Hell made fun – the joy of Hieronymus Bosch


The 20th-century painter who called himself Balthus once proposed that a monograph about him should begin with the words ‘Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures.’ But while Balthus may have felt that far too much was known about his private life, Hieronymus Bosch is an artist about whom we truly know if not exactly nothing then very little that is personal or revealing. He adopted his name from his native town, ’s-Hertogenbosch, where his death 500 years ago is marked by a superb exhibition. Bosch (c.1450–1516) was christened Jheronimus — alternatively Joen or Jeroen — van Aken, came from a family of painters and died, perhaps of an epidemic disease, aged about 65. And that, apart from a few mundane details, is almost all the information that survives — except for one credo. At the top of a drawing he wrote the words ‘Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing itself.’

'The ship of Fools' by Hieronymus Bosch

‘The ship of Fools’ by Hieronymus Bosch

In that respect — wildly imaginative brainstorming — Bosch’s mind was fabulously rich. The image he drew underneath that sentence is a case in point. It is an illustration of a proverb, ‘The wood has ears, the field has eyes,’ meaning keep quiet about your business. Bosch, however, has interpreted it both literally and — to use a term from a much later period of art — surreally.

Against the trunks of a small thicket of trees are leaning a couple of monstrous, detached ears. The ground in front sprouts eyes, and in the centre is a hollow tree from which a huge owl — a bird that the painter was particularly fond of depicting — stares out. In the catalogue it is suggested this image may have been a private manifesto. The wood from which he took his name — ’s-Hertogenbosch means ‘the Duke’s forest’ — is made into a place of bizarre transformation. And phantasmagoria was, to put it simply, Hieronymus Bosch’s shtick.

'The Temptation of St Anthony' (fragment) by Hieronymus Bosch

‘The Temptation of St Anthony’ (fragment) by Hieronymus Bosch

Without it, as a painter of relatively straightforward religious scenes, he was indeed a little dull. The current exhibition —which moves on to the Prado, Madrid, later in the year — presents a mass of conclusions by a team of specialist scholars. Their efforts to sort what is really the work of the great man are both impressive and persuasive. One of the glories of the exhibition is the way it reassembles two multipanelled altarpieces, which had been sawn up and dispersed centuries before. It turns out, however, that some fine and famous pictures are not by him — such as the ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ in Ghent — and some fairly run-of-the-mill ones are.

An example of the latter is the early ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (c.1470–80). It shows, perhaps, how Bosch started out: as a provincial artist working somewhat in the idiom of famous painters from further south such as Rogier van der Weyden. ’s-Hertogenbosch, though a lovely little city, was and still is a relative backwater. Bosch, however, made himself and his hometown famous through sheer power of imaginative invention. Part of his talent was for the creation of effects you could call atmospheric — almost romantic. There is a hint of his true powers in the landscape in the background of the ‘Adoration of the Magi’, which recedes into a vast, misty distance. This capacity for rendering light and air had become apocalyptic and visionary by the time he painted four panels dubbed ‘Visions of the Hereafter’ (c.1505–15).

'The Last Judgement' by Hieronymus Bosch

‘The Last Judgement’ by Hieronymus Bosch

In one of these the blessed fly upwards towards a tunnel of light — concentric circles with the brightest in the middle — the most compelling visualisation of a journey to heaven in all of art. Even more riveting, though, are the panels depicting hell, a place of turbid darkness, in which whiskered, bat-winged demons grasp and torment sinners. A high rock with a bird perched on it is silhouetted against a black infernal sky filled with sparks, flame and flurries of smoke.

Obviously, Hell was Bosch’s thing, and he made it look if not exactly fun then certainly entertaining. It was surely the pleasure of looking at his scenes of sin and eternal punishment, rather than the moral message, that quickly won Bosch a European reputation (those ‘Visions of the Hereafter’ were bought by a Venetian cardinal early in the 16th century). His major works dwelled on the follies of humanity, and their dreadful consequences. This is the theme of ‘The Haywain’ (c.1510–15), in which devilish creatures, including a fish with legs, drag a wagon piled with straw. The people of the world scrabble for this worthless stuff. To the right is their likely destination, a place of fiery torment. Nonetheless, it is an utterly beguiling spectacle.

'Christ Child' by Hieronymus Bosch

‘Christ Child’ by Hieronymus Bosch

His art was a cornucopia of the bizarre. Such images, the drawings suggest, tumbled from his mind, and were then carefully preserved and anthologised. One little sheet contains, among other items, a man crouching head-first in a basket, from whose naked buttocks a flock of birds is emerging. Perched above is a figure poised to whack this ornithologically productive behind with a lute. What does it mean? Perhaps nobody ever knew or cared.

His fertile fantasy would not be so mesmerising had Bosch not been such a magician with the brush. The delicacy and energy of these paintings is what made it all work. By putting together so many of his remaining pictures, and reassembling some far-flung fragments, this exhibition makes Bosch’s achievement clearer than it was before. For the next two months, a visit to ’s-Hertogenbosch should be a high priority for lovers of weird, sinister and delightfully fanciful art.


