Painter of Disquiet

Getting off to a positive start with a realistic painting of a polished coffee server, the Royal Academy of Arts introduces the “very singular Vallotton” in the first major UK exhibition of the Swiss painter Félix Vallotton (1865-1925). Barely heard of on this side of the English Channel, Vallotton’s artwork can be compared to the likes of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), however, he is also known for his satirical woodcuts.

Félix Edouard Vallotton was born into a Swiss-Protestant family in Lausanne. His father was a pharmacist who later purchased a chocolate factory and his mother was the daughter of a furniture craftsman. As always, his parents had ambitions for Félix and his three siblings and he attended university, leaving in 1882 with a degree in classical studies. Whilst studying, he also attended drawing classes lead by the artist Jean-Samson Guignard and, due to his success on the course, his parents granted him permission to go to Paris to study art seriously.

At sixteen years old, Vallotton enrolled at the private art school Académie Julian where he studied under Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911) and Gustave Boulanger (1824-88). Lefebvre believed Vallotton had the potential to earn a living as a painter and in 1883 Vallotton won a place at the most influential art school in France, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, although he turned the offer down and remained at Académie Julian for another year.

The exhibition begins with a few examples of Vallotton’s earliest works. These reveal his talent as a realist painter and the influence of artists he studied at college, for example, Leonardo da Vinci(1452-1519), Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828). It is also interesting to note that despite the prevailing Impressionist movement in Paris at the time, Vallotton never engaged with the style.

In fact, in 1892, Vallotton became a member of the semi-covert group The Nabis, which took its name from the Hebrew word for prophet, thus referring to themselves as the “prophets of modern art”. Since he was not a French native, Vallotton was often called “The Foreign Nabi” by his peers who included, Bonnard, Vuillard, Charles Cottet (1863–1925) and Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944) as seen in Vallotton’s painting The Five Painters (1902-3).

Despite short-lived, The Nabis wanted to transform the foundation of art. They believed that art was not a true depiction of nature but a combination of symbols and metaphors. The French painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943) wrote the group’s manifesto The Definition of Neo-traditionalism in which he stated “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order… The profoundness of our emotions comes from the sufficiency of these lines and these colours to explain themselves…everything is contained in the beauty of the work.” The group, however, disbanded in the early 1900s.

Through his association with The Nabis, Vallotton discovered the art of woodcut printmaking. He began making woodcuts in 1891 and was particularly inspired by Japanese artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), who were also an influence on many European artists at the time. The artworks are characterised by simple forms, flattened perspectives and decorative aesthetic.

Two of Vallotton’s paintings based on this Japanese style were exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. In The Waltz (1893), two-dimensional characters skate over the glittering ice in the arms of their partners. Displayed next to this, both at the Salon des Indépendants and the Royal Academy exhibition was Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-3). This was a more ambitious piece of work and is a complete contrast to Vallotton’s realist manner.

Vallotton combined inspiration from Japanese “ukiyo-e” prints with the themes of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Unfortunately, critics were unable to recognise this parody. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), on the other hand, was one of the few who appreciated the painting but worried that the police would take it down due to the negative reaction from the public.

Vallotton also began producing black and white prints based on the style of the Japanese artists he admired. Rather than using woodblocks, however, he opted for a technique called zincography, which requires a zinc plate coated in acid. The result is much more controlled than those produced with wooden blocks and the line work can be much more expressive.

One of Vallotton’s first series of wood prints (zinc prints) is called Paris Intense, which features unusual scenes of Paris life. Vallotton was anti-bourgeois, as many artists were at the time, and focused on people from all walks of life in his prints. In this particular series, he combined caricatures of Parisians from upper, middle and lower classes all experiencing the same event. For example, in a print titled L’Averse (The Shower), smartly dressed men and women fight with their black umbrellas whilst others are pulled along in horse-drawn carriages. A maid wearing a white apron can be seen running in the background with nothing to shelter her from the rain.

Vallotton’s prints found themselves published in the literary and artistic magazine La Revue Blanche, established by the Natason brothers: Alexandre, Alfred and Thadée. Vallotton’s portrait of the latter can be seen in the exhibition. He also painted one of the editors, Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). This portrait resembles the work of The Nabis with an unrealistic approach to painting likenesses.

La Revue Blanche published works by many intellectuals, including Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Erik Satie (1866-1925), and Vallotton was the chief illustrator. Vallotton proved to be a gifted graphic artist and numerous prints were featured in the magazine.

One of Vallotton’s greatest woodcut series to feature in La Revue Blanche was called Intimacies (1897-8), which features ten fly-on-the-wall scenes that satirise the sexual desires of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Married couples are seen arguing whilst in another frame an adulterous couple mockingly toast an absent spouse. Others are more ambiguous and could represent either married couples or those in an illicit relationship.

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Five O’Clock, 1898

Vallotton used a few of these prints as bases for paintings. Take, for example, Five O’Clock (Cinq Heures, 1898), which was also the title of one of the prints in the Intimacies series. Replacing black and white with colour, Vallotton produced a distemper version of the scene in which a man and a woman embrace in a red armchair. The title is a phrase that was used ironically in France by businessmen who would leave work at that hour to visit their mistresses before returning home to their wives.

Other print series include Musical Instruments (1896-7), in which Vallotton created portraits of particular musicians, some of which have been identified and others who have not. The darkness of the rooms depicted adds an element of mystery to their identities. The use of black in these prints is strong, using white for only a few line details that frame the musician and instruments, which include a cello, violin, flute, piano, guitar and cornet.

The World’s Fair (1900), was the last series Vallotton created before he stopped working for La Revue Blanche. The World’s Fair was held in Paris during the first year of the 20th century. Vallotton’s prints record scenes of construction, fireworks, picnics and people shopping.

By the end of the 19th century, Vallotton decided to move away from print work, believing painting to be his vocation. This was partly due to his marriage to the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim (1839-1915), the owner of a gallery and one of the most successful art dealers on the continent. Previously, Vallotton had been living in the Latin Quarter of Paris with his mistress Hélène Châtenay, however, he left her in 1899 to marry Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, whose financial stability allowed Vallotton to concentrate on his paintings, which is generally a low paying, unstable career.

Gabrielle appears frequently in her husband’s paintings and often sat for portraits. Most of the time, however, she is captured in the middle of domestic tasks around the house. Vallotton was also the step-father of three children, who occasionally became the subjects of his paintings. One scene around a dining table reflects one of the children’s negative attitude to the new adult in their life.

Capturing Gabrielle at work around the house was more difficult than painting someone sitting still. As a result, Vallotton began using a Kodak camera to catch the scenes he wished to paint. In his studio, he would either recreate the photograph with paint or remove and add elements to the scene to create the image in his mind’s eye.

Vallotton’s paintings of Gabrielle moving around the house are usually full of clashing colours and patterns, which may or may not have been present in the real family home. When painting from a photograph, the image was black and white, therefore, colours could be left to the artist’s imagination. Vallotton also crowded the rooms with rugs, ornaments, furniture, curtains and patterned wallpaper.

These domestic scenes are not the typical images one might expect and are rather ambiguous in nature. In Interior with Woman in Red (1903), Vallotton shows several rooms of the house through a continuous row of opened doors. Gabrielle stands in the middle with her back to the viewer, clearly heading for the bedroom in the far room. Wearing her dressing gown, it is easy to assume she is going to get dressed; the sunlight from the hidden windows is suggesting it is morning. Other than this, little else can be ascertained from the painting. It is as though it has captured a stolen glimpse of a household that tells you almost nothing about its inhabitants.

