Category Archives: Reviews

Rebel Visions: the War Art of CRW Nevinson

Final year student, Marianne Thomas, reviews the Barber Institute’s latest exhibition…

Having only opened on 24th October, the Barber Institute’s exhibition, Rebel Visions: The War Art of CRW Nevinson seems to be proving very popular. Visitors to the gallery from the local area and further afield have been praising its unique and insightful view of the First World War. So, encouraged by the thought-provoking atmosphere of this centennial November, I decided it was high time that I take a look for myself.

On entering the gallery, I had no idea whatsoever who Nevinson even was, but a concise timeline and introduction displayed within the exhibition space soon put me straight. His biography was rather fascinating – starting off with an art education at UCL, he began working as a Medical Orderly in France in 1914. This led to him witnessing the terrible casualties that would haunt his art for the rest of his life – his position as an official war artist in 1917 only emphasised that.

The way in which Nevinson’s wartime experiences are manifested in his work is clear from the outset, and it is his lifelong and distinctive viewpoint of warfare that the exhibition focuses on. Clearly laid out with succinct, yet informative interpretation labels, Rebel Visions looks at works created during the First World War as well as the post-war years. From the section of the display dedicated to the war period, there were two paintings that really grabbed my attention.

Nevinson, La Patrie, 1916 © Birmingham Museums Trust

Nevinson, La Patrie, 1916 © Birmingham Museums Trust

The first was La Patrie, painted in 1916. This image depicts a makeshift French hospital, where Nevinson worked during the autumn of 1914. The figures of the wounded soldiers are incredibly striking. I’m not much of a Cubism connoisseur, but the men represented in La Patrie certainly seem to fit the stylistic mould. Nevinson uses strong geometrical shapes to form the faces and make them seem contorted with pain and suffering, while the harsh lines of the soldiers’ bodies reminded me of broken machines or fallen robots. The extensive use of black in the painting also adds to the morose feeling, while the title seems to suggest that Nevinson is being satirical – this hardship is what the “motherland” has given its children, and Nevinson doesn’t shy away from highlighting that.


Nevinson, 'War Profiteers', 1917 (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.) ©The Nevinson Estate / Bridgeman Images (

Nevinson, War Profiteers, 1917 (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.) © The Nevinson Estate/Bridgeman Images (

The second painting that really stuck with me was War Profiteers, produced a year later. Showing two women dressed lavishly but with mask-like facial features, the image, together with its title, implies that some women actually benefited from warfare, encouraging a feeling of repulsion in the viewer. It certainly achieved this with me; the women appear to be enjoying themselves at the cost of so many lost lives, and the fact that Nevinson paints them in shades of blue only serves to emphasise further their cold demeanours and attitudes. I found myself wondering what contemporary viewers would have made of this controversial and finger-pointing viewpoint, and then realised that this blatant criticism of the elite was probably what earned Nevinson the title of “rebel”.

Then, I decided to take a look at the post-war images and found a painting which grabbed my attention even more. The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934, is my favourite painting from the exhibition. This image made me appreciate fully Nevinson’s importance as a war artist – I love how busy and full of meaning it is. A crucifix takes precedence at the centre of the painting, while a huge cannon is represented directly beneath it. Mourning saints are depicted around the edges and images of both traditional and modern weapons fill the foreground. Religion and warfare are juxtaposed, arguably in conflict with one another. Also, the fact that this painting was created just before the Second World War could suggest that Nevinson continued to observe political unrest, regardless of state propaganda to say the contrary, and, perhaps this shows just how “rebellious” his visions were.

Nevinson, The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934 © the artist's estate / Bridgeman Images photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library (

Nevinson, The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934 © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images
photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library (

So, upon leaving the exhibition, I had a much clearer idea of who CRW Nevinson was and what he represented. None of his works glorify warfare; the events are portrayed as being brutal, cold and machine-like, destroying the lives of any soldiers who were involved. One hundred years after the First World War began, I think that Nevinson’s work is as important as ever, and this exhibition certainly succeeds in hammering home his message.

