Chance Order Change (2016)

The Barber Institute in Birmingham is probably one of the finest small collections of Western Art to be found anywhere in the world. When Lady Hattie Barber set out the acquisitions policy through the trust deed in 1933 the seeds were sown for a brilliant representation of the progression from early Italian painting through to the post impressionists of Paris. However the stipulation that no object created after 1899 should be acquired; reversed by the trustees in 1967, created the dearth of twentieth century art we see now. With the exception of two or three lonely examples; Howard Hodgkin’s, Artificial Flowers (1975), on loan, and Leger’s Composition with fruit (1938) abstract art is largely missing.

Howard Hodgkin, Artificial Flowers (1975)

Chance, Order and Change, the exhibition, therefore came as a complete surprise to me in 2016 attracting my attention; a look into the world of abstraction, and, in particular, constructivism. This post is taken from a Frieze competition entry I wrote that year. On display were twelve works from a private collection, and therefore, normally excluded from public scrutiny. The show ran from 11th February to 8th May 2016.

Josef Albers was the star of the show; one of the giants of geometric abstraction. There were two examples of his ‘Homage to the Square’ series; Red Tetrachord (1962) and a smaller study, Affectionate (1954). These paintings of four diminishing squares, set symmetrically horizontally but descending vertically towards a points, moving around on the retina in quite a hallucinatory way. The colours of Red Tetrachord diminish through red / yellow through earth, pure red to red / blue. This is not a painting to quickly walk past, but one to ponder, enjoy and even enter it trance like. The squares and the colours become more excited, the longer they are viewed and the colours move freely around the spectrum in patterns on the eye.

Josef Albers Homage to the Square Red Tetrachord (1962)

The square dominated the show; eight of the twelve exhibits being based on the equal quadrilateral and the remainder rectangles offering a substitute. Pure curves are almost absent, although there are occasional curvilinear works such as those by Bridget Riley; Orphean Elegy 7 (1979) and her Study for Studio International cover (1971). Riley’s’ is possibly the most familiar exhibits and the only ones which offer the most colourful palette. The curves are more subtly observed in Kenneth Martins Chance, Order, Change (1983) and Victor Passmores Line and Space No 21. Here the straight line still dominates as either groups of lines, the number determined by the throw of a dice, in Martin’s ‘Chance’, or as an array of short flecks in Passmore. But spending time with these sweeping shapes starts rewardin the viewer as strong curves, natural curves, hints of eroticism, appear behind the geometry.

Kenneth Martin Chance, Order Change (1983)

At Chance Order Change half of the exhibits were either black or white, and of the remainder four were monochrome or had only red or blue to offer. The show finished with Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting(1957), a canvas of monochrome black; the ‘end of painting’ as he described it – no line, no colour, no form, no object. But wait; shapes start to appear, more landscapes, more images; representation. What the ambiguity of these minimalistic abstracts prove is that painting did not die but, with time and patience, they become so full of vitality, images and figures. By reducing art to the most complete abstraction and asking so much more of the viewer, the reward is representative imagery that can transgress beyond any of the aspirations of the creation.

Bridget Riley, Orphean Elergy No. 7 (1979)

My entry did not win the Frieze prize but the exhibition was worth the effort though!

Tate Liverpool – Fernand Léger

Fernand Léger and Liverpool seem such good companions. Léger, the great twentieth century avant-garde artist and Liverpool, home of the Beatles and the sixties cultural revolution. Although Léger died in 1955 you feel he would have been absolutely at home in that great artistic decade where, if you did not know better, you would have thought multi media and optimism were invented. That is the theme I took away from the Tate Liverpool’s show, “Leger – New Times, New Pleasures”

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Turner Contemporary – Margate

You realise just what a big county Kent is when you try to travel to Margate by train. A High speed train that comes out of St Pancras like a rocket on wheels seems to take for ever to get to the destination. I might say though it was slightly faster than the fish cake I ordered from the cafe at the Turner, which it turned out, was lost somewhere in the kitchen! 

