Picasso, 1932

LOVE, FAME, TRAGEDY

The year is 1932, a leap year. The United States and the United Kingdom are suffering from the Great Depression. Europe is in the grip of economic depression and mass unemployment. National Socialism is on the rise in Germany and political developments in France are adding to the growing tension. Picasso is 50 years old and preparing for his first major retrospective to be held in June at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris. This year could either make him or break him.

Dubbed his “year of wonders”, the Tate Modern has chosen to examine the life and works of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) during 1932. Married to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, although having an affair for the much younger, 22-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso was living the life of a well-to-do bourgeoisie in France, wearing tailored suits and owning a personal chauffeur-driven car. However, political and economic problems throughout the world remained persistently in the background, a constant premonition of tragedies to befall both the artist and the rest of the world.

“The work that one does is a way of keeping a diary.”
Pablo Picasso

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Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, 1932

Now considered the Father of Modern Art, Picasso came from more humble origins. Born Pablo Ruiz Picasso on 25th October 1881 in Malaga, Spain, he developed his love of art from his father who taught at the Escuela Provincial de Bellas Artes. A young prodigy, Picasso purchased his own studio in Barcelona at the age of 16, however, he spent the majority of his time there in poverty.

Picasso’s move to Paris at the turn of the century was a blessing for both his artwork and his financial situation. His collaboration with the French painter Georges Braque (1882-1963) led to their invention of Cubism, a revolutionary new artistic approach. At the same time, Picasso met Olga Khokhlova (1891-1955) who he married in 1918, and celebrated the birth of their son, Paulo (1921-75), three years later.

As Picasso’s wealth and reputation excelled, his family life suffered. By 1932, his marriage was under considerable strain, not helped by his clandestine affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-77). Despite the situation with his personal relationships, Picasso was determined to compete creatively with his contemporaries, working hard to facilitate his own retrospective.

“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.”
Pablo Picasso

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Pablo Picasso: Woman with Dagger

The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 opens with one of Picasso’s final paintings of 1931. Woman with Dagger is an example of the style Picasso was known for at this period of time. The Surrealist technique reduces the image to a series of lines and colours, morphing into strange shapes. This painting shows a woman stabbing her sexual rival to death, however, the bodies are so distorted, it is difficult to make out who is who.

Being the first painting of the exhibition, Woman with Dagger gives an inaccurate precedent of the works to come. As visitors will note as they walk through the following rooms, Picasso focused heavily on portraits, particularly of women, often seated in an armchair. Judging from the date and frequency of these paintings, the sitter is likely to be Picasso’s lover, Marie-Thérèse, however, the artist admitted himself that he rarely painted from life, preferring to use his imagination or memories of dreams.

 

Supposedly, the armchair in Picasso’s paintings symbolises death. Whilst the sitter is young, painted with bright, vibrant colours, the muted, darker background and chair represent the constraints of life. Often, the model and chair amalgamate, suggesting that the woman is tied to the chair, tied to fate, tied to inevitable death.

A typical feature in Picasso’s portraits is the dual profile of the face showing half from the side and half face on. Although many art critics have their own theories, commentators at the Tate have suggested this evokes a form of sexual tension. The face is half woman, the way she sees herself, and half male, or the way a lover or sexual predator may view her. Glancing at a Picasso, it is easy to miss these sexual references, however, those who opt for an audio guide at the beginning of the exhibition, soon get all the details pointed out to them.

Despite always working in a surrealist-like manner by distorting the female body, Picasso occasionally experimented with the way he treated the painting. In Woman in a Red Armchair, Picasso converts his flat, colourful shapes into three-dimensional abstract forms, comparable to a sculpture. As well as painting, Picasso turned his hand to sculpting, however, if this painting were to be produced in clay, cement or such like, it would immediately fall apart.

Prior to 1932, Picasso experimented with unorthodox methods of sculpting whilst at his 18th-century château in Normandy. During this time he produced a number of busts of a woman – again, likely to be Marie-Thérèse – in a similar fashion to his painted versions. The bulging, distended shape of the face has been replicated in cement, creating a dual profile that changes its overall appearance depending on what angle it is viewed from. Seen from the side, the bust looks like a typical face (despite the oversized nose), however, from the front, the facial features are terribly out of proportion. A series of photographs of a selection of Picasso’s sculptures are on display taken by the French-Hungarian photographer Brassaï (1899-1984).

 

Throughout the first half of 1932, Picasso continued to focus on his portraits of women, often depicting them in the nude. The surreal, abstract quality of his work prevents the paintings from becoming overly provocative, just as the original reclining nudes of the Renaissance-era were not unduly sexualised. By taking a traditional subject and reproducing it in a contemporary style, Picasso was endeavouring to prove that figurative painting could be modern.

Midway through the exhibition, a room is devoted to Picasso’s retrospective held at the Galerie Georges Petit. Apart from a few exceptions, it was rare for living artists to have retrospectives. They tended to be a summary of the life of the artist, therefore, Picasso included a range of his works from different times of his life. In order to obscure his artistic development, Picasso did not hang works in a chronological order, interspersing recent paintings with those produced many years before. Nonetheless, critics could group some together due to the regular appearance of Marie-Thérèse Walter and portraits of his young son were easily dated to when he was a child.

 

The paintings of Picasso’s family: Olga, Paulo and himself, may surprise many viewers on account of their “normality”. Before Picasso developed Cubism and dabbled with Surrealism, he produced many realistic paintings. Although the portraits do not look finished, they show the broad talent of Picasso in terms of painting. Being able to produce realistic likenesses but choosing not to says a lot about what Picasso wanted to achieve through his artwork. He wanted his work to be looked at and thought about, concealing subliminal messages within the twists and turns of the abstract body parts.