See Rebel Visions: The War Art of CRW Nevinson 24 October 2014 – 25 January 2015, free entry, Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Rachel Coombes Reviews ‘Art and Life’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery (4th June – 21st September 2014)

Tucked away in South East London, Dulwich Picture Gallery is Britain’s first purpose-built art gallery, designed by the architect Sir John Soane. Opening to the public in 1817, the gallery houses an esteemed and important permanent collection, made up largely of works by 17th and 18th century European Old Masters, including Rembrandt, Poussin and Van Dyck. In recent years, it has also run a diverse programme of temporary exhibitions, which include ‘Modern British’ among its themes. The gallery’s latest show, ‘Art and Life’, which closed towards the end of September, belonged to this strand; it focused on the work of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, whose work can be seen on permanent display in Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. The exhibition covered roughly a decade (1920-31) of these artists’ careers, a period which coincided also with their relatively short-lived marriage. The couple were part of a British avant-garde scene working in the first half of the 20th century. The final rooms of the exhibition showed the work of the Nicholsons’ painter-friends Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis, which revealed a similar gaucheness of style. While none of these artists are particularly well-known now (having been neglected in the complexities of the European modernist scene), they were not unsuccessful during their lifetime. But it was the Nicholsons’ artistic partnership, thriving as it did on a shared love of the British countryside and a similar artistic sensibility, which made the exhibition so insightful.

Richard Dorment described this exhibition as ‘an exercise in tedium’, pointing out the drab use of colours in the landscape paintings and the pseudo-naivety of the draughtsmanship (The Telegraph, 2nd June 2014). It is true that the inclusion of the occasional ungainly, gawky horse – added to the landscape as if it were a piece of fuzzy-felt – suggests a self-consciously naive approach, as seen in Walton Wood Cottage no. 1 (1928). But the overriding effect is one of charming, and bold, unfussiness rather than glaring ineptitude. Dorment seems insensitive to the simple fact that the predominance of sombre greens and browns in the Nicholson’s Cornish and Cumberland panoramas is the result of a sincere painterly response to a particular atmosphere. Winifred’s Cumberland landscape scene Northrigg Hill (1926) is a case in point: hung alongside a version of the scene painted by the couple’s friend Christopher Wood, it has a convincing vigour to it which Wood’s painting lacks. It is as if she has filtered her strongest sensations and visual memories of the place into one atmospheric and evocative scene, sacrificing mere imitation for immediate sensation. The bold contours of the hedgerows, zigzagging across the undulating land lead the eye into the misty blue distance, which blends almost seamlessly into the folds of cloud of a typically overcast English sky.

Winifred Nicholson, Northrigg Hill, 1926

A different kind of sensual immediacy – of equal potency but greater delicacy – is apparent in Winifred’s still life paintings of flowers on windowsills. In these paintings, her sensitive use of colour gives the very real impression of petals glowing translucently in sunlight. The painter described the coloristic sensitivity which governed her approach to the painting Anemones (1924): “I added sunflowers, canary poppies, buttercups, dandelions; no yellower. I added to my butter-like mass, two everlasting peas, magenta pink and all my yellows broke into luminosity”. Many of Winifred’s canvases are suffused with daubs of varying shades of pink; one shade in particular she recommended to her husband in 1925: ‘Have you tried Jaune capucine Foncé, it’s rather a good pale pink [sic].’ That same year, the exact colour appears in Ben’s Cubist-inspired still-life, Jamaïque.

Winifred Nicholson, Anemones, 1924

Besides her brief excursion into pure abstraction during the 1930s – as represented in this exhibition by White and Black Eclipse (1936) – Winifred was to remain attached to domestic still-life as her primary subject matter throughout the rest of her career. As a result it is perhaps unsurprising that she has been consigned to art historical obscurity. Despite the fact that Ben Nicholson’s serious pursuit of geometric abstraction did not begin until beyond the prescribed scope of the exhibition in the mid-1930s, the final room featured several of these austere works. Perhaps this curatorial decision was intended as a reminder of what he is best known for today, or, as Dorment implies, of his relevance to Modernism. One cannot help drawing comparisons between his rather sudden move into abstraction and the broader formal experiments among the avant-garde artists on the continent. But, contextualising these later works within an art historical modernist ‘narrative’ serves only to denigrate the earlier works to which this exhibition is dedicated. They are in themselves interesting, exploratory attempts to communicate genuine responses to their favourite parts of the British countryside.

