Tag Archives: painting

Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. February 2012.

I’ve just been to the Lucian Freud retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, and I have a lot of somewhat contradictory views about his work. This isn’t surprising, since the exhibition spans seventy years – the first painting, a self portrait, dates from 1940 (when Freud was only 18), the last, an portrait of his studio assistant, unfinished at Freud’s death in 2011.

The early-early pictures are very detailed but somewhat distorted portraits: even then, he painted what he saw rather than what others would have liked to see. What he saw was attractive, though: over time, that changed, as if he saw people as meat – living meat, perhaps, but meat nonetheless.

He was very good at painting eyes, however: the eyes were always alive, reflecting the light, in contrast to the flesh he painted later on.

His later pictures seemed uncomfortably voyeuristic, perhaps because I knew that he was painting his wives (he had several), his lovers (many more) and his children (from both wives and lovers). Many of his nudes appear quite sexual despite also appearing like dead meat – quite a feat, I think.

He painted several composite pictures – two or more people in the same picture, but sitting at different times; and frankly he wasn’t that good at stitching them together… The dimensions are wrong: in “Large Interior, W9”, the nude behind his seated mother just looks really out of proportion, whilst the harlequin in “Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau)” looks outsized, misshapen and contorted.

The way he painted nudes – sexual but dead – creates a strange tension. The knowledge of his relationships adds to this. He seems to have had sex with a great many of his models. (He painted the Queen, too. I wonder…) The pictures can be disturbing. There is real sense of mortality in a lot of his work – perhaps because the nudes so often look like corpses. (It may, of course, just be me.) Even the self portraits look a bit dead.

There are several photographs shown as well – most by David Dawson, his last studio assistant, but also images by Henri Cartier Bresson and photographers from Freud’s Soho drinking circle. These said more to me about Freud than his paintings, perhaps because I relate to photographs. Which is again a little disturbing. Was he really so hidden? (In his self portrait “Interior with Plant, Reflection, Listening” he disappears – only part of his body is painted: so perhaps his painting was all about hiding.)

“Still”, an altar piece by Alison Watt.

This morning I went to see Alison Watt’s installation of four paintings, “Still”, an altar piece in the chapel of remembrance of Old St Paul’s Episcopal Church in the Old Town of Edinburgh.

I have been a couple of times before, and I always find it a very moving experience.  This time, I was prompted by a recent programme on BBC1 Scotland about Watt’s current exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

“Still” is set in a side chapel; it is barely lit by a window to its right, and a small candle flickering directly below the painting.  The left wall is a war memorial, a list of names of those who died – presumably parishioners – in the first and second world wars.

The painting is of hanging cloth, I suppose, and the luxuriant folds suggest loss and absence.

The combination of the painting the long list of names is deeply moving.  The whole really is still; I had to sit a while, just looking.  The light, the painting and the names are very affecting.

It is very, very beautiful.

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Alison Watt is represented by the Ingleby Gallery.

Spencer Finch. April 2007.

For much of the last month or so, I have been sorting through stuff; all sorts of stuff.  The accumulated detritus of more than twenty years.  I have made lots of very pleasant rediscoveries: I have spent this afternoon doing something I been intending to do for more than twenty years.  (Twenty two, if you’re being precise; but I am going to write about that separately, some time.)

One of the things I came across was a pamphlet from an exhibition by Spencer Finch, which was held at the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh in 1995.  (See – this really is like personal archaeology.)  The show made a great impression on me.

The exhibition was all about colour; but more, about colour and memory.  At first, I didn’t get it; I mean, I really didn’t get it: I thought it was lousy, pointless art, and it didn’t mean anything to me.

There were three or four different pieces.  The worst first impression was made by a piece called Trying To Remember The Color Of Jackie Kennedy’s Pillbox Hat.  It consisted of a great many small squares of pink.  Lots of pink, with subtle – very subtle – variations in shade and intensity between them.  (The pamphlet has only three squares; but I remember a whole wall full of pink squares.  I could be wrong: my memory could be deceiving me.  And I rather like the idea of misremembering an artwork concerned with colour and memory.)

When I looked at this, all I saw was squares of pink, like a Dulux catalogue.  I didn’t even like the pink.

The woman overseeing the exhibition asked what I thought of the piece, and I told her.  She started to explain it to me, and we got into a discussion.  She explained what was behind the work, the concept perhaps.  And as she told me about it, it began to make sense; the ideas were interesting, and intriguing, and grabbed me with an intensity.

What she told me was this.  On the day of John F. Kennedy’s assignation, his wife Jackie was wearing a pink outfit.  She was photographed in this out, she appeared on TV in this outfit: a pink suit, and a pink pillbox hat.  These pictures were sent all over the world, as she scrambled to her dying husband.

All the pictures were in black and white.