“I feel like I am witnessing a retrospective vision of myself ten years after my death.”
Pable Picasso

Despite the lengths Picasso went to facilitate his own retrospective, declining offers of help from prestigious organisations such as The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Picasso refused to attend the actual show – allegedly, he went to the cinema instead! Nevertheless, he achieved what he set out to do and was satisfied, unlike the gallery, which due to economic and political turmoil, closed its doors for good the following year.

 

Once Picasso’s exhibition was out of the way, the artist felt less pressure to produce masterpieces. His canvases got smaller and the treatment of his paintbrushes more fluid and less careful. One example is Nude Woman in a Red Armchair painted in July 1932, where the model – Marie-Thérèse Walter – is a soft, rotund figure, without the harsh outlines of older paintings. The blues and purples give the woman a dream-like quality, suggesting Picasso had strong feelings of love towards her, which stands in stark contrast to the dark background tones.

Throughout 1932, Picasso also produced a number of charcoal drawings. Although they look like unfinished studies, they are intended to be finished works in their own right. The subject matter, for instance, a sleeping woman, is typical of Picasso, however, he concentrated on line-drawing rather than colour.

These charcoal drawings on canvas, despite being finished pieces, are not dissimilar to what can be found in Picasso’s sketchbooks. Picasso rarely created preparatory studies, however, he liked to practice his drawing skills by making a rapid succession of sketches. These give some indication of the starting points of a painting, how the shapes were built up to resemble people and other elements. For actual artworks, Picasso would draw onto the canvas before filling in the resulting shapes with colour.

 

With the summer over, Picasso’s subject matter changed drastically. Motivated by classical themes, religious and secular, he began to paint different scenes, particularly focusing on the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Picasso produced a large number of black and white studies, experimenting with shapes, both two- and three-dimensional, and line work to create a representation of Christ on the Cross. He was particularly inspired by the Isenheim Altarpiece produced in c1521 by Matthias Grünewald. This influence is evident in Picasso’s versions, the figures being situated in the same places, despite the abstract nature of the studies.

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Composition with Butterfly

During these experimental months, Picasso also experimented with forms of collages. These involved the use of found objects, both natural and manmade, which were layered together to create a picture. Composition with Butterfly contains a dried leaf, the remains of a real butterfly, and string, manipulated to produce the shape of a human being.

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The Rescue

 

As 1932 drew to a close, Picasso’s subject matter got significantly darker. The theme of being rescued from death-by-drowning became Picasso’s focus. The Rescue, the final painting of the year, shows a woman being saved either by another woman or by a bird. The meaning is not entirely clear, which leaves viewers guessing and coming up with their own theories.

The colours are not as bright as works from the beginning of the year and the paint is applied in a rushed, distressed manner, which may suggest more about the artist’s frame of mind rather than the intention of the painting. From September onwards, Picasso rapidly changed styles and subject matter, giving the impression he was restless and possibly suffering from some kind of anguish.

As the strapline for the exhibition states, Picasso’s year consisted of three major themes: love, fame and tragedy. The first half of the year, Picasso was enjoying his clandestine affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, which led on to his retrospective exhibition. Achieving fame and recognition, Picasso was at the height of his career, successful and wealthy. Unfortunately, the final quarter of 1932 found Picasso in a different state of mind, although it is impossible without knowing the man to pinpoint the exact reason for this. It did, however, present a forbidding premonition of events to come.

By 1932, Picasso’s marriage to Olga was already under strain, however, the illegitimate birth of his daughter Maya with Marie-Thérèse ended things for good. Olga moved to the south of France, taking son Paulo with her; an event that Picasso described as the worst period of his life.

At the same time, the world was not fairing any better. In January 1933, Hitler became German Chancellor, Italy was under fascist dictatorship and Picasso’s home country Spain was submerged in a civil war. Six years later, the entire world was at war and Picasso’s successful year, his “year of wonders”, was a distant memory.

Picasso 1932 is an exhibition suitable for all. Although the subject matter of many paintings may not seem appropriate for youngsters, the abstract forms hide the sexual meanings from innocent minds. The exhibition is popular with school parties who come to look at the shapes and colours of Picasso’s works, whereas adult visitors can study the paintings in more detail with the aid of an optional audioguide (£4.50) and a pocket-sized booklet.

The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 organised by Tate Modern in collaboration with Musée national Picasso-Paris costs £22 entry per person or free for those in possession of a membership card. Under 18s can visit for £5 and younger children under the age of 12 may enter for free. This exhibition will remain open to the public until 9th September 2018. 

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All Too Human

“Renaissance painters painted men and women making them look like angels. I paint for angels, to show them what men and women really look like.”
– F. N. Souza, 1962

Throughout history, artists have attempted, some more successfully than others, to represent the human figure. For centuries, the Renaissance influenced the angelic, pure forms that many have replicated, giving a false impression of the realities of human appearance. Historical portraits can be likened to the contemporary Photoshop mania where sitters or models dare not resemble anything less than perfect. However, within the last couple of centuries, radical thinkers and artists have challenged the rules with movements such as Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. Although originally sparking outrage or stubbornly ignored due to their supposed “bad taste”, artists have stretched the boundaries to try to capture the life they see around them.

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life, hosted by Tate Britain, explores the works of 20 artists in Britain from the early 20th-century to the present day. All 20 fall into what the general public would deem “modern art”, however, they use a variety of approaches. Some artists, hence the two mentioned in the exhibition’s strapline, may already be known to some visitors, but many will be new names. Whether abstract, minimalist or conceptual, each artist has moved away from the previously accepted methods of art to create a whole series of figurative paintings.

