Review: Ai Weiwei’s RA Show Mixes Wit With Terror

The floor is covered with massive rusted iron reinforcing bars, neatly arranged, parallel to one another. Viewed from above, they form a sort of rolling landscape of hills and valleys. But it is a terrain spit by a sharp discontinuity – a fault line – running half way through it. Look again, and those hills could be vibrating with shock waves.

This is “Straight” (2008-9), one of the most powerful works in the career retrospective by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy, London. If it looks like a land convulsed by some cataclysm, that’s probably intentional. Those iron bars were extracted from buildings that had collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake of May 12 2008, and then carefully re-straightened in Ai Weiwei’s studio (hence the title).

About 90,000 people died that day, including a large number of children – due, it was widely believed, to the poor building standards of public buildings such as schools (constructed, according Chinese street speak, from materials as feeble as tofu). The names of 5,000 pupils who were crushed under flimsy classrooms are inscribed around the walls of the gallery.

“Straight” and its accompanying work, “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens Investigation” (2008-11) represent the complexity and force of Ai Weiwei’s art at its best. His influences are eclectic, garnered from both east and west.

Formally, a piece such as “Straight” reminds you of American minimalists, particularly Carl André, the first to make art by arranging metal on the floor. And indeed, Ai Weiwei was profoundly affected by the 12 years he spent in the US from 1981, both politically and artistically.

He claims his fundamental influence to have been Marcel Duchamp (a witty homage to the inventor of the ready-made, in the form of a coat-hanger bent into the aquiline contours of Duchamp’s profile, is the only work in the show from prior to Ai’s return to China in 1993). But Duchamp wasn’t particularly interested in making massively sculptural works, and Ai clearly is. When he does so, as with “Straight,”the inspirations tend to be American artists who were prominent in the 1960s and 1970s – that is, just before Ai arrived in Manhattan.

Formally speaking, at least from outside, “S.A.C.R.E.D.” (2012) looks at first glance like something derived from the school of Richard Serra. Externally it consists of a set of big oxidized iron tanks. But there is a fundamental difference. Inside, Ai Weiwei has put – quite literally – his own life and suffering. Peer though little openings in those metallic boxes, and you see tableaux of the artist’s existence during the 81 days of imprisonment he endured in 2011. There is Ai, handcuffed and being interrogated, supervised by guards when taking a shower, on the toilet, sleeping in his cell.

This is his most powerful creation to date. But the strategy – inserting his own life, political protest, and culture into an idiom devised by New York modernists – recurs again and again. Several of his earlier pieces recall Richard Artschwager’s transformations of furniture into art and Gordon Matta-Clark’s slicing up of architectural spaces. Again, however, the content is different: partly autobiographical, partly to do with the jarring collision of traditional Chinese culture and the contemporary world. This helps explain why he apparently made little during his 12 years in the U.S. He didn’t have much new to say in terms of form; the novelty is expressing Oriental themes and feelings into this Occidental language.

When he made furniture into sculpture, such as “Table with Three Legs” (2011) the raw material was antique woodwork from the Qing dynasty. That is, objects that spoke of the Imperial and Confucian past, but chopped up and reconfigured into a novel shape.

Famously, he photographed himself “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1996), an ancient object which was smashed to pieces. Other pieces consist of Han and Neolithic ceramics painted with the bright shades of color field abstraction (or a shop sign). He inscribed the Coca Cola logo on an 1800 year old vase. Of course, the point is that what Ai does to a few pots (of which numerous duplicates exist), is happening to the whole nation: abrupt modernization and, in the cultural revolution, deliberate destruction.

Is Ai Weiwei the most important contemporary Chinese artist? To paraphrase the words of Zhou Enlai when asked the consequences of the French Revolution: it’s too early to say. There are others, particularly painters, whose work may have staying power. But Ai is unique in the way he spans east and west, in his personal bravery and capacity to command a global audience. His work is uneven, and consequently so is this exhibition. At his best he is at once witty, chilling and compelling.

First published by Blouin Artinfo

“Dansaekhwa” Shows Context is Everything in Venice Collateral Event

Context is everything, even in abstraction. That is the message of an intriguing exhibition titled “Dansaekhwa,” which is currently at the Palazzo Contarini-Polignac, Venice (a collateral event of the Biennale). Dansaekhwa is a Korean word meaning “single color painting.”

The artists involved were mainly born in the 1920s and 30s, making them contemporaries of westerners such as Yves Klein (1928 – 1962) or Frank Stella (born 1936). In several ways — a use of a highly restricted palette of one color or, at most two, and a complete elimination of the illusion of space — the paintings in Dansaekhwa look quite like the more austere varieties of occidental abstract painting.

