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.

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.

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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.

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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

Bill Viola and Michelangelo

Bill Viola. I first saw Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005, in the chapel at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park about five years ago. I have since seen it at The Guggenheim, Bilbao, but this week’s viewing at the Royal Academy in London has restored my faith in the ‘blockbuster exhibition’. 

Fire Woman, 2005, which accompanies it, closes the RA’s retrospective comparison of Bill Viola and Michelangelo. Indeed a stretch of the imagination you might say – High Renaissance master v twentieth century video maker. More of that in future posts as I try to put this comparison in perspective.

Bill Viola, Fire Woman, 2005, and Tristan Ascending, 2005, at the Royal Acadamy until 31st March

It is rare to sit in a London exhibition and enjoy the silence and reverence, viewing the work of a very fine artist. Where Michelangelo may be seen as the epoch of the representational form (three dimensions) on a flat surface then Viola has certainly brought the fourth (temporal) dimension to that same two dimensional plane, with excellence and spirituality.

More importantly if you wish to see this exhibition it has almost run, closing on Sunday. So if you have a soul get to the Royal Academy before Sunday and indulge it.

Mick Rooney at The Fosse Gallery

The Fosse Gallery in Stow on the Wold is very excited about its March exhibition. There is a terrific buzz of enthusiasm.

Mick Rooney the Royal Academician is showing a new series of works entitled “From Genesis to Nemesis”. I called in last week while I was in Stow and saw the delivery of the five foot high Waiting and Wandering – breathtaking. There is so much going on with this very interesting artist. I have been intrigued by Mick Rooneys work for a few years now and even splashed out on one of his Aviary series.

Rooney, Fosse Gallery, Royal academy, Genesis to nemesis
Waiting and Wandering, Oil on canvas 60” x 40”

So it was with some excitement that I arranged to meet the artist in January as he was completing the preparation for the exhibition. I expected to meet an eccentric working in a sort of Harry Potter world so was very surprised by his level headedness, unbelievable memory and wit leading to a pleasurable couple of hours of loquacious discussion. 

Where did his art and creativity come from – not inherited from his parents or family he was keen to explain. “My parents were very practical and straightforward settling in Surrey in the thirties”; so it was down to others around him to notice he was slightly different. He puts this down to an accident in childhood which seemed to effect his education – this from a man fluent in several languages! But relatives and friends observed the six year old travelling in a different direction than expected and he was lucky enough for their support through art schools and Schools of Art. “A calling” he describes his art, but like other great talents he explains how “I found I was quite good at painting and didn’t need to spend time having to think hard about it as it all appeared to be there”. It is all there in the colour and composition that seems effortless.

Mick Rooney, Fosse Gallery, Royal academy, Genesis to nemesis
They await a sign from the Gods, gouache / tempera on paper, 14.5” x 19}

So what about all these creatures, some mythological, some real, the androgynous humans, the beautiful palette. I was of course keen to understand where the imagery came from. When tackled with the question and after a little thought, he astounded me with his answer. “We all spend our time simply going up the escalator taking it all in, but I found when I got to the top I managed to retain all I had seen on the way up.” His memory is inspirational, and it seems he just opens the door with the paint brush and the images flow out as if they all know there place already.

His memory for these early developments astounded me and I could have sat for hours as his development into a very accomplished artist unravelled before me. What became clear though that here was not a man who simply painted but one who had a thirst for knowledge and experience in a poetic manner. And there is a message. The looks in the animals tells us that as we hurtle towards perdition we cannot solve it ourselves. To survive we and nature must become equal partners. These are deep thoughts with Mick Rooney. Not just once in our discussion did he revert to his profound idea that to “see the six year old – see the man”

Mick Rooney, Fosse Gallery, Royal academy, Genesis to nemesis
Rudderless Ark, tempera on paper, 11.5” x 10.5”

The Fosse Gallery show “From Genesis to Nemesis” opens on 4th March. Do go and see this exhibition of works to inspire your innervision. Maybe you might splash out as well!

Images copyright Mick Rooney RA

Edward Burne Jones

Tate membership brings many benefits and I am grateful to my family for buying me an annual card in a (not very) secret Santa draw last year. We made our first trip to London for a while to visit Tate Modern last week, to test the membership and view the retrospective of Sir Edward Burne Jones.

First to the membership. Everyone warned me that the Private Members Room would be very busy which, arriving late morning, it was. I had also expected it to be a posh London crèche, and it was, so I cannot feel disappointed. I also remembered why I try to avoid London Blockbuster exhibitions – too many exhibits, too many people, too many people standing in front of exhibits discussing their shopping trips or medical ailments and too many mobile phones. All that having been said the exhibition is quite superbly curated. The show is set out in seven rooms tracing the artists life from apprentice to master of large scale ‘exhibition’ and ‘series’ paintings and platforming his talent both as a draughtsman and a designer.

Burne-Jones, The Briar Wood, Tate
Edward Burne Jones, The Briar Wood, 1874-84, The Faringdon Collection.

Sir Edward Burne Jones is an inspiration to all who wish to enjoy success. Not naturally talented and educated away from art schools and academies, he became associated with the Pre Raphaelites and worked very hard to become very good in various media. His main influence was his life long friend and colleague at Oxford University, William Morris. He did much design work which is on show here for the Morris Company. My own preference is his stained glass windows which are to be found all over the world and the exhibition may have been better with more examples.

Burne Jones, stained glass, V&A
Edward Burne Jones, The God of Love and Alceste from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, 1861-64, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Burne Jones’s technical excellence cannot be refuted, especially his later work with its romantic poetic beauty, and he certainly has a huge following arguing his place amongst the great British artists. The problem for me and my objection to the Pre-Raphaelites generally is their rejection of modernity. While the group were rejecting the modernity, striving to return to medieval whimsyness In Britain, across the Channel impressionists, post-impressionists and the avant garde were making great strides forward embracing the modern world, with all its faults, paving the way for the twentieth century.

Tate, golden stairs, Burne jones
The Golden Stairs 1880 Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Tate, London.

What I do like is the poetry of the art. As a great favourite of Sandro Botticelli I see many parallels in Burne Jones. Not just the strength of line and the poetry but also the speed with which both artists lost favour in the times, but to be appreciated later.

On our way home we paid a short visit to see the German fantasist Artist, Martin Eder’s ‘Parasites’, at Damien Hurst’s Newport Street Gallery. Technically very sound but probably not to everyone’s taste.

The Sir Edward Burne Jones show was at the Tate Modern until 24th February so unfortunately closed now.

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.