Antony Gormley: ‘Renaissance thinking was wrong’

There is a superb prospect from the Forte di Belvedere in Florence. Below lies the jewel of the renaissance: a mass of brick and stone, churches and palaces, walls and towers. At any time this view attracts tourists snapping selfies, Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome looming behind them. But this spring there are other figures on the terrace, too: silent iron bodies. This is the site of Human, an exhibition by Antony Gormley.

When the invitation arrived to show his work in Florence, Gormley confesses, “It was a huge honour, to put it mildly, and a challenge I could not refuse.” For a sculptor this city is, after all, one of the most significant places on earth, the home of Donatello and Michelangelo, Cellini and Giambologna. What Gormley has produced is a sort of personal commentary on Florence, and on the ideas and ideals that it still stands for.

Gormley’s metallic people have colonised the Forte. On the lower terrace, a sequence of figures is arranged in a line – much like those illustrations one used to see of the ascent of man from ape to Homo sapiens. It begins with a man crouched over, face pressed to the ground and progresses though sitting, kneeling and standing. The final sentinel stands, as if to attention, with the city spread out beneath him.

These are components of Critical Mass (1995) which comprises multiple figures in 12 basic postures, all derived from plastic casts of Gormley’s own body. This was the manner in which many of his earlier sculptures were made; in recent years, he has tended instead to use computer scanning and different people as a starting point for his figures (one of his early proposals for Florence called for 100 works based on the physiques of volunteer citizens and placed on the city’s skyline).

On the other side of the Forte’s terrace, a pile of Gormleys are jumbled together like the victims of some disaster. Elsewhere in the fortress, Gormley people are placed here and there. One huddles in the entrance tunnel, like a homeless person imploring passers-by for spare change. Others are “crying” – to use Gormley’s word – against a wall, slumped in corners or sitting idly swinging their legs.

“The idea of the show,” Gormley tells me, “is to ask: what does it mean to be human today?” This question troubled the humanists at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent. One, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, wrote a celebrated Oration on the Dignity of Man in 1486. Its conclusions were later echoed by Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” This was an ideal that took visible form in Michelangelo’s David.

For Gormley, as for all sculptors, Michelangelo remains a crucial point of reference. He read The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone’s fictionalised biography of the master, when he was 12, “and that made a huge impression”. But as far as Gormley is concerned, the hopes and aspirations of the Florentine humanists have failed. “Renaissance thinking could be said to be the basis of the Enlightenment that happened over the following centuries. The idea was that through rational principles we would end up not only with a working technology but also with the social mechanisms for justice to happen. But it hasn’t.

“So in this show you have some figures that allude to progress or the perfectibility of man, an idea of evolution towards something better. Then opposite it, I’ve put an abject pile of the same figures, talking about the failure of that view.” Gormley is a pessimist who wants to “call into question what the human project is: us and our habitat that has cost the planet so much”.

Out of all Michelangelo’s marbles he singles out the last, unfinished Rondanini Pietà left in the great man’s studio when he died at the age of 88. The stark and moving carving – of the dead Christ suspended in the arms of Mary – could hardly be further from the triumphant, athletic David. Gormley sees it as a “meditation about life and death, and supporting each other in the inevitability of our demise. The whole thing becomes the question: whose body is it? Who is supporting whom? It becomes about gravity and the inevitable fashion in which all matter falls back to earth.”

He continues: “That’s in my work too: the idea that we are briefly earth above ground, but can’t escape the inevitable return to it. But that means something different in a time of global warming, in which we understand that we are upsetting seasonal time.”

The Forte di Belvedere itself is a symbol of what went wrong with the Florentine renaissance. In the middle ages the city was a republic, endlessly torn by factional quarrels, but birthplace to an astonishing number of outstanding writers, artists and thinkers. In the 16th century – after a siege in which Michelangelo acted as military architect for the Republican forces – the Medici family definitively took over, and cracked down.

This stronghold – constructed in the 1590s for Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’Medici – was one of two built ostensibly to defend the city from, but in reality to menace its inhabitants. From the terrace, Gormley points out, you cannot only contemplate a superb view, you could also if necessary fire at the population below.

Gormley wants the visitors to his exhibition to “feel the power and the paranoia”. But he also appreciates the way the star-shaped bastions and fortifications have been formed out of a steep rise above the Boboli Gardens. “In the way this whole hill has been turned into a sculpture,” Gormley explains. Effectively, he feels, this structure is a piece of late 16th-century land art.

The context, he notes, is half the work – and in this case maybe more. Part of his success as an artist has come, precisely, from inserting his work into unexpected places. The fate of the sculpture, historically, Gormley has pointed out, is that it has lost its home. The statue used to stand on a plinth or in a niche. But now, “It’s like a hermit crab that doesn’t know where it belongs.” A great deal of Gormley’s work has turned on finding new locations for these homeless figures, such as half-immersed in the waves at Crosby beach.

Gormley’s Another Place – comprising 100 naked men spread out along 4km of shore near the Mersey estuary – has been standing in the tides for a decade. Initially, this installation was controversial. None the less, what was intended as a temporary installation has become a permanent feature of the landscape.

This year and next, to mark another anniversary – the 50th birthday of the Landmark Trust – Gormley has conceived a series of works placed on the watery edges of Britain. The trust preserves historic buildings which the public can rent for holidays and short breaks. From these he has chosen four around the coast – a Martello Tower at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and others in Dorset, western Scotland and Lundy Island – where he will place “body-forms” on the shore or cliff. A fifth will be inland on the bank of a quiet canal in Warwickshire.

Although cast figures – seen in Another Place and on the terrace of the Forte – are what immediately come to mind when Gormley’s name is mentioned, he has produced a wide range of work. The Insiders (1997-2003) series, for instance, was made by reducing the volume of the human body to 30 per cent of its usual mass, while retaining dimensions such as height. The result was to produce spiky, spectral figures of a kind never quite seen before. To take another example, to make Quantum Cloud (1999) at Greenwich, a computer model was used to configure the mass of tetrahedral units into a 30m-high “cloud” in the centre of which the fuzzy form of a body seems to condense.

There is an echo of another Renaissance theme in a further series of works, which are also scattered around the Forte. He has long been fascinated by the idea of reducing the body to a sequence of geometric shapes; “pixilating” is the word he uses. The results suggest the Renaissance belief that all good architecture is derived from human anatomy. But Gormley reverses the process, turning bodies into something like architecture.

What all his sculptures have in common is that they refer to the human body, and – equally important – though at first it was derived from his own, it stands not for a god, ruler, general or saint, but for all of us. Of course, there is a fundamental difference between what Gormley does and what a Renaissance master did. They carved or modelled images of the body. Gormley has worked by casting, or more recently computer-scanning. As a result, he realises “for many people, I suppose I’m not making real art, I’m cheating”. But this goes to one of his basic tenets: “Why invent another body when you’ve got one already? I want something that is evidence of an event that happened in real time to a real body. It could be anybody; it could be you.”

That helps to explain why, despite taking an avowedly despondent view of the human condition, he is one of the most successful exponents of public sculpture in recent times. We are used to the notion that an emblematic building may help to transform the image of a place, but Gormley’s Angel of the North (1998) beside the A1 at Gateshead is one of the few pieces of contemporary art that can claim to have done so (equally, it is, perhaps uniquely for a work of sculpture, marked on maps).

Like all his works, it is not doing anything more than standing there, arms – transformed into aeroplane-like wings – outstretched. “Sculpture,” he believes, “is by its nature still. It’s like a standing stone that marks time and space, commanding us to witness and be witnessed.”

