Category Archives: Reviews

The Mona Lisa(s). Re-blog.

JAMIE EDWARDS

Mona Lisas: the "Isleworth" and The Louvre's

Leonardo da Vinci is hot property these days. Recently we’ve had the silly furore about La Bella Principessa, and now there’s the 1 millionth new theory about the Mona Lisa, that world-famous, “mysterious” picture that is, in reality, a small but wonderful portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife. The theory was announced in last week’s BBC2 documentary Secrets of the Mona Lisa, which I haven’t had time to write anything about yet. Let me just say that though the documentary made for riveting tele, the art history concerned was, well, let’s say optimistically dumbed-down. There were also a number of incongruous leaps made that I simply couldn’t understand.

Long story short, the basic premise that was explored by Andrew Graham-Dixon is that Leonardo painted two Mona Lisas. One of them is of Lisa del Giocondo (née Gherardini), and it was commissioned from Leonardo by her husband, the Florentine cloth merchant Francesco. This is the story related by Vasari, and tradition has married his story to the painting now in The Louvre. The documentary then alerted us to the supposed existence of another Mona Lisa, commissioned  by Giuliano de Medici, which we learn about from Antonio de Beatis, who writes that Leonardo himself told him about this, a second Mona Lisa. In the show, Graham-Dixon pursued this idea and he went off to visit the so-called Isleworth Mona Lisa (a bit about which here by Prof. Martin Kemp), and subsequently led us to believe that the Isleworth Lisa could be the “original” picture–which is to say, the one with the del Giocondo provenance–and that the Louvre painting is, in fact, a fanciful re-imagining of that painting done for Giuliano–a hyped-up version of del Giocondo, if you will. There are problems with this as a basic premise, but it nevertheless made sense in the context of the programme and it must be said that the plot spun by Graham-Dixon was engrossing. Especially interesting was Giuseppe Pallanti’s contribution to the show, who has done extensive and enthralling research on the Mona Lisa, the del Giocondos and their relationship with Leonardo’s family.

But having spun that narrative things then got massively confused. Graham-Dixon changed his mind and basically departed from the view that two separate Mona Lisas once existed that were painted on two separate supports, and conversely claimed that the Mona Lisa we currently see when go to the Louvre (that is, of course, once we’ve elbowed our way through the crowds) is in fact painted on top of the “original”. This was based on various images gathered by Pascal Cotte, which were adduced to show that the current Mona Lisa obscures an erstwhile version of approximately the same subject. Basically it is supposed that Leonardo painted a “real portrait” of a real Florentine, in real Florentine dress etc. etc. (i.e. del Giocondo), but later painted over this to produce the “enigmatic” picture we now see in Paris, which is “un-real”.

Gripping though all this was, in a Dan Brown-esque sort of fashion, I thought that Graham-Dixon ultimately lost his way. Things got muddled towards the end. The initial plot was abandoned too suddenly and based on spurious reasoning. Just for example, the whole eyebrows thing came up again, which is to say that Vasari waxes lyrical about how good Leonardo’s eyebrows are in his portrait of Lisa (“The eyebrows, likewise, were rendered in so nature a manner that one saw how the hairs issued from the flesh…”) but these are absent from the Louvre painting. Graham-Dixon used this as a reason to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Paris picture, traditionally believed to be the portrait of Lisa known by Vasari. This is despite the fact that eyebrows probably did once exist but have since become eroded, perhaps as a result of over-zealous restorations (I can’t help but think that there’s something in this just by looking at the high-res image below, obtained from The Louvre’s website, in which the general eye area seems suspiciously smudgy–coincidentally, the same Pascal Cotte aforementioned believes that Mona Lisa did once have eyebrows and eyelashes). In any case, on the basis of AWOL eyebrows etc. Graham-Dixon concludes that there probably were two different Mona Lisas, one of which is possibly the Isleworth one. Curiously, though, he then offhandedly dismisses the idea that the Isleworth could be the original, since the face has never been tested, and we cannot therefore know its chemical and material constitution. So is this just another copy after all? Graham-Dixon thinks so (as do most sensible people, Prof. Kemp included).

As a result of all this (and other evidence besides), the whole 2 separate portraits idea, derived from Vasari’s and de Beatis’s testimonies, was quickly dropped and not satisfactorily resolved; the viewer initially was told that what we are dealing with here is two separate pictures, but then, suddenly, it became a story about two pictures in one? These two are the one lurking beneath, which is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (and which has been digitally reconstructed by Cotte and is terribly ugly) and another one, painted on top for  Giuliano (which is either imaginary or even, says Graham-Dixon, a lover of Giuliano’s!). Inherent in all this are serious problems–ultimately Graham-Dixon’s vacillations moved the programme from the realm of the enthralling to the exasperating. And all along I couldn’t help but think that the initial suggestion the Louvre painting is not the one familiar (by whatever means) to Vasari as a picture of Lisa del Giocondo is a troubling one, which ought to have been properly dealt with and substantiated.

As it was, I ended-up feeling confused. Certainly I didn’t feel as though I’d just witnessed “one of the stories of the century” unfold before my eyes, which is what the doc. was promising to deliver.

Mona Lisa Eyes

Anyway, since there’s still no time (!) to write about this properly, I am instead re-blogging Dr Bendor Grosvenor’s review of the show (below), which is fairly detailed and amounts to a compelling put-down of the show’s big claims. You can read Martin Kemp’s briefer thoughts here as well.


Mona Lisa

Poor ‘Mona Lisa’. We can’t stop talking about her. Or speculating, theorising, investigating, filming, researching, and arguing about her. We seldom look at her. We are too busy trying to work out what we think ‘lies beneath’. But if we were to just stop and look at the picture, objectively and without pre-conceptions, we might then begin to accept that this mesmeric creation is simply a portrait of a Florentine lady who, as the old sources tell us, was born Lisa Gherardini. True, it is one of the best portraits every painted, by one of the greatest artist who ever lived, Leonardo da Vinci. But it’s still a portrait.

