French Artists in Exile

The story of the artists who fled to Britain to escape the war in France.

On 19th July 1870, Napoleon III (1808-73), the first president of the Republic of France, declared war on Prussia resulting in a six-month battle that became known as the Franco-Prussian War. Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), the Prussian chancellor, had essentially provoked France into conflict and was prepared for the attack. With no hope of winning from the outset, France was officially defeated on 28th January the following year.

Although the war with Prussia was over, France was not at peace. The French Empire had collapsed following the deposition of Napoleon III in September 1870, leaving the country in the hands of a provisional government of national defence. From this moment, until the end of the war, Paris was surrounded by their enemies resulting in a punishing siege that left the city in ruins and its inhabitants starving from famine.

After the war ended, the radical working-class of Paris rose up against the government. This group was known as the Paris Commune and their uprising caused a brief but brutal revolt that was not suppressed until the end of La Semaine sanglante or “The Bloody Week”, which began on 21st May 1871.

Naturally, many citizens tried to escape from Paris during these turbulent times and took advantage of the British Isles and its welcoming attitude toward refugees. Amongst these émigrés were a handful of French painters who became known as the Impressionists. The Tate Britain in London is currently holding The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in Britain in celebration of these artist’s work, their stories and the network they developed during their time in Britain, whilst also looking into the ways these foreigners perceived London, evidenced through their artworks.

“The horror and terror are still everywhere … Paris is empty and will become emptier … Anyone would think there never were any painters and artists in Paris” – Théodore Duret (1838-1927), May 1871

Thousands of French citizens fled to London, and it is not surprising why given the state of Paris as shown in the first room of the exhibition. The paintings and photographs exhibited here are mostly produced in France during the war and resulting uprising. They are not works of Impressionist art that the exhibition title promises, however, they visually reveal the state the French capital was in at the beginning of the 1870s. Food shortages forced people to resort to eating their pets or zoo animals in order to survive and the streets were not safe places to frequent due to the violence of war. Many monuments and buildings were destroyed, and it is estimated that around 20,000 people died during this period.

The exhibition includes a number of artists who moved to London as a result of the hostilities in Europe. Many of these were Impressionist painters, a movement that had only begun within a decade before the Franco-Prussian war. Like all movements, the artists involved were breaking away from the conventions of a higher authority, in this instance, the rules taught in art schools. Impressionists rejected the large formal, highly finished paintings in preference to works that expressed the personality of the artist.  Traditionally, historical and mythological scenes were the accepted themes of paintings, however, these 19th-century French artists began producing landscapes and pictures of everyday life, including mundane things such as cooking, sleeping and bathing.

Impressionist artists aimed to depict their surroundings with spontaneity and freshness, recording what the eye sees in that instant, rather than a detailed record of appearance. As a result of wanting to capture the moment as it happened, artists had to work on the spot rather than in a studio and use thick paint with quick, messy brushstrokes. Similarly to the adjustment in subject matter, this method of painting was an outright change from the flatter, neater artworks where the brushstrokes could not be detected.

“Work at the same time on sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis … Don’t be afraid of putting on colour … Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.” – Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)

Landscapes became the archetypal subject of the Impressionists and introduced the idea of painting en plein air, often with no regard to the weather. The paintings often include bright colours and sketchy brushwork to emphasise the way the sunlight reflects off various surfaces. The constant changing of the sunlight was the main reason why artists had to keep up a rapid pace when producing their work.

Although regarded as a key movement in the art world, Impressionism was never established as a formal group with clearly defined principles. It was a loose association of artists who were linked together by the community they found themselves in, for instance, the French refugees in London. In fact, the group was so indeterminate that their name almost came about by accident. The artists struggled to get their work exhibited because they were generally rejected by art critics, however, Claude Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise (1872) was latched onto and attacked in an essay by Louis Leroy (1812–85) called Exposition des Impressionistes (25th April 1874), and thus the name Impressionism was coined.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is one of the most representative Impressionist artists. Initially, he began as a caricaturist, however, a tutor inspired him to turn to landscape painting. From here, Monet started studying at the Académie Suisse in 1859, where he met Camille Pissarro and later, in 1862, entered the studio of Gleyre in Paris where he encountered Alfred Sisley (1839-99), an Anglo-French Impressionist – both feature in this exhibition alongside Monet.

Monet, impoverished and only 29-years old, crossed the Channel with Pissarro to avoid being conscripted into the Franco-Prussian war. With nothing but his painting skills to use in an attempt to earn money, Monet spent time beside the Thames and in the London parks, painting the scenery. Whilst here, Monet encountered the landscape artist Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78), the earliest exponent of en plein air painting who had also sought refuge in London. It is thanks to his connection with the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), another refugee, that Monet and the other French Impressionists began to find their feet.

Comparing an early painting by Monet displayed at the beginning of the exhibition with a later painting in the final rooms shows the difference between the style of painting that was generally accepted during the 19th-century compared to the types of impressionist painting the artist eventually turned to. It is without a doubt when looking at Meditation, Mrs Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1871), that Monet was a talented painter, however, his later works, such as Leicester Square (1901), could arguably suggest that the artist is incompetent.

These two paintings by Monet are two extremes and the majority of Impressionist paintings fall somewhere in between. Many French artists focused on painting their impressions of the city they found themselves in, rather than produce something bordering on Abstract Expressionism.

In comparison to the devastating landscape they left behind, the Impressionists were drawn to the open spaces around London. Here, they became fascinated with British customs and culture which was significantly different to their own. The French were enthusiastic about the British sports played throughout the year, particularly regattas and rowing events to which spectators wore a range of costumes.

More importantly, the Impressionists were awed by the teeming crowds and forbidding buildings that made up the cityscape. Coming from a country where monuments and important buildings had been destroyed by armies and rebels, the towering facades were a marvel to the refugee artists. It was during this period that the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt on the north bank of the River Thames, which became a central focal point for a vast amount of paintings.

“Monet and I were very enthusiastic over the London landscapes” – Camille Pissarro

The London fog was also a fascination for the artists, particularly Monet who, around his 60th birthday, returned to London in 1900 to paint the Thames’ atmospheric effects. During this time, he produced multiples of oil paintings showing the same scene but experimenting with the effects the sunlight, or lack of light, affected the ambience of the location.

“I find London lovelier to paint each day,” Monet told his wife Alice in one of the many letters he wrote whilst he completed this project in the British capital. He wrote about his fascination with the mist and sunsets as well as the varying colours of the sky. He notes the difficulties he had in creating his impression of the cityscape in front of him before the sky changed once again. A few of these paintings are on show in one of the final rooms of the exhibition.

Despite titling the exhibition Impressionists in London, the Tate Britain displays more paintings by other artists than the promised examples of Impressionism. The subtitle French Artists in Exile 1870-1904 is a much more accurate representation of the included artworks. Although many artists who sought refuge in London were Impressionist painters, there were others who were not. One of the major artists in the exhibition is James Tissot (1836-1902) whose paintings were a complete contrast to the spontaneous landscapes.

Unlike Monet who fled France to avoid becoming part of the war, Tissot was a supporter of the Paris Commune. He was already an established artist in France but the Franco-Prussian war, and probably his association with the Commune limited his prospects, prompting him to seek shelter on the other side of the Channel.

Tissot received support from the editor of Vanity Fair, Thomas Gibson Bowles (1841-1922), who introduced him to British high society – a complete contrast to the communities Monet and his friends found themselves in. This allowed him to concentrate on scenes he loved best, contemporary life and women wearing intricate costumes.

Tissot’s parents were in the clothing business, which may have influenced his passion for painting the full-length complex dresses that women amongst the middle and upper classes wore. He was also skilled in observing and portraying nuances of social interaction, particularly of a romantic or sexual nature.

Tissot did not restrict himself to London and painted other areas of Britain, for instance, Portsmouth. However, his themes were the same: the fashionable Victorian life. Some critics believed Tissot was mocking British customs and not painting a realistic version of society, but it was more likely that Tissot was focusing on things he found interesting and reflected his early life in France. On the other hand, some critics admired Tissot’s work, referring to its “fashion-plate elegance” and “chocolate-box charm”.

As well as Tissot, other artists that do not fall under the Impressionist blanket are also featured in this exhibition. These include two sculptors, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75) and Jules Dalou (1838-1902), the latter exiled in London as a result of supporting the Paris Commune. For such a popular and crowded exhibition, the rooms containing the sculptures are almost deserted, implying that these were not what people had come to see. Granted, people would not expect to see James Tissot in an exhibition about Impressionism, however, they would be prepared for paintings.

Nonetheless, there are enough examples of Impressionist paintings for the exhibition to be worthy of the title Impressionists in London. The addition of other painters such as Tissot provides a contrast which emphasises the traits and nature of Impressionism. The use of brushstrokes and colour are brought to attention in juxtaposition with the smoothness of other paintings. It is also interesting to observe the differences between the Impressionist artists, each employing a different method.

To conclude the exhibition, the Tate Britain provides yet another contrast, this time being completely unrelated to French exiles. The final room is titled Derain and the Thames: Homage and Challenge and contains three paintings by the French painter André Derain (1880-1954). Although mostly associated with Fauvism and Cubism, Derain was interested in Monet’s Views of the Thames which he saw in an exhibition at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery.

