Botticelli’s jokes and the quarrelsome, creative spirit of Florence

Once, it seems, Sandro Botticelli played a trick on a neighbour. Next door was a weaver who possessed eight looms. He and his assistants kept these in constant use, creating such a judder-ing racket that the poor painter was unable to concentrate on his pictures. Botticelli implored this fellow to reduce the noise, but to no avail. So eventually the artist carried an enormous rock on to his roof, poised so the slightest vibration would bring it crashing through the noisy weaver’s premises. The man then saw reason.

You can easily imagine the problem today as you walk down Botticelli’s street, Via del Porcellana. It’s a long, narrow thoroughfare running down to the Arno, tightly packed with three- and four-storey buildings. Although the nature of the small businesses that line it have changed through the centuries, essentially this area is probably much as it was in the 15th century.

It is not hard to sense medieval Florence as it really was: not the poetically venerable place imagined by the Pre-Raphaelites, but a pressure-cooker of competing artisans, merchants and bankers, full of anger and innovation, loving arguments and pranks. Vasari, chronicler of artists’ lives, interspersed his description of Botticelli’s career with the tale of the noisy weaver and a couple of hard-hearted practical jokes the painter played on friends.

Botticelli, currently the subject of exhibitions at the V&A and Courtauld Gallery, became a superstar of art long after his death. The Victorians loved his sad-eyed Madonnas and Venuses, and we do too. But his contemporaries valued his sharp tongue almost as much. He told Leonardo da Vinci that studying landscape was a waste of time because you could get results as good by throwing a paint-stained sponge at the wall. But Botticelli landscapes don’t look like sponge-stains, so he probably just wanted to upset Leonardo, who loved to study views.

The Florentines were a quarrelsome people, to an extent that drove Machiavelli to despair in the history he wrote of his native city. Throughout the Middle Ages, the place splintered into new warring factions. The Guelphs fought with the Ghibellines, then the Black Guelphs with the Whites. The winning gang always exiled the losers and expropriated their property. Dante, a White Guelph, fell victim to these squabbles. In Botticelli’s days, the fissiparous Florentines continued to split, plot and fight.

The strange thing is that all this turmoil — combined with plague and warfare — did little to diminish the city’s vim. The Black Death put a temporary brake on things. But the great days, during which Florentines produced an extraordinary succession of innovations in the arts, literature, engineering and finance, ran from the 13th century to the Renaissance.

It was only when the Medici, originally a clan of sharp-elbowed money-changers and cloth-dealers much like many another, managed to install themselves as grand dukes in the mid-16th century that the sequence of Florentine achievements tailed off. Two military strongholds — the huge Fortezza da Basso and the Forte di Belvedere above the Boboli Gardens — are evidence of the force by which the Medici suppressed their fractious subjects. The result was centuries of peace — and reduced creativity.

Originally published in The Spectator

Norman Sicily was a multicultural paradise – but it didn’t last long

A few weeks ago, I looked out on the Cathedral of Monreale from the platform on which once stood the throne of William II, King of Sicily. From there nearly two acres of richly coloured mosaics were visible, glittering with gold. In the apse behind was the majestic figure of Christ Pantocrator — that is, almighty. The walls of the aisles and nave were lined with scenes from the Bible. In another panel, just above, Christ himself crowned King William.

It was a prospect of the greatest opulence and sophistication stretching in every direction from this regal vantage point. The mosaics are in the manner of Byzantium, and probably executed by Greek artists, but the architectural plan and inlaid floors are derived from medieval Italy. This then, Padre Nicola Gaglio, the priest who was escorting us pointed out, was a building in which the Christian traditions of East and West, Rome and Constantinople, were combined and contrasted.

That’s true. But what is extraordinary is that that list does not by any means exhaust the interaction of civilisations that took place in 12th-century Sicily, soon to be explored in an exhibition at the British Museum. For a century after the conquest of the island by Norman forces in the 11th century, Sicilian society deserved the contemporary term multicultural.

The island was also quadrilingual, as an inscribed stone from 12th-century Palermo demonstrates. This inscription recorded the transfer of the remains of one Anna, mother of a priest called Grisandus, to a private chapel. It does so, however, in Latin, Greek, Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic (an Arabic dialect written in Hebrew characters for an Arabic-speaking Jewish population). Each text is slightly different, since — for example — the stone is dated 1149, according to western Christian chronology, 6657 according to the Byzantines, who began at the creation of the world, and 544 by Islamic reckoning.

Norman Sicily even had an English connection. At Monreale, on the wall beneath the colossal figure of Christ — his right hand alone, according to John Julius Norwich, is six feet high — is the unexpected figure of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury. Perhaps Becket’s image was put there among other sainted bishops in an apologetic spirit, since St Thomas had been hacked to death at the instigation of William II’s father-in-law, Henry II of England. Becket’s murder took place in 1170, or at most two decades before the mosaics were created.

There was an intimate connection between Norman Sicily and Norman England, both of which had been conquered by Viking-descended soldiers from northern France. The rulers of Norman Sicily had begun as mercenaries and freebooters, the sons of a minor noble called Tancred de Hauteville. The youngest of these, Roger, ended up as Count of Sicily; while his older brother, Robert Guiscard, ruled much of southern Italy. Their Italian wars took place at much the same time as William the Conqueror’s invasion of England.

