Monday, 30 July 2012

Adam Bridgland // Happy, All Smiles

If you're in Aberdeen over the next few weeks, try and catch this show at Peacock Visual Arts.

Yes, it's a show by fellow Bridgland, Adam, in his first Scottish solo exhibition.  Hurrah for Bridglands!!

Adam's a print-maker and is showing three new editions of screenprints, but he also does sculptures and vinyl installations.  

His prints combine deceptively simple phrases and images that have exactly anticipated all the graphically retro images that are all part of the present mood of the moment.  Here's Adam's  work...

Adam Bridgland, Happy All Smiles (Limited Edition Screenprint, 2012)

 Adam Bridgland, Darling, This Holiday will Solve All Our Problems (Limited Edition Screenprint, 2012)

 Adam Bridgland, Safely, I Built This House For You and For Me (Limited Edition Enamel Plaque, 2009)

Superficially, they come out of the same sort of kitschy mould as this, which we've all seen on a million teatowels and mugs...

However, what Adam's work does is to exploit the gap between the expectations of the superficially nostalgic image with its up-beat text, and the reality of the day-to-day which lies beneath, where nothing is actually quite as rosy or as clear-cut.  

Thus Happy, All Smiles shows a beautiful bouquet, suggesting a loving gift and a secure relationship.  But by the combination of text and image, one undermines the other.  The flowers therefore instead become like a tribute to something that has died.  

Similarly, Darling, This Holiday Will Solve All Our Problems suggests a light-hearted cruise with a heroic-looking ship sailing along majestically.  However, closer inspection shows that it is sailing through rather choppy waters, and the awkward angle begins to suggest that it is in fact a fragile craft that, like the Titanic, might not be as invincible as it first looks.

So instead of merely representing the nostalgic image, as with the ubiquitous 'Keep Calm and Carry On', Adam is going beneath it, exploring the poignancy of it, using the words to take away the safety ties and the reassurance normally contained within the image.  There's humour of course, and it's very playful, but there's also a certain sharpness in the sadness of it, like watching Brief Encounter.

Also look out for Adam's show in Aldeburgh (I love Aldbeurgh, and I've got work in Thompson's Gallery there in the High Street).  It's at the Aldeburgh South Beach Lookout from August 10th-12th, so blink and you'll miss it!

Happy, All Smiles is at Peacock Visual Arts, 21 Castle Street, Aberdeen AB11 5BQ until September 8th.  For more information, go here.

For more information on the artist, go to Adam Bridgland's website.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

It's Official - It's the Olympics!

I'm just back from the London 2012 Olympics.  Not that it starts until tomorrow (officially), and not that I was in London.  Because today I was two miles down the road at Hampden to watch the footie.

Surprisingly, given that at one point I thought that I was going to be the only person in Scotland who'd actually paid for an Olympic football ticket, there was a crowd of nearly 38,000, consisting largely of families.  The large numbers obviously took the organisers by surprise as well, as they ran out of Official Pies.

Security to enter the venue was bizarre.  The list of items that you're not allowed to take in is long and complicated - no bags, no drinks, no food, no items that are unofficially sponsored (so don't go in a Pepsi T-shirt), and no sharp items or liquids over 100ml.  So tough luck to the group of Japanese supporters who arrived pulling their luggage, obviously straight off the plane. 

So outside the ground you are given a very, very large clear plastic bag (obviously they're expecting you to try to smuggle in your pet elephant), and asked to deposit metal items (but not cameras), wallets, keys, and a variety of other random stuff like plastic pens from the depths of your handbag.  You then carry the plastic bag literally three yards, go through the gate and then promptly take all the stuff out of the bag and put it back in your handbag.  There's no actual metal detectors or screening, or people looking at the bags.  Baffling.

The Olympic football teams have an age limit on them, so the teams playing today were Honduras Under-18s v Morocco Pre-Teens, and Spain Toddlers v Japan Tweenies.

