Rubens Revised

Rubens and His Legacy: From Van Dyck to Cézanne, Royal Academy of Arts

Three, two, one, brace yourself… Rubens is here, at the Royal Academy, in all his gigantic, pulsating, Technicolor glory.  But hang on.  What’s this?  A rural idyll?  Some toiling labourers?  An atmospheric rainbow?  You could be forgiven upon entering the first room of Rubens and His Legacy, for thinking you had got the wrong venue, or had somehow stepped back in time to the V&A’s autumn Constable show.  Because the start of this display may come as a surprise: there are no tigers or bare ladies, and the canvases are, well, modestly sized.  It is not what the exhibition poster, featuring Rubens’ famously violent hunting scene, suggested we might find; nor does it seem very “Rubensy” in here at all.  A glance at the captions, however, confirms that Rubens did apparently do landscapes.  He did them very well, in fact; as well as Constable and Gainsborough.  Except that it would be more accurate to say that Constable and Gainsborough did them as well as Rubens, for Rubens was painting his craggy rocks and billowing trees some 200 years earlier.

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Peter Paul Rubens, Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon, 1630-40. Oil on panel. 49.5 x 54.7 cm. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Photo: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam/Photographer: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

The decision to kick the exhibition off with this lesser known genre of the painter, was a conscious one on the part of the curators.  We know all about the fleshy nudes and enormous canvases filled with myriad men and gods that dominate his reputation, but are in danger of forgetting the other areas of his art.  And so if this is an exhibition which aims to explore how Rubens touched the generations of artists which followed him, it is also a show which seeks to rehabilitate the painter by highlighting his quieter, informal and more intimate side.

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Peter Paul Rubens, The Carters, 1629. Oil on canvas. 86 x 126.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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John Constable, Full-Scale Study for The Hay Wain, c. 1821. Oil on canvas. 137 x 188 cm. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

If you saw the V&A exhibition last year, the various old master influences on Constable’s work will be familiar, and seeing Rubens’ The Carters (c.1620) alongside a full-scale sketch for The Hay Wain (c.1821), makes it clear that the English artist looked further afield than just Gainsborough and Claude.  “In no other branch of art is Rubens greater than in landscape,” he said in 1833.  But what else is to be expected from Constable?  He was hardly going to wax lyrical about Rubens’ rippling torsos or shimmering flesh, and while the meteorological elements of the Flemish artist’s Landscape with a Rainbow (c.1630) may have captivated and inspired Constable, we do not find many lounging couples and exposed shoulders in his own works. Continue reading

Warts and All: Giovanni Battista Moroni

Royal Academy of Arts

Not long before the Montagues and the Capulets were battling it out in Verona, the Brembati and the Albani were having their own problems 70 miles away in Bergamo.  The Brembati-Albani clash involved fewer star-crossed lovers and vials of poison, however, and instead turned on its protagonists’ opposing loyalties to Spanish or Venetian rule.  But if the Bergamo feud was less romantic than its Veronese equivalent, its end was no less bloody, and, in 1563, one of the Albani family’s servants killed Count Achille Brembati as he prayed in the city’s Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.  After the murder, the Albani were forced to leave Bergamo forever; but today the two families have been reunited on the walls of the Royal Academy, where they again come face to face as part of Giovanni Battista Moroni.   Moroni was Bergamo’s leading painter at the height of the Brembati-Albani dispute, and by the mid-1550s had cornered the portrait market of the city’s high and mighty.  But mindful of his next commission, he was not one for taking sides: in 1553 he painted Isotta Brembati, two years later he was painting Lucia Albani and her husband, Faustino Avogadro, then in 1560 he took on Gian Gerolamo Grumelli, who soon after married Isotta.

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Isotta Brembati (c.1555), oil on canvas, © Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo/ Marco Mazzoleni

Portrait of Lucia Albani Avogadro (“The Lady in Red”) (c.1550-60), oil on canvas, © The National Gallery, London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isotta and Lucia hang opposite one another.  Resplendent in their Sunday best outfits, they drip with jewels, holding their fancy fans.  The aim is clear: to look as important and as rich as possible, and Moroni has risen to the challenge.  Who can miss the pink and white Ostrich feathers of Isotta’s fan, the golden-faced ermine around her neck, or the splendour of Lucia’s gold-shot silk?  The portraits of the husbands are no less flamboyant: Faustino is in his military gear, an enormous feather poking from his hat and an even more enormous plumage rising from the shiny helmet by his side, which must have seen as many battles as Lucia’s golden fan.  Not to be outdone, Gian Gerolamo is head-to-toe in pink, and holds a sword so long it cannot fit in the picture. Continue reading

