Discover Eva Gonzalès

Until 15th January 2023, the National Gallery is devoting a small exhibition to the Portrait of Eva Gonzalès by Édouard Manet (1832-83). Unlike other works by Manet, this painting took a long time to complete and lacked his usual spontaneity. It took Manet 40 attempts to paint Gonzalès’ face, and x-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning reveals the artist reworked the background several times. Whilst the in-depth study of the painting has provided a detailed account of Manet’s process, the sitter is of equal interest. Eva Gonzalès was a French Impressionist painter who started receiving tuition from Manet in 1869 at the age of 20. Successful female painters were not abundant at the time, and there was the misconception that women could only paint things like flowers and lacked the ability to tackle more complicated subjects. Eva Gonzalès proved everyone wrong.

Gonzalès was born in Paris on 19th April 1849, where she grew up in sophisticated literary circles. Her father, Emmanuel Gonzalès (1815-87), served as the president of the Société des gens de lettres de France (Society of People of Letters of France), which many notable writers attended, such as Victor Hugo (1802-85), George Sand (1804-76) and Alexandre Dumas (1802-70). Exposed to new ideas about art and literature at a young age, Gonzalès desired to become an artist, so she started receiving lessons from Charles Chaplin (1825-91), a French landscape and portrait painter.

Most French art schools did not admit women until the end of the 19th century, so many studied at home or in private studios. In 1853, Chaplin opened a women-only studio; and in 1868, the Academie Julian opened its doors to both men and women. For the first time, women were allowed to study from the life model (i.e. nude), despite the opinion that it was inappropriate and morally damaging for ladies. Despite this, women could only exhibit paintings deemed “feminine” at public exhibitions. Nor could they attend discussions with fellow (male) artists to learn about modern art subjects without a chaperone, meaning access to some of the art world remained denied to women.

In 1869, Gonzalès met Manet, who was initially hesitant to discuss his work due to receiving poor reviews at exhibitions. Over time, Manet began to come out of his shell and took Gonzalès on as his only formal pupil. Manet started his portrait of Gonzalès in 1869, eventually finishing it for the Paris Salon in 1870. Unfortunately, it overshadowed all the paintings Gonzalès submitted that year. Instead, critics assumed Gonzalès was a young, decorative model rather than an artist. Manet positioned her at an easel, painting a still-life of flowers, befitting the ideals of a female artist. In reality, Gonzalès had never produced a still life at that time, preferring to paint portraits.

Eventually, the Salon began to take Gonzalès’ work seriously. Whilst Manet developed a brighter, more fluid painting style, Gonzalès stuck to neutral colours and attention to detail. Critics often referred to Gonzalès’ “feminine technique”, but this changed after producing Une loge aux Théâtre Italiens (1874), which they described as full of “masculine vigour”. Unfortunately, this led several people to assume Manet had produced the painting. 

Although Gonzalès is categorised as an Impressionist artist, she never exhibited her work at the Impressionist exhibitions. Whether this was a personal choice or the advice of her tutor, Manet, who did not exhibit with the Impressionist either, is uncertain. Rather than making visible brushstrokes and the focusing on the effects of light in her paintings, Gonzalès concentrated on exploring her identity and moving away from the woman Manet portrayed in Portrait of Eva Gonzalès.

In 1879, Gonzalès married Henri Guérard (1846-97), a French graphic artist who worked for Manet as an engraver. Gonzalès frequently used her husband as a model in her paintings, such as The Donkey Ride (1880), which also features Gonzalès’ sister, Jeanne. Whilst this painting is unfinished, it reveals Gonzalès’s technique of hatching in the landscape with long strokes in the style of many Impressionist artists. By contrast, Jeanne’s face and blue dress are smoothly painted and evenly worked, suggesting the outcome would have looked very different when completed.

Jeanne posed more frequently than Gonzalès’s other models. In 1872, Gonzalès produced her first major work, Indolence, featuring her younger sister looking out of an open window. The French novelist and critic Émile Zola (1840-1902) commented on the nostalgic mood, likening Jeanne to “a virgin fallen from a stained-glass window.” The painting style reflects Gonzalès’ first art teacher’s tuition, but elements of Impressionism are evident in the quick brushstrokes used to form the edges of the curtain and the small bunch of blue flowers on the window sill. The ambivalent expression on Jeanne’s face is also something Gonzalès picked up from Manet.

Gonzalès painted Jeanne almost every day in a variety of guises. Shortly after Gonzalès’ marriage, she dressed her sister in her wedding gown and produced a pastel drawing for the 1880 Salon. The dynamic hatching, likely influenced by Manet, was praised by critics despite the previous thinking that the medium was unsuitable for the “delicate touch” of female artists.

Entitled The Bride, the pastel drawing was strangely prophetic. At the end of April 1883, Gonzalès gave birth to a son, Jean Raimond. A day or so after the birth, Gonzalès learnt Manet had passed away on 30th April. On 6th May, Gonzalès followed suit, passing away due to childbirth complications. She was only 34 years old. The pastel drawing of The Bride was discovered amongst Gonzalès’ personal belongings after her death. Her husband kept the painting and later married Gonzalès sister, Jeanne.

Over time, the French government purchased Gonzalès’ paintings for public galleries, although some were sold to private collectors. During her short life, Gonzalès started making a name for herself across France, Belgium and England, where her paintings were featured in the newspaper L’Art. Unfortunately, as a woman, she received less attention than her male contemporaries and her work was gradually forgotten.

Due to the hindrance placed on female artists, Gonzalès’ most common themes were portraits and domestic scenes of women and children. Whilst she produced a few landscapes, she could not wander the streets like male Impressionists, seeking out locations to paint. Some of Gonzalès’ outdoor scenes were likely staged, such as Nanny and Child (1877-78), which she painted in Dieppe, a city on the coast of Normandy that she frequently visited. The nanny takes centre stage, blocking the only exit from the garden so the child cannot escape. The painting received mixed reviews, with some saying the image of the nanny was too flat, almost like a Japanese print. Others praised the artwork for the same reason, particularly Impressionists, who frequently imitated Japanese prints in their work.

Under Manet’s tuition, Gonzalès experimented with many Impressionist techniques as she gradually developed her own style. Awakening Woman depicts her sister, Jeanne, lying in bed in the soft light of the morning. The contours of the model’s nightgown and the bed sheets almost blend into one expanse of white. Gonzalès cropped the image to focus on the upper body of her sister rather than the entire room. Other Impressionists also used this “snapshot” technique to create a sense of capturing a brief moment of someone’s life, as a camera might do.

Gonzalès’ later works show she detached herself from the Realist style of Charles Chaplin. She also began to separate from Manet’s techniques, gradually absorbing the sketchy painting style of other Impressionist artists. Whilst Luncheon on the Grass (1882) remains unfinished, the manner of painting is very different from her unfinished The Donkey Ride from two years previously. Rather than hatching in the background, Gonzalès wielded her paintbrush more like a pastel crayon, filling in areas with blocks or scribbles of colour.

Similar to Awakening Woman, Gonzalès cropped the scene to focus on one attendee of the Luncheon on the Grass. As usual, the model is her sister Jeanne, who holds a red fan, suggesting it is a hot day. With her elbow resting on a wooden chair, it is unknown whether Jeanne is alone, deep in thought, or if others are out of shot. If the latter, the cropping of the picture makes Jeanne appear isolated, as though she feels out of place in the company of others.

Since her death, Gonzalès’ work has been featured at the Salons de La Vie Moderne (1885), the Salon d’Automne (1907), and several galleries in Paris. The Musée National des Beaux-Arts in Monte Carlo also held an exhibition in 1952. Since then, her paintings have been mostly forgotten until now. The National Gallery goes into great depth about Manet’s Portrait of Eva Gonzalès, going as far as to show x-ray images of the painting. Whilst it is the main feature of the exhibition, the portrait allows the gallery to explore some of the works of Eva Gonzalès, including Une loge aux Théâtre ItaliensThe Donkey RideIndolence and The Bride. The exhibition also features a handful of other female artists who proved women were not restricted to “feminine” themes. Artists include Ellen Sharples (1793-1838), Gwen John (1876-1939), Milly Childers (1866-1922) and Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807).

Discover Manet & Eva Gonzalès is open until 15th January 2023 at the National Gallery in London. Admission is free.


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Fly In League With The Night

Cut short in 2020 due to lockdown, Tate Britain’s exhibition Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night has returned to the gallery for a final three months after touring internationally. Open to the public until 26th February 2023, the exhibition showcases Yiadom-Boakye‘s cryptic portraits of fictitious people with poetic titles, which leave the viewer desperately trying to understand her intentions. Without explanatory labels, visitors are invited to interpret the paintings in relation to themselves and their circumstances. Yiadom-Boakye is both an artist and a writer who writes “about the things I can’t paint and paint the things I can’t write about.” The exhibition is the first to celebrate Yiadom-Boakye’s work in depth, spanning from her graduation from the Royal Academy Schools in 2003 until her recent work of 2020.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye was born in 1977 in London to Ghanaian parents who moved to the UK to work for the NHS. She studied art at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design but disliked the teaching, so she transferred to Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall, where she graduated in 2000. Following this, she studied for a master’s degree at the Royal Academy Schools, which she achieved in 2003.

Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), a Nigerian art critic, gave Yiadom-Boakye her big break by exhibiting her work at Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. The museum is devoted to artists of African descent. In 2013, Yiadom-Boakye received a nomination for the Turner Prize, along with Laure Prouvost, who won; Tino Sehgal; and David Shrigley. Yiadom-Boakye received the nomination for her portrait paintings of imaginary subjects at her first solo exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, London.

In 2019, Yiadom-Boakye was featured on Powerlist’s top 100 influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage in the United Kingdom. The following year, she reached number 9 on the list, below the likes of the grime artist Stormzy and Jacky Wright, the vice president of Microsoft US. Although she earned the accolade for her artwork, Yiadom-Boakye describes herself as a writer of short stories and poems, yet she continues to excel at painting. In 2018, she became the first woman of colour awarded the Carnegie Prize for art.

Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings are predominantly figurative, featuring imaginary Black subjects in front of ambiguous backgrounds of monochromatic dark hues. She does not use models but often takes inspiration from scrapbooks and magazines or relies on her imagination. The figures tend to have contemplative facial expressions and relaxed postures, to which many viewers may relate. The more curious may wonder what the people are thinking, but no explanation is forthcoming.

In an interview, Yiadom-Boakye stated, “People ask me, ‘Who are they, where are they?’ What they should be asking is ‘what’ are they?” She deliberately makes her figures hard to place in time and location, giving them a sense of timelessness. The clothing rarely features anything cultural or time-specific, and Yiadom-Boakye prefers to paint her figures without shoes to avoid tying them to a particular era. By avoiding this, Yiadom-Boakye allows people to relate to the paintings regardless of their backgrounds.

Given Yiadom-Boakye’s Ghanaian ancestry, it is no surprise that she only paints Black figures. She had no ulterior motive for this, but when questioned, explained that she wants Black society to “exist unto itself” rather than in relation to White people and racial hardships. “I’ve never felt the need to explain its presence in the work any more than I’ve felt the need to explain my presence in the world.”

Rather than taking inspiration from other visual artists, Yiadom-Boakye turns to music and literature. Tate Britain includes several examples of literature and songs that have influenced Yiadom-Boakye, including Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome by Oscar Wilde. Her favourite music artists include Prince, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, James Brown and John Coltrane.

Listening to jazz music inspires Yiadom-Boakye to improvise, as many musicians do, but to also follow a plan. Rather than painstakingly agonising over elements of a painting that is not going right, Yiadom-Boakye changes track and creates something new. Using her imagination rather than drawing from life allows her to alter things during the painting process. An image of two figures may become one, and an outdoor setting may be moved inside.

Authors and literature do not necessarily inspire Yiadom-Boakye’s visual artwork but influence her choice of titles. During an interview with American curator Antwaun SargentYiadom-Boakye revealed, “There were certain references from literature that stuck with me, and made me think differently about language in relation to imagery. So the titles have never been descriptive; they’re never explanations of the paintings – they’re always another brush mark, a part of the painting, rather than a description of it.” While painting, a certain image, shade of colour, facial expression and so forth often triggers a remembered phrase or book title, which Yiadom-Boakye uses or adapts for the title.

The subtitle for the exhibition at Tate Britain also has no bearing on the artwork. Fly In League With The Night is a phrase from a poem by Yiadom-Boakye. It is quoted on the wall outside the entrance:
At Ease As The Day Breaks Beside Its Erasure 
And At Pains To Temper The Light 
At Liberty Like The Owl When The Need Comes Knocking 
To Fly In League With The Night 

Yiadom-Boakye prefers to focus on fictional people and settings because it gives her more control over the outcome. Art schools teach students to draw from life, but Yiadom-Boakye struggled to capture the essence of the models. Whilst paintings of her friends and family look accurate, they fail to reveal the individuals’ personalities. Using her imagination, Yiadom-Boakye is not under pressure to depict exact likenesses and personas. A relaxed figure may become pensive during the painting process, yet this does not ruin the portrait because there is no “right” way to portray imaginary people.

“Although they are not real I think of them as people known to me. They are imbued with a power of their own; they have a resonance – something emphatic and other-worldly. I admire them for their strength, their moral fibre. If they are pathetic, they don’t survive; if I feel sorry for someone, I get rid of them. I don’t like to paint victims.”