It is, of course, too late to just ‘look’ at the Mona Lisa. The picture has acquired too much history and legend. So all we can do is tackle each new theory as it comes along, and either bat it away as the latest in a long line of optimistic fantasies, or say, ‘well there may be something to this’.

I watched the latest theory, ‘The Secrets of the Mona Lisa’, on BBC2 last week. Regular readers might appreciate that, as an occasional BBC arts presenter myself, I’m loathe to critique other BBC arts programmes (though this one was made by independent production company). But the programme said it would not just rewrite art history, but reveal ‘one of the stories of the century’. And that’s a big claim. So – here goes.

As a piece of telly, I thought it was excellent. Enjoyable, well made, and, as ever with Andrew Graham-Dixon, well presented. It was ‘Grade A’ telly. As art history, however, it scored a ‘C minus’. A number of basic art historical errors were made early on, and these set the programme onto the pursuit of a flawed – but sensational – thesis.

Actually, the programme started well. We were presented with Prof. Martin Kemp of Oxford University, who might know more about Leonardo da Vinci than anyone else on the planet. He was asked some general questions about the Mona Lisa, but wasn’t given a great opportunity to say anything in any detail. He merely set the scene – a Professor to tell us that we were indeed about to look into a Very Important Painting.

Then we were off to Italy, and on the way unveiled some of the key evidence behind the Mona Lisa. ‘Exhibit A’ as Andrew Graham-Dixon called it, was the art historian Georgio Vasari’s description of the painting. He selected a few sentences, but it’s worth quoting a larger excerpt here:

Leonardo undertook to paint for Francesco del Giocondo a portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa. He lingered over it four years and left it unfinished. It is at present in the possession of the French King Francis, at Fontainebleau. In this head anyone who wished to see how closely art could come to imitating nature could easily do so; since here were rendered all those minute niceties which can only be painted with the most delicate means; the eyes had that lustre and liquid effulgence which are always to be observed in real life, and around them were all those rosy and pearly tints together with the eyelashes which could not have been depicted except by the greatest subtlety. The eyebrows, likewise, were rendered in so nature a manner that one saw how the hairs issued from the flesh, thick in one place, scanty and scarce in another. The nose with its beautiful nostrils, rose and tender, seemed to be alive. The open mouth and its corners, united by the red of the lips and the flesh tints of the face, appeared to be not painted but real flesh. By intently observing the pit of the throat the spectator would be convinced that he could see the pulse beating in it, and could but feel that this was a picture to make even the boldest artist tremble and lose courage. Leonardo made use, also, of this device: Mona Lisa being very beautiful, he employed people to play and sing, and continually jested while working at the picture in order to keep the lady merry and thus banish the air of melancholy which is so often seen in painted portraits. In this picture of Leonardo’s there was a smile of such charm that it seemed more divine than human and was esteemed a miracle since it was nothing less than alive.

Vasari (1511-1574) was first writing in 1550; a second edition was published in 1568. As Andrew Graham-Dixon finished reading from Vasari, he wondered whether the history of the Mona Lisa was really as ‘open and shut’ as Vasari implied. And with that we were off.

First, however, everything seemed to reinforce Vasari’s basic points. Graham-Dixon told us about the extraordinary discovery in 2005 by Dr. Armin Schlechter at the University of Heidelberg, who found a marginal note written by the Florentine official Agostino Vespucci on a text about the Greek painter Apelles, which said:

“Apelles the painter. That is the way Leonardo da Vinci does it with all of his paintings, like, for example, with the countenance [or, ‘head’] of Lisa del Giocondo and that of the holy Anne, the mother of the Virgin. We will see how he is going to do it regarding the great council chamber, the thing which he has just come to terms about with the gonfaloniere. October 1503.

In other words, the Mona Lisa was Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine Merchant. Her maiden name was Lisa Gherardini.

The programme then gave us an interview with the Italian art historian Giuseppe Pallanti, who has done much extraordinary research on the Mona Lisa. He showed us, for example, that Francesco del Giocondo’s house was very close to the house of Leonardo’s father, and, furthermore, that del Giocondo had been a client of Leonardo’s father. Pallanti has also found a record of Lisa’s death. So far, so conventional. Was it case closed?

No – for Andrew Graham-Dixon then set out the theory, held by many people (and for various reasons, as we’ll see below) that there were two versions of the Mona Lisa. Certain things in the evidence so far, said Graham-Dixon, ‘don’t add up’. These included, first, that the Mona Lisa in Paris has ‘no eyebrows’ – whereas Vasari describes eyebrows. Second, Vasari says the Mona Lisa was painted for Francesco del Giocondo – but he never owned the Mona Lisa now in the Louvre, for Leonardo kept that painting with him, and after his death it was sold to the French royal collection.

Finally, Graham-Dixon introduced us to a third key piece of evidence about the Mona Lisa, a diary entry written by Antonio de Beatis. He was acting as secretary for a Cardinal making a tour of France, and wrote of visiting Leonardo in October 1517, where he saw;

[…] three pictures, one of a certain Florentine lady, done from life, at the instance of the late Magnificent Giuliano de Medici […].

This, said Graham-Dixon, was puzzling, for Vasari (in 1550) tells us the Mona Lisa was painted for her husband, Francesco del Giocondo – but Beatis in 1517 tells us, from Leonardo himself, that the picture was commissioned by Giuliano de Medici. All of these points added together convinced Graham-Dixon that we were dealing with two separate paintings.

