Between the death of Turner and advent of Bacon, there was no greater British painter

The only art is Essex – from Eric Ravilious to Grayson Perry

Ravilious in Essex: ‘Two Women in the Garden’, watercolour, 1932

Originally published in The Spectator

How silverpoint revolutionised art

Left: ‘The Virgin and the Child’, c.1509, by Raphael Right: ‘Portrait of an unknown young woman’, c.1435, by Rogier van der Weyden

Originally published in The Spectator

Eugene Delacroix at the National Gallery

 

At the Louvre the other day there was a small crowd permanently gathered in front of Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’. They constantly took photographs of the picture itself, and sometimes of themselves standing in front of it. No such attention was given to the other masterpieces of French painting hanging nearby, including many by Delacroix. This painting from 1830 — with its glamorous, bare-breasted personification of liberté, Tricolore in hand, followed by heroic representatives of the working and middle classes — has become an international shorthand for France itself.

Whether or not this is a valid symbol of the country, it is a misleading guide to Delacroix’s own feelings about his native land, its revolutionary traditions and the modern world he watched developing around him in 19th-century Paris. He may have supported liberté, but fraternité and égalité not so much. A truer indication of his opinions is probably to be found in the mural that he painted in a half dome of the library of the Chamber of Deputies at the Palais Bourbon: ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’.

An exhibition next month at the National Gallery will present Delacroix as the apostle of modernism — and rightly so. He was revered as a predecessor by the impressionists and post-impressionists. A couple of hours before I was strolling through the Louvre last week, I was able to climb the scaffolding in the church of Saint-Sulpice where his wall paintings are currently under restoration. From a foot or two away, Delacroix’s vivid, vibrating colours and bold brush strokes looked startlingly reminiscent of those of Van Gogh or Gauguin.

There is, however, a paradox about the notion of Delacroix as the forerunner to the avant-garde of the 1880s and ’90s. He was a romantic pessimist, inclined to think that civilisation would always decline and barbarism inevitably return. It would be an exaggeration, Kenneth Clark thought, to say that Delacroix sympathised with Attila, but — Clark went on — he gave the leader of the Huns, trampling on the remains of ancient Roman culture, ‘the same irresistible energy’ as the lions and tigers he loved to paint.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was, like many highly creative people, a bundle of contradictions. He was an ardent lover of big cats, an artist whose images of tigers, Clark thought, were truer self-portraits than the pictures he made of his actual features. Meanwhile in everyday life Delacroix was an anglophile dandy — one of the first Parisians to wear suits cut in the English style — who aimed at a frigid self-control. ‘The mask is everything,’ he noted in 1823.

The contrast between Delacroix’s carefully preserved exterior and the swirling emotions within was summed up in a celebrated metaphor by his friend and admirer Charles Baudelaire. The painter resembled, Baudelaire wrote, ‘A volcanic crater artistically concealed beneath bouquets of flowers.’ He wanted to hide, as the poet put it, the ‘rage in his heart’ behind a glacial façade, but also — as the scholar Lee Johnson added — ‘his vulnerability and shyness’.

Delacroix suffered throughout his life from poor health, possibly caused by a tubercular infection that affected his throat and lungs. Furthermore, he was also plagued by a weak digestion, perhaps resulting from highly strung nerves. At work, carefully wrapped up against the cold in an old jacket buttoned to the chin, slippers and a muffler around the neck, he resembled neither a tiger nor a dandy.

He was a child of the French Revolution, but probably an illegitimate one. His ostensible father, Charles-François Delacroix, was minister of foreign affairs in the republican government. However, Charles-François Delacroix was impotent for many years as a result of an enormous growth on one of his testicles. This was removed in an operation — without anaesthetic, of course — in mid-September 1797. Eugène was born seven and a half months later. A persistent rumour claims that his true father was the great statesman Talleyrand, Charles-François Delacroix’s successor at the foreign ministry.

In 1805, Charles-François Delacroix died leaving only unwise investments and large debts. The painter came of age in the France of the restored monarchy, which he deplored (hence his support for the revolutionaries of 1830, which ejected the reactionary Charles X). But, like the heroes of his friend the novelist Stendhal, Delacroix deplored not just the stuffiness and corruption of Paris in the 1820s, but also the modern world itself with its new wealth and mass public. ‘I have never loved the crowd,’ he wrote in 1820, ‘nor all that the crowd feeds on.’