“In spite of everything, I adore him. Wasn’t he right to render with his fugitive and durable colour, the natural impression which is no more than an impression, without lasting power, and did he not increase the character of this painting? As for myself, I’m looking for something different, something in nature which, on the contrary, is fixed, eternal, complex.” – André Derain

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Charing Cross Bridge, 1906-7, André Derain

These final paintings were part of thirty canvases that art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) sent Derain to London to paint in 1906. In an attempt to imitate Monet’s Views of the Thames, Derain focused on similar landscapes including Charing Cross Bridge and other buildings seen from the Thames. These, however, look in no way similar to the Impressionist’s version, being full of unnatural colour and bold lines – not unlike a child’s drawing.

Although not much to look at, Derain’s work goes to show the changes in the style of art that sparked from the development of Impressionism. For years, art had remained relatively the same, but after Impressionism, the 20th-century saw the most changes within art in history.

Impressionists in London is a huge exhibition that successfully introduces the Impressionist artists that were, in some way, affected by the Franco-Prussian war. For those less interested in the relaxed, impromptu works, the paintings by Tissot and a few others are there to satisfy different tastes.

Despite the designation of “exhibition”, the Tate Britain is doing far more than showing a few paintings. Detailed information is provided about the majority of the artists, but more importantly, the experiences of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune is expertly expressed. This is a period of history that is usually left out of British education, preferring to focus on events that affected Britain directly. Seeing the paintings that came about as a result of the war, even though they do not necessarily show the incidents, makes the whole account more real, distressing and important.

Often, artists who do not paint realistic images are ridiculed by those who do not understand the art movement or scenario that led to the artwork. As a result, some may deem Impressionists artists who do not know how to draw or paint, however, after coming away from this exhibition, those thoughts will have been challenged and, hopefully, visitors will feel more enlightened and knowledgeable.

The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in London will remain at the Tate Britain until 7th May 2018. Tickets are £19.70 (with donation) and can either be booked online or bought at the gallery on the day. 

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Harry Potter: A History of Magic

“There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words” – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

On 26th June 1997, J. K. Rowling published her first book in what turned out to be a highly successful, worldwide phenomenon. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was only the beginning of an extraordinary journey that has affected the hearts of millions of people and changed children’s literature forever. With seven books in the original series, it has become a multimedia marvel.

In honour of the 20th anniversary, a magical exhibition has been put together, combining a vast amount of detail from the Harry Potter series, with examples of “magic” from the real world.

What better place to host the exhibition than the British Library with its enormous collection of rare and ancient books. Being located a stone’s throw away from King’s Cross Station, which fans will know is where the famous Hogwarts Express sets off from, is an added bonus.

Centred around the Hogwarts curriculum, the exhibition takes a look at the various forms of magic that have been experimented with throughout history, evidenced with examples of literature and ancient objects.

Expertly designed to look like settings from the Harry Potter world, references to scenes from the books are interspersed with the collection, creating a magical and exciting atmosphere. Even before entering, the dangling winged keys above the heads of those queuing for their timed entry, hint of the adventure inside.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic also contains a history of the franchise with details provided by J. K. Rowling to explain the development of her ideas. From a shaky beginning to the most popular fantasy fiction, Harry Potter has been on a remarkable journey.

It is hard to imagine a world without Harry Potter, particularly for people, like myself, who were only six years old in 1997, however, J. K. Rowling initially struggled to find a publisher. Several had already rejected the manuscript before Rowling sent it to Bloomsbury, yet, even at this stage, it was not certain whether the staff would agree to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It took the strong opinion of one young person to convince the team to approve the proposal.

The founder of Bloomsbury, Nigel Newton, took the manuscript home and gave it to his daughter Alice. Who better to judge the merits of a children’s book than an eight-year-old reader? Her response set the publication in progress:

“The excitement in this book made me feel warm inside. I think it is possibly one of the best books an 8/9 year old could read!” – Alice Newton, aged eight.

The original print run was small – 500 copies – suggesting the publishers had little hope that Harry Potter would be a success. However, the interest of a film director helped to seal its fate. Steve Kloves came across the title within a dozen synopses for potential films. Intrigued by the logline, “A young boy goes to wizard’s school,” he sought out the book and was hooked immediately.

The film introduced many more people to the Harry Potter books and they were soon flying off the shelves. Today, over 450 million copies have been sold and the story has been translated into 80 different languages. It has been the most successful venture in children’s publishing.

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The two parts are designed to be watched in one day or on two consecutive nights

Success continued with the publication of companion books, such as The Tales of Beedle the Bard in 2008, and Fantastic Beasts in 2001. The latter inspired the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), and there has also been a stage production titled Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016).

 

Displayed throughout the exhibition are examples of J. K. Rowling’s preliminary thoughts and work. These include typewritten first drafts, handwritten notes, sketches of Hogwarts and characters, and detailed plans.

More recently, the first three books in the Harry Potter series have been republished in a large, hardback, illustrated format. Jim Kay, the illustrator, has produced amazing drawings of the characters and settings. These are not influenced by the films starring Daniel Radcliffe, making them unique and original. Many of these are also featured in the exhibition.

Potions

The first subject in the Hogwarts curriculum to appear on the journey around the exhibition is Potions, taught for the majority of Harry’s time at the school by the nefarious Professor Snape. People have been making potions for hundreds of years, believing they can cure illnesses and other impossible things. This is evidenced by Jacob Meydenbach’s book Ortus Sanitatis, owned by the British Library, which contains information and recipes for hundreds of potions.

Visitors have the opportunity to try their hand at creating a couple of the potions that feature in the Harry Potter books. An interactive screen instructs the player to insert various ingredients into a digital cauldron. Get it right and a bottled potion appears, however, making a mistake may result in an explosion!

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Ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn’s head

In the 18th century, apothecaries sold potions or medicines made from natural ingredients for a variety of ailments. These establishments were recognised by wooden and ivory signs in the shape of a unicorn. The horn, however, was the tusk of a narwhal rather than a real unicorn horn, which was, obviously, harder to come by!

Although the Harry Potter series is a fictional creation, J. K. Rowling based a lot on truth and history. It is impressive to note the extent to which she researched, even some of the things she invented are based on existing ideas. The philosopher’s stone referenced in the title of the first book was believed to make its owner immortal. In the 15th century, George Ripley (1415-90), an alchemist, produced an illustrated scroll with instructions about how to make a philosopher’s stone. The manuscript, which has rarely been unrolled due to its size, sits in an extremely long display case for everyone to see.

The characters in Harry Potter are invented by the author, however, one name that features on a required book for the potions class is Nicolas Flamel, who did exist. A replica of his 15th-century tombstone sits to one side of the Ripley Scroll.

Herbology

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Culpeper’s English physician and complete herbal…1789

A double archway leads from the Potions section to the Herbology area. This was a core subject at Hogwarts but was also taught in the real world. Herbology is essentially the study of plants and their uses. For years, people relied on this knowledge to create ointments and medicines, even potions. The British Library has a copy of a book called Culpeper’s English Physician; and Complete Herbal which was first published in 1652. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) was an unlicensed apothecary who wanted herbal knowledge available to everyone, hence why it was written in English rather than the traditional Latin. J.K. Rowling often consulted this book when researching for Harry Potter.

Jim Kay’s illustrations demonstrate the fictional plants that feature in the novels, but, as always, these are also based on real life. One plant is the mandrake, which does exist in real life, however, the Harry Potter ones have magical qualities; for example, they scream. There are also illustrations to compare the traditional idea of gnomes (red hat, rosy cheeks) with J. K. Rowling’s version (ugly and looks like a potato).

Charms

The curators of the Harry Potter exhibition have gone to great lengths to bring the magic of Hogwarts to life, utilising lighting effects and digital technology. To exemplify the power of charms, a flying snitch (a golden ball with wings) is seen flying across the walls. A disembodied voice chants magic spells such as “Wingardium Leviosa” and “Alohomora” which young wizards are taught at school.

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Liber Medicinalis

Magic words have also been used in real life, although not in quite the same way. Magicians and children’s entertainers still shout “Open Sesame” or “Abracadabra” when reaching the pinnacle of their act, however, “Abracadabra” dates back to the 13th century. The word was believed to have healing powers and patients were instructed to write out the word on eleven lines, leaving out one character each time, to create a triangular shape, which would then be cut out and worn around the neck like an amulet.

In the Harry Potter books, charms are more than waving a magic wand and saying a strange word. Objects can be charmed to move (e.g. the golden snitch and broomsticks), disappear, turn into something else, and so forth. In an empty glass cabinet supposedly hangs Harry’s invisibility cloak, a cloak that has been charmed to make the wearer disappear from sight. However, being an invisibility cloak, no one can see it!

Astronomy

Entering the Astronomy section is like stepping into a pretend observatory. Tiny white lights decorate the dark ceiling making it look like the night sky. Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences in existence, and although it does not involve magic, it is still an important subject in the wizarding world. Scientists have studied the night sky, determining the position of planets and stars, and discovering the secrets of the universe.

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A section of the Dunhuang Star Chart

Evidence of astronomy dates back thousands of years, however, the oldest tangible evidence to be discovered so far is a manuscript produced in China around 700AD. The Dunhuang star chart is two metres long and contains a record of the movements of the stars visible in the Northern Hemisphere. Civilisations used to base important decisions on the position of stars, however, this crosses over into astrology.

