Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Turner Prize Shortlist - The Independent, 29 April 2009

We have seen Enrico David’s work fairly recently outside Tate Britain and inside the Saatchi Gallery. At Tate, a gong fashioned to look like a chicken man, complete with a pretty stockinged foot for a base, just couldn’t wait to be smitten. His pieces posture and flaunt, fling themselves about exhibitionistically. They are loosely embedded in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, but they look crude and unsophisticated by comparison, too intent to hammer home tediously obvious points about gender politics. They are folksy – he is very fond of needlework and hand-stitching. They are also screamingly, if not jarringly, colourful in a way that rather makes you wince, but they lack any real delicacy or profundity. This man is keen to be applauded for being truly outrageous, and keen to make works that look swooningly pretty. This vamped-up, look-at-me-and-what-I’ve-done-sweetie manner palls after about five or six seconds of close – no need to get too close - examination. If David really wants to see how a great artist uses posture and colour, he should take a trip to the Kuniyoshi show at the Royal Academy.

Cambridge-born, multi-media artist Lucy Skaer recently gained some public attention for herself by secretly smuggling moth and butterfly pupae into London’s Central Criminal Court in the vain hope that they might hatch mid-session. What a futile and pointlessly attention-seeking exercise! In fact, the best of her work is much more interesting and deserving of attention than this bit of fatuous gimmickry might suggest. She bases a lot of what she does on found photographic images, as in a fine piece that was recently exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery called ‘Diagrams and Banners’. Here we stared at a curiously ghostly image of a dead man, with blood coursing down his face, and painted, fairly faintly and delicately, in red enamels. But this image – which seemed to be receding from us as we examine it - slowly melded with and merged into another image. The patterning of the face, as our eyes strayed down its length, turned into the patterning of a chinese bowl. So what began in a randomly chosen photographic source first of all changes into a painting, and then ended up as a kind of eerily shifting collage. It was work of real subtlety.

At least half of this shortlist – the half that isn’t fairly muted and quietly cerebral - is meant to razzle-dazzle us, to show us that contemporary art is all about hey! Whoa! And what is this! Roger Hiorns is certainly a spectacle man, an artist who believes in scooping us up bodily, and dumping us down somewhere other than where we would normally go. In ‘Seizure’, a recent Artangel project, he set about transforming a perfectly dreary modern flat at the Elephant and Castle, and turning it into a kind of glitzy, blinking and winking Aladdin’s Cave by coating all the walls in half a tonnage of blue copper sulphate crystals. It felt as if you were walking around the interior of a giant gemstone-encrusted cave – except that the walls and the doorframes were a bit too regular for a cave. Over at Tate Britain on another occasion, he played a slightly different alarming trick – a fire grate out in the street was suddenly seen to spout a jet of flame. The flames of Hades had risen to the surface! The only thing missing were the howls of the damned. So if art is about all-enveloping, in-your-face spectacle, and if the only truly thrilling and soul-stirring night of the year is Firework Night, Hiorns is your man. But is art really about nothing but no-holds-barred spectacle? Isn’t that really the role of popular entertainment?

Richard Wright, easily the oldest of the four contenders at the grand old age of 49, is the one truly oddball choice in this shortlist. In spite of the fact that he is the only artist to be represented by a gallery of international clout and reputation – Larry Gagosian – he is not at all a household name, and his face seems to be set entirely against all the noise and all the clamour of the pantingly youthful rest. Wright is a draughtsman who often turns up to do his work in situ. It’s not usually pre-conceived. He looks at a space – a large wall or a medium–size window embrasure, for example – and he sets to work, drawing and drawing with his hand, laboriously. And what exactly does he draw? It could be any of a great variety of things – baroque curlicues in a rhythmical formation, or a mixture of stripes or geometrical shapes overlaid with circles. He tries to impose a new rhythm upon any space where he works, to lead our eye differently, depending upon the nature of the drawn dance he’s proposing with a kind of shy, courteous delicacy. It’s all quite cerebral, and quite unemphatic - especially given the fact that the drawings often get over-painted after the exhibition is closed. So Wright is into evanescence, vanishing, ego suppression. How unusual! How un-Turner can you get?

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Faces in the Crowd: the art of portraiture - The Independent, London

What's in a face? This week the National Portrait Gallery in London announced its shortlist of three artists who will be in contention for this year’s annual BP Portrait Award. It contained a fairly familiar mix of subjects: an artist’s daughter, represented as a changeling by the English painter, Peter Monkman; an artist’s son, fleetingly caught between boyhood and manhood by Michael Gaskell in a manner which suggests that the painter has been looking long and hard at both Holbein and Botticelli; and a portrait of a friend, whose character looks intriguingly indefinable, by Italian painter Annalisa Avancini. The winners will be announced on 16 June, and the show will be on display throughout the summer.

The BP Award has been on the annual arts calendar for almost 20 years. It was set up in 1990 to encourage young painters to take figurative painting in general, and portraiture in particular, seriously as a medium at a moment when the more traditional disciplines seemed to be on the point of drowning beneath wave upon wave of new-media innovation. Once upon a time it was only for the young - you had to be under forty to enter. These days painters of any age can have a go. And they do. The prize is a fairly generous one. First prize was £10,000 when the award was established. Now it is £25,000, although that sum hasn’t budged for a decade.

