Newsletter May 2016
Hello everyone at WAHG. ‘Spring has sprung’ (you should know the rest of this ditty from Brooklyn), and as I write the leaves are tentatively unfurling from their cocoons of green to greet the new falling rain. A magpie struts its stuff on a branch of my crab-apple tree, and like Goya’s ‘The Colossus’ it looms over the tiny buntings and tits that normally regard this leafy bower as their habitat.
Talking of Goya, the recent exhibition of his portraits at the National Gallery is one of the features in this issue. And there is more. I visit the Photography Gallery in WI and the Whitechapel Gallery in E1 exploring Saul Leiter in the former and the Electronic Superhighway in the latter. In addition Sonia Bolton writes on Paul Strand’s photography at the V&A and Beth Taylor treats us with three delightfully descriptive reviews of Marie Spartali Stillman and Evelyn de Morgan at the Watts Gallery, Adam Elsheimer at Petworth and Capability Brown at the Discovery Centre. In addition Beth describes the important input of the Hampshire Cultural Trust which continues to play a vital part in our cultural heritage in this region. In a special feature Felicity Pennycook writes about the Bosch exhibition held at his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch 500 years after his death.
I would like to thank all the subscribers to this issue. It has been a real pleasure to have all your contributions (it does make the job of being editor easier) and I am always ready to receive more offerings from any WAHG members who might wish to submit articles, reviews, or just responses to what they have read. For example members of the study groups held through the year are always welcome to provide articles based on research done for their meetings. The next issue will have as part of its contents; a review of Botticelli Reimagined (it finishes on the 3 July 2016 so there is still time to visit it), a look at my explorations into the world of Women Painters (with a focus on Gwen John), an exploration of Simon Scharma’s critical and historical study of Rembrandt in Rembrandt’s Eyes and a retrospective look at the WAHG tour of Madrid, Toledo, Seville and Cordoba.
We start with a message from Beth Taylor
From the Chairman: Don’t forget the WAHG AGM on 18th May 2016! This will be held at the Discovery Centre, starting at 12.45pm with a light lunch. Our bursary student, Ruth Smith, will be there to tell us about her MA course and we have an opportunity to give our thanks to Lisa Spooner whose term of office as Membership Secretary comes to an end this year. Lisa has also given invaluable help with planning and arranging visits so we owe her a great deal. I will also have completed my 6 year term as Programme Coordinator and we will be reporting on the Programme Planning Group who are now taking on that aspect of our work. We plan to issue the programme for September to December 2016 – in which they have taken active role – by the end of May.
Sonia Bolton writes about Paul Strand: Photography and Film for the 20th Century at the V & A – Currently on and ends 3 July 2016 Tickets are £9 but concessions apply, advance booking recommended.
A friend and I met for lunch at the V & A to go to “Reimagine Botticelli” which we duly did – and were pleased we did– but as an afterthought, we then called into the Paul Strand exhibition of photography. It is superb! All black and white, mostly made with silver or platinum, the quality and range of subjects is quite amazing. Quite the best display of photographic work by one artist that I have ever seen. Influenced by Lewis Hine, a documentary photographer, and by Alfred Stieglitz, he ranged so widely that perhaps he has been difficult to categorize but this exhibition is a brilliant show for those who can’t get to Philadelphia where most of his work resides. He said “I think of myself fundamentally as an explorer who has spent his life on a long voyage of discovery”. My thoughts entirely!
Goya The Portraits at The National Gallery – exhibition finished on 10 January 2016.
I just scraped into this exhibition in the early days of January before it was due to close. Obviously the ‘name’ was the attraction for going but I confess to an ignorance of most of Goya’s work, excepting his Colossus, Disasters of War, The Third of May 1808 and the portrait of the Duke of Wellington. So it was with due diligence that I read the notices and comments in each section of the gallery and discovered an entirely different Goya from the rather sketchy figure I had known before. A history lesson and biography unfolded as one painting was succeeded by another. A figure emerges of a man of integrity, independent judgement and compassion who despite the revolutionary shifts in political and court life, the vicissitudes of ill health and the driving force of his talent managed to produce works of art characterised by their complexity, range and variety in techniques.
Now, clearly, an exhibition that focuses on portraits, which in Goya’s case is primarily of the Spanish aristocracy and royal court, will in its turn present a limited perspective. His portraits of family and friends seem to present a portraitist who is empathetic and warm to his subjects, but nonetheless his role as court painter and the undoubted prestige and relative wealth it brought to him does not seem to have affected his capacity to paint with ‘a disinclination to flatter’ and ‘a lack of visual diplomacy’ as the current wikipedia entry comments.