Margate has a character all of its own. It feels like the sixties preserved for prosperity, without the scooters which is a great pity. It must have been quite something with thousands of noisy Italian scooters and the smell of two stroke fuel. Yes, the nearest ‘pub’ to the station is now the biggest tattoo studio you will ever see. Yes much of the front has not seen a lick of paint for decades but take time to walk round the old town and the covered market and you will be pleasantly surprised. The town simply oozes character.

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But to my reason for visiting: The Turner Contemporary, which I once described as resembling a glorious sea water pumping station. As I have remarked before David Chipperfield’s grasp of gallery design is quite superb, understanding how art should be displayed and especially how it should be illuminated.  You do have to work very hard, however, to match his architectural exteriors to the interiors (with the notable exception of the River and Rowing Museum in Henley on Thames).

I came here to see the Patrick Heron exhibition, which I missed in the more appropriate St Ives setting in the summer. Heron (1920-1999) was one of the leading artists in the St Ives School in the mid twentieth century and a significant British abstractist. The size of his painters inevitably link him with the great American abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. There are of course real differences in the styles. Whereas the strength of the Americans was in the total (spiritual) experience, Heron asks the viewer to concentrate on the detail of the placement of colour and especially the edge. According to the curators, Andrew Wilson and Sara Maston, of the Tate, it is at the edge where “our visual understanding switches out of the painting and back to the three dimensions of the real world.” Heron makes his major statements in his large oils at the edge.

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View of wonderfully lit gallery in the Turner Contemporary, Margate focussing on Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian, 1969, Patrick Heron, Tate Britain.

There appear to be three very different styles revealed in this exhibition – the saturated oils, as above where he really concentrated on the edges, the pale (white) figurative works, and the late gouaches. The figurative works seem to have a more overall structure than the ‘edge’ paintings and the influence of Matisse and modern Paris becomes more obvious.

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10th – 11th  July 1992, 1992, Patrick Heron, Tate Britain.

The abstract gouaches and water colours signify the latter stages of his career and reflect a year spent  in New South Wales. They represent “specific visual realities without ever depicting them”; Andrew Wilson again. The exhibition opens with some water colours completed by Heron in his last few months in 1999 which are quite awesome. Take time out with Sydney, below, ignore any distractions and enjoy how the image moves around in your head.

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Sydney: 7th February 1990, 1990, Patrick Heron, New South Wales Art Gallery.

However, for all the brilliant paintings and wonderful display of colour, I came away not entirely satisfied with the experience. This needs some explanation as a lover of strong saturated modern abstract work. The curation of this exhibition seems to have concentrated on the painterly constructions, excluding reference to Heron’s external influences. The St Ives School is such an important part of British Art History and how it rubs alongside our social history – the impact of the railways, the escapism created by war, and the school’s rapid demise after 1975. Fascinating as the construction of Heron’s work is I felt as if I was grasping for the background; looking for conversations with others from St Ives. A timeline was displayed but the viewer is left yearning for more commentary. This is ironic as Heron was a critical writer, primarily with Art New York and The New Statesman, and was brought into St Ives by his contacts, not his painting.

A comment for the Certificate and the Diploma community, especially those that struggled through ‘Eric Fernie’. This may remind  you of Morelli’s debate with his Italian friend around the importance of the visual construction of a painting rather than the documentation and iconography needed by the “art historian”!

All in all though a great day out, concluding with a walk out on the foreshore for a close up and personal encounter with Antony Gormley’s Another Time. There is something spiritual and yet surreal about these cast sculptures. Photographs always make them look larger than life but in reality against the vastness  of nature they portray man as something quite small.

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Another Time, 2017, Antony Gormley, Margate.

Footnotes

The St Ives School was a colony of mainly British and French ex-pat artists, which can be traced from the opening of the Great Western Railway in 1877 to a gradual decline after the deaths of three prominent members (Barbara Hepworth, Roger Hilton and Bryan Wynter) in 1975.

Andrew Wilson, Patrick Heron: Early and Late Garden Paintings. London: Tate Publishing. p. 17.