Japan's fans react during the group D,
 London 2012 Olympic Games men's football match (AFP, Graham Stuart)

Honduras and Morocco drew 2-2, while Spain were the definite favourites to win their game.  

However the Japan Tweenies (who bowed politely to the crowd before the start), showed plucky determination, and by the end were breaking away and firing at the goal with spirited determination, if not accuracy.  Warming to the underdogs, and the fact that lack-lustre Spain had obviously thought that the game was in the bag, the crowd began to roar on Japan.  

 Spain's Jordi Alba (R) is challenged by Japan's Gotoku Sakai (L) (AFP, Graham Stuart)

The Spaniards, down to 10 men and suddenly realising that it was all slipping away, began to act in a ridiculously petulant manner, punching opponents and tugging shirts, earning boos from the good-natured crowd.

Japan's Yuki Otsu celebrates after scoring. Photograph: David Moir/Reuters

And so the Japan Tweenies won a historic 1-0 victory, and went home to a well-deserved rusk and a hot bath.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

imagine...Dancing with Titian

I caught a really interesting programme on television last night, 'imagine...Dancing with Titian'.  I'm not a great fan of dance, and thought I wouldn't like it, but it was really enthralling.

The programme, with Alan Yentob, documented new artworks and dances inspired by three Titian paintings gathered together at the National Gallery in London for the first time since the 1700s.  The paintings show scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses based on the myth of Diana.  They are...
Titian, Diana and Acteon (Oil on canvas, 1556-9)

Titian, The Death of Acteon (Oil on canvas, 1559)

Titian, Diana and Callisto (Oil on canvas, 1559) (from the National Galleries of Scotland)

These pictures were painted by Titian when he was in his 80s, at a time when, as one of the curators pointed out, he may not have been at the height of his physical powers, but he was at the height of his imaginative powers.  

These are mysterious, sensual paintings, full of texture and layers of glazes and flickering licks of glowing paint.  The paint is applied in various ways, sometimes smudges, or brushed, or dabbed, or looking as if fingers have been used.  It must have seemed radically experimental at the time.

This is echoed by the present day artists in the rest of the National's exhibition.  ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’ features new work by contemporary artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger in a unique collaboration with The Royal Ballet.

It was the Royal Ballet work that was perhaps the most interesting.  There were three ballets; one inolved a huge industrial robot which represented Diana, and moved on stage in a presence that was both beautiful and menacing, creating a real tension between the human and the mechanical.  And because of the problems that they had with the technology, you literally didn't know what was going to happen, so there was a continual frisson of danger. 

The second ballet had giant mirrors, which reflected not only the dancers but the audience as well, playing with the ideas of voyeurism contained in the Diana story.  

But the last was perhaps visually the most striking, even though it was the simplest, telling the story of the death of Acteon, set upon and killed by the hounds of Diana.  The sets and costumes were designed by Chris Ofili, who is not, I have to say, my favourite artist.  However, here he played an absolute blinder.  

The sets were stunning, with a mysterious forest, like the other-wordliness of the magical forests in Shakespeare, and lit by a huge scarlet red moon.  The fluid costumes and details of the individually designed dogs heads reminded me of the costumes for Parade designed by Picasso in 1917 for the Ballet Russes (which I saw performed some years ago in Edinburgh as part of the Festival).  It was amazing watching the whole creative process, and all the parts coming together.

Fusing dance and painting: Federico Bonelli performs 
Diana & Actaeon against the background of Chris Ofili’s psychedelic set design (Picture: © Alastair Muir)

You can watch extracts of the ballets here.

Marianela Nunez and The Royal Ballet in Diana and Actaeon. Metamorphosis: Titian 2012. © ROH/Johan Persson, 2012.

Not all of the connections with the Titian paintings were immediately apparent, but the it was more about the sense of the paintings, the contrasts of sensuality and cruelty, the transformative process.  Chris Ofili's set designs and costumes certainly were the most successful in combining dance with the painterly sense of the Titians.

