Last chance to see – John Ruskin, The Power of Seeing

This year’s Spring exhibition at 2, Temple Place is a collaboration with Museums Sheffield and the Guild of St George to bring together a range of paintings, drawings, metal works and plaster casts to celebrate the work and legacy of John Ruskin (1819 – 1900).

Ruskin was an only child, his father was a wealthy sherry and wine importer, partner in Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, his mother an innkeeper’s daughter. Both parents were fiercely ambitious for their son and he grew up in a hothouse atmosphere in Herne Hill, south London.  A road there bears his name today.

He first came to the attention of the art world with Modern Painters (1843) written while Ruskin was still at oxford. It was a passionate defence of the art of J.M.W.Turner and redefined art criticism of the day.  It brought him to the notice of luminaries such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte. This was followed by Modern Painters II (1846) written while on the Grand Tour with his parents. He married Effie Gray, the young daughter of a family friend in 1847. Together they journeyed to Venice where Ruskin worked on perhaps his most famous three-volume work The Stones of Venice (1851-1853). It was in The Nature of Gothic chapter in Vol II that he set out his belief in artisanal integrity and attacked industrial capitalism which had such an impact on socialists like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

The marriage was, apparently, unconsummated ( though Ruskin contested this ) and was subsequently annulled in 1854, though not before major scandal when Effie left Ruskin for John Everett Millais. Ruskin had championed the Pre-Raphealites and continued to do so, even providing a stipend for Elizabeth Siddal, Rosetti’s wife, to encourage her art.  He also became a firm friend of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. These friendships are documented in the exhibition, as is his late crossing of swords with James McNeill Whistler.  While the case bankrupted Whistler, it also tarnished Ruskin’s reputation and may have contributed to his mental decline. I have never understood how a devotee of Turner’s art could have denigrated Whistler’s and that isn’t something which is tackled here.

The exhibition shows items from the Ruskin collection at Sheffield including his Turner paintings and Durer engravings ( loved the cat ) as well as many of his own drawings and paintings.  In addition there are newly commissioned pieces exploring the legacy of Ruskin, from Timorous Beasties, Grizedale Arts, Hannah Dowling and Emilie Taylor.  I very much enjoyed Dan Holdsworth’s moving image Acceleration Structures, based on the peaks and crevasses of three Alpine glaciers above Chamonix, where Ruskin would sketch and paint.

Ruskin died at Brantwood House, on the shores of Coniston Water in January 1900. Lionised in his lifetime, his reputation suffered in he early years of the twentieth century, but his international influence continued, with his works translated into Russian ( Tolstoy was a fan ) into French by Proust and Gujarati by Gandhi. Architects, writers and educationalists, politicians and thinkers all acknowledge their debt to him.

The exhibition ends on 22nd April, so only three days left. It is FREE to enter.  A very good idea if you want something interesting and stimulating to do on a sunny Easter weekend. More details on the web-site here.

For more on the Pre-Raphealites, Arts and Crafts and earlier Temple Place exhibitions try                Edward Burne-Jones                      Arts and Crafts                      Walking Burne-Jones        Beyond Beauty                    Rhythm  Reaction: the Age of Jazz in Britain 

Soane and Kapoor

On Friday to leafy Ealing to see the newly opened, refurbished Pitzhanger Manor. country house and showcase for architect and collector Sir John Soane, with its attached art gallery. In the sunshine Ealing looked leafy indeed, with its Common and Green ( who knew, not me, certainly ). Still there, set back from the Uxbridge Road, the original Ealing Studios where so many classic films were made. We even found a handsome Georgian/early Victorian hostelry named The Sir Micheal Balcon, after the legendary producer and head of the studios in its heyday.

Sir John Soane’s house sits on Mattock Lane, Ealing Green, its neo-classic frontage and garden now behind a formal war memorial.  Entrance gates are to the right hand side of the formal gardens. Inside it is less chaotic – less mad – than his house and museum on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but it still demonstrates his distinct architectural style and idiosyncratic and impressive design. The interior has been meticulously restored to a very high standard, including the hand-painted and beautiful ‘chinese’ wallpaper in the gloriously light drawing room, the exquisite ceilings and ‘marbled’ walls.