But the same paint-mark can mean something quite different in another cultural tradition. In eastern art, calligraphy and painting have always been closely allied. A single gesture of a brush may be form a letter (or part of one); or a similar mark might represent, say, the petal of a lotus. This is the background to the art of the seven Korean artists in the exhibition.

A work by Lee Ufan in the show from his series “From Line” (1979) consists of a series of parallel, vertical strokes, running from the top of a canvas to the bottom. It looks, and is, minimalist. It is also, however, a remarkable exercise in painterly control. Each stroke begins at the top with a fully loaded brush, then — as the pigment slowly runs out — it becomes thinner and thinner, and traces of the individual bristles appear.

Simultaneously, almost imperceptibly, the color changes from a solid blue at the start to wispy yellow at the lower extremity. Each of these long streaks of paint looks as if it was achieved with one continuous movement of the artist’s arm — and, in fact, Lee Ufan, never requires more than three for a single paint line. Executing such a work is an exercise in meditative concentration.

The strokes are all fundamentally the same, but endlessly varied in the detailed striations made by the brush within each larger stripe. In this way picture puts you in mind of classical Chinese paintings of bamboo. Each cane and leaf in such a picture is, naturally, rather like the rest; but conversely every single one has its own distinctive energy and identity.

Internationally, Lee Ufan (born 1936) is the best-known of these artists. But the others have similar qualities. Kwon Young Woo (1926-2013) used traditional oriental media such as ink and paper to abstract effect, although some of his works, too, have a look of bamboo. Chung Sang-Hwa (born 1932) folds his canvas to crack the paint layer, creating random lines. Of course, an appreciation of the effects of chance — in the dribbles of glaze on certain Japanese ceramics, for example, has long been an aspect of Eastern art.

In a quiet contemplative way, this is an intriguing exhibition: a demonstration of how eastern and western artists — like those brushstrokes of Lee Ufan — can be at the same time similar, and utterly unalike.

First published by Blouin Artinfo

Peggy Guggenheim Exhibition Dispels Myths of Jackson Pollock’s “Mural”

At the beginning of 1944, Jackson Pollock returned to New York City. He had promised to paint an enormous mural for Peggy Guggenheim. With only a week to go before the deadline, the canvas was still blank. Eventually, after ordering his partner Lee Krasner out of their apartment, in a creative frenzy he painted the whole huge surface in one. In the morning he phoned up Guggenheim, “quite hysterical.” The picture was taken round to her apartment but turned out to be slightly too large for the appointed spot, so — on the advice of Marcel Duchamp, who was on hand — eight inches were snipped off.

Unfortunately for lovers of artistic legend, almost none of the above is true. Rather than producing this masterpiece in a single, nocturnal burst, scholars have now established that Pollock spent months on it. Nor, according to technical evidence, were scissors ever applied (with or without Duchamp’s approval). What remains true is that this was the first monument of abstract expressionism. So it is highly fitting that the great “Mural” is currently on show in an exhibition at the museum founded by his patron: the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.

This is a small display (until November 16) but it gives some illuminating clues as to what lay behind Pollock’s breakthrough, as does an excellent accompanying book by the curator, David Anfam, who en passant demolishes the legends narrated above.

In Venice “Mural,” on loan from its usual home at the University of Iowa, hangs beside a much later painting by Robert Motherwell, and two other Pollocks from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Motherwell, another leading abstract expressionist, believed that painting “Mural” was in which Pollock’s “catalytic moment.”

The two Pollocks chart his position before and afterwards. The first, “The Moon Woman” (1942) still belongs to the Surrealist world of Max Ernst and Miró. There is still, just discernibly, a person at the heart of the picture, though she is in the process of vanishing into a multitude of signs and symbols.  “Alchemy” (1947) is a dense skein of dribbles and flying filaments of pigment that flicker across the canvas like electrical discharges or the network of neurons and synapses in the brain.

“Mural” (1943) stands in between.  Pollock had not yet developed his “drip” technique of pouring and throwing paint, on the other hand, the figure has gone — from the painting if not from Pollock’s mind. Anfam analyses the various ingredients that may have contributed to the picture, concluding that “Mural” is — to use a Freudian term — “over-determined.” That is, there were more causes than were necessary to produce it.

This is sometimes the case with artists. Vincent van Gogh’s mind was buzzing with references and symbols when he painted “La Berceuse” around Christmas 1888 (mutilating his ear before finishing the picture). Few, if any, however are detectable in the actual work. It is rather similar with “Mural.” With this painting, Pollock finally digested his multitudinous influences — including Mexican painters such as Siqueiros, American Regionalism, Picasso, and the Surrealists — then moved up to a new, unexplored territory.

