Dalí/Duchamp: What is Art?

m1hsoz7nvfjkzcphsml6

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.

xkatqzftrner9cicw0tp

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.

christ_of_saint_john_of_the_cross

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.

Advertisements

Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth

xkp3w7rea4rvjuv79dlg

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.

Matisse in the Studio

I have worked all my life before the same objects … The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a different role in ten different pictures.

-Henry Matisse, 1951

dmnsfw0pomnirwentvzu

As well as the annual Summer Exhibition, the Royal Academy of Arts has been exploring some of the work produced by one of the leading artists of the twentieth century. On 5th August, the Sackler Wing was opened to the public with an exhibition titled Matisse in the Studio, which, rather than being a general showcasing of the artist’s most famous work, concentrates on the relationship between Henri Matisse and his studio.

Throughout his life, Matisse obsessively collected objects that caught his eye in junk shops and places he visited on his travels. These items accumulated on shelves, on walls and in cabinets around Matisse’s studio, creating a self-constructed place of retreat from the rest of the world. These same articles were constant features in Matisse’s artwork and inspiration for future projects. With carefully selected paintings and sculptures, the Academy endeavours to impart the incentives behind Matisse’s art.

Henri Matisse was born in France on 31st December 1869. Unlike many artists of his age, Matisse was a late starter, having embarked on a legal career until 1891 when he abandoned his professional aspirations in favour of enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts. As a result, it was not until the 1920s that Matisse became internationally known, however, he still managed to achieve the status as one of the most illustrious painters of the twentieth century, alongside his friend, and fellow painter, Picasso (1881-1973).

hfyu54hvo0vre0mtdcn2

Yellow Odalisque, 1937

Unlike Picasso, who embraced the Cubist and Surrealist movements, Matisse developed his own style, which initially resembled art that could be categorised into the Neo-Impressionism movement of which Georges Seurat (1859-1891) was a founding member. Neo-Impressionists were drawn to the sensitivity of line and the beauty of colour, often encompassing a full palette.

Matisse’s work is also associated with the Fauvist style, which was predominantly in practice during the first decade of the 20th century. This, similarly, had a strong focus on colour, as well as wild brush strokes, and simplification or abstraction.

Matisse deviated from any traditional methods and movements, preferring to experiment with different principles and processes to create unique outcomes. He also took great interest in sculpture, which not only did he produce, he painted into his compositions.

Matisse in the Studio is divided into sections that group together works involving a particular genre or process. The paintings in the gallery span the years from his initial experimental phases during the First World War all the way up until the years preceding his death in 1954.

Essential objects from Matisse’s eclectic collection have been sought out by the curators to feature alongside the paintings in which they play a significant role. Rather than painting still-lifes of the actual items in question, Matisse likened them to actors who take on other personas. Instead of drawing a chocolate-pot, for example, the one gifted to him as a wedding present, Matisse used it as a vase to hold flowers. This same object featured in many paintings but never representing the purpose for which it was originally intended.

Another article in his collection that Matisse was completely enamoured with was a Venetian Chair that he stumbled upon whilst travelling in Europe. It is of a baroque nature with a silver gilt and tinted varnish. Matisse was particularly drawn to the scallop shell-like body work, which provided plenty of lines and angles to experiment with.

It was not only these found objects that made their way into Matisse’s paintings, he produced his own items too. Matisse was a versatile artist who often turned to sculpture whenever he reached a mind block in his painting. Sculpting help Matisse “to put order into my feelings” – a form of organisation rather than a means to an end. Due to his extensive travelling, Matisse fell in love with African sculpture.

Unlike traditional European statues that stay true to form, African art used simplified shapes to resemble the human body rather than portraying a lifelike representation. Between 1906 and 1908, Matisse accumulated over twenty masks and statues from Central and West African countries, and by studying them, developed his own in a similar style. The disregard of accurate physical forms was a significant turning point in Matisse’s artistic career. He began to challenge the attitudes of the Western world’s notion of beauty.

The strong, linear lines of African art worked well with the style Matisse was already becoming known for. The exhibition displays some of the paintings of the female nude that Matisse experimented with, however, quite a number of these are based upon sculptures he had made, rather than a live model. In the instances that he did have someone sit for him, the final painting resembled the African figures more than the physical person in front of him. Matisse believed that by stripping someone down to the bare lines created a truer character and avoided any risk of superficiality.

the-italian-woman-1916

The Italian Woman, 1916

African design also found itself entering Matisse’s portrait paintings. Again, rather than producing a lifelike picture, Matisse simplified the features as much as possible. In order to evoke a sense of his subject’s true identity, Matisse believed that accurate features would distract from this purpose.

An example hanging in the RA is a portrait of an Italian woman called Laurette, who Matisse allegedly painted fifty times in less than a year. With no photograph to compare it to, it can only be assumed that the flatness of the face and sharpness of the nose and eyebrows was not a precise representation of the model. This goes to show how fixed Matisse was on the concept of African art.