His portraits of The Duke of Wellington 1812-1814 Oil on mahogany and Ferdinand VII in court dress 1814-1815 Oil on canvas (right) are cases in point. The face of Arthur Wellesley contrasted to the pomp of the insignias, decorations and medals below, betrays a slightly careworn man with an apprehensive gaze. Given that Wellesley’s management of the Peninsular Campaign had restored Spain’s sovereignty one would expect a more confident image. The full length portrait of Ferdinand accentuates a ungainly, physically unattractive man whose plump hands hold a sceptre on his right and the other hand instead of resting on the pommel of his sword clutches nervously at his heavy ceremonial robe. The body is twisted, his face is in one direction while his left knee juts out slightly in another.
Large exhibitions are not easy for the spectator. The stature of the artist will in no doubt determine the size, unless it’s Vermeer with his limited output, but for me there is a valid argument for curators to consider the impact on their shows on their audiences. The palate becomes cloyed with too much repetition. Exhibitions with an emphasis on the quintessential perhaps are needed.
Let me finish this review with a comment on one painting which had the most impact. Goya’s portrait of himself with his doctor, Self portrait with Doctor Arietta 1820 oil on canvas (right), leaves one both stunned at the degree of self-exposure but also moved by the tenderness of the human interaction that is shown.
Beth Taylor writes on: Women’s Day Art: Marie Spartali Stillman and Evelyn de Morgan
I took the opportunity (on Women’s Day itself) to visit the Watts Gallery at Compton, near Guildford, to see an exhibition on the work of Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927). A noted beauty of Greek descent, she was one of the most sought after models of the Pre-Raphaelite artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and of the photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. Like another pre Raphaelite muse, Lizzie Siddal, Marie was a practising painter. A student of Ford Madox Brown’s, she made densely coloured works in watercolour.
At the Watts, the paintings on show demonstrate her knowledge of Renaissance art and Italian medieval literature. Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni, for example, after a poem by Dante was praised by the critics of the day for its colour range and poetic feeling.
Marie married William Stillman, a journalist, continuing her professional painting career while bringing up her 3 step daughters and the 3 daughters of her marriage. Among the later works she produced were two paintings I found most compelling – a portrait of her daughter, Effie, and a work in a more Aesthetic Movement style – A Rose in Armida’s Garden (1894). This work took the subject matter of a Tasso poem in the pre-Raphaelite manner, but its harmonies of pink and blue tones place it closer to the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century.
The Watts was also displaying part of the William and Evelyn de Morgan Foundation collection including some stunning works by Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919) – another professional Victorian woman painter. She was one of the first women to train at the Slade, where she won many medals and awards. She was also influenced by her encounter with Renaissance art in Italy, especially that of Botticelli. She exhibited from 1877 and after her marriage to William devoted the income from her work to support his pottery business.
Her work is strongly coloured , highly finished and was impressive from an early age. On show was one of her early works Ariadne in Naxos, as well as works which explore the role of women and which respond to her fears about war and its impact. I confess I found myself much more excited by these strong symbolic works and their glorious colours than by Spartali’s quieter watercolours. I hope there will be opportunities to see more of them in future.
Surfing the Electronic Highway and perusing Leiter’s use of light:
As I mentioned in my introduction I visited the Whitechapel Gallery with my daughter and together we wondered through the exhibition entitled Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966), ends on the 15 May. It’s an enterprising gallery to visit, Whitechapel, and its emphasis on modern art provides an outlet for exploring art that isn’t always given exposure elsewhere in London. I can’t say I was entranced by this particular show but its exploration of how the computer age had its impact on artists was intriguing. One particular exhibit involved a TV monitor replaying a sequence of teenage boys playing computer games. Set in a large gallery full of other exhibits the noisy whining and complaints of the players dominated the aural ambience and almost drove me to the upper floors of the exhibition there and then!
The Photographers’ Gallery in Ramillies Street W1 was a haven of peace in comparison. Visit the website it’s full of interest. It has a section where a photograph is chosen from the current programme and a student from the MA Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art writes in response. Worth viewing! I enjoyed the Saul Leiter exhibition; he has an artist’s eye in terms of selection and visual aesthetics. Although born in Pittsburgh he spent the 40s and 50s in New York photgraphing the urban environment and using innovative printing processes that create visually attractive prints such as Green Light. Simple, but iconic of his work.
Remastered Bosch to Bellotto, Beth Taylor writes about the Elsheimer collection at Petworth:
This exhibition at Petworth enabled me to get up close to a series of paintings by Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) one of my favourite painters. The Petworth collection has eight of an original set of ten works which were probably made originally to decorate a valuable piece of furniture. Set in frames for the exhibition, the paintings depict standing figures of saints and characters from the Old and New Testament and are notable for their small size – 9 x 7 cm – their vivid colouring and detailed background painting.
My personal favourite is Tobias and the Angel which shows the child Tobias being guided by the angel Raphael along a dusty track, with a rural landscape featuring a horseman, a waterfall and river, heavily wooded hills –all overshadowed by a sky, full of fluffy clouds. Everything – from the foreground figures and their clothing to the plants, trees and other natural features – is shown in exquisite detail.