Originally published in The Spectator

Is Hilma af Klint a major rediscovery – or a minor footnote?

'Group IX/SUW, No. 17. The Swan, No. 17' (1914-5) by Hilma af Klint


In 1896, a group of five young Swedish women artists began to meet regularly in order to access mystical zones beyond the confines of mundane everyday reality. Every Friday, they would gather in order to contact the incorporeal beings they called ‘spirit world leaders’ or ‘High Masters’; among these were five named Ananda, Clemens, Esther, Gregor and Amaliel. In 1904, during a séance, Amaliel instructed one of the artists, Hilma af Klint, to make paintings ‘on the astral plane’ representing the ‘immortal aspects of man’.

Many of the results of this occult commission are on display inPainting the Unseen, a new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. As you might expect, they are distinctly weird: an eclectic mélange of geometric shapes, flower and fruit forms, squiggles, diagrams of nothing very specific, shells, numbers and letters, often executed in a slightly dingy pastel palette. By 1908, af Klint (1862–1944) had produced more than a hundred — some over three metres high — and she painted another 82 between 1912 and 1915.

She stipulated in her will that these pictures should not be seen for two decades after her death. In the event, it took even longer: none was exhibited until the 1980s. Since then, art world interest has grown in af Klint, or, more precisely, in these works ‘commissioned’ by Amaliel and apparently at his astral direction. No one has ever been much excited by the more conventional landscapes and portraits by which she made her living. These ‘Paintings for the Temple’, as she termed them, have been claimed as the first European abstractions, predating by several years any such works by Kandinsky, Malevich or Mondrian. The official birth of abstract art is usually dated to 1910.

Installation shot of the Serpentine's Hilma af Klint show

Installation view of the Serpentine’s Hilma af Klint show. Photography by Jerry Hardman-Jones

This raises two questions. Are af Klint’s paintings truly abstract? And, more importantly, are they any good? They certainly have an early modernist look, with sharp outlines and flat areas of colour. Indeed some don’t even appear to be that early; one or two concentric dartboard-like images could have come from New York, circa 1960. Others, however, contain awkward but unmistakable depictions of birds, dogs and naked people.

Af Klint herself doesn’t seem to have had any intention of being avant-garde, or indeed any conscious purpose at all. By her account, these pictures were made ‘through her’, without ‘any preliminary drawings and with great force’. She had no idea what they were supposed to represent, though she spent a lot of time subsequently trying to work it out.

On the other hand, the slightly later works by Kandinsky usually credited as the first abstractions are also full of real objects (most are lightly disguised landscapes). It is also true that the beliefs of Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich were only a degree or two less loopy than those of af Klint and her four friends. Around 1900, spiritualism, the mishmash of esoteric doctrines known as theosophy and excursions into what Conan Doyle called ‘the land of mists’ were all part of the zeitgeist.

Installation view of the Serpentine's Hilma af Klint show. Photography by Jerry Hardman-Jones

Installation view of the Serpentine’s Hilma af Klint show. Photography by Jerry Hardman-Jones

The crucial point is that judged as paintings, these mystic images just aren’t very good. The brushwork is boring, the drawing a bit slack, the colour harmonies lacking in zing. In comparison, a good Kandinsky is a hugely impressive sight. Being first, chronologically, is perhaps overrated; it’s being better that counts. Af Klint’s mystic pictures were worth exhibiting, and indeed deserve a look, but they are a minor footnote rather than a major rediscovery.

Installation view of the Serpentine's Das Institut show. Photography by Uli Holz

Installation view of the Serpentine’s Das Institut show. Photography by Uli Holz

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, there are works by two German artists, Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder, who exhibit together under the collective name Das Institut. Between them, Brätsch and Röder use a variety of media, including painting, neon and stained glass. The unique feature of the show is the way they display their works, sometimes actually piled on top of each other in open crates. Individually, the most striking pieces are Röder’s neon drawings of body parts, such as the outlines of two breasts that the visitor encounters at the start. But the various ingredients are less novel than the way they are jumbled together. Overall, there is an air of cheerful, chaotic muddle.

Over at the Waddington Custot Galleries on Cork Street, there is a fine exhibition of early works by Barry Flanagan (1941–2009), a sculptor whose later output consisted largely of bronze hares. Earlier, however, his work was both varied and audacious, as is demonstrated by the pieces on show, which date from 1964 to 1983.

'Grass 1' (1967) by Barry Flanagan

‘Grass 1’ (1967) by Barry Flanagan

The young Flanagan seemed preoccupied with an unusual range of qualities, including lightness, thinness and floppiness. Even when in 1964 he made an early work in his teacher Anthony Caro’s trade-mark medium of painted steel, it protruded a wavering rod like the tendril of a vine. Later pieces are made out of cloth, or sheet metal torn and folded as casually as paper. A bronze from 1980 turns and twists like a piece of apple peel. Three beautiful photographs of long grass from 1967 reveal this everyday sight to be as complex and dramatic as a storm at sea. Everywhere you find a unique sensibility at work.