African masks, rather than sculpture, were the inspiration for the faces Matisse painted. He was particularly intrigued by their stylistic designs and lack of realistic human features. A few of his collection has been located by the exhibition curators and are on display for everyone to see. These date from the late 19th to early 20th century.

Interestingly, the majority of Matisse’s paintings of the human figure were not solely based on his sitter. Matisse painted in his studio surrounded by his accumulation of foreign artefacts, which he then used as part of the setting for his paintings. The photograph at the top of this page shows Matisse in his studio with a model. There are a number of other objects surrounding the woman, patterns in the background and many different materials. Once all this has been painted, the model becomes merely a part of the artwork, rather than the main focus. The particular scene in this photograph was for Matisse’s Odalisque on a Turkish Chair (1928), which can be found towards the end of the exhibition.

During the final decade of Matisse’s life, his ability to produce art was severely debilitated after a near-fatal operation in 1941 for duodenal cancer. During this period, he was mostly bedbound, however, this did not prevent him from continuing with his work, but his method of execution needed to change.

Rather than painting directly on to canvas, Matisse turned to gouaches découpées, which involved cutting out shapes from painted or coloured papers. Many of his studio workers assisted with the cutting and pinned the pieces in place following Matisse’s precise instructions. Some examples of this latter work clearly retain the evidence of the pins.

The paper cut out allows me to draw in the colour. It is a simplification for me. Instead of drawing the outline and putting the colour inside it – the one modifying the other – I draw straight into the colour.

-Henri Matisse, 1953

From African art to collage, Matisse’s work had always been about simplifying. Even his use of colour was made plainer with the lack of shadow and tone. This does not mean to say that Matisse’s work lacks colour – they are most certainly vibrant – but he leans more towards blocks of colour rather than a natural pigmentation. Apparently, Matisse’s doctor, whether in jest or seriousness, advised the artist to wear dark glasses to counteract the intensity of the paint.

Matisse is the type of artist that spectators either love or hate. His work is often child-like and unimpressive, however, as an artist, he introduced new ideas to the world. His Fauvist style established the notion of simplifying the human figure in order to focus on character rather than appearance. He also challenged the rule that the human figure should be the focus of an artwork. Instead, he gave surrounding objects and decorations identical treatment.

Although he relied on his art as a means of livelihood, Matisse appeared to be quite reclusive, preferring to hide away in his studio than spend time in the outside world. Rather than working for other people, Matisse was creating art for himself. With his collection of interesting objects, he generated a safe and comfortable retreat where he could focus on painting rather than the negative experiences in his life. Instead of pouring his emotion into his work, he let the paint bring himself some peace and happiness. If anything, it can be said that Matisse’s paintings have an air of positivity about them, regardless of whether the viewer finds favour with them.

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject-matter … like a comforting influence, a mental balm – something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue.

-Henry Matisse, 1908

Matisse in the Studio is running until 12th November 2017 and is open to the public between 10 am and 6 pm on Saturdays to Thursday, however, extends to 10 pm on a Friday. Friends of the Royal Academy are, naturally, free to enter, although, are advised to book a timed ticket. Everyone else is required to pay a fee of £15.50 (includes donation). It does not take long to walk around the exhibition, but if you choose to follow the audio guide, be prepared to be there for at least an hour.

We are not here in the presence of an extravagant or an extremist undertaking: Matisse’s art is eminently reasonable.

-Guillaume Apollinaire in an article published in La Falange (1907)

l4fh1dyvt9x4cntwc7x0A final note –
The eagle eyed amongst visitors to the gallery will notice the numbers in the bottom right-hand corner next to Matisse’s signature. This is (quite obviously, in my opinion) the date in which the painting was completed and NOT, as my friend Martin thought, the artist’s self-analysis score!

The Other Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn is one of the most recognisable names of the 17th century. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Rembrandt is the greatest artist the Dutch have ever produced. In order to celebrate the opening of a new gallery at The National Gallery in London – the first to open in 26 years – an exhibition ran from 22nd March – 6th August 2017 entitled Rubens and Rembrandt. But why were these two artists merged together?

rembrandt-self-portrait-at-the-age-of-34-fb

Section of Self Portrait at the age of 34 by Rembrandt, 1640

Rembrandt

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn was born in Leiden, a city towards the south of the Netherlands, on 15th July 1606. Although he was the son of a miller, he would grow up to be the country’s greatest artist. His love of art was sparked by a local painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, to whom Rembrandt was apprenticed for roughly three years. However, Rembrandt’s most significant influence was Pieter Lastman, a painter in Amsterdam who he spent six months with in 1624. Lastman’s teaching inspired Rembrandt to focus on religious subjects but also to portray evocative emotion in his works through the use of dramatic lighting effects.

The beginnings of Rembrandt’s career included many portrait commissions, becoming the most sort out portraitist in the city of Amsterdam. However, by the 1640s the amount of formal portraiture declined as he turned his hand to religious painting. This may have been a psychological response to the death of his wife Saskia in 1642 and of his mother two years previously. Religion was likely to have been a comfort to him during this difficult period.