The first Norman incursion into Sicily was in 1061, though the process of subduing the entire territory took decades. Before the Norse buccaneers arrived, Sicily had been under Islamic rule for more than a century; most of the population at that point was probably Muslim. Until the Islamic invasion, the island had been part of the Byzantine empire and culturally Greek.

Norman Sicily was therefore a jigsaw of cultures. Its full complexity is made clear inside the Cappella Palatina of the Royal Palace in Palermo, which I visited the following day in company with Dirk Booms, one of the British Museum curators. There the walls are covered with superb Byzantine mosaics, floors made by Italian master craftsmen, perhaps from Salerno. The most startling feature, however, is the wooden ceiling of the nave, a complex masterpiece of carpentry with starburst patterns and the honeycomb forms known as muqarnas (see p29), the whole of which is covered in Arabic inscriptions and figurative paintings in the style of contemporary Egypt. Some of these represent the king who commissioned the work, Roger II (1095–1154), son of the original conqueror, seated cross-legged in the manner of an Islamic ruler.

By the time his chapel was inaugurated in 1143, Roger controlled Sicily, most of Italy south of Rome, and large areas of North Africa. In some respects he and his successors followed the ways of the Middle East. They maintained harems and built superb pleasure palaces around Palermo, enthusiastically compared by Ibn Jubayr, a poet and traveller from Andalusia, to ‘necklaces strung around the throats of voluptuous girls’. Some of these, including those known as La Cuba and La Zisa — from al-Aziz (‘the Magnificent’) — closely resemble similar structures in 12th-century Algeria and Egypt.

The difference is that, miraculously, the Sicilian buildings still exist. Nowhere else, in fact, does so much of the magnificence of an early medieval monarch survive. The Palace of the Normans in Palermo contains 12th-century interiors, including the ‘Room of Roger’, which has mosaics of regal leopards, peacocks and centaurs in a landscape of date palms and orange trees. In the royal gardens around the city there roamed a Romanesque menagerie, including ostriches, panthers, lions, apes, bears, giraffes and elephants.

The Norman kings of Sicily were among the greatest rulers of their day. Roger II clearly thought himself the equal of the Emperor in Constantinople. Under his reign Sicily, making full use of its pivotal position in the centre of the Mediterranean, was powerful and prosperous as it had seldom been before — and never has been since. His hybrid Greek-Latin-Islamic state was hugely successful. Islamic bureaucrats kept records in flowing Arabic, the bishops were Italian, French and English, and the Syrian Christian Arabic and Greek-speaking George of Antioch functioned as ammiratus ammiratorum, emir of emirs, or commander-in-chief.

However, there was a catch, as Dirk Booms explained as we stood in front of the wonderful church in Palermo built by George of Antioch. ‘Sicily was a place of tolerance, but it was not a place of integration — except at court.’ The various populations — Greek, Latin, Muslim, Jewish — lived in separate districts of Palermo. Under Roger II’s son, William I, this patchwork society began to disintegrate. In 1161, there was a rebellion. The chief minister, George of Antioch’s successor, Maio of Bari, was assassinated, the king himself was imprisoned, and there were attacks on the Muslim population, who fled into the mountains.

‘When the power of the king fell away,’ Dirk Booms concluded, ‘it was clear that there were underlying tensions.’ After William II died without an heir in 1189, Norman Sicily, after lasting for a glorious century or so, quickly fragmented. Perhaps its lesson is that a multicultural society can be remarkably successful economically and culturally, but without true integration it is vulnerably fragile.

Originally published in The Spectator

On the frontiers of figuration, abstraction and total immateriality

The artist, according to Walter Sickert, ‘is he who can take a piece of flint and wring out of it drops of attar of roses’. In other words, whatever else it is — and all attempts at definition tend to founder — art consists in making something rare and memorable out of not very much.

Those words of Sickert’s popped into my mind as I looked at an exhibition of works by Avigdor Arikha at Marlborough Fine Art. Among these were pictures of a piece of toast, two pairs of socks, a casually folded orange tie, and part of a bathroom including a roll of toilet paper.

Arikha (1929–2010) was a French-Israeli artist based for much of his life in Paris. For 15 years he was an abstract painter, then in 1965 he abruptly began to depict the world around him. He turned to Alberto Giacometti one evening in the Bar du Dôme on boulevard Montparnasse and announced, ‘You were right!’

In post-war Europe, Giacometti had been the great proponent of figurative art. But while in London there were important painters — notably Freud, Bacon, Auerbach and Kossoff — who took that path, in late 20th-century France Arikha was a solitary figure, which may be why he is now in danger of being forgotten.

This is unfair. He was uneven, as many artists are, but he could attain a richly mysterious quality — especially when working only in velvety blacks and focusing on something extremely ordinary. Indeed, the more humdrum the subject the better; he succeeded much less well when depicting a famously glamorous film star — Catherine Deneuve — or the bodies of naked young women.

That boundary between figuration and abstraction was a crucial boundary in the 1950s and 60s — a sort of pictorial Iron Curtain. Some artists, like Arikha, switched sides after a dramatic conversion. Others found that very frontier fascinating. Frank Auerbach has spoken of how he felt the most exciting thing a painter could do was to cross the border from figurative to non-figurative, time and again, from one side to the other.