The small scale of these works is typical of paintings made on copper – which these are. The smoothness of the copper plates allowed brushwork to be carefully controlled and for its quality to be preserved. The oil paints used on a copper ground are not absorbed so they retain intensely saturated colours. This refined , minute handling and the vivid luminosity of the colours make such works particularly well suited for personal devotion – hence the market for them in Italy in the late 16th century. Do look out for Elsheimer when you are next at Petworth –or search out his wonderful St Paul on Malta at the National Gallery!
Capability Brown at the Discovery Centre
The two part exhibition at the Discovery Centre – one part in the Gallery upstairs and one part in the City Space downstairs –mark the national celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716- 1783). Designed by the Hampshire Cultural Trust – of which more below – the exhibition is about Brown, the designer, taking visitors through the context of earlier formal garden spaces to the open, expansive landscape of a Capability Brown design and referencing some Hampshire examples (Broadlands, Cadland House, Cuffnalls, North Stonham Park, Paultons Park) as well as those nearby like Highclere Castle. (You will have seen in the WAHG Exhibitions list that Petworth have an exhibition on his work too.)
Brown trained as a gardener, including serving as under gardener to William Kent at Stowe, before becoming Head Gardener there and then establishing his own business in 1750, based in Hammersmith. Brown’s ‘place making’ involved the removal of formal gardens and their replacement with informal, ‘natural’ spaces, creating or reshaping expanses of water, forming hills, smoothing contours, making lawns and planting trees in small groups or stands to create the English equivalent of Claude Lorrain’s Arcadian landscapes. All this cost a great deal of money – a point demonstrated in the exhibition with a copy of some of his account books – and was in part due to the experience of the Grand Tour which introduced wealthy English gentlemen to the visual pleasures of classicism and the Roman landscape.
There was more money to spend in the 18th century, especially in wealth gained by trade with the East, and this is highlighted in the portrait of a Basingstoke solicitor, John Acton, by the Dutch artist, Godfried Schalcken (1643-1707), which is one of the highlights of the first part of the exhibition. Acton is depicted by candlelight – a speciality of Schalcken’s – wearing a ‘banyan’, a loose T-shaped gown, derived from India, which was worn at home as an informal coat over shirt and breeches. It was fashionable for men of an intellectual or philosophical bent to have their portraits painted wearing banyans as loose clothing, it was thought, allowed for “ the easy and vigorous exercise of the faculties of the mind”.
Downstairs in the City Space there is a fascinating display of some of the tools and vehicles which would have been used by Brown and his sub-contractors to survey, measure, lay-out and construct his garden designs. All in all a worthwhile experience for those of us with an interest in landscape and gardens. And watch out for a follow up exhibition at the Hampshire Record Office on Capability Brown in Hampshire, starting on 30 June.
Felicity Pennycook writes on the Hieronymous Bosch Exhibition: Visions of Genius, Noordbrabants Museum, s’Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands: exhibition closes on 8 May 2016 – The tour of this wonderful exhibition continues in Madrid at The Prado from the 31 May to 11 September 2016.
This exhibition, marking the 500th anniversary of the painter’s death and held in his home town of s’Hertogenbosch, known locally as Den Bosch, is unusual for several reasons. Not only are the lively and highly detailed paintings and drawings the product of an exceptional imagination, but by reflecting the lives of the people viewing them at the time they are also personal, which is a very modern characteristic. In addition the exhibiting museum had no works to offer as part of a loan exchange so instead borrowed from the major art museums worldwide in exchange for researching and restoring their works.
Hieronymous Bosch was originally called Jeroen van Aken but took on the name Bosch, after his home town, as his paintings became more widely appreciated. He also signed himself with the more sophisticated Jheronimus, being the latin form of Jeroen. He appears to have been popular in his lifetime, both locally and also further afield, for example painting an altarpiece for an abbey in Brussels and the Temptation of St Anthony for the Duke of Burgundy. He specialised in the expression of fundamental moral issues, such as sin and temptation which he personalised and reflected back to the viewer. It was perhaps as a result of the relative cultural isolation of Den Bosch in his early years that Bosch developed such a unique style, using different iconography and technique from Netherlandish predecessors such as Jan van Eyck.
The exhibition was well laid out and despite being busy it was reasonably easy to study the detail of the works, which is essential for these paintings. Many of the works having been restored, they really came to life with their bright colours and lively figures. Video screens nearby panned slowly through the works, drawing attention to and enlarging more interesting details while comparisons with similar works by other artists or his workshop clearly demonstrated Bosch’s unique skill in portraying both real people and imaginary creatures.