First published in the Daily Telegraph

Bernard Berenson by Rachel Cohen, review

Superficially, it might seem strange to draw a comparison between the contemporary artists Gilbert & George and the great critic and art historian Bernard Berenson. In one respect, however, there is a parallel. G&G famously transformed themselves into living sculptures; Berenson, or as he was known by his intimates, “BB”, revealed at the age of 92 that his ambition had been “to become a work of art myself”.

In this, as in his literary work, Berenson probably counted himself a failure. He was, however, an astonishingly successful flop: world famous, regarded as the ultimate authority on Italian Renaissance painting, and enjoying riches that few critics or art historians attain. Rachel Cohen, the author of this elegantly written biography, calculates that in the Twenties he was living in a style that today would require a fortune of £27 million. In some moods at least, Berenson regarded this wealth – and the way he got it – as just another way in which he had been diverted from the true path.

His was an existence of many incarnations – and many dissatisfactions. As Cohen nicely puts it, Berenson (1865-1959) was “a person whose capacity for metamorphosis approached that of a moth”. He was born Bernhard Valvrojenski to a Jewish family in Lithuania. When he was 10 they emigrated to Boston, where they took the name Berenson.

The family was poor. His father Albert, though a man of intellectual ambitions, was a pedlar. Somehow, however, by his late teens Berenson had turned himself into a spellbinding conversationalist on matters cultural and artistic. One day his father called, pack on back, at a house where his son was holding forth, but on hearing that BB was in the drawing room, he discreetly slipped away.

Throughout Berenson’s life his talk and his physical presence made a tremendous impact. Lee Radziwill, visiting with her sister, the future Jackie Kennedy, in 1951, found the octogenarian BB “one of the most fascinating men I ever knew”. She compared him to the Indian leader, Nehru, both being, “seductive mentally rather than physically”. Others, less completely convinced, compared him to Svengali or – in the case of his pupil Kenneth Clark – an “exquisite little conjurer”.

Berenson was minute but handsome, with – in youth – the flowing locks associated with Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement. Wisely, Cohen lists only the major affairs in BB’s immensely long and complex love life. He was still writing a stream of passionate love letters into high old age. For decades he lived at I Tatti, his villa outside Florence, in a fairly harmonious ménage à trois with his wife, Mary, and his librarian and mistress Nicky Mariano, while carrying on other liaisons.

His mesmerising powers seem to have worked more reliably on women than men. At Harvard, he attracted many admirers, but Charles Eliot Norton, the professor of Art History, was not among them (Norton’s judgment, that Berenson had “more ambition than ability”, rankled for the rest of BB’s life). As a result, when he graduated he did not receive the travelling fellowship he craved, but went to Europe with funds raised by rich supporters.

Soon he acquired a vast knowledge of art, particularly that of 15th- and 16th-century Italy. In the 1890s Berenson began to publish books. In these, he tried to attribute pictures more accurately to particular artists, but also to transmit the intense experiences that he got from looking at art.

Berenson was one of the most eloquent exponents of a widespread view in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: that the arts were the route to a special, exalted range of feelings. Berenson first converted from Judaism to Protestantism; after he settled in Italy he became a Catholic. His true religion, though, was art.

Gifted with great visual sensitivity and powers of concentration, he rapidly became a leader in the attribution of old master pictures. His Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903) remains a classic in its field. But his renown as an expert led him to make a distinctly Faustian pact with the art trade.

First he advised Isabella Stewart Gardner on forming her superb collection in Boston (now a museum). But dubiously he also took a cut from the dealer who was selling to her. Later, and yet more murkily, he signed a secret contract with Joseph Duveen that gave him a generous percentage of every picture he found and authenticated for this international art dealer.

The deal with Duveen funded I Tatti, with its gardens, splendid library and constant stream of celebrated guests. Yet Cohen argues there is no clear evidence that BB actually altered his opinions for money. On the contrary, he seems to have infuriated Duveen by refusing to do so, on one occasion sending a terse telegram: “NOT VERONESE. BERENSON”.

BB himself regretted his involvement in the art business as much because it diverted him from writing as for the damage it caused to his reputation. His work on drawings is a monument in art history, and though his terminology – “life-enhancing”, “tactile values” – seems quaint, his art criticism is still worth reading. In the end however, it is the unresolved dilemma between art as commerce and as a spiritual vocation that makes Berenson’s life so intriguing.

First published in the Daily Telegraph

De Chirico: The long way down

Writing in 1960, at the age of 72, Giorgio de Chirico contemplated his long career in art with complete satisfaction. Looking back he saw only, “consistent progress, a regular and persistent march towards those summits of mastery which were achieved by a few consummate artists of the past”.

To achieve this – indeed, even to comprehend it – de Chirico noted it was necessary, over and above his own “exceptional intelligence as far as true painting is concerned”, also to possess his “mighty personality”, his courage, not to mention his “ardent desire for truth”.

A new exhibition at the Estorick Collection, North London, will explore one aspect of his late works: the statuettes which he made in his 60s and 70s, based on figures in his earlier paintings. However, not everybody agreed with de Chirico’s ecstatic assessment of his own accomplishments.

In the early Thirties, the painter Max Ernst declared his perplexity at the manner in which, as he saw it, de Chirico’s art had declined in “a very mysterious way”. Some people tried to explain this on the basis of old age – de Chirico was around 40 at the time – or physical disability, but Ernst was not persuaded by either explanation.

Ernst described a visit he had paid to de Chirico’s studio, in company with Giacometti and the poet André Breton, leader of the Surrealists. De Chirico showed this Surrealist deputation a series of pictures of Venice, “which had been done in the lowest post-card style”. After looking at a number of these, Breton suddenly exploded, and insulted de Chirico “most horribly”.

The latter didn’t seem to mind at all, remarking that if Breton didn’t like the paintings of Venice, he had some others of Naples that he could show him. Ernst suspected, surely correctly, that de Chirico took pleasure in driving Breton – a despotic character dubbed the “Surrealist pope” – into paroxysms of fury.

This was the enigma of Giorgio de Chirico, as the Surrealists, and – on the whole – posterity have seen it: why did one of the most original artists of the 20th century abandon his early manner, and spend over half a century producing fuzzy, academic pictures, copies of old masters and endless tired repetitions of the masterpieces of his early phase, sometimes deliberately misdated? Ernst’s own answer was that he was practising a form of deliberate artistic self-destruction, undertaken out of despair at the human condition, “a very slow self suicide which included not only his own life, but his work too”.

If so, it must be said that de Chirico disguised it very well, apparently sailing on until the age of 90 in the belief that everybody who disagreed with him was wrong – particularly the Surrealists, whom he described as “that group of degenerates, hooligans, spoilt brats, loafers, onanists and wastrels”.

He also denounced Cézanne, modern art, and attacked the Italian Fascists on the unexpected grounds that they were “modernists enamoured of Paris”. He signed one self portrait, ”Pictor Optimus”: the best painter. If this was all an ironic put-on, as some revisionist art historians have claimed, it was extremely well sustained.

By nature and upbringing, de Chirico (1888-1978), was doubly an outsider. From the point of view of Parisian avant-garde, which he encountered in the years before the First World War, de Chirico did not fit in because he was wealthy and aristocratic. He was also, effectively, born in exile: of an Italian family but in Volos, Greece, where his father Evaristo de Chirico was working as an engineer building the railway lines of Thessaly. (He also had shares in the company.) Giorgio and his younger brother Andrea, who later became an artist under the pseudonym of Alberto Savinio, were brought up in Greece.

De Chirico studied art in Athens, Florence and Munich. By 1910 at the age of 22, he had already absorbed the late Romantic style of Arnold Böcklin, with its air mysterious, dreamlike melancholy. At this point, he claimed to have had an epiphany while sitting in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, one autumn afternoon.