There may have been imagery in his mind; later he said that he had had a “vision” of a stampede of horses in the Western USA from which Pollock hailed (he was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912). But neither the herd of mustangs he described, nor the dancers other have discerned are truly there. What you can see is what Pollock’s own phrase — and the show’s title — proclaims: energy made visible. Or, to put it another way, movement separated from any specific moving person, animal or thing.

In the next room to Mural itself are shown contemporary photographs by Gjon Mili, Herbert Matter, Barbara Morgan, and others that used various techniques including strobe lighting and multiple exposures to register moving figures. Some such as Mili’s “Figure Skater Carol Lynne” (1945), which traces the twirling path the athlete took across the ice, do indeed look very much like Pollock’s flying strands of paint.

Concurrently, there is a retrospective devoted to the work of Pollock’s big brother, Charles (until Sept 14).  A decade older than Jackson, Charles Pollock (1902-88) outlived him by over 30 years. In some ways his career was parallel. During the 1930s he worked in a figurative idiom, took the leap into abstraction in the 1940s, and continued to work in various abstract styles until the early 1980s. Some of these — particularly the monochrome works done in Italy in 1962-3 are impressive. But the elder Pollock sibling never quite attained the intensity that makes Jackson’s finest work so exhilarating, even uplifting.

Perhaps the tale of the painting of “Mural” in one frantic night’s activity, though mythical, points at a larger truth. To make paintings of that degree of novelty and power, possibly he needed to be in a state of extraordinary concentration, even frenzied. With Pollock, as with Van Gogh, one senses that the mental states that led to such creativity were also tormenting. But Anfam also puts to rest the legend that the car crash that killed him in 1956 was a kind of suicide. According to the painter Clyfford Still the car Pollock was driving — given to him by Peggy Guggenheim in exchange for a painting, “wasn’t balanced right,” it couldn’t handle bends.

First published by Blouin Artinfo

Witness a Fleeting “Paradise” Through Cy Twombly’s Eyes in Venice

American artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011) devoted the years 2006 to 2008 to painting flowers — but what flowers! The depiction of blossoms and blooms might sound a bit placid, almost antiquarian activity. Until, that is, you have stood in front of a picture such as “Roses IV” (2008), on view in the exhibition “Cy Twombly: Paradise” at the Ca’Pesaro, Venice until September 22. These are huge floral Catherine wheels of paint, the size of targets, made with flaring brush marks of scarlet, purple, and yellow which drip streams of pigment — like blood — down the light blue background.

“Paradise” is billed as a full career retrospective, which indeed it is. The treatment of the painter’s earlier career, however, is somewhat perfunctory. The interest of the Venice exhibition — a medium-sized affair, presented in splendid 17th century rooms designed by the master of the Venetian baroque, Baldassarre Longhena — lies in the way it puts some of the artist’s very last works in the foreground.

It suggests an intriguing proposition: Twombly might actually have got better in high old age. He certainly became bolder. The grand central salon of the palazzo is dominated by paintings from the series Twombly entitled Camino Real from 2010. These were not quite his final works, but almost. This was his penultimate group of pictures, done at the age of 82.

They fizz with energy, and bound off the walls: big spattering loops of red and yellow against green background. In terms of color this is a crashing, Van Gogh chord. In line it elevates a loose, hand written scribble to a monumental scale. Twombly’s art had always been concerned with the question how much could be expressed by how little (that was one of the most modernist things about him).

From the 1950s — in works such as “Panorama” (1955) — Twombly had used a line like that of somebody doodling with a pen. These were perhaps descended, art historically, from the skeins of paint to be found in the abstract expressionist works of Jackson Pollock and others. But they also looked like writing, and often Twombly would inscribe words on his pictures (lines of poetry by Rilke, for example, on the Rose series of 2008).

Early Twombly inclined to monochrome sobriety, but bit by bit, color crept in, frequently in the form of blobs and patches like wounds or flowers. He also found ways to depict things with loose, gestural strokes of the brush. The two paintings in the Venice exhibition entitled “Landscape” (1986) seem like a commentary on a tradition running from Titian, through Constable to Monet. So much Western art had turned on the way in which oil paint, manipulated by a cunning hand, can be made to metamorphose into grass and trees, light, and air.

In these Twomblys, and others from same the period, there are none of the usual markers — a building, fence, or passer-by, that usually clues as to what and where you are looking at. There is just a mass of tangled green, and a lighter zone, yet still it somehow turns into foliage plus sky or water.

