National Gallery’s #GalleryB #Rubens and #Rembrandt

Gallery B is the first new space @NationalGallery in over 25 years.  Until 16 July 2017, it houses a free compare-and-contrast exhibition of Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn (yes, the Rembrandt).  That is the purpose of the new space, which links Gallery A with the other Ground Floor Galleries: to provide a large space that can be used for special displays and exhibitions.

This current display is of existing work, using the juxtaposition to give us new ways of seeing the paintings and in all honesty using a new gallery and this conceit of compare and contrast to get us into the Gallery to see them at all.  To that extent, it is a success and it is a great excuse to have a look at two key Dutch painters.

The biggest problem is finding the galleries, especially if you come in from the Sainsbury Wing.  It is on the lower floor, level 0.  There are four stairways down, two from the main front entrance, a quite narrow staircase next to room 12 to the left of the Central Hall (if you have your back to the main entrance) behind the shop, and the large modern staircase in the East Wing to the right of the Central Hall.  (On a Sunday, there is another route via Gallery A at the Northside of the building but I haven’t used it yet so this is speculative.)

There are lifts at the latter two staircases.  From the staircase to the left of Central Hall, turn right at the bottom of this staircase and it takes you directly to the entrance to Gallery F from where you walk to the circular Gallery E, turn right through Gallery C and there you are.  From the large staircase to the right of Central Hall, make your way through the doorway at the far side of the Espresso Bar and you will find yourself at the entrance to Gallery F.

Once you get there, you’ll see that Gallery B is the shape of a squared off lozenge creating four bays in which to display the art.  Large paintings are hung low so we can see them in the middle of the bays with smaller paintings around them.  The walls are pale.  The lighting is adequate but creates a bit of glare from some angles.

Rubens is on the near wall as you enter and Rembrandt is on the far.  This allows you more easily to compare and contrast the two artists.  The main wall panels provide some context.  The individual labels focus on describing each painting rather than explaining the contrasts.  What follows is my impression of the comparisons and contrasts.

There is more colour on the Rubens side of the room with bigger pieces and a tendency to use biblical and mythological stories as subjects.  As is often the case, it can be hard to understand what is going on without knowing the original story.

His portraits are perhaps a little more accessible.  It seems to me that Rubens was painting in the period of creating likenesses of the subject’s appearance, not simply flattering.  Rubens still uses symbols, for example, surrounding his doctor friend, Ludovicus Nonnius, with books and a bust of the Hippocrates (the Greek founder of medicine) but these are real people staring out of the canvass, or wood in Rubens’s case.

I did think his young woman (Portrait of Susanna Lunden(?)) in the so-called straw hat looked a little sickly, pale skin and big eyes, but that might be more about the standards of beauty at the time.  She is certainly looking at us a little coyly in her colourful flounces.

I did like the small landscape, A Shepherd with his Flock in a Woody Landscape, even though there is something about it that is twee and overly sentimental.  The larger version of the same scene, (The Watering Place) is in Gallery C just outside so it is interesting to compare and contrast the two of them, too.

I implied that Rembrandt’s side of the room has less colour.  This is particularly the case of his portraits.  They are generally pared back with very little to see but the subject and maybe a chair.  But even when there is something to see, such as the sword and the book on his right of An Elderly Man as Saint Paul, it is very hard to see it.  I did notice that if I spent longer and looked and looked, my eyes became accustomed to the dark painting as they do to the dark in a low light environment.

One major exception to the lack of colour is Belshazzar’s Feast where Belshazzar’s wealth, the sumptuous and elaborate 17th century dress and jewels of his courtiers and the splendour of the Temple plate are all conveyed and highlighted with thick brushwork.

Then there is Rembrandt’s famous lighting.  This features in many of the works but one particularly caught my attention.  The Woman taken in Adultery is glowing in the middle of a group in the dark Temple, all looking insignificant against the splendour of the enthroned High Priest above.

If you come to see the new space for one reason alone make it the Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip from Portraits of Jacob Trip and his Wife Margaretha de Geer.  There are no accoutrements apart from the sober but rich clothing and the shadow of a substantial chair but the hands and the face with the steady gaze from the eyes are compelling.  In fact, in all the portraits it is clear that for Rembrandt the eyes have it!

