About whats in the white box

I am a student at University Oxford in Art History. I have an eclectic taste in Fine Art ranging from Medieval to post modern and enjoy painting, sculpture and architecture. I am now retired having had careers in Coal Mining, Water Supply and Construction.

The Manneporte (Etretat) – Monet

Etretat on the Normandy coast features in my Painting of the Month for July. Monet painted this cliff eighteen times on various visits to the seaside resort. This one, the closest, was either painted in an illusionistic way or he braved a very rough sea in a dinghy to get this close.

Dieppe, Etretat, Monet, cliffs, arches, new york
Claude Monet, The Manneporte (Etretat), 1883, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Monet shows us his free long brushstrokes and dazzling understanding of light. You can almost feel the evening warmth in the sunlight under the arch.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is where you will need to go to view this Japanese inspired painting close up. On of the important influences on the impressionists were the arrival of Japanese woodcuts into Europe following the opening up to the west of that country. In this scene the dynamic embracing power of the waves, inspired by Japanese artists gives Monet his theme, possibly from Hiroshige’s The entrance to the cave at Enoshima Island in Sagami Province.

Japan, woodcut, Monet, Etretat
Hiroshige, Entrance to the cave, Enoshima in Sagami Province, 1853,

If you wish to see this iconic cliff arch then Etretat is worth the visit. The Parisians turned the little seaside town into a resort with the arrival of the railways in the nineteenth century. Your best route is Ferry to Dieppe and a short drive along the coast. Worth it for the views, the Normandy food and an area steeped in impressionist art.

Cluny Abbey – Cathy Oakes

Cluny Abbey reminds me that I have not said or written much about romanesque art for a while, which is a shame. It was one of my favourite areas of historical architecture. I believe, also, that it was the monasteries and the romanesque building and sculptural programme which allowed Europeans to take the first tentative steps out of the Dark Ages.

Dr Catherine Oakes is an acknowledged expert in the field and we supported the Oxford Arts Festival recently to listen to her opening lecture; Worship, Wine and Song, on a very hot evening a fortnight ago. There was much information about the Cluniac’s organisation, administration and patronage of the arts.

Cluniac Oxford oakes Romanesque
Mural of Christ in Majesty, unknown artist, 11th century, Berzé-Le-Ville, France

Highlights for me is how such an organisation could be so inspired to construct the third Abbey at Cluny, in Burgandy, France. The Abbey, now mostly destroyed, since the French Revolution and mined for other buildings, stood as the largest construction in the world until St Peters in Rome in the sixteenth century. Painstakingly researched over many years we now only have models and images to reflect in its glory so you need imagination to see it fitting into the remote Burgandy countryside. The Abbey though became the exemplar for the successive cathedrals all over Europe and even their gothic successors. 

Oxford Romanesque Cathy oakes
Model of Cluny III Abbey, France, 11th century.

Romanesque architecture has a masculine force that the more feminine gothic replaced later. To have some feeling for this stand outside Durham Cathedral and feel the raw power.

The Bayeux tapestry shows an image of Old Westminster Abbey by way of example.

Westminster, Bayeux William the Conqueror
Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century. Section showing old Westminster Abbey

Claudette Johnson – Oxford

Oxford Modern Art has a reputation for bringing the very best of the modern to this city of medieval tradition. Very often this is in the form of installation and modern media but occasionally there is an exhibition of paintings which really opens up the space. I have seen Graham Sutherland and an amazing exhibition of Jenny Saville’s work here in recent years, so I was looking forward to the current show with some thirty larger than life figures by Claudette Johnson.

Oxford, Modern Art, Claudette Johnson
Oxford Modern Art. View of Upper Gallery showing part of I Came To Dance exhibition

Claudette Johnson, The Manchester born figurative artist, exudes power from every sinew of paint. She has a message to tell as well; that the black female has been degraded through colonial slavery and racism for decades and centuries. Johnson fights back using art historical reference in the line of Egon Scheile and Paul Klee and the gesture of de Kooning and Toulouse-Lautrec to express her message.