The BP Award is highly popular with the general public, and increasingly so with artists. This year there were nearly 2,000 entries, which represents a ten per cent increase on last year. The reason for this popularity is a relatively simple one. The exhibition seems to prove that art, after all, can be about truth to our own experience of life. Generally speaking, the subject matter is familiar to all of us. These are the people that we know - or could easily know - and live with, and painted in a manner which strikes the viewer as companionable. There is no abstraction here. It is as if abstraction and whatever it may once have represented to the deluded few had never really existed at all, that it was just a tiny blip, a matter of laughable inconsequence, and that the world of painting has been set to rights, once and for all.

The popularity of the BP Portrait Award is indicative of a new interest in portraiture in general, which is itself stimulated by the number of competitions for portraiture, both painted and photographic, which now exist – flickr’s Portrait Classics Competition, for example; the annual exhibition by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and the ICCA competition for digital photos. The show of Gerhard Richter’s painted portraits, also on display at the National Portraits at the National Gallery and discussed more fully below, has been hugely popular.

   Once upon a time portraiture was the exclusive preserve of those who had the means to commission such tributes - only the rich and the influential could be immortalized. Only their images would survive. Now it is open to all. We can all outlive ourselves. This is a portraiture without social boundaries.

The subject has been kicked into new life for a whole range of reasons, not the least of which is the ease with which the digital camera now captures images of us all and transfers them, instantaneously, to social networking sites. We are becoming increasingly accustomed to chronicling and snooping on every movement of our lives, and this interest most often manifests itself in portraits of each other at play. We simply can’t get enough of looking at ourselves and each other, drunk or sober, at any hour of the day or night, for better of for worse.

This kind of art, colourful and embraceable, has something to do with the democratic impulse, the wish to share, readily and freely, to incline us to agree that one person is the equal of another. There is no singling out of privileged groups here, no sense that we do not belong to the world that we are looking at, that it is somehow judging us or admonishing us, making us feel slightly small and cowed in its presence. A sign painter grins back at us, levellingly confident as any judge pounding his gavel from the bench.

All this makes us feel cheerful, as if we are all at the same party. It also provokes a slight feeling of unease, that we may after all be missing something, that life may after all be a bit more than this. Yes, something is not quite as it should be – in spite of the fact that we are all getting an equal share of the attention. There is, somewhere here, we often feel, as we look at all these paintings crammed together in these galleries (yes, there is always a feeling that as much has been crammed in as possible, and that we are strolling – or perhaps elbowing – our way through a kind of cheery, noisy, small-town market square rather than an exhibition with all those slightly old-fashioned rules of silence and set-apartness) an underlying wish on the part of the National Portrait Gallery not to make human experience seem too difficult, too painful, too obtuse, too hard to grasp, too complicated, too challenging.

And yet you could say that life is difficult, hard to grasp, painful and obtuse, and that work of this kind is, finally not only too easy on the eye, but also a way of not quite telling the entire truth about the deeper truths of what we are.

If this is the case, it would be consistent with much of the entire history of portraiture, which has been, from its very inception, the art of telling lies palatably.


Portraiture has been with us for at least five thousand years – the Egyptians excelled at it, as did the Romans. And there is nothing which tells porkies about the human condition quite so effectively as portraiture. This has always been the case. Human beings - and especially those human beings who rule over others - cannot bear too much reality. Reality is too imperfect, too messy, too much inclined towards ugliness, disproportion and disorder to be left to its own devices. Reality is, in short, staunchly asymmetrical when we crave the reassurance of symmetry.

Human beings in positions of influence do not want to confront these truths. If reality is like that, it needs to be adjusted. They want to be shown to be other than what they are. And the artisans who are responsible for creating these portraits are in the pay of those who commission them. A Pharaoh and a Pope have much in common in this respect. The Great one holds the purse strings. He is the puppet master, and the artisan a mere puppet in his hands. The Great One wants to continue to be seen to be great in the hereafter. It is he, finally, who is responsible for the manipulation of the image.  

This was the case with the tomb sculptures of the Egyptians and the Romans. Those who were alive wanted, most of all, to align themselves with an immaterial world which would never pass away. And so their own images were not only juxtaposed with images of gods and other fabulous beings. They were also exalted and beautified in their turn, transformed into simulacra of themselves which looked much more serene and exalted than their mere counterparts in life.

The same habits continued down the centuries. Think of the Christian God and his virgin mother, and how yieldingly beautiful they look in the paintings of Raphael, how much they outstrip mere earthly perfections. All the more terrible then when this gloriously comely male image of the beautiful is harassed and scourged and crucified. We feel almost as much for the violation of a beautiful model as we do for the killing of a god. Perhaps even a little more. Titian strains to immortalise his human sitters too, to put them on a level with the pagan gods,physically, mentally, giving them a dash and a sense of indomitability. Another variant on the same theme occurred a little later, during the second decade of the seventeenth century, when painters from the Netherlands such as Van Dyck memorialised the doomed court of Charles I. Van Dycks’s portraits were intended to flatter their subjects into believing in their own greatness and courtly splendour.

