Côte d’Azur (4) Antibes & Vallauris

Antibes and the surrounding area is manic for traffic and the signposting is terrible. Hence my excuse for not getting to the Picasso Museum in Vallauris. The time the artist spent at Vallauris was important as he developed his ceramic style in the Provençal pottery village. Our wanting to go there was our owning a painting by Lydia Corbett, the Devon based artist, formerly Sylvette Davide, the muse who introduced the ponytail to Southern France, Bridget Bardot and the world.

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Sylvette, Picasso, c1954. One of the many paintings, ceramics, sculptures Picasso made of the youthful Sylvette Davide in Vallauris from 1954.

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The latter style of Lydia Corbett / Sylvette Davide.

No excuses for missing the Museum Picasso in Antibes except that we preferred a beach and eating day, after the trials of the traffic!

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.

Rheims and Laon

There are a number of buildings I want to see and last week I ticked off another. Last’s Years French trip saw us at Chartres and this year we visited Rheims with its magnificent Cathedral. It is difficult to say which is your favourite medieval cathedral as they all have their own particular attraction. Notre Dame at Rheims must be very difficult to beat though and we were quite taken aback by the experience. We knew about St Remi baptising Clovis* there in 496 AD. We knew that all but two of the French kings were crowned at Rheims. We knew about the wonderful gothic architecture and the west facade with its statues and the ‘smiling angel of Rheims’. But nothing quite prepared us  for the experience.

What takes your breath away is the twentieth century rôle Rheims has had to play in the reconciliation of Europe. Virtually destroyed in September 1914 and the following four years of shelling, the rebuilding of Rheims represents all that is good with Franco German relations and perhaps fitting that Charles DeGaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer should choose Rheims for the famous reconciliation between France and Germany in 1962 (celebrated fifty years later to the day by Francoise Hollande and Angela Merkel)

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Rheims Cathedral, west front with “Kings” statuary and three portals.

But enough of the history; this is an art blog. The architecture of Rheims is highly important in the gothic story and the three portals of the west facade are a stand alone must see of the medieval world. The themes of the life of Mary, the life of Christ, the host of angels, prophets and kings, and the last judgement of Christ are set out in the statuary, but be wary; most of the work is nineteenth and twentieth century restoration.

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Smiling Angel of Rheims

For me  the glass is the glory of the art. There is much medieval glass here, going back to 1235, again heavily restored, and some wonderful grisaille (plain monochromatic) in the choir but look out for the twentieth century work in the east end. The axial chapel has a terrific display of three windows of Marc Chargall’s church glass, created in the same way as the medieval craftsmen. His themes; The tree of Jesse, Kings and the death and resurrection of Christ, show Chargall’s religious iconography at its finest. It is so encouraging seeing the modern standing shoulder to shoulder with the medieval. There are examples of Rose windows in the French ‘flamboyant’ style in the South, west and north facades. 

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Marc Chargall’s stained glass windows at Rheims Cathedral, east axial chapel.

Most emotionally charged though is the work of Imi Knoebel, the German stained glass artist, invited by the French Government to design his six windows in the choir as an act of reconciliation. These abstract windows with strong colours stop you still in your tracks. You move away but then return as your eyes deny your departing. Not always a political animal I would make the observation that to stand inside Rheims Cathedral you realise that Brexit is a shameful disaster unravelling before us, and a failure to read the lessons of history.

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Imi Knoebels’s abstract stained glass windows at Rheims Cathedral.

Laon, a few miles north, is much less emotional but still worth a visit. It’s place in history has it as the first truly unified gothic cathedral being built from 1150-1220. The arrival of flying buttresses and barely pointed arches allows so much more light into the Nave and the view from west to east is completely unobstructed. This was also a time the French masons started experimenting with very high vaults. While not the tallest example the openness, permitted by the use of the flying buttresses, allows good visibility especially of the four stories in the Nave. Most English Cathedral’s are built with three. Laon does not shout its praises like other great churches and, interestingly, even the information boards simply emphasise how the cathedral has influenced others (Chartres, Rheims, Strasbourg, Soissons) rather than promoting its own importance. 

