Newsletter Jun 2015

Introduction

Welcome to the June edition. Apart from the contribution from Beth Taylor this edition has a review of Turner’s Wessex ‘Architecture and Ambition’ exhibition held at The Salisbury Museum, a book review of Julian Barnes’ Essays on Art – ‘Keeping an Eye Open’, an interview with Dr Antonia Whitley and my own take on our recent visit to Berlin. And of course at the end our Virtual Gallery. Hope you enjoy! And looking forward to the Summer, ah those long sunlit days, strawberries that actually taste of strawberries, Wimbledon, England entertaining our Antipodean cousins with their fiendishly fast bowlers, but before that a visit to Mells and Chippenham and a final seminar at the Discovery Centre to look forward to.

Beth Taylor writes:-

A warm welcome to members both new and old! We are again at our maximum numbers with a waiting list. Don’t forget, that if you have friends on the waiting list, they may apply to join our visits as paying guests of members.

We are nearing the end of our programme for the first half of 2015, with only two more events to take place – a visit to the WW1 memorials at Mells and Chippenham led by Dr Antonia Whitley and the seminar on New York as the centre of the art world from the 1940s to 1960s, led by Barry Venning.

The programme for the second half of 2015 has now been distributed and applications are already coming in to our new Events Secretary, Christine Clarke-Smith. Details of the September to December programme will be up on our website shortly. Don’t forget, if you want to access our new website, enter the address www.wahg.org.uk direct rather than going through Google.

Now it is time to do more work on the detailed plans for 2016. Once again, we have set a broad programme theme which will allow us to include topics which meet members’ interests and provide variety, as well as building knowledge and understanding of the theme subject.

Alongside our main programme, we arrange Meet the Maker events – watch out for information about these via your email and at our seminars. We also run a Discussion Group event monthly. Let me know if you would be interested in taking part.
Some books to broaden your mind….

Amongst the texts I have read this year are some which I would recommend to members who are interested in the different approaches there are to studying and writing art history.
Anne D’Alleva’s Methods and Theories of Art History provides a clear and helpful overview of the different approaches used by 20th and 21st century art historians, from Formalism through to Post colonial theory, which will take you far beyond the conventional canon.
Mary Acton’s Learning to Look at Sculpture looks at the major themes in the making of sculpture through the careful analysis of specific examples – a really helpful starting point for exploring sculptural forms of the past and the present.
While we are on the topic of art history, Martin Kemp’s Art in History takes readers through the making and functions of art from 600BC to 2000AD.
Brief but fluently written and well illustrated, it provides a historical context for the works discussed.
My favourite books of the year – so far – have to be two very different texts: Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation which looks at the visual culture of Germany as a way to understand the fractured history of a land and its people and follows on from both a radio series and an exhibition at the British Museum. MacGregor’s wide ranging approach as Director at the BM was also demonstrated when he commissioned Grayson Perry to mount an exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the museum in 2012. When we planned to discuss this as a group this year, I re-read Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones. An enlightening biography, this is a fascinating insight into the themes and iconography of his work. Un-put-down-able!

Review of Turner’s Wessex ‘Architecture and Ambition’ at The Salisbury Museum.

Duration of exhibition is from 22 May until 27 September 2015. It’s open Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm and on Sundays 12pm-5pm. Admission is £8 which gives you entry for one year to the museum. No concessions.

I might be preaching to the converted but I’ve always liked Salisbury. We used to visit the Saturday market quite often some years ago. A vibrant and independent place with its past still very much in place in its buildings and street layout. Gothic, Georgian, Victorian are represented and there are a variety of shops and eating places to enjoy.

The jewel in the crown may well be the Close with its various museums, the Bishop’s Palace, Cathedral and Mompesson House. Certainly, that’s where the trail of tourists inevitably wind their way. And seduced by the name of Joseph Mallord William Turner I parked my elderly Japanese model (that’s a Nissan by the way) in the Salt Street car park and shimmied my way to the close and entered for my first time the Salisbury Museum.

The exhibition is small, and clearly focused on Turner’s links to the Wessex region. If you’re tired of jostling crowds in larger galleries, and the inevitable craning and peeking around to catch a glimpse of a masterwork then this offers some relief. The downside is perhaps that the ambience is slightly lacking in terms of lighting and presentation but the absence of crowds and the ability to get up close and personal with some of JMW’s sketches and finished work is a bonus. True, it’s limited as a collection but perhaps therein lies its charm.

