Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Modigliani - Tate Modern, London. (23 November 2017 - 2 April 2018)

Self-Portrait (1919)

Fans (like myself) of Modigliani will think they have died and gone to Modigliani heaven in Tate Modern’s eleven room exhibition which continues until 2 April.  Not only do the artist’s iconic paintings and sculptures transport the audience to early twentieth century Paris, but his last studio in Montparnasse can also be experienced through a fascinating virtual reality recreation.  

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) moved to Paris in 1906 to develop his career as an artist, he was twenty-one years old.  Just fourteen years later, the artist was dead.  Years of chronic ill-health (he had suffered from reoccurring tuberculosis since childhood) had been further exasperated by alcohol and drug addiction as an adult and ultimately fuelled his tragic early demise.

Left: Portrait of Paul Guillaume (1916)  Right: Young Woman of the People (1918)

Portraiture and the female nude dominated Modigliani’s practice and breath-taking examples of these, which chart the development of his now instantly recognisable elongated stylisation, abound in this exhibition.  I have seen many of these painting reproduced in numerous books, so it was an absolute delight to see the originals.  There is a melancholy which appear to emanate from the languid poses and black-out eyes, together with the dark, rich colour palette, which I find absorbing.

Madam Zborowski on a Sofa (1919)

For a short while (between 1911-1913) Modigliani also sculpted.  He was great friends with Constantin Brancusi and Jacob Epstein, and although influences from both these maestros can be seen in Modigliani’s work, this in no way reduces the strength of his own vision.  I would have loved to see even more of this fascinated heads, but those pieces which were on display were totally exquisite.  Apparently, Modigliani’s first love was actually sculpture, but he had to abandon it  because the dust from carving aggravated his tuberculosis and also for such an impoverished artist, it was considerably more expensive to pursue than painting.

Installation View of Room 5, Tate Modern (2018)

Modigliani’s portraits included artist friends, patrons and lovers.  His nudes featured lovers too, as well as professional life models and the most successful paintings pulsate with erotic energy.  At the time they were painted, these modern nudes shocked the Parisian middle-class.  They featured in Modigliani’s only solo exhibition held in his lifetime, which was nearly shut down on the grounds of indecency.  The police commissioner involved particularly found their pubic hair offensive, as traditionally in fine art nudes were depicted hair-free.  Rather than idealised, chaste and anonymous women (depicted as symbols of females in mythology or religion for example), Modigliani painted modern women and depicted them as they really were, which to a degree challenged accepted norms of female representation.  Their personality as well as their flesh dominated the canvas.  Their faces are highlighted with cosmetics, reflecting the growing influence of female film stars and they made direct eye contact with the viewer, almost defying them to return their gaze.  L’Algérienne (1916) and Nude on a Divan (1916) are clearly the same woman.  The intensity of her gaze in both the clothed portrait and nude pose, reflect the absolutely confidence in herself and her sexuality.


Top:   L’Algérienne (1916)  Bottom:  Nude on a Divan (1916)

Of all Modigliani’s portraits and nude studies, it is those of his most regular sitter, Jeanne Hébuterne, which are the most poignant.  They met in 1917 when she was a nineteen year old art student and she soon became the artist’s muse and mistress, until his death.  Modigliani’s portraits of Jeanne show her three year accelerated maturity from a gauche teenager to a woman shaped by hightened life experiences.  They lived together in Montparnasse and already had one child when Modigliani died.  A few days later, pregnant with their second child but inconsolable in her grief, Jeanne took her own life.

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919)

The studio Jeanne and Modigliani shared together has been meticulously re-imagined in the exhibition’s virtual reality room.  Created from old photographs and first-hand accounts, this is a fascinating immersive experience, from a dog barking in the courtyard below the open window to a cigarette burning in an ashtray on the table next to your ‘seat’.  It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to feel as if you are truly sharing the same space as the artist and his tragic muse.

