82 portraits and 1 still life

82 portraits and 1 still life by David Hockney at The Royal Academy

David Hockney is doing something very important for artists –combining the conceptual understanding of contemporary art today with the innate craftsmanship of applying paint onto a surface.

He is a modern man who doesn’t close his mind to new innovations.  He has that most important ingredient for an artist in any age, an open mind.  When a young man he became known for his photographic collages, large canvases which put together small standard photos but overlapping, adjacent and continuous to the previous image.  What these photo collages did was attempt to give a bigger picture than was possible with a single lens camera.  His paintings of sunny California bucked the trend away from the craft of painting and encapsulated something bigger and more interesting than the play of sun on swimming pool water.

He is still looking for the bigger picture, and, after a long and distinguished career, he comes to this project with a the vast amount of knowledge about the photographic image.  But he comes to it with something else, he personally observes the difference between looking through an image-catching single lens machine and looking directly through his two, independent eyes and he adds to that the skill to put down what the magic inside his head has translated and conveyed to his hands.

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82 portraits and 1 still life, Hockney’s ambitious new hang at The Royal Academy is so much more than just a collection of people painted in front of uniform backings in a maximum of three days in the artist’s studio in Los Angeles.  This collection of paintings is not only a view into the way we see the difference between individual sitters but also “reaffirms the significance of the painted portrait in an age when selfies and photo-portraits have proliferated in social media.”[1]

For me this exhibition is a very poignant and personal archive which when installed in near-chronological order – as it is, permits the viewer an insight into the psychology of the artist himself.  “Hockney was recovering from a very difficult series of events, including a minor stroke, and he did not paint for some time, which was unusual for him.”[2]  When you walk around the gallery space and take time to observe the format and execution of these paintings you can almost see as a tangible thing, Hockney’s emotional state of mind lighten as we follow his confidence and conviction in the format and medium grow.

celia-birtwell-by-dh

As I came away from the gallery and walked along Piccadilly it seemed that my own perceptive abilities had been heightened by an artist who had taught me a lesson in how to really observe people. The tourists, locals and business-people I passed now appeared more interesting; so much that I could almost see them with a blue wall behind them and a green carpet beneath them sitting on a chair and revealed in all their complexities.

This is what I consider a successful visit to a gallery.

[1] 82 portraits and 1 still life, by  Edith Devaney.  Royal Academy catalogue

[2] Ibid

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KAZEMIR MALEVICH – at the Tate Modern. July 2014

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Travelling home from visiting the new Malevich exhibition at the Tate Modern today I am trying to understand why I have been so much more impressed with this show than the Matisse cut-outs that have been so highly praised recently? (my blog CUT IT OUT WITH THE CUT OUTS).

Can it just be that I have come to the Turbine Hall with intransigent and preconceived ideas about the merits of these two artists from the early twentieth century?  I have always been unimpressed with Matisse but I do acknowledge he had a big influence on fellow artists in France at that time, and surely if the curators had done their job properly this enormously ambitious (and expensive) show would have won me over?  My problem with the cut-outs is that whilst extremely pleasing to the eye I cannot get a sense of the artist’s mind and soul, of the story behind the prettiness.

However, to walk into the first room of the Malevich exhibition is to witness the range of influences acquired, imitated and assimilated into the melting pot that was this artist’s brain. How fascinating to see replicated on those walls an almost perfect Cezanne pastiche piece and how attractive is the idea that, like the older artist, he too resisted the easy formula choosing to distil his own strong and authentic personal perception of the world.  (my blog PRIMITIVE OF A NEW ART).

The second room finds Malevich applying those new artistic trends to Russian subjects – the distilling process had begun – and in the third room Malevich rejects Futurist obsession for speed, war and the cult of the machine for Russian themes, applying the new fractured planes of cubism to rural scenes and peasant folk.  Catalogue notes say that ‘having followed the innovations of Paris, Malevich was now finding the confidence to outpace them’, a huge claim, but I prefer to think that the work seen here, whilst brilliantly executed still forms part of his formative stage.

Room four illustrates the leap of ideas from one stage of an artist’s development, through the stimulation of a change of discipline, into the creation of an original new form of visual representation.  In collaboration with a musician and a poet Malevich staged a futurist opera, Victory over the Sun and the group’s innovative treatment of language proved fundamental to Malevich’s thinking.  The idea of words without meaning encouraged him to conceive of, what he called, alogical painting, allowing colours and forms to sever their ties to the physical world.  The coloured geometric shapes of the costumes he designed for Victory over the Sun and the dividing up of the backdrops into fields of colour helped Malevich make the radical move to abstraction.

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Here, at this point in Malevich’s career we witness how a great moment in art was achieved and Suprematism was born.  He has said “What was done unconsciously is now bearing extraordinary fruit”, but what occurred was no accident, it was the result of his incredible immersion into the ideas of that time and, through some process or connection in his brain, it culminated in his painting called Black Square –  essentially the ultimate abstract painting – with no colour, just a black square painted onto a larger white one.  In reproductions it is easy to miss the dense, layered thickness of this black hole.

From this point the exhibition follows Malevich’s obsession with abstraction and his gradual elimination of the figurative.  Whilst Russia underwent extreme change and bloody turmoil the Russian people disappeared from Malevich’s “non-objective and pure” canvasses, “colour harnessed into geometric forms, arranged to convey a sense of agitation and movement drifting together or apart, in a finely balanced tension between order and chaos”. And we witness Malevich enacting the gradual dissolution of painting with his white forms against a white background – the distillation was complete.