He was convalescing, he recalled, from a long “intestinal illness”. As he looked at the square and the autumnal sun on the statue of Dante, he felt that the whole world, including the marble of the square, seemed “to be convalescing”. It also felt strange, as if he “was looking at these things for the first time”.

Like most moments of sudden revelation, this was one that de Chirico had been primed to experience, not only by paintings such as Böcklin’s, but also by reading the German philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who argued that man was an outsider in a godless world of alien and senseless things. He had also begun to encounter the Parisian avant-garde, after moving to the French capital in February, 1910.

The sensation of all-pervading strangeness he experienced in Piazza Santa Croce, de Chirico termed “inexplicable”, and – a favourite word – an enigma. It was the foundation of the paintings he began to exhibit at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1912. These typically feature deserted classical squares, with Renaissance arcades, pervaded by a sense of eerie waiting. These were often the setting for juxtapositions of incongruous objects: a headless marble statue of a nude women and a pile of bananas, for example.

Such pictures struck the youthful Surrealists with the force of revelation. When, in the early Twenties, René Magritte first saw de Chirico’s Song of Love from 1914, featuring a marble head of Apollo flanked by a rubber glove, he felt tears come into his eyes.

Effectively, de Chirico had invented Surrealist painting a decade before Surrealism itself was officially founded. Magritte spent the rest of his life producing pictures of just such strange combinations of objects as he had seen in the Song of Love. It is not surprising that, for a while, the Surrealists regarded de Chirico as a heroic forerunner.

There was almost literally a honeymoon in 1923, when Ernst, the poet Paul Eluard and his then wife Gala (later married to Salvador Dali) visited him in Rome. In a typical Surrealist spirit, they promptly invited him to join them in what the tabloids would call a four-in-a-bed romp. De Chirico agreed, though he later claimed not to have been keen on the idea. He also painted Eluard and Gala, dedicating the portrait to “My friends forever and wherever”.

These cordial relations did not last. In 1919, de Chirico had had another epiphany, this time in the Borghese Gallery, Rome: while looking at a Titian he “saw tongues of fire appear” and had “a revelation of what great painting was”. In the magazine Valori Plastici, he proclaimed “Pictor classicus sum”: I am a classical painter.

he more the Surrealists saw of the work he did in this new spirit, the more aghast they became. He was given marks producing a bizarre work of fiction entitled Hebdomeros in 1929 (hailed by the writer Louis Aragon as “interminably beautiful”), but in the long run he was cast out as an apostate.

On the whole, they were right. De Chirico’s work of the Twenties retained some quality, but overall his long career shows a loss of that early, poetic inspiration. Perhaps there is nothing enigmatic about this after all. Many major artists have a phase of brilliance, followed by a decline. The ones who sustain an epic career – the Picassos and Matisses – are the exception.

After a decade of great achievement, de Chirico started to lose it. But of course he could not admit that, even to himself.

Originally published in the Daily Telegraph

Richard Deacon interview: twisting chaos into shape

‘It is a fairly fundamental thing in human beings to make sense of chaotic impressions,” says Richard Deacon, “to put things into shape.” But the shapes of the sculptures he creates are themselves extremely hard to compute. They often look as if they have been made, with great skill, for some purpose – but it is impossible to put one’s finger on exactly what that is.

He has related in the past how he once overheard two passers-by discussing one of his pieces. “What’s that, then?” asked the first. “Is it ducting?” “Nah,” the second answered, “it’s art. Look at the way it’s put together.”

The big retrospective exhibition of his work that opens at Tate Britain next month is likely to look both rich and strange. There is no such thing as a typical Deacon work. One notable piece, What Could Make Me Feel This Way A (1993) reminded me of a gigantic wooden white-knuckle ride designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Another suggested the veined and marbled egg of a sea-creature the size of a cow, and a third – For Those Who Have Ears #2, 1983 (Deacon’s titles are wonderfully oblique and somehow evocative) – suggested a monstrous, misshapen egg-whisk. His art merges abstract theory, psychology and DIY.

Deacon, who was born in Bangor in 1949, belongs to a bumper generation of British sculptors. Among his contemporaries are Anish Kapoor, Tony Cragg, Antony Gormley, Richard Long and Bill Woodrow. In different ways, these men reinvented sculpture in a manner both radical and traditional.

As Deacon remembers, he arrived at St Martin’s School of Art in an era in which the sculptural object had threatened to evaporate into such insubstantial items as performances and actions. “We’re talking about 1970, the period of the dematerialisation of the object, and also an anti-capitalist stance in a lot of the ideology,” he says. “Having something to sell was dodgy – not that there was anyone to buy it anyway. So making objects was problematic.”

None the less, after a period in which he did a lot of performances – which generally involved him working with stuff such as plaster and bits of board in front of an audience like an avant-garde Bob the Builder – he ended up emerging as one of the most acclaimed sculptors of the past 30 years. There is, however, a lingering suggestion of the eccentric handyman about Deacon’s aesthetic.

He grew up, he recalls, in a family with a practical bent. “Both my father and my brother were very mechanically capable – could fix cars and things. I don’t like the smell of grease or petrol on my hands, and I can’t make things work. So I didn’t grow up being the person in the house who was handy. I grew up being the person who was clumsy and inept – though curious about the world.”

Deacon’s father was a pilot in the Air Force, flying high-speed, hi-tech machines (some of his son’s works resemble aircraft parts – piping, say, or the skeletal structure of a fuselage – reconfigured by a whimsical imagination). Because his father’s posting changed every two years or so, the family moved about while Deacon was growing up – to Plymouth, Dorset and Sri Lanka. It was in that last place, when he was six or seven, that he had his first powerful experience of sculpture, during a visit to the 12th-century rock-cut Buddhas at Polonnaruwa.

“I remember looking at them and being aware that they were made of the same stuff as the rock, but I couldn’t really work out what kind of agency would transform the cliff to the Buddhas; I didn’t understand how you could do that.”

At school, he was drawn to the art club, where he “realised that there was a home for the way that I messed around with materials”. Later he never wanted to do anything at art school except study sculpture. “I’m not a very good painter, and I’m not a good designer either – that’s not how my brain works. But there is something about the transformation of material that does work in my mind.”

Deacon won the Turner Prize as long ago as 1987, and represented Wales at the Venice Biennale of 2007. But he is not such a public figure as, say, the eloquent and publicity-friendly Kapoor and Gormley. This became clear when I went to visit him at his studio on a south London industrial estate, which he occupies alone.

When Deacon has had a team working beside him here, he says, “I find myself a little displaced in my own studio.” As a result, he prefers to go to specialist fabricators – he likes the word “subcontractors” – where he supervises and also labours, hands-on, making the pieces. The wooden sculptures are made in one workshop, the metal ones in another, the ceramic pieces in Germany.

It is characteristic of sculptors, historically, to have strong preferences about the materials they work with. Michelangelo had a love affair with marble. Deacon has complicated feelings about “stuff” – materials – pro and con, which he lists. He likes wood, plaster, plastic, clay and shiny metals. “I have worked in resin but I don’t really like stickiness as a quality. It’s like eating breakfast and getting marmalade on your face. For me, that’s a very unpleasant sensation.

“I don’t like heavy things, I find them a bit disgusting, they seem to be in your way.” Whereas some modern sculpture – by the American Richard Serra for example – is all about weight, Deacon’s works sometimes seem almost weightless. Let’s Not Be Stupid (1991), for example, looks like two loose loops of metal with a wobbly ladder between them: a 3D doodle in the air, which looks as if it might float away.

