Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828)

When his works are collected together and poured over, Francisco Goya can seem frenzied and unpredictable in his approaches. Here for example is a painter who depicts a bygone innocence of the Spanish past as richly as he imagines executions of native soldiers by French troops. Here also is a conferred ‘Painter to the King’ whose subtly subversive royal portraits share stylistic similarities to his ‘Los Caprichos’, a haunting passion project of the artist that aimed to explore, ‘the extravagances and follies common to every civilized society’. What ties the entire oeuvre of Goya together though is a distinct sense of something more beneath the paint, a preoccupation not just with satire or veiled critique, but an appeal to feeling beyond the mere rapture of his brush.

The Straw Mannequin (1791 – 1792)

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Despite this no doubt being a familiar carnival sight to the Spanish aristocracy whom commissioned it, ‘The Straw Mannequin’ cannot be anything but acutely disturbing to the modern eye. Taking aside for a second the simple fact that there is a corpse-like dummy being flung high by women who seem enchanted by the act, it is the very moment that Goya picks to crystallise that lends the image such a sinister quality.

Had the mannequin been dropping down head over heels or in some other less recognisably human pose, its discerning qualities could perhaps have been discarded in favour of the jubilation being had. Yet by showing ‘him’ behaving anatomically quite how a person would look in thrown upward, Goya revels in the disjunction between the real and the imitative. Look at the slack, unresponsive limbs. The buckled shoes pointing out askance beneath ornate britches. It’s lifeless, painted face that arches back on what looks like a broken neck with a ponytail swinging behind. The figure, of course, isn’t real and feels nothing. But the subtle blurring keeps us as entranced as the foursome.

What is Goya saying here though? Is this a commentary, suggesting what strong women can do with a weak man? Or is the net cast wider and this is more about mob rule and its influence on the single individual caught in the middle? The circumstances are murky, what is clear though is that Goya’s revered attention to detail isn’t just regulated to the action at the centre.

The unusually tall image allows the artist to achieve a fantastic level of depth at both ends of the work. At the base his brush is keen and nuanced. The shadow of the blanket varying in heaviness and shade depending on where it is pinched and the buckles of the women beneath sparkling wonderfully under cover. Above the straw filled body we have a fantastically imagined sky whose washes of wispy cloud ape the golden backed green of the trees.

Duel with Cudgels (1820 – 1823)

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Both of these men feel inextricable from their landscape. The fighter on the right appears to be fading into the white of the backdrop, his legs cut off from the ankle down, one and the same with the sediment beneath. On the left, his opponent is similarly entrenched, his own cudgel appearing to be the source of the smoky clouds behind  There is a grisly madness to this desolate scene. A futility and sadness, a sense that whoever is the victor will still be trapped, still have gained nothing.

With their heights so exaggerated and their bodies so cemented, perhaps the two men are representative of some higher order. Some symbols of how the powers that be are effectively rooted within the same world and that murdering the other is only serving to ruin the world around them. The two even seem spotlit by the landscape’s sunshine, the left warrior’s cudgel also appearing to tear through the clouds themselves.

Up-close however, and the painting definitely should be seen up-close (click it) for its wonderful treatment of diaphanous colour, individual faces and emotions are detectable which draw the magnitude down to a more painful, one on one confrontation. A fight that has been going on a while it seems. The man on the left all bloodied up and continuing, his opponent cocked back on the left ready for a huge swipe lest he be blocked.

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MODERN REVIEW: Cornelia Parker at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.

*The first of a new series of articles entitled ‘MODERN REVIEW’. This infrequently posted selection will feature reviews I’ve done of contemporary UK exhibitions for online publications other than ‘Kweiseye’. IMG_3181

Cornelia Parker at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (01/04/2015).

Original review: http://www.theskinny.co.uk/art/reviews/cornelia-parker-whitworth-manchester-review

Upon entering the newly revitalised Whitworth, it can initially be unclear where Cornelia Parker’s retrospective is actually located. There is just so much to see. Exhibitions taken from the Whitworth’s portraiture collections, new acquisitions and examples from the gallery’s textile archive are all on display on the building’s lower level, and Parker’s show exists among them.

