The Great Spectacle at the Royal Academy

The Great Spectacle: 250 years of the Summer Exhibition

4 stars – I really liked this exhibition

In this, the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary, there is a companion exhibition to the annual Summer Exhibition and it tells the story of the Summer Exhibition and provides a survey of British Art over the quarter millennium.

With the Summer Exhibition stuffing the main exhibition rooms with art, the Great Spectacle shows off not just the art but also the smaller suite of rooms that were designed for the Academicians and their Council and their General Assembly. Find the entrance to the right as you walk up the main staircase of the Piccadilly-facing Burlington House and pick up an audio guide if you can since it’s worth the extra cost.

Linger in the first room, the Tennant Gallery, to study William Powell Frith’s Private View from 1881, a gorgeous, colourful view of Victorian visitors to that year’s Exhibition including Oscar Wilde surrounded by admiring women; Millais, the pre-Raphaelite; and Anthony Trollope, taking notes, just like I was!

The exhibition shows views of the Exhibition in all the Royal Academy’s homes: Pall Mall, Somerset House, Trafalgar Square and Burlington House. It also provides an overview of the key moments over the years, including the star paintings of different years and a sense of the ebbs and flow in the popularity and significance of the Exhibition and the Academy. I’m sure everyone will take a different memory away from it.

I was particularly struck by the irony of how women were treated. Two founding members of the Royal Academy in 1768 were women but after that the Academy retreated from its equality and elected a full Royal Academician only in 1936. One work by a woman was the star of the 1874 Exhibition with queues waiting to see it and a battle to own it, which HM Queen Victoria won when the man who had commissioned it ceded the field to his queen. Despite this great acclaim, the artist, Elizabeth, Lady Butler, née Thompson, missed out on RA status two years later by two votes. The work was a painting, entitled Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea and it is a fine painting of a line of men mostly in bearskins, some wounded, all battered, with a mounted officer dominating the left hand side and a flock of birds flying through the air in a tick formation.

Apart from that there were a fair number of works on display by women and also, in this year of celebrating the partial –franchise, a reminder that political events touched the annual art extravaganza: on 4 May 1914 Mary Wood, a suffragette, slashed John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Henry James. She selected that picture because it involved two international figures so brought lots of publicity; and she was protesting not just the issue of votes but also the lack of recognition of women artists.

I enjoyed seeing all the artworks and seeing the evolution from history pictures, through portraits and landscapes and genre paintings to the point where the Pre-Raphaelites arrived and the colours became jewelled and the detail fabulous. There is an extraordinary piece by Rodin, cast in bronze but showing life-like detail of muscle and sinew – Rodin exhibited it first in Paris in 1877 but then brought it to London in 1884. By then, he saw the RA as a key international venue and that would have pleased the founders of the RA who wanted to raise the status of British art.

Then the 20th century brought the treatment of war and the fight between the traditionalists and the modernists of various generations. I loved the satirical piece by the ex-President, Sir Alfred Mummings PRA, called Does the Subject Matter? Exhibited in 1956 in shows 4 elegantly dressed patrons studying abstract art. It is witty and charming but remember, this is also the chap who took advantage of the broadcasting of the 1949 RA dinner (reinstated after the war at Churchill’s urging) to resign as President and to lambast modern art. Munnings probably wouldn’t have been happy with the last couple of rooms of the exhibition, which show how modern art gradually made its way into the Exhibition.

One of the charms of an exhibition like this is that you have a chance to see details in famous paintings. For example, Annigoni’s 1955 portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II was a familiar image. However, I didn’t know it contained a self-portrait. The piece was commissioned by The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. In recognition of this, Annigoni painted a small boat in the left-hand bottom corner of the landscape background and painted himself into the boat, fishing!

In summary, it is a lovely exhibition about a 250-year-old Exhibition, giving an insight into art and Britain over those years. It is on at the Royal Academy in London until its last day of 19 August 2018 and you can find more information here.

To Autumn 

What a lovely day to be out and about in London Town!  The leaves are turning, glowing softly in the low morning sun. The thermometer read 11°C but it felt mild and comfortable.

It’s on days like this that my O Level English Literature quotations crowd back into my mind: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom-friend of the mmm-mmm-mmm sun”. Well, OK not the whole quotation, eh?