Radical Rembrandt

Rembrandt: The Late Works, The National Gallery

Rembrandt did not invent the selfie: according to the OED, the image must be a photograph.  But if the self portrait is an early version of this twenty-first century trend, Rembrandt may well be one of its forefathers.  Although artists have been painting themselves for hundreds of years, not many did so as often as Rembrandt, who produced 80-odd self portraits; and these are just the ones that survive.  Unlike today’s self-snappers, Rembrandt did not tend to share his selfies, and the finished portraits were seldom bought by patrons.  Luckily for us, however, the National Gallery is doing the sharing for him, and on display as part of Rembrandt: The Late Works, are six self portraits from the last few years of the artist’s life.

Two of these pictures are from Rembrandt’s final months in 1669, and the artist does not look his best.  He may not have been – if you will excuse the pun – an oil-painting to begin with, but in these last works, in which his swollen, aged face seems to belong more to an 80-year-old than a 63-year-old, it is clear that his health is failing.  But not his painting, which is as robust as it ever was.  The artist was fascinated with his ageing appearance, and his self portrait habit peaked in the last two decades of his life.  On loan from Kenwood House, is the intriguing Self Portrait with Two Circles (about 1665-9), in which he paints himself against a backdrop of two perfect circles, the significance of which has baffled art historians for almost as long as there has been art history.  Is he emulating Giotto who could reportedly draw a perfect circle with a free hand, or are they there to counter-balance the massive triangular bulk of his body?   Whatever the answer, here is Rembrandt as Rembrandt.  He wears his work-a-day painter’s garb and has even eschewed the snazzy berets which feature in the 1669 Mauritshuis Self Portrait and the National Gallery’s 1669 version, donning instead a white artist’s cap and holding the tools of his trade.

Self Portrait with two circles (about 1665-69), Kenwood House, London © English Heritage

Self Portrait with two circles (about 1665-69), Kenwood House, London © English Heritage

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), The National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), The National Gallery © The National Gallery, London

Continue reading

Real-Time Turner

Late Turner – Painting Set Free, Tate Britain

Turner did not take much of a retirement.  In 1851, the year he died, he missed the annual exhibitions; but the previous year, aged seventy-five, there he was at the Royal Academy, with four large oils to display.  During the final fifteen years of the artist’s life, he continued to work at much the same rate as he always had.  There may have been a slow down after 1845, but as Tate Britain’s current exhibition shows, these were not the twilight years.  Late Turner – Painting Set Free, which runs until January next year, is a hefty exhibition and the first of its kind.  There has been a constant flow of Turner shows in recent years – Turner and Venice, Turner and the Sea, Turner Whistler Monet, Turner Monet Twombly – but there has never been a Turner the OAP.  Victorian biographers and critics might have been surprised at today’s theme (one nineteenth century artist even described Turner’s later work as “repulsive”), but for the twenty-first century visitor, the current display includes some of the painter’s most well-known and well-loved works.

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas exhibited 1850 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas (exhibited 1850), J M W Turner, © Tate

This is not, however, an exhibition designed only to showcase the artist’s post-1835 knock-outs and eulogise one of our so-called ‘Great Britons’.  Rather it is an academic display, devised to make the visitor think, learn and reassess.  Turner the Impressionist, Turner the proto-abstract painter, these twentieth century interpretations of the artist have no place in this show.  And stripped of such reductive labels, it is a real-time Turner who emerges, a Turner whose pieces can be viewed as both modern and traditional, while remaining untainted by references to the future.

It all started in the 1890s when art historians began to look at Turner’s later output, much of which was incomplete, in a new light.  Continue reading

The Science of Art – Making Colour, The National Gallery

The Sainsbury Wing is looking different. The walls are almost black and there are backlit photographs of vibrant explosions and placards with neon lettering. Is this the right place? Have I accidently come to the Science Museum? For an art show, there are a lot of mineral samples in cabinets and apothecary’s mounds of colourful powders. This is not South Kensington, but for its summer show, the National Gallery has turned to science or, more accurately, chemistry.  Making Colour, which runs until 7 September, is about just that, and in a collaboration between curators and the gallery’s science department, who have been given a rare pass out of their labs and into the exhibition space, the gallery’s paintings are being taken back to their elements. If the curators had to dust off their GCSE chemistry while putting together this display, so will you, with rocks and minerals (remember, they are different) and old friends from the periodic table, cropping up throughout the exhibition.

