Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

A return to Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: Low Countries and Germany

We made our first visit to KHM at Easter and we managed but a fraction of the artworks (largely the Habsburg’s Italian collection). So we went back to see the work of some of my favourite 15th and 16th Century artists.

Let me start with Valckenborth whose series of scenes from the months of the year. Five are in Vienna. They are hung really badly (high), one has to take a photo to study them; but the snow on this one is almost 20th Century impressionism.

Talking of snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder made his career out of depicting ordinary people in the landscape. His show scenes are always cold, but equally, there is always people enjoying themselves. Skating is a particular outdoor fun activity, but here there are also hunters. For some, I assume, that is worth getting out of bed for.

There are some 12 Bruegel the Elder’s paintings in this collection (more than a quarter of all those that survive in the world). All that I have seen in various museums are always a thrill. Though the subject matter of another winter scene, “The Massacre of the Innocents” is not a positive thrill. It recreates the biblical scene of Herod’s infanticide in the low country winter landscape.

Perhaps Bruegel’s most recognised painting is his depiction of the Tower of Babel (1563). What is remarkable about this picture is its encyclopaedic detail and depiction of considerable technical and craft skills. All made up of course.

This period is great if you like ghouls, demons, witches and hell. H Francken the Elder’s wonderful Hexenküchen (witch cooking) is a wonderful example of the genre. I particularly like the church in background as a reminder of some sort of duality. But the witches surely win? I am not quite sure what is going to happen to the naked individual on the far right, but I suspect it is not good.

Next up, Hell. I rather like David III. Ryckaert’s “Dulle Griet” (on a Raid before the Entrance to Hell). I have to say I am not quite sure what is going on but the thrashing woman seems to be managing the fantastical collection of ghouls. Difficult to know how long she was going to keep them off.

Here is another great depiction of Hell. This time from Herri me de Bles (somewhere around 1540). It is circular – maybe Hell is circular? – and the hellish colours are brilliant. It does not look so bad relative to other depictions. It is almost Boschian in the strange creatures that are there. Maybe it is some sort of subterranean eco-system? It is not the usual hellfire. Survivable, maybe?

Next up is Man at a Window by Samuel van Hoogstraten. Hoogstraten, apparently, specialised in trompe l’oeil – translated as “deceive the eye”. So we have a wonderfully painted window in a frame with a man’s head protruding from it. Forgive me, I am not entirely sure what the deception is in the literal reading. However, historically, Jews were not permitted to live in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna in the 16th Century. The man depicted may well be Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller who achieved permission to live there. The picture has a symbolism associated with looking into the forbidden district?

This being a Low Countries collection there is Rembradt, one of his many self-portraits (I am sure the Habsburgs would have been delighted to have The Nightwatch instead). However, there is this fantastic Vermeer, The Art of Painting. The model is Clio, the muse of history, who inspires and proclaims the art of painting in the old Netherlands. These can be seen on the maps with the provinces prior to their division into North and South.

Left is a picture that looked familiar and indeed it was. This is the work of Hans III. Jordaens entitled the Cabinet of Curiosities. I always feel that I may be developing a bit of cultural capital if I can draw a comparison.

 

There are a couple of depictions of stag  hunts in the collection. Actually, they look more like massacres in terms of scale (Lucas Cranach the  Younger, Stag Hunt of Elector John Hendrick). These are all Court commissions. Frederick of Saxony himself can be seen on the far left with Emperor Charles V. But the scale of the endeavour is troubling.

 

So there we are wandering around and there is a Holbein! Holbein, of course, was Henry VIII’s court painter who famously got sent out to paint potential wives for the King. Sometimes too complementary for the king’s liking. This is his portrait of the elegant Jane Seymoor.

By contrast, Albrecht Dürer portrait of the semi-naked grinning mature woman was unlikely to charm a king. It is unclear what this picture is about as the woman grins with her bag of money. Maybe it is a picture of seduction or avarice. Maybe Dürer’s patron wanted to caricature his then wife, the wealthy Dorothea Landauer? I am a shade confused on this, but whatever the meaning, older people are always more interesting sitters.

One thing I  have learned to do is not to focus always on the central characters. As a form of communication, the whole canvass carries messages, some more interesting than others. For example, Bernaert van Orley’s Alterpiece of St Mattewand Thomas. St. Thomas is being martyred. This involves walking on hot coals, accepting a poisoned chalice and, of course, being thrown in an oven (left). I think I will stick to mortal being-hood.

Finally, a branch of feminism that I was not previously aware of. Otto van Veen’s Persian Women, depicts a scene from Plutarch’s Brave Women (new to me, I have to say). They revealed their nethers to shame the men from fleeing in the face of the enemy. I am not quite sure how that works, but apparently it was a great victory in the end.

 

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University of Brighton School of Art Degree Show 2018 pt 2: collage, nature and protest

The exhibition has now been closed for a few weeks, time for me to write my second review (part 1 is here). Let me start with the work of Sola Olulode. Olulode is Nigerian and has produced her pictures using a representation of Adire – a regional indigo-dyeing technique. Essentially, these canvasses are collage. Look closely and the texture is clear. With four of these enormous canvasses enveloping the viewer in the gallery, the space is discernibly uplifting. They are like major keys in music.

Not dissimilar in terms of texture is the work of Dannielle Scott (right). Scott presented a series of portraits, each rather distorted. She incorporates the technique of Julian Schnabel, an artist new to me, who painted on to velvet, a most unlikely canvass? The first layer is an undercoat of acrylic which prevents subsequent layers from soaking into the fabric. But there are also unpainted areas which allow the fabric to show through – black, red and blue.