The same, perhaps, could be said of Auerbach’s exact contemporary, Dennis Creffield (born 1931), a selection of whose work over 60 years is on show at James Hyman Fine Art. A first encounter with a Creffield may suggest you are dealing with a gestural abstraction. In front of you are bold, scything brush strokes but few distinct forms. Then a look at the title reveals that this is in fact a view of Greenwich or a still life, and you look again — and begin to discern the subject.

Like Auerbach and Kossoff, Creffield attended classes by the charismatic painter David Bomberg. There are pictures here that instantly bring Bomberg to mind. But Creffield is not by any means a clone of his intense and brooding mentor. His work, after some gloomy panoramas of London in the 1950s, became more light, airy, and — an unusual quality, especially in post-war figurative art — joyous.

Robert Irwin is a West Coast American artist who comes from the same generation as Arikha and Creffield (he was born in 1928). His art, however, sidesteps the abstract/figurative dichotomy altogether. It is virtually immaterial. One work on show in 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, his exhibition at White Cube, Bermondsey, consists of two transparent, sharply angled columns. These are very close to being not there at all. From some points of view, you hardly notice them, from others they slice into your visual field or offer a tall thin band of reflection.

Another piece, ‘Black Painting’ (2015), consists of two squares with a surface of lacquered pigment so smooth they form twin mirrors. Again, when you look into them you see yourself, and the rest of the White Cube gallery, as in a glass darkly. Irwin has observed that you don’t need to worry about whether his work is art or not, ‘It’s just about what you are seeing or not seeing.’

Maybe — but, visually, this is close to a starvation diet. The other works by Irwin on show contrive to make neon tubes rather dim (and also stripy). A parallel exhibition by Cerith Wyn Evans, also at White Cube, consists of more neon tubes — one reproducing a motif from Duchamp, but drawn in light — suspended from the ceiling, plus revolving palm trees and a complicated glass thing that makes an eerie musical sound. This may not be the artistic equivalent of attar of roses, but it’s definitely more fun.

Originally published in The Spectator

Why did Goya’s sitters put up with his brutal honesty?

Sometimes, contrary to a widespread suspicion, critics do get it right. On 17 August, 1798 an anonymous contributor to the Diario de Madrid, reviewing an exhibition at the Royal Spanish Academy, noted that Goya’s portrait of Don Andrés del Peral was so good — in its draughtsmanship, its freedom of brushwork, its light and shade — that all on its own it was enough to bring credit to the epoch and nation in which it was created. He (or she) was absolutely correct.

The same could be said of many of the exhibits in Goya: The Portraits at the National Gallery. The people in these pictures rise up, as Vincent van Gogh hoped his own portraits would do in the future, like apparitions. There they are in front of you, these people who lived two centuries ago, with all their poignancy, absurdity, passion and energy.

It is because Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) made them look so alive that we are interested in the time and place in which they lived. Otherwise, who except specialists in Hispanic history would pay much attention to late 18th- and early 19th-century Spain? But as it is, we want to learn about these fascinating people that Goya shows us (and by reading the excellent catalogue, by the curator Xavier Bray, we can).

This is not to say that, magnificent as the exhibition is as a whole, it is entirely made up of masterpieces. Goya was a slow starter. Although he had formal training, he was essentially self-taught (as he noted).

Some of his earlier efforts have a stiff naiveté that is close to folk art. The main figure in the ‘The Count of Floridablanca’ (1783) (above) is wooden and doll-like and yet the painting as a whole is oddly memorable. Goya himself — short, subservient and sturdy, presenting a painting to his patron and simultaneously pushing himself into the picture — is a more lively presence than the noble subject.

Even while he was following the protocols of aristocratic portraiture, Goya just couldn’t stop himself noticing — and depicting — all sorts of extraneous and revealing sights. Cats, their eyes bulging with ferocious greed, wait to pounce on the pet bird held on a string by the dandified toddler, ‘Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga’ (1788). There are such subversive undertones and notes of sardonic comedy to many of his pictures.

‘The Family of the Infante Don Luis’ (1783–4) (lead image) is a whole novel in paint. The syphilitic late middle-aged Infante — younger brother of the king — plays patience by candlelight; beside him sits his beautiful, melancholy young wife. All around stand their entourage — among them a handsome, grinning fellow who may have been her lover.

At this stage, Goya’s ambition exceeded his ability. The picture, though haunting, is a spatially incoherent collage of separately studied figures. One of the pleasures of the exhibition is the way you can watch Goya slowly educating himself until he finally reaches full power in his 50s and 60s.

He felt he never did anything better than ‘The Portrait of Ferdinand Guillemardet’ (1798), the ambassador of the French revolutionary government in Madrid. It certainly is a perfect picture — the sitter coiled with vitality like a coldly efficient human spring, surrounded by delicate air and light. ‘The Duchess of Alba’ (1797), however, is more engaging: not only a noble heiress but a headstrong, vehement and glamorous presence (there was not a hair on her head, an observer noted, that did not awaken desire).

Goya’s (Lucian) Freud-like honesty about his sitters seems so clear in retrospect that it has always been a mystery why some of them put up with it. He clearly despised his last royal master Ferdinand VII, who looks sly, nasty, fat-faced and idiotic in the state portrait of 1814–15. And indeed, at that point, the contradictions of Goya’s position as court painter and fearless truth-teller became unsustainable. In old age he went into exile in Bordeaux.