Unfortunately, it was portraits that earned artists the most money during this era, therefore Rembrandt began to suffer financial difficulties. To avoid the fate of bankruptcy, Rembrandt had to sell his lavish home and move to a poorer district – a complete contrast to the wealthy lifestyle he had been used to since birth. However, this downfall did not attack his productivity and he continued to receive important commissions from those who knew of and respected him.

As Rembrandt entered his final years, his paintings took on a greater air of human understanding and compassion. Unfortunate circumstances throughout his life saw the deaths of his wife, children and lover, however, he kept his dignity until the very end, not letting tragedy negatively impact on his artwork. Rembrandt continued to paint up until his death on 4th October 1669.

It is not only his portraits and religious imagery that caused Rembrandt such renown. Although these make up the greater part of his collection, he also produced many landscapes, still-lives and paintings that defy classification. He was also adept at etching and drawing, his skills so adroit that it has been almost impossible to surpass.

Rubens

(Sir) Peter Paul Rubens – Rembrandt’s Flemish counterpart in this exhibition – was born much earlier on 28th June 1577 in Siegen, Westphalia (now Germany). His youth was mostly based in Antwerp, Belgium, to which his family returned after the death of his father in 1587 (he had fled from religious prosecution for having protestant sympathies).

From approximately 1590, Rubens began his training to become the most influential artist of Baroque art in Northern Europe. Although he had tutors in his home country, Rubens’ style did not develop until he had spent some time in Italy at the dawning of the century. Here he took on some portrait commissions for aristocratic families whilst honing his skills by studying the artistic masters of the Renaissance.

Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608 and promptly became court painter to Archduke Albert, the Spanish governor of the Netherlands. The demand for Rubens’ work increased rapidly and the artist often had to rely on his students and assistants to complete various commissions. As well as being able to paint nearly every subject possible, Rubens could also turn his hand to tapestry, book illustration and fresco, plus provide advice for architects and sculptors.

My talents are such that I have never lacked courage to undertake any design, however vast in size or diversified in subject.

-Rubens, 1621

The exhibition at the National Gallery hailed the two artists as the most inventive and influential of the seventeenth century in Northern Europe. Although working at similar times, their approaches were profoundly different, yet, they both had a significant impact on the future of art. With Rubens’ work adorning one side of the gallery, and Rembrandt’s the opposite, the exhibition celebrated the differences and similarities of the two world renowned painters.

Although only a handful of each artists’ work made it into the exhibition, the selection showed off the diversity of their talent, including, but not limited to, subject matter and scale. Some paintings were more well known than others, particularly the self-portraits of Rembrandt aged 34 and 63.

The most expressive of Rubens’ work in the display was Samson and Delilah which was painted in approximately 1609. This is an interpretation of the Old Testament story in which Delilah cuts off Samson’s hair – where his source of great strength comes from – weakening him enough to be captured and imprisoned by soldiers (Judges 16:19). It is not the story that grabs the viewers attention, but rather the dramatic lighting effects and strong use of the colour red. This goes to show the influence other painters hand on Rubens during his time in Italy. (For example, see Caravaggio)

Many of the other paintings in the display revealed Rubens penchant for Roman mythology. One oil painting of significant scale, The Judgement of Paris (c1632-5), tells the story of the golden apple that Paris was solicited into giving to the goddess he believed to be most beautiful. Paris chose Venus, the goddess of love, angering the other two goddesses, Minerva and Juno, and foreshadowing the Trojan War.

Although this painting does not have the Caravaggesque of Samson and Delilah, it is still brightly coloured and detailed, making it pleasant to look at. Despite containing nudity, it is not lewd or suggestive, thus doing justice to the major Roman goddesses.

Rembrandt’s work, on the other hand, is much darker – not the subject, but in the choice, or lack of colour. As can be seen in the section of his self-portrait above, Rembrandt preferred to leave the background in shadow with little to none detail. His dramatic lighting draws the viewer to the important parts of the painting. At a glance, a general overview of the stories depicted can be ascertained, however, a deeper study must be made to reveal all the elements.

An example that sums up all these aforementioned approaches is Belshazzar’s Feast (c1636-8). The source of light highlights the lesser known Babylonian king written about in the Bible (Daniel 5), pouring wine from precious containers. In the top right-hand corner, Hebrew words appear that translate to “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting.” As the Bible story goes, Belshazzar was killed later that night.

A closer look at the painting shows the shock of Belshazzar’s guests at his reaction to the words by the divine hand. The lack of colour in the figures help to emphasise the strong light source that shines through the written words of God. This is just one of many religious paintings that Rembrandt undertook during his career, and also goes to show that he did not only stick to the famous Bible stories, instead illustrating the more obscure.

Other religious paintings that were displayed in the exhibition include Ecce Homo (1634), The Woman taken in Adultery (1644) and An Elderly Man as Saint Paul (c1659). These all contain a distinct lack of colour, preferring browns and shades of black over anything more flamboyant.