Modern art Oxford, Tate, Claudette Johnson
Claudette Johnson, Standing Figure with African Masks, 2018

I came to Dance, the title she chose for this exhibition, she has used to express the dichotomy of the role of dance in Afro – Caribbean communities. The pleasure and the pain of dance and music and the impact of racial stereotyping.

To understand the humanity and the presence which Johnson is expressing in this exhibition it is necessary to be in the space. Instead of experiencing the small twisted space of history you are invited to engage in a wide collaborative experience. The space at Oxford Modern Art allows this collaboration to take place. The large figures seem to float in the space and engage you with their colour and vitality.

Modern Art Oxford, Claudette Johnson
Claudette Johnson, Untitled (Yellow Blocks) 2019.

In Johnson’s words, “the fiction of ‘blackness’, that is the legacy of colonialism, can be interrupted by the encounter with the stories about ourselves.”

Claudette Johnson, I Came to Dance, which is at Oxford Modern Art until 8th September, is a must see exhibition. 

Gregynog Wedding

Gregynog Hall, near Newtown in Mid Wales was the venue for a very enjoyable wedding ceremony on Saturday. The weather was wonderful which made for an especially great day for everyone present.

Gregynog is interesting for its architecture, being one of the earliest houses in the U.K. to be constructed in concrete. The decoration is all painted and is inspired by the traditional wooden framed Montgomeryshire farm houses.

Gregynog, University of Wales, Rodin, Davies Sisters.

The hall’s place in the history of art is by virtue of the amazing collection amassed, and bequeathed to Wales, by the Davies Sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret. The sisters were grand-daughters of David Davies, the Industrialist and philanthropist from Llandinam.

The Davies Sisters started their collection in 1906 and were the first in Britain to seriously purchase impressionist and post impressionist art, their collection featuring the works of Degas, Pissarro, Manet, Monet and Rodin, as well as seven ‘Turners’ re-attributed in BBC’s Fake or Fortune show.

The University of Wales was gifted Gregynog in 1960 as a centre for the Arts by Margaret Davies. The core of the collection of 260 works was gifted to the Cardiff Art Gallery and can be seen in the Davies Gallery, there. However, there is still an eclectic display of paintings and sculpture at Gregynog and we discovered a Rodin sculpture of Victor Hugo in the Senior Common Room.

August Rodin, Victor Hugo

Van Gogh at the Tate

(The) Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968) was one of the most influential albums of the 1960s. Released by the Scottish psychedelic folk rock band, The Incredible String Band, it’s title suggests the beauty of the afterlife. This concept may go somewhere to explaining the love affair the British have with Van Gogh.

Van Gogh, Britain, Tate
Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait (1889)

Van Gogh in Britain at the Tate seems to epitomise this feeling ‘after the pain’. Yes, Vincent Van Gogh came to Britain for three years from 1873, yet he was not painting in those years, and, yes he influenced much art of the twentieth century. But, it is as a stretch that this period influenced the artist to the extent that the Tate curators believe and, by 1910 Britain was so immersed in the colour of Impressionism and its subsequent post impressionist ideas that influence by Van Gogh alone is probably an illusion.

However this is a thinkers exhibition and in his guide, Ben Okri, The Nigerian novelist, posits that our love affair with Van Gogh tells us more about ourselves than it does about the artist. Van Gogh came to London with employment at the art dealers, Goupil & Son, and love, with a Lambeth girl. London was the leading industrial and capitalist powerhouse of the day, and in his letters to his brother, Theodore, the young Vincent anticipated the stay with much excitement. He left three years later with no employment, no amour, and a failed attempt in the priesthood; it could be said that London beat him. But he was absorbed by the images he saw of ‘ordinary’ things and the literature of the likes of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stow (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), editions of which he has included in his portrait, The Arlésienne.

Van Gogh, Tate, The Arlésienne, Arles
Vincent Van Gogh, The Arlésienne (1890)

The journey to the Madhouse in Provence, the frantic paintings, the reverence of the ordinary and his remote death may well have had their roots in the darkness of the Britain he found.

But to the exhibition.