As time went on, his dislike focused on the bourgeoisie, often a bugbear for intellectuals and artists, in France and elsewhere. An acquaintance recalled that ‘among all those men who had a profound, ineradicable contempt for the bourgeois’, only Flaubert disdained them more than Delacroix. Even his perfect manners scarcely concealed his loathing for the middle classes who represented, he believed, a ‘wholly new barbarism’. He was, in other words, a snob both socially and intellectually.

‘Commercialism and love of pleasure are,’ he gloomily noted in 1857, ‘to the present way of thinking, the most compelling motives of the human soul.’ When the idea of progress — the ‘great chimera of modern times’ — was mentioned, he would ask where the contemporary equivalents of Raphael or Phidias were.

As it happened, Delacroix knew more geniuses than most people do, in any age. Chopin, Stendhal, Baudelaire and George Sand were among his circle (Balzac he knew but didn’t much like). He was an example of another paradox: the insider who feels like an outsider. One of the plagues of the modern age, Delacroix felt, was journalists — and in particular art critics, who were, it is true, unreasonably rude about his work. Delacroix was resolutely opposed by the artistic establishment of his day. It took him no fewer than seven attempts before he was elected, very late in life, to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Yet he was loaded with well-paid commissions through the assistance of friends such as the politician and writer Adolphe Thiers.

So it is that some of Delacroix’s most majestic achievements are now hidden away in government premises. He painted a huge cycle on the theme of the rise and fall of civilisation in the library of the Palais Bourbon (seat of the French National Assembly). At one end Orpheus teaches the arts of civilisation to the — slightly dubious — ancient Greeks; at the other, Attila destroys them. This, and his depiction of a scene from Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in the dome of the library at the Palais du Luxembourg — seat of the Sénat — are not easy to visit these days because of the new barbarism of international terrorism.

They are evidence of another paradox. Delacroix was in many ways the final representative of the line of grand public pictures descended from Raphael and Michelangelo. The late works in Saint-Sulpice are the last great religious murals in the European tradition, but they were painted by a despairing agnostic. Delacroix believed that after death mankind faced ‘night, dreadful night’ — or so he told George Sand. He thought Voltaire had been correct to declare that while alive humanity was faced with a stark choice between being ‘convulsed with anxiety or lethargic with boredom’. There, too, he perhaps anticipated the predicament of the modern age.

Originally published in The Spectator

Renaissance master? Rascal? Thief? In search of Giorgione

 

On 7 February 1506, Albrecht Dürer wrote home to his good friend Willibald Pirckheimer in Nuremberg. The great artist was having a mixed time in Venice: on the one hand, as Dürer explained, he was making lots of delightful new acquaintances, among them ‘good lute-players’ and also ‘connoisseurs in painting, men of much noble sentiment and honest virtue’. However, there was also a very different type lurking in the early 16th-century Serenissima: ‘the most faithless, lying, thievish rascals such as I scarcely believed could exist on earth’.

Dürer hints that among these latter were painters, perhaps including some whose works will be seen in a forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy, In the Age of Giorgione. Conceivably one who got on the wrong side of Dürer was the shadowy genius himself, Giorgione of Castelfranco.

Of the great masters of the early 16th century, Giorgione (c.1477/8–1510) is by some way the most elusive. Unfortunately, he did not write home to Castelfranco — a fine fortified town in the Veneto — or if he did no correspondence exists. Indeed, not much survives at all, either in the way of evidence or of art. He died young, probably in his early thirties and of the plague. Giorgio Vasari, author of the greatLives of the Artists, tells us that he ‘took unceasing delight in the joys of love’, which is plausible enough given the amorously poetic mood of some pictures by — or attributed to — him, and his development of a new sort of nude.

Apparently, it was Giorgione, whose name just means ‘big George’, who first combined the anatomy of a classical marble Venus with the delicately fleshly sensuality made possible by the oil medium (especially practised in the softer-focused fashion he may also have pioneered). Vasari also relates that the ‘sound of the lute gave him marvellous pleasure’, and Giorgione himself sang and played so well that he spent a lot of time performing — which may help to explain why there are so few of his paintings now.