Still view from Modigliani VR: The Ochre Atelier, Tate Modern (2018)

During his life, Amedeo Modigliani had little professional success.  Apart from the infamous exhibition of nudes, the other other exhibition he participated in was the 1919 Salon d'Automne, in which seven of his head sculptures were displayed.  Despite his prolific output in portrait painting, few actually sold or those which did only brought in limited funds.  As is the case of many of the giants of early twentieth century modernism, Modigliani achieved greater popularity after his demise, with his colourful life story becoming immortalised in art history narratives and popular culture.  In 2015, one of those scandalous nudes sold at auction for £100 million...  Modigliani's work, however has more than stood the test of time, notoriety and Hollywood dramatisation (with some marvelous overacting by Andy Garcia).  This totally beguiling exhibition at Tate Modern definitely ranks high in my Top 10 of most eagerly anticipated and enjoyed exhibition visits.  It is a must-see for 2018. 

Top: Modigliani, Picasso and André Salmon in Paris, 1916
Bottom:  Modigliani and Jeanne in the Montparnasse studio, c.1918


Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Seurat to Riley: The Art of Perception, Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire (8 July-1 October 2017)

 Corona, (1970) Peter Sedgley

Unsurprisingly, given that her name is featured in the title, Bridget Riley features strongly in Compton Verney’s Summer exhibition.  I have to confess that Riley’s eye-popping canvases have never been at the top of my favourite artworks list.  I find them two highly coloured and the effect of movement too disorientating, so to say I was expecting an exhibition focusing entirely on ‘optical art’ to be quite a challenge, is an understatement. 

The curatorial premise behind the exhibition is how artists have exploited the ways in which the eye and mind perceive what is seen, with its key themes - pattern and perception – demonstrated by works in which colours other than those painted on the canvas are generated in the eye by the viewer, and those that communicate movement by static form.  With Seurat’s nineteenth century pointillist landscapes as its starting point, leading to Bridget Riley and her fellow Op Artists of the 1960s and right through to contemporary artists including Lothar Götz’s site-specific wall painting and Liz West’s light installation, this exhibition far exceeded my initial expectations.

Left:  The Morning Walk, (1885) Georges Seurat   Right:  Abstract Multicoloured Design, (c.1915) Helen Saunders

After pulling myself away from Seurat’s exquisite “The Morning Walk” (1885), a sketch which provided the starting point for his seminal work “The Seine at Courbevoie” painted the same year, I was delighted to see “Abstract Multicoloured Design” (c.1915) by lone female British Vorticist Helen Saunders.  After some examples of geometric and kinetic art (notably Josef Albers and Victor Vasarely) and before the first full explosion of eye-popping canvases from the 1960s, a wall of preparatory sketches and works in black in white by Bridget Riley, such as “Study for Painting ‘Pause’” (1964), really took me by surprise.  The delicate balance of line, tone and illusion of movement were for me, far more engaging that her colour works.  In fact, I found many of the black and white artworks in the exhibitions much more interesting than the multi-coloured ones.

Blaze IV, (1963), Bridget Riley

Ecclesia (1985), Bridget Riley

Most exciting about this exhibition was the fact that despite its title, it was far more than just a historical survey.  As Riley is still extant (and producing art), it opened up the potential of bringing in her later works as well as more contemporary artists, whose work has been influenced by the movement and who are interested in exploring ‘optical art’ further.  Standing out amongst these were Jim Lambie’s “Sun Visor” (2014), Lothar Götz’s geometric drawings (2015-2017) and most notably Liz West’s beautifully serene light installation “Our Spectral Vision” (2016).

Exhibition View

Installation view: Lothar Götz

Despite the art galleries being split up throughout the rooms of the eighteenth century mansion house and around its other decorative galleries, and resulting in a certain amount of disjointedness, Seurat to Riley: The Art of Perception surpassed all my expectations.  Although my tolerance for the illusionary nature of most Op Art remains the same, being introduced to the work of artists previously unknown to me, like Jesús Rafael Soto and Peter Sedgley and seeing Riley’s early work, made the trip up to Warwickshire more than worth it.