Even so it prompted me to look it up. (Ah there should be an Ode to the Internet!). Reading a poem is a pleasant thing to do on a bus on Shaftesbury Avenue.

The BBC has it here if you wish to enjoy the whole poem and (Poem of the Week) tells me it was written on 19 September 1819 so a very timely poem.

Matisse in the Studio at Royal Academy of Arts

What a lovely idea, matching artists’ possessions with their starring roles in paintings and sculpture!  That’s what you’ll find at Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy of Arts in the Sackler Wing until 12 November 2017.

The three rectangular spaces of the Sackler Wing are divided into six areas covering different periods of Henri Matisse’s life and work.  Art works by Matisse – paintings and sculptures and maquettes for his design work – are displayed in close proximity to furniture and domestic objects that feature in them or inspired his approach.  You can find out more, and see some photographs of the exhibits, here.

Not only does the exhibition give us “a rare glimpse into the artist’s personal collection, as well as the paintings, sculptures and drawings it inspired” but it also provides a great overview of Matisse and his style as it developed over his lifetime. Especially useful for someone like me to whom Matisse was just a name.

A unifying feature of the exhibition is colour. The wild colour from his earlier works suggested even to me that he was probably one of the “Fauves”, or wild things, of the early twentieth century – that knowledge comes from a novel I read way back when, not from art history where linking Matisse and fauvism is a slam dunk.  The colour continues right to the bright contrasting tones of his later cut-outs, a way of creating art when he could no longer paint like he used to.  And, in the middle of all of this, sculpture, which I did not know he did and which, truth be told, introduces a solid ballast of black.

The two earliest rooms contain mostly domestic items: chairs, tables, ewers and chocolate pots or chocolatiers.  The latter with their bulbous silver bodies and wooden handles seem a comfortably bourgeois object for an artist to use.  Seeing two examples of chocolatiers next to paintings containing them delighted me.  The way Matisse used them and distorted their shapes slightly and played with the light, was interesting.

There was a Venetian chair with both its back and seat made in the shape of a clam-like shell and arms shaped like fish, or maybe dolphin, heads.  It made me smile and then so did seeing the chair represented in the painting.

Odalisque in Yellow Robe from 1937 shows a woman with brown curls and wearing a green skirt and pale green blouse under a long yellow and purple or brown striped robe.  She is seated next to an octagonal table decorated in yellow flowers on a blue background and a grey jug filled with flowers and with a curved pattern on its bulbous body.  The real life objects sit next to the painting.  The table, made by an Algerian craftsman, is more turquoise than in the painting.  The ewer from Northern France is made from pewter.  Its top section is a straight column but its lower section seems to be made of half tubes of metal their concave side on the outside, which is conveyed by simple curved lines on the painting.  They are exquisite pieces.

As you move through the rest of the exhibition, you see examples of more exotic articles: African masks, Islamic art on furniture and drapery.  The curators say “seen together, they reveal how Matisse’s masterful vision of rich and masterful energy first stemmed from the collage of patterns and rhythms which he found in the world of objects.”  However, even they, in their wall panels qualify that, suggesting that Matisse had a vision and that these articles and the examples of decorative arts from around the world helped him to develop the vision and make it more concrete.

In the sculpture section, The Serpentine, modelled in 1909 and cast in 1948, is shown next to a picture of a plump white-skinned nude as an influence.  The Serpentine does stand like the woman in the picture but Matisse has extended the length of the legs, body and pedestal, making the sculpture thin, the torso almost square in cross section.  I’d be interested in knowing why he did that.  Also, I noticed that many of the sculptures had similar dates, including those of his wife and daughter but no explanation as to why so many modelled early in the century and not cast until its middle.  I wonder why.

The relationship between Matisse’s art and items that inspired or influenced it is also demonstrated in an oil on canvass painting, Standing Nude 1906/7.  Next to the painting is a much smaller photograph of a young woman in the same pose, although her hair, curls or her hair up looks like artifice in the context of the picture.  The painting shows the influence of the African masks and sculptures that Matisse was collecting and studying.  The body and the face are much more angular than the in the photograph although strangely in the face it doesn’t seem as different, it just looks like a good way to capture the planes of the human face.