When Titian painted these Diana pictures in his 80s, at a time in history when life could be cut brutally short at any moment, he must always have felt 'Time's winged chariot hurrying near'.  The fact that Titian's own death and transformation from the mortal was on his mind has greatly informed the work.  This is especially apparent when you look at the paint surface closely, with its wispy, flickery, urgent insubstantial layers of substance conjuring up form, and is possibly most demonstrable in one of his last paintings, the grim Flaying of Marsyas.

Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas (Oil on canvas, 1570-76)

Again from Ovid (read more about it here), it is a truly shocking image, telling the story of the chirpy satyr Marsyas, whose only crime was to play the pipes better than Apollo.  For this, he is flayed alive.  

Again, the paint is flickery and urgent, but spares none of the detail of the horrific scene.  Upside-down, the grimace of the martyred Marsyas looks like a smile.  It looks like Titian is also expressing all the pain and humiliation and injustice of old age itself, with youth and innocence and happiness being pointlessly stripped away until nothing is left.  It's about the pain of being mortal and having a body, and of losing it.  A metamorphosis indeed.

Do have a look at the programme if you can - it's a treat - and the free exhibition is on until 23 September at The National Gallery in London.

See the programme on i-Player here.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Arise, Sir Bradley of Wiggins

Yes, the Modfather of British Cycling has done it*.

Watch out for Chris Froome next year!

*born in Ghent, Australian father

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Salvator Rosa's 'Landscape with Jacobs Dream'

I was at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire at the weekend, and in amongst all the grandeur, I came across this great painting by Salvator Rosa.   It's called Landscape with Jacob's Dream.

Salvator Rosa, Landscape with Jacob's Dream (Oil on canvas, 1665)

It's funny when you walk round the corner in somewhere like an old stately home, and you unexpectedly come across a Rosa - it's like meeting the black sheep at a family get-together.

It's a big painting, with Rosa's rugged romantic landscape of rocks and trees taking up the right two thirds and the rather colourful psychadelic dream of Jacob taking up the left hand third.  What hits you is the unusual (for Rosa) punch of three pops of primary colour - red yellow and blue - of the bottom three figures.  That bright, advancing red garment of Jacob, the subject of the painting, is right down there jumping out of the bottom left, and keeps drawing your eye.

There's a discarded wine flagon at the side of the rather abandoned-looking Jacob, which might suggest the origin of the colourful dream - Rosa's good on the nice little quirky details. (His Humana Fragilitas in the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge has a little pile of owl pellets in front of the rather queasy looking owl in the bottom right if you look closely.)  

The landscape echoes the turmoil of the dream, as the trees strain towards the angels as they ascend and descend the ladder to heaven, in a great swirling, agitated circular composition.

It's a big, mature painting, made when the artist was 50.  Here it is in situ at Chatsworth...

Salvator Rosa, Landscape with Jacob's Dream - Chatsworth House

..and here's Jacob in all his loosely painted glory.  Apologies for the camera work (the lighting was really bad with lots of reflection), but take a look at the way those rocks are painted.  There's lots of lovely, loose impressionistic brushwork.  I've blogged before about Rosa here, and how he was out in the great outdoors painting en plein air over 200 years before the Impressionists.  You can really see that in a passage of paint such as this.

Salvator Rosa, Landscape with Jacob's Dream (detail) (Oil on canvas, 1665)

Here's another detail, of the trees on the right hand side.  Again, apologies for the reflections, but they do allow you to see that the leaves  of the tree are painted with raised impasto.  See that area of white where the light is reflecting off the varnish in the bottom right?  You can see dark shapes in the middle of it.  This is the raised paint of the leaves on the branch of the tree coming down from the top right.  The paint is rough and stippled to give the texture of the foliage.

Salvator Rosa, Landscape with Jacob's Dream (detail) (Oil on canvas, 1665)

So instead of the paint surface being smooth and flat so that you can't see the brushmarks, you can very much see the way that the painting is put together - that's a very modern idea.  It's saying that the hand of the maker is allowed to be seen, and the personality of the painter is incorporated as part of the illusion of the painting, rather than being subsumed by it. 