The most obvious difference between the two European painters is the choice of colour palette. Rubens’ brighter selection paint a more fairy-tale-like story that befits mythology, whereas Rembrandt’s dark colours create a sense of melancholy and seriousness. The contrast of theme between Rubens’ mythological paintings and Rembrandt’s religious is also evident, however, is also misleading, for only a marginal selection were on display. Both artists are known to have focused on both subject matters in their paintings.

One final observation and contrast is the brush work. The strokes in Rubens’ paintings are much smoother than Rembrandt’s who appeared to have dabbled the paint more often than applying a gentle, steady hand.

Take One Picture 

1024px-a_roman_triumph2c_about_16302c_peter_paul_rubens

A Roman Triumph, Rubens c1630

Every year, the National Gallery encourages primary schools throughout Britain to focus on one painting in their collection and create an artistic response. In an exhibition titled Take One Picture, the gallery is exhibiting a variety of the work produced by these children. This year’s painting of choice is Rubens’ A Roman Triumph, which felt highly appropriate regarding the Rubens and Rembrandt exhibition in the adjacent room.

This painting depicts a Roman triumph to celebrate either a military campaign or victory. A procession of young men, musicians, dancers, a priest and exotic animals are witnessed by spectators as they make their way through the city. Instead of regarding the busy painting as a whole, each participating school was encouraged to select a particular aspect to study. Children contemplated the sounds, smells, and feelings the participants may have felt and responded to these ideas with a group art project. A range of art forms has been experimented with from performance to sculpture and puppet-making.

Despite the Rubens and Rembrandt exhibition closing on the 6th August, Take One Picture has remained throughout the summer holiday and will continue to be shown until 24th September. Not only is it interesting to see how young minds reacted to the European master’s painting, it also encourages visitors to assess their own thoughts about the work.

Some children were inspired by the people in the painting, taking an interest in their postures and the way in which they were walking or standing. Others narrowed it down to the clothing, looking closely at patterns, fabrics and colours. Naturally, some classes were drawn to the animals, particularly the elephants, but the way they executed their creative responses varied greatly.  Some based their work on the types of animals, whereas others used the sounds the animals may have made as their inspiration.

Whichever element of the painting the schools honed in on, none of the responses were the same. This goes to show how open to interpretation artwork can be. No one will know what Rubens hoped viewers would take away from his painting, but today it still has educational purposes and is a great source of entertainment.

Take One Picture has been running since 1995 and has greatly benefitted children with its cross-curricular opportunities. It will be interesting to follow the scheme and discover which art works are chosen in the future. For 2018, the choice has already been made. Next summer, the National Gallery can expect to display a wide range of responses to Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768).

Take One Picture is generously supported by GRoW @ Annenberg, The Dorset Foundation, Christoph Henkel and other donors. Further information about the programme, related CPD courses for teachers, and the annual Take One Picture exhibition at the National Gallery can be found here

“A Great and Noble Design”

… that famous Ceiling in the great Hall at Greenwich Hospital, painted by our Ingenious Countryman Mr. Thornhill, who has executed a great and noble Design with a Masterly Hand, and uncommon Genius. [sic]
-Richard Steele, The Lover (1714)

GetImage.aspx

How often do you get the opportunity to view a painted ceiling up close? Very rarely. For a limited time only, a once in a lifetime opportunity is being offered by the Old Royal Naval College to stand directly under the phenomenal painting in the Painted Hall, Greenwich. For £10, visitors can ascend 60 feet and follow an hour-long tour, learning the secrets of the little-known artwork from a position no one will ever be in again.

Nicknamed “the Sistine Chapel of the UK”, the 300-year-old painted ceiling rivals the famous Michelangelo in its beauty, however, has sadly been deteriorating after years of being subjected to smoke, dust, heat and humidity. The recent use of the Hall from 1937 to 1997 by the Royal Navy as a dining space has greatly impacted on the state of the paintings. It has also been subjected to film crews intent on creating the perfect scene for their blockbuster hits. These include Indiscreet (1958), Octopussy (1983), Doctor Who (1993), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995), Dorian Gray (2009), Pirates of the Caribbean (2011), and Les Misérables (2012).

This year, an ambitious conservation project has begun in the Painted Hall with the intention that by 2019 the 40,000 square foot of painted surface will be restored to its original vibrancy and splendour. Volunteers are hard at work cleaning and touching up the precious artwork.

The Hall, now fitted with metal scaffolding, is taking advantage of the formidable task to give the public the opportunity to appreciate the skill and workmanship of Sir James Thornhill (1675/6-1734), and English decorative painter and serjeant-painter to George I.

Before his appointment to serjeant-painter (1720), Thornhill was George I’s History painter and was commissioned with the mammoth task of painting the ceiling of the Hall, which had been established for use as a hospital for injured seamen. Thornhill began the task in 1707 and, with help from other painters, completed it in 1726.

Despite being responsible for the design of the artwork in the Painted Hall and being the first English-born painter to be knighted, Thornhill is almost unknown to today’s public. If he is known at all, it is usually through his connection to the celebrated British painter, William Hogarth (1697-1764), to whom he was both teacher and father-in-law.