There are a couple of examples of African masks, like the Muyombi Mask from DR Congo.  They are impressive objects using beads and shells to suggest beards.  They reminded me of the piece by Gilbert and George RA in the Summer Exhibition in the galleries below.

There are several representations of his wife and of his daughter, Marguerite.  He strove to create portraits that “suggest the deep gravity that persists in every human being.”  Two portraits of Marguerite interested me.  In 1906, he created a portrait that is quite bland really – a few brushstrokes make her almost a cartoon.  In 1916, again with a black ribbon around her throat, he painted her with more colour, although still quite subdued, and the planes and shadows of her face create a sense of a great deal of character and determination.

In contrast to the 1906 portrait of Marguerite, where a few brushstrokes made the portrait more abstract, there was a painting from 1948 – “Large Mask” – it was about 6 or 7 brush marks of aquatint and it conveyed real character – a little coquetry and a quizzical look.

I did enjoy seeing the Islamic art.  There was a screen and a piece of a material called a “haiti” and more furniture – a brazier and its tray in copper, brass and wood and an octagonal chair.  The haiti shows an pattern of two arches filled with geometric patterns in soft greens and reds.  The screen was brighter but still in the geometric style.  They feature in many of his paintings of the period.  In some ways it is hard to understand that what Matisse did, learning and drawing inspiration from these pieces was so amazing, because this sort of style is relatively accessible to us.  However, he studied their features and took them into his art rather than simply representing them as exotic orientalism so I guess that what he did was different at the time he did it.

The final section demonstrates his “cut out period”.  He cut out shapes and stuck them on the walls while he decided the exact composition to make of them.  There is a photograph of a place he was staying, a quite ordinary room, where he did just that: the walls covered with sinuous shapes.  He must have been a complete nightmare as a guest!

His work became quite abstract, perhaps influenced by Islamic art’s avoidance of depicting people.  However, it is an abstraction that is intended to have meaning rather than leaving the meaning to the viewer, I think.  There are algae, masks and people in the shapes.

So, that’s the exhibition.

The RA has made a particular point about keeping control of the number of visitors so that even Friends have to get a timed ticket and can’t just wander in as normal.  I’m not entirely sure the exhibition space is that much harder to navigate than in any other exhibition.  Maybe all exhibitions would benefit from that level of control.  However, I’m wondering if I should say that too loudly – I like the freedom just to wander into an exhibition when I like and this experience might encourage them to change the rules for all exhibitions.

Anyway, while you are waiting for your timeslot, pop into the Second Nature: The Art of Charles Tunnicliffe RA in the Tenant Gallery, a small room right by the first floor access to the lift to the Sackler Galleries.  This is free with your exhibition ticket.  Charles Tunnicliffe was a wildlife illustrator and you’ll see examples of his etchings and engravings.  They are truly beautiful – and one for those who are looking for “proper art”.  Find out more here.

Big Ben goes quiet and the commentators go wild

Is it just because it is silly season?  Why else get all worked up about Big Ben being silenced – temporarily and except for important occasions like Remembrance Sunday and New Year’s Eve?

Also, it’s good to know the Prime Minister has been keeping up with the news.  The story was covered first in 2015 but I guess she wasn’t Prime Minister then and didn’t need any more jobs to do.  That is slightly unkind of me, bitchy you might even say, but, seriously, Rt Hon Teresa May MP, don’t you have a few more important topics on which to spend your time and on which to ask your fellow MPs to spend time?

I suppose I’m a little biased here as the news this weekend left me unmoved.  The Today programme ran a big story on Monday 14 August 2017 and the tenor of the debate was, “Oh, no, we won’t hear the live bells!”  Frankly, I was more surprised that the BBC still takes the “bongs” live for their 6 p.m. and midnight news signals.  I just assumed they played a recording.

For the rest of the Benmoaners, I am sorry if the bongs are an integral part of their daily lives and that they will miss them.  However, I can’t help but think that this is a Westminster Bubble issue since these days, outside the Westminster Bubble, few of us can hear the bongs live.

Actually, when the story broke in 2015, I did think it might affect me.  However, I then decided that what I was hearing – from my roof when the wind was in the right direction – was not Big Ben but Great Tom, the main clock bell of St Paul’s.  Since I have a clear line of sight to St Paul’s, 1.4 miles away, compared to Big Ben 2.6 miles away behind a screen of buildings, it seems more likely.  So maybe it’s simply a case of I’m Alright Jackie and I should have more sympathy with the Westminsterites.