Eric Fernie, Art History and it’s Methods, London, 2011, Phaidon Press, p103.

 

Bridget Riley

I have a new header image by the British Op Art artist, Bridget Riley (born 1931). This week I have been reading some old catalogue notes from the excellent exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire in 2017, ‘Seurat  To Riley: The Art Of Perception’. It reminded me how the handling of perspective changed in the twentieth century. After five hundred years of single point Brunelleschian perspective based on the vanishing point, artists started reconsidering how we see images in two dimensions. 

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Massacio, The Trinity, 1428, Santa Maria Novella, Florence showing Brunelleschian architectural perspective.

The main thrust of single point is recession into the plane of the painting, as with Masaccio, in a very architectural way (Brunelleschi being primarily an architect). Very few artists managed the reverse of bringing art out of the picture plane to the space between the painting and the spectator. This has been the realm of modern art; cubism and much abstract work.

Riley, probably the best known British abstract artist has mastered this feat majoring in the Op Art phenomenon. Stand in front of a Bridget Riley work and let the brain try to bring the work under control while the eye continually deceives it. Fall, 1963 is a wonderful example which this media does not do full justice being nearly five feet by five feet. The simple black and white image dances around in colour and fills the space between the painting and the eye. There is, as Riley describes it, “maximum visual energy”

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Bridget Riley, Fall, 1963, The Tate Museum, London.

Future Knowledge at Modern Art Oxford

Back home and back to Modern Art Oxford. The element of modern art I enjoy is the collage of different media and the fact that art should have a message; a conscience. The current exhibition, Future Knowledge is no exception, asking us to make the connection between climate change and the human contribution, seeing the complexity of the relationship and consequences.

The centre piece is Loop (2018), which this post concentrates on, a two part piece of choreography and two dimensional sculpture. On 21st September Eve Mutso, freelance dancer, choreographer and former Principal Dancer of the Scottish Ballet, performed an aerial dance suspended from the ceiling of the gallery by steel ropes. The contact she made with the ground was by dipping her pointe in a small amount (about three and a half teaspoons) of graphite powder. As the dance progressed so she traced her drawing, which has been left for the duration of the exhibition.

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The residual image represents the mark we all leave behind. It is only recently that humanity has been really serious about understanding the future changes resulting from the mark we are leaving now. The point is that we do not really know  the impact and try to shy away from it. Future Knowledge is how four artists have considered the science of the future and the power art can have in alerting us to knowing it. Mutso’s work introduces the First gallery, which invites the spectator to understand the systems of climate change. The second shows works looking at current innovation and the third is an interactive gallery presenting future materials in art, design and architecture.

Eve Mutso at Modern Art Oxford by Ian Wallman

Future Knowledge is at Modern Art Oxford until 28th October.

Aix en Provence (2) Musée Granet

The University town of Aix en Provence is an absolute delight. What with the old Provençal buildings, avenues and squares, the plane trees shading the cafes with dappled light, and the numerous fountains. Having enjoyed the huge Saturday market and a lunch on the Cours Mirabeau we set about some of the museums.

Top of the list was the Musée Granet. This refurbished museum shows a rich collection of works including Ingres and Rembrandt. A fine collection but in truth, you could say typically  provincial. Dominated by regional artists, whose better work is elsewhere. There is a good opportunity, however, to see the works of François-Marius Granet (1775-1849) whose name was adopted for the museum by Aix on the centenary of his death in 1949. An accomplished painter himself with examples such as his own Montaigne Sainte-Victoire.

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Le Montaigne Sainte-Victoire seen from a farmyard at Malvalat, François Marius Granet. Musée Granet, Aix en Provence.

It is also an opportunity to see his exquisite portrait by Jean-August’s-Dominique Ingres. Ingres painted his portrait in 1807 in a series using scenes of Rome as background, this one showing Granet foregrounding the Quiniral, one of the seven ancient hills and now a metonym for the Italian President.

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Portrait of François Marius Granet, 1807, Jean-Augusta-Dominique Ingres. Musée Granet, Aix en Provence.