However, Vasari was writing decades after Giorgione’s death and, as a patriotic Tuscan, he was distinctly hazy about Venetian art in general and Giorgione in particular. Though he did not mention Giorgione, Dürer was on the spot at the time. And his complaint about the younger painters of Venice was that they stole his ideas (he may, as we shall see, have had a point). Dürer specifically excluded the venerable Giovanni Bellini, then aged around 76, from his vilification. Bellini, he wrote, though old, ‘is the best painter of all’.

In making that last judgment, however, Dürer may not have been completely up to speed. In 1506, the elderly Bellini was being challenged by Giorgione, so much so that the wily old fellow eventually incorporated some aspects of the younger man’s style into his own. Indeed, around the time Dürer wrote his letter, Giorgione was influencing so many other artists that it is now very hard to say which are by whom. As Per Rumberg, the curator of the RA exhibition, ruefully explains, ‘Usually the disagreement between scholars about attributions is around the fringes; with Giorgione it’s at the core.’

Wisely, therefore, the exhibition is not simply devoted to Giorgione himself but to his era, in which a new kind of painting emerged in Venice — which, for want of a better word, is dubbed ‘Giorgionesque’. It will contain some pictures that most agree are by Giorgione, others that might possibly be by him, still more that are fairly definitely the work of other artists such as the young Titian and Bellini. One, a portrait of an unknown man from Berlin in a smart violet doublet, is widely believed to be a Giorgione (but, as it happens, Per Rumberg himself believes it is by Titian).

There are a few solid clues, however, to the truth about Giorgione. At the start of the Royal Academy exhibition will be a tiny image of an anonymous man, often dubbed the Terris Portrait, from the name of a previous owner, a Scottish coal merchant. This is close in Giorgione terms to a Rosetta Stone, albeit an ambiguous one. On the back, early in the 16th century, someone wrote the words ‘by the hand of Zorzi da chastel fr[anco]’, ‘Zorzi’ being a Venetian version of Giorgione. There follows a date, which starts ‘15’, but then gets much less legible.

This is a typical Giorgione conundrum. The Terris Portrait is among the most certain among that tiny group of paintings almost everyone agrees on — because of those words on the back. There are no signed Giorgiones, and only one other with a similar contemporary inscription naming him as the artist and giving a date. The snag is in the smudging of the last two digits: some connoisseurs have confidently read it as ‘1510’, others as ‘1508’. Per Rumberg laments, ‘So here we have a date but we can’t read it!’

The consensus at the moment, however, is that the date is ‘1506’, so just about the time Dürer was writing home to Nuremberg. His Italian friends, Dürer confided, advised him not to eat and drink with the Venetian painters (the patriarchal Bellini apart), perhaps in case they took the opportunity to poison him. Their behaviour, in Dürer’s view, was low. ‘Many of them are my enemies and copy my work in the churches and wherever they can find it; afterwards they criticize it and claim that it is not done in the antique style and say it is no good.’

The Terris Portrait supports this charge, but only up to a point. It was painted by someone who had learned the lessons of northern masters such as Dürer, for example in the wonderfully delicate softness of the sitter’s hair in which it seems to be possible to count each strand. Giorgione probably did have a good look at any paintings he could find by Dürer (and might well have disapproved of their lack of classical style).

Giorgione must also have experienced the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who had passed through Venice in 1500. Per Rumberg explains, ‘We are not sure if they met, but the Terris Portrait suggests they did, and that Giorgione learned his lesson.’ The smoky, blurry shadows of the man in the Terris Portrait do indeed make him look a little like a male Mona Lisa.

So Giorgione made his new art out of high-quality ingredients — a touch of Dürer, a soupçon of Leonardo, a solid foundation of Bellini and Roman antiquity. But there is something else you feel in a painting such as the National Gallery’s ‘Il Tramonto (The Sunset)’. In the landscape behind some enigmatic figures, a single sapling is silhouetted against the rosy glow in the sky. The story the picture once told has been lost (and further confused by a 20th-century restorer who added a St George and dragon). But the elegiac mood lingers in your mind. ‘Giorgione was a very quiet artist and very emotional,’ Per Rumberg concludes, ‘interested in very personal encounters.’ That’s perhaps about as close as you can get to defining the Giorgionesque effect.

