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.

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

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Another Time, 2017, Antony Gormley, Margate.


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.


The Fosse Gallery at Stow

Art Galleries. The presentation of art to the public, either for display or commercial enterprise, or both, is a fundamental aspect of the World of Art and its history. During my recent study at Oxford I wrote no less than three essays around the subject. While this makes me no expert it does mean that I cannot visit a gallery without considering the museology and the academic viewpoint.

Stow on the Wold is one of those rural settings which is blessed with a number of galleries. Some have been here for many years while others come and go with the wind (which as you know blows cold as in the old nursery rhyme).

The Fosse Gallery in the Market place has a longevity which is ample reward for the quality of its art and presentation. Founded in 1980 by established art dealers Gerard O’Farrell and Brian Sinfield its early reputation was based on Victorian work and water-colours. Don Steyn introduced a modern theme and the Gallery can now be considered among the finest outlets for modern contemporary art and the work of Royal Academicians outside the capital. The current owner, Sharon Wheaton, acquired The Fosse in 2006 and has continued and developed Steyn’s lead adding her own personal expertise to the enterprise.


I spoke to Sharon recently to get an insight into running a gallery of this quality in such a competitive market. “There are no set rules for gallery management,” she said; “you have to see a lot of art and trust your eye.” She does appreciate the contributions of her mother, who introduced her to art as a young teen, emphasising the skill of looking, and her early mentor, Don Steyn; “I was lucky to have a great teacher in Don”.

I asked her how The Fosse Gallery can retain such a portfolio of quality artists including so many Royal Academicians. She explained that the rôle of the gallery has changed over the last thirty years from a buying and selling business to becoming an important outlet for artists. Steyn had established the trust of the Royal Academy and their artists, and they were delighted with the Cotswold promotion for their work. Sharon believes that the gallery’s continued loyalty to good artists “is fundamental to our success”


Mick Rooney (RA), Open Air Aviary (detail), 2012, Private Collection.

The emphasis of the Fosse Gallery is on solo shows, although she does run two seasonal shows at Christmas and the Summer. With a quality portfolio of artists, recent exhibitions have featured the likes of Mick Rooney, George Underwood, the fabulous Charlie Calder-Potts and Lydia Corbett (see Côte d’Azur 4). The current show, which opens on Sunday stages Jane Ford with her passion for British wildlife, unusual settings, northern sense of humour, all delivered with a gothic twist and powerful tone.


Jane Ford, Mr Blue Sky, 2018, Fosse Art Gallery, Stow on the Wold.

What makes a good purchase I enquired,  to which Sharon thought for a while before answering; “the buyer must like the artist and not just see an investment, they should have an idea where it will hang, but once having decided, go forward and buy the very best. I was encouraged when I browsed her website to notice not only one of our acquisitions, a William Gear (from his centenary show), which you know we like, but of yours truly weighing up whether it would work in our Dining Room Gallery!


What I especially enjoy about seeing art presented at The Fosse is its simplicity. In so many galleries in the Cotswolds you are invited down tunnels and up stairs to view room after room of paintings to a point beyond saturation. At The Fosse Gallery the ‘Double Cube’ presentation gives a simplistic approach and allows each piece the opportunity to contribute to the whole. Galleries will come and go in Stow but I do hope the The Fosse thrives and Sharon Wheaton’s programme of excellent ‘solo’ and seasonal eclectic exhibitions continue to bring quality art to this rural outpost


Lydia Corbett (Sylvette David), Sylvette’s Memories, 2002, Private Collection.

And for those who only know two lines!

At Brill on the hill,

The wind blows shrill,

The cook no meat can dress.

At Stow on the Wold,

The wind blows cold,

I know no more than this

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.