I thought the collection of Cézanne, however, was very ordinary, except perhaps his hauntingly good portrait of Madame Cézanne. The great artist painted over forty portraits of his wife, Hortense, so they do crop up quite a few times but I found this one exceptionally good. There is, of course a “Bathers” on show, showing the early experimentation with multi point perspective.

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Portrait of Madame Cézanne, 1885-86, Paul Cézanne. Musée Granet, Aix en Provence 

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The Bathers, c1895, Paul Cézanne. Musée Granet, Aix en Provence.

However the temporary exhibition featuring Picasso and Picabia takes your breath away.

Picasso Picabia: La Pienture au Défi, or the “Painter Challenges”,  considers the comparisons between the two artists as part of Picasso Mediterranée 2017-2019. The 150 works from around the world show the comparisons  exhibiting the skills in figurative work, cubism, mechanical modernism, Surrealism and abstract ideas. The theme is that Francois  Picabia (1879 – 1953) the local Parisian greatly influenced Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) as a young man in the French capital. This influence was then reciprocated with Picabia in awe of Picasso later in the century. The colour and dynamism of the work goes all through the exhibition, and I have included just two of the exhilarating exhibits, from around 1925.

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The Woman with the Monacle, Francois Picabia, 1924, Private Collection.

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The Lover, Pablo Picasso, 1925, Musée National Picasso, Paris.

Having missed Picasso in Vallauris and Antibes we had more than our fill in Aix where the extension of the Museum (Granet XX) features the collection of the painter and collector, Jean Planque. This amazing collection is housed in old chapel a few yards away. There are Picasso’s that Planque bought and those he commissioned together with an astounding collection of twentieth century art featuring work of all the greats in French Modern Art. I’ll save for another day.

Back home now after a really great tour of Southern France. We probably saw only a fraction of what is available in public galleries, and of course the numerous gothic and Romanesque Abbeys. Still – a good excuse to go back some time.

St Tropez – Musée de l’Annonciade

St Tropez never fails to marvel. There are several ways in and road is definitely not one of them though. The views from the water taxi from St Maxime is stunning, with the sun picking out the lovely sandy pinks of the old fishing port. Naples Yellow should have been called St Tropez Yellow as it sums up the colour so well. We visited the Musée De l’Annonciade, primarily to see the work of Paul Signac, who discovered the old port in 1892 and stayed.

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Interior of the delightful Musée De l’annonciade, St Tropez, founded in 1922 in an old chapel, with pointillism from Paul Signac and bronze by Aristide Maillol.

One of my essays at Oxford was about The Bathers at Asnieres by Georges Seurat (in The National Gallery) so I was well versed in pointillism and the theory of adjacent colours, and was looking forward to seeing the work of Signac, so inspired by St Tropez. There are more Signac’s  than you can throw a stick at in this delightful ex-chapel including his famous L’Orage, but at the same time a number of other delights.

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St Tropez, l’orage, 1895, Paul Signac, Musée De l’annonciade, St Tropez.

I was taken by the sensual life size bronzes by Aristide Maillol, and other works by other postimpressionists, Bonnard, Vouillard and Matisse, of course, who we missed in Nice. Interestingly, in addition to the French post impressionist works was a large collection of what seemed like seventeenth century Dutch landscapes. All donated or borrowed from the Musée De Beaux Artes, Dunkerque. Why – I have no idea and am still trying to find out.

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La Nymph, 1932, Aristide Maillol. Musée De l’annonciade, St Tropez.

I suspect the best days of St Tropez are long gone but it is still a good day out and if you do go, search out La Sardine for good value harbourside food and the Annonciade for visual delights. Also look out for the old old harbour to get a flavour of what Paul Signac saw and fell in love with in the 1890s.

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La Port De St Tropez, 1899, Paul Signac, Musée De l’annonciade, St Tropez.