Touchingly and inspiringly, he carried on evolving into his 80s. If some late works look strangely like Manet or Sargent, it’s because the artists of the future learnt so much from him. As you walk through the exhibition you see him turning himself from an awkward but talented provincial into a master, while simultaneously emerging step by step from the baroque past into the modern world. It’s that journey which makes Goya unique.

Originally published in The Spectator

Frank Auerbach joins the masters

No sooner had I stepped into the private view of Frank Auerbach’s exhibition at Tate Britain than I bumped into the painter himself. Auerbach was standing, surrounded by his pictures of 60 years ago, but he immediately started talking instead about Michelangelo. Of course, it is generally safe to assume that when artists talk about other artists they are also reflecting, at second hand, on their own work. And so it was in this case.

Michelangelo, Auerbach pointed out, had stingingly described someone else’s architectural design as looking like ‘a cage for crickets’. So, he argued, Michelangelo was clearly striving to make his own work the opposite of that: to give it grandeur.

Now, in writing about Auerbach’s art, it is the intense laboriousness of his methods that are usually stressed: the way in which he has worked daily in his studio since the early 1950s, how for a long time he took just one day’s holiday per annum, spent on Brighton Pier, but eventually gave up that frivolity. Another frequent theme is the startling quantity of pigment he used in his early years — and understandably so, pictures such as ‘Head of E.O.W.’ (1961) have a greater thickness of impasto than almost any in art.

You have only to glance around the galleries at the Tate, however, to find majesty there too. ‘E.O.W., S.A.W. and J.J.W. in the Garden’ (1963), for example, has the presence and dignity of an ancient Egyptian sculpture. Except, of course, that it’s obviously a picture of a modern woman and a couple of children in a suburban backyard.

Auerbach’s work often combines those two qualities. On the one hand, there’s a geometric power that reduces a north London street scene such as ‘Looking Towards Mornington Crescent Station’ (1972–4) to a series of bold slashing and intersecting brush strokes. ‘Flag-like’ is a term he’s used to describe the result he tries to achieve.

On the other hand, this is palpably an everyday corner of Camden — a few streets of which have provided Auerbach with subject matter for half a century rather in the way that John Constable got one marvellous painting after another from a few hundred yards of the River Stour. As it happens, Constable is another predecessor about whom Auerbach has mused. He has described the way that, by depicting such things as rotten planks and slimy posts, Constable was ‘blatantly shoving rubbish into our faces’ but at the same time making ‘grand, Michelangelo-esque compositions’ from this riverbank detritus.

With an Auerbach painting, it’s not so much that rubbish is being shoved in your face, more that you are made hyper-aware of the texture and weight of what you are looking at. This is the task the paint performs, and it’s a sensation that is not transmitted well in photographs. Of course, it’s always true with good paintings that you can only judge them properly when you are standing in front of the original. But it’s doubly true with an Auerbach, because the surface and substance of the paint counts for so much.

Over decades, that astonishing early impasto slowly thinned; some recent pictures such ‘Hampstead Road, Summer Haze’ (2010) have a positively light, airy quality. All the way through, though, the paint does the same job, which is to make you sense the weight and presence of what you are looking at.

At first glance, or even second and third, an Auerbach can be hard to ‘read’. That is, it is difficult to decode what you are actually looking at. This difficulty comes from Auerbach’s effort to hit different targets simultaneously: intense realism and almost abstract grandeur, while conveying a sense of novelty as of something seen for the first time.

If you persist, though, the flurry of brush strokes and even — in the case of a ‘Studio with Figure on a Bed II’ (1966) — worms of pigment squeezed straight out of the tube usually begin to give a sense of real solid objects, ‘recalcitrant things’, as he once put it, that you might ‘bump into in the dark’.

This is an occasion for counting the years, 64 of them now, amounting to one of the great marathons in the history of art. The curator, Catherine Lampert, has been posing for the artist once a week since 1978, a remarkable record of fidelity in itself; she has done a beautiful job on this retrospective. Everything — the mid-grey wall colour, the sparse hang — feels just right.

Auerbach’s old friend Lucian Freud once remarked that ‘when one’s doing something concerned with quality, a whole lifetime doesn’t seem enough’. But, in this case, it has been sufficient. Auerbach has won his long tussle with paint and reality, again and again. With this exhibition, he joins the masters.

Originally published in The Spectator

Repetitive but compelling: Giacometti at the National Portrait Gallery reviewed

One day in 1938 Alberto Giacometti saw a marvellous sight on his bedroom ceiling. It was ‘a thread like a spider’s web, but made of dust’, an object that was both ‘very, very fine’ and in constant motion, like a snake except that ‘no animal’, he thought, had ever made such movements: ‘light and sweeping and always different’. This was, you might say, a revelation of the beauty that lay in extreme thinness and fragility.

In Giacometti: Pure Presence at the National Portrait Gallery you see that process of attenuation occurring, in different ways, again and again in his art. In a bronze bust of his younger brother Diego, from 1955, the sitter’s upper body is substantial enough, but his head, with its angular profile, has become as slender as a blade.