Some of the most impressive of Deacon’s works are made of bent wood, such as the Tate’s magnificent After (1998), which resembles a huge serpent of timber hoops and staves, undulating over a barrier of aluminium, again almost airborne. His ceramic pieces, on the other hand, often have the lustrous glazes of Chinese porcelain. Or they look like plants, or sea-anemones or…

It’s very hard to approach Deacon’s work without reaching for a metaphor, and he says he is “OK with that”, so long as we don’t imagine that he is making pictures of things.

He is interested, he tells me, in “how things are shaped, the desire to have a slightly chaotic form and to let shapes or configuration emerge from that”. He asks himself the question, “Why?” and a long silence follows – so long that I start another question – but he interrupts my interruption, “I was almost getting there, the silences generally mean I’m getting there.” And after another pause comes the answer, a deep and philosophical one.

He confesses to an anxiety about “the tendency for things to fall apart, for flux to overwhelm us”, then adds: “I don’t really think that shape belongs to things in themselves. We impose shape on them – we feel happy when things fall into shape.”

Originally published in the Daily Telegraph

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: the story behind a masterpiece

For nearly a century, Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh has been among the paintings most loved by the British public. According to Martin Bailey in his excellent book on the subject, The Sunflowers are Mine, the patch of floor in front of it “gets more scuffed” than that in front of any other work in the National Gallery, and its postcard outsells all others in the bookshop. Mrs Thatcher, displaying more enthusiasm than botanical precision on a visit to the museum, demanded to be shown “Van Gogh’s Chrysanthemums”, (and no curator dared correct her).

From today, there will be even more visitors’ feet on that much-used area of flooring, because the National Gallery’s Sunflowers is going to be reunited with another version of the same composition painted by Van Gogh a few months later, in what promises to be a remarkable exercise in artistic compare and contrast.

For, although the National Gallery’s picture is, in general estimation, the most important, daring and beautiful of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers it is by no means the only one. The artist, who lived from 1853 to 1890, tackled the theme on numerous occasions.

The flower that turns its bloom towards the sun has a long history as a symbol – of the Christian soul, among other things. In Britain, the sunflower motif was so popular with architects and designers of the Aesthetic movement that it was carved in stone and cast in metalwork that can still be seen across the city today. Before he became an artist, Van Gogh would have seen the emblem frequently during his early years in 1870s Britain, where he worked (unsuccessfully) as an art dealer, junior prep school master and lay preacher.

It was in 1887. however, by which time Van Gogh was living in Paris – and discovering the palette of the French Impressionists – that he first painted the flowers himself. Around a year later, living alone and isolated in Arles, he returned to the subject.

From the moment of his arrival in Provence on February 20, Van Gogh’s art moved forward at a furious pace. The fields of ripe wheat which he painted in June and July were magnificent. But the most extraordinary pictures he produced in that summer were the Sunflowers.

Van Gogh embarked on these on Monday, August 20, temporarily forced to work indoors by a Mistral wind which, he complained, blew over his canvas and easel when he painted outdoors. By August 26, he had finished four sunflower pictures – which in itself is a token of the dangerous velocity at which he was moving at that point, painting at warp speed.

That quartet of sunflower pictures itself shows a startling evolution in forcefulness and daring. The first, of three blooms in a green-glazed vase against a turquoise backdrop, was brilliant in colour but relatively conventional in its naturalism. The next, with six yellow flowers backed by rich royal blue, was more audacious (this was destroyed in a bombing raid on Japan in the Second World War).

It was the last two in the sequence with which the artist himself was most pleased, and signed. One of these, now in Munich, arrayed 14 sunflowers in a yellow pot against a complementary blue-green wall. But the final one, the National Gallery picture, was the boldest of all, because it depicted yellow flowers in a yellow jug against a yellow wall – a symphony in ochres, golds and shades of corn.

At one point, Van Gogh planned to paint 12 sunflower pictures to hang on the walls of his dwelling (the Yellow House). But the weather improved, and – characteristically – he raced off on another idea. His satisfaction with the last two of the four August Sunflower pictures was shown, however, by the fact that when Gauguin finally arrived for a short, fraught stay with Van Gogh in Arles – the most famous house-share in art history – those were among the paintings hung in the place of honour on his bedroom walls. In late November and early December, Gauguin painted a portrait of Van Gogh, portraying him at work before a bouquet of blooms, as The Painter of Sunflowers.

Within weeks of his abrupt departure from Arles following the ear-cutting episode, Gauguin wrote asking to be given the National Gallery picture of the 15 blooms, yellow on yellow. It was probably this request that prompted Van Gogh to paint copies of both the yellow-on-blue-green and yellow-on-yellow Sunflowers. It is one of the latter, now owned by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam that is going to come to London.

In the yellow-on-yellow Sunflowers, Gauguin chose one of the most shockingly innovative pictures then in existence. He quoted a fellow painter exclaiming about Van Gogh’s work: “Merde! Everything is yellow! I don’t know what painting is any more!” Looking back on his work of 1888, Van Gogh felt it was characterised by a “high yellow note”, by which he meant both the bright colour and also the manic mental moods he had experienced while painting.

At an exhibition in Brussels in January 1890 a Belgian artist threatened to withdraw his own pictures as he did not wish “to find himself in the same room as the laughable pot of sunflowers by Mr Vincent”. He called Van Gogh, who was at that point in an asylum at St Remy, “an ignoramus and a charlatan”, whereupon Vincent’s friend Toulouse-Lautrec challenged him to a duel. Bloodshed was averted with difficulty.

The Sunflowers continued to cause outrage into the 20th century. When the epoch-making exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists opened in London in November 1910, it contained not one, but two of the Sunflowers. This was the first real exposure of the British public to modern art, and Van Gogh’s flowers were one of the targets of a vintage explosion of philistinism.

The critic of the Morning Post complained that Van Gogh was a lunatic, and his work of interest only to “the student of pathology”. But the Sunflowers were a revelation to some viewers. A decade later, the writer Katherine Mansfield described seeing a Van Gogh picture at the exhibition of “yellow flowers – brimming with sun in a pot”. Those blooms “lived with me afterwards”, and still did, “I can smell them as I write.”

Mansfield’s sensibility was more powerful than her botanical accuracy (sunflowers do not really have a scent). But she was not alone in her reaction. The Bloomsbury critic Desmond MacCarthy, secretary of the exhibition, would lead visitors up to Sunflowers, “and say, ‘There!’ ” Then, after a pause for the picture to make its impression, he would add, “Did you ever see a still-life picture with one tenth of the energy in it that has?”

A young enthusiast for new art named Harold “Jim” Ede (1895-1990), who later founded Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, did much to ensure that Van Gogh’s greatest Sunflowers eventually came to London. In 1923, Ede, then working at the National Gallery, Millbank – subsequently renamed the Tate Gallery – travelled to the Netherlands. After the death of Vincent in 1890 followed by that of his brother, Theo, early the next year, almost all Van Gogh’s works and the bulk of his correspondence had ended up in the possession of Theo’s widow, Jo Bonger.

Ede saw many masterpieces in Bonger’s Amsterdam apartment. But, he wrote to Bonger from his hotel, “What touches me most directly are the golden sunflowers.” He asked if she might sell the picture, “to be exhibited at the fountainhead of England’s art”. She replied insisting the picture would always stay in the family.

However, the next year, after further pleas, Bonger unexpectedly gave in. She had felt she could not bear to part with this painting, but in the end decided to make the sacrifice. Even more surprisingly, she parted not with Vincent’s copy but with the original of August 1888. “No picture,” she wrote, “would represent Vincent in your famous Gallery in a more worthy manner than the Sunflowers.” She added that, “He himself, le Peintre des Tournesols” — “the Painter of Sunflowers”, as Gauguin had called him – “would have liked it to be there”.