However, it’s hard to overlook the return of the all-too-easy attacks on the “elf ‘n’ safety” dictators.  There are even experts to ignore if you wish, Mr Gove.  Serious people have been working for several years to devise the best plan to tackle the work needed to the tower itself and the clock mechanism.  The project has considered the detrimental effect on workers of having the bells tolling.  Experts have even considered how much it would cost in real money (that can be better used elsewhere, remember, like making other towers safe for human habitation) to re-mantle and dismantle the mechanism every day.  They’ve thought about these things carefully, not winged off a soundbite in the midst of a trip to a warship.  Let’s show some respect to our fellow citizens and recognise that, as Rt Hon Jeremy Corbin MP said, “It’s not a national disaster or catastrophe.” (Quoted from the Times, News Section on 17 August 2017).  It is the implementation of a well-thought-out plan that takes steps to mitigate the risks as well as to achieve the aims at the least possible cost.

And, maybe those who live and/or work in the Westminster area will have the opportunity to hear other bells around London.  Or, if desperate for a fix, try YouTube or download an app.

Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave at British Museum

Quick! Quick! Roll up to Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave at British Museum.  Don’t worry, it is open until 13 August 2017 but it is closed from Monday 3 to Thursday 6 July 2017 to swap out some of the more fragile works.  So, you will miss some of the works if you don’t go this weekend.  I didn’t take a careful note of all the works that are “25 May to 2 July only”. Year-End Accounts, an early highlight, is one, Suspension Bridge on the border between Hazen and Etchū provinces is another, but I’m not sure of the rest.  I’m thinking of going back again to see the new set in any case but I realise that might not be possible for everyone.

Katsushika Hokusai was an artist in Japan in the late 18th and early 19th century.  This exhibition focuses on the last thirty years of his life, a period that includes one of his best known works, The Great Wave.  The exhibition is in Room 35, the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery, the circular exhibition space built over the old reading room in the centre of the Great Court.  It costs £12, details on the website here which also shows ten highlights of the exhibition so it is worth looking there before attending.

They have turned room 35 into a long corridor.  It’s a slow labyrinth of a gallery as a result but if you follow the line of visitors patiently you will find treasure! This could be somewhat claustrophobic but it is perhaps the only way to allow the number of visitors in to see the works.  There is some good context from the wall panels but they are a little small and sometimes on the far side of a work which is hard to get to.

The first section of the exhibition deals with examples of art from Hokusai’s earlier work, paintings and prints, and introduces the idea of his calling himself by different names as he went through his life.  This is good background.  It also shows how he developed his art.  There is an interesting explanation of how he studied and used European techniques, for example, the difference between European perspective with a vanishing point and Japanese perspective where further away things were shown above nearer things and, also, the idea of showing one side of an object in a lighter tone creating the impression of a light source from one side or the other.  One example of Hokusai demonstrating his ability to do both is New Year Scene, created in 1824-26 for the Dutch East India company, it shows a Japanese street scene with a man and children ready to fly kites in the  foreground and others with kites already aloft and the impression of buildings receding into the background.  Light hits them from one side.  It is beautiful.

The second section then builds up to the print series, 36 views of Mt Fuji.  This is followed by sections on landscapes, flora and fauna, followed by supernatural beings; then a little section about his daughter before final very late artworks.

The 36 Views of Mount Fuji was a piece of work that saved Hokusai’s finances at a difficult time.  The views seek to show the growing light from darkness and show landscapes and seascapes from all over Japan but each one featuring Mount Fuji, which plays a significant role in Japanese culture.  Sometimes Mount Fuji is a small distinct shape in the background.  For example, a barrel-maker carves the inside of a huge barrel, resting on its side, and above his head you can see a tiny triangle.  Other times, it dominates the scene.  The prints used Prussian blue, newly available in Japan, as well as the more common indigo.