Rachel Coombes

Why I like this module… The Political Thriller on Film: Ideology, Genre, Emotion

Grace Higgins, finalist, BA History of Art

Grace Higgins, finalist, BA History of Art

 “One of the most interesting modules I studied at university was The Political Thriller on Film. The module, which looks at the film genre of the Political Thriller, explores how film makers since the 1960s have used the genre as a vehicle to explore the ongoing challenges and controversies of a highly politicised modern world. Having not previously had the chance to study film, the course has given me the opportunity to apply my visual analytical skills in a different way, alongside learning key theoretical concepts, exploring response to film and the debates raised.

Discussion and participation are heavily encouraged, as every other week we have the chance to respond directly to films we have watched, which range from the The Parallax View, the American thriller based on the investigation of the assassination of a senator, to The Battle of Algiers, about the urban guerrilla warfare used by Algeria to gain independence from France.”

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This final year 20-credit module:

  • Untitled4Is taught by Dr Alex Marlow-Mann, a specialist of European and especially Italian cinema
  • Explores the evolution of the political thriller on film from the 1960s – present in a range of national and political contexts
  • analyses if and how the genre of political thriller can be used as a vehicle for political change
  • Examines questions of audience engagement

Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ at BMAG

The Vanity of Small Differences opened at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery on Feb 13th, amid a flurry of excitement. I went along to the opening to take a look at this intriguing set of tapestries by Grayson Perry, which have been touring the country over the last several months, attracting plenty of attention.

Grayson Perry is a famous artist, probably one of the most famous British artists. In the guise of his flamboyant alter ego, Clare, he is instantly recognisable. I have seen, and enjoyed, some of his work from the 80s and 90s before. This mainly takes the shape of highly decorative ceramics (an example can be seen in BMAG’s permanent collection here) and deals with themes of identity, sexuality, gender, and self-discovery. Since the early 2000s, though, Perry has produced works of sharp and insightful social commentary, and this is where The Vanity of Small Differences fits in. I was less familiar with this aspect of Perry’s work, and keen to explore.

The Vanity of Small Differences (the title references the mainly middle class obsession with individuality) is about people; it is a commentary about and of contemporary Britain. It is also the tale of a journey. This set of six tapestries not only tells the story of their hero’s journey, they also tell the story of Perry’s journey in researching a producing this intriguing artwork.

The Adoration of the Cage Fighters

Perry designed thetapestries after working on a (BAFTA nominated) documentary series with Channel 4, All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (2012). In it, Perry explored how ideas of social class and taste and inextricably linked in British culture. He was fascinated by the choices that people from different backgrounds made in ‘curating their possessions’, and the different messages that this transmits. Perry observed that taste is a particularly British sensitivity, because ideas about taste are linked to a class system that is still evidently very much alive in our culture. Perry knew that he wanted to create art based on the research he did while working on his documentary, and it is possible to hear the voices of the people he visited and interviewed, from the estates of post-industrial Sunderland to the estates of Cotswold gentry, coming through in the text and images.

All six tapestries follow Perry’s hero, Tim Rakewell, who is based on Tom Rakewell, the main character in Hogarth’s series of moral paintings, The Rake’s Progress. Perry cites Hogarth as a major influence on his work, and it is easy to see the parallels between Tim and Tom. Hogarth’s character inherits a fortune from his father, only to fritter it away on a life of extravagance and debauchery. In the end he can be seen naked and crazed in the poor house. Similarly, as you make your way around The Vanity of Small Differences, you watch at Tim rises to fortune and fame, climbing to the precarious precipice of the slippery social ladder. From ginger baby competing with his mother’s mobile in The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, we watch as Tim achieves success and great wealth, eventually transforming into a new money gentleman of leisure. Strolling in the grounds of his Cotswolds mansion, he watches as red dogs, bearing the words ‘tax’, ‘social change’, ‘upkeep’, and ‘fuel bills’, tear down a stag, clad in patched-up tweed, representing the aristocracy, in The Upper Class at Bay. Finally, in #Lamentation, Tim meets a grizzly and inglorious end, lying bloodstained and half-naked in the street, after wrapping his red Ferrari around a lamppost. We see how he could never really escape his roots, as the text proclaims, ‘All he said to me was “Mother”. All that money and he dies in the gutter.’ Following the tapestries around the room at BMAG, I felt genuinely wrapped up in Tim’s story. The larger than life caricatures are undoubtedly amusing, though in a gentle and inoffensive way, and this only adds to the richness of the story, bringing Tim’s tale vividly to life.