Woman Searching Through a Cupboard (1901) is another of Vallotton’s domestic scenes. It is probably a painting of Gabrielle but the subject matter is an obscure choice for an artist. The figure is apparently unaware of the artist’s presence while she searches through the carefully folded linen. The only light source is a lamp, placed on the floor where the figure crouches down to look at something on the bottom shelf. Whatever this is has been hidden from view, leaving the purpose of the search a mystery to everyone. Presumably, Vallotton painted this from a photograph he took as he wandered through the house, therefore, there may not have been much thought about how the painting would be interpreted.

From 1904, Vallotton’s principal subject of painting became the female nude. He had worked a little on this theme before his marriage but had not focused seriously on the theme. Unlike other artists who painted from life, Vallotton produced a quick sketch of his models then completed the painting alone in his studio. This may account for the feeling of detachment these paintings evoke with very little or even no sexual emotion.

Some of the models are partially clothed, for instance, the woman in Nude Seen From Behind in an Interior (1902), whereas others are fully naked. One of Vallotton’s nude paintings is almost a response to Édouard Manet’s (1832-83) Olympia (1863), which depicts a white female lying on a bed being attended by a black maid. In Vallotton’s version La Blanche et la Noire (1913), the white woman lying on the bed is naked and the black woman is elegantly dressed and smokes a cigarette while she observes her dozing companion. It is not clear whether these two women are mistress and servant, friends, or even lovers.

Vallotton believed one of his greatest works to be Models Resting (1905), which he submitted to the Salon d’Automne. Vallotton is believed to have wept in front of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) Turkish Bath (1862), which was the inspiration for this particular painting. Within the painting, he included two older works in the background: a portrait of his parents and a landscape, thus showing his development over the years.

Alongside his portraits of nudes, the exhibition showed examples of later works that focused on social scenes. Again, he attacked the bourgeoisie with imagery that suggested immoral behaviour, such as secret liaisons in theatre boxes. He also turned to New Testament stories, such as the story of Susanna who is the victim of lecherous old men. In Vallotton’s version titled Chaste Suzanne (1922), Susanna or Suzanne appears to be in control or even a seductress, dressed in a sequined hat and tempting a couple of balding men.

“War! The word is magnificent … The day I saw it appearing in big letters on the walls, I honestly believe I felt the strongest emotion of my life.”
– Vallotton

In 1916, Vallotton briefly returned to printmaking as a response to the First World War. Although he had become a French citizen in 1900 after marrying Gabrielle, he was too old at almost 50 to enlist to fight. Nonetheless, he got to experience some of the action on a government-commissioned tour of the trenches in the Champagne region. This became the inspiration for his final venture in printmaking.

C’est la Guerre (This is War) was a portfolio of six prints showing the brutality of war. Similar to his earlier work, Vallotton included people of all social standings in these illustrations. Horrific scenes of barbed wire strewn with corpses, barricades and explosions lead to scenes of civilians, cowering in fear in their homes.

In the final decade of his career, Vallotton turned to landscape painting and gradually returned to realism. He called his approach to landscapes “paysage composé”, which means “composed landscape”.

“I dream of painting free from any literal respect for nature … I would like to be able to re-create landscapes with only the help of the emotion they have provoked in me …”
– Vallotton

Instead of producing life-like landscapes, Vallotton simplified the compositions into shapes and colours, reminiscent of the flat Japanese-inspired paintings of his earlier years. The result is an almost abstract version of nature.

On the other hand, Vallotton’s still-lifes are extremely realistic. It is almost as though one could reach in and pick up one of the red peppers sitting on a white marble table. Their shiny skins and accurate shadows make them appear tangible. Similarly, his basket of apples is also life-like, although perhaps not as real as the peppers.

Unfortunately, Vallotton’s health deteriorated during his fifties. Due to his persistent health problems, Vallotton and Gabrielle spent each winter in the warmer climates of Cagnes-sur-Mer in Provence, and their summers in Honfleur, Normandy where he produced many of his landscapes. Despite persisting in his painting, Vallotton passed away on the day after his 60th birthday following cancer surgery.

Throughout his life, Vallotton produced over 1700 works of art. A year after his death, a retrospective exhibition was held at Salon des Indépendants and some of his paintings were also displayed at the Grand Palais along with the works of well-known artists, including Van Gogh, Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Vallotton’s brother Paul was an art dealer and established the Galerie Paul Vallotton in Lausanne where he displayed a number of Félix’s paintings. Félix Vallotton was not the only artist in the family, his niece Annie Vallotton (1915-2013) went on to produce illustrations for the Good News Bible, thus becoming the best selling artist of all time when over 225 million copies were sold.

The Royal Academy of Arts has done an excellent job at introducing Félix Vallotton to a new audience and generation. Whilst none of the pieces are particularly famous, they are worthy of the attention this exhibition is affording them. Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet is open until 29th September 2019 and costs £16 for an adult ticket. Children can visit for free with a fee-paying adult. As always, Friends of the RA are entitled unlimited free entry.

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The Renaissance Nude

San Sebastian

Saint Sebastian – Agnolo Bronzino, 1533

Today, we live in a censored world where young minds are shielded from the harsh realities of life and people are quick to complain about things that never once crossed previous generation’s minds. The word “nudity” sets alarm bells ringing and is presumed by many to be synonymous with sexual content. Ironically, despite society trying to block nudity from the impressionable minds of under 18-year-olds, anyone can gaze upon the naked body in public in nearly all art galleries.

Once upon a time, nudity was culturally acceptable, as the Royal Academy of Arts showed in their recent exhibition The Renaissance Nude. The 15th and 16th century was a crucial moment in the history of western art with the birth of the Renaissance period and a renewed interest in the human body as represented in ancient Greek and Roman art. The exhibition explored the use of nudity in art from 1400 to the 1530s, exploring works in a variety of media and produced by some of the most famous names in the business: Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo.

Renaissance is a French word meaning “rebirth” and aptly describes the period when Europe was rediscovering the art and values of the classical world after a long, stagnant period of decline during the Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages”. Not only was the art world affected, the Renaissance saw a number of new discoveries including scientific laws, new religious and political ideas, and sightings of new lands, for instance, America. Therefore, the art shown at the Royal Academy’s exhibition was once a welcome change in a world where people’s minds were being opened to endless possibilities.

The nude flourished in Renaissance art, achieving an increasingly dominant role across Europe. Unlike today where nudity often goes hand in hand with pornography and offensive content, the study of the unclothed body was welcomed by sacred and secular communities alike and produced some of the most magnificent works in existence today. It is Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) who takes the blame for the world’s more prudish attitude to nudity after he ordered concealing draperies to be painted over some of the figures in Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Last Judgement (1541) in the Sistine Chapel.

One of the first artworks in the exhibition was Jan Gossaert’s (1478-1532) Christ on the Cold Stone (1530). Christ is rarely depicted as fully naked in artwork, apart from as a young child, and in this case, a strip of cloth covers his nether regions. Looking anguished and weary, Gossaert imagines Christ’s demeanour as he awaits his physical ordeal and eventual death. His body is based on the Greek sculptures Gossaert would have seen when visiting Rome, hence the exaggerated musculature.

Religion and art had a tight relationship during the Renaissance and Biblical scenes, such as Christ’s death and resurrection, presented artists with plenty of opportunities to work with the naked figure. As a result, religious subjects became much more realistic than they had been during the Middle Ages as well as more accessible.