So although her clothes were described – she was a superstar, after all – and although the pictures were seen all over the world, no one actually saw the pink of the hat.  For most people – for almost the whole world – it only existed in our imaginations.  (Until the exhibition, it hadn’t existed in mine: until I saw the show, I didn’t know she’d been wearing pink.)

The piece was all about imagining the colour, trying capture the memory – one of those events that people know where they were when they heard the news.  (It is my earliest memory – at least, the earliest I can place a date on; I was three and a half.)

Knowing the story, having it explained to me, the piece made sense.  And I saw a real beauty in it – quite a change around considering I had hated it five minutes before.

I don’t think it is “good” art – I don’t think that I should need to know the story to understand a work of art.  But I also think the ideas encompassed within it are brilliant.

Trying to remember the color of Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hat

Another piece was similar: the colour of the blue of the sky as the Challenger space shuttle exploded.  That was recorded in colour; maybe because of that, it didn’t resonate with me so much.

The last piece I remember I thought was brilliant from the outset.  It is a sketch map of Edinburgh, drawn by Finch, and with notes as to the colours he remembered as he drew it.  It was witty, it was about my favourite city, and it was about my favourite places.

Curiously, he drew the map wrong – in the same way that I always draw sketch maps of Edinburgh wrong.  He has north at the bottom, where one would normally expect south to be.  This is how I often draw Edinburgh.  I don’t know why Finch drew Edinburgh this way – except that this must be how he remembered it.  I think I draw it this way because I have mostly lived in the north, at the bottom of a long, steep hill – both as a student and for most of the last thirteen years.  Going towards the centre of the town, I would walk up the hill – up to the top.  And that is how I perceive the city: south at the top of the hill; at the top of the paper.

Spencer Finch - Edinburgh Map

Postscript.  I deliberately didn’t Google “spencer finch” before I posted this, because I wanted it to be about my memory.  I have now Googled him.  There are a whole load of images out there – on Google images.  And he has a website, natch – http://www.spencerfinch.com. I hadn’t heard of him before the exhibition, or since.  But that probably says more about me than him!

Should Mr Finch or his estate or publisher read this and object to the images of his work displayed here, I’ll remove them.  But I’d rather not!

Velazquez at the National Gallery.

I bought a ticket for the Velazquez exhibition.  This was timed entry; I have no idea why, since they didn’t chuck you out – so selling tickets with timed entry didn’t stop it getting too crowded.  But it did mean I had forty minutes to spend before I could go in.  So I went to look at some of my favourite pictures.  I walked through the old part of the gallery to the new bit – the Sainsbury Wing.  I wanted to see the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci; but for some reason it wasn’t there – perhaps it was on holiday, visiting friends in another city.  But I did see Botticelli, and the glorious Annunciation – peacocks and bolts of light and all – by Crivelli.  The whole of the National Gallery is connected by tall, wide archways which create long vistas; in a couple of places, the paintings have been hung to continue the perspective – the Incredulity of St Thomas.  (Healthy scepticism, I would say; though I do find it interesting how so much wonderful art has been produced in the name of religion.)

Back in the main building, I wandered through the galleries; there was a long, long view with Holbein’s Ambassadors at one end and Franz Hals’ Man Holding A Skull at the other; this must also be deliberately designed – both pictures feature skulls.  From the Hals I walked through to the Rembrandt room – such a beautiful play of light; amazing.

The Velazquez exhibition was glorious: full of beautiful paintings.  The exhibition gave an insight into the way the Spanish court worked, and how European royalty were so cut off: various portraits were of princesses and princes, who didn’t live beyond infancy (the implication being that their families were so inbred – uncles marrying their nieces, and first-cousins routinely marrying.

The exhibition was arranged chronologically, so one could see the development of the painter; though early on, Velazquez seemed to have found his style.  The early pictures – of ordinary people (street musicians; drinkers in a tavern; kitchen scenes) – use the same models repeatedly.  They are very evocative, quite simple pictures.  Velazquez captured the light stunningly: there is one painting of a woman working in a kitchen; she is wearing a turban to keep her hair out of the food, and the turban just catches the sun: it is very cleverly worked, just to highlight the turban.  This is actually a religious scene: although the main subject was the woman in the kitchen, Christ is in the background.

Religious scenes played an important role in Velazquez’s early career.  There is a beautiful painting of the Immaculate Conception, by moonlight; the portrayal of the moonlit clouds was beautiful.  Two paintings – one of St John the Evangelist, the other of St Thomas (cue Sonny) – seem to be of the same model; canonised twice?

The painting got bigger, the subjects rather more brutal: Christ after the Flagellation (suffering for the sins of the world in front of a small child – mmm), Jacob’s Bloody Coat.

There were scenes from mythology, too – large muscular men, telling tales.