The oldest part of the building is the south wing, which was build by Soane’s first employer George Dance and which Soane retained, demolishing the rest of the mansion and rebuilding it, including a colonnade of ‘ruins’, which now links the main house and the modern gallery.

Inside there is his trademark use of space and light, the arched ceilings, friezes and roundels, niches and other stone decoration, like the caryatids in the ground floor room, front right. It isn’t a large house and Soane uses a designer’s tricks to fool the eye, drawing the gaze through open, often mirrored doors, from room to room to give the impression of greater space. The entrance hall goes straight through the house to the long gallery at the rear and doors open off it, as well as rooms having linking doors between them.  The main staircase, of iron and stone, is off to the left beneath a large and elaborate skylight.  Jet, marble in various colours and, very clever, wallpaper of fake marble make the interior very dramatic.

I loved the long glass gallery which runs across the rear of the house and overlooks what would have been the private gardens, including a lake with rusticated bridge.  These have now been merged with Walpole Park (1901) a public park which includes another lake, formal gardens and a sporting pavilion. I also loved the two huge rooms in George Dance’s wing, the dining room on the ground floor and salon or drawing room on the first. I’m not surprised that Soane couldn’t bring himself to demolish this even if it means that the whole Manor has a rather lop-sided look.

On the other side of the central classical building there is a modern conversion of the old kitchen buildings into Pitzhanger Gallery. The current exhibition is by Anish Kapoor and it complements Soane perfectly. Kapoor’s mirrored and sculpted discs and boxes play with light, vision and sound just as Soane’s interiors do, tricking the eye.  The pieces are interactive and huge fun. A gallery employee told us that he saw something new in each of the pieces every day he turned up for work and took great pleasure in watching visitors play with the distortions. We certainly enjoyed doing so, taking photographs into the sculpted mirrors which captured one of us upside down in the middle ground while the other was the right way up nearer to the piece.

Entry to both house and Gallery is £7.70 (£4.95 concessions).  I recommend it highly, especially while the Kapoor is on, until 18th August.  Ealing Broadway is the nearest tube and rail station, turn left out of the station and follow the signs for Ealing Green (not Ealing Common as we did).  There are signs painted on to the pavement. There are plenty of places to eat and drink on the High Street.

Bonnard Colours

At Tate Modern’s big Spring exhibition yesterday I (and a lot of other people) enjoyed some vibrant Pierre Bonnard paintings. I confess that I hadn’t seen many before, indeed, I knew little about this contemporary of Matisse.

Born in a suburb of Paris, the son of a senior civil servant, Bonnard (1867 – 1947) began to show works in the 1890s. He met Toulouse-Lautrec and, in later life, was a regular visitor to Claude Monet at Giverny and a correspondent of Henri Matisse. The exhibition includes photographs of Bonnard, his studio in the south of France and his companion and wife, Marthe de Meligny, by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Ostier.

He is feted as a colourist and one can see why. He juxtaposes the very brightest of hues, many not found in nature, yet they capture nature. It is easy to understand that, in the depression of the 1930s, his pictures were regarded by critics and the art-loving public as happy and hopeful celebrations of nature, both wild and tamed. Some of the more serious and original aspects of his art were ignored.

He is fond of unusual perspectives, choosing to paint views, interior and exterior, through doors and windows, or through tunnels of greenery.  He painted landscapes, many around his house in Normandy and subsequently in the south of France where he bought a house. The red tiled roofs of Le Cannet and small towns around it feature prominently in the rooms covering his later life.

As do pictures of his wife bathing, and, indeed, it was one or two of these which I had come across before. De Meligny suffered from ill health and following the water cure prescribed for her, bathed every day. Bonnard painted her doing so. These paintings are full of light and reflected light, in the water, in the bathroom tiles and on the walls, They are also so full of pattern – the carpet, the bath robe – that I began to think of post Impressionists like Gauguin and Van Gogh.  One can also see the influence of the Japanese prints which Bonnard had admired so much in his formative years.

De Meligny was his principal human subject, though he often placed small figures at the forefront of his landscapes, sometimes just sketched lightly, like the shepherd who features in a number of them.

Bonnard’s interiors are equally colourful, though with the colours still found in older houses in rural France today – the dark-brown paint of doors and wood panelling, the distinctive blue-green of the shutters,the red-brown and sometimes black of the terracotta floor tiles.  I recognise these from visits to stay in the south of France.