As well as Biblical narratives, saints and religious heroes or heroines, were also popular subjects for Renaissance artists. Saint Sebastian (d.288 AD) was one of the more prevalent being the saint of the plague-stricken at a time when outbreaks of contagious diseases were common. Saint Sebastian was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s (244-311) persecution of Christians, initially being tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows, although it was not this that eventually killed him.

Cima da Conegliano’s (1459-1517) version of Saint Sebastian (1502) referenced his martyrdom with a single arrow piercing the right thigh of a young man with glossy hair, who stands naked but for a white cloth concealing his genitals. The youth is composed and appears unaware that he had been shot; nor is there any blood spilling from the wound. Cima replicated the physical beauty of Greek gods in his composition, thus making him appear pure, fit and healthy. The artist has achieved what the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) urged: to use “the most beautiful human shape” which the ancients had used for their “false gods” when drawing the body of Christ or the saints.

The idea of representing the saints or the holy in the beautiful manner of the ancient Greek artists can be explored further in Dirk Bouts’ (1415-75) The Way to Paradise (1469). This shows one of the possible outcomes of the last judgement in which those who are saved ascend to paradise or heaven. Whilst naked, the figures in the painting have their lower bodies wrapped in pure white cloth and their stature and pure facial features emphasise their godliness. On the other hand, the opposite scenario shown in Bouts’ The Fall of the Damned (1469) shows the victims entirely naked, tumbling down into the infernal landscape. In this instance, the nudity references the shame Adam and Eve felt when they realised they were naked after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

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Adam and Eve – Albrecht Dürer, 1504

Adam and Eve are undoubtedly the most famous characters of the Bible who allow artists to experiment with nudity. In an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Eve is about to succumb to temptation and eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in the Book of Genesis. At this moment, Adam and Eve are unashamed of their nudity, however, Dürer has prudently obscured their genitalia with leaves. Unlike his contemporaries, Dürer tried to avoid using live models, preferring to draw people using a compass and ruler, therefore, creating his nudes geometrically. Although the figures have similar bodies to those in classical art, Dürer was quoted warning his fellow artists, “Your ability is impotent compared with God’s creativity.”

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Bathsheba Bathing – Jean Bourdichon, 1499

Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) proves that Renaissance art was not limited to the painted medium. As well as paintings, the Royal Academy displayed book illuminations, sculpture and drawings amongst other media. For instance, a French copy of Book of Hours contains an illustration of Bathsheba bathing naked in the open air. In the background, King David can be seen spying on her from the palace window. It is thought that this and similar images were intended to be erotic, wrongly depicting Bathsheba as a seductress rather than a passive victim.

As described earlier, the Renaissance was a time of discovery, and people were exposed to new and old thoughts and religions. Since artists were inspired by classical sculptures, it is no surprise that their subject matter turned to the mythologies of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In a similar fashion, these stories from classical literature allowed artists to continue exploring the nude.

Piero di Cosimo’s (1462-1522) A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (1500) is fairly typical of the way classical stories are depicted. Despite the sorrowful scene, the landscape, colours and figures have a beauty about them that make them appear otherworldly. The peacefulness of the painting also relates to the scene inspired by Ovid (43BC-18AD) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) in which a nymph has been killed by a wound to her throat. The wound is not gruesome and the nymph appears to have swooned rather than crashed to the ground, almost a graceful death. Yet, nymphs were known for their singing and this nymph will sing no more, hence the peaceful quietude the painting evokes.

The nymph’s nudity links this painting to Bouts’ The Way to Paradise, in which the semi-naked people are portrayed as beautiful and pure. Despite the painful wound to her neck, the nymph’s suffering is nothing like the deaths of those in The Fall of the Damned. The other characters in the painting – a satyr and a dog – are quietly mourning her death, a stark contrast to the hideous characters in Bouts’ painting. A similar, peaceful figure can be seen in Dosso Dossi’s (1486-1542) A Myth of Pan (1524). Unfortunately, the precise meaning remains a mystery and it is not clear whether the naked lady is slumbering or condemned to eternal rest.

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Venus Anadyomene – Titian, 1520

Typically, male nudes were based upon one of the most important Olympian deity, Apollo. The Renaissance artists had more choice for the female nude since all goddesses were beautiful, however, Venus, the Roman goddess of Love, was usually the most represented. The myth surrounding Venus’ birth is a popular subject for artists. In Pliny the Elder’s (AD 23-79) Natural History, written around AD 77, he describes a long lost painting by the Greek artist Apelles (BC 370-06), which depicts the birth of Venus. Born fully formed from the sea, the most famous version of this story can be seen in Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) painting from the 1480s. The painting displayed in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, however, was the less elaborate Venus Anadyomene or Venus Rising from the Sea (1520) by the renowned Titian (1488-1576). In an attempt to rival Botticelli, Titian focuses on the nude Venus standing in the water in a natural, human-like pose. The youthful goddess is wringing her long golden hair and glancing over her shoulder rather than at the audience. Whilst Venus’ isolation makes her seem vulnerable and innocent, Titian wanted her nudity to add to the erotic allure of the painting.

Despite their unearthly beauty, the adventures of the Greek and Roman gods often resulted in adultery, lust, drunkenness, debauchery and deception, which encouraged Renaissance artists to explore impulsive behaviours that had been condemned by the Christian Church. Once, this would have had disastrous effects for the artist’s reputation, however, humanist ideas were beginning to infiltrate society with themes of seduction, powerful women and same-sex relationships.

The woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513) by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) explored the growing interest in powerful women. Medieval texts claim the Greek philosopher Aristotle (BC 384-22) punished his pupil, Alexander the Great (BC 356-23) for spending too much time with his lover Phyllis. The philosopher blamed Phyllis’ presence for arousing unwanted sexual feelings. Rather than taking the blame for sexually tempting Aristotle, Phyllis sought revenge on the behalf of her lover and demanded to be walked around the garden upon Artistotle’s naked back, while Alexander stood witness to the humiliating scene.

Other artists dealt with themes of temptation, especially the erotic dreams of some men, which due to their religious upbringing, were considered to be impure thoughts. The Flemish artist Hans Memling (1440-94) took these vices and vanities further in his book panels for the Loiani family from Bologna. Memling depicted beauty as vanity and vices as something to be punished for after death, hence the illustration of the devil. The final panel, Memento Mori, reminds us that regardless of our pure or irreligious behaviour, death comes to us all.

As the Royal Academy proved midway through the exhibition, nudity in art was not necessarily either religious, mythological or erotic; there were many more purposes for the naked body. Previous to the Renaissance, paintings of the human body (usually clothed) were unrealistic, often with awry proportions or strangely shaped faces. The introduction of nudity to art allowed artists to start studying the human figure with live models in their studio. It was standard for artists to produce preparatory drawings before starting a painting, therefore, there are a large number of anatomical sketches by famous artists in the possession of art galleries today.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1483-1520) are life studies of the same model in different positions captured in red chalk. By studying the way the body moves in each position, Raphael was confident enough to paint the Three Graces in The Feast of the Roman Gods at the Farnesina in Rome. Likewise, Michelangelo (1475-1564) also produced sketches before putting brush to canvas, wall, etc. The Italian artist concentrated on the musculature of the human body and surrounding his sketches are annotations that may have had instructive purposes.

Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) was one of a few artists who produced a detailed drawing of The Vitruvian Man. Based on the treatise of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (BC 80-15), which demonstrates the three central themes of architecture and engineering: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty); The Vitruvian Man is an anatomically correct drawing of the proportions of the human body. The most famous of these drawings, of course, was by the famous polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

Of course, the Royal Academy could not display sketches by Raphael and Michelangelo without showing the detailed drawings of the anatomy fanatic himself, Leonardo. During his busy career as an artist, sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, astronomist, geologist, botanist, writer, historian and cartographer, Leonardo somehow managed to find the time to dissect numerous bodies and make detailed drawings of human anatomy. The sketches displayed at the Royal Academy were those of the shoulder and neck. Unlike Raphael and Michelangelo, who were preparing for larger paintings, Leonardo was making preparations for his treatise about the human anatomy. Surrounding the illustrations of several views of the shoulders and neck are Leonardo’s tiny annotations. Known as mirror script, this can only be read when held up to a mirror and was probably an attempt by Leonardo to prevent others from stealing his ideas.

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Saint Jerome – Donatello, 1460s

Taking the naked body into consideration allowed artists to considered the vulnerabilities of the human condition. Prior to the Renaissance, artworks of the human figure were based on ideals rather than reality. Even in death, paintings of Christ looked pure and holy, if not regal. After being able to study human anatomy, however, artists learnt to portray suffering in a more realistic manner.

Donatello’s (1386-1466) polychromed wooden sculpture of the naked Saint Jerome (1460s) is a vivid example of the vulnerable human body. Scourging himself with a rock to quell carnal desire, Saint Jerome’s body is gaunt and aged, reflecting his long-term exposure to the elements in the desert. Unlike the paintings of Saint Sebastian seen at the beginning of the exhibition, in which his body remains unaffected by the torture imposed upon him, Saint Jerome is a stark visual reminder of the hardships of religious commitment and the evidence that the body can benefit from material needs.

The final section of the Royal Academy’s exhibition about The Renaissance Nude reveals that paintings involving nudes were readily accepted by society and even commissioned by notable patrons, for instance, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marchioness of Mantua. The Marchioness commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her distinguished studiolo, which she had designated for studying and contemplation. The themes of these paintings prove that secular subjects were welcome in a once predominantly strict religious country.

Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune depicts a semi-naked young man clasping a bunch of lottery tickets – apparently, Isabella d’Este’s personal emblem – which in this instance represent Chance. The nude woman opposite with her arms supporting a cornucopia represents Fortune. The latter is seated upon a bubble that could burst at any time, symbolising that fortune or luck can easily disappear. Why, however, did Isabelle D’Este request such a painting? Allegory of Fortune and similar paintings would have been a stark reminder to wealthy ruling families that they may not always be able to rely upon their good fortune.

Other paintings commissioned by Isabella d’Este had mythological connotations. Combat between Love and Chastity painted by Pietro Perugino (1445-1523) was produced from the instructions to paint an allegory representing the duelling forces of libido and restraint. The central female figures represent the Roman goddesses Venus (libido) and Diana (restraint). Diana, or Artemis as she was known in the Greek, was the goddess of chastity amongst other things. The clothed people in the painting represent her followers, whereas, those belonging to Venus are entirely naked. This suggests that nudity was associated with sexual impulses, much like it is today.

Telling people you are going to see an exhibition called The Renaissance Nude is met by mixed reactions: those who concentrate on the word “Renaissance” and those who focus in on “Nude”. The former are unfazed by the nudity aspect, believing that the Renaissance painters could not have painted anything sordid, whilst the latter question your morals and interests. Both, however, are wrong in their presumptions. Whilst Renaissance artwork cannot be considered pornography, they did tackle themes of debauchery, lust and eroticism.

If their aim was to explain how the nude became a common occurrence in Renaissance art, then the Royal Academy can congratulate themselves. Initially, nudes in the 15th and 16th centuries were produced for churches and private collections and it was only the erotic woodcut prints that circulated more widely. Ironically, the latter no longer exude sensuality and desire as they originally intended due to the changing of the times, morals and behaviours of recent generations.

Despite only focusing on artworks featuring nude figures, the exhibition taught visitors a lot about the Renaissance era. By combining artists from both north and south of the Alps, the differing attitudes towards the new ideas can clearly be seen. Whilst the Italians embraced the human body, its beauty and the opportunity for anatomical study, the northern European artists were more severe in their approach. The exhibition The Renaissance Nude included some of the most famous names from the Renaissance era as well as some of the greatest work from this period of momentous change. Most importantly, however, it shows the Renaissance nude to be far more diverse than previously imagined.

Gainsborough’s Family Album

Since the beginning of the 20th century, family photo albums have documented the lives of families and individuals, often providing a visual narrative of the birth and ageing of different generations. Before the advent of photography, however, family albums did not exist and only an elite privileged few could afford to have their lives documented by portrait artists. In the 18th century, only royalty had the means to commission family portraits, with the exception of one man: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88).

Primarily a landscape painter, Gainsborough painted and drew portraits of his immediate and extended family throughout his lifetime. Amounting to at least 50 artworks, the National Portrait Gallery has chosen to chart the career of one of Britain’s greatest painters from youth to maturity in their winter exhibition Gainsborough’s Family Album. Set out in chronological order, the paintings show the people who meant a lot to Gainsborough, particularly his daughters who grow from young children to beautiful, independent women.

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Self-portrait with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary

The exhibition begins with The Artist with his Wife and Eldest Daughter Mary, which Gainsborough painted at the age of 22 shortly before his daughter died in her second year of life. Principally a landscape painter, preferring them over “damn’d faces”, Gainsborough combined the two genres in this painting, as he does with a handful of other portraits, to create a composition that portrays the couple as fashionable gentlefolk enjoying the countryside. Despite being middle-class, the outfits and posture of Gainsborough and his family suggest their aspirations to gentility.

Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk in 1727, the youngest son of a large family. Some of his brothers and sisters feature in portraits throughout the exhibition as well as their own children. As a child as young as ten, Thomas impressed his father with his drawing ability and was allowed to leave home in 1740 to seek an apprenticeship in London. Under the tutelage of the Frenchman Hubert-François Bourguignon (1699-1733), more commonly known as Gravelot, Gainsborough initially studied engraving. Nonetheless, his passion for painting thrived after he became associated with William Hogarth (1697-1764). Like Hogarth, some of Gainsborough’s work was produced for the Foundling Hospital set up by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram (1668-1751) in 1739.

Not all of Gainsborough’s siblings feature in the exhibition, but those that do show off his skill at capturing likenesses. Although a landscape artist at heart, Gainsborough often focused solely on the faces, leaving the clothing unfinished and the backgrounds bare. It is thought Gainsborough may have deliberately left these incomplete to distinguish between private and commissioned work. On the other hand, Gainsborough’s main focus would have been on commissioned works, resulting in private portraits being abandoned.

A self-portrait from 1759 shows the type of backgrounds Gainsborough combined with portraits should he have the time or inclination to finish them. His painting of his brother Humphrey, however, represents the unfinished look of many of Gainsborough’s works in this exhibition. Unlike the elaborate outfits popular at the time, Humphrey, a non-conformist minister, wears black and looks piously into the distance. Susan Gardiner, however, the daughter of his sister Susanna, has a tenser facial expression, perhaps caused by the boredom of posing for too long.

Later in his career, Gainsborough painted his sister Sarah, also known as Sally, in highly fashionable attire. Being twelve years older than her brother, Sally is getting on in years, evidenced by her greying hair, partially hidden under a lace cap. Positioned next to her on the wall at the National Portrait Gallery is her husband, Philip Dupont. Unlike Sally, Gainsborough painted his brother-in-law wearing drab, unfashionable clothing, suggesting unfavourable feelings between the two men.