To every rule there is also a cussed exception. Flattering one’s sitters was something which didn’t come naturally to Goya at the beginning of the nineteenth century – even when they were the royalty of Spain, and you happened to be in their pay as official court painter. With Jean Dominique Ingres, when he painted Napoleon in his study, ever wise, ever watchful, ever awake, we return to the same tradition of flattery. Lies, all lies, you might say.

And, as with the Egyptians, the living were shown alongside objects which enhanced their importance - symbols of earthly power, for example – or wore clothes whose splendour resonated with the awe-struck onlooker, so sad in his fustian. In short, every possible means was used to steer the viewer away from reflecting upon the awkward fact that beneath all this visual fanfare, there is that which is common to all of us - mere tremulous flesh and bone.

This is why when Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, some painters began to heave a sigh of relief, which was almost inaudible at first. Here was another medium, photography, which could do reality’s dirty work for them. Painting was now free to do as it pleased – if it so chose. One small group of revolutionaires – that group which came to be known as the Impressionists, for example – tried to paint light. What an impossible dream that was! Fortunately for them, light proved to be very pretty, and their works highly collectible. The revolutionaries became, in time, almost as popular as bread. Revolution had quickly joined hands with commerce.

So, in the aftermath of the development of photography, portraiture of the kind to which we were so long accustomed almost died away altogether for many of the painters whose work we most value. And it is simply not a medium with which we much associate the art of the twentieth century, except somewhat tangentially. Or, if artists did resort to it at all, it often seemed to be almost unrecognizably inhuman, to strain credibility. Why?

The painters of the twentieth century suffered the burden of living through times which saw more death and suffering than ever before. What is more, thanks to the fact that people could move about much more freely, and that, thanks to the marvels of telegraphy, information passed from place to place with a lightning swiftness, this suffering was known about and felt on the pulses with a terrible immediacy. Think of how Picasso responded to the terrible bombing of Guernica, for example. It was as if the speed with which the facts became known had to be matched by the speed with which he worked, night after sleepless night, at his studio in the Rue des Augustins.  So reality, for many artists, became a terrible, fractured thing, almost unbearable – godless, pitiless, without redemption - and portraiture itself a terrible, twisted, pain-wracked thing. And it is this sense of terrible, almost unbudgeable oppression that enters into the portraiture – when the painters choose to paint portraits at all. Think of the portraits of Picasso or Bacon or Kossoff or Auerbach. We stare at almost unrecognisable human beings. It is as if the face has been pulverised and re-made in the tortured image of something so bleak that it is barely recognizable as a human face at all.

Yes, the face. Everything tends to pivot about the face in portraiture. It is the place towards which the eye naturally navigates in order to understand the full nature of what it is to be human. When we see the face, and the eye at the centre of that face, and all that reassuring symmetry, we breathe a quiet sigh of contentment. We are home at last. Yes, the face is the pole star by which our heart and our intellect naturally steer. Which is why we throw up our hands in horror when we see Picasso’s faces of his wives and lovers. They are often ravaged, twisted things, horribly wrenched awry, like a mouthful of well masticated gum. And yet all this distortion, those great masters would argue, was necessary because to do otherwise would be to deny the destructive truth of humans on the world, to soften, to sentimentalise the world in which they lived.

Is this still the case? Some would disagree. Portraiture is back again, they would argue. The enthusiastic response, year on year, to the BP Portrait Awards, is one proof of that fact. That pall of bleakness has rolled away. Or perhaps we have learnt how to live our numbed, cynical, hedonistic lives within its omnipresence. What we also notice though – at the annual BP exhibitions and elsewhere - is that painting has made accommodations with the art of photography in different ways, and that this has fundamentally changed the way in which painters paint portraits.

Without photography, for example, the silly taste for hyper-realism in painting would not have happened. This is painting trying to compete with photography, an attitude which seems to proclaim: I too can be as minutely particular as you. I too can dissect every square centimeter of what you have photographed with such painstaking accuracy and replicate it on canvas. Can there be any point to such nonsense? And then there is the unassuageable appetite for casualness - casual chat, casual pose, casual sex - which is everywhere. The documentary art of photography catches life on the wing. Everything is provisional, unfinished, ragged – a little like unedited reality itself. Painters have envied this instantaneous ability to capture unmediated reality, and they have sought to do likewise.

One of the most fascinating experimentalists in portraiture of recent years has been Gerhard Richter, whose painted portraits are currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery too. This is a grainy, fleeting vision of life on the wing as never before. It combines two qualites which feel as though they could never really be in combination – an extraordinary sense of the ephemeral and the random, together with something which is brooding, relentlessly cerebral and analytical.

What is most stimulating about Richter’s extraordinarily painstaking painted portraits – which look as if they had their beginnings in grainy, poor quality photographs – is the way in which they remind us of the fact that those earlier, time-honored traditions of idealized portraiture were extraordinarily rigid, and that this need not have been the case at all. They were rigid because of the rigidities of the conventions to which they were faithful. Richter’s images are grainy, grey, fleeting and blurry - and yet, paradoxically, they feel full of content. But that content is all about what they are not. That content seems to be in conversation with the sitters of many of those portraits of earlier centuries, and this is what it seems to be saying: the very fact that you may have wanted to be depicted face on in a very particular way, in those expensive clothes that you chose to wear, surrounded by those comfortable ancestral objects by which you chose to surround yourself, has nothing whatsoever to do with truth telling, and everything to do with the way you chose to present yourself in that society where you had been striving, life-long, to make your mark and where, yes, you did indeed make your mark, though not quite to the extent that you may have wished.