Certainly, they seemed to belong, and quickly became a touchstone in British culture. In 1925, a year after they entered the National collection, D H Lawrence began his essay ‘Morality and the Novel’, by taking Sunflowers as an example of everything a work of art should do, that is, reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe, in the living moment. In the painting, Lawrence argued, Vincent had captured “the vivid relationship between himself as a man, and the sunflower as a sunflower, at that quick moment of time”.

The Sunflowers stood for light and energy against the dinginess of the north. David Hockney – a sun-seeking artist whose vivid palette owes much to Van Gogh – painted his own sunflowers in tribute to Van Gogh. So too did another, the Kitchen Sink School artist John Bratby, whose gigantic woodcut of a single sunflower hung in my school dining hall.

True, the Sunflowers also became a bit of a cliché. When Charles Ryder, the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), arrived as an undergraduate at Oxford in the Twenties, on his first afternoon he decorated his college room. “I proudly hung a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers over the fire and set up a screen, painted by Roger Fry with a Provencal landscape.” Later, after Ryder meets Sebastian Flyte and develops what Waugh and his circle felt was a more sophisticated taste for Pre-Raphaelite art, the Van Gogh print and Roger Fry screen are quietly taken down.

But Sunflowers – and for that matter Fry’s Bloomsbury modernism – easily survived cycles of fashion and even its own enormous familiarity.

For many people in pre- and post-war Britain, the painting came to stand for something positive and optimistic. Katherine Mansfield not only remembered the Sunflowers, she learnt from them: “They taught me something about writing… a kind of freedom – or rather, shaking free.” That is another of the multiple meanings of those yellow blooms. Probably it was very much what the artist felt when he painted them, all on his own in his studio in Arles.

Originally published in the Daily Telegraph

Federico Barocci: a poisoned picnic changed this Old Master’s life

One day in 1563, Federico Barocci suffered a terrible misfortune. At the time, Barocci, a painter, was living in Rome, and enjoying a degree of success – enough to inspire jealousy among a group of fellow artists, who lured him to a picnic and there tried to kill him with a poisoned salad. Barocci survived – and went on to live for another half century, back in his native Urbino – but that poisonous picnic became the turning point of his life.

Thereafter, he became a reclusive invalid who – very, very slowly – painted pictures of supernatural sweetness and beauty. This month, those pictures become the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery, Barocci: Brilliance and Grace. It may seem a bold decision to give such a prominent show to an artist who is by no means a household name, even among art historians. But Barocci, who was born around 1533 and lived until 1612, is a master well worth reviving.

Earlier this year, I accompanied Carol Plazzotta, the curator of the National Gallery exhibition, on a pilgrimage around the Marche region of Italy, between the Adriatic and the Apennine Mountains, where many of Barocci’s works can still be found. Quite a few hang in the churches for which they were originally painted. For me, this was an introduction to an artist of compelling subtlety and charm – and a religious sensibility that seems quite distant from contemporary tastes. Barocci’s paintings are remarkable for their ethereal colour harmonies, and the complexity and refinement of their designs, but they also convey a mood of heady, swooning piety.

Barocci came from a family of artists, astronomers and clockmakers. His uncle was an architect, and his great uncle Girolamo Genga (1476-1551) had been a fellow apprentice with Raphael and eventually became painter to the court of Urbino. Barocci, you might say, was born into the aristocracy of art.

His work is a bridge between two eras that might seem quite distinct: the High Renaissance and the 17th-century Baroque. In his youth, great figures of the early 16th-century Renaissance such as Titian (d. 1576) and Michelangelo (1475-1664) were still at work (indeed, Barocci once encountered the latter in the street in Rome; Michelangelo looked at his portfolio of drawings and encouraged him).

At the other end of his life, Barocci’s contemporaries were the masters of the early 17th century, among them Rubens, who was coming into his artistic maturity. His drawings have a supple freshness that anticipates not only the 17th century, but even the 18th. Looking at his studies of heads, for example, you think of Watteau.

However, Barocci was also a man of his own times, and his era was the Counter-Reformation. Among the Protestant British, that movement has always had a bad reputation. We associate it with the Inquisition and the Spanish Armada. And there certainly was a repressive, disciplinarian aspect to the Catholic church at that time. But there was also a genuine Catholic revival taking place simultaneously. The Counter-Reformation was the era not only of the inquisitors and the index of prohibited books, but also of missionaries and mystical saints, such as Teresa of Avila.

That was the context for Barocci’s art. The unearthly beauty of his colour, the sweet expressions of his Madonnas and Christs (sometimes verging on sugary to a northern taste), the melting looks and passionate gazes of his saints – these were intended to speak to the heart and move the viewer to penitence.

Barocci’s 17th-century biographer, Gian Pietro Bellori, described how, after the poisoned salad incident, “it took four years for the seriousness of his illness to abate, during which time he was always in such pain that be never once took up his brushes”.

He was eventually partially cured by a minor miracle. “Being miserable, above all else because he was unable to paint, he one day placed himself, in his prayers, before the mercy of the glorious Virgin, with such effect that he was heard.”

The Virgin didn’t heal him completely, but he felt well enough to complete a small picture of the Madonna and Child in thanks. From that point onwards, he began to work again, but only painting for two hours a day.

Barocci was apparently a man of almost saintly piousness and, with few exceptions, his works are religious in subject (though slightly surprisingly, he made nude studies not only for the figures of his male saints, but even for Madonnas). His art has a gentle devoutness, and a mood that echoes some 16th- and 17th-century poets in whose verse the writer’s relationship with Christ becomes so intimate as to be almost amorous.

Barocci lived in a modest house on a quiet street in Urbino. He was usually sick shortly after every meal, and as a result was “rather thin”, though otherwise apparently robust. He suffered from insomnia, and, according to Bellori, in “the short period that he slept, he always suffered; so it was that during those wakeful times when he found relaxation, he would have someone read stories or poems to him, from which he derived pleasure and relief”.

A psychiatrist might suggest Barocci’s illness was in some ways convenient. Indeed, some scholars suspect that that salad was not poisoned at all, but that the painter was the victim of a psychosomatic condition that allowed him to do precisely what he wanted: withdraw from the stressfully competitive Roman art world, and return to the tranquillity of his home town. Certainly from that point onwards, he was able to work in exactly the way and at precisely the pace that suited him.

Barocci’s methods were extraordinarily laborious – his altarpiece for the church of San Francesco in Urbino allegedly took seven years to complete. For every picture, he made an abundance of drawings, of which a large number still survive. These delicate, fresh sketches from life are among the easiest of his works for a modern eye to appreciate. Barocci drew first from nature, looking constantly for useful ingredients in the people around him. Bellori noted that “if he chanced to see a beautiful upward glance of the eyes, a fine profile of a nose, or a beautiful mouth”, Barocci would use it as raw material for a saint or angel.

Next, he would make small models of the figures, compositional drawings and studies of the disposition of light and dark – chiaroscuro. Barocci was a pioneer in the use of pastel, producing ravishing studies of individual heads in that medium. Only after all this was done was he ready to begin painting.

The unhurried rate at which he worked was almost a selling point, and Barocci’s reclusiveness only added to his mystique. The Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere II – a fellow depressive neurotic – took pride in his ability to obtain works from this difficult man for his fellow princes. Barocci’s one mythological picture was made as a present for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (who probably found it disappointingly unerotic). By the last decades of the 16th century, he was perhaps the greatest painter at work in Italy, rivalled only by the Venetian Tintoretto.

So naturally, other rulers coveted Barocci’s services.