Installation view of the Chillida show at Ordovas. Photography by Mike Bruce

Installation view of the Chillida show at Ordovas. Photography by Mike Bruce

A few minutes’ walk away at Ordovas, 25 Savile Row, there is an intriguing sculptural contrast in the form of three massive works by the Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida. Chillida (1924–2002) was an exact contemporary of Caro’s and some of his work belongs to an abstract idiom that might be dubbed heavy metal (a Chillida show at the Hayward a quarter of a century ago was actually publicised as the weightiest ever shown in London). The three works on show at Ordovas — two steel, one stone — certainly have a massive presence. But there is a feeling of growth about them too; one looming, rust-coloured piece extends curved members into the air like the branches of a tree. This little exhibition makes Chillida’s work, still not well-known in Britain, seem formidable.

Originally published in The Spectator

Giorgione at the Royal Academy

‘La Vecchia’ (c.1506) by Giorgione

A lot of art is trickery – and all the better for it

One day, in the autumn of 1960, a young Frenchman launched himself off a garden wall in a suburban street to the south of Paris. He jumped in an unusual away; not as if he expected to land, feet first on the pavement below, nor even as if he were diving into water, but arms outstretched, back arched, apparently taking off into the air above. The result was Yves Klein’s ‘Le Saut dans le vide’ (Leap into the Void), which opens the exhibition Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern.

Beside the finished product — a photomontage — are two other images that together explain how it was done. One shows the same quiet stretch of road, completely empty except for a solitary cyclist passing by like an extra in a Maigret dramatisation. The other shows the flying artist behaving in that apparently impractical fashion, but with, instead of a hard landing, five man holding a tarpaulin underneath him. So this is a trick, a fake — or, to put it another way, a work of art.

Yves Klein's 'Le Saut dans la vide'

Yves Klein’s ‘Le Saut dans la vide’

The distinction is, after all, a bit hazy. We all presume that Caravaggio, for example, did not actually see a young man sprouting wings fluttering in the air and whispering words of divine inspiration into the ear of St Matthew. On the other hand, if photographers present us with images of events that did not occur — or would not have happened had the photographers not arranged for them to do so — they may be greeted with muttered criticisms such as ‘staged’.

Klein brilliantly exploited this zone of ambiguity. Is his leap a performance, a joke, a metaphor or a philosophical observation about the nature of art? Probably, the answer is: all of those. It is certainly, unusually for a photograph, so memorable that the whole picture pops into mind, like a slide, if you close your eyes.

In this respect, ‘Leap into the Void’ is highly unrepresentative ofPerforming for the Camera. In aggregate, the exhibition is wearyingly enormous and bemusingly dull, full of large white rooms stuffed with small black, grey and white snaps of subjects such as naked hippies having a happening in New York in the Sixties or people doing something obscurely conceptual involving traffic in Tokyo around the same time. In other words, here is a prime example of curatorial overkill: an exhibition that is far too large for its subject.

Nadar's photograph of Deburau

Nadar’s photograph of Charles Deburau

It does, however, make some interesting points. One is that a great deal of art — and photography — is staged or, if you prefer, ‘faked’, and always has been. A Rembrandt self-portrait is a carefully conceived presentation of the artist, and so, too, is — among many such artist’s selfies on display — Marcel Duchamp in drag as his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy or Joseph Beuys explaining art to a dead hare. The same is true of many images that are often placed in the history of ‘photography’ rather than ‘art’, such as Nadar’s beautiful shots from 1854 of the mime artist Charles Deburau, in costume and striking poses from his act.

A far better exhibition, at the V&A, is devoted to the American photographer Paul Strand. This is beautifully mounted and selected, but it gives rise to some of the same thoughts. Strand (1890–1976) was, ostensibly at least, one of the leading modernist photographers of the 20th century. His work adhered to a puritanical aesthetic — no colour, no glitz, lots of workers, plants and elderly buildings among his subjects.

In 1916 Strand captured some of the least ‘staged’ pictures ever taken, using a specially doctored camera with a fake lens on the side, which seemed to point straight ahead while Strand shot surreptitiously under his arm. Thus he was able to obtain something that is hard to achieve: close-ups of strangers in the street who were not aware they were being photographed. The results bring you very near to passers-by on New York’s Lower East Side a century ago — jowly, red-faced, grubby-looking types who could have come out of a painting by Hals or a novel by Dickens. These were seen and shot in an instant, true snapshots — a hunting term first used by Sir John Herschel, one of the great unsung progenitors of photography.

Paul Strand's 'Rock, Loch Eynort, South Uist, Hebrides' (1954)

Paul Strand’s ‘Rock, Loch Eynort, South Uist, Hebrides’ (1954)

In another sense, of course, these were not spontaneous at all. Strand must have known just what he was looking for, and probably had precedents from paintings and literature at the back of his mind. In any case, as the catalogue points out, Strand clearly found this predatory way of working unsettling, and stopped after taking just a handful of these extraordinary portraits. Most of his work was meticulously programmed and choreographed, the product of sittings that lasted hours, and much more time spent in the developing room on the prints.

This is the justification for an exhibition such as this — that the actual photographs, like an original painting, have a quality that reproductions lack. They do; but they are still small, dark pictures spaced out on a wall. You wonder whether Strand’s work does not really look better in a book, such as the splendid catalogue.