And so off we went in search of the missing picture. About which more in a moment, for here I want to just unpack a little further the evidence cited so far to suggest that there were two Mona Lisas. Because it seems to me that the programme has fundamentally misunderstood how we should be assessing the evidence mentioned above.

First, those eyebrows. Are we really sure there weren’t any on the Louvre Mona Lisa? The picture is over 500 years old. Thinly painted eyebrows, made with a dark glaze as used by Leonardo (and thus of very soft pigments) could easily have been removed by some overzealous restorer. Such damage is the work of a moment, with the wrong cleaning solution, or too rough a sponge. Or, there could still be faint traces of eyebrow left – but we cannot clearly see them through the many layers of dirt and old varnish that now cover the painting. It is simply impossible to say in any objective way; ‘the Mona Lisa in the Louvre has no eyebrows, therefore Vasari must have been talking about a different painting’.

Furthermore, Vasari almost certainly did not see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The picture was in France, which he is not known to have visited. He must have been basing his description on either a copy or someone else’s account. In any case, we can already see how inaccurate his remarks are anyway when he talks about the Mona Lisa’s ‘open mouth’ – when her mouth is in fact closed.  And we ought to note here that the lavish praise Vasari gives the painting was no doubt ammunition in his broader campaign to convince the world of the benefits of his preferred school of Italian art; that is, of ‘disegno’ (where the design or drawing of a painting was the most important part) as practiced in Florence and Rome by the likes of Leonardo and Michelangelo, as opposed to ‘colore’ (where the colour and application of paint was the best feature of a painting) as practiced in Venice by the likes of Titian and Tintoretto.

So I think that’s the eyebrows taken care of. Next we have the evidence of the different owners, or commissioners of the painting. We have Vasari saying in 1550 that Leonardo ‘undertook to paint for Francesco del Giocondo’ a portrait of his wife. But apparently in 1517 Leonardo tells us (via de Beatis) that it was painted for Giuliano de Medici. Does this discrepancy point to two different paintings? I don’t think so.

Let us look at the evidence, and how reliable it is. First, we know Vasari hasn’t seen the painting, and that his descriptions of it are not entirely reliable. Can we believe beyond doubt Vasari when he says that Francesco del Giocondo commissioned the portrait from Leonardo? In fact, Vasari says only that Francesco commissioned the painting, not that he ever owned it. Secondly, de Beatis talks of a portrait ‘of a certain Florentine lady, done from life’. In other words, he does not say that it is Lisa del Giocondo. It could be another sitter, another portrait. The two other pictures de Beatis mentions seeing on that day are a St John the Baptist, and a Madonna and Child, which are now both in the Louvre, and because the Mona Lisa is now in the Louvre, most people assume that de Beatis’ ‘Florentine lady’ is the Mona Lisa. But it’s far from certain – that is, it is not certain enough for us to say ‘there must be another painting’. Indeed, de Beatis makes another note the next day in his diary which confuses matters, for he describes seeing a different painting at Leonardo’s residence;

there was also a picture in which a certain lady from Lombardy is painted in oil from life, quite beautiful, but in my opinion not as much as the lady Gulanda, the lady Isabella Gulanda’.

Was one of these pictures the ‘Florentine lady’ de Beatis saw? Or is he (as is more likely) in a bit of a muddle about names and pictures and who commissioned what? For how many of us really can recall with clarity all the details of conversations we’ve had the day before, on all topics? De Beatis, unfortunately, reveals himself to be a somewhat unreliable witness when he says that Leonardo was then in his seventies, when he was actually 65, and that a paralysis on the right side of Leonardo’s body meant he couldn’t reach such artistic heights again – when of course Leonardo was left-handed.

In other words, there really isn’t much in the way of reliable evidence, in the good old-fashioned historical sense, for us to say ‘there were two Mona Lisas’. Maybe both Francesco del Giocondo and Giuliano de Medici were involved in somehow pressing Leonardo (who was famously loathe to take commissions at that time in Florence) to paint Lisa. The point is, we just don’t know.

Nevertheless, Andrew Graham-Dixon next went to Singapore to see contender number one for the ‘other’ Mona Lisa – the so-called ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ (above, it once belonged to a collector who lived in Isleworth). Regular readers will know my views about this picture, which is (perhaps rather too glibly) referred to in these parts as the ‘Isleworthless Mona Lisa’. It’s most likely a later copy, and the fact that it’s on canvas tells you a great deal. A good summary of the efforts made by the proponents (and owners) of the Isleworth Mona Lisa comes to us courtesy of Luke Syson (see here), who curated the 2012 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London:

The story ignores art history, denies the principles of connoisseurship, and bypasses the experts. The whole thing is a little sad, especially for anyone visiting the display who is hoping to see a masterpiece by Leonardo.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, however, was impressed by the picture, when he saw it in a Singapore bank vault, saying:*

There’s a lot to be said for first impressions, and I did well not to jump backwards in shock. It’s too good in my opinion for any of the other school of Leonardo painters… I think it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this is the picture that Francesco [del Giocondo] took, and then Leonardo goes off and paints another picture, and that’s the ‘Mona Lisa’ [in the Louvre].

To reinforce the Isleworth Mona Lisa’s claim to be an autograph Leonardo, we were shown an interview with ‘an eminent scientist in California’ Dr. John Asmus. Here, the programme really began to stray from the more acceptable realms of art history. Dr Asmus, who I am sure is indeed an eminent scientist, had, said Graham-Dixon:

[…] developed a new test to authenticate paintings by Rembrandt; it compares the subtle distribution of light and shadow measured as histograms to isolate an artist’s unique way of painting.