Our Spectral Vision, (2016) Liz West

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Giacometti, Tate Modern, London (10 May-10 September 2017)

"Portrait of Peter Watson" (1953)

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was, without doubt, one of the great painter-sculptors of the twentieth century.  Innovator and experimenter, his relentless pursuit of capturing the appearance of a living model has  led to a body of work which demonstrates the breadth and diversity of his talent and innate skill. 
Giacometti’s distinctive elongated figures are some of the most instantly recognisable works of modern art.  This retrospective by Tate Modern, the first of such scale held in the United Kingdom for twenty years, brings together over two-hundred and fifty works by Giacometti and showcases the development of the artist’s career which spanned fifty years.

Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition detail)

I have been a long-term admirer of Giacometti’s work and have been very lucky to see a number of his painting over the years and most recently in “Pure Presence” at the National Gallery in 2015, which was a much smaller exhibition and left me hoping that I would get an opportunity to see a full retrospective.  I had a lot of expectations.
Giacometti’s consistent return to sculpting the human head throughout this oeuvre and in particular people he was the closest to throughout his life  - his mother, father, brother and wife - is the focus of the first room of the exhibition.  From the very early clay and plaster portraits of his teenage years such as “Head of a Child [Simon Bérard]” (1917-1918) through to the later bronzes of his brother Diego, all demonstrated that Giacometti was born to sculpt.  I could have stayed in that room for hours, it really was a feast for my eyes.  German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) once said that if she could live her life again, she would be a sculptor and nothing more.  If I had been born a sculptor, with even a small percentage of the talent of Giacometti (and Kollwitz), I would have been a very happy woman.

Top: "Head of a Child [Simon Berard] (1917-1918)   Bottom: "Bust of Diego" (1953)

Like many artists at the turn of the twentieth century, African and Oceanian sculpture was very influential on Giacometti.  “Spoon Woman” (1927), first exhibited in Paris in the year it was finished illustrates just how easily the artist assimilated the influence into his own modernist vision.  Giacometti joined the Surrealist movement in 1931.  It proved to be an uneasy alliance.  Despite standing out for being one of the movement’s rare sculptors, Giacometti produced some truly disturbing misogynist depictions of women during his association with the movement.  “Woman with her Throat Cut” (1932) is surely one of the darkest works from the corners of a Surrealist spirit and vision of women.  However in that same year, the artist also produced “Walking Woman II”, reflecting his interest with Egyptian art and this piece thankfully shows the beginnings of his journey away from Surrealism (he was actually formally expelled in 1935) and towards his most iconic figurative work.
"Spoon Woman" (1927)

"Woman with her Throat Cut" (1932)

Every room in Tate Modern’s retrospective featured example after example of Giacometti’s genius.  His intimate busts of his brother and wife are completely compelling, as are his numerous painted portraits, which have always held a particular fascination. 

Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition view)

The overall highlight of this retrospective for me, out of all the wonders on display, was the eight restored original plasterworks “Women of Venice” (1956) made for that year’s Venice Biennale. These haunting, elongated nudes with their base-like feet recall Giacometti’s interest in Egyptian statuary and much like his re-interpretation of Oceanian sculpture nearly thirty years earlier, once again demonstrate the artist’s unique and contemporary vision.
"Women of Venice" (1956)

Giacometti is best remembered for his elongated walking figures such as “Man Pointing” (1947) and “Tall Woman” (1958), which he mostly concentrated on from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1966.  His remarkable career traced the shifting influences and experimentation of European art before and after the Second World War.  Although as a member of the Surrealist movement in the 1930s Giacometti devised innovative sculptural forms, it was his work after the war which developed alongside Existentialism and visually reflected the philosophy's interests in perception, alienation and anxiety after the trauma of the conflict, which has ensured Giacometti’s place in the art history canon and quite rightly too. 
Top:  Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition view)  Bottom: "Man Pointing" (1947)

With the exception of the monumental figures in the final room at Tate Modern’s retrospective, the vast interior space of the gallery surprisingly overwhelmed the artworks as a collection.  Although unexpected, it did not particularly matter given that the individual pieces deserved equal individual attention and overall the retrospective more than met my expectations.

