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Portrait Drawing at the National Gallery

2 January 2014

A visit to the National Gallery, with notebook and pencil. A day spent learning from the Masters to improve concentration, the discipline of looking and the nerve of working in a public space. With drawing, there’s no hiding place.

Self Portrait in a Straw Hat – Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Portrait of a Lady –  Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden

Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo – Titian

Philosophy – Salvator Rosa

Portrait of Susanna Lunden(?) (‘Le Chapeau de Paille’) – Peter Paul Rubens

Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip – Rembrandt van Rijn

Portrait of Jacob Trip – Rembrandt van Rijn

Self Portrait at the Age of 34 – Rembrandt van Rijn

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 – Rembrandt van Rijn

Madame Moitessier – Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

The Shrimp Girl – William Hogarth

The Painter’s Father – Attributed to Albrecht Dürer

Doge Leonardo Loredan – Giovanni Bellini

George Bellows (1882-1925):

Modern American Life

9.6.13

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An afternoon with George Bellows at the Royal Academy, and an exhibition of contrasts.

Gatherings in open spaces, and in claustrophobic cityscapes and interiors. Freezing winters, suffocating summers. Powerful, stark structures of a city metamorphosing into a modern age. The rural idyll of fields and sea. Urchins bathing naked or hurling cans at each other in slum gutters. Rich crones and pampered socialites playing tennis or skating. City inhabitants stacked in tenements and as a human tsunami wave surging through streets of high rise. Countrysides for relaxing strolls in sun and snow. Crowds with blurred and smeared faces cheer on boxers disfiguring each other in brutal combat, their blooded flesh painted like carcasses hanging in an abattoir. Portraits of the clean and well dressed ‘Nouveau Riche’.

The dark and sordid, the light and happy. An artist of opposites. Early works bristle with risk and sweaty energy, later compositions with safety, calm and tranquility. Regardless of the subject, the successful pieces for me were active and animated, physical configurations flourishing with exuberant brushstrokes and vigorously scribbled lines – and Life! With a capital L. That’s the Bellows I’ll remember. A painter with an adrenalin rush of mark making!

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The Oak and the Reed

20 August 2013

An afternoon visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and, as has become habit, after walking up the steps and passing through the swivel door main entrance I immediately made for the first floor galleries. My first priority each time I visit is to find a small painting by Achille-Etna Michallon, ‘The Oak and the Reed’. Some paintings can be easily passed by but others have that special kind of magic that makes them leap from the wall and speak, and from the moment of our first meeting many years ago this one grabbed my attention.

Not a famous painting, nor on a grand scale and not painted by a well known artist it hangs quietly amongst others in a corner of the central gallery and could be easily overlooked. As I sat close by to enjoy its company today many visitors didn’t even give it a glance. Yet for me it is the most important and thought provoking in the collection.

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It was painted in 1816, is quite dark and relatively small at 43.5 x 53.5cm. A wind ravaged figure in the left side corner stands in shock beneath a tempestuous sky as a strong and sturdy oak is destroyed by an overpowering storm. In the foreground, reeds sway and bend with supple flexibility as the full force of nature vents its rage and fury on the scene.

Perhaps this work has become so important to me because, like a good friend, it whispered life affirming advice into my eyes at a time when my world was falling apart. Its simple message put me back on track after problems with depression had caused me to slip into a very deep and black hole. My work as a lecturer, once so enjoyable and rewarding, had over several years become increasingly demanding and had made me very ill. To paraphrase a Hungarian expression, “a béka segge alatt”, I was at the bottom of a coalmine, under a frog’s arse!

Life can be quiet and undemanding, it can also be difficult and devastating, who knows what might be hurled in our direction. It can be littered with ‘perhaps’, ‘might have beens’, ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’. There are demands and challenges to be faced, and we have to deal with them as best we can but sometimes even the strong can be broken. Perhaps the secret to resolving some challenging situations is not to stand one’s ground and risk being destroyed, but to bend and adapt.

Michallon is not a household name in the history of art. He isn’t mentioned in the Larousse Dictionary of Painters, The Oxford Companion of Art or the Penguin Dictionary of Art & Artists and he died very young, in 1822, of pneumonia aged only 25. To me however, thanks to the message he sent through oil paint and his brushes almost 200 years ago, he is a colossus.

