Introduction: Greetings! It’s the last Newsletter of the year and what a year in terms of the activities of the WAHG it has been! Berlin, the Netherlands, the Shard, and a combination of visits and lectures that have stimulated the body and mind and lifted the spirit. All of which is down to the efforts of our organisers, committee members, lecturers and of course you the members. So can I thank you all for your contribution and like many others I look forward to the delights of the following year. Lastly a thank you to Rodger Hake who makes the Newsletter possible. And who, I should add, has provided a splendidly produced Christmas quiz, suitably fiendish and challenging. Well to me at least! And with Christmas in mind may I wish all of you a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
This issue contains reviews of various exhibitions visited by myself and Beth Taylor. I recently managed to fit in a visit to the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the RA combined with a visit to the Jean-Etienne Liotard exhibition on the same day. Only the Liotard exhibition is available to see at the time of writing, it ends on the 31 January 2016. You can view it at the Sackler Wing, Burlington House, ticket prices depend on concessions available.
There’s a review of James Hamilton’s fascinating book ‘A Strange Business’ which explores the context of art-making in the Britain of the 19th century. To conclude I look back at the Netherlands trip and end with the WAHG virtual gallery. But first a message and request from Beth Taylor.
Beth Taylor Chair and Programme Coordinator: As I write this, our 2015 programme has just finished with a lecture by Antonia Whitley on William Orpen, a splendid ending to a year of art historical treats from our speakers at the Discovery Centre, and our guides to local galleries and further afield in London, Berlin and Holland.
All of this is a team effort – without the combined input of the committee – Carol, Rodger, Lisa, Christine, and Daphne, and the back up of our publication volunteer, June – we would not have had such a good time! Chris, as newsletter editor, informs and stimulates us and provides another link for members. And this year we have another innovation – a Christmas quiz designed by Rodger Hake which should keep you and your Christmas guests puzzling over the mince pies.
Now we can look forward to challenging but we hope enjoyable explorations on the theme of Artist and Empire in the New Year ….. Watch out too for the 2016 list of exhibitions which will be sent out after Christmas. There are some wonderful shows promised.
I wish you all an enjoyable Christmas and look forward to seeing you in the New Year.
Beth Taylor, Chair and Programme Coordinator.
Would you like to be more involved in the running of WAHG? We are looking for some help with the administrative tasks linked to booking the speakers for our seminar programme. Contact me for more information about what would be involved.
Some recent gallery highlights – Peter Lanyon and Ben Johnson shows; Beth Taylor reviews two exhibitions:-
With some time to spare on a recent visit to London, I went to the display of Peter Lanyon’s Gliding paintings at the Courtauld Gallery. I was familiar with the earlier work of this St Ives based artist, who had explored the juxtapositions of land, sea and shore in the local Cornish landscape. In the 1950s his style became looser and his works larger, as he took this exploration further by learning to pilot a glider. The works produced sing out with the colours of the landscape, with great sweeping, curving blocks of colour as he sought to encapsulate the experience of being carried by the thermals above the coastline. In the main display room, surrounded by his paintings, it was as if one was up there with him, exalting in the pleasures of sea and sky.
The Ben Johnson show Spirit of Place could not have been more different. A major retrospective at Southampton City Art Gallery, this displayed the photorealist work of a painter who is primarily concerned with architectural spaces. He has been made an honorary fellow of RIBA for his contribution to the public’s understanding of contemporary architecture. This makes it all seem very worthy and his paintings were certainly architecturally exact – but his work has a huge impact. His paintings are monumental detailed views of modernist and classical architecture. There is no human presence but the sites are inhabited by light and shade, meticulously observed – both reflected and reflected on. Stunning!
Ai Weiwei at the RA – In the December 2014 Newsletter I wrote about my reactions to Anselm Keifer’s works which I described as ‘gritty and visceral’. In contrast I felt occasionally detached in viewing Weiwei’s works.
Let me explain in reference to Room 3 which commemorates the Sichuan province earthquake in May 2008. The room’s contents include; Straight 2008-12 which is an arrangement of thousands of twisted steel rods taken from the collapsed schools’ rubble to Weiwei’s studio, straightened out and arranged into a vast rectangular installation in which the heaped bars contain fissures in its design which mirror a Richter scale.
The steel bars were deficient in load bearing, contributing to the deaths of thousands of children. Weiwei’s action in creating this work alongside the photographs of the stricken area, and films of the awful aftermath of the earthquake, and the cataloguing of 5192 names of student victims which surround two of the walls of Room 3 are a powerful evocation of the consequences of not only a natural disaster but the incompetence and corruption of the authorities who built sub-standard schools and other buildings and then did all they could to avoid the publicising of the event, including a physical assault on Weiwei by police in Chengdu which resulted in a cerebal haemorrhage and hospital treatment.