Giacometti in his studio (c.1963)

Friday, 26 May 2017

Pol Bury: Time In Motion, BOZAR, Brussels (23 February-4 June 2017)

Pol Bury c. 1962

Despite being a lifelong art lover, I never profess to know everything about all artists, whether they are considered ‘major’ or ‘minor’ (according to art-historical narratives).  So it is always a delight to discover a completely new (to me) artist, and be excited by their work.

Such is the case with Belgian artist Pol Bury (1922-2005).  Apparently, I am not alone in being unaware of this fascinating artist.  Primarily known for his monumental mechanical fountains, he is also seen as one of the founders of Kinetic Art and this retrospective at BOZAR is the first held in Belgium in over twenty years.

“Time in Motion” charts the development of Bury’s diverse and vast oeuvre from his beginnings as a painter heavily influenced by fellow Belgian Magritte, the introduction of movement in his work as a result of his fascination Alexander Calder’s mobiles and then how that developed even further after being inspired by Louise Nevelson wood assemblages.

The exhibition brings together Bury’s paintings, small and monumental reliefs and sculptures as well as drawings and engravings, all of which give a fascinating insight into the artist’s creative journey.  Despite his early paintings showing little originality or promise – they are clumsy with clichéd Surrealist motifs – thankfully, he soon abandoned such laboured signifiers of female sexuality and gradually moved into complete abstraction.  These early abstract works already have a look of Alexander Calder about them.  It was a visit to Calder’s exhibition at Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1950, which put the artist on new artistic path.

Composition, 1952

The year 1959 is seen as the true beginning of Bury as a kinetic artist.  It was the year he combined style and technique into a unique working practice.  His ‘punctuations’ – monochrome reliefs punctuated by motorised and illuminated nylon or iron wires – earned him international recognition.  Their slow and unpredictable movement make for an interesting experience walking through the gallery.  Presented with a room full of kinetic work which, depending on the time set on the mechanisation of each piece, visitors can walk through the room without seeing anything move at all!  Thankfully, when a piece does start to come to life, the sound of the old batteries cranking up the power gives enough warning to rush back and see which artwork is stirring and moving.

Exhibition View (Room 2: Calder's Lessons)

Twelve years after being inspired by Calder, the work of Louise Nevelson was to inspire another development in Bury’s work.  From 1962, he started to create much large sculptures made of pieces of recovered wood.  These are very appealing, both visually and orally.  The beautiful crafted wooden shapes are fully complimented by the gentle sound of wood thudding on wood, created by the subtle and continuous automated movement. 

Exhibition View (Room 5: Paris, New York and Back)

Bury’s exquisite craftsmanship continued when he progressed from working with wood to metal, which he was eventually able to do due to his commercial success.  While he explored the formal limits imposed by the material, the use of metal offered the artist new possibilities for generating movement - using magnets introduced an element of randomness, not seen in his earlier wooden sculptures.

Top: Circles on 6 Forms (1977)
Bottom:  Spheres (1969-75)

Bury devoted the last thirty years of his career realising large-scale public sculptures as a result of numerous commissions he received, and it was these public sculptures which cemented the artist’s international reputation.  A true reflection of the artistic spirit of the 1960s, Bury can be seen as the Belgian equivalent of Henry Moore within post-Second World War art history.