The first groups of pieces focus on Parker’s paper-based and smaller sculptural work. Embryo Firearms (1995) is a disturbing, engrossing piece of reductionism. Two Colt 45 guns are displayed in their earliest form of production accompanied by Precipitated Gun (2015), a suggestively cocaine-like line of powder. This is, in fact, the remnants of a gun that has been pulverised for the exhibition. Throughout, weapons and ammunition crop up with menacing regularity, achieving an odd abstraction through their use as a medium in drawing and painting (for example, the drawings made with melted lead bullets). Although a variety of techniques is employed, one constant remains: a focus on the fundamental parts that contribute to the whole, and how an engagement with such constituents can engender a deeper, more profound understanding of the thing. IMG_3180

This notion reaches its apotheosis with the installation Room for Margins (1998), which consists of a group of canvas linings taken from paintings by Turner during their conservation. The canvases are browned, and show compelling indentation of the proto-Impressionist delights once above them. The gesture is a bold one. Initially these works are confusing and obtuse – we question their veracity – but the process becomes an enlightening one as small images of beauty leak through the surfaces. Further on into the exhibition comes a series of Parker’s larger installation works, including the one she is, perhaps, most famous for: Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991). The astonishing slow-motion implosion of sorts decorates an entire room in the floating aftermath of disintegration. Opposite this work we find a new commission, War Room (2015), a punishing, remarkable piece wherein the walls and ceiling of a single room are layered with red poppy cutouts – waste material from the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal. The experience is significant, the room seeming to both swoon and be still, the pointillist echo of colour playing out as an angry womb. IMG_3188

These larger installations have certainly been the most advertised and discussed in relation to the show, but do not just be taken in by these grand motions. It is the earlier, more muted sculptures, experiments and works on paper that deserve the most attention. Here the rich imagination of the artist plays out with none of the equipment, posing questions in true, essential ways.

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Paulus Potter (1625 – 1654)

Part of the joy of looking at painting is the sense of being connected to the past without filter. Whether a work of art is seen here on this blog or in the oily flesh at a gallery, it always crafts a pure, intimate, historical connection, one essentially unsullied by the degradation that can so often alter other artefacts of the past. Painting then is a dialogue uninterrupted, comparable in a sense, as strange as it may sound, to our own relationships with animals today.

As imagine the way a dog would play with you now on a 2015 afternoon, why it would be rough, ready and rambunctious, no different to a pup playing with Italian schoolchildren in the 15th century. Consider a pig (such as those featured below) of the Victorian era alongside a contemporary counterpart – there feels no difference does there? Rather, it is we who have changed around the infallible nature of animals. A portrait can’t change its subject and a leopard cannot change it spots it seems. They remain the same as we grow further beyond them yet as fascinated as ever.

Never better are these twin threads of animal disposition & eras bygone explored than by Paulus Potter, a gifted Animal ‘Animalier’ painter (see HERE for an earlier explored Animalier/Queen Victoria fave, Edwin John Landseer), whose adroit brushwork forges compelling, mostly farmyard pieces, that retain a deep humanity some 350 years later.

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Initially it seems as if no painter was even present to record such an image. The poses are just so relaxed and natural. With Potter’s typical eagle eye gifting a quiet, intimate dignity to what is effectively the confines of a sty. A sty the artist seems to respect in his brush: the strips of fell hay lying as tame lightnings across the front & hoofs for example, the small troth recessed against the worn, thick wood.

It is the pigs themselves though that are the real marvel. Their mottled, hay coloured coat a rich antithesis to the traditional porcine pink. At the back, the dominant male leers forward, his furrowed fur and turnip snout lit thoughtfully by the subtle slats of pure blue light flitting in around the couple from the outdoors. His squinted, slightly hazy eyes tucked beneath the floppy eaves appear welcoming, as if he has a dirty joke to share. Below him the other pig is more vacant, a smile perhaps is recognisable, but the eyes betray an element of being elsewhere, her exposed nipples suggestive perhaps of a recent feed.

Free of irony, the image elevates the creatures to the status of portraiture. As just as within the portraits of this era, we see their world, their relationship, signifiers of their status. These are pigs not be looked at as ‘pigs’ but as animals, as creatures, as a record of the humanity that they held and continue to hold, no matter how we may think otherwise.

The Wolfhound (1650) Wolf-Hound

Low beneath the snout of this dog, there’s a masterpiece. A small gruff of a town that Potter skilfully evokes and then stores away for us to seek out. A spire can be seen, a dappling of settlements perhaps before it. Cattle are grazing and one is drinking at the water’s edge, cattle that may well eventually be as the bone beneath this chained beast’s watch.

By creating such an interesting sense of perspective, Potter foreshortens & isolates the hound. He is the centre here, not the aforementioned town, the clouds even seeming to wrap slightly around his watch. He is a guard dog, what he guards we will never know, the world that Potter gives us at the back is cruelly one that he is blissfully unaware. One that may be even further than it seems.