The exhibition is set out in a loose chronological order beginning with four painters who were working in Britain towards the beginning of the twentieth century. Confusingly, not only paintings of the human body are included in the display, however, they help to emphasise the style of each individual artist. David Bomberg (1890-1957), Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942), Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) and Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) inspired the generation of figurative painters that followed them. Despite all working during the same period, the four artists had different approaches from the way they handled paint to their subject matter. The scenes were influenced by their everyday lives, particularly the people and places that meant something to them. To quote Sickert, each artist was attempting to depict “the sensation of a page torn from the book of life.”

 

 

The second room in the exhibition (there are 11 in total) jumps straight to one of the key artists featured in All Too Human. This is, of course, the Irish-born painter, Francis Bacon (1909-92). Having left Ireland for London at the age of 16 and living through two World Wars, Bacon was a troubled soul who expressed his feelings of isolation and angst in his artwork. Bacon was also dealing with homosexuality in a world where it was not yet accepted.

Bacon’s paintings of the human figure were usually solitary and distressed, perhaps expressing the sense of loss after the devastation of war. As a result of the wars, the philosophical theory of existentialism rose and became associated with artists such as Bacon and Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), whose isolated figure sculpture stands alone in the centre of the room surrounded by Bacon’s paintings.

In essence, existentialism emphasises the importance of the individual and the freedom to develop through acts of their own will. It is perhaps due to this thinking or the increasing difficulty to believe in God or a higher power, that Bacon produced abstract pastiches of other artists’ paintings, particularly those of popes. One example is Study after Velázquez in which Bacon uses Diego Velázquez’s (1599-1660) portrait of Pope Innocent X to create a demonic-like figure screaming in an isolated, cheerless room.

Francis Bacon appears once again in a later room of the exhibition. Here it reveals his interest in portraiture and the lengths he went to collect sources from which to base his paintings. Bacon used a variety of photography and newspaper clippings to inspire him, often commissioning the photographer John Deakin (1912-72) to take specific portraits of people. Bacon’s outcomes never looked like the original photograph, however, they were vital as a starting point. Incidentally, Bacon’s first identified sitter, Study of  Portrait for Lucian Freud (1964), was in fact based on a photograph of Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

 

 

A contemporary of Bacon, the Indian artist Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), was also affected by the war and expressed his personal feelings within his artwork. His figurative paintings are simplified bold, swift strokes made with thick oil paints, which give a sense of movement as well as dark and distressing emotions.

Souza’s portraits are of a range of figures, including saints, businessmen and nudes. A few are inspired by biblical passages, for instance, Crucifixion (1959) and Jesus and Pilatus (1955-6). His abstract depiction of the human body removes the masks society hides behind to reveal the raw and complex emotional states underneath. Souza often used these strong emotions to express his feelings about the attitude towards different races: “I painted Negro in Mourning in London when the race riots flared. I personally think it is one of my best works – socialist realism maybe, Expressionism certainly. Moreover, Negro in Mourning is close to the bone of man because it is about the colour of skin.”

As well as portraits, this gallery contains a few cityscapes, which were also a favourite subject of the artist. Souza was a frequent traveller and visited many cities. It is thought that the complex, cubist-like paintings are a composition of memories and images of the places he encountered and his personal experience within these cities.

Other artists of the same period follow in the next few rooms of the exhibition and reveal different approaches to figurative art. William Coldstream (1908-87), for instance, painstakingly attempted to record reality by intensely scrutinising his subjects and measuring the locations of the key features in order to achieve the correct perspectives. Markings on the edges of the canvas can be seen where Coldstream had made his initial measurements.

David Bomberg (1890-1957), on the other hand, had a completely contrasting painting technique. As a tutor at the Borough Polytechnic in south London, he emphasised the importance of capturing the physical experience of the subject matter rather than merely the appearance. For Bomberg, art was about the process of applying paint to canvas, which can be seen in the works of some of his art students displayed here in the exhibition. The amount of paint applied to the canvases borders on excessive and creates a tactile as well as a visual outcome. This technique is a literal take on one of Francis Bacon’s insights into art: “the image is the paint and the paint is the image.”

 

 

As already mentioned, All Too Human is not an exhibition solely focused on the human body. Many of the paintings can explore what it is like to be human without needing to include a detailed portrait. Frank Auerbach (b.1931) and Leon Kossoff (b.1926) are two examples of artists whose approach to art focuses on alternative ways of engaging with reality. Although their style of painting differs, Auerbach and Kossoff both lived and worked in London and explore what it is like to be human in a modern and industrial society.

Both artist’s paintings are dynamic, play with light conditions, and reflect the mood of the setting or scene. The sharp, geometric lines that shape Auerbach’s Chimney in Mornington Crescent – Winter Morning (1991) imply a bleak, cluttered city life, which is a stark contrast to Leon Kossoff’s Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon (1971). The latter’s carefree brushstrokes, implying natural movement, convey a more pleasant experience.

 

 

Eventually, the exhibition reaches the second of the named artists in the title’s strapline, the grandson of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Lucian (1922-2011). Considering the size of the room Freud’s work is displayed in, he is perhaps the most celebrated of the 20 artists featured in this exhibition. A couple of his early works were shown in previous rooms in which he had laboriously approached with small brushes to achieve a smooth finish. The features on the faces of his models were usually abnormally large, particularly the eyes, however, by the 1960s, Freud’s method of painting changed completely.

From the 1960s until his death in 2011, Freud swapped his small brushes for thicker, bristly ones and applied paint to the canvas in a method more characteristic of a palette knife. Although Freud was less precise with his paint brushes, the final outcomes are far more realistic than his previous method.