When writing Harry Potter, Rowling looked to the starry skies for names for many of her characters. An interactive screen allows visitors to locate certain stars in the sky that have been utilised in the series. Examples are Andromeda Tonks, Bellatrix Lestrange and Remus Lupin.

Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, is another character named after the night sky. Sirius is the brightest star that can be seen from Earth and lies within the constellation Canis Major. The star is also known as the Dog Star, which makes it an apt name for the Animagus; Sirius Black can turn himself into a large black dog.

Divination

Divination is the art of predicting the future and is often ridiculed by those who do not believe in this elusive craft; it is no different with the staff and students at Hogwarts. The teacher, Professor Sybill Trelawney, is often mocked and believed to be a fake, however, some of her prophecies prove to not only be true but are vital to the storyline.

Similarly to the methods taught at Hogwarts, predicting the future can be attempted in many different ways. The books and items displayed by the British Library give examples of techniques used across the world. Usually, when picturing a fortune teller, they are seated at a round table with a crystal ball on top. A couple of these are exhibited, along with a fake, digitally powered version that everyone is welcome to play with.

Another common technique of fortune tellers is tarot card reading or cartomancy. The exhibition contains the oldest version of the pack of 52 cards that were produced by a so-called specialist, John Lenthall (1683-1762), in the 18th century. Each card has a different meaning and can predict events in an individual’s future. An interactive table allows people to place their hands in position and receive their own fortune telling.

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John Lenthall’s Fortune-Telling Cards, English

Defence Against the Dark Arts

A compulsory subject at Hogwarts, Defence Against the Dark Arts teaches students how to defend themselves against dark creatures and curses. This plays a vital role in Harry’s story as he fights the Dark Lord as well as other evil characters. However, there is a rumour that the position as teacher of Defence Against the Dark Arts is cursed, especially as they never last longer than a year.

Throughout history, societies have believed in and attempted to protect themselves from evil beings. Sometimes talismans or amulets are worn to protect individuals from harm. Interestingly, the symbol of a snake has also been used for defence purposes, but, on the other hand, some cultures view them as evil.

In the Harry Potter series, snakes are mostly associated with evil. Voldemort, the Dark Lord, has a pet snake who measures at least twelve foot long. For Voldemort, his pet is a form of protection, but for Harry, it represents evil.

Care of Magical Creatures

The final subject is Care of Magical Creatures that is initially taught by the half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. Students are taught about a whole range of creatures: what they eat, their natural habitats, which are safe and which are dangerous, and so on. Rowling has used pre-existing creatures from mythology and folklore but adapted them to fit in with the storyline. Some of these include unicorns, dragons, phoenixes and hippogriffs.

Although, nowadays, magical creatures are believed to be a myth, plenty of books have been published on the topic. These books are known as bestiaries and contain detailed information about each curious beast.

Other magical creatures that heavily feature in Harry Potter are ghosts. The Hogwarts castle is full of them and they often interact with the students. Another are owls, which may not register as magical creatures in the real world. In J. K. Rowling’s fictional world, the witches and wizards do not use postmen, instead, they entrust their letters and parcels to an owl to deliver them straight to the recipient.

Jim Kay has produced some wonderful illustrations of the many creatures in the books, some of which can be seen in this section of the exhibition.

Here the exhibition comes to an end. Not only does everyone know more about the famous Wizarding World, they have a greater knowledge about magic in general. Combining Harry Potter and real-life examples of witchcraft and wizardry make the journey through the exhibition extra interesting and inciteful. It is truly eye-opening to discover the connections between the fictional books and “real” world.

J. K. Rowling is a truly admirable author who deserves all the recognition she has received. Harry Potter will never be forgotten and has a promising future with spin-offs, illustrated versions of books, and new forms of merchandise constantly in production.

It is hard to fault Harry Potter: A History of Magic, the British Library has done an exceptional job at sourcing and curating the exhibition. It is set out in a logical format and is easy to navigate. The only downside, if it can be called one, is that it is so popular! Tickets sell out in advance every day, meaning the exhibition gets very crowded. In an attempt to control the crowds, the Library issues timed tickets with a half hour window in which to enter. However, the eager Harry Potter fans turn up at the beginning of their slot resulting in a multitude of people entering at once. The first few sections are particularly difficult to manoeuvre around as everyone fights to see the artworks, books and information.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open until 28th February, so there is still time to go and see the sensational exhibition – if there are any tickets left! Tickets can only be purchased online and cost £16 (£8 for under 17s). There is also an exhibition shop full of Harry Potter merchandise. Unfortunately, this is a bit pricey, but serious fans will be willing to pay the price.

Displays inspired by the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition are open in 20 public libraries across the UK as part of the Living Knowledge Network.

Reflections​

Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Organised by the National Gallery in collaboration with Tate Britain, the Arnolfini Portrait painted by Jan van Eyck (c1390-1441) takes pride of place in an exhibition about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Although this portrait was painted 400 years before the founding of the group, it had a significant impact on a group of British artists who wanted to break away from the stagnant style of painting of the 1800s. Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites explores the connection between one famous oil painting and the many artists it inspired.

The Arnolfini Portrait was obtained by the National Gallery in 1842, the 186th piece of work added to the growing collection. What made it extra special was the nationality of the artist. Jan van Eyck lived in the Netherlands and this portrait was the first painting the gallery received from this country. Available to public view for the first time, many flocked to see and study the painting, including William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) and John Everett Millais (1829-96), the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Jan van Eyck is the most acclaimed painter of the Early Netherlandish School and one of the first to use oil paints – he was originally believed to be the inventor of oil painting, but this has since been disproved. Little is known about his early life, however, from 1432-9, van Eyck helpfully dated all his paintings, allowing art historians to determine his whereabouts and the people with whom he associated. Two other van Eyck paintings are in this exhibition, however, it is the Arnolfini Portrait, sometimes called Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (1434), that remains his most famous.

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Van Eyck – Arnolfini Portrait

In this exhibition, the portrait is referred to as the Arnolfini Portrait and reveals a man and woman holding hands in a bedroom. This couple has been identified as members of the Italian Arnolfini family, the man possibly being Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini who lived in Bruge at a similar time to van Eyck. From the date of the painting, 1434, it has been determined that the woman was Arnolfini’s second wife.

The figures are dressed in the fashions of the time, which today look rather peculiar. Arnolfini’s dark purple coat or jerkin appears to be made of velvet, but it is his black hat that makes him look rather odd. His wife, on the other hand, is much more brightly clothed in a fur-lined green gown.

Although the foreground characters have now been identified, the purpose of the portrait was lost for many years. This resulted in a large number of theories about the intended subject of the painting. Some believed that it showed a husband and wife, and others believed that it was a promise of future marriage. The theories escalated with the notion that the woman was pregnant, therefore a hasty marriage is occurring in private, however, the old-fashioned costume may be the cause of the appearance of a swollen stomach.

The National Gallery does not pay too much mind to the purpose of the painting, preferring to draw visitors’ attention to the items in the background. Although the room appears to be rather small with plain walls and uncarpeted flooring, other objects suggest the couple is richer than they may initially appear. On the window sill sit a few oranges, which were an expensive fruit during the 1400s, and above the couple hangs an intricate, polished chandelier.

The key element of the Arnolfini Portrait, however, is the convex mirror hanging on the wall behind the couple. Mirrors were considered a luxury at the time of painting, therefore, also hint at the wealth of the Arnolfini family. Within its reflective surface, two male figures can be seen entering the room, giving the painting more depth and sparking more theory about its purpose – some suggested that the figures in the mirror could be witnesses of the marriage.

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The mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait

The mirror itself is quite fascinating; van Eyck has successfully painted the glass to look like a real mirror, but the detail in the frame is even more impressive. Around the edge are ten small circles showing the scenes from the Passion of Christ. Although they are tiny, each scene has been carefully painted fully.

According to a ten-minute film included in the exhibition ticket price, the Arnolfini Portrait was not appreciated by people at the time of completion. It was not a popular piece of work and often changed hands, being passed from one owner to the next. However, this all changed in the 19th century. The realistic nature of the outcome was highly admired, as well as the pristine condition it was in despite its age. At this time, paintings would often degrade quickly, therefore, many were intrigued by the artist’s technique.

“A picture has just been added to the National Gallery which affords as much amusement to the public as it administers instruction to the colour-grinders, painters, and connoisseurs, who, since the day of its exhibition, have crowded rooms to admire its singularity and discuss its merits. To every one it is a mystery. Its subject is unknown, its composition and preservation of its colours a lost art.”

– Illustrated London News, 1843 (a copy features in this exhibition)

Jan van Eyck used paintbrushes to apply the oil paint to the canvas, however, he also used his finger to help blend the colours together. This may also have helped to produce the smooth finish since no individual brush stroke can be detected.

It was after the Arnolfini Portrait was put on display that three young students from the Royal Acadamy began their revolutionary art movement. Hunt, Rosetti and Millais were disappointed with the High Renaissance method of teaching they were receiving at the academy, therefore, were fascinated with the painting by van Eyck. They decided to revive the techniques used in the early artwork in Italy and the Netherlands of the fifteenth century, produced before the emergence of Raphael and his style of painting. As a result, they named their movement “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”.

Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood only had three founding members in 1848, they quickly added other artists to the group who shared their dissatisfaction with the Royal Academy. They developed rules, which whilst never published, were closely followed by all members of the brotherhood.