Photographs and magazines often inspire Yiadom-Boakye’s work, but she never paints from only one image. By keeping a scrapbook, Yiadom-Boakye combines elements in her artwork, almost like a collage, to create imaginary scenes. Whilst her figures are recognisably human, she does not paint famous faces or give away a person’s station in life. She wants Black people to exist without labels and without being compared to White people. Racial relations of the past, particularly in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, imply “you’re a goddess or a slave”, whereas most people are neither.

The way the paintings hang at an exhibition is another important factor of Yiadom-Boakye’s work. She worked with Tate Britain to decide where and how to display each image. Yiadom-Boakye paints with the canvas at eye level, so it makes sense to hang them at the same height. In some instances, the figures look directly at the viewer. In others, they peer at the painting next to them or across the room. Although each painting is an individual work of art, placing them next to or in the same room as other examples alters people’s interpretations.

Many of Yiadom-Boakye’s earlier works feature her signature dark colour palette, which evokes a sense of stillness. The plain backgrounds draw attention to the ahistorical fictional characters, who often appear alone on the canvas. In more recent works, Yiadom-Boakye has introduced more than one character into her imaginary scenes and has started to experiment with colour.

Speaking to The Guardian, Yiadom-Boakye said, “In the last few years, I’ve become obsessed with colour, too. My pictures used to be very dark, but now I’m putting in vivid reds and greens.” Yiadom-Boakye stuck to dark colours for so long because she felt confident in her ability to use them in her paintings. Introducing colour was initially a step out of her comfort zone, but now it is something she embraces.

Yiadom-Boakye has not hung her paintings chronologically, so each room has a mix of old and new artworks. Rather than separating the dark from the colourful styles, she encourages them to speak to each other through careful placing in the gallery. Instead of learning about the artist, visitors attend the exhibition to appreciate the paintings and Yiadom-Boakye’s artistic skills.

Although Yiadom-Boakye is a relatively new artist, she has inspired some artistic circles. In 2020, the Yale Center for British Art celebrated Women’s History Month, which featured a portrait of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye by the American artist Kehinde Wiley. Originally painted in 2017, the gallery installed it in place of a Thomas Gainsborough portrait of Lord Pulteney (1729-1805), who made his fortune in the Caribbean using slave labour. Wiley’s painting depicts Yiadom-Boakye in the guise of a rich, landowning, eighteenth-century white man. The artist aimed to subvert the norms of Western portraiture by placing Black figures in historical spaces.

Wiley’s painting differs from the way Yiadom-Boakye depicts Black figures. Rather than producing ahistorical portraits, he has deliberately placed Yiadom-Boakye in a time and place where it would have been impossible for a Black person to be a rich landowner. Wiley is drawing attention to the inequalities of the past and making people aware that the people depicted by famous artists of the past achieved their status by means that would be unacceptable in the 21st century.

Yiadom-Boakye, on the other hand, does not paint to make people question the past or draw attention to inequalities. She does not want to focus on how Black people were deemed different from White people. Instead, Yiadom-Boakye moves the attention away from racism and paints how she sees Black people: ordinary individuals.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: Fly In League With The Night is open until 26th February 2023 at Tate Britain. Tickets cost £16. Concessions are available.


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Making Modernism: Paula Modersohn-Becker

Until 12th February 2023, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the work of seven female artists who achieved success between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. These women (Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter, Marianne Werefkin, Ottilie Reylaender, Erma Bossi and Jacoba van Heemskerck) worked during a time the role of women in society was under fierce public debate. Women’s suffrage movements were prevalent in many countries, but other communities, particularly in Germany, believed women should dedicate themselves to the three Ks: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church).

The exhibition, Making Modernism, reveals women were excluded from art colleges, resulting in the establishment of “Ladies’ Academies” by the Association of Women Artists. Rural artists’ colonies also supported female artists, introducing them to Post-Impressionism and Expressionism. The seven artists included in the RA’s exhibition never joined a particular art movement, allowing them the freedom to develop their own style and create or break the rules, which many of their male counterparts could not do without upsetting or causing a stir among critics. 

Set up by theme rather than artist, the exhibition explores the types of work the seven female artists produced: portraits, children, landscapes, still-life etc. Whilst this is useful in some respects, it is harder to appreciate each artist individually. So, this blog post is the first in a series that looks at each woman’s life and successes, giving them the full attention they deserve.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907)

“The intensity with which a subject is grasped – still lives, portraits, or pictures from one’s imagination – is the beauty of art.”

Recognised as the first known female painter to paint nude self-portraits and the first woman to have a museum devoted exclusively to her art (the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum), Paula Modersohn-Becker was a German Expressionist painter. During her relatively short life, she produced 700 paintings and over 1000 drawings.

Born Minna Hermine Paula Becker on 8th February 1876 in Dresden-Friedrichstadt, Modersohn-Becker was the third child of the university professor Carl Woldemar Becker (1841–1901) and Mathilde (1852–1926) of the aristocratic von Bültzingslöwen family. Her parents raised Paula and her six siblings in a cultured and intellectual environment, evidently having high hopes for their future. Unfortunately, the children’s prospects were limited after their uncle, Oskar Becker (1839-68), shot King Wilhelm of Prussia in the neck in a failed assassination attempt in 1861.

In 1888, the Becker family moved to Bremen, where they interacted with local artistic circles. Encouraged by this, Modersohn-Becker started learning to draw, saying, “At first, I shall only be drawing, beginning with very simple arabesques and other designs. If I progress, then I shall make charcoal sketches after Greek plaster casts … If I advanced further, I shall begin drawing and painting from live models.” After attending private art lessons in Bremen, Modersohn-Becker’s parents sent her to relatives in England in 1892 to help her learn English. While there, Modersohn-Becker attended St John’s Wood Art School in London.

Returning to Bremen in 1893, Modersohn-Becker and two sisters attended a teacher’s seminary per their father’s wishes. During her spare time, Modersohn-Becker received painting lessons from Bernhard Wiegandt, a local artist, and set up an art studio at her parents’ house. Although Modersohn-Becker passed her teaching course, it was evident that she had no intention of continuing down that career path. Instead, she travelled to Berlin in 1896 to participate in a six-week art course run by the Verein der Berliner Künstlerinnen.

After completing the art course, Modersohn-Becker chose to remain in Berlin, where she enrolled in the first-ever painting class held at the Women’s Academy. She eventually returned to Bremen in 1898 but convinced her parents to allow her to attend another art course, this time at the artists’ colony in Worpswede. The colony consisted of artists who rejected traditional styles of art taught at academies. Under Fritz Mackensen’s (1866-1953) tutelage, Modersohn-Becker produced landscapes, focusing on colours, tones and textures. Unfortunately, Modersohn-Becker often received criticism from her tutor, who complained she let herself “into the foreground too much” rather than copying directly from nature.

Modersohn-Becker exhibited two paintings with the Worpswede group in the Bremen Kunsthalle in 1899, but they were removed after the hysterical critic, Arthur Fitger, protested the inclusion of female artists. At the time, Modersohn-Becker believed Fitger hated her paintings, which did not completely conform with the colony’s romanticized traditions of landscape painting. After this incident, Modersohn-Becker chose to move to Paris, where attitudes towards art were less restricted than in Bremen.

Modersohn-Becker arrived in Paris in 1900 and began studying at the Académie Colarossi. She frequently visited museums, where she felt inspired by the colourful paintings of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and members of Les Nabis, such as Pierre Bonnard and Félix Vallotton, who bridged the gap between Impressionism and Modernism. She noted these artists used simplistic or symbolic forms rather than true-to-life figures and natural colours. “Strive for the greatest simplicity by means of the most intimate observation.”

During Modersohn-Becker’s first year in Paris, the 1900 Paris Exposition celebrated the achievements of the past century by exhibiting the achievements and cultures of fifty-six countries. People travelled far and wide to attend the world fair, including artists from the Worpswede group. Modersohn-Becker knew one man, Otto Modersohn (1865-1943), from his occasional visits to the colony. Although he was married, the pair became close friends and met in Paris. Unfortunately, Modersohn’s trip to the city was cut short after receiving news that his wife, Helene, had passed away.

Despite her parent’s opposition, Modersohn-Becker followed Modersohn back to Worpswede, where they married in May 1901 after a short courtship. Modersohn-Becker wished to continue working as an artist but had to combine this with her responsibilities as a wife and a stepmother to Modersohn’s young daughter, Elsbeth. During the first couple of years of marriage, Modersohn-Becker managed to set up a studio on a nearby farm, where she completed several paintings of children. Some of these artworks, such as Girl in the Garden Next to a Glass Sphere (1901-2), may be portraits of her stepdaughter.

In 1903, Modersohn-Becker and her husband visited Paris for a couple of months. Modersohn-Becker used this time to visit art galleries and other artists, such as Auguste Rodin, Bonnard and Vallotton, who were starting to embrace Japanese styles. Modersohn-Becker returned to Paris alone in 1905, acknowledging that her husband did not find modern art appealing. She began taking drawing lessons at the Julian Academy but soon realised her style clashed with what the school taught.

After returning to Worpswede, Modersohn-Becker began to focus on still life, producing almost 50 scenes in two years. Some of her earlier paintings in this genre differ from her usual style. It is as though she attempted to copy the methods taught at the schools in Paris. Modersohn-Becker quickly rejected the realistic appearance in preference of bold colours and simplistic shapes. She also continued to paint portraits in this manner.

For most of 1906, Modersohn-Becker and her husband lived apart. Modersohn-Becker rented a studio on Avenue du Maine, Paris, near her friend Clara Westhoff, who was married to the writer Rainer Maria Rilke. Modersohn-Becker and Westhoff met at the colony in Worpswede and remained close friends. Modersohn-Becker was also good friends with Rilke, often writing to him from Worpswede. In February 1906, she wrote to Rilke about the difficulties she faced as a married artist. “And now, I don’t even know how I should sign my name, I’m not Modersohn and I’m not Paula Becker anymore either.”

Letters from Modersohn-Becker to her husband suggested she considered ending their marriage, asking him to “try to get used to the possibility of the thought that our lives can go separate ways”. During her separation from her husband, Modersohn-Becker accomplished some of her most distinctive works, including nude self-portraits, which were an atypical and shocking theme for a female artist. Critics label Modersohn-Becker’s nudes as unconventional because they express ambivalence toward the subject.

While in France, Modersohn-Becker declared in a letter to her sister, “I am becoming somebody – I’m living the most intensively happy period of my life.” Yet, she chose to return to her husband despite her yearning for independence. Modersohn-Becker’s journals and correspondence reveal she never stopped loving Modersohn but feared settling down and becoming a mother. She wanted to have a successful career by the age of 30 before thinking about having children.

Modersohn-Becker returned to Worpswede at the beginning of 1907. Now age 30, she felt able to settle down and start a family. During her pregnancy, Modersohn-Becker painted another nude self-portrait, making her the first known woman to paint herself nude, the first woman to paint herself pregnant, and the first woman to paint herself nude and pregnant. As far as art historians know, Modersohn-Becker never exhibited these paintings during her lifetime, perhaps out of fear of causing a scandal.

On 2nd November 1907, Modersohn-Becker gave birth to a girl, Mathilde (Tillie). Although overjoyed with her daughter, Modersohn-Becker felt unwell after the delivery, complaining of pains in her legs. The doctor prescribed a period of bed rest, as was the norm at that time. The doctor returned on 20th November to suggest she try to rise from her bed. Modersohn-Becker only managed to take a few steps before sitting down due to excruciating pain in her legs. She died shortly after asking for her daughter.

Today, physicians suspect Modersohn-Becker suffered from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is common in women told to rest for a long time after giving birth. At the time, doctors did not understand the risk of blood clots due to long periods of inactivity. When Modersohn-Becker rose from her bed for the first time, she loosened a clot in her leg, which caused her death when it obstructed a vital organ.

After Modersohn-Becker’s funeral at the Worpswede Cemetery, Rilke wrote the poem Requiem for a Friend in her memory. “Oh you were far beyond all fame; were almost invisible; had withdrawn your beauty, softly, as one would lower a brightly coloured flag on the grey morning after a holiday. You had just one desire: a year’s long work — which was never finished; was somehow never finished.” Friends and artists held exhibitions of Modersohn-Becker’s work, which brought her the fame she never achieved while alive. Collectors started to buy her paintings, and ten years after her death held a large exhibition at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover and published a collection of her letters and journals.

In 1927, art patron Ludwig Roselius (1874-1943) opened the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, the first museum devoted to a female artist. It is situated in a purpose-built Brick Expressionist building, which became a listed building in 1973. The museum contains paintings from all periods of Modersohn-Becker’s life. In 1935, local Nazi members attacked some of the artwork and museum, and the following year, Adolf Hitler denounced Modersohn-Becker’s paintings as degenerate, stating they were “A revolting mixture of colours, of idiotic figures, of sick children, degenerates, the dregs of humanity.”

Seventy of Modersohn-Becker’s paintings were removed from museums and/or destroyed by the Nazi party. Fortunately, Modersohn-Becker was a prolific artist, so only a 10th of her artwork disappeared during this period. At least 50 paintings belonged to her daughter, Mathilde Modersohn, who donated them to the Paula Modersohn-Becker-Stiftung (Paula Modersohn-Becker Foundation), founded in 1978.