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Unobstructed view through Laon Cathedral showing Nave and choir and four levels below the vaults.

Definitely worth a visit but if you want to have your breath taken away – Rheims is the place.

* the early name, Clovis, developed into Louis by the medieval times.

Is Photography Art?

Photography – Is it art?

This question has troubled the art world since the very first photographic images were created and fixed in the 1830s. There are those (mainly painters) that argue that since the images were formed mechanically they were of a less ‘fine’ form such as tapestry or fabric printing. The argument rages around the creativity and human endeavour required. As the twentieth century progressed and art changed dramatically it is clear that photography became very serious art indeed. Those that wish to further their understanding of this debate (and fry their brains at the same time) should tackle Walter Benjamin’s great essay of 1936, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

This digression  however is really only to introduce a second painting from the recent Ashmolean exhibition: America’s Cool Modernism. I was taken by the simplicity and directness of Edward Steichen’s Le Tournesol (The Sunflower) in the first room.

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Edward Steichen, Le Tournesol (The Sunflower), 1922, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was born in Luxembourg, but moved to USA in 1881. He was heavily influenced by European Modernism and spent time in France before the First World War. The painting of 1922 evokes that period of modernism inspired by the machine and the crisp lines and vibrant colours are typical of a movement called precisionism. Whilst vaguely figurative Stecichen wanted to streamline nature into its basic form. I simply love how the artist has rendered the tone of the vase but most of all the brilliance of the flower. Does it represent the sun, or maybe the flash of the camera. Hence my digression on photography.

As well as being a very accomplished modern painter, Edward Steichen was a truly great pioneer in the world of photography. His biography could be regarded as the definitive study of photography as fine art in twentieth century America. He had developed a partnership with Alfred Stieglitz as early as 1900 and worked on photography in magazine work through to 1917, when he entered the war. He became depressed after the war and in 1923 abandoned painting completely in a fit of rage which saw him destroy many of his works, turning entirely to photography. The Sunflower only survived as Steichen had lent it temporarily  to a friend. So despite his undoubted quality as a machine age modern painter it was his photography and understanding of America which made him.

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Edward Steichen, Flatiron, 1904, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

His full career in photography is well worth a read but highlighted by being a photographer for the fashion magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, and from 1947-61 was the Director of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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Edward Steichen, Gloria Swanson, 1924, (for Vogue Magazine)

So where am I in the debate? Well as (I believe) Art is a mix of creativity (construction) and dexterity (technique), then clearly it must be an art form in its own right – I just do not go out of my way to hunt out photography exhibitions. Now digital imaging, which I see as more akin to painting, well that is different and well worth seeking out. Maybe Steichen’s Sunflower foresaw the digital age. You decide.

Stained Glass at Gloucester

Fotheringhay was a great day out and made me think a little bit more about dead kings and cathedrals. Leicester Cathedral is quite an attraction since the bones of Richard III arrived. But are they really the last Plantagenet’s relics or a very elaborate modern hoax. You must be your own judge. Well at least Gloucester has a genuine King buried in its great Cathedral. Well if you believe that one…good luck. There is no proof it was even the alleged murdered sovereign at his own funeral, let alone whose body it is in the tomb. But oh what a tomb – probably the finest example of existing fourteenth century masonry and alabaster carving anywhere in the land. Do go and see.

Of course this short post is not about imaginary dead kings. It is about twenty first century stained glass. Well away from Edward’s tomb at Gloucester is the Thomas Chapel in the south east corner. A small chapel with fairly unexciting architecture compared to the rest but containing Thomas Denny’s 2014 stained glass windows depicting Thomas meeting the risen Christ, and the Creation of psalm 148. The window is dedicated to the Gloucestershire poet, Ivor Gurney, and reveals all manner of images in different lights.