Côte d’Azur (3) Nice Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

The trouble with Museums of Modern and Contemporary Art is that there is normally too much to see and the themes are so varied that the spectator is blown away by the experience and exhausted. The additional problem with post modern art is that it also asks a lot of the spectator to understand, so you have to view the image and read hundreds of explanatory words. The exhibits are also normally housed in a building of exceptional architectural interest. Nice is no exception 

So we were beaten by the museum as there is so much to see in Nice. Maybe a couple of hours with Chargall just beforehand was too much! The building, designed by Yvres Bacardi and Henri Vidal is stunning and based on classical ideas of the square and the arch with a very modern accent. The 4000 square feet of exhibition space is on three floors with terraces on the roof to view the arches and the City of Nice.

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The Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain, MAMAC, Nice, 1990.

Regarding the art there was just too much to take in from the twelve rooms. Every single piece is worthy of note for the technical expertise of its construction, whether it be sculture, photography or film (not much painting) but as already noted, difficult to understand. For instance, Ernest Pignon-Ernest (b1942), the Nice born Fluxus and Situationalist artist, very politically charged anti nuclear, and anti apartheid.

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“Jean Genet”, 2006, Ernest Pignon-Ernest, MAMAC, Nice.

Definitely not to be missed, maybe because of its familiarity, is the Yvres Klein level with the rich untramarine (Klein Blue) works in sculpture and paint. The fact that he arranged for paint covered nude girls to roll about the canvas is interesting, but of far less importance with Klein’s other experimentation with sculpture in the room. Until you see Klein Blue in the flesh, so to speak, you do not realise it’s evocative power.

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Part of The Yvres Klein permanent exhibition at MAMAC, Nice.

… so by the time we had visited Marc Chargall and MAMAC it was time to skip the visual arts and head for the Old Town (Vieux Nice) and the culinary arts.

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Les Sardines Farcies Niçoise, 2018.

Côte d’Azur (2) Nice – Marc Chargall

Marc Chargall pops up everywhere in France but no where can you see such a unified display of his iconographic themes than in the Musée Nacional in Nice. In 1966 he gifted to the nation his The Biblical Message collection, a group of large paintings based on the books of Genesis, Exodus and The Song of Songs. All this in a purpose designed exhibition building and auditorium on the hillside above Nice.6A765B4C-A829-46A6-A0FE-835D026A4865.jpegParadise, 1961, The Biblical Message, Musée Nacional Marc Chargall, Nice.

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Song of Songs II, The Biblical Message, Musée Nacional Marc Chargall, Nice.

The exhibition is based on this bible series, showing not only the finished works but Chargall’s preliminary works in all manner of media from sketches to ceramics.

The auditorium also displays three beautiful full height stained glass windows depicting the themes of the creation of the world, and on a wall outside a fifteen foot square ceramic mural entitled The Prophet Elijah.

Côte d’Azur (1) Biot – Fernand Leger

Biot is a lovely hilltop Provençal village just inland from the Côte D’Azur near Antibes. Famous for its glassware and the later home of Fernand Leger, it welcomed us with “the mother and father of thunderstorms.” We came to visit the Musée Nacional Fernand Leger and were well rewarded. The museum was built after the artist’s death in 1955, by his wife, Nadia, and architect, Andreï Svetchine on the hillside outside the village, and is now a state owned legacy to Leger.

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Unfinished Mural, originally planned for stadium in Hamburg, now on exterior front of Musée Nacional Fernand Leger in Biot.

Fernand Leger was originally associated with the cubist period with Picasso and George’s Braques (who co- sponsored the museum) but developed in his own right after the First World War, influenced by the machine orientated futurists. His life time love of colour and the human form has affected many artists since and could be said to be one of the artist’s that inspired pop and, maybe, urban graffiti art. 

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The permanent collection was based mainly on Leger’s later works in painting and ceramics while we also enjoyed a temporary exhibition, vis-à-vis; Fernand Leger and his friends, which linked the artist and his style to other twentieth century artists such as Roy Lichtenstein. 

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Untitled Composition! 1978, Roy Lichtenstein, diptych showing Leger influence with simplified grey shaded face.