This could not be said of the works on show in Avedon Warhol at Gagosian, 6–24 Britannia Street, London WC1. Neither Warhol nor Avedon, a remarkable photographer of people, could be accused of puritanism or lack of glitz. The Warhol ingredients here are familiar, demonstrating how he was able to return much of the oomph of painting to photographic images by adding splashy silk-screened colour.

More of a surprise are some of the Avedons, especially ‘Andy Warhol and Members of the Factory, New York, October 30, 1969’, a photographic group portrait on the scale of life — it’s almost four metres across — in which the central group are nude, looking a little like Greek statues. The picture is as artfully posed as a Caravaggio, and all the better for it.


Originally published in The Spectator

Ancient Egypt’s obsession with death was in fact a preoccupation with life

The Fitzwilliam Museum is marking its bicentenary with an exhibition that takes its title from Agatha Christie: Death on the Nile. But it turns out it was another writer of a different type of fiction who was directly involved. M.R. James, author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, amassed some of the exhibits in his capacity as director of the Fitzwilliam from 1893 to 1908. And almost any object on display would have made a perfect prop for one of his tales, because the subject is ancient Egyptian coffins.

Generally, the main character in a story by James is a retiring gentleman scholar who comes across a venerable item which then brings upon him some diabolic haunting or curse. He did not actually write a narrative beginning with a curator who receives an ornately decorated 3,000-year-old casket from a burial site in Middle Egypt. But in real life, James did negotiate the Fitzwilliam’s acquisition of several fabulous items on show in Death on the Nile.

Among these are the cedarwood box, from around 1,900 bc, which once contained the mummy of a woman named Nakht, described as ‘lady of the house’. It is, as is sometimes the case with Egyptian antiquities, weirdly well-preserved. The timber — an expensive, imported item which seems to have been recycled — is almost completely intact. On one side the paintwork has been damaged by water, but elsewhere the hieroglyphic inscriptions and depictions of palace façades are fresh and almost jaunty.

It is true, as a text in the exhibition argues, that the ancient Egyptian obsession with death was in fact a preoccupation with life — and how to prolong it in the afterlife. That is why the tomb of a man called Khety from 2010–1950 bc contained miniature sculptures of workers baking, butchering a cow, filling a granary and sailing boats on which Khety could travel on the river. Inscriptions on his coffin (also acquired by James) ask the gods Osiris and Anubis to provide offerings for him to use. Evidently, the plan was for Khety to have a comfortable time in the hereafter.

Nonetheless, there is something eerie about Egyptian grave goods. Partly, this is to do with their preservation. Our sense of age is connected to normal rates of decay, so we are not used to seeing wooden and cloth objects, thousands of years old, that look only slightly battered. The other thing that’s a little uncanny is that all these carvings, pictures and painted inscriptions were not intended to be seen by living eyes at all, but by those of the gods and the dead. It is quite easy to imagine James penning a disturbing narrative — his are the most haunting of ghost stories — entitled ‘The Coffin of Nakht’.

The exhibition, most of which comes from the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, is evidence of how rich in diverse masterpieces the museum is. A display entitled Celebrating the First 200 Yearsillustrates some of its history. The founder, Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam (1745–1816), was an engaging Irish aristocrat who was responsible for developing a section of Georgian Dublin. He was also a harpsichordist and spent time in Paris, where he met the love of his life, a ballerina who went by the name of Mademoiselle Zacharie. When Lord Fitzwilliam died, apparently as the result of a fall from his library steps — a thoroughly M.R. Jamesian accident, by the way — he left his old master paintings, drawings, medieval manuscripts, books and musical scores to Cambridge University (he was an old Trinity Hall man).

The last exhibit in Death on the Nile, chronologically, is a mummy with, at its top, a naturalistic portrait in the manner of ancient Greek painters. It’s a marvellous example of cultural fusion, and also a reminder that portraiture can be a monument to the dead. The same point is made in a different way by Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky at the National Portrait Gallery. Made up of loans from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, this contains portrayals of just about anyone who was notable in Russian literature and music between the mid-19th century and the first world war. Artistically it comes down — as perhaps the culture of Tsarist Russia itself does — to an array of great writers and composers.

They are all there, often painted in a realist, almost photorealist mode that seems to bring these people from long ago and far away very close (which is, of course, the feat of time travel a good portrait can perform). Tolstoy was painted by Nikolai Ge in 1884 at his opulent desk, frowning with concentration in the very act of writing. As painted by Vasily Perov, Dostoevsky seems to shrink into himself, melancholy but filled with inner tension.

Most memorable of all is Ilya Repin’s 1881 portrait of Modest Musorgsky: a picture of a man contemplating his own demise. This was painted in the Nikolaevsky Military Hospital, where the musician, a chronic alcoholic, had been admitted. It records Musorgsky’s rosy drinker’s nose and reflective demeanour. According to Repin, he was living ‘under a strict regime of sobriety’, but still dreaming of booze. Eventually, an attendant smuggled in a bottle of cognac. The next day, Repin arrived to find his sitter, aged 42, was no longer among the living. A case, you might say, of death on the Neva.