Other paintings of members of Gainsborough’s large family include his father John, the postmaster of Sudbury; his cousin Henry Burrough, the vicar of Wisbech; his brother John, also known as Scheming Jack due to his money-making ways, his sister Susanna; and Susanna’s son Edward. Interestingly, the portrait of an unnamed youth referred to as The Pitminster Boy, is also included amongst the family portraits. The boy would have worked as a servant for the artist, responsible for carrying painting equipment whenever Gainsborough desired to paint en plein air. During the 18th century, the term “family” was much broader than today’s sense, encompassing non-blood relations, servants and other members of the household.

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Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Wife 1777

In 1746, Gainsborough married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of Henry Somerset-Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort (1707-1745). Margaret and Gainsborough’s relationship was not at its best for the majority of their lives, however, it improved in later years. Most portraits of Margaret were produced in the latter period and Gainsborough began gifting Margaret a small painting of herself annually on their wedding anniversary.

In all her portraits, Margaret is fashionably dressed, such as the 1777 painting produced for her 50th birthday where she wears a black mantilla. In this particular artwork, Gainsborough sits his wife in the pose of a classic statue of Pudicity, the goddess of modesty and chastity, or wifely virtue.

Initially, the married couple lived in Sudbury, but in 1752, they moved to Ipswich along with their two daughters, Mary (1750-1826), named for her deceased older sister, and Margaret (1752-1820), named for her mother. During his time in the county town, Gainsborough began to receive more commissions for private portraits, however, the majority of these clients were local merchants and squires and, therefore, did not pay generously for the artworks.

Gainsborough’s situation gradually improved after moving to Bath, the largest city in Somerset, where he was inspired by the paintings of Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Gainsborough admired the Flemish baroque painter so much, viewing his paintings as examples of perfection. Reportedly, Gainsborough’s final words on his deathbed in 1788 were “van Dyck was right”.

Whilst in Bath, Gainsborough began to attract a more fashionable clientele, thus his financial situation began to recover. He began submitting paintings to the Society of Arts exhibition in London, now known as the Royal Academy of Arts, of which he was a founding member along with Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Whilst these exhibitions gave him national recognition, Gainsborough eventually broke away from the Royal Academy, unhappy with the ways in which his paintings were being displayed.

The Gainsborough family’s final move was to London in 1774, where they resided in Schomberg House, Pall Mall, in which he held his first private exhibition in 1784. Whilst continuing to enjoy landscape painting, Gainsborough’s portraits were now of some of the most elite people in the country. These included Johann Christian Bach (1735-82), the youngest son of the famous composer, George III (1738-1820) and Charlotte, the Queen Consort (1744-1818).

Of all his family members, none feature so much in this exhibition than his daughters Mary and Margaret. From young children to independent ladies, Gainsborough documents the changes in their appearance as they grow up, the same way a parent would record their child’s progress with a camera today. Mostly, the girls are shown together, suggesting they got on amicably.

The earliest painting of the two girls together is the lifesize The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly. Set in the light of the summer evening, it is a representation of childhood spontaneity. The landscape in the background almost looks otherworldly, suggesting that in their young minds they are in a fairytale world rather than their back garden. The youngest daughter Margaret, who would have been three or four years old at the time, reaches out to touch a butterfly. Mary, on the other hand, tries to pull her sister away, noticing that the butterfly is perched on a prickly thistle. Perhaps, being older, Mary is more aware of the world around her than Margaret.

Other paintings of the young girls remain unfinished, such as the one their father began in 1759. Also known as The Artist’s Daughters playing with a Cat, the cat in question is hard to see, the outline is only faintly drawn in. Another unfinished portrait of Mary and Margaret shows the older of the two adjusting the other’s hair. Although Gainsborough is remarkably observant in his oil painting, the picture was damaged after being cut in half, trimmed and wrongly reassembled by a Victorian collector. Rather than being eye to eye, Mary would originally have been taller than her younger sister.

Gainsborough was lucky to have two such willing child models to paint during his early career. As well as portraits in general, Gainsborough experimented with a genre known as fancy painting. This was a type of 18th-century art that portrayed scenes of everyday life but with components of imagination or storytelling. Gainsborough’s fancy paintings usually involved peasant or beggar children, for example, the portrait of Margaret dressed up as a gleaner picking grain in the fields. Similarly to the previous painting, this one was cut in half and the section containing Mary, who presumably was also dressed as a farm worker, has been lost.

As the girls got older, Gainsborough worried about their economic security and tried to get them interested in landscape painting so that they could make a living. Although neither girl became a painter, one portrait of them shows that they were encouraged to practice drawing. In The Artist’s Daughters at their Drawing, the adolescent sisters retain some of the child-like facial features but their fashionable clothing suggests they are getting ever closer to maturity. This painting was also a compositional experiment for Gainsborough who originally painted Margaret facing her sister. A ghostly figure of this first attempt is beginning to show through the top layer of paint.

By the end of the exhibition, Mary and Margaret Gainsborough have grown into beautiful women and, although they did not fulfil their father’s dream of becoming painters, lived independently from their parents. A full-length painting shows them as fashionable women of society. Mary, perhaps being older, wears the grander dress, however, Margaret’s clothing is also of good quality. Dogs in paintings are often used to represent fidelity and no doubt this was Gainsborough’s aim in this image. The sisters remained loyal to each other throughout their whole lives. Margaret never married and Mary’s marriage to the oboeist Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800), an associate of her father, only lasted a disastrous few months. As a result, Mary developed severe mental health problems and was looked after by Margaret for the rest of their lives.

Throughout Gainsborough’s career, he only took on one apprentice, Gainsborough Dupont (1754-97), the eldest son of his sister Sarah. Beginning in 1772, Dupont began working for Gainsborough and continued to do so until the latter’s death in 1788. Dupont was a student of the Royal Academy schools and his artwork is similar in style to his uncle. It is thought that Dupont finished a few of Gainsborough’s paintings.

Inspired by van Dyck’s paintings and the style of dress worn during the 17th century, Gainsborough painted his teenaged apprentice in a silk blue outfit similar to those painted by his hero. Critics looked on this painting favourably claiming it to be an example of modern painting at its finest. Philip Thicknesse (1719-92), a British author and friend of Gainsborough, announced the painting was “more like the work of God than man.”

Gainsborough painted another portrait of his apprentice after he had been accepted by the Royal Academy schools in which he looks like a fashionably dressed young man. Although it is not a finished work of art, it is one that Gainsborough was particularly pleased with. Before he died, he placed the portrait on his easel as if to say that was what he wished to be remembered for.

As well as portraits of his family, Gainsborough produced a few of himself, including an early attempt of himself wearing a tricorn hat. It is interesting to see how he ages, or at least how Gainsborough sees himself at different ages. Without photographs, it is impossible to determine how he truly looked, however, the exhibition includes a portrait of the artist by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), which suggests Gainsborough captured a good likeness.

Similarly to present day family albums, Gainsborough also produced paintings of his pets. Titled Tristram and Fox, although whether this is the correct title is debatable, Gainsborough produced remarkably realistic depictions of two of the family pets. Fox, a spitz, sits on the left and is the more dominant of the two dogs, which may say something about his character. Tristram, on the other hand, a spaniel, is slightly hidden due to his dark colouring.

Art historian Michael Rosenthal (b1950) describes Gainsborough as “one of the most technically proficient and, at the same time, most experimental artists of his time.” Unfortunately, Gainsborough believed he had not reached his true potential, as he explained to Sir Joshua Reynolds on his deathbed shortly before he died from terminal cancer. Gainsborough wished his paintings to be judged in comparison to the standard of van Dyck, which blinded him to his own talent.

