The art world has been divided since the beginning of the twentieth century. On the one side, the rejection of craft has led to a proliferation of intellectually empty, derivative ‘art’ that most people don’t understand and don’t like; and on the other side, artists who do have technical skills frequently choose to create highly conservative, old-fashioned and unimaginative works. Both groups create work that can, frankly, be terrible.
Similarly, art education has split. Most art schools and universities attempt to teach their students ‘creativity’, but do not equip them with the techniques necessary to express their ideas and concepts. In contrast, the modern-day atelier movement, for all its many strengths, focuses almost entirely on technical skill and tends to neglect originality and creativity.
The Lot 5 Collective, a group of contemporary figurative artists, aims to bridge the gap between these two camps with their new exhibition, ‘Face Value’, to be held at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery in November. Drawn from a selection of contemporary artists from around the world, the exhibition is organised around one theme: the many faces of contemporary portraiture. With artists working in a range of styles, from photo realism to abstraction, the exhibition aims to bridge the gap between skill and concept.
Lot 5 is a group of representational artists. That is, we create work that represents something: you see one of our paintings and can understand that it represents a person, or a landscape, or a still-life. But we don’t reject others forms of art: instead, we examine them them, discover what there is to admire in them, and try to include those qualities in our representational art. We believe that it should be possible to create work that has the emotional impact of abstract art, the cleverness of conceptual art, and the skill and craft of figurative art.
Take this painting, entitled Sienna, by Lot 5 artist Lucas Garcia:
Lucas Garcia, Sienna, 2018, Oil on Board, 24 x 18 cm
It represents something – Garcia’s baby daughter, Sienna – but the artist hasn’t simply copied what he saw in front of him. The painting represents a set of decisions: with every stroke, Garcia has decided what paint to put where, and how, and has thus designed a series of interesting shapes that interact to create a pleasing and harmonious, yet dynamic, image. It’s a picture that you can contemplate and admire for its formal qualities, much like you would with a painting by Mondrian or Rothko, but Garcia has gone a step further: not only are those shapes interesting compositionally in terms of the patterns they form on the canvas, but they also create a portrait of a baby. The painting can be therefore be judged, and appreciated, in terms of the quality of its representation as well as its visual impact. The painting is also conceptually intriguing. It’s a visual pun – the only colour besides black and white that the artist has used is burnt sienna. Lucas has thus managed to combine the strengths of representational, abstract and conceptual art in a single painting that can be appreciated on multiple levels.
For our latest exhibition, ‘Face Value’, the Lot 5 Collective has assembled a group of artists from the UK, Ireland and the USA, whose work demonstrates technical ability but also has the power to inspire and make you think. The show will consist of the work of the seven Lot 5 artists as well as invited guest artists. These include Felicia Forte, whose painting Time Traveler, (Matthew Napping) was awarded Second Prize at the 2018 BP Portrait Awards, as well as Simon Davis, Emanuela de Musis, Shana Levenson, Anastasia Pollard, Nicolas Uribe, Emma Hopkins, Sofia Welch, Milo Hartnoll, Scott Eaton and Hans van der Leeuw.
The Lot 5 Collective itself consists of seven artists:
Lizet Dingemans was born in the Netherlands and now works as a full-time artist and teacher in London. In 2018, Lizet was a contestant in Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year and was nominated for Artists & Illustrators magazine ‘Artist of the Year’ in 2016. Her work has sold in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and the USA.
Lizet Dingemans, Bacchus I, 2018, Oil on Board, 7 x 10 cm
SJ Fuerst was born in the USA and now lives in works in Malta. Fuerst’s beautiful and funny work mixes Pop art and classical painting, and is inspired by costumes, toys, and fashion photography.
SJ Fuerst, Uh-Huh Honey, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 122 x 122 cm
Lucas Garcia has exhibited multiple times at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and his painting Dirty Blond was highly commended by the de Laszlo Foundation in the 2018 exhibition.
Luca Indraccolo was born in Naples, Italy. Before pursuing a career in fine art, Indraccolo worked for 15 years as an art director with major advertising agencies across 3 countries, eventually serving as regional creative director at London’s Saatchi & Saatchi. His latest work takes inspiration from the fires that devastated the Vesuvius national park in the summer of 2017.
Luca Indraccolo, SMF•72•1821•12•18•25, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 140 x 70 cm
Stella Ishack enjoys the juxtaposition of creating intricately detailed, precise, representational portraits using unpredictable mediums such as charcoal and watercolour; harnessing the chaos in this way seems like a fitting way of examining human nature.
Stella Ishack, Mind Control, 2017, Giclee Print/Watercolour on Paper
Helen Masacz’s latest paintings draw on her passion for music, for which she has been interpreting album titles by well-known musicians. Her painting Technical Ecstasy (2018) is a portrait that reflects upon the current climate of paranoia and violence in the world and expresses how technology has created the means to destroy us.
Helen Masacz, Technical Ecstasy, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 80 cm
Harriet Spratt has exhibited at various shows in London, including the Royal Institute of Oil Painters where she won the Winsor & Newton Young Artist prize.
Harriet Spatt, Owen, 2017, Oil on Canvas, 82 x 138 cm
Face Value, Royal Opera Arcade Gallery, 8 – 17 November 2018
I have long been interested in the work of Chantal Joffe and have written about her on several occasions. Her figurative paintings of family and friends are rooted in a gritty, observed reality which makes her unusual in an art world full of insouciant irony. She’s interested in people, their inner landscapes and what makes them tick. She’s also interested in the materiality and language of paint which she uses with verve and vitality. She’s obsessed with what paint can be made to do and what it can tell us.