In 2007, Modersohn-Becker’s parent’s house in Bremen opened as a private museum and art gallery. The project, run by Heinz and Betty Thies, began in 2003 when they purchased and restored the run-down house. The museum opened in time to honour the 100th anniversary of Modersohn-Becker’s death.

Visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition may not have heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker, but she has inspired several artists and is remembered in her home country. One biographer suggests Modersohn-Becker’s artwork inspired a couple of paintings by Pablo Picasso. Whether or not this is true, she certainly held enough influence to become one of the women on the Deutsche Bundespost‘s series of Women in German History postage stamps. Her life is also immortalised in the 2016 German bio-pic film, Paula, and fictionalised in Sue Hubbard’s 2012 novel, Girl in White.

Francesca Wade, writing for the Royal Academy magazine, describes Modersohn-Becker as “harnessing her emotional turmoil to create forceful self-portraits and a series of remarkable paintings of women – pregnant, breastfeeding, ageing.” Nowadays, having seen the likes of Lucian Freud and Paula Rego, Modersohn-Becker’s paintings are not as shocking as they were at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, the uniqueness of Modersohn-Becker’s work gets lost in a sea of Modern, Post-Modern and contemporary art, but in her lifetime, she was something new and daring. Modersohn-Becker paved the way for female artists to paint what and how they liked, whether naked self-portraits, pregnancy, breastfeeding women, landscapes or portraits. Regardless of personal aesthetic preferences, Paula Modersohn-Becker is an artist that needs to be included in galleries and exhibitions because she is a turning point in the history of art in a misogynistic world.

Paula Modersohn-Becker is one of seven artists featured in Making Modenism at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The exhibition is open until 12th February 2023 and tickets cost up to £19. Concessions are available, including free entry for Friends of the RA.

To be continued…


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Alexander: The Making of a Myth

Alexander the Great built an empire that stretched across the world and rode across the sky on a flying chariot, or so the legends say. This winter, the British Library is exploring the myths surrounding one of the most famous figures of the ancient world. With objects and books from 25 countries, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth examines the narratives that made Alexander a universal icon.

Alexander was born in Macedonia in 356 BC and died aged 32, by which time he had built a vast empire stretching from Greece to India. Legends about the great leader only began circulating after his death, making it difficult to extract the truth from the fiction. Even Alexander’s name does not remain constant in the legends and stories. In some cultures, he is called Iskandar or Sikandar, from which the anglicised “Alexander” developed. There are also many discrepancies in his appearance. A bust dating from the first or second century BC depicts Alexander as a beautiful youth. In contrast, an illustration in Johann Hartlieb’s Das Alexanderbuch (The Alexander Book, c.1444) shows Alexander with two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw.

Plutarch, a Greek historian, compiled one of the earliest biographies of Alexander around AD 100. Originally written in Greek, copies were translated into Latin and spread across Europe. From these, writers developed the “Alexander Romance”, which contains a largely fictional account of Alexander’s life. The text includes invented letters from Alexander to his teacher, Aristotle (384-322 BC), describing the fantastical beasts he met in the East.

The earliest surviving illustrated copy of the Alexander Romance dates to the 13th century. It was written an estimated 1,800 years ago in Greek before being translated into many languages, including Coptic, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Syriac and Hebrew. By the publication of the first illustrated version, the lines between fact and fiction had long disappeared. One artwork in the Historia Alexandri Magni kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, shows Alexander entering Rome on horseback, with bowing senators welcoming him on one side and the public waving palm leaves on the other. Whilst it is plausible that Alexander received a hero’s welcome, the palm leaves suggest the writer or illustrator wanted to elevate Alexander to the same level as Jesus Christ, who received a similar welcome in Jerusalem.

Alexander’s parentage differs between stories. Today, the consensus is Alexander was the son of Philip of Macedon (382-336 BC), the 18th king of Macedonia. The Alexander Romance claims the serpent-magician Nectanebo tricked Alexander’s mother, Olympias (375-316 BC), a Greek princess, into bed by disguising himself as the dragon-like Egyptian god Amun. Nectanebo II ruled as the pharaoh of Egypt from 358 BC until his deposition in 340 BC. Yet, the Persians regarded Alexander as the half-brother of King Darius III (380-330), making Alexander the legitimate heir of the Achaemenid Empire. With at least three possible fathers, different cultures believed Alexander was the rightful heir to either Macedonia, Egypt or Persia. Incidentally, Alexander conquered all three places during his short life.

Another half-truth, half-fiction legend about Alexander involves his horse, Bucephalus. Many artworks depict Alexander riding into battle on a fierce war-horse, which not only symbolises Alexander’s victories but also his physical feats and training to become a military commander. When Alexander first met Bucephalus, named after a type of branding mark anciently used on horses, the horse was a savage, man-eating beast. According to the Alexander Romance, King Philip locked the animal in a cage, where 15-year-old Alexander later discovered him. Immediately, the horse bowed before Alexander, acknowledging him as his master.

An alternative story claims that whoever rode Bucephalus would be king of the world. Many had tried and failed to tame the beast before Alexander, who realised the horse was afraid of its own shadow. Turning Bucephalus towards the sun so that his shadow fell behind him, Alexander stroked Bucephalus soothingly before jumping onto his back. The tale suggests Bucephalus immediately became tame, but regardless of whether it was instant or took time, Alexander rode Bucephalus during all his military campaigns, including in Greece, the Middle East, and India.

It is not certain who tutored Alexander in the art of warfare and military leadership, but between the ages of 13 and 16, Alexander received an academic education from Aristotle. Philip considered other scholars, such as Isocrates (436-338 BC) and Speusippus (408-339 BC), before settling on Aristotle. For a classroom, Philip provided Aristotle with the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza, in ancient Macedonia, and agreed to rebuild Aristotle’s home town of Stageira in place of payment. During Philip’s earlier campaigns, he raised Stageira to the ground and enslaved or exiled the inhabitants.

Alexander spent most of his school days in Mieza with other children of Macedonian nobles, such as Ptolemy (367-282 BC), Hephaistion (356-324 BC), and Cassander (355-297 BC). Known collectively as the “Companions”, these friends became Alexander’s future generals. Hephaistion was “by far the dearest of all the king’s friends; he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets.” Several writers refer to Alexander and Hephaistion’s relationship in a similar vein to the mythical Achilles and Patroclus, suggesting they may have been more than friends. Ptolemy became pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt and Cassander the king of Macedonia following Alexander’s death.

Aristotle taught Alexander and his companions about medicine, philosophy, religion, logic, and art. Alexander developed a passion for the works of the Greek poet Homer, particularly the Iliad, which references the aforementioned relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Alexander also learned quotes from memory, such as lines written by the Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 BC). As for politics, Alexander picked up most of his knowledge by talking to Persian exiles at his father’s court. Philip granted Persian nobles protection after they opposed his enemy, Artaxerxes III (359-338 BC).

Philip of Macedon passed away in 336 BC, making his son the new king of Macedonia. Within ten years, Alexander expanded his empire and became the inspiration for many rulers over dozens of centuries. Alexander’s first major success was the defeat of the Persians at the battles of Granicus and Issus in present-day Turkey, followed by conquering Egypt and finally overthrowing King Darius in 331 BC. In Egypt, Alexander left his greatest legacy: the foundation of the city of Alexandria. This was the largest of the twenty-or-so cities named after Alexander throughout his empire. Stories also claim he erected the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

When Alexander first set his sights on Egypt, it was under the rule of Persia. Although King Darius controlled all of Persia, he delegated areas to his governors. Alexander defeated the Egyptian governor, was greeted as a liberator and was crowned the new Pharoah. Naturally, Alexander’s actions riled Darius, who met Alexander in battle at Gaugamela in modern-day Iraq in 331 BC. This was the final meeting between Alexander and the Persian armies. Realising he was outnumbered, Darius fled from the scene, only to be injured by two of his men. According to legend, when Alexander caught up with Darius, he ordered the two men’s execution and comforted the mortally wounded king. During his final moments, Darius allegedly asked Alexander to look after his family, marry his daughter Roxana and preserve the Zoroastrian religion.

Despite Alexander’s supposed distress over Darius’ death, he continued to capture the remaining parts of the Persian empire. In 326, Alexander reached Punjab, India, where he defeated King Porus. Some legends claim Alexander spared Porus’ life, who then made Alexander a subordinate ruler as a way of thanks. Other stories allege that Alexander killed Darius and continued his journey to China, although some scholars do not believe Alexander travelled so far east.

Regardless of the outcome, all the stories about Alexander’s army in India involve facing colossal war elephants. A coin dating to 323 BC depicts King Porus sitting on the giant animal while Alexander, riding Bucephalus, attacks him from behind with a spear. Different versions of the story propose a variety of ways Alexander overcame the army of elephants. The Shahnameh (15th century), the longest poem ever written by a single author, suggests Alexander ordered his blacksmiths to build 1,000 oil-filled iron horses, which he set alight in front of the advancing Indian army. Terrified of the flames, the elephants fled, taking their riders with them. Das Alexanderbuch contains an alternative account in which Alexander used red-hot pokers to scare the elephants.

Alexander did not spend all his time fighting but also focused on spreading peace throughout his conquered lands. While in India, he met the Brahmans, a group of priests who believed “greed is the root of all evil and we will leave this world naked and without our possessions.” In many illustrated versions of Alexander’s history, the Brahmans are naked, while Alexander and his men dress in ornate clothing. Fictitious dialogues between Alexander and Dindimus, the king of the Brahmans, suggest the king convinced Alexander there was no point waging war when the Brahmans had no possessions to lose.

In China, if indeed Alexander reached the country, he defeated two champions, Tengu and Kanifu, the latter of whom turned out to be a woman. On his way home from China, Alexander received news that the Russians had captured Queen Nushabah of Persia, so he immediately changed his route to liberate the queen and defeat her captors. After seven violent battles, Alexander defeated the Russian leader and returned Queen Nushabah to her native country.

With so many countries now part of his empire, Alexander became associated with many cultures and religions. The Egyptians acknowledged Alexander as the son of the Egyptian god Amun or the former Pharoah Nectanebo. He also appeared in Christian, Jewish and Islamic texts. Despite promising King Darius to preserve the Zoroastrian religion, many Persians accused Alexander of destroying the religion. According to the Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), Alexander tore down the temples, burned the sacred texts and introduced Islam to Persia.

In the Babylon Talmud, a primary source of Jewish law, Alexander bowed down before the High Priest, Simon the Righteous. Also known as Simeon the Just, the priest went to Antipatris to meet Alexander as he marched through the Land of Israel in 332 BC. Alexander’s men criticised their leader for bowing to the priest, but he assured them he had received instruction to do so in a dream. Alexander went on to demand a statue of himself placed in the Temple, but Simon explained this was impossible. Instead, the High Priest promised that all the sons born of priests in that year would be named Alexander.

According to the Sefer Alexandros Mokdon (Tales of Alexander the Macedonian), Alexander attempted to get into the Garden of Eden. After being told “No heathen or uncircumcised male may enter,” Alexander was secretly circumcised. This claim demonstrates Alexander wanted to conform to Jewish practices, or at least this is what the Jews chose to believe. Yet, in the 18th-century Ethiopian Zena Eskender (The Story of Alexander), the writer claims God chose Alexander to be a prophet. “For I have set thee to be a prophet unto Me by reason of the purity of thy body, and through thy prayers which have come unto Me.”

In the Qur’an, Alexander is associated with the story of Dhu’l-Qarnayn, whose name means “two horns”. The name coincides with the idea that Alexander had two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw. According to the story, Dhu’l-Qarnayn (or Alexander) travelled to the end of the world, where he built a wall to separate the barbarous peoples of Gog and Magog from the righteous. Gog and Magog also appear in the Hebrew Bible, where they are viewed as enemies to be defeated by the Messiah.

Regardless of Alexander’s religious status, he believed in polygamy and had several wives, most notably Roxana and Stateira. Scholars also question Alexander’s sexuality, referencing his close relationship with his companion Hephaistion and a slave called Bagoas. During his campaigns, Alexander met many powerful women, including Queen Nushabah, who he rescued from the Russians, and Kanifu, who he defeated in China.

Alexander first met Roxana after the death of her father, Darius. Their marriage was celebrated across the empire, and some accounts claim Alexander was captivated by his new wife’s beauty. Soon after, Alexander married another of Darius’ children, Stateira. Roxana, besieged by jealousy, never got on with Stateira and killed her after Alexander’s death in 323 BC. Another story reveals Alexander received the daughter of King Kayd of Hind (India) as a tribute to avoid war. The author writes that Alexander married her “according to the Christian religion”.

Over time, Alexander’s legendary feats have become more mythical with the insertion of fantastic beasts, such as griffins and dragons. The Alexander Romance claims four griffins carried Alexander and his chariot across the sky, and a Persian poem by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) describes Alexander’s adventure to the bottom of the ocean in a glass diving bell. To make this all the more unbelievable, a French version of the Alexander Romance reveals he travelled with a cockerel to tell him the time and a cat to purify the air. While submerged in the water, Alexander came face-to-face with monstrous creatures, including giants with sword-like horns. Various stories also tell of Alexander’s victory over a dragon, which he fed several poisonous cows.