Twombly was an ecstatic painter, or to use the word he chose himself, a “lyrical” one. In an extremely rare interview — he generally avoided journalists, critics, and all forms of publicity — he told Nicholas Serota something about his working process. He didn’t mind going for months without entering the studio, waiting patiently the right impetus. Then, he would think for a long time before working very rapidly. “I sit two or three hours, and then in fifteen minutes I can do a painting.”

The point, though, was that there was a lot of thought involved. The same is true of other painters, such as Lucian Freud, whose process was very different. Painting might seem like manual work, but with great painters there is a surprisingly conceptual affair.

Sex, love, the way everything passes and dies, like a rose: these were among Twombly’s subjects. Art, he thought, provided a sort of earthly paradise (hence the title). The speed of execution is part of the point; what you are looking at is the briefest of moments. The blooming rose is fading even as you see it on the wall, and the man who painted it knew he was dying. Perhaps that’s why Twombly’s works, and particularly the late ones, look at home in Venice the city of passing pleasure, beauty, and decay.

First published by Blouin Artinfo

Frieze Masters Shines With Unexpected Juxtapositions

LONDON — How to describe Frieze Masters? Think of a free market version of Tate Modern, the National Gallery, the British Museum, and the V&A, all collaged together inside a tent. It’s enormous — though not so vast as the original Frieze, across Regent’s Park to the south — and scattered with gorgeous objects dating from around 3,000 BC to now.

The best thing about it is wildly unexpected, even nutty, juxtapositions of items that, in conventional art history, have nothing in common whatsoever. This occurs particularly on the stalls occupied by two dealers specializing in divergent fields.

Thus Karsten Schubert makes a nicely odd couple with the Tomasso Brothers, producing a display of Bridget Riley’s trademark curvilinear abstractions next to renaissance and classical marble sculptures. I’m still wondering why it works, but it does.

Similarly wacky exercises in art historical compare-and-contrast are to be seen in the space that is shared by Peter Freeman and Kunstkammer Georg Laue. The latter contributes a chamber of curiosities items, including a marvellous display of racquets used for the game of pallone, but resembling spiked sculptures by Brancusi. There’s also a jointed lay-figure of the kind used as an ever-patient model by 18th-century artists, but looking distinctly surreal. Nearby, just as curious in their way, are minimalist drawings by Agnes Martin.

Hauser & Wirth team up with Moretti, so a gleaming, rather phallic modernist bronze by Hans Arp (a.k.a. Jean Arp) confronts a 15th-century Italian cassone panel. That Arp, from a more orthodox point of view — early modernism famously being inspired by ancient and non-European cultures — might have had something in common with some of the fabulous things at Rupert Wace. Among these are a large Cypriot pot, various Bactrian ritual objects also with a strongly phallic look, and a pre-dynastic Egyptian vessel, all from the third millennium BC.

As I walked around, my eye was often caught by the older and odder things. At Sam Fogg, a leader in the medieval stakes, I was stopped in my tracks by a brass chandelier from the Southern Netherlands, c. 1480-1520, which is a dead ringer for the celebrated light fitting in Van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait.” At Helly Nahmad is a rather different sort of artistic inspiration: recreations of heavily graffitied interiors from the mental institutions visited by Jean Dubuffet in the 1940s, when formulating his style based on the art of the insane. Opposite is a selection works by the artist.

At least one exhibition managed to combine antiquity and classic modern in one piece: part of a focussed exhibition of works byMichelangelo Pistoletto from 1958-61 at Galleria Continua features a cast of a classical bronze orator facing his own reflection in a gigantic mirror.

There are plenty of museum-class objects on show, ranging over 5,000 years. Bridget Riley is not the only living artist given spotlight treatment. Marlborough Fine Art has, naturally enough, an array of works by Frank Auerbach, including a fine charcoal portrait of his friend and fellow artist Leon Kossoff from 1950, which actually predates the earliest piece in the current Tate retrospective.

There’s also a splendid Sickert of the Church of St Jacques, Dieppe, at the Fine Art Society; fine Florentine sculpture at Bacarelli and Botticelli; and an intriguing display of early Christo — emerging from pop art and abstract painting — at Annely Juda. Indeed, there’s far too much worth looking at to list here. A dealer I was chatting with suggested that Frieze Masters is now the best London art fair — better than Frieze itself. Obviously he’s not an unbiased witness, but I suspect he’s right.

First published by Blouin Artinfo

Two London Retrospectives Chart Frank Auerbach’s Career in Paint

There are “certain painters,” Frank Auerbach mused to me a few years ago, “who painted in a not very distinguished way, then at the point of turning toward abstraction, painted some distinguished pictures.” Kandinsky, Auerbach went on, was a “prime example” of what he meant. But when Kandinsky “crossed over” completely into abstraction, “the paintings became rather mediocre again.” So, the young Auerbach thought, “the thing to do is to cross that border again and again and again.”