Originally published in The Spectator

Botticelli’s jokes and the quarrelsome, creative spirit of Florence

Once, it seems, Sandro Botticelli played a trick on a neighbour. Next door was a weaver who possessed eight looms. He and his assistants kept these in constant use, creating such a judder-ing racket that the poor painter was unable to concentrate on his pictures. Botticelli implored this fellow to reduce the noise, but to no avail. So eventually the artist carried an enormous rock on to his roof, poised so the slightest vibration would bring it crashing through the noisy weaver’s premises. The man then saw reason.

You can easily imagine the problem today as you walk down Botticelli’s street, Via del Porcellana. It’s a long, narrow thoroughfare running down to the Arno, tightly packed with three- and four-storey buildings. Although the nature of the small businesses that line it have changed through the centuries, essentially this area is probably much as it was in the 15th century.

It is not hard to sense medieval Florence as it really was: not the poetically venerable place imagined by the Pre-Raphaelites, but a pressure-cooker of competing artisans, merchants and bankers, full of anger and innovation, loving arguments and pranks. Vasari, chronicler of artists’ lives, interspersed his description of Botticelli’s career with the tale of the noisy weaver and a couple of hard-hearted practical jokes the painter played on friends.

Botticelli, currently the subject of exhibitions at the V&A and Courtauld Gallery, became a superstar of art long after his death. The Victorians loved his sad-eyed Madonnas and Venuses, and we do too. But his contemporaries valued his sharp tongue almost as much. He told Leonardo da Vinci that studying landscape was a waste of time because you could get results as good by throwing a paint-stained sponge at the wall. But Botticelli landscapes don’t look like sponge-stains, so he probably just wanted to upset Leonardo, who loved to study views.

The Florentines were a quarrelsome people, to an extent that drove Machiavelli to despair in the history he wrote of his native city. Throughout the Middle Ages, the place splintered into new warring factions. The Guelphs fought with the Ghibellines, then the Black Guelphs with the Whites. The winning gang always exiled the losers and expropriated their property. Dante, a White Guelph, fell victim to these squabbles. In Botticelli’s days, the fissiparous Florentines continued to split, plot and fight.

The strange thing is that all this turmoil — combined with plague and warfare — did little to diminish the city’s vim. The Black Death put a temporary brake on things. But the great days, during which Florentines produced an extraordinary succession of innovations in the arts, literature, engineering and finance, ran from the 13th century to the Renaissance.

It was only when the Medici, originally a clan of sharp-elbowed money-changers and cloth-dealers much like many another, managed to install themselves as grand dukes in the mid-16th century that the sequence of Florentine achievements tailed off. Two military strongholds — the huge Fortezza da Basso and the Forte di Belvedere above the Boboli Gardens — are evidence of the force by which the Medici suppressed their fractious subjects. The result was centuries of peace — and reduced creativity.

Originally published in The Spectator

Norman Sicily was a multicultural paradise – but it didn’t last long

A few weeks ago, I looked out on the Cathedral of Monreale from the platform on which once stood the throne of William II, King of Sicily. From there nearly two acres of richly coloured mosaics were visible, glittering with gold. In the apse behind was the majestic figure of Christ Pantocrator — that is, almighty. The walls of the aisles and nave were lined with scenes from the Bible. In another panel, just above, Christ himself crowned King William.

It was a prospect of the greatest opulence and sophistication stretching in every direction from this regal vantage point. The mosaics are in the manner of Byzantium, and probably executed by Greek artists, but the architectural plan and inlaid floors are derived from medieval Italy. This then, Padre Nicola Gaglio, the priest who was escorting us pointed out, was a building in which the Christian traditions of East and West, Rome and Constantinople, were combined and contrasted.

That’s true. But what is extraordinary is that that list does not by any means exhaust the interaction of civilisations that took place in 12th-century Sicily, soon to be explored in an exhibition at the British Museum. For a century after the conquest of the island by Norman forces in the 11th century, Sicilian society deserved the contemporary term multicultural.

The island was also quadrilingual, as an inscribed stone from 12th-century Palermo demonstrates. This inscription recorded the transfer of the remains of one Anna, mother of a priest called Grisandus, to a private chapel. It does so, however, in Latin, Greek, Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic (an Arabic dialect written in Hebrew characters for an Arabic-speaking Jewish population). Each text is slightly different, since — for example — the stone is dated 1149, according to western Christian chronology, 6657 according to the Byzantines, who began at the creation of the world, and 544 by Islamic reckoning.

Norman Sicily even had an English connection. At Monreale, on the wall beneath the colossal figure of Christ — his right hand alone, according to John Julius Norwich, is six feet high — is the unexpected figure of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury. Perhaps Becket’s image was put there among other sainted bishops in an apologetic spirit, since St Thomas had been hacked to death at the instigation of William II’s father-in-law, Henry II of England. Becket’s murder took place in 1170, or at most two decades before the mosaics were created.