A painting of the writer Jean Genet from about the same time (1954–5) shows the sitter, his head relatively much smaller than his torso, apparently sunk to the bottom of a large, grey tank of space. All the mature work by Giacometti (1901–66), whether from life or not, was about the immense difficulty — as he saw it — of making a sculpture or painting that accurately pinned down what he saw when he looked at a model.

It had not been like that at the start. The son of Giovanni Giacometti, a successful post-impressionist painter, young Alberto worked with precocious ease to begin with. The first exhibit, a bronze head of Diego, dates from 1914, when the artist was barely in his teens. There followed a series of accomplished paintings and sculptures of himself and his family. But a few years later, it abruptly got harder, and stayed that way.

Every day, almost every time he looked, it seemed to change. The most familiar faces, he complained, were the most difficult. The ever-faithful Diego was his first subject, and his last. At least, in this exhibition where the final work is a sculpture, ‘Diego Seated’ (1964–5), in which the figure seems to flicker and dissolve as the artist’s fingers kneaded the clay, again and again.

In between those two sculpted portraits, Diego sat for thousands upon thousands of hours, but the process never became any easier. Sometimes Giacometti felt he had made a little progress, then it turned out he was wrong. Paul Moorhouse, the NPG curator, aptly quotes Samuel Beckett, a friend of the artist, with his injunction to ‘fail again, fail better’. So he spent a lifetime attempting to depict a small number of models — Diego, his wife Annette, his mother, a younger woman named Caroline — despite in his own view never remotely succeeding.

Although the works in the exhibition are ostensibly portraits, they have little sense of individual personality, psychology or even appearance. The people seem more like everyman and everywoman, staring out. The subject is more, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, ‘pure presence’: another human being looking back at you. That, and the sheer impossibility of adequately fixing that experience in paint or clay. The result is that the exhibition is simultaneously repetitive and compelling. Giacometti was saying more or less the same thing, again and again, but with an intensity that never flags.

No doubt he was in the grip of obsessive compulsions. His refusal to leave his tiny, comfortless studio — which he described as ‘too small, just a hole’ — suggests as much. Giacometti’s existence, eternally attempting the unachievable, while dwelling in a sort of hermit’s cave, is a theme from Beckett — or perhaps a piece of performance art.

Yet, however idiosyncratic he might seem, Giacometti was a hugely influential artist. This was because, more than anyone else in the years after the second world war, he demonstrated that — far from being tired and finished — figurative art remained challenging, indeed dauntingly obdurate, but full of potential.

This was a starting point for many artists of the post-war era. Frank Auerbach, about whom I wrote last week, is one. Another was Peter Lanyon, whose gliding paintings are the subject of an excellent, small and sharply focused exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery: Soaring Flight.

Lanyon (1918–64) is sometimes bundled with contemporaries in the St Ives group such as Patrick Heron, and his work regarded as ‘abstract’. The Courtauld show makes clear that, on the contrary, he was determinedly and explicitly a landscape painter or — as he liked to term his later pictures, which are the theme of the exhibition —an exponent of the ‘airscape’.

Just like Giacometti, Lanyon was after something elusive. A painting such as ‘High Wind’ (1958) represents a real experience —being buffeted by gusts of turbulent air. But it manages to do so without reproducing any identifiable object. Thus it is not exactly representational, but scarcely abstract either. It powerfully transmits the feeling of standing in a swirling gale.

A year after he painted this, Lanyon took — quite literally — to the air himself. He started gliding, and, until he was killed as the result of an accident at only 46, many of his paintings were about the experience of flight.

They are big canvases that envelop you, giving the impression that you are surrounded by clouds and thermals. There is no fixed viewpoint. In ‘Rosewall’ (1960) the sky is all around the edges of the canvas, and the green Cornish land in the middle. Somehow, this gives a more vivid sense of atmospheric turmoil and vertigo — Lanyon suffered from a fear of heights — than any more photographic depiction could. You leave convinced that Lanyon was the master of a distinctive genre: aerial art.

 

Originally published in The Spectator

M.C. Escher: limited, repetitive, but he deserves a place in art history

‘Surely,’ mused the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, ‘it is a bit absurd to draw a few lines and then claim: “This is a house.”’ He made a good point. That is what almost all artists since the days of Lascaux have done: put down some splodges of paint or a line or two and proclaimed, ‘This is a bison’, ‘This is a man’, ‘This is Mona Lisa’. One of the aims of Escher’s work, which is currently displayed in an exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, was to undermine such pretensions to represent reality.

At first glance, his images often seem meticulously, even aridly factual. ‘Still Life with Mirror, March 1934’ shows us a bathroom looking-glass on a table, toothbrush and paste arranged in front; but the reflection in the glass is of a medieval Italian street. It takes a moment to realise that this is a Lewis Carroll state of affairs. The looking-glass is a window to a different world; the city cannot be inside this room.

In a work such as this, Escher (1898–1972) had an obvious affinity with his exact contemporary, the Belgian surrealist René Magritte. He, too, was struck by the fact that a picture of a pipe — or a dressing table — was not the thing itself. Technically, and in mood, he also had a good deal in common with Anglo-Saxon wood engravers such as Clare Leighton and Eric Ravilious.

Escher specialised in print media, almost always in black and white, and deployed with extreme precision. Even in his early years, however, his lithographs and woodcuts such as the view of ‘Castrovalva (Abruzzi), February 1930’ had an eerie atmosphere and vertiginously plunging perspectives.