The first painting visitors come across in Freud’s new style is a self-portrait. At the time it was painted, Freud was in his 40s and made no effort to romanticise his appearance. He focused heavily on his flesh and the contours of his face, which he positioned in an ungainly angle emphasised by his fist. This heavily textured style was employed in all his portraits regardless of who they were, their age and so forth.

Freud also began to paint full figures, particularly of naked men and women, in immodest positions. These are not the easiest of paintings to look at and may evoke disgust or embarrassment in many visitors. Yet, all Freud was attempting to do was confront reality, show the body simply as flesh and reveal the animalistic nature of the human body. As T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) stated in his poetry collection Four Quartets, “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.”

Taking Freud’s portrait of Leigh Bowery (1991) as a less indecent nude painting, it is easier to understand his objective. Leigh Bowery (1961-94) was an unconventional gay performer in nightclubs and was usually recognised by his flamboyant dress sense, yet, this small portrait strips that all away. Bowery is painted asleep with his bald head resting on his left shoulder, evoking a feeling of vulnerability – a complete contrast to his public persona. Freud has uncovered the true human form beneath his everyday identity.

Freud predominantly uses the same setting for his portraitures – his sparsely-furnished studio – making each figure almost feel like an intrusion into his private space. On the other hand, this helps draw the eye to the model, whether naked or clothed and contrasts the complexities of human life with the simplicity of inanimate objects. These carefully constructed compositions are similar to the approaches of other artists, for example, David Hockney (b.1937) who, not only painted people in his studio, always used the same chair.

Interestingly, one painting within this display of Freud’s artwork is completely different and unexpected. Titled Two Plants (1977-80), this botanical painting contains no evidence of human life. The two plants, Licorice and Aspidistra, are painted in perfectionistic detail and look almost photographic. Its inclusion in this exhibition is entirely metaphorical; the plants are in various stages of growth and death, which can be used as an analogy for the human life cycle. “I wanted it to have a really biological feeling of things growing and fading and leaves coming up and others dying.”

 

Whilst Freud was looking at the realities of the human flesh, other artists were interested in the development of social relationships. Two examples are Michael Andrews (1928-95) and Ronald Brooks Kitaj (1932-2007) who, whilst approaching painting in vastly different ways, were both followers of Francis Bacon.

Kitaj’s works are often crowded and combine several scenes together. In his busy painting The Wedding (1989-93), Kitaj has amalgamated everything he witnessed during his marriage ceremony onto one canvas, conveying the hectic day and the heightened emotions experienced. Similarly, in Cecil Court, London WC2 (The Refugees) (1983-4), Kitaj also merges several incidents. In the foreground, Kitaj has painted himself reclining on a chair in front of the London alleyway while various people and shop fronts with a personal association to the artist fill the background.

Michael Andrews, on the other hand, painted less busy scenarios, however, still manages to convey people’s behaviour and relationships with each other. Like Kitaj, Andrews has also produced paintings of friends, family or acquaintances, although, his depictions look far more realistic. One particularly striking canvas Melanie and Me Swimming, which Andrews finished in 1979, is based on a photograph of himself on holiday in Perthshire with his six-year-old daughter. Rather than including the rocks and details of the water, Andrews focused mostly on his body supporting Melanie as she learnt to swim, evoking a sense of fatherly love and protection.

 

Although women (mostly naked) have been the subject of many paintings in this exhibition, the actual lives of the female sex have been widely overlooked. The art world was historically a male-dominated profession and it is only in recent years that women have been able to challenge the preconceived ideas of womanhood. Paula Rego (b.1935) is one such artist who places women at the centre of her work. Whether a portrait or busy scene, women are presented in various moods and activities, proving that they are each their own individual person.

Whereas in the past women were depicted as pure, angelic-like creatures, Rego occasionally goes to the other extreme, illustrating women as animalistic, powerful individuals. In Bride (1994), the woman, complete with wedding gown, lies in an animal-like position, almost like a dog lying on its back. Although dogs are animals that can be trained into submission, Rego is making the point that women, like dogs, are also powerful beasts. To be human is to be a physical creature and not something to be worshipped or controlled by men.

Covering one wall of the gallery is Rego’s triptych in response to William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) Marriage a la Mode (1743-5). Hogarth’s series tells the story of an arranged marriage between an ill-matched pair whose lives come to an end prematurely as a result. In The Betrothal, Lessons and The Shipwreck (1999), Rego brings Hogarth’s scenario into the 20th century but reverses the roles of the parents so that it is the mothers arranging the doomed union. Rego expresses her feminist views by recreating the story to focus on female suffering and strength.

Although Paula Rego was the only key 20th-century female artist in the exhibition, the final room introduces four contemporary female painters who are continuing along the same lines as their predecessors to produce works that concentrate on identity and what it means to be human. Each artist has their own unique approach, however, the human figure is their main focus. Celia Paul (b.1959), Cecily Brown (b.1969), Jenny Saville (b.1970) and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b.1977) experiment with various processes of mark-making, colour palette and layout in their artworks. Brown, for example, prefers to be fluid in her application of paint, whereas the others are more precise and detailed.

Yiadom-Boakye of Ghanian descent concentrates on cultural identity but leaves the final outcomes with some ambiguity as to their purpose and meaning. With obscure titles, such as Coterie of Questions (2015), the artist invites the viewer to imagine the story behind the name and image. This brings in to question and challenges stereotypical views on race and identity.