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Thomas Denny’s triptych of Windows for the Thomas Chapel, Gloucester Cathedral (2014)

It is perhaps fitting that Denny also produced two windows for Leicester Cathedral. Inspired by the life of Richard III.

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One of the Thomas Denny windows inspired by King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral (2016)

I found the Thomas Chapel on a visit earlier this week to Gloucester Cathedral. This magnificent building has so many great architectural delights to take in but occasionally it is worth avoiding the big stuff and just sit and enjoy a quiet corner. Let everyone else go and hunt for the great Norman nave, the important history of the Perpendicular, or the Harry Potter cloisters and just take in the quiet solitude of the pilgrims church.

A question – Which is the largest Great East Window; Gloucester or York?

Fotheringhay and Royal History

Sandy Denny, while with Fairport Convention, wrote her very haunting Fotheringay in 1969 about imprisonment. Was it about Mary Queen of Scots or was it an allegory of the medieval, or general captivity of women? Virtually nothing exists now of Fotheringhay Castle. The Great Hall where the Stuart pretender Queen met her executioner in 1587 is gone; only the old keep mound, part of the silted up moat and a railed up piece of stone are there for the tourist. But the quiet solitude of the site and the village just hint at that lonely event so long ago. Do go to see Mary’s tomb in Westminster Abbey next to Queen Elizabeth’s to understand the importance of her life though.

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Artists impression of the sixteenth century castle at Fotheringhay with The Great Hall

Fotheringhay throws up another delight however, and the reason for our visit. The Church of St Mary and All Souls must be one of the finest examples of the fifteenth century English Perpendicular style as well as being the mausoleum for the Yorkist Dynasty of the Wars of the Roses a hundred years earlier. The collegiate church at Fotheringhay was founded by Richard, the second Duke of York, killed at Agincourt. Buried together at the altar are the third Duke and his brother Edmund, Duke of Rutland, both killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 pursuing the Yorkist cause. The Yorkist symbol of the fetterlock and falcon is everywhere. The most interesting being at the centre of the fan vault below the tower. Look for the wonderful painted pulpit, given to the church by Edward IV. 

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Interior of Fotheringhay Church with Fan Vault and Yorkist Falcon and Fetterlock

The real delight is the architecture. The fifteenth century parish church is pure English Perpendicular with a marvellous lantern tower at the western end. The York Window at the east end displays the symbols and arms of the Yorkists and was donated by the Richard III Society in 1975. What makes the building even more significant is its undoubted influence on St George’s, Windsor (Harry and Meghan). King Edward IV, who was brought up at Fotheringay was the major sponsor of the fifteenth century chapel at Windsor and it is impossible not to see the influence. How does this come about you ask. The parish church we see now is only part of the original fifteenth century structure. It was built on to the Duke of York’s collegiate church and cloisters, subsequently destroyed during the Dissolution. A model shows the original fourteen bay Perpendicular chapel with complete Nave, choir and lady chapel. The influence is complete when you learn that St George’s chapel was also to have a lantern tower. The fortunes changed after the Battle of Bosworth and the Windsor money ran out as the royal building programme moved to King’s at Cambridge, the Tudor project from Lancastrian (King Henry VI) origins. The lantern was never constructed.

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Model of the Duke of York’s full Collegiate church in its fifteenth century glory.

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St George’s Chapel, Windsor, 1475-1530.

So go to Fotheringay and have a drink or meal in the Falcon (named after the Yorkist symbol). Wander around this quiet village and consider the turmoil of the past. The wars with France, the Roses Civil war, the birthplace of Richard III and the religious conflicts of Tudor England. Imagine what an important castle stood above the River Nene, and where all the stone has gone from it and the college. Where are you with the polarised positions of Richard III or Mary Queen of Scots? And then… all this should inspire the tragic Sandy Denny to pen her beautiful allegory of imprisonment.

How often she has gazed from castle windows o’er,
And watched the daylight passing within her captive wall,

Tomorrow at this hour she will be far away, Much farther than these islands,             Or the lonely Fotheringay

 

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The Church of St Mary and All Souls Church, Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, c1434.

