28 July 2014

'Art and Life' at Dulwich

Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 – 1931 is now at Dulwich Picture Gallery after spells at Leeds Museums and Galleries and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Earlier posts here have covered shows at Compton Verney in 2011 which examined the impact on Ben Nicholson of encountering Alfred Wallis in 1928, and at the Courtauld in 2012 which examined Nicholson’s work in the 1930s after his encounter with Mondrian. The Dulwich show (Art and Life from now on) looks at an earlier period starting with Ben Nicholson’s marriage to Winifred in 1920, then the couple’s meeting Kit Wood in 1926, the three artists’ responses to Alfred Wallis in 1928 and ends with the Nicholson’s separation, de facto after 1931. Art and Life features more than 80 works, some 15 of which have been exhibited publicly for the first time and many are on loan from “Private Collection”. It includes items by the potter William Staite Murray who often exhibited with the Nicholsons. The show has been curated by the art historian Jovan Nicholson, Ben and Winifred’s grandson, who gave a very informative lecture, Art and Life: Ben and Winifred Nicholson, at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival.

Art and Life can be regarded primarily as a portrait of an artists’ marriage – for the years it lasted. Ben and Winifred both came from upper class backgrounds, his father being the painter Sir William Nicholson and her family being north of England aristocrats with unusually artistic inclinations. The exhibition starts early in their married life when they were painting together at Lugano, producing work like his Cortivallo Lugano 1921 (below, top) and her Window Sill Lugano (below, lower) and Cyclamen and Primula (poster above), both 1923, the year of their first joint exhibition:

They would often produce works on the same theme, thoughtfully juxtaposed like many of the exhibits, for example the moorland scenery in 1920 at Tippacott (Devon, SW England), her Watercolour below top, his Pencil Drawing below, lower:

The consensus seems to be that at this stage of their artistic lives, his work is more concerned with form, hers with colour. This is, of course, with the benefit of retrospect from the 1930s when he is clearly far more interested in form than colour. In 1923 the Nicholsons began to spend time at Bankshead in Cumbria near Hadrian’s Wall and the exhibition includes further examples of the same landscape being pictured by both. What is apparent is how anodyne their work seems in comparison with that of avant garde artists like Malevich a decade earlier. Soon three works by Ben Nicholson indicate an interest in something more unconventional: 1924 (First Abstract Painting, Chelsea) (below, top left), Jamaique, circa 1925 (below, top right) and Still Life with Jug Mugs Cup and Goblet, 1925 (below, lower):

In 1926 Ben met Christopher Wood who later took a painter’s holiday with the Nicholsons in Cornwall (SW England), before the area’s revival of interest to artists. Wood’s Pill Creek Eock Cornwall, 1928 (below top) and Winifred Nicholson’s Summer, 1928 (below, lower) are among the three’s responses:

Soon they met Alfred Wallis in St Ives. Wallis was a retired mariner and prolific painter of self-taught sea studies like The Schooner the Beata, Penzance, Mount’s Bay, and Newlyn Harbour, undated (below, left) and St Ives Harbour, circa 1932-34 (below, right):

which made a lasting impression on all three artists, particularly Ben, Cornish Port, circa 1930, (below, top) and Wood, Le Phare, 1929 (below middle), perhaps less so Winifred, Seascape with Two Boats, circa 1932 (below, lowest):

although her Autumn Flowers on a Mantelpiece shows a small Wallis. Then came the climactic events of 1930: Ben Nicholson’s meeting Barbara Hepworth and Christopher Wood’s suicide at Salisbury station. Wood’s influence on Ben is apparent later that year in 1930 (Christmas night):

By the end of 1931, the year Winifred gave birth to their third child, Andrew, the Nicholson’s relationship had sundered. The saddest pictures in the exhibition are Wood’s The Fisherman’s Farewell, 1928 (below, top) and her Jake and Kate on the Isle of Wight, 1931 (below, lower):

Art and Life provides a welcome opportunity to see several works by Wood, for example Blue Necklace, 1928 (his mistress, Frosca Munswer) and Zebra and Parachute, 1930. The final exhibits in the show go beyond its nominal dates, but are of considerable interest including Ben’s 1935 (White Relief) and an abstract by Winifred, White and Black Ellipse, Outwards, 1936. The Nicholsons did not divorce until 1938 when Ben married Barbara. The famous Hepworth triplets had been born in 1934.

Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray*, 1920 – 1931 ends at Dulwich on 21 September 2014, nearly a year after it began at Leeds.

*Ben Nicholson 1894 - 1982
Winifred Nicholson 1893 - 1981
Christopher Wood 1901 - 1930
Alfred Wallis 1855 - 1942
William Staite Murray 1881 - 1962

21 July 2014

Virginia Woolf at the NPG

Novelist, essayist, biographer and critic, Virginia Woolf is the most famous and influential modernist prose writer of the 20th century. She occupied a central position within the Bloomsbury Group: that union of friends who helped rid art, design and society of the constrictions and conventions left over from the Victorian period. 
Frances Spalding 

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision at the National Portrait Gallery in London has been curated by Frances Spalding, an eminent art historian, author of several books relating to Bloomsbury and now of the NPG exhibition’s catalogue. She has selected more than 100 objects relevant to Woolf’s life including paintings, photographs, first editions of her novels and archival material such as correspondence and diaries. This material is mostly arranged chronologically but, unusually for a modern exhibition, there is no timeline presented at entry, although one taken from the catalogue is available on the NPG's website. Consequently, there is no context for the first images the visitor encounters: photographs of the devastating effect of the London blitz in 1940 on the Woolfs’ former Bloomsbury home, 52 Tavistock Square and on 37 Mecklenburgh Square where they were living at the time (when not at Monk’s House at Rodmell in Sussex). This was a year before Virginia’s death in 1941, the point at which the exhibition eventually ends.

Although their work is not universally admired for its quality, it cannot be denied that the painter members of the Bloomsbury Group, whether at Charleston Farmhouse or elsewhere, had no shortage of noteworthy subjects close at hand. Obviously this show concentrates on images of Virginia – I liked in particular Duncan Grant’s 1911 portrait and Vanessa Bell’s of 1912:

but Lytton Strachey,1904 by Simon Bussy, Mark Gertler’s Samuel Koteliansky, 1930 (below, left and right) and Vannessa Bell’s The Memoir Club c 1943 (below, lower) were all memorable (the Bloomsberries in this picture include both Bells and their son, Quentin, Leonard Woolf, the Keynes’s, EM Forster and Duncan Grant):

Among the many photographs of Virginia in the exhibition are the familiar 1902 society studies by GC Beresford, but more interesting to me were the Man Ray portrait (one of several, I believe, for a Time Magazine cover feature in April 1937), (below top, left and right) and some of the last to be taken of her, by Gisèle Freund in 1939, including one of Leonard and Virginia at 52 Tavistock Square (below, lower, left and right):

 It would be difficult to come away from this exhibition without seeing and learning something new. For example:

Virginia typeset TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (a copy is on display) during the period she and Leonard were living in Richmond-upon-Thames and had set up the Hogarth Press and Virginia was writing Mrs Dalloway. Lady Ottoline Morrell took a photograph of Eliot and Woolf (right) in 1924, the year the Woolfs returned to Bloomsbury.

Leonard and Virginia visited Sigmund Freud in Hampstead soon after his arrival from Vienna in June 1938.

Virginia was a Sponsor and Patron of the campaign led by Roland Penrose to exhibit Picasso’s Guernica and the studies for it, in London and elsewhere in late 1938/1939.

This exhibition should have a wide appeal: to admirers of Woolf’s writing, to those fascinated by the Bloomsbury Group – Dorothy Parker is said to have observed that 'Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles' - and to anyone with an interest in 20th century British art. Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision continues at the NPG until 26 October.