The National Portrait Gallery shows the British painter from a new and unique perspective. Rather than concentrating on skill, style or life achievements as many other exhibitions do, the NPG has created a much more personal display. As well as being able to appreciate his artwork, visitors are introduced to the artist himself and his family. It tells the story of Thomas Gainsborough’s life, both his career and life at home.

With a five star rating from more than one major newspaper, Gainsborough’s Family Album is a must-see for 18th-century art lovers. Focusing on portraits, the artist’s landscape talents also shine through. Although the exhibition lacks Gainsborough’s most famous works, there are enough paintings of extraordinary beauty to make up for this.

Gainsborough’s Family Album will be showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 3rd February 2019 in the Wolfson Gallery. Tickets cost £14 but members of the gallery may visit for free.

The Great Spectacle

250 Years of the Summer Exhibition

“There shall be an Annual Exhibition of Paintings. Sculptures and Designs, which shall be open to all artists of distinguished merit”

Simultaneously seen as a “monster”, a “farrago”, a “delight” and a “triumph”, the Royal Academy is celebrating its 250th Summer Exhibition since 1769, a few months after the Academy was founded with permission of King George III on 10th December 1768. Considered to be the most democratic art exhibition in the world, the RA has gone to town with the anniversary celebration, decorating the nearby streets with flags designed by some of the Academicians: Grayson Perry, this year’s curator, Cornelia Parker, Rose Wylie and Joe Tilson.

 

 

The Summer Exhibition contains a mish-mash of artwork of all genres produced by artists working today. Although it is impossible to give it a theme – Grayson Perry has titled it Art Made Now – it is safe to say that the exhibits fall into the “contemporary” or “modern” category. Many people turn their noses up, unable to appreciate what they see because they “don’t understand it”. Nonetheless, the RA attracts thousands of visitors every summer who walk around saying things such as “that is clever” or “I like that one”, although, whether they are being serious is another matter.

“You go into the Summer Show and it’s a huge tumble-dryer of art swirling around you.”
– Grayson Perry RA

The RA Summer Exhibition was not always as varied as it is today; at the beginning, the “contemporary art” displayed is now considered traditional or masterpieces. Running concurrently with the Show is another major exhibition The Great Spectacle, which explores the history of the Summer Exhibition, or Annual Exhibition as it was originally called. The first exhibition in 1769 contained works from the founding members, including Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), Benjamin West (1738-1820) and RA President Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Only running for a month, the show attracted approximately 14,000 visitors, a phenomenal amount for a new enterprise in the 18th-century.

Typical of the Georgian era, the first few exhibitions showed examples of portraiture and histories presented in the standard style that was taught in art schools, influenced by the Renaissance. The curators of The Great Spectacle have selected the works that they believe have had the strongest impact on the Annual/Summer Exhibition over the years, to provide visitors with a “chronological walk” through the changing themes and conventions in both art and British society.

 

 

The Royal Academy’s first president, Joshua Reynolds was known for his full-length portraits. Although portraiture was common during the 18th and preceding centuries, Reynolds stood out for his striking poses and literary motives. For him, painting likenesses of his sitters was not just about vanity. For example, in Maria Marow Gideon and Her Brother, William, whilst Maria sits with her head turned towards the viewer, her brother strikes a nonchalant pose, his attention solely focused on his sister. In Reynold’s portrait of Joanna Leigh (1776), he shows her inscribing the name of her husband into the tree in front of her, referencing a scene from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), one of two women to be included amongst the Founding Members, the only female members to be elected until the 20th-century, also excelled at portrait painting. However, the example of her work shown in The Great Spectacle is a grand history painting titled Hector Taking Leave of Andromache (1768), which depicts a scene from Homer’s Iliad. Hector is saying goodbye to his wife and baby son, Astyanax, completely unaware that this will be his final farewell – Hector is heading off to war and will not live to see the end.

 

 

The beginning on the 19th-century saw noticeable changes in the style of artwork exhibited. In 1790, the fifteen-year-old Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) exhibited in the Annual Exhibition for the first time. Rather than painting portraits or histories, Turner preferred seascapes, often blurring the colours of the land, sea and sky. He also introduced watercolour as a respectable medium, which had previously been considered unprofessional. He received mixed reviews and critics remarked upon the small scale of his canvases that were dwarfed by the much larger paintings of the other Members. Instead of causing his work to be overlooked, the diminutive size caught people’s attention, allowing visitors to study and comment on the details: “the sun is positively shining.”

The appeal of landscape painting was a result of the many wars in which Britain was involved. The breath-taking scenes, such as St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, were symbols and reminders of what the soldiers were fighting for. Unfortunately, the increase in landscape painters created tension amongst members of the RA, particularly between Turner and John Constable (1776-1837). The two artists were always in competition with each other to produce the most noteworthy painting.

 

 

Another artistic development of the early 19th-century was the arrival of “genre painting”. These revealed scenes of everyday life including those of common people, not only the upper and middle classes seen in earlier works. The walls of the Academy were soon full of dirty urchins, lowly family homes and bustling marketplaces, topics that were previously taboo amongst the well-dressed exhibition-goers. One example is the Scottish painter David Wilkie’s (1785-1841) Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch, showing a slightly inebriated crowd celebrating the decisive coalition victory of the Battle of Waterloo (1815). William Powell Frith (1819-1909) also produced a number of genre paintings. His depiction of the crowds at a private view of the Annual Exhibition is positioned at the beginning of The Great Spectacle, later, his painting Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside) reveals a whole host of people of different status.

 

tumblr_m4827tfy0b1qggdq1In 1840, the Royal Academy Schools admitted its youngest ever student, the eleven-year-old John Everett Millais (1829-96). Less than a decade later, his genre painting Isabella (1848-9) was displayed at the Annual Exhibition, revealing the skill and tuition he had received by the RA teachers. This painting, however, is rather significant in the timeline of the history of art due to one small segment. On the bench that Isabella is sitting on are the initials PRB. At the time, critics did not know what this stood for, yet it would soon become clear. In 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded, a group of artists who rejected the teachings of the Royal Academy believing the classical poses and compositions students were encouraged to produce were a corrupting influence. The group particularly despised Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom they nicknamed “Sir Sloshua”. Ironically, Millais was elected as President of the RA in 1896, however, died of throat cancer later that year.

Being part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood did not prevent artists from submitting works to the Annual Exhibition. Millais’ two paintings My First Sermon and My Second Sermon were both included, which expressed two opposing attitudes about going to church. In both paintings, the little girl, Millais’ daughter Effie, is dressed in her Sunday best, seated on a pew in a church. In the first scene, Effie is fully focused and engaged with the sermon, whereas, in the second, she has fallen asleep. Previous artists would never have dared to tackle such controversial themes.

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The Roll Call – Elizabeth Butler, 1874

From the PRB onwards, artists became radically honest in their artwork. Rather than paint beautiful images or portraits that people wanted to see, they began painting what could actually be seen, the truth. None is more poignant than Elizabeth Butler’s (née Thompson, 1846-1933) The Roll Call showing the surviving soldiers from the Grenadier Guards during the Crimean War. Instead of smartly dressed, respectable heroes, the artist revealed the horrors of war through their collapsed, exhausted states. The Roll Call, the first of its kind, needed to be guarded by a policeman due to its popularity amongst exhibition-goers. Later, Queen Victoria insisted on purchasing the painting and it still remains part of the Royal Collection today.

It was unfortunate that there were no policemen around on 4th May 1914 to protect John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) painting of the writer Henry James (1843-1916) from being attacked with a meat cleaver. The Suffragette Mary Wood smuggled the weapon into the Summer Exhibition and slashed the painting with a cry of “votes for women”, in protest of art by men being more highly valued than those by women.