On a rare journey away from the Marche, he visited Florence. There the Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici was so intrigued by Barocci that he acted incognito as the painter’s guide to the Medici collections. He took him “from room to room, showing him the pictures and the statues in order to hear which were the ones that he held in most esteem”. Finally, a courtier came with a message, accidentally revealing who this guide really was. Then the Duke tried to persuade him to come and work in Florence, offering extremely favourable terms. But Barocci, politely pleading poor health and “his need to stay in the surroundings of his home city”, made his apologies and returned to Urbino.

Although most great galleries have an example of a Barocci, it is still normally to Urbino that you have to go to see his work, and also to small towns in the Marche such as Senigallia, on the coast, or Piobbico, nestling near the summits of the Apennines. But for the next few months, this brilliant, subtle, very unBritish painter is on view in London. Catch him while you can.

First published in the Daily Telegraph

Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum: sex, death and some very burnt toast

It’s a sunny Italian morning, and I am standing in a small bakery in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. There’s what looks like a typical Neapolitan pizza oven in one wall designed, in this case, for baking bread. In another part of the room stand four huge stone mills, only one of them intact. On one wall, there is a pin–up not dissimilar to the kind you might find in any busy commercial kitchen, although it’s a painting not a poster, and the subject is a naked Venus admiring herself in a mirror. There will be no bread sold here today. Indeed, the bakery produced its last loaf, before all baking was suddenly suspended, 1,934 years ago, in AD 79.

That was, of course, the year in which the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were obliterated by a volcanic eruption – which was extremely bad luck for them, and extraordinarily good fortune for future archaeologists. Nowhere else were whole communities conserved like this: houses, possessions, livestock and often the inhabitants themselves remain, millennia later, under a layer of ash and stone from Vesuvius. Later this week, the British Museum opens what promises to be a phenomenal exhibition, dedicated to investigating what everyday existence was really like in these ancient Roman towns.

On show will be an extraordinary array of objects including frescoes and sculptures (both beautiful and obscene), furniture – carbonised but preserved in astonishing detail – and the huddled plaster casts of human and animal victims of the disaster. There will also be a carbonised loaf of bread from Herculaneum, almost 2,000 years past its sell–by date, as well as a selection of classical chamber pots, tableware and gardening equipment.

The exhibition is curated by Paul Roberts, the museum’s head of Roman collections, and a man whose enthusiasm and curiosity about Roman life is palpable. Taking me around the ancient sites, he finds fresh interest in each object or location we stumble across. In the bakery, for example, he immediately sees a series of clues that bring the ancient disaster very close, but also complicate the situation.

Those mills, it turns out, tell a complex story about the terrible fate that befell the whole city. The evidence suggests that at the time of the eruption three out of the bakery’s four mills were already out of action. Roman sources describe an earthquake that hit the area 17 years earlier, but a big bakery such as this wouldn’t be three–quarters out of action for the best part of two decades. Close examination reveals that the millstones have already been repeatedly repaired.

“So,” Roberts suggests, “you can imagine a series of earthquakes, including dozens of minor ones. All the time people’s daily lives were being interrupted by tremors.”

Evidently, the city of Pompeii had been living in a state of low–key crisis for years. There was plenty of warning that something was going on, although the ancient inhabitants had no notion that Vesuvius might still be active. Many people evidently left; others – just as we see in the case of modern–day hurricanes and floods – stubbornly elected to sit it out. Some could not escape.

Among the last were the unfortunate animals that constituted the bakery’s power–supply: seven assorted horses, donkeys or mules (DNA evidence is ambivalent), the bones of which are still there in a pathetic and grisly huddle. These pulled round the mills, and probably also delivered the finished product. Two had got out of their stable, at the back of the bakery, another five were still in the stall. They had been buried in a shower of lapilli – small stones – that rained down at a rate of six to nine inches an hour, finally filling this building, and the adjoining one up to the lower part of the third floor.

This was then followed by deadly waves of what was known as pyroclastic flow: superheated avalanches of volcanic ash travelling at 70 miles an hour. The pyroclastic flow had knocked the tops of the bakery walls clean off. Ancient sources date the main, catastrophic eruption to August 24 AD 79, but various pieces of evidence suggest that it might have been later, in early autumn. One of these was the donkey’s feed, which contained not only oats and broad beans, but also some vegetation you wouldn’t expect to find in August.

Just behind the bakery is the House of the Painters at Work. Archaeologists have been giving the dwellings they discovered fanciful names since excavations began at Pompeii in the 18th century, since in very few cases is there any indication of the name of the ancient owner. In this one, uncovered recently and still not open to the public, artists were interrupted – as you might have guessed – in the middle of creating elaborate and beautiful paintings of flying cupids, mythological scenes and trompe-l’oeil architecture.

A bucket of fresh plaster spattered one wall, there are signs the team of painters simply downed brushes and ran – if not on the day of the eruption, then after one of the tremors shortly before.

There must have been armies of artists in ancient Roman cities, because one of the most striking things about Pompeii and Herculaneum is that there is art – both sculpture and painting – everywhere, not just in wealthy houses but on the walls of bars and takeaway restaurants. One fresco in the exhibition comes from a Pompeian lavatory, showing the goddess Isis–Fortuna, the personification of luck. It bears a timely warning: “S––––––, beware the Evil Eye!”.

In the House of the Painters at Work there is also a fine dining room, with a courtyard garden just outside its door, its angled holes suggesting trellis work, and evidence of box and evergreens, lilies, irises and a water channel running around the border.

All of this – garden, frescoes, grand dining room – was partly at least to impress the neighbours, as Roberts expounds: “In modern Italy you have the idea of la bella figura, the Romans were exactly the same in that respect. It’s a matter of how you present yourself, setting the scene, so about your money and power. The Romans were all about power, pretty much.”

Eating was a big thing in Roman life (little has changed over two millennia in that respect). Rich inhabitants of the two towns made elaborate arrangements for entertaining their guests. The British Museum show will include ancient dining and drinking accessories, including a table decorated with lion heads found in Herculaneum, where – like many other wooden objects – it was preserved by being buried under a shower of volcanic ash at 400C, which had the effect of cooking it slowly into a charcoal version of the original wooden item.

The Roman dining room was known as a triclinium because ideally it would contain three couches arranged for guests to recline upon. “That’s where you bring them for a lovely meal of a summer’s evening, and impress them with your food and wine, beautiful music and the decoration.”

By no means every Pompeian could afford this kind of ostentatious luxury, but there were cheaper alternatives. Standing beside the stable in the bakery there was a substitute for the less well–off, a dining room for hire (or, at least, archaeologists suspect from its position behind the ovens and next to the stable that it was not for private use). On its walls are splendid frescoes, in the process of being renewed, perhaps to repair recent earthquake damage.

This dining room has given the whole bakery building its name: The House of the Chaste Lovers. The scenes, suitably enough, are of people, not so much dining as in post–prandial mode, drinking heavily and in some cases distinctly the worse for wear. Two embracing drunkenly in the painting are, as Roberts explains, “supposed to be exchanging a chaste kiss. That is to say, chaste in comparison to some paintings you will see on the walls of Pompeii”.

The ancient Pompeians – unlike modern Italians, but quite like contemporary Brits – had a drinking culture. The streets of Pompeii were lined with bars and fast–food outlets. Frescoes of banquets always represent imbibing rather than eating – perhaps because it was the most enjoyable bit, and led quite often it seems to sex in the triclinium. We do, however, now know that before they got drunk, Pompeians ate rather healthily, consuming plenty of sea food and vegetables. A mass of information about the local diet has recently been obtained from analysis of the contents of a sewer in Herculaneum.