As a teacher one of his students was the very well known Camille Corot, so perhaps there is something more to be learned here too. The teacher may not be the one that reaps success, but if he’s a good one, his students might. Today I have relished standing in the shadow of a quiet master whose teaching and advice is still alive. In my heart of hearts I’d really like to think my previous life as a teacher was worthwhile too.

For as long as I remember I’ve had an ongoing battle with a ‘black cloud’ but I certainly experienced some very dark days when my work as a lecturer triggered years of depression. If only I’d forged a relationship with this painting before my world in education began causing me problems things might have turned out very differently, I’ve been a casualty for too long. There is power in painting, one can learn much from it to inspire and enrich one’s life.

Perhaps, in my dark distant past, I was an unhealthy ‘oak’. Now, hopefully, I’m a much stronger ‘reed’.

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‘Is it worth going all the way to London to visit just one exhibition?’ My stamina levels since my prolonged stay in hospital had been at an all time low. Whether I could walk the required distances and last a full day out was also a big question to ask myself. Nevertheless it was a risk worth taking and all worked out well. Over the next few days my legs may have felt like I’d been preparing for another marathon, but the effort had been worth it. I knew I’d be on a winner. When ‘the boys’ are back in town, especially ‘the pioneering boys’, I was certain I’d be well rewarded.

The Royal Academy was the destination and it had already been a long walk before I’d even reached the final straight along Piccadilly. Thanks to an escalator being out of action at Warren Street my legs had turned to jelly during the long walk down to the platform. A welcome and reviving cuppa in the Friends Room however always helps to recharge the batteries.

The exhibition I was so keen to see was ‘Pioneering Painters – the Glasgow Boys 1880-1900’. Not that well known as a group, and individual names are not familiar, but like the Colourists and so many others, Scotland has a knack of producing some very fine painters.

I was hopeful, because of my physical state still undergoing a rebuild, that the exhibition wouldn’t be too busy. The main galleries were closed so the Sackler Galleries were the only space open other than the work showing in the Madjeski rooms. Unfortunately too many others had the same idea as us, that the paintings had to be seen before the show closed and although the first room could be described as busy, the last couple of exhibition spaces were a crush and the work very difficult to view. Be that as it may, high quality artwork can be appreciated even when being viewed from within the confines of a ‘madding crowd’, and there were many excellent examples to be seen.

To refer to The Glasgow Boys as a group is a convenient but inaccurate description as they weren’t Boys, they weren’t necessarily from Glasgow or even Scottish – but for a good decade they created inventive, innovative images which followed a common theme. As Vincent was known to paint some very fine sunflowers, these Glasgow Boys could paint a very fine cabbage.

Their work was bold and confident without frills and petty details. The first couple of rooms displayed subjects connected to the land, an extension of the example shown by Jean-François Millet. The paintings were as one with the elements, and a relationship forged with those who worked in it each day. From the very beginning it was plain to see that the hands and minds behind these images also knew how to draw. Paint was applied in a workmanlike manner, with daubs and strikes of brush and palette knife, surfaces appeared to have been attacked and attacked again in order for an image to evolve. No gentle caress of brushstrokes here, but marks sculpted and administered by an assured hand, ‘subjects hacked out as though using an axe’. Gradually the palette became lighter and the ochres and brown earth colouring gave way to a brighter palette, as though the sun had appeared from behind a cloud. As we moved through the exhibition sunlight began to flicker across the canvasses and the compositions moved from British to European and even Oriental subjects, the influence of European painting and of Jules Bastion-Lepage in particular became more evident as the work of the group expanded.

There were some superb paintings included in this collection and, despite the busy and sometimes inconsiderate company causing me fatigue, to be standing at arms length before them gave me much pleasure and lifted my spirits. Those that stood out for me were Arthur Melville’s ‘Peasant Girl’, James Guthrie’s ‘A Hind’s Daughter’, and George Henry’s ‘A Galloway Landscape’ and ‘Japanese Lady with a Fan’. Perhaps the best known work on show was another piece by James Guthrie, the excellent ‘To Pastures New’, or ‘The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe’ by George Henry and EA Hornel but it was a pair of smaller works that really caught my eye.