There are many influences to her work. The American artist Alice Neel. Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and child. But there’s one influence that connects us directly, as writer and artist – the little-known German painter, Paula Modershon-Becker (1876-1907). There is a self-portrait of Paula in the Courtauld but you’d be hard pressed to see any more of her work in this country.Most of it is in Germany. Joffe’s new exhibition at The Lowry, which uses a quote from Modersohn-Becker as its title is, in many ways, a homage.
“Paula is a bubble between two centuries”, Joffe tells me.
In 2012, I wrote Girl in White, a novel based on Modersohn-Becker’s relationships with those she met when she settled in Worspwede, a remote artists’ colony on the North German moors. There, she mixed with others who wanted to live a life dedicated to art outside the strictures of 19th century German bourgeois society. These people included the older painter Otto Modersohn, who was to become her husband, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a passionate friendship, and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who, disastrously, became Rilke’s wife.
The Worpswede colony was very much part of the mood-music among late 19th century European artists who wanted to ‘return’ to nature. Essentially a Romantic movement, this nostalgia for a prelapsarian existence was precipitated by the growth of industrialisation and the effects of urban modernisation. Many believed these were destroying their relationship with the landscape and their folk traditions. When Paula arrived in Worpswede she too initially painted landscape but, as she grew intellectually, emotionally and artistically, she developed a different agenda. Her subject became people. She painted the old in the local poorhouse, breast-feeding women and the children of peasants with an empathy close to that of Van Gogh’s. It’s hard for us to realise just how radical such a decision was, especially by a young middle-class girl. Paula sought out the raw, the authentic and the marginalised in a way that was completely modern. There wasn’t a smack of the drawing-room sentiment anywhere to be seen.
Talking to Chantal in her studio, on the battered sofa among postcards of Paula’s work and her own half-finished paintings, it becomes more and more evident that our interests overlap. We’re both mothers and creative women who, like many others including Paula, have struggled to find a balance between home, art, motherhood and career and, for whom, the intimacy of everyday life is central to our work. Though separated by more than 100 years, Paula’s intensity of vision and her commitment to the fullness of life, as an artist and a woman, reverberates throughout Joffe’s work. Like Freud, Joffe paints those from within a tight circle of family and friends. She not so much produces portraits, in the sense of a photographic likeness, but investigations – a sense of what it is like to inhabit the subject’s skin.
“I was”, she says, “hesitant, mindful of the danger of placing myself alongside such a strong painter. I was worried it’d be seen as a form of self-aggrandisement, but I’m interested in the intimacy Paula creates. Personal feeling is always the main thing. That’s why I love her. There’s never anything unnecessary, nothing extra or extraneous. Only what is needed. The work’s so strong, so modern, so ahead of its time. My decision to go ahead was helped by the fact that she’s poorly known here and that maybe, through this exhibition, her work will become more celebrated. She’s just so good.”
I ask why she chose Paula and she says that she was attracted to a painter she’ d never seen before – a woman who was both tough and romantic, vulnerable yet determined. She loves the works of Picasso and Bonnard but here was a painter she could relate to directly and in a very personal way. She wanted to explore what they shared. Her paintings, like Paula’s, are intimate and domestic. She’s painted fellow artists, such as Ishbel Myerscough, and charted the passage of her daughter Esme from new-born infant to adolescent, with many of the blips along the way. These works map the passing of time, the minute changes that occur day to day within emotional connections and bonds.
As we sit talking, with our tea and biscuits, about our mutual concerns – just as Paula did with her friend Clara in her Worpswede studio – it strikes me how similar Joffe looks like Modersohn-Becker. She has the same broad intelligent face, pulled-back hair and snub nose. I tell her my thoughts and she blushes. Of course, she has seen this herself, though she does not admit it. It’s there in her Self-Portrait as Paula II where she looks inscrutably over her shoulder with her back naked to the viewer. Self-Portrait at 21, with its Matisse-style patterned robe, echoes something of the background of Paula’s Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Day.
Paula Modersohn-Becker had an uncanny sense that she was going to die young. Her quest, at the century’s turn, was ‘to become something.’ Her whole life was a struggle between the binaries of domesticity and artistic fulfilment, duty and self-determination, the security of home and the stimulation of adventure and new experience. She longed for a child. She would paint herself holding her stomach as if she were in a phantom pregnancy. She would then claim that she was actually pregnant with art. Despite Modersohn-Becker’s bourgeois upbringing, she had a restless sensuality which is mirrored in Joffe’s work. You can see it in her unsparing nude self-portraits that show her, for example, sitting naked on a striped chaise lounge. There’s nothing romantic about the dark circles under her eyes, her sagging breasts and stomach and the unflattering long black socks – the only things she wears. And, there is nothing flattering about the ¾ Length Self-Portrait where she stands against a barren, leafless tree like some menopausal Eve. There are also a number of paintings of pregnant women and women with children, and there’s an especial poignancy to those of her daughter, Esme, when we know that Paula died tragically at the age of 32 from an embolism – only weeks after giving birth to her own daughter, Mathilde.
Paula Modersohn- Becker’s life was brilliant but sadly her career cut short. Her passionate female nudes and portraits of prepubescent girls, which sought for ever-more simplification, are extraordinary, considering that convention demanded she was a wife first and a painter second. Spirited, brave, tender and fierce, Paula understood that ‘personal feeling’ is always the main thing. Fashions in art come and go but there’ll always be a place for what is authentic, for what is true.