Let me give you an example. In the section where several of Turner’s very detailed architectural watercolours are hung you will see ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the South Side of the Close’ and whilst admiring the precise nature of his draughtsmanship in depicting the building you might want to notice the boy playing with his hoop in the foreground. Another watercolour, this time of the Gateway to the Close, a milkmaid stoops with a yoke over her shoulders carrying, what look like, two sizeable milk churns. The lives of ordinary people intrude in these architectural studies. As the pocket guide reminds me it was these architectural subjects that established Turner’s early reputation but there are other paintings which remind us of Turner’s later art.

A room that contains various sketches, watercolours and one oil painting focuses on the various locations in Hampshire and neighbouring counties that Turner explored and and an 1818 watercolour, Off St Alban’s Head caught my eye. In a turbulent sea a ship with full sails scuds alongside waves which are whipped by the wind. That sense of nature that becomes more abstracted in his later work is more clearly delineated here with a hint of danger, drama and colour from sky to sea.

Off St Alban's Head circa 1818-22 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

A final painting to see is The Arrival of Louis Philippe 8 October 1844. Painted in 1844/45 in oils. This is later Turner in which the representational bows to the abstract. A largish canvas in which it pays to get close and relinquish the desire to make understandable forms out of the view but rather luxuriate in the various colours and more importantly the sheer textural work. The recent film, Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner showed Timothy Spall as Turner employing spit and fingers in digging out his work. This painting certainly shows the use of brush and palette knife, probably fingers, and maybe a few kitchen utensils in some of etched marks on the canvas as well!

Overall an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. A brief flirtation rather than a heavy clinch but none the worse for being so. Oh by the way have a look at the actual museum in the same building. It’s been recently renovated in terms of layout and presentation. The attendant told me a lot of money had been spent on it. The exhibits, pre-historic, archaeological and then historical are staged brilliantly.

And so back to Winchester through the gorgeous countryside with a stop for a scone, jam and tea in a certain Edwardian mistress’s tea rooms in Stockbridge. The waitress felt compelled to use a calculator to work out the change of the cost of the tea, £3.85 from a five pound note tendered to her. I’m glad I taught English rather than Mathematics!

Review of Keeping an Eye Open Essays on Art by Julian Barnes published by Jonathan Cape Ltd at £16.99.

I like books. I have a Kindle but somehow it just doesn’t satisfy that need in me to hold and physically engage with pages that turn, the feel of it all. Although published in the UK the book has a French feel to it, (you can imagine picking it up on those second hand stalls on the right bank of the Seine in Paris), the texture of the pages and the way the images of the paintings are presented, uncluttered, separately, but framed within the creaminess of the pages.

Barnes writes fluently and knowledgeably about his various subjects. The research is there but embedded in a dialogue with the reader which conveys his learning, critical acumen and style in a way which suggests an intimate conversation with a friend. In other words it reads so well it’s a pleasure to turn the pages and continue learning about various artists, some I knew, some of whom I didn’t. And as his introduction explains the progress of the essays has a narrative purpose, from Romanticism to Realism to Modernism which is satisfying. Above all you’re getting a response rather than a critique. Barnes writes ‘We remain incorrigibly verbal creatures who love to explain things, to form opinions, to argue…It is a rare picture which stuns, or argues, us into silence. And if one does, it is only a short time before we want to explain and understand the very silence into which we have been plunged.’

Any stand out moments? Well the collection of essays includes his previously published chapter on Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa which is worth the price of admission alone. The historical events are narrated, followed by an analysis which explores the painting of the picture. Detective-like Barnes explores hypotheses, motives, alternatives around the painting of the picture which provide a depth and intrigue to his analysis. And as an artist himself (a literary one) Barnes’ explorations are seasoned with a cultural framework and awareness that illuminates and expands the reader’s knowledge of art.

A final quotation. It comes at the end where Barnes writes about his friend the artist Howard Hodgkin. It also illustrates that where necessary Barnes can drop the anecdotal tone and sum up in a pithy phrase an illuminating shaft of advice about art. Recalling an interview at a literary festival between a reticent Hodgkin and Simon Schama where Hodgkin in answer to Schama’s hypothetical attempts to put words into his mouth said, ‘But that presupposes that I know what I’m doing.’ Barnes writes; ‘Trust the art, not the artist; trust the tale, not the teller. The art remembers, the artist forgets.’ Wise words, and this book has plenty of them!

Interview with Dr Antonia Whitley

As part of a series of interviews with the various lecturers who have informed and entertained us over the years, I interviewed Antonia for this issue of the Newsletter. The format is question and answer, with the answers in bold.

Donatello - Cavalcanti detail

Detail of Donatello’s Cavalcanti Annunciation, Church of Santa Croce, Florence

WAHG has had the privilege of Antonia’s presence many times both in terms of her lectures and art visits. A dominant feature is a clear passion for her subject combined with an intellectual rigour which both challenges and entertains her audience. If you attended the visit to the Imperial War Museum earlier this year, like I did, you would have seen these qualities in action.