He’s been doing so now for more than 60 years. This month a retrospective exhibition of his work opens at Tate Britain in London as well as at Marlborough 
Fine Art. It will present the work of an artist who, in certain ways, has been astonishingly consistent in what he has done and how he has done it. Auerbach, for example, moved into his current
studio in March 1954, and has drawn and painted there virtually every day since. Famously, he hardly ever travels and
is even reluctant to leave the corner of London north of Regent’s Park, where
he has been established for six decades.

His subjects, too, are almost unchanging. They consist of landscapes, generally within walking distance
of that studio, and a handful of people. Catherine Lampert, the author of an outstanding new book—Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting (Thames & Hudson)—began sitting for him regularly in May 1978. She still is, for one evening each week, all these years later. The other human subjects of his pictures—friends, family, and lovers—have been equally long serving.

Before his last retrospective, 14 years ago—the opening was on the evening of September 11, 2001—Auerbach reflected ruefully to me about the unremitting pattern of his life: “I couldn’t face the idea of being an employee in a job, but the freedom and the excitement of the activity [of art] have forced me into a far more rigid, seven-day-a-week routine than I would have been in if I had
gone into something more sensible.”

Yet along with this restriction, there is great variety and suspense. Each picture, for Auerbach, is a struggle lasting months and years that he often doubts he will win. “It seems to me that one of the differences between interesting and uninteresting painters is that interesting painters start anew every time they paint a picture, and
I try to do that.” The corollary of this policy is that it never gets any easier. Each work seems “totally impossible,” but he battles on “until some miracle occurs” (though
he often fears that it never will again).

The reason it is so hard is that Auerbach is trying for something extremely elusive. His remark about Kandinsky’s “crossing the border” hints at what this is. So, too, does a comment quoted by Lampert. To her, Auerbach cited a phrase by Robert Frost about his own verse: “I want the poem to be like ice on a stove—riding on its own melting.” A great painting, Auerbach continued, is like that: “a shape riding on its own melting into light and space; it never stops moving backwards and forwards.”

In other words, he is attempting to capture something that is always sliding off in one direction into abstraction, in the other into a figurative image that is predigested, tired, and derivative. Or, as he once put it to me, there are “certain configurations on canvas that feel organic and alive and quivering, and others that seem inert.” When it’s said like that, one begins to see why Auerbach’s pictures are hard to do.

They are also difficult to comprehend. The subjects are not recondite: a naked body on a bed, a human face, a London street, or—in a series of works from the 1950s—the building sites of the capital. But the image is sometimes far from easy to discover, lost as it may initially seem in an immense thickness of paint (in his earlier works) or a flurry of angular brushstrokes.

Lucian Freud, the owner of a magnificent array of Auerbach’s works and a lifelong friend of the painter, once confided to me that he had initially found it hard to read Auerbach’s later pictures. After a while he had got it. I myself found that the paintings by Auerbach hung throughout Freud’s house—holding their own with others by Corot, Constable, and Francis Bacon—acquired almost hypnotic verisimilitude with familiarity.

At first, you might see only a gnarled tangle of pigment. Eventually, however, they produced an overpowering sense not of the surfaces and textures of things, but of their physical presence. This is one of the responses Auerbach is after. “If
you are in bed with somebody,” he once explained to me, “you are aware of their substance in some way in terms of weight. I actually think that is the difference between good paintings and less good ones, in whatever idiom.”

The extraordinary aspect of Auerbach’s career, apart from its consistency and dedication, is how early he found himself. He began, through a terrible tragedy as a teenager, more or less adrift in postwar London. Born in Berlin in 1931, he last saw his parents when they said goodbye to him on the dockside at Hamburg in 1939. He sailed to England and was educated at Bunce Court, a progressive boarding school that sheltered a number of refugee Jewish children.

His parents were murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. At 16, on leaving school, Auerbach found himself effectively alone—and very quickly found his identity as a major painter. “I was born old,” he has said, “and I wanted to make a great, dignified, perverse image, a formal image.” His breakthrough was in the summer of 1952, when he was just 21. It came in two pictures. One was a seated nude done from Stella West, his lover for a number of years; the other, a building site near her house. In the former, because Auerbach was painting not an art-school model but a person he knew intimately, he had—as he told the late Robert Hughes—“a much greater sense of what specifically she was like, so that the question of getting a likeness was like walking a tightrope.” He had “a far more poignant sense of it slipping away, of it being hard to get.” Auerbach began the painting “relatively timidly.” Then, “I suddenly found in myself enough courage to repaint the whole thing from top to bottom, irrationally and instinctively, and I found I’d got a picture of her.” This was the template—in its slow gestation, then resolution in a crisis—for all his later works. It is tempting to connect Auerbach’s endless search for stability, his drive to capture the flux of life before it slips away, with the brutal trauma of his childhood. Tempting, but perhaps superficial. As an artist Auerbach is an individual, but he belonged—however loosely—to a group. His elders among postwar figurative painters included Bacon and Alberto Giacometti, both of whom he knew; Freud and Leon Kossoff were numbered among his close friends. For long periods Auerbach himself seemed out of fashion and out of step. Now, increasingly, it is becoming clear that, like Freud and Bacon, he is one of the truly great painters of this age.