Some onlookers, slightly cowed and impressed, have taken it for the unvarnished truth about yourself, but they were mistaken. They could not see the wood for the tress. In fact, that image was nothing but a social construct, wasn’t it,  made for a very particular purpose, which was to flatter yourself? Now go away and bear this in mind.

So when we next read that portraiture puts us in touch with the ‘perenially human’ or some such tosh, what we need to ask ourselves is this: to what extent is this the old, familiar game of self-flattery, played, as ever, to keep the wolf from the door?





Thursday, 16 April 2009

Galileo: Images of the Universe from Antiquity to the Telescope Palazzo Strozzi, Florence - The Independent

It is four hundred years since the Pisan-born Galileo Galileo found an object being sold as a toy in Venice which rather intrigued him. It consisted of a long tube with two magnifying lenses, one at either end. The possibilities which Galileo saw in this device led to the development of the telescope, and to accurate sky-gazing for the very first time – and, finally, to his condemnation by the Catholic Church for heresy, and house arrest until the end of his life.

   Galileo’s own story is told in the final two galleries of this exhibition, which is being displayed in one of those ferociously indomitable-feeling Florentine palazzi. The rest of the show tells the story of the relationship between man and the heavens, from antiquity onwards. It is a vast exercise in brilliant, but slightly chilly and brain-numbing, no-holds-barred pedagogy, from first to last. There is always another wall text to read, and always another theme to wrestle with. Every room is crammed to the gills with objects: maps, books, cuneiform tablets, paintings, scientific instruments, star charts, astrolabes, orreries. The real rubs shoulders with the virtual. There are about two hundred and fifty objects here in all, but you wouldn’t know that from the arcane system used to number each one of them – which, incidentally, doesn’t seem to match the numbering system of the catalogue. Projections of the sky are projected onto ceilings. In spite of the fact that this is a sixteenth-century building, the show itself is contained – more constrained than contained - within a labyrinthine series of windowless, relatively low-lit and low-ceilinged rooms. Floors and walls are a glittery black. Everything feels pent and cornered and thrust forward, a-throb with scientific significance – like an unopened can of beans above a naked flame. The effect is dazzling - but also rather strangulatory. In spite of the fact that the spaces of the buildings itself have great processional possibilities – that was demonstrated quite recently in a show here devoted to objects from the T’ang Dynasty –here there is no sense of pacing at all, and when we do finally come across Galileo and evidence of his astonishing achievements in those final rooms, it comes as something of a shock – like suddenly meeting a human being on a corner in the middle of the night. We hadn’t known it was about to happen. And then, all of a sudden the exhibition ends, and you feel you have hit a brick wall, and are being kicked out into the street.

   So, yes, Galileo himself is what, finally, sticks to us, and the objects associated with him, and his story, all of which are of enduring fascination – how he got the Medicis on his side, and then was finally forced to foreswear everything that he had ever done at the hands of the church. Here is the letter which describes his discovery of spots on the sun’s surface, and here is his objective lens, set within a wonderfully fussy frame of ivory, gilded brass and ebony. There is a touching element of bathos about this particular exhibit – the lens itself was dropped during Galileo’s own lifetime so, though stunning enough, you can see that it is in bits.  

   And yet, and yet, within a little over one hundred years, he was virtually a secular saint. A genius, when he falls, must rise again, some time. In 1737 his remains were exhumed, and his body moved to a monumental sepulchre in the Florentine church of Santa Croce. And his finger was placed inside a small glass reliquary. We can see that finger here, long, pointing upwards, leaning (like the tower of his natal place) and, understandably enough, somewhat shrunken. And then there is the telescope he used, beautifully embellished, and somewhat resembling a stout walking stick, and his letters and small, fussy, feverish calculations too, all in a quite dense brown ink. Undeniable traces of the real man. And then, on the wall, the text of what he said when he was finally forced, in 1633, to turn his back on himself, and everything that he had achieved in the name of knowledge, science and human understanding.

   What could he have been thinking to himself when he read those words out loud to those stern-faced men who were so firmly faced away from the future?  

New Poetry of 2009 - The Tablet

The 20th century gave us such a taste for lyric verse – poems on a relatively small scale that generally celebrated the exquisite emotions of the speaker - that it seems quite hard to remember that the Victorians excelled in story telling through poetry. Is story telling coming back into fashion amongst poets? Well, one fine collection of the new year is certainly firmly rooted in that tradition.