You may not have heard of Rosa today, but he used to be wildly popular, both in his own time and later for the Romantics, for whom he embodied thrillingly wild landscapes peopled with excitingly rugged bad boys.  

Rosa was a bit of a rugged bad boy himself.  Here he is...

Salvator Rosa,  Portrait of the artist, half-length, in a brown doublet 
(c1645, oil on canvas, unlined
29¾ x 23 5/8 in.)

Yes, Rosa may not be a name on everyone's lips these days, but there was a show of his work at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in September 2010, the first major UK show since 1973 (the tercentenary of his death).   This self-portrait was sold at Christie's in London in 2010, just before the Dulwich show opened.

Christie's described it as having 'unfettered strokes and free handling typical of Rosa's graphic work, with brown pigments over a ground layer left partly visible (with) the immediacy of the alla napoletana style', with 'rapid execution, constructed of economical, broad brushstrokes'. 

It had an estimate of £100,000-£150,000.  It sold for - wait for it - £769,250, well over $1.1 million at the time!  

No wonder - take a look at that face.  It's a very intense and compelling image, full of a brooding personality.  It's over 350 years old, but it feels very modern.  It's a manifesto of the self, pertinent today for an age that's all about the self, self-image and self-promotion - something Rosa excelled at.

Maybe this tells us that we're entering a new era of popularity for Salvator Rosa...?

Visit the Chatsworth House website here.  Beautiful house, lovely gardens (very difficult maze to even get into...).  They've also got a small but stunning exhibition of drawings on at the moment, which includes a Rembrandt, a Leonardo and a Titian.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Le Gentleman

Although it's a rest day on the Tour de France today, it looks like (whisper it) Bradley Wiggins is going to win.  That's right.  A British cyclist.  Winning.

The Sun

Dubbed 'Le Gentleman' by the French press after his handling of Sunday's sabotage, where carpet tacks were strewn on the course (rumoured to be put there by a group of militant bald Frenchmen, enraged at the sight of Wiggins' overly-luxurient Noddy Holder side-burns), defending champion Cadel Evans was marooned at the side of the road for what seemed like an age, 29 others got punctures and Robert Kiserlovski crashed and broke his collarbone.  Wiggins, taking his yellow jersey responsibilities seriously, slowed the pelaton to allow the mayhem to get sorted out so that there were no unfair advantages.
Lets hope that Team Sky work together to let Manx missile Mark Cavenish have his moment of glory on the Champs Elysees.  Cav has been reduced to tea-boy so far in protecting Wiggins.
But barring the unexpected - and the Tour is full of the unexpected - it looks like Bradley Wiggins will be the winner at the weekend.
Golden age of British cycling?  That's now!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Cornish Holidays

Did you spend childhood holidays in Cornwall?  If you did, I'd like to hear from you!

I'm preparing for an exhibition of paintings which will be held in spring next year, which has the landscape of Cornwall as its theme.  Three different landscape painters, including myself, will be showcasing their different approaches to painting the same place.

My work is all about an emotional response to a landscape, about what it's actually like to be there, using lots of textures and expressive colour.  Obviously, I'm going to be going to be visiting Cornwall myself, but I'd be very interested to hear from anyone who spent their summers there (or who lives there) and what it means to you. 

What's special about Cornwall?  What sums it up for you?  A particular place? An evocative sound? A colour or smell?  What did you look forward to doing or seeing most on holiday there?  How did going to Cornwall make you feel?

Whatever it is, I'd love to hear from you.  Just leave a comment below - you don't have to be a follower to do so, and you don't have to leave your name.  Or you can drop me a line via my website.

Thank you!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Culture Show: Richard Wilson's 'Hang on a Minute Lads, I've got a Great Idea'

Yesterday's episode of BBC's The Culture Show featured a new installation by witty urban sculptor Richard Wilson, based on the final scene of the iconic 60s crime caper 'The Italian Job'.  Thus two great passions of mine come together - art and minis.