Of course, it’s no longer just about the display in the Gallery.  The National Gallery has extensive resources on line.  You can do a virtual tour from the comfort of your computer if you can’t come to London. For Gallery B, perhaps because it is a temporary display, the Gallery hasn’t set up the displays in the same way as for other rooms.  So, to find the information about the paintings (as of 11 April 2017 when I accessed it this way), the best way to find them is to go to the page about the special exhibition and its related events, click here, then click through to the page about the display itself, then click on the underlined names of the two artists to go to their pages in the A-Z of Artists where you can track down their pictures.

In addition, there was a Facebook Live event where Head of Education, Gill Hart, and Associate Curator of Paintings 1600-1800, Francesca Whitwell Cooper, gave viewers a tour of the paintings.  This was simply an audio-visual event that could be accessed live from the National Gallery Facebook page.  It was a really good introduction to the exhibition and, for those of us who are new to art appreciation, it gave lots of pointers to look for.  The recording of the event is still available.  Even if you don’t have Facebook, you seem to be able to play it but I can’t guarantee that.  Give it a go by clicking here.

Michaelangelo & Sebastiano at the National Gallery

@NationalGallery until 25 June 2017 you can explore the relationship between two great Italian masters, Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo.

The contention of the Gallery is that this was an extraordinary friendship and collaboration in competitive times, and with Michelangelo who was famously prickly, and that it resulted in art that would not have been created by the men working completely alone.

To explore that argument fully, you need to be prepared to study sketches and read letters and consider copies and reproductions of art, or unfinished pieces, rather than see rooms full of finished masterpieces.  Now, it depends on how you feel about your art and how likely it is that you will ever go to Italy to see the originals whether you will enjoy this and feel it worth your while.

The North Galleries, to the back of the original building, are mainly rectangular rooms, arranged with compare and contrast work between the two artists or letters and sketches relating to the large work.  If you are following the booklet, you will find that in some rooms, you go clockwise and others you go anti clockwise or you start at the far end of the case in the middle.  It’s pretty confusing and difficult to navigate.

Room 1 contains work from before they met. The contrasts are Sebastiano’s bright colours and luxuriousness of the Venetian school and his more spontaneous approach, drawing and colouring at the same time.  In Michelangelo’s unfinished piece you can see his more methodical approach of planning, drawing, undercoat then finish.

In the second room, you encounter the first key piece, Michelangelo’s Pietà for S. Francesco in Viterbo.  Except that you don’t.  What you encounter is a cast of that sculpture.  I thought it was still wonderful to see but many people, including my partner, were unimpressed because the cast doesn’t have the same properties as the marble.

However, you can see the differences between it and Sebastiano’s painting of the same subject.  Michelangelo’s sculpture is realistic; the drapery looks like cloth and the body of Christ is heavy in Mary’s lap.  (I did think that the body of Christ was too small relative to Mary, though.)  Sebastiano’s painting is very large and I thought the depictions of people were not at all realistic.  In particular, it showed a very masculine looking Mary, at least in the body and the face.  I assume this is because they were not able to use female models but it did spoil the piece for me.  I thought the moon and the landscape in this picture was the best thing about it. By the way, for those who do not know, a Pietà is a portrayal of the Virgin Mary mourning the crucified Christ.

In Room 3 the exhibition reunites three altarpieces for the first time in 500 years.  I liked that, even if one is a copy.  Then there is The Raising of Lazarus, painted for the Cathedral of Narbonne in France, and a piece you can see normally in the National Gallery Collection.  Again, I like the landscape more than anything else about it.  There are a lot of letters in this room.  The hand writing is so neat!  I did wonder whether the letter was actually written by the artist or by a scribe or secretary.  There is also a rather lovely painting of the Holy Family, in a domestic setting.

Room 4 is where you’ll find the vaunted, exceptional loan of Michelangelo’s The Risen Christ (1514–15) from the Church of S. Vincenzo Martire in Bassano Romano, Italy.  It is in marble but was finished by another artist.  I actually preferred the other Risen Christ who seemed stronger and more lifelike, more animated with emotion, even though it is a cast again.