Walking into this exhibition space for the first time was like getting a slap round the face; the tapestries are so impressive, so vibrantly coloured, and so intricate. They have irresistible appeal, drawing you in closer in order to pick out every detail, to avoid missing anything. Impressive though they are from a distance, it is only once you get in close that you start to fully appreciate the intertwining strands of narrative and symbolism that run through the set, following the trail scrawly text from one scene to the next as it narrates Tim’s story in different voices. I defy anyone not to find some witty detail in each of the tapestries that provokes grin to spread across their face, from the pug sitting in the left hand corner of The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, to a tomato-faced Jamie Oliver cast as the ‘god of social mobility’, grinning down from the heavens in Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, or the boney-fingered angel/business partner announcing Tim’s new found mega-wealth in The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal.

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal

For me, as a student of Renaissance art, this exhibition was full of amusing moments, as I looked out for the witty references to Renaissance art in each scene. As their intelligently playful names suggest, each tapestry draws on one or more Renaissance or old master paintings, and in each one, Perry plays around with Renaissance themes and iconography. The connection with 14th and 15th century religious art, he says, was used to lend moral weight to Tim’s story, as well as providing recognizable Biblical themes. The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, for example, mirrors Masaccio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (c. 1425). The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal draws on three different paintings of the Annunciation, by Carlo Crivelli, Matthias Grunewald, and Robert Campin, and the convex mirror on the wall, replicating the scene from another angle, is reminiscent of the one found in the famous Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, a 14th century display of status. #Lamentation was inspired by a painting of the same name by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1460), but Perry has substituted the skull at the bottom of that picture with a smashed smart phone in this.

Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close

It seems right that this artwork should have taken the form of a set of tapestries. Historically, tapestries acted as decorative objects that displayed the wealth of their owners, owing to the great expense and skill involved in their production. This links in nicely to the main themes of The Vanity of Small Differences, class and taste. Tapestries were also mobile, and were taken with their owners from home to home, like movable instant decoration. Mirroring that, this set, which Perry has gifted to the Arts Council Collection and the British Council, are destined for a nomadic existence. They can, as they have done already, travel from place to place, art venue to art venue. Unlike the historical tapestries of the very wealthy, these will be seen by all sorts of people, the length and breadth of the country.

I found Perry’s tapestries extravagant and enthralling, and the story woven into them thoughtful and entertaining. I also really enjoyed this exhibition, I’ve been three times already, and will go again. Each time I’ve visited the exhibition space has been packed with people of all backgrounds, busily picking out little details. I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t yet seen The Vanity of Small Differences to go to BMAG for a peek. I also highly recommend investing in the exhibition catalogue, which is beautiful and full of interesting insights into Perry’s research and the processes behind producing an artwork like this.

The exhibition is totally free, and open daily until 11 May 2014. For more information visit here.


You can read more from me, and find out about a plethora of arts and cultural events across Birmingham, over at Polaroids & Polar Bears.




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As a trainee curator at Wolverhampton Art Gallery I was invited to the spring season launch at the gallery on Friday, for the opening of the New Art West Midlands 2014 and BP Portrait Award 2013 exhibitions. (Look out for a future post about my internship, including my involvement in the BP Portrait Award exhibition.) To mark the occasion of the opening of these two new and exciting exhibitions the gallery hosted some live music, a congratulatory handing out of arts awards certificates to young artists associated with the gallery and visitors were even treated to watching a few artists, including Adrian Clamp who as well as being an artist is one of the gallery’s facilitators, create portraits on the spot. The event was a successful celebration of art, its local engagement and its power to enrich communities.

New Art West Midlands 2014 presents innovative new work from artists who have recently graduated from art schools in the region. The exhibition incorporates paintings, sculptures and films that display a range of artistic approaches and influences. At Wolverhampton Art Gallery the exhibition includes the work of seven female artists, so what a great idea to plan a visit for International Women’s Day on Saturday 8th March!

New Art West Midlands runs until 10th May at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 27th April at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 18th May at BMAG and 15th March at Grand Union.

Anna Smith, Torso, ceramic sculpture.

Anna Smith, Torso, ceramic sculpture.