First published by Blouin Artinfo

The Fabulous Theatrics of Veronese at London’s National Gallery

I don’t think the National Gallery has ever looked better. For “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice” (through June 15), many of the grandest rooms in the building have been cleared of their normal contents. Instead they are hung with a simply staggering sequence of loans to the exhibition: on view are pictures that one would never have believed would ever leave Italy and France.

Everything about it works. The scale and mood of the paintings fit the ornate classicism of the architecture, the mid-grey color the walls have been painted sets off Veronese’s palate to perfection. You walk out convinced he was truly a great painter. A more intriguing question is what kind of artist Veronese (1528-88) — Paolo Caliari, or alternatively Bazaro (his humble father’s name, which he dropped) — really was. Beside the door of the first gallery in gold lettering you read the resounding, if slightly back-handed judgement of Bernard Berenson. “It may be doubted whether, as a mere painter, Paolo Veronese has ever been surpassed.”

There were depths the artist did not investigate. The spiritual grandeur of Rembrandt, violent drama of Caravaggio, and carnal sense of flesh and mortality that fills the work of his older Venetian contemporary Titian: all these were out of his range. What Veronese painted best — in modern terms — were parties. But what festivities! These are feasts and pageants displaying the whole pleasure and opulence of life.

“The Supper at Emmaus,” circa 1555, from the Louvre was one of his earliest masterpieces. It depicts the moment when two disciples recognized the resurrected Jesus while sharing a simple meal. The three holy figures are all there, at the table, but Veronese has surrounded them with a jostling, extended aristocratic family: husband, wife, lots of children, servants, a baby, an older uncle or father. Front and center, two young girls play with a marvellous reclining dog.

This sort of thing might seem a bit too frivolous to be devout. Indeed, the figure of Christ is — as art — quite a bit duller than the household pets (early on it was noted that dogs were one of Veronese’s specialities). Veronese famously got into trouble with the Inquisition for the amount of extraneous detail he put into his religious pictures, but as you walk around, you realize he was not insincere. His rich textiles, vigorously healthy people, and noble animals added up a vision of how the world should be.

Suffering and death were not really his subjects. “The Martyrdom of Saint George,” circa 1565, is one of his masterpieces — the catalog calls it “arguably Veronese’s finest work.” But it does not dwell on torture and decapitation. The saint — flanked by two of Veronese’s trademark horse observers — approaches his fate with equanimity. The picture shifts seamlessly into a vision of heaven, opening out above.

Veronese has been accused of being “theatrical,” and so he was, in a fabulous fashion. His pictures take place on sets made up of stately classical architecture, borrowed from the Roman remains of his native Verona (in later life he moved to Venice). And they are animated by light and color. The Pharaoh’s daughter in “The Finding of Moses” is spot-lit, so her gold and white brocade dress shimmers. That’s a favorite effect. Veronese was a magician with white. “The Martyrdom of Saint George” is a patchwork of gleaming clouds and marble columns, set against blue sky. The highpoints of many pictures are richly embroidered clothes and sunlit flesh.

He was a master of lighting, therefore also of shadow. The soft shade that covers the chained nude’s body in “Perseus and Andromeda,” circa 1575-80, is a good example. Towards the end of Veronese’s life, the shadows seem to deepen. His last dated work, “The Conversion of Saint Pantaleon,” 1587, is somber by Veronese’s standards but, still, a divine glow from above offers hope and reassurance.

On the back of a drawing, Veronese once jotted an aspiration. If he ever had time, he wrote, he “would like to represent a magnificent banquet under a noble loggia.” There the Holy Family — the Virgin, Christ Child, and St. Joseph — would be waited on by “the richest cortège of angels that one can imagine,” serving “regal food,” such as “sumptuous fruits in silver and gold dishes.” Though he never painted this exact picture, he succeeded spectacularly in his ambition. No one has ever transformed religious art into such superb scenes of worldly splendor.