There was an intimate connection between Norman Sicily and Norman England, both of which had been conquered by Viking-descended soldiers from northern France. The rulers of Norman Sicily had begun as mercenaries and freebooters, the sons of a minor noble called Tancred de Hauteville. The youngest of these, Roger, ended up as Count of Sicily; while his older brother, Robert Guiscard, ruled much of southern Italy. Their Italian wars took place at much the same time as William the Conqueror’s invasion of England.

The first Norman incursion into Sicily was in 1061, though the process of subduing the entire territory took decades. Before the Norse buccaneers arrived, Sicily had been under Islamic rule for more than a century; most of the population at that point was probably Muslim. Until the Islamic invasion, the island had been part of the Byzantine empire and culturally Greek.

Norman Sicily was therefore a jigsaw of cultures. Its full complexity is made clear inside the Cappella Palatina of the Royal Palace in Palermo, which I visited the following day in company with Dirk Booms, one of the British Museum curators. There the walls are covered with superb Byzantine mosaics, floors made by Italian master craftsmen, perhaps from Salerno. The most startling feature, however, is the wooden ceiling of the nave, a complex masterpiece of carpentry with starburst patterns and the honeycomb forms known as muqarnas (see p29), the whole of which is covered in Arabic inscriptions and figurative paintings in the style of contemporary Egypt. Some of these represent the king who commissioned the work, Roger II (1095–1154), son of the original conqueror, seated cross-legged in the manner of an Islamic ruler.

By the time his chapel was inaugurated in 1143, Roger controlled Sicily, most of Italy south of Rome, and large areas of North Africa. In some respects he and his successors followed the ways of the Middle East. They maintained harems and built superb pleasure palaces around Palermo, enthusiastically compared by Ibn Jubayr, a poet and traveller from Andalusia, to ‘necklaces strung around the throats of voluptuous girls’. Some of these, including those known as La Cuba and La Zisa — from al-Aziz (‘the Magnificent’) — closely resemble similar structures in 12th-century Algeria and Egypt.

The difference is that, miraculously, the Sicilian buildings still exist. Nowhere else, in fact, does so much of the magnificence of an early medieval monarch survive. The Palace of the Normans in Palermo contains 12th-century interiors, including the ‘Room of Roger’, which has mosaics of regal leopards, peacocks and centaurs in a landscape of date palms and orange trees. In the royal gardens around the city there roamed a Romanesque menagerie, including ostriches, panthers, lions, apes, bears, giraffes and elephants.

The Norman kings of Sicily were among the greatest rulers of their day. Roger II clearly thought himself the equal of the Emperor in Constantinople. Under his reign Sicily, making full use of its pivotal position in the centre of the Mediterranean, was powerful and prosperous as it had seldom been before — and never has been since. His hybrid Greek-Latin-Islamic state was hugely successful. Islamic bureaucrats kept records in flowing Arabic, the bishops were Italian, French and English, and the Syrian Christian Arabic and Greek-speaking George of Antioch functioned as ammiratus ammiratorum, emir of emirs, or commander-in-chief.

However, there was a catch, as Dirk Booms explained as we stood in front of the wonderful church in Palermo built by George of Antioch. ‘Sicily was a place of tolerance, but it was not a place of integration — except at court.’ The various populations — Greek, Latin, Muslim, Jewish — lived in separate districts of Palermo. Under Roger II’s son, William I, this patchwork society began to disintegrate. In 1161, there was a rebellion. The chief minister, George of Antioch’s successor, Maio of Bari, was assassinated, the king himself was imprisoned, and there were attacks on the Muslim population, who fled into the mountains.

‘When the power of the king fell away,’ Dirk Booms concluded, ‘it was clear that there were underlying tensions.’ After William II died without an heir in 1189, Norman Sicily, after lasting for a glorious century or so, quickly fragmented. Perhaps its lesson is that a multicultural society can be remarkably successful economically and culturally, but without true integration it is vulnerably fragile.

Originally published in The Spectator

On the frontiers of figuration, abstraction and total immateriality

The artist, according to Walter Sickert, ‘is he who can take a piece of flint and wring out of it drops of attar of roses’. In other words, whatever else it is — and all attempts at definition tend to founder — art consists in making something rare and memorable out of not very much.

Those words of Sickert’s popped into my mind as I looked at an exhibition of works by Avigdor Arikha at Marlborough Fine Art. Among these were pictures of a piece of toast, two pairs of socks, a casually folded orange tie, and part of a bathroom including a roll of toilet paper.

Arikha (1929–2010) was a French-Israeli artist based for much of his life in Paris. For 15 years he was an abstract painter, then in 1965 he abruptly began to depict the world around him. He turned to Alberto Giacometti one evening in the Bar du Dôme on boulevard Montparnasse and announced, ‘You were right!’

In post-war Europe, Giacometti had been the great proponent of figurative art. But while in London there were important painters — notably Freud, Bacon, Auerbach and Kossoff — who took that path, in late 20th-century France Arikha was a solitary figure, which may be why he is now in danger of being forgotten.

This is unfair. He was uneven, as many artists are, but he could attain a richly mysterious quality — especially when working only in velvety blacks and focusing on something extremely ordinary. Indeed, the more humdrum the subject the better; he succeeded much less well when depicting a famously glamorous film star — Catherine Deneuve — or the bodies of naked young women.