Alexander desired to become immortal, but many oracles foretold his death, such as the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, which told him he would die soon and never see his mother again. While in Punjab, the risk of a mutiny urged Alexander to return to Babylon. On his arrival, the still-birth of a half-human, half-creature was taken as an omen of Alexander’s pending death. Soon after, Alexander fell terminally ill and passed away in June 323 BC, aged 32. No one knows the cause of Alexander’s death, although some suggest typhoid fever.

Different cultures and religions continue to debate over Alexander’s final resting place. According to Persian tradition, his funeral procession was conducted as per Alexander’s wishes, with one arm hanging loose to show that he went to the grave empty-handed. Other stories talk of an elaborate carriage that carried Alexander from Babylon to Egypt. Historians believe the original plan was to take the body to Macedonia, but for reasons unknown, the funeral procession took a different route. The Persians wanted Alexander’s body to be interred in Iran, but the Greeks insisted he should be brought to them. Finally, an oracle allegedly decided, “His remains belong in Alexandria.”

The Bibliotheca historical, written by the historian Diodorus Siculus between 60 and 30 BC, describes Alexander’s funeral carriage as having a golden roof, a net curtain, statues, and four iron wheels. Sixty-four mules pulled the carriage while roadmenders, mechanics and soldiers accompanied the procession to ensure it all went smoothly. Artists have used this description as a base for paintings, such as André Bauchant’s (1873-1958) Les Funérailles d’Alexandre le-Grand (1940), which depicted Alexander’s companion, Ptolemy, as a pharaoh at the head of the procession.

The whereabouts of Alexander’s body remains a mystery, despite many quests to find it. Historians and authors have professed many theories, including the mistaking of Alexander’s bones for St Mark, but there is no concrete proof. Writings about Alexander’s death and burial are largely fiction, as is the majority of his life. Yet, Alexander has been and remains an inspiration for many leaders, from Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) to Henry VIII of England (1419-1547) and Louis XIV of France (1638-1715).

For someone who conquered so much land during a short period, there is relatively little information about Alexander the Great. It is also debatable whether he deserved the epithet “the Great”. In capturing so many countries and defeating other rulers, he left a lot of destruction in his wake. In dying so young, Alexander did not have time to rebuild ruined cities and place his mark upon the world in the form of architecture. Nor did he dramatically change the various cultures and religions in his Empire, except for mythical stories, the majority of which appeared long after his death.

The British Library tells the story (or stories) of Alexander the Great through a range of media. Books and illustrations from the past centuries reveal the different cultural beliefs and varying histories of the young emperor. Videos and audio, such as George Frideric Handel‘s (1685-1759) opera Alessandro, demonstrate the impact of the legendary man up to the present day. For those who know very little about Alexander, the exhibition provides a wealth of information, but visitors may come away with more questions than answers.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open until Sunday 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £19, although over 60s can visit for £9.50 of Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays (excluding holidays).


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Champollion le Jeune

Until 19th February 2023, the British Museum is exploring Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in an exhibition supported by BP. Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt contains many examples of beautiful symbols that once represented a written and spoken language used in North East Africa. These symbols remained a mystery for thousands of years, although medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars deciphered a few of their meanings. In 1799, an artefact was found by chance, containing the key to unlocking the ancient language. With the help of the French philologist Jean-François Champollion, the world has a much better understanding of one of Earth’s oldest civilisations.

In 1799, French soldiers, preparing for battle with the Ottoman Empire, decided to rebuild an old fort in Rasheed, Egypt. In doing so, they found a broken stone in the rubble that contained carvings of three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphs and another form of Egyptian writing (demotic). Realising the stone’s importance, the soldiers rescued it from the rubble. At the time, the Europeans knew Rasheed as ‘Rosette’, meaning ‘little rose’, which is why the artefact is known as the Rosetta Stone today.

After French forces surrendered during the Battle of the Nile, the Capitulation of Alexandria treaty stated the French must give any Egyptian antiquities to Britain. As a result, the Rosetta Stone travelled to England, where it remains in the British Museum.

From the Greek, scholars translated the inscriptions on the stone. It contains a priestly decree from 27th March 196 BC, drawn up by a council of Egyptian priests in Memphis. The text praises the acts and honours of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, the king of Egypt from 204 BC until 180 BC.

Jean-François Champollion was born on 23rd December 1790 in Figeac, in Southwestern France. His father, Jacques Champollion, was an infamous drunk, and his mother, Jeanne-Françoise Gualieu, does not feature much in her son’s biography. Instead, Champollion grew up under the care of his older brother, Jacques-Joseph (1778-1867). At the time, his brother was an up-and-coming archaeologist, so Champollion was often called Champollion le Jeune (the young). Champollion eventually lost this nickname after surpassing his brother in fame.

In 1802, Champollion attended the school of the Abbé Dussert, where he discovered he had a natural talent for languages. During his two years at the school, Champollion started learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other Semitic languages, such as Arabic. He also developed a keen interest in Ancient Egypt, which his brother and Abbé Dussert encouraged.

Champollion’s aptitude for languages caught the attention of Joseph Fourier (1769-1830), a French mathematician who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) on his Egyptian expedition in 1798, during which the Rosetta Stone was discovered. Following the expedition, Napoleon entrusted Fourier with the Description de l’Égypte, which catalogued all the artefacts and hieroglyphs the French uncovered. Fourier invited 11-year-old Champollion to view the document and other Ancient Egyptian items. Champollion was instantly enthralled, especially after hearing that the hieroglyphs were unintelligible. From that moment on, Champollion determined to be the first person to decipher them.

In 1804, Champollion began attending a school in Grenoble, where he studied Coptic, a language similar to Egyptian. These studies proved useful during Champollion’s later attempts at translating the Rosetta Stone. From 1807 to 1809, Champollion attended a college in Paris, where he studied under Baron Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), the first Frenchman to attempt to translate the Rosetta Stone. Champollion also received tuition from the orientalist Louis-Mathieu Langlès (1763-1824) and former Coptic monk Raphaël de Monachis (1759-1831). Champollion divided his time between the Collège de France, the Special School of Oriental Languages, the National Library, where his brother worked, and the Commission of Egypt. So engrossed was he with his studies, that Champollion began dressing in Arab clothing and calling himself Champollion Al Seghir (the Arab translation of le jeune).

Champollion first began studying the Rosetta stone in 1808, when he was 17 years old. Around this time, he was starting to suffer from various health issues, including gout and tinnitus, most likely brought on by the unsanitary environments around Paris, yet his brother encouraged him to continue with his studies. To start with, Champollion relied on trial and error, changing his direction of research each time he hit a dead end. Like many other scholars, Champollion relied on other Egyptian artefacts, particularly papyrus, not realising there was more than one type of script. A cursive style known as Hieratic was the main script used in Egypt between the 3rd millennium BC and the first millennium BC. The Hieratic script could be read in any direction, depending on the circumstance. Conversely, the Rosetta Stone is written in Demotic script, which was only read from right to left.

Demotic script bridged the gap between Hieratic and Coptic, of which the latter came into use in the 3rd century AD. Another form of writing also developed between the two periods. Known as Sahidic or Thebaic, many early Coptic texts were written in this dialect, for example, copies of religious writings, such as the resurrection of Jesus. Champollion surmised that by studying Sahidic texts, such as the Askew Codex, containing translations of the Gnostic Pistis Sophia (teachings of the transfigured Jesus and his Disciples), he would notice similarities with the writing on the Rosetta Stone. He also looked for similar symbols, particular those representing place names.

Meanwhile, in England, Thomas Young (1773-1829), a 41-year-old Egyptologist, began working on the Rosetta Stone in 1814. Whilst Young and Champollion were rivals, Young’s efforts to decipher the text helped Champollion eventually crack the code.

Champollion and Young’s rivalry encouraged others to join the race to become the first person to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Egypt soon became a popular tourist destination, and many scholars and archaeologists visited the country to unearth more inscriptions to assist in the translation. These items, including drawings, proved useful to Champollion, particularly sketches of hieroglyphs by the copyist Frédéric Cailliaud (1787-1869).

Champollion agreed with Young’s theory that Demotic script consisted of words (or ideas) and phonetic signs. Earlier hieroglyphs may not have been read aloud, but the influence of the Greek language on the Egyptians encouraged them to include verbal language in their symbols. This observation proved to be the vital key to translating the Rosetta Stone. On 14th September 1822, Champollion excitedly exclaimed to his brother, “Je tiens l’affaire, vois!” (“Look, I’ve got it!”), and promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

Whilst Champollion had not translated the entire Rosetta Stone, he had identified and successfully deciphered several royal Egyptian names, such as “Ptolemy” and “Ramesses”. Testing this discovery on other symbols, Champollion found “Thutmose”, the name of a ruler often mentioned by classical rulers. He also found “King Taharqa”, who lived between 690 and 664 BC. Royal names were indicated by a particular symbol, and Champollion quickly discovered another sign to indicate common names.

Annoyed that Champollion was receiving all the credit, Young argued that Champollion relied on the work of other people to push him in the right direction. Young also claimed Champollion’s translations were inaccurate. For example, Champollion deciphered the names “Antiochus” and “Antigonus”, whereas the Greek text said “Antimachus” and “Antigenis”. Young thought this was proof that Champollion should not receive all the accolades but many scholars were happy to overlook Champollion’s errors. Despite Young’s protestations, Champollion continued to develop his ideas for the next five years before proclaiming on 1st January 1829 that he had nothing further to add. He had perfected his “alphabet” and could apply it successfully to all the monuments in Egypt. Unlike other scholars, Champollion grasped the structural logic of the language.

In 1828, Champollion finally had the chance to visit Egypt on an expedition with his friend and fellow Egyptologist, Ippolito Rosellini (1800-43). Champollion’s understanding of hieroglyphs made a fundamental difference, allowing far more insight than previous expeditions. A tomb discovered in 1817 was thought to belong to King Psamtek I, but with Champollion’s expertise, the name was correctly deciphered as “Sety”.

After a year, Champollion returned to France with at least 100 pieces for the Louvre Palace, now the Louvre museum. These objects left Egypt with the permission of the Ottoman authorities in Egypt, unlike the Rosetta Stone, which was taken from the French by the British. The true ownership of the Rosetta Stone remains a controversial issue.

Champollion did not limit himself to the translation of the Rosetta Stone. During his studies, he helped translate several monuments and inscriptions, including the fictional Teaching of King Amenemhat, which Champollion initially failed to realise was a work of fiction. Champollion was also the first modern scholar to identify King Ahmose as the founder of the 18th dynasty of Egypt (1550-1295 BC).

Champollion’s achievements not only deciphered a writing system but also uncovered one of the oldest written languages in human history. Aside from being able to translate hieroglyphs, scholars now understood how Egyptians measured time and years, commemorated ancestors, or in some cases, attempted to erase people from history. Whilst Champollion died young at 41, his legacy still lives on.

Champollion’s studies were all-consuming, but he also enjoyed life outside of work when he could. After two failed attempts at love, Champollion married Rosine Blanc (1794-1871), the daughter of a well-to-do family of Grenoblean glovemakers. At the time, Rosine’s father disapproved of the match but changed his tune after Champollion’s reputation grew. Champollion and Rosine had a daughter, Zoraïde, but Champollion’s work schedule prevented him from watching her grow up. Being away for weeks, months, or even years at a time put a strain on the marriage, yet they remained faithful to each other. Rosine and Zoraïde lived with Champollion’s brother, meaning Champollion did not need to worry about their well-being when he was away.

After returning from a second expedition in 1831, Champollion was appointed to the chair of Egyptian history and archaeology at the Collège de France by King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850). Unfortunately, Champollion only gave three lectures before illness forced him to give up the post. Exhausted by his labours during his scientific expedition to Egypt, on top of his chronic poor health, Champollion died after suffering a stroke on 4th March 1832 while in Paris. His burial took place in Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris, where his grave is marked with a tall obelisk.

A lot of Champollion’s work was published after his death. His brother edited portions of Champollion’s papers and published his almost-finished Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian in 1838. Controversy over Champollion’s decipherment claims continued for many years, but after Champollion’s work helped his student Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-84) successfully decipher the Decree of Canopus, dating from 243 BC, Champollion’s reputation as the true decipherer of the hieroglyphs was cemented.

In Figeac, Champollion’s birthplace, he is honoured with La place des Écritures, a giant reproduction of the Rosetta Stone by American artist Joseph Kosuth (born 1945). Yet, Champillion’s greatest legacy is the continuation of his work by contemporary Egyptologists. The British Museum has Champollion partly to thank for the amount of information they packed into the Hieroglyphs exhibition. Ancient artefacts can only tell scholars so much about the lives of the Ancient Egyptians, but being able to decipher hieroglyphs gives them access to thousands of years of information.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is not an exhibition about Jean-François Champollion, although he is mentioned a great deal. The British Museum comments on the information these hieroglyphs unlock, including poetry, international treaties, shopping lists, tax returns and many stories about ancient beliefs. Yet it is Champollion’s initial decipherment in 1822, exactly 200 years ago, that has inspired the exhibition, so he deserves as much attention as the objects on display.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is on view at the British Museum until 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £18 (or £20 at weekends) and must be purchased in advance. Members and under-16s can visit for free.