Next on the list of entertainments after eating and drinking was heavy petting, and after that perhaps an orgy. The ancient Romans were extremely uninhibited about the depiction of sex, which was graphically represented all over the place, not only in the one building in Pompeii definitely identified as a brothel (scholarly estimates of up to 34 others in Pompeii alone are probably much exaggerated). The entire town is covered with carvings and paintings of phalluses, some – such as a hanging, winged phallus lamp – bizarre enough to interest Salvador Dalí. ]

Roman art can be startlingly explicit even to a blasé, modern eye. On display in the exhibition will be a carving from the garden of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum showing, in alarming clarity, the god Pan engaged in intercourse with a goat. This may bring some visitors closer to the reality of Roman decor than they would wish to be. But it is also another illustration of the paradox of Pompeii and Herculaneum. A rich and cultured Roman (possibly Julius Caesar’s father–in–law) put this in his garden along with a superb array of bronze sculpture that fills several rooms of the Naples Museum. What did he really think about it? Was it, as Roberts suggests, intended to be humorous? Perhaps. But as so often, the more we find out about the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the more we discover we don’t know. In many ways, the ancient Romans were just like us; in others, they remain as strange and mysterious as ever.

First published in the Daily Telegraph

Bronze at the Royal Academy

Olympians and Paralympians may go for gold, but sculptors prefer bronze. Hard, beautiful and possible to cast in the finest detail, this greyish copper alloy has been one of the most popular sculptural materials for centuries, as the Royal Academy’s major forthcoming exhibition, Bronze, reminds us. It promises to be the greatest array of works in this material seen in any one place since the fall of the Roman Empire.

The show gathers together great masterpieces from many cultures, separated by both place and time: Java; Nigeria; the ancient Middle East; Etruria; Egypt; prehistoric Denmark and Austria; as well as Greece, Rome, Renaissance Italy and Hellenistic Bulgaria. There will be works by Picasso, Matisse and Rodin, Henry Moore and Louise Bourgeois, Donatello, Ghiberti and Giambologna.

As Professor David Ekserdjian, the exhibition’s co–curator, puts it, “bronze has always been considered a noble material”. It was the sculptural material of choice in Ancient Greece and Rome. “Bronze working,” noted Pliny the Elder, “came generally to be associated with statues of gods.” It was popular too for equestrian sculptures of emperors – of which the great mounted monument to Marcus Aurelius survives in Rome – and naked athletes. Most of the celebrated masterpieces of Greek sculpture were bronzes. The fact that we know them all only by marble copies illustrates the great weaknesses of bronze: it’s both valuable and easy to melt down.

As Ekserdjian notes, the paradox is that all the Ancient Greek sculptures that remained on display in Athens or were successfully exported to Rome have disappeared: “The few that survive tend to be those that sank in ships or were buried.” Among those, however, are some astonishing objects. One of the most sensational pieces in the exhibition is the Chimera of Arezzo, an Etruscan bronze from around the fifth century BC that was dug up in the Tuscan city in 1553.

Taking the form of a lion with a goat’s head bursting out of its back and a serpent’s tail, the Chimera has fascinated Ekserdjian since he saw it on the cover of a book in his father’s study when he was five or six years old. Lent by the Archaeological Museum in Florence, it is only one of a series of remarkable loans on show. From Copenhagen will come the sun chariot of Trundholm, another haunting and mysterious ancient object – a horse–drawn vehicle carrying a solar disc – discovered in a bog in 1902, and as Ekserdjian notes, just about the greatest Danish national treasure.

Austrian law had to be changed to allow the loan of the Cult Wagon of Strettweg from Graz. Legislation had previously been passed preventing it ever leaving the country but, says Ekserdjian, “in the event they went to the Styrian parliament to overturn the ruling”.

Bronze is, of course, not the only material that can claim a worldwide reach. Stone carving is also pretty universal, as are ceramics. But, Ekserdjian argues, bronze sculpture from around the world makes for a much more coherent display than other media would. “Virtually all cultures produce some form of ceramic, but if you did an exhibition with Italian majolica, red figure vases from ancient Greece, Chinese blue and white [porcelain] it would look bizarre and awful, whereas the bronzes are friendly with one another.”

The exhibition will be arranged not chronologically or geographically, but in themes: figures, reliefs and so on. Objects from widely diverse cultures will be grouped together. Thus, among the heads on show are: a calmly beautiful product of the Nigerian Ife civilisation from the 14th or 15th century, and also a portrait of Seuthes III, a king of Thrace from the time of Alexander the Great. The latter, only discovered in 2004, and barely seen since, is one of the surprises of the exhibition.

That bronzes with such various origins have so many qualities in common can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the challenges of casting have always been the same. Among them is the problem of scale. In classical antiquity extraordinary expertise was developed to create large–scale metal sculptures – the Horses of San Marco in Venice are surviving examples.

Those ancient casting skills were subsequently half–forgotten in Europe during the Middle Ages, and rediscovered with difficulty. The Florentine artist Lorenzo Ghiberti was credited with being the first Renaissance master to cast life–size statues. One of the three he made for niches in the Orsanmichele church in Florence will be included in the exhibition.

One of Ghiberti’s successors, Benvenuto Cellini, describes in his autobiography how near the casting of his renowned bronze of Perseus came to catastrophe. In order to save the day, he ended up throwing all his household pewter plates (essentially made of tin) into the furnace to make the metal flow better. Leonardo and Michelangelo both attempted large–scale bronzes, though the huge horse Leonardo designed was never cast and of Michelangelo’s two bronzes, one, a David, was lost in the French Revolution and the second, a nine–anda–half feet high statue of Julius II, was melted down by the Pope’s enemies and turned into a cannon.

The exhibition will have, if not an actual Leonardo sculpture, the next best thing: three pieces by Giovan Francesco Rustici (1474–1554) from the Florentine Baptistery. The Renaissance art historian Vasari wrote that, while Rustici was working on these sculptures, his friend and mentor Leonardo never left his side. Indeed, as Ekserdjian observes, “Some believe, but without knowing more than this, that Leonardo worked at them with his own hand, or at least assisted Giovan Francesco with his advice and good judgment.” If you want to imagine what Leonardo’s sculpture might have been like, he adds, “This is unquestionably as close as you are going to get.”

The precise recipe for sculptural bronze has varied enormously over the years: zinc, lead and – in early days – arsenic being added to the mix. Indeed, some sculptures long presumed to be bronzes – for example those by Ghiberti – have been revealed by modern analysis to be made of brass (which is copper plus zinc). Consequently, contemporary sculpture scholars tend to avoid the term “bronze” and refer more cautiously to “copper alloy”. However, as Ekserdjian puts it, “we didn’t think ‘Copper Alloy’ would be a very funky title for an exhibition”.

The poses of the three Rustici statues of St John the Baptist bring out one of the great advantages of bronze; its tensile strength means that you can do things with it that would never work – or soon break off – in marble or terracotta. Rustici’s St John holds up one slender finger extended, in a gesture not unlike that of a sixth–century Indian Buddha.

Louise Bourgeois’s Spider, created centuries later, stands on its filigree legs, and that Etruscan Chimera, half crouched, seems ready to spring. “In terms of compositional adventurousness,” says Ekserdjian, bronze sculpture is incredible.” That’s one reason why it has lasted, as a medium, from the 37th century BC to the 21st century AD.

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David Hockney Interview

Almost 40 years ago, David Hockney made a marvellous etching of himself and Pablo Picasso. The two of them are sitting at a table in front of a window, the aged Spanish artist dressed in a stripy sailor’s shirt and examining, perhaps working on, a sheet of paper in front of him. His young British admirer is seated opposite, wearing only a pair of spectacles.

It is a poignant image of a close artistic relationship that could not exist in reality. Picasso died in 1972. The little etching, dated 1973-4, was created in his memory. Later, Hockney confessed, “I would have loved to have met him, even once. It would have been something to remember, a great thrill.” He called the print Artist and Model, and depicted himself in the latter role, as naked sitter.