   In Darwin – a Life in Poems (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), Ruth Padel has written what amounts to a condensed biography of  the great scientist whose direct descendant she happens to be. The idea of a biography conjures up a terrible welter of often tediously superfluous detail. This is not the case with this book. It consists of a series of often quite short poems which focus upon key moments in the life of Darwin - call them small-scale epiphanies of self-discovery if you like. In spite of the fact that there are relatively few words in this book, it feels throughout much fuller than that because it seems to possess the emotional weight - and perhaps even the emotional resonance and the quite ponderous atmosphere - of a substantial piece of substantial Victorian fiction. A double-decker at the very least. Here is Darwin, warts and all, perpetually a prey to anxiety about his religious doubts, a situation whch was made all worse by the devoutness of his wife. This is a rich and very readable book.

   When we think of the poetry of Northern Ireland which came to maturity during the decades of The Troubles, our mind immediately alights upon the name - and the fame - of Seamus Heaney. In fact, there is  a near exact contemporary of Heaney’s who is quite his equal in talent and emotional and intellectual reach, and that is Derek Mahon. Mahon is, in the words of the late Michael Donaghy, the master of ‘the singing line’. He is an exquisite wordsmith whose poetry often seems inexhaustible. In his latest collection, Life on Earth (Gallery Press, 11.95 euros), the range of subject matter is as ever extraordinarily wide-ranging – from a poem which conjures up the atmosphere of Goa, to a meditation upon the life of his late friend, the novelist Brian Moore. The finest poem in the book is a beautifully crafted meditation upon insomnia, and it conjures up those lonely hours when the mind habitually roams and preys upon itself.

   Sometimes it is appropriate to celebrate the staying power of a poet. Peter Porter, born in Australia, but for many decades resident in London, has been writing and publishing substantial collections of poetry for more than half a century, and his new book, Better Than God (Picador, £8.99), is his best in a decade. Porter writes intimately, but he is also breezily connected to the foibles and the passing fashions of the world. By turns satirist and elegist, he writes with a worldly crispness and deftness, and a delight in the small-scale absurdities of life.

   Quite dramatically different in mood and manner is the poetry of Luxembourg’s Anise Koltz, whose first full collection to published in the United Kingdom – At the Edge of Night (Arc Publications, £9.99)- gives us the French text side by side with an English translation by Anne-Marie Glasheen. These are small, intense, spiky and emotionally vertiginous poems, full of fear, nausea and acute apprehension, in which the speaking voice of the poet often seems helpless in the face of  both personal experience – some of the harshest words in the book are reserved for her own mother – and human wickedness. They are acidic, troubling and extraordinarily memorable.

   David Constantine sculls us towards more visionary waters in Nine Fathom Deep (Bloodaxe, £8.95). Constantine is a poet who has always dreamt wayward dreams in his poetry – one of the best of his earlier books was a full-length recounting in verse of the tale of Caspar Hauser, that boy who was kept shackled like a beast for many years, and then appeared, all of a sudden, in a small German town, beating on the door of a house with his forehead. Oddities. Odd human behaviour. Strange, quasi-religious moments in which we seem to be winged, snatched beyond the realm of the day-to-day. This is Constantine’s poetic terrain.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Matt Stokes at 176 Gallery, London - The Independent

Deconsecrated churches can be good places in which to stage exhibitions. That lingering odour of sanctity can often help a show along, give it a bit of spiritual uplift – even when it doesn’t deserve it, or when the very fact of that happening may seem a bit odd.

   In this case, Geordie artist Matt Stokes, who has been doing a residency here, has to deal with a rather severe, early nineteenth-century, neo-classical Methodist chapel from which practically all the fittings have been stripped. Most Methodist chapels have always been unadorned places. This one feels more unadorned than most.

   Stokes, like many other artists these days, is a multi-disciplinary fellow. He makes, but he also curates, organizes and orchestrates. He’s keen on getting communities to think about their heritage. He’s especially keen on looking at how music plays a part in the development of communities. He loves delving into archives and pulling out odd bits and pieces from the past that might help us to make sense of the present. Does this make him sound a bit like a Northern version of Jeremy Deller? Well, that’s exactly what he is. In part.

   For this show, he has done lots of different things throughout the building, downstairs and up. There are two films for a start. One of them, The Gainsborough Packet, is showing in what would once have been the nave. The other one is in the room directly behind the nave, back to back with the first film. This second film makes a tremendous racket because it’s about the punk phenomenon in Austin, Texas. In fact, it almost blows you off your feet when you walk in the door and see the lead singer bent over and screaming at the lead guitarist - also bent over in some terrible, groin-grinding posture - for the sheer joy of being alive.  

   Stokes has also curated a selection of works, mainly photographic, from a collection of which this institution is the custodian. And, last but scarcely least, he is also transforming a large hall at the back of the building into a kind of all-purpose venue where music can be made, from baroque orchestras to your local punk band. (Punk had its beginnings in this bit of North London.) He has even made a table, benches and some banners for this room. Stokes is clearly a useful man to have around.

   But he mainly stands or falls by a film called The Gainsborough Packet that is showing in the nave because this commission is brand new, and it has evidently cost a considerable amount of public money to make possible. The question which we need to ask ourselves is this: was it worth all that cash? Not really. The film is a small snippet – just 8.49 minutes of pure, early-nineteenth-century costume drama. Set around the time that this chapel was built, it’s about a Newcastle man called John Burdikins who once wrote a letter to a friend called Pybus, in 1828. Stokes found it when he was moseying through the archives.