It’s as if Joffe, with her broad strokes of expressive and nervy paint, has picked up Paula’s baton and is running with it into the middle of the 21st century.
Chantal Joffe’s artwork exhibition ‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing’ is running at The Lowry Art Gallery until the 2nd September. You can find out more about the artist here.
How much context do we need to appreciate a painting? Take, for example, Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach, 1912. We might describe it in terms of its diagonal division: a mauve-blue mass floats above; a blanched beige sits below. Two outlying forms disrupt this simple division: a rectangle of creamy-white voyages out into the upper blue region (and, in turn, it frames another island of blue pigment), and below, the beige zone is encroached upon by two rusty-red masses. So the picture is like a yin-yang; it is composed of balanced halves, each offset by an immigrant fragment from the other. Dark sits within light, light presses upwards into dark. There is a nice rhythm to it.
Of course, we tend to go further and start putting names to appearances. The beige segment is a beach, and the rusty-red blobs are sitting figures. The blue zone is sea and sky amalgamated: a preparatory study for the picture reveals that a horizon line once bisected the blue mass, distinguishing between water and air, but it has been omitted in the name of simplification, and in the pursuit of the more interesting line – the diagonal. But the brain can still try to feel this horizon line into the blue void, and the interplay between the unremittingly flat surface of the painting and the imaginative depth we project into it is what makes the viewing experience tensive and alive. The upwardly voyaging oblong is a tent, which contains within it a female figure. We start to turn our sensory impressions into a labelled landscape.
Further still, we might – if we can – name the figures. Documentary photographs suggest that the hat-wearing red blobs are Julian Bell (the artist’s son) and his Nanny. We can name the beach as Studland Beach, and the occasion as, perhaps, a family outing. How far are we to take this project? In other pictures we can identify jugs and rugs and printed hangings, giving for each vase a date and a place of production; we can guess at the specific relationship between sitter, surroundings and artist. But we might think that there comes a point in the pursuit of these details when the painting in front of us is no longer the object of our enquiry: instead it has become a prop in another exercise entirely – that of biography.
Biography, in short, is a very different exercise to art criticism. The circle of artists often dubbed the ‘Bloomsbury’ group have often been subjected to too much of the former and too little of the latter. Hardly can the names Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry be mentioned without the invocation of some variant of Dorothy Parker’s quip that they ‘lived in squares, loved in triangles and painted in circles’. As a rule, bedhopping has always trumped brushstrokes in the analysis of their paintings: if a sitter can be identified as a sexual partner of the artist, so much the better. Vanessa Bell is typical of this sort of treatment in that, whilst her romances with Roger Fry and Duncan Grant are well documented, there has never been a major exhibition of her work (beyond the 1979 show at the Sheffield Gallery). Curators Sarah Milroy and Ian A. C. Dejardin have stepped into this breach with their exhibition Vanessa Bell in the beautiful John Soane designed Dulwich Picture Gallery. Laudably, they have set out to counter the gossip-heavy handling of Bell as a painter. That no subtitle or exhibition tagline appends the artist’s name suggests that the works will be allowed to speak for themselves. Indeed, the catalogue essays stress Bell’s own reputation for silence (which she considered ‘her defence’ against the patriarchal biases of her day). This is a much-needed corrective to the hackneyed anecdotes that tend to dominate in tired restatements of the group’s bohemianism.
The exhibition begins with a theatrical piece of curation: entering the first room, the viewer is met by three large, loud portraits, all from 1915. Among this exhibition’s insights is the importance of the period 1910-1920 in Bell’s oeuvre; it is shown to have been an era of ecstatic experimentation, following the famous Post Impressionist Show at the Grafton Gallery in 1912. The central picture, Iris Tree, is particularly striking: slabs of colour march inwards, waging war on the darkness of Bell’s Edwardian training. A number of pictures in this room show Bell grappling either with the relationship of line to coloured mass (Virginia Woolf, 1912) or with the modulation of flesh tones in chunks of luminous chalky pink and lemon yellow (David Garnett, 1915, and the tantalizingly unfinished Lytton Strachey c.1913). The room as a whole makes clear just how explosive Bell’s growth was following her stayed beginnings as a John Sergent pupil (Saxon Sydney Turner at the Piano, c.1908). And yet, to begin the exhibition with portraits – many of which depict friends and lovers – seems a dangerous move given the curatorial commitment to context-shedding. Frances Spalding’s catalogue essay on Bell’s portraits of Virginia Woolf is full of biographical speculation. For Spalding, the blanked-out faces of Bell’s portraits of her sister are invitations to the viewer to imagine vivid details of the sitter’s character and liveliness into the void. She even sees Bell as something of a prophet, who used the blank face in one 1912 portrait to ‘signify the inchoate’, the as-yet unwritten eloquence of Virginia’s future literary career (Woolf had written no novels in 1912). The theorist-critic Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, was dismissive of this sort of biographical engagement with art in his 1913 book, ‘art’. Those who cannot appreciate formal arrangements as pure, visual rhythms, he claimed, resort to the projection of worldly cares onto them. They look at the forms but they see only the mundane, personal narratives; they are like ‘deaf people at a concert’.
That biography has tended to receive more attention than aesthetics in Bloomsbury studies to date is therefore somewhat ironic. Clive Bell’s 1913 text is a manifesto for what later became known as ‘high formalism’: it proposes the contemplation of formal features, abstract masses, and rhythms within artworks as the only viable path towards a (rather mystical) ‘aesthetic emotion’ which could transcend humdrum worldly experience and access something essential. Vanessa’s relationship to these theories was not uncomplicated, but we find a similar privileging of form over representation in her writing:
‘It seems to me always the visual relationship that is important in painting. There is a language simply of form and colour that can be as moving as any other and that seems to affect one quite as much as the greatest poetry of words. Of course the form and colour nearly always do represent life and I suppose any allusions may creep in’.