And so on to some discussion about art itself. This show’s artists are a largely a digital generation. Fine art as a discipline seems to me like doing social science with fountain pens and card indexes (I do admit to retaining the former). So to find a piece of work that explores this raised my level of interest. Rosie Burt (left) grapples with it through inserting “a diagrammatic language of the digital into scenes of nature…to explore the omnipresence within our modern society and our detachment from our once ‘natural’ environment”. Now there is clearly a lot going on in that statement. The pronoun “our”, “omnipresence” and “detachment” are open to challenge. But I take it as an attempt to raise awareness of those factors through visually stunning paintings of contrived nature.

Finally, the pallet protest (right). It is tough for students with fees, living costs, work and the desire and pressure to study. Though there was in this case additionally a discussion around the curriculum. Mhairi Lockett’s pallet is an unlikely graduate-show entry. It was made to make a particular point but increased in significance after the University, sensitive to the message, put it in safe storage. I have a bit of a soft spot for pallets having had a period myself of austerity back in the 1980s. I collected them having seen the Channel 4 programme called Low Tech based on the challenge of making stuff from discarded materials, largely found in skips. Pallets were a key source of wood, though the presenter never said how difficult they were to take apart. The barbed nails fail to defeat only the most persistent.

 

 

 

 

University of Brighton School of Art Degree Show 2018 pt 1: dystopia/utopia

This year’s review of the degree show is split into three parts: dystopia/utopia, collage, nature and protest.

The academic year of 2017/18 has been a tough one both internal and external to the students graduating this year. Externally, the world has turned progressively ugly. Artists have traditionally represented the ugliness of epochs in all of art’s forms: painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, etc. It would have been surprising if this year’s graduates had not reflected the external world in their work for this show. A disclaimer here: some of the artists I mention here may dispute my classification; but in the accompanying panels for much of the work, dystopia/utopia kept appearing.

So, for example, Judyta Sokolowska’s work (left) investigates the represention of mould, decay and rotting flesh on canvas. This is done, admits Sokolowska, because of her sense of our disconnection from nature and recognition of its vulnerability. In the same room one finds the work of Harley Redford (right). Redford’s style, we are told, “conveys the abyss of my longing”. Abyss is a dystopia-type word, even if the self-penned panel continues “the erratic nature of my brush strokes contrast the seductive and more finished presence of the nude male figures in my images. They have the effect of luring you into their own fetishised utopia”. I have to say that I am not entirely sure what that means. But the stylised nude males did it for me.

And so to a series of three pictures entitled Endenic by Angelica Pownal (left). At first sight, Pownal’s work is familiar (forest), warm, albeit a shade surreal. Indeed, she says of her work “while my images don’t project any evil, they entice a sadness within the viewer that mirrors the disappointment we all feel as part of the human condition”. A curious thought. Projecting on to us a possibly unwarranted disappointment seems presumptuous. But her method of progressively distorting her original images (using photoshop) beyond recognition is bound to result in alienation and a sense of foreboding.

For my next choice, I’m afraid I have not recorded the artist’s name. However, her artefacts have been created under the title “Bohemian Allegory of Slavic Beginnings of my Journey through Pattern and Form”. The journey in question is the transformation of what was Czechoslovakia between 1973 and 1993. As the artist says, it was a time of communist nomenclatura, propaganda, brutalist architecture in a “post-Prague Spring chaos…before the velvet revolution”. It was an “unsettling” time. The form has, she notes, “hidden meanings”. Whatever they are, they unsettled me. Incidentally, if anyone knows the name of artist, please tell me.

Next comes the graphic design work of Bertie Cloutman. Cloutman’s work, if I understand it correctly, focuses on political unrest around certain policies and represents it as some sort of dystopian future in the style of war propaganda. Mr Cloutman has certainly achieved his aim. I was curious, however, about his mixing of eras and styles and whether these were his view of our collective future or were just his sense of nostalgia.

This has been the year of our waking up to the surveillance capabilities of states (and increasingly corporations). As if were not sufficiently paranoid already, Tom Cafferkey elevates our “sense of fear” with his quirky but sinister cardboard-sculptured CCTV cameras (right).

Next I turn to the work of Yasmine Amanda Ansari (left) who has catalogued the actions of “The Save Movement” dedicated to bearing witness to the journey animals make to the slaughterhouse. As someone who has spent much of his life doing just the same, Ansari’s work is poignant. The photographs are haunting. It is not just the facing death, which my own witnessing tells me is clear to the animals themselves, but the dreadful journey there (physically in trucks, but also metaphorically). I always found the pigs to be particularly aware.

Let me move on to utopias – or more probably the natural world and our place in it. The work that potentially generated the most laughs was the Heath Robinson/Wallace and Gromit presentation by Peter McConnon (right). The premise here is flight. McConnon is a former mechanic with the urge to fly. Most of us would buy an airline ticket, but McConnon seems to want to do it in a bird-like fashion with flapping wings. He creates a collection of overtly mechanical and unnecessary devices ranging from a mechanical tooth brush, a food stirrer and a bath scrub. There is an accompanying video of McConnon in some sort of farm environment living the life – there is one scene of him sat in a bath being towed by a driverless tractor.

Next up – my favourite from the textile exhibition – is the work of Ella McGarry. Taking her influence from the work of Charles Darwin and in particular the Galapagos Islands, she has imposed some stunning prints on to swimwear (left), shawls and handkerchiefs.