The titular Wolfhound itself is magnificent, its odd size giving a sense of omnipotence to its stance. The long coat a telling of character in its variety, the tough white fur around the legs giving away to solid clumps of muscle. Its eyes ever watchful amid a head all black from the collar down.

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David Bomberg (1880 – 1957)

Around the dawn of the 20th century, paintings could suddenly be anything they wanted to be. Freed from the onus of being fundamentally representational by the then widespread use of photography, canvases began to speak new languages, taking heed from their unstable, technological age.

Many, both artists & otherwise, decried the implications that new developments of the era could have on their lives. Whilst others, such as David Bomberg, positively embraced such changes. Indeed, prior to his own experiences within World War I, the artist was unapologetically enthusiastic about such growth, stating he felt that: ‘the new life should find expression in a new art, which has been stimulated by new perceptions’ – Bomberg would later radically change his painting style to a leisurely landscape approach upon witnessing the mechanised slaughter of the trenches.

Perhaps with these new forms of perception Bomberg was equally striving to develop new forms of appreciation. Exploring not only how to represent and imagine a thing, but how such a thing makes a viewer feel when it is looked at.

Jujitsu (1913)

Ju-Jitsu circa 1913 by David Bomberg 1890-1957

When I first started writing Poetry at around 14, I rallied against the rules. Whilst the books and their teachers urged me to stick to an Iambic plod and to organise my ideas within ancient, rehearsed shapes, I fought back, writing my verse as free as I quite liked. I soon found however that what I had at first judged as obstruction was, in fact, quite liberating. It seemed taking my past attempts and housing them in the aforementioned prescribed rhythms & shapes actually improved them in terms of engagement & coherence  rather than bogging them down. The art of them then seemingly coming from the tension between the mad abandon of my (in retrospect, truly terrible) verse and the structure enforced upon their misplaced wisdom.

A tension equally evident within ‘Jujitsu’, a wild, Futurist-Cubist combo that attacks the viewer from the off  by presenting two levels of perception. On the top layer we have a strict, regimented surface grid of diamonds. Not necessarily ordered in the sense that every split square side by side is the exact same size of width, but compare them to the splintered, fractious chaos beneath and they feel militaristic in comparison.

After noticing such unhinged disorder beneath the systematic pattern, the brain fights for order as it rallies between the two viewpoints. At times it feels as if Bomberg has created sharpened edges to the squares, limits that cut off certain subterranean moments at their point of realisation, shattering and casting them as glass. Up close, ‘Jujitsu’ is a thing enthralling and unreal. A place bordering on logic, only for such reasoning to crumble upon further exploration. There’s a primarily orange left for example and a deep, gentle blue right, yet flecks of the other seem to pop up teasingly within the other. The blue also feels more a part of a crumbling black and grey than a thing all of its own, a black which in turn appears confusingly at the top left of the image.

Through this odd disjunction at its heart, the painting positively pulsates. The patterning beneath seeming sometimes to slot perfectly into its own contained square, only for in other areas of the work the lower designs to splay out obnoxiously beneath the systematic sectioning on top.

At times pondering the piece I thought I saw figures within the painting. The title of the work feeling very literal to me as two orange clumps on the left emerged as men fighting, their feet in the lower grey portion a good starting point to trace upwards to fighting figures. Then, recalling the dialectic to and fro inherent within the thing, I took the idea of Jujitsu as a fighting style as metaphorical along with the painting ‘Jujitsu’ itself. Both artwork & combat-approach products of inherently skilled disciplines that appear wild in action but are, in fact, incredibly well executed.

The Mud Bath (1917)

The Mud Bath 1914 by David Bomberg 1890-1957

A far more vibrant, urgent painting, ‘The Mud Bath’ strips away the accompanying template of ‘Jujitsu’ to reveal the base fundamentals of human form beneath. In spite of the abstract figures and artificial palette, there is a distinct sense of jubilation, of celebration and worship. The pole at the centre seemingly no centrepoint for the figures, rather one they are passing across in their rush off the canvas.

Through a simple mix of five colours, Bomberg creates an uncharacteristically uncluttered work that allows the viewer to focus directly on the brittle, sensationally defined figures. At times some seem to rise up as revellers, their legs and arms in mania, others, such as those at the further right, appear to have folded into suggestion of numbers and shapes rather than fellow celebrants.

The inspiration for the work supposedly came from Schewzik Russian Vapour Baths in Brick Lane Whiechapel, near Bomberg’s home in London. A place used by the local Jewish population for cleanliness and religious observances. In his hands however the place becomes an amalgam of 3d shapes that seem to hinge on a pin yet somehow possess both verve and character.

