The baroque: the senses, the intellect, the heart and the very soul

The baroque: the senses, the intellect, the heart and the very soul

There has never been an artistic movement as magnificent as the baroque.

Martin Gayford

Standing beneath the stage of the perfectly preserved baroque theatre in the Castle of Cesky Krumlov earlier this year, I found myself searching for an association. There was something familiar about the mighty wooden winches, intricate timber structures and swathes of rope that surrounded me. Then I got it. This was very much like wandering beneath the decks of Nelson’s Victory.

Indeed, there is a close connection. Both are specimens of advanced 18th-century technology, the one to fight maritime battles, the other to create illusion, a commodity as essential to European civilisation in its way as cannon balls and grape shot. Theatrical illusion and spectacle was a speciality – and to a considerable extent, an invention – of the 17th and 18th centuries.

That is why props and costumes from Cesky Krumlov, a picturesque town in the south-west corner of the Czech Republic, will feature in the forthcoming exhibition at the V&A, Baroque 1620-1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence (April 4 to July 19). Much of what we now take for granted in the arts – opera, for example, and the proscenium arch theatre – developed in that era.

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Blue Note Records: from Ammons to Monk, it was home to the jazz idealists

Blue Note Records: from Ammons to Monk, it was home to the jazz idealists

Instantly recognisable, ineffably cool, Blue Note is a label that, after 70 years, still prides itself on celebrating ‘jazz with a feeling’ – straight, no chaser.

By Martin Gayford

‘The finest in jazz since 1939”: that’s how the logo reads on every Blue Note record. It’s an exaggeration, but not a completely crazy one. Other companies recorded wonderful performances, but no other had so strong an identity: not only musical but also visual, extending to the design of the photographs on the sleeve. And no other jazz label remained so faithful to its ideals for so long. There is plenty to celebrate in the anniversary of the birth of Blue Note, 70 years ago.

The foundation of Blue Note was an early sign that jazz was a music with a world audience. It was set up by a German-Jewish immigrant named Alfred Lion and it was run by him and another escapee from Nazi Germany, Francis Wolff, for three decades. Lion bowed out with health problems in 1967; Wolff died of a heart attack in 1971. But the label continues, under different ownership, to produce notable jazz recordings to this day.

Lion, born in 1909, and Wolff belonged to the first generation of European jazz fans. Both were mad about the music; nobody would ever run an independent jazz label, a recipe for financial precariousness and endless work, for any other reason. Ruth, Lion’s wife, described his routine in the late Fifties and early Sixties. “Alfred was doing everything. He was taking care of getting the records out. He was getting to rehearsals. He was getting to auditions. He put in at least a 70-hour week. Days off were very rare.”

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The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery

The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery

‘The Sacred Made Real’ at the National Gallery is a groundbreaking exhibition of hyper-real religious works that will change the way we see art.

By Martin Gayford

In the northern Spanish city of Valladolid, I am examining the corpse of a man who has suffered a terrible and sustained assault. His eyes are glazed in death, his mouth hangs open, his body is covered in a mass of wounds and lacerations. It is quite hard to look at, yet at the same time it is beautiful. “This,” says Maria Bolanos, the director of the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregorio, which I am visiting, “is our Rokeby Venus!”

She is joking, of course, but only a little. We are contemplating Dead Christ (c1625-30) by Gregorio Fernández, one of the great masterpieces of 17th-century Spanish sculpture. Next week it goes on show as one of the star exhibits in a remarkable and ground-breaking exhibition at the National Gallery, The Sacred Made Real.

To compare Fernández’s Dead Christ with Velázquez’s naked Rokeby Venus is startling, but in some ways it makes perfect sense. The two artists were contemporaries; Velázquez would almost certainly have known this work – which belonged to a Jesuit religious institution in Madrid – and others by Fernández. Like Velázquez’s painting, the sculpture is a work of great realism, and also extraordinary art. Both men were greatly esteemed in their lifetimes. The difference is that Velázquez is now one of the most famous artists who ever lived, whereas Fernández – in company with the other leading sculptors of Renaissance and Baroque Spain – is almost forgotten except by specialists. Their years languishing in obscurity, however, may be about to end.

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‘De Stijl’ movement: squares, lines… and barking like dogs

‘De Stijl’ movement: squares, lines… and barking like dogs

From furniture to typefaces, painting to poetry, the trailblazing ‘De Stijl’ movement set out to redesign the world. Its members bickered constantly, but agreed on one thing: no curves allowed.

By Martin Gayford
09 Feb 2010

Picture this. It is the second decade of a new century. The world is battered by terrible political conflict, social tension and economic failure. There is a deep and widespread feeling that the way human beings live their lives needs to change. This is a description not of the situation in 2010, but the zeitgeist almost a century ago, during the First World War.

It was then that a small group of Dutch artists and architects came together, united by an ambition to redesign the world on purer, better lines – and those lines would always be straight ones. They are the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern. The most celebrated figure among them was Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), one of the towering figures in 20th-century art: supreme master of coloured rectangles and straight lines. His paintings are included, but the exhibition centres around the less familiar figure of Theo van Doesburg, who gives his name to the show: Van Doesburg & The International Avant-Garde.