Originally published in The Spectator

Hell made fun – the joy of Hieronymus Bosch

 

The 20th-century painter who called himself Balthus once proposed that a monograph about him should begin with the words ‘Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures.’ But while Balthus may have felt that far too much was known about his private life, Hieronymus Bosch is an artist about whom we truly know if not exactly nothing then very little that is personal or revealing. He adopted his name from his native town, ’s-Hertogenbosch, where his death 500 years ago is marked by a superb exhibition. Bosch (c.1450–1516) was christened Jheronimus — alternatively Joen or Jeroen — van Aken, came from a family of painters and died, perhaps of an epidemic disease, aged about 65. And that, apart from a few mundane details, is almost all the information that survives — except for one credo. At the top of a drawing he wrote the words ‘Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing itself.’

'The ship of Fools' by Hieronymus Bosch

‘The ship of Fools’ by Hieronymus Bosch

In that respect — wildly imaginative brainstorming — Bosch’s mind was fabulously rich. The image he drew underneath that sentence is a case in point. It is an illustration of a proverb, ‘The wood has ears, the field has eyes,’ meaning keep quiet about your business. Bosch, however, has interpreted it both literally and — to use a term from a much later period of art — surreally.

Against the trunks of a small thicket of trees are leaning a couple of monstrous, detached ears. The ground in front sprouts eyes, and in the centre is a hollow tree from which a huge owl — a bird that the painter was particularly fond of depicting — stares out. In the catalogue it is suggested this image may have been a private manifesto. The wood from which he took his name — ’s-Hertogenbosch means ‘the Duke’s forest’ — is made into a place of bizarre transformation. And phantasmagoria was, to put it simply, Hieronymus Bosch’s shtick.

'The Temptation of St Anthony' (fragment) by Hieronymus Bosch

‘The Temptation of St Anthony’ (fragment) by Hieronymus Bosch

Without it, as a painter of relatively straightforward religious scenes, he was indeed a little dull. The current exhibition —which moves on to the Prado, Madrid, later in the year — presents a mass of conclusions by a team of specialist scholars. Their efforts to sort what is really the work of the great man are both impressive and persuasive. One of the glories of the exhibition is the way it reassembles two multipanelled altarpieces, which had been sawn up and dispersed centuries before. It turns out, however, that some fine and famous pictures are not by him — such as the ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ in Ghent — and some fairly run-of-the-mill ones are.

An example of the latter is the early ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (c.1470–80). It shows, perhaps, how Bosch started out: as a provincial artist working somewhat in the idiom of famous painters from further south such as Rogier van der Weyden. ’s-Hertogenbosch, though a lovely little city, was and still is a relative backwater. Bosch, however, made himself and his hometown famous through sheer power of imaginative invention. Part of his talent was for the creation of effects you could call atmospheric — almost romantic. There is a hint of his true powers in the landscape in the background of the ‘Adoration of the Magi’, which recedes into a vast, misty distance. This capacity for rendering light and air had become apocalyptic and visionary by the time he painted four panels dubbed ‘Visions of the Hereafter’ (c.1505–15).

'The Last Judgement' by Hieronymus Bosch

‘The Last Judgement’ by Hieronymus Bosch

In one of these the blessed fly upwards towards a tunnel of light — concentric circles with the brightest in the middle — the most compelling visualisation of a journey to heaven in all of art. Even more riveting, though, are the panels depicting hell, a place of turbid darkness, in which whiskered, bat-winged demons grasp and torment sinners. A high rock with a bird perched on it is silhouetted against a black infernal sky filled with sparks, flame and flurries of smoke.

Obviously, Hell was Bosch’s thing, and he made it look if not exactly fun then certainly entertaining. It was surely the pleasure of looking at his scenes of sin and eternal punishment, rather than the moral message, that quickly won Bosch a European reputation (those ‘Visions of the Hereafter’ were bought by a Venetian cardinal early in the 16th century). His major works dwelled on the follies of humanity, and their dreadful consequences. This is the theme of ‘The Haywain’ (c.1510–15), in which devilish creatures, including a fish with legs, drag a wagon piled with straw. The people of the world scrabble for this worthless stuff. To the right is their likely destination, a place of fiery torment. Nonetheless, it is an utterly beguiling spectacle.

