Thursday, 25 April 2013

Manet: Return to Venice

Palazzo Ducale, Venice
24 April –  18 August 2013

Manet's portrait of Emile Zola, which seems more impressive when compared with similar portraits by Lorenzo Lotto.
Struggling to reinvent old forms for modern audiences, Manet's genius is best served by direct comparisons with his influences, as this show proves.

How context matters. If my low opinion of Manet was confirmed at the recent UK Academy exhibition, it was partly contradicted seeing some of the same pictures at this new show at the Doge's Palace in Venice.

Crucially, one of his undoubted masterpieces, Olympia, is here, presented alongside its inspiration, Titian’s Urbino Venus.

The exhibition is fully justified for this conjunction of masterpieces alone, though the rest of the works deserve attention. The curators may not succeed in showing the overwhelming influence of Italy upon the Frenchman, but by providing some of the sources of his work, we can study how he specifically transforms them.

The two outstanding examples of this are his transformation of Venetian paintings, that of Titian highlighted here and of Giorgione’s La tempesta, transformed into Le déjeuner  sur l’herbe.

Neither of the latter works are here, but the Courtauld’s smaller version of the Manet is here, and it is possible to see the Giorgione in Venice at the Accademia, so some form of comparison is possible.

Why compare at all? Because Manet’s achievement becomes more powerful.

The flatness, the coldness, the detachment; the assertive gaze of Victorine Meurent,  above all the sense that the nude women in these paintings are the ultimate modern expression of the form. If the dejeuner is more than ‘just’ a nude, in that it is also a mystery, and therefore the greater work, that also reflects the peculiar mystery of the original.

Titian’s work, in contrast, while impressive, is probably not the best expression of his own genius. That said, it gains when compared with Manet’s work.

His handling of the oils is remarkable, so thin that the canvas is clearly visible beneath (but perhaps this is an effect of time?), yet so subtle that it truly looks as if blood courses through it. Manet, in contrast, has thick handling in his signature flat style.

And yet, we feel somehow closer to the colder Manet. Pornography and sexual fantasies are closer now to Manet’s idea than to Titian’s – sex objects, even in our fantasies, are no longer wholly available.

On a slightly less exalted plane, we can see Manet’s portrait of his champion Emile Zola next to his possible model, Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait of a young man. Both make a virtue of sombre black, though here Manet is less uncannily powerful: he found no new way of conveying intense curiosity.

The other comparisons invited throughout the exhibition make a similar point: Manet’s desire to reinvent past examples for what he felt was a new situation, sometimes successfully ‘making it new’ other times less so.

The best sign of the artist’s success is that we do indeed now see the world in different visual terms than our ancestors did; and this is partly due to his example.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Murillo: 2 exhibitions

Murillo & Justino de Neve: The art of friendship
Dulwich Picture Gallery, 6 February - 19 May 2013

Murillo at the Wallace Collection, 6 February - 12 May 2013

Self portrait. Note the hand resting on the frame-within-the-painting.
From the National Gallery, London.

Devotion only partially redeems darkness, in a thorough London retrospective over two galleries.

Struggling free from a dark background, some light, illuminating at least one face. If the face is human, it typically has its eyes raised upwards; if divine, out towards us, or down to us, depending on how the painting is to be seen.

In any case, the expressions, whether human or divine, whether in a religious context or the context of official portraiture or rural poverty, are intelligent, searching, intense. 

This is a wearying, sombre worldview, recognising the brutality of our existence without sentimentalising it, and usually attempting to depict earnest faith that something is worthwhile, in this case explicitly the Christian faith, specifically Roman Catholic faith in the Virgin Mary, haloed in cherubs.

Murillo was an important influence on painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though on the evidence of the Gainsborough (Dulwich) and Reynolds (Wallace) displayed as examples of this influence, he was strongly misread as depicting charming urchins, in a sense elevating rural poverty as epitomised at the end of the century by Wordsworth. 

Apparently Ruskin too felt that Murillo celebrated the evils of poverty, but again that is a strong misreading (or misviewing). For Murillo, life is savagely hard, and the darkness is only mitigated by the light of the church, perhaps more accurately the Virgin.

For me, this is analogous to saying that the darkness cannot be mitigated, only endured, perhaps with the help of a robust character, as appears in the faces of the celebrated Dulwich beggars.

Dulwich have converted part of their ideal, secular temple space into an impression of a Seville church, the better to display the effects of some of Murillo's religious paintings, leading to a striking Immaculate Conception, in its original heavily baroque frame.