Not dissimilar is the work of Rosie Rara-Avis with her collection entitled “Planet Bloom”. Rara-Avis is clear about her objective “the collection is derived as a reaction to the world we live in an age of pending doom”. That is first-order pessimism. From that though comes beauty captured in a couple of wonderfully printed jackets (right).

Finally, two further artists – Antonia Packham and Robyn Edwards. Both create beautiful objects from detritus. Edwards’ work is entitled “Plastic Planet: An Exploration of Plastic Waste Through Jewellery” (plastic waste is a recurring theme). She has created a number of exquisite items – a little bulky for me (necklaces and earrings, left). But listening to some of the other visitors, there was a collective approval of her designs.

Packham’s collection of artefacts is entitled “Mining the Antropocene”. She creates this material called Plastiglomerate which is a stone formed of sand, wood, shells (natural stuff from the shoreline) cemented together in molten plastic (unnatural stuff from the shoreline). The artefacts are great. My favourite was the candle holders (right). I’m not entirely sure about the sustainability of process by which they were made,  but there you go.

 

 

 

Das Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

This museum and art gallery is just about as outrageous as it gets. The only concession to normality is the cloak room. Everything else screams empire, wealth, kleptocracy and vanity. It’s great.

Recently, our favourite art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon, made a series of four documentaries about the British Royal Collection. It’s a familiar story of European royals, they have all used art for propaganda, as a store of value, diplomatic gesturing and self-gratification. The Habsburgs were no different. Their collection is equally outrageous, but at least the Austrian Bundes Republic now owns the collection and a grand building in which to display it.

David Teniers’ fantastic picture of Leopold Wilhelm (1614-62) inspecting his haul of 51 Italian works from the collection of the Duke of Hamilton in Brussels (above left) just captures the obscenity – or scale economies – of art buying and collecting. It is simply my favourite picture in the Italian collection on show which took us 3 hours to view with as much respect that we could.

The curators enjoy juxtaposition. Some of which vaguely work. Others not. Putting Titian up against Picasso is an interesting one (above right). Titian’s intimate portrait of Pope Paul III (1546) was, I sense, intended to humanise him, without diminishing his stature as Pope. He sits. His hands and arms are almost close enough to touch. But not quite. By contrast, Picasso’s portrait of Carlotta Valdivia (painted, not surprisingly, in his blue period in Barcelona, 1904) is not accessible at all. She was not ostentatiously rich, but her pearl earring and cowl suggest more wealth than Picasso had at that time as a bohemian. The slight rosy colouring of her face suggests, apparently, a former physical beauty swept away by the years.

This flattery of sitters is not uncommon. In England, we know that Holbein, Henry VIII’s court painter, overdid it on Anne of Cleves before the King married her. Probably not a good idea. This overdoing is on display again with Titian’s second  portraits of Elisabeth d’este (1534) who looks amazingly good for her 60 years’. Good work.

Over the years we have learnt a lot about how to look at pictures and, indeed, what to look for. Andrew Graham-Dixon taught us to go for the detail. For example, Lazarus in, what is simply a landscape painting by Pieter Breugel. So, when viewing landscapes, it is the little detail that makes the difference. Take, for example, the view of Schönbrunn Palace gardens (1758/61) by Tintoretto (right). There are lots of court figures in the grounds. But, of course, to keep everything perfect, the groundsmen had to follow them with their rollers. And look closely (left), we can see them!

More recently, Waldemar Januszczak’s documentary about Mary Magdelene, has us always looking for her in depictions of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. To be honest, I’m not sure if I have found her at Jesus’ foot in The Lamentation of Christ by Savoldo (around 1513, right), but probably.

Another Graham-Dixon prompt is to look for Ghouls, particularly done by Germans. Now this one doesn’t quite qualify, but by goodness, that is one heck of a snake (Raphael in 1518) that St Margarete has to slay (left).

The Gods are always good value in 16 Century art. Venus and Adonis, in particular. Of course, Adonis is destined to be killed by a wild beast (Venus knows this because she has that most awkward of powers, the divine power of prediction). But when if comes to affairs of the flesh, this does not really matter. I trust that when one’s nipple is being squeezed (right), the future is of little concern. Veronese’s picture tries to warn us with storm clouds, but my eyes are elsewhere.

Tucked away in one of the small rooms off the main gallery is a series of four pictures about the seasons by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1566). Each one has a profile portrait to make the point. The portraits are entirely made up of non-human components – for want of a better word – such as fruits and, here (left), fish. They are extraordinary pictures. Peculiarly unsettling.

There are, of course, pictures that remind one of earlier times. My mother was particularly enamoured by the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. Delilah was a lot of a baddie, and not only took away Samson’s strength by cutting off his hair, but also had him blinded. My mother was keen for me to grow my hair, which I did, but I was never strong enough to push down a temple (top panel, right Tintoretto 1543).

Finally, there are some pictures that quite simply do not belong in this part of the collection. There’s a Turner, for goodness sake (another attempt at juxtaposition). There is also Bathers by Paul Cezanne (1890, left).

OK, we had no time for the huge collection of low countries art, Gustav Klimt and Dürer. We’re coming back, soon, to mop up.

Seville in December – Museo de Belles Artes

Take your passport for free entry into this wonderful example of a city gallery celebrating the work of its sons, if not artist daughters.