The problem, for me, was not an inability to empathise with the artist’s intentions and reasons for producing these various representations of the disaster, nor am I immune from being able to imagine and identify with the people involved. It was just that the exhibit of the steel rods seemed to me to depersonalise the event. Rather than accentuate the disaster it, for me, diminished it.
The photographs and names of the students had a different emotional effect in contrast to the steel bars. And that to me is a question about the symbolic value of representation and how it
works on the individual psyche. Undeniably, there is a terrible irony in what Weiwei has done with the iron bars.
Weiwei comments on Duchamp in the exhibition’s gallery notes, ‘I think Duchamp is the most, if not the only, influential figure in my so-called art practice.’ His ‘Hanging Man, 1985 Metal clothes hanger with frame’ is a profile portrait of Marcel Duchamp created from a found object, in this case a metal coat hanger. The said purpose of a found object is one which appropriates an ordinary object and redefines its purpose and meaning in a work of art. This idea challenges the spectator about the nature of meaning and the symbolism that we attach to an object. Not that far away from one of the inherent ideas contained in ‘Straight’.
And this idea is carried through many of the exhibits, his ‘Furniture’ series for example. The exhibit known as ‘Kippe’ 2006 Iron wood from dismantled temples of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and iron parallel bar, struck me in that its cubic shape of a jigsaw of pieces of iron wood surmounted by a parallel bar it has both a solidity and a fragmentary nature contained within it. There’s a comment on the political-cultural history of China and a personal link in that the iron bar is from Weiwei’s studio in Beijing and represents the provision for the physical health of Chinese workers in providing exercise as promulgated by the Chinese government.
Another powerful installation is S.A.C.R.E.D. 2012 (the letters stand for Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, Doubt) in which Weiwei recreates in six dioramas – various aspects of his imprisonment by the Chinese authorities during 2011 for 81 days in which he occupied a small cell with two guards (forbidden to communicate with him) and for the first 30 days was handcuffed.
There are apertures by which we, the spectators, can view the half-human sized representations of his imprisonment, from above, the ceiling, and from the side, still looking downwards. The very act of stepping onto the pedestal provided to look into these dioramas with their incredibly detailed recreations of the room and Weiwei and the guards puts the spectator in the position of the golden-coloured surveillance cameras that form part of the pattern of the wallpaper that adorns the walls of the room housing this installation.
It creates a series of ambiguities. We become voyeurs as we look at the systematic humiliation of the artist; we mimic what the Chinese authorities were doing themselves; and we empathise with the feelings of the prisoner.
In conclusion, perhaps my occasional feelings of detachment were part of my difficulty in attempting to understand a comprehensive and inclusive exhibition of an artist whose efforts against a repressive regime and whose references, historical, cultural, social and political are embodied in such a way that it was overwhelming. I cannot help but think of the connection to Nelson Mandela and his words, ‘The Struggle is my life’. For Weiwei, the struggle is his art!
Jean-Etienne Liotard at the RA Exihibition finishes 31 January 2016. You can view it at the Sackler Wing, Burlington House, ticket prices depend on concessions available: Coming to this exhibition straight from grappling with the implications of Weiwei’s work was always going to be difficult but as the opportunity was there I had to take it.
I’m in a different world I thought to myself as I roamed the rooms with what seemed a endless series of portraits of the rich and powerful people of the middle to late 18th century. Part of my curiosity was seeing an artist who produced many of his works using pastels rather than oil or watercolours. It does create a difference. There’s a sheen, or velvety feel to the textures of clothing and skin which is different from oils.
Once I had acclimatised myself to the nature of the exhibition, arranged, ordered, frames and two-dimensional, I could appreciate the mastery of this painter. It’s worth giving it time and appreciating why Liotard was such a popular and sought-after portraitist. To me, he seems to convey the humanity of his subjects, an individuality, that does not seem to affected by the commercial nature of his work.
His portrait of ‘Charlotte Boyle, Marchioness of Hartington, 1754′ Pastel on paper, shows a young woman in a satin blue fur-lined dress or coat over which light and shadow dance in the folds and pleats of the material. Her expression is intriguing, her grey-blue eyes look at the painter slightly sideways and the slightly pursed mouth below a fairly prominent nose seems to be half-way to a scowl or a smile. Another portrait, of ‘Princess Louisa Anne, 1754′ Pastel on vellum, shows a sickly child, no rose on the cheeks but a sallow yellowish cream pervades her skin and the open eyed-gaze, but without a focus, with half-open mouth, suggests an inner perturbation.