Saville, on the other hand, is more like some of the older artists in the previous rooms, particularly Lucian Freud. She concentrates on the appearance of the flesh, refusing to shy away from the unsightly truths of the human body. The painting Tate Britain displays is a self-portrait, which is less shocking than some of her other works. Saville is particularly interested in painting wounded bodies and collects imagery of bruised skin and lacerations as inspiration. Reverse (2002-3) is a realistic representation of the human face, however, it is marred by the split lip and blood surrounding the mouth. Although a beaten up face may not be the average person’s prefered subject, Saville is successfully conveying the human body, emphasising our fragility and physical appearance.

With these four artists concluding the exhibition, All Too Human is a journey through a century of figurative painting. From its origins in the early 20th-century to the present day, the Tate Britain triumphantly reveals the determination artists have had to show humanity in its true form.

“Here are works of art that truly matter, in their humanity, courage, feeling, truth. Whatever it is that makes art profound, Kossoff and Auerbach, Rego and Andrews, Bacon and Freud have it. They are the true heroes of modern British art.”

– Jonathan Jones

Some artworks may be difficult to look at, some may disgust visitors, some may raise questions, some may inspire, but most importantly, they capture real life, real emotions and humanity at its most vulnerable. With a range of different styles, there are many interesting, beautiful and complex paintings to study that can either be taken at face value or considered more philosophically. All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life is not only an art exhibition, it is a visual conversation about what makes us human.

All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life will remain open to the public until 27th August 2018. Entry is £19.50 per person but under 12s may visit for free, however, be aware that some paintings may not be suitable for children. Tickets may be purchased on arrival at the gallery or can be bought in advance online.

Charles II: Art & Power

The first half of the 1600s were a turbulent time for the English with civil war, the beheading of a king, over a decade of Cromwellian rule, and, finally, the restoration of the Stuart Monarchy. The Royal Collection Trust has foraged through their huge hoard of paintings to put together an exhibition to illustrate the restoration of the monarchy and the rule of Charles II (1630-85). Charles II: Art & Power, held at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, celebrates the resurgence of the arts in England, reinforced by Charles II’s position as king. The colourful court life was a stark comparison to the dreariness of the Republic with a rise in paintings and rich materials, and the reproduction of regalia.

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Charger 1680 – 1700 Faience

The exhibition starts off with a look at the final moments of Charles I’s life (1600-49) before he was committed for treason and beheaded in January 1649 outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitechapel. The Commonwealth which followed lasted a little more than a decade with the puritan Parliamentarian general, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) in charge. The remaining Stuarts were forced into exile, resulting in the story of the oak tree, which was where part of Charles II’s mythology, arose from. After the royalists lost the battle, the son of Charles I spent a day hiding in a great oak tree at Boscobel House in Shropshire. Commemorative wares, such as the dish on display, were sold in honour of his bravery after the restoration of the monarchy.

Charles II’s coronation took place on 23rd April 1661 and was the most extravagant since Elizabeth I’s the century before. During the Commonwealth, most of the ceremonial items needed for the inauguration had been sold or destroyed, therefore the Jewel House needed to be replenished and royal regalia remade. A number of these items are on display in the gallery and a few are still used today in royal ceremonies. A particularly noteworthy piece of regalia is the Collar and Badge of the Order of the Garter designed by Sir Robert Vyner (1631-88) specifically for Charles II’s coronation. It is made from gold and set with 20 large and 100 small diamonds.

 

 

Charles II’s reign was not the only change affecting England in the mid-1600s, the restoration of the monarchy occurred simultaneously with the development of print production. As a result, Charles II was the first king to include prints in his growing art collection. Artists also converted portraits of the monarch into printed versions, which, although he never owned himself, are featured in the gallery.

Two prints of portraits by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) show the difference between two printmaking techniques. The first is an etching produced by Peter Vandrebanc (1649-97). The majority of early prints used this method in which a painting was carefully copied and etched onto a metal plate and covered with ink in order to transfer the drawing onto paper. The second, similar portrait was produced by Abraham Blooteling (1640-90) by a process called mezzotint (“half-tone”). Unlike its forerunning techniques, mezzotint avoided the line marks that cross-hatching caused and produced high-quality, tonal images instead.

 

As well as portraits of the king, his wife and mistresses, of whom he had many, were also the subjects of detailed prints. These were adapted from paintings by various artists, however, Charles II never owned them himself. The benefit of printmaking was that several copies of the same image could be made at once, thus lowering the cost, making them affordable to members of the public. Many prints found themselves pinned on the walls of taverns and coffee shops where they could be appreciated by the masses and demonstrated the shop owners’ loyalty to the royal family.

The prints that Charles II did collect had a more functional nature. A particular print worthy of note was a map of London that revealed the damages caused by the Great Fire of London. The fire broke out on Sunday 2nd September 1666, only a few years into the king’s reign. Instead of fleeing for safety, Charles found himself standing before the heat of the flames, helping and overseeing the extinguishing of the destructive inferno. Shortly after the three-day long blaze, Charles commissioned his scenographer Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77) to produce a detailed map revealing the buildings that had succumbed to the devastation. With the aid of the map, plans to rebuild a better, safer London was initiated and conducted quickly and efficiently.

 

Due to printmakers’ abilities to produce numerous copies of one item, illustrators and writers took full advantage in order to send their work out to a much wider audience. As a result, many satirical pieces began to arise, including the farcical The Horrid Hellish Popish-Plot (1682). With illustrations by an anonymous artist, the broadsheet attempted to mock the printed account A True Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy of the Popish Party (Oates, 1679). The Popish Plot was indeed a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates (1649-1705) in an attempt to accuse Catholics of conspiring to assassinate Charles II. The broadsheet owned by the Royal Collection Trust likens Oates’ testimony to the false witnesses who testified against Jesus Christ and included illustrations that resemble Judas Iscariot’s betrayal.