19 July 2014

NT Live: Skylight

David Hare’s play Skylight was first performed in 1995 at the National Theatre in London. It transferred to the West End and later Broadway and returned to the West End in 1997. To put Skylight in the context of contemporary British politics, there had been a succession of Tory administrations from 1979, firstly under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, which would end with the election of Tony Blair in May 1997. The play has now been revived again in the West End for a three-month run under the direction of Stephen Daldry. Under the auspices of National Theatre Live, the performance on 17 July was transmitted for live projection in cinemas all-round the UK.

There are only three characters in Skylight: Tom Sergeant, a successful restaurateur and businessman, played, as in 1997, by Bill Nighy; Bill’s son, Edward (Matthew Beard); and Kyra Hollis (Carey Mulligan, who was in the film, Inside Llewyn Davis). Tom, recently a widower, arrives in Kyra’s cold, run-down flat, seeking to rekindle a relationship with the woman who had been both his employee and his lover. She has chosen to teach and live in tough areas of London, he has moved to Wimbledon. The play is a clash of personalities and attitudes, but between a man and woman who have loved, and still have something, for each other. In some ways, Skylight has dated in 20 years. The references to “Yellow Pages” seem archaic until you remember that “Google” didn’t become a registered domain until 1997. And state education in the poorer parts of London is now regarded as much improved – ironically it’s now the rural and seaside areas of England (Kyra’s hometown was one of the latter) which are falling behind.

Nonetheless the play remains engrossing with its enduring major themes of the tension between free market capitalism, embodied by Tom although he hates bankers, and Kyra’s self-sacrificing social responsibility, and of the eternal one of unfulfilled and probably unfulfillable love. The subtle structure of the play – the opening and closing scenes between Kyra and Edward counterpoint Tom and Kyra’s encounter –the sharpness of the dialogue - as when Tom says scathingly of a management guru, “He's one of those people who's been told he's good with people” – and the quality of the acting by all three of the cast were most impressive. And so much better than Hare’s recent BBC TV drama series with Nighy: Page  Eight, and its two sequels, together forming The Worricker Trilogy.

This was the first time I’d seen a play live as a cinema projection. It is an experience in itself and not the same as being in the theatre where a member of the audience has a fixed viewpoint, so might see something like this:

and be aware throughout of the three-dimensional nature of Bob Crowley’s clever set and the actors moving within it. For the live cinema there were, I believe, four cameras available so extensive use could be made of cinematic devices like close-ups:

In the case of a glass of wine held by Kyra which gave Tom a chance to touch her hand, perhaps it was too close-up, and over-emphasised an action which would have been less conspicuous to the theatre audience. A screening is a different experience than actual theatre, and not necessarily worse or better, although it has to be recognised that the quality of the cinema’s projection and sound systems  is an extra complication – I’m not sure the one I was in would have coped well with live opera. Not that the acoustics or seating arrangements of London theatres are perfect.

Something which was unique to the NTLive experience was the interview David Hare gave to Emma Freud during the interval. Hare said that he had made it a condition of this revival that it would be made available widely in this way, and anyone who consequently had the chance to see Skylight should feel grateful. The last Hare play I was able to see in a theatre was Pravda, many years ago, and I would very much like to have had the chance to see some of his more recent theatre work, for example, South Downs.

Anyone who wanted to see Skylight in this way and couldn’t get a seat should look out for forthcoming Encore showings on the National Theatre Live website. There will be an international screening on 23 October.

16 July 2014

Julian Opie at the Holburne, Bath

One of the surprises provided by Julian Opie: Collected Works at the Holburne Museum in Bath is that it is his first one-person exhibition in a UK museum for over ten years, a period in which his work has been highly visible, for example on the covers of Blur: The Best Of and the National Portrait Gallery’s Visitor Guide (Alex, Bassist. Darren, Singer. Dave, Drummer. Graham, Guitarist, 2000 and still from animation, Julian with t-shirt, 2005, below):

Another surprise in the show is  Opie’s personal collection of art which includes sculpture from ancient Egypt and Rome, 17th and 18th century paintings and sculpture (works by Lely, Reynolds and Romney) and Japanese prints. Items from his collection occupy half of the display in the Holburne, juxtaposed with the other half which consists of works by the artist since about 1995 (Lely’s Portrait of an unknown woman, Opie’s At home with Maria 2, 2011, below left and right):