   The film consists of scenes which show us the marvelous exploits which Burdikins describes in his letter – he rescues a child from drowning; he puts out a fire on board ship. He’s a bit of an all-round marvel. Or perhaps he’s just a bit of a boaster. The tale of these exploits is sung by the young and handsome actor who plays the part of Burdikins – the film is one long folk song, with moving pictures. It’s a rousing folk song of the kind that might have been sung in those parts back then. It could even have been sung down in North London too, with equal conviction, because Cecil Sharp House in Camden is home to the English Folk Dance and Song Society. You didn’t know that? Nor did I until I read the helpful notes accompanying the exhibition.

   Now this short film looks very glamorous - lots of money has been spent tricking out actors and locations to make the thing look as authentically of its time as possible. But, aside from the rousing song – which gets to be a bit repetitive the longer it is sung – what genuine tension and genuine interest is there in this little snippet of a filmed tale? Precious little. Is this tiny offering a feature film yearning to be born? Well, sadly, it’s not much else. 

Monday, 13 April 2009

Palladio at the Royal Academy - The Independent, London

Any visitor to London’s Royal Academy arrives charged with expectations that he will see shows which combine intellectual merit with visual panache. There have been many past triumphs, from the great show devoted to the arts of Africa, to the more recent survey of Western portraiture in collaboration with the Grand Palais in Paris.

   Regrettably, this story of the life and work of the great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio(1508-1580), whose villas, churches and other buildings we can see in Venice, Vicenza and the Veneto region, is a disappointment by comparison. In fact, it is a bit of a sad mess.

   Things don’t augur well from the outset. Stand outside in the courtyard and you will see, to the left and the right of the entrance, two not very large, limp banners announcing the show’s opening, greatly outshone by the announcement for the Byzantium exhibition, which opened last year. Why so small? Why so limp? It can’t be today’s unremitting drizzle alone.

   Now it has to be said that any exhibition which tries to present the story of the triumphs of an architect is up against it from the start. Why? Because, unlike paintings and sculptures, buildings cannot be readily transported from Vicenza to London. So you are left with all the, albeit fascinating, ancillary stuff. Who he knew and worked with – which means portraits of his famous contemporaries, which are usually interesting from a documentary point of view, but are not necessarily great works in their own right. Even the portrait of Palladio himself looks far better in reproduction than in this gallery. What else? Well, there are the things that proved he was generally hard at work – account books; bits of hewn stone; tools of the trade. There are also, lining almost every wall, scores of his own architectural drawings, some of elevations, some of facades, some of details of the antique buildings that he was seeing and, as he drew them, analysing. And then there are the architectural models, of churches and villas, for example. Some of them yawn open, like boxes, so that you can see into their interiors. There are many of these. In fact, there are too many, and in the second of the exhibition’s four galleries, the jamming together of architectural models makes it feel a bit like a lumber room. They also turn up again when you thought you had done with them, and had moved on to some other part of the show. It’s a bit like Piccadilly Circus in about 1911 or so, when they were just changing over from horse-drawn to motorised omnibuses. Now architectural models are marvellous things, but they do feel relentlessly low-tech these days. We know we can’t transport buildings by pantechnicon. But could not someone have produced at least one virtual tour of one of those great buildings to help us to feel our way around at least one of those extraordinary interiors?

   But the greatest failure of all is a failure of design. There is no natural sweep and flow to this show – with the exception of the first gallery, which feels like an impressive beginning. After that the show flounders around, visually and thematically. The second gallery feels too full, the third too empty. Many of the drawings are mounted onto panels of grey wood which seem to lean against the walls, so that we see the original décor in messy combination with bits of temporary installation. In the third gallery we have pretty, Palladio-esque(ish) stencilling effects on the walls as visual background music. So why didn’t we have something similar in the second gallery rather than the bald clash of grey painted wood against the original red? Many of the wall captions are too stingily small, and they are often printed white against grey, which makes them almost illegible. Good job they were too small to read in the first place!

   In short, the entire, over-ambitious enterprise feels badly under-funded, poorly thought through, and fairly sloppily executed. Palladio, that scrupulous genius, wouldn’t haven’t enjoyed this tribute. 

Friday, 10 April 2009

Sickert in Venice, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London - The Independent