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Winslow Homer

For the first time, the National Gallery in London displays a selection of works by American artist Winslow Homer. Known in the United States for his depiction of leading issues of the 19th century, such as the Civil War and racism, Homer remained popular in America for many years after his death. Although he briefly stayed in England, Homer did not attain the same popularity in the United Kingdom. The exhibition, Winslow Homer: Force of Nature, provides the opportunity for people to discover the paintings that Americans have loved for over a century.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 24th February 1836, Winslow Homer grew up in a middle-class family consisting of two parents and two brothers. His father, Charles Savage Homer, was a businessman, constantly seeking out “get-rich-quick” schemes that never came to fruition. Charles eventually left his family to seek his nonexistent fortune in Europe. Homer’s mother, Henrietta Benson Homer, taught her son to paint with watercolour and encouraged his interest in art. Despite his father’s selfish money-making endeavours, Charles found an apprenticeship for his son with the lithographer J. H. Bufford, who introduced Homer to the world of engraving and illustration.

Homer found work with Harper’s Weekly, one of the most popular middle-class magazines in New York City. Whilst Homer turned down a permanent position on the magazine’s staff, he worked as a freelancer from his studio in Boston, producing drawings to illustrate articles on various subjects. Homer also attended classes at the National Academy of Design in New York to expand his artistic horizons. By the time the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Homer was an established illustrator and an up-and-coming oil and watercolour painter.

The Civil War became the focus of most American magazines, so Harper’s Weekly sent Homer to the Union Army Front in Virginia to draw illustrations. The artists covering the war were the 19th-century equivalent of sending photographers and news reporters. The work was dangerous and exhausting for Homer, but he produced some of the most powerful images of the Civil War. Several of these he reproduced as oil paintings, such as Sharpshooter (1863), which depicts a Union rifleman sitting in a tree, aiming at an unseen target in the distance. Homer said the scene was as close to murder as anything he had ever seen, and he frequently questioned the morals and human stakes of the war.

Homer believed the most powerful images derived from focusing on specific details. He said, “When you paint, try to put down exactly what you see. Whatever else you have to offer will come out anyway.” Homer did not draw what he wanted people to see but instead painted what he could see, whether boredom and hunger or terror and violence. Although he did not physically fight during the Civil War, Homer likely suffered emotionally and psychologically after witnessing the horrors of battle. When he returned home, his mother noted he had changed so much that not even his best friends recognised him.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the country entered a period of reconstruction. With the abolishment of slavery, African Americans became free citizens and received, to some extent, the same civil rights as their former masters. Homer spent some time in the southern states, where slavery was once prevalent, and soon realised that the Civil War had not solved America’s problems. He noted that reconstruction was not working and began depicting post-war African American life in his paintings.

In A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876), Homer demonstrated the new social relationships between former slave and mistress. The African American women in the painting were once the property of the stern white woman, but now they are her employees. Rather than working for nothing, they are paid for their work, which means they must pay for their board and lodgings. Former slaves received very little money for their work, which meant they remained in slave-like conditions because they could not afford to move away.

The silent, sad girls in The Cotton Pickers (1876) are no longer slaves, but their workload has not changed. They picked cotton before the war and are still picking cotton afterwards. Whilst Homer’s beautiful depiction of the cotton fields makes the painting pleasant to look at, it is full of deeper meaning. Homer never explained his artwork, but the lack of joy on the figures’ faces suggests their lives have not changed since the abolition of slavery. Former slaves still lived in a deeply racist world where the rise of white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan, found alternative ways of policing African Americans. Shortly after the completion of this painting, Jim Crow laws were implemented, which enforced racial segregation in society.

In 1881, Homer moved to England for a couple of years. Initially, he travelled to London, but after a week, he moved to Cullercoats, a fishing village in what was once Northumberland (now Tyne and Wear). Homer became a part of the Cullercoats Artist Colony, who frequently painted the “Cullercoats Fish Lasses” going about their work. These women, some as young as 14, worked in all weathers, cleaning fish and mending nets. Many of these workers carried their babies and children on their backs while they worked despite the bracing strong and bitter winds. When they were not working, the women frequently stood at the water’s edge, awaiting the return of their husbands, fathers and brothers.

During the 19th century, the life of a fisherman was dangerous. There was no guarantee that the men would return safely to shore. Drownings and shipwrecks were a daily occurrence, and Homer spent much of his time in Cullercoats recording and observing the perils at sea.

During Homer’s time in Cullercoats, a large ship called the Iron Crown foundered at the mouth of the River Tyne on 20th October 1881. The villagers raised the alarm and everyone, including Homer, rushed to the shore to begin rescue operations. While the more skilled men sailed out in lifeboats, Homer documented the event on paper with quick sketches, which he later developed into dramatic oil paintings.

Homer returned to the United States in 1882 and began demonstrating his skills in watercolours as well as oils. After spending a few months in New York, Homer settled in Prouts Neck, Maine, a small coastal town that reminded him of Cullercoats. Whilst the elemental, austere location gave Homer lots of inspiration for his paintings, he began to travel south during the winter because the warmer climate was better for his health. He visited places such as Florida, the Bahamas, Barbados and Bermuda and observed the various ways of life. Many of these works featured bright colours, reflecting the sundrenched scenes and different cultures.

Although Homer produced more watercolour paintings in his later years, he continued to work in oils for larger, dramatic scenes. His trips to Florida and the Caribbean involved crossing the Gulf Stream, a warm, swift current in the Atlantic Ocean. He chose to paint an imagined scene depicting a lone black sailor in a state of peril. Before producing The Gulf Stream (1899), Homer created several watercolours representing the different parts of the sailor’s journey. For his oil painting, Homer chose to surround the boat with sharks while the sailor lies defeated on the deck with only several stalks of sugar cane to sustain him.

Many people have tried to interpret what Homer was trying to say in his painting of The Gulf Stream. Although people frequently asked Homer to elaborate, he always refused. Some suggest the sugar cane is an allegory for the fate of African Americans because it was once a predominant product of enslaved labour in the Americas and West Indies. Others are more concerned about the man’s fate, noting both the presence of the frenzy of sharks in the foreground and the silhouette of a ship in the background. Contemporary critics comment on its relevance to today’s society, particularly in relation to migrants crossing the Mediterranean and the migration of Cubans to America, many of whom lost their lives in the attempt.

By the end of Homer’s life, he was one of the most famous living American artists, but he did not reach financial stability until 1900 at the age of 64. The money he received from museums for his paintings was relatively good, and his father’s death two years before meant Homer no longer needed to pay for his father’s care.

For the final decade of his life, Homer continued producing watercolours and oils, but he turned his attention to nature, from which no hidden messages can be subtracted. Homer once told an art student, “Leave rocks for your old age – they’re easy.” Following his own advice, Homer focused on rocks upon the shore, rarely including signs of human life.

Homer’s final oil painting, Driftwood (1909), included a lone figure in the bottom right corner, once again prompting people to question the meaning of his work. The rest of the painting is similar to Homer’s other scenes from this era, which focus on the violent sea crashing over rocks. The man is attempting to move a large piece of driftwood, a task that seems futile as the crashing waves approach. Some have interpreted the figure as Homer facing his impending death. Whether or not Homer knew he was dying, he passed away the following year at the age of 74.

Most artists experience a decline in popularity after their death, but Homer has remained popular in the United States. Homer never taught in schools, but many students chose to study his work, both before and after his death. Homer did not offer much advice about painting techniques but encouraged artists to “Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.”

Homer continued to inspire and influence Americans throughout the 20th century. In 1962, the US Post Office honoured Homer with a commemorative stamp. The image showed a copy of the painting Breezing Up, which Homer painted between 1873 and 1876. It depicts a relatively calmer sea than in his later works. In 2010, the Post Office produced another stamp featuring another of Homer’s paintings. It was printed as part of a series of “American Treasures”.

Newspapers during the 1890s called Homer “Yankee Robinson Crusoe, cloistered on his art island” and “a hermit with a brush”. Homer never married and spent most of his time alone. In 1909, he declined an invitation to spend Thanksgiving with his brother because he preferred to stay home and paint. Due to his reclusive nature, very little is known about Homer as a person. The subject matters of his paintings suggest he liked nature and the outdoors, particularly by the sea. Earlier works indicated which side he supported during the Civil War and how he felt about the treatment of African Americans, but none of these interpretations are fully reliable. Despite Homer’s prolific output and popularity, the man remains a mystery.

Unlike artists of the Renaissance, the Dutch Golden Age and other European eras, Homer’s popularity did not spread outside of his home country. Other Americans, such as Andy Warhol, became known for their controversial topics and styles, while Homer’s powerful paintings were overlooked. The National Gallery, with support from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is finally introducing the UK to this phenomenal artist. With 50 paintings on display, Winslow Homer becomes the next artist in the gallery’s attempt to introduce major American artists to a European audience. Previous artists in the programme have included Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.

Winslow Homer: Force of Nature is open until 8th January 2023. The standard admission price is £12, although some concessions are available. Tickets must be booked in advance.


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An American Colourist

Until 16th October 2022, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the works of Milton Avery, one of North America’s greatest 20th-century colourists. Milton Avery: American Colourist is the first ever exhibition of Avery’s artwork on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Falling between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, Avery’s work is full of carefully balanced colour, which became more harmonious and simplified as his career progressed.

Milton Clark Avery was born on 27th March 1885 in Altmar, New York to Esther March (d. 1926) and Russell Avery (d. 1905). His father was a tanner, and the family moved around a bit until they settled near Hartford, Connecticut. Avery attended school until age 16, after which he started working at the Hartford Machine and Screw Company. Four years later, Avery enrolled in an evening class at the Connecticut League of Art Students to learn “commercial lettering”. He hoped this would improve his job prospects, but part way into the course, he transferred to drawing classes and dedicated the rest of his life to art.

Avery’s early works, dating between 1910 and 1918, reveal the influence of American Impressionist painters, who produced impasto paintings of landscapes. Gradually, Avery began using thinner paint, making his paintings flatter and less natural. He also started using arbitrary colours, often creating a distorted reality. As he moved away from Impressionism, Avery stopped painting from life, preferring to make quick sketches on-site and return to his studio to recreate them in oil paint.

From 1920, Avery started spending his summers in the art colony of Gloucester in Massachusetts. Despite his aspirations to be an artist, Avery took on other jobs, such as construction work, to pay for his tuition. Avery could finally focus on his painting after meeting the illustrator Sally Michel (1902-2003) at the art colony in 1924. Two years later, Avery and Sally married and moved to a studio complex in New York. While Sally worked as an illustrator for the New York Times, Avery devoted himself to painting and studying the arts.

During the late 1920s, Avery began exhibiting his work, starting with the 11th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1927. After attending several shows, the Philips Memorial Gallery purchased Winter Riders, the first of his paintings bought by a museum. The art style shows Avery was beginning to move away from Impressionism, although he still used some techniques, such as layering thick paint to create a sense of texture.

Avery and Sally continued to spend their summers in Gloucester until the birth of their daughter March in 1932. During the summer months, Avery sketched and painted beach scenes, but around the time of his daughter’s birth, he began experimenting with cityscapes too. At this stage of his career, Avery’s paintings still contained a lot of energy, such as Chariot Race (1933). The carnival scene is a stark contrast to Avery’s other landscapes, which have the typical layout of a foreground, middle ground, background and horizon.

After settling in New York with his wife and daughter, Avery became part of the artistic community in the city. He joined the Valentine Gallery and held his first solo exhibition in 1935. The attention he received from this and other small exhibitions helped widen his friendship circle, which included the artists Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74). The Averys hosted many friends and acquaintances at their apartment, where they discussed art and read poetry.

Rothko and Gottlieb visited Avery daily, paying great interest in Avery’s work. Known for his prolificness, Avery often completed a painting every day, which inspired his fellow artists. Despite his popularity, Avery did not talk much during gatherings, preferring to sit, listen and sketch the surroundings. Many of the objects he drew ended up in future paintings, as did portraits of the people in the room.

Avery’s early portraits, such as March in Babushka (1940), which depicts his daughter wearing a headscarf, became less detailed than his earlier landscapes. Despite winning a prize for portraiture in 1919, Avery did not produce many portraits in his early years. After the birth of his daughter, he moved away from landscape to focus on portraits of people within cityscapes. This change also signalled a new approach to colour and form, which he simplified and stripped of any layers or sentiment. Yet, in 1947, Avery held his first retrospective exhibition titled My Daughter March, which emphasised his love for his family.

During the 1940s, Avery stopped creating formal portraits but continued to include human figures in his work. Most of these figures lost any distinguishing features, such as the faceless girl in Seated Girl With Dog (1944), whose face is split between light and shadow with two contrasting colours. Avery no longer used the colours of nature, instead experimenting with various hues and tones. By thinning the paint, Avery covered large areas of the canvas with a single colour, focusing on the shape rather than perspective. He used the tone of colour to determine the atmosphere of the scene rather than rely on intricate details.

Avery’s change of style in the 1940s established him as one of America’s leading colourists. In hindsight, he greatly influenced the next generation of artists, who moved on to Abstract Expressionism and other forms of modern art. Avery revealed the possibilities of colour, particularly non-associative or unnatural tones, in scenes of everyday life.

Toward the end of the 1940s, Avery’s health began deteriorating, and doctors advised him to slow down and stay home. Avery did not follow medical advice and suffered a major heart attack in January 1949. After a six-week hospital stay and months of recuperating at home, Avery returned to the art scene with an exhibition at the newly founded Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York.

