Joan Miro – Painting of the Month

Joan Miro is the twentieth century Spanish surrealist who features in my Painting of the Month.

Miro, May 1968, Paris, Students
Joan Miro, May 1968, 1968-75, Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona.

May 1968 was an idea he painted between 1968 and 1975, late is in his life. It is a challenging view but is there to remind us of the revolutionary fervour that overtook Europe in 1968; this month 51 years ago. The current lack of faith in the political system seems to echo the challenge to the establishment of the sixties.

The strong colours that were with Miro all his life are here, but the black he normally uses for outline has been added to. In this painting there is an overlying image, almost thrown at the canvas and allowed to run. The hand prints, I Am Here, echo the primitive cave images found throughout the world but especially in Spain and France.

If Postmodernism has its birth in the views of the French Philosophers and the Student Riots of 1968 then this painting reminds of this transition.

The Garden (1925) shows Miro earlier expressing the more upbeat optimism of surrealism.

Miro, Garden, Tate
Joan Miro, The Garden, 1925

Hepworth – Artist in Society 1948-53

St Albans Town Hall, I have described in the past as the ugliest building in England. Maybe unfair but growing up and going to school there, seeing the decaying mock classical edifice on a daily basis informed my view. Can you imagine my delight now seeing it in its new form as twenty-first century Art Gallery and Museum. The Corporation have done a wonderful job presenting the old courtroom, cells and assembly room as a modern open gallery. We visited while  the Barbara Hepworth Artist in Society 1948-53 exhibition was ongoing.

St Albans, hepworth
St Albans Art Gallery

Hertfordshire County Council were seen as a pioneering authority following the Education Act 1944, which created a universal free secondary education system and their Chief Education Officer, John Newsom should take great credit for their achievements. The architecture of the secondary schools and technical colleges in the 1950s can be regarded as the exemplar for post war Britain. Most importantly Newsom proposed that part of the construction budget should be set aside for the display and commissioning of contemporary works of art. Hertfordshire children were thus given the opportunity to see modern art immediately and in their own environment.

Hepworth, St Albans girl school
Barbara Hepworth, Eocene, 1948-49, St Albans Girl School.

Eocene, 1948-49, Hepworth’s carving of a mother and child in Portland stone, was bought by the Education Authority in 1952 and placed in St Albans Grammar School for Girls (now St Albans Girl School.) Sitting on top of a five foot black marble plinth this lovely shrouded  figure presents a striking proto-feminist countenance. You see in this work her figurative strengths but also a nod to the egg like sculptures of one of her mentors, Brancusi, see Eve in WALL-E.

Vertical Forms is very different. Firstly, rather than being purchased by Hertfordshire County Council, it was commissioned specifically for their new Technical College at Hatfield. The carving in Hopton Wood Limestone is of three interlocking abstract forms and it hung outside on the steel and glass building. Hepworth said of it “I tried to express a quality of aspiration to learning and called it Vertical Forms”. In the exhibition the sculpture is next door to a drawing,Three Figures – Project for Sculpture,probably used before the commission. The exhibit is opposite five of Hepworth’s Hospital Drawings from around the same period.

St Albans, Hepworth, university of Hertfordshire
Barbara Hepworth, Vertical Forms, 1951-52, University of Hertfordshire.

The University of Hertfordshire, on the site of the former Hatfield Technical College, are one of the sponsors of this delightful exhibition and the curation by Dr Sophie Bowness, (Hepworth’s grand-daughter) is excellent. She emphasises the importance of Hepworth’s public art after the Second World War as well as recording the lead Hertfordshire was taking in the wider education of its children.

Maybe as a recognition of that pragmatism, this product of the Hertfordshire Education system will revise his view of St Albans Town Hall!

Jeff Koons at Oxford

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, claims in its introduction, to be the world’s oldest purpose built public museum; founded in the world’s oldest University (in the English speaking world.) The initial collection was based on the curios assembled by the Tradescant  dynasty in Lambeth, in the seventeenth century. It was opened by Elias Ashmole in 1683. Under its roof is a world class display of art and archeology spanning several millennia. So how did seventeen pieces of very modern sculpture by Jeff Koons sit alongside its historic art and artefacts. 