Walter Sickert was already thirty-five years old when, in 1895, he painted the first of the many pictures of Venetian scenes that you can see in this exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Although long resident in the capital, he’d spent much of his life outside England – in Paris, for example, where he had struck up a close friendship with the irascible Edgar Degas. The greatest influence upon his young life to date had been that of James McNeill Whistler, the American expatriate who had demonstrated to his young disciple, between bouts of watching him sweep out the studio, that anything, absolutely anything, could serve as a subject matter for a painting. There was no such thing as high or low. Everything was much of a muchness. Everything could be reduced to the pure transcription of sensation by the alchemy of the brush. Sickert, with his master’s words ringing in his ears, had already begun to develop a fascination for the low life of London, all those beery men and blowsy women who hung about on street corners or who rolled out of pubs in full, beery cry.
     But by 1895 Sickert was on the move again, and this time it was to Venice, and he would go there again and again over the next several years, as this exhibition makes clear to us. In part, he was escaping the strangulating confines of an unhappy marriage, and in part he was in pursuit of new things to paint, and new ways to paint them.   For Sickert, 1895 had been an important year. During that year he had seen an exhibition of Claude Monet’s great cycle of paintings of the façade of Rouen cathedral, each one painted at a slightly different time of the day, each one washed by a slightly different light. Sickert had been mightily impressed by what he saw, and when he arrived in Venice, he decided to do something similar there. He chose various spots that he knew would give him selling opportunities – as ever, he needed to make some money. What better place to position himself than directly in front of the facade of San Marco Cathedral, at the dead centre of St Mark’s Square? Could there be a more famous or more photogenic a spot than this? Wouldn’t the customers cone running?  What is most surprising about the series of paintings we can see at Dulwich is both how like and how unlike Monet they are. The two artists undeniably share an obsessive interest in painting the same building, from the same angle of view, over and over again. But a Sickert feels quite unlike a Monet. There is an airiness and a lightness in a Monet that a Sickert never seems to possess. Sickert’s San Marco is leadenly, massily pinioned to the insecure earth on which is it is built – and this is in spite of the fact that Sickert is clearly striving to make the building look and feel fantastically airy, almost as if, as with Monet, he is seeking to demonstrate that it was light from which it had been conjured in the first place. What Sickert does in these paintings is to create a facsimile of a cathedral which looks like a great theatre set, something manufactured from glue and balsa wood, and marvellously artificially lit, front, sides and back. But wholly improbable as a thing that might actually be seen.   The show divides neatly into two halves. The first has to do with representing the buildings and the sights of Venice, many of which will be known to us from the work of other artists. Very few of these are memorably quirky – of those that are, look out for a marvellous, tiny painting of window-lit apartments in the Venetian Ghetto. This one stands out head and shoulders above all the rest.   
   The second half of the show is more characteristically Sickertian, and it shows us an artist who is gradually transforming himself into the painter who, during the later part of the first decade of the twentieth century, will paint all those chilling, low-toned studies which we now know collectively as the Camden Town Murders series, and whose gruesome painterly mood once caused the crime novelist Patricia Cornwell to decide, somewhat fantastically, that Sickert himself had been the perpetrator of those terrible crimes.   The second half of the show has to do with people. Sickert, as in London, was drawn to the low life of Venice - the prostitutes, the hopelessly emaciated old woman, the bar tender.   The most successful of these paintings shows Sickert painting women, in pairs, in small rooms. These spaces are so simply, and so sparely furnished, with a bed and little else. Two women sit side by side on a sofa, leaning into each other. Or a woman leans over the end, teetering terribly, almost falling into bottomless space. Many of these women seem to wear black, tasseled shawls, which gives just a delicate hint of vampirism to the scene. Or a single woman lies back on a bed, staring appealingly back at us, looking out for some attention. The colours are low-toned duns, bruised blues, and blacks. Sometimes we have to peer hard just to see what there is to be seen, to differentiate figure from ground. Sickert wants it like that, we feel. He wants these scenes to be difficult to scrutinize. It adds to their creepy mystery. It makes us feel uneasy in their presence, as if we perhaps shouldn’t have happened upon them in the first place. Wasn’t the door locked after all? Perhaps not. Oh dear.   There is a considerable erotic charge to some of these paintings but, as yet, the element which injects such horror into those very nasty paintings of the future has not yet appeared on the stage. Man, surly, taciturn, menacingly hob-nailed booted, still stands on the wrong side of the boudoir door. At least he does for now.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Dressed To Kill, Tower of London Independent, London 8 April, 2009