Natural System of Colours, Moses Harris (1769/1776), © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Natural System of Colours, Moses Harris (1769/1776), © Royal Academy of Arts, London

The show has been arranged anti-clockwise around the colour wheel, from blue to purple. A bonus room at the end looks at gold and silver which, with no place on the spectrum of white light, are not strictly colours; but try telling that to an International Gothic or Renaissance painter. It was Isaac Newton who devised the first colour wheel in the 1660s, although his circle was not that colourful, and so it is a later version by Moses Harris which the National Gallery has used to demonstrate the concept. Continue reading

Straw men and quilts – British Folk Art, Tate Britain

 

Bellamy quilt (1890-91), Norfolk Museums Service

Bellamy quilt, 1890-91, Norfolk Museums Service

Bellamy Quilt detail

Bellamy quilt (detail)

In the days before box sets, multiplex cinemas and a gastro-pub on every high street, what was a courting couple to do during the evenings?  Without Walter White and some triple fried polenta wedges, Herbert Bellamy and his wife-to-be Charlotte Springall, had to find something else to occupy their time together in the months before their marriage in 1891.  The result was a quilt, stitched in laborious, Technicolor detail to show anything and everything that was relevant or important to the happy couple: a sword, a teapot, Queen Vic with Alfred, a tabby cat, the local boozer, a Norfolk seal, the score to Auld Lang Syne, their favourite cartoon character.  Nearly 125 years on, the quilt looks as good as new – Mrs B was unlikely to have let their painstaking work anywhere near the marital bed – and is a textile record of a relationship.  The quilt is currently hanging in Tate Britain as part of the gallery’s exhibition, British Folk Art, which showcases a wide-ranging, often bizarre, but ultimately enchanting collection of objects and pictures.  The Bellamy quilt was produced at home for the home, and although it has formed part of the textile collection at Norwich’s Carrow House since the 1970s, one cannot help but wonder whether Herbert and Charlotte would have been mystified at the thought of their bedclothes hanging in a major public exhibition.

The curators of this show have not set out to define folk art, and any questions as to whether or not something is art have been deliberately sidestepped.  Instead they have taken the field as it already stands; this is their starting point and this is what the viewer must accept as he enters the exhibition.  And with such thorny issues out of the way, here is a compilation of folk art’s greatest hits, a collection of some of the country’s best examples of the genre siphoned from museums and galleries around Britain.

 

Bone Cockerel (detail), Artist Unknown, Vivacity Culture and Leisure – Peterborough Museum

Bone Cockerel (detail), Artist Unknown, 1797 – 1847, Vivacity Culture and Leisure – Peterborough Museum

Time filling is a running theme in this exhibition, and many of the items on display were born out of a need for occupation.  A cockerel constructed from bits of bone Continue reading

Beyond Civilisation – Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation

If you are looking for Civilisation in Tate Britain’s Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation, you will have to keep on looking until the sixth and final room of the exhibition.  And when you do find the 1960s television series, all you will see is a smallish screen showing clips on a loop, and a set of headphones.  The program’s success when it was aired both in Britain and then around the world, was huge, and its legacy has been lasting, so much so that it is not unusual to hear its presenter referred to as “Lord Clark of Civilisation”.  But before he wrote and appeared in the documentary, which was filmed in 1967-8 and shown in 1969, and before he branched into broadcasting at all, Clark had done a few other things, and it is these which are at the heart of Tate Britain’s new display.

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933 Private collection

Kenneth Clark in front of Renoir’s La Baigneuse Blonde (pl.1), c.1933
Photograph: Marcus Leith, Private collection

In 1934 Clark was appointed director of the National Gallery.  By this point he had spent a stint revising Bernard Berenson’s catalogue of Florentine paintings at the Villa I Tatti outside Florence, catalogued the Royal Collection of Leonardo drawings, organised a blockbuster exhibition of Italian Renaissance art at the Royal Academy, curated the Ashmolean for two years, published a book on Gothic art and bagged a beauty by marrying Jane Martin, whom he had met at Oxford.  Not bad for a man who had only just turned 31.  Clark described the years 1932 to 1939 as the “Great Clark Boom”, when he and Jane lived in a grand house in Portland Place, entertaining London’s fast set and appearing in 1930s equivalents of Hello.  “We were borne along the crest of a social wave”, he later wrote of this feverish period.

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John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9 Tate; acquired by Clark for the National Gallery in 1935

It was not, however, as if Clark had come from nowhere, and the two portraits on display of him as a boy make it clear that his was not a story of rags to riches.  Continue reading