I didn’t find the large court portraits so appealing – they were very studied.  One of the portraits showed Don Gaspar de Guzman (who features a few times) with a tiny head – the emphasise his stature, apparently – though to me it looked rather comical.  Over twenty five years, King Philip IV seemed not to change at all; I wondered whether this was true, or whether Velazquez was painting what the king wanted to see.

The highlight of the exhibition was definitely the Rokeby Venus: just stunningly beautiful.  Her gaze captured my eyes; I had to stare.  It is very sensual – sharing something quite intimate.  I sat and looked at it for a long time – feeling your gaze in the back of my eyes.

The exhibition was busy – crowded: I had to weave my way through the people peering in front of the pictures.  I took advantage of my height, and looked at the pictures from a distance.  I people-watched, too.  There was a tourist asking one of the museum attendants why everyone was wearing poppies (this was a couple of days before Remembrance Sunday); he gently explained.  There was a woman wearing boots that looked like they were made of tapestry, sown-through with threads of metal – her boots glinted and sparkled as she walked through the galleries.  A middle aged man wore a blue bow-tie, rather stylishly, I thought.

I walked across Trafalgar Sq – the first time I had been there since it was pedestrianised – and looked at the lions at the foot of Nelson’s Column, before walking once more across the river to the South Bank.  I went to see what was going on at the Queen Elisabeth Hall – and then went for a coffee; I sat and read, nearing the end of my book, and I suddenly realised that I was reaching the last few pages.  I felt desolate – the idea of not having anything to read after reading that book so intensely was horrifying.  I went to Foyles, desperate to find a new book – something lighter, not so intense or harrowing.  It was hard work, looking for a book: I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read.  I wandered the aisles, desperate for inspiration.  What I thought would take five minutes took half an hour – I bought a very entertaining memoir of Italy by Tim Park. 

Outside, it was dark; I walked beside the Thames a little and went onto Waterloo Bridge, taking some pictures of London at night.  St Paul’s looked spectacular – although it was a particularly cold light that illuminated the cathedral.

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Big Art.

Two of the festival exhibitions in Edinburgh look at big art.  Though the festival is long over, the art shows carry on into October and November – with one going on until January.  Which is good, since it means one can space out the visits and not get too overloaded.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop me waiting until the last minute before seeing the shows.

Van Gogh and Britain

This was a funny show: it was like it didn’t know why it was there.  The precept was to gather together a series of paintings that had some connection with Britain – they had been bought at some point by British collectors.

But this meant it was a show which lacked coherence: it wasn’t a complete review of Van Gogh’s painting, although it was arranged chronologically; the only thing that the works had in common aside from Van Gogh was that they had been owned at some point by someone living in Britain.  And, of course, that the National Galleries of Scotland could get the loan of them.

There were some good paintings – some of Van Gogh’s iconic works: A Wheatfield, with Cypresses and Olive Trees (both of which are on display in the National Gallery of Scotland), for instance; but the whole didn’t really enthuse me.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses
Vincent Van Gogh – A Wheatfield, with Cypresses – National Gallery of Scotland

Perhaps it was down to the familiarity of the images.  Van Gogh was very prolific, and maybe he should have weeded out the works he wanted to keep for posterity – though it isn’t his fault the market in his work soared after his death.

There was one aspect I found particularly annoying.  Because the exhibition was based around the ownership, the text accompanying the pictures focused on the owners and the prices they had paid for the paintings.  For me, this seemed to miss the point of the pictures completely.  I didn’t really care who had owned the painting or how they were ahead of their time, buying them when no one else would.  There was one sad story though: A friend of Van Gogh’s, Alexander Reid, sent one of the pictures – his portrait – home to his father in Glasgow; he hated it and sold it quickly to a dealer for £5 (albeit that that is about £22,000 in today’s money!).

Ron Mueck

Ron Mueck is a sculpture; I hadn’t heard of him before the publicity for this show.  He started off as a model maker – he worked in Jim Henson’s studio, before working as a model-maker for advertising.

He became a sculpture in the nineties, making giant images of people – and minutes ones, as well.  They are frighteningly realistic – but huge.  I found the exhibition quite disturbing, though it was hard to say why. 

I couldn’t help thinking that this was craft rather than art: he is very, very good at recreating the human form, in all its detail – men’s chins that need shaving; sweating follicles; a newborn baby’s head with blood and gunk (the baby was about ten feet long).

Ron Mueck – In Bed
Ron Mueck – In Bed – National Gallery of Scotland

And it did disturb me – I felt like Gulliver in Brobdingnag looking at the resting woman (and where did they find such a huge duvet?!) – but I am not sure that it made me think very much, other than that this was an amazing technique.

It was fascinating and beautiful, but also left me quite cold.

The Hirshhorn Museum, Washington. August 2006.

The Hirshhorn is full of modern art; a lot of sculpture – there is an excellent sculpture garden which we wandered around, and smaller sculpture inside – and lots of large painting. There was a room of Clyfford Still, whose work I love, and a couple of Rothkos.