Called 'Hang on a Minute Lads, I've got a Great Idea' (being the enigmatic final line of the film) it consists of a full-size coach balanced precariously over the edge of the art deco De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex.

Mark Kermode took to the wheel of a Morris Mini Minor (which is actually owned by a real-life Mr Bridger - what are the chances of that?) to whizz round Bexhill and set the scene before interviewing Wilson about his piece.

Nice car...

Anyway, Wilson's sculptures are all about confounding expectations, about coming across the unexpected and surprising and beautiful in the everyday.  Take his piece Turning the Place Over.  I saw this in Liverpool in 2008 when it was Capital of Culture.  Walking down the street - perfectly ordinary street, perfectly ordinary buildings - a huge round disc-shaped section of a building suddenly flipped and started to turn over.  You don't quite know what's going on.  Buildings just don't do that.  It's hard to describe, but you can see what I'm talking about here in this Youtube clip.

Richard Wilson,  'Turning the Place Over', 2007. Photograph by Alexandra Wolkowicz

The Bexhill installation is another of those crowds-with-their-cameras-out pieces. 

It's a bus.  On the edge of a building.  In a seaside town.  It even wobbles a bit now and then, just like in the film.  Is it going to fall?  Did you see that?  It's slipping!!  And so you have a town on the edge of the sea, sea meeting the edge of the sky, England not so far away from meeting France, and a bus teetering on the edge of a building.

In the Culture Show, Wilson says that he wanted to make 'something of a cliffhanger', to draw attention to an iconic building.  So he chose another icon, a cinematic icon, and put the two together.  Why do something like the Italian Job moment when he could actually just do the moment itself?  "I've played with facades, now I want to play with an edge" he says. 

Now, The Italian Job was made in 1969, but was a film made on the post-1966 wave of British patriotism.  If you've never seen the film - and why not?? - it's about crooks going to Italy to steal gold using three plucky red, white and blue minis, and then almost making off in a red white and blue bus.  Except they make a mess of it right at the very end.  The ending is left literally up in the air.  I saw it first at a special cinema viewing with my mini club when I was 6 months pregnant, and I was a very unhappy woman when the credits started rolling.  "Call that an ending??" I remember shouting at the screen.  But I digress. 

So now in 2012 we have another wave of patriotic fervour, which we always seem to just slightly muck up, or the weather is terrible, whilst things just kind of teeter on the brink.  Jubilees, Olympics, Wimbledon, economic recession, and just a hint that the UK might possibly be about to break up.  

It's all summed up here by a big red white and blue bus wobbling on the edge of an art deco building in Sussex.  It's about national identity.  It's about something small taking on something big (like the minis took on the Mafia). It's about that adrenalin rush of being on the edge of things that makes you feel alive.  It's about about trying really really hard, but being just a bit rubbish and losing magnificently. It's a bit like how Wilson's sculpture is a great idea, but you can actually see the girder holding the bus in place, so it's actually just slightly not as great as it could be.

I've never actually been to Bexhill-on-Sea.  I've seen it often, from a distance (my family are from Eastbourne).  I've even painted it (from the pier at Eastbourne).

  Harvest Moon, Bexhill-on-Sea (Oil, 10 x 10)

But I've never actually been there.  I'd really like to though.

Read about the exhibition on the De La Warr Pavilion website.
See the episode of The Culture Show here.

You can see Richard Wilson's installation (which, incidently, is sponsored by Bexhill boy Eddie Izzard) until 1st October.

PS And if you want to solve the problem of how to get the gold without tipping the coach off the edge of the cliff - here's the answer....

The Independent/John Godwin

Tour de France

The good thing about being in Mummy Mode at the moment during the school holidays is that I've got time to watch the Tour de France.

Today it's Stage 11 in the Alps, short but tough.  But these men are tough.  Unbelievably tough.

In an earlier stage, in a race littered with spectacular crashes, Andre Greipel fell and dislocated his shoulder, but after having it popped back in, got on his bike and not only finished the race, but sprinted in a fight for the line, only narrowly coming in second to Peter Sagan.  They're that tough.