In aiming to let the pictures speak for themselves, then, the curators are meeting Bell on her own terms. Subsequent rooms of the exhibition, with thematic focuses on abstraction, design, landscape and still-life, are better pitched in this regard, and well-capture Bell’s prioritisation of form over connections with the more mundane trappings of ‘life’. The second room suggests continuity between Bell’s early experiments with formal abstraction and the textile designs she produced during the years of the Omega Workshop (1913-19). Some of Bell’s most remarkable pictures are in the fourth room, ‘Landscape’. View of the Pond at Charleston, 1919, is a study in the play of shifting levels, of elements dancing between surface abstraction and illusionist recession. Julian Bell’s essay ‘Landscapes Near and Far’, which begins with a poetic analysis of this painting’s depiction of depth, is much the best piece of writing in the catalogue. Barns (By the Estuary), c.1915 is similarly bravura in its construction, reducing a riverside scene to an almost wholly abstract study of locking planes. Only a sliver of mast pokes above a cyan slab of pigment, suggesting an obscured ship. Some allusions ‘creep in’, but form and colour are moving in themselves.
This exhibition does succeed in prioritizing attention to form above the usual Bloomsbury intrigue. But this success is a close-run thing. The crucial room of Bell’s Omega work and abstract experiments, which proposes her as first and foremost a ‘designer’, is very well judged, for Bell and her circle saw no distinction between commercial design, domestic decoration, and fine art. But that room is preceded by the room of portraits of friends, and followed closely by a room titled ‘At Home’ (which takes as its theme Charleston’s distinctive domesticity): both of these run the risk of reverting to the Bloomsbury ‘status quo’, naming lovers and fetishizing domestic commonplace. What is lacking, from both the exhibition and the catalogue, is a thorough account of Bell’s complex relationship with theory, particularly Clive Bell’s formalism. She may have been Bloomsbury’s ‘quiet centre’, but her letters, particularly those to Duncan Grant, are littered with a telling vocabulary – discussing colour, mass, distortion and abstraction. An exhibition that managed to group paintings along these lines, the qualities that mattered to Bell herself, might begin to offer the sort of context we really need to appreciate paintings such as these.
The exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery differs from William Rubin’s one on Picasso’s portraits twenty years ago at MOMA by defining Picasso’s portraits more tightly. Picasso’s incorporation of his circumstances and surroundings in his art led Rubin to include art in which the present show’s curator, Elizabeth Cowling, feels he was addressing other themes than that of pure portraiture – the theme of artist and his model, for example, addressed in the Vollard Suite. While both artist and model are often identifiable, Cowling argues, these works are not portraits per se. However, she adds an element that Rubin did not: caricature. Humour, she says, is key and seen throughout. Never vicious, his parodies do not trivialise, his subjects are not victims.
Chronological in order, the exhibition covers the artist’s entire career and begins by showing how Picasso, the breaker of rules, had a very traditional training. His early efforts were overseen by his father who guided his son’s early attempts at salon-scale genre scenes. Moral and sentimental in nature, they had the effect on his portraiture that, as Cowling says, “he grasped early on the importance of evoking a state of mind as well as describing a physical appearance”. This is clearly apparent in images of his father who was subject to depression.
With a room filled with self-portraits, Self-portrait with Wig shows him explore how costume changed character. Yet these and other early portraits make clear that producing a likeness of the artist came easily. Cowling found no preparatory studies showing him struggling to achieve it. She did, however, find trials scattered over sheets of sketches that showed him struggling to master the art of caricature, to grasp the core of a personality, distil it and portray it into a few, firm lines. What this struggle taught him, as this exhibition makes clear, gave Picasso a skill that informed his lifelong practice.
Launching his career among Barcelona’s avant-garde, his eye for caricature lighted mainly on his male friends and he directed it at insiders of the circle frequenting Els Quatre Gats. Many of the works, like that of Santiago Rusiñol, are minute masterpieces of the genre. It is here we have a first glimpse of his lifelong friend Jaime Sabartés, the butt of many jokes, here depicted as a Decadent Poet.
From 1900 on Picasso began visiting Paris, settling there permanently in 1904. These travels gave rise to humorous works that parodied himself and his friends, their ambitions and activities. One shows the artist as a grinning, scratching monkey, paintbrush tucked behind his ear. Again, the Picasso and Sebastià Junyer I Vidal series portray the group’s journey to the art capital – comic strip style – with Junyer selling his work to Durand-Ruel, the famous impressionist dealer, and ‘collecting the dough’!
This period also saw Picasso experiment with a number of other artists’ styles including Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. His two portraits from this period of Gustave Coquiot, a French art critic and writer, and Bibi-la-Purée, an actor turned vagabond and petty thief, both verge on caricature. Only their faces appear to be in focus, painted carefully and in detail. The background of the former’s portrait shows a mirror reflection of what Coquiot, known for his risqué stories as much as for his arts and social reportage, leers at beyond the picture frame: a display of lascivious, exotic dancers. Whereas Picasso used rough strokes to costume Bibi like a circus clown with an overly large floral jacket that match his ruddy cheeks and red lipped grin.
But from 1901 the riotous colour seen in these portraits fades, replaced by blue, giving Picasso’s subjects a sombre air. His blue period portrait of his friend and target of the previously mentioned series, Sebastià Junyer I Vidal appears cold, alone and hungry. Despite being seated beside a lady of dubious morality the painting shows none of the joie de vive or sexual promiscuousness of Picasso’s brothel scene caricatures of the de Soto brothers.