The world in which Bosch lived was created and governed by God and was one in which humans, created in God’s image and overseen by angels, saints and devils, had a responsibility to choose for themselves between good and evil. Renaissance art usually represented saints and the Holy family as perfect examples of virtue to be emulated, or prayed to for intercession with God, which is what we are more familiar with. Bosch’s art however is more personal and reflects people’s lives back to them, to help them to choose. His paintings show people’s earthly temptations as well as the glories of heaven and highly imaginative horrors of hell and damnation. His paintings are packed with allusions to vice of every description and reminders of the perils that threaten to befall people who stray from the path of virtue.
The Haywain, for example, probably the most splendid work in the exhibition, is a large triptych with a centre scene overlooked by a small Christ amidst pink clouds, noticed only by one small angel. Meanwhile the myriad of people on earth are busy either chasing the illusory gold of the hay, a symbol of transience, having their throats slit by robbers, overeating or drinking or making love in the bushes, while encouraged by demons. The left panel depicts various stages in the story of Adam and Eve and on the right panel is a depiction of a fiery hell with naked humans undergoing torture from monstrous creatures which are often part human, part animal, for example as a woman in the bottom left is devoured by a fish with human legs instead of a tail.
Bosch also painted quieter scenes such as The Wayfarer, which I find very intriguing and which is painted on the outside of two wings of a triptych, where it would be more usual to see paintings of saints. This portrays a lone traveller, having passed a decrepit looking inn, possibly a house of ill repute, with a dog growling at his heels, heading along a path towards a desolate landscape, the way barred by a closed gate and an ox. Items liberally scattered throughout the picture, such as the owl in the tree, the swan on the inn sign and the pigs’ trough behind the traveller, have potentially symbolic meanings that suggest that his path is full of temptation and that he is struggling to follow it. It is left up to the viewer to reflect on the likely path that the man will take and what he will come across on the way.
In his many paintings of specifically religious subjects, such as the Nativity or various saints, his style can also be recognised in the lively individuality of the figures, particularly those in subordinate roles, and the quality of the landscapes in the background. Here too the paintings are personal, showing a range of individuals, each behaving in a unique, not necessarily ideal, manner. The unusually large collection of his sketches, also on display, illustrate his skill in capturing characters and personalities as well as dramatic landscapes.
The exhibition is far too varied and detailed to summarise here and do it justice, but if you get the chance to see it when it travels to Madrid later in the year, I would thoroughly recommend you go.
Following on from her review of the Capability Brown exhibition Beth Taylor writes about the Hampshire Cultural Trust:
Hampshire Cultural Trust which organised the exhibition (Capability Brown) has been responsible for the day to day care of the collections held by Hampshire County Council and Winchester City Council since 2014. They hold exhibitions at the Discovery Centres in Winchester and Gosport and at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke. I was fortunate in being able to talk to Kirsty Nutbeen, who was responsible for setting up the Capability Brown exhibition, to find out more about the Trust’s work. HCT have more than 100,000 art, design and craft items in their collections, including over 3000 paintings and. 400 modern and contemporary works in print form. (see www.hctcollections.org.uk for details of these).
Exhibitions are usually organised around an annual theme – in 2015 it was World War 1 – decided by the Trusts’ governing body. The exhibitions they put on are organised in partnership with national bodies – which is how we are able to see world class art in the gallery at Winchester Discovery Centre – as well as showcasing works from the Hampshire collections, from private collections and from other partnerships with organisations not in the Trust such as Southampton City Art Gallery. The Willis Museum, Basingstoke has been showing Defining Moments: a journey through British Modern Art, a unique selection from Southampton Art Gallery, for example. Local groups, like the Hampshire Garden’s Trust have helped with the current exhibition. Hampshire NADFAS has funded work with schoolchildren.
These partnership opportunities are important, given the high cost of mounting exhibitions, and cost constraints do affect what HCT are able to show . Some of this work is possible through funding from the County Council and the Arts Council. With their support, for example, more marketing staff have been appointed to make the work of HCT better known and more widely accessed. ‘Footfall’ is the key definer in the success of exhibitions – which is why WAHG encourage members to make the most of the Discovery Centre shows. Volunteers are used – and more might be helpful – so do contact the Trust if you feel you have something to offer at www.hampshireculturaltrust.org.uk Kirsty has also agreed to send me information about their future plans –Jane Austen anniversary coming up in 2017 and a possible Turner show! – so that we can advertise them to members and , where appropriate, link them in with and enrich our programme. Hopefully, WAHG will be able to support the work of the Trust more effectively now that we know more about their work.
The WAHG Virtual Gallery – architecture this time, slightly difficult to fit in with the accumulated images in the virtual gallery but it has such an impact on the viewer and is a remarkable building that, as our guide in Cordoba during the recent tour of Spain highlighted, symbolises the coming together of faiths, architectural styles, historical periods and the human spirit in whatever form it expresses itself, I give you:-