It is not until midway through the exhibition that the artworks begin to describe and reveal the actual life and reign of Charles II. The restoration of the monarchy not only reverted England to its Kingdom status, it essentially rebooted the lives of the royals. Just as the royal regalia previously mentioned had been destroyed, so too had the former residences, palaces and castles belonging to the first Stuart king. As a result, only Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court, which Cromwell had commandeered for his personal use, remained in functioning order.

Unfortunately, funds were low, and with many things in need of replacing, only Windsor Castle was rebuilt during Charles II’s lifetime. Of course, Windsor Castle has been revamped since the Stuarts were on the throne, however, watercolour illustrations by Charles Wild (1781-1835) reveal what the interior of the castle looked like after Charles’ renovations. On the ceiling of the St George’s Hall was a fresco painting featuring Charles II at its centre. All that remains of this fresco is the head and shoulders of the king which somebody had the foresight to rescue and preserve.

 

Charles II was a significant figure in the resurgence of arts and could often be found surrounded by beautiful women, actors, scientists and poets. His passion for the theatre re-established the playhouses which he and his court would regularly attend. This also marked a significant turning point in stage production; for the first time in history, women were allowed to act on stage. Previously, female parts had been performed by young male actors, but now women could take those positions themselves, including one of Charles’ long-time mistresses, Nell Gwyn (1650-87).

Being a great encourager of the arts, paintings became an expression of power for the monarch and his family. Not only did he own paintings of himself and his wife, he had all his mistresses painted as well. Amongst portraits of these ladies, including Nell Gwyn, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (1641-1709) and Mary Bagot, Duchess of Falmouth and Dorset (1645-79) sits the painting of Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) who Charles married in 1662. Less alluring than her husband’s lovers, Catherine is depicted as a shepherdess, complete with a little lamb which may have been a reference to the children court and society hoped for her to have.  Unfortunately, despite three miscarriages, Catherine produced no royal heirs.

The most significant portrait in the collection is without a doubt the king himself, painted by John Michael Wright (1617-94). Featuring heavily on advertisements for the exhibition, this recognisable portrait is of a formidable size and is an outstanding piece of artwork. Charles II sits on a throne wearing the royal crown and is dressed in parliamentary robes over his Order of the Garter costume. In one hand he carried the Orb and the other the sceptre, both of which were made by Sir Robert Vyner for the king’s coronation. The colours and pose of the sitter are similar to portraits of past monarchs, thus conveying the continuation of the royal line.

 

Walking around the gallery, looking at the members of the royal court, it is easy to think of these historical figures as a form of still life, to be studied at a distance like precious objects in a museum. However, these were real people living real lives, but what is even more important is that these paintings do not represent the majority of the English population. At midday and midafternoon, talks are held at the gallery in front of Charles II’s prestigious portrait. Although each discourse will differ depending on the speaker, it is likely that the gallery worker will enlighten visitors about the true living situations of the people of London.

Before the Fire of London, houses were a mess of materials held together more by luck than architectural skill. One could be as bold as to say the fire did the people a favour by destroying their inadequate abodes in order to rebuild nicer looking, safer structures. The streets, however, would have been full of disease-ridden waste, including human excrement, which would be thrown from the windows of houses due to the lack of a sewage system. The streets of London stank and the Thames was full of the debris and detritus that flowed into it. The capital was not a pleasant place to live and the Royals were the only people who could reside there in comfort.

Whilst Charles’ collection of paintings may have hidden the true situation in London, they did introduce people of lower status. Although painted a year after the king’s death, an example of this features a full-length portrait of a domestic servant. Before the seventeenth century, it was extremely rare for a servant to feature in a painting let alone be the main subject. Bridget Holmes (1591-1691) was painted by the artist John Riley (1646-91) when she was at the ripe old age of 96. She had already served both Charles I and II and was now the “Necessary Woman” of James II. She would later serve under William III until her death at the age of 100. It is likely that this painting was produced in honour of her dedication to the royal family.

Charles’ love of the theatre resulted in actors (and actresses) receiving more respect than they had done in the past. John Lacy (c1615-81) was a comic actor who was a particular favourite of the king. Lacy was honoured with a three-in-one portrait which depicted himself in three different theatrical roles: the lead from The Taming of the Shrew, Monsieur Device from the Duke of Newcastle’s The Country Chaplain, and Parson Scruple in John Wilson’s The Cheats.

 

Although these portraits were one way of rebuilding the royal art collection, Charles II was determined to recover the original artworks belonging to his father. The Parliamentarians had sold off nearly all paintings belonging to Charles I, and the new king was doubtful that he would retrieve many of them. However, after instructing his subjects to return them immediately (later making this law), a significant amount was returned. Charles II was also gifted paintings from many dignitaries across Europe, including 28 from the States of Holland and West Friesland. In all, Charles II owned over 1000 paintings, a handful of which are exhibited in the final room at the gallery.

Charles preferred the Old Masters but also collected contemporary classical-style paintings. Those that were not returned or gifted to the king were likely ones he had purchased himself. Not believing he would ever see his father’s collection again, Charles sought out an art dealer in Breda, the Netherlands and purchased 72 paintings. One of these is the famous Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69). This popular image illustrates the slaughtering of babies under the orders of King Herod as written in Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament after he learnt about the birth of Jesus from the wise men.

The royal collection accumulated other religious scenes from the art dealer and artists themselves who chose to honour the king with gifts of their paintings. One painter, Carlo Dolci (1616-86), sent Charles two paintings of biblical women: The Penitent Magdalene and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. The latter refers to the imprisonment of John (Matthew 14: 3-12 and Mark 6: 17-29) and his subsequent beheading at the request of Herodias’ daughter.