With his move to Paris’ Montmartre in 1904, new male friends became the focus of his caricatures, like Guillaume Apollinaire. But with women it was different. At that time he did few caricatures of women. Cowling surmises that it was perhaps a hangover from an old chivalrous code condemning caricaturing women, though not a code Lautrec had adhered to. However, during the time Picasso lived with his first long term mistress, Fernande Olivier, women began to replace men as his primary subjects.
Yet with Fernande Olivier with Black Mantilla, Picasso’s priority seems less to be truth to appearance than symbolism. The painting is done using thin, fluid paint that has trickled and dribbled over the surface like a veil of black lace. She embodies feminine mystery and melancholy and foreshadows images of his first wife, Olga. This ‘unfinished’ state makes her seem to move, keeps her alive. Feeling that a ‘finished’ work was inert, Picasso liked the potential, the energy that a ‘provisional’ state had.
The right side of his 1906 bronze bust of Olivier also looks unfinished. Marks of the sculptor’s knife and figures are evident. Her right eye is just scratched in, small lumps of clay simply pressed in place form the back of her head, contrasting to her left eye, eyebrow and hairline, which are finely modelled and incised. Cowling suggests these differing ‘sides’ indicate Olivier’s public and private faces, the “knowable and unknowable aspects of her personality and the shifting moods to which she was prone”.
The bronze is displayed beside a magnificent gouache of Olivier’s head, with a straight Roman nose and the erect bearing of an ancient sculpture, yet the same scraped and scumbled lack of finish. 1906 saw him explore artistic traditions beyond the classical of academia: Egyptian, Etruscan, Romanesque, archaic Greek and Iberian. Sadly, his 1906 Portrait of Gertrude Stein for which he drew on ancient Iberian art could not be loaned for this show. It is said, having completed that portrait, Picasso never painted from a posing sitter again. The many sittings Stein’s portrait involved put paid to that with her powerful and gossipy personality disrupting the power balance between artist and sitter. Although he preferred not to, Picasso did in fact continue doing portrait drawings from life. Drawing being quicker, the intrusive power of a sitter was less of a problem. Kahnweiler certainly posed for his cubist portrait.
Picasso’s portraiture decreased with the revolution of cubism and the nude became central to his figure painting. But he photographed friends in his studio, contrasting the ‘reality’ of the photographed figure against backgrounds of radically primitivist and cubist art. But Picasso did begin to explore portraiture with cubism. With Kahnweiler’s portrait we see a revolutionary style but with a conventionally posed sitter. Surely it was his eye trained for caricature that produced the upright stance, neat line of the moustache and combed hair, precise line of the watch chain and the pill bottles (not a wine bottle), at the dealer’s side – all references to Kahnweiler’s precision and abstemiousness.
After 1910, portraiture virtually disappears from Picasso’s oeuvre until January 1915 when he did drawings of Max Jacob and Ambrose Vollard, referencing Ingres’ exacting, realist style. By 1917 he had met Jean Cocteau and joined Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe to collaborate on the ballet Parade with Cocteau. Drawings he did of Cocteau that year and the 1920 series of the composers Igor Stravinsky, Élie Faure and Francis Poulenc show Ingres’ influence and the firm line of the caricaturist’s eye turned on his male friends. The elimination of unnecessary detail came from his skill as a caricaturist, but it was also in line with modernist portrait photography at the time.
Yet with his engagement to the Ukrainian ballet dancer, Olga Khokhlova, his portraits of her show her as untouchable. Granted drawings of her derived from group publicity photographs are humorous, depicting elephantine dancers as the very antithesis of Les Sylphides. His engagement portrait of Olga leaning elegantly across a tapestried chair shows a lifeless and melancholy figure despite the non-finito he used previously to bring images to life. It contrasts sharply with the photograph he worked from where she appears alert and confident.
The 1923 portrait of Olga is Picasso’s most formal portrait in the grand tradition and won him the Carnegie International Exhibition prize in 1930. Again, she is distant, her mind on other, sadder things. A serious injury to her right foot at the time of her marriage ended her dancing career, and we now know news from her family, on the losing side of the Russian Revolution, gave her much anxiety. But home movies show Olga as much more animated than the one Picasso depicted. This Picasso controlled her image. With the acrimonious breakdown of their marriage, his eye for caricature returned with a vengeance. Olga in a Hat captures the spirited being of the photograph and film despite its non-realist style much more than realist styled ones.
From the mid-1920s to the Liberation of France in 1944, women dominated Picasso’s imagery. His depictions of Marie-Thérèse Walter are strikingly different. They evoke complexity, and as Cowling puts it, “the longer and better Picasso knew her, the older and more experienced she grew, the more she eluded a consistent representational formula”. For Picasso, women could represent the human condition in ways men did not. He used women to convey the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.
With the graphic portraits he made of Walter, Nusch Éluard and Dora Maar, each were given graphic styles to show his vision of them. Thus the slender, delicate body of Nusch, the one time travelling acrobat, is represented in light veils of charcoal, giving her the transparency of glass. Even the tight pen-stroke curls of her hair contrast to the heftier oil and wax crayon he used for Woman with Joined Hands (Marie-Thérèse Walter) or the strident ink, gouache and oil for Dora Maar Seated.