Baroque exuberance is not something to be found in these works, though. The style is more delicate, closer to rococo, as the eighteenth century indeed realised, but again, despite the use of terms like vaporous, smudged, and so on to describe the artist's style, these don't do justice to his bleak, intense vision, somehow conveyed without resorting to the usual dramatic effects and composition choices.

The Wallace Collection brings together four painting that were once displayed together and may have been composed as two complementary pairs. Only the depiction of Joseph being thrown into a well by his brothers is explicitly dramatic, but as you'd expect by now, this scene of shocking betrayal does not seem out of place opposite a vision of the Holy Family.

In the National Gallery's two great portraits, both in Dulwich at the moment, we get a clear idea of the artist. The formal portrait of his friend Justino de Neve conveys a sense of devotion and intelligence alongside wealth and power: we feel this is a man who knows what the world is like, and also knows that even good grooming won't be enough (contra the later decadents).

Murillo's self-portrait's trompe l'oeil suggests a man delighting in transfiguring truth through art - perhaps too much, as the contemporary Belgian printmaker may have been embarrassed by this effect and so removed it from his printed version.

A powerful artist, then, with a vision, but not one to excite pleasure nor one whose vision can move me.

Ecstasy & Death

English National Ballet, 19 April 2013

Marie-Agnès Gillot and Nicolas Le Riche performing Le Jeune Homme et la Mort,  Paris Opera Ballet (2005). 

A shrewd marketing ploy undermined by the dispiriting Etudes.

This triple bill of modern classical ballet addressed three options for the form. The first an abstract piece, the second narrative and the third self-referential.

Jirí Kylián's Petite Mort is set to two adagios from Mozart piano concertos, and is sequence of  female-male couplings, interspersed with solo work involving fencing foils. Movements are elegant and fluid, as befits the music, tinged with eros and melancholy.

The standout work, though, is Roland Petit's short Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, to a setting by Jean Cocteau, and thoroughly part of the latter artist's style. 

As a piece of late symbolism, depicting a hysterical young man effectively in love with death, the work is not overlong, and is extremely effective. Watching it, I felt it wouldn't be possible to find a better medium for expressing this simple yet powerful tale. 

Nicolas Le Riche's movements immediately conveyed the young man's disposition. Words would have been superfluous, and might have leadened the ambiguity of the girl/death figure.

We might question whether the story is hackneyed, but this treatment must be the definitive version of the fable. 

Harald Lander's Etudes, a company warhorse, is a frustrating, vapid affair, as sometimes happens when virtuosity is displayed. 

The dancers were magnificent in this evidently demanding set of studies in dance, involving many twirls, leaps, and other exhausting activities, all performed gracefully. 

It reminded me of a recent description of classical ballet dancers: Apollo's Angels, hinting that ballet attempts to squeeze the most dionysiac, wildest of artforms (dance) into something ordered and cool. The repetitions were increasingly depressing, as the regimented soulless nature of the piece became obvious.

Perhaps even greater virtuosity, on a godlike level, might have saved Etudes, but its unlikely given the consistently vulgar orchestration of Czerny's drab piano music. It's as if Knudåge Riisager overcompensated for the poor source material in the worst way imaginable. Musically things only worsened, climaxing, as it were, in some of the ugliest music I've experienced.

Astonishingly, the ENB have danced Etudes 749 times, while they are on their eighth performance of the contemporaneous Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. If only it were the other way round!

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Project Colony

Fourth Monkey theatre company
Trinity Buoy Wharf, 17 April 2013

Once again, the trailer bears no resemblance to the actual production...

A disturbing Kafka short story is opened up with mixed results.

Dramatising a Kafka fable is a tempting idea, because his work typically conveys a unique atmosphere, often felt to be peculiarly relevant to our condition. And fables generally are better candidates for staging than other purely literary forms such as poetry or realist novels, where characterisation is better conveyed on the page.

This adaptation of In the Penal Colony necessarily expands upon the background of the colony itself, something left vague in the original.

It’s a mixed success, perhaps because it transforms the penal colony into the other type of colony (one that colonises a place), established on a tropical island by a British Commandant in the 1950s, and stuck in that era.

So the condemned prisoner becomes an oppressed native, rather than an imprisoned criminal, and this adds an extra layer to the piece; but overall I found this more confusing than enlightening.

The author’s distinguished (and foreign-speaking) visitor is now a fairly normal modern British tourist, not a foreigner really but uncomfortable around these reminders of a distant colonial past. It’s an attitude I would find easier to share if the colonists didn’t already seem especially grotesque, also oddly prone to childishness, as displayed in their enthusiasm for their guest.

Did colonialism stunt their growth? Or is it the strong leadership of the deceased Commandant that stunts it?