The Tate has provided the relationship with Britain (London) in two halves with very expert curation. Firstly Van Gogh’s time here leaning heavily on the influence of the illustrator, Gustave Doré, and the literature of the likes of Dickens. Star of this section is The Arlésienne, the 1890 portrait of the Station Cafe owner in Arles, above. While in London he bought several contemporary prints and his The Prison Courtyard (1890) is a virtual copy of Doré’s Exercise Yard at Newgate Prison (1872).

The second half of the exhibition relates to Van Gogh’s influence on twentieth Century British artists. This is where the exhibition is a little weaker but does show some very fine examples of post Impressionism in Britain such as Roderic O’Conner, and the Bloomsbury Set.

Roderic o’connor! Vincent Van Gogh! Tate! Van Gogh and britain
Roderic O’Connor, Yellow Landscape (1893)

Sunflowers, of course, are the great representation of the ordinary and a homage to Van Gogh’s great painting in the National Gallery comprises one room with various twentieth century versions. One in particular I liked is by the sculptor Jacob Epstein. You will either love or loathe this room! The Guardian called it a a mausoleum!

Epstein, sunflowers, Van Gogh, Tate
Jacob Epstein, Sunflowers (1933)

All in all, though, a very enjoyable day out. Van Gogh exhibitions now look much deeper into the artist’s life than previously. This interesting idea, that he was greatly influenced by his time in Britain, if a stretch of imagination, has been well presented. It does make you think about yourself, though.

If you can stand in front of Vincent’s Chair (1988) or his (peasant’s) Shoes (1886) without feeling emotion you have no soul! The hangman’s daughter is indeed beautiful.

Hangman, beautiful, daughter, incredible, string, band, cellular song
The Incredible String Band, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Electra publishing (1968)

“Van Gogh in Britain” is at the Tate Modern in London until 11th August.

Renoir Umbrellas 1881-86

Renoir’s Umbrellas seems wholly appropriate as My Painting of the Month for this very wet June. I have always loved this painting in the National Gallery but never quite sure why. It seems such an unusual scene. I think it is the engaging looks Renoir seems to conjure up. Is it the ‘Girl with the Basket’ who enchants us or the young girl engaging directly with the viewer? And who has the man with the hat on the left an eye for. We are left to wander.

Umbrellas, London, Renoir
Pierre August Renoir, Umbrellas, 1886, National Gallery London

Umbrellas is interesting in that it was painted two halves. The right hand side, painted in 1881 has that free impressionist style and the gaiety of that time. By the time Renoir returned to the painting in 1886 he had suffered a crisis in his work and had returned to studying much earlier works in the Louvre, such as prints by Ingres. The brushwork of the girl is much more deliberate and classical, but the face is typical Renoir.

The painting is also an exercise in using black in the palette. I tried copying this many years ago, and must say failed miserably. The simplicity of Renoir’s faces is also their complexity.

Do go to see this enchanting painting in the National Gallery, and consider walking around London on a wet June day with so many umbrellas around – and mobile phones. Complete chaos I would imagine.

Chiharu Shiota – The Key in Hand

The Key in the Hand marks, for me, the coming to an end of my exhibition, and a move back to the world of ‘real’ art. I am planning to visit the Venice Biennale later this year so I thought I would start to immerse in the world of the contemporary.

Chiharu Shiota, a resident of Berlin, is one of the foremost installation artists practising today. She represented the Japanese pavilion at Venice in 2015 with this installation of red yarn, keys and two boats.

Venice Biennale, Venice, keys, Memories, red yarn
Chiharu Shiota, The Key in Hand, 2015

The Venice Biennale is renowned for large installations so this piece fitted well with the tradition. When I first saw the image I was very worried as my initial reaction was of blood and violence. The artist’s explanation presents a very different picture, however. Although a reminder to all of us of the inevitability and individuality of death, the keys aim to represent our emotional memories. Each key we ever possess becomes full of our memories. These are collected up by the boats, presumably from the underworld, and our memories are passed on for eternal stewardship.

Whatever your views are of the afterlife or next world, Chiharu Shiota is saying our memories continue. I cannot wait to get to Venice and the Biennale and the Japanese Pavilion will be on my list of ‘must sees’.