In 1952, Avery took his first and only trip to Europe with his family. They visited France and the United Kingdom, documenting his journey through sketches. Many of these drawings made their way into his paintings, such as Excursion on the Thames (1953). Avery sat on the steps of the Tate Gallery (Britain) to make the preliminary drawings for this painting. When speaking about his visit, Avery said, “I was visiting the Tate museum and got tired and went outside for a few minutes and saw this excursion boat and made this small sketch, and when I got back to New York City I painted a big canvas from it.”

With March now a young woman, Avery and his wife felt able to accept invitations to undertake summer residences, such as at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1957, Avery spent the summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he began creating large-scale paintings. The larger the canvas, the less detail Avery included. Instead, he focused on bold colours to draw people’s attention to the artwork. Yet, Avery still depicted some form of scene rather than a random pattern.

During the winter of 1959, Avery and Sally travelled to Key West, Florida, where the warmer climate was better for Avery’s health. During their stay, Avery completed several simplified beach scenes, such as Boathouse by the Sea (1959). Using only four colours, orange, blue, yellow and black, Avery created a sense of depth and perspective, although some people may need to know the title before the scene becomes clear. The large black portion of the painting represents the roof of the boathouse, presumably viewed from above by the artist. The yellow and blue represent the sea, and the orange is the sky. Either Avery intended to depict the sunset, or he used orange to contrast with the colour of the water.

Other seaside scenes feature less conventional colours, such as the pinks in Sails in Sunset Sea (1960). This painting differs from other works because Avery has included squiggly lines to represent the waves or ripples on the water’s surface. The choice of colour may not be as random as it first appears. Capturing only the two sailing boats rather than a larger scene, Avery has focused on the colours of the setting sun on the water. Whilst it may not be one of his better works, Avery’s thought process is still visible.

Avery suffered a second heart attack in 1960 and spent the following year recovering in New York. Most likely against doctors’ orders, he continued to produce paintings. In 1963, Avery was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Members are nominated and elected by peers, making it a great honour to be accepted into the Academy.

On 5th March 1964, Avery, now critically unwell, completed his final painting, Hills and Sunset Sky. The following day, Avery went into intensive care at Montefiore Hospital in New York. He remained there for the rest of the year, eventually passing away on 3rd January 1965 at the age of 75. He was buried in the Artist’s cemetery in Woodstock, New York, and his wife donated all his personal papers to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

“He was, without question, our greatest colourist. … Among his European contemporaries, only Matisse—to whose art he owed much, of course—produced a greater achievement in this respect.” So said the art critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) in his 1981 book about Avery. Several artists thought of Avery as an American Matisse due to his colourful compositions, which echoed the works of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Critics initially disliked Avery’s work, claiming it was too abstract, yet when Abstract Expressionism became popular, they said his work was too representational. Due to these opinions, Avery does not belong to a particular art category. Instead, he bridges the gap between two art movements, Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.

Avery was not a rule follower, which allowed him to experiment with his art rather than conform to the accepted standards of the early 20th century. Visitors to the Milton Avery: American Colourist will see the progression of Avery’s work from Impressionism to something not quite Abstract Expressionism. Some will prefer his early paintings and not understand why he altered his style, but others will appreciate his use of colour and his ability to express himself in new ways that inspired a new generation of artists.

Milton Avery: American Colourist is open at the Royal Academy until 16th October 2022. Standard tickets cost £15, although concessions are available. To guarantee entry, booking is recommended.


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Feminine Power

Throughout history, women have been sidelined in favour of men, who were believed to be the stronger, smarter sex. In the last couple of centuries, women have protested these traditional views of feminity and proved they can equal men in many areas of life. The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique (b. 1971) believes, “We need more feminine energy in the world today. We need more women in positions of power and influence.” Whilst this is the aim of many feminists in the 21st century, ancient history reveals that women once held such power and influence, particularly in religion. Until 25th September 2022, the British Museum aims to show visitors the significant role that goddesses, witches, female spirits and so forth have shaped the world today. With support from Siddique and other high-profile collaborators, the museum’s exhibition Feminine Power links the past with the present to prove that women have never been the weak, powerless individuals they were forced into being.

Pele

In Hawaiian mythology, Pele was the goddess of volcanoes. According to legend, she was one of six daughters born to Haumea, the Earth goddess and Kane Milohai, the creator of the heavens. Usually depicted with flaming red hair, Pele was known for her fiery temper, which resulted in her expulsion from her home island of Tahiti. According to one story, she had also seduced the husband of her sister Namakaokaha‘i, who chased Pele to the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i. Angry about her fate, Pele made her home in the volcanoes, where her unpredictable and volatile temper continues to cause rivers of lava to devour the island.

Today, Hawaiians believe Pele resides in Mount Kilauea, an active volcano that has been erupting since September 2021. Residents frequently honour the goddess with offerings and dancing in an attempt to appease her and stop the eruptions. Many believe that speaking her name out loud is enough to anger Pele, as is eating the wild berries that grow near the mountain.

Sedna

According to Inuit mythology, Sedna is the goddess of the sea and marine animals. Several versions of the myth exist, recording Sedna as the Mother of the Sea and the ruler of the underworld. In one legend, Sedna grew so hungry that she attacked her father, the creator-god Anguta. Angry with her behaviour, Anguta banished Sedna to the underworld. In another version, Sedna disapproves of her father’s choice of men for her to marry, so marries a dog instead. After angering her father, she suffers the same fate and lives for the rest of eternity in the underworld.

There are several other versions of the Sedna myth, all ending in the same fate. In each story, when Anguta banished his daughter to the underworld, he took her out to sea in his kayak and threw her overboard. Attempting to save her life, Sedna held on to the edge of the boat, but Anguta cut off her fingers, forcing her to sink into the deep waters. Most legends agree that her fingers became the seals, walruses and whales that Inuit hunters regularly sought. If Sedna thought the hunt was unfair, she hid the creatures in her hair, forcing the Inuits to admit defeat and return to shore.

Lakshmi

Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, money, wisdom and good luck, is one of the most widely worshipped Hindu goddesses. She is usually celebrated by Hindus during Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights. In art, Lakshmi is usually depicted with four arms covered with jewellery. She is often seated on a lotus flower and surrounded by elephants.

According to myth, Lakshmi’s presence on Earth helped the warrior god Indra protect the world from demons. One day, a sage offered the god a garland of flowers, which he rejected and threw on the floor. This behaviour deeply upset Lakshmi, and she disappeared from the world. In her absence, the world became dark, and the people turned away from the gods. Desperate, Indra asked Lakshmi’s husband, Vishnu, protector of the universe, what he should do to rectify the situation. Vishnu advised Indra and the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean to regain Lakshmi and her blessings. The process took a thousand years, but eventually, Lakshmi rose to the ocean’s surface upon a lotus flower, and peace returned to the land.

Inanna/Ishtar

Inanna, also known as Ishtar, is a Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, desire, war and political power. She was worshipped widely across Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Akkadia and Assyria, who praised her with hymns and artworks. Nicknamed the “Lady of Heaven”, Inanna/Ishtar was respected as both male and female, although men tended to see her as a woman, particularly concerning matters of a sexual nature.

There are many myths about Inanna/Ishtar, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the hero refuses her romantic advances, causing the goddess to let all fire and brimstone loose. In another myth, she chose a young shepherd called Dumuzi as her husband. Shortly after, Dumuzi died, and Inanna travelled to the underworld to arrange for him to return to Earth for half the year. From then on, male rulers (kings) were identified with Dumuzi and underwent a Sacred Marriage ceremony to declare their devotion to Inanna/Ishtar and legitimise their rule.

Sekhmet

In Egyptian mythology, the powerful goddess Sekhmet was sent by her father Ra to destroy humankind. Immediately regretting his actions, Ra dyed a field red with ochre and beer to trick his daughter into believing the people had already slaughtered themselves. The trick worked, and Sekhmet drank the fake blood, becoming too drunk to carry out her original task.

An annual festival in honour of Sekhmet, who the Egyptians depicted in their artwork with the head of a lioness to symbolise her ferocity and destructive power, aimed to appease and soothe the wildness of the goddess. Revellers danced and played music while drinking large quantities of wine to imitate the drunkenness that stopped the wrath of the goddess. Warriors and leaders, such as Pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. 1388-1351 BC), erected statues of Sekhmet in the hopes she would bring them victory and longevity.

Isis

Isis was the most important female goddess and the most worshipped across ancient Egypt. Unlike Sekhmet, who the Egyptians tried to appease, Isis had divine authority over wisdom, healing, and protection, both in life and the afterlife. According to myth, after her husband Osiris was murdered, she resurrected him to conceive their son, Horus. Their son grew up to avenge his father’s murder and became the god whom all pharaohs were believed to personify.

Statues of Isis often depict her with wings, with which she could shield the mummified body of Osiris from harm. Although she brought Osiris back to life, he kept one foot in the afterlife as its ruler. Isis had the power to protect people from death but also protect them after death. When the people of ancient Egypt died, they did not go straight to a place of eternal rest. Instead, the dead went on a journey full of trials and judgements, which they needed to pass before reaching their resting place.

On top of Isis’ roles as a goddess, she had duties as a mother to care for and nurture Horus. Figurines of Isis nursing Horus were popular in ancient Egypt because they symbolised her as a life-giver and protector, which, in essence, every woman with a child also embodies.

Aphrodite/Venus

The Greek goddess Aphrodite, known as Venus in Roman mythology, is a well-known name. Greek myths have become part of contemporary literature and films, and many instantly recognise Aphrodite as the goddess of love. Aphrodite/Venus embodied ancient ideals of beauty, yet she was not revered for her looks alone. People prayed to the goddess about love, but also about social and military success. The Greeks and Romans believed she had the power to bring about reconciliation and conflict depending on her mood.

There are several stories about Aphrodite’s origins, with some claiming she was a daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods. Other myths, such as that recorded by Hesiod in the 8th or 7th century BC, record Aphrodite’s birth from the sea foam at the location the titan Kronos threw his father’s castrated testicles.

Aphrodite’s beauty often caused the demise of many a mortal man. Reports of men making love to statues of the goddess reveal how beautiful the depictions of Aphrodite/Venus were when first created. Others saw past her physical appearance to claim her as their patron, placing her image on their coins to advertise their victories. Such practice was done by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla around 84 BC and Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 176 AD.

Athena/Minerva

The Greek goddess Athena, or Minerva as the Romans knew her, was the goddess of war and wisdom. The Greeks and Romans saw her as an emblem of strength, intellect and order. They sought her wisdom in all areas of public life, from military and politics to the arts. Athena was both a peaceful and an angry goddess, depending on the circumstances. In many myths, she helped and supported men in battle, but those who upset her lived to regret it.

Athena was allegedly born fully grown and fully armed from the head of her father, Zeus. Learning of a prophecy that he would have a child more powerful than he, Zeus ate the pregnant mother, mistakingly believing this would kill the child. Instead, Zeus developed a terrible headache until Athena erupted from his skull.

In Roman Britain, Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, was associated with the Celtic deity Sulis. Minerva-Sulis had power over justice and health, making her a popular goddess in the city of Bath, where the spring waters are said to have healing properties. People came from far and wide to have their ailments cured but also to ask the goddess to inflict pain and suffering on their enemies. Archaeologists have discovered lead sheets containing names, curses and pleas to Minerva-Sulis at the bottom of the Roman baths.

The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique believes women should channel their inner Athena. “If you’re angry, harness that. If you’re frustrated, express that. If you’re more of a peacemaker and a quiet, persevering advocate, own that as well. It’s not about having to subscribe to any stereotypically masculine or feminine form.” Athena had both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, but this did not make her more or less of a woman.

In a similar way to the ancient Greek and Roman rulers who used images of Aphrodite/Venus on their coins, Athena/Minerva appeared on coins and medals in more recent centuries. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) were portrayed on medals alongside images of the goddess. Male military leaders also used Athena/Minerva’s image, including Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852).

Hekate

In both Greek and Roman mythology, Hekate was the goddess of witchcraft. Some people, such as those participating in Wiccan or other modern pagan activities, believe Hekate was a witch rather than a goddess. Nonetheless, in ancient mythology, Hekate stood between life and death at the entrance to the underworld, also known as Hades. As a result, she was associated with entrance-ways and crossroads and often received prayers during transitions or uncertain journeys. Hekate is also associated with the moon and magic, which play roles in pagan rituals.

Sculptures of Hekate tend to depict a woman with three heads or three conjoined women. With each head facing a different direction, the statues symbolise the goddess’ ability to help people during various transitions in life and death. The journalist Elizabeth Day believes Hekate’s three faces represent that through suffering comes access to strength and wisdom. Some statues of Hekate depict her holding torches, symbolising the goddess as a light in the darkness, guiding people through difficult situations.

Circe

Unlike Hekate, who was the goddess of witchcraft, Circe was a witch or divine sorceress. She famously appears in Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC), which tells of the troublesome journey of the Greek hero Odysseus on his way home from the war in Troy. On route, Odysseus’ ship lands on the island of Aeaea, where he sends some of his men to scout the area. Here, they discover Circe, who invites them or lures them with her beauty into her house and offers them a meal. Unbeknownst to the men, Circe poisoned the food with various potions and herbs, transforming them into pigs.