That boundary between figuration and abstraction was a crucial boundary in the 1950s and 60s — a sort of pictorial Iron Curtain. Some artists, like Arikha, switched sides after a dramatic conversion. Others found that very frontier fascinating. Frank Auerbach has spoken of how he felt the most exciting thing a painter could do was to cross the border from figurative to non-figurative, time and again, from one side to the other.

The same, perhaps, could be said of Auerbach’s exact contemporary, Dennis Creffield (born 1931), a selection of whose work over 60 years is on show at James Hyman Fine Art. A first encounter with a Creffield may suggest you are dealing with a gestural abstraction. In front of you are bold, scything brush strokes but few distinct forms. Then a look at the title reveals that this is in fact a view of Greenwich or a still life, and you look again — and begin to discern the subject.

Like Auerbach and Kossoff, Creffield attended classes by the charismatic painter David Bomberg. There are pictures here that instantly bring Bomberg to mind. But Creffield is not by any means a clone of his intense and brooding mentor. His work, after some gloomy panoramas of London in the 1950s, became more light, airy, and — an unusual quality, especially in post-war figurative art — joyous.

Robert Irwin is a West Coast American artist who comes from the same generation as Arikha and Creffield (he was born in 1928). His art, however, sidesteps the abstract/figurative dichotomy altogether. It is virtually immaterial. One work on show in 2 x 2 x 2 x 2, his exhibition at White Cube, Bermondsey, consists of two transparent, sharply angled columns. These are very close to being not there at all. From some points of view, you hardly notice them, from others they slice into your visual field or offer a tall thin band of reflection.

Another piece, ‘Black Painting’ (2015), consists of two squares with a surface of lacquered pigment so smooth they form twin mirrors. Again, when you look into them you see yourself, and the rest of the White Cube gallery, as in a glass darkly. Irwin has observed that you don’t need to worry about whether his work is art or not, ‘It’s just about what you are seeing or not seeing.’

Maybe — but, visually, this is close to a starvation diet. The other works by Irwin on show contrive to make neon tubes rather dim (and also stripy). A parallel exhibition by Cerith Wyn Evans, also at White Cube, consists of more neon tubes — one reproducing a motif from Duchamp, but drawn in light — suspended from the ceiling, plus revolving palm trees and a complicated glass thing that makes an eerie musical sound. This may not be the artistic equivalent of attar of roses, but it’s definitely more fun.

Originally published in The Spectator

Why did Goya’s sitters put up with his brutal honesty?

Sometimes, contrary to a widespread suspicion, critics do get it right. On 17 August, 1798 an anonymous contributor to the Diario de Madrid, reviewing an exhibition at the Royal Spanish Academy, noted that Goya’s portrait of Don Andrés del Peral was so good — in its draughtsmanship, its freedom of brushwork, its light and shade — that all on its own it was enough to bring credit to the epoch and nation in which it was created. He (or she) was absolutely correct.

The same could be said of many of the exhibits in Goya: The Portraits at the National Gallery. The people in these pictures rise up, as Vincent van Gogh hoped his own portraits would do in the future, like apparitions. There they are in front of you, these people who lived two centuries ago, with all their poignancy, absurdity, passion and energy.

It is because Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) made them look so alive that we are interested in the time and place in which they lived. Otherwise, who except specialists in Hispanic history would pay much attention to late 18th- and early 19th-century Spain? But as it is, we want to learn about these fascinating people that Goya shows us (and by reading the excellent catalogue, by the curator Xavier Bray, we can).

This is not to say that, magnificent as the exhibition is as a whole, it is entirely made up of masterpieces. Goya was a slow starter. Although he had formal training, he was essentially self-taught (as he noted).

Some of his earlier efforts have a stiff naiveté that is close to folk art. The main figure in the ‘The Count of Floridablanca’ (1783) (above) is wooden and doll-like and yet the painting as a whole is oddly memorable. Goya himself — short, subservient and sturdy, presenting a painting to his patron and simultaneously pushing himself into the picture — is a more lively presence than the noble subject.

Even while he was following the protocols of aristocratic portraiture, Goya just couldn’t stop himself noticing — and depicting — all sorts of extraneous and revealing sights. Cats, their eyes bulging with ferocious greed, wait to pounce on the pet bird held on a string by the dandified toddler, ‘Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga’ (1788). There are such subversive undertones and notes of sardonic comedy to many of his pictures.

‘The Family of the Infante Don Luis’ (1783–4) (lead image) is a whole novel in paint. The syphilitic late middle-aged Infante — younger brother of the king — plays patience by candlelight; beside him sits his beautiful, melancholy young wife. All around stand their entourage — among them a handsome, grinning fellow who may have been her lover.

At this stage, Goya’s ambition exceeded his ability. The picture, though haunting, is a spatially incoherent collage of separately studied figures. One of the pleasures of the exhibition is the way you can watch Goya slowly educating himself until he finally reaches full power in his 50s and 60s.