Charles II also commissioned artists to produce paintings for rooms at Windsor Castle. Two examples are the mythological scenes painted by Benedetto Gennari (1633-1715) which hung in the king’s dining room. Titled Venus and the Sleeping Adonis and The Triumph of Galatea, these oil paintings represent love stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

 

It is interesting to take note of the varying style of paintings collected by the third Stuart king. He owned a mix of religious and mythological narrative artworks, tapestries, portraits and so forth from a wide range of painters. This could potentially be a result of Charles’ desperation to rebuild his father’s grand collection, however, it is just as likely that he was an art aficionado and enjoyed an assortment of approaches and topics.

Admittedly, there are not many paintings at the Charles II exhibition that have the “wow factor”, nor do they linger in the mind after leaving the gallery. Although this is first and foremost an art exhibit, what the Queen’s Gallery has effectively achieved is an articulate history of the restoration of the monarchy. The combination of art and written explanation, as well as an optional audio guide, reveal to visitors far more than they may have learnt at school or discovered in their own time. Those whose interests lie in both British history and 16th- and 17th-century art will greatly enjoy and benefit from this exhibition – that is not to say, of course, that others will not!

Charles II: Art & Power will remain at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until Sunday 13th May 2018 leaving plenty of time for those who have not yet had the opportunity to view the exhibition to book their tickets. Entry prices for adults are £11 and this includes the option of a free audio guide which elaborates on certain paintings and objects.

See Differently

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Detail from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and workshop, ‘Odalisque in Grisaille’, about 1824–34

Spanning 700 years of art, the National Gallery’s Autumn/Winter exhibition focused on the world of shadow with over 50 paintings produced with a limited colour palette. Monochrome: Painting in Black and White explored the reasons artists, both Old Masters and modern, reduced their selection of paint to white, black and grey, and the effects this produced. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the exhibition spanned seven rooms, each tackling a different time period or aspect. For a medium that is usually full of colour, monochrome paintings alter the manner in which artists work as well as the way their audience perceives them.

As shown in a video at the beginning of the exhibition, curators Lelia Packer and Jennifer Sliwka explained the various reasons an artist may prefer to work in black and white. The reduction of colour helps to focus the viewers’ attention on a particular subject, concept or technique. What may have been missed in a painting full of colour, is exaggerated by its absence. Working in monochrome allows the artist to experiment with form, texture and mark making, with particular emphasis on light and shadow.

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A Woman in Netherlandish Dress Seen from Behind – Albrecht Dürer

During the 16th century, most artists were producing colourful paintings, influenced by the rapidly growing Renaissance movement originating in Italy. Yet, the National Gallery managed to produce examples of monochrome painting from this era. Black and white paint was a lot cheaper than the majority of coloured pigments, therefore it was more economical for artists wishing to practice on a separate canvas before completing their final piece, to do so in grey tones. This also allowed artists to work out how light should fall upon their figures or models and to determine which sections would be obscured by shadow.

The use of monochrome within artworks, however, began a long time before the Renaissance era. The exhibition introduces visitors to the term grisaille which defines “a painting executed entirely in shades of grey or of another neutral greyish colour.” This method first appeared in the middle ages, particularly in buildings belonging to the Cistercian Monks. Prohibiting colour by religious command, the stained glass windows of many 13th century churches were created with translucent glass in various grey tones, the opposite to the vibrant, eye-catching patterns that Christian structures contain today. This was an attempt at eliminating distraction from prayer and devotion to God; whether this was successful is undivulged.

An example of grisaille stained glass windows is the ‘stained glass panel with quarries and a female head’ owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, dating back to circa 1320-24. As can be seen, the glass was not totally black and white, however, the only colour to feature is yellow, which the monks were unlikely to find off-putting.

Another example of a monochrome sacred subject is a four and a half metre high indigo cloth decorated with white paint to represent events in the life of Jesus. Titled Agony in the Gardenthis is a portable cloth originally created in Genoa in 1538, that could be moved from one chapel to another and be reassembled anywhere it is needed. To be produced only in white paint is extremely impressive. The tones and shadows have been created by the amount of paint applied, the more the brighter, which is the opposite method when using black paint.

 

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St Barbara 1437 Eyck, Jan van

Putting these sacred relics to one side, the earliest independent painting in grisaille, i.e. produced deliberately in monochrome, is Saint Barbara painted by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) in 1437. It shows the early Christian Saint Barbara imprisoned in a tower by her pagan father. There is, however, some debate amongst art historians as to whether van Eyck intended the painting to remain black and white. The background of the canvas has been filled with blue and ultramarine paint, but the intentions behind this are unclear. Some argue that the colour draws attention to the ink and oil drawing in the foreground, whereas others insist the pen and brush strokes are an underdrawing for an unfinished painting – it was, after all, produced in the final years of van Eycks life. The only thing standing in the way of the latter debate is the date and signature of the artist found on the panel.

Regardless as to whether van Eyck was the first to experiment with monochrome painting, the origins of grisaille remain in the Netherlands area. Rembrandt van Rijn‘s (1606-69) famous Ecce Homo is an example of this technique, however, one Dutch artist became known for creating most of his work in monochrome. This was Adriaen van de Venne (1589-1662) who produced numerous grisaille paintings of peasants, beggars, thieves and characters of comic value.