When Odysseus searched for his missing men, Circe attempted the same trick, but he had been warned by the gods about her use of magic. Instead, Odysseus convinced Circe to return his men to human form and help him with the next stage of his journey. Whilst this may suggest male dominance of the woman, Odysseus had the help of the gods and did not defeat Circe alone.

Throughout history, people have feared witchcraft. Whilst both men and women were persecuted or killed for allegedly using magic, the majority of the accused witches were women. Societies feared these powerful women, going as far as to burn them at the stake to prevent them from causing any harm.

Lilith

According to Jewish mystical texts, God created Lilith as Adam’s first wife. Like Adam, God created her from the earth, giving Lilith equality with her husband. God intended Adam and Lilith to live as equals, but attempts at sexual intercourse caused problems. Adam tried to dominate Lilith, causing her to flee Eden rather than subordinate herself to him. Lilith was punished for her actions, but in recent years, she has been celebrated as an icon of female independence.

Throughout history, Lilith is portrayed as a figure of defiance or a spirit that wreaks havoc and refuses to obey. In popular culture, she is often referenced as an evil character, such as in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in which she is the ancestor of the White Witch. Today, this dark side of Lilith is put to one side as feminists begin to view her as the first woman to stand up to male power.

Eve

In Christian tradition, Eve is the first wife of Adam. God created her from one of Adam’s ribs rather than from the Earth. The story of the first two humans created by God is widely known. God gave them the freedom to eat what they pleased, so long as they did not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Book of Genesis in the Bible records a serpent convincing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, which she did and gave Adam some to eat. This act became known as the Fall and resulted in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Although it is not mentioned in Biblical scripture, people have blamed Eve for her seductive powers for leading Adam into sin. Whilst some argue both Adam and Eve were to blame for their actions, Eve received the brunt of the accusations, resulting in the stereotypical opinion that women were temptresses. Regardless of the truth and various opinions, the story gives Eve, as a woman, enough power for men of the future to fear the actions of women. Unfortunately, this led to the oppression of women and lack of rights, which women have been gradually regaining since the 19th century.

Mary

In Christianity, Mary is perhaps the most important woman, although she is not usually described as powerful. Yet, over a billion Catholics worship her across the world, giving her a sense of power that other Biblical women do not receive. The Virgin Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour of the world. The Bible describes Mary as a righteous woman favoured by God, but looking at the bigger picture, she was neither rich, important or famous.

Comedian and feminist Deborah Frances-White notes that the Bible is written through the eyes of men, so Mary’s devotion and protection of the Messiah goes unnoticed. Frances-White also points out that without Mary, there would be no Christian story, and this power must be respected.

Some Christian art depicts Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Although it is not written in the Bible, Roman Catholics believe that at the time of her death, Mary was taken directly to Heaven. This event is known as the Assumption and is celebrated in some Catholic churches. Some Christian denominations believe Mary appears before mortals in times of need to offer guidance and protection. Thousands of sightings are recorded, particularly at pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes in France. These claims elevate Mary to a similar status as ancient goddesses, who also appeared to mortals when necessary.

Maryam

Depending on the point of view, the highly revered Islamic Maryam is the same person as the Virgin Mary. Maryam is described as “the righteous one” and is favoured by God above all women. Her devotion and virtue are a model for all Muslims to follow. A chapter of the Qur’an is named after Maryam, which features stories about her life, including the miraculous virgin birth of her son, the prophet Isa (Jesus).

In the present day, Muslims feel connected to Maryam in various ways. For some, her faith and hope are inspiring, and others appreciate her strength, honesty and spiritual fortitude. In both Islam and Christianity, Maryam/Mary is a timeless model for all women.

These are only a handful of women and deities who feature in the British Museum exhibition Feminine Power. The selection provides different versions of power, both physical and emotional, intentional or not. These examples prove women can be powerful and on equal footing with men. They are not more powerful, nor are they described as being like men. Women have their own power, which is equally as powerful as the power men wield.

The British Museum does not try to claim that women are better than men; that is not the point of this exhibition. What it does do is challenge stereotypes and discuss the meaning of power. For some, power may look like physical strength, rage, anger and determination; for others, it is peaceful, loving and nurturing. Whether women are fighting battles or taking care of others, they are always powerful.

Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic is open until 25th September 2022. Tickets are priced from £15 and advanced booking is recommended.


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Walter Sickert

Until 18th September 2022, Tate Britain is exhibiting the works of Walter Sickert, one of Britain’s most influential artists of the 20th century. Taught by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and influenced by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Sickert became a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism to Modernism. As painting techniques developed in Britain, so did Sickert’s artwork, and he was not afraid to depict the lives of ordinary people and places rather than the idealised scenes of yesteryear.

Walter Richard Sickert was born on 31st May 1860 in Munich, Germany, although neither of his parents were German. His father, Oswald Sickert (1828-85), was a Danish painter of landscapes and genre scenes who travelled to Munich for his studies. Sickert’s mother, Eleanor Louisa Henry, was the daughter of the English astronomer Richard Sheepshanks (1794-1855). Following the German annexation of Schleswig-Holstein when Sickert was eight years old, the family moved to London and obtained British nationality.

Sickert initially attended University College School, an independent school in Hampstead established by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), but transferred to King’s College School in Wimbledon at the age of 11. Despite his father’s artistic influence, Sickert initially pursued a career in acting and joined Sir Henry Irving’s (1838-1905) company. After taking on minor roles in a few productions, Sickert switched to studying art.

After a short attendance at the Slade School of Art in 1882, Sickert left to become a pupil and assistant of James Whistler. Many of Sickert’s early works were influenced by Whistler, particularly the art of painting alla prima (literally “at first attempt“), which meant layering wet paint upon wet paint rather than waiting for individual layers to dry. The technique allowed Sickert to paint from nature and capture images quickly.

Sickert’s painting technique changed after he travelled to France in 1883 and became the mentee of Edgar Degas, who encouraged him to plan his paintings with preliminary drawings. Sickert began using a grid system and leaving layers to dry between coats.

Under Degas’ guidance, Sickert’s paid attention to individual components of a painting, resulting in precise details rather than the blurred outlines of his earlier work. Sickert preferred sombre colours, although Degas tried to persuade him to introduce brighter tones. Sickert’s previous training focused on Impressionism, a style often painted en plein air, but Degas persuaded Sickert to work with drawings and memory in a studio to focus more on the artwork’s details. Sickert took this advice on board, and many of his future works were created in a studio, sometimes using photographs as a reference.

In 1888, Sickert joined the New English Art Club (NEAC), an alternative organisation to the Royal Academy, influenced primarily by French artists. Founded in 1885, the NEAC held annual exhibitions at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. Whilst the Royal Academy preferred traditional painting methods, the NEAC embraced Impressionism and other figurative styles. Ironically, the NEAC continues to exhibit similar artworks at the Mall Galleries, whereas the RA has embraced abstract and conceptual art. Some of the artists belonging to the NEAC included John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856-1916), William Orpen (1878-1931), and Neville Bulwer-Lytton (1879-1951).

Inspired by his previous career ambitions, Sickert’s first major works after joining the NEAC focused on the stage, including theatres, music halls, café concerts and the advent of cinema. One example, which Tate Britain used for the exhibition’s promotional material, is Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Music Hall (1888-9). Sickert frequently depicted the Old Bedford on Camden High Street in his paintings. In this scene, Sickert captured Hetherington singing The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery, a music hall song written in 1885 by George Ware (1829-95).

Sickert also painted other examples of entertainment, including the circus. The Trapeze (1920) depicts an acrobat from the Cirque Rancy preparing to start her performance. Established by Théodore Rancy (1818-92) in the 19th century, the Cirque Rancy was a group of travelling circus acts across France. Still existing today is the Cirque Jules-Verne of Amiens, established in 1889 under the presidency of French writer Jules Verne (1828-1905). Sickert probably experienced the delights of the circus while living in Dieppe.

Other examples of entertainment in Sickert’s artwork include British Pierrots at Brighton, providing tourists with wartime relief, and orchestras performing from the pits of theatres. In the early 20th century, some music halls became early forms of cinemas, such as Middlesex Music Hall on Drury Lane, London. Using projectors and large white sheets or screens, the Old Mogul, as the hall was nicknamed, occasionally played films during their evening schedule. Sickert’s painting Gallery of the Old Mogul (1906) depicts men clambering to see the screen from the gallery. Only a tiny portion of the film is visible in the painting, but art historians believe it was one of the first Westerns ever shown. It could potentially be The Great Train Robbery (1903), which is generally considered the first of the genre.

During the 1880s, Sickert spent a lot of time in the French commune Dieppe on the coast of the English Channel. It is suspected that Sickert kept a mistress in Dieppe and potentially an illegitimate son. Artists at the time were known for having numerous mistresses, but Sickert also had three wives. He married his first wife, Ellen Cobden, in 1885 but divorced her after four years. He married his second wife, Christine Angus, in 1911 and remained with her until she died in 1920. In 1926, Sickert married the artist Thérèse Lessore (1884-1945), with whom he was still married at his death in 1942.

While in Dieppe in the 1880s, Sickert produced landscapes of the streets and buildings, including the church of St Jacques. Inspired by Claude Monet, Sickert painted the same scenes at different times of the day, exploring the effects of daylight on the architecture. In 1902, the owner of L’Hôtel de la Plage commissioned a series of paintings, which included a scene depicting bathers on the nearby beach. For reasons unknown, Bathers, Dieppe was never installed at the hotel. Instead, Sickert exhibited it at the Salon des Indépendants in 1903.

Between 1894 and 1904, Sickert visited Venice several times. During these trips, he focused on painting the city’s topography. He was particularly fascinated with St Mark’s Basilica, which like the church in Dieppe, he painted several times. Due to inclement weather during his last trip, Sickert began painting indoor scenes featuring groups of people. He continued exploring this theme on his return to Britain, using friends, professional models and possibly prostitutes to create tableaux from which to paint.

In the early 20th century, Sickert started painting nudes. Rather than depicting the idealised female body, he painted working-class women in dimly-lit rooms with crumpled bed sheets. Instead of glamorising nudity, Sickert’s artwork suggested poverty. When he first exhibited these paintings in Paris in 1905, they were well-received, but at the British exhibition in 1911, critics objected to the subject matter.

In 1907, Sickert became fascinated with the Camden Town Murder Case. In September of that year, the part-time prostitute Emily Dimmock was murdered in her bed by a client or lover. After having sex, the man slit Dimmock’s throat while she slept. Her body was discovered by her partner and the murder quickly became a press sensation. Causing controversy, Sickert renamed four of his previous nude paintings The Camden Town Murder. Each artwork featured a naked woman and a fully-clothed man, and although there were no signs of violence, the new titles gave the scenes a new interpretation. One painting shows a woman asleep on a bed while a man bows his head in thought. Originally called What Shall We Do for the Rent, the audience perceives the man as worried about money troubles; yet under the title The Camden Town Murder, the man may be psychologically preparing himself for the horrible act.

Shortly before the First World War, Sickert founded the Camden Town Group of British painters, named after the area of London he resided in at the time. Members met regularly at Sickert’s studio and mostly consisted of Post-Impressionist artists, including Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914), and Ethel Sands (1873-1962). The artists were influenced by the work of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who worked in heavy impasto. Sickert’s paintings of nudes are evidence of this style of art.

From 1908 to 1912 and 1915 to 1918, Sickert taught at the Westminster School of Art. The school was originally based in the Deans Yard, but by the time Sickert joined the staff, it had merged with Angela Burdett-Coutts‘s (1814-1906) Westminster Technical Institute in Vincent Square. Between Sickert’s two spells at the school, he established the Rowlandson House in London and another in Manchester. Unfortunately, they closed due to the outbreak of the First World War.

Following the death of his second wife, Sickert spent some time in Dieppe, concentrating once again on buildings and groups of people, particularly in cafes. After returning to England, Sickert became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1924 and married Thérèse Lessore in 1926. Shortly after his marriage, Sickert became unwell, potentially suffering a minor stroke. The illness marked a change in Sickert’s artwork, and he also decided to go by his middle name Richard rather than Walter.

Sickert stopped drawing from life and began painting photographs taken by his wife or those found in newspapers, such as King Edward VIII (1894-1972) arriving at a church service in 1936. Most cameras only captured images in black and white, so the colours in Sickert’s paintings are based on memory or imagination. He used the tonal contrasts in the photograph to determine colour hues and shadow.

Although Sickert only worked from photographs, he continued to receive commissions, such as from Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and his wife Clementine (1885-1977). Sickert met Clementine in Dieppe when she was only 14, where she was struck by Sickert’s handsomeness. Before she could act on her attraction to Sickert, Clementine’s family returned to England, but she remained in touch with Sickert and his family. After introducing Churchill to Sickert, Clementine’s husband commissioned an informal portrait and asked Sickert for advice about painting.

Sickert’s passion for the theatre never left him. Using photographs from newspaper reviews or promotional materials, Sickert painted several actors and scenes from shows. In 1932, Sickert depicted the British actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891-1992) as Isabella of France in the play Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). Sickert included the photograph’s caption La Louvre, meaning “the she-wolf”, which describes the fierce character of King Edward II’s wife.