Wendy Ann Titmus, ‘Hands’ and ‘Feet’, beeswax.

Wendy Ann Titmus, ‘Hands’ and ‘feet’, beeswax.

Sharon Farrelly, Babs, mixed media on canvas.

Sharon Farrelly, Babs, mixed media on canvas.

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Check out the previous post about the New Art West Midlands BMAG private view here.

For more information visit the New Art West Midlands Website


New Art West Midlands @ BMAG

Works from the region’s best art graduates were unveiled at the Birmingham Musem and Art Gallery on Thursday 13th February.

A few of us were invited to the private view where we sampled the very best from the West Midland’s  contemporary art  scene, whilst sneaking a cheeky look at the  Grayson Perry tapestries!

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New Art West Midlands runs until 27th April at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 18th May at BMAG, 15th March at Grand Union and 10th May at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Emily Martin reviews the RA’s recent ‘Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris’ exhibition

Daumier, Ecce Homo c.1848-52, oil on canvas, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Daumier, Ecce Homo c.1848-52, oil on canvas, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

In need of a change of scene from the busy streets of post-Christmas sale shopping, I beat a hasty retreat to the calm and welcoming rooms of the Royal Academy in London. Their exhibition, which has recently closed, on Honoré Daumier, Daumier (1808-1879): Visions of Paris, caught my eye and intrigued (I don’t know anything about 19th century satirical art) I decided to have a look. This exhibition, it turned out, is something of a momentous occasion, as it is the first Daumier exhibition to have been staged in London in fifty years. The collection on display is an incredibly extensive one, beginning with the sketches and mini busts he made for Charles Philipon’s magazine La Caricature and continuing chronologically through his life, and ending with his retreat into his own secluded world with the paintings of an artist looking at his own work as if reflecting on life.

The exhibition is organized into clear and structured rooms, making the artwork visible and accessible to a large number of people eagerly, albeit very Britishly, standing and musing over Daumier’s pictures. There were a few works of art that stood out for me and which I remember very clearly. First was the large and impressive painting Ecce Homo c.1848-52, which represents Daumier’s view on the 1848 French revolution. The painting depicts Jesus Christ, the crown of thorns around his head, his hands and neck in chains, standing before a condemning crowd during his judgment by Pontius Pilot. Painted in broad, rapid strokes, the forms only roughly defined by black outlines, as well as the toned down colour palette all combine to create an effective sense of angry, jostling crowds who, on a hot day, besiege a convicted man. As Daumier was not religious his message can be seen as a political one, one which recalls the protests and easy manipulation of crowds during an uprising. Above all I get the feeling, by looking at this painting, that if I just step a little closer I will be swept up, peering round the child lifted high in the foreground, and thrown into the crowd; churning, twisting and milling below the platform on which Christ is displayed.

That wasn’t the only time during this exhibition that I felt part of Daumier’s art, as an active participant in it. As Daumier’s interest in the new art of photography grew, he emulated images in his own medium and style. However, unlike the art of photography, in which the viewer remains, more often than not, distant and separated from the image, Daumier’s art draws his audience in; the figures are so close to the picture plane that it is hard at times not to imagine that you are part a part of the composition. In the gallery, the photograph Organ-grinder c.1853 by Charles Nègre, Daumier’s neighbour, seemingly inspired the French artist to create his own version of the work. These two images have been hung next to each other in an attempt to encourage the understanding that artists felt a certain affinity with such musicians during the late 19th century, as both métiers were reliant on finding an audience in the troubled times of an unsettled France in order to make their living. Daumier, it would seem, finds images that no one else would think of as being art. Such as Man on a Rope c.1858-60, the scraped surface of which relays so much more than solely technique.

Daumier, Man on a Rope c.1858-60, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada

Daumier, Man on a Rope c.1858-60, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada

Daumier, The Print Collector c.1860, oil on canvas, Museum of Art Philadelphia

Daumier, The Print Collector c.1860, oil on canvas, Museum of Art Philadelphia

One room in the exhibition particularly caught my attention. The works displayed here focused on the theme of relationships between artworks and viewers, a topic that personally interests me greatly, and Daumier is certainly an artist whose art positively forces all observers to actively look at it. The Print Collector c.1860 embodies this act of looking as curator Catherine Lampert described: “…there’s nothing like that slow, silent scrutiny of someone looking at a work of art and you have that sense, that image of looking…and communing and identifying with a work of art.” The man, bent over his in depth study of prints invites the onlookers in the gallery to join him in perusing the art.