  1. To have genuine ideas to express.
  2. To study nature attentively, so as to know how to express it.
  3. To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote.
  4. To produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

The Pre-Raphaelites aimed to produce genuine ideas that evoked emotion. They moved away from the popular military victory and classical history paintings in favour of what they thought were more serious subjects. Some of their outcomes had a religious nature, however, they also took inspiration from literature, for example, Shakespeare and Tennyson.

“… absolute, uncompromising truth in all it does, obtained by working everything down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.” – John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Mariana 1851 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Mariana by Sir John Everett Millais (1851)

The Pre-Raphaelites were not only influenced by van Eyck’s style of painting, they were particularly intrigued by the use of the mirror in the background. The National Gallery has focused on this motif rather than the movement in general, with a selection of Pre-Raphaelite artworks that feature mirrors.

One painting that the National Gallery has deemed important enough to use on advertisements for the exhibition is Marianna (1851) by Sir John Everett Millais.

Millais was a thriving portraitist whose paintings of beautiful young women earned him popularity. He had a taste for Shakespeare plays and Tennyson’s poems and often painted scenes based upon them. Mariana was a character in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure but also features in a poem by Tennyson. In this particular scene, Mariana has been sent into exile by her fiancé Angelo after her dowry was lost at sea.

The mirror in this composition does not play much of a role, however, an accompanying drawing in the exhibition suggests that Millais originally intended to include a mirror behind Mariana’s head. However, art critics still link Mariana with the Arnolfini Portrait. They claim that Mariana’s rich blue dress emphasises the curvature of her spine and slim figure in a similar way that the bright green gown in the van Eyck painting amplifies the swelling stomach of the Arnolfini woman.

The National Gallery explores the different ways that mirrors are used in the artworks by Pre-Raphaelite painters. Some painters used mirrors in a metaphorical sense, often to suggest ideas or feelings that could not be conveyed through the main section of the painting. One example of this is William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853).

The Awakening Conscience 1853 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910

The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt

Hunt’s painting shows a wealthy man with his mistress who appears to be in a slight state of undress. She is captured in a position suggesting she is just raising herself up from the lap of her lover. Her facial expression clearly illustrates that something has captured her attention beyond the painting’s frame. This is where the mirror plays a vital part.

Beyond the two figures, Hunt has positioned a large mirror which reflects what those studying the painting cannot see. The mirror is facing a window that looks out into a brightly lit garden. No one can know for certain what the lady has seen, however, the picture notes at the National Gallery suggest that she may have been reminded of her lost innocence. She is rising up as if her conscience has been awakened and it is not too late to escape her morally corrupt situation. “… the sunlit garden reflected behind her suggests that she will choose a path towards spiritual enlightenment, and that faith will be her salvation.”

As time went on, members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement began to move away from their initial aims, blurring the lines between their radical ideas and the commencement of the Aesthetic Movement. Not all Pre-Raphaelites were sucked into this new concept, however, those that were, took their mirror motif with them. With a new aim of creating art for art’s sake, the mirrors were used to emphasise beauty and reality rather than having any stronger symbolic nature.

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Il Dolce far Niente (1859-66) by William Holman Hunt

From the selection of paintings that the National Gallery grouped into this category, the one that stands out the most is Il Dolce far Niente (1859-66) which was also painted by William Holman Hunt. Hunt was one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters who prefered to convey an enlightening purpose or narrative, which makes this particular painting an anomaly.

Il Dolce far Niente, which translates into English as “it is sweet to do nothing”, is a portrait that focuses on female beauty. The convex mirror in the background, tying it in with the majority of the other paintings in the exhibition, shows a reflection of the snug domestic scene, however, adds little else to the composition.

Apparently, the original painting was intended to be a portrait of Hunt’s fiancé, Annie Miller, but the engagement was eventually broken off. Hunt later repainted the face to turn it into a portrait of his wife, Fanny Waugh, whom he married in 1865.

When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood combined their fascination of the convex mirror with their love of literature, the perfect poem was found. The Lady of Shalott (1832) by Sir Alfred Tennyson (1802-92) provided painters with potential scenes to show off their artistic style inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait. This ballad tells the story of a woman under a curse who cannot engage with the outside world. The only safe way to view the goings on outside her prison is through a mirror that faces a window. She spends her time painstakingly reproducing these reflections on a loom until one day she catches sight of the striking Sir Lancelot. Forgetting herself, she watches him from the window; the mirror cracks and her death is inevitable.

The poem, written in four parts and nineteen stanzas, supplied the Pre-Raphaelites with many scenes to illustrate, making good use of the prominent mirror. Four examples are shown in the exhibition, revealing different interpretations. Three of the four chose to encapsulate the curse in action, emphasising the cracking mirror and the Lady of Shalott facing the window, distraught with the realisation about what she has done.

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The Lady of Shalott (1894) by John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), was born at the same time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was established. Although the movement had largely come to the end by the time he started his career, he was still influenced by their style. Waterhouse was also guided by other artists’ techniques of his era, for example, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1865-1940), therefore his outcomes are not as smooth and detailed as the founders’ artwork.

Nevertheless, Waterhouse was one of the painters who attempted to demonstrate the curse of the Lady Shalott. The background contains the typical circular mirror complete with the crack symbolising the protagonist’s demise. The lady herself is tangled up in the skeins of wool, emphasising that she cannot escape her dreadful fate.

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“I am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott” (1913) by Sidney Meteyard

 

The painting that does not depict the breaking of the mirror is, perhaps, the most striking of the selection, if not the most beautiful in the whole exhibition. Sidney Meteyard (1868-1947), who was too late for the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but worked in a later revival of the style, used rich, dreamlike colours to illustrate the fairytale-like ballad. Taking the title directly from a line in the poem, “I am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott” (1913) reveals the lady dozing in front of the mirror and loom after witnessing two lovers who can still be seen in the convex mirror.

“But in her web she still delights/To weave the mirror’s magic sights,/For often thro’ the silent nights/A funeral, with plumes and lights,/And music, when to Camelot;/ Or when the moon was overhead, Came two young lovers lately wed;/’I am half sick of shadows,’ said/The Lady of Shalott.”

– The Lady of Shalott, Tennyson, Part II, final verse

The expressive colours emphasise the dream-like state the Lady of Shalott. It suggests she may be dreaming of the lovers or imagining herself in a similar scenario, which she will never get to experience in real life. The flowers in the foreground, which help to frame the painting, also indicate the romantic, intimate scene the lady has recently witnessed.

From this exhibition, the National Gallery stresses the influence the Arnolfini Portrait with its convex mirror had on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. However, these were not the first people to be affected in this way. Long before Hunt, Rosetti and Millais began to make a fuss about the Royal Academy’s teaching methods, the painting was spotted by a seventeenth-century artist in the Spanish Royal Collection. Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was enamoured with van Eyck’s portrait and went on to produce the second most famous mirror in the history of Western art.

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Partial copy of “Las Meninas” (1862) by John Philip

The original painting, Las Meninas (c1656) is very famous and recognisable, however, it is currently hanging in the Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid. Fortunately, the National Gallery was able to display a partial copy of Las Meninas produced by John Philip (1817-67) in 1862. This copy shows approximately one-quarter of the original composition showing the detail in the bottom left-hand corner.

The partial copy by the Scottish artist brings in to focus the mirror hanging on the wall amongst a selection of framed paintings. This feature is likely to be overlooked in the original, the lighting drawing attention to the girls in the foreground.

Whilst the mirror is not round, as it is in the Arnolfini Portrait, it adds a further dimension to the painting. In the dark glass, the figures of the King and Queen of Spain can be seen, who do not feature anywhere else in the composition. This has resulted in the meaning of the painting remaining ambiguous, with critics coming up with varied suggestions about the purpose of the King and Queen’s presence.

The Pre-Raphaelites were not impressed with Las Meninas in the same way that the Arnolfini Portrait struck them. Although it contained a mirror, the painting style leant more towards impressionism than van Eyck’s hard-edged style. It was the photorealistic aspect that the Brotherhood wanted to replicate more than anything else.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites is a visual journey of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the effect a single painting can have on a large number of people. By limiting the display to paintings featuring mirrors, the National Gallery compares and contrasts the various interpretations artists developed. It is interesting to see how one key idea – a mirror – can result in so many different outcomes.

Occasionally, the National Gallery’s claim that various paintings were inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait is debatable, but, assuming this conclusion was reached by experts, visitors can only take their word for it. Regardless of whether the connection is obvious or not, the selection of paintings is beautiful and intriguing, and worth taking the time to study.

The National Gallery provides an audioguide at a small extra cost and has detailed notes throughout the exhibition explaining the paintings and the thoughts of the Pre-Raphaelites. By introducing the public to poems, such as The Lady of Shallot, the exhibition is as educational as it is entertaining.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites remains on display in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery until 2nd April 2018. Tickets are £10 on weekdays and £12 at weekends. 

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

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A gold plaque depicting a Scythian horseman with a spear in his right hand; Gold; late fifth to early fourth century BC; Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Supported by BP, the British Museum’s major exhibition explores the lives of a barbaric tribe known as the Scythians. These Eurasian nomads inhabited the majority of the western and central Eurasian steppes for hundreds of years with evidence dating as far back as 900BC. Since 300BC, the Scythians gradually disappeared leaving very little proof of their existence.