Even before you reach the top of the wooden staircase which mounts up and up and up, ho hum, the outside of William the Conqueror’s White Tower, the structure by which the Tower of London is most readily identified, you begin to hear more than a bit of hullabaloo. Then, when you push through the swing doors, it hits you full in the face. This is the All-Action-Hero Henry VIII show – military man, sporting all-rounder, enduring icon of then and now! Sounds a bit over the top? You bet! In barrow loads
   The first glimpse of him you get, he is sitting astride a white charger, rearing over you, in top-to-toe dress armour, pent inside a huge glass display case set against a light box which flashes white, then blue, then white again. Curious, the horses in this show. They are all white, like strange, ice-stiffened soft toys. The presentation brings together several beguiling elements of our current civilization: a Selfridges windows display in those oozy, child-friendly days before Christmas; a CNN news flash; and the slinky, steamy glitter of the catwalk. 
   Next door to Henry on horseback, there’s a bit of filmic virtual reality - huge men in mortal combat, bigger, and much more manly men, than you could ever hope to be. And to help the deliriously excitable atmosphere along, there are tremendous noises coming from everywhere – the rake and clash of sword on sword, the earthquake-like trembling of horses’ hooves. And then, of course, to top it all, there is the customary racket of school kids when they mooch around in packs, munching and jawing, pounding the bare boards of this ancient hall, which used to display part of the Royal Armoury Museum, now displaced, at a gallop, to Leeds.
   He spent so much money on warfare, this man – up to the equivalent of £1 billion in 2009 terms. Often not too well spent either. How many gains did he make for all that campaigning overseas. Well, there was, er, wasn’t there? But the armour, the swords, the jousting poles, these divine arquebusues, and all this gorgeous canonry! No, this man evidently wasn’t short of a Real Tennis box, as you can see if you examine the armour, even cursorily.
   Yes, it has to be said that all this money and all this bought in, European expertise helped him to amass some marvellous playthings, and many of them of we won’t have seen before because they are from museums overseas. What is more, we quickly begin to learn all the arcane, toothsome terminology of armoury, and so many of these words are so delicious to roll around the tongue: the nine-plate ‘crinet’ which would have protected the horse’s neck, the vambraces, the crossed ragged staves, the parade armet…
   But the problem with this show is that it’s too distortingly narrow in its focus. In trying to turn Henry into no-holds-barred action man, it loses sight altogether of most other aspects of his life and his reign. Religion? Forget it. Wife problems? What were their names? By making him larger than life, you turn him into s grotesque, small-scale caricature of his complicated self. The film on show at the end tells it all: it’s just a messy bringing together of contemporary images, clips from feature films, and other bits and pieces, to the ridiculous accompaniment of a bit of Gary Glitterish glam-rock noise. Who cares where truth ends and fantasy begins?  
   Still, by the end – and the show goes on for two and a bit floors – I am thirsting to own something of my own, so when I spot the full-size foot combat armour down in the shop, a snip at a mere £4,209, I get into conversation with the sales assistant. No, she doesn’t work here, not exactly, she’s in marketing, she tells me, trying to distance herself from the mugs she’s busy with, but as far as she knows, they have sold a few sets. For example, just a few years back, there was that man who wanted two for his restaurant in Italy. 
   So I ask the lanky lad on the till. Not since I’ve been here, he says. Something to do with transportation difficulties probably, he guesses. I put in a call to the wife all the same: muzzle the Bedlington, dear; enlarge the door frame.  

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Key Is To Be Bold - The Independent, 1 April 2009

Is this a good time to buy art? Of course it is! When money looks dodgy, what better way to secure your future than by investing in an unbudgeable object such as a painting or a sculpture? But if you don’t have a lot of money, don’t necessarily go for the more obvious things such as large-format oil paintings. Start by looking at something less fashionable – watercolour paintings, etchings, woodcuts, linocuts and ceramics, for example, are all good investments.

   Try a place such as the Bankside Gallery, which is about 50 metres from Tate Modern, facing the river. It’s a marvellous place to rummage – works are usually stacked up the walls. Here are the names of a couple of artists who were selling excellent work there relatively recently: Royal Academician Peter Freeth, for example, who has a marvellous, haunting way with images of dogs, or the printmaker Anthony Dyson. Dyson makes wonderful homages to the Renaissance masters, beautiful, meticulous prints at very affordable prices – a print by him, framed, could cost you as little as £75.

   A lot of the artists who exhibit at Bankside are also members of the Royal Society of Painters Printmakers or the Royal Watercolour Society, which sound a bit nose-thumbingly posh, but is often a guarantee of real quality. Check out their websites. Another way in is to go to poke around in one of the more enterprising younger galleries such as the Rokeby Gallery on Store Street. The Rokeby operates an excellent scheme in conjunction with the Arts council which enables you to get a modest loan to help you start your own art collection. There are some excellent younger artists amongst the Rokeby stable whose work will only grow in value in the coming years – look at the paintings by Sam Dargan or Simon Keenleyside, for example. In Dargan’s last show, he had a lot of very small paintings. Small is not necessarily always beautiful but, given the fact that many artists price their works by size, it is a way in to collecting first-rate names for a relatively modest sum of money.

   Even the bigger galleries often display a range of prints. Check out Flowers East on the Kingsland Road, which usually has a huge range of prints on offer at good prices. Flowers’ stable of artists includes some very well known names - Maggi Hambling, for example – and it is worth remembering that Hambling’s works are still relatively modest in price. And they can only increase. A few weeks ago, Flowers was selling a work by her called ‘Sexy 2008’ (it was a rather lovely flower painting, of course) for £1,500 plus vat. Hambling currently has a big show at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool of her portraits of the late George Melly, so she is very much in the public eye.

   Another artist from the Flowers stable who can only increase in value is the sculptor Glenys Barton, who makes haunting, seductive, highly finished portrait heads and entire bodies which always manage to possess an extraordinarily ghostly aura. A few weeks ago you could buy a sculpture by her for £2,500.

   The key to all this is: be bold. Ask to see the stock. If there is an oil on the walls which is way beyond reach, but which has huge appeal for you, ask what else that same artist may have done. What about the working drawings? Are they for sale? If it’s a sculpture, what happened to the maquette? Be cheeky. You may well turn up something interesting. And as for ceramics, it is almost always possible to pick up a bargain in this area because the foolish rigidities of the art market mean that the medium of ceramics is still regarded as slightly less important than works made from other materials.

   So go to Barrett Marsden in Clerkenwell, a gallery which specialises in glass and ceramics. Harrass them to turn out the cupboards. If Henrietta seem awfully snooty when you walk in, laugh at her to create a better atmosphere.