Sadly, attribution by computer simply doesn’t work. Nobody of any serious repute in the world of Rembrandt authentication is ever going to rely on Dr Asmus’ Rembrandt histograms. I’ve never heard them mentioned before. And it was wrong of the programme to suggest, to a general audience, that attribution by computer is even possible in the first place. Furthermore, we were told by Dr Asmus himself that his initial tests (which showed a result of ’99%’ certainty that the Isleworth picture was indeed painted by Leonardo) were made on the basis of a photograph of the Isleworth picture taken on an ‘instamatic camera’. We were even shown the bad photograph on the screen. It’s one thing to try and compare, with the aid of a computer, artistic techniques on the basis of good digital photos – but quite another to try it on the basis of a poor quality print. So when Dr Asmus concludes that his tests ‘demonstrate that the technique for blinding light and shade in each face [that is, the Isleworth Mona Lisa and the Louvre Mona Lisa] appears uncannily similar’, he is merely observing the characteristics of a copy.

Another piece of evidence we were shown in favour of the Isleworth painting – and as evidence in that there were once two Mona Lisa’s – was a drawing by Raphael which is said to be a ‘a copy’ of the Mona Lisa (below). The drawing shows a woman with a similar pose of hands, the head in the same direction, a landscape background, and two columns on either side of her.

The Isleworth backers say this relates more closely to their picture than the Louvre one. But of course it does not. There are too many differences between Raphael’s drawing and both the Louvre picture and the Isleworth picture for us to say it is a direct ‘copy’ of either. The ledge behind the sitter is at a higher level. The dress, both across the chest and the sleeves, is different. The landscape is different. Perhaps Raphael, whose own portraits at this date follow similar poses, was making an interpretation of the Mona Lisa, if he saw it, or a recollection of it.

(Much is made of the issue of the columns in Mona Lisa-ology. Proponents of the Isleworth Mona Lisa point to the columns in their painting and say it is evidence that it is not a copy of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, because that has only fragments of column visible. We must here, however, coming back to the issue of condition. We cannot be entirely certain (though some claim you can be) that the Louvre picture has never been trimmed at the sides, perhaps even very early in its career. Or, perhaps an early copyist decided to add in slightly larger columns of their own accord. Again, it’s one of those things we can’t be certain about.)

In the end, Graham-Dixon decided that the Isleworth Mona Lisa wasn’t by Leonardo. His logic was curious. He correctly noted that the usual ‘barage of scientific tests’ such as infra-red, x-ray, carbon dating etc. cannot tell us that Leonardo definitely painted the Isleworth picture, only that he might have done (and in fact only that any half decent artist from the period might have done). He then, however, looked at the location of the paint analysis samples taken by the ‘Mona Lisa Foundation’ (which acts as cheerleader for the Isleworth picture) and noticed that none were taken from the face itself. He wondered if a later restorer might have interfered with the head in the Isleworth picture, to somehow ‘bring it up’ to a level good enough to make it appear Leonardo-esque. ‘Until the face is tested, doubt remains’, he concludes, as if (again) an attribution to any artist can be achieved by something as straightforward as a scientific test.

So, with the Isleworth picture duly ruled out (which was, I admit, a relief**), we followed one final lead on the hunt for the ‘other’ Mona Lisa. Enter Pascal Cotte, the scientist and inventor of the Lumiere multi-spectral high definition camera. The camera allows us, he claimes, to ‘peel back the layers of a painting, like an onion’, and he can reconstruct the way the painting was made as a result. M. Cotte took a series of multi-spectral scans of the Louvre Mona Lisa in 2004, and has been ‘decoding’ his results ever since. This programme was the first time he unveiled them.

Now, regular readers will know that AHN and Pascal Cotte have ‘previous’. His recent analysis of Leonardo’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’ showed, he said, that the picture was first not painted with an ermine, but with the hands in a different place. Then the ermine was added, and moved. Having looked at the published photos, I concluded that M. Cotte was leaping to conclusions. You can read about that here.

And I’m afraid to say that this time I think M. Cotte’s eyes are again deceiving him. The last part of the programme followed M. Cotte taking us through ever more extraordinary theories; that Mona Lisa was first painted with an elaborate head-dress, which Leonardo then scraped off; that she may have had a blanket on her lap (like the Queen Mum); that she once had a much larger head; that her face was moved 14 degrees; that her mouth was originally smaller; and so on. My favourite was the discovery of 11 hairpins (below), which were determined not to be random array of damages or blemishes (for example) by the fact that there were part of a special type of headdress, into which hair pins went in almost random manner.

The conclusion? That the Mona Lisa in the Louvre was actually two paintings all along. Leonardo had begun to paint Lisa del Giocondo, just like Vasari and Vespucci said. But then he painted over her, and put someone else’s head on instead. Graham-Dixon speculated that this may have been a lover of Giuliano de Medici, Pacifica Brandano. M. Cotte has made a digital recreation (below) of what the ‘original’ Mona Lisa looked like (answer; Gollum’s mum).

I’m sorry to say that all this is scarcely believable. I find it extraordinary that for decades now art historians have wrung their hands about the dangers of ‘connoisseurship’ – that is, the ability to look at the surface of a painting and tell who painted it – but now some are prepared to accept completely the much more dubious interpretation of images underneath a painting. We are now so reluctant to trust our own eyes, that we outsource these questions to scientists, and just because the results are presented by a man or woman in a white coat (or in this case a bow tie) we feel compelled to accept them. Science must be right.