For centuries, historians have had to rely on Greek historians and Assyrian inscriptions for information about these primitive humans, in particular, Herodotus, “the father of history”, a fifth century BC Greek historian, with his magnum opus The Histories.

“For Herodotus, the Scythians were outlandish barbarians living north of the Black Sea in what are now Moldova, Ukraine and Crimea.” – Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars from the Third Century to Alaric

Ancient manuscripts, whilst useful, are not always the most reliable of sources, therefore, a lot of Herodotus’ description is not to be completely trusted. Fortunately, within the past couple of centuries, the discoveries of graves and burial mounds in the areas the Scythians occupied have revealed a wealth of information about these ancient Indo-Europeans.

Objects excavated from Scythian tombs have been carefully stored at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia and are temporarily on loan to the British Museum where they can be viewed in this outstanding exhibition. Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia contains objects that are over 2,000 years old, astonishingly preserved in the permafrost of the cold landscape. Glass cases of gold and bronze jewellery, clothing, weapons and everyday items relates the story of a rich civilisation of formidable warriors.

Set in a darkened gallery, highlighting the exhibits with lit cabinets, the curators have created an atmospheric display complete with soundscapes that set the scene of the temperate grasslands, beginning with the resonance of a strong wind and moving on to the clamour of galloping horses. Wall-size digital panoramas present a computer-generated landscape complete with horsemen dressed in what it is believed the Scythian’s wore. Although the remains of items found during excavations provide enough information to understand the lives and culture of this society, these creative extras help to paint a fuller picture.

 

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Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672-1725) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

A full-length portrait of Tsar Peter I (the Great) (1672-1725) introduces visitors to the man responsible for the first excavation of a Scythian burial site. For scientific purposes, Peter the Great sent men on an expedition to Siberia to study the land, not realising that he would receive more than he bargained for.

 

After accidentally discovering an ancient burial mound full of armour, sophisticated jewellery, belt buckles and weapons, the Tsar decreed that all findings should be brought back to St Petersburg to be documented. He also instructed that detailed drawings be produced of each object. Some of these are on display positioned next to the original item.

At least 250 Scythian gold artefacts found themselves in Peter the Great’s inventory, which prompted him to commission the building of the first Russian museum, Kunstkamera (cabinet of curiosities). Unfortunately, the Tsar was not to see the opening of his enterprise since he died earlier that year.

From these initial findings, and the many that have since occurred, a lot has been deduced about the lives of the Scythians. With the ancient texts by historians such as Herodotus to help place them in context, each object tells modern researchers about the Scythian’s beliefs, lifestyle and abilities. It is assumed that it was a funerary custom to be buried with important possessions, and most graves contained someone form of armour and weapon – even the females.

Although it cannot be proved, the burial mounds suggest the Scythians believed in some sort of religion, perhaps one where they believed they would need certain items in the afterlife, for instance, arrows. Herodotus notes, “Ares, the God of War, was the only deity whom the Scythians worshipped and to whom they built altars.” However, how the historian came to this conclusion is unknown and could be an assumption based on the Scythian’s fighting abilities. Further examination of the recently discovered decorative metalworks implies the warriors may have believed in other divinities too.

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Scythians with horses under a tree. Gold belt plaque. Siberia, 4th–3rd century BC.

The first example of the Scythian’s careful metalwork is on display at the entrance to the exhibition. Labelled a gold belt plaque, it is understood that this made up one half of a belt buckle. Although many of the artefacts presented at the British Museum are made of gold, it is likely that these would have belonged to nobility or royalty, thus implying something about the Scythian social structure.

Rather than being a plain, functional buckle, the goldsmith carved a detailed scene involving the death of a warrior. The deceased is lying on the ground in the arms of a female deity wearing a high ponytail – this goes to disprove Herodotus’ theory that the Scythian’s only worshipped the Greek god of war. On the left is a tree of life from which a quiver hangs from a branch, presumably belonging to the fallen man. On the right are a pair of horses, which emphasises the importance of the animal to the Scythians.

Scythians were not just formidable fighters, they were capable of defeating their enemies on horseback. Evidence suggests that they took great care of their horses and relied on them for many things including transport, milk and meat. Skeletons of horses have been found in many graves next to their owner, implying they were sacrificed in honour of the warrior’s death. Studies of the bones suggest that the horses were given a death blow to the forehead, potentially with an axe.

It was not only belt buckles that Scythians produced in lavish designs, the display cases contain jewellery, ornaments and appliqués for clothing and weaponry. Many of these have been made with gold, but bronze was also a popular material. Although highly detailed, these accessories were smaller than they seem in photographs, which was necessary in order for the Scythians to be able to wear or transport them. The above belt buckle was one of the middle-sized plaques at 16.1 centimetres wide and weighing 465.04 grams.

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Deer-shaped gold plaque. Barrow 1, Kostromskaya, Kuban region. The second half of the 7th century BC.

An example of a larger plaque is this deer-shaped ornament that probably adorned a case for a set of bow and arrows. It is approximately 30 centimetres long and is made from a thick sheet of gold. The animal is typical of what has become known as “Scythian animal style art”. The ornamental antlers indicate that this was made by a very skilled artisan and, due to the material, belonged to a member of the Scythian royals.

As the journey through the exhibition continues, the displays go from impressive ornaments to the more mundane, everyday life objects expected of an ancient civilisation. The weather conditions in the Altai mountains where the majority of Scythian burial sites have been found meant the ground was often frozen. It is because of this that so many items have been preserved. Clothes and fabrics, which would easily decay under normal circumstances, are still recognisable and show the workmanship and effort that went into making them. They are not the primitive garments many have envisaged people wearing thousands of years ago, they are well designed and suitable for the harsh weathers to which they would have been subjected.

 

Similarly to their belt buckles, Scythian clothing was not only a matter of function, they were richly decorated too. Before reaching the examples of clothing, the British Museum has laid out some of the gold appliqués that would have been sewn onto important figures’ clothing in intricate patterns, but this was not their only method of embellishment.

An example of a woman’s shoe has been found in extremely good condition. Made from leather, delicate patterns have been sewn across the toe and ankle in a material that imitates silver – presumably, this would have belonged to someone of high ranking. Interestingly, the sole is enriched in pyrite crystals, which, although may have made a sturdier bottom, was probably a method of showing status. Scythians spent a lot of time on horseback, therefore the soles of their feet would be visible to those on the ground.

From the clothing found in the graves and the accounts of ancient historians, artists have been able to determine what the Scythian’s outfits may have looked like. Both men and women wore trousers to make riding horses easier, however, women may also have worn skirt-like garments. Women also wore “high caps tapering to a point and stiffly upright” (Herodotus) but the purpose of this remains unknown.

The belts that may have been ornamented with golden plaques, would have been less about keeping one’s trousers up, instead used as a method of storing weapons. Evidence of a wide variety of tools and weaponry has been unearthed, including double- and single-edged swords, daggers and spears. The Scythian’s weapon of choice, however, was the bow and arrow.

The Scythians were the finest bowmen of their time and were capable of shooting at a considerable range. Their bows were crafted in a way which made them capable of accuracy, an important aspect when relying on them whilst on horseback. The arrows themselves were sharp and deadly, and if the shot was not fatal, removing the shaft may have proven to be. Ancient texts suggest that the Scythians may also have covered the tips in poison; no one could escape with their lives.

“None who attacks them can escape … ” – Herodotus

These ancient Siberian warriors, with their power and strength, were also human, and therefore, needed items similar to those still used today. Wooden bowls and cups made from pottery were also found in burial sites, however, these were probably used for something more significant than the average meal.

In comparison to their jewellery and clothing, their forms of crockery were fairly basic. In this instance, the item’s function was probably more important than what it looked like. Nevertheless, a lot can be learnt about the Scythians from these simple objects.

Backing up the claims of Herodotus, excavators have come across a hemp-smoking set, which insinuates the Scythians occasionally smoked to get intoxicated by the fumes, either for pleasure or part of a religious ceremony.

“Let us not again this evening
With our shouts and noisy uproar
Get ourselves as drunk as Scythians,
Let’s get moderately tipsy
And our best songs sing with fervour.”
– Anacreon (c.582-485BC), Greek poet

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Wooden coffin. Late 4th–early 3rd century BC.

The exhibition ends with a closer look at the notable burial tombs that kept these amazing object safe for two or three thousand years. The graves were dug deep into the ground – another reason they have been so well preserved – with a wooden structure at the bottom. These were, apparently, similar to log cabins carpeted with felt. Within this chamber, a coffin, made from a tree trunk, was placed with body and important possessions inside. The graves that contained horses revealed the animal’s skeleton outside of the coffin but within the walls of the cabin. According to the British Museum’s blog, the horses were always positioned facing east – something to do with religion, perhaps?

The wooden coffin in the exhibition shows how well protected its contents were, with its thick walls and sturdy roof. It also conveys the impression that the Scythians took death seriously and were, perhaps, not as savage as past historians have made them out to be.

The Scythians would not have known how well preserved their deceased and possessions would be, but thanks to the diligence of their burial processes, they will be forever remembered as a formidable civilisation rather than the stuff of legend. Archaeologists are even able to determine their physical appearance due to the survival of mummified heads and bodies. Warning: the head and tattooed skin of a Scythian is on display for those with strong stomachs to marvel over!