For Kafka, the colonists are not stunted at all, so the question doesn’t arise. But at the end he does surprisingly suggest that the population hated their former Commandant, and were less happy to witness his exacting executions than the central character (the judge/executioner) allows.

In this production that hatred at least makes sense – the hatred of children for their tyrannical father.

One aspect of the fable is conveyed powerfully in this production – the feelings of the central character towards the changes since the old Commandant died. These may be humane changes, or at least well-intentioned, but in her view they are destroying justice, so naturally she fights them.

Here, the changes have more to do with the grinding soulessness of bureaucracy, though presumably the new Commandant could cut through this red tape if he didn’t harbour doubts about the humanity of the executions.

Other aspects of the fable are less well done, or ignored altogether. The disturbingly Christ-like cult of the former Commandant is not present here, though we do hear his godlike voice, another confusing intrusion. The self-execution (or rather unintended self-murder) of the judge/executioner is visually impressive but its various horrors go missing from Kafka's text.

The execution method itself is as imaginatively Dantesque here as it is in the written story, and this is properly the abiding image of the drama, just as it is of the text.

This was a site-specific drama, at the fairly isolated Trinity Buoy lighthouse in London’s docklands. It was the immersive kind, where the audience is encouraged to speak to characters, rather than the more spectatorly Punchdrunk kind (for example). This increases our sense of the strangeness of the colonial community, and the actors were committed and believable, though grotesquerie is surely less challenging than realism.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Pompeii and Herculaneum: Life and death

British Museum, 28 March - 29 September 2013

Marble relief showing Bacchus and his followers, Pompeii.
From the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

Insights into the daily life of a culture that remains the foundation of Western civilisation, but limited on the terrible paradox that this is one of the few slave societies that have existed.

Not so long ago, at least the popular image of ancient Rome was one of clean white marble, white togas, and fringe haircuts. We can thank the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum for giving us a more colourful, bawdy version of the period.

Pompeii had a population of around 15,000, or the same as the admittedly large village of Kidlington, outside Oxford. Herculaneum was about a third the size. Comparatively, Rome itself at the time of Vesuvius erupting may have had a population of a million or more, so a decent city even by our standards now.

So as an urban centre, we shouldn't expect too much of what we find in these 'towns'. It makes sense for the curators of this fascinating exhibition to focus on what the archaeological evidence tells us about daily urban life, rather than the artistic quality of the early Roman Empire.

That said, some of the art here is impressive. The marble reliefs in particular are classical in the best, old-fashioned sense. And the portraits, in either 2 or 3 dimensions, are wonderful. On the other hand, perhaps because frescoes can't be imported, and have to be made in situ, the examples here are understandably uninspiring.

It's still something of a magical exhibition, partly recreating a large town house in Pompeii within the beautiful neoclassicism of the old British Library reading room, parts of which can be seen above as spectators walk around.

Presumably the town house is just that - the residence for a wealthy family in town. Perhaps they would have owned large tracts of rural farmland, and may have spent much of their time in a larger rural villa.

Otherwise, the townhouse here would seem small for a decent sized family, especially given the large number of slaves that were required. With this rural hinterland in mind, the part-garden, part-house layout becomes explicable, not to mention the shopfront that had to be passed through in order to reach the central atrium.

The visit is enlivened by sexually explicit garden furniture, a statue of Hercules drunk, and ribald toilet graffiti. This might lead us to think the ancient Romans were less prudish than us, but as the curators point out, they rarely enjoyed privacy, with slaves always present.

This aspect - the omnipresence of slavery - is necessarily downplayed in this show. I can't easily see how to convey that sense, nor the horrifying implications of it in terms of demand for slaves.

So while the exhibition helps us take a further step away from the image of ancient Romans as dignified elder geniuses, it still doesn't embed us within the slave society. Any attempt to really show the daily life in the period must tackle this problem head-on, and for this reason we still get only a partial view here.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901

Courtauld Gallery, 14 February - 27 May 2013

Spanish Dancer. Courtauld collection.

Very early Picasso, profilgate and potent, but not yet settled on subjects.

The curators claim that in late 1901, following the suicide of his friend Casagemas, Picasso started painting the subjects that would later form the basis for his Blue Period.

Whether true or not, this assumes that during (and before) 1901, the artist didn't have a specific identity. I'd have though there was plentiful evidence here that he had his own identity, perhaps one more radical than would come later, for the next few years before his 1907 Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

Admittedly the style of some of the slightly earlier works for the commercial display at the Galerie Vollard could be described as derivative, at least of the post-impressionists Van Gogh and Gauguin, in their clashing, broadly applied colours.