There is a lot of extraordinary medieval – largely religious – art here from the likes of José de Ribera, Juan de Valdés Leal, Taller de Zurbarán and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. But also some more contemporary work from the likes of José Garcia Ramos, Rafael Senet, Jose Villegas Cordero and Gonzalo Bilbao Martinez. There are some cameos by influential Flemish artists including Jan Brueghel de Velours, Pieter van Lint and Sebastian Vranckx. There’s also the odd German; namely, Lucas Cranach.
 
The building is a former monestery (left). It has two floors and an inner garden courtyard. The religous art tends to be about alterpieces. There’s plenty here with lots of virgins with child and grusome crucifixions. I recall Andrew Graham Dixon on his Art of Germany series that no one does ghouls better than the Germans. That may be true, but the Spanish and Flemish artists throw them in, too. Martin de Vos’, The Last Judgment (1570), has some pretty nasty ones dragging the sinners to their eternal damnation (right).
There’s a couple of paintings by 17th Century painter, Francisco Pacheco. His Portrait of an Elderly Lady and an Elderly Man (c1630) is chilling in its wizened-ness (left).
 
Alonso Vázquez’s The Last Supper (1588) has a wonderful sinister feel, notwithstanding Judas with his bag of money. There is something decidedly inedible on the table and some creepies on the floor. The apostles are muscular figures deeply concerned about the traitor amongst their number.
Maestro del Papagayo’s Holy Family (right) seems wholly mischievous. The child squeezes the nipple but is tempted by a grape! The symbolism is, I assume, fertility and the blood of Christ?
There is a lot of St Francis of Assissi going on in this gallery. For example, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Stigmatisation of St Francis (left) dating from c1645. More of Murillo’s wonderful work was in a special gallery where no cameras were allowed.
Another favourite son is Taller de Zurbarán. The gallery houses some rather large canvasses of saints; for example, St Anés with lamb (whom I know nothing about) and St Dorotea with fruit and flowers (both 1650, right). Dorotea was a legendary virgin martyr who may have lived in the 4th century. She is called a martyr of the Diocletianic Persecution.
Francisoco de Goya y Lucientes finds a place in this gallery as well as the cathedral. In the gallery, one finds his dark portraiture; for example, that of Canon José Duaso y Lastre (1824, left). This is the precursor to Goya’s black paintings, and you can see why.
 So, back to the Flemish artists, Jan Brueghel’s depiction of paradise with its paired animals, verdant backdrops and the odd naked Adam and Eve (right) delights in its detail and idealism.
This being a local museum, quite a bit of space is given over to paintings of dubious value. There are something like 8 canvasses by Domingo Martínez charting the route of a allegorical carriage through Seville in 1747 (left). It seems reminiscent of those major cavasses representing street scenes in Venice. Clearly important for the city but not necessarily for art. Though Martínez was very much a student of Murillo and the depictions are rare examples of secular art of the time.
 Talking of which, the more contemporary art occupies a few rooms on the second floor. Two things are really important in Seville. Flamenco and bull fighting. Both are represented in the collection, but not always as one might expect.
The dancing, for example, has a modesty about it; it is street flamenco. For example,Manuel Rodríguez De Guzman’s Baile en la taberne (right) and José Garcia Ramos’s Baile por bulerias (left). These both strike me as capturing the spontaneity of flamenco in Sevillian society. All you need is a spanish guitar (and someone to play it) a frilly frock, some shoes and maybe a male partner. And knowledge and passion, for I have no doubt that it is a technical art. Whilst I find flamenco myself to be rather dull to watch, I do not doubt its importance to the culture. Also nothing dies, unlike with the bullfighting.
The matadors are heroes. When one is lost, it is captured on canvas by the likes of José Villegas Cordero’s La Muerte del Maestro (1913, right).
Back to the real heroes, the people of the city. Part of the city’s wealth came from tobacco. Gonzalo Bilbao’s La Cigarreras (1915, below left) lets us into the working environment in one of the cigarette factories. It looks like a cathedral rather than a factory; it has all humanity in it.
Rafael Senet’s La Pescadora (1885 right) also draws on the lives of ordinary folk. The fisherwoman walks the beach with her large basket and exposes her feet as she tries to keep her dress from getting too wet.

Finally, I share, what is clear from our visit to Seville. The people love to dance and celebrate. Gustavo Bacarisas’s Sevilla en fiestas left (1915) captures this nicely with, what seems to be a night-time scene where the light captures three woman all dressed up with somewhere to go.

If you are in Seville and are looking for somewhere to go, this gallery is a gem.

University of Brighton Graduate Show 2017 – Fine Art

I have given quite a bit of attention this year to the 3-D objects. But the fine art remains the star attraction and it is fine indeed. As noted in my earlier post, I was a shade rushed, so my review is curtailed. Again, apologies to fine artists that I have not selected.

This year seems to me have been dominated by scale artwork. Big. There is also a good number of portraiture such as Jessica Zaydner’s work (above left). This is quite a face, despite its youth. There is something going on beyond the gaze, and I am not sure how good it is.

There is landscape as well, but not of the realist genre. The work of Bethany Carter is interesting here. Carter calls on influences from 1960s psychedelia to insist that we detach ourselves from our digital lives to think about the natural world. This psychedelic imagery spells out the interconnectivity between landscape and animals and what is natural anyway in the increasingly soiled environment “downtrodden” by human beings. Carter is asking a lot of questions in her work, not all of which I understand or agree with. But as a scale piece, A New Earth, works.

Next is the disconcerting work of Victoria Suvoroff (left). This piece belongs to her Phantasms show. Her work seeks to challenge gender’s social construction. The vehicle for doing this is to present body parts as phantasms (seen but not necessarily rooted in a physical reality). It is striking work.