Although Bradley Wiggins is in yellow jersey position, and hopes to be until Paris, I'm cheering for Cadel Evans of BMC.  He's gritty. He's an all-rounder.  He's Australian.  And he doesn't winge either.

This is him in the 2010 Tour.  He crashed in Stage 8 and broke his elbow, but got on his bike and kept on going.

(Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

(Obviously, this is in no way a purely gratuitous image - I'm making an important point.)

The Tour is really engrossing because it's not just about first past the post - it's all about team tactics, and races within races.  

And sweaty men in lycra.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Favourite Paintings - Degas' 'La Coiffure'

Here's a paintings by Degas from the National Gallery in London that, when I see it in real life, is very hard to leave.  That's always the sign of a good painting.

Edgar Degas, La Coiffure (Oil on canvas, 1896)

It's a big painting, and it's a red painting.  Big and red.  Those are the things you notice.  It's really audaciously red, with just touches of black, grey and yellow.  What does the colour red say?

Red is passion - love - danger - fire - blood - rubies - lots of intense things.  And it's a Whole Painting in Red! 

Once owned by Matisse (there was an artist who liked to paint pictures about a single colour) it depicts one of Degas' favourite subjects in his later years, and is based on several drawings and an earlier pastel.

Just take a look at the composition of the painting.  What sort of a space are the two women in?  

The space is ambiguous; you can't tell what sort of a room it is, the only hint being a curtain of some sorts at the top left.  The woman having her hair combed must be sitting in a chair, but you can't really see the chair (although in the preliminary pastel, the chair was quite distinct, as are her facial features). 

Degas, La coiffure, c. 1892-1895
(Pastel on paper laid down on board, 75.6 x 51.4cm, Private collection)

The table is tipped up.  The yellow brush (is it a brush?) hangs precariously over the edge.  When you look closely, everything is simplified.  Just take a look at the most important item, the comb,  it doesn't even have any teeth.  The hair isn't even hair, it's just a red mass.

Edges are blurred.  Things are indistinct.  He is playing with abstraction.  It's not the first time he's done a blurred, indistinct painting playing with abstraction about one colour.  Here's his Green Landscape of six years earlier:

Degas, Green Landscape (Monotype, c. 1890, 30.1 x 39.9 cm Museum of Modern Art, New York)

It's a monotype (a one-off print) , so it's a means to an end rather than a finishing point, but it's a way of playing with ideas and possibilities.

But you can still easily read in La Coiffure what's going on, despite its simplification of forms.  The central great figure-of-eight rhythm of the composition, reading from the arm of the woman having her hair brushed, down her hair, round the circle made by the arms of the woman on the right, back down the hair and round the other circle of arms, suggests the steady rhythm of the brushing of the hair.

So why should something so mundane be the subject of a painting? What's going on?

The implication would seem to be that its a mistress having her hair brushed by her servant.  Therefore the left-hand woman is dominant to the other.  However, the maid seems to be the dominant one, the one in charge, almost like a mother.  Maybe she is a mother.  Maybe the woman having her hair brushed is about to become a mother - she seems to be pregnant.  But it's difficult to decide whether the brushing is producing pleasure or pain (she does seem to be wincing somewhat in the earlier pastel).  Maybe it's both.   

It's not a painting about history, or war, or Greek myth.  It's about women's lives, an intimate moment, an everyday thing of no significance.  Painted by a man.  A man watching it, in the room as well.

Degas loved painting women.  He paid them to take baths in his studio, and drew them getting in and out of the bath, sponging themselves, drying their bodies.  

Degas, Woman Drying Her Hair (Femme s'essuyant les cheveux),
(Pastel and graphite on brown wove paper mounted on board, 1889)

Which is all rather voyeuristic, but they don't seem to have minded.  They always seem perfectly at ease.