Continuing around the gallery towards the last works of art it becomes more and more evident that ultimately, as Lampert says, “artists make art for the love of working”. The satirical portraits gave way to artworks created towards the end of Daumier’s life that appear more self-reflective and more melancholy. The Third-Class Carriage c.1862-64, a prime example, portrays the three ages of man in a dreary and ill-lit train, the effect created is not so much a challenge to the social class system but a sad acceptance instead. I found myself thinking that this exhibition is not so much about identifying with a work of art but was far more about actively engaging with one, and experiencing a little taster of life in revolutionary Paris.

The Third-Class Carriage c.1862-64, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Photo from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Third-Class Carriage c.1862-64, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Photo from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Although the exhibition has since closed, you can find loads more out about it, about Daumier and Daumier’s art here.

Last chance to see: Ron Mueck at Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Mueck, Spooning Couple, 2005

Mueck, Spooning Couple, 2005

As part of ‘Artist Rooms’, a participation with Arts Council England and the Art Fund, the contemporary art of Ron Mueck has been made available to Wolverhampton Art Gallery (you can read a previous blog post about Artist Rooms here). This exhibition only runs until 2nd November so after my visit I urge everybody to have a look before it’s too late!

The collection of works by internationally renowned sculptor Ron Mueck are on loan from the Tate, together with some pieces from private collections which have rarely been seen in the UK. It is a great opportunity to see his impressive works in person, and only a stone’s throw away from Birmingham.

Previously in the props industry, Mueck now uses mixed media to create hyper realistic human figures with a dizzying play on scale. To accompany the exhibition there is a fascinating display of photographs from Mueck’s workshop where you are offered a glimpse into how these lifelike constructions come about. In all it makes for a fascinating show that I highly recommend seeing…

Mueck, Wild Man, 2005

Mueck, Wild Man, 2005

Mueck, Mother and Child, 2001-3

Mueck, Mother and Child, 2001-3

Holly Wain (finalist)

A pop-up event makes Lauren Dudley, MPhil student, happy.

After hearing that the Municipal Bank on Broad Street was opening its doors for a 3-day contemporary art exhibition I was really keen to see inside a historic building that is normally locked up and is often used as an extension of the bus stop! PhD student, Carly and I dashed through the rain into the very chilly former bank. It was a fantastic experience and was certainly worth the numb hands and feet!

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The exhibition ‘Thrift Radiates Happiness’ – organised by the contemporary art gallery, TROVE and international design practice, Aedas – was a response to the grand architecture of this empty, former bank. All of the exhibits related to money and were quirky and thought-provoking. The displays and installations would only really have meaning in this particular setting. By entering an abandoned space that was once a financial hub which but had become derelict, there seemed to be an underlying comment about the current state of the economy. The works that filled the empty office spaces questioned the value of art and the relationship between culture and commerce.

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In the vaults we were offered the opportunity to make an investment of £2. We would find in our deposit box either a photograph of the bank from the archives or an original work of art, and the idea was that our investment would immediately go up in value. It was very exciting… Carly had two photographs of the vaults and I opened my box to find a print by Sparrow+Castice.

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As part of the project, oral histories from former bank employees were recorded and available to listen to in the grand hall of the bank. This was a brilliant way of using the space; let’s hope that the bank re-opens its doors for more exciting pop-up events!

Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print

Hieronymus Cock The Renissance in Print

I’m just back from a couple of days in Leuven. I was in Belgium to see a couple of things, but the main purpose of my trip was to see the new show recently opened at M van Museum Leuven called Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print.

This exhibition focuses on the activities of Hieronymus Cock and Volcxken Dierix, who, together as man and wife, established the hugely successful print shop “Aux Quatre Vents” (At the Sign of the Four Winds) in Antwerp in 1548. This exhibition is the first in over 25 years to be devoted to their publishing house. Its relevance to me is that although Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1526-69), whose art forms the focus of my PhD, is famous mostly to us because of his paintings, it seems to be the case that the fame Bruegel enjoyed during his own lifetime depended largely on the prints that he designed for the open market. Of these, the lion’s share came out from Aux Quatre Vents.