James Thornhill was born in Dorset where, had it not been for a generous great-uncle, he would never have raised the funds to develop his artistic career. With the financial help, Thornhill was able to become apprenticed to the painter Thomas Highmore (d.1719/20) and eventually became known amongst the Painter-Stainers’ Company in London, of which he became the Master of in 1720.

Inspired by the Baroque paintings he had seen on his European travels, Thornhill became popular for the decorations of interior public and private buildings. He was able to provide a Britishness to the designs that foreigners in the trade would not have been able to produce.

The Painted Hall commission is arguably Thornhill’s greatest work, however, the demand for painted ceilings decreased rapidly afterwards, leaving Thornhill without well-paid jobs to work on. As a result, Thornhill quickly became unknown in comparison to the artists who preferred to work on canvas, particularly Hogarth whose renown greatly overshadowed his father-in-law’s.

After donning hard hats and protective vests, the tour of the Painted Hall begins with a talk about the painting covering the entirety of the west wall. Whilst seated in front of the formidable artwork, it is possible to study and identify the depicted characters in the busy scene. In the centre, surrounded by family, sits George I, the first king of the Hanoverian line. They are framed by Corinthian columns, giving the entire composition a 3D result, which is further enhanced by the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral situated in the background.

As can clearly be seen in the above photographs, there are more figures in place to the sides and back of the royal family. These are allegorical figures, including Justice and Peace, which were included to hint at the stability of the Hanoverian dynasty. The artist has taken liberties to suggest that the German-speaking King will cause a positive development to the recently established United Kingdom. To emphasise this further, Thornhill chose to include an inscription extracted from Virgil’s Eclogues, “Iam Nova Progenies Coelo,” which when translated means “a new generation has descended from the heavens.”

The most interesting character, and perhaps most amusing, featured on the west wall is Thornhill himself. Standing to the left side of the king, Thornhill is gesturing with one hand towards George I whilst looking over his shoulder at the viewers of the painting. Some believe his intention was to draw attention to the most important figure in the composition – the king – by motioning towards the centre. On the other hand, others suggest that Thornhill may have been taking pride in his work and showing off his accomplishment, or, as one guide joked, he may be asking George I for his payment.

19858560_10211453410602374_443780360_n

The main part of the Painted Hall tour takes place at the top of the temporary scaffolding. From the ground, it is not possible to see the ceiling due to the iron sheeting being used as a makeshift floor for visitors and workers. When standing on this platform, it is almost possible to touch the artwork, making it the closest people have ever been to the painting for over half a century.

The ceiling features a different King and Queen to the west wall below, honouring the couple responsible for founding the original hospital for which the building was used. William III and Mary II sit dead centre of a decorative oval, which is busy with a myriad of figures. Similarly to the depiction of George I, allegorical figures can be noticed within the energetic painting, however, there are far more than shown on the wall. As well as figures representing Justice, Peace, Liberty and so forth, are the four cardinal virtues pictured physically conquering vices such as Calumny and Envy.

In sequential order around the oval, the twelves signs of the Zodiac are depicted as humans wearing or holding relevant articles that relate to the mythical representation of each sign. Divided into four groups of three, figures to represent the seasons hover over the appropriate signs.

The tour leader explains the presence of each character in detail, drawing attention to the sections deemed most important. It is awe-inspiring to see for yourself the sheer size and individual features of the ceiling painting. Being up so close allows you to appreciate the painstakingly hard work Thornhill and his assistants undertook to create such a perfect painting. There is no way that looking at the ceiling from the floor (once the scaffolding has been removed) can produce the same sense of wonder.

19437431_10211382276664070_8540432673250378546_n

All of the paintings in the Hall, regardless of the hand that produced them, were based on detailed sketches provided by Thornhill. The artist would have known what the King and Queen had looked like, having lived during part of their reign, however, the other characters were likely based on models either employed by or already known to him.

Although this is speculation, there is some evidence to suggest that Thornhill based his figures on real people. The figure of Hiems (the Latin name for Winter) was clearly a portrait of John Worley (1624-1721), the first pensioner to enter Greenwich hospital in 1705. The proof of this can be seen in Thornhill’s original sketches now owned by the National Maritime Museum. Thornhill annotated his designs in order to make it clear who was who and what was going on in the scene. On a study of an elderly man, Thornhill has written “John Warley aet: 90 born at Harford West … at Greenwich he is Hyems.”

Described as “one of the greatest baroque ceilings in Britain” by Sky News, the Painted Hall Ceiling is a tour worth taking. Once the conservation project has been completed, the artwork will only be viewable from ground level, so take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity whilst you can. Whether or not you are a lover of art, the experience is worth the £10 fee and will impress everyone you talk to afterwards.

It is recommended that you book in advance, especially in the instances of large parties. Nevertheless, it is also possible to purchase your ticket on arrival at the venue. Taking photographs is encouraged and the tour leaders are very knowledgeable, thus making your visit a memorable experience. Enjoy studying the masterpiece and discovering the painting’s mysteries and secrets.