The other much publicised element of the exhibition is in Room 5: a “cutting-edge recreation” of the Borgherini Chapel in S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome.  Sebastiano decorated this to partial designs by Michelangelo so it is a clear example of their collaboration.  The Gallery has used 3D printing as well as standard construction methods to build the alcove.  I found this to be an impressive piece to see, looking at the perspective and how it changes as you move around.  I think the sweet spot to see the whole thing is slightly inside the rope, in the centre, which is a shame.  Anyway, this was the highlight of the exhibition for me.

Also in Room 5 is a portrait of Michelangelo by Sebastiano.  The woollen material and fur collar are exquisite.  Originally, this canvass or board, I forget which, held a Madonna and Child by one of Michelangelo’s rivals, Sato.  The patron it was painted for didn’t like it so didn’t want it and there would seem sweet revenge to Michelangelo to have his portrait painting out his rival’s the work like this.  How nasty they all were with one another!  And, how many other wonderful pieces of art, possibly ahead of their time, have been deleted because someone didn’t like them and had the power to destroy them?

In the final room is Sebastiano’s Visitation, painted at the same time as the Lazarus.  It shows the Virgin Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, dressed in bright clothing from Sebastiano’s Venetian roots.  I liked this but I actually liked the sketch of the two women better.  It had more life.  The younger woman’s face is smooth and lacking character – based on a boy, perhaps – while Elizabeth’s is much more realistic and full of character.

This was something I noticed throughout the exhibition.  In general, I found the art didn’t move me or speak to me even though it is representative of grand masters and praised by our culture.  I found the images of Mary were smooth and stylised.  However, I did like the glimpses of landscapes on many of the paintings and the images of the older people: Joseph in the picture of the Holy Family and Elizabeth, particularly in the studies for the Visitation, were full of character and compelling.

I came out, having not put in the work to read all the letters and study all the sketches, not being convinced of the main contention but knowing a little bit more about Sebastiano and having enjoyed seeing some key pieces, especially the recreation of the Borgherini Chapel, which really appealed to me.  I was, therefore, glad that I’d gone but it wouldn’t be the first choice of things to see if I had limited time.

As always, there is a lot of material on the website for you to study at your leisure.  Find links to it here.

David Hockney at Tate Britain

@Tate Britain’s David Hockney exhibition is in its last weeks.  It’s open until 29 May 2017 and has late night opening in the final weekend: Friday 26, Saturday 27, and Sunday 28 May 2017 until midnight and Monday 29 May 2017 until 21.00.  If you can find a way to go, it’s definitely worth the effort.  And, if you can find a moment that is less busy, that will be a blessing since it can be hard to move around and even harder to find space in front of the pieces you wish to view.

What an overwhelming and fabulous exhibition!  It’s probably not done to complain but there’s almost too much to see, too much of a good thing.  There are 12 rooms, spanning his whole life, showing how his art has evolved, using different media: oils, acrylics, drawing, painting, print, photography, video and iPad.  Unifying the whole is the question: how does the artist capture the real world in 2D?

There is pretty minimal interpretation in the rooms.  Even the AV guide, although very good, selects only one or two pieces in each room to discuss in any detail.  It does include audio and video clips of David Hockney discussing his work and that is very interesting especially when juxtaposed with the views of one of the curators on the same piece.

The first room is on the theme of “a play within a play”, demonstrating how Hockney has raised questions about picture-making and perspective across his career.  After that, the material is mostly presented chronologically, starting with his demonstrations of versatility in his early work and moving through the famous swimming pool pictures and portrayals of people in his life and places in his life, including the Yorkshire Wolds, to video pieces and art created and played back on iPads.

I appreciated the cleverness of the work in the first few rooms.  I thought the story behind the painting of the view of the Swiss Alps in Room 2 was amusing.  But the exhibition started to come alive for me in Room 4 with the pictures of California, exploring the straight lines of the buildings and quality of the bright light.

I could have stayed in Room 4 a long time but my companion reminded me there were eight more rooms to go!  I liked The Bigger Splash as well as Peter getting out of Nick’s Pool.  Hockney asks how you capture something that is constantly moving and has no surface, light on the pool and on the window, and gives a good answer in the picture.

Room 5 has some huge pieces, many portraits and paintings with people, including Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) from 1972 which I found very beautiful with its backdrop of lush vegetation.