But I’m afraid it isn’t – not always. And science in art history is in its infancy. We have no way of verifying M. Cotte’s tests. He’s the only one with a camera. And we haven’t tested nearly enough paintings for us to say with confidence that we know how to interpret such images. In fact, it seems to me to be quite easy to question Cotte’s results, just by using common sense and one’s own eyes. Where M. Cotte sees a larger head (below), artists and art historians will see a straightforward ‘penumbra’, which is the area of dead colour an artist lays down on the panel or canvas as a background colour, and then begins to paint the head on. Since we know that the Mona Lisa was painted over a number of years by Leonardo, it is likely that the background was added at a later stage than the initial life sittings, accounting for the differences M. Cotte’s cameras have identified around the head. Indeed, all M. Cotte’s images prove is that Leonardo, like so many portraitists, fiddled with and changed his composition as he went along. This is a long way from saying; ‘it’s two different people’.

And don’t just take my word for it. Here is the view of Prof. Martin Kemp, who has worked extensively with M. Cotte in the past. With apologies, I here quote Prof. Kemp’s recent blog post extensively. He’s much more diplomatic than I am:

Now that Pascal’s book is out in all its visual glory, and in the wake of the media interviews, edited as always to emphasise difference, it is worth laying out briefly how his researches look to me. It represents an extraordinary body of dedicated effort. He asked me for comments for his website – knowing that I disagreed with some of his interpretations.  He is a good guy.

The LAM technique undoubtedly provides an important new weapon in the armoury of those interested in scientific examinations of layered paintings. The Holy Grail of scientific examination is to disclose the successive layers that lie below the present surface. Pascal’s mode of analysis, adapting mathematical techniques from signal processing, is revealing far more from the deeper layers than was previously possible, but it does not definitively isolate information from a single layer. We are also unclear as to what is happening as the different frequencies of light penetrate the paint layers to varying degrees and interact in diverse ways with the varied optical properties of the materials within the layers of the picture. This means that tricky acts of interpretation are necessary – even more difficult than is the case with x-rays and infrared. There is always the danger of seeing what we want to see. None of us are immune from this.

Looking at a selection of the LAM images as an art historian, I can see things that are wholly consistent with Leonardo’s creative methods, such as the indication of the use of cartoon and the restless manoeuvrings of contours. Some of what Pascal sees and reconstructs, such as the elaborate headdress, makes no sense to me in terms of design procedures or in terms of Renaissance paintings. I have difficulties with his detailed reconstructions of finished or semi-finished paintings under the surface of the present one. Leonardo’s processes were very fluid, with things coming and going, and with varied levels of finish across the picture. There is obviously a question of presentation here, and I would have resisted the temptation to translate the complex and often ambiguous images from the lower layers into such definite “pictures”.

My strong sense, at this early stage in our understanding of what we are looking at, is that we are witnessing something consistent with the documentation and with Leonardo’s ways of proceeding. I see the painting beginning as a direct portrait of Lisa – building on the innovations of Leonardo’s Milanese portraits – and becoming increasingly conceptualised as picture that combines the combines the tropes of Renaissance love poetry with a profound interest in the microcosm of the human body and the “body of the earth”. I see a steady evolution from portrait to “picture”. The change in her draperies from a Florentine style (as Pascal shows) into a more conceptualised array of veils etc., is part of this process of generalisation. All this is consistent with the idea I first expressed in my 1981 monograph, that Giuliano de’ Medici asked Leonardo to finish the beautiful and remarkable picture when they were both in Rome from 1513-16.

Pascal is opening up very important fields for analysis.  We are at the beginning, Anyone is unwise to pronounce with certainty at this stage. I will have to make some sense of all this for the monograph of the Mona Lisa that I am currently writing with Giuseppe Pallanti.

All of which reinforces my earlier scepticism about Cotte’s analysis of Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine.

Anyway, it’s a shame the latest Mona Lisa programme didn’t conclude with some form of independent assessment from Prof. Kemp. He was introduced at the beginning as an expert, why not have him at the end? In all the art discovery programmes I’m involved in, we always feel it imperative to show the audience some form of 3rd party, academic endorsement. So far, the Louvre has said rien.

I haven’t yet mentioned another picture that Graham-Dixon went to see as a possible ‘other’ Mona Lisa; a work in Russia. It was clearly a later copy – not even a very good one – and eventually, with the help of more science we were shown that it couldn’t have been by Leonardo, for the ground layer dated to the 17th Century. But a few days after the BBC programme went out, there was a fresh flurry of excitement about a ‘new Mona Lisa’. It was the same picture (detail below)! Only this time, it had the name of ‘leading da Vinci scholar’ Prof. Carlo Pedretti attached to it. Why is he so confident that the Russian picture has a chance of being by Leonardo? Because he too has developed a ‘new art analysis software’. So we’re back to square one in the Mona Lisa game, anything goes, as long as you can get enough media hype.

Computer software, ‘magic cameras’, mis-interpreted x-rays, optimistically assessed paint analysis, the views of scientists who don’t know their way around a painting; is this to be the new way of deciding (at least in the public arena) what is and what is not a Leonardo (or a Michelangelo or whatever else is next)? Not if I have anything to do with it. The public deserves better.

I’m not claiming to be uniquely right in any of the above. Do let me know what you thought of the new claims.

* I’ve been asked to see a few pictures in ‘bank vaults’. It’s usually a sure sign of something being a dud.

** This is not intended to be an exhaustive critique of the Isleworth Mona Lisa – I might get round to that one day.

Update – a reader alerts us to the fact that the new ‘Russian’ Mona Lisa was apparently that sold at Christie’s in New York as a copy for $122,000. The provenance would fit the bill for that shown in the Graham-Dixon progreamme, where oddly enough the recent auction history was not mentioned. The image looks the same too.