The exhibition is a large one of twelve rooms.  I very much enjoyed it, despite the crowds. If, however, you asked me where Bonnard stood in my personal pantheon of  twentieth century European artists he wouldn’t be at the top of my list. That’s not to say that he wasn’t taking forward the ideas of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists ( though he preferred to paint from memory in the studio, not in the open air ), it’s just that more interesting developments were, by that time, taking place elsewhere.

The exhibition runs at Tate Modern until 6th May 2019 and costs £18 to enter. Booking is essential (unless you are a member) and be prepared for crowds.

For more posts about art in London see                   Doreen Fletcher; a Retrospective                 Art on the Underground               The Queens House                   Arts & Crafts             Edward Burne-Jones

Zurbaran: The Impossible Light…

…is the name of an excellent, fascinating exhibition in Jerez de la Frontera (until 10th March) and Cadiz, from 21st March until 28th April 2019. I saw it at the Claustros de Santo Domingo, the 13th century monastery which is now an exhibition and performance space in Jerez.  It is, in Jerez, FREE to enter and I recommend, if you are in the vicinity, that you go and see it.

Presented by Tercero efe, a quartet of photographers from Cadiz – Rafael Sanchez, Paco Rocha, Rafa Perez and Juan Martin Beardo – the exhibition is of life-size photographs which recreate the paintings of the seventeenth century Spanish master Francisco de Zurbaran using modern people and digital photographic techniques. The Zurbaran originals can be seen in the Museum of Cadiz ( see Falling Off a Ladder and Cadiz in the Rain ) which is worth a visit for all sorts of reasons, but the collections of Zurbarans and Murillos found therein are two of the best.

The originals are displayed in the Museum as if in a Church (see right and below), some of them having once hung in the Charterhouse at Cartuja, just outside Jerez. The photographers take each painting and pose modern individuals in the attitude of the subject, adding backgrounds and, sometimes, suitable clothing using digital photography techniques far removed from the simple photoshop. In particular the works attempt to recreate the stunning light and shade of the originals, the chiaroscuro which earned Zurbaran the nickname ‘the Spanish Caravaggio’. The paintings are astonishingly clear and precise, with knife sharp edges to the drapery and the photographs capture this amazingly well. They also recreate the human portraits, often to great effect ( the modern faces taking on a timeless quality ).  As the accompanying leaflet says, however, Zurbaran had only the ‘trickeries’ of paint and light to help him with his creations.

I particularly liked the wonderful version of the Angel with Incense, one of only four which feature women as their subjects (this isn’t  a criticism, there aren’t that many female subjects among the Cadiz Zurbarans and the two Angels are very fine).  Saint Hugh With Swan was another favourite – Saint Hugh was the Bishop of Lincoln.  But all of the photographs were astonishing. They make one consider the nature of art, authenticity and verisimilitude, especially given a series of additional works, which are inspired by but not recreations of the original paintings. These photographs of individuals as clerics or saints, posed in suitable attitudes and in the style of Zurbaran are created from the imaginations of the photographers.

There is an interesting video showing how the photographs were created and modern people were transformed into seventeenth century masterpieces.  I include a link below to a Youtube video (in Spanish) in which the arts presenter talks about the exhibition and there are interviews with two of the photographers.

If you would like to read more about past exhibitions in the Claustros de Santo Domingo and/or at this or previous Festivals de Jerez, see                Indomitable Women        White Villages and Desert           Festival Art 2018                  Street Art

Festival de Jerez 2019

For us another fabulous Festival de Jerez is over. We have all gone our separate ways, though performances at the 2019 Festival continue until next weekend.  Yet again we have been astounded and amazed by the quality, as well as the variety, on offer.

Festival de Jerez 2019 was also the Festival Feminista, a full-throated riposte to recent regional elections in which, for the first time since Franco, representatives of the far right, via the new party called Vox, won seats in the Andalucian Parliament. Vox stands on a specific anti-feminist platform, as well as being anti-immigration and advocating what sounds like a return to the 1950s. So there was a full supporting programme of events for feminists of both genders. The Festival also had plenty of female headliners – Ana Morales, Eva Yerbabeuna, Maria Pages and, on Saturday, Mercedes Ruiz.