'Christ Child' by Hieronymus Bosch

‘Christ Child’ by Hieronymus Bosch

His art was a cornucopia of the bizarre. Such images, the drawings suggest, tumbled from his mind, and were then carefully preserved and anthologised. One little sheet contains, among other items, a man crouching head-first in a basket, from whose naked buttocks a flock of birds is emerging. Perched above is a figure poised to whack this ornithologically productive behind with a lute. What does it mean? Perhaps nobody ever knew or cared.

His fertile fantasy would not be so mesmerising had Bosch not been such a magician with the brush. The delicacy and energy of these paintings is what made it all work. By putting together so many of his remaining pictures, and reassembling some far-flung fragments, this exhibition makes Bosch’s achievement clearer than it was before. For the next two months, a visit to ’s-Hertogenbosch should be a high priority for lovers of weird, sinister and delightfully fanciful art.

 

Originally published in The Spectator

Is Hilma af Klint a major rediscovery – or a minor footnote?

'Group IX/SUW, No. 17. The Swan, No. 17' (1914-5) by Hilma af Klint

 

In 1896, a group of five young Swedish women artists began to meet regularly in order to access mystical zones beyond the confines of mundane everyday reality. Every Friday, they would gather in order to contact the incorporeal beings they called ‘spirit world leaders’ or ‘High Masters’; among these were five named Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Gregor and Amaliel. In 1904, during a séance, Amaliel instructed one of the artists, Hilma af Klint, to make paintings ‘on the astral plane’ representing the ‘immortal aspects of man’.

Many of the results of this occult commission are on display inPainting the Unseen, a new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. As you might expect, they are distinctly weird: an eclectic mélange of geometric shapes, flower and fruit forms, squiggles, diagrams of nothing very specific, shells, numbers and letters, often executed in a slightly dingy pastel palette. By 1908, af Klint (1862–1944) had produced more than a hundred — some over three metres high — and she painted another 82 between 1912 and 1915.

She stipulated in her will that these pictures should not be seen for two decades after her death. In the event, it took even longer: none was exhibited until the 1980s. Since then, art world interest has grown in af Klint, or, more precisely, in these works ‘commissioned’ by Amaliel and apparently at his astral direction. No one has ever been much excited by the more conventional landscapes and portraits by which she made her living. These ‘Paintings for the Temple’, as she termed them, have been claimed as the first European abstractions, predating by several years any such works by Kandinsky, Malevich or Mondrian. The official birth of abstract art is usually dated to 1910.

Installation shot of the Serpentine's Hilma af Klint show

Installation view of the Serpentine’s Hilma af Klint show. Photography by Jerry Hardman-Jones

This raises two questions. Are af Klint’s paintings truly abstract? And, more importantly, are they any good? They certainly have an early modernist look, with sharp outlines and flat areas of colour. Indeed some don’t even appear to be that early; one or two concentric dartboard-like images could have come from New York, circa 1960. Others, however, contain awkward but unmistakable depictions of birds, dogs and naked people.

Af Klint herself doesn’t seem to have had any intention of being avant-garde, or indeed any conscious purpose at all. By her account, these pictures were made ‘through her’, without ‘any preliminary drawings and with great force’. She had no idea what they were supposed to represent, though she spent a lot of time subsequently trying to work it out.

On the other hand, the slightly later works by Kandinsky usually credited as the first abstractions are also full of real objects (most are lightly disguised landscapes). It is also true that the beliefs of Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich were only a degree or two less loopy than those of af Klint and her four friends. Around 1900, spiritualism, the mishmash of esoteric doctrines known as theosophy and excursions into what Conan Doyle called ‘the land of mists’ were all part of the zeitgeist.