Room 6 is like a respite – smaller drawings, created on Hockney’s travels, capturing a moment on the page – and then it’s on to Room 7 where we see how Hockney has used photographs, not just to capture people and scenes for later portrayal in oil or acrylic, but to create the pictures.  He takes photographs of multiple angles or snapshots across time and then lies them side by side to make up a multidimensional picture or takes close-ups of the different bits of the scene then reassembles the whole picture.  We really liked the Scrabble Game, showing multiple angles and capturing the passage of time in a still image, and Bolton Abbey, using the photographs to build up the collage.  Gregory Swimming, LA March 1982, is interesting because captured in the photographs are the same wavy interference patterns that he had previously portrayed in his paintings.

If I’d appreciated the art in the first rooms, I loved the last four rooms.

Room 9 shows paintings made in and of the Yorkshire Wolds, particularly of a road he drove again and again – The Road Across the Wolds and The Road up Garrowby Hill.  One painting, impossible to photograph, because it is a series of images from a long journey, all placed on the canvass, each mini scene seeming to form part of the whole but with its own perspective.

Room 10 contains paintings made after he moved back to Yorkshire for about 10 years from 2003.  They were painted en plein air with vibrant crazy colours.  Elderflower Blossom Kilham 2006 reminds me of my childhood.

Room 11 contains video art, The Four Seasons.  Hockney mounted 9 video cameras on a rig and drove it down a field in Yorkshire once in each of the four seasons.  On each wall in the small gallery, there is a group of 9 screens, each showing the film from one camera.  The films are synchronised so you can see a slightly different aspect of the view and you can see the same piece of road in each of the seasons.  The key to getting the most out of this work is to get into the centre of the room and look around the space.  It’s very special.  Spot the bird flying across summer, I think it was, and the snow falling from the trees in winter.

The final room is split into two.  The first has charcoal drawings of Yorkshire and then more paintings of his house in California.  The drawings of Yorkshire, The Arrival of Spring 2013, are a paean to the experience of seeing the countryside awakening to the Spring, an experience we can take for granted but which Hockney found he had missed while living in California.  They show five places at five moments between the first shoots and the verdant full blossoming.  Fabulous!

In the second half of the room we see the iPad art, shown on screens bigger than the original iPad.  What I had not realised was that the iPad not only becomes a canvas but it also records how a drawing or painting is made.  You can play back the creation of the piece, seeing how the artist paints, gradually building up the, and correcting, the image.  It was fascinating.

I really enjoyed the exhibition and only wish you a quiet moment to appreciate it fully.

America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s at Royal Academy #AmericaAftertheFall

As well as Russia, @RoyalAcademy has America on show this spring, until 4 June 2017.  The exhibition shows artists’ responses to the deprivation and changes that took place in the 1930s, through seven themes covering city, industry, countryside and the future.  I really enjoyed seeing the paintings and recommend it to all!

The exhibition is in the Sackler Wing.  This is 2 floors above the main entrance in Burlington House but they are high floors!  Take the lift (turn right in the anteroom at the top of the main staircase) unless you feel really fit!

It is a small space, 3 rectangular rooms, two joining at their long side and the third fitting along their joined short sides.  The walls are white.  The material is hung at a reasonable head height, catering to the average human.  There are information panels close to each picture providing at least the artist and the title and materials.  The audio guide was clear and useful.  All in all, I found it a friendly space and the art felt accessible.  There was only one piece, Thanksgiving, where I had to bob down a little to get a good look at all the detail.

You enter one of the side-by-side rooms.  As you come through the entrance you are guided to the left into the end of the room.  That created a bunching of people which didn’t work too well for me.  And, across from the entrance is an opening to the final section.  I found that confusing.  I guess you could be maverick and go backwards round the exhibition but I’d prefer not to, at least the first time.  I wouldn’t object to more signage.  Of course, if you have the audio guide, it includes a little plan to help you.

Let’s start at the top of the first room.  Aspiration, by Aaron Douglas, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, was created for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas.  It features in the education guide for this exhibition and the difficulty of reproducing artwork in print meant that I really wanted to see the original.  I thought the hands at the bottom were applauding but in fact, like it says in the text, they were manacled, a reminder of the slavery from which the figures at the top, with their learning, were escaping.

