue notepaper? I think not.


Don’t get me wrong, there is some wonderful art on display and once I had got beyond the game of spotting the objects in the pictures, I began to get a better appreciation of an artist I had always previously thought of as a bit overrated. Rocaille Chair is a powerful minimalisation of the chair, down to its essence of shape and colour whilst Odalisque in a Turkish Chair seemed to set the convention of portraiture on its head, paying more attention to the objects around her than to the model herself. I wonder what she thought when she saw it?

I almost missed a small but lovely exhibition tucked away in the Tennant Gallery, featuring the works of Charles Tunnicliffe who through his etchings, wood engravings and watercolours captured the essence of British wildlife and the countryside in the first half of the 20th century. I was particularly struck by the Spotted Sow and the more restful and symmetrical Geese and Mallow. What I hadn’t appreciated is that Tunnicliffe illustrated a number of Ladybird books I adored as a child, including the wonderful What to Look At In Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, four books representing a time when we had four distinct seasons. Tunnicliffe also illustrated Henry Williamson’s Tarka The Otter, another childhood favourite, and a couple of series of cards that were contained in Brooke Bond tea packets and which I probably collected.

It must be an age thing but nostalgia gave me a spring in my step as I picked my way out of the RA which is beginning to resemble a building site as work continues on modifications to be completed in time to celebrate its 250th anniversary. The Tunnicliffe exhibition runs until 8th October and the Matisse until 12th November.

Hobby Of The Week

Every man should have a hobby but occasionally it can get out of hand as this story I stumbled across this week involving a now retired banker, Nick West, from Clevedon in North Somerset shows.

I have heard of tegestologists – collectors of beer mats – and labeorphilists – collectors of beer bottle labels – but West has gone one further – he has a collection of 9,000 beer cans. His interest was whetted in 1975 when his wife (stupidly) bought him a book on beer. Of course, collecting cans has its up-side as he had to consume the contents of each can before consigning them to the shelves.

So hooked did West become that he had to make several alterations to his house to accommodate his ever-growing collection. But following his and his wife’s retirement and a decision to downsize living accommodation, Nick has called time on his collection.

Shame really but I’m sure he will be open to offers!

If you are within striking distance of Shrewsbury, aged between 11 and 19 – oh, distant days – and want to get in touch with your artistic side, check out the Summer Artschool, run by that enterprising group, Participate Contemporary Artspace. It runs from July 31st until August 11th 2017 and successful participants will receive the Bronze Arts award which is recognised by colleges and universities. For more details

For the ardent horticulturalist, going away for a holiday during the peak growing season can create a bit of a dilemma. Fortunately, I had no such concerns and dunked my pumpkins in a shallow bowl of water whilst I enjoyed the sun in Costa Blanca. The plants survived their studied neglect and I have now been rewarded with a profusion of yellow flowers. All male at the moment but days of pumpkin sex won’t be too far away!

Visions Of Johanna

America after the Fall – Royal Academy

The other major exhibition at the Royal Academy in the first half of 2017 was, in many ways, a counterweight to the Russian Revolutionary art – Lenin makes an appearance in a painting by Louis Guglielmi – is an exploration of American art in the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression. A small exhibition, consisting of some forty-five paintings, it is comfortably housed in three rooms in the Sackler Wing. What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality.

I managed to catch the exhibition on a boiling hot day, in those slack times at the RA when its existing shows are winding down and all its energies are concentrated on preparing for the Summer Exhibition. Despite the rather strange atmosphere, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. After all, it’s my kind of art – representational art, colourful and telling a story.

When someone mentions Thirties America to me, I immediately think of the dust bowl and the devastation that injudicious agricultural methods combined with soil erosion and winds caused in the mid-West. I found Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion 2  – Mother Earth Laid Bare hugely evocative with the plough in the foreground and the farm in the distance and in the centre bare, devastated earth moulded into a supine woman. Grant Wood’s earlier and more famous American Gothic, painted in 1930, which has never left North America before, picks up on the theme. We have a couple of elderly farmers standing in front of a rural church, anxiously staring out at us. There isn’t an ounce of flesh on them and the pitchfork, held like a trident, is both menacing and a sign that this is their only hope of salvation.

Wood was a bit of a find for me. I liked his rather grim portrayal of three daughters of the Revolution – no oil paintings, they – primly sipping a cup of tea in front of a picture of the founding fathers. His aerial view of Paul Revere’s ride to tell the news that the Brits was on their way was full of stylised energy.

Edward Hopper’s Gas shows a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. It is both a forlorn symbol of despair but also one of hope. Someone at some time must come down the road wanting to fill up. The show’s opener by Charles Green Shaw is astonishing. It is a painting of a city skyline with skyscrapers reduced to basic geometric form but almost god-like in the sky is an enormous packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Is this the deus ex machina which will lead America to salvation?

Inevitably, race makes an appearance. R W Johnson’s Street Life, Harlem shows a youthful black, urban couple, dressed to the nines. The colours are vivid and the shapes bold. Benton’s Cotton Pickers is more disturbing under closer scrutiny. In the foreground is an emaciated child and a bony woman offers succour to a man working on his knees. The American Hanging is more disturbing too, showing a noose, a group of Ku Klux Klan and a naked African-American woman in the foreground.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Life went on and there are pictures of people having fun and attending picture shows. Paul Cadmus’ The Fleet’s In is a riot of colour and louche behaviour. It caused such a stir when it was first shown that the Navy ordered its withdrawal.

A wonderful show without any makeweights and one worth braving the heat for.

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.