Installation view of the Serpentine's Hilma af Klint show. Photography by Jerry Hardman-Jones

Installation view of the Serpentine’s Hilma af Klint show. Photography by Jerry Hardman-Jones

The crucial point is that judged as paintings, these mystic images just aren’t very good. The brushwork is boring, the drawing a bit slack, the colour harmonies lacking in zing. In comparison, a good Kandinsky is a hugely impressive sight. Being first, chronologically, is perhaps overrated; it’s being better that counts. Af Klint’s mystic pictures were worth exhibiting, and indeed deserve a look, but they are a minor footnote rather than a major rediscovery.

Installation view of the Serpentine's Das Institut show. Photography by Uli Holz

Installation view of the Serpentine’s Das Institut show. Photography by Uli Holz

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, there are works by two German artists, Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder, who exhibit together under the collective name Das Institut. Between them, Brätsch and Röder use a variety of media, including painting, neon and stained glass. The unique feature of the show is the way they display their works, sometimes actually piled on top of each other in open crates. Individually, the most striking pieces are Röder’s neon drawings of body parts, such as the outlines of two breasts that the visitor encounters at the start. But the various ingredients are less novel than the way they are jumbled together. Overall, there is an air of cheerful, chaotic muddle.

Over at the Waddington Custot Galleries on Cork Street, there is a fine exhibition of early works by Barry Flanagan (1941–2009), a sculptor whose later output consisted largely of bronze hares. Earlier, however, his work was both varied and audacious, as is demonstrated by the pieces on show, which date from 1964 to 1983.

'Grass 1' (1967) by Barry Flanagan

‘Grass 1’ (1967) by Barry Flanagan

The young Flanagan seemed preoccupied with an unusual range of qualities, including lightness, thinness and floppiness. Even when in 1964 he made an early work in his teacher Anthony Caro’s trade-mark medium of painted steel, it protruded a wavering rod like the tendril of a vine. Later pieces are made out of cloth, or sheet metal torn and folded as casually as paper. A bronze from 1980 turns and twists like a piece of apple peel. Three beautiful photographs of long grass from 1967 reveal this everyday sight to be as complex and dramatic as a storm at sea. Everywhere you find a unique sensibility at work.

Installation view of the Chillida show at Ordovas. Photography by Mike Bruce

Installation view of the Chillida show at Ordovas. Photography by Mike Bruce

A few minutes’ walk away at Ordovas, 25 Savile Row, there is an intriguing sculptural contrast in the form of three massive works by the Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida. Chillida (1924–2002) was an exact contemporary of Caro’s and some of his work belongs to an abstract idiom that might be dubbed heavy metal (a Chillida show at the Hayward a quarter of a century ago was actually publicised as the weightiest ever shown in London). The three works on show at Ordovas — two steel, one stone — certainly have a massive presence. But there is a feeling of growth about them too; one looming, rust-coloured piece extends curved members into the air like the branches of a tree. This little exhibition makes Chillida’s work, still not well-known in Britain, seem formidable.

Originally published in The Spectator

Giorgione at the Royal Academy

‘La Vecchia’ (c.1506) by Giorgione

A lot of art is trickery – and all the better for it

One day, in the autumn of 1960, a young Frenchman launched himself off a garden wall in a suburban street to the south of Paris. He jumped in an unusual away; not as if he expected to land, feet first on the pavement below, nor even as if he were diving into water, but arms outstretched, back arched, apparently taking off into the air above. The result was Yves Klein’s ‘Le Saut dans le vide’ (Leap into the Void), which opens the exhibition Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern.

Beside the finished product — a photomontage — are two other images that together explain how it was done. One shows the same quiet stretch of road, completely empty except for a solitary cyclist passing by like an extra in a Maigret dramatisation. The other shows the flying artist behaving in that apparently impractical fashion, but with, instead of a hard landing, five man holding a tarpaulin underneath him. So this is a trick, a fake — or, to put it another way, a work of art.

Yves Klein's 'Le Saut dans la vide'

Yves Klein’s ‘Le Saut dans la vide’

The distinction is, after all, a bit hazy. We all presume that Caravaggio, for example, did not actually see a young man sprouting wings fluttering in the air and whispering words of divine inspiration into the ear of St Matthew. On the other hand, if photographers present us with images of events that did not occur — or would not have happened had the photographers not arranged for them to do so — they may be greeted with muttered criticisms such as ‘staged’.