 

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Harriet Backer (1845 – 1932)

Throughout the writing of this blog I have always been on the lookout for new artists to add to my sprawling bullet point list. Rather than picking one of those for today however, I chose to randomise the whole thing, to grab a female artist from Norway for no other reason than that she is a female artist from Norway. Her name is Harriet Backer, and from what I can gather from her scant Wikipedia page, she was a pioneer. An Impressionist best known for her detailed, moodily lit interiors.

Scanning through Backer’s work myself however, I found a motif that feels more worthy of acclaim. As in a large amount of Backer’s images there comes a distinct sense of absorption solely within the moment, a sensation that holds the viewer’s gaze as still as the image that it forms part of.

To barn og tregruppe (1885)

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The young couple are at first all but forgotten before the dense shadow of the bulging tree. The tops a distinct  golden in the clear sky glare; the middle branches however coming together much tighter, suggestive more of a hideaway with its gentle, streamed shade.

Backer rushes the tree with a great varying intensity of green, her mostly horizontal brushwork works well in creating a sense of the tree’s threshing movement. Its shadows too are thoughtful in their accuracy, the divide of the top canopy casting the jagged designs behind the boy & girl especially well.

A duo whose own duality is mirrored & emphasized throughout ‘To barn og treguppe’. On the left of the image for example we have a rich band of light untouched by the foliage, its own stark intensity placing into focus the heft of the trees cover. On the right we have the civilized, beaten track leading back up to the titular farm – the couple in a sense then are caught both between and beneath, as above the tree itself seems as if it were cleaved between.

Ultimately, this subtle symmetry of Backer’s gives the painting a calming, pleasing effect, mirroring the lost Norwegian summers day that it evokes so well.

Storebor Spiller (1890)

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At the heart of this painting there is a three way split of attention. Initially there is the pianist herself, she who is clearly engaged deeply with her own playing. Her slightly flurried hand sneaking between the left elbow suggestive of some great intensity. Whatever she is playing matters less than how clearly it has caught the young girl beside her.

Anyone who has ever witnessed a familiar in such close quarters as they play music cannot help but be that girl – one who may have even rose from her chair against the window listening to now being perched, watching. Her eyes strictly on the playing rather than merely engaging with the reverie. The dormant violin on lid could be a signal to a teacher perhaps, but the informal nature in which the girl rests her arms and fingers above the keys suggest someone more closely known.

Then above these two who are engulfed in their own raptures, there is us. Ourselves straining at this slow, quiet moment. One that engages so deeply through Backer’s aforementioned interiors. The lush imagining lends a great heaviness to the painting. The lamps on the piano intermingle with the night outside, as well as splitting like an orange in the sheen of the instrument.

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George Romney (1734 – 1802)

Whilst fellow portraitsts of the 18th century such as Reynolds & Gainsborough have flourished post-death in both reputation and renown; George Romney, a veritable giant of that same era, is today but a gallery glance in comparison to the continual popularity of the aforementioned duo. Is this fair? Perhaps so, as while skilful in execution, a majority of Romney’s work is reptitive & facile. There are gems however, with these select pieces fascinating not only through way of their accurate, compelling portrayals of people from a time lost, but also through their subtle, playful invention.

Researching today’s piece I perused a number of similar painters from the same era, finding an alarming abudnance of great pieces by artists who hold no recognition to the (or, at least myself as an) average art fan. Perhaps Romney isn’t remebered then for being less than this contemporary talents, rather because that time was just so good collectively for this style.

Mrs Russell and Child (1786)

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There is a sweet intimacy about this mother & daugher portrait that elevates it above the usual stationary sitting stodge. Mrs Russell, appearing to us in side profile as if caught between attention for the watching painter and her distracted child, is angled as such that it belies the formality of the occassion. Her relaxed depiction allows us to appreciate the wide complex curves of her dress. The way the light plays against the pink seamed fabric creates a believable depth amidst the folds of the gown twisted by her parental pivot.

This being a portrait of its historical circumstance, there are many signifiers throughout freighting the image with intended meaning. Her left hand for example is suggestive both of marraige to Mr Russell through its ring, as well as education in its rest atop a heavy, gilded book. Her right hand is rendered wonderful through a single, maternal finger that holds her daughter steady as she herself stares at her own reflection staring back. Similar to her mother, the girl’s dress is really well imagined, this time through its sublime meld of whites. The cute red shoes popping out also reinforce the image’s overall sentimental intent.