But it seems soon afterwards, especially in a series of self-portraits, Picasso had take sketchy brushwork and colour clashing to extremes. It was useful to compare with the fauvists on display at the Courtauld, to see just how bold and innovative Picasso was being, several years before that group of painters reached similar conclusions.

So the energy and especially the fecundity that characterised Picasso throughout his life was present at this early stage. But the works are not especially good.

The best of the works, such as the self portraits, really do capture the enormous vitality of this supreme artist, the vitality that makes his works abundant with life, however perfunctorily created.

Others are crude, subjects that might best be described as 'external', those sights of Paris that all artists of the time were expected to paint. Sometimes he misfires more ambitiously, as in the kitsch Burial of Casagemas. Only in the paintings of himself has he found his true subject. 

Manet: Portraying life

Royal Academy, 26 January - 14 April 2013

'Berthe Morisot with a bouquet of flowers' from the Musée d'Orsay.
Reproduced from here.

Lots of duds, but the best evidence for the struggle to be modern within older traditions.

John Updike once started a review of a Monet exhibition revealing he'd gone to see what a bad Monet looked like. I admit to reversing that here: I wanted to know what a good Manet looks like.

Despite his pedigree as the hugely influential pre-impressionist painter of modern life, his paintings are fairly drab and unmemorable, with one or two exceptions. Modern life may be rubbish, but his impressionist colleagues were usually able to make much more of it.

Perhaps the tension between the traditional models and the supposedly modern environment, a tension certainly present in Manet at least as much as any major artist since, crushed most of his genius.

Sadly the evidence of this exhibition does not much improve my opinion.

Too many works were either deemed too poor by the artist for public display, or were unfinished, but not in an interesting sense, despite the curators' hopeful claims.

Stilted poses. Hypnotically large patches of flat single colour (often black). Women in glaring white, men in sombre black. Dull scenes that we're informed were revolutionary, but now just seem everyday. Manet seemed confirmed as a period piece.

But thankfully I was able to fulfil my quest. The Courtauld's (smaller) version of Dinner on the Lawn is the real thing, and I'm all the more grateful for Manet when I realise how many times he failed to achieve the right balance between old and new forms.

In fact, all of the paintings here featuring Victorine Meurent reveal what must have been a new type of image of women. Still trapped in a male-dominated world (and gaze) but aware of it, and resentful. The resentment, and its implicit powerlessness, is something we find unsettling for reasons different from the original viewers, and I wonder if claims to be 'modern' do Manet poor service.

My favourite image here, though, is a portrait of the grieving Berthe Morisot. It has been used in all the publicity for this exhibition, but justifiably. Other portraits on show of the same subject show that Manet wasn't always able to capture what we now recognise as fierce intelligence and independence.

Sometimes, his failures are especially important. A late pastel portrait 'Suzette Lemaire' is done so delicately it invoked the galant era 150 years before Manet, yet the subject is so thoroughly modern, so self-aware and independent, that the medium itself seems to fail, rather than the artist.

For anyone fascinated by the struggle to innovate within the standards set by strong (even overwhelming) precursors, this exhibition illustrates just how hard that struggle is, with many failures needed for each success. For anyone wanting just the outcome, the masterworks of this fascinating artist, this is the wrong exhibition.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Perspectives on collage

Photographers' Gallery 18 January - 7 April 2013

'Untitled' by CK Rajan. From here.
Useful exhibition on what works and what doesn't in collage.

As a sample of collage work from 8 artists, it would be unfair to comment extensively on any one artist, as the work here surely is not representative. The curators nonetheless have an impressively ambitious aim, being both to survey the use of collage an broaden what we regard as collage to include, for example, several installations.

So it seems appropriate to try to draw some conclusions abut contemporary use of collage. I have four.

1. Information overload. Collage can reflect the new 'neon age' of excessive information, where everything is available all the time, but we don't know how to process it. Batia Suter's 'wave, floor version #1' is an example here. The literary antecedent that sprang to mind was Borges' conceptual parody of Drayton's Poly-Albion, as a poet attempts to describe all the flora, fauna, and things of his homeland.

2. Satire. Not specifically a contemporary idea (unlike 1 above) but photo manipulation is ideally suited to satire. CK Rajan's commentaries on the poverty and riches in India are the most powerfully charged works in this exhibition, despite their small size.

3. Abstraction. Arranging and layering found objects, whether three-dimensional objects or photographs, encourages abstraction. Here, both Anna Parkina and Nicole Wermers produced some beautiful simple works, mostly around geometric patterns.