Working down the room, there is Industrial Life on the left and City Life on the right.  I liked so many of the pieces here that it is hard to pick out one or two.  American Landscape, a 1930 painting by Charles Sheeler of Ford’s River Rouge plant, includes hard edges and precision on the buildings and train but the reflection is softer and more sympathetic.  The soft pastel palette reminded me of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin in the Russian exhibition.

Then there’s Alice Neel’s portrait of Pat Whelan, a trade union leader.  It is not quite photographic realism but the way she has portrayed the face conveys the character and passion of the man.  It looks like he’s just slammed down his fist on the table.

Gas by Edward Hopper shows a petrol station (to give it its British name).  It is at the forest edge and the road bends away to the right into the unknown.  The lighting is amazing with sunrise or sunset from the natural world and artificial light spilling from the building.

The cityscapes are generally ambiguous.  Are the people happy or caught up in something miserable?  In The Fleet’s In, Paul Cadmus exaggerates the figures and shows them rearing backwards.  It’s uncomfortable.  Phil Evergood’s Dance Marathon 1934 is a danse macabre.  The men or women at the front are caught in a spider web of the markings of the panels on the floor.

There are two images of cinemas.  Reginald March’s 20¢ Movie is busy with people outside the theatre dressed like the people in the movie posters, all glammed up.  But the titles of the movies: ‘The Joys of the Flesh’, ‘Who is Without Sin’, ‘Damnations or Hell?’, ‘Dangerous Curves’, etc. suggest a world that you might not want to be part of and make me think it is more about the dangers of the movies than the cheap innocent escape it might seem.  I did think my mother would like the fashion portrayed.  Meanwhile, New York Movie, another Edward Hopper, is a much larger canvas to show a much less busy scene.  The inside of the theatre is luxurious and the usherette is dressed in a correct but plain dress.  It is impressionistic giving a real sense of the place but quite sketchy and soft detail when you look closely.

Moving into the second gallery, there is Looking to the Past at the nearest end and Country Life begins half way along the room on the bottom wall and works around the far end to the doorway to the third gallery.  Here you will see perhaps the most famous piece in the exhibition, Grant Wood’s American Gothic.  But, don’t rush, wallow a little in the past, in the nostalgia for a past that maybe never existed.  This is another reminder for me of the Russian Exhibition and the sled rides, birch forests and onion-shaped church domes of their artists’ memories.  In this case it is more the founding myth of the revolution and the cosy hospitality of the past.

Several of the pieces here are also by Grant Wood.  I very much liked The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.  It is moonlit with people emerging in their night shirts from the houses.  To the right in the distance up a long and winding road are the lights of the pursuers.  There are New England houses and a church but they are almost cartoonish.  I thought there a little too much light in the houses for the late 18th century.

In Daughters of the Revolution, Grant Wood portrays three very proper ladies who can trace their ancestry back to the American Revolution.  They are smiling and yet serious.  One very politely holds a cup.  There is great precision in the painting of the cup and of the lace one of the women wears.  It is a British tea cup, which is an irony.  There is a story in the painting, long enough for a whole article

Similarly, in Paul Sample’s Church Supper, there are several stories.  The big scene of the supper, people seated at tables, is in front of a winding road through fields, people playing baseball in the distance, a car and a horse drawn wagon.  It reminded me of The Waltons.  However, there is also a rather racy lady lifting her skirts to give one of the proper men a view of her legs.

I particularly liked Doris Lee’s Thanksgiving, despite having to dip down to see it properly.  This shows a kitchen with a clock at 10.15, painted in a naïve style.  It won the Logan New Acquisition Prize but even the contemporary scion of the donating Logan family didn’t agree with the prize at the time so it is controversial in artistic circles.  However, it portrays a happy and fecund atmosphere, which is lovely to experience.

As you move through the room to Country life, you see the pain that existed.  In Erosion #2 Alexandre Hogue shows the sand coloured earth shaped in the curves of a female form, Mother Earth figure laid bare by the lack of water.  It is a very powerful image, particularly set against the other paintings showing what the countryside used to look like.

American Gothic is placed at the head of this second room, dominating the space.  It shows very realistic faces except that they are slightly elongated.  Grant Wood has a habit of painting his trees, and even his grass, as collections of green blobs, not painting the individual leaves.  You see them here but mostly behind the house in the background.  The guide talks about the vertical lines that link the parts of the composition.  These extend from the columns on the veranda to the spire above the trees.  Obvious, once pointed out.