The floor of the lobby was an installation designed by Jim Lambie – a Glaswegian artist: lots of striking colours (almost psychedelic!). There was a beautifully intense piece by Anish Kapoor, “In the Hub of Things” – a large, hollow hemisphere of intense blue pigment; inside the sphere, in the shadow, it was impossible to see where it ended: I felt as if my hand would disappear if I placed it inside, a literal black hole (no time or space or light).

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Anish Kapoor, At the Hub of Things

There were also some Matisse bronzes of large, massive backs, similar to those that used to be in the Tate (before it moved to Bankside – I can’t remember if they are in the new building or not); they may be casts of the same statues. These bronzes have a lot of power – a deep pull.

The Hirschorn itself is an interesting building – doughnut-shaped, the hole being a courtyard. In the centre is a large fountain. Beside the building, on the Mall, was a large sculpture of a giant brush stroke: close up, it was abstracted, and it was only when I looked over from across the Mall that I realised what it was. I think it must have been by Roy Lichtenstein – it had that kind of feel. Then some steps lead down to the sculpture garden. There are a lot of Rodin pieces – “the Burghers of Calais” and his “Monument to Balzac”. It was very sunny, the shadows adding an extra depth to the sculpture.

The curve of the Hirshorn Museum Fountain reflected in the Hirshorn Museum Brush stroke sculpture, the Hirshorn Museum

Rodin, The Burghers of Calais, the Hirshorn Museum Rodin, The Burghers of Calais, the Hirshorn Museum

We then wandered around the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden. There was a huge Louise Bourgeois cast spider (not one for arachnophobes); a beautiful, stepped “Four Sided Pyramid” by Sol LeWitt; and a perspective house by Roy Lichtenstein, which keeps its perspective as you walk around it.

Sol LeWitt, Four Sided Pyramid Sol LeWitt, Four Sided Pyramid

Sol LeWitt, Four Sided Pyramid

Adam Elsheimer

I try to avoid exhibitions during the festival – unlike live performances, many of the exhibitions carry on into October or later (this year, one exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is on until January).  This show, however, closes tomorrow, so I decided to make the most of having free time in Edinburgh to go and see it.

It was an exhibition of paintings by Adam Elsheimer, an artist I had never heard of until this summer.  Born in Frankfurt in 1578, he painted in Venice and Rome until he died aged just 32.

He painted in oils on copper – apparently not unusual, since copper was readily available around artists studios where they most commonly used it for print making.  It meant most of the pictures were small, though; and some were tiny, little more than miniatures.

Despite their size, the pictures were full of detail: so much so that visitors to the gallery were given credit card-sized plastic magnifying glasses so explore the pictures.

They were exquisite: dark, rich colours depicting religious or mythological stories.  He painted “Tobias and the Angel” several times, and seemed to like rather gory mythological tales like “Apollo and Coronis”.  Actually, the religious paintings were probably more gory – “Judith and Holofernes” (she is pictured slitting his throat) and a very graphic “The Beheading of St John the Baptist” (Salome with a large salver receiving the gift!).

The real pleasure lay in the backgrounds: the leaves on the trees, the ripples on the water, the stars and clouds in the sky.  (According to the blurb, there are microscopic brush strokes around the stars which aren’t clearly visible with the naked eye – you need a lens or a microscope – and these lines make the stars “shine”).

The pictures’ size did feel limiting though: I was constantly peering deeper into the pictures, straining to see more.

Ellsworth Kelly in Edinburgh.

I went to the Ingleby Gallery to see an exhibition of works by Ellsworth Kelly. I like the Ingleby Gallery: the ground floor of a large Georgian terrace house, it has a lot of light and space, more than other commercial galleries in Edinburgh, so the pictures aren’t cramped. There is space to look at each picture, undistracted.

I have seen some of Kelly’s paintings and lithographs before – solid blocks of intense colour, with no detail: just pure colour. Thing is, there were works here spanning nearly thirty five years: and it was not possible to tell the earlier from the later works: he hasn’t changed, as far as I could tell. I like the colours – they have a great depth: but there isn’t a great deal to it.

There were also three sketches of plants – not something I knew he drew – with a similar simplicity (though with these it was just line, rather than just colour). The surprise of these made them more interesting than the solid colours.

The gallery contained two other works which I greatly preferred to Kelly’s – kind of ironic. One was a large canvas hung over the stairs: this was by Calum Innes – nearly solid colour, but interrupted by the canvas, as if the paint had been torn – like Clyfford Still’s “lightning” canvases.

The other was a clay-piece by Andy Goldsworthy, hiding in the “wall press” cupboard. Opening the cupboard door is like exploring: the dried clay wall always looks different. It is worthwhile going to the gallery just to look in the cupboard.