He felt he never did anything better than ‘The Portrait of Ferdinand Guillemardet’ (1798), the ambassador of the French revolutionary government in Madrid. It certainly is a perfect picture — the sitter coiled with vitality like a coldly efficient human spring, surrounded by delicate air and light. ‘The Duchess of Alba’ (1797), however, is more engaging: not only a noble heiress but a headstrong, vehement and glamorous presence (there was not a hair on her head, an observer noted, that did not awaken desire).

Goya’s (Lucian) Freud-like honesty about his sitters seems so clear in retrospect that it has always been a mystery why some of them put up with it. He clearly despised his last royal master Ferdinand VII, who looks sly, nasty, fat-faced and idiotic in the state portrait of 1814–15. And indeed, at that point, the contradictions of Goya’s position as court painter and fearless truth-teller became unsustainable. In old age he went into exile in Bordeaux.

Touchingly and inspiringly, he carried on evolving into his 80s. If some late works look strangely like Manet or Sargent, it’s because the artists of the future learnt so much from him. As you walk through the exhibition you see him turning himself from an awkward but talented provincial into a master, while simultaneously emerging step by step from the baroque past into the modern world. It’s that journey which makes Goya unique.

Originally published in The Spectator

Frank Auerbach joins the masters

No sooner had I stepped into the private view of Frank Auerbach’s exhibition at Tate Britain than I bumped into the painter himself. Auerbach was standing, surrounded by his pictures of 60 years ago, but he immediately started talking instead about Michelangelo. Of course, it is generally safe to assume that when artists talk about other artists they are also reflecting, at second hand, on their own work. And so it was in this case.

Michelangelo, Auerbach pointed out, had stingingly described someone else’s architectural design as looking like ‘a cage for crickets’. So, he argued, Michelangelo was clearly striving to make his own work the opposite of that: to give it grandeur.

Now, in writing about Auerbach’s art, it is the intense laboriousness of his methods that are usually stressed: the way in which he has worked daily in his studio since the early 1950s, how for a long time he took just one day’s holiday per annum, spent on Brighton Pier, but eventually gave up that frivolity. Another frequent theme is the startling quantity of pigment he used in his early years — and understandably so, pictures such as ‘Head of E.O.W.’ (1961) have a greater thickness of impasto than almost any in art.

You have only to glance around the galleries at the Tate, however, to find majesty there too. ‘E.O.W., S.A.W. and J.J.W. in the Garden’ (1963), for example, has the presence and dignity of an ancient Egyptian sculpture. Except, of course, that it’s obviously a picture of a modern woman and a couple of children in a suburban backyard.

Auerbach’s work often combines those two qualities. On the one hand, there’s a geometric power that reduces a north London street scene such as ‘Looking Towards Mornington Crescent Station’ (1972–4) to a series of bold slashing and intersecting brush strokes. ‘Flag-like’ is a term he’s used to describe the result he tries to achieve.

On the other hand, this is palpably an everyday corner of Camden — a few streets of which have provided Auerbach with subject matter for half a century rather in the way that John Constable got one marvellous painting after another from a few hundred yards of the River Stour. As it happens, Constable is another predecessor about whom Auerbach has mused. He has described the way that, by depicting such things as rotten planks and slimy posts, Constable was ‘blatantly shoving rubbish into our faces’ but at the same time making ‘grand, Michelangelo-esque compositions’ from this riverbank detritus.

With an Auerbach painting, it’s not so much that rubbish is being shoved in your face, more that you are made hyper-aware of the texture and weight of what you are looking at. This is the task the paint performs, and it’s a sensation that is not transmitted well in photographs. Of course, it’s always true with good paintings that you can only judge them properly when you are standing in front of the original. But it’s doubly true with an Auerbach, because the surface and substance of the paint counts for so much.

Over decades, that astonishing early impasto slowly thinned; some recent pictures such ‘Hampstead Road, Summer Haze’ (2010) have a positively light, airy quality. All the way through, though, the paint does the same job, which is to make you sense the weight and presence of what you are looking at.

At first glance, or even second and third, an Auerbach can be hard to ‘read’. That is, it is difficult to decode what you are actually looking at. This difficulty comes from Auerbach’s effort to hit different targets simultaneously: intense realism and almost abstract grandeur, while conveying a sense of novelty as of something seen for the first time.

If you persist, though, the flurry of brush strokes and even — in the case of a ‘Studio with Figure on a Bed II’ (1966) — worms of pigment squeezed straight out of the tube usually begin to give a sense of real solid objects, ‘recalcitrant things’, as he once put it, that you might ‘bump into in the dark’.

This is an occasion for counting the years, 64 of them now, amounting to one of the great marathons in the history of art. The curator, Catherine Lampert, has been posing for the artist once a week since 1978, a remarkable record of fidelity in itself; she has done a beautiful job on this retrospective. Everything — the mid-grey wall colour, the sparse hang — feels just right.

Auerbach’s old friend Lucian Freud once remarked that ‘when one’s doing something concerned with quality, a whole lifetime doesn’t seem enough’. But, in this case, it has been sufficient. Auerbach has won his long tussle with paint and reality, again and again. With this exhibition, he joins the masters.

Originally published in The Spectator