Degas comes across as quite a gruff, geeky kind of guy, but one who understood women, and one whom women were quite happy to be with.  He had female friends, and enjoyed their company, accompanied them whilst they went to the races, chose hats, visited art galleries, but didn't, by all accounts, want to ever take it further than that.  No thanks.  Instead, he put all that sort of energy and passion into the art. (You can read an article about it here in The Guardian.)

He loved the ballet, and endlessly painting and drawing ballet dancers, the way their bodies twisted and moved and worked, like the bodies of nervous horses.  In fact, his bronzes or horses are very like his bronzes of ballet dancers.

 Degas, Horse Clearing An Obstacle (Bronze, 1888)

Degas, Arabesque (Bronze)

Women aren't idealised by Degas.  They are observed.  The bedroom scene where hair is brushed becomes like a scene in a play.  It becomes a drama.  There are women observed, understood, but not touched.

So why do I like La Coiffure?  I guess it's because it's such a big, bold, splash of colour.  You can't ignore it, and it's such a burst of visual pleasure.  I suppose I like the calmness and the rhythm of it, and the texture of the paint, the way you can involve yourself in the surface, discover it.

It's a painting that was, as I said, owned by Matisse, who of course went on to paint his own big, red abstract painting...

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio (Oil on canvas, 1911, MOMA)

I know which I prefer...

Monday, 9 July 2012

Jenny Saville and the Dynamics of the Art World

Waldemar Januszczak wrote a review of Jenny Saville's retrospective in Oxford in yesterday's Sunday Times, which he seems to have generally liked.  

However, one of the points that he makes is that her work has largely been off the art radar in the last couple of decades.  In my previous posting here I mentioned that she doesn't get a look-in in a big new show on women artists at her Alma Mater, Glasgow School of Art, and that the Oxford show is her first solo show in the UK.  And yet she's a big name.  How does that add up?

Well, it's all down to, as Januszczak puts it, 'the dynamics of the art world'.  Saville was discovered by Charles Saatchi in the 1990s, then represented by the Gagosian Gallery, and thus became a valuable commodity and a brand to invest in.  Her paintings were snapped up and squirrelled away from public gaze by rich collectors.  So she paints away, and has done for a couple of decades, but only for those with the cash.  It's a strangely invisible career.

I also talked recently about Art No-one Can See.  What's the point of making art only to deliberately hide it?  However, whereas the statues that are dropped to the bottom of the ocean are intended to be hidden, Saville's art is not created with that intention.  But early success seems to have had the same effect, of hiding her work and creativity away, although her art has been seen by a small elite audience rather than no audience at all (until now).

Which is a shame for someone who is a fine draughtsman and has a feminist message.  Here she is with her writhing babies. 

Jenny Saville, Study for Pentimenti II (2011)

It takes a woman to draw babies that don't keep still, and of course the drawing makes reference to every male-painted Madonna and Child that's ever been created. However, by putting herself centre stage and referencing art history, she does of course set herself up as the figure of the Mother of Christ, which is quite a big statement to make.

Also, there's a certain lack of engagement there.  Yes, children are all wriggly - but it's all observation (and I'm not sure what her son is going to think about that image when he's 14...), lacking in warmth.  The children come across as just unwilling models.  In fact, there's something quite threatening about the restraining hand around the oldest child's throat, and the feeling is that the composition is about to burst apart.

To show you what I mean, here's Caravaggio's take on a similar theme.

 Caravaggio, Holy Family with St John the Baptist (Oil on canvas, 1602-4)

It's observation, with lots of beautiful little details, such as the dirty fingernails of Mary's working hands...

 Caravaggio, Holy Family with St John the Baptist (detail) (Oil on canvas, 1602-4)

But it also observes the inner as well as the outer, by showing, with a small gesture,  the naughtiness of a never-still child that has to be restrained by the long-suffering Joseph...

Caravaggio, Holy Family with St John the Baptist (detail) (Oil on canvas, 1602-4) well as the tenderness between child and mother, through this small detail of hands, where Christ is fidgeting with his fingers behind his mother's neck...

