Three hundred years after the gardener’s birth, debates still rage over whether his ruthless landscaping led to something beautifully harmonious or just a bit dull
The Capability Brown-landscaped garden at Prior Park, near Bath, and the first know image of a railway line, from a drawing by Anthony Walker, 1750
In a piece of light verse from the 1770s ‘Dame Nature’ — out strolling ‘one bright day’ — bumps into the great landscape designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Immediately the goddess lays into him for plagiarism. How, she wants to know, does he have the impudence to show his face? All the items he claims to have created — ‘the lawn, wood and water’ — were made in fact by her. Continue reading “The Capability controversy”
A few months ago, the Greek artist Jannis Kounellis (b. 1936) was in Sicily, talking to the students of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Palermo. It was, he recalls, just after a great many drowned bodies of refugees had been found floating in the sea. ‘I found myself thinking about Piet Mondrian. I imagined him there in Sicily today, sitting in a studio confronted by this terrifying spectacle. Under those circumstances, Mondrian wouldn’t have been able just to paint a vertical line and a horizontal one – that wouldn’t have been enough.’ Continue reading “‘Everything needs to be centred on humanity’: Interview with Jannis Kounellis”
‘New York Street with Moon’, 1925, by Georgia O’Keeffe
In 1927, Georgia O’Keeffe announced that she would like her next exhibition to be ‘so magnificently vulgar that all the people who have liked what I have been doing would stop speaking to me’. Perhaps, then, she would approve of the massive retrospective of her work at Tate Modern. This show is, as is frequently the case in the largest suites of galleries on Bankside, considerably too big for its subject. The scale, however, is a matter of institutional overkill. Its vulgarity, magnificent or otherwise, is supplied by O’Keeffe (1887–1986) herself — in a pared-down, high-modernist way. Continue reading “The over-exposure of Georgia O’Keeffe”
Sooner or later, no matter where you are travelling on Italian railways, you are likely to pass through Bologna Centrale. The city is the main junction between the north and south of the country, close to the route through the mountains. It always has been. The teenage Michelangelo stopped off while journeying between Venice and Florence, and — after a contretemps at the customs office, since Bologna was then a city state — carved some small sculptures for the Basilica of San Domenico. Continue reading “Bologna with Gilbert & George”
In 1992 I wrote a column that was published under the headline ‘It’s Time to Split the Tate’. To my absolute astonishment, shortly afterwards it was announced that this would actually happen (no doubt a coincidence rather than a response to my words). Hitherto, though it is hard now to recall those times, there had been just a single Tate gallery in London — the one on Millbank, containing a cheerful jumble of British painting from the Tudor era onwards mixed with what was then described as modern ‘foreign’ art. Continue reading “It’s time to split the Tate again”
One of the two bronze statues of Greek warriors found in the sea off Riace, on display for the first time at the presidential palace in Rome, 1981
Initially it must have been a nasty surprise. On 16 August 1972 an amateur scuba diver named Stefano Mariottini was fishing in shallow waters just off the coast of Calabria. At about noon he was poking around some rocks when he saw part of an arm protruding from the sand. His first thought, a natural one, was that he had found a cadaver.
On closer examination, it became clear that there was not just one body but two — and that they were made not of flesh but of metal. Mariottini’s discoveries are world-famous now, taking their name — the Riace bronzes — from the little resort near which he was swimming. In terms of classical sculpture, he had hit the jackpot. Continue reading “My pilgrimage to see the world’s greatest male nudes”
‘Untitled (Tilly Losch)’, c.1935–38, by Joseph Cornell
Someone once asked Joseph Cornell who was his favourite abstract artist of his time. It was a perfectly reasonable question to put to a man who numbered Piet Mondrian, as well as other masters of modernism, among his acquaintance. But, characteristically, Cornell veered off at a tangent. ‘What’, he replied, ‘do you mean “my time”?’ In its way it’s a good response, as the exhibition at the Royal Academy, Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust, makes clear.
Detail of a maiolica vase, c.1565–1571, a star piece for both Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill and later for Baron Ferdinand at Waddesdon Manor
Art is not jewellery. Its value does not reside in the price of the materials from which it is made. After all, the cost of the pigment, oil and cloth that made up a Rembrandt was negligible. It’s what he did with them that counts. On the other hand, spectacular works of art can be made from gold and gems, as is clear from some — if not all — of the items displayed in the new installation of the Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum. ‘As soon as the swallows made their appearance,’ Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild wrote in his memoir Bric-à-Brac, ‘my father’s curiosities were packed and stored away in a strong room.’ It was the young Ferdinand’s privilege to help pack these objects. ‘Merely to touch them,’ he recalled, ‘sent a thrill of delight through my small frame.’ Continue reading “Forget Vienna – Britain now has its own chamber of curiosities at the British Museum”
Portrait photograph of Richard Dadd painting Contradiction (c.1857) in Bedlem
Charles Dickens’s description of Cobham Park, Kent, in The Pickwick Papers makes it seem a perfect English landscape. Among its ‘long vistas of stately oaks and elms’, he wrote, ‘occasionally a startled hare’ ran with ‘the speed of the shadows thrown by the light clouds’. It was there on the morning of 29 August 1843 that a butcher from Rochester got a nasty surprise. He discovered the corpse of an apothecary named Robert Dadd; he had been battered and stabbed to death by his son Richard.