The walls of the final room are mostly filled with Visions of DystopiaLooking to the Future takes up the end nearest the doorway back to the exit.  I found the former more interesting and attractive than the latter.  I will not spend any more time here contemplating why; I just offer it as an observation.

There are two very famous pieces in Looking to the Future and you may wish to see them when you have the chance.  Neither, however, did much for me.  Jackson Pollock’s Untitled ca 1938/41 has amazing colours and I could just about make out the shape of the head of a bull, perhaps the shape of a man.  It’s quite pleasant but it didn’t speak to me.  Similiarly, Georgia O’Keefe’s Cow’s Skull with Calico Rose, although possessing an admirably descriptive title, didn’t do much for me either.  I much prefer her landscapes that I saw in 2016 at Tate Modern.

So what Visions of Dystopia did catch my eye?

Firstly, Helen Lunderberg’s Double Portrait of the Artist in Time didn’t just attract me but it taught me a lesson about Surrealism.  The Surreal is about things that cannot happen in our reality.  I didn’t understand that definition (I’ve told you before that I didn’t know much about art) before seeing this piece and this piece is a good way for me to remember it.  A baby sits holding a bud in front of a picture of herself all grown up with the flower in full bloom.  This cannot happen in reality.  The opposite, if you like, can: a person can sit in front of a picture of herself as a baby, but not this way around.  The baby and the picture are linked by a large shadow – of the artist, I thought.  So, if this is a self-portrait, there are in fact three portraits of the artist.

Philip Guston’s Bombardment is probably a response to the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War and a foretelling of what was to hit other European cities and towns in the following ten years.  It is circular, blasting the bodies of people out towards the viewer and away from the explosion in the centre of the piece.  It is extremely impressive standing in front of it – more so than you can imagine from the picture in a book.

Grant Wood portrays Death on the Ridge Road.  You can see his green grass like a slightly shapeless carpet, in the same style as his blobby trees, and above a forbidding front of black cloud and rain.  A big red truck crests the hill, on a collision course with a black car slewed across the road! I could almost hear the crash and shrieking metal in the moment after the picture.

Similarly realistic was John Stewart Curry’s Hogs Killing a Snake.  It is figurative piece showing a group of pigs and a snake writhing among them.  It portrays an amazing sense of movement.  You can see that the snake is fighting back!

American Justice by Joe Jones shows a house ablaze in the background and, on the left, a group of Ku Klux Klansmen gathered around a candle or lamp, while one of whom holds a glowing brand.  On the right a dog looks up at a noose, seeming to be caught before howling.  The trees surround and press in on the scene.  At the front lies an African American woman, naked from the waist up, her eyes rolled up in her head.  Lighting is used to highlight the key shapes: the woman’s nightdress and whites of her eyes, the white bark of a tree and the Klansmen’s robes, the brand and the fire.  I didn’t think the woman was dead – yet – just in shock from what had happened and was likely to happen.  Either way, it was a sobering and moving piece.

To leave the room on a high note, Arthur Dove’s Swing Music (Louis Armstrong) was an energetic and positive piece.  It captured the sense of rhythm and music with bursts of colour, particularly red, which portrays almost half a face on the right, in the midst of abstract shapes.  It seems to move and change as you watch it: red on black or black on red as shapes merge.

All in all, I enjoyed the exhibition, the different themes worked for me as an organising principle and I found insight into the art of the era.  Royal Academy tells us, “The art of 1930s America tells the story of a nation in flux. Artists responded to rapid social change and economic anxiety with some of the 20th century’s most powerful art.”  I would agree that the exhibition shows us some powerful, lovely and interesting pieces.  The RA goes on to say, “In the devastating wake of the Wall Street Crash, artists sought to capture the changes in urbanisation, industrialisation and immigration that pulsed across the country, resulting in one of the most vital periods for American artists in the 20th century. This was a decade like no other that saw them search for an elusive ‘Americanness’ through realism, populism and abstraction, rural and urban themes, the farm, the new, the traditional.”  What struck me is that ‘Americanness’ means many different things to different artists.  There isn’t much unanimity about it although it contains a strong nostalgia for the past.