The British Museum has excelled itself with this exhibition of such a fierce but sophisticated culture. It takes visitors on a journey through the lives of a nomadic tribe that, until recently, has only existed in myths and legends. Being able to see the objects up close (and the body parts) brings the stories to life and reveals how advanced the human race was in terms of survival as far back as the early Iron Age.

Only a week remains before Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia closes to the public. The items will be returned to the State Hermitage Museum so, unless you are planning a trip to Russia, this is your final opportunity to see this amazing proof of a rich, ancient civilisation.

The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is on at the British Museum until 14 January 2018. Tickets are £16.50, Members/under 16s free. 

At Home in Antiquity

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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Coign of Vantage, 1895 (detail). Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty

Earlier this year (7th July – 29th October 2017), Leighton House Museum in Kensington put on the largest exhibition of an illustrious Victorian artist to be shown in London since 1913. Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity displays over 100 paintings that reveal the artist’s interest in both the domestic life of antiquity and his own home life.

Leighton House was the perfect location for an exhibition of an artist who portrays many ancient foreign scenes in his work. Originally the house of Frederic, Lord Leighton, 1st Baron Stretton (1830-96), a famous British artist of a similar era to Alma-Tadema, the house is full of decorative art and furnishings from all over the world.

The exhibition prevented visitors from appreciating the full extent of the house’s decor, however, the ‘Arab Hall’, fitted with an indoor fountain, remained untouched by the display. Here are a collection of ceramics, textiles, woodwork, windows and tiles from Leighton’s travels to the Middle East, particularly Damascus in Syria, and date as far back as the 17th-century.

The rest of the house is decorated in a similar fashion, however, Alma-Tadema far outshone the setting. His paintings are so exquisitely detailed, it was impossible to focus on anything else in the room. Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity has certainly been a star attraction for the museum this year.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema OM RA (1836-1912) was born Laurens Alma Tadema in a small village in the Netherlands. His father died when he was only four years old, leaving his mother to singlehandedly raise six children, three of whom were from her husband’s previous marriage. His mother encouraged the learning of artistic skills, however, intended her son to train to become a lawyer.

In 1851, however, at the age of fifteen, Laurens suffered a physical and mental breakdown that was misdiagnosed as a fatal case of consumption. Assuming he did not have long to live, Laurens was left to spend his days at leisure, often drawing and painting. Fortunately, the young man regained his health and decided to pursue a career in art.

A year later, at sixteen, Tadema moved to Belgium in order to study at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. Although he did not complete the course, he found himself a position as a studio assistant to Lodewijk Jan de Taeye, later working for the Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys (1815-69) who introduced him to the history of Belgium and France. Settings of these areas between the 5th and 8th centuries became a key topic of his early work. A few of these were displayed in the drawing room at Leighton House.

 

 

Although painted with exceptional skill, Tadema’s themes were not very popular amongst the clientele of the 1860s. As a result, Tadema decided to change tact, something that was sparked by his marriage to Marie-Pauline Gressin Dumoulin on 24th September 1863.

The happy couple’s lengthy honeymoon took place around Italy in cities such as Florence, Rome and Naples. The ancient facades inspired Tadema to produce Roman genre scenes. As well as Rome, Tadema became equally interested in ancient Greece and Egypt, researching them thoroughly in order to produce accurately detailed oil paintings. Although he was predominantly interested in the ways of life and the architecture of the periods, he also painted a few biblical scenes.

 

 

Tadema and Pauline had two children (their firstborn, a son, died in infancy). Their daughters, Laurence (1864-1940) and Anna (1867-1943) often became the subjects of their father’s paintings. Although his painting style did not alter, these scenes show a remarkable contrast with his imagined scenes. They reveal the differences in the household and fashions of the eras of focus.

Sadly, Pauline died of smallpox in 1869 at the young age of thirty-two. Spiralling into depression, Tadema’s work suffered and he eventually took the advice of his doctor to go to London to seek medical treatment. During his visit, he met the seventeen-year-old daughter of a physician, Laura Theresa Epps, and fell instantly in love. They were married in July 1871.

 

 

Tadema began his life in England with his new wife and daughters who were also artistically inclined. Some of Laura and Anna’s paintings were on show at Leighton House but were greatly outshone by the work of their husband and father.

It was at this time that Tadema adopted the English version of his name, Lawrence, and hyphenated his middle and surname to create a name that would appear at the beginning of exhibition catalogues.

Alma-Tadema became one of the most famous and highly paid artists of his time, receiving many awards including being made a Royal Academician on 19th June 1879. He was eventually knighted in England by Queen Victoria in 1899, the eighth artist from the continent to receive this honour.

As the years progressed, Alma-Tadema’s output dwindled. This was less to do with his age and more to do with a new passion – decorating his home. Various pieces of furniture and photographs of the place in which he lived featured in the exhibition, however, the most interesting was the collection of thin paintings that made up the ‘Hall of Panels’. In a room of his house, forty-five individual door panels were displayed along the walls containing paintings produced by friends and acquaintances of the artist. Seventeen of these were assembled for the exhibition at Leighton House including one by Frederic Leighton himself, The Bath of Psyche (1887). Other artists include John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Frank Dicksee (1853-1928) and, of course, his daughter Anna.

 

 

Laura Alma-Tadema died age fifty-seven in 1909 and her husband was not far behind her. After arriving in Wiesbaden, Germany in the summer of 1912 to be treated for a stomach ulcer, the Victorian artist passed away on 28th June 1912 at the age of seventy-six. He received a state burial in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Unfortunately, with the rapid developments of art movements during the first half of the 20th-century, Alma-Tadema’s classical paintings were rejected in favour of the modern experiments of new artists. For a while, his works were forgotten about, however, his depiction of antiquities was discovered by filmmakers, such as Ridley Scott, who used his historically accurate paintings to construct scenery and develop characters.

As part of the exhibition, the curators at the Leighton House Museum set up two adjacent television screens, one to show the painting and the other to play scenes they inspired. Clips were shown from eight films including Gladiator (2000), Cajus Julius Caesar (1914) and The Ten Commandments (1956).

The final room of the exhibition contained two of Alma-Tadema’s most impressive works. The majority of his paintings are exceptional for the way in which flowers, textures, metals and pottery are depicted. Alma-Tadema would source items to use as references and be very perfectionistic about his work. He was also particularly adept at painting stone and marble, earning him the title ‘the marbellous painter’. Evidence of these skills can be seen in The Finding of Moses (1904) and The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888).

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The Finding of Moses, 1904

The Finding of Moses was one of the last major works before Alma-Tadema’s death and was based on the biblical scene in Exodus 2:6. The Pharaoh’s daughter, who had come to bathe in the River Nile, has discovered the baby Moses hidden in a basket amongst the reeds. The scene shows a procession back to Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom of Egypt.

Alma-Tadema expertly painted realistic, full-length portraits of shaven-headed male attendants carrying Pharoah’s daughter on an intricately decorated chair. Beside her, two female attendants hold Moses aloft in his basket.

It is evident that Alma-Tadema undertook a significant amount of research to complete this painting. Amongst the decoration on the clothing and the daughter’s chair are symbols indicating her status and hieroglyphics identifying her as the daughter of Ramesses II.

The colours are fairly typical for a dusty Egyptian landscape, however, Alma-Tadema offsets the composition with the inclusion of delphiniums in the foreground, boasting another skill of his. The rich blues and purples turn the painting into something resembling a frieze and are a perfect contrast with the yellows and oranges of the pyramids in the background.

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The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888

The Roses of Heliogabalus is set in an entirely different era. The painting depicts a (probably fictitious) event during the life of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus (204-222). The teenage ruler sits at a banquet table leering down at his guests as a swarm of pink rose petals descend from a false ceiling. Whilst roses and their beautiful colouring generally have positive connotations, this scene is an imagining of something far more sinister, as written in the biography Augustan History (4th century):

“In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his guests in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

As in all Alma-Tadema’s paintings, the Roman citizens are painted in a perfect likeness – almost photographic. However, the most phenomenal aspect is the sheer amount of rose petals depicted, drowning the emperor’s victims. Thousands of petals have been painted on top of the canvas, each one painstakingly detailed. This goes to show Alma-Tadema’s dedication to his work (and his perfectionism).

Lawrence Alma-Tadema was amongst the most financially successful painters of the Victorian-era and it is hard to believe that his work was rejected and ridiculed in the years after his death. Leighton House Museum curated a fantastic exhibition that not only shows off the impressive artworks, teaches the current generation about an artist who deserves to be remembered.

So much can be learnt by looking at Alma-Tadema’s work from artistic technique to historical context. A single painting can be studied for hours, each square inch containing so much detail.

Why this artist is not more widely known is baffling, but now there is hope as a result of the incredible exhibition Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity that Lawrence Alma-Tadema could become everyone’s favourite artist. It will be interesting to discover which artists the museum will reveal to the wider public next.

Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity was organised by the Museum of Friesland, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (the artist’ hometown) and came to London following an exhibition at the Belvedere, Vienna bringing over 130 works to Leighton House Museum as the only UK venue for the show.

Dalí/Duchamp: What is Art?

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Robert Descharnes, Duchamp and Dalí playing chess during filming for A Soft Self-Portrait, directed by Jean-Christophe Averty (detail), 1966.