Pol Bury: Time In Motion” is a very special exhibition.  It charts the rise and rise of a very talented and truly unique artist.  As a personal fan of sculpture this was a very exciting discovery for me and I cannot recommend the exhibition highly enough.
Exhibition View (Room 9: Ending on a High Note)

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (14 September-31 December 2016)

Times (temples) Change (2009)

I am a huge admirer of installation art.  I am fascinated at how such work not only transforms the perception of a space, but also the passive act of looking into an immersive experience.  For me, the scale and spectacle of the best of such art - the interruption between what is expected and what is experienced – has the unique ability of focusing all my attention on just the work and temporarily shutting out all the white noise that usually reverberates around my head.  I find that interventions of contemporary art in historical architectural settings (for example Kate Mccgwire at Tatton Park and Sarah Lucas at Sir John Soane’s Museum), can offer a similar experience and I always look forward to visiting non-gallery spaces which showcase contemporary art.  I find such juxtapositions fascinating, so the prospect of seeing the master of Italian Arte Povera in the eighteenth century splendour of an English country house, was an appealing one.

The director of Blenheim Art Foundation, Michael Frahm, eloquently set out the reasons for inviting Pistoletto to Blenheim Palace (the artist’s most ambitious exhibition to date in the United Kingdom) and how his work both compliments and disrupts the Palace’s Baroque setting, in a very professionally produced booklet.  The little booklet was a helpful and welcome companion to my visit.  Strategically placed in a number of Blenheim’s ground floor rooms, the impact of Pistoletto’s work within the spaces varied greatly.  The monumental The Third Paradise (2003-16) in The Great Hall could not fail to impress – the artifice referred to in the theory behind the piece along with its materials of foam, rags and aluminium contrasting strikingly against the artifice of the ornate ceiling decoration.  The spectacle of that piece almost eclipsed some of the work around it (particularly Top Down, Bottom Up, Inside Out (1976) tucked into an alcove on the west side of the Great Hall.

The Third Paradise (2003-16)

Unfortunately, Contact (2007) had been removed due to damage which I found out after asking an attendant having tried in vain to find it in the north corridor, as indicated the gallery guide.

Beautiful pieces like Dog in the Mirror (1971), Mica Paintings (1976) and Painting of Electric Wires (1967) resonated quietly, while work such as Untitled (1976-2016) and Does God Exist, Yes I Do! (1978-2016) disrupted the rooms with more confrontational intent.  When Pistoletto’s trademark rags were featured these could not fail to offer the greatest opportunities for aesthetic disruption – his iconic Venus of the Rags (1967-2013) placed in the Chapel, being the most deliberate curatorial transgression and one which must have been too tempting to resist.

Dog in the Mirror (1971)

Does God Exist, Yes I Do! (1978-2016)

About a quarter into my visit, I got caught behind a regular guided tour of the Blenheim rooms and found it fascinating (and slightly amusing) that not once did the guide, or any members of the public on the tour, make any comment or reference to any of the artwork in the rooms.

The ‘best’ example of this was in the final room of the general tour, the Long Library.  After the guide had made his closing remarks and bade his audience a fond farewell, I watched every single person make a very speedy exit out of that room, not once looking at any of the wonderful pieces which made up the installation From Self-Portraits to Mirror Paintings (1961-2016), let alone interact with them in any way.  I spent so much time in that wonderful room with that wonderful work, it did make me chuckle and it was this piece, along with The Third Paradise, that successfully shut out my white noise.

The Trumpets of Judgment (1968)

Untitled (1976-2016)

Michelangelo Pistoletto is a key figure of post-second world war European art.  This exhibition offers an exciting glimpse into his remarkable fifty year and also demonstrates with more recent work, that the eighty-three year old artist seems as strident and confident as ever.