There’s always lots of really interesting material on the Royal Academy website to support exhibitions so, if you like to read up about an exhibition before you go, have a look here.  You’ll even find details of a free tour you can join.  The teachers’ guide is really good at giving you something to think about and you’ll find that here.

The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 at the Barbican Art Gallery

There is a life-sized Japanese House @BarbicanCentre and you can walk through it!  It forms the central part of an exhibition on The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945, on in London until 25 June 2017.  Find out more here.

The exhibition starts on the mezzanine of the 4th floor Art Gallery.  Up there is a lot of material to read and to consider about the theory of architecture, the intentions of the architects and the society in which they were (and are) working.  There are films, written interpretations, plans, architectural models and even the occasional sample of a coffee table or a wall.  All in all, you can spend hours here if you wish.  There are even bean bags into which to sink to watch the films.

I liked having the models and being able to look at them.  We’d have liked to have seen more photographs of all the buildings in situ as well to help the context.

It was interesting to have a glimpse of all the ideas that the Japanese architects had.  I’d have welcomed some other contemporary views to answer questions such as: did this make a difference to ordinary Japanese people or is it just in the esoteric world of the architects? And, do the buildings achieve what they were meant to, in the opinion of those who live or work in them?  And, were the architects doing what society needed?

On the main floor of the gallery is the Moriyama House, a full-sized recreation of a house in Tokyo.  It took me a while to realise what it was and how it related to the other exhibits, a film of Yasuo Moriyama in the original house, for example.  My conclusion is that I’d welcome a little more signage, pointing my way.  However, I concede that the information is there, in the wall panels.  It was a bit more hard work than I wanted to put in at the time.

Having said that, the experience of wandering through the rooms and being in the spaces was quite fun.  They felt welcoming and alien in almost equal parts.  It was a bit like some of the models of other houses, some of which were wall-less or had glass walls, providing no privacy, and others were completely enclosed with few windows to the outside, creating an impression of being shut in.  I came away feeling that, while I wouldn’t choose to live in one of these Japanese homes, if I ever have to live in a small space, I should like my architect and furniture supplier to be Japanese.  They know how to build small!

In the meantime, if you can, should you go to the exhibition?  If you are interested in architecture or Japan, definitely yes.  If different styles of houses interest you and you want to experience Japanese living without flying to Japan, also yes, but give yourself enough time to wander around the house and don’t be put off by the theory.

Australia’s Impressionists at The National Gallery #AustraliasImpressionists

You still have another 12 days to see the exhibition of Australia’s Impressionists @NationalGallery in London.  If you can get there before it closes on 26 March 2017, I’d recommend you give it a go.

Billed as an escape from the darkness of winter, the time for that might have passed but, who knows?  This is London, right?  If you like the impressionists’ style, working rapidly, in front of their subjects and often in the open air rather than in a studio, you’ll find much to charm you here.

The exhibition is in the Sunley Room, straight ahead at the top of the main staircase in the older part of the Gallery.  The large rectangular space is divided up into three main sections, the paintings hung at head height and readily accessible.  There’s an introductory film in a small viewing space to the right of the entrance and it is worth taking the time to see that.

The Impressionists featured are Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, and John Russell.  The former three worked mostly in Australia and share the first three sections of the exhibition: 9 by 5, Urban Australia and National Landscape.  Russell stayed in France after studying in Europe, counted Van Gogh, Monet and Sisley among his friends and mentored Matisse on colour.  He has a section devoted to him.  This organisation creates some interesting context for the work but also makes it harder to distinguish between the three artists other than Russell.

9 by 5 is an intriguing way to start.  In 1889, Streeton, Roberts and Conder staged an exhibition to introduce the public to their work, in the same way that the artists had done in Paris.  They called it “9 by 5” and this was the small size (roughly 9 by 5 inches) of most of the ‘impressions’ that made up the exhibition, many of them were painted on cigar-box lids, obtained cheaply from a friend of the artists. These were readily transportable for outside work and allowed Roberts, Streeton, and Conder to capture at great speed the ‘impression’ of a transient moment – its light and mood – in front of the subject.