Through the mirror we appreciate then not only more of the child, but also more of the room itself. Beneath her raised left arm a door is visible, its panelling ornate and complex, the edge s fanciful as the mirror’s own to which the girl confronts herself within. At the top right a window is visible, something which gifts ‘Mrs Russell and Child’ a great depth of reality through not only its suggestion as a physical background to the image that we, as observer, are housed within. But also as explanation of the picture’s light, this shine that blends believable against the sitters, sheening it with a lifelike texturing.

The child perhaps is the ultimate metaphor for the vanity of the portrait. The striving not only to preserve one’s image for future generations and provide chronicle, but also to provide a narcissistic thing. A reminder of your own myth.

Lady Hamilton as Nature (1782)

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In 1782, George Romney’s life changed forever. It was here that he first met his greatest muse & constant infatuation, Emma ‘Lady Hamilton’ Hart; perhaps best known now as Lord Nelson’s mistress. Romney would paint the woman in various guises and poses throughout his career, stylising her as Ariadne & Cleopatra amongst other figure of lore in a storied catalogue of portrayals.

From the off within ‘Lady Hamilton as Nature’ it is the rich juxtaposition that makes the image so captivating. Here is at once both an alluring temptress, rendered cleverly with a slight lip parting that requires a little study to realise thus forcing close physical examination, as well as her dog, a steadfast, obedient hound that seems to pierce straight into the heart of the viewer even more so than its owner.

Romney’s love of ‘Nature’ here is clear, her eyes both painted with a charmed glint, her cheeks rich & rosy. Her look is kind and genuine. The hair seeming similar to the leafs above her in its dense flow – a single lock even seems to have crept over the shoulder, catching gold in the sunlight behind.

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Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918)

As a painter of great delicacy and sexual expression, Gustav Klimt’s more subdued works are often unfairly maligned in favour of his glorious, erotic paeans. The Austrian Symbolist came of age during an era of artistic revival within his native Vienna, a time when the word ‘modernism’ first emerged and the decadent was something outwardly conscious rather than inwardly repressed.

Avenue of Trees, Schloss Kammer (1912)

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The swirling, hypnotic painting technique of this piece comes with such a vivid smoothness that it seems as if ‘Avenue of Trees, Schloss Kammer’ is still drying 113 years later. Its layering is both remarkable and believable, the hidden sun above gilding the canopy leaves with a triumphant contrast of colours. Whilst Klimt had painted this summer holiday Salzkammergut home many times before, it was here, through an intelligent, thoughtful application of perspective, that the he really achieves something of note.

At the left the trees come away as individuals, all curving in someway to a collective middle above the tempting path before us. Whilst at the right, the trunks are much closer, leering inward and liquid, suggesting perhaps that this is a turning around a corner rather than straight facing view. The feeling here then is slightly secretive, of something unattainable. A thought propelled further by the mere glimpses Klimt affords us through the branches. Not only is there a path leading to hints of a building on the ground – the door itself tantalisingly leading on further – but higher up, in the reaches of the thatched trees, we see signals to somewhere else altogether, the sky. By mirroring these two pathways, Klimt compounds the sense of being afar from this home, of being held back and stationed as observer.

This matters little however, because beneath these gnarled boughs is really were you want to stay staring. Up top the detail is entrancing, the knotted arms of bark not just behaving as one but blending believable to a thick dense thatching of a healthy, interesting green. The wet oils work well too against the background solidity of the house, creating a formidable sense of wonder and intrigue from what is effectively a commonplace occurrence. It is Klimt’s expressionistic leanings so prominent here that charge the image with an indelible magic.

‘Mermaids’ (1899)

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Stripped to their pure fundamentals, these nymphs are less Ariel and more Rene Magritte – see here for an earlier analysis of his disturbing fish-woman hybrid piece, ‘Collective Invention’ . The depth of the ocean is as different too, its fathoms feeling more akin to an unfinished plaster on a wall than the usual bubbling backdrop. Its gasped, scratches of paint, along with the odd scorches of white that fire parallel near the top, pushing our eye forward to the odd, unsettling creatures.

They lurk almost as standing rather than floating and seem to hover up formless, coating the picture with unease. These are not long enticing bodies with piscine leanings then, rather these are abstract shapes to which female faces seem to have emerged as if gathering breath. The two profiles should be commended seperate in their detail, the taller one aloof and looking outward off the canvas to some victim perhaps more important than us, the other more lackadaisical, her coiffed fringe near indistinguishable from its spotted shape.

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