Already you get the feeling that those neat little black shapes might metamorphose into something else. A few years later, they did. ‘Day and Night, February 1938’ is a landscape viewed from the air. On the left, black geese fly over sunlit fields; on the right, there are white birds and the scenery is darkening into night. In the middle, the two flocks intersect, revealing themselves as just flat, geometric shapes — which in turn merge into the pattern of fields below.

A good deal of Escher’s work was to do with this kind of duck/rabbit conundrum. He also delighted in paradoxes such as the building in ‘Ascending and Descending, March 1960’. This is roughly in the style of Brunelleschi, progenitor of Renaissance single-point perspective. But the staircase on its top storey forms an endless, impossible loop around which figures trudge up — or down — forever. Escher was interested in infinity, not just optical illusions.

Some of his work has a cartoony, kitschy quality, which may explain why — despite his popularity with the public — Escher has not been taken seriously by museums (there are hardly any of his prints in British public collections). He was limited and a bit repetitive, but this exhibition demonstrates that he deserves a place in art history. Escher fits neatly, like one of his flat tile-like forms, in the gap between Magritte and Bridget Riley.

Another figure who has yet to find a secure position in that scheme is the late John Hoyland. With the exhibition of his early painting that inaugurates Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery, however, Hoyland (1934–2011) is coming posthumously back to prominence.

He was, as it happens, the first contemporary artist with whose work I came into contact. A benefactor presented my school with one of his canvases, principally featuring a large green rectangle. Presumably no one knew either what to make of this or where to put it, and it ended up hung forlornly in a remote corridor.

This could stand as a metaphor for what happens to artists when the art world can’t think quite where to place them. Hoyland, born in Sheffield, and a creator of abstract paintings on a heroic scale, was — at least in British art — one of a kind.

He began brilliantly but didn’t quite sustain that promise, which is perhaps why this exhibition concentrates mainly on the 1960s. Hoyland’s paintings from that era were made up of squares and lozenges of soft red, orange and green. There was a connection with Rothko, but they do not have the looming, spiritual quality Rothko managed to give his oblong patches of colour.

Hoylands are imposing through the grandeur of their scale, but in a more architectural way. His paintings from 1966, a peak productive year, though clearly ‘abstract’, seem like simple structures in space. They suggest a corollary to that observation by Escher: it’s hard to put down a few rectangles and not have someone say, ‘This looks like a house.’

With the opening of this big, airy and beautifully designed gallery Hirst is following his erstwhile Svengali, Charles Saatchi, in setting himself up as an independent force to the mighty Tate (which ought to mount such reassessments as this, but seldom does). What’s more, Hirst already seems to be succeeding. At the Frieze art fairs early Hoylands were shown on more than one stall and — as they do at Newport Street — looked unexpectedly strong.

Originally published in The Spectator

Alexander Calder: the man who made abstract art fly

One day, in October 1930, Alexander Calder visited the great abstract painter Piet Mondrian in his apartment in Paris. The Dutch artist had turned this small space on rue du Départ, which also doubled as his studio, into a walk-in work of art. Even his gramophone, painted bright red, had become a note of pure form and colour.

Calder was impressed by the squares and oblongs of the pictures all around. But he also asked a question: wouldn’t it be fun to make these rectangles move? With a perfectly straight face Mondrian replied that this wasn’t necessary: ‘My paintings are already very fast.’

As I walked around Performing Sculpture, the new Calder exhibition at Tate Modern, I mused on which of them had got the better of this exchange. In a free-association test, any art buff prompted with the word ‘Calder’ would immediately respond ‘mobile’. This is because his distinctive contribution to modernism was to make abstract sculpture move.

Naturally, the galleries at Tate Modern are full of Calder’s mobiles: suspended from the ceiling, rising on filigree arrangements like inverted coathangers from the floor. Quite often, if not quite always, they are indeed in motion, gently revolving on currents of air from vents in the floor or the mild jetstream caused by critics walking past, notebooks in hands. It does not take much to make the mobiles stir, but visitors are strictly warned against doing so by touching them — or even blowing in their direction.

Worries about conservation have immobilised quite a few of the pieces in this exhibition. There are early sculptures equipped with home-made-looking mechanisms or hand-operated handles. Sadly, these amusing toys have grown too fragile, valuable and art-historically important to flap or wave as their creator intended.

Others have been silenced. Intriguingly, Calder considered that sound was an important aspect of sculpture. He collaborated with composers and choreographers. Some of his works were intended to chime or collide randomly with objects. Again, however, these have become too precious to make a noise.

Calder’s aerial sculptures are unquestionably beautiful: delicately balanced arrangements of forms like fluttering leaves, subatomic particles or celestial bodies, suspended from the lightest possible cat’s cradle of wire. This is the opposite of the orthodox conception of sculpture from Michelangelo to Richard Serra: an art that is all about mass, weight and three-dimensional form. A typical Calder mobile seems to have almost no volume — its shapes are made from thin sheets of painted metal — and the whole point is about defying weight. This is the closest thing there is to flying sculpture; indeed one exhibit, entitled ‘Blériot’ (1949), resembles an early aeroplane.