The year 1914 sparked the beginnings of turbulent times for the RA. Although the Summer Exhibitions continued through the First World War, there was a significant drop in visitors, resulting in a financial struggle for the Academy. To make matters worse, the Academy was hit by a bomb in 1917, completely destroying Gallery IX. When the war ended, the first ever poster advertising the Summer Exhibition was produced in the hopes of enticing visitors back to the gallery – it worked. Examples of posters from the past century are included in The Great Spectacle.

 

The end of the First World War also resulted in the right for women (aged 30 and over) to vote. Although women had been involved with the RA, two of whom were founding members, they had mostly been shunned from the Academy. In 1922, the RA elected its first female Associate Member, Annie Swynnerton (1844–1933), but it was not until 1936 when it named the first woman to be a full Member since Kauffman and Moser in 1768. Laura Knight (1877-1970) was honoured with this position and her painting Lamorna Birch and his Daughters received mixed reviews from critics.

After the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was elected Honorary Academician Extraordinary. To date, Churchill is the only person to ever hold this title. Unbeknownst to some, Churchill had submitted a couple of paintings to the Summer Exhibition under the pseudonym David Winter.

 

The final rooms of The Great Spectacle resemble what parts of the Summer Exhibition looks like today. Post-WWII, the Academy accepted works from a number of the new art movements that were cropping up throughout the world. Peter Blake’s (b1932) Toy Shop was the first example of Pop Art in the Exhibition, which caused many people to begin questioning what “art” meant. Also, the year 1956 introduced the first non-painter President, Charles Wheeler (1892-1974). Although a previous President, Lord Leighton (1830-96), had produced sculptures, he was primarily a painter; Wheeler, on the other hand, was solely a sculptor.

By the 1990s, the Royal Academy was seeing more contemporary art than ever before. In 1997, Tracey Emin’s (b1963) re-upholstered chair There’s a lot of money in chairs was exhibited at the Summer Exhibition, a complete contrast to the types of art shown at the original shows. Tracey Emin later became a Royal Academician as well as a number of other contemporary artists.

The final artwork in The Great Spectacle is Cornelia Parker’s (b1956) Stolen Thunder III, which certainly challenges the meaning of “art”. Since 1865, red dots have been used to indicate that an artwork has been sold; Parker photographed an example containing numerous red dots, digitally removed the artwork from the frame, and submitted the resulting photograph to the Exhibition. She then photographed her own image, complete with new red dots, and submitted that the following year. Every year since, she has presented a similar outcome; one can be seen in the current Summer Exhibition.

As Academicians, Emin, Parker and other artists, such as David Hockney (b1937), can forego the selection process and exhibit their work in the Summer Exhibition. Hockney has several wall-sized paintings on display this year, which are detectable by his very unique style.

 

If Sir Joshua Reynolds could see the Royal Academy now, would he be pleased? Probably not. No longer are the traditional art styles of 18th and 19th centuries submitted to the Academy. Instead of fighting to produce the best work, artists are determined to create something unique in order to stand out amongst the thousands of others. Often, it is not what an artwork looks like, it is the artist’s intention and purpose that earns it a place in the Summer Exhibition. Nonetheless, as the current President Christopher Le Brun (b1951) points out, the RA was originally established to “promote the arts of design”, therefore, since everyone today has a different perception about what makes art “art”, it is only right that a mishmash of submissions makes it to the final show.

This year’s exhibition, the extra special 250th, is the largest thus far, spreading out over several galleries. It is also one of the brightest, colourful exhibitions the RA has ever produced. Often, art exhibitions are situated in dimly lit rooms so as not to damage the artworks, however, the Summer Exhibition is so light and spacious that it could almost be outside in daylight.

Although many people turn their noses up at “modern art”, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition receives more visitors than ever before, the record being more than 230,000. Since it is the Summer Exhibition’s anniversary, it is anticipated that this year will surpass the current record of attendees, setting a precedent for the next 250 years.

Both The Great Spectacle and the Summer Exhibition are open to the public until 19th August 2018. The former costs £14 (£16 with donation) per person and the Summer Exhibition costs £16 (or £18) plus an additional £3 for a catalogue of artwork. 

King and Collector

For the first time since the 17th century, a fraction of Charles I’s (1600-49) impressive collection of treasures is reunited in a phenomenal exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. It is thought that the Stuart king once amassed over 1500 paintings, which after his execution in 1649, were sold off and scattered across Europe. Thanks to his son and heir, Charles II, who incidentally has an exhibition of his own at the Queen’s Gallery, many of these were retrieved and reclaimed by the royal family. Charles I: King and Collector contain over 100 works including classical sculpture, Baroque paintings, miniatures and tapestries.

The fate of Charles I is largely known, however, his personal life and character often get overlooked. Charles was the second son and youngest surviving child of James VI of Scotland (later James I) and was not destined to become king. Unfortunately, his older brother Henry, the Prince of Wales died in 1612, making Charles heir apparent. Thirteen years later, Charles succeeded his father as king and his volatile reign began. As the king of Great Britain, Charles I angered many people by dissolving Parliament and taking complete control of the country. By 1642, the first of two civil wars had broken out between the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), and the Royalists. Seven years later, Charles was dead, having been beheaded in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace.

The Royal Academy puts Charles I’s execution to one side and concentrates on the man himself and his huge collection of artworks. At the time, Charles owned the best art collection in Europe and the pieces that remain in the Royal Collection are his greatest legacy. The exhibition begins by introducing a few of the painters that were working at the time of Charles’ reign. These include Anthony van Dyck ,(1599-1641), Peter Paul Rubens (1571-1640), and Daniel Mytens (1590 – 1647), whose self-portraits can be seen in the first gallery.

Two portraits by Van Dyck introduce visitors to the king and his queen, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), the daughter of Henri IV of France. The painting of King Charles is unusual in that it contains three portraits of the king, each facing a different direction: profile, face on, and half-profile. This painting was not made for display but rather to aid the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to produce a bust of the British king. Unfortunately, this sculpture was later lost in a fire. This painting, however, reveals a lot about the way Charles wished to be seen. It is clear from his clothing that he is a man of taste, yet his dreamy expression suggests an air of sensitivity.

Charles’ passion for art began before he became king and was greatly impacted by his travels to Madrid in 1623. The initial purpose of visiting Spain was to explore the possibility of marrying the Infanta Maria Anna, however, it quickly became apparent that this was never going to happen. Instead, Charles returned to England with a number of paintings and artworks. Many of these appear in this exhibition, including several he acquired from the continent later in life, in particular, the second century AD statue of the Greek goddess, Aphrodite.

Aphrodite or The Crouching Venus is one of several Roman marble copies of the lost Hellenistic sculpture. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and beauty who is depicted as a nude in a crouching pose with her hair over her left shoulder.

This was one of the most beautiful antiquities sourced in Mantua for the king. After Charles’ execution, the painter Peter Lely (1618-80) acquired the statue, however, returned it after the restoration of the monarchy. The Crouching Venus can usually be found at the British Museum where it has been on loan since 1963.

Another important artwork with Spanish connections is a large-scale oil painting by Rubens that was gifted to the king by the artist. Peace and War (c1630) was Ruben’s subliminal method of illustrating his hopes for peace between England and Spain. In the background, the Roman goddess Minerva can be seen pushing Mars, the god of war, whilst in the foreground, Pax, the goddess of Peace sits amidst a horn of plenty.