The first was ‘The Principal Street in Gretz’ by John Lavery, the second ‘Hard at it’ another fine study by James Guthrie. Both works were small, and included an isolated figure made an integral part of it’s surroundings. For me they encapsulated what was so special not only about the work of the Glasgow Boys but what excites me about painting in general, and what I am keen to achieve myself. No unnecessary detail, a composition clear and simple, painted confidently with no-nonsense slabs of pure colour. To my eyes, these small statements showed painting at it’s best.

Visiting Vienna, a change of routine and a change of temperature. Saturday morning, and a meeting with Frida Kahlo.

My first encounter was in 1977 and it was accidental. At that time I was actively involved with mural painting and researching the work of the Mexican Mural Renaissance, my immediate interest being the work of Siqueiros, Orozco and Rivera, the name Kahlo appearing in the text only because of her involvement with the latter. Black and white photographs of the large framed Diego often included the figure of a short, ethnically dressed woman with one eyebrow standing in his shadow. Her name and work at that time was largely unknown but it’s a very different story now, everybody wants to know her, their roles have reversed. Kahlo’s star has risen, and her fragile crippled frame and reputation now casts its shadow over him.

The queue of visitors waiting patiently to enter the Bank Austria Kunstforum was evidence of this, it stretched 200 metres along the Freyung. Thankfully Maria and Benni had the foresight to pre-book our tickets, however the sight of this conga line forewarned us of what to expect once we entered the building. The hustle and bustle was not the ideal conditions to view the exhibition, in my head the voice of an ’80’s Sting summed it up – ‘Don’t stand/Don’t stand/Don’t stand so close to me’. A large degree of patience was needed in this rugby scrum, blockbuster exhibitions can attract the most inconsiderate people. The experience of close contact with the work on the walls however was reward enough for our perseverance.

Kahlo battled continuously against adversity throughout her life, and for that alone she is an inspiration. The series of self portraits by Rembrandt reveal a life from confident aspiring young man to reflective old age and the Kahlo portraits illustrate a similar narrative, that of a determined survivor, and when the opportunity arises to view a collection gathered together, it must be grasped. Exhibited in these rooms were the influences and incidents of a colourful and eventful life, which ignited and bore fruit; naive votive images, psychological scribbles, the traditions of ancient civilisations, political upheaval; sieved, shaken, stirred and blended to create her unique Kahlo character cocktail.

Amongst this retrospective of powerful and remarkable images, one piece leapt from the wall and hit me. A simple drawing, which amongst such attention demanding neighbours was quiet and unassuming, but to me it spoke volumes – and it probably took no longer than 5 very intense minutes to create. Lines quickly, roughly and freely drawn, erased, corrected and drawn again. Again, and again. Her final self portrait (‘with Dove and Lemniscate’ 1954). Her life was soon to end and this image was filled with a lifetime of frustration. The searching lines sang a song of despair. Despite familiarity with the subject the process of recording her own image was as big a struggle as it had always been. Alongside she had included a poem, La Paloma by Rafael Alberti.

LA PALOMA / THE DOVE

Se equivocó la paloma. / The dove was mistaken.
Se equivocaba. / She was mistaken.

Por ir al norte fue al sur. / Instead of north, she headed south.
Creyó que el trigo era agua. / She mistook wheat for water.
Se equivocaba. / She was mistaken.

Creyó que el mar era el cielo; / She mistook the sea for the sky;
Que la noche, la mañana. / the night for the morning.
Se equivocaba. / She was mistaken.

Que las estrellas, rocío; / That stars were dew,
Que la calor, la nevada / that warmth was snow.
Se equivocaba. / She was mistaken.

Que tu falda era tu blusa; / That your skirt was your blouse;
Que tu corazón, su casa. / that your heart was her home.
Se equivocaba. / She was mistaken.

(Ella se durmió en la orilla. / (She fell asleep on the shore.
Tú, en la cumbre de una rama.) / And you, on top of a bough.)

Rafael Alberti.

Although she had drawn the reflection in the mirror innumerable times, she never resorted to a formula. Each one was a challenge, success never guaranteed. Photographs suggest she was confident and assured but for me this drawing revealed that she was as human and fallible as the rest of us, and that image making was still a struggle regardless of the years of experience. I felt a connection with her as though she had reached out and poked me in the eye. At that moment………….I knew exactly how she felt.

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