 

 

 

First-year Camila Poccard reviews ‘Antonio Berni: Juanito y Ramona’ in Buenos Aires

 golovine article-2

I was in Argentina recently and whilst I was there I visited an exhibition Antonio Berni: Juanito y Ramona at the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latino Americano de Buenos Aires/ Museum of Latin-American Art of Buenos Aires). The exhibition displayed a large collection of the work of Argentine artist Antonio Berni, the majority of which was created from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. The MALBA is one of the only art galleries in Buenos Aires that was purpose built to be an art gallery and consequently it has a modern, bright and clean interior, which seemed juxtaposed with Berni’s hectic and vibrant work.

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Berni, ‘Juanito y su familia mirando el televisor’, 1974

The exhibition focused on a period in Berni’s career when he began to paint two fictitious characters he invented, Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel, to help explore social issues of large Latin American cities. This exhibition was the first of its kind to gather so much of Berni’s ‘Juanito and Ramona’ works, and MALBA collaborated with the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to do so.

Juanito Laguna is portrayed as a young boy from a poor neighbourhood or shantytown, who collects garbage. Although his situation is bleak, he still retains his hopes and dreams, which Berni himself discusses in this video. This sense of hope can be seen, for example, in the painting of Juanito playing with a toy airplane and gazing up at a spaceship, dreaming of opportunities. As this was painted around the time of the moon landings, Berni makes Juanito like any other boy of his time who dreams of going to space, perhaps making him a relatable, contemporary character.

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Berni, ‘Juanito Laguna y la aeronave’, 1978

Ramona Montiel, on the other hand, was created as a character to represent lower-class women. She becomes a prostitute in order to earn enough money to live and, through her character, Berni comments on the sex trade, the status of women, and also the lack of professional opportunities afforded to women.

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Berni, ‘El Examen’, 1976

 

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Berni, ‘Juanito Laguna going to the factory’, 1977

The paintings of Juanito in particular are large in size and striking. Berni was a very experimental artist and used new techniques in his artworks. Whilst he uses oil paints for the background and to paint Juanito himself, the work is dominated by collaged industrial waste and garbage that Berni collected. These objects protrude from the paintings, creating a 3D effect. The amount of metal used in the paintings is also quite jarring, as it reminds the viewer of the environment in which poor children represented by Juanito live. Instead of painting Juanito’s clothing, Berni places real items of clothing onto the canvas, often using popular clothes of the time, suggesting further how the character represents a particular class of children. However, the artist is also perhaps making a statement about how capitalist society and consumer culture fuel poverty. By using real, relevant and contemporary objects and popular culture to explore social issues, Berni creates in a way more ‘real’ characters. In fact, his characters have since taken on a life of their own in Argentina, becoming folks legends, incorporated into the lyrics of tango music and folks songs, as well as in poems and stories.

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Berni, ‘Juanito the Scavenger’, 1978

In Juanito the Scavenger, the child is lost in a sea of industrial waste and garbage, and his face looks despondent. This painting depicts the common practice of children in slums rummaging in garbage for things to sell. Even though the scene is bleak, Berni’s use of colour brings life into the painting. I found that even though the paintings are gripping and have a serious political message, Berni’s use of colour makes them accessible and almost child-like. It suggests the vibrancy of Latin America, whilst also reminding viewers that Juanito is just a boy.

Overall I found the exhibition fascinating; it compiled so much of Berni’s work and was a testament to this experimental stage in his career. The exhibition was large and comprehensive, spread across different rooms over three floors, encompassing printmaking, sculpture as well as painting; I think it was a triumph. The exhibition opened in October in 2014 and proved to be very popular. Although Berni’s paintings were created in the late 1950s through to late 1970s, the social and economic issues they explore still plague many large Latin American cities today, so the political meaning of these paintings is still gripping and relevant.

Camila Poccard (1st-year History of Art student)

 

Second-year student Patricia Nistor reviews ‘Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden’

Last term second-year History of Art student Patricia Nistor spent a Semester Abroad in Leiden at one of the most reputable universities in The Netherlands. She describes her experience as follows: “I developed a wide range of skills but also had a lot of fun, making for what were probably the best four months of my life.”  While in Amsterdam she took the opportunity to visit the exhibition Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden at the Stedelijk Museum, which is now on at Tate Modern, and wrote a review for The Golovine…

‘Painting?! Are you kidding me?’ was my first reaction when I found out we were going to see the Marlene Dumas exhibition at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. I consider myself a lover of all arts and all periods alike, but I was virtually convinced that painting has to be on its deathbed in the 21st century. There seemed to be no potency left for painting in a time where new media and new approaches are competing fiercely for our attention. Needless to say that Marlene Dumas is the exception that proved me wrong.

The Image as Burden is a retrospective of works created in the last 40 years by the South African-born artist Marlene Dumas. The Stedelijk is a particularly powerful place to hold such an exhibition, as it was the museum where she took part in her first group exhibition in 1978. The inclusion of the artist, then only 25, reinforces the museum’s position as a maker, rather than follower of canon.

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Marlene Dumas, ‘The Image as Burden’, 1993 © Marlene Dumas

The exhibition brochure opens with a quote that is key to what is on display: “images are always political. Something is always assigned to an image –this is a criminal, (…) that is erotic – and that’s what I am involved with: the psychology of perception’’. Dumas’ subject matter is incredibly wide and fluid: ranging from religion, war, race, love, death, guilt, and art itself – all converging in representing the theme we might call life itself. In the end, the power always lies in the hands of the viewer to decipher the meaning.

The varied subject matter in the exhibition is tied together by Dumas’ style and technique, and all her works somehow find a particular place within the pictorial universe she creates. Her art seems to be a construction of simplicity: all lines seem to be in the right place and the scarce amount of detail is perfectly controlled to achieve a vagueness but at the same time coherent figures.