Grisaille paved the way for artists to discover how to accurately represent stone in their paintings, particularly statues. This led to a rise in the technique called Trompe-l’œil (“deceive the eye”) in which the paintings are so realistic they create an optical illusion, making their subjects appear three dimensional. This lead to a paragone (comparison) debate amongst late Renaissance artists over which form of art – sculpture or painting – was the most superior. The painting was the most affordable of the two art forms, therefore, when artists began achieving the Trompe-l’oeil technique with the help of monochrome shading, commisions for fake carvings began to rise. Take, for example, Jacob de Wit’s (1695-1754) Jupiter and Ganymede. Produced in an era without electric lighting, it could easily be mistaken for the real thing.

 

Black and white artwork is far cheaper than coloured, which is something many artists kept in mind. Although paintings sell for millions nowadays, they were not as highly valued at the time of their completion. As paintings took a long time to complete, artists were frequently struggling to make ends meet in between successful payments. However, there was a solution to this predicament: printmaking. From the 1430s onwards, techniques such as etching and engraving became popular within the art world.  Rather than selling one unique painting, an artist or fellow printmaker could create a print of the artwork by etching on to a metal plate. This plate could be inked over and over again to create as many copies of the print as desired. Whilst artists could not charge the same amount for a print than they could for a painting, they were able to sell far more copies than they would otherwise.

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Ecce Homo print, van Vliet

Midway through the exhibition, the National Gallery showed examples of paintings and their corresponding prints. Often, a student or an apprentice would create the print on the artist’s behalf, thus being able to study the techniques of their master and perfect their drawing abilities.

One example is the print of Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo, which was produced by another Dutch artist, Johannes van Vliet (c.1610). The linear design is a contrast to the brushstrokes of the original, however, some may prefer imagery in this fashion.

Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) was an early graphic artist who preferred the effect of printmaking over the traditional painting. He is now regarded as the pioneer of “pen-painting”, a technique involving the use of pen and ink, drawn straight on to canvas, mimicking the look of a print. He was, therefore, able to produce artwork of considerable size, which would not have been possible on a printing press.

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Etienne Moulinneuf’s Back from the Market, c.1770

Goltzius was not the only artist to paint print-like scenes. Alongside the original, coloured version of Back From the Market by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), hung what appeared to be two prints, however, one was not what it initially seemed. In 1770, Étienne Moulinneuf (1706-89) painted the engraving of Back From the Market, mimicking the print-marks from the printing press. He then went one step further, emphasising the difference between reality and illusion, by painting a trompe-l’oeil of broken glass over the top. This gives the false appearance that the painting (or engraving) is framed and had, at one point, fallen off the wall.

As the exhibition reached its final rooms, the dates of the paintings caught up with the recent 20th century. By now, technology was rapidly advancing and numerous art movements were coming forward, challenging all the rules that artists had followed for centuries. One of the challenges artists had to overcome was the invention of the camera. Commission for portraits and realistic scenes were no longer as popular because the public could produce their own in a photographic format in a shorter timeframe and at a fraction of the cost. Some artists responded to this by painting hyper-realistic black and white portraits that could easily be mistaken for a photograph, whereas others went down a route leading to abstract expressionism.

Chuck Close (b.1940), an American painter, produced a portrait of fellow artist Joel Shapiro (b.1941) that a camera could not possibly achieve. Spanning from floor to ceiling, the canvas is filled with black, and white squares containing hand painted rings of a number of grey shades. From a distance, the squares blur together to produce the portrait of Joel in a similar way that pixels merge together to create a digital image.

Vija Celmins (b.1938), a Latvian-American painter, also blurs the lines between real and abstract. Her painting Night Sky No.3 shows the stars in a way that cannot be seen by the naked human eye. However, as the exhibition pointed out, is it a painting of the night sky, or is it only white dots on top of black paint?

 

The exhibition’s penultimate room is where abstraction comes to the fore. After looking at paintings from the Old Masters and other well-known names, it is difficult to regard these final works as art. One canvas contains a slightly angular black square and another canvas is filled with black lines. Nonetheless, the fact that they are produced “without colour” means they have a right to be in the Monochrome exhibition. Although many will not understand what these artists were attempting to achieve, the minimal colour draws attention to the shapes and texture of the paintings. At a time when all colours are readily available, the complete lack implies a hidden meaning.

The final room of the impressive Monochrome exhibition was perhaps the one visitors spent the least amount of time in, however, it was also the most interesting. Containing an installation that Olafur Eliasson (b.1967) developed in 1997, Room For One Colour allows the viewer to see themselves and the people around them in monochrome. The immersive sodium yellow mono-frequency lamps on the ceiling suppress all other light frequencies, thus creating a monochrome world. It is unsettling to no longer detect individual colours especially as this causes the lines and textures of facial features to become more prominent. Unfortunately, the lights are difficult for the eyes to bear for longer than a minute, leaving just enough time to read the explanation the gallery supplied. Nevertheless, it was a fun and unique conclusion to a magnificent exhibition.

 

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Room For One Colour

 

Unfortunately, Monochrome: Painting in Black and White closed on 18th February 2018 and many of the paintings will have returned to their original locations. However, that does not mean that grisaille, black and white, and monochrome art cannot continue to be celebrated. When attending any exhibition or art gallery, keep an eye open for the works with minimal colour and see how they compare to their more vibrant neighbours. Notice the tones, shading, shadows, and textures that may otherwise go unnoticed.

The National Gallery did a formidable job at introducing London to a colourless artworld. Not only did visitors get the opportunity to view paintings by 50 or so artists, a different way of looking at and producing art was presented. This was certainly one of the National Gallery’s top exhibitions.

“Artists choose to use black and white for aesthetic, emotional, and sometimes even for moral reasons. The historical continuity and diversity of monochrome from the Middle Ages to today demonstrate how crucial a theme it is in Western Art.”

National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi

 

 

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. 

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.