Emily Alice Garnham’s work I picked out because of its allusions to one of my own favourite artists, Paul Nash. Nash drew on his experience of war to paint is often disembodied figures. Garnham draws from urban landscapes.

Working from photographs the finished work is not a depiction of an existing cityscape. Rather it is the creation of what she calls “an original utopian scape”. The green hue alludes to the interaction between nature and concrete.

Lucia Hamlin (left) admits to grappling with being brought up as a catholic. She nicely brings together colour, history/archaeology and superstition. The history, it seems, tells us that extended craniums were often seen as belonging to gods or God-like figures. She makes her figures deliberately offensive and immature “as a dig at the narrow-mindedness of religion, and to put across the idea that God has stopped caring and is now mocking the obsceneness and immorality of modern humanity”. Hamlin’s work is on canvas and also as 3-D structure suitable for sharing a selfie (right).

Finally, my PhD many years ago was about railways in the UK. The logo for British Railways is a design classic. Two lines with arrows oppositely directed brilliantly captured the purpose of the railways, particularly in its modernisation phase after WW2. An artist (whose name I could not find) has taken this logo and embedded it in something slightly bigger. I leave readers this year with the BR logo and the songbird (left). Naturally, my favourite piece.

 

University of Brighton Graduate Show 2017 – 3D design, textiles

Annually this show is a delight. There is always originality and discovery. I apologise to all students that I did not get to see the whole show – one needs a day of high stamina to get around all of the galleries. I had neither a full day nor stamina. But here are some of my highlights.

With regard to originality the garment on the right by Martina Stefkova Simeonova ticks many of the boxes. It is not a piece of art as I had first thought. It is very much a wearable garment. It is made of Lycra – so, probably not that easy to put together especially with bright orange stitching. The influence, according to Simeonova is vintage tennis gear. The skirt – which is probably not that practical on a tennis court – is pleated and held rigid by kebab sticks. Sensational.

Then there is the furniture. The example on the left is the work of Liam  O’Hagen Paul and is essentially cycle routes around Brighton. He argues that the journey is better than arrival. This may be youthful exuberance – as a keen youthful cyclist myself many years back I am sure I once felt the same – but if this is the collateral, then keep it up. I’d love this in my house.

And then this stunning chair. Probably not the most comfortable but beautifully made capitalising on the natural bends and imperfections of the wood. But more interestingly, perhaps, is the influence of the roof timbers of an old tithe barn. Another piece by the same furniture maker (left) illustrates this better. It is a cabinet, I think made of oak, and wonderfully arched like the tithe barn roof.

Ever wondered what a migraine looks like? I have to say that I haven’t only because I have never suffered from such pervasive pain. Jemima Bellamy has investigated the condition and has produced some visually representative jewellery that, as she argues, “challenges the visual and physical parameters to both alleviate and aggravate the migraine”. I am not sure exactly how it works, but the pieces are special (see right, for example).

Staying with the theme of health and illness, Ember Vincent represents her own experience of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME). These bowls are a fusion of ceramics and metals. Ultimately they represent the tendency of sufferers of ME and other illnesses to hide their “broken selves” behind tough exteriors. The utility of the bowls is not high. But they are wonderful.

There is always room for tea, I feel. Xufei Zhu undertook a study of Chinese and British cultural differences in relation to tea and life – in particular, contemporary living and its stresses. These are captured in her tea pots, cups and utensils. This foot shaped teaspoon is exquisite.

The next artefact to bowl me over was Teenie Connolly’s kingfisher. Made of reclaimed materials collected on walks between Brighton and Newhaven, they – and the complementary pots – represent the weaving undertaken by birds to make nests. She says that she has enjoyed a close relationship with birds in nursing a number back to health. Her underlying theme, however, is sustainability.

Next up is this extraordinary bowl made of desert ironwood and embellished with copper powder and epoxy resin. It has been precisely machined and sanded to 1200 gsm (I assume that is also precise). Because the wood is so dense it has a discrete functionality.

Finally in this section, I was beguiled by these lamps (left) by Darwin Simmonds. His theme encapsulates playfulness, childhood, fun and, ultimately, happiness. They are certainly uplifting in their bold colours and light emission.

Fine art to follow.

 

Two gigs in a week – the Handsome Family and Austra

Life is good with a colleague who extends an invite to gig featuring a band you’ve never heard of. On 3 March the Handsome Family (left) straddled the stage at Concorde 2 in Brighton to present their brand of – what I am reliably informed is called – goth country. That does not mean to say that they turned up dressed in black with white faces.

The Handsome Family are essentially a husband and wife team, Brett and Rennie Sparks who sing songs about things like frogs, holes in the ground and murder. Brett Sparks’ deep voice bosses the songs with Rennie Sparks offering harmony. The show is punctuated by choreographed bickering between the two, for example, whether today’s sandwich had the right filling.

Rennie Sparks provides the lyrics, bass and autoharp (banjo is also in her armoury, but was absent from this performance); husband Brett does the music, guitar and keyboards. Touring as a four piece, the drummer did sterling work; the fourth member was a multi-instrumentalist. Largely playing guitar, but this being country he flirted around with a steel guitar and bizarrely a keyboard instrument that seemed no bigger than a 1970s stylophone! The climax was an extraordinary duel between the two guitars, culminating in Brett Sparks requiring a major re-tune of his guitar before he could give an encore. Rennie Sparks narrated this activity expressing her own bemusement of her husband’s guitar abuse. Presumably it happens every night.