The Great Wave, Under the wave off Kanagawa, to give it its full title, is one of the 36 Views.  It shows three open rowing boats in high seas with Mount Fuji in the distance.  The shapes of the waves echo the slopes of the mountain and the biggest of the waves rears up almost like a beast waiting to devour the boats.  Earlier in the exhibition, you can see Cargo Ship with Wave from 1805 where the wave seems almost wooden and immobile.  In the later work, the foam falling from the wave resembles the claws of an animal, still not quite figurative but representing the power of the wave.  It is certainly worth seeing in person.

There is a certain stylised quality to all the art work, less noticeable in the images of flora and fauna but certainly there in the landscapes and the depictions of people.  I wondered if Japanese people, particularly of the period, interpreted the images as stylised or saw them as accurate depictions of the individuals.

For us now it seems very alien except for an unexpected similarity to the illustrations in the Discworld books, particular the original artwork on the UK editions of the first 26 books.  Josh Kirby is the name of this artist.  Warrior Hero Tametomo, painted in 1811, is one example where we saw this likeness.  You can see this painting here.

I saw this cartoon quality in many of the prints.  That is not said to diminish them but to recognise that they have a particular style that is found more in that genre these days.  Occasionally it doesn’t work for me.  For example, Rainstorm Beneath the Summit has some striking and brightly red jagged lines in its bottom right quadrant.  This is meant to show lightning accompanying rain on the slopes below the summit.  However, for me it looked like a lava flow, which could have made sense, given the fact that it is a volcano.

Having said that, I liked the examples of the 36 Views that I saw (the exhibition does not show the whole set).  The dominant blue colours do suggest early dawn.  The varied landscapes of Japan are beautiful.  If you want to see them all or to prepare for a visit, have a good look at the Wikipedia page to prepare for the riches.

I was intrigued by the prints entitled Clear Day with Southern Breeze.  There was a “Pink Fuji” and a “Red Fuji” with that title, each taking its nickname from the colour of Mount Fuji in the print.  The interpretations explain that the printing process means that the lighter coloured ink is normally the earlier impression and is understood to be closer to the artist’s intention.  It was certainly true that Pink Fuji has a subtlety and details that Red Fuji lacks.

This does suggest a question.  For prints, who should get the praise: the original artist or the engraver and printer who renders that onto the page?  Is it a combination of the vision of the second and the detailed technical skill of the first?  Neither can produce the work without the other.  There is a film shown on two TVs about the printer’s craft.  Maybe you can decide.

I was particularly fond of the Mishima Pass in Kai Province.  A group of travellers is taking a break from the road.  Some are hugging a tree to try to gauge its breadth.  Another is having a quick smoke and washing his feet.  They are charming.

After the 36 Views, the later sections show some wonderful depictions of life, some fantastical, some realistic.  I really wished I had a magnifying glass to appreciate the details although I am not sure that would have been popular with my fellow visitors.

The supernatural pieces can be quite grotesque and we miss out on some of the effect if we aren’t familiar with the stories depicted.  However, it is the right time of year because, apparently, it is on hot summer nights that Japanese people tell one another ghost stories.

One landscape is called 100 Bridges at a Glance.  It is the sort of painting where the more you look, the more you see.  However, don’t worry if you start to count: apparently, he painted only 50 bridges not the eponymous 100!

There are quite a few bridges in the exhibition and lots of water and waterfalls.  I guess Japan has a lot, given that there are also lots of prints entitled “sudden shower of rain”.  Suspension Bridge on the border between Hazen and Etchū provinces is one of the bridges and you can see it only until 1 July.  If you miss it, I can tell you it looks quite precarious, a walkway that dips with the weight of the two figures on it and no handrails that I can see!

Hokusai’s waterfalls look very solid.  Conveying the impression of water in paintings has long been a topic that has interested painters – David Hockney amongst them.  I don’t know that Hokusai succeeds but, on the other hand, waterfalls, at least in spate, can look very solid so maybe he has a point.

The last section has some wonderful, larger format paintings.  I particularly liked the Tiger in Rain hissing at the Dragon Tornado to his right.  These paintings are companion pieces but are rarely shown together, which is a shame because they look good side by side.

The paintings are presented on scrolls, the painting itself a panel within a highly decorated larger piece of material.  I suppose it is like the frames we find on European paintings but these scrolls are very elaborate.  I can’t tell if they have been themselves painted or embroidered or woven but they are covered with complex patterns in colours that, at their best, complement the painting. For example, towards the end of the exhibition in the mythological section, the gold, red and blue of the scroll picks out the colours within the painting itself, enhancing them.