The Queen’s House

The Queen’s House Art Gallery

Completed in 1683, Inigo Jones’ first classical building in Britain is still standing and open to the public. Originally a royal villa intended for James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark, it became the home of Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria on its completion. As well as being famed as a royal pleasure palace, it later became home to a naval school.

Today, the classical building is primarily used as an art gallery, containing hundreds of paintings including a few from the masters: Turner, Gainsborough and Hogarth. As part of the Royal Museums of Greenwich and only a mere 150 metres from the National Maritime Museum, it is only natural that the artworks predominately feature ships, sailors and wars, making it the most important collection of maritime art in the world. The house also displays an impressive selection of British portraiture, from kings and queens to admirals and other important names.

Inigo Jones (1573-1652) was an English architect, stage designer, draughtsman and painter, the former being his greatest asset. He is still regarded as one of the incomparable English architects to date and was responsible for introducing and influencing a classic style based upon Italian architecture. For a country that had not previously been impacted by the Renaissance movement, this was a significant development.

Sadly, very few of Jones’s building resemble their original state as a result of restoration, disintegration or extension. The two most famous and equally important are located in London. One is the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and the other is the aforementioned Queen’s House at Greenwich.

The entrance to the Queen’s House for today’s visitors is through the undercroft, which whilst may not look all that inspiring, leads to the most impressive section of the building. To access the main floors of the house, visitor’s must make their way upstairs. This can either be done by lift (the boring way) or by climbing the Tulip Stairs.

The Tulip Stairs, so named due to the flowers on the ornate bannisters, are famed for being the first ever geometric self-supporting spiral staircase in the whole of Britain. With no additional supports necessary, it is possible to look up (or down) and see all the way through to the roof by peering up the middle of the staircase [image above]. The stairs create an amazing pattern as they spiral up into the heavens – although, thankfully, you do not have to climb that high!

The Tulip Stairs lead up to both the ground and first floor, from which you can experience another extraordinary feat of architecture. The ground floor is home to the Great Hall, which although not as big as you may imagine (12m or 40ft long), is a perfect square and the key example of the influence the Renaissance ideals of mathematics and harmony had on the magnificent architect. The floor of the hall, laid in 1635, is geometrically patterned with alternating black and white shapes. As a result, the room is perfectly proportioned.

From the first floor, a balcony allows you to overlook the Great Hall, providing an aerial view of the splendid flooring. In keeping with the symmetrical design below, doors to adjoining rooms are located in the same positions – one in each corner, and another along one of the sides.

For the majority of the rest of the House, the architecture is forgotten, although it is still possible to appreciate the ceiling paintings provided by Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639). The impressive collection of paintings is the main focus of all the other rooms in the building, beginning with an exploration of the sea through art. Most of these are from the 19th century and illustrate the changing affinities Victorian people had with the sea. Demonstrating the fisher-folk and boat builders that relied on oceans for their livelihood, there are paintings of ships, coasts and harbours showing a variety of scenes.

Some artists focus on the Thames rather than the sea – an apt setting for a Greenwich art gallery – whereas others, such as Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817-80), explored the uses of boats and ships. For example, O’Neil’s The Parting Cheer is a response to the migration of friends and families leaving in search of a better life elsewhere. On the other hand, some artists were still quite superstitious and influenced by old myths and tales of frightening creatures hiding in the depths of the murky waters. Davy Jones’s Locker by William Lionel Wyllie (1851-1931) is a great example of this.

Moving from room to room, the paintings come into the era of modern British art. The sea was still a major inspiration for many artists, particularly those from Britain on account of it being an island nation. The two world wars during the first half of the 20th century were also a significant source of direction for seascapes. Some of these may have been used for propaganda, but others were a means of encouragement for those fearing for the lives of their loved ones.

It is only natural that a gallery engrossed with nautical art and a building that once housed a naval school would also display portraits of important sailors and officers of rank. Until the First World War, portraits of men below the rank of an officer were virtually non-existent, however, in order to document the important events, it is impossible to ignore the significance of each and every participant. Alongside portraits of famous military leaders, for example, Captain Edward Jellico, are faces unknown to most.

The portraits continue on the first floor, however, are of people of particular renown or rank. After the restoration of the Stuart line of the British monarchy in 1660, the royal family began to take a great interest in the navy, commissioning portraits of Admirals and spectacular flagships. These can be found in various rooms around the house.

The war against the Dutch in the mid-1600s was also a popular subject matter amongst the upper-classes, therefore a large number of paintings in the collection display scenes of sea battles. Many of these depict Dutch ships, recognised by the striped flags, struggling amongst the waves, implying they were not as strong as their English rivals. At the time, these may have been used as forms of propaganda.

The paintings around the house are all of a similar style, largely due to the time periods they were produced in. But, paint is not the only medium used and collected. As can be seen in the photographs above, the gallery contains busts of various materials. There are a number of famous names amongst these, including Charles I and the Queen’s House’s architect, Inigo Jones.