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The York Window, donated by the Richard III Society 1975. Note the boar, Richard’s symbol.

Oxford (again) and Modern Drawing

Frantic. That is how modern living can be described. Last Saturday we were in Oxford showing off the Pitt Rivers Museum to Ellie, and finding a good seat for the World Cup Quarter final. Then all the business of a week in retirement, not to mention exit from said competition and here I am back in Oxford again. This time at Modern Art Oxford, for a rare drawing exhibition.

Drawing as an art form had a very difficult twentieth century when attempts were made by art schools to render it obsolete. Luckily we have all come to our senses and drawing is back. Not just the renaissance and historical drawings that the Ashmolean, Fitzwilliam and British Museum are famous for (not to mention the Royal Collection at Windsor) but modern and post modern gems.

The latest exhibition at Modern Art Oxford,  A Slice Through the World “updates and challenges some of the ideas tested during an important moment in Oxford art history, namely the international group show”; Drawing 1972. There is so much to see here that shows the modern artists at their creative best, but not ignoring traditional ideas and materials. Aura- Natasha Ogunji opens the show with The proof, an undersea volcano, attraction, extraction, distraction, 2017. Ink, graphite and thread on tracing paper display several levels in the artist’s mind and the lightness of the paper shimmers in the breeze within the gallery. Are the figure(s) gods above the abstract lava flows? Blue flows replacing the red of molten rock and are the threads part of the human figures or part of the lava flow? Take your time to take in the messages. Leave the frantic world outside.

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Aura-Natasha Ogunji, The Proof, an undersea volcano, attraction, extraction, distraction, 2017.

Laid out on trestle tables like an exam room (Oxford) are 100 pages of an atlas of Europe, pages blacked out with graphite, except for single white spots denoting each settlement. Are we being asked to look at our busy continent as if we would view the night sky. There are no borders here, no history, no prejudices, no conflict – just that tranquility and intrigue we enjoy when we look at the stars on a stlll moonless night. And yet there is the blackness of the sea which like space is the emptiness that is necessary to define the boundaries.

There are, of course, traditional pencil on paper figurative work and the best of these can be found in the Piper Room. The theme here is that the artist has adopted other media, mainly photography, and created their own forms. Most importantly the moment has been celebrated by the artist rather than simply copying the event in film. Look closely at Nidhul Chamekh’s Trois Poses De Fadhel Sassi, 2016, made from burned bread and charcoal on canvas. The original photos were of Fadhel Sassi, a Tunisian professor being assassinated During the bread riots of 1984. Where there was no movement in the original, Chamekh has subtly reframed them and reorganised them to tell his story. Grim as it is it is important for journalists to record the event and for the artist to prick our consciousness  the spiritual meaning.

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Nidhul Chamekh, Trois Poses De Fadhel Sassi, 2016

Next door is Barbara Walkers brilliant graphite on embossed paper, Untiltled, 2018 with its relevance to this years commemoration. The medium allows for the military actions of the black soldiers, marginalised by history to receive a special presence, juxtaposed with the embossed removal of their white colleagues. 

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Barbara Walker, Untitled 2018

To me there are three types of drawing to see at exhibitions. There are the preparatory sketches necessary in the development of paintings and sculpture. There are the drawings and cartoons that have been created through history which, due to the fame of the artist and his other works, have become works of art in their own right. Then there are those drawings that are created to stand alone and individual. This exhibition at Oxford is a celebration of these in the modern era. Set in the calmness of this wonderful inner city space these works invite a reverence that is not unlike a medieval cathedral. Don’t rush through but take time and the spirit of these works will reveal themselves to you. What you see in a drawing is more of the artist’s mind than probably any other art form.