It is also only the third exhibition to be held at Blenheim Palace and given that art luminaries Lawrence Weiner and Ai Weiwei were the previous ones, I am sure that future solo exhibitions will be just as high-level.  I would love to see an explosion of Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots and pumpkins throughout the palatial rooms or Kate Mccqwire’s feathers cascading in the corridors.  Above both of those wonderful artists though, how incredible would it be to see Sarah Lucas’s bunnies, fags, nuds and muses invading the Spencer-Churchill interiors, squatting on their furniture and generally causing chaos.  I am not sure how the usual Blenheim Palace visitors would react through, but would love to see those two worlds collide.

Top and Bottom: From Self-Portraits to Mirror Paintings (1961-2016)

Venus of the Rags (1967-2013)


Friday, 7 October 2016

Lluïsa Vidal: Painter of Modernism. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (23 September 2016-15 January 2017)

Self Portrait (1899)
Deep in the basement of the behemoth that is the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya ("MNAC"), I discovered a female Modernist painter previously unknown to me, Lluïsa Vidal (1876-1918).  In all my reading around late nineteenth and early twentieth century painting by female artists, not once have I come across her name.  I do not think I am alone in not being aware of this artist though and she is one (of only two) female artists represented in THIRTY galleries devoted to Modernism at MNAC.  In fact, this is the first retrospective devoted to the artist by this (and possibly any) institution!

Vidal was the only professional female artist of Catalan Modernism and one of the very few Spanish women of that period who went abroad to receive art lessons.  Born into an art-loving upper middle-class family, her professional career started in 1898, when she was twenty-two and held her first exhibition at Els Quatre Gats Café in Barcelona, which was a popular meeting place for artists in Catalonia.  She was the first and only woman to hold an exhibition there.

Class at Academie Humbert (1901)

In 1901, she moved to live and study in Paris for a year.  While in Paris she learned about and become a supporter of, the European Feminist movement.  When she returned to Barcelona, Vidal became a member of a feminist group there and collaborated on the magazine Feminal for the next eight years.  In 1911, Vidal also started her own teaching academy as well as undertaking numerous commissions and exhibiting extensively.
This exhibition brings together more than 70 works and reviews all aspects of her work as a painter, cartoonist and illustrator.  Like many female artists of that time, the main content of her oeuvre reflect the subjects that were readily available to her – female portraits, domestic scenes, self-portraiture.  Early in her career though, she did paint en plein air, but her focus was still aimed firmly at figuration.

Girl with a Black Cat (1903)

Vidal was an exquisite draughtsperson, so I was initially surprised to read that some critics of the time judged her painting as being “too manly”.  But looking closely at a huge painting like The Cellist Resting (1909) I noticed on the rendering of the sleeves and bodice impasto daubs of paint left on the canvas.  This was obviously a conscious decision and demonstrates a bravado, rarely seen from a female painter around that time.  In her most considered paintings, Vidal's brushwork is evocative and expressive, sober and compelling.

The Cellist Resting (1909)

Only five years older than another Catalan artist whose life and art are enshrined in both art history narratives and popular culture, Vidal and Pablo Picasso never met and yet their initial life paths took a very similar direction.  Both showed very early prodigious artistic talent, both exhibited at Els Quatre Gats Café and most importantly, both lived and studied in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century.  I wonder what would have become of Vidal (and her painting) had she, instead of Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) met Picasso while in Paris and became the only female member of his avant-garde tertulia.  Alas, it was never to be and Vidal died prematurely at the age of forty-two of Spanish Flu in 1918.  After her death, her name and work fell into total obscurity and despite MNAC owning a number of her paintings, it is only this year that an exhibition has been held to recognise her achievements in her own country.  Hopefully now this will increase awareness about Vidal and that she will also start to be included in updates of surveys on the rise of female artists at turn of the twentieth century - a place where this Catalan New Woman and Modernist painter deservedly belongs.

Self Portrait ( c. 1900)

Illustration for Artistica Magazine (1910)

Illustration for Feminal Magazine (c.1907)

Photograph of Lluisa Vidal (far right) teaching in her academy (c. 1912)