There is variety in the medium used. Oils, pastels, a variety of chalks. The exhibition shows his skills in still-life and interiors, alongside trompe l’oeil. As an example his self-portrait Liotard ‘Drawn and Drawing’ 1782 or 1783 Black and white chalks on (faded) blue paper, is a delightful portrait of the elderly artist (he is eighty years old) seemingly totally in harmony with his art and drawing with a freedom of lines and shading. I could not help but see a resemblance to Professor Dumbledore, as portrayed by Michael Gambon in the Harry Potter films, but perhaps that’s not unreasonable, he is a magical artist!
Review of ‘A Strange Business (Making Art and Money in Nineteenth Century Britain)’ by James Hamilton. Publlished by Atlantic Books 2015 in paperback, price £12.99: This book is a fascinating investigation into the art world, or should I say business, of the first half of the nineteenth century. It charts the development of the shifts in social patterns as new non-aristocratic patrons from wealth generating industries develop into collectors and patrons of artists and their work. Much of the formulation of the current art world we recognise now developed from this period.
Divided into sections which open a different perspective on the world of art Hamilton explores such aspects as; old and new forms of patrons, painters, sculptors, engravers, publishing and the development and production of paints. It has an ambitious scope and is enlivened by copious research and the use of contemporary sources from all and sundry.
An example of this is where Hamilton comments on JMW Turner’s canny operations in the art market in ensuring that he maintained the prices he charged for his paintings by snubbing his patrons if they did not match his intended sale price. This treatment of the high and mighty could however have its consequences as Hamilton quotes John Constable; ‘It is a bad thing to refuse the ‘Great’. They are always angered – and their reasoning powers being generally blinded by their rank, they have no other idea of a refusal than that it is telling them to kiss your bottom.’
What engaged me is the degree of references that Hamilton uses in telling this history. The people, their backgrounds, where they lived, the streets they walked, it all seems to come alive with encyclopedic detail. In addition, in Hamilton we have a sympathetic commentator. For example whilst detailing a vogue in the early part of the century for hard-headed buisnessmen to collect water-colours he questions why they collected such a genre knowing that they were fragile productions, ‘Watercolour collections need nurturing, protecting, keeping like mushrooms in the dark. They are fleeting in their effect and delicate in transmision’.
Hamilton is aware of the cultural zeitgeist and fluctuations in the art market which saw popularity wane and rival artists fight each other for the privilege of a supportive patron. He is also aware of the particular skill of engravers and how their exhausting work created prematurely-aged pactitioners and treats us to a potted history of how paints developed, their dangers and how new manufacturers such as Windsor and Newton came to the fore. Above all, he captures the vigour, entrepreneuralism and industry of the Victorian age.
Brilliant, demanding in its detail, excellent in its research!
The Netherlands Trip: A quick summation of my highlights is the aim. Let me start with Guides. Guides do not break or make a tour (I suppose a really bad one could ruin a tour but I’ve yet to meet one of those) but they can influence and shape one’s experience of a place and its attractions. Remco Dorr, for me, managed a demanding role with humour, courtesy, and a light-hearted touch, combined with an extensive knowledge of his home turf in Den Haag but also of Delft. He acted as the Good Samaritan towards one of our party and by the end of the tour it was quite clear he wasn’t simply ‘the guide’ but one of the group!
Another highlight for me was Den Haag itself, or rather the part of the city within our area of the hotel. Given that the old part of the city and the Parliament buildings and Royal Palace were within five or ten minutes walk away I suppose it’s not surprising, but the atmosphere, the intimate nature of its streets, and some really good restaurants nearby all added to the enjoyment of the place.
And finally, although I could include more, was the charm of Delft. I surrendered the chance of visiting the Royal Blue Porcelain factory for a morning of visiting Delft, initially with some companions, and then on my own. Now admittedly, without the service of a guide, you are inclined to miss turnings or deviate from the map clutched in one hand, or miss an insight into a building that see on the way, but on the other, there is the possibility of seeing something that catches your interest or that isn’t on the itinerary. One such highlight was visiting the Vermeer exhibition which gave a detailed, contextual background to Vemeer’s work with a well-organised display. Well worth a visit. But of course it is the overall impact of the historic centre in Delft which captures one.
And finally, a consistent highlight was, take a bow everyone, the companions I was with during the tour. Thank you!
The WAHG Virtual Gallery: Benjamin Robert Haydon 1786-1846 Portrait of William Wordsworth
I picked this one because Haydon is mentioned in James Hamilton’s book (reviewed above). Haydon was an English painter who specialised in grand historical pictures, although he also painted a few contemporary subjects and portraits. His commercial success was damaged by his often tactless dealings with patrons, and by the enormous scale on which he preferred
to work. He was troubled by financial problems throughout his life, which led to several periods of imprisonment for debt. He committed suicide in 1846. He was buried in St Mary’s Church in Paddington, now St Mary’s Gardens. ‘Ars longa, vita brevis.’