The National Gallery exhibition reproduces a small portion of the 1889 exhibition showing us a selection of the small paintings.  They are exquisite but quite hard to see.  It is as if you are looking through a small window, glimpsing the world outside.  I particularly liked Arthur Streeton’s The National Game 1889.  This portrays a game of Aussie Rules football, introduced in the colony of Victoria to keep cricketers fit in winter.  The goal posts stand tall and sharp on the left, a representative of each of the teams in their colours stands next and then the game is a flurry of shapes with flashes of the two colours.  I thought it was very clever and beautifully composed.  Looking at Hoddle Street, 10 p.m., also by Streeton, I realised that the painting is actually quite blurry.  It is the fact that it is a glimpse of life that gives it precision when you look at it.  That same affect is seen in Streeton’s Railway Station, Redfern 1893.  It’s fast and minimal but there are lines, delineating carriages and parts of buildings, which creates important contrast.

The biggest section of the exhibition is about the countryside.  In the late 19th century immigrant Australia was building itself into a nation.  In 1901 it became a single commonwealth rather than a set of colonies.  Streeton, Roberts and Conder painted the landscapes of the country to help define a sense of national landscape.  Thinking back on the paintings now, it does occur to me that most of the work, if not all, took place in the coastal fringes in places that are now part of the built-up suburbs surrounding the cities, if not actually part of Sydney and Melbourne.  So, Heidelberg where Streeton established a camp for his colleagues to be able to work “en plein air” and in front of their subjects is a suburb of Melbourne; and Sirius Cove where he established a similar camp on the banks of Sydney Harbour is also built up although I recognised Camp, Sirius Cove in Roberts’s 1899 painting as being close to Taronga Park Zoo.

Maybe that is a clue why I appreciated the Australian pictures more than Russell’s.  Several of them portrayed places I have been and could vaguely recognise even though it is over a hundred years later.  Or, like Fire’s On 1891 by Streeton, it shows a countryside I recognise but is also a tunnel that we probably rode through on the train.  They are evocative paintings, capturing the colour palette of Australia, which is quite unique.  They also reflect the harshness of the light when the sun is so high in the sky.  In A Holiday at Mentone 1888 Conder shows the brightness of the light, casting almost no shadows.  It is glaring.  How did they manage in those heavy clothes of the Victorian and Edwardian ages?

Trying to distinguish one artist from the other is hard, as I’ve mentioned.  There are three paintings that help.  In 1888, a painting expedition along the Pacific coast near Sydney produced two paintings of contrasting styles, Coogee Bay by Conder and Holiday Sketch at Coogee by Roberts.  It seems to me that Conder’s is less realistic and has more green with less contrast between the sand and the vegetation, whereas Roberts paints bright blue water, bright white sand, and brown vegetation with some orange and a hint of pink in the sky.  Then Streeton, painting The Blue Pacific in 1890 on the clifftops just above where the other were, gives us the bright blue ocean but yellows and greens in the sky and pinks and oranges in the cliff-top.  Not convinced? Well, I’m not sure I am either.  I’m not sure I’d recognise the one artist from the others if you just showed me a series of pictures.  However, I hope I would recognise the general style of Australia’s Impressionists.

Russell’s work looks more like the work of the European painters, becoming increasingly abstract and wild in its use of colour.  His Cruach en Mahr, Matin is built up of layer up on layer of colour, vivid pinks and purples and limes creating an impression of the darkness of a west-facing cliff as the sun rises.  In 1905 its exhibition helped name the newest of the avant-garde painters, the Fauvistes.  I didn’t dislike his work but I found the work of the others more interesting and fresh to me.  If “Russell poses the question of what it meant to be an ‘Australian Impressionist’”, as it says in the National Gallery’s notes, then for me the answer is that art is supranational.  Someone from the other side of the world can enter a milieu and produce pieces to match and lead the others in that milieu, if they are allowed the freedom to do so.  At the same time, people can take the techniques to the other side of the world and use them to create the highest quality portrayals of the geography and society there.  There were Australians who were Impressionists and painters who produced Impressionist views of Australia.


If you want to find out more, the National Gallery has introductory material on line.  Click here to find it.

By the way, in writing this, I’ve been surprised by how much of this art you can find on line – just in case you can’t get to the exhibition, of course.  Here are some links.  If you search yourself, for John Russell, use “John Peter Russell” or you’ll get an 18th century Englishman.

For Tom Roberts, click here.

For Sir Arthur Streeton, click here or here.

For Charles Conder, click here.

For John Peter Russell, click here.