You could get mildly hypnotised watching a mobile orbiting, some parts at a slower rate than others; but to my mind there is something missing. It doesn’t much matter that, the question of mobility apart, Calder was highly derivative. Everybody has influences, and his are easy to spot: not much from Mondrian, but an awful lot of Miró and a touch of the Swiss painter/sculptor Jean Arp. There’s a whole room of Calders that are in effect moving pictures in 3D — coloured rectangles with curving rods and cut-out silhouettes like amoebas, eggs and stars dangling in front of them like puppets in a toy theatre.

Wit and playfulness are the strengths — and perhaps the weaknesses — of Calder’s work from the start. Before that fateful visit chez Mondrian, which sent him down an abstract path, Calder was a figurative artist. His early work revolved around a miniature circus, the Cirque Calder, of which he gave performances in his studio from time to time. For this he made acrobats and animals fashioned out of wire: it was an engaging and slightly naughty (the human performers are naked) form of drawing in space. The line was borrowed from Picasso, but the effect is individual and charming. Indeed, this is the most enjoyable room because the work here is less repetitive.

The trouble with the mobiles — for me — is that though individually they are delightful, they are all rather similar. None is really memorable, which might be because their shapes constantly shift. That is one of the paradoxes of art: still images can contain an immense amount of drama and action too. They do so, furthermore, in a way that sticks in your mind. So Mondrian got it right: his paintings were much better as they were, motionless. But possibly Calder’s sculptures are actually more entertaining.

 

Originally published in The Spectator

Warhol the traditionalist

When asked the question ‘What is art?’, Andy Warhol gave a characteristically flip answer (‘Isn’t that a guy’s name?’). On another occasion, however, he produced a more thoughtful response: ‘Does it really come out of you or is it a product? It’s complicated.’ Indeed, it’s those complications that make Warhol’s works compelling, as is demonstrated by a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

One is that it is hard to tell how much he was really in control. When you look at one of his pictures, are you really looking at the work of his assistants or, indeed, of chance? And the way he forces you to think about that makes you ponder other kinds of art as well. Warhol manages — a characteristic trick — to be simultaneously superficial and profound.

This is not a full retrospective, or even close to one. It all comes from a single private source, the Hall Collection, which means that many celebrated categories of Warhol’s work are omitted entirely. There are no Marilyns, no Elvis Presleys, no electric chairs. But the omission of so much instantly recognisable stuff makes it easier to see what was so original and — in a way — so traditional about what he did.

He shows us the faces of the famous, and that is a reminder of how much art consists of famous faces — kings, saints, gods. Then he repeats them, so you see a whole stack of Chairman Mao, for example, some of which are slightly different from the others. And you respond somehow to those little differences — do they mean anything?

In silk-screening Warhol found a method of making pictures by copying photographs that also generated random variations. One would be lighter, one darker, one smeared, or with the colours out of register. He would produce whole series in this way; the best part of a wall at the Ashmolean, for example, is covered with multiple versions of Joseph Beuys, in alternative colourways. It was the mistakes he liked about the system: he was thrilled because it was ‘so quick and chancy’.

Warhol was obsessed by movie stars and celebrities, but he was also fascinated by randomness. There are works on show in Oxford that represent shadows, a Rorschach inkblot and cloudy stains caused by urinating on specially prepared paint (Warhol claimed not to have the heart to explain this technique to some old ladies at an exhibition, ‘especially as their noses were right up against them’).

Matisse famously advised those who wanted to take up art first to cut out their tongues. Warhol didn’t do that, but nor did he give much away about the meanings of his works. He preferred wit and gossip. Over dinner, David Bowie once told me about his first meeting with the artist, who was then considerably more famous than he was — this was in 1971. Bowie began by telling Warhol how much he admired his work. There followed an awkward silence, until eventually Warhol lent across and confided, ‘I really like your shoes!’ After that, according to Bowie, conversation flowed more freely.

It is no accident that one of Warhol’s final projects was a series of variations on Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ (nor that, despite the ironies and outrages, Warhol was a devout, mass-attending Catholic). Like many iconoclasts and revolutionaries he turns out, on closer examination, to have been a closet traditionalist.

The same could be said of the other major American pop artists. A photograph in the Oxford catalogue shows them all lined up in 1964: Warhol, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselmann. Of those Wesselmann (1931–2004) is perhaps the least familiar in this country, but an exhibition of his early work at the David Zwirner gallery suggests he is an artist more subtle and complex than first appears. He tends to be known, if at all, for a series, collectively entitled ‘The Great American Nude’, which might be described as modernism meets Playboy.

This delightful show catches Wesselmann in the late Fifties and early Sixties, just at the point of emerging into maturity. The little collages displayed in the downstairs gallery are engaging interiors plus a still life or two in which the intimacy of a Vuillard or Bonnard is spliced with a bit of American directness (and occasionally what look like bits of the Stars and Stripes). The results are sophisticated but with folksy touches. As you look, you understand how Wesselmann’s nudes, apparently so brash, are descended from those of Matisse.

 

Originally published in The Specatator

Julia Margaret Cameron: the Leonardo of photography

One day Julia Margaret Cameron was showing John Ruskin a portfolio of her photographic portraits. The critic grew more and more impatient until he came to a study of the scientist Sir John Herschel in which the subject’s hair stood up ‘like a halo of fireworks’. At this point, Ruskin slammed the portfolio shut and Cameron thumped him violently on the back, exclaiming, ‘John Ruskin, you are not worthy of photographs!’ He was indeed smackingly wrong to dismiss her work, as visitors to an exhibition at the V&A celebrating the 200th anniversary of her birth will be able to see for themselves.