The first major exhibition of its kind, the Royal Academy is exploring the artistic and personal relationship between two of the world’s greatest 20th-century artists. Although their artwork may appear to be total opposites – one rejecting painting whilst the other excels at it – Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp bonded over their mutual interests, humour and scepticism, which provided the basis for a lifelong friendship. Most importantly, however, were their unconventional views of art; and this is the reason why the RA is honouring the two artists with a joint display of their work.

Although a lot smaller than other exhibitions the RA has curated, the Dalí/Duchamp attraction is structured thematically into four components: Identities; The Body and the Object; Experimenting with Reality; and Playing Games. Despite their obvious contrariety in terms of artistic style, the RA aims to show Dalí and Duchamp in a new perspective and provoke the question: what is art?

Salvador Dalí (1904-89) was a Spanish painter, designer and filmmaker who was initially influenced by various art styles such as Cubism, Futurism and Metaphysical Painting. By 1929, however, Dalí had joined the newly created Surrealism group.

Dalí liked to be in the limelight and his resulting celebrity status rapidly earned him the recognition as the face of Surrealism. Surrealism, however, was a revolution led by the French poet André Breton (1896-1966) who wanted to challenge the conventions of society. Largely influenced by the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the group of writers, poets and (later) artists were interested in expressing the subconscious mind rather than the reality of everyday life.

Adopting many Surrealist ideas in his artwork, Dalí developed them further in an attempt to make them more positive. One method he titled “Critical Paranoia” which involved the combination of imagery based on his dreams and fantasies with the natural appearance of the world. It is this notion that most of Dalí’s iconic paintings stemmed, full of optical illusions that appear dream-like or hallucinatory – what Dalí termed “hand-painted dream photographs”.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was a French-born artist and art theorist who spent the majority of his life in the United States. In contrast to Dalí, Duchamp was a more private character, sometimes disappearing from the art scene for lengthy periods at a time. As a result, his artistic output was small in comparison to other creators of the era.

In 1915, along with Man Ray (1890-1976), who also features in this exhibition, Duchamp formed the movement known as Dada. This movement was established shortly after the First World War and was initially politically oriented.

“The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.” – Tristan Tzara, poet, 1896-1963

Dadaists were often referred to as creators of “anti-art”, combining collage, poetry and other visual methods full of satirical nonsense. This was their attack on the beliefs and values imposed upon society, which they emphasised through their use of non-traditional materials.

Duchamp’s main contribution to Dadaism was his collection of “readymades” – objects consisting of mass-produced articles isolated from their intentional function and displayed as a work of art.

Later, although he never created any art for the movement, Duchamp became an advocate for Surrealism. Members welcomed him into the fold in appreciation of his controversial readymades, which resonated with their ideologies. It is from this connection that Duchamp and Dalí met and formed a long-lasting friendship.

“Is it possible to make works, which are not works of art?” – Duchamp, 1913

The first two sections of the exhibition (Identities and The Body and the Object) contain some of the lesser known works of the two artists. It took a while for Dalí to establish his iconic style of dreamlike, surreal scenes, beginning his career by copying old master paintings. He proved himself to be a talented draughtsman but felt that by appropriating styles from other artists, he was not producing original art. Dalí went through an experimental period before settling on the technique for which he became famous.

Duchamp, on the other hand, experimented with identity in a more literal sense. Although Marcel Duchamp (born Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp) is the name he is remembered by, he operated under a selection of pseudonyms. The most significant of these is the alter ego he began assuming in the 1920s, Rrose Sélavy [misspelling intentional]. Going as far as cross-dressing, Duchamp switched between his two identities throughout his career, frequently altering his persona to fit with a particular piece of work. “I wanted to change identity … suddenly I had an idea: why not change sex? It’s much simpler!” (Duchamp, 1967)

Although it was Duchamp who become famous for his readymades, both went through periods of creating assemblages rather than paintings. Many of these are displayed in glass cases at the Royal Academy, including Dalí’s Lobster Telephone (1936). Some, if not all, of these examples are contentious, provoking the viewer to question what art is. But, more significantly, these objects create a sense of unease within the gallery.

Both Dalí and Duchamp openly expressed erotic themes in their creations. Whilst these may not be explicit, created by combining everyday objects, they are suggestive enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable. And for those who do not discern the references, the RA has provided captions and information to enlighten you.

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Fountain, 1917 (replica 1964) Duchamp

Amongst the collection of readymades is Duchamp’s most controversial work – perhaps the most controversial artwork of the 20th-century. Apart from the addition of a signature, what people initially see is a basic porcelain urinal positioned horizontally (on its side), however, this is actually the influential Fountain (1917) that sparked the debate about what can be considered art.

In order to remain anonymous (at least at the time), Duchamp signed the urinal with a pseudonym, R. Mutt and submitted it to an exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Despite paying the $6 entry fee, the organisers remained unimpressed and were convinced Duchamp was (to pardon the term) “taking the piss”.

In his defence, Duchamp wrote an unsigned letter to The Blind Man magazine titled “The Richard Mutt Case” in which he argued, “Whether or not Mr Mutt made it with his own hands has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an everyday article, placed it so that its usual significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – and created a new thought for that object.”

The Royal Academy provides a copy of the article but says no more on the subject, leaving it up to visitors to form their own opinion. It is possible to argue both sides of the is-it-art-dilemma and, being a subjective topic, there is no right answer.

It is Salvador Dalí who steals the show in the final sections of the exhibition. Perhaps because it is easier to understand and appreciate a painting as art, opposed to a readymade, you are immediately drawn to the large-scale canvases adorning the brightly lit walls of the Weston Galleries. The range of artworks span Dalí’s career and include his first undertaking of the Surrealist style. Les premier jours du printemps or The First Days of Spring (1929) was painted within the first few years of the movement’s inception, however, says more about Dalí’s persona than it does the doctrines set out by André Breton.

The empty landscape is an allusion to the beach-like area in which Dalí grew up in Catalonia, Spain, which he has filled with motifs that would eventually become a key feature of his iconography in future paintings. Amongst these mythical creations are a fish emerging from a tree and a grasshopper attached to a human head.

Centred in the middle of the painting is a photograph of Dalí as a young boy, implying that the painting is about him and not, as the title suggests, the literal beginning of spring. It has been suggested that the figures of man and boy represent the growing distance between Dalí and his father who was displeased with his son’s choice of profession. On the horizon, a man and child can be seen holding hands, but further forward on the left, a man sits with his back to the scene behind him.

Other paintings produced later in Dalí career are more recognisable than his first surrealist endeavour. Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938) conforms to the optical illusion style that Dalí is renowned for, in which the entire composition is made up of components that produce more than one scene. This cleverly constructed painting appears to be both a dish of pears and a phantasmal face floating above a beach (possibly another reference to Dalí’s home country). However, this is not the only illusion; what could be rocks or mountains becomes a dog’s head with a bridge and beach making its collar and nose. There are also a handful of motifs typical in a Dalí painting.

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Christ of Saint John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí, 1951.

One large painting that catches the eyes of visitors as they enter the room is Christ of Saint John of the Cross completed by Dalí in 1951. Still appertaining to the style of Surrealism (despite Dalí having left the group in the 1940s), this artwork is remarkably different from his other works. Although it is not the only Dalí painting to contain religious iconography, it is not a theme usually associated with the artist.

Dalí has based the painting on a drawing by the 16th-century Spanish friar John of the Cross. It depicts the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in a darkened sky, looking over a body of water in which fishermen are working – a reference to his disciples, perhaps.

Many artists have painted the crucifixion but Dalí’s version is quite different. Ignoring the placement of the cross and scenery, which is, of course, unusual, the painting lacks any nails, blood or crown of thorns. Dalí claimed to have a dream in which the importance of the lack of these features was revealed to him, as well as the exaggerated angle of the cross.

“In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe,’ the Christ!” – Dalí

Apart from its striking tones and realistic imagery, Christ of Saint John of the Cross attracts attention because it is one of the least expected images to see in an exhibition about Dalí and Duchamp. The movements they are associated with – Dada and Surrealism – both rejected systems of belief including religion, therefore to see an image of Christ on such a grand scale is very surprising. This may reflect back to his childhood, being brought up by his devout Catholic mother, and slowly becoming estranged from his atheist father, but this is only speculation.

Visitors may have preconceived ideas about what they will see at the Royal Academy’s Dalí/Duchamp exhibition. They are the type of artist people either like or do not, and there is the added issue of whether their work can be understood. Those expecting to see disturbing, disquieting or surprising “artworks” will be correct in their prediction, however, there is more to see than expected.

By presenting the artworks by theme, the Royal Academy takes the visitors through the different stages of thought the two artists went through during their careers. The beginning conforms to the preconceived ideas of the artists – satire, eroticism, readymades – but by the time visitors leave, after studying Dalí’s paintings, learning more about Duchamp’s Fountain and watching a couple of videos, chances are opinions would have changed. Perhaps on leaving, Dalí and Duchamp will go up in people’s judgement and appreciation, and possibly – although, maybe not – be better understood.

The Royal Academy of Arts will be continuing to display the Dalí/Duchamp exhibition until 3rd January 2018. The exhibition has been organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and The Dalí Museum, St Petersburg, Florida, in collaboration with the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation and the Association Marcel Duchamp. Tickets are £16.50, although Friends of the RA can go free. Please note, this exhibition contains some adult content.

Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth

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Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958.

“One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.” Jasper Johns, 2006.

Jasper Johns (b.1930) is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker recognised for his iconic representations of the US flag. The Royal Academy of Arts in London has produced a thorough exhibition that provides insight into the artist’s life as well as his distinctive art style. Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ contains over 150 paintings and sculptures that Johns has completed throughout the past 60 years. Beginning with his earliest existing work (he destroyed everything prior to 1954), the exhibition explores the techniques and purposes behind his artwork and documents the gradual changes Johns employed as he developed as an artist.

At the beginning of Jasper Johns’ career, the art world was in the midst of the Abstract Expressionism movement where artists were vibrantly communicating their inner selves to the public through symbolic paintings. Johns, on the other hand, avoided all forms of existing art factions by painting things exactly as they are seen, destroying the idea that art must have a hidden meaning. By producing images of universally familiar objects, Johns wanted to represent things that are often seen but never really looked at in great detail. His idiosyncratic ideas have helped to raise him to the status of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

To say Johns was interested in painting the American flag is an understatement. Already this year, one of Johns’ flags has featured in an exhibition at the British Museum and the Royal Academy have collated a handful of different ones. In total, Johns painted the flag 27 times, used it within ten sculptures, drew it 50 times and produced 18 prints. He claims that “One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” This suggests that his interest in the flag was originally nothing more than an urge to paint it, however, it later garnered a much stronger purpose and role within his artwork.

Beginning with the flag, Johns began a series of paintings that question things the mind is already aware of. He appropriated objects that the majority of people, at least in America, would have been familiar with since childhood. However, despite the lack of a symbolic meaning, Johns attempted to make the known unfamiliar to its audience. Flag (1958) is a realistic painting of the American flag (the one they had at the time before Alaska and Hawaii joined in 1959) with the stripes and stars exactly proportionate to the real thing. What Johns was interested in was whether other people saw it as a painting or as a flag – perhaps both. What is the expectation of a painting? Being presented on a stretched canvas, Flag cannot be raised on a flagpole and therefore cannot function as a true flag, therefore, one can argue that it is only a painting. On the other hand, if someone were to ask what the American flag looked like, showing them a Jasper Johns version would be just as good as showing them a photograph of the real thing – does that make the painting a flag?

To think too much about the function of Flag causes a lot of confusion and can never truly be resolved – there is no right or wrong answer. One thing that cannot be debated is its material; it truly is a painting. The brushstrokes produced by the artist’s hand are still evident when standing in front of the canvas. Johns uses a technique called encaustic, which he found much more beneficial than more traditional approaches. Encaustic painting involves mixing colour pigments with molten wax, which, although rather laborious to make, is quick drying and resists the effects of ageing and other damaging elements. It is easy to layer paintings using this medium and this can be seen in the majority of Johns’ paintings around the gallery. Today, Johns is one of the only remaining artists to employ this method.

As well as tangible objects, Jasper Johns painted other everyday motifs prompting similar questions about perception. Again, there were no hidden meanings behind these artworks and they could often function in the same way as their original counterpart. The RA displays painted maps and targets by the artist that, although evidently painted, can also function as a map or a target. Another interest of Johns are numbers, familiar figures that are seen all the time but rarely thought of as more than a piece of information.

Johns strips these numbers of their function in his charcoal drawing 0 Through 9 (1961) in which he has positioned each number on top of the other until left with a mess of lines and shape. It is still possible, by studying the artwork, to detect each individual number, but they have effectively been rendered purposeless. They neither inform or function as a number is traditionally meant to do. But, has that stopped them from being numbers?

As Johns continued to consider what a painting was rather than what it represented he began to move away from the traditional usage of the canvas. Often using collage as well as paint, the various layers in his works are obvious to the viewer and reveal how the piece was made. To draw attention to the canvas, Johns cuts, crops or extends it to make its presence more obvious. This is a technique he has employed in creating Painting with Two Balls (1960). By splitting the canvas and wedging in two wooden balls, Johns reveals the wall behind the painting. This emphasises that the viewer is seeing a painting on canvas, attached to a wall; there is nothing more meaningful about it.

Johns’ visual perception of everyday objects extends to his experimentation with sculpture, however, this is where the idea of the function becomes obscured. There’s no doubt that Johns was skilled at what he did, particularly in the case of Painted Bronze (1960) – one of the highlights of the exhibition. In a glass case, almost concealed amongst all the other art in the room, is what appears to be a selection of wooden paintbrushes in an old coffee tin – something that would be typically found in Johns’ studio. However, it is actually a hyper-realistic representation of brushes and a tin sculpted and cast in bronze, and then painted in oils. It is only by looking closely at the tin that the oil paint becomes noticeable. The words “Savarin Coffee”, for example, have demonstrably been painted by hand.

Unlike his flags and maps which could function as both a painting and an object, Painted Bronze has no physical purpose. Despite it looking like a tin full of paintbrushes, it would be impossible to pick one up and use it. This may be why Johns opted for the title Painted Bronze as opposed to Savarin Coffee Can or Tin of Paint Brushes.

Not only did Johns’ coffee can move away from the form and function theme, it was one of the first artworks that revealed something about the artist himself. Whereas his previous works had focused on everyday objects familiar to all, these brushes were more personal to Johns and were something he needed in his life to be able to live an artistic lifestyle. This sculpture marks a turning point in Johns’ career.

Until 1961, Jasper Johns had been in an intimate relationship with the artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), another pioneering artist of the time. The end of the seven-year romance resulted in a strong sense of emotional loss, which began to become evident in Johns’ work. Struggling with his personal feelings, he turned to language and words and began to incorporate these into his paintings. As a result, he became particularly interested in the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) who put forth the opinion that conceptional confusions surrounding language are at the root of most philosophical problems. Writing about semantics, Wittgenstein suggests that the meanings of words are in how they are used rather than what they are supposed to describe.

A couple of paintings in the exhibition may remind visitors of a particular brain game in which the task is to say the colour a word is written in and not the world itself. For example, if the word “black” is written in the colour red, one must, therefore, say “red”. In Jasper Johns’ False Start (1959) paint has been wildly splattered over the canvas in the primary colours: red, yellow and blue. Layered over the interlocking patches are the words “red”, “yellow” or “blue”, however, never on their respective colours. This explores Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and the meanings of words. What we see and what we read are two opposing details. Many people have been intrigued by this painting, and in 2006, it became the most expensive painting by a living artist, selling at $80 million.

During the 1980s, Jasper Johns became more personal with his works and his paintings began to include symbolism and meaning. However, this did not revert to the thought processes of Abstract Expressionism; it was still a unique endeavour on Johns’ part.

“In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly to do with my feelings about myself and partly to do with my feelings about painting at the time. I sort of stuck to my guns for a while, but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve.” Jasper Johns, 1984

The paintings Johns produced in this era are more meaningful for himself than anyone else viewing the painting. Johns was having trouble sleeping because he had too much on his mind. In order to sort through these thoughts, he painted six canvases titled Racing Thoughts in which he places his mental pictures onto a representation of a bathroom wall – implying he is thinking whilst taking a bath – to create a form of mood board.

The personal iconography in these paintings reflects on Johns’ past, his memories and his artistic influences. Occasionally they are metaphorical items, for instance, a skull which may represent death, but many are direct references to specific parts of his life. In one painting, located at the very beginning of the exhibition, Johns has combined a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and photograph of an art dealer, Leo Castelli, with other artistic allusions. This suggests that Johns admired the artist Leonardo Da Vinci, and the inclusion of Castelli is obvious since he was the man who gave Johns his first art show.

Despite the change in Jasper Johns’ artwork, he has not rejected the idea of perception and illusion. Within the six Racing Thoughts, he has experimented with trompe-l’œil with the inclusion of a commemorative vase for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. At first, all that may be seen is a white vase, but on further inspection, the negative space reveals the profiles of two faces: the Queen and Prince Philip.

These instances of optical illusion feature in later works, including Spring (1986) (pictured above) which was part of a series of four depicting the seasons. These are also the nearest Johns has got to a self-portrait, using a tracing of his shadow to make his presence known. Each painting contains objects, colours and trompe-l’œil that Johns associates with the four different times of the year.

As suggested by the title of the exhibition, Something Resembling Truth, the relationship between reality and illusion is Jasper Johns primary concern that he tackles in his paintings. Although he did not intend to conjure any subliminal meanings, many have wandered the gallery attempting to interpret what they saw before them. Each spectator may have produced their own subjective opinion based on their own knowledge and experience. However, no opinion is wrong when it comes to art. Johns may have been trying to paint something in reality with no emotions attached, but if it evokes something else in its audience, that is no less of a reality.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy has come to a close, but it has been well received by many visitors and friends of the academy. True to their typical style, the curators provided written information around the gallery to explain some of the artworks and also provide an insight into Johns’ life and thought process. With an audio guide that was included in the price of the ticket, the RA excelled themselves, producing something that was as informative as it was entertaining. This is something that remains consistent throughout the exhibitions hosted by the RA. Some people may not be moved by the artwork, however, the background information and knowledge make it worth a visit.

Many exhibitions take place throughout the year at the Royal Academy, so keep checking the website to see if there is anything that takes your interest.

Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with The Broad, Los Angeles.