Klein brilliantly exploited this zone of ambiguity. Is his leap a performance, a joke, a metaphor or a philosophical observation about the nature of art? Probably, the answer is: all of those. It is certainly, unusually for a photograph, so memorable that the whole picture pops into mind, like a slide, if you close your eyes.

In this respect, ‘Leap into the Void’ is highly unrepresentative ofPerforming for the Camera. In aggregate, the exhibition is wearyingly enormous and bemusingly dull, full of large white rooms stuffed with small black, grey and white snaps of subjects such as naked hippies having a happening in New York in the Sixties or people doing something obscurely conceptual involving traffic in Tokyo around the same time. In other words, here is a prime example of curatorial overkill: an exhibition that is far too large for its subject.

Nadar's photograph of Deburau

Nadar’s photograph of Charles Deburau

It does, however, make some interesting points. One is that a great deal of art — and photography — is staged or, if you prefer, ‘faked’, and always has been. A Rembrandt self-portrait is a carefully conceived presentation of the artist, and so, too, is — among many such artist’s selfies on display — Marcel Duchamp in drag as his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy or Joseph Beuys explaining art to a dead hare. The same is true of many images that are often placed in the history of ‘photography’ rather than ‘art’, such as Nadar’s beautiful shots from 1854 of the mime artist Charles Deburau, in costume and striking poses from his act.

A far better exhibition, at the V&A, is devoted to the American photographer Paul Strand. This is beautifully mounted and selected, but it gives rise to some of the same thoughts. Strand (1890–1976) was, ostensibly at least, one of the leading modernist photographers of the 20th century. His work adhered to a puritanical aesthetic — no colour, no glitz, lots of workers, plants and elderly buildings among his subjects.

In 1916 Strand captured some of the least ‘staged’ pictures ever taken, using a specially doctored camera with a fake lens on the side, which seemed to point straight ahead while Strand shot surreptitiously under his arm. Thus he was able to obtain something that is hard to achieve: close-ups of strangers in the street who were not aware they were being photographed. The results bring you very near to passers-by on New York’s Lower East Side a century ago — jowly, red-faced, grubby-looking types who could have come out of a painting by Hals or a novel by Dickens. These were seen and shot in an instant, true snapshots — a hunting term first used by Sir John Herschel, one of the great unsung progenitors of photography.

Paul Strand's 'Rock, Loch Eynort, South Uist, Hebrides' (1954)

Paul Strand’s ‘Rock, Loch Eynort, South Uist, Hebrides’ (1954)

In another sense, of course, these were not spontaneous at all. Strand must have known just what he was looking for, and probably had precedents from paintings and literature at the back of his mind. In any case, as the catalogue points out, Strand clearly found this predatory way of working unsettling, and stopped after taking just a handful of these extraordinary portraits. Most of his work was meticulously programmed and choreographed, the product of sittings that lasted hours, and much more time spent in the developing room on the prints.

This is the justification for an exhibition such as this — that the actual photographs, like an original painting, have a quality that reproductions lack. They do; but they are still small, dark pictures spaced out on a wall. You wonder whether Strand’s work does not really look better in a book, such as the splendid catalogue.

This could not be said of the works on show in Avedon Warhol at Gagosian, 6–24 Britannia Street, London WC1. Neither Warhol nor Avedon, a remarkable photographer of people, could be accused of puritanism or lack of glitz. The Warhol ingredients here are familiar, demonstrating how he was able to return much of the oomph of painting to photographic images by adding splashy silk-screened colour.

More of a surprise are some of the Avedons, especially ‘Andy Warhol and Members of the Factory, New York, October 30, 1969’, a photographic group portrait on the scale of life — it’s almost four metres across — in which the central group are nude, looking a little like Greek statues. The picture is as artfully posed as a Caravaggio, and all the better for it.

 

Originally published in The Spectator

Ancient Egypt’s obsession with death was in fact a preoccupation with life

The Fitzwilliam Museum is marking its bicentenary with an exhibition that takes its title from Agatha Christie: Death on the Nile. But it turns out it was another writer of a different type of fiction who was directly involved. M.R. James, author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, amassed some of the exhibits in his capacity as director of the Fitzwilliam from 1893 to 1908. And almost any object on display would have made a perfect prop for one of his tales, because the subject is ancient Egyptian coffins.