There is no doubt that Richard Dadd was far from sane. On the other hand, his loss of mental balance — though very bad in its consequences for his father — was the making of Dadd as an artist. Only after he became a homicidal maniac did he turn into a major painter.
A 26-year-old star of the early Victorian art world when he committed this terrible crime, Dadd spent the remaining 43 years of his life in psychiatric institutions, first Bethlem (or Bedlam) Hospital in London and then the newly founded Broadmoor. While living in Bedlam, Dadd, very slowly, produced his two masterpieces — ‘Contradiction: Oberon and Titania’ (1854–8) and ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’ (c. 1855–64) — both of which are on show in an exhibition at the Watts Gallery at Compton near Guildford: The Art of Bedlam. This is small in size but, because of the nature of his art, it amounts to something approaching a retrospective. Its curator, Nicholas Tromans, is also the author of a book, Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum, which reveals much new information about those long years of incarceration as a ‘criminal lunatic’.
In his greatest pictures Dadd seems to shrink space. The closer you look, the more you see. For example, in the centre of ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’ there is seated a white-bearded Gandalf-like sage identified by Dadd as an ‘arch-magician’. After peering closely for a while, you notice a tiny cavalcade — according to Dadd, Queen Mab and her retinue of ‘female centaurs’ — riding across the brim of his hat.
The whole painting — less than two feet high — is like that. The small figures you notice first of all tower over yet more minute ones, and all of them surrounded by gigantic daisies and grasses: the setting a few square inches of woodland floor. The earlier ‘Contradiction’ is similar in its teeming population, overscale vegetation and airless atmosphere — as if it were taking place indoors under a glass canopy.
‘Bacchanalian Scene’ (1862) has the same close-focus botanical observation and claustrophobic lack of space, but instead of tiny figures it consists of three big faces, jammed together. The eyes of a bearded man to the left swivel towards a young woman in the centre, while the pulpy lips of a satyr protrude greedily in the direction of a goblet he is holding.
Dadd’s descent into insanity during a prolonged journey to the eastern Mediterranean in 1842–43 reads like a story by Edgar Allan Poe. On Corfu he found himself surrounded by a ‘large assortment of pompous ruffians’ with such ‘deliciously villainous faces’ as to ‘turn the brain of a poor artist’ (a description that reminds one of ‘Bacchanalian Scene’). By the time he got to Petra, ‘the excitement of these scenes’ was such that when he lay down at night he ‘really and truly doubted his own sanity’.
On the return journey, in Rome, Dadd felt impelled to assassinate Pope Gregory XVI but found the pontiff (who was paranoid himself) too well-guarded, then spotted the devil disguised as ‘an old English lady in a lavender-silk dress’, looking at pictures in the Vatican galleries. She had a lucky escape.
On the one hand Dadd was violent and demented, yet in other moods, according to his case notes, he could be ‘a very sensible and agreeable companion’ and clearly was creative on a high level. This was the contradiction that intrigued his contemporaries; like our ancestors of the romantic era, we still remain fascinated by the blurred boundary between imagination and derangement.
At the Ordovas gallery, 25 Savile Row, there is an even smaller exhibition testifying to a very different kind of obsession: Lucian Freud’s love for his second wife, Caroline Blackwood (1931–96). They met in 1949 at a ball given by Lady Rothermere, a memorable occasion on which Francis Bacon booed Princess Margaret off stage when she attempted to sing a Cole Porter song.
The brief time he spent with her was one to which Freud returned frequently in conversation. He was enchanted by her nervousness, which led her to chain-smoke so that her nostrils were blackened ‘like railway tunnels’, and her impracticality, which led her to hold matches the wrong way up, so they almost always went out.
The exhibition contains only four pictures, and is well worth visiting to see just one: ‘Girl in Bed’ (1952), one of Freud’s early masterpieces. He records each tiny detail: her anxious, wayward look, the corrugations on her lips, and above all her huge grey-blue eyes. An unfinished fragment of a painting depicts just one of those eyes in which everything — the room in which he is painting, the whole world — seems to be reflected.