What is your first memory of enjoying a work of art?
I am a firm believer in the Jesuit saying ‘Give me the child for seven years and I will give you the man’. In my own case, my parents transported us to the magical world of museums and around historical cities and thus, from an early age, I was exposed to paintings, art and architecture. As I have indicated on the home page of my website (www.antoniawhitley.com), I was taken to the Campo Santo in Pisa as a young child, where I suppose the excitement of the visit was presented to us children as ‘Today, we are going up the Leaning Tower!’ but actually what I remember is not climbing up the tower but the view from the summit – the play of contrasts between the white marble of the buildings set off superbly against the green lawns around them. It felt instinctively beautiful but of course, as a child, I could not have realised why…

Where did you study and start teaching?
I did an MA in Renaissance Studies at the Warburg Institute, part of London University. It was intellectually challenging and the making of my professional persona. I started teaching adults at the City University. My students were mainly bankers– keen, I think, to focus on a subject at the other end of the spectrum of their daytime jobs!

Why did you choose the Renaissance as your field of specialty?
In addition to early childhood summer holidays spent in Tuscany, I fell in love with a Roman at nineteen and over the next two years, spent many happy days looking at the cultural patrimony across all of Italy. No wonder then, that I should have been drawn to the Italian Renaissance when it came to choosing a subject to study! But what really hooked me, beyond the seduction of the packaging, was the intellectual collision that took place in the period between Christianity and Classicism and the rich tapestry of ideas, not just artistic, that this clash generated.

What other art period/s interest you?
Well, I am of course attracted to the medieval period as well as to that of the sixteenth century, referred to in art as ‘Mannerism’. These periods sit either side of my chosen subject and both of them are endlessly fascinating. It is important, of course, to remember that terms like ‘Romanesque’ and ‘Renaissance’ are artificial constructs, since they were only coined in the 19C.
In addition to these periods, over the last few years, I have become very interested in the art of World War One. But that is not really surprising, since many artists of that period were very drawn to the Renaissance, as I hope to have demonstrated on the trip I led (for WAHG) to the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Why do you enjoy teaching?
I love passing on my enthusiasm for my subject. The biggest compliment that can be paid to me is when I am told in a museum or gallery: ‘Antonia – you have really taught me how to look at a painting.’

What do you enjoy most about art?
For me, art is like a drug. It is totally addictive, it makes my heart beat faster and raises my spirit. I cannot imagine life without it.

Do you have a favourite painting?
An impossible question! But if I had to choose only one, I suppose it would be Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection, at San Sepolcro. I see it on average once a year (when I lead a tour there) and every time it moves me deeply. After talking to my group about it, I give them a chance to look at the other paintings in the museum, while I spend every free minute looking into Christ’s eyes– entranced by the great psychological power of the image. It is like a magnet and I find it hard to pull myself away.

Musings on Berlin

Coming to Berlin via the unseemly haste of coach, air travel and coach again, disconnects our links and lives into the somewhere else; hotels with their anonymity and depersonalisation only add to that disconnection. But Berlin! Berlin has the weight of recent history pressing on its streets like a dark cloud promising cold rain.

And it is that sense of history that had the most effect on me, but in different ways. From the reconstructed Ishtar Gate to the Brandenburger Tor, symbols of imperial power, to the memorials that enshrine the memory of those who suffered under the powerful, the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum. Sometimes it’s the absence of artefacts, just an empty space that makes you aware of what has been lost. Stepping into one of the blank, unforgiving voids in the Jewish Museum was one of those moments.

The city is full of contrasts, division and re-integration, neo-classical and glass and steel, separation and reparation, and these contrasts are literally and liberally juxtaposed within walking distance. So perhaps it is that sense of contrasts and the historical contexts which inform them which had the most impact on me.

The art, music and culture was hugely enjoyable. The time spent at the Ganymed restaurant afforded the opportunity for a wine-fest and conversation which was lovely. And on that note I should add that I thought the group dynamic throughout was a very positive and harmonious one, it added greatly to the enjoyment of the tour.

A final thank you to everyone involved in the tour. Those who planned, those who organised, the guides, those who I shared moments with, the camaraderie, jokes, discussions, questions, the gossip, and the drivers who conveyed us safely around. It was a real pleasure.

The Virtual Gallery

This painting is the one mentioned by Antonia in the interview (see above). Do you have a work of art that has had an impact on you? If so let me know at chris.humphreys3@ntlworld.com and it will appear in later editions.

Piero della Francesca - Resurrection

Piero della Francesca San Sepolcro 1463-65

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