Marlene Dumas, ‘Evil is Banal’, 1984 © Marlene Dumas

Another major characteristic in her art is reworking. Dumas never paints life directly; the mediation of photography is always present. She uses personal Polaroids as well as newspaper photographs as a basis as she launches into a radical decontextualisation and processing of visual culture. She ends up creating her own space where people are not exactly real but they are not imaginary either. In one piece, Jesus Serene, she uses existing images of Jesus, such as the one on the Turin Shroud, side by side with images of her friends. The result is an exploration of humanity itself, with the figures all seeming equal, genderless and not of any particular race.

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Marlene Dumas, Jesus Serene, 1994 © Marlene Dumas

Echoes from Dumas’ childhood in South Africa still deeply permeate her work. She unapologetically tackles feminism, race, grief and the naked body all at once in haunting pictures such as The Widow. She also works to include African figures ignored in the narrow Western standard of beauty. It is interesting to note how the Stedelijk chose to tiptoe around this issue, claiming the title of the exhibition refers to ‘the conflict between the painterly gesture and the illusion of the painted image’. Rachel Spence writing for The Financial Times offered an alternative reading of this. She reminds that South Africa was a country where representations of certain people were banned and that it ‘had become a country where images were regarded as bombs’.

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Marlene Dumas, ‘Naomi’, 1995 © Marlene Dumas

All in all, Dumas’ work probably owes its success to a strong mixture of emotional intensity and current political relevance. In this review, I barely touch the surface of the two hundred artworks displayed in the exhibition. The multiplicity of aspects and depth in her work would require many more words to be properly explored. However, this serves as a reminder that The Image as Burden is currently on at Tate Modern until 10 May 2015, and it is definitely a great opportunity to visit a wonderfully-curated exhibition of one of the most intriguing painters of our time.

Patricia Nistor (2nd-year History of Art student)

Second-year student Emily Robins visits the Newman Brothers Coffin Works…

With a touch of what some may deem to be ‘morbid curiosity’, I decided to spend a free Wednesday afternoon visiting Birmingham Conservation Trust’s latest project – the Newman Brothers Coffin Works. The slightly-misleading name ‘Coffin Works’ conjures up an image of a rather gloomy, depressing funeral parlour place but, to dispel some myths, this image couldn’t be further from truth. In fact, the Conservation Trust has succeeded in creating not only a sensitive portrayal of several aspects of the funerary industry, but also, more importantly, an intriguing time-capsule experience of factory life in the early 1960s. After 16 years of closure, and following a national campaign, this historic jewellery quarter business has been restored to the former glory of its post-war heyday.

On arrival I was greeted by staff in authentic 1960s uniforms and asked to ‘clock in’ using the original machine. It was pretty quiet for a Wednesday afternoon, so our tour guide, the exceptionally knowledgeable Robin, took me and two other visitors for a tour. We began with a brief history of the company. I was surprised to learn that Newman Bros had never actually made coffins, only handles, plates and shrouds. All of these objects are in keeping with the company’s Jewellery Quarter location and credentials. We headed over to the first stop on the tour, the ‘Stamp Room’. Here Robin provided a hands-on demonstration of the traditional equipment used to cut out coffin plates, crucifixes and other shapes from sheet metal. This was followed by an interactive experience in the storeroom, where we were invited to touch and examine designs used for handles and accessories. The room was full to the brim with all sorts of objects; I couldn’t help but admire the sheer quantity of original packaging and furniture still in-situ.

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Inside the Stamp Room

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Authentic Coffin-Handle Packaging and Embalming Chemicals

Afterwards, Robin took us through to the main office, again beautiful preserved and complete with the very Mad Men-esque addition of a drinks cupboard stocked with champagne! Here I was asked to answer the telephone and jot down the orders from a client on the other end of the line, half expecting the big boss to arrive back any minute!

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The Big Boss’ Desk in the Office

Robin then ushered us upstairs to the last room on the tour, the ‘Shroud Room’. The name is enough to send shivers down anyone’s spine; you might imagine a ghostly and dusty attic room. However, once again Newman bros challenged my assumptions as I entered a light and airy workshop, more befitting to a designer atelier. Piled high across every available surface were luxurious fabrics in numerous prints, textures and colours. By the windows sit sewing machines and workstations which appear as if they were only vacated a minute or so ago, whilst the factory girls nip out to lunch. Throughout the tour, keen eyes will be drawn to more of these authentic and detailed touches, which make a visit to the Coffin Works feel like as if you’ve stepped back in time. My personal favourites were touches such as the tea-break corner, complete with a variety of cups and cosies and listing how everyone prefers to take their hard-earned cuppa.

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Box of Shroud Labels

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Workspace in the Shroud Room

Robin finished the tour with some final reflections and anecdotes about the staff and personnel who spent the best part of their lives in these very rooms. Overall, I left the Coffin Works with the image of a workplace that was not without its eccentricities, but that nonetheless played a crucial role in the shaping of Birmingham as an industrial city; a role which will remain crucial as Newman Bros continues its transformative trajectory as not only a heritage attraction, but a perfectly preserved slice of social, cultural and manufacturing history.

Emily Robins (2nd-year History of Art student)

Degenerate Art at the Barber Institute

Hannah Halliwell reviews the Barber’s Degenerate Art exhibition…

 

The Degenerate Art exhibition at the Barber Institute (24 October 2014 – 11 January 2015) complements the current Rebel Visions exhibition on the War Art of CRW Nevinson, also at the Barber. The Degenerate Art exhibition explores and examines how and why artists’ work was censured, corrupted and de-valued by the Nazi regime during the 1930s, with the Barber’s own examples from celebrated artists such as George Grosz, Emil Nolde, Egon Schiele and Käthe Kollwitz. Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), was a term used by Nazis to dismiss virtually all modern art. It was also the title of an art exhibition put together by Adolf Hitler in 1937 which displayed a small percentage of confiscated art from recent decades (650 of 650,000 confiscated works were exhibited); the National Socialists rejected and censured virtually everything that had existed on the German modern art scene prior to 1933. I find this exhibition particularly fascinating in light of stories on the news which have appeared in recent years regarding the discovery of art which was previously deemed lost due to its confiscation by the Nazis (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/04/degenerate-art-cornelius-gurlitt-munich-apartment).