Anyone wanting to hear more try this link. The tour goes on.

Austra is the music vehicle for Toronto’s Katie Stelmanis. I became aware of Austra in the days when the Guardian newspaper had live sessions. Me and my beloved caught up with the band in its extended form in Munich in 2011; they did a short BBC Music stage performance at Latitude in 2013, we saw that. I got a sneak preview of the new album, Future Politics, when in November 2016 Stelmanis did a free gig/Q&A at Kamio in London. And then on 9 March Austra appeared as a foursome at Ampere in Munich. Stelmanis, I understand, had opera training for her voice. It is extraordinary – it hurts just thinking about how she uses it. But she is also politically engaged. It is like that she could sing fascists into submission, much like Slim Whitman saw off the Aliens in Mars Attacks!

This tour is about the third album, Future Politics (left). I still have not fully digested it lyrically, but Stelmanis is open about its allusions to humanity’s failure to place itself as a carbon life form on a finite planet (Gaia). This leads away from Utopia – her call to a plausible brighter future. Stelmanis is also hugely melancholic about relationships. Her second album, Olympia, was over-burdened with this melancholia; for example, an unfaithful partner on Forgive Me. Future Politics’ relationship dystopia comes out in I love you more than you love yourself. “There is nothing in your soul tonight, I only see darkness” sings Stelmanis. However, in contrast to the Olympia album, Stelmanis manages throughout this album, irrespective of the lyrics, to evoke the positive, even to the ability to dance to the song. And what is more it sounded so much better live. That is why I would recommend seeing Austra live and not rely on the recordings.

As  a foursome, they create a lot of sound. In Munich, Stelmanis’ voice did not have enough amplification, but Maya Postepski’s percussion was awesome (right), and the two male supports (Dorian Wolf on bass and moog, and Ryan Wonsiak), chalk and cheese as they were, ensured no one left melody-less.

This was as good a gig as I have been to. The tour continues:

MON 13 MARCH
Astra Kulturhaus, Berlin, Germany
WED 15 MARCH
BikoMilan, Italy
THU 16 MARCH
Les Docks Lausanne, Switzerland
FRI 17 MARCH
Dampfzentrale Bern, Switzerland
SAT 18 MARCH
Gloria Theater Cologne, Germany
SUN 19 MARCH
Uebel & Gefährlich Hamburg, Germany
TUE 21 MARCH
Patterns (formerly Audio)Brighton, UK
WED 22 MARCH
Village UndergroundLondon, UK
THU 23 MARCH
Summerhall Edinburgh, UK
FRI 24 MARCH
The Deaf Institute Manchester, UK
SAT 25 MARCH
Button Factory Dublin, Ireland
TUE 28 MARCH
Le Grand Mix Tourcoing, France
WED 29 MARCH
Les Trinitaires Metz, France
FRI 31 MARCH
Le Trianon Paris, France
SAT 1 APRIL
Le Metronum Toulouse, France
WED 5 APRIL
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Gas Natural Fenosa (MAC) La Coruna, Spain
THU 6 APRIL
Teatro Barcelo Madrid, Spain
FRI 7 APRIL
La Rambleta Valencia, Spain
SAT 8 APRIL
Sala Apolo Barcelona, Spain
TUE 11 APRIL
Mascotte Zürich, Switzerland
WED 12 APRIL
L’Epicerie Moderne Feyzin, France
THU 13 APRIL
La Sirene La Rochelle, France
SAT 15 APRIL
Le 106 – Club Rouen, France
SUN 16 APRIL
AB Box Brussels, Belgium

Tilman Riemenschneider

dscf1599We were introduced to Tilman Riemenschneider by one of our favourite art historians (AGD) on his BBC series, “Art of Germany“.  Riemenschneider was a very fine carver and sculptor working in the 15/16 Century, largely in the Franconian region of northern Bavaria. Würzburg is the region’s capital; it was there that Riemenschneider had his studio (a prolific producer of largely religious icons, popular at the time with the wealthy Bavarians and staffed by a series of journeyman carvers). He utilised property that came his way through (four) marriages to set up the study (at least three of his wives died – he was not a mass murder as was my original concern). He was also a political figure in the region, holding a number of official posts, including Bürgermeister in 1520. However, when in 1525 the  peasants revolt reached Würzburg, he found himself on the wrong side of the victorious Prince Bishop. He was briefly imprisoned. He died in 1531 and was quickly forgotten. It was not until his tombstone was found in 1822 that his work was re-evaluated by Carl Gottfried Scharold, a significant local historian.

He worked using regional materials, in particular lime wood and sandstone. It is for that reason that it is amazing that so many pieces have survived these years. Take, for example, the “Sad Mary” (above left) who can be found amongst the largest single collection of his work in the  Mainfrankisches Museum in Würzburg. Dating from 1510, she belonged to a fdscf1592amily in Ochsenfurt, a significant town on the Main river. She hung from a hook around shoulder level; but seemingly she was not well loved. In fact, she was feared. She was also rather black having some sort of fire damage (she was stored in the attic near to the chimney). Her maker was recognised by Johann Valentin Markert as part of Riemenschneider’s rehabilitation.  Her robes are just exquisite. The representation of folds, creases, seams, hands etc. are carved out of a tree and are trademark Riemenschneider. The carver’s faces are distinct, something that helps scholars and amateurs alike identify his own work from that of the journeymen in his studio.