Another form of artworks on display are pen paintings (penschilderji) produced by the Dutch artist Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611-1693). As a companion of Charles II and later an inhabitant of the Queen’s House, Van de Velde produced sketches of the naval battles that he witnessed first hand. It is inspiring to see what can be captured in basic pen and ink in comparison to paintings with a full-colour palette.

slag-bij-livorno-battle-of-leghorn-willem-van-de-velde-the-elder

Slag bij Livorno (Battle of Leghorn), Willem Van de Velde the Elder

The later paintings in the gallery focus on a completely different theme. The 18th century brought with it an advance in the interest of scientific discovery. It was also a time when women began to question the female role and strove to prove that they could also participate in the study of science through means of botany and astronomy. The artworks reflect these changing attitudes.

Although referred to as an art gallery, the Queen’s House is also a museum about the building’s uses and the royals who lived there. Along with the information plaques about the paintings, each room has a title and description to explain what its original purpose was.

Presumably, the Grand Hall would have been an area to entertain guests at banquets or ball dances, however, there are no references to the usage of the ground floor during its years as a royal residence. These rooms were most important during its time as a naval school. Now bedecked with paintings, visitors can walk through what was once the headmaster’s drawing room, assistant master’s dining room and so forth.

The upper floor is focused more on the original uses of the house, splitting the rooms into those intended for the King, and those used by the Queen. All the rooms are now devoted to art, from the King’s Privy Chamber to the Queen’s Closet. The nautical paintings inhabit the King’s side, presumably on account of it being a male-dominated period of history, whereas the Queen’s side focuses a lot on royalty. Here can be found portraits of the royals who spent time at the Queen’s House, including Queen Anne. Interestingly, there are also portraits of the Tudor monarchs who were long dead by the time the house was commissioned.

One thing that it is quick to notice about the collection of artwork in the Queen’s House is the lack of religious representations. This could be because the gallery is mainly focused on the maritime theme, however, it does seem odd that the past Royal family who held strong Christian beliefs would not display anything to epitomise their faith.

Despite the lack of religion, as a present for the 400th anniversary of the commissioning of the Queen’s House, Queen Elizabeth II has lent the painting Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Orazio Gentileschi, which is usually found in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. This painting is hung back in its original location from which it has been missed for over 360 years. This was one of many paintings King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria commissioned during their reign. For a temporary time, free talks about the painting are available at given times of the day.

The Queen’s House also holds small exhibitions of contemporary artists and designers at the back of the building where the functions of the original rooms are no longer known. Currently, the work on display is by Marian Maguire, an artist from New Zealand known for her lithographs and etchings that combine the classical Greek style of vase painting with the history of New Zealand. On display until October 2017, Maguire’s series of lithographs titled The Odyssey of Captain Cook tell a fabricated story of the meeting of the ancient Greeks and Maori people.

Maguire combines the voyages of Captain James Cook, whose portrait resides upstairs, with her native country and the Greek myths featured in Homer’s Odyssey. Taking liberties – or artistic license – Maguire creates a new myth surrounding a myriad of characters who in reality could not possibly have met. She weaves this tale through her recognised style of lithographs, mostly in the style of ancient Greek art. However, one particular piece, A Portrait of Captain James Cook with a Classical Urn from the Collection of the Admiralty (2005), also includes a realistic portrait of the famous explorer.

The Queen’s House Art Gallery is a beautiful building to visit containing some amazing works of art. The quiet atmosphere provides the perfect setting for art lovers to study paintings by artists of up to 400 years ago. Alongside this is the opportunity to learn more about the advances in art, science and the Navy, as well as discovering new details about the past British monarchs. With free entry and staff on hand to supply additional information, it is an opportunity that should not be passed up. The National Maritime Museum may be the most famous of the Royal Museums, but the Queen’s House is by far the more impressive. Enjoy your visit.

Canaletto & the Art of Venice

The Royal Collection at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, currently contains a large number of the paintings and drawings of Canaletto, one of the most famous Venetian painters. These works were brought to Britain by an art dealer, Joseph Smith, who was incidentally the British Consul in Venice. The paintings entered the hands of the Royals in 1762 when King George III bought Smith’s entire collection.

Amongst the collection displayed in the exhibition Canaletto & the Art of Venice are some of the most recognisable of Canaletto’s works. Focusing on the views in Venice, Canaletto painted from various locations, producing a series that shows a journey along the Grand Canal.

Canaletto is not the only artist featured in this exhibition. In order to compare and contrast his artistic skill, his masterpieces are hung amongst paintings by his contemporaries, including Marco Ricci (1676-1730), Anton[io] Maria Zanetti the Elder (1680-1767), Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682/3-1754), Giovanni Cattini (c1715-1800) and Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734).

Giovanni Antonio Canal 1697-1768

It is claimed that Canaletto is the most famous Venetian view-painter, etcher and draughtsman of the 18th century. He was born into the art world on 28th October 1697 to the theatrical scene painter, Bernardo Canal (1674-1744). It is thought that this is how Canaletto got his nickname, for, in order to distinguish himself from his father, Giovanni Antonio Canal was most likely referred to as ‘Little Canal’ or, as it is in Italian, ‘Canaletto’.