There are multiple ironies underlying this spat (they happily made up by lunchtime). Ruskin disapproved — officially speaking, at least — of photography. Discoursing on the popular belief that ‘the camera cannot lie’, he remarked that photographs were true in a sense. ‘But this truth of mere transcript has nothing to do with Art properly so called; and will never supersede it.’

A complication is that Ruskin himself had collected hundreds of daguerreotypes of landscape and architectural subjects, often collaborating closely with the photographers who had taken them. Some of these very closely resembled his own watercolour drawings. There was a further paradox. In a way his complaint about Julia Margaret Cameron’s pictures was that they had too much to do with art, but not the variety he favoured.

Ruskin admired the close-focus style of Pre-Raphaelites such as Millais — which was in turn heavily influenced by photography — and painted in that manner himself. Cameron, however, reflected an entirely different kind of painting. Dante Gabriel Rossetti — an astute observer if a bad speller — put his finger on just what that was when he thanked her for ‘the most beautiful photograph’ she had sent him, adding, ‘It is like a Lionardo.’

That was a bull’s eye. Cameron often consciously imitated High Renaissance painting, posing youthful friends and relations in the attitude of angels by Raphael or a Michelangelo sibyl. Years later, one of her models recalled, ‘No wonder those old photographs of us, leaning over the imaginary ramparts of heaven, look anxious and wistful; this was how we felt.’

The anxiety was created partly by Cameron’s commanding personality — ‘a terrifying elderly woman’, according to the same witness, ‘with plump eager face and piercing eyes’. It was also the product of the long exposures Cameron favoured (up to four minutes of motionlessness for the sitter). These, in turn, take us back to Leonardo because she — like the Italian master — understood the crucial importance of lighting.

All she required as a studio, Cameron wrote, was a room ‘capable of having all light excluded except one window’, and that she would drape with yellow calico. Exposure times were lengthy in the early days of photography, causing some practitioners to fix their sitters’ heads in clamps to prevent them moving. Restricting the illumination lengthened the duration even further. But in conjunction with Cameron’s tendency to take her pictures slightly out of focus this procedure created a wonderful softness. It was indeed the photographic equivalent to Leonardo’s sfumato, defined by the master himself as ‘without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke’.

Clearly, the works of Julia Margaret Cameron were not ‘true’ in the sense that Ruskin discussed. They were highly artificial and carefully constructed. That, however, is probably the case with any good picture, whether painted, drawn, photographed or filmed. There are deep interconnections between all those ways of making images of the world about us; this is the premise of a book on which I have been working with David Hockney, A History of Pictures, to be published next autumn.

We argue that there are continuities running from the images on the walls of prehistoric caves to the ones on your computer screen. In part, this is because all pictures share the same problems, arising from an attempt to represent a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface. It is also because images in different media have always influenced one another, and still do.

Photography was first revealed to the world in 1839 by a painter and impresario named Louis Daguerre. In fact, however, it had at least six progenitors: three French and three British. One of the British contingent was Julia Margaret Cameron’s model, Sir John Herschel, a brilliant chemist who came up with the ideal fixative. What all of them had in common was the ambition of capturing the images in a camera obscura in permanent form.

William Henry Fox Talbot recalled that he conceived that idea when thinking about ‘the inimitable beauty’ of the images he saw in a pre-photographic camera — ‘fairy pictures, creations of a moment and destined rapidly to fade away’. Thomas Wedgwood, son of the famous potter, had tried unsuccessfully to do the same thing in the 1790s.

This brings out a crucial point. Europeans were familiar with the images made by a camera for decades, indeed centuries, before 1839. In 1769 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, emphasising the candour of hisConfessions, stressed that it was a ‘portrait, not a book’: ‘I shall be working, as it were, in a camera obscura,’ he added. ‘No art is needed beyond that of tracing exactly the features I see there.’ Clearly the notion that the camera could not lie predated photography by at least 70 years.

Even in the 18th century others disputed the idea that images revealed by a camera were inherently truthful — and, of course, they were right. Any good image is likely to have been staged, like Cameron’s portraits, more or less painstakingly. The way artists have done this will be the theme of an exhibition at Tate Modern next year,Performing for the Camera. Indeed, that phrase describes how many famous pictures have been taken.

Even among photographs purporting to be documentary snapshots of real life a surprising number turn out to have been prearranged. This is — very probably — true of Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’, which apparently captures the moment of death during the Spanish Civil War. Robert Doisneau’s romantic image of postwar Paris, ‘The Kiss’, was discovered — more than 40 years after it was taken — to have been posed by two young actors.

When such ‘faked’ photographs are unmasked, there is usually an outcry. Making them is considered an immoral act, even a sackable offence, in journalism. Perhaps we should relax; after all, no one makes a fuss about staging paintings. In this era of digital photography and Photoshop, most photographs have been more or less altered. As Hockney points out, there are numerous badly drawn photographs about. The border between the hand drawn and the photographic is utterly blurred; but then it always was.

 

First published in The Spectator