The exhibition claims to “lead you on an artistic journey through the last 30 years of Hokusai’s life”.  It allows you to “explore Hokusai’s personal beliefs and gain a fascinating insight into the artist’s spiritual and artistic quest”.  I’m not convinced I gained such an insight into his quest although I saw the evidence of what he produced during the period.  In other words, he painted lots of landscapes and supernatural pictures but just by seeing them I am not any wiser as to his motivation.

Here is the big question that has been bugging me: what are the boundary lines between a museum that, I think, seeks to understand the diversity of the human condition and an art gallery that focuses on the “artistic” response to it?  In other words, why is the British Museum hosting an exhibition of art from early 19th Century Japan?  Does it cause conflict and angst amongst the different museums and galleries as they jockey for the right to host major exhibitions?  Could we perhaps have expected more from the British Museum in demonstrating context, not just putting some of the context into the wall panels and hard-to-read labels?

At the end of the day, I’m not sure that it matters that much to me.  I’m just glad that we have the exhibition here in London and I’ve been able to see these lovely pieces.  I hope you enjoy them too if you manage to see them.

Post Election Reaction #GE2017

It is the first time for a while that an election result hasn’t left me despairing so that’s nice!  This blog meanders through some of the reasons why.

I’m happy it is not a Tory landslide but I recognise there are difficult times ahead.  The result will create uncertainty and have politicians dividing their attention between the serious issues and commitments facing the country and the opportunities and threats to their own political careers.

Of course, we are still committed to investing time and energy leaving the safe haven of a large economic union to flounder in the high seas of a volatile world, having to accept help from whatever brigand and pirate stops to offer it.  That’s not good.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of whether we would be better off in or out of the EU, the process of leaving is going to eat up the money, parliamentary time and energy of politicians and civil servants alike.  That reduces the chances perhaps to zero that other problems in our society will be tackled and improvements made be.  Is it really going to be so much better outside the EU that we will make up for that lost progress?

Also, the British system is incapable of dealing with the plurality of mind.  The first-past-the-post clear majority focuses solely on the winning ideology.  Rather than dealing with the plurality of thought, this system ignores it between elections, while it has no power.  The anger and frustration of the other points of view build up and build up until, well, until a night such as this.  So, yes, the system doesn’t work to reflect the real feelings of the country and to weave our different threads into a harmonious tapestry.  But it feels like it is working to those in power who see no dissent.  Until they get laughed at – judge us on our record, said Amber Rudd – and the people did!

If Theresa gives enough to the Democratic Unionist Party she has a working majority – just – but it is a long way from the extra authority she thought she was going to get.  Meanwhile, the knives are out for her in her own party.  Just how much is everyone looking forward to another Conservative leadership contest followed by ANOTHER general election in the Autumn, which is what some people are predicting?  The trouble with politicians they never seem to consider the possibility of defeat and the catastrophe for themselves and for the rest of us if they do.

On the plus side for Jeremy, (the unelectable, they said), not enough people voted for him to have to meet his pledges.  He’s played a blinder: turned the tide of a labour decline (which commentators predicted was so bad that Labour might become a minor party) while not having to form a government or govern.  Yet.  The question is can he create a meaningful Progressive Opposition to the Conservative and Unionist government, and do so in a way that shores up his image and builds more support in case of that possible Autumn poll?  Since the Northern Ireland parties are suddenly so important, is he even the man to persuade the Sinn Fein MPs to take their seats?

Which brings to mind another sober thought.  The results of this election, added to the potential consequences of Brexit, could spell trouble on the island of Ireland.

In Scotland, well, there’s a couple of years until the next Scottish Government elections so time for the SNP to rebuild but also time for Ruth Davidson to consolidate the Scottish Conservatives’ and her own position.  Can the Conservatives even get her into a Westminster seat and closer to the leadership of the party?  For the lost Nationalists, Alec Salmond was yesterday’s man to a certain extent but Angus Robertson is a great loss to Parliament.  Will the SNP focus on getting him back in?

And, thinking of someone coming back: Nigel Farage, anyone?