Malevich     Kasimir-Malevich-Kazimir-Malevich-Portrait-of-the-Artist_s-Wife

But Malevich the man was still watching and distilling the influences all around him and in the last rooms we see the pull of Russian folk to have been too great.  He returns, re-invigorated by his abstract de-cluttering to produce some beautiful paintings that are proto post-modernist statements allowing a mix of all styles with aesthetic harmony the only yardstick.  Yet the little black square is still present, now used as his logo in place of a signature.

The strength of this exhibition (as opposed to the Cut-Outs) is, I think, because it tells a human story whilst elucidating and educating the viewer about the mysterious alchemy involved in creating an important modern icon.

Kasimir-Malevich-Kazimir-Malevich-Sportsmen

CUT IT OUT WITH THE CUT-OUTS

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition, Tate Modern, London, Britain - 14 Apr 2014

We were promised proof that Henri Matisse was “one of the most innovative painters of the twentieth century” but instead all we got was large-scale graphic designs.  I was disappointed by this exhibition, to hear all the hype this show was going to set the record straight about Henri Matisse but I came away with the impression that this show had been put together purely to pander to popular tastes.

I can only assume that together Nicholas Cullinan, Flavia Frigeri and Nicholas Serota decided they wanted something pretty, colourful and exuberant on their walls that demanded no thought whatever to appreciate.  So they assembled this over-blown tribute to an artist who can never hold a candle to, yes you know what I’m going to say, to Pablo Picasso.

I’d like to ask the organising team, how they think that this show can add anything to our knowledge of the great developments in contemporary art in the 20th century?  I humbly suggest that the answer is, it doesn’t.  It is pretty, it is colourful and it is a great testament to the artistic imperative to create in the face of overwhelming odds.  He did produce some great paintings early on and his influence on the young Picasso must be acknowledged.  But I am afraid Tate Modern has let the old man down and done nothing to position him as one of the great innovators of the twentieth century.

As I walked around the Tate Modern one name kept popping into my mind, and when I tell you who I know you’ll gasp, but the truth is Clarise Cliff decorated early twentieth century pottery with similar exuberance and used a palette of brave colour combinations too, channelling the Jazz age in much the same way as old Henri did at that time.  To produce work like this when you are old and infirm is a truly great achievement, I can agree, but when it comes to new ways of depicting human life and delving into the great issues that plagued Europe at such a dark time in its history then I’m afraid these crafty cut-outs don’t even come near.  They just don’t do it for me.

THE PRIMITIVE OF A NEW ART.

Cezanne's Mont Ste Victoire

Superficially Cézanne’s art is pleasing, the glistening colours are clean and fresh, the meticulous line work looks impressive. His landscapes represent nature at its best and his brushwork implies order and reason behind the bucolic splendour of provincial France.

Unfortunately Henry and Rose Pearlman didn’t collect any of Cézanne’s figurative works but the landscapes on view in this exhibition in Oxford are revealing enough to gain some sense of this artist’s mysterious alchemy.

Because he was so delicate and considered in his colour and his network of lines, Cézanne’s paintings are widely appreciated throughout the world for their beauty.  But the pleasure bestowed by looking at his paintings can mask the thinking man behind his vision.  One look at one of his self-portraits (not present in this show) would be enough to demonstrate how deeply reflective this artist really was. Looking at the progression of his over twenty self portraits is to personally witness his growing self confidence and his wariness of prospective viewers.

Walking around the Ashmolean you can see clearly his interest in the formal relationship between the geometry of buildings and the supple lines of their natural surroundings.  It was not enough for him to simply paint fleeting moments like the Impressionists, no, his open, fragmented brushwork were subjected to a more ordered principle. However much Cézanne insisted upon the centrality of colour, drawing and form were never subservient in his art. The same paintings that are so subtly coloured often have a network of containing, defining lines above and below the surface pigment.

It is always uplifting to see the precision in his drawings and the use of positioning lines are never more clear than in his Mont Ste Victoire watercolour.  In this picture disparate and unrelated touches of coloured watercolour look at first glance like haphazard splishes and splashes of different colours covering the paper, but look closer and a narrative and unity appears that is not dissimilar to those fairytale painting completed by Kindinsky years later.

Standing out above the other works in the second room of this collection is Cézanne’s magnificent Mont Ste Victoire, oil on canvas.  When looking at this painting I was struck by the patience and deliberation that must have gone into making this work of art.  The painstaking touches of colour, the vibrant greens and bright terracottas remain un-muddied despite their proximity to other colours. The lightness of parts of the painting like the sky and foreground is achieved by leaving parts of the canvas un-painted, a technique common to watercolours but not usually in oils.  There is a puzzling horizontal line of blue in the sky which made me expect that this work was achieved by the use of deliberate, assured mark-making, no over painting of mistakes for Cézanne.  Go right up to it and you can see that every revolution of modern art is there like a reverse palimpsest.   Mondrian’s grids and outlines. Rhythmical patterns of colour like an un-dripped Jackson Pollock.  Modernist abstraction. The pixelated screens of computer-generated imagery.

He treasured his independence and isolation but towards the end of his life, slowed down by ill health, he drew comfort from his assimilation by a younger generation and looked forward to becoming ‘the primitive of a new art’.  His famous remark “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone” was famously followed by a new movement called Cubism. The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones has said, “every revolution of modern art is foretold.  The urinal, the shark, the lights going on and off?” And I think he means that these are all example of art where the brain is engaged.

Cézanne is rightly lauded for the beauty of his work but is seldom recognised as the revolutionary he really was.  He was an outsider who didn’t follow any school of thought but had his own independent vision.  He was strong and authentic and doggedly kept true to his own personal perception of the world.  He resisted the easy formula and truly believed that a painter, by means of drawing and colour, gives concrete form to his sensations and perceptions.