This exhibition does not present his entire achievement. Naturally, the frescoes are absent, and there is little sense of the aerial fantasy of his Venetian ceilings. Veronese’s very largest pictures, such as the “Marriage at Cana” in the Louvre, really are too big to move. But what is on display here is absolutely overwhelming.

First published at Blouin Artinfo

Renaissance Woodcuts at the Royal Academy

The communications revolution changed everything, including art: a statement that was just as true in 1514 as it is 500 years later. What transformed the world back then was printing, and some of the results are on view in “Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts From the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna” (Royal Academy, London until June 8). They are as beautiful as they are unfamiliar.

On display are prints that look like brush drawings and even paintings. These are some of the earliest multiples in European art, available — astonishingly — in a choice of what interior decorators call “colorways.” A collector in the 1520s could buy “Diogenes” (c. 1527) by Parmigianino and Ugo da Carpi, for example, in a variety of modes: with the shadows in olive-green and blue, two shades of green or light and dark brown.

They all look terrific (though I’d go for the first), because this is a masterpiece of mannerist art. The figure of the ancient Greek philosopher is at once fantastic, inventive and comic. He is seated, almost naked, with books laid out in front of him. As he turns, his hair, beard and cloak billow in the air. Behind him stands a huge plucked cockerel, fixing the viewer with one beady eye. The bird is the punchline of the piece; Diogenes was said to have been responding to Plato’s definition of human beings as “featherless bipeds” by producing a plucked chicken and announcing “Here is a man!”

“Diogenes” was a collaboration between a great painter, Parmigianino, and a master technician, da Carpi. The first produced the design, the second transferred it onto four woodblocks, that – when precisely superimposed in the final image – produced the effect not just of line, but also of differing tones. One block was for black lines, others for lighter and darker shadows.

The result was novel in several ways. It was a way of reproducing an image that could be cheaper than an original drawing or painting. More people could own a copy, and the image could be distributed widely, five centuries before Google Images. Some of the works in this show are so close to brush-drawings that it’s hard to believe that’s not what you are looking at. A number are reproductions of famous works by artists such as Raphael; there is even one showing a sculpture by Giovanni Bologna from three points of view: effectively a 3D image.

Chiaroscuro woodblocks were a brilliant innovation, so it’s not surprising that da Carpi tried to patent it; nor to discover that, like many people who want to take out a patent, he was not the actual inventor. Chiaroscuro prints were first made in Germany around 1507, but the technique quickly spread to Italy; another point this exhibition makes is how fast artistic ideas could travel in the Renaissance. Later in the 16th century, Northern artists like Hendrick Goltzius borrowed the process back, copying the Italian style and producing some splendid works on view at the end of the show.

The process of playing around with new media and swapping ideas across frontiers seems very modern. Perhaps that’s one reason why these prints appeal so much to the contemporary painter Baselitz, who has been collecting them since the ’60s and owns many of the works on display.

First published at Blouin Artinfo

An Artist’s Triumph: Henri Matisse’s Cut-Outs at Tate Modern

There is a film at the opening of the enormous and ebullient exhibition “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at Tate Modern (April 17-September 7). It shows the great man busy at an activity on which he had spent much of his long life: drawing. However, he is not doing so with pen, charcoal, or pencil — but with a pair of scissors. And that made all the difference. In his late 70s and early 80s, Matisse discovered a novel medium, not quite like painting, drawing, or low relief. Essentially he was making works out of segments of colored paper pre-painted by assistants.

These cut-outs were a daring development for such a venerable artist, so late in his career. Even as his life ebbed away, Matisse (1869-1954) continued to be hugely excited about the possibilities of his discovery, filled with ambition and immensely productive. Giacometti, who drew Matisse’s portrait during the old man’s last summer, commented that he was moved to see “a great artist still so absorbed in trying to create when death was at his door… when there was no longer time.”

One of the striking things about this exhibition is that the scale and the daring of the works increase as you walk around, almost until the end. “The Snail” (1953) is effectively an abstract, though as Matisse was careful to explain, an abstraction “rooted in reality.” He had begun by drawing and observing a real mollusc, then it slowly morphed into a “purified sign for a snail,” “an unfolding” in which irregular, roughly rectangular chunks of color seem to turn though space — mauve, green, yellow, orange, blue, and black (the last of which Matisse famously insisted was a color too). It’s majestically stable yet full of movement.

The same is true of “Memory of Oceania” (summer 1952-early 1953), except this is yet looser and more dynamic — evoking the experience of diving into tropical waters, as Matisse himself had in 1930 when he travelled to Tahiti and swam among corals and brightly colored fish. A number of the cut-outs have that hidden wistfulness: they are images of movement and energy, created by an elderly artist confined to a wheelchair. But you would scarcely guess it, from these reflections of joie de vivre.