Now, as in his Portrait of Lee Miller, women were not spared Picasso’s analysing eye born of the caricaturist. Of course, Picasso did not stop having male friends but it is Jaime Sabartés, who returned from South America in the mid-1930s, re-entering Picasso’s life, becoming his secretary and companion, who we see most of. Unlike the somewhat stiff portrait Picasso did in 1904 on Sabartés’ departure for the Americas, when they had no idea if they would meet again, on his return Picasso used his friend to refer to their shared Spanish heritage, depicting him in ruff and cap as in the age of Philip II. Despite the twisted form Picasso gave him it is undoubtedly Sabartés and he would come to be the butt of a great deal of humorous and licentious pieces.
After the Second World War, most of Picasso’s portraits depict his lovers, Françoise Gilot, his children, and his second wife Jacqueline Roque. His lithographic portrait of Gilot, with its ‘sign language’ originating in Cubism, refers to Velázquez. His depiction of Jacqueline in Woman by a Window has different styles on the right and left that draw attention to the painting process and, consequently, to the passage of time. Increasingly he looked to the Old Masters and their followers whom, in his mind at least, were now his friends: Degas, Rembrandt, El Greco. He battled with Velázquez’s most famous group portrait, Las Meninas, producing over fifty different versions. Still his comic verve did not desert him, be it in the cross-eyed depiction of the Infanta Margarita Maria, substituting his dachshund, Lump, from the royal mastiff, or the photomontage of Las Meninas that included himself and Sabartés.
But the exhibition ends without humour with Picasso’s Self-portrait, made ten months before he died. It is a devastating likeness with the strange, right angled absence giving his skull an absence of much more: of memory and of life.
By Clare Finn
The exhibition runs until 5 February 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It then transfers to the Museu Picasso, Barcelona from 17 March to 25 June 2017.
Picasso Sculpture opened to great acclaim last September at New York’s Museum of Modern Art before moving to the Musée National Picasso-Paris and is now to be seen at BOZAR in Brussels. The exhibition as it appears in Europe is not, however, a straight transfer of the MOMA show but concentrated on Picasso’s use of multiples, series and variations in his artistic work. Use of reproductive methods can be confusing but this is not in any way an exhibition of reproductions of diminishing interest or authenticity. It demonstrated how Picasso used reproductive processes to bring out different resonances and paths from a single design.
Reviewed across Europe the British press commented little on it. Despite his major influence on twentieth century art comprehensive exhibitions of Picasso’s sculpture have been few. Even during his lifetime while pieces were exhibited, it was infinitely less so than were his paintings. There were also fewer publications dealing with his sculpture. Some spread the word, like André Breton’s Picasso dans son element in the 1933 inaugural issue of Minotaure. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s book, The Sculptures of Picasso, finally published in 1949, was the first significant study of Picasso’s sculpture. Both these publications were aided by Brassaï’s haptic photographs that with dramatic camera angles and lighting emphasised the sculpture’s tangible qualities. It was not until the huge 1966 Homage à Pablo Picasso exhibition, in celebration of Picasso’s eighty fifth birthday, that he let much of the work he had kept hidden behind his studio doors be exhibited for the first time and the public at large were duly awed by its fecundity and invention. Since then major exhibitions of Picasso’s sculptures have occurred only once in a generation and his sculptures remain little known. As Picasso kept most of it himself, both the plasters and bronze casts, comprehensive exhibitions of it cannot be drawn solely from the four museums in France and Spain devoted to his work. Much of the work still remains with his heirs, the Picasso family, and they have made generous loans to the exhibition, adding to the exhibitions significance.
Picasso underwent a very thorough classical training as a painter but had no training at all as a sculptor. His approach to his sculpture was notably non-traditional and full of improvisation and the Musée Picasso’s exhibition starts with just such a piece of improvisation. Two not quite identical pieces face each other, two versions of La femme enceinte, from 1950. One is made in plaster incorporating ceramic pots forming the woman’s breasts and swelling belly; the other is a cast in bronze. It must be noted that throughout his life for Picasso it was his plaster sculptures that where the originals. They were not intermediary stages on the way to becoming bronzes. Thus these would be two separate works for Picasso. The change in La femme enceinte’s materials also changes their resonance. The plaster and hollow ceramic version conveys ideas of fragility and the concept of woman as vessel privately carrying the child within; cast in more robust bronze the vessel qualities and fragility are lost, but tradition, enduring, stable and timelessness is evoked linking it to monumental public sculpture.
Sculpture was an integral part of Picasso’s practice throughout his life, although it remained a sporadic activity done in distinct periods with years often passing between these periods. Each burst of activity brought a different approach and themes he addressed in one medium are found across his whole oeuvre.
Having opened with the 1950 La femme enceinte, the exhibition then follows a chronological path and the viewer is confronted with multiple pieces, many of them the same. They are casts from clay sculptures Picasso sold the art dealer, Ambrose Vollard, in September 1910 that Vollard, not Picasso, cast in bronze for commercial and traditional aesthetic purposes. While it is not clear how many casts Vollard had made exhibited here are three bronzes of Picasso’s 1905 Le Fou, two of the 1906 Head of a Woman (Fernande) and four bronzes and two plasters of Picasso’s 1909 cubist Head of a Woman (Fernande). The earlier 1906 Head of a Woman (Fernande) with its rough unfinished hair and an unevenly modelled face, one eye left just sketched in, looks back to Rodin’s obsession with the non finito, while Picasso’s 1909 Head of a Woman (Fernande) look forwards to cubism, the past and the future. Seeing so many multiples draws the eye to compare forms, finishes and patinations, of which I wish there had been more discussion.