Other theatre scenes Sickert painted included Edith Evans (1888-1976) as Katherine and Leslie Banks (1890-1952) as Petruchio in William Shakespeare‘s (1564-1616) The Taming of the Shrew. The play opened in London in 1937 at the New Theatre, which is now called the Noël Coward Theatre. Sickert based his painting on a press photograph. He also painted stills from films, such as High Steppers, based on the story of the Tiller Girls dance troupe.

In 1932, Sickert painted Miss Earhart’s Arrival, which shows Amelia Earhart arriving during a thunderstorm near London after flying solo across the Atlantic. Earhart completed her challenge when she landed in Northern Ireland in May 1932, but only a couple of people witnessed it. Sickert’s painting of the press photograph shows crowds of people welcoming the American woman to England the following day. Sickert cropped the image to focus on the people and weather rather than the plane in the background.

During the final decade of Sickert’s life, he relied heavily on assistants, particularly his wife, to help complete his paintings. These paintings included portraits of close friends, such as Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964) and the novelist Hugh Walpole (1884-1941). Sickert also painted landscapes of Bath, where he and his wife moved at the end of the 1930s. On 22nd January 1942, Sickert passed away at the age of 81 and was buried at the Church of St Nicholas in Bathampton.

Sickert’s art style changed throughout his career. Firstly, he imitated Whistler and Degas before adopting an impasto technique. His final works were smoother but still fell under the Post-Impressionism umbrella. Several people criticised Sickert for using photographs and suggested it showed his decline as an artist. In hindsight, these were some of Sickert’s most forward-looking paintings, which went on to inspire many artists and the Pop Art movement.

Due to Sickert’s fascination with the Camden Town Murder, some people have speculated his connection to Jack the Ripper, who murdered at least five women in London in 1888. Despite evidence suggesting Sickert was in France at the time, several authors named Sickert as a potential culprit. Although Sickert was not in the country, he did find the murders intriguing and painted Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom in 1905. Sickert based the painting on a room he lodged in after the landlady told him her suspicions of a man that stayed there a few years earlier.

In 2002, crime writer Patricia Cornwell (b.1956) adamantly claimed Sickert was Jack the Ripper in her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. Years earlier, Stephen Knight (1951-85) suggested Sickert was an accomplice in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), although his sources of research were later discovered to be a hoax. All the information collected by Knight and Cornwell has since been scrutinised, and the consensus is any claim that Sickert was Jack the Ripper is fantasy.

The Walter Sickert exhibition is the first major retrospective of Sickert at Tate Britain in over 60 years. It explores Sickert’s approach to art and his changing styles and subject matter. Although it features The Camden Town Murders series, Tate does not allude to the rumours about Jack the Ripper. The exhibition is a celebration of Sickert’s work and the impact he had on future artists. It also honours the 80th anniversary of the artist’s death.

The Walter Sickert exhibition is open until 18th September 2022. Tickets cost £18 and must be purchased in advance.


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The Painting Demon

Kawanabe Kyōsai may not be as famous as other Japanese artists, but the Royal Academy claims he was one of the most exciting painters from Japan in the 19th century. From 19th March until 19th June 2022, the RA exhibited a large number of Kyōsai’s works belonging to the London-based art collector Israel Goldman (b.1958). Goldman has amassed an impressive collection of over 1,000 pieces of art by Kyōsai, including prints, paintings and sketches, which reveal Kyōsai’s witty imagination and exceptional skill.

Kyōsai was born in Koga in 1831 during the Edo Period. As a child, he studied with the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), who specialised in woodblock printing. Later, he studied at the Kanō school of art, where he gained the nickname “The Painting Demon”. Rather than sticking to the traditional ukiyo-e art, Kyōsai broke away after the Meiji Restoration in 1867 to focus on political caricature, for which he was arrested on three occasions.

Kyōsai demonstrated a lighter, more fluid style of art than most of his contemporary Japanese artists. The traditional painting techniques were reserved for serious subjects, such as literature and religion, whereas Kyōsai’s skill with the paintbrush was more suited to comic pictures. Kyōsai often incorporated serious themes into his work, such as politics, but always managed to introduce humour into the scene. He also adopted Western techniques, including perspective and shading.

In 1881, Kyōsai became famous in Japan after winning a prize for his painting Winter Crow on a Withered Branch at the Domestic Industrial Exposition. Three years later, another painting, Crows on a Withered Branch, won him more prizes. From then on, crows symbolised success for Kyōsai and frequently appeared in his artwork.

A collector purchased Crows on a Withered Branch for 100 yen. To put this into perspective, this was enough money to buy 400 bottles of saké, an alcoholic beverage made of fermented rice. Several of Kyōsai’s crow paintings were sent to Europe, leading to commissions from people all over the world. His crows quickly took on new meaning and symbolised Kyōsai flying across the planet and spreading his reputation.

Ever since his first sketch as a child, Kyōsai’s favourite animal to paint was a frog. The creatures had plenty of comic potential, which Kyōsai used to produce satirical pictures of society. He used frogs to represent the lives of ordinary people, whether they be street performers, postal workers or children. Frog School, painted in the early 1870s, depicts frog students interacting with a frog teacher, who points at a lotus-leaf wallchart. Around the time Kyōsai produced this artwork, a national education system was established in Japan, resulting in the opening of the first public elementary school in 1872.

Kyōsai’s work documented the changes occurring in Japan during the 1860s and 70s. Political turmoil and economic instability led to the collapse of the shogunate and the rise of the Meiji government. Kyōsai depicted the events in his artwork as frog battles, monsters and semi-human characters called tengu. Under the new government, 260 years of isolation ended with the introduction of Western culture into Japan. Kyōsai’s excitement about the new era, which included modern technologies such as trains and the telegraph, is evident in his artwork.

The Meiji government introduced a policy of hiring European and American teachers and specialists to work in the new schools in Japan. Josiah Conder (1852-1920), a British architect, travelled to Japan to become a professor of architecture for the Imperial College of Engineering. Known today as the “father of Japanese modern architecture”, Conder taught many young architects and built several notable buildings, including the Rokumeikan (Banqueting House) and the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo.

Conder met Kyōsai in 1881 when he was accepted as Kyōsai’s pupil. Kyōsai gave him the name Conder Kyōei (ei meaning Britain) and taught him the art of Japanese painting. Whilst he did not excel at painting, Conder remained Kyōsai’s friend and patron. Kyōsai’s initial fame in Europe is largely thanks to Conder sending examples of art home to Britain.

An example of the Western influence on Kyōsai’s work is evident in Skeleton Shamisen Player in Top-Hat with Dancing Monster (1878). Western costumes were becoming all the rage in Japan, and Kyōsai wanted to emphasise that no matter how much people changed their appearance, they remained the same underneath. The skeleton in the painting wears a top hat and black jacket and plays the guitar, which was a relatively new instrument in Japan. Not only does the artwork poke fun at the people adopting the fads and fashions, but it also emphasises that the way people dress does not affect the transience of life. The samurai sword sticking out from behind the skeleton shows that it is impossible to completely escape native cultures.

With Western culture came Western religion, particularly Christianity. Kyōsai painted a picture called Five Holy Men to illustrate the influence the new religions had on traditional Japanese beliefs. Kyōsai included a verse written by the Confucian scholar Tachibana Kirō from the point of view of a Japanese deity, which reads: “While I protect myself, Christ seizes the moment to dance, Shakyamuni and Laozi tune in, and Confucius beats the drum in attack. The world is one great theatre.” At the time of painting, Confucianism was being challenged by modern thinking, and Buddhism was struggling to stop so-called Christian men from exploiting their country.

Despite the influx from the west, Kyōsai continued to satirise the traditions and government in Japan. During the summer, processions of decorated floats filled the city of Edo (now Tokyo). Kyōsai represented this in Cats Pulling a Catfish Float, in which the catfish with its moustache represented the government officials. The cats symbolised geishas and courtesans, who used stringed instruments made from catskin.

Kyōsai’s satirical paintings frequently got him into trouble with the government, as he recorded in his four-volume semi-autobiography Kyōsai gadan (Kyōsai’s Account of Painting). Transcribed by Uryū Masayasu and illustrated by Kyōsai, the book features an account of Kyōsai’s arrest in 1870 after being accused of painting insulting images of high-ranking people. The incident occurred at a shogakai, a commercially organised calligraphy and painting party. 

Shogakai attendees paid a fee to enter the party, after which they could ask any artist to produce work for them at no extra charge. At the gatherings, painters often worked with a calligrapher, who would inscribe a poem on the edge of the artwork. The parties usually involved a lot of alcohol, which in Kyōsai’s case, made him playful and more likely to produce insulting images of the commissioners. When writing about the shogakai, Joseph Conder noted, “Under the influence of Bacchus some of his (Kyōsai) strangest fancies, freshest conceptions and boldest touches were inspired.”

Between 1876 and 1878, Kyōsai collaborated with 54 artists to produce a painting of a shogakai. Kyōsai painted all the figures but left blank scroll papers for other artists to fill in with their artwork or calligraphy. Collaboration was an important component of Japanese art, particularly between teachers and pupils, yet until the 19th century, this was usually a private affair. During Kyōsai’s lifetime, the creative process became public, almost like a performance. Kyōsai became known for his speedy, skilful performances, which became more dramatic the more he drank.

Several of Kyōsai’s satirical artworks contained what is classed as “toilet humour” today. Fart Battle (1881) depicts men passing wind at each other and blowing people and objects away. Whilst Kyōsai painted scenes of this nature because they amused him, the tradition dates back much further. Dating back as far as the 12th century, art historians suspect these “fart battles” illustrated Japan’s xenophobia. For centuries, Japan remained isolated from the world and did not welcome foreigners. Artists satirised the government’s wish to oust Western cultures from the country through the strength of their resources, or in this instance, their bodies.

Kyōsai also included stories in his artwork. Some depicted real events, such as wars, although fought by frogs instead of humans. Others satirised scandals, often painting the government in a negative light. A handful of Kyōsai’s artworks illustrate stories and parables, for instance the ancient Indian story about three blind men describing an elephant. Having never come across an elephant before, the men attempt to describe it by feeling a different part of the animal’s body. Each man only touches one section, such as the side or the tusk, and attempts to describe the elephant’s physical appearance. Kyōsai likened this tale to a group of Blind Connoisseurs commenting on a painting. This theme also mocks critics and judges at official art competitions and exhibitions, whose comments suggest they did not pay much attention to the art they were judging.

Kyōsai also likened art critics and judges to tengu, semi-human supernatural beings with long noses. According to Japanese folklore, tengu were the reincarnated spirits of arrogant people. They had long noses that stuck up in the air. The expression “being a tengu” is the equivalent of being conceited or “sticking your nose up in the air”. Some interpret Kyōsai’s painting Tengu Viewing Art as critics at art competitions looking disdainfully down at the paintings they are supposed to be judging. An alternative interpretation is the tengu are connoisseurs who are proud of their art collection and believe they are more culturally sophisticated than others.

After looking at Kyōsai’s work, it is evident that the majority of his paintings had more than one meaning. Ink Battle, for instance, references a traditional New Year’s party given by the Sōma samurai clan during the Meiji period. Hosts applied ink to the faces of their guests to wish them a happy and healthy year. Rather than depicting the event as a joyous occasion, Kyōsai painted two groups dressed as medieval courtiers and warriors fighting with giant paint brushes and ink. This may allude to the battles between the supporters of the Edo empire and the Meiji government during the 1860s.

Despite satirising the Western world in some of his artworks, Kyōsai embraced European cultures and had many foreign friends. As well as Conder, Kyōsai taught the Anglo-Irish journalist, Francis Brinkley (1841-1912), who wrote several books about Japan, including an English-Japanese Dictionary. Kyōsai also befriended Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938), an Australian-born British painter, who enjoyed watching Kyōsai paint. Speaking of his time in Japan, Menpes recalled, “I never saw such facility in my life … in about seven minutes he had completed a picture, superbly drawn and full of character.”

In 1888, the Japanese art critic Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913) and American art historian Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) asked Kyōsai to consider teaching at the Tokyo School of Arts. This prestigious offer indicated the school acknowledged Kyōsai as a legitimate successor of the Kanō tradition. Unfortunately, Kyōsai developed stomach cancer the same year and was unable to take up the offer.

Despite treatment from the German physician Erwin Bälz (1849-1913), Kyōsai passed away on 24th April 1889 at the age of 59. He died at home with Josiah Conder holding his hand. Little is known about his private life, but it is believed he was also surrounded by family and friends. Eighty-eight years after his death, Kyōsai’s granddaughter, Dr Kawanabe Kusumi, opened the Kawanabe Kyōsai Memorial Museum in Saitama, Tokyo, in 1977.

Kyōsai’s reputation quickly dwindled following his death. His artwork did not conform to traditional Japanese standards, nor was it westernised enough to appeal to art collectors in Europe and America. Kyōsai’s drinking habits and prison sentences also diminished his status now that he was no longer around to defend himself. Thanks to Israel Goldman, Kyōsai’s work is gaining recognition and popularity. Contemporary generations look at the paintings from a new perspective and appear amused rather than shocked at their satirical nature. Kyōsai’s style of art also appeals to manga and tattoo artists, who incorporate Japanese and Asian aspects into their designs.

Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection takes place in The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts until 19th June 2022. Tickets are £15 but concessions are available.


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