St. Antonius Kapelle and St Jakobus, Großlangheim

The carving of “Holy Nickolas” dates also from 1510. This piece came from the “Chapel of Marriage” in Würzburg. Nickolas’s face carriesdscf1527 the features of a sage; however, one assumes that most senior clergy at that time were sages? This look with oval eyes, ageing lines and long noses is repeated endlessly.

AGD told us that some of the best pieces are to be found in small churches dotted around the Bavarian countryside. In particular he said that there were a couple of seemingly forlorn pieces in a small chapel (St.-Antonius-Kapelle) in Großlangheim. To enter one needed to get the key from Frau Sterk, the owner of the nearby liquor store. Actually, the chapel was open when we investigated (Frau Sterk still looks after it, though). Moreover, there were four pieces in the Chapel, not the two featured in the documentary. St. Antonius, depicted above left, is signature Riemenscheider. We were directed in particular to the belt around his waist! The light in the chapel was not really conducive to photography, unfortunately.dscf1517

AGD did not tell us, however, that Großlangheim had two places of worship, both of which boast Riemenscheider sculptures. The Catholic church, St. Jakobus, is brimming with Riemenschneiders. For example, the sculpture of St. Anna with child and Mary (Selbstdritte) is beguiling, full of colour and symbolism. dscf1522

Another common subject is Mary and the dead Jesus (left). The Virgin’s clothes contrast absolutely with the dead Christ’s grey skin. A reminder, presumably, of the horror of the crucifixion and mortality, at least for the body.

There are professional reasons for this approach to colour. At that time such many works were
church commissions. If the commission was given to a painter, naturally any sculpture subcontracted as part of the commission would be painted. Carvers were not allowed to paint their own sculptures (or not). Where altarpieces were involved, there were also cabinet makers who could actually earn more than the carver for creating a hinged box (see St Jakob, Rothenburg, below).

Maria im Weingarten, Volkach

AGD had advised us to visit the Riemenschneider sculpture hanging in the Church, Maria im Weingarten, in Volkach. In his TV documentary he spent quite a bit of time discussing this carving dating from 1522 20160901_131924(right). It is certainly impressive, hanging as it does from the ceiling of the church. It depicts Mary standing on a crescent moon with the child, Jesus. The five roundels depict events in her life (the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Adoration and Death). The child is enthroned on the virgin’s left hip. It was stolen in 1962 and returned only after the payment of a ransom. But there is some doubt about how much of it was carved by Riemenschneider himself, rather than one of his journeyman carvers. Like many carvings and sculptures that are likely to be difficult for people to inspect closely, fine detail is not required.

Altarpiece of the Holy, the parish church of St Jakob in Rothenburg ob der Tauber dating from 1505. 

img0024The centrepiece of this fine altar (pictured left) depicts the Last Supper. In the centre is Jesus and next to him to the right is Judas (bearded and about to receive bread, a symbol of sin, from Jesus) being exposed as a traitor. Pilgrims enter the space in the westimg0007 choir of the church from the right, just like Judas, the sinner. Forgiveness is possible for pilgrims. St. Philip (left of Judas) points to the alter base where sinners should kneel and confess sins to receive redemption. One has to step back to see the real point of the altar – the relic of the holy blood encased in a glass cross (right).

It seems that this wonderful piece – we spent at least an hour with it – had to be done relatively cheaply. The master, concentrated his attention on the cluster of figures arounimg0003d Jesus, whilst his journeyman worked on the five apostles to the right of Judas (pictured left) seemingly trying to work out who the traitor was. The relief on the left of the central shrine of the altarpiece depicting Christ’s entry into Jerusalem does not seem to be Riemenscheider. In particular, the figure of Christ himself is insufficiently proportioned and the faces of the figures are stylistically different.

 

Altarpiece of Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul, Detwang – 1505-8

By way of contrast, this altarpiece (right) is thought to be wholly by Riemenschneider, although it was not originallyimg0020 designed for this church (it had to be narrowed fit in the space). The central section is a classic crucifixion scene with mourning women and St John to the left and the soldiers around Caiaphas to the right. The panel on the left depicts the agony in the garden, the one on the right, the resurrection. All are deemed to be stylistically coherent apart from some of the bodies in the resurrection scene.

Würzburg Cathedral

dscf1548Würzburg Cathedral is a wonderful space in the centre of the city. Riemenschneider was commissioned to carve a couple of tombs for former bishops. The founding bishop, Rudolf von Scherenberg, is celebrated in the stone carving (left) which is a masterwork in ageing human form. The Bishop gets the old-man treatment – though the contract specifies precisely how he was to be presented, with artefacts (swords, etc.), coats of arms and attire. dscf1549

Later, Riemenschneider did the same for Bishop Lorenz von Bibra (right). This depicts a younger, age-indeterminate man, but is a mis-mash of styles. Riemenschneider is credited with the figure, puttis (something that he liked doing, seemingly) and the lion vanquishing the dragon (at the base).

dscf1553

Walk down the knave and one comes across yet another Mary and child (left). Again, she stands on a crescent moon. The child is cradled on her right side (in contrast to the depiction in Volkach, above) and her leg protrudes forward. She stands on a plinth ahead of the altar.

dscf1569

The cathedral used, also, to be the home of Riemenschneider’s stone Adam and Eve sculptures (1493). Go there now and replicas flank the south portal of the Lady Chapel. The originals are now in the Mainfrankisches Museum in Würzburg (see above). They ended up there because the provost of the cathedral in 1894 was offended by the nudity and had them removed. The replicas were installed in 1975.