A ‘Primitivist’ room devoted to wooden sculptures, carved with rudimentary tools from 1906 to 1908 shows Picasso edging towards cubism in an exploration of Iberian and early Romanesque Catalan sculpture and African tribal masks with totemic faceted qualities. His exploration of the multiple truly begins with his Verre d’absinthe from 1914, a piece the dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had cast in bronze. Rarely seen together as here all six casts of the Verre are displayed in the same case allowing direct comparison, in New York they were separated in separate cases. While the casts are similar in form and all topped with a real absinthe spoon and bronze lump of sugar. Picasso painted each cast differently with spots, solid colours and sand for texture varying them. His ability to play ambiguously with forms is seen in the jaunty angle of the absinthe spoon on the glass’s rim that recalls a flâneur’s straw boater, or the slouch of a drinker of absinthe? The same room contains tiny, hand sized, cubist bas reliefs that show the theme of opacity and transparency explored in the Verre that relate to Picasso and Braque’s cubist obsession with the piercing of solid form.
The late 1920s and early 1930s saw Picasso again dealing with pieced or transparent forms creating a series of small maquettes in response to a rare commission for a monument to mark the grave of his friend, the poet and critic, Guilliame Apollinaire, who had died in 1918. Using rods and wires he created three-dimensional drawings in space, sculptures made from nothingness that echo the void his friend’s death had left and refer to Apollinaire’s The poète assassin in which Picasso’s alter ego, the Bird of Benin, had made a ‘profound statue made out of nothing, like poetry and glory’.
Not possessing the quality of mass usually associated with fine art sculpture, but made from a void by construction and forging techniques linked them to the minor genre of the decorative arts not to traditional, commemorative sculpture. They were just too radicle. The committee turned each maquette down and none would leave the artist’s possession. Yet Picasso’s engagement with the them continued and later in his life he commissioned enlargements of these maquettes from Joseph Marius Triola, through whom he made bent metal sculpture in the 1960s.
When working in metal Picasso was always heavily reliant on the technical expertise of others and for the Apollinaire maquettes he was aided by the Catalan metalsmith, Julio González. This period of sculptural activity, late 1920s and early 1930s, saw Picasso involved more personally in the making of many of his metal sculpture and the work on Apollinaire’s monument culminated, for Picasso at least, with his full sized La femme au jardin created out of scraps of iron found in González’s workshop. Picasso got González to copy this iron sculpture in welded and forged bronze and both pieces are in the current exhibition. They stand confronting each other with their philodendron branches and windblown hair on the museum’s first floor landing, one painted white, one patinated black. The collaboration with González resulted in the creation of other pieces, the Tête de femme and Tête d’homme among them. Like La femme au jardin they were made from workshop scraps, but Tête de femme incorporates a domestic object, a colander that forms the back of the woman’s head.
Undeterred by the failure of the Apollinaire commission Picasso continued working on sculpture during the 1930s at his country house, Boisgeloup, there he produced a series of tall narrow angular wooden figures, carved in fir that recall the stockier pieces he carved in 1906 leading up to cubism. None withstanding his untraditional approach to the making of his sculpture Picasso now had examples of these pieces cast in bronze thus treating them in a traditional way. They are among the first Picasso himself, rather than a dealer, had cast in bronze. He would use bronze to unify and evoke tradition in the most untraditional of materials.
There follows a series of plaster biomorphic human forms. Similar contorted figures appear in his paintings done the same year. They culminate in the great plaster heads of his mistress Marie-Thérèse in which he gradually distorted her physiognomy into surreal creations that express unconscious desires, yet classical art emerges in a series of plaster bas reliefs of Marie-Thérèse that recall classical Roman coins and more playful ancient Gallo-roman coins, popular with the surrealists at the time.
Earlier we had seen Picasso use found objects, the absinthe spoon and colander, now working in plaster allowed him to ‘borrow’ textures, taking casts from corrugated cardboard, cloth or leaves, amalgamating them into mythic sprites like La femme au feuillage, of 1934, in her classical chiton. All of these processes were transgressive but they would be translated into bronze as Picasso had a large number of his 1930s plaster sculptures cast in bronze during World War II. Ostensibly this was done for their security, plaster being delicate and likely to break, by that time using the traditional bronze casting process could be termed a subversive act.
His work with objet trouvé continued both during and after the war and employed with great skill and humour simultaneously having them cast into bronze. This time, as Picasso himself would say, it was to give ‘the most diverse objects such unity that it’s sometimes difficult to identify the constituent parts.’ Yet that double vision is the key to their magic. One sees the old basket, the outsized shoe and the corrugated card in his 1950 Petite Fille sautant à la corde, but they also read as the girl’s body, feet and hair. La guenon et son petit of 1951 famously incorporates his son Claude’s toy cars to form the ape’s head, a ceramic pot for the belly and a car spring for the tail; some say the sculpture is of the artist himself holding his baby son, Claude, or there is the 1958 Tête made from a wooden box, nails, buttons for eyes and plaster. This latter piece again incorporates a void; the inside of the box with which he evokes the volume of the head itself. The box’s thin walls look forwards to Picasso’s bent metal sculptures. All of these pieces are displayed next to their bronze casts, tradition and innovation, sameness and difference side by side.