The show is arranged thematically, with each theme exploring one particular aspect of Cock’s and Volcxken’s broad and far reaching interests. The first three rooms (“Roman Ruins and the Allure of Antiquity”, “Italy on the Banks of the Scheldt”, and “Hieronymus Cock and the Italianists”), however, are dedicated to show’s main aim: to consider how Aux Quatre Vents functioned as a conduit for the spread of the Italian “High Renaissance” into the North.

By the mid-1500s when Aux Quatre Vents opened, it had become quite customary for Netherlandish artists to go off on their own travels to Italy. Artists headed specifically for Rome, to study its plentiful antiquities and modern artistic monuments like Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling. Bruegel is here no exception, since he spent a number of years travelling around Italy between 1552 and ’55. The output of Aux Quatre Vents, however, satisfied the desires of those northerners who couldn’t cross the Alps for themselves, had no obvious need to go, or, indeed, desire, given the well-known dangers posed by such an arduous schlep southwards.

The first three rooms really do testify to the vogue for all things Italian, old and new, in Antwerp at the time. Highlights include the monumental monograph published in 1551 on the Baths of Diocletian, the very first published architectural monograph of its kind, which is staggering for both its physical size and its visual richness. Another is the engraved reproduction of Raphael’s frescoed School of Athens inside the Vatican Palace, which Raphael painted between 1509 and ’11. This engraving was done by the Italian Giogrio Ghisi and was published by Cock and Volcxken in 1550, the very year that they managed to persuade Ghisi to move to Antwerp and work for them, reproducing contemporary Italian art like Raphael’s and revolutionising engraving techniques in Antwerp at the same time.

Ghisi (engraver) and Cock (publisher) after Raphael, School of Athens

Ghisi (engraver) and Cock (publisher) after Raphael, School of Athens

This endeavouring to make available notable contemporary Italian art by utilising the skills of the best engravers like Ghisi demonstrates Cock’s and Volxcken’s dedication to both furthering local art according to the Italian example, and their unwavering concern for the supreme quality of their prints. The proliferation of Italian art from the publishing house bears witness to the great interest among Netherlandish artists, critics and patrons alike for innovations happening in art south of the Alps. One manifestation of this was the development of so-called Antwerp Romanism that is the focus of the the room “Hieronymus Cock and the Italianists”. Here, art by northern artists like Frans Floris is showcased, whose art was fundamentally affected by the Italian example, which it emulated, and was likewise disseminated in print from Aux Quatre Vents. Thus it’s clear from the first couple of rooms the extent to which Cock’s and Volxcken’s house functioned as both an agent and a symptom of the vogue for Italy in the Netherlands in mid-century.

The show’s definition of “Renaissance”, however, encompasses more than just the Italian and the Italianate. A particularly successful part of the exhibition is the way it makes clear the extent to which Aux Quatre Vents also played a hugely important role in the development of a native, “Netherlandish Renaissance”. Cock and Volcxken were obviously keen to champion local art from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Aux Quatre Vents published reproductions of many famous pictures by notable Netherlanders, such as Rogier van der Weyden’s hugely-famous Descent from the Cross, of around 1435, which came out as a print in 1565 and is on display in the room “Bosch, Bruegel and the Netherlandish Tradition”. At some point, Cock also dreamed-up his “Book of Painters”: a collection of portraits of famous northern artists including Rogier and Jan van Eyck that were appended with eulogies written by the humanist Domenicus Lampsonius. This project was actually realised and published in 1572 by Volcxken following the death of Cock in 1570 and some of these laudatory pages, including the one on Bruegel, are displayed.

Cornelis Cort and Hieronymus Cock (pub.) (after Rogier van der Weyden), Descent from the Cross, 1565,

Cornelis Cort and Hieronymus Cock (pub.) (after Rogier van der Weyden), Descent from the Cross, 1565,

Johannes Wiericx (attr. to) and Volcxken Dierckx (pub.), Petro Brvegel, Pictori, engraving from  Domenicus Lampsonius,  Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies, 1572

Johannes Wiericx (attr. to) and Volcxken Dierckx (pub.), Petro Brvegel, Pictori, engraving from Domenicus Lampsonius, Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies, 1572

The due prominence that the show gives to Volcxken is commendable. The lives and activities of successful women from this period have too-often remained obscure. In art historical discourse in particular, it’s only over the last couple of decades or so that women artists and entrepreneurs have been recuperated from their gender-based oblivion. This show’s emphasis on Volcxken is a manifestation of this shift, and rightly so – Volcxken did after all continue to oversee Aux Quatre Vents for some 30 successful years following her husband’s death.