In a sense, however, over time the roles have been reversed. For Hockney, Picasso has come to be one of the greatest models of what an artist can be, what painting can achieve, and how an artistic career might be conducted in the modern world. Of course, Hockney is not alone in his reverence – as will be demonstrated by a forthcoming exhibition at Tate Britain, Picasso and Modern British Art.

The show will deal with the influence the modernist master had on numerous other painters and sculptors, including Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland. Indeed, you might say the 20th-century British artists who weren’t affected by Picasso were the exceptions. But Hockney’s meditations on this great predecessor have been unusually long and deep.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Picasso’s work is the way that it was documented. Every single painting was photographed, dated by the day it was done, and included in a catalogue raissonnée published by the Parisian writer and editor, Christian Zervos. Eventually there were 33 volumes. Hockney, who has described them as “a gigantic diary, the most extraordinary diary ever made”, has them all.

“If he did three things on one day,” he tells me, “they’re number one, two, three, so you know what he did in the morning and in the afternoon. It’s fantastic. I’ve sat down and looked through the whole thing from beginning to end three times. That takes some doing, but it’s a fantastic experience. It doesn’t bore you.”

This is one way in which Hockney has maintained a close, posthumous relationship with Picasso. Early on, the Spaniard’s abrupt changes of style had licensed Hockney to do the same. One of the aspects of both artists that confuses commentators is their stylistic shape-shifting. Lesser artists, Hockney wrote in 1976, can get trapped in a way of working. Picasso didn’t let that happen, he had the courage to say, “I’ll quit this!”

“When you stop doing something it doesn’t mean you are rejecting the previous work,” says Hockney. “That’s the mistake; it’s not rejecting it, it’s saying, ‘I have exploited it enough now and I wish to take a look at another corner.’” That was a lesson for Hockney in his thirties, and one he is still drawing on. The spectacular landscapes in his current Royal Academy exhibition are the latest of such changes of tack – and, I believe, a stunningly rich one.

“Picasso is still influencing me. Of course, I haven’t got that kind of energy, or skill,” Hockney told me in 2010 in the course of one of the discussions that went into my book, A Bigger Message, a compilation of conversations I had with the artist. Now 74, Hockney sees new lessons in the life and work of his hero.

“When Picasso was 70 he had another 23 years of painting and smoking ahead of him,” he says. “People used to say that his late work was repetitious and so on. But I don’t think that really good artists spend their old age repeating themselves.

“A lot of his late pictures are about being an old man. I remember a wonderful one in which his wife is holding up an old man, and his balls are on the floor. His legs are weak. It is a bit like the mother teaching the child to walk. Here it is now again in old age, somebody needing help.”

Four decades ago in the early Seventies, Picasso was already on Hockney’s mind. The Yorkshireman was living in Paris at the time, as he described in his book, That’s the Way I See it, escaping from the pressures of art stardom in London and trying to find a fresh way forward in his work. In Paris, he recalls, “there was constantly the thought of Picasso. Picasso, to me, was still a massive force and I did not know how to deal with it. Like other people at the time, I too believed that what he had done was so idiosyncratic nobody else could use it. I do not believe that now, but I did then.”

In 1973, shortly after Picasso’s death, Hockney went to the South of France to see an exhibition of the artist’s late work at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. These paintings of Picasso’s eighties and early nineties were then more or less universally regarded as showing a sad decline. This attitude was a good example of how the art world sometimes turns, like a shoal of fish, with perfect co-ordination in the wrong direction.

Hockney was staying with Douglas Cooper, an erstwhile friend of Picasso’s and owner of a magnificent collection of his earlier work. “When we got to Avignon Douglas was telling me how bad the pictures were all the time,” recalls Hockney. “Most people then thought they were just an old man’s dodderings. Eventually I said, ‘Do you mind if I just look at them quietly myself for a bit?’ Which I did, then I said to him, ‘I can see that there’s something here which you might not bother with – or understand.’”


It took the rest of the world almost a decade to appreciate what Hockney had spotted, with an artist’s eye. In 1981 some very late Picassos were included in a landmark exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, A New Spirit in Painting, organised by a trio of rising stars among curators, Norman Rosenthal, Nicholas Serota and Christos Joachimides. And suddenly, Picasso appeared – almost 10 years after his death – as a dynamic contemporary, in company with living painters such as Gerhard Richter, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Hockney himself.

In 1988, the Tate staged an exhibition of late Picasso, and many people began to talk about this work as not an unfortunate decline but one of the artist’s greatest periods. Hockney looked at it long and hard.

“I sat in the exhibition a lot with [the late critic] David Sylvester. From the middle of the room you could see everything in the pictures, every brush-mark, in the last 10 years he never seemed to cover them up. Each mark was put in exactly the right place.

“It was a discovery of a kind of wonderful cubism of the brush. No other kind of painting gets near it for me. He needed all the previous painting to reach that point. By then he could draw in any way he wanted, so if he thought he was getting stuck he would just draw another way. If people didn’t look at it, what would Picasso care?”

The example of Picasso’s cubism fired a good deal of Hockney’s own work of the Eighties, a period during which he re-examined cubism in various ways, through paintings – such as his portrait of Christopher Isherwood, Christopher Without his Glasses on (1984), included in the Tate Britain show – and also the Polaroid and photo-collages he made at that time.

The point of these was to look at the world not from a single point of view, as renaissance perspective or a camera-lens does, but from multiple vantage points as, Hockney argues, a human being moving through a three-dimensional world actually does.

“I think cubism has not fully been developed,” Hockney says. “It is treated like a style, pigeonholed and that’s it. But in fact, Picasso used it throughout his life, didn’t he? Juan Gris said cubism wasn’t a style; it was a way of life.

“Cubism was an attack on the perspective that had been known and used for 500 years. It was the first big, big change. It confused people: they said, ‘Things don’t look like that!’ Actually cubism was concerned to claim: yes they do in a way.

“In Picasso’s pictures you can see the front and back of a person simultaneously. That means you’ve walked round them. It’s a sort of memory picture; we make pictures like that in our heads.”

Hockney continues to maintain Picasso in his own head as a mental reference point. He feels that he – and Van Gogh, another member of his personal pantheon – would have delighted in the possibilities of drawing on an iPad, as Hockney has himself. And musing on Picasso, perhaps, has led him to some of the transformations of scale he has wrought with his tablet-computer drawings.

“Do you know those marvellous Picasso pictures from the Twenties of women running on the beach?” Hockney asked me once. “In fact they are no bigger than an iPad, but if you saw them in reproduction they could be gigantic. The figures seem monumental.”

A year later he was printing out his own iPad drawings of the mountain landscape of Yosemite on an epic scale. And, as can be seen at The Royal Academy, they do indeed look monumental.

First published by The Daily Telegraph.

Treasures of Heaven, Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, British Museum

Around 828, some Venetian merchants were in Alexandria on a mission. They made their way into the Coptic cathedral where the body of St Mark the Evangelist was preserved. Having somehow squared the custodians, the Italians slit open his shroud and carried the remains to a waiting ship. They covered them with pork to discourage Muslim customs officials from looking too closely, and sailed back to the Lagoon. “History records no more shameless example of body snatching, nor any,” as John Julius Norwich put it, “of greater long-term significance.”

Around 828, some Venetian merchants were in Alexandria on a mission. They made their way into the Coptic cathedral where the body of St Mark the Evangelist was preserved. Having somehow squared the custodians, the Italians slit open his shroud and carried the remains to a waiting ship. They covered them with pork to discourage Muslim customs officials from looking too closely, and sailed back to the Lagoon. “History records no more shameless example of body snatching, nor any,” as John Julius Norwich put it, “of greater long-term significance.”

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