 

Entartete Kunst exhibition

Entartete Kunst exhibition

Photo from: http://redwedgemagazine.com/articles/entartete-kunst-nazis-modern-art

As can be seen in the above image, the Entartete Kunst was incredibly popular: its popularity has never been matched by another exhibition on modern art. Over two million people visited the exhibition whilst it was in Munich, before it toured Germany and its territories.

Hitler’s aim of the Entartete Kunst exhibition was to eradicate further production of various modernist art styles by clarifying for the German public what was unacceptable and thus “un-German”. The art was determined as such because it was seen as destabilising and undermining of the Nazi ideology of a pure and physically healthy Germany – any art which condemned the ‘ideal’ body, criticised the war, was anti-Christian or was remotely abstract was exhibited at the Entartete Kunst, confiscated and often unfortunately consequently destroyed. The Barber Institute is fortunate enough to own some surviving prints which were confiscated during the Nazi regime and exhibited at the Entartete Kunst.

 

Käthe Kollwitz, Woman and Dead Child, Berlin, 1903, etching.

Käthe Kollwitz, Woman and Dead Child, Berlin, 1903, etching.

I find this print particularly fascinating: the declaration of this work as ‘degenerate’ expresses the significance of the ideal body to the National Socialist Party – something which I have learned about since taking the third year module ‘The Body and Its Representations in Visual Culture’. The Nazi’s ideal female body was one which matched the idealised, classicised body of antiquity. Kollwitz’s female figure rejects the canonical and Nazi ideal of the ‘acceptable’ female body; this figure is muscular, naked and bound by raw emotion. The overtones of grief and desperation, presumably in response to the death of the woman’s son in the etching, were deemed to be critical of the Nazi regime, denouncing war and its injustice in society. It is thus clear to see why the Nazis would categorise such a work as ‘degenerate’ to their political agenda and regime.

 

Kurt Schwitters, Merz V, Berlin, 1923, lithograph.

Kurt Schwitters, Merz V, Berlin, 1923, lithograph.

This Schwitters print interested me because it is not obviously anti-Nazi, anti-Christian or explicit in anyway, and, in fact, by the time Hitler’s Entartete Kunst was opened all of Schwitters’ art work had been banned. So, why was this print determined to be ‘degenerate’? Produced in 1923, Merz V epitomises the anti-art aesthetic that defined Dadaism – the anti-war art movement which emerged in the inter-war period. Dadaism challenged the society’s ‘necessity’ of war, the bourgeoisie and the hierarchical nature of society, as well as promoting the movement’s pro-anti-art aesthetic. Schwitters’ political and known involvement in Dadaism, and its contrasting agenda to the speeches of Nazi party leaders, is most likely the reason Merz V was declared entartet (degenerate), though the print’s obvious abstract form and composition does also contribute to this.

 

Emil Nolde, The Prophet, 1912, Berlin, woodcut.

Emil Nolde, The Prophet, 1912, Berlin, woodcut.

A staggering 1,052 of Emil Nolde’s works, mostly of religious subject matter, were confiscated in 1937 and over 50 were shown at the Entartete Kunst, including The Prophet. Emil Nolde focussed on religion as his main topic, though his work was often accused of being blasphemous because of its humanist nature. The public were not accustomed to such raw images of biblical figures and the Nazi regime desired the gentle biblical image of the Italian and German Renaissance, thus determining such prints, like The Prophet, as degenerate. Here, Nolde does not idealise Christ – we are presented with a raw depressive emotion, implying Christ’s human mortality, not as the embodiment of God. The sorrowful expression on his face may also represent the suffering of millions after World War 1. In addition, Nolde was extremely popular during the Weimar Republic (pre-Nazi) which is perhaps another reason why the Nazi’s were so strongly against his work.

 

The ‘Degenerate’ Art exhibition at the Barber Institute is enlightening and the works that I have discussed here, along with the variety of others which I have not, are certainly worth the visit. It is extraordinary to learn how the visual arts – often a method used for freedom of expression – was condemned and censured under Nazi regime. As well as the defamation, segregation and extermination of people who did not fit or share ‘idealisation’ in Nazi Germany, it is fascinating to see how such extreme and discriminating views were transferred to the visual art world.

With 2014 marking the centennial, and many of these artworks produced in light of the First World War, it is great to see the Barber commemorating the art which was subsequently so condemned by the National Socialist Party. The ‘degenerate’ art shows us the contemporaneous views of artists in war-torn society, their views on bourgeois hierarchy, the expansion and dejection of religion and the body as non-idealised, as well as Adolf Hitler’s extraordinary dismissal of anyone, and thus anything, that did not fit his perceived ‘ideal’. The collection is a great reminder of our own freedom of expression in society today and of its progression since the Entartete Kunst.

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 (http://barber.org.uk/rebel-visions-2/)

Nevinson, War Profiteers, 1917 (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.) © The Nevinson Estate/Bridgeman Images (http://barber.org.uk/rebel-visions-2/)

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 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-unending-cult-of-human-sacrifice-6305)

Nevinson, The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934 © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images
photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-unending-cult-of-human-sacrifice-6305)

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.”

Untitled2 Untitled3

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.

 

Oli

 

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NEW ART WEST MIDLANDS @ WOLVERHAMPTON ART GALLERY

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

Hannah

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