They are of course a few high energy works. Look for Disgrace I, II, III & IV, 2009, where Kate Davis, while acknowledging Amedeo Modigliano’s vacuous female nudes, has also chosen to confuse your senses with her own image. She has taken / appropriated some of Modigliani’s drawings from a monograph and superimposed lines and marks which she traced around her own body. While your first impression is one of desecration you start to see the intermingling of the bodies and some substitution, and again what she is saying with the strength and emotion lost in other media.

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Kate Davis, Disgrace, 2009

You may gather from all this that I believe in drawing as the primary elemental artform , even the essence of art going back to the caves and the starting point for everything else. Enjoy the great drawings of the renaissance of course but also come here for raw beauty and emotional consciousness.

A Slice Through the World is at Modern Art Oxford until 9th September

Southampton

I handed in my final essay this week which is a great relief. Having enjoyed the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright* and the sculptural beauty of Barbara Hepworth I think I need a little time with some two dimensional art. And what better place than Southampton. Just a few minutes from the station is the civic and cultural centre with its City Art Gallery, Sea City Museum and Solent University’s John Hansard Gallery.

The City Art Gallery first. Bridget on the course recommended the Gallery, maybe because she lives here. The main gallery is on the first floor, a long room with a very eclectic mix of mainly nineteenth and twentieth century paintings. There are the Camden Town Group here, the London Group, Graham Sutherland and some interesting work from Cornwall, together with some very fine small bronzes by Epstein, Rodin and Degas. All in all, I thought that was a quaint little provincial collection – where next?

But then I ventured into the side galleries. An early Italian room houses a superb altarpiece by Allegretto Nuzi (1315-1373), and there is an intriguing room with a series of gouache preparatory paintings on the subject of Perseus by Edward Burne Jones (1875-1885). The final work, commissioned by the Prime Minister, Balfour, was never completed so these preparatory paintings are the only full series. It is the story of Perseus’s defeat of the gorgon Medusa and his rescue of Andromeda from the sea monster. Burne-Jones is an acquired taste but a must see nonetheless.

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Perseus and the Sea Nymphs, Edward Burne Jones (1877), Southampton City Art Gallery

A very interesting twist on displaying popular lively work was to ask various members of Southampton Football Club to pick their favourites. I was particularly taken by  a remake of Ford Madox Brown’s, The Work, chosen by James Searle, the Internal Communications Manager. Painted in almost the same spot in Hampstead by David Redfern in 1977, the machinery is added but all the old favourites are present, the “honest labourer, the idler, the unemployed, those employing mental labour.”

Redfern, David, b.1947; Work

Work, David Redfern (1977)

In another Gallery was a special exhibition by George Shaw entitled ‘My Back to Nature” – a pun on his creating the work in the studio. The theme is what happens in the artist’s local woods – a lot of growing up, initiation and a few unsavoury goings on to delight the eye. I first saw  the artists work at the Royal Academy in 2011, and was astonished by the use of ‘Humbrol’ modellers paint in serious art. The subject matter then was derelict scenes on  a Coventry housing estate and the woods of this exhibition are adjoining the estate. This new exhibition, commissioned by the National Gallery is touring the country.

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The Rude Screen (2015), George Shaw, from My Back to Nature (National Gallery 2016)

The final gallery was showing the work of Kelly Richardson an advocate for reminding us how far we have gone in the human destruction of the planet. Her ‘Pillars of Dawn’ are digital painted bare monochromatic trees in the unnatural light of dawn – or is it dusk? I have added Orion Tide (2013) on the main banner as an image that particularly took me. The audio visual video presentation showed launching pillars of fire from a desert landscape. Are they rockets, escaping space craft or simply what they appear to be, plumes of flame?

On the doorstep is Sea City with its exhibitions of The Titanic and Southampton Football Club (again) and the John Hansard Gallery with an Artist Room special on Gerard Richter. More of these another time.

My Back to Nature is at the Southampton City Gallery until1st September.

Pillars of Dawn is at the Southampton City Gallery until 6th October.

  • Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was a great American Architect who just happened, also, to be one of Paul Simon’s pen names for Art Garfunkel.