We saw Ruiz at the Teatro Villamarta, where she was joined by some famous fellow performers, including some old favourites. The performance, entitled Tauromagia featured original music and composition from flamenco great Manolo Sanlucar, re-interpreted by Santiago Lara as music director ( see The Guitar in Time and Jazz Guitar ) and singer and setter of text, David Lagos. This reunited three of the four protagonists of Lamento a phenomenal performance which we saw at the 2016 Festival. Ruiz was in fine form throughout, dancing with second soloist, Ana Agraz and a fine cuerpo de baile, Beatriz Santiago, Aurora Carabello and Vanesa Reyes.  We, like the rest of a very full theatre, were enthralled and entranced.  The ovation at the end of the performance lasted a long time, and justifiably so.

It was probably just co-incidence, but we saw more dancing this time than usual. Not just the established stars but some newer, up and comers. So, at Sala Paul, Bodegon, an intriguing set by Jose Maldonado, Javier Latorre and Carmen Coy. This had first been performed at a Festival in France in 2016 but had been developing since. We had seen Maldonado as a member of Miguel Linan’s company in 2016 ( see Reversible ), representing the masculine. Here he had a more fluid style although still exhibiting classical training and remarkable athleticism in a set originally directed by Linan. A modern dance piece with flamenco at its heart it was about creativity and art and involved the principal painting pictures with both paint and light, a remarkable Coy acting as muse, creative idea and, possibly creation.  I do not pretend to have understood it all, but I enjoyed it a lot and look forward to see what this talented dancer does next.

The other dancer new to us was Adrian Santana, who we saw deliver Simbiosis, a more traditional set in Sala Compania on Monday night. Traditional, but still with new ideas.  Two male singers sang separately and together of love and loss as Santana and Agueda Saavedra formed a wonderful partnership, dancing solo and together. Stunning.  Afterwards we kept bumping into the performers, now in civvies, but still on a high from the tremendous reception given to their performance and out on the town.  A terrific end to our sojourn at the 2019 Festival.

And guess what, it didn’t rain. Not a drop.  Unlike last year ( see 2018 Round Up ).  Now London awaits the arrival of a clutch of starry flamenco talent at Sadlers Wells Flamenco Festival 2019. This has finally moved from February/March when it repeatedly clashed with the Festival de Jerez to July.  Hooray – two flamenco festivals a year!

For more flamenco try                 Camerata Flamenco Project                           Lola  Dancing to Different Tunes

Some of these photographs are by Javier Fergo for the Festival de Jerez, others by Helen Hughes.

Blood & Revolution

The Last Tsar; Blood and Revolution is the name of an interesting and FREE exhibition currently to be found at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road SW7.  We visited on Monday.

The exhibition looks at the demise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Using artefacts, photographs and written records it illustrates the highly privileged life and subsequent death of the autocratic Tsars, a family touched by the tragedy of the ‘Royal Disease’ who became reliant not just on medicine but mystics and faith healers, most notoriously, Grigori Rasputin.

The kernel of the exhibition is, as befits  the Science Museum, a medical detective story, or rather several medical detective stories. The first is to identify the ‘Royal Disease’ and how it proliferated, the second is the finding and identification, using DNA sequencing techniques,  of the bodies of the murdered Romanovs and the subsequent quashing of the spurious claims of impostors to be surviving members of the immediate Romanov family.

The exhibition is good on the prevailing system of medicine and medical provision, especially in regard to mental instability or illness ( a condition often diagnosed in women who behaved ‘unsuitably’ or ‘hysterically’ ).  It shows how the ruling family kept the illness of the Tsaravitch, Alexei, hidden from all but an immediate circle of trusted intimates and medical men, thereby fuelling discontent among the aristocracy over the perceived remoteness of the Romanov family and influence of ‘advisers’ like Rasputin.   An autocratic and fundamentally unjust system could not survive without an involved and supportive aristocracy and the myth of a benign and progressive monarchy couldn’t be sustained by a monarch invisible to his people. Not so long after the outbreak of WWI a system of government which was creaking finally broke and the Tsar abdicated.