Caravaggio, Holy Family with St John the Baptist (detail) (Oil on canvas, 1602-4)

The circularity of the composition also suggests a whirling movement, that everyone has just about managed to stay still enough and out of trouble enough for one second for the artist to record the scene, because family life is always in constant motion, but always bonded together (although, being Caravaggio, you'll notice that there is a dark centre at the heart of the painting).

As for the title of Jenny Saville's drawing, 'Pentimenti' (the word means where you can see that an artist has changed their mind in a painting or drawing by altering, say,  a line or a figure), it's obviously referring to the numerous lines trying to draw the continually-moving children.  However, it inevitably also plays upon the idea of a change of mind about the whole motherhood thing.  After all, the combination of motherhood/artist is a perpetually thorny one.  It takes you out of the art market and reduces your worth. 

But, muses the Financial Times (with no sense of irony) does all this having-it-easy patronage remove the emotional heart of the work?  They found, despite the scale of the paintings, that there was no sense of conflict or struggle (despite Saville's interest in the really big themes of life and death, gender and identity), and that it was all just a bit too unchallenging.  Meat without the meatiness.  Hoorah for women painting women, and not making them look like Renoir's sugar-coated Play-doh girls, but is her work all just mere observation?  Unless there's the emotion, getting underneath all those mountains of flesh and wriggling limbs, you don't feel the connection.

Do artists, then, need to starve in a garret to produce really exciting and emotionally genuine work?  Or once you expose them to the safe waters of financial success, do you dilute the very thing that made them desirable in the first place?

Jenny Saville's show is on until September 16th at Modern Art Oxford and the Ashmolean Museum.  See it and decide for yourself.

Andy Murray - Champion, No - Hero, Yes

Ok, so this isn't art, and it's just a tennis match, but I'm going to give Mr Murray a mention anyway.

When I asked my son just before the match started who he was cheering for in the Wimbledon Men's Final, he said Roger Federer.  Very surprised, I asked why, and he said well, Roger's a nice guy and a great player, and I don't want Andy to win and be taken over by all the media hype about winning in Jubilee year, and Olympic year, and making Britain proud and so on, it wasn't fair.  I thought it a pretty strange thing to say.

However, before the match there was a huge build-up on the BBC, interviewing the great and good in the crowd, showing little films where tennis greats of the past wished Murray good luck (although I'm doubtful that he would see them, so I'm not quite sure what the point of them was or who they were aimed at), and generally banging on and on about History About to Be Made.  It was pretty uncomfortable to watch.  It was indeed as if Murray was being expected to make everything fall neatly into place in the Great British 2012 storyline.

Well, you all know the result.  Real life isn't neat like that.

It was a great effort.  A heroic effort.  But Federer is one of the true all-time greats, and when the roof went over due to rain, he stepped up a gear with the serves and off he went.  He was just the better player. 

 Picture: BBC

So far, so disappointing.  A nation audibly deflated (well, those who weren't watching the Formula 1 on the other channel).  

And so the presentation ceremony swung into action.  But then a strange thing happened.

Andy, not known for his emotion, charisma or eloquence in interviews - he likes to play things very close to his chest and keep it all reigned in to the point of brusqueness -  was asked to take the mike and say a few words.  He struggled to gain his composure. He was crying. A nation held its breath and leant forward on the sofa (well, those who weren't watching the Tour de France on the different other channel).

 Picture: BBC

In all the manufactured drama, here was suddenly a real flood of genuine emotion.  This was something unscripted, something completely unexpected.  The seconds ticked by as he struggled to compose himself.   "I'm getting closer" he said, his voice breaking and vulnerable.  He gret.  And suddenly we were all greeting.  Buckets, without really knowing why.  In all the scenarios of how things were going to turn out, this outpouring wasn't one of them.

Picture: EPA

And suddenly the most important thing wasn't to win to order, to fit a media storyline - the most important thing was to have done your very best, and to lose magnificently.

Yes, Federer may have won 7 times and be truly great.  But sometimes, losing's ok too.  And my 12 year old is right - sometimes you need to win on your own terms, in your own time.