4. Cubism. Interestingly, the oldest artist here, Jan Svoboda (died 1990), is the only one to use collage as originally introduced to high art, as a way to detach us from a single perspective.

These were the four themes I found illuminating. Clunie Reid's work seemed banal and childish, while Peggy Franck was represented by two modest works that left no impression on me. Roy Arden's dadist collages did contain a style, one that I might have added to the four above, but I also found them pinched and irrelevant (and so missing the humour of the original dada).

I'd expect collage to become increasingly prominent as a medium, as our information age becomes more intolerable. But satire is possibly the most appropriate use of collage, alongside cubism, though the latter appears to be an entirely exhausted movement.

Schwitters in Britain

Tate Britain, 30 January - 12 May 2013

Untitled (This is to certify that). From Kunsthalle Mannheim. Found here.

An example of how a thoughtful, productive artist can almost will himself into being interesting, if only because some of his ideas are bound to work.

A dada outsider, if such a thing makes sense, Kurt Schwitters is one of a number of modernist artists who spent significant time in the UK following the rise of Nazism across most of Western Europe.

The British are finally appreciating this wealth of talent, as illustrated in a recent Mondrian retrospective. I hope for similar exhibitions.

Producing art from almost any found materials, Schwitters' work is irreverent but only dimly challenging or political. In some ways he could be a new patron saint for much contemporary British art, and it is interesting to see three newly-commissioned works inspired by this exhibition. Interesting, mostly because the original is much better.

One reason for this is that the German is simply funnier. Some of his collages are brilliant, often ironically commenting on his new, but hardly accepting country, as in 'opened by customs' or his transformation of a photo of the Duke of Clarence. Sometimes they are bitter comments on war, such as 'en morn'. Sometimes they are on the daft internationalist babel-babble side, such as his Ursonate radio performances.

It's otherwise a disappointing selection of work. Schwitters appears to have had something of the profligacy of Picasso, but on the evidence of this, at least by the time he got to the UK, his creative energies were flagging.

Many of these works are too garish, too simple, too uninspired to warrant much attention.

The artist was interested in the same big theme of many other movements in our belated Romantic era - how to live life as if it were an aesthetic experience, as if that were the key aspect of it.

It now seems irrelevant that he was not formally a dadaist. His approach seem completely in line with that movement, stressing the concept rather than the craft of artistic creation, pushing boundaries in order to jolt spectators out of our prejudices, and so on.

If in the end, I was unmoved, presumably that is because art galleries are not obviously the place to learn how best to live, a sentiment with which Schwitters, like many later artists, might have fully agreed. His late Merz Barn in the lake district sounds fascinating; the last in a line of similar architectural projects, sadly unfinished at his death.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Barocci: Brilliance and Grace

National Gallery, 27 February - 19 May 2013

Sublime religious proto-rococo that always delights and sometimes moves.

Annunciation, from the Vatican Museums. Taken from here.

The weather in London at the moment suggests winter rather than spring, but I left this exalted exhibition staring fondly into the pink clouds of sunset with renewed vision.

Above all, this is a delightful spring of a show.

An artist I'd not encountered before, Barocci is in the sixteenth century Italian Mannerist tradition of Correggio, but rather than being a precursor of the seventeenth century baroque he is rather a precursor of the best of eighteenth century French Rococo, all smudged outlines and an emphasis on simple joy.

Graceful joy is conveyed in every piece in this collection of oil-on-canvas alterpieces and preparatory sketches, along with subsequent engravings and etchings.

I refer to the devotional works: the formal portraits are more restricted, and without the blushing reds in the cheek, do not create the distinctive effects of the religious works.

That tint in the cheek, so dangerously twee, works really well here. As the sketches show, the composition of each oil painting was scrupulously perfected, and this sense of supreme refinement carries through to colour harmony, lighting effects and the smudging of the line.

To appreciate that, the etchings and engravings are enormously helpful. When reduced to line, however skillfully, something vital is robbed from the oil paintings, where everything has been carefully chosen to create a sense of almost ethereal spirituality.

A wonderful chalk sketch for the Annunication emphasises this sense of unreality, making the most of the blue paper upon which the drawing is sketched to present an almost abstract blur, with warmth centred on Mary and the angel.

A series of paintings and drawings related to Francis of Assisi present the artist at his most dramatic, while the two versions of the Last Supper are fascinating for the way they relegate this dramatic event into the background of a busy urban tavern scene.

Overall, while it is easy to see why Caravaggio eclipsed this painstaking painter both in prestige and influence, the sketches alone seem to me of permanent interest, and some of the oils are of unmatched spirituality.