This is good, general historical context, but what is new in this exhibition is its concentration on the investigation into the death of the family, who were held under house arrest in the Ipatiev House in Bolshevik-held Ekaterinberg.  The initial investigation was headed by Nikolai, Sokolov, a Russian investigating magistrate, when that city fell out of Bolshevik control, and its findings were, for a long while, the only real evidence-informed information about their deaths. Later, after the Soviet state admitted executing the family and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, scientists were able to piece together those earlier findings with later discoveries made during the 1970s but not made public at the time, to find skeletons which could then be tested using the latest techniques.

The identification, which involved taking DNA from living relatives of the Tsarina, resulted in confirmation that the skeletons were indeed those of the Russian ruling family. In 2007 the remains of Alexei and one of his sisters were discovered and also tested.  Facial reconstruction and modelling techniques were then used to recreate the faces from the skulls, resulting in sculptures which closely resembled the photographs of the individuals taken while they were alive. So all eleven victims were identified and the fate of the Romanovs finally resolved.

In 2009 the ‘Royal Disease’ was finally confirmed to be haemophilia B, the rarer form of the condition, which is, largely, suffered by men but can be carried by women.  It features strongly in the ancestral tree of various European ruling houses ( somewhat startlingly ).

I can thoroughly recommend this exhibition which runs until 24th March it is well worth a visit if you happen to be in London.

The Wider Earth

In this case that part of it found in SW7.  Specifically, the Flett Theatre (formerly the Jerwood Gallery) in the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, to see David Morton’s new play about the young Charles Darwin, The Wider Earth.

It is a charming piece, showing a Darwin in his early twenties, concentrating on beetles not lectures at Cambridge before a Summer hunting fossils in Wales and thence, with a little help from Uncle Josiah, the social reformer and abolitionist, Josiah Wedgewood, to the Beagle.  This is where the play really takes flight, quite literally with the puppet butterflies, birds and fishes.

The staging is ingenious, a single set on the central revolve stands in for Cambridge, Shrewsbury, Wales, various Pacific Islands, including the Galapagos, Australia and large chunks of south America.  It becomes the deck and cabins of the ship – not boat, as Captain Fitzroy corrects the young naturalist, who, at first sight, he rejects as unsuitable, only to relent later.

The mainly young cast double as puppeteers, bringing to life the exotic creatures Darwin is entranced by. Working with Handspring, the South African puppetry company which brought War Horse to such vivid life, the company has created some excellent animals. I loved the armadillo and iguana and the giant tortoises are wonderful.  Even an adult audience gasped at the near perfect rendition of animal behaviour, so I imagine children would be utterly beguiled – there are a lot of matinee performances.

This Darwin too is somewhat child-like, Emma Wedgewood, later Emma Darwin, tells him the voyage might help him grow up and the central performance has something of the young Micheal Crawford about it, lots of wide-eyed innocence and worthiness. There is little hint of the tough scientist beneath.  The character more subtly explored is Fitzroy, an interesting scientist in his own right, though that isn’t really mentioned here – evolution is the main event, not meteorology (though Herschel and photography feature briefly). Fitzroy suffered from near suicidal depression and that is touched on, as is his volatile character.

The drama catches the intellectual climate of the time, with Lyell’s geological theories already challenging Christian orthodoxy. Debate rages aboard the Beagle, stimulated by the presence of a clergyman, travelling to Tierra del Fuego to take God to the natives, as well as a native Fuegan, Jeremy Button, taken by Fitzroy from the south Atlantic to be ‘educated’ in Britain.  It shows the experiences – of volcanic eruption, of earthquakes and mountain making, of the differences in species from the various Galapagos islands – which inform Darwin’s thinking.

The play is educative in nature and it tackles its complex subject well, capturing Darwin’s youthful curiosity and exuberance. Emma, the solitary female, is given a mind, and a cause, of her own, in abolitionism and there is no suggestion that, within societal norms of the time, their alliance will be anything other than equal.  I must own up here – the character of Emma was played by an Anderson relative, Melissa Vaughn.

The Wider Earth runs until 24th February and tickets cost between £19.50 and £79.  It’s worth a visit, but don’t go next Tuesday, when royalty is visiting.  The photographs accompanying this post are my own and by Mark Douet.  For a first rate novel about the voyage of the Beagle I recommend This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson (Tinder Press, 2006)