Botdscf1568h have missing arms. Eve is depicted as round and earthy in a renaissance style. She has the apple in her remaining hand and a serpent at her feet. Her hair confidently drapes her back. Art historians, however, have been a shade confused about the figure of Adam. Traditionally he is depicted as being mature and, naturally, bearded. This one is youthful, innocent – and a victim of female wiles. He’s late gothic in depiction; hence he is not particularly endowed with muscles (renaissance Adams often have six-packs). Adam’s face and hair are similar to Riemeschneider’s St Johns in altarpieces (for example, Münnerstadt, not discussed here).20150825_130318

Our tour was not complete. Münnerstadt, for example. But equally, the masterpiece at Creglingen 20150828_144631Herrgottskirche (right) and Bamberg cathedral (left). Unfortunately, there is a lot of geography involved and not enough time.

What I have tried to do is give a flavour of the life and work of Riemenschneider. Not only was  he a fine carver, but also a politician -clearly with some morals – a husband – though accrued much property by this means – and a businessman. He worked to specification and gave, usually, what was asked at the requisite quality. For tourists, focusing on a single artist can be an exciting and meaningful way of exploring a region. And if you have access to the language, there are lots of people to fill in the gaps for you. We are indebted to the attendant in the Mainfrankisches Museum for extra info about artefacts, and the woman in Großlangheim who told us about both churches and their treasures.

Additional source for text: Kalden-Rosenfeld, Iris (2004) Tilman Riemenschneider: The Sculptor and his Workshop. Translation by Heide Grieve. Karl Robert Langewiesche Nachfolger Hans Köster Veerlagsbuchhandlung KG . Konigstein im Taunus.

 

Rijks Museum, Amsterdam

20160824_145714One of our favourite art historians recently made a programme for the BBC about the refurbishment of this national museum in Amsterdam. It was – and still is – home to the Dutch nation’s treasures, including its Rembrandt paintings, most especially The Night Watch (left) which is itself watched over by two museum bouncers, just in case.

The museum was first opened in 1885. It was apparently a controversial building. The architect, Pierre Cuypers, a20160824_163209 catholic, created a very catholic building for a staunchly protestant city. And Cuypers knew this. So much so that he sculptured himself into the building looking very sheepish, as well he might (right).

The museum’s transformation from staid national museum (seemingly stuffed animals and dull artefacts), to compelling home of the nation’s treasures took much longer than anticipated. If I understand the story correct, the architects plans (Spanish practice Cruz and Ortiz) involved closing off the cycle route literally through the centre of museum. This did not go down very well; reconfiguring the designs in order to retain the cycle route took some time. That said, there was also a small matter of asbestos that extended the task from 3 to 10 years.

20160824_145623Now it is expensive, at least for tourists – €17.50. It is easy to gain a day in there. There are 80 rooms and just under a million artefacts (clearly, not all are being exhibited at the same time). The galleries are now organised chronologically (rather than by type – paintings, ceramics, textiles etc.). This means one gets a mix, adding important context to one anoth20160824_120211er in the process. However, some galleries are exclusively art such as those where one finds Rembrandt, Vermeer, etc. (above left)

We started on the 3rd floor with the 20th Century. These floors celebrate Dutch water engineering (the Dutch made a lot of contemporaneous films of the building of their phenomenal water projects); innovative architecture such as Rietveld’s model orphanage housing project in Bergeijk Le Courbusier’s 1958 20160824_125709Philips World Fair Pavilion (model of); mischievous art in Ferdi’s Wombtombdesign such as the fusion of Mondrian’s geometric art with Yves Saint Laurent’s couture (right); and most sinister of all, a Nazi chess set (the Nazis were white, naturally. Their weapons were bigger and more up-to-date).20160824_125048

Other wonderful artefacts include Lion Cachet’s substantial 1902 sideboard with handles suspended from monkey heads (right); Petronella Dunois‘ intricate dolls houses c1676; Sam Schellink‘s finely-decorated porcelain c1900; and spectacularly, Frits 20160824_131136Koolhoven’s FK23 Bantam fighter from 1918 (left).

In terms of art, the museum tracks both the careers of Dutch masters and the significance of their work in telling the story of the country. For example, in much of Europe in the 17th Century, artists were employed by the Church or wealthy families (think Medici in Florence).20160824_150258 The Netherlands is a relatively new country reclaimed from the sea. It is also a maritime country built on heroic trade (Rudolf Bakhuysen’s Warships in Heavy Storm, right, is not untypical). The wealth was in the hands of a merchant class who, not surprisingly, enjoyed their images being reproduced on canvas.

20160824_152923The landscape features, too. Joseph Constantin Gabriël’s, The Month of July (left), is illustrative of the genre. We were also delighted to find Thérèse Schwartze’s Portrait of Lizzy Ansigh, a fellow painter in the female group of artists known as the Amesterdamse Joffers. This is at least a recognition that females were active in this period without in any way over-representing their work.

Finally there is recognition of particular schools of painters – the Hague School (1840s), with its20160824_153128 emphasis on the lives of ordinary folk and the Amsterdam impressionists of which Isaac Israel’s Donkey riding on the Beach (right) is a fine example.

Van Gogh is there, but if readers want to see his work, the adjacent Van Gogh museum is the place to go. It too is a special place, but much much busier.

Along with the reconfiguring of the physical museum, the curators also produced an excellent app for iPhone and Android. It saves hiring an audio guide; and if your mobile runs out of fuel, there are free fuelling stations.