Opie makes use of new technology such as 3D printing, vector drawing and computer-animated LED and LCD screens, eg Marina in purple shawl, 2010:

Opie’s technology-based work is often associated with that of Michael Craig-Martin, his teacher at Goldsmiths, though I was reminded of Patrick Caulfield’s use of flat areas of simple colour bounded by black outlines. Animation allows more than one of a sitter’s facial expressions to be revealed in succession (eg Imogen, 2013), thought-provoking in terms portraiture’s ability to convey personality, given the Opie style’s lack of detail.

3D scanning and printing was used to produce the sculpture Reed 1 2012 (below left) which then had to be hand-painted, one of the sources for this being an Egyptian mask, 664-332 BC, (below right):

Other small-scale works fall between sculpture and painting, for example two of a series in collaboration with Royal Ballet dancers and staff: Caterina dancing, 2010, 10 Blue and 09 Red, both silkscreen on painted wood, below left and right:

Three sculptures (Aniela at the spring, 2011; 3 men walking, 2008; Peeing boy, 2012, right) are available for all to see in the garden of the Holburne Museum where Julian Opie: Collected Works continues until 14 September. The show will move to the Bowes Museum from 25 October to 22 February 2015. The exhibition catalogue includes interesting essays by Sandy Nairne, the Director of the NPG, and Julian Opie, and commentaries by the artist on the works on display.

14 July 2014

Philippe Le Guay’s ‘Alceste à bicyclette’

(This film seems to have two English titles so I’m using the French original in the title of this post) 

Written by Le Guay and  Fabrice Luchini (In the House), who has one of the leading parts, this is an amusing “play within a film”, set on the Ile de Ré in SW France (subject of a post here last year), deserted but still photogenic in late winter/early spring. Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson) has achieved popular success playing the brain surgeon star of a French TV medical soap. Now he is hankering to make his mark in serious theatre (think Comédie-Française) and a route to this would be performing in Molière’s Le Misanthrope playing opposite his old friend Serge Tanneur (Luchini). But Tanneur had turned his back on the stage some time ago and now  lives as a recluse on the Ile. Valence’s tempting and novel proposal is that the two men alternate as Molière’s Alceste and Philinte, one critical and misanthropic, the other sociable and conforming. The parallels and contrasts with their own personalities are obvious and there is a distinct possibility that Tanneur is playing Valence along when he asks him to spend four days on the Ile reading their parts through. There are various encounters and complications which make the film less of a dry two-hander than it might at first seem.

Kate Muir in The Times gave Le Guay’s film 4* and commented:
Bicycling with Molière is a droll, intellectual delight, and probably one for Francophiles who have at least a vague knowledge of Molière’s play The Misanthrope.
and anyone who enjoys the Ile de Ré, of course.  I like to think I’m a Francophile, so I took her advice and tried to learn something about The Misanthrope before I saw the film, hence the few following notes which might help another ignorant soul.

Molière was the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-1673, famous in his own time as an actor and playwright and subsequently regarded as one of the greatest French literary figures. Le Misanthrope ou l'Atrabilaire amoureux (The Misanthrope or The Cantankerous Lover) was first performed in 1666, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King. As well as constructing Versailles, Louis patronised the arts, sponsoring and protecting writers such as Racine and Molière. The latter’s plays were unpopular with elements within the court and with the church, not least because of his satirical views of high society and pessimistic view of human nature.

There is a description of Le Misanthrope on Wikipedia, but for the purposes of enjoying the film, it probably is enough to be aware that: Alceste is the protagonist and "misanthrope" of the title. He is quick to criticize the flaws of everyone around him, including himself. Philinte is Alceste's foil, a man who recognizes the importance of occasionally veiling one's true opinions. Célimène is a young woman who is courted by Alceste although he disapproves of her behaviour. Spurned by her and having fallen out with others, Alceste decides to exile himself from society, and the play ends with Philinte and his fiancée setting off to persuade Alceste to return.