Canaletto began his career assisting his father with the sets for Vivaldi’s operas in Venice, and later, Alessandro Scarlatti’s operas in Rome. It was whilst he was in Rome that Canaletto began sketching famous buildings and ancient monuments, causing him to abandon the theatrical work on his return to Venice. Thus began his topographical painting career.

Specialising in grand views showing the public face of the city of Venice, Canaletto’s paintings are full of strong, bright colours and his handling of the brush is extremely smooth and precise. Canaletto would create a sketch on the spot from which to paint from, producing what looked like an accurate record of the landscape. However, this was often far from the case. In order to create a better composition, Canaletto would alter the proportions of buildings or shift their positions. In some instances, the view is entirely imaginary. The term for these paintings is Capriccio – Caprice in English – which refers to the combination of architectural accuracy (recognisable building etc) with elements of fantasy.

The 18th century saw an influx of wealthy visitors to cities such as Venice, particularly British aristocrats. With the assistance of the aforementioned Joseph Smith, Canaletto made these people his best customers, producing views of the canals for them to take home as mementoes (a precursor to postcards).

Unfortunately, Canaletto lost the majority of his clients as a result of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-8), which put a temporary end to Continental travel. In an attempt to win back customers, Canaletto moved to London in 1746 where he resided for a decade, painting views of London and the countryside. However, rumours were spread that Canaletto was an imposter and not the famous Venetian painter he claimed to be. Therefore, in 1756 he returned to Venice and, although never recovering his popularity, continued to paint for the rest of his life.

Both during and after his life, Canaletto’s style of painting was highly influential in Italy and eventually the rest of central Europe. Many of his works were copied by his followers, causing his style to live on long after his death. His nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, was one of the artists who helped to spread his uncle’s renown and technique.

On display in the Queen’s Gallery are some of Canaletto’s brief sketches, which he made on the spot in preparation for the final painting. With a precise hand and a few sketchy lines, Canaletto was able to capture the scene in front of him. These, despite their quickness, were highly recognisable representations, and many, in fact, are finished drawings, rather than merely a starting point.

It is interesting to be able to view Canaletto’s preliminary sketches as well as the final paintings because it gives an insight into the way the famous artist worked. Paintings can be taken for granted when only seen in their final frames. The hard work and time taken are often forgotten, but logic indicates that these paintings did not just appear out of nowhere.

As the exhibition reveals, Canaletto carried a sketchbook with him around the city, drawing and making notes to refer back to. Letters labelled areas of the page to indicate how that section should be painted, e.g. “B” for bianco (white) and “R” for rosso (red).

Hung in a strategic order, Canaletto’s paintings, and those of his contemporaries, are set off by the royal blues, greens and reds of walls. The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through various stages of Canaletto’s life, keeping his Venetian landscapes separate from other artistic ventures.

Interestingly, Canaletto did not only produce paintings of Venetian buildings but experimented with more spartan landscapes. With no structure to portray, these paintings are far less detailed and take on the aura of the religious and mythical artworks of other artists in Italy at the time. These are situated in the centre of the exhibition where the height of the ceiling allows the large canvases to be appreciated fully.

Without a doubt, Canaletto’s paintings of the Grand Canal are some of his finest works. The buildings are so precise, they are comparable with architectural blueprints. On close inspection, these lines may feel too perfect and unnatural, but when viewed on a grand scale, they help to produce an almost photorealistic snapshot of 18th century Venice. What his most significant achievement is, however, the quality of the painting of the canal itself. Whether the waters were as peaceful as depicted will remain forever unknown – Canaletto may have been making use of Capriccio – but his version looks impossible to have been produced by paint alone. Evidence of a paintbrush can be seen in the suggestion of water ripples that have been painstakingly added to the smooth underlayer. On the other hand, the accurate reflection and glass-like quality of the liquid are beyond the realms of comprehension. The eyes know what they are seeing, but the brain cannot believe it to be possible.

Canaletto also used his fantastic skill at architectural drawing to create a series of paintings of the ancient ruins in Rome. These, too, are phenomenally impressive, it feels like it should be possible to reach out and feel the texture of the stone and experience the dusty streets. Alas, the lack of canals in Rome prevents Canaletto from revealing his full range of skill. It is most certainly the combination of buildings and water that stand out the most and wins Canaletto the title of the best Venetian painter of the 1700s.

Canaletto & the Art of Venice will remain available to the public until Sunday 12th November 2017, when it will be dismantled to make way for a new exhibition: Charles II: Art & Power. Tickets are £11 for adults and £5.50 for children over five and are available to purchase on arrival to the Queen’s Gallery. However, during the school holidays, it may be advisable to purchase tickets online in advance.

d10-canaletto-il-canal-grande-da-palazzo-flangini-verso-la-chiesa-di-san-marcuola-1738-olio-su-tela

Canaletto, Il Canal Grande da Palazzo Flangini verso la Chiesa di San Marcuola, 1738.