“The King prefers old paintings.” Letter from England to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, 11th July 1635

Many paintings in Charles’ collection were painted long before he was born. A considerable amount of artwork on display comes from the Renaissance era, both Northern and Italian. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who had been in service to Henry VIII (1491-1547) was a particular favourite. It is recorded that Charles I owned 44 works by Holbein, who predominantly painted portraits. The example in this exhibition, however, is a biblical scene taken from John 20:17. Noli me tangere (c1528) shows the risen Christ outside his tomb forbidding Mary Magdalene to touch him.

Nearby, another Biblical painting from the same era depicts Adam and Eve standing naked in the Garden of Eden after taking their forbidden bites from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This painting by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was sent by the Dutch states in an attempt to curry favour with the king. A number of paintings from Northern Europe were given to Charles as gifts, therefore, it cannot be certain whether he enjoyed these types of works. On the other hand, the sheer number of paintings from the Italian Renaissance, which fills two galleries of the exhibition, imply that the king had a passion for older works.

Biblical scenes were popular amongst Renaissance painters, therefore, it is unsurprising to find several more religious artworks in Charles’ collection. One of particular note is The Supper at Emmaus (c1534) by the Italian painter Titian (1488-1576). Charles acquired this painting in the 1620s shortly before becoming king. It illustrates part of the New Testament recorded in Luke 24:30-31 where Jesus is breaking bread with two disciples after his resurrection. This, however, is not the reason for its significance, it is the techniques of the artist rather than the subject that matters most in this exhibition.

As those who choose to pay for an audio guide will discover, works by Titian influenced many later artists, including Van Dyck who became the Principalle Paynter in Ordenarie to their Majesties in 1632. In the background of Titian’s painting is a large column, which can be seen over Jesus’ shoulder. The positioning of this column is deliberate because it draws the eye to the principal character in the painting, thus denoting his importance. Van Dyck uses this artistic trick in a few of his portraits of Charles I and the royal family. Similarly, William Dobson (1611-46) does the same in a portrait of Charles II, indicating his importance, even at the young age of twelve.

As the king’s painter, Van Dyck was responsible for many of the portraits of members of the royal family. Born in the Flemish city Antwerp, Anthony van Dyck was a teen prodigy who found his feet as an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens. It was during a stay in Italy where Van Dyck encountered paintings by Titian and filled many sketchbooks with drawings based on these. One of these books is displayed in the final gallery of the exhibition.

Van Dyck quickly built up a reputation as a portraitist and was sought out by many aristocrats throughout Europe. King Charles I was one of his many admirers and enticed Van Dyck to come to England with promises of a knighthood, a bountiful salary and a studio in Blackfriars, London. Although he preferred to be in mainland Europe, Van Dyck impressed the British nobility with his impressive paintings.

For the first and possibly only time, the four largest and most important paintings Van Dyck produced of Charles I are on display at the centre of the exhibition. The curators at the Royal Academy have done an excellent job at positioning these tall canvases so that if visitors stand in the centre of the Central Hall, they can turn 360 degrees and take in all four paintings. Three of these focus on the king and his passion for the hunting field, however, the other is a family portrait, featuring his wife and two eldest children.

The first piece Van Dyck was commissioned to produce for the king was the family portrait, which became known as The Great Peece (1632). Charles and Henrietta Maria are both seated on throne-like chairs whilst their pet dogs play on the floor at their feet. The queen holds the baby Mary and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, clings to his father’s leg. This may appear a casual, informal portrait depicting the foursome as a family rather than rulers of the country, however, there are many subliminal signs that suggest the opposite.

To the king’s right-hand side sits the royal crown atop a red velvet cloth, which indicates Charles’ status. Behind him, in the distance, are the buildings of Westminster, communicating the king’s role in politics. Both of these elements point to Charles’ importance, however, Van Dyck’s use of a column inspired by Titian, is almost an arrow pointing to the most significant person in the painting.

The remaining three paintings show Charles I outside of his family circle. In two of these, Charles is mounted on a horse: Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine (1633) and Charles I on Horseback (1637-8). Equestrian paintings were an emblem of power and Charles wished to appear to the public as a strong ruler. The horses are large and muscular with manes that are not dissimilar to their rider’s hair. Van Dyck uses the strength of these animals to stress the powerful position of the king.

The final large painting, Le Roi à la Chasse or Charles I in the Hunting Field (1636) reflects more of the king’s personality than his position of power. Rather than sitting aside his horse, Charles stands at its head striking a nonchalant pose with a traditional English landscape behind him. Although Charles may not be wearing the royal armour as in the previous two paintings, he is still dressed as befits his status, complete with broad-brimmed hat, an appearance that would become a memorable look for the king.

It is clear from this exhibition that Charles I had an eye for artwork, however, he was not the only one. Henrietta Maria sought out and commissioned a fair share of the collection, particularly the Italian Baroque paintings, which her husband appeared not to be as fascinated with. Like her husband, Henrietta Maria was drawn to religious scenes as well as the occasional Greek or Roman myth. Many of the paintings owned by the queen were commissioned for particular rooms in her apartments, including the Queen’s House in Greenwich.

The Queen’s House was originally going to be a gift for James I’s wife, however, she died before its completion. Henrietta Maria, who received the house as a present from Charles I, made the building’s decoration her personal project. One painter she particularly admired was Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) who had once worked for her mother in Paris. Henrietta Maria persuaded the Italian painter to come to England where he decorated one of the ceilings at the house in Greenwich. He also completed canvases for the queen, including Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1630-2), which only returned to the Queen’s House last year.

Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife is based on a scene from the Book of Genesis (39:7-12) when the Pharaoh’s wife attempts to entice Joseph into bed, who at this time is the captain of Potiphar’s guard. Although Joseph refuses the woman, she uses his cloak, which in the painting she is holding on to whilst Joseph makes his escape, to claim that he had seduced her. The rich colours, smooth skin tone, an abundance of fabric, and the use of chiaroscuro (dramatic lighting, see Caravaggio) that Gentileschi includes in the painting are an indication of Henrietta Maria’s tastes.

Visitors who have also been to the Queen’s House may also recognise the final painting in the exhibition: Landscape with St George and the Dragon (1630-5) by Peter Paul Rubens. This was not one of Henrietta Maria’s acquisitions but a gift to the king from the artist. It is believed that Rubens produced this landscape in honour of England after his year as an English diplomat. It is a depiction of the famous English folktale where Saint George defeats the bloodthirsty dragon, however, in the background can be seen buildings alongside the River Thames. It is also suggested that Saint George has been deliberately painted to resemble King Charles I.

The paintings mentioned above are only a handful of the marvellous artworks that Charles I had in his reputable collection. Within this exhibition are the nine paintings that make up The Triumph of Caesar (1484-92) by the 15th-century artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), and four tapestries showing the Acts of the Apostles. There is also a room devoted to miniatures and small items that were part of the Whitehall Cabinet. These would not have been on public view, therefore, give an insight into Charles’ life behind doors. One item worth noting is the tiny bronze statue of Charles I on horseback by Hubert Le Sueur (1580 – 1658); this is a model of the version erected in Trafalgar Square.

As reported in The Times, the RA exhibition Charles I: King and Collector is “a landmark exhibition. You will not see its likes again. Don’t miss your chance.” This is a very accurate opinion, it is indeed a landmark exhibition and these paintings will never be all in the same place again. Most importantly, the paintings on show are some of the best to have been produced prior to and during the early 1600s. It may be expensive to enter, but after two hours of walking through the galleries, you will agree that it is worth the price.

Charles I: King and Collector is organised in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and remains on show until 15th April 2018. Prices are £18 although concessions are available. 

 

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.