It was no accident that Matisse made that pilgrimage to the South Pacific in the footsteps of Gauguin. For much of his career he wrestled with an idea that begins with a picture such as Gauguin’s “Vision After the Sermon” (1888). That is: how to make space and volume not with perspective and shadows, but out of pure color. In the series of Blue Nudes from 1952, Matisse does exactly that with amazing economy and force. Simply by cutting lines and contours in a piece of paper, he creates three-dimensional bodies with a melodic flow of limbs and air circulating around them.

In the films on show, you can watch as Matisse snips rapidly and fluently around a form, in a process which felt so free and daring that he once compared it to flight. You could think of the results — a mosaic of paper shapes, eventually glued to a background — as very thin sculpture. The three dimensional aspect is important, though it’s only a matter of a milometer or two: paper-thin. You can see that early on in the exhibition by comparing the maquettes for the illustrated book “Jazz” (1947) with the final printed version. The original cut-outs have much more punch and presence, as Matisse himself acknowledged.

In old age, Matisse was anticipating the future in several ways. Effectively, in the initial stages when the colored forms were simply pinned to the walls of his rooms in Nice, the cut-outs were installations — long before that term was invented. “The Snail” is effectively an example of color-field abstraction, an avant-garde movement represented by American painters such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland; but in 1953 it didn’t yet exist. The late Anthony Caro was happy to accept the description “Matissey” for his own work of the 1960s, made of welded steel, painted in strong colors.

The Tate exhibition itself would have benefitted from at touch of another art movement of the ’60s: minimalism. Especially early on in the show, there are moments when the sheer numbers of small colorful and euphoric works on display jangle and cancel each other out. There is such a thing as too much joie de vivre.

Emotionally, the cut-outs might seem unremittingly upbeat. However, there were plenty of dark notes in Matisse’s own life. His marriage broke up in 1939; the following year he barely survived an operation that left him an invalid. His daughter Marguerite fought for the French Resistance and was captured, tortured, and narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis. But the point of his art, as far as Matisse was concerned, was not to reflect tragedy and suffering, but to escape into a world of exuberant light and form. In that he was hugely successful. These late works were a triumph: Matisse’s own internal victory over illness and age.

First published at Blouin Artinfo

“The Great War in Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery

At first glance, the idea of presenting a cataclysmic historical event such as the First World War in terms of pictures of people’s faces might seem quixotic. In practice it works beautifully. “The Great War in Portraits,” running at the National Portrait Gallery through June 15, manages to humanize the struggle between armies numbering millions, and simultaneously make a point about art.

At the center of this brilliantly-conceived little exhibition is a contrast between different kinds of image. On the one side are depictions of the powerful — generals, rulers, monarchs. Despite lethal political antagonisms, these are presented with stylistic uniformity: in a slick Edwardian idiom ultimately derived from Van Dyck and Titian. A few selected heroes — ace fighter pilots for example — also got this treatment.

William Orpen’s oil of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig from 1917 is a stylish example. The British commander-in-chief is seen as a John Buchan hero, a masterful but sensitive gleam in his eye, his moustaches elegantly curling, the trenches reduced to a little impressionistic smoke in the background. He does not seem unduly weighed down by the fact that the year before he had ordered an advance which resulted in 400,000 casualties on the British side alone (and had achieved almost nothing).

Almost all the leaders were recorded in this idiom, so they look as if they might be related. In the case of George V of Britain, the tsar, and the kaiser, they actually were. That is why, on signing the order mobilizing the German forces, the kaiser is said to have exclaimed, ‘To think George and Nicky [the tsar] should have played me false!” (He added that if their grandmother, Queen Victoria, had still been alive she would never have allowed it.)

In contrast, there are very different images of the mass of combatants. A wall of photographs memorializes a selection of these, famous and unknown, from all sides and many parts of the world. There, to take a random selection, is Lieutenant Walter Tull, the first person of Afro-Caribbean descent to become an officer in the British army; Elsie Knocker, an ambulance driver from Exeter; the Dutch dancer Mata Hari, who was shot as a spy; Baron von Richtofen, the German flying ace; and an unidentified member of the Maori contingent of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

This mass of faces is a poignant sight: most in their teens or 20s, many killed in action. The most shocking counterpoint to the portraits of the great, with their bravado brushwork, however, is the pictures of wounded soldiers whose faces have been smashed by bullets and high explosives. The photographs of these are so starkly horrific they are hard to look at, but the pastel drawings by Henry Tonks are something different. Conventional figurative painting can glamorize power, but Tonks shows it can also do a more mysterious job by rendering the terrible humanely and almost tenderly.

First published at Blouin Artinfo