He was the founder and editor of a magazine, De Stijl, which gave name to the movement that formed around it. Like most such publications, De Stijl – founded in 1917 and appearing until 1928 – had a tiny circulation, but its ambitions were huge. The aim was to transform the world. Assuredly the abstract paintings, angular furniture and pared down buildings that De Stijl advocated did not make mankind less selfishly individualistic, but they did eventually alter the look of the modern environment.

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Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill: stairway to a thousand horrors

Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill: stairway to a thousand horrors

Horace Walpole’s extraordinary Strawberry Hill villa inspired him to write stories that have influenced everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to JK Rowling. A new show brings it vividly to life.

By Martin Gayford

In June 1764 a 52-year-old man awoke from a strange dream. He was sleeping in his own house, recently radically rebuilt, in Twickenham by the Thames. In his sleep he had thought himself, he later wrote to a friend, in “an ancient castle”. There, “on the uppermost banister of a great staircase”, he had seen “a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate”.

The resultant book changed literary history – we are still reading its remote fictional successors today – and the house in which it was dreamt, which was just as much the creation of that middle-aged dreamer, profoundly altered the future course of architecture. The man was Horace Walpole and the building was his villa, Strawberry Hill. Both are the subject of an exhibition at the V&A (Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill).

It will put back in the spotlight an extremely unusual man. Horace Walpole (1717-97) was the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister for much of the early Georgian period, and one of the great power brokers and wheeler-dealers in British political history. Horace – superficially at least – could scarcely have been more different.

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Ernesto Neto: in the Rio studio

Ernesto Neto interview for Festival Brazil: realm of the senses

The words ‘Do not touch’ are anathema to the Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto, whose work is designed to be handled, sat on, smelt and even bathed in. Martin Gayford foresees a challenge to British inhibitions.

By Martin Gayford
Published: 11:06AM BST 28 May 2010

My work,’ Ernesto Neto declares suddenly, ‘is about liquids, about drinking. I love to drink. Drinking is such a delicious thing. When you drink, ahh…’ – he lets out a sigh of pleasure – ‘amazing beer, great wine, fruit juice, coconut milk or water, it is so good. I think we should pray a little bit every time we drink something.’

Neto is not, as his rhapsody might suggest, an alcoholic; instead he is, as he confesses, a workaholic. Nor is his work in any obvious way about drinking; but it is sometimes very, well, fluid. Neto is one of the most prominent artists to come out of Brazil in recent years. Next month he fills the top storey of the Hayward Gallery in London with a flexible, walk-in, sit-down, inside-outside series of sculptures and installations entitled ‘The Edges of the World’, part of the South Bank’s Festival Brazil.

In his studio, in an atmospherically rundown area of the old centre of Rio de Janeiro, large pod-like objects hang from the ceiling or sit on the workshop floor. One resembles an igloo in an orange net. The place is full of his assistants (mainly women) sewing. Neto makes sculpture, but not as we usually think of that art. His work tends to be soft, yielding. Typically, though not always, it is made of fabric. The first time I saw his work was at the Venice Biennale of 2001 when he crammed his country’s pavilion with pods of translucent nylon – a signature material – with a mass of Styrofoam at the bottom. They dangled like body parts, or some form of monstrous forest fruit. Neto did something similar, on a grander scale, in the chilly classical spaces of the Panthéon in Paris, giving the impression that a colony of giant tropical insects might be nesting in the building.

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Art forgeries

Art forgeries: does it matter if you can’t spot an original?

The Telegraph

Some argue that it is irrelevant who painted a picture, it’s the quality that counts. But, as a fascinating new exhibition sets out to explore fakery in art, Martin Gayford begs to differ.

By Martin Gayford
Published: 1:59PM BST 17 Jun 2010

A certain collector amassed a large array of paintings by Walter Sickert, or so the story goes. One day he decided to present what he owned to the artist himself. Sickert examined each before announcing that he was afraid not one of them was his own work. Then he added genially: “But none the worse for that!”

Does it matter whether works of art are really by the people or cultures that are supposed to have created them? It’s a good question, without a very clear answer. Later this month an exhibition at the National Gallery, Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, will examine the whole question of mistaken identities in art – not just outright fakes but works that in various ways are not quite what they seem.

In the first category is a group portrait, bought by the National Gallery in 1923 as 15th-century Italian and displayed for a quarter of a century before the museum shamefacedly admitted it was a forgery. An example of the second, not a fake but not precisely genuine either, is a painting in the style of the 15th-century Italian master Perugino that turns out to be a copy executed by the 17th-century master Sassoferrato.

Some hold that such details do not matter at all. The important question, they argue, is how good a picture is – not who happened to wield the brush. I disagree. The identity of the person who made what we look at is a matter that deeply affects how we feel about it. Unfortunately, we can’t always be sure about that.

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