Koons is a very modern, modern artist. He is challenging, commercial, innovative and popular (and of course with all modern celebrity equally unpopular). The show opens with an interview between the artist and Ashmolean Director, Xa Sturgis. Sturgis is, of course, interested in Koons’s response to curating an exhibition in Oxford. Koons obliges saying ‘he couldn’t think of a better place to have a dialogue about art today.” And it is Jeff Koon’s understanding of art today that makes him such an attraction – Kindergarten mouldings, comic book colours, overt voyeurism and brilliant use of new materials, often laid over or appropriating very traditional images.

Ashmolean, Koons, basketball
Jeff Koons, One Ball total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J 241 Series, Private Collection

The Ashmolean exhibition is set out in three rooms. The highlight of the first for me is his iconic floating baseball. This is typical Koons employing a familiar object and using technology for the transformation into art. In this case combinations of distilled water in the ball and salt water in the tank render the ball weightless. Quite why this needs Nobel prize winning quantum physicist, Richard P. Feynman to work out only the artist knows.

Koons, rabbit, Ashmolean, Oxford, steel
Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986, Private Collection.

The second piece is Rabbit from 1986. This, for all the world, looks like one of those twisty balloon sculptures you get at the fairground but unbelievable is made from the stainless steel. The plastic-like creases are so real you cannot believe it is steel – quite stunning.

Rabbit anticipates the second room which features some of the best exhibits, in what the artist calls the antiquity series. I think the Ballerinas is the star of the show. Here he transforms what looks like a delicate pottery table top porcelain figurine into an immense, larger than life size sculpture in steel with subtle colours. The images echo the Venus and Satyr, which features in many of the works in this series alongside.

Koons, ballerinas, Jeff, oxford
Publicity shot with Jeff Koons at the Ashmolean with Ballerinas, 2010 – 2014, The Broad Art Fund, Lois Angeles.

The Gazing Ball series fills the final room. Here the artist employs gazing balls, similar to the types sold in American Garden Centres attached to the front of, or on top of studio reproduced works from the canon of western art, such as Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ or Géricault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’. I suffered two sensations in this room which started with the admiration for the originality (seeing yourself inside these great paintings, but quickly developed into some level of annoyance, as if these balls were really interlopers.

Koons, Géricault, raft, Medusa, Ashmolean, gazing ball
Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball ( Géricault Raft of the Medusa), 2014-15, Collection of the Artist

All in all though a great success for Oxford and a chance to see some of the iconic work of Jeff Koons, the great celebrity, at close hand. The exhibition is on until the 9th June and I am looking forward to visiting it again before it closes.

Images © Jeff Koons

Hepworth – The Conclusion

Barbara Hepworth, as my followers will by now know, is one of my favourite modern artists. I find her sculpture full of power and emotion and I also enjoyed researching the Hepworth Wakefield, David Chipperfield’s award winning gallery. While Hepwort’s sculpture is ubiquitous her paintings are much harder to find as they appear from quite short periods of her life. My painting of the Month is Trio (Surgeons and Theatre Sister) or The Conclusion which was painted in 1948 as part of her Hospital Drawing series.

St Albans, Hepworth, Hospital Drawings,
Barbara Hepworth, Trio (Surgeons and Theatre Sister) or The Conclusion, 1948, Private Collection.

The Hospital Drawings, eighty of them, were all completed between 1947 and 1950, mainly in operating theatres in Exeter and London. The project started as her daughter, Sarah, was being treated for the bone disease, osteomyelitis, which involved being in plaster from head to foot. She befriended the surgeon, Norman Capener, an amateur painter, who gave her access to draw in the theatres.

Her method of etching lines and washing in pastel oil shades echo the starched uniforms of the surgeons and the their staff. She even used a razor blade to score lines in the boards to evoke the work of the scalpel. Many of these drawings and my choice in particular concentrate on the hands. The success of the operation lies with these hands and the tension is inescapable. Look also at the intensity of purpose in the protagonists eyes directing the action, yet at the same time there is a tenderness and delicacy in the artwork.

St Albans Art Gallery was the location where I most recently saw this painting, which will be the subject of another post, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy this delicate and unusual representation from Barbara Hepworth’s work.