Picasso’s bent metal sculpture begun in two-dimensions in paper then enlarged into sheet metal with the help of Tobias Jellinek in the 1950s, Lionel Prejger and Triola in the 1960s, the work again approaches the issues of mass and solidity by using media associated with their opposites. Their subtle folds cast shadows indicating the volume and weight of traditional sculptural qualities. Often asking his collaborators to make two or more examples of the same pieces, he would take come further painting them colourfully, like Femme au chapeau of 1961-1963 that sits beside an unpainted version, form and colour beside each other. This colourful work chimes with to his painting, his ceramics and painted wooden sculptures in turn linking them to medieval polychromy. Other pieces were enlarged to monumental size in Bétogravure concrete by Carl Nesjar fulfilling a long time interest of Picasso’s that of monumental sculpture, yet as always approaching traditional attribute of fine art sculpture in transgressive ways.
The exhibition carried the sculpture’s inventiveness lightly. Themes were explored in different ways over years. Their playfulness made it is easy to overlook or dismiss their subversive message. Still tradition was always there, Daphne still run from Apollo in his La femme au jardin. This was an exhibition that does what exhibitions should do: make you look and think.
This autumn the Berloni gallery presents the first London exhibition of Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata’s work since 1978. The acclaimed artist who is known both for his geometric abstract paintings, and for his intricate explorations of Palestinian identity and exile, will show around twenty new paintings on both canvas and paper for his return to London.
Born in Jerusalem in 1942, after graduating from the Academia di Belle Arti in Rome (1961-65) and later the Corcoran Art Museum School in Washington DC (1968-71), Boullata continued to travel, living in the USA, Morocco and France. These journeys play a crucial role in his work; exhibitions of his paintings have been shown all over the world.
Now based in Germany, having been elected a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, Boullata continues to produce work that challenges the conventions of his Palestinian heritage. With a history that includes researching post-Byzantine painting in Palestine, winning a Ford Foundation grant in 2001, and editing a number of books on modern Palestinian poetry and contemporary culture, it’s unsurprising that Boullata’s practice has been praised for its convoluted nature, with simple surfaces giving way to complex and unsettling truths.
Art Historian Gérard Xuriguera describes Boullata’s work as transformational:
Woven by translucent panes, by the vibrations of redoubling forms and sliding shapes that filter in through the heart of a sharply defined perimeter, this work exudes a spatial dimension of light; its chords discretely swell to animate variations of a rare harmony.
It is in the strange knotting, the ‘stabilizing geometry’ that Boullata establishes between transparencies and ‘the shimmering that crystallizes every now and then’ that Xuriguera identifies ‘a subtle dialectic… not the reflection of a coincidence but the product of a vigilant discipline’. This discipline is evident throughout Boullata’s work; the stark contrasts and architectural lines map out a conversation between materials and their interaction with light. With his signature abstract style these most recent paintings seem to bring the artist to an exciting new sparseness, a clear and controlled look at the relation between shapes and colours. More bluntly, we see Boullata explore the relationship between light and dark, a binary that provokes those central concerns of identity and exile that remain so fundamental to the Palestinian people.
For more information visit the Berloni gallery website here.
Upon viewing Jackson Pollock’s 1951 solo show in which he debuted his now famed ‘black paintings’, friend and fellow painter Alfonso Ossorio commented that the pieces, ‘demand alertness and total involvement…Without the intricacy of colour and surface pattern…they reawaken in us the sense of personal struggle and its collective roots’.
With the departure of Pollock’s usual colourful, textured and lyrical style, in Tate Liverpool’s latest exhibition of Pollock’s work the viewer is forced to confront their own ‘blind spots’ in the artist’s oeuvre. Pollock’s method alternated between sticks and a turkey baster which, according to his widow Lee Krasner, he used like giant fountain pens to apply black enamel paint to unstretched, unprimed canvas. This creates the impression of dark and controlled disintegration, contradicting the mythic ‘Jack the Dripper’ image, showing instead the work of a troubled man and troubled artist.
The exhibition opens with Pollock’s more familiar works. Summertime: Number 9A, with its streams of black, blue and yellow, is the visual equivalent of hearing musicians improvise; rhythmic and arching, the paint is allowed free movement across the vast expanse of the canvas. The juxtaposition with the black paintings which follow is therefore harsh, more striking. Although the artist refuted the claim that the black paintings marked a ‘return to figuration’, Pollock, along with other abstract expressionists, sought to express an inner landscape of the unconscious mind, hence his acknowledgement that ‘when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.’
In paintings such as Number 14, 1951 therefore, the viewer is presented with what can be described as a Jungian dreamscape. Within Pollock’s calligraphic, curling and coiling lines can be found either two writhing bodies that call to mind Picasso’s Guernica, or two startlingly confrontational faces, framing the edge of the canvas. Alternatively, the two images could, conceivably, be engaged in a fight to secure greater prominence. The paintings that follow are similarly suggestive; Number 7 offers a broad face, lop-sided breasts and sturdy legs that speak strongly of Picasso, while Number 15, a vortex of faces delivered in thick, black slicks, appears to be inspired by Goya.
The exhibition concludes with Portrait and a Dream (1953), considered one of Pollock’s final artistic statements, created as his battle with alcoholism worsened and his productivity was declining. On the painting’s left-hand side, the dream: a knotted black graphic of frenetic, scratchy energy, with stick-like figures and obliterated faces. On the right-hand side, the portrait: a grey, yellow and orange face, half covered with a mask. The two images are dangerously close to overlapping and perhaps we are to interpret it, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, the desire to overcome the conflict of order versus chaos, positivity versus negativity, the personal struggle of Pollock himself and perhaps, as Ossorio noted, the personal struggle within each of us.
The black paintings are certainly intriguing, more mournful in style when compared with the freedom of his earlier drips and pours, yet they offer unequivocal proof of Pollock’s originality.
By Catherine George
To find out more about Tate Liverpool’s exhibition which runs till 18th October 2015 visit their website here.