Generally, the main character in a story by James is a retiring gentleman scholar who comes across a venerable item which then brings upon him some diabolic haunting or curse. He did not actually write a narrative beginning with a curator who receives an ornately decorated 3,000-year-old casket from a burial site in Middle Egypt. But in real life, James did negotiate the Fitzwilliam’s acquisition of several fabulous items on show in Death on the Nile.

Among these are the cedarwood box, from around 1,900 bc, which once contained the mummy of a woman named Nakht, described as ‘lady of the house’. It is, as is sometimes the case with Egyptian antiquities, weirdly well-preserved. The timber — an expensive, imported item which seems to have been recycled — is almost completely intact. On one side the paintwork has been damaged by water, but elsewhere the hieroglyphic inscriptions and depictions of palace façades are fresh and almost jaunty.

It is true, as a text in the exhibition argues, that the ancient Egyptian obsession with death was in fact a preoccupation with life — and how to prolong it in the afterlife. That is why the tomb of a man called Khety from 2010–1950 bc contained miniature sculptures of workers baking, butchering a cow, filling a granary and sailing boats on which Khety could travel on the river. Inscriptions on his coffin (also acquired by James) ask the gods Osiris and Anubis to provide offerings for him to use. Evidently, the plan was for Khety to have a comfortable time in the hereafter.

Nonetheless, there is something eerie about Egyptian grave goods. Partly, this is to do with their preservation. Our sense of age is connected to normal rates of decay, so we are not used to seeing wooden and cloth objects, thousands of years old, that look only slightly battered. The other thing that’s a little uncanny is that all these carvings, pictures and painted inscriptions were not intended to be seen by living eyes at all, but by those of the gods and the dead. It is quite easy to imagine James penning a disturbing narrative — his are the most haunting of ghost stories — entitled ‘The Coffin of Nakht’.

The exhibition, most of which comes from the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, is evidence of how rich in diverse masterpieces the museum is. A display entitled Celebrating the First 200 Yearsillustrates some of its history. The founder, Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam (1745–1816), was an engaging Irish aristocrat who was responsible for developing a section of Georgian Dublin. He was also a harpsichordist and spent time in Paris, where he met the love of his life, a ballerina who went by the name of Mademoiselle Zacharie. When Lord Fitzwilliam died, apparently as the result of a fall from his library steps — a thoroughly M.R. Jamesian accident, by the way — he left his old master paintings, drawings, medieval manuscripts, books and musical scores to Cambridge University (he was an old Trinity Hall man).

The last exhibit in Death on the Nile, chronologically, is a mummy with, at its top, a naturalistic portrait in the manner of ancient Greek painters. It’s a marvellous example of cultural fusion, and also a reminder that portraiture can be a monument to the dead. The same point is made in a different way by Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky at the National Portrait Gallery. Made up of loans from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, this contains portrayals of just about anyone who was notable in Russian literature and music between the mid-19th century and the first world war. Artistically it comes down — as perhaps the culture of Tsarist Russia itself does — to an array of great writers and composers.

They are all there, often painted in a realist, almost photorealist mode that seems to bring these people from long ago and far away very close (which is, of course, the feat of time travel a good portrait can perform). Tolstoy was painted by Nikolai Ge in 1884 at his opulent desk, frowning with concentration in the very act of writing. As painted by Vasily Perov, Dostoevsky seems to shrink into himself, melancholy but filled with inner tension.

Most memorable of all is Ilya Repin’s 1881 portrait of Modest Musorgsky: a picture of a man contemplating his own demise. This was painted in the Nikolaevsky Military Hospital, where the musician, a chronic alcoholic, had been admitted. It records Musorgsky’s rosy drinker’s nose and reflective demeanour. According to Repin, he was living ‘under a strict regime of sobriety’, but still dreaming of booze. Eventually, an attendant smuggled in a bottle of cognac. The next day, Repin arrived to find his sitter, aged 42, was no longer among the living. A case, you might say, of death on the Neva.

 

Originally published in The Spectator