Bruegel comes into his own in the previously mentioned room “Bosch, Bruegel and the Netherlandish Tradition” as well as “Vice and Virtue” and “Visualising the World”. In “Vice and Virtue”, Bruegel’s famed Seven Deadly Sins series, published 1558, and the Seven Virtues, of about the same time, are exhibited. Conceived entirely in the idiom of Bosch and intended to provide moral instruction, both these demonstrate how the visual vocabulary used by fifteenth-century artists and its attendant didactic purchase didn’t simply die-out with the onslaught of the Italianate. Some of Bruegel’s preparatory drawings for the Sins and Virtues are also on display, such as the drawing for Gluttony from the Seven Sins. Examination of this in the real shows how Bruegel put every effort into his designs, giving the engraver little or no scope to deviate from his supremely-detailed drawings. The ball, however, was not always in Bruegel’s court. In “Bosch, Bruegel and the Netherlandish Tradition” the famous Big Fish Eat the Little Ones is exhibited, published by Aux Quatre Vents in 1558 and signed ‘Hieronijmus Bos inuentor’, which is to say “Bosch designed this image”. Curiously, however, we know this to be a false claim, since the preparatory drawing for this engraving has survived, which is signed “brueghel” (how Bruegel spelled his name until about 1559 when he dropped the “h“) and is dated 1556. By substituting Bruegel’s name for Bosch’s, Cock and Volcxken clearly intended to profit from the cache afforded by Bosch’s Europe-wide fame at a time when Bruegel’s own reputation was still in its ascendancy. As such, this print represents not only the fashion for Bosch on the art market in Antwerp in the 1550s, but also points clearly to Cock’s and Volcxken’s commercial savvy and wily market strategies, who attached famous names to their prints to ensure saleability.

Pieter van der Heyden (engraver), Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, 1557

Pieter van der Heyden (engraver), Cock (pub.), after Bruegel, Big Fish Eat the Little Ones, 1557

“Visualising the World” is given over to landscape, which was emerging as a legitimate category in art, in and of itself, at exactly the time of Aux Quatre Vents’s establishment. Here, Bruegel’s idiosyncratic response to the Italian sojourn is given due recognition. Most artists went off to Italy and absorbed the Italian style, which subsequently suffuses their art (do a Google image search for Frans Floris’s Rebel Angels!). Bruegel, however, took away something different. Sure, he must have seen a lot of things from Antiquity when in Rome, ditto the art of Michelangelo, Raphael etc. But he was clearly most taken with the Alpine landscape that he probably saw, and drew, on his way back up to the Netherlands in 1554-55. And on his return to Antwerp, he invented several large-scale Alpine-inspired compositions that were published by Cock immediately upon Bruegel’s return in 1555 as the Large Landscapes. The impact these had on Netherlandish art and the development of landscape as an independent genre in art cannot be overestimated.

Overall, this exhibition gives a comprehensive account of the output of Aux Quatre Vents and its impact in the course of Netherlandish art from the mid-1500s on. Navigating the exhibition is easy. You’re guided along the way by blurbs on the wall that explain each of these themes under consideration. These are also reproduced in the handy (and free!) walking guide, which also contains captions to each of the exhibits. The handbook also tops and tails the exhibition by giving some introductory remarks about the establishment of Aux Quatre Vents, the cultural and economic ferment that Antwerp was in the 1550s, as well as explaining relevant issues including what kinds of copyright laws did, or rather, didn’t, exist in the sixteenth century. All this and more is examined to greater depth in the accompanying catalogue edited by Joris Van Grieken, Ger Luijten and Jan Van der Stock, which, although a bit of a tome, is sumptuously illustrated and available for a discounted price from the Museum shop.

Hieronymus Cock: The Renaissance in Print is on at Leuven until the 9th June before